Philadelphia, PA – Here's an early Super Bowl prediction: this year's game will be better than the halftime show.
While hardcore NFL fans (and that includes this writer) don't seem too crazy for the league's long-rumored selection of Madonna as the featured entertainment for this February's championship clash, an announcement that was made official on Sunday, they've likely been thanking their lucky stars for the customarily competitive action the post-lockout era continues to generate.
Seven more games were decided by seven points or less on this weekend's slate, bringing the total number of contests that have had a final score within that range to 96 over the course of this 2011 season. That's tied with the 2003 campaign for the most in league history over the first 13 weeks, which really is a remarkable number when considering there's still both an undefeated and a winless team with four games to go.
That 2003 season also produced one of the most thrilling finishes to a Super Bowl, with the New England Patriots edging the Carolina Panthers on a late field goal that capped a whirlwind fourth quarter featuring three lead changes and 37 points scored, as well as one of the most controversial halftime shows the Big Game has ever put on. Perhaps that helps explain the league's decision to have the Material Girl perform at intermission in Indianapolis in a couple of months, to commemorate Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" that wound up as a far more enduring image that Adam Vinatieri's nail-biting deciding kick.
Personally, I thought John Mellencamp would have been a more interesting and sensible choice (and know my onetime colleague and predecessor Tony Moss would absolutely concur). Just seems more reasonable to have a guy from Indiana with songs such as "R.O.C.K in the U.S.A", "Pink Houses" and "Small Town" to play the single biggest event in America as opposed to someone who up until a few years ago was speaking in a fake British accent, but I digress.
Then again, who better symbolizes a contest in which a ticket's average face value is around $900 than arguably the most business-savvy entertainer the music industry has ever seen?
Alright, enough on that subject. Let's discuss what took place on the field during the first weekend in December. Here's 10 observations from yet another series of games that once again didn't lack for compelling drama:
The Green Bay Packers are a great, great team -- but not invincible. The defending world champions extended their incredible winning streak to 18 consecutive games, but never more were they tested over the course of their remarkable run than in Sunday's 38-35 shootout over a determined New York Giants squad. The Pack had their soft underbelly exposed in the most narrow victory of a streak that's now tied for the second-longest in league annals, as a vulnerable secondary was lit up for 347 yards and three touchdowns by Eli Manning in the clutch quarterback's latest fourth-quarter comeback try, but showcased their awesome offensive prowess as well. Aaron Rodgers needed just four plays and 55 seconds to march Green Bay 68 yards for the deciding field goal, further enhancing his already rock-solid credentials for this year's MVP award.
The Houston Texans' quarterback situation isn't a death sentence. The incredibly-resilient AFC South leaders displayed some mighty impressive resourcefulness in a gritty 17-10 decision over contending Atlanta, utilizing a persistently punishing ground game that piled up 162 yards on the league's second-ranked run defense and a swarming stop unit that harassed Matt Ryan into an off-the-mark 20-of-47 passing while bottling up Michael Turner. But the most important aspect of the Texans' sixth straight win was that rookie quarterback T.J. Yates wasn't a liability in his first career start, with the poised 24- year-old effectively managing an offense that didn't have star wideout Andre Johnson for most of the second half due to a another hamstring injury.
The Chicago Bears' quarterback situation is getting awfully dicey. While the Texans were able to tread water in their first effort under a third-string signal-caller, the Bears have so far sunk in the absence of Jay Cutler. Substitute Caleb Hanie was beyond brutal in Sunday's 10-3 home loss to a battered Kansas City squad with virtually no threat of an offense to speak of, tossing three interceptions and taking seven sacks while completing a mere 11- of-24 attempts for 133 yards. That's two straight losses since Cutler's injury for the NFC Wild Card hopefuls, who'll now also have to trudge on without Matt Forte for what looks to be at least the next two weeks after the do-everything running back sprained his right knee against the Chiefs.
Tim Tebow can throw the ball a bit after all. The league's best storyline of this season's second half worked his head-scratching magic once again, orchestrating a fourth comeback in the fourth quarter of the Denver Broncos' astounding five-game winning streak. The second-year sensation did it with his arm instead of his feet in the surprising AFC West co-leaders' 35-32 triumph over Minnesota, however, hitting on a sharp 10-of-15 passes for 202 yards and two touchdowns against an injury-riddled Vikings' secondary. Much has been made of Tebow's accuracy issues and a perceived inability to read defenses, but the bottom line is this: The Broncos are 6-1 in his seven starts, and the former Heisman Trophy winner owns a stellar 10-to-1 interception ratio on the season. Enough said.
The Baltimore Ravens are going to be running the ball an awful lot this next few weeks. And why not after the AFC North powerhouses churned out a whopping 290 rushing yards in their 24-10 outmuscling of division-rival Cleveland on Sunday? The Ravens had 55 run attempts and just 24 passes on the afternoon, with playmaking back Ray Rice racking up a career-high 204 yards on 29 carries. It's something the Browns should have seen coming, however, as Baltimore has now averaged 161.7 per game on the ground in December and January over head coach John Harbaugh's four-year tenure. Expect more of the same in the coming weeks, with the Ravens' next three opponents (Indianapolis, San Diego, Cleveland again) all ranked among the NFL's bottom seven teams in run defense.
Chris Johnson may be the NFL's best running back once again...or the best running back not named Marshawn Lynch. Johnson's inexplicable slow start is now clearly in the rear-view mirror after the Tennessee speedster surpassed the 100-yard mark for the third time in four games with Sunday's 153-yard, two- touchdown outburst in the Titans' big 21-17 win at Buffalo. The preseason holdout has now compiled 486 yards over that stretch, 30 more than the rejuvenated Lynch has amassed during the same period. The Seattle workhorse continued his own stellar tear by bullying a disinterested Philadelphia team for 148 yards and two scores in Thursday's 31-14 rout over the underachieving Eagles, giving him nine touchdowns over the Seahawks' last eight tests. The Titans, by the way, are now 4-0 when Johnson goes over 100 yards this season.
The Cincinnati Bengals are this year's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Remember how the Bucs came out of nowhere to win 10 games against a dubious schedule last season? The young Bengals have followed a similar pattern in 2011, taking care of business against the cream puffs but falling short when taking on top-flight competition, and Sunday's 35-7 manhandling by the reigning AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers was a pretty strong indicator the Cats aren't quite ready for prime time just yet. A Wild Card berth still isn't out of the question for a Cincinnati team that's 6-0 against opponents currently under .500, though, as two of its final four foes are the Cardinals and Rams.
Tony Sparano may just be the only head coach of a Florida team NOT to get fired. Two months ago it seemed as if the embattled Miami sideline boss wouldn't last to November, but the resurgent Dolphins' four wins in five games -- each of which have come by double digits -- and the continued downward spiral of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have made Sparano more of a candidate to retain his job than Raheem Morris come January. The Bucs have now dropped six in a row after being floored at home by division-rival Carolina this past weekend, a game highlighted by an irate Morris removing Tampa defensive tackle Brian Price from the field in the third quarter after being flagged for a personal foul penalty, and it's exactly that type of undisciplined behavior by the Buccaneers that has management keeping a close watch on the player-friendly Morris' performance over the final four weeks. A continued free-fall could have the 35-year-old joining ex-Jacksonville head man Jack Del Rio on the unemployment line by season's end.
And while we're on the subject of codes of conduct, Jim Schwartz's got to get a better grip on his Detroit players as well. Ten days after Ndamukong Suh's well-publicized stomp that cost the All-Pro defensive tackle a two-game suspension, the chippy Lions go out and commit 11 penalties -- three of which were well-deserved unsportsmanlike conduct infractions -- that played a part in Sunday night's 31-17 defeat at NFC South power New Orleans. Schwartz's troops have now been whistled for a league-high 26 personal foul calls this year, and with five losses in seven games, are in danger of having a season unravel much like their composure has done in recent weeks.
Giants-Cowboys this Sunday night should be a treat. Believe it or not, the Giants still control their own destiny in the flimsy NFC East despite a 6-6 record and four straight losses, thanks to a pair of meetings with the first- place Cowboys still to come. A Dallas victory would not only give the Cowboys clear control of the division, however, but further amp up the speculation regarding Tom Coughlin's job security in the wake of another untimely second- half stumble by New York.