September 29, 2011

The NFL Twilight Zone

Print More

You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension — a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight and a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into the NFL Twilight Zone.

A mere two months ago, NFL fans everywhere found themselves locked out of their own doghouse, left powerless to get back inside and wondering if they’d ever find the key.  Then, suddenly on July 26th, an enhaloed Roger Goodell took to the altar — and as if uttering the final words to a gospel — declared: “Football is back.”


Just like the lost dog a few days after it has been found, the NFL has been back for some time now, and those invested in it are long past the anxiety of the not-so-distant past. After the first quarter of the regular season is wrapped up this weekend, all the usual fixtures will be in place. The Patriots will be on top of the league, Peyton Manning will be leading the Colts to another division title, Chris Johnson will be blowing up fantasy leagues and the Lions and Bills will be looking to make it twelve straight seasons without a playoff appearance.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the field …

The Patriots aren’t the best team in football- just ask the Bills. The usually win-ful Colts are winless ponies without Peyton — it is their first 0-3 start since Peyton Manning took over in 1998. Chris Johnson is rushing for less yards than Chad Henne — if betting odds existed on that and you took Henne, you would own the world right now, guaranteed.

And finally, only three teams remain undefeated: the world-champion Greenbay Packers, the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions. Do you see which of the three does not belong? The Packers won one more Super Bowl last year than the Bills or Lions ever have; assuming this article’s readership doesn’t include any current or former NFL players, let it be known that you have as many Super Bowl titles as the Bills and Lions do, combined.

So, who says you cannot teach an old dog new tricks?

Call it parody or call it parity, the season thus far has been full of storylines so surprising and bizarre that teams reaching the endzone seem to be coming from the Twilight Zone. Sure, some of the perennial mainstays are still in place — the Cowboys have talent but only underwhelming performances to show for it, the NFC West is the worst division in the league and (surprise!) NFL Films’ “Bill Belichick: A Football Life” is less exciting than watching grass grow — but the landscape of the league may be changing, and fans are following suit. A quick Google Trends investigation shows that searches for “Bills schedule” and “Lions schedule” both hit unprecedented highs after this past Sunday’s games. Eyes are starting to turn to new places in the league, and match-ups labeled mundane at the start of the season are suddenly the most anticipated.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the marquee matchups this weekend that may have seemed a bit less scintillating before the season started:

Lions at Cowboys (-1)

This has the makings of a great matchup. It may be cliché, but defensive line schemes and quarterback play will be key. I’m not convinced that the Lions are the real deal just yet, but I’m also not convinced that the Cowboys are, either. Tony Romo is nursing some broken ribs and a punctured lung he suffered two weeks ago; although he played through the pain last week in an eke-it-out win over the Redskins, do not be surprised if he starts to waver when Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams come knocking.

Lions by 3.

Steelers at Texans (-4)

Last weekend, the Steelers had a game that was too close for comfort against a Manning-less Colts team. Their pass defense, however, still sits atop the league (allowing only 164 passing yards per game), and they rank second in overall defense (allowing only 263 total yards per game) despite a brutal 35-7 loss to the arch-rival Ravens in Week 1. The Steelers defense will be tested by the likes of Ben Tate (fifth in the league in rushing) and Andre Johnson (fourth in the league in receiving), but I expect Mike Tomlin to have his defense well-prepared. Even on the road in Houston, I like the Steelers to make a statement this week.

Steelers by 6.

Jets at Ravens (-3.5)

Okay, so this one’s been a marquee matchup since schedules were released back in April. But both teams have been schizophrenic through three weeks of play. The Ravens had a deflating loss to the Titans sandwiched between two blowout victories. Coming off a disappointing loss to the Raiders, the Jets rank 25th in rushing yards per game and 31st in rush defense, a far cry from their vaunted rush attack and run-stopping defense during the Rex Ryan era. Not surprisingly, that has not stopped Rex from being brash: “Now, we haven’t won the AFC Championship Game, but we have gotten there two years in a row — the Ravens haven’t.” Ray Lewis, no stranger to trash talk, had this to say when told about Rex’s comments: “The only response I can ever have for that is he was sitting in the same place I was sitting watching the Super Bowl. He had to be, because he wasn’t in it.” Talk is cheap, but Rex Ryan & Co. will have the troops ready to go and his defense back on track. Picking three upsets out of three? Sure, why not?

Jets by 3.

Original Author: Paul Picinich