OAKLAND, Calif. – Tommy Kelly(notes) is a very good defensive tackle, but he's a lousy liar. Asked Sunday afternoon if he and his Oakland Raiders teammates were happy that they'd faced the Chicago Bears with raw-as-hamachi Caleb Hanie(notes) filling in at quarterback for the injured Jay Cutler(notes), Kelly, unlike many of his politically correct peers, made no effort to sanitize his answer.
"[Expletive] yeah!" Kelly said following the Raiders' 25-20 victory at the O.co Coliseum. "Anytime you can get a weak-link out there, you love it."
Kelly laughed, perhaps mindful of his team's familiarity with such a predicament. After starting quarterback Jason Campbell(notes) went down with a broken collarbone in a mid-October victory over the Cleveland Browns, Oakland, following a very promising start, was staring at a lost season.
Raiders coach Hue Jackson, however, wasn't having that. Instead of handing over the offense to backup Kyle Boller(notes), Jackson – filling the power vacuum which followed the death of owner Al Davis – spearheaded a blockbuster trade for AWOL Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer(notes).
Despite some early struggles, Palmer has stabilized the position and engineered Oakland (7-4) to three consecutive victories, helping his new team retain a one-game lead over the orange-hot Denver Broncos in the AFC West. His numbers against the Bears (21 for 37, 301 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, four sacks) weren't overwhelming, but the 31-year-old passer is looking increasingly comfortable in Jackson's offense.
Hanie, meanwhile, looked like a guy making his first career start, on the road, against a division leader: His three first-half interceptions doomed the Bears (7-4) to their first defeat in six games. With Cutler expected to miss most or all of the regular season after undergoing surgery for a broken thumb on his throwing hand, Hanie will have to settle in quickly for Chicago to earn one of the NFC's two wild-card spots, with the Atlanta Falcons (7-4), Detroit Lions (7-4) and New York Giants (6-4) currently in the mix.
For what it's worth, there is one playoff contender that's even shakier at football's most pivotal position: the AFC South-leading Houston Texans, whose starter, Matt Schaub(notes), was placed on injured reserve Wednesday with a fractured foot and whose backup, Matt Leinart(notes), went down with a lacerated mustache – kidding! … actually, an apparent broken collarbone Sunday's 20-13 victory at Jacksonville.
At 8-3, with a franchise-record five-game winning streak, a two-game division lead over the Tennessee Titans and a strong running game to complement the NFL's top-ranked defense, the Texans would seem to be in good position to secure their first-ever playoff appearance.
"We're going to be fine down here," Houston general manager Rick Smith conveyed Sunday night via text message. "We're certainly not 'in the tank.' I'm feeling just fine. We have a damn good team."
Yet Smith acknowledged he was "exploring all options" at quarterback, adding, "Have to, don't you think?"
Uh, yeah. With rookie T.J. Yates(notes), a fifth-round draft pick out of North Carolina who finished up against the Jags, and newly signed Kellen Clemens(notes) as his options, can you blame Smith for trying to find another veteran to bring in, whether it's Jeff Garcia(notes) or Trent Edwards(notes)? (Alas, those hoping the Brett Favre(notes) Circus would roll into H-Town will be disappointed.)
It's one thing to defeat the lowly Jaguars; the question is, how will Houston handle stronger opponents such as the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals, the playoff contenders it faces over the next two weeks? The Texans will probably have to move the ball more effectively than they did on Sunday, when only two of their 17 drives lasted more than four plays.
When I asked one NFC coach if he thought the Texans could get by with Yates and Clemens, he replied, "Depends on who they play. Their defense and run game will give them a chance in every game, but I don't think they'll be able to beat anyone good."
For Houston, winning a division title and getting that first postseason appearance would be a significant achievement. Similarly, the Raiders are coming off eight consecutive seasons as an also-ran, the first seven of which included at least 11 defeats, an unprecedented stretch of NFL futility. Winning the AFC West would be a big deal, a mentality which may have been one of the factors that motivated Jackson to overpay (at least, on paper) for Palmer.
The Bears, who won the NFC North last season – only to be beaten in the NFC championship game, at home, by the division-rival Green Bay Packers – have higher standards of success. With Green Bay (11-0) all but assured of this year's division crown, Chicago cares only about the Super Bowl, and the challenge is simple: Find a way to win enough games to make the playoffs, then hope Cutler returns and leads the Bears on a wild-card run like the Packers pulled off last season.
Hanie had performed admirably in last January's title-game defeat to the Pack after Cutler went down with a knee injury. On Sunday, however, his inexperience was exposed. He threw those three first-half picks, held the ball too long on numerous occasions and deprived his team of a last-gasp Hail Mary attempt because he botched a clock-killing spike at his own 46 with four seconds to go.
"He was holding that ball a long time," Kelly said. "He wanted to be right – it was his first start – and he tried to be perfect instead of just getting the ball out. We liked it, definitely."
The Bears' locker room is filled with proud veterans like Urlacher and outside linebacker Lance Briggs(notes), and they know the deal: The more they can do to keep Hanie from having to overextend, the better the team's chances of getting by without Cutler.
"They were showing us eight-man fronts, and we're probably going to see that the rest of the year," said Chicago's star halfback, Matt Forte(notes), who ran just 12 times for 59 yards against the Raiders (backup Marion Barber(notes) had 10 carries for 63 yards). "If we want to win, the running game has to be effective, in order to take the pressure off of Caleb."
The Bears' defensive effort was commendable in keeping Oakland out of the end zone until 3:47 remained in the game; kicker Sebastian Janikowski(notes) set a franchise record with six field goals as the Raiders converted just three of 15 third downs.
"Not good enough," Urlacher said. "The offense scored enough points for us to win. [Expletive], they scored 20 points. If we played better on defense, and not put our offense in bad situations, we'd have been OK. I don't think [Hanie] was bad at all."
Said Briggs, Urlacher's longtime partner in grime: "We lost by five points to a good team. We fought to the very end. If we keep doing stuff like that, we'll win games. Hanie's going to be just fine."
At the same time, Briggs acknowledged that these types of challenges have seemed to plague the Bears quite frequently during his nine-year career.
"It ain't never a walk in the park for us," he said, smiling.
The journey continues Sunday at Soldier Field against the Kansas City Chiefs, who may start newly acquired Kyle Orton(notes) at quarterback. In the wake of Matt Cassel's(notes) season-ending hand injury, the Chiefs (who lost to the Steelers on Sunday night, 13-9, with Tyler Palko(notes) at quarterback) were awarded Orton off of waivers last week after he persuaded Broncos executive vice president John Elway to release him.
The Bears (along with the Cowboys) had also put in claims for Orton, who reportedly wanted to return to Chicago – where he played from 2005 to 2008 before being packaged in the deal for Cutler – after learning of Cutler's injury.
Orton, of course, was benched after a 1-4 start for the Broncos, who seemed to be giving up on the season by handing the ball to Tim Tebow(notes), the raw passer for whom former coach Josh McDaniels had traded up to take in the first round of the 2010 draft.
Five victories in six games later, including Sunday's 16-13 overtime triumph over the Chargers, and Denver is in hot pursuit of the Raiders while the majority of the football world ponders the unexplainable.
It's true – Tebow's promotion has coincided with a stunning upgrade in Denver's defensive performance, as the Broncos have held four of their last six opponents to fewer than 16 points.
Still, the quarterback who wasn't supposed to play is getting unexpectedly good results in a league in which fill-ins and backups are routinely exposed as weak-links.
Kelly, predictably, made no effort to hide his amazement. When I told him the Broncos had won again as he prepared to leave the locker room Sunday, the defensive tackle yelled over to linebacker Aaron Curry(notes), "Oh, they're going crazy right now! The messiah has come!"
[ Related: Rookie LB, defense overshadowed by Tebow mania ]
When the Broncos benched Orton, Kelly was fully supportive of the decision. "I was like, please play Tim Tebow," he recalled. "I think a lot of people were."
And now? Well, Kelly can't lie – Tebow has won enough games to change his mind, including a 14-point win in Oakland three weeks ago.
"Give the guy credit," Kelly said. "Denver's at the point where they know he'll make plays at the end to win the game. So they just hang around, keep it close and try to give him a chance to do it. And he's getting it done."
There's a lot of talk about Tebow as a role model; for Hanie and Yates, he's someone worth emulating, and quickly.
When Carson Palmer won the 2002 Heisman Trophy, it ushered in a golden era of quarterbacking at USC. There have been mixed results in the pros for that crop of ex-Trojans, with Sunday no exception – Leinart (the '04 Heisman winner) joined Matt Cassel in having his season cut short, while Palmer and the Jets' Mark Sanchez(notes) (four touchdown passes in a victory over the Bills) left the field smiling. As he prepared to exit the Coliseum on Sunday, Palmer made a somewhat surprising prediction about current 'SC starter Matt Barkley, who's considered to be among a group of four or five top-tier college quarterbacks ranked below presumptive No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Luck of Stanford in the eyes of NFL talent evaluators. "I can't believe he's not getting any Heisman love," Palmer said of Barkley, who led the Trojans to a 50-0 blowout of rival UCLA Saturday night. "He's not even going to the ceremony – that's crazy. But I think as we get closer to the draft, people will start to understand how good he is. By April, when all is said and done, there's going to be a very legitimate debate about whether he or [Luck] is the No. 1 pick. He's that good." … Speaking of good: Welcome back, Chris Johnson. Having struggled all season after landing a big-money contract following a holdout, the explosive halfback ran for 190 yards on 23 carries – his highest output in more than three years, and the third-highest total of his career – in the Titans' victory over the Bucs. I'm guessing we won't hear any more talk about Tennessee possibly cutting CJ2K after the 2011 season. … Meanwhile in Philly, Johnson's ex-teammate, Vince Young(notes), threw for a career-high 400 yards against the Patriots, not bad for a backup coming off a nightmarish meltdown that ended his time in Tennessee following the 2010 season. And yet? Hi, I'm Tom Brady(notes), and you're not … "I'm glad he's our quarterback – just a great person and a great player," New England defensive end Andre Carter(notes) said of Brady, who tormented the Eagles for 24 completions in 34 attempts, 361 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in the Pats' 38-20 victory. Said one Philly player, referring to maligned defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, "I just feel like we got outcoached [Sunday] – by Tom Brady. That [expletive]'s good, and he just sat back and picked us apart. It seemed like they had more receivers than we had defenders." I can't see Castillo surviving past this season, but I believe Philly coach Andy Reid will, the "Fire Andy" chants at the Linc notwithstanding.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That septuagenarian ex-Canadian Football League rivals Joe Kapp and Angelo Mosca got into an onstage fist (and cane!) fight during an alumni luncheon in Vancouver Friday. Wait a minute – that's not completely true. Kapp, now 73, was Cal's football coach in the mid-'80s when I covered the Bears for the Daily Californian, UC Berkeley's student newspaper, and he was as crazy, erratic and fiery then as he seemed to be in this video of Friday's incident. Put it this way: When Kapp infamously unzipped his pants to underscore his objection to a question about his coaching future following a blowout defeat at Washington, my fellow Daily Cal beat writers during his tenure (Chris Riback, Mike Fleiss, Pete Danko, Ron Kroichick) and I hardly considered it the strangest or most surreal scene we'd experienced. (I just wish I'd been in the lyric-altered song dedication business back then; how good would Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" have been? Kapp and I had our battles back then – thankfully, I never swung a cane at the man, nor did he drop me with a left – but I have a serious soft spot in my heart for him, given that he loves Cal even more than I do and was the last quarterback to take the Golden Bears to the Rose Bowl. And I know that, like me, he watched Cal's 47-38 victory at Arizona State on Friday night, six days after an impressive effort in a 31-28 Big Game defeat at Stanford, marveling at current quarterback Zach Maynard's striking improvement since the start of the year. Maynard will be back next season, as will many of his key teammates, to join coach Jeff Tedford in reopening a spectacularly rebuilt Memorial Stadium. Yeah, Cal fans, prepare to party like it's 1959. On that note, it's time to invoke Bart Scott's(notes) patented catchphrase, though I'd love not to have to pay royalties to the New York Jets linebacker. Perhaps I can get Kapp to, you know, have a little discussion with his lawyers on my behalf.
2. Why Bills receiver Stevie Johnson is so delightfully dialed in when it comes to creative touchdown celebrations but less focused when it comes to, you know, catching the ball with the game on the line. After hauling in a five-yard touchdown pass late in the first half to give visiting Buffalo a 14-7 lead over the Jets, Johnson treated fans to a two-pronged act in which he a) pretended to shoot himself in the thigh, mocking Jets wideout Plaxico Burress for the New York City nightclub incident that provoked a 20-month prison stay and b) imitated Jets receiver Santonio Holmes'(notes) airplane strut before crash-landing. I laughed, twice, though the Burress goof was in poor taste. However, I didn't chuckle when the resulting 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, combined with a poor kickoff, put the Jets 36 yards from a tying touchdown, which came on Burress' 14-yard catch four plays later. And I really stopped smiling when Johnson, with the Bills trailing 28-24 and driving for a potential winning score in the final minute, flat-out dropped a second-and-13 pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) inside the Jets' 25-yard line in full stride and with room to run. After Johnson failed to come up with the ball on a pair of far tougher opportunities in the end zone, the Bills (5-6) dropped their fourth consecutive game, suffering defeat in what likely amounted to an elimination clash against the Jets (6-5), their AFC East rivals. Johnson is one of my favorite young players, and I appreciate his ebullient energy and sense of humor. In the future, however, he might want to consider saving the showmanship for times when he knows his team is securely in command of a game – and, for that matter, cleansing his routines for potential traces of bad karma.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
In a spectacular confluence of time-honored (but rarely broadcast) football custom and too-good-to-be-true metaphor, Chargers kicker Nick Novak(notes) relieved himself on the sideline while squatting near a cart full of Gatorade dispensers late in the fourth quarter of Sunday's overtime defeat to the Broncos. Fittingly, his team was in the process of performing a figurative act that was roughly equivalent, cowering to the strange, burgeoning power of Tebow and his mighty warriors in a messy and embarrassing fashion. In losing its sixth consecutive game San Diego (4-7) seemed to be scared to seize command, failing to score for the final 39 minutes and allowing a quarterback who completed his first pass less than four minutes before halftime (and completed only five to wide receivers on the day) to steal a game in overtime. The Chargers, meanwhile, have Philip Rivers(notes). Yes, Rivers was harassed consistently on Sunday, and he hasn't been himself this season, but he still should have been the most dangerous passer on the field, by far.
I've been clear in my belief that this is a talent-deficient team that was overrated from the start, and that general manager A.J. Smith deserves more blame than coach Norv Turner for the current state of affairs. That said, this was not Turner's finest outing. Just as the Chargers' 2006 playoff defeat to the Patriots served as a PowerPoint presentation on Marty Schottenheimer's postseason coaching failures, Sunday's defeat to the Broncos was Turner's holiday gift to his growing legion of critics. Consider that at the time Novak emptied his tank on the sidelines, Denver had just tied the game with 1:34 left in regulation. The Chargers got the ball back at their 25 with a timeout remaining – and they ran out the clock with the ball at their own 46 and a timeout remaining. Granted, it was fourth-and-4, but Turner had passed on a chance to save time after a second-down run. At the very least he could have stopped the clock with two seconds to go and had Rivers throw to the end zone. I don't see what there was to lose. Then, on San Diego's second drive in overtime, Rivers drove from his own 20 to the Denver 35, where it was first-and-10 with 4:46 remaining. The play calls: Run, gain of three; run, gain of one; run, loss of four. On came Novak for a 53-yard field goal try, and while he had connected from the same distance earlier in the game, he had also missed a 48-yarder, and he was wide right on this low-percentage kick, too. That gave the Broncos the ball at their own 43 and facilitated another Tebow comeback, which the quarterback pulled off without completing a pass. I'm sure that for the Denver quarterback and his fans, the victory felt very, uh, relieving.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Glad that's over too. Ugh. Happy for them. They will do well. It's all good."
– Text Sunday night from Virginia coach Joanne Boyle, whose 22nd-ranked Cavaliers suffered a 59-50 defeat to Cal, the team she coached for the previous six seasons (and now guided by my favorite fantasy-football player), at the Rainbow Wahine Showdown in Hawaii.
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