NFL teams often use the "nobody respects us" mantra, or some sort of variation of it, as a form of motivation.
A local beat writer picks against the home team in his column and it is posted on a bulletin board somewhere by the Gatorade refrigerator. An ex-player says something disparaging on TV and it makes its way around the locker room in tweets and whispers.
The "nobody respects us" thing has been stoking fires for years, and like never-ending instant replay reviews and a shot of Robert Kraft or Jerry Jones on a network broadcast, they are now just part of the game.
But how often is a team really disrespected or disregarded? How often is a good team that’s proving it on the field week after week really just given the cold shoulder by those in the media?
Not too often.
Until this year.
The case of the 2014 Arizona Cardinals is one that sports psychologists may examine in medical journals for years to come. Never in my 10 years of covering the league have I come across a team that’s accomplished so much on the field to be treated with such blatant disregard by the American public, the media, and the rest of the league off of it.
At 11-3, the Cardinals are the only team in the NFC to have already clinched a playoff position, are alone atop the NFC West division, and are just a win away from locking up the NFC West title, a first round bye, and home field throughout the NFL playoffs. But you’d have no idea of any of this by the amount of media attention or coverage they’ve received.
I’d love a pie chart or some sort of visual graphic representing how much time the NFL studio shows on FOX Sports 1, NFL Network and ESPN have spent discussing Arizona this season. I assure you it’s half as much as either the Redskins or the 49ers — two teams going nowhere.
Want lack of respect? How about some of these nuggets for you?
— NBC did a promo for this weekend’s "Sunday Night Football" game against the Seahawks during last week’s Cowboys-Eagles game. The promo featured Larry Fitzgerald and Karlos Dansby. Dansby, a former Cardinals linebacker, signed with the Cleveland Browns on March 11th.
— Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, a top head coaching candidate this offseason, was misidentified on the NFL Network broadcast on Thursday. Right name and graphic, but the image was of linebackers coach Mike Caldwell.
— The Cardinals were 10-3, while the Rams were 6-7. St. Louis was a six-point favorite when the two teams played last Thursday.
— The Cardinals haven’t lost a home game since Oct. 17, 2013. They’re more than 8-point underdogs at home this Sunday.
The list goes on, of course. Go player by player on the roster, and seemingly every Cardinals player has a story of overcoming some sort of odds to be in the position they’re in right now. Take their current starting quarterback, Ryan Lindley, as a prime example. Lindley’s thrown 181 passes over the course of his NFL career and has never thrown a touchdown. That’s a record. He’s got 0 TDs and 7 interceptions over the course of his career.
Lindley didn’t just not make Arizona’s initial 53-man roster this summer; he was cut before the 75-man roster was announced, too. Running back Kerwynn Williams, meanwhile, was cut from San Diego’s roster before their 75-man roster was announced. Over the past 12 months, this team has lost Darnell Dockett, John Abraham, Andre Ellington, Carson Palmer, Drew Stanton and Tyrann Mathieu to injuries, and Daryl Washington to a suspension.
Other teams might have withered away and pointed to next year by this point. The Cardinals haven’t. They’ve just stayed the course and continued to win games.
They don’t seem too concerned about the lack of respect, either. In their locker room, they know they just have to win games, not the battle for public opinion. With Lindley set to start against the Seahawks this weekend, Larry Fitzgerald told reporters on Monday: "We really believe in Ryan, he can make all the throws. We just got to protect him, make some plays for him outside, run the ball. We’re going to be just fine."
Ignore the noise and focus on football. That’s what Bruce Arians has told this team all season long. Whether they’re respected or not, they don’t seem to care.
It’s working so far.
Week 16 CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA QUESTION OF THE WEEK
Russell Wilson won his 34th game as an NFL starting quarterback last Sunday. Which current and which former NFL quarterback did Wilson pass for the record for most wins in first three seasons of an NFL career?
THROWBACK JERSEY OF THE WEEK
Johnny Manziel’s name has now been added to the long list of 21 different Browns starting quarterbacks since the team debuted in 1999. Pay homage to the man who started it all, Mr. Tim Couch.
Now, on to the picks.
Last Week’s Record: 11-5
Tennessee at Jacksonville: This one could be the lowest-rated NFL game ever on a Thursday night. I can’t even think of one player — on either team — that could impact a fantasy football championship. If anyone’s banking on Storm Johnson or Nate Washington, they’re probably not playing for all the marbles this weekend. Even trying to imagine Jim Nantz and Phil Simms saying the name Charlie Whitehurst seems odd. I’m taking the Jaguars, but can’t promise I’ll be glued to the television. It could be a TBS "Big Bang Theory"/"Mike and Molly" re-run night for me.
The Pick: Jaguars 20, Titans 16
Philadelphia at Washington: I spent a few days with the Redskins prior to their 24-0 loss to the Rams in Week 15, and can assure you the locker room is not as badly damaged as it’s being made to seem elsewhere in the media. I can also tell you that this is a team that’s running on fumes. Their defensive backfield — one that once had both DeAngelo Hall and Tracy Porter slated as starters — is a collection of first- and second-year fringe NFL talent and a past-his-prime Ryan Clark. Chip Kelly, even on a short week, should be able to scheme against that and take advantage of an overmatched set of corners and safeties.
The Pick: Eagles 38, Redskins 17
San Diego at San Francisco: NFL on FOX analyst Randy Moss was at the preseason game between these two teams and raised serious concerns with the 49ers’ red zone offense on FOX Sports 1. Moss, who was widely ridiculed at the time for overreacting to August football, said it was problematic that the 49ers weren’t getting anything out of their first unit offense and couldn’t convert within the 20-yard line. We were told all summer that the preseason doesn’t matter; that it’s for the 52nd and 53rd man on the roster, not the starters. Well, Moss was right. There were issues in August and those same issues have plagued San Francisco all season long. Unfortunately, I don’t see the new stadium — with sushi at your seat and the best WiFi money can buy — as any sort of home-field advantage, either. Things are going to get worse for this team before they get better. I wouldn’t be the surprised if Jim Harbaugh isn’t 100 percent focused on this game, either.
The Pick: Chargers 23, 49ers 17
Minnesota at Miami: What’s with the Dolphins in games that matter? It’s like they are allergic to the playoffs. Last year, Miami lost to Thad Lewis and Geno Smith in the team’s final two games, keeping them out of the postseason. This year, they’ve surrendered good starts to be blown out by the Ravens and Patriots in back-to-back AFC "must wins." They’ve still got a shot, but the playoffs seem like a distant goal at this point. Joe Philbin’s job could be in jeopardy if the team doesn’t finish strong. I’m not sure I see Miami beating a Vikings team that’s played very well over the last month. Get that Harbaugh rumor mill going … again.
The Pick: Vikings 24, Dolphins 17
Baltimore at Houston: Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said he won’t be announcing a starting quarterback this week until Sunday, which is a smart way of playing the situation when the choices are Case Keenum, Thad Lewis, and the actor who played Bernie in "Weekend at Bernie’s" (Note: The great Terry Kiser has not, as of this posting, been signed as a Texans QB). The Texans beat the Ravens badly two years ago in Houston, but that was a very different Houston squad with a functioning quarterback in Matt Schaub. The Ravens haven’t won pretty, but the schedule works out awfully nice for them the next two weeks (home vs. Cleveland in Week 17).
The Pick: Ravens 21, Texans 13
Detroit at Chicago: The Lions of old would lose this game — 100 percent. Not a question in my mind. They’d come out flat, fall behind 17-0 early, and lose 24-23 on a last-second field goal. There’d be a shot of Jim Schwartz crouching as the game-winner sailed through the uprights. But this isn’t that team. This isn’t that coach. And these aren’t those Lions. Detroit’s a big-boy team now, and big-boy teams win games like these.
The Pick: Lions 27, Bears 21
Cleveland at Carolina: I’ll be in attendance at "Johnny Football: Take 2" in Charlotte on Sunday, and I’d expect a far-better performance out of both Manziel and the Browns as a whole than what we saw in his NFL debut. I still like Carolina in this one. The Panthers must seem like annoying mosquitoes on a hot summer day to the Falcons and Saints. They want to swat them and get them out of their way, but they just won’t go away. That Week 6 tie is just lingering, unable to be eradicated. Johnny plays better, there’s optimism in Cleveland, and the Panthers find a way to win and stay alive one more week. I expect a better game than most are expecting, too.
The Pick: Panthers 23, Browns 20
Atlanta at New Orleans: Leaving the Atlanta locker room after last week’s 27-20 loss, I didn’t feel any great sense of dread or devastation. Rather, I sensed a team that knows — despite the media’s moaning and grandstanding and quite frankly, over-the-top harrumphing — that it can still make the playoffs with wins in its final two games. No matter what Carolina and New Orleans do from here on out, if Atlanta wins its next two games, the Falcons are in the playoffs as 7-9 NFC South champions. Atlanta’s the underdog, but I like the Falcons in a fun little shootout.
The Pick: Falcons 38, Saints 34
Green Bay at Tampa Bay: I like the thought of Marcus Mariota playing in Tampa Bay next season. And I also think the Packers’ loss last week could have been the perfect wakeup call for a team that had a bandwagon just a bit too full for my liking. Green Bay may have lost home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but remember, they won three road playoff games (at Philadelphia, at Atlanta, at Chicago) en route to their only Super Bowl victory with Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy. I’m of the belief that sometimes you need that loss in late December just to get it out of your system. Packers get back on track on Sunday, and do so with ease.
The Pick: Packers 37, Buccaneers 13
Kansas City at Pittsburgh: The Steelers are the team to watch in the AFC. Winners of back-to-back games on the road, they return home for their final two contests, where they’ll play the Chiefs and Bengals. Not enough has been made out of the years Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey, and Ben Roethlisberger are all having in 2014. For all the offensive superstars who have come through Pittsburgh the past three decades, the foursome — if they all make it — will be the Steelers’ first QB-RB-WR combo voted in to the Pro Bowl since 1980. New England and Denver may have the best Super Bowl odds out of the AFC right now, but there might be no more dangerous team out of the remaining contenders than the Steelers.
The Pick: Steelers 27, Chiefs 16
New England at New York Jets: If this is, indeed, head coach Rex Ryan’s last home game as the man running the Jets, and his last versus the Patriots, I would imagine his team comes out fighting like they typically do against their arch rivals. I’ve seen the Jets beat the Patriots under Ryan three different times in person (he’s 4-8 versus Belichick), and each time, it’s been one in which he’s coached (or outcoached) the mighty Belichick every step of the way. A loss to New York would be devastating for New England, both hampering their homefield advantage odds in the AFC, and giving them a reason to question themselves moving forward. I think the Jets put up a fight, but I just can’t pick them in good faith. Don’t be shocked if Rex — the rare losing coach who is beloved by his fan base — gets a standing ovation in the final minutes of a loss.
The Pick: Patriots 23, Jets 10
New York Giants at St. Louis Rams: Jason Pierre-Paul has recorded six sacks over the Giants’ last three games and the emergence of rookie pass rusher Devon Kennard has everyone in New York feeling pretty good about the Giants’ last two wins. I see them finishing the season strong, as they tend to do, and toppling St. Louis on Sunday. Tom Coughlin, a guy everyone assumed would be gone at the end of the season following the Jacksonville loss, is looking more and more like a lock to retain his position as head coach next year. Entering Week 17 on a three-game winning streak is nothing to scoff at, regardless of the opponents. I like New York here.
The Pick: Giants 20, Rams 14
Buffalo at Oakland: Despite their eight wins, the Bills are still a relative long shot to make the playoffs this season due to tiebreakers in the conference. Regardless of whether they’re playing January football, you’ve got to love what they’ve accomplished this season. Last Sunday’s win over Green Bay was just another strong performance from a team that’s dealt with injuries, temporary displacement, and turnover at the quarterback position. He won’t win it in a season where Bruce Arians and Jim Caldwell have their teams playing well above expectations, but Doug Marrone deserves some Coach of the Year consideration. Heck of a job out of the second-year man.
The Pick: Bills 20, Raiders 9
Indianapolis at Dallas: Back in August, I predicted 10 wins and a playoff berth from the Cowboys this season. The island I was on when I said that made Revis Island look like Penn Station. I’ve spent the past four months patting myself on the back and reminding anyone who’ll listen that I called it. Though last Sunday night’s win was an impressive road W in a "must-win" situation, the Cowboys still need victories in their final two games of the season to lock up a spot in the final field of 12. Indianapolis hasn’t played great in games against good teams this year, with Baltimore and Cincinnati serving as its only really impressive victories in 2014. I don’t know what to make of the Colts, and the Cowboys are apparently a better team on the road than at home, but I like Dallas in the best game of the weekend.
The Pick: Cowboys 31, Colts 27
Seattle at Arizona: I had my buddy and FOXSports.com writer Jimmy Traina on my NFL podcast this week and we spoke for about 10 minutes on this game, in particular. Jimmy says the Cardinals will score no points. I say Arizona wins outright. We found a happy medium — Cardinals +8 — and wagered tickets to Larry David’s new Broadway show on the outcome. I don’t want to get into "how" the Cardinals will beat the Seahawks, because they’ve defied that kind of logic 11 times already this season. I’m all in on Bruce Arians in this one, catering a game plan specific to Ryan Lindley and finding a way. Want to get on this bandwagon? Well, it’s completely empty … as far as I can tell … besides me. I’ll enjoy that Larry David play in February, and might even buy Jimmy his popcorn.
The Pick: Cardinals 17, Seahawks 16
Denver at Cincinnati: Other than two wins over the Ravens, the Bengals haven’t played well against the other big boys of the AFC this year. They’ve been no better at home than on the road. Tough to see them coming out and beating Peyton Manning and the suddenly suffocating Broncos defense on Monday night.
Not a huge college football guy, but always love bowl season. You’re a big Mariota guy (or so it seems from your drooling over him on Twitter the past two years) and I get the feeling you are a fan of Winston, too. They’re all we hear about. Is there a third quarterback we should be watching during the bowl games?
The name I’m giving you is Connor Cook out of Michigan State. He’s more than likely headed back to East Lansing for his senior year, but he’s got all the tools, good size, and comes from an out-of-nowhere quarterback hotbed at Michigan State. The Spartans take on Baylor and another promising quarterback in Bryce Petty in the Cotton Bowl. I could see Cook being the star of that one.
Week 16 CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER OF THE WEEK
Wilson’s 34th win as a starter surpassed both Dan Marino and Matt Ryan (33) for most wins for a quarterback in the first three seasons of an NFL career.