MMBQ: 5 Sunday Takes and The Fine 15

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Five Sunday takes

1. The Cleveland Browns might be the best team in the AFC North and might be the worst team in the AFC North. How can you know? We could enter Week 13 with all four teams in the division having seven wins. I’m no Elias Sports Bureau employee, but if it happens—Baltimore needs to win tonight at the Saints—there’s no way a division has ever been that tight after 12 weeks. (Is there, Elias?) They won their third very strange game of the season Sunday in Atlanta when Mike Smith mishandled the clock late, Brian Hoyer drove Cleveland 61 yards in 44 seconds, and kicker Billy Cundiff drilled a 37-yard field goal with no time left. Cleveland 26, Atlanta 24—despite two interceptions by Hoyer in the last five minutes. “This is a game he [Hoyer] kept both teams in,’’ coach Mike Pettine told me. “But that’s the life of a quarterback sometimes. After his interceptions, he drove us downfield so we could kick the field goal to win.” Pettine told me he didn’t consider putting Johnny Manziel in (he last appeared in a game 64 days ago), nor is he considering it now. He wants to give Hoyer the benefit of playing with explosive wideout Josh Gordon, who debuted with an eight-catch, 120-yard performance on Sunday. “Brian knows we’re not going to have a quick hook with him.” Pettine said he’s learned a lot from this team, and mainly this: “A team is greater than the sum of its parts. Whatever happens in a game, good or bad, at the end of the game you put that one in a box and you either put the box on the shelf and save it, or you bury it. It’s done. You move on to the next one.” Next: at Buffalo, where more snow is in the forecast later this week. What a year.

2. I can’t see how Mike Smith survives. The Falcons have gone from hosting the NFC Championship Game 22 months ago to losing 20 of their last 28. Who knows? If Baltimore beats New Orleans tonight, the 4-7 Falcons remain tied for first place in the NFC South, one of the worst divisions in NFL history. It wouldn’t be stunning if the division winner is below .500. In fact, it might be more surprising if the division champ is .500 or better. But Smith’s clock management was poor again Sunday (he made strategic mistakes in the bizarre last-second loss to the Lions in London a month ago), which I’ll detail in Goat of the Week below (hint, hint). When Arthur Blank ran Home Depot, I hear he was very fair, but very bottom-line. Smith is a wonderful person, but barring a turnaround by the team and the coach getting a masters in Clock Management, I can’t see him staying on the job past December.

3. Please, please, please, Competition Committee: Convince the owners to make home playoff teams earn their home playoff games. Actually, I want the NFC South winner to be 6-10 this year. Maybe that will convince owners, finally, to strip the automatic home game from undeserving division champions. You know, just because they won a weak division some years. Look at the playoff standings this morning. Here’s your primo NFC Wild Card matchup as of now: Dallas (8-3) at New Orleans (4-6). Why set up a system that, once every two or three years, is going to reward abject mediocrity and penalize an 11- or 12-win team that has to go on the road to play a team that won two or three (or four, or five) fewer games? Makes no sense whatsoever. I always hear about the reward for winning the division; the owners don’t want to take that away. So good. Let’s make this season as embarrassing as possible. Let’s have the Saints win the South at 6-10, and let’s have Dallas as the first Wild Card team at 12-4. Would that be embarrassing enough for the owners to come to their senses?

4. Detroit pales in comparison to Green Bay now. This is the first morning all season—since the Sept. 4 opening game—that the Lions have woken up and not been in first place in the NFC North. Even when they’ve been tied, the Lions have held the tiebreaker edge. But no more. Green Bay (8-3) is a game ahead of Detroit (7-4), and the descent is understandable. The Lions’ offense is a shell of what it once was in the prime of Stafford-to-Johnson. In the last two weeks Detroit lost decisively at Arizona and at New England. The Lions have had 22 possessions and scored zero touchdowns. They faced two good defenses, of course, but that hasn’t stopped Stafford in the past. He needs better protection, but he also needs better accuracy too—and the accuracy problem has reared its head previously. In 2012, when the Lions were 4-12, Stafford was a 59.8-percent passer with a plus-three touchdown-to-interception differential. In 2014, Stafford is a 58.8-percent passer with a plus-three touchdown-to-interception differential.

5. I feel for San Francisco and Seattle on Thursday. And for the other four short-week teams playing on Thanksgiving. But particularly the Niners and Seahawks. Both were involved in very physical games Sunday, San Francisco against Washington and Seattle against tough-as-nails Arizona. Russell Wilson and the Seattle skill players were bruised and battered by the Cardinals’ defense. I can’t imagine how they’re going to prepare, and feel close to normal, for such a playoff-significant game by late Thursday afternoon in Santa Clara.

FINE FIFTEEN

1. New England (9-2). Gotta love The Patriot Way. Jonas Gray rushes for 201 yards against the Colts, lands on the cover of Sports Illustratedthen ends up being sent home from practice Friday because he was late, and he doesn’t play Sunday. Sacred cows? Apparently not.

2. Green Bay (8-3). I’m sure all of you caught One on One With Peter King at The MMQB the other day, right? Well, let me recap an interesting answer from Arizona safety Rashad Johnson (after, of course, he showed America his partially severed finger from his accident on the field in early 2013) when I asked him if there was a particularly intriguing potential matchup he saw down the road in the playoffs: “I think a really tough opponent looking around the NFL right now would be the Green Bay Packers. For one, they got arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the game right now, and he’s playing lights out. There’s no defense for a perfect ball. They have a running back who’s like a bulldozer, and he’s hard to tackle. That would be an interesting matchup; that would be a five-star matchup. That would be a lot of fun, to have an opportunity to play that game.”

3. Arizona (9-2). I suppose alarm bells are ringing. But Arizona had a six-game winning streak going into Seattle and got swamped 19-3 against the defending Super Bowl champion. It’ll take more than one loss to convince me the Cards are fatally flawed. Fairly big game Sunday at Atlanta.

4. Denver (8-3). Doesn’t it seem like the Dolphins got more than 313 yards on offense? But that’s all it was. Well, 313 yards—and 36 points.

5. Philadelphia (8-3). Three games that will try green men’s souls on the docket: at Dallas on a short Thanksgiving week, Seattle at home, Dallas at home.

6. Dallas (8-3). Survived The Odell Experience. Finished off the Giants for good. Now comes the harder part: Landing in Dallas at 4 a.m. Central Time today and prepping for two showdowns against the co-division leaders in the next three weeks.

7. Indianapolis (7-4). The Colts essentially clinched the AFC South on Sunday. With a two-game lead over 5-6 Houston (plus the tiebreaker edge), and a quite favorable schedule in the last five weeks, starting with Washington at home Sunday, the Colts will have at least one home playoff game in January.

8. Miami (6-5). Dolphins have lost three games in the last two months: 27-24 on that crazy fake-spike drive against Green Bay; 20-16 in the last seconds at Detroit on the crazy Matthew Stafford drive; and 39-36 when Ryan Tannehill stood toe to toe with Peyton Manning for four quarters in Denver. Don’t know if Miami will make the playoffs, but the Dolphins are one of the most dangerous teams in football right now.

9. Seattle (7-4). On Sunday the ’Hawks did what desperate teams with smart and strong vets do: asserted themselves.

10. San Francisco (7-4). How do you survive when your offense is stuck in first gear for half the season? Play the kind of defense San Francisco is playing. Seven times in 11 games the Niners have held foes to 330 yards or less.

11. Cincinnati (7-3-1). I need to figure out Andy Dalton. Help. After the Cleveland debacle of debacles, he goes and completes 70 percent in his next two games, both road games, with only one bad mistake—a pick-six by Johnathan Joseph at Houston. By the way, how about the tour of the American South that the Bengals are on? Week 11: at New Orleans (win). Week 12: at Houston (win). Week 13: at Tampa Bay (favored by a bunch).

12. Kansas City (7-4). Yikes? Next two foes for play-down-to-the-opposition Kansas City: Broncos at home, Cardinals in the desert.

13. Detroit (7-4). Should be time for a rebound in the next three games, all at home: Bears (Thanksgiving afternoon), Bucs, Vikings.

14. Pittsburgh (7-4). Home stretch after late bye: Three of last five at home … Bengals in Weeks 14, 17 … Steelers hope safety Troy Polamalu (knee sprain) returns to torment Jimmy Graham next Sunday at Heinz Field.

T-15. Baltimore (6-4). Ravens have to hope the bye rejuvenated 35-year-old Steve Smith (last four games: 14 catches, zero TDs).

T-15. Cleveland (7-4). “I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to end,” I said to Mike Pettine late Sunday afternoon, “but I am starting to believe Steven Spielberg is going to make a movie about the Browns’ season you’re in the middle of.” He chortled. “Special,” Pettine said. “Getting very special.”

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