Before starting the column, it seems appropriate to mention what happened in Newtown on Friday morning. The obvious things to say have all been taken, but count me among those optimistic that this is a time that will bring out the best in us. After such a horrifying glimpse at our worst, what other option do we have?
Now, to much lighter events from the weekend ...
Great game, but bad news for the Patriots and 49ers. As good as the Pats were during their seven-game winning streak, the fact that their receivers don't scare anyone remained an issue. And in Sunday's wild 41-34 loss at home to the 49ers, it came up again. Sure, Brady racked up 443 yards (on 65 attempts), but they couldn't challenge San Francisco down the field while they were falling into a 31-3 hole. That wasn't just a result of the weather. It's been that way for the Patriots since Randy Moss was traded, and the problem has been exacerbated by Rob Gronkowski's absence. The couple of times Brady caught the Niners secondary slipping were exceptions.
As for San Francisco, a sweet victory didn't mask their own major weakness -- they aren't built to put their foot on the gas. Yes, they had three one-play touchdown drives, but they could do nothing as New England built steam to close the third quarter and start the fourth. The Niners weathered the storm, but one would have expected a 28-point lead to be safer in their hands.
Are the Cowboys becoming ... likable? That's right -- the same team that turned it over six times against the Giants seven weeks ago is tied for the lead in the NFC East. The particulars of their 27-24 overtime win over the Steelers seem far less important than the realization that the Cowboys, as Hollywood as an NFL franchise can be, have proven to be pretty tough. Each of their last four wins have been by five points or less, none of which seemed secure until the final gun. They've struggled with injuries, overcome a 3-5 start, and continue to deal with the tragic death of Jerry Brown. And if they win Sunday against New Orleans, they're guaranteed to have at least a chance to make the postseason on December 30 against Washington. If you saw that coming, you're probably lying.
The fascinating part -- who's to credit for Dallas' resurgence? Were they just lucky wins, or will a few of us (okay, me) have to back off declarations we made about the reliability of Tony Romo and Jason Garrett? Not yet. Maybe in a week or two, though.
Josh Brent, with teammate Sean Lissemore. Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images.
Here's why I'm OK with Josh Brent being on the sideline. It was shocking to see Josh Brent on the Cowboys sideline Sunday, and it understandably created a stir on social media. Many feel Brent, because of the crime he's accused of committing, shouldn't be allowed anywhere near an NFL team. Many, however, doesn't include Stacey Jackson, mother of the late Jerry Brown, who encouraged the team to embrace the man responsible for her son's death.
While her ability to forgive is staggering, it's fair to ask how far the Cowboys should go to follow her example. But if she could open her heart that much, could we possibly stop wagging out fingers long enough to consider the complexity of the situation? Brent is still a member of the Cowboys. Those guys are still his teammates. And after the death of his best friend, how much else could he possibly have?
If someone as PR-conscious as Jerry Jones signed off on something he had to know would offend many, there must be something powerfully human behind it. While we're watching all this unfold, the Cowboys are healing. Given the positive spirit behind their decision to have Brent on the sideline, I won't judge the team or Ms. Jackson's desire to grieve in this way.
You sure the Giants will be OK? It doesn't matter what the Giants did last year, the year before, or in 1986. After 14 games, it's pretty clear what they are -- a team that can win if it takes care of the ball and forces turnovers. In six of their wins, the Giants have been plus-two or better in turnover margin. But as long as their defense continues to be gashed by land and by air -- 4.7 yards per carry (29th in the NFL on Sunday morning) and 8.1 yards per pass attempt (29th) -- they'll have to lean on Eli Manning and trust he can take care of the ball. The Giants were minus-three in Sunday's 34-0 shellacking at the hands of the Falcons, with Manning throwing two picks. In the Giants last eight games, in which they've been a pedestrian 4-4, Manning's turned it over 11 times.
Now, they're tied with Washington and Dallas atop the NFC East. Based on what's happened already this season, the Giants won't win a tied division unless it gets to at least the third tiebreaker. The team so many assume will "just put it all together" needs to do so against the Ravens next week. Otherwise, it might be too late.
Hail to the Shanahans! Mike Shanahan didn't do much for his reputation in his first two years in Washington, and his son/offensive coordinator Kyle didn't help. But after making the right call by letting Robert Griffin III rest his sprained lateral collateral ligament, and trusting Kirk Cousins to mind the shop against the Browns, Mike Shanahan managed to protect both his team's future, while Kyle called a game that protected its present. Regardless of what Cousins' short-term success says about Griffin's value to the team, any coach with the guts to go with his rookie-backup quarterback with a playoff berth still up for grabs deserves a helluva lot of credit. Even though they were playing the Browns.
In one season, Washington has gone from the bottom quartile of the league in scoring to the top one. Nobody told the Shanahans going with Rex Grossman was a good idea, but they quickly figured out what to do once they had a good quarterback. Now, it looks like they have two, and they may be two games from a postseason with their MVP candidate ready to come back.
Robert Griffin III watches against the Cleveland Browns. David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
You better believe Ray Lewis will be playing next week. They'll have to tie Lewis down to keep him off the field as the Ravens look to be in a full-on freefall, especially after being smashed 34-17 by the Broncos. Given all the injuries they've suffered, including Lewis to a torn triceps, it's amazing to think they've won nine games. But even their last two wins -- against the Byron Leftwich-led Steelers and the 4th-and-29 game against the Chargers -- weren't world-beating performances. They've now lost three-straight games since those unimpressive victories, fired their offensive coordinator and still have a game at home against the Giants that may as well be called the Backslide Bowl. The Ravens have already clinched a spot in the postseason, but who in the world can they beat right now?
Definitely not the Broncos ... but who can they beat? Denver's two wins away from a first-round bye, and still in the running for homefield throughout the playoffs (unless you're positive the Texans will win out against Minnesota and at Indianapolis). But those losses that seem oh-so-long ago still matter a lot. The Broncos will be on the short end of any tie with Houston and New England, thanks to losses in September and October, respectively.
Speaking of that loss to the Patriots, it's entirely possible that will go down as the Broncos last game against a team that will play in the postseason. Not win. Game. The Broncos can only beat the teams they're asked to play, but there's still reason to question how good they really are.
It's probably this simple for the Bears. The Bears have lost five of their past six games, but they survived that meat grinder -- perhaps the toughest stretch any team in the NFL will play this season -- with a chance to make the playoffs. But after another loss to the Packers where Green Bay turned Jay Cutler into "same ol' Jay," it must be make-or-break for 8-6 Chicago in a big way. Either win next week against Arizona, or the team misses the postseason and Lovie Smith gets fired at the end of the season. And, at this point, there should be no other response to a loss to the Cardinals.
The bright side for the Bears? The Cards and Lions are an easy path to the postseason. The problem: those two wins still might not be enough to get Chicago into the playoffs, or to get Smith into 2013.
Time for Andrew Luck to step up. Luck threw two touchdowns, and he had his first interception-free game in a month and a half in Sunday's 29-17 loss to the Texans. But this was the third straight game where Luck completed less than half his passes. That might cut it against Buffalo, Tennessee and Denver, but Luck's going to have to pick it up if Indianapolis wants to make any noise the postseason.
So many have lauded Luck for how well he's handling a demanding offense. Those demands may explain some of his shortcomings, but they don't mean his weaknesses don't exist. An offense that struggles to run -- though it did quite well Sunday -- can't stay on the field with a 50-50 quarterback. Unless Luck becomes more accurate and does a better job protecting the ball than he has the last four weeks, the Colts might miss the playoffs, or be there just long enough to say they went.
Yes, there's room for baseball this week! The Blue Jays seem to be trying to go back to 1993 in one offseason, the latest step being a tentative deal to acquire National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets. Reportedly, Dickey wanted a two-year extension for between $26 and 28 million from New York ... after he plays out 2013 for $5 million. Forget about what's down the line. Next season, the Blue Jays -- not the Red Sox or Yankees -- can acquire a reigning Cy Young winner. And they can do it for the cheap? Unless Dickey suddenly jacks up his asking price to an astronomical level, the Blue Jays better jump on the possibility of getting three years of Dickey's unhittable stuff -- imagine his first trip through a new league -- for roughly $11 million per year. That's less than half what the Dodgers will pay Zack Greinke through 2018. Right, no-brainer.