With five weeks to go in the regular season, we are fortunate to have a Week 13 that features a preview of some possible playoff games.
From the Sunday night game featuring the Steelers and the Ravens, to the Monday night game featuring the two best teams in the AFC, the Jets and the Patriots, this weekend will be incredible. Some might call this weekend "rivalry weekend," but I tend to believe it is a battle of "The Twelve" -- a theory developed from my early days working in the league.
In my first draft working for legendary 49ers head coach Bill Walsh, I was running around the room like a mad man commenting on every player drafted and how he might help their team. Walsh, who could see the big picture better than anyone, tugged on my arm and said matter of fact, "We are only competing against right teams in the league, (there were only 28 then) so I could care less what some of the other ones do. Make sure you let me know what the Giants, Redskins or Rams are up to".
Walsh was right. There are some teams that might have a good year once in a while (Cincinnati Bengals come to mind) but cannot maintain excellence and fade quickly from the playoff scene. There are aberrations, and then there are solid contenders each year. Nowadays, in a 32-team league, there might only be twelve teams that are really competing for the Super Bowl, hence "The Twelve."
Walsh later explained his theory on being one of the eight, which was built around the willingness of ownership to spend money, the unity and cohesiveness between the front office and the coaching staff, and finally the intellectual brain power of the organization. Walsh hated organizations run by the front office with no respect given to the coach, as he felt most (not all) personnel men were, at one time, bad coaches now hired to tell good coaches what to do. This theory had forever impacted my career.
If one of the twelve teams is a constant competitor or battling within the division, there should be extra time spent on understanding how they behave, how they function and the style in which they run the organization. For example, when I first met Bill Belichick, I quickly learned he understood the theory of Bill Walsh's eight, and even took it a step further. Belichick was greatly influenced from working with the New York Giants organization alongside head coach Bill Parcells. Yet, Belichick was also influenced by how former Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs built the team, how he developed players and how he handled the team. Belichick studied every move Gibbs made, became a student of Gibbs, in part, because the Skins were one of the eight but also because the road to the Super Bowl for the Giants then often traveled through Washington. When Belichick went to Cleveland to become head coach of the Browns in 1991, he borrowed many of Gibbs' principles and crafted the Browns in a style that was both Redskins and Giants influenced.
The Ravens and Steelers, who battle each other for AFC North supremacy on Sunday night, know each other very well. They know how each other behaves, how each works, and what it takes to win the game. They know each side needs tough players, players who understand how to compete, who are willing to compete through tough times. Anquan Boldin became a member of the Ravens because they knew his game could play well against the Steelers. Each team understands "The Twelve" theory, working each day to make sure they maintain their membership in that exclusive club.
Same can be said for the Jets and Patriots, who clash on Monday night. Each team makes it a part of its daily routine to know what the other is doing, and they also understand the importance of each game. The Patriots spent this offseason crafting their roster to handle the Jets' blitz scheme, and the Jets wanted to increase their speed on offense. Every move each team makes during the offseason -- and in season -- is made to improve their team for when they face the others among the twelve.
This is what makes a great rivalry -- and makes for great games for all of us to watch this weekend.
The script: My first 15
1. The Houston Texans did not disappoint on Thursday night in their 34-24 loss to the Eagles. They followed their script perfectly: Get behind in the game, come roaring back, and then fold. It's who they are, and until they get tougher, this will continue to happen. Last year at the scouting combine, Texans general manager Rick Smith came up to me, saying I was too hard on his team. I don't think I am. To borrow Denny Green's famous line, they are who I thought they were: Not tough.
2. The Texans should study the Ravens, Steelers, Jets, and Patriots to determine if their level of toughness can match the toughness of those four teams -- and be objective. Until the Texans accept they are not tough, they will never advance to the playoffs.
3. The Eagles organization has to be worried about its defense again this year, and much of that worry is not about whether corner Asante Samuel is healthy. He will eventually be back, but can this defense play toe-to-toe with good teams who can throw the ball? I am still of the belief that the Eagles must play with the lead, play defense from in front. Their defense must complement their offense, because it's not strong enough to carry the offense.
4. Some might ask, after reading my opening about "The Twelve," why the Bucs-Falcons game is not included in the rundown, and if you do, then I did a bad job explaining the qualifications. The Falcons are a "twelve" team, but the Bucs have to prove they can be consistent. I learned from my first draft, and no longer run around like a mad man.
5. I would look for the Ravens to borrow a page from the Patriots' playbook and attack the Steelers' defense in the same manner. The Ravens have the versatility in their offensive personnel to implement a similar plan.
6. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times by the Bills last week in Buffalo, and if the Steelers do not find a way to fix their offensive line, they will not beat the Ravens. Roethlisberger is hard to get on the ground, but now with a bad foot his mobility will be limited. Bad line and a quarterback that can't move is not a recipe to beat the Ravens.
7. The Jets traded running back Leon Washington to make room for Joe McKnight, and then they had to cut Danny Woodhead to make room for McKnight. Now Woodhead might be the difference in the game on Monday night. Lesson to learn here: Evaluate players on their talent, not on where they were drafted.
8. The Jets are good in the kicking game, as are the Patriots, therefore the winner of this game might be determined by which special teams unit controls field position. Also, I look for one of these teams to attempt a trick play in the kicking game to gain a possession.
9. I love the Packers' resolve and how, in spite of all the injuries, they have been able to maintain their level of quality play. But now as the weather turns cold and the fields turn frozen, a running game might be needed. I strongly doubt the Packers can win solely on the arm of their great quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.
10. The Redskins-Giants game in the past was a "Twelve" game, but no longer. Washington is fighting to improve its talent base, and it will take a long offseason of strategic planning to make the right moves. The 'Skins need to improve both lines and find a runner who can help carry the offense.
11. Eli Manning made a great checkdown last week that won the game for the Giants. Clearly, when he protects the ball, playing aggressively smart, the Giants are an effective offense. This week, their defensive line should dominate the game and if they can protect the ball, they are the better team.
12. The Raiders' offensive line is a mess, and no matter who plays quarterback they will struggle to play well. When the Raiders play on the road, this problem manifests itself and they will really struggle to block the Chargers' front on Sunday. Nose tackle Antonio Garay of the Chargers is playing well and has helped turn around this defense. If the Chargers can control Jacoby Ford in the return game they will win the game, and also if they can punt the ball successfully. Special teams must play well to beat the Raiders.
13. Peyton Manning rarely loses and rarely loses two home games, but this week against the Cowboys will be tough. The Colts will move the ball well, but can they keep Dallas from not moving the ball? I strongly doubt it. The Colts must play with the lead and let their defensive ends take over the game.
14. The Cowboys might not have Marion Barber for the game, and this will allow them to look at how their team plays without trying to cater to Barber. Dallas must use its speed and quickness to handle the Colts, therefore not having Barber won't hurt them at all.
15. The Bills might be playing as well as anyone right now. They can't finish games, losing all three overtime games this year. With Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, their offense is effective and their line looks to be improved. The Vikings must play their best to win the game, and if they take the Bills lightly it will cost them.
See you at the games
Great weekend for me, heading to Kansas City to see the rematch between the Broncos and Chiefs, then headed to New England for the big Monday night game. I am so excited and expect to see two great games. The Broncos are in desperation mode, and the Chiefs are in payback mode, which will heighten the enthusiasm and intensity of the game. Arrowhead Stadium is a great venue, and I am excited to see the Chiefs in person. Hope to see you there.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.