After a surprise 3-1 start before their bye week, the Washington Redskins share last place in the NFC East — where most people expected them to be. Nearly all of the preseason talk about the division was devoted to the Eagles’ free-agency splurge, Rob Ryan’s impact on the Dallas D and whether Eli Manning would prove to be truly elite this season. Evident in Washington’s current four-game slide is that it’s too personnel-poor to crawl out of its hole. I mean, does Washington have one skilled offensive player that scares opposing teams?
In San Diego, the disappointment is more staggering. Some thought this might finally be the Chargers’ year to run the playoff table and land in the Super Bowl. Well, that’s not going to happen and with the players immune from being fired, general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner are squarely under the magnifying glass. Owner Dean Spanos likes them both, but if the team’s tailspin continues there should be some house cleaning.
The Chargers have also lost four in a row after Thursday’s pounding at the hands of the Raiders in San Diego on Thursday night. Backup Michael Bush ran through them (157 yards). Carson Palmer threw over them — by far his best game as a Raider. And Philip Rivers was smacked around (sacked six times). The next day, Turner came to his quarterback’s defense because he knows Rivers is gutty and hurt and doesn’t have enough healthy options around him.
Back in Washington, Mike Shanahan is now 9-15 and his .375 winning percentage is the same as Steve Spurrier’s and Jim Zorn’s — and a lot worse than Joe Gibbs, version two. His quarterback experiment of Rex Grossman/John Beck has been a bust and it’s doubtful if either one can ever lead this franchise into the playoffs.
Yes, the Redskins have been hurt by injuries to Santana Moss, Chris Cooley, Tim Hightower and others, but the bigger question is did Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen stockpile enough offensive weapons to keep the club afloat during such dire periods?
The answer is clearly, no.
Veteran receiver Donte’ Stallworth was cut loose this past week and Anthony Armstrong simply hasn’t developed as a viable target. The offensive line has been staggered, too, the negative result being that neither quarterback has enjoyed a comfortable pocket (a combined 24 sacks and 13 interceptions this season).
So what should owner Daniel Snyder do? Well, his hands-off approach has been exemplary, fully trusting in Shanahan and Allen to make his team a winner. But if the losses continue to mount, I would expect Snyder to do something bold. He has 90,000 tickets to sell and a huge fan base to satisfy. You can bet he’s going to want a quarterback, someone fresh to the face of the franchise — even a face old but proven.
I was thinking, what if Peyton Manning is healthy and available? Would the Colts trade him if they get the opportunity to draft Stanford’s Andrew Luck? Now, Peyton’s neck being solid enough to play next season is a bigger issue than if owner Jimmy Irsay would trade him. But after seeing Brett Favre bounce around, anything is possible. Besides, several teams might be interested in Peyton. Whoever loses out on Luck to the Colts would be in the market. Besides, Miami hasn’t had a quarterback since Dan Marino retired.
Back on the West Coast, the Chargers still have a chance with Rivers, Antonio Gates (albeit a slower version than he once was), Vincent Jackson and the dual-running threat of Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert. And they have been in worse circumstances before. Plus, they have winnable games left with Denver, Jacksonville, Buffalo and possibly Oakland, and have won the AFC West with an 8-8 record, which may be the magical number once again.
But if the rally fizzles in San Diego, you have to believe that there will be changes at the top. Smith or Turner, or both, could be gone. It’s what the fans expect, especially when Marty Schottenheimer was canned for simply losing playoff games.
The entire Smith saga centers on LaDainian Tomlinson. Smith loved former LT backup Michael Turner but lost him in free agency to the Falcons in 2008. Yes, Tomlinson had 1,110 yards and 11 rushing scores in 2008. But it was his last 1,000-yard season in San Diego; he clearly lost his outside step by 2009. The following offseason, Smith released Tomlinson and traded up in the draft to grab Mathews. In hindsight, the smart move would have been to hand the starting job to Turner and keep Darren Sproles as his backup. Instead, Sproles is now in New Orleans.
There is no question that Sproles is a more dynamic runner than Tolbert. And there’s no question that Rivers misses him. Like he also misses a quicker, faster Gates.
You can blame Turner. But the Chargers biggest shortcoming is the loss of Sproles and those league-high 17 turnovers by Rivers. Nothing on the field resembles what the Chargers used to look like.
GAME: Arizona at Philadelphia
TIME: 1 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Quarterback John Skelton will make his second consecutive start for the Cardinals, although Kevin Kolb will test his turf toe in warm-ups and may be available for backup duty. This should be a physical game as both the Eagles and Cardinals — Beanie Wells’ knee is feeling better — will want to pound the ball. In fact, Philadelphia has shifted mammoth King Dunlap into the left guard for injured Evan Mathis. The Eagles are averaging and NFL-best 172 rushing yards per game, led by LeSean McCoy (825 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground). The Eagles have been hurting themselves with so many red-zone turnovers and an overall turnover count of minus-7. Michael Vick (five of his 12 turnovers have come in the red zone) simply needs to be patient in the pocket and stay away from rookie corner Patrick Peterson, who has played well of late. Arizona’s soft secondary is catching a break with Philadelphia de-activating wide receiver DeSean Jackson for missing a Saturday morning team meeting. One interesting battle will be Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald against former teammate, Eagles CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Rodgers-Cromartie has been moaning about playing the slot — the Eagles use a lot of nickel defense — and he could facing Fitzgerald a lot because the Cardinals have been shifting him inside lately.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Eagles coach Andy Reid came to the defense of Kolb this week, a player he traded away for a second-round pick and Rodgers-Cromartie this offseason because he didn’t need a high-priced backup to Vick. But there is no question that Kolb has underachieved this season, and the Cardinals keep talking about improving his footwork and fundamentals for next season. Arizona DE Calais Campbell, who blocked a Rams’ field-goal attempt last Sunday to end regulation and force overtime, will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Campbell has five sacks and two blocked field goals. He wants to remain in Arizona, and it’s essential that the Cardinals re-sign him. Campbell is an excellent 3-4 defensive end. There seems to be no chance that Reid, who is signed through 2013, would be unemployed if the Eagles fail to make the playoffs, which appears to be a certainty today.
GAME: New Orleans at Atlanta
TIME: 1 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: There are a lot of weird stats in this game. Falcons QB Matt Ryan has averaged 100 more passing yards per game on the road this season, but he owns a 22-3 home record, his .880 home winning percentage second only to Oakland’s Daryle Lamonica (37-4-2, .893) since 1950. The other key is that Saints coach Sean Payton is 8-2 against the Falcons. One would think both teams will run to set up the pass, though Atlanta’s Michael Turner has been in a groove lately and New Orleans’ Darren Sproles is averaging 166.6 all-purpose yards. Saints QB Drew Brees has completed 20 passes or more in 29 consecutive games, but he’s well aware that the Falcons are improving on defense. They are applying more pressure and linebackers Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon are a mighty tandem for them. Atlanta gives up touchdowns on 38.5 percent of opponents’ red-zone opportunities, fourth-best in the league. Ryan hopes to have enough time to find rookie Julio Jones, who had one spectacular, falling 50-yard touchdown catch last week, and Roddy White on some intermediate-to-deep throws. The Falcons sport future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, but the Saints’ Jimmy Graham (55 catches for 791 yards and a team-high five touchdowns) may be the best receiving tight end on the field in this one.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Payton is still a week or two away from being able to stand safely on the sidelines due to his left leg injury suffered during a game in October. The Saints are 2-3 on the road this season and score are scoring 12 points per game less away from the Superdome. Turner needs two more rushing touchdowns to tie Gerald Riggs for the club record (48). The Falcons are trying to lock up Lofton, who could be a free-agent next season. The Saints are hoping that rookie running back Mark Ingram can play after missing the last two games with a heel injury. Fellow injured back Chris Ivory (hamstring) will test his injury in warm-ups. The atmosphere inside the Georgia Dome should be like a playoff game. Joe Hawley has done a solid job at right guard for the Falcons, who were struggling to replace Harvey Dahl, who went to St. Louis in the offseason.
GAME: Washington at Miami
TIME: 1 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Miami’s Matt Moore is coming off a career-high-tying three-touchdown game in last week’s upset of the Chiefs, but the Dolphins have lost seven in a row at home — site of four of their next five games. The Redskins have scored only 11 points in the last two games and Shanahan is starting rookies at receiver (Leonard Hankerson), running back (Roy Helu), left guard (Maurice Hurt) and right outside linebacker (Ryan Kerrigan). The John Beck experiment ended as Shanahan is going back to Rex Grossman at quarterback.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Dolphins corner Vontae Davis returns to the lineup after last week’s benching for a verbal fight with teammate Brandon Marshall and showing up late for a team meeting. Newly signed Washington receiver David Anderson worked with Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in Houston from 2008-09. The Redskins believe that Anderson can help immediately simply because he knows the offense. Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell is still questioning a personal-foul penalty on him last week for what he thought was a clean shoulder hit on the Chiefs’ Dwayne Bowe. “It’s really getting ridiculous,” Bell said. “They are trying to make a brutal sport safe and you can only go so far with that. The sport is what it is. It’s football. How safe can it be?”
GAME: St. Louis at Cleveland
TIME: 1 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Despite the potential return of one weapon, there are a lot of playmakers on both sides missing for this game. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is expected to start and he could have receiver Mark Clayton active. But he will be without another receiver, rookie Greg Salas, who broke his fibula last week. Bradford needs to get onto the same throwing page with newcomer Brandon Lloyd, who he missed a couple times last week. The Rams will be minus four of their opening-day receivers, including tight end Lance Kendricks (foot sprain). Cleveland, the NFL’s top defensive team against the pass, is allowing 144 yards on the ground and the Rams’ Steven Jackson has rushed for 289 yards in the last two games. The Browns are minus their two best runners in Montario Hardesty and Peyton Hillis, plus receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. If Jackson can get untracked, the Rams should be able to control the game’s tempo.
CZAR’S SCOOP: Former No. 1 pick Jason Smith and starting tackle is out with a concussion. And the Rams have benched center Jason Brown, who has started 84 consecutive games. Tony Wragge gets the start. Wragge signed with the Rams after being released in the cut-down to 53 players by the 49ers. Nothing has gone right for Hillis this season, as hamstring issues were the first have been to take attention from his contract situation. Then, some of the Browns veterans were upset with him that he left Cleveland to return to Arkansas to get married. The Madden cover boy may even be released at the end of the season because the Browns simply aren’t prepared to give him a big contract. The Rams believe they can get on a roll in their final eight games to save coach Steve Spagnuolo’s job. DE Chris Long has four sacks in his last two games.
GAME: N.Y. Giants at San Francisco
TIME: 4:15 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The 49ers, who have won six straight, will test the interior strength of the Giants’ defensive front with Frank Gore and their power running game. The 49ers actually use a jumbo-jumbo package that lines up a tight end, guard, center, guard, tackle, tackle and tackle, with nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga as the fullback. Left tackle Joe Staley shifts over to the right side in the formation, alongside starting right tackle Anthony Davis and then reserve tackle Alex Boone. We all know the Giants’ front four is geared toward the pass rush so it will be critical that tackles Linval Joseph and Chris Canty hold their ground. Linebackers Michael Boley and Greg Jones, a rookie, will be tested. Gore has more than 100 yards rushing in five consecutive games. On the flip side, the 49ers haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown this season and it has been 31 games since an opposing back ran for 100 yards — yup, the Giant’s Brandon Jacobs. New York can stay away from smash-mouth football as long as Eli Manning, who is having his finest season, can put points on the board early. Manning doesn’t figure to have receiver Hakeem Nicks, but he’s been making do with tight end Jake Ballard and receiver Victor Cruz. Manning knows that he can test the San Francisco safeties, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, who love to support the run. The deep middle could be open.
CZAR’S SCOOP: New York has won six of its last seven games, but you have to wonder about a team that has lost to two of the league’s worst teams in Washington and Seattle. One huge key to the 49ers’ success is their takeaway ratio of plus-12, which is second in the NFL. The defense is allowing only 14.8 points a game, the lowest San Francisco total since Ronnie Lott’s team in 1984 (14.2 points) that won the Super Bowl. The Giants are averaging 109 more yards passing than the 49ers — a key stat should the 49ers fall behind early and Alex Smith need to lead them back. When coach Jim Harbaugh took the job, there was talk that he wanted Michael Lombardi, who he worked with at the Raiders, as his top personnel man. But Trent Baalke’s draft picks, particularly rush linebacker Aldon Smith and running back Kendall Hunter, have played very well this season. Smith leads the team with 6-1/2 sacks.
GAME: Detroit at Chicago
TIME: 4:15 p.m. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Look for the Bears to continue their solid protection scheme for Jay Cutler, which means they keep in two extra blockers through a combination of tight ends and running backs. The formula worked well Monday night against the Eagles — Cutler wasn’t sacked — so the Lions may have to bring extra pressure to break down the pocket. Yes, the alignment limits Cutler’s downfield options, but he’s been extremely accurate lately and likes having receiver Earl Bennett as one of his downfield options. The quick-drop formation has been helped with the move of guard Lance Louis to right tackle. Cutler has been sacked only three times during the three-game winning streak while throwing for five touchdowns. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford has a bruised ring finger on his throwing hand and needs a strong running performance from running back Maurice Morris with Jahvid Best missing another game due to a concussion. The Bears don’t have anybody to match up with receiver Calvin Johnson, but they should be they should be able to put enough pressure on Stafford to force some turnovers.
CZAR’S SCOOP: The Bears are very reluctant to give running back Matt Forte a guaranteed average of more than $8 million a season because they know they can place the franchise tag on him in 2012 for $7.8 million and then do it again in 2013. The current system — franchise tags will actually go down in overall value — definitely favors the club in this particular situation. If Forte is franchised, he figures to be a no-show in training camp next summer. Perhaps the biggest buzz coming into the game is the nature of the injury suffered by Lions kicker Jason Hanson. He claims he injured his plant knee when vacationing with his family last week, took stitches and has a tender knee. However, the veteran kicker has not given any more details as to how he was injured, creating a bigger mystery with the fans. A total straight-arrow and family man, Hanson feels that as long as his employer knows what happened that should be good enough for everyone else.
Buffalo at Dallas: Bills running back Fred Jackson, who had a subpar game last week in the loss to the Jets, returns to his old Arlington, Texas neighborhood — literally. His boyhood home was leveled to make room for Cowboys Stadium. Jackson, who is averaging 149 yards from scrimmage, will have his parents in the crowd and he was raised a Cowboys’ fan and wears No. 22 in honor of Emmitt Smith. The Bills are struggling on defense and now face a Tony Romo who says it’s the best he’s felt since fracturing a rib. The Cowboys quarterback won’t have Miles Austin (hamstring), but he does have new running sensation DeMarco Murray. This is a must-win game for both teams.
Tennessee at Carolina: Two of the game’s highest-paid — and most underperforming — running backs face each other. Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams has 363 yards on the season, just 36 yards ahead of backup Jonathan Stewart and 44 more than rookie quarterback Cam Newton (who has seven rushing touchdowns to Williams’ one). Titans running back Chris Johnson has 366 yards and just one rushing touchdown and there’s talk that the Titans may opt to release him instead of giving him an $8 million bonus next March. Panthers receiver Steve Smith, who already has 46 catches on the season, is the player to watch in this game. Smith is averaging 20 yards a catch.
Houston at Tampa Bay: The Bucs’ Albert Haynesworth, picked up this week after being released by the Patriots, will get a heavy dose of Houston’s rushing duo of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Those two have combined for 1,279 rushing yards this season and seven touchdowns. Thing is, one big knock against Haynesworth with New England was his dislike of playing run defense. Houston runs the ball 51.7 percent of the plays. Wade Phillips has improved the Houston defense and Josh Freeman will have to deal with varied blitz schemes that have produced 24 sacks this season.
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati: Bad news for Bengals QB Andy Dalton — the Steelers have won 11 of 12 games against rookie quarterbacks under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. It will be interesting to see whether the Steelers return to their zone look in the secondary after beating the Patriots with a man look and then having Baltimore’s Joe Flacco burn them last Sunday night. Dalton hasn’t played like a rookie and has handled blitzes pretty well but Pittsburgh is better than anybody he’s faced with the exception of San Francisco — and he lost to the 49ers. No Bengals’ running back has hit 100 yards vs. Pittsburgh in the last seven years.
Jacksonville at Indianapolis: This game pits the two worst offenses in the league and that’s why Curtis Painter and the Colts have some hope of finally breaking into the win column. There is no question that some changes will be coming in Indianapolis, it’s just that Irsay and team president Bill Polian may not agree on what they should be. The Colts are weak at cornerback and defensive tackle, which should give Jags rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert some hope. This could be a high-scoring game.
Denver at Kansas City: The Chiefs are seriously concerned about Denver’s college-based run-option offense that rocked the Raiders last week as both Tim Tebow and Willis McGahee ran wild. The Chiefs have only nine sacks this season and they failed to come near Matt Moore last Sunday. Chiefs coach Todd Haley got a vote of confidence from GM Scott Pioli this week and still is sporting his “lucky” beard despite the loss to the Dolphins.
Baltimore at Seattle: The last time the Ravens visited Seattle they got waxed by Matt Hasselbeck, losing 27-6 the year before John Harbaugh arrived. Yes, this is a tough place to play, especially after a cross-country flight, but the Ravens are coming off a huge win in Pittsburgh and should be motivated not to fall into a lull similar to what they suffered against Jacksonville in October. Tarvaris Jackson has had two 300-yard passing games at home this season, but he will face a superior defense that leads the AFC with 26 sacks.
New England at NY Jets: Tom Brady has thrown 10 interceptions this season, easily on pace to easily eclipse his career-worst 14 in a season (done three times). Brady’s accuracy could be impacted from pain in his throwing elbow — his accuracy was definitely off during consecutive losses to the Steelers and Giants the last two weeks. The Jets need this game for the playoff tiebreakers, considering they can’t afford to be swept by the Patriots. New England’s BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 136 yards in his team’s 30-21 win over the Jets in Week 5, and New York better figure out a way to stop him and Kevin Faulk, who will be in the mix as a runner and a receiver on screen passes. The Jets are 4-0 at home this season.