As we do every week, let's take a swing around the NFL, looking at a bunch of stories that caught my attention...
So, what's been up?
In praise of Jason Garrett
They lost a player the night before a game, played while a starter was in jail, and it was his job to inform them of all this before the trip to Cincinnati two weeks ago. All they did was keep winning, which has been impressive. Nevermind the key injuries the team has suffered through this year, with Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray and almost every piece of the offensive line hurting, and then six defensive starters on Injured Reserve. Garrett still has his team at 8-6, charging down the home stretch for a playoff spot. How has he done it? Garrett is even-keeled. And he goes to great pains to keep the team that way, often delivering the same messages over and over about the mentality the team must maintain. Garrett said this week that he leans back on his experiences as a player and as an assistant for inspiration on how to instill his values on his team.
"The best coaches I've been around as a player and as a coach, you could wake me up 30 years from now in the middle of the night and say, 'What does this guy believe in?' And I can say, 'Bang. Bang. Bang,'" Garrett said. "Whether it's a progression from a quarterback coach or a mantra that a head coach is preaching. I can tell you what Nick Saban believes in from my head to my toe, and I can tell you that because he kept hammering it and hammering it, and you tell it a lot of different ways, and eventually it sinks in. I can go back to every coach I've had and I can tell you what they believe in because it's important to them. I'm no different than anybody else. We try to do that as a staff and at some point, hopefully it sinks in and guys understand what you're trying to do.
"And it doesn't happen over night. It happens over time. I think our guys are understanding what we're trying to convey as a staff and hopefully when we'll wake them up 30 years from now in the middle of the night, they'll say the same thing."
It's time for Peterson
Adrian Peterson... is not normal. He just isn't. Or human.
Returning to his home state on Sunday, just 182 yards away from 2,000 and 294 yards away from Eric Dickerson's all-time season record, the Vikings running back has proven that once again. How do you tear your ACL on Christmas Eve, then come back and threaten to have a better season than any running back ever the next year? I mean, normal people don't do that. Need more evidence? Peterson was on a national conference call with reporters this week and dropped a few nuggets of info that went further.
First of all, he said it took him "15-20 minutes" to refocus himself after tearing his ACL. It takes me longer to eat lunch and refocus on work for the day, and I haven't even torn up my knee or anything.
That's astounding. Peterson first thought "Why me? Why me?" Then quickly vowed, "I'm going to come back stronger." Also, he's had the same offensive linemen for each game, which explains a lot. That familiarity has helped. Peterson said he's weighing what to get his fatties for a Christmas present, and I'd recommend something nice.
Peterson also was outspoken in desire to win the MVP, which many players aren't.
While noting awards don't define you, Peterson said, "I play this game to be the best. I have a mindset that I want to be the best to ever play the game. This is the vision I have."
As for Dickerson's record? AD gets why Dickerson wants to hold onto it. But it won't alter his views.
"Well, I don't want anyone to break my single-game record," Peterson said. "I don't want that. I understand where he comes from. He's shown me respect, but I'm sure he's been holding onto that accomplishment for 28 years. It's hard to let it go. But in my mind, you gotta get ready to let go of it."
Steelers have a little uncertainty
As a team, the Steelers are in a position to do Steeler-things the last two games. That is, get it together, win both, and emerge in the playoffs as a battle-tested and ready. Like in 2005.
But when the season ends, however it ends for Pittsburgh, I'd be surprised if something doesn't change on the offensive side of the ball. Maybe offensive coordinator Todd Haley will suddenly hit his groove with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, but I doubt it.
Haley told reporters this week, "When he hears my voice, he has to trust and believe that the play coming is giving us the best chance to succeed."
It does not sound like Roethlisberger thinks that, even if he's having one of his better seasons statisticaly. If there is that level of uncertainty, the relationship can't last. That's why, just based on hearing from people in and around the Steelers, I'd be surprised if Haley is back. Roethlisberger had issues with Haley earlier in the year, and it has continued.
Maybe Mike Tomlin will do what he always wanted to do anyway and promote Kirby Wilson to offensive coordinator. Or maybe they'll go outside the organization. But the climate has to improve, in my opinion, or Roethlisberger will keep saying what he has publicly. Haley has taken the high road, saying, "Whatever was said can't be taken too much to the heart because that's the way this game is." But this wasn't one minute after the game. Roethlisberger spoke a good 50 minutes after the game, having plenty of time to think. Big Ben meant it, I believe. And that's not good. The Steelers may turn it around, but my gut says that's a situation to keep an eye on.
Pointless... but fun
I am having as much fun as the next person trying to imagine what the New York Jets will do this offseason.
Try to trade Mark Sanchez? Of course, since they can't cut him with that $17.1 million salary cap number.
Cut or trade Tim Tebow? Of course, since they couldn't or wouldn't use him this year.
But it's worth mentioning this before we discuss any of that: We have no idea who will be running the Jets next year.
Will it be general manager Mike Tannenbaum? I highly doubt it, though he could be reassigned in the organization.
Whatever sources are saying that the Jets could try and do this or that with Sanchez may not be in place to be sources by Jan. 1, 2013.
And then there is this: How can the Jets decide their quarterback for 2013 without knowing who their offensive coordinator will be and what system he'll run. Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, about as big a bust as Tebow, can't possible survive this. And, based on reporting from Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, it doesn't sound like Norv Turner is an option for Gang Green.
So, who? There is so much to sort out in Jets-land that speculation about next year is totally pointless. Fun, clearly. And I'll do it, too. But pretty worthless until we know who is in charge.
A very dangerous ball club
We know the New Orleans Saints defense is terrible. That's what the stats show us, as they are still last in the NFL in total defense. But is that reality? I'm not so sure. Are they the team that gave up 52 to the Giants? Or the one that shut out the Bucs 41-0? That's really what will determine Sunday's Cowboys-Saints game.
Maybe it really took last week's beat-down of the Bucs to find their comfort zone. When I talked with Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis this week, he explained what changed in last week's showing.
"I think there's a really good understanding of what needs to be done to win football games," Ellis told me, "and I think the more time we spend on the defense, the more you start to understand exactly where you need to be and timing and playing with the guys that are around you. It's the kind of scheme that you have to be in-tuned with the rest of the defense. So, I think the longer you stay in it, the more you start to understand how it goes and what needs to be done."
That has some merit. Those critiquing Steve Spagnuolo's defense also added the caveat that it takes time. I think Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo nailed it on the head when asked why New Orleans' defense has looked better recently.
"You can see them figuring out what they are getting better at," Romo said, "what they do well and what their guys can handle. On paper, they don't look good statistically but they are a ball club that is very dangerous right now. They can give a lot of teams a lot of trouble."
Time to earn your money
His torn triceps isn't ready, and the expectation is that it won't be for the season finale, either. Lewis could return for the playoffs, but that's no certainty, either. At this point, everything is up in the air for Lewis, as well as this Ravens defense.
Why are the Ravens the seventh worst against the run, allowing 132.2 yards per game? Not having any players doesn't help. But here's the thing about all that. So many teams this year are beat up. The Cowboys defense has it worse, for instance. So do others.
This is when the really good coordinators make their money. I really like Dean Pees, and I think his players do, too. But these next two games, against the Giants and the Bengals, will tell you all you need to know about him.
If Baltimore can somehow use duct tape and glue and hold it together to solidify themselves in time for the playoffs, it'll be the doing of Pees.
The defense does have leaders out there like Suggs and safety Ed Reed. But no one has the onus like Pees. For years, the Ravens ran one scheme that relied on deception and guile rather than pure talent. They may have to go back to their roots to somehow pull themselves together while so many key parts are watching from the sidelines. Because at this point, if I was a playoff team, I wouldn't mind seeing the Ravens across the field from me.
Panthers starting to put it together
When people discuss possible openings when the 2013 offseason begins, the Panthers are often included.
Ron Rivera's team has had a down second year, Cam Newton has struggled on the field and with his image as a leader, and this is all in the wake of very real playoff hopes. It makes sense that Rivera would be on the hot seat. But let me say, not so fast.
At this point, anything is possible in Carolina. Those who know Rivera best say there has been no indication he will be fired. Now, maybe there wouldn't be. The hammer could always come down hard in an offseason review. But right now, those aren't the plans.
Why? Two reasons. One, Newton has thrived. Under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, he's been the NFL's best quarterback over the past five games, with 13 touchdowns and no picks. The team has won three of the last four games, including an eye-popping win over the Falcons.
Don't tell me it only came when the pressure was off. It's the NFL. The pressure is always on.
So, Carolina has gotten better. Hit with a rash of injuries, and money in places on the roster so odd that it resulted in general manager Marty Hurney's dismissal, Carolina has begun to put it together.
And the other thing? Think logistically. The Panthers need a new GM. Will they hire this GM, have him evaluate the staff in three days, then make a call? Seems tough for that to happen. The better bet at this point? That Rivera and his crew get another year, and the new GM evaluates them after that.
Saturday benched on Friday for Sunday
Aside from being a mildly funny headline -- "Saturday benched" (I expected Sunday to step up) -- there was a very cool situation happening in Green Bay on Friday. The Packers sat center Jeff Saturday, one of their free agent pickups, in favor of Evan Dietrich-Smith. Of course, reporters asked Saturday for his reaction to the move, and what followed was a reason why Saturday has been, and will be, one of the league's more respected guys. Saturday told reporters it was obvious he was "a stop-gap here." He noted that if Dietrich-Smith played well, "I wouldn't think they'd go back and make another change."
To sum it up, the five-time Pro Bowler said, "We're at two totally different points of our career. His is on the up-ramp, mine is on the way out. This is football. It's a business at the end of the day. I think 'Deeds' is going to do a great job and give us a good chance to win games."
I don't really have much to add, except to say, this show of class is not rare for Saturday. But it is rare for most people told they are no longer able to do what they love. I don't know what Saturday will do after his career ends, likely following this season. But I bet he'll be good at it. In other news, this should really help protection for the Packers, especially when there is a nose on the center.
Real people with real lives
Earlier in the week, there was a radio report out of Kansas City that Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel and GM Scott Pioli had been informed they would not be returning for next season. As I learned during a slightly crazy ensuing few hours, it was inaccurate. Neither Crennel, nor Pioli, had been told anything about their future, several sources directly involved confirmed. Both are working in a business-as-usual fashion this week, involved in meetings and focusing on the final two games. Whatever happens after that is anyone's guess. Would it be surprising if both were shown the door? No. It has been a poor season, and there is a ton of accountability in the NFL.
But the report got me thinking of the wackiness that will happen over the next week prior to "Black Monday." There will be reports and reports, telling you what will happen or what won't, and then there will be others telling you something else. And many of us will have to make awkward phone calls, asking people who have been fired or reassigned to discuss it. And fans will celebrate moves and new beginnings. But this KC report reminded me of one thing that I wanted to take one sentence to mention: The people in these reports are real people with real lives and real feelings. Just something to ponder as we report on firings and as you guys cheer moves made in the next week or so. Real people who are probably experiencing their worst day. That's all. Just some perspective.
Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.