NFL Thanksgiving games are appealing, for once
He spent Saturday night on the side of the stage at The Fillmore Detroit, getting his groove on to the countrified sounds of Jamey Johnson.
Then Jim Schwartz snuck in a few hours of sleep, made his way to Ford Field on Sunday morning and prepared for perhaps the most hectic and invigorating work week of the 2011 regular season.
That 100-hour odyssey began Sunday for Schwartz, the Lions’ third-year coach, with a come-from-behind, 49-35 victory over the Carolina Panthers at Ford Field, and it will culminate Thursday in the same building when Detroit hosts the undefeated and defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers – a Thanksgiving game every Dick and Jane and their respective brothers-in-law will be checking out without complaint.
“You don’t have to be around here long to understand that it’s an important game – to the history of the NFL, and to the people of Detroit,” Schwartz said about 90 minutes after Sunday’s victory, having already relocated to his office at the team’s training facility in Allen Park, Mich. “A couple of years ago they were saying, ‘Take that game away [from the Lions] because they’re so lousy.’ Now, this year, it’s ‘I can’t wait till Thanksgiving.’
“We’ve obviously done our part by improving as a team. Now we have to get out there and play well. It’s a good stage for our team.”
If Sunday was about setting the stage for a blissful viewing holiday, things couldn’t have played out more conveniently. All six of the teams you’ll be seeing this Thursday added to the marquee value by winning – another one of those delicious, post-lockout accidents that seems to have been ordered up by Roger Goodell.
Schwartz was grateful that Detroit (7-3) had pulled out of a potential freefall, fighting back from an early 17-point deficit to the Panthers and winning for only the second time in five games. No team has gone longer without a playoff appearance, and if the season were to end today the Lions would be an NFC wild card and reach the postseason for the first time since 1999.
NFL fans across America, meanwhile, were giving thanks that the menu kept getting tastier, and atypically so.
After the NFC North showdown between the Lions and Packers (10-0), the suddenly rejuvenated Dolphins will visit the Cowboys, who by Sunday night had been abruptly handed control of the NFC East. Throw in Thursday night’s intriguing interconference matchup between two of football’s best teams, the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens – featuring a head-coaching clash between the Harbaugh brothers – and those old cracks about Turkey Day football being more sleep-inducing than tryptophan no longer apply.
“Believe me, when the schedule came out, I know Coach [John] Harbaugh circled this one right away,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) said after leading Baltimore (7-3) to a 31-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, a few hours before Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers improved to 9-1 with a 23-7 dismissal of the Arizona Cardinals in San Francisco. “This is a must-win for him, which makes it a must-win for us.”
Coaches like to talk about a “24-hour rule,” referring to the period during which they expect players to digest and celebrate regular-season victories before moving on mentally to prepare for the following game. For the six teams facing a quick turnaround this week, it was more like a 24-minute rule on Sunday.
“Already crammed,” Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo(notes) wrote via text after landing back in Dallas following a 27-24 overtime victory over the Washington Redskins. At that point the Eagles were in the process of defeating the Giants 17-10, dropping New York (6-4) into a tie for first with the ‘Boys, who have the more favorable schedule, though Miami should be a tough out, having won three consecutive games after losing its first seven.
And Schwartz’s schedule this week? Well, he’ll be spending a lot more time watching Aaron Rodgers(notes) than interacting with his wife, Kathy, or their three children. He planned to spend Sunday and Monday nights sleeping on the brown, leather couch in his office, catching a few winks between game-planning sessions.
When we talked Sunday, he conceded he didn’t have much slumber in his immediate future (hey, that made two of us), but at least he would sleep soundly. That hadn’t seemed likely with 9:32 left in the first half and the Panthers up 24-7. Coming off a decisive defeat to the Bears last Sunday, the Lions could have been forgiven for tightening up: After all, the last time they’d started 6-2, in 2007, they proceeded to go 1-7 in the second half of the season; losing to Carolina (2-8) might have conjured up visions of an encore.
Instead, Detroit stayed calm and got well in a hurry. Matthew Stafford(notes) threw five touchdown passes to five different receivers, none of them named Calvin Johnson(notes), and surprise returnee Kevin Smith(notes) went from recently out of the league to currently out of sight, producing 201 combined rushing and receiving yards.
[ Winner/Losers: Kevin Smith provides Lions huge boost ]
Detroit’s defense, save one game-tying touchdown drive with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, clamped down on rookie Cam Newton(notes), intercepting four passes, as the Lions became the first NFL team since 1950 to come back from 17-point-or-greater deficits to win three times in a season.
“We got hot,” Schwartz said. “In the second half, on offense, we went touchdown, touchdown, punt, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. I mean, are you serious? When we were on defense, they went eight yards and punt, six yards and punt, interception, four yards and punt, touchdown, interception, interception. That’s hot right there – that’s the definition of hot.”
The challenge, of course, is to keep the heat flowing through the end of the regular season and into the playoffs, something the Packers mastered last year in parlaying a wild-card berth and No. 6 playoff seed into a Super Bowl title.
If conventional wisdom in the NFL once was, Secure a first-round bye, and preferably home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the updated formula simply mandates that a team qualify for the playoffs and get on a roll at the right time.
“It’s interesting – it used to be about what your seed was, but how many teams in recent years have been wild cards, played most or all of their games on the road and still won it all?” Schwartz asked. “There has been a lot of that, and maybe it has something to do with handling adversity earlier in the season, and how that gives you a certain mentality.
“If you think about the Packers last year, the Giants in ’07, the Colts in ’06, the Steelers in ’05 – they all had their rough stretches. The Colts gave up  rushing yards to Jacksonville [in December 2006]; the Steelers lost three in a row in November and December. And when the playoffs began, these teams were battle-tested.
“Last year the Packers had all those injuries, but they withstood the flurry. They lost to us [in Detroit] when Rodgers got hurt and in New England to fall to 8-6 and then they won their last two to get into the playoffs and got hot in the process.”
If the Packers were hot last winter, they’re scalding now, largely because Rodgers is in the midst of one of the most impressive stretches of quarterbacking excellence the league has known. Defensively, they’ve looked shaky at times – in Sunday’s 35-26 victory over the Buccaneers, Tampa Bay halfback LeGarrette Blount(notes) broke seven tackles en route to a 54-yard touchdown run – but their vulnerabilities have yet to translate into defeat.
Schwartz compares Green Bay’s defense to that of the Saints in 2009, when New Orleans won its first Super Bowl: “They give up lots of yards, but it doesn’t matter, because they’re always ahead. The key for them is forcing turnovers, coming up with the big play. And they’ve done that.”
Taking down a Green Bay team whose leaders, Rodgers and veteran conerback Charles Woodson(notes), have consciously taken aim at a 19-0 season won’t be easy, but Schwartz is excited about the opportunity. After all, at least people are looking forward to this game.
Schwartz remembers coming to Ford Field three Thanksgivings ago as the Titans’ defensive coordinator, when Tennessee was coming off its first defeat of the season (following a 10-0 start) and the Lions were on their way to the only 0-16 campaign in league history.
Final score: Titans 47, Lions 10, Viewers 0. If you watched that one to the finish, you really hate talking to Uncle Ernie and cousin Bertha.
Last year on Thanksgiving, the Lions stayed relatively close to the New England Patriots for much of the game before giving up a pair of late touchdowns in a 45-24 defeat. It was Detroit’s seventh consecutive losing performance on the holiday, and many of those setbacks were ugly.
Schwartz will spend most of his available hours between now and Thursday’s kickoff trying to ensure that this year’s Lions put on a much more attractive performance – and, ideally, come away with a victory.
“I’d much rather be coaching on Thanksgiving than watching,” Schwartz said. “This game means a lot to this city and, historically, to the NFL. We’re playing the best, and we want to be at our best.”
In the meantime, to those of us looking forward to a three-course, visual feast, Sunday’s results were pure gravy.
The Ravens moved back into first place in the AFC North – their sweep of the idle Steelers gives them an edge in the tiebreaker – by making a late stand against the division-rival Bengals (6-4), and Baltimore’s defense did it without Ray Lewis(notes). The 36-year-old, future Hall of Fame middle linebacker, who hadn’t missed a game since 2007, watched from the sidelines with a foot injury amid rumors that he could be out for the season. Big plays by All-Pro Terrell Suggs(notes) and unheralded Pernell McPhee(notes) kept Cincinnati out of the end zone, and Flacco expects the defense to persevere during the absence of its emotional tone-setter. “You know what, we want him out there, and we want him to get better,” Flacco said. “But the bottom line is we have a lot of confidence in our other defensive players, too, and Ray’s gonna be leading us emotionally from the sidelines, even if he isn’t out there.” Not that watching Baltimore’s final stand was an especially enjoyable experience for the quarterback, who added, “It was not easy to sit on the bench and watch it on the big screen, feeling like you don’t really have any control over the outcome. I feel for all the fans who have to go through that every week.” … Tebowmania is in full force, and the Broncos are just a game out of first place in the AFC West, but the quarterback in the process of taking over the division is the dude who a few weeks ago had one of the shakiest debuts imaginable. As Carson Palmer(notes) settles into his role as the Oakland Raiders’ unlikely franchise quarterback – he was 17-of-23 for 164 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in Oakland’s 27-21 victory at Minnesota on Sunday – Hue Jackson’s team is starting to look increasingly potent. If halfback Darren McFadden(notes) gets back from his foot injury anytime soon, the silver-and-black attack could be scary. In the meantime, Michael Bush(notes) is doing a terrific job as a feature back, not bad for a guy the Raiders stole in the fourth round of the 2007 draft (and yes, the late Al Davis is taking another bow, and I’m conceding another belated acknowledgment that his eye for talent hadn’t disappeared nearly as much as some of us previously suspected). … Players for the Eagles (4-6) and Dolphins (3-7 after a 35-8 thrashing of the fading Bills) have spoken of winning out and sneaking into the playoffs, and I want to laugh at them – but in these strange times, when conventional NFL wisdom seems to undergo routine makeovers, I probably shouldn’t, just in case. … Finally, the Bears’ fifth consecutive victory, a 31-20 triumph over the San Diego Chargers (4-6, and losers of five in a row), was followed by a serious buzz-kill: Quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) reportedly broke the thumb on his throwing (right) hand and will undergo surgery, meaning he’d likely miss six to eight weeks. Remember how, in Chicago’s NFC championship game defeat to the Packers last January at Soldier Field, then-third-stringer Caleb Hanie(notes) replaced the injured Cutler and the overwhelmed Todd Collins(notes) and looked infinitely more comfortable than either passer? I guess that’s at least a small cause for hope. A greater one is that the Bears (7-3), for all of Cutler’s excellence this season, remain a team driven by their defense, particularly veteran linebackers Brian Urlacher(notes) and Lance Briggs(notes). It won’t be easy, especially given that they face the Raiders in Oakland next Sunday, but those two guys and the talented teammates who follow them are capable of scrapping their way into the postseason.
TWO THINGS I CAN’T COMPREHEND
1. That the men’s restroom I visited at rainy Stanford Stadium during halftime of Saturday night’s Big Game had only one, small-sized door as its entrance and exit, turning the cramped quarters into a logistical mini-maze. In fairness to the Stanford folks responsible for the design, they may not have had a realistic understanding of modern-day ingress and egress when they built the facility – waaaaaay back in 2006. If I sound like a Cal alum bitter about the Golden Bears’ 31-28 defeat to the fourth-ranked Cardinal, I can understand those suspicions, but alas I can’t confirm them. In reality, my friends and I strutted out of the stadium smiling, high-fiving and talking excitedly about the future. Quarterback Zach Maynard might not have outshined Andrew Luck, but he played by far his best game, and he and his teammates battled to the finish. Jeff Tedford’s game plan was terrific, and there are many, many reasons to feel upbeat about the direction of the program. Soon Tedford and his assistants will relocate to a gorgeous new football complex and, next season, they’ll play in a renovated Memorial Stadium, where we season-ticket holders look forward to three things: 1) Watching the Bears compete for a Pac-12 title; 2) reclaiming The Axe; and 3) entering restrooms through one doorway, relieving ourselves and then leaving through a separate doorway, 21st century style.
2. Why Jags coach Jack Del Rio, with Sunday’s game against the Browns on the line and his team a yard from the end zone with three seconds remaining, didn’t give the ball to his best player – and how poor Jacksonville’s clock management was in the final 40 seconds. Trailing 14-10, the Jags faced a third-and-1 from the Cleveland 5-yard line with 41 seconds remaining, and they smartly handed the ball to star halfback Maurice Jones-Drew(notes) for a three-yard gain. Twenty-eight seconds later – twenty-eight – Jacksonville finally ran another play, as Del Rio chose not to spike the ball on first-and-goal nor call his final timeout. Then Jones-Drew took another handoff to the 1 before being stopped, forcing the Jags to burn the timeout with eight seconds remaining. On second down, wideout Jason Hill couldn’t hold onto a fade pass from quarterback Blaine Gabbert(notes), setting up the all-or-nothing snap. With a yard to go, Del Rio had a choice: Give the ball to Jones-Drew, one of the league’s most skilled and tenacious runners, and ask him to gain a single yard, or put the game in the hands of a rookie quarterback. He weirdly chose the latter, and Gabbert’s throw over the middle to Mike Thomas(notes) was behind the receiver (who was tightly covered by Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson(notes)) and fell incomplete. I didn’t love the call, and what I disliked even more was Del Rio’s subsequent disowning of the decisions on the final series in his postgame media session: “Our offensive coordinator [Dirk Koetter] calls the plays. I can’t speak to his thinking. You’d have to get with him.” Uh, yeah – Koetter calls the plays, but Del Rio, at the very least, has to green-light those calls, and thus the ultimate responsibility lies with him. To me, that Del Rio response sounded like that of a coach who’s semi-checked-out and expects to be gone after the season. In Del Rio’s defense, it’s not surprising that the Jags are 3-7 – they lack talent, and there are obvious reasons for that. One is that, according to a report Sunday by profootballtalk.com, the Jags have a league-high $32.9 million of available salary-cap space. If Del Rio wants to pass the buck to someone, instead of handing it to Koetter, he should try blaming owner Wayne Weaver.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
First, let’s get this out of the way: Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson(notes) is a handful, a talented player who has let his contract-related frustration adversely affect his attitude and performance in 2011, and who on Sunday night committed a blatantly foolish taunting penalty after a 50-yard reception from the shadow of his own end zone. When Jackson, having gone out of bounds on the Giants’ sideline, flipped the ball to New York defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and talked trash to everyone in the vicinity, he absolutely deserved to be docked 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. However, because of what I understand to be a nonsensical quirk in the NFL rule book, he was penalized 50 yards for the foul that occurred after the play – and all because the Giants had committed an infraction while the play was still in progress.
Here’s the situation: With 6:45 remaining in the first half, Philly began a drive at its own 2, and quarterback Vince Young(notes) lofted a deep ball down the right sideline to Jackson. He was run out of bounds at the Giants’ 48 – play over – and then drew the flag for taunting. Had that been the only penalty, the Eagles would have had a first-and-10 at their own 37. However, because Giants defensive lineman Linval Joseph(notes) had been cited for illegal hands to the face during the play, Jackson’s infraction was applied as an offsetting penalty, negating the play. “I was furious,” one Eagles player told me later. “The ref kept telling me that it’s the rule. It’s so dumb, because if there wasn’t a defensive penalty the play would’ve stood.” And there you have it: It’s the rule. Could this be any more asinine? Maybe the NFL should tweak the system so that, say, if the Giants commit multiple fouls on a similar play, New York is awarded a touchdown. Or, the competition committee could do something utterly logical, like differentiating between penalties that occur during and after a play, and figuring out a way not to reward a defensive penalty like Joseph’s. Also, next time, Jackson might want to resist the temptation to taunt – because on Sunday night, as a practical matter, the ridiculous rule book taunted him right back.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
“Ur school loves you back!”
– Tweet Saturday night from Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour, in response to my declaration of unconditional love for the University of California late in the Big Game.
“I’m chilling …”
– Text Sunday evening from Browns linebacker Jackson, resisting the temptation to go large after his game-winning play.
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