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Teams in search of the rare, hard-to-find spark

Who knew that Chicago would become a Rex Grossman town again? Well, your humble narrator spent all day Tuesday running around the stellar (and unseasonably warm) Second City and frequently heard the name no one dared speak just a mere month ago, certainly in terms of being the one to lead the Bears out of their deep early-season hibernation.

But with one cock of his arm last Sunday, unleashing an eventual game-winning, field-stretching, 59-yard touchdown strike to Bernard Berrian to put Chicago up 10-6 with 3:11 remaining in Oakland, Grossman, in one fell swoop, kept the Bears' season alive. He recalled the mojo from the occasional home-run hitting offense of 2006 and officially brought himself out of Rex-ile in Chicago.

Now, of course, that can all change in one afternoon this Sunday in Seattle, where the Seahawks' vaunted 12th man will be in full throat with the defending NFC champs in town. As Bears fans know all too well, Grossman, at times, has trouble playing against just 11 men.

But, for the moment, Grossman has provided the Bears with what several teams usually search for at this time of the year: a spark.

Yes, at this point in the season, there really are only three types of teams in the National Football League - some heading for the playoffs, some careening towards the NFL Draft, and others in a desperate high-and-low search for a spark.

For instance, the suddenly slumping Baltimore Ravens are at a Week 11 crossroads -- neither surging for the playoffs nor prepared for a mid-November draft planning session. Instead, the 4-5 Ravens need that spark. But don't just take my word for it.

"We need a spark," Brian Billick said during his weekly radio program, at which time he announced Kyle Boller would be the Ravens starting quarterback for the foreseeable future thanks to Steve McNair's shoulder injury.

You've also got the surprisingly punchless Carolina Panthers at 4-5. But if you told them at the outset of the season that their beloved team would be entering Week 11 hoping for a spark from Vinny Testaverde, the good people of Charlotte would have asked you what else was in your tobacco. Speaking of wacky tobacky… welcome back to the NFL, Ricky Williams!

Even teams above .500 are in spark-search mode. At this point next week, after their meeting in Detroit Sunday, either the Giants or Lions will have gone from a once-mighty 6-2 squad in the thick of the NFC race to a 6-4 squad, wondering how they're going to find that spark to keep pace with the Packers and Cowboys. Should that team be the Giants, you can already hear the back-page New York Post headlines screaming across the nonplussed visage of either Eli Manning or Tom Coughlin.


Or maybe…


Once again, the Giants faithful enter the second half of an NFL season assuming the crash position thanks to the Cowboys successfully taking care of their business in Giants Stadium last Sunday. Tony Romo is beginning to stake himself quite a claim as a Giant killer - four more touchdown passes against the Big Blue to give him eight against Dallas' closest NFC East competitor this season. Indeed, whether it's late in the game against Buffalo or throughout an entire contest with the Giants, Romo - and Marion Barber, for that matter - frequently provides Dallas with, yes, a spark. In his first game as a Cowboy, Tank Johnson did the same for a Cowboys defense that gets stouter by the week.

Over in the AFC, the Chiefs officially turned to quarterback Brodie Croyle for the first time. In so doing, the 4-5 Chiefs also officially became one of those spark-searching teams.

"You need a spark," Chiefs coach Herman Edwards said Monday when he announced Damon Huard would now hold the clipboard rather than the mantle of the sputtering, LJ-less Chiefs offense.

"We've been in some contests now where we haven't had the ability to score points," Edwards continued. "That's part of your job as a quarterback, to put points on the board and move the football team. We've moved at times, but we've also been very inconsistent."

Croyle's first career starting assignment will be quite a doozy - go into Indianapolis without Larry Johnson and take on a Colts team that suddenly finds itself in need of a spark just two weeks removed from leading the Game of The Century with nine minutes to go.

Careening Colts

Indeed, since appearing to have the Patriots dead-to-rights in their own building, the defending Super Bowl champs have come apart at the seams literally and figuratively - a devastating turnover-laden, special teams deficient road loss in San Diego that left the Colts so banged up that a grand total of 10 regulars didn't practice on Wednesday. And that's not including Pro Bowl pass rusher extraordinaire Dwight Freeney, who suffered the dreaded Lisfranc (no relation to Anne Frank) injury at unseasonably rainy Qualcomm Sunday night and is now done for the season.

For anyone out there wondering how the loss of Freeney will affect the Colts defense, NFL Network information maven Adam Schefter pointed out the following on NFL Total Access Wednesday: the 55-yard Tom Brady-to-Randy Moss bomb that keyed the Patriots' fourth-quarter comeback took place when Freeney came off the field for a blow. In other words, it was no coincidence that New England decided to take a shot down the field at that very moment. In other words, the Colts had best hope that Simeon Rice, the Broncos castoff whom Indianapolis wasted no time in signing the day after the Chargers loss, finds his inner Freeney.

Of course, the Colts still have two-time MVP Peyton Manning, whose six-interception performance actually left me impressed more than anything else. Think about it: Manning did not have his Hall of Fame teammate Marvin Harrison or his usual safety net in tight end Dallas Clark on Sunday night. Third-string wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez was out as well. So was his usual protection blanket, left tackle Tony Ugoh. And, to boot, two other offensive linemen, including Ugoh's replacement, went out with injuries during the game. Throw into the mix that a red-hot emerging bandit of Deion-like proportions named Antonio Cromartie lurked in the Chargers secondary. It also didn't help the Colts' overall effort when an eager side judge inadvertently blew the whistle on what should have been a 95-yard interception return for Indianapolis earlier in the game. The head of NFL refs, Mike Pereira, discussed that play on NFL Total Access on Wednesday (and you can watch that clip here).

Still, Manning was undaunted. With four interceptions by halftime for the first time in his career, Manning kept firing away. One interception later, Manning kept firing away. Yet one more interception later, Manning still kept gunning. Sure enough, he led the Colts back and put the game on the Hall of Fame foot of Adam Vinatieri, who shockingly shoved the bunny 29-yard field goal wide right.

The whole shebang relegated the Colts -- suddenly -- to third seed in the AFC. Indeed, the Steelers' gut-check home victory against the resurgent Browns combined with the Colts' loss in San Diego left both teams at 7-2 overall. But only one of those two Pittsburgh losses came against a conference opponent. Their 5-1 AFC record is better than Indianapolis' 4-2 in conference, meaning with seven games to go the defending world champs are on the outside looking in for a valuable piece of bye-week real estate come January.

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Indeed, the bye-week stakes are huge. The way things appear to be shaking out, should Indianapolis wind up a 3-seed, it would start the playoffs at home in the RCA Dome rather than at home on their couches, watching Pittsburgh host the likes of Cleveland, Jacksonville or Tennessee. Under that scenario, should the Colts advance through the wild-card round, they'd most likely have to win at Pittsburgh and then at New England just to make it to the Super Bowl.

If the Colts gain the bye, they would only be one home win away from their rematch with New England and a possible return to the Super Bowl. Huge difference. Same goes for Pittsburgh, which, as your humble narrator pointed out in this space a few weeks back, has quite the soft schedule surrounding that Week 14 visit to New England that only appears to be getting larger as it approaches.

But, as we place the ball on the tee for Week 11, it is the Colts - and not the Steelers - in need of a spark.

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