Strange game by the Green Bay Packers against the Dallas Cowboys Thursday night.
Before he went out with an elbow injury early in the second quarter, Brett Favre spent the evening getting knocked on his can and chucking the ball downfield 2005-style, to the tune of 5-for-14 with two interceptions and a 27-10 deficit.
Then, after backup quarterback Aaron Rodgers calmly guided the Packers back into the game using Green Bay's more typical ball-control passing attack, coach Mike McCarthy decided to send kicker Mason Crosby in for a 52-yard field-goal attempt on fourth-and-inches, the Cowboys up by 10 with five minutes to go in the game.
Crosby made the kick, Dallas marched downfield for a field goal of their own with about one minute to go, and that was pretty much that. The Cowboys won 37-27 to take over the top seed in the NFC with an 11-1 record, one game better than the Packers. Since head-to-head is the first tie-breaker, the Cowboys essentially have a two-game lead over the Packers for home-field advantage in the playoffs with four games to go.
A little less nerve early and a little more late might have gone a long way for the Packers, though they were outplayed.
It's a mystery what Favre thought he kept seeing downfield as he threw in the general direction of covered receivers. And it's a mystery why the coach of the third-highest scoring team in the league didn't think his offense could gain six inches, instead opting for three points when the Packers needed at least 10 and probably more. It turns out they needed more.
Who knows how the rest of the game might have played out had the Packers gone for it on that fourth down. They might have gotten stuffed, might have made the first down and then turned the ball over, might have had any number of things happen. But when you're in a shootout, which the Packers were, you've got to shoot. They kicked. They lost.
Favre was conscious and talking, even ambulatory, so it's pretty likely his record consecutive-game streak won't end a week from Sunday when the Packers host the Oakland Raiders. But after Rodgers' solid performance, the idea of Favre sitting for a game or two might not be as scary for Packers fans as it used to be.
The Packers visit the St. Louis Rams the week after the Raiders game, they have a four-game lead in the NFC North and a three-game lead for the No. 2 seed, which means a first-round bye in the playoffs. In other words, they'd have to collapse in epic fashion to even have their playoff seeding affected, and they might not get caught for No. 2 even if they do collapse. They don't just have breathing room. They have hyperventilating room.
Now that they know they won't necessarily fall apart if Favre gets hurt, it seems like a hell of an idea to say the hell with the streak, let Favre get good and healed up and let Rodgers get two games' worth of experience against bad teams. That way the Packers would be that much better prepared if Favre did get hurt. They'd also have a much better idea about what they have in Rodgers, the former first-round draft pick who's been holding a clipboard for three years.
It won't happen. Favre will play against the Raiders as sure as some of those downfield heaves Thursday were going to get intercepted.
As for the Cowboys, they've clearly established themselves as the big dog in the NFC. They've already played the big dog of the AFC, losing to the New England Patriots by three touchdowns at home last month. They didn't do anything Thursday to indicate they'd fare much better if they get a rematch in February, but they did plenty to indicate they'll get the chance.
NFL Week 13 [PERMALINK]
Here are the picks for Week 13, with winners in caps and the prognostications of my kids, Buster, the game-pickinest 4-year-old who ever randomly declared himself a Baltimore Ravens fan, and Daisy, the coin-flippinest 2-year-old this side of the Farallones. They both take all favorites of six points or more, and you probably should too.
Sunday early games
Buffalo (5-6) at WASHINGTON (5-6)
Not much precedent for trying to guess how Washington will play following the shooting death this week of star safety Sean Taylor. Football is an emotional game, but it's not just about emotions. On the other side of the coin from the win-for-Sean motivation is a chaotic and disrupted week of practice and preparation, distraction unlike any that any NFL team has faced in the last 35 years, and, not to be crass about it, not having Sean Taylor at safety.
Teams sometimes do rise up in troubled times for emotional wins, but any inspiration Washington might draw from Taylor's death wouldn't go as far toward winning a football game as having him play safety would go.
The Bills know from tragedy too. Tight end Kevin Everett was partially paralyzed and nearly killed on a kickoff collision in their opening-game loss to Denver. But, as Buffalo's Coy Wire told the Washington Post, "This is completely different ... We always had the hope that Kevin would be all right."
The Bills went out and lost their next two games -- at Pittsburgh and New England, both very good teams -- by a combined score of 64-10.
But an attacking, blitzing defense, like Washington's, should get more out of an emotional charge than most units, and that defense will be facing rookie quarterback Trent Edwards, who has one touchdown and five interceptions. The Bills are also missing their top two running backs, Marshawn Lynch, unlikely to play with a bad ankle, and Anthony Thomas, out with a bad calf.
This will be an emotional game for both teams, and an important one. Despite the losing records, both are in the playoff hunt, though Washington is closer to a wild-card spot than Buffalo, which would probably be cooked with a loss.
Interesting betting line there.
Kids: Washington (6-point favorite)
Jacksonville (8-3) at INDIANAPOLIS (9-2)
On the field, at least, this is the Game of the Week, Sunday division. The Colts are still banged up in important ways, particularly wide receiver Marvin Harrison and left tackle Tony Ugoh. Ugoh looks like he'll be back, but Peyton Manning said at midweek that he wasn't counting on his favorite receiver to play. That could mean problems for the Colts against a Jaguars team that seems to be hardening into a serious contender. David Garrard, whom the Colts knocked out in their Week 7 win in Jacksonville, is playing well, and the Jaguars have become a well-balanced team, not just offense vs. defense, but run vs. pass on offense.
The Jags would move into a first-place tie with Indy in the AFC South with a win, the Colts would just about put away the division. Big ballgame. If the Jaguars have a weakness, it's a relative one, and it's stopping the run. That's a strength for the Colts, and it's also tough to pick against Manning at home.
Kids: Indianapolis (7-point favorite)
N.Y. Jets (2-9) at MIAMI (0-11)
Game of the Week, upside-down universe division. From the point of view of the Pittsburgh Steelers, these are two of the toughest teams in the league. I'm taking the Dolphins because I think they'll go out there and win one for Ricky Williams.
HOUSTON (5-6) at Tennessee (6-5)
Yes, it is your imagination that everyone in the league is either 6-5 or 5-6. The Patriots aren't. The Titans appear to be flipping the script from last season, when they started poorly and then played well down the stretch. Their season's slipping away.
Detroit (6-5) at MINNESOTA (5-6)
Speaking of the season slipping away, here are the Detroit Lions, who at least until this game is over hold the last NFC playoff spot. The Vikings are on a nice little winning streak, thanks to getting to play the Raiders and then a crazy day against Eli Manning. The Lions won on their field in overtime 11 weeks ago. The Vikes will pull even here.
Seattle (7-4) at PHILADELPHIA (5-6)
The Seahawks are the early '00s Minnesota Twins of the NFL, fattening up on a terrible division year after year. The Eagles are playing better lately, especially their "ooh that was a close one" loss to New England last week. With or without the nicked-up Donovan McNabb, I like the home team. If the Eagles were in the NFC West, they might be 7-4.
SAN FRANCISCO (3-8) at Carolina (4-7)
Washington isn't the only team affected by the Sean Taylor tragedy. The University of Miami sends a lot of players to the NFL, as does the city of Miami, and players change teams quite a bit. There are friends and former teammates of Taylor on every roster. Every team is suffering. A continent away from the makeshift shrines and candlelight vigils for Taylor, 49ers running back Frank Gore, who grew up with Taylor, played Pop Warner football with him and was his teammate at the U, was suffering too.
What's been going on in 32 NFL practice facilities this week is a reminder of the radiating damage a single bullet can do.
The slightly improving Niners in a meaningless tilt.
Kids: San Francisco
SAN DIEGO (6-5) at Kansas City (4-7)
Starting in Week 2, the Chargers have gone lose-lose-lose, win-win-win, lose, win, lose, win. Detect a pattern there? That's right, it's the rhyme scheme for "Inna Gadda Da Vida." The Chiefs have lost four in a row overall and three in a row at home, which is the rhyme scheme for "The Party's Over."
Buster: Kansas City
Daisy: San Diego
Atlanta (3-8) at ST. LOUIS (2-9)
Marc Bulger will sit this one out with a concussion, but if the Rams can get their pass rush going and rattle Joey Harrington, it shouldn't matter. Actually, nothing that happens in this game will matter.
Kids: St. Louis
Sunday late games
CLEVELAND (7-4) at Arizona (5-6)
If the Browns win this one and the Steelers lost at home to the Bengals -- not a likely scenario but not exactly a nutty one either -- the Browns would be tied for first place with four weeks to go. The Steelers would still hold the tie-breaker because of their season sweep over the Browns, but still. Even though the NFC has largely caught up with the AFC, I'm sticking with my middling AFC beats middling NFC theory, even though I've never bothered to investigate whether it's accurate, and the Browns might be a little better than middling anyway.
DENVER (5-6) at Oakland (3-8)
The Broncos are in better shape than all those other 5-6 teams because they're only one game behind the Chargers for the division lead and they still get to play San Diego. The Raiders snapped a six-game losing streak by beating the Chiefs last week, but they're feeling much better now.
Tampa Bay (7-4) at NEW ORLEANS (5-6)
The Bucs could put the NFC South away with a win here, but if the Saints play like they did last week, all of a sudden it's a race. Trouble is, the Saints don't get to play Carolina like they did last week. But the Bucs will miss quarterback Jeff Garcia, who's not likely to play with a bad back, and the Saints are at home. Why not: New Orleans.
Buster: Tampa Bay
Daisy: New Orleans
N.Y. GIANTS (7-4) at Chicago (5-6)
Two big pass rushes and two mistake-prone quarterbacks. The defenses might outscore the offenses. I think Manning makes a comeback from that miserable game in Minnesota last week.
Sunday night game
Cincinnati (4-7) at PITTSBURGH (8-3)
Boy, both of this week's prime-time games looked pretty tasty in August, but it hasn't worked out. The Bengals, expected to be the team from Ohio with orange helmets in the playoff chase, have devolved into a team with a glass chin and a puncher's chance. The Steelers, who have been stepping in postholes for most of the month -- or puddles, last week -- should outclass them. But then, they should have outclassed the Jets and, even underwater, the Dolphins.
There's some trap potential here for the Steelers because they're at New England next week, but I don't think Pittsburgh's in too much danger of looking past a team that's been a tough division rival lately, even in an off year. And next week's game won't have that much meaning anyway beyond the Steelers, like everybody else, wanting to knock off No. 1.
Kids: Pittsburgh (7.5-point favorite)
Monday night game
New England (11-0) at BALTIMORE (4-7)
OK, Baltimore's having a bad year but the Ravens aren't that bad, and the Patriots are favored by 20. How good are the Patriots? The punters think they're very, very scary. And I don't mean the Patriots' punter, who spends most of his time reading magazines.
What the Heck Pick of the week.
Kids: New England (20-point favorite)
Season record: 110-67
So far this week: 1-0
Last week: 9-7
What the Heck Picks: 2-9
CFL picks: 1-0
Previous column: Packers-Cowboys: 75 million households will miss it
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