Every week, TiT picks the games that will advance the narrative of this NFL season.
Redskins at Ravens (Sunday, 8:15 PM)
So…what the hell happened to the Redskins this year? In a season filled with bizarre disappointments, the Redskins have to be considered one of the most oddly flawed squads in the league. Worse still, those flaws seem to all come through on the offensive side of the ball, where the year that was supposed to be the arrival of the Behemoth now has us all questioning whether or not Jason Campbell is even supposed to be an NFL starter. Say what you will about the difficulties of the NFC East and how the offense is still above average; the fact of the matter is that Dan Snyder brought Jim Zorn in to turn Jason Campbell from a mass of marble into a sculpture. Instead, Campbell helms the 20th ranked passing offense, a fact made more damning by the glut of talent this team can use through the air. After drafting three potential first round receivers in the second round of the last draft, the three rookies (Devin Thomas, Macom Kelly, and Fred Davis) have caught only 15 passes between them, with 11 of those going to Thomas, for a grand total of 101 yards. That sums up the major problem I have with the 2008 Redskins: They promised an air show and showed up in propeller planes. After drafting the tools Campbell needed to run the offense he’s built to oversee, Zorn inexplicably chickened out and decided to limit his signal caller’s air attack, wearing down an overused Clinton Portis in the process.
So maybe it’s fitting that their season could come to an end against the Baltimore Ravens, a team that, like so many of this year’s elite, is showing that while relentless brutality may sometimes lose to ethereal grace, it will always beat mediocre dancers who think they can pussyfoot their way to victory. Sunday will pit the third ranked defense in the league (Ravens) against a team that has looked confused at best in this season’s second act. Meanwhile, every week is another week that the Ravens seem more secure in their identity as a pulverizing defensive team with an offense that will chip away until you give their physical freak of a quarterback (and perhaps the true heir to the type of physically dominant quarterback that Campbell is supposed to be) enough room to kill you downfield. If the Redskins are going to make it to the playoffs, they’ll likely need to win out, and if they’re going to do that, then they’ll need to surprise a Ravens defense with a questionable secondary by finally using the aerial weapons they’ve had this entire year. Just once this season, I’d like to see dynamism beat rigid utility (the Jets/Titans game counts, I suppose…).
Cowboys at Steelers (Sunday, 4:15 PM)
One lackluster outing against the Redskins and two beatdowns of NFC West cupcakes later, what the hell does it mean that Tony Romo is back on the field for the Dallas Cowboys? At 8-4, the Cowboys are in the rare position of being able to barely make the playoffs while still proving their legitimacy as a contender, courtesy of a four game stretch as brutal as anyone in the league to close their season (Steelers, Giants, Ravens, Eagles). The road to January begins in Pittsburgh, in what will be the first real test for a Cowboys offense that absolutely must be firing on all cylinders if it’s going to survive the harsh winter. Fortunately, Tony Romo is the man you want in charge of an offensive revival. I’m through trying to poke holes in the façade; I think Romo is legitimately as easy to root for and competitive as he appears to be. Combining underrated mobility with a willingness to trust his playmakers (say what you will, but Terrell Owens wants the ball because he knows he can make plays, and Romo throwing the ball to him is a good thing), Tony Romo has become the iconic quarterback of his generation because of his knack for injecting life into stagnancy (think of the Bledsoe/Romo transition in year one). The highest rated quarterback in the league with the best YPA of any QB (8.53), the Dallas offense is not just more dangerous when he’s involved; it may be the best in the league.
Or at least it had better be, because the Steelers defense is DEFINITELY the best in the league. Mike Tomlin has managed to establish a veritable brick wall that is the number one pass and rush defense in the league and allows the fewest points per game in the league (14.2…wow…). Worse still for the Cowboys, the Steelers feel the Ravens breathing down their neck with a potential division deciding matchup next week, and desperately need to keep their one game lead to secure their playoff spot. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Steelers may have the most legitimate “nobody respects us” card to play in football, with people routinely discussing teams like the Jets, Titans, and Giants as true contenders while leaving the Steelers as an afterthought.
This is because the Steelers, much like the Cowboys, have a giant question mark hanging over them on offense. Yet unlike the Cowboys, who need to prove that they’re elite in order to succeed, the Steelers need to prove that they’re even competent. A bottom third team in terms of yardage and barely in the middle third in points, Sunday is a matchup in which the Steelers offense will have to put its dynamic skill position players to good use, while somehow finding a way to hold off an underrated Cowboys pass rush and protect Big Ben, on whose shoulders the Steelers’ hopes always seem to live or die. If you enjoy games that, at their core, pit two singular talents against each other (and we’ve made no bones that we do here), you couldn’t ask for a better matchup.
Buccaneers at Carolina (Monday, 8:30 PM)
Here’s the thing: The NFC South is the division of the future. The bottom of the barrel in that division, the Saints, might have the most potent offense in the league (with Bush hitting his stride and young, big, and fast receivers to spare), and every other team stands a chance to beat each other in any given week. This, then, is a de facto matchup of titans in the NFC. Because while everyone else is talking about the Cowboys coming to life (OOOOOH, TONY ROMO KILLED THE 49ers and SEAHAWKS!!! I bet he can do a number on my flag football team, too, which has about the same relevance…), the top three teams in the NFC South are playing better football and have come together throughout the season to arrive at this point. It’s ok to enjoy the hoedown, northeasterners.
On the one hand, you have the Bucs, who are pretty much trying to kill everything you know as fun. With a fourth ranked defense in both yardage and points per game, an offense whose most exciting tool is Antonio Bryant, and a quarterback whose longest throw on the season is 47 yards (tied for third shortest), these guys aren’t here to entertain you. This, of course, suits Jon Gruden just fine. Never one to play the hero to players or fans (at least, not fans of fun football), Gruden has managed to construct the bludgeoning utopia (dystopia?) that the Jacksonville Jaguars can now only dream about, using it to put a stranglehold on the rest of the division, including their last matchup against the Panthers in which they curb stomped a potential contender 27-3. The result is a team that, once again, seems inexplicably primed to overcome the lack of individual stars and take the crown in its division, letting utility and function reign supreme.
In fact, let’s call this game what it is: A litmus test for the Panthers, perpetual dreamers and disappointers since their NFC championship. Last week’s win against Green Bay was a much needed win over some legitimate competition; this week’s game against Tampa Bay tells us whether the Panthers came to win this season or are just happy to be invited to the game. The fact of the matter is that this team doesn’t do anything particularly well, with an above average defense and an average offense, and yet they somehow keep winning. Not only that, but they keep by getting their big players to step up in big moments. Steve Smith is averaging the most YPG of any receiver (95.8). DeAngelo Williams is tied for the fourth most touchdowns among running backs and the fourth highest yards per carry (11 and 4.9). In short, the parts are greater than the sum of their whole.
So what wins out? The black hole that swallows stars or the collection of comets that, for no reason other than their brightness, are the most significant things in the night sky? Monday night marks a rare entry into prime time for both of these teams, and should give the general public a look at two teams that they’ll think they don’t understand because they don’t see them very often. In reality, we don’t understand them because as much as they’ve come together, this game is really where they discover who they are.