NFL Debrief: Backup quarterbacks and legends

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The most important player in Indianapolis Sunday night wasn't a quarterback, but he was a veteran in the midst of a career year. Elsewhere, more backup quarterbacks were pressed into service; there are no current or future legends among them. And a modest proposal for Steve Smith.

It wasn't surprising at all that the end of the Colts' Sunday night win over the Broncos came down to a wild back-and-forth during the last seven minutes of the game. Peyton Manning's looked vulnerable again with an untimely interception. Refs did make the right call on Kevin Vickerson. John Fox probably should have challenged the call on Ronnie Hillman's fumble. All those things stood out, but looming over it all was ...

The weekly power rankings.

An arbitrarily ordered list is a useful way to make sense of the NFL during any given week of the regular season. As good as the Broncos are, they aren't unbeatable. Dallas almost did it once this year. But what to make of the Indianapolis Colts?

The Colts just toppled the best team in the AFC. Two weeks ago, Andrew Luck and Co. knocked off the Seahawks. Two weeks before that, they throttled the 49ers in San Francisco. Those are three impressive wins. On the other hand, the Colts are 5-2, and those two losses came against the Dolphins and the Chargers.

It's hard to say which team is the best in the AFC right now. Both of these teams can claim that distinction. There's the 7-0 Chiefs, now leading the Broncos in the AFC West. The Patriots are in the conversation, but a long list of injured stars makes it a tough sell.

We have nine more weeks to figure it out.

Star-divide

All week, this was the Manning vs. Luck title fight. Naturally, veteran defensive end Robert Mathis may have been the game's most important player. The 11-year veteran sacked his old quarterback in the second quarter and forced a fumble that resulted in a safety. The Colts scored on the next drive, and didn't trail for the rest of the game.

After the game when asked about sacking Manning, Mathis just smiled and said, "it felt good."

Mathis turned 32 this spring. His two sacks on Sunday night give him 11.5 for the season, tying a career best for sacks in a season. He's on pace to break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record. His sack/fumble was the 39th of his career, tying Jason Taylor's NFL record. He has 43 forced fumbles since 2003, the most of any player. Mathis has a good argument to be the Defensive Player of the Year.

All those players Jim Irsay said the Colts couldn't afford during the Manning/Bill Polian era are putting them in contention in the second year of the Andrew Luck era.

Break, don't bend

Greg Schiano seemed like such a perfect fit for the Buccaneers. He said a lot of things about discipline that Raheem Morris didn't. He monitored the thermostat to keep meeting rooms the right temperature. Discipline and savings, it was everything the Glazers wanted in a head coach.

Now the Buccaneers are 0-6. If you go back to last season, they're 1-11 since Week 12. That's after a 6-4 start to Schiano's first season as head coach. Where did it all go wrong? Pick almost any point on the timeline -- crashed victory formations, the Josh Freeman saga, MRSA, etc. -- there is no wrong answer. Somewhere in there, I'd look for an example of how Schiano and his coaches got confused about the difference between discipline and stubbornness.

Atlanta came into this week's NFC South matchup shorthanded. Roddy White and Julio Jones were both on the bench. All the Buccaneers had to do was make sure Matt Ryan's new No. 1 receiver Harry Douglas was manned up.

Douglas finished the game with seven catches for 149 yards and a touchdown.

Revis spent most of the day lined up against Drew Davis. Who? Exactly.

Bill Sheridan, the Bucs defensive coordinator, put out the call for help this week in response to criticism about the team insisting on using Revis in zone coverage, despite the well-established fact that he built Revis Island out of man coverage ... and lava, obviously.

Apparently the lure of free Cokes wasn't enough to get Sheridan some help. He obviously didn't learn from past mistakes. And that nicely sums up how the Buccaneers got to this point, winless and hopeless. Being disciplined is important. Being inflexible just means more futility.

Maybe Dexter Jackson could have helped, if only Schiano hadn't had him and a group of school children tossed out of practice.

Schiano's going to get fired, at some point, barring a turnaround of biblical proportions. During the season or after, it doesn't really matter.

How bad is your backup?

Nine teams are likely to have backup quarterbacks under center next week. That's more than a quarter of the league forced to use a different signal caller than the one on top of the depth chart.

We're not quite halfway through the season.

Jay Cutler and Sam Bradford headlined a rough weekend of injuries. The Bears starter suffered what's believed to be a serious groin injury. The Rams' fourth-year quarterback may have suffered a torn ACL, according to a Sunday evening report from Chris Mortensen.

Chicago now pins its hopes on Josh McCown, a tall order for chasing Green Bay in the NFC North. St. Louis has Kellen Clemens and whatever help it can scrape off the waiver wire. Vince Young's available, but a reunion with Jeff Fisher just doesn't seem like it's in the cards.

Each situation is a little different. However, it doesn't look like the next Tom Brady is waiting in the wings anywhere. Some teams are better off than others.

Silver linings

Buffalo - EJ Manuel will be back this season. In the meantime, Doug Marrone has found a steady replacement in Thad Lewis. It helps to have a backup who can run, adding a wrinkle to what defenses have to defend.

Minnesota - Josh Freeman takes over for the limp-armed combo of Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel. It's the one team that may be better off than it was.

Philadelphia - Vick will be back in the fold soon. We'll see just how injured Nick Foles is. Matt Barkley isn't ideal, but with LeSean McCoy and Chip Kelly having a pretty high aptitude for working with, or around, his players, the Eagles can get by in a forgettable NFC East.

Push

Chicago - Josh McCown probably isn't the guy you want in the thick of a division race, but Chicago's problems go beyond just having a backup quarterback starting. Marc Trestman does have a magic touch, so there's that.

Houston - Case Keenum had a little moxie in his first NFL start. With Arian Foster and Ben Tate in the lineup, providing those two get over Week 7 injuries, he could be alright. That's also what we said about Matt Schaub to start the season, so ...

Tampa Bay - Thrust into a starting role as a rookie with a desperate head coach probably isn't the kind of learning experience Mike Glennon needed.

Hopeless

Cleveland - The Browns actually started the season with preseason MVP Brandon Weeden under center. Things got better with Brian Hoyer, until he got hurt and it was back to Weeden.

Jacksonville - People actually thought Chad Henne would be better than Blaine Gabbert. Neither one is going to be very effective with a pair of backup offensive tackles and the rest of the Jaguars around them.

St. Louis - Sam Bradford was turning in a quality managerial effort this season with 14 touchdowns. The Rams have cut Kellen Clemens twice since 2012, so they're obviously aware of his limitations. Factor in a young group of drop-prone receivers and Brian Schottenheimer, and things could get ugly.

Steve Smith, still the best

Whenever Steve Smith, 34, finally does retire, I hope he joins the trend of celebrities opening loosely regulated charter schools. America's children, especially young athletes, have much to learn from the savvy vet. Smith dispensed some lessons to Rams second-year cornerback Janoris Jenkins on Sunday.

He covered history ...

"Well he thinks he's Deion (Sanders). He's not."

Arithmetic ...

"He's just another notch on the bedpost. That's 800. He ain't no different."

Technology ...

"What I don't like is a young guy, comes in, obviously his first time ever using the internet and Google, and he Googles information about me, talks about my wife and stuff like that. That's kind of some of the (B.S). I just don't play with."

Sportsmanship ...

"I don't play them games. When you try to take it personal like that, I don't have any great humbling things to say. So he can take his (butt) back to St. Louis and watch the (expletive) film because I don't play them games."

Humility ...

"When you embarrass people you rub it in their face. When your dog (urinates) on the carpet, you rub it in his face."

And unlike Deion Sanders' charter school, this kind of college prep course won't get anyone's scholarship revoked. In fact, the AP course would virtually guarantee your entrance to Utah.

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