FIVE STORIES TO WATCH
1. Big Ben Watch
The Pittsburgh Steelers probably won't even make the playoffs if Ben Roethlisberger sits out much longer. Big Ben probably knows it, which no doubt is why he aims to return for this week's big game at AFC North arch-nemesis Baltimore. Can he be effective, though, after suffering that rare rib/shoulder combo injury in mid-November?
2. Coach-hotseat Watch
December arrives on Saturday. That's when manoeuvring begins in earnest for the teams that will be looking for a new head coach. That list almost certainly will include Philadelphia, Kansas City and San Diego. And probably Carolina. And maybe Dallas, Tennessee and the New York Jets "¶
3. Holmgren Watch.
Someone sure to be at or near the top of "prospective replacements" lists for all the coming head-coach vacancies is Mike Holmgren, the lame-duck president of the Cleveland Browns. He announced Monday his ties with the Browns will be conveniently severed as of Friday.
4. RG3 Watch.
On the heels of his competitive and pop-culture breakout game Thursday in Dallas, Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins next play Monday night, at home against the New York Giants. As we pointed out the other day, RG3 is slaying the NFC East so far: 54-of-71 for 869 yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs and a 144.3 passer rating.
5. Kaepernick Watch.
It was a puzzling move for 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh to bench " his guy," Alex Smith, to start mostly untried second-year QB Colin Kaepernick. But in New Orleans, Kaepernick was solid. He had the nice TD run off the zone-read, yes, but his passing was sharp throughout. One more game like that and Smith better get used to wearing a ball cap during games.
STOCK GOING UP
Since having surgery on his left wrist, Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams has become the dominant pass-rushing force the team thought it was getting for its $100 million. In the past four games, Williams has five sacks, six QB hits and six tackles-for-loss. He's up to 11th in the NFL with 8.5 sacks on the season, and trails only Atlanta's John Abraham among 4-3 DEs.
STOCK GOING DOWN
Pains us to say it, but the pick this week is Drew Brees. The 49ers applied a heckuva lot of hot on the New Orleans Saints QB Sunday, but Brees still was surprisingly off target a lot. He threw two pick-sixes, and missed open receivers frequently. New Orleans now is 5-6 and their playoff pulse is mighty weak. Seems unless Brees is otherworldly, his team cannot win.
ON THE HOT SEAT
Romeo Crennel, Chiefs head coach
His first season in K.C. has been as disastrous as any we can remember for a new NFL head coach. The Chiefs' lone win was the fluky comeback in New Orleans in Week 3. The Chiefs are super sloppy, and Crennel all but admits each week he has no answers.
HYPE WE'RE BUYING
Cincinnati wideout A.J. Green failed to catch a touchdown pass for the first time since Week 1, yet still had 111 yards on three catches. He's an elite player who will only get better as he and fellow second-year Bengal, QB Andy Dalton, grow together.
HYPE WE'RE NOT
The Ryan brothers' supposed defensive coaching acumen is as overblown as their bluster. Rex (as head coach) runs the New York Jets' defence. Twin brother Rob (as defensive coordinator) runs the Dallas Cowboys' D. Last Thursday, their Ds allowed a combined 912 yards, 10 TDs, 17-of-27 on third down conversions and 7.1 yards per play in ugly losses.
Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt woulda been smart to start veteran QB John Skelton over his rookie, not-ready-for-anytime player Ryan Lindley. Lindley threw two TDs -- to the wrong team. Both were pick-sixes to Rams CB Janoris Jenkins. The Cards are now 4-7, basically out of the playoff hunt.
Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey eschewed a 51-yard field-goal attempt from the Indy 34-yard line late in the second quarter, and punted instead. Gailey showed no confidence in PK Rian Lindell. In the NFL these days, a team must rely on its kicker up to at least 54-55 yards. Gailey shoulda let Lindell kick it.
The San Diego Chargers are 0-fer this year in games that would put them back in the playoff hunt. They were up by 10 in the fourth quarter against Baltimore but blew it. They coulda stayed in the playoff chase at 5-6, but are all but toast now at 4-7.
GOAT OF THE WEEK
All 4 Steelers running backs (tie)
With emergency third-stringer Charlie Batch starting at lowly Cleveland, the Steelers needed their running backs to step it up. Instead, Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey combined for 49 yards on 20 carries, and each lost a crucial fumble. Brutal.
HERO OF THE WEEK
In what probably is the play of the year in the NFL so far, Rice took a short dumpoff pass on 4th-and-29 -- with 1:59 left and his Baltimore Ravens down three in San Diego -- and proceeded to weave, juke, sprint, pound and dive his way 30 yards for the unlikely first down. Incredible. The Ravens would tie it in regulation and win in OT.
ZERO OF THE WEEK
Yes, it's a stupid rule. But the Detroit Lions head coach's job is to know the rules and remember them during games. He threw a challenge flag on a wrongly allowed touchdown, which by rule negated any video review, so Houston's bogus TD stood. The Lions lost in OT and fell out of the playoff hunt.