Week 13 is upon us and it marks the end of the third quarter of the NFL season.
Coaches always think of the NFL season in terms of four quarters, and at the end of this weekend, 12 games will have been played and four remain. There are a number of issues that appear relevant at this time and are worth at least a reminder.
1. All is not lost if your team is 5-6
Right now, Buffalo, Houston, Denver, Washington, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Chicago, New Orleans and Arizona are the nine teams all sitting with a 5-6 record. Last year, there were seven teams at 5-6 and only one of them made it to the playoffs.
Most head coaches of these teams are telling their players they are already in a single-game elimination tournament. Last year, the seven teams stuck at 5-6 got the same speech, and five of them won to go 6-6 and kept the dream alive. NFL players don't go down without a fight and there will be a lot of players playing their hearts out this weekend. I talked with players from the Texans, Redskins, and Cardinals on Tuesday and they are all preparing like their backs are against the wall. As I said to all of them, keep in mind the Eagles were 5-6 at this point last year and won the last five games behind with their backup quarterback to finish 10-6 and win the NFC East. Dallas was in first at 7-4, while the Giants were in second at 6-5.
2. Top five in a tight spot
Brady, Romo, Favre, Manning and Roethlisberger dominate many of the important categories when evaluating NFL offenses. But they all have something else in common that has been critical to their success this season. They all possess very good tight ends who score touchdowns.
We all know about Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, but when you stop and look at fine players such as Larry Fitzgerald (six touchdowns), Donald Driver (two touchdowns), Roy Williams (five touchdowns), Chad Johnson (six touchdowns) and Hines Ward (four touchdowns), it's easy to see the impact the tight ends have on these teams. They split the Cover 2 schemes, can easily beat linebacker coverage and are all very effective in the red zone.
3. What is Haynesworth worth?
Albert Haynesworth is in a contract year with the Tennessee Titans, and the 6-foot-6, 320-pound defensive tackle was having a career year before he injured his hamstring. He was collapsing the pocket, rushing the passer, splitting double teams and was as close to unblockable one-on-one as anyone in the NFL. His injury actually raised his value. Three weeks ago, the Titans had one of the top defenses in the NFL, were sitting in a great spot with a 6-2 record and giving up just 15 points a game.
Rarely did the Titans have to blitz to rush the passer with the big guy leading the way. Then Haynesworth got hurt, and the team lost three in a row and surrendered 96 points. Without the defensive tackle the team is giving up 32 points a game.
Here comes the franchise tag for Haynesworth in the offseason, which was $6.775 million for defensive tackles last offseason. To get Haynesworth signed to a long-term deal, it's looking like it will take a six-year deal worth about $42 million, with $20 million in guarantees, maybe more. He's 27 years old and could actually play out the big contract. He should be back this week, and if the Titans defense immediately returns to its previous level of play, it will be difficult to convince anyone that it wasn't the Haynesworth Factor.
4. Leaning on third-stringers
Sure, it's always true in the NFL that you never have enough running backs, but this year the point is especially clear. Last week, the leading rusher on six teams was the second-string back and on seven more teams the leading rusher was the third-string back. A shocking 41 percent of the teams don't have their best running back available to go.
What impresses me the most is the quality of the third running back on the seven teams. You can't point to one of these guys and say, "I expected him to play this year and do well." They are taking advantage of their opportunity to play, and by mid-December we could see teams drilling down to the fourth running back.