Note: the quotes in this article are fictional.
St. Louis @ Chicago (-9)
Jay Cutler continues to struggle in what has become a season that has fallen well short of the high expectations that followed Cutler's arrival in Chicago. Cutler threw 2 interceptions in the Bears' 36-10 loss in Minnesota, giving him 20, the most in the NFL.
"Cutler may be asking 'Where's the love?'" says Lovie Smith. "But soon, I'm afraid people will be asking 'Where's the Lovie?' Jay is a true 'Monstrosity of the Midway,' and we both have to deal with the repercussions of his terrible play. He's the 'Fall Out Boy,' while I'm simply the 'Fall Guy.' There's little to no chance Cutler will be forced to 'Jay-walk.' So it seems my contract, like a Cutler pass, won't see completion."
The Rams are a dismal 1-10, but many of the pieces are in place for a brighter future. Running back Steven Jackson is one of the best in the league, and the Rams have a young, improving defense led by rookie linebacker James Laurinaitis.
"Obviously," says Laurinaitis, "Steve Spagnuolo didn't leave a bit of his defensive knowledge in New York. He brought in all here. But it will take time to learn it sufficiently. Rome wasn't built in a day, and Hawk and Animal didn't become masters of pro wrestling's Chicago Street Fight overnight. This is my own 'throwback' game, and in honor of the Road Warriors, I'll be wearing my spiked shoulder pads, and an abundance of make-up. Hopefully, my appearance won't be confused as a tribute to Adam Lambert."
Like their ursine kin in the wild, the Bears seem to be preparing for a long hibernation spent in their dens, watching the playoffs after fattening themselves on losses. On Sunday, however, Chicago turns things around, with solid efforts on both sides of the ball. Cutler makes like a professional bowler and breaks 200, throwing for 3 scores, and the Chicago defense limits Steven Jackson to 71 yards on the ground.
Bears win, 27-14.
Tampa Bay @ Carolina (-6??)
After a 4-interception day that essentially cost the Panthers any chance of a win against the Jets, Jake Delhomme's days as the Carolina starter may be numbered. And that number is likely "0." John Fox's inexplicable resistance to change has been frustrating, and seems reluctant to make what is obviously a needed change.
"Coach Fox is obviously a fan of the movie Groundhog Day," says Steve Smith. "Heck, we knew it would be a long year when Jake showed up at summer camp and saw his shadow. That meant we had six more months of Jake. But maybe Coach Fox will have the decision made for him. Jake broke his finger against the Jets, probably not in the process of throwing an interception, but counting them. You know, in the Cajun dialect, 'interception' translates loosely to faux 'pass.'"
The Bucs lost a heartbreaker in Atlanta, falling 20-17 on the game's final play when Chris Redmon found Roddy White for a touchdown. Tampa is 1-10, but the play of rookie quarterback Josh Freeman seems to signal a turnaround for the franchise.
"It's such a relief to know your quarterback situation is stable," says Raheem Morris. "I know Fox has struggled with the decision. Maybe Delhomme is better suited in a backup role anyway. He could be the perfect quarterback to get the call in an emergency. Right now, he is an emergency."
The Panthers, with Matt Moore at quarterback, attack the Bucs on the ground, and DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combine for 205 yards and 3 scores. Carolina wins, 23-16.
Houston @ Jacksonville (-1)
Despite racing to a 17-0 lead last week against the Colts, the Texans again failed to close the deal, losing 35-27 as Indy scored 21 fourth-quarter points. Houston is now 1-15 against Indy.
"Ironically," says Matt Schaub, "we always get 'lost' when it's time to 'find a way' to beat the Colts. If Mark Sanchez were on our sideline looking for a hot dog condiment, he would find an endless supply of hot sauce, because once again, we 'Texas Peter-ed' out. Apparently, when the term 'late heroics' is mentioned here in Texans, everyone either says 'Remember the Alamo' or 'Forget the Texans.'"
At 6-5, the Jaguars share the same record with the Ravens and Steelers. But by virtue of their 5-2 conference record, Jacksonville has a slight edge in the race for a wild card berth.
"A 'slight' edge?" says Jack Del Rio. "I think that's what they call Edgerrin James these days. Anyway, we've got a chance to hand the Texans their fourth straight division loss, and improve our playoff standing as well. As you know, Maurice Jones-Drew has cracked 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career. But we're not going to run him 'Jag-ged' without taking the necessary precautions. You'd be surprised how well deep-tissue massage and oily rub-downs sooth a coach worried about overworking his best player. I feel great. The last thing I want to do is break my moneymaker."
Matt Schaub throws for 274 yards and 2 touchdowns, and the Texans hold on to a late lead in a 27-21 win. Gary Kubiak feels a cooling sensation on his behind, and it's not the Preparation H.
Denver @ Kansas City (+4)
Denver head coach Josh McDaniels and Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel, who partnered for Cassel's 4,000-yard year in New England, will face off as foes when the 7-4 Broncos face the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. The Broncos are chasing the 8-3 Chargers, who pummeled Kansas City 43-14 last week.
"I'm sure my pre-game interaction with Matt will be much more pleasant that my exchange with Shaun Phillips," says McDaniels. "Of course I won't tell Matt I 'own him;' I'll just tell him I 'made' him. I really don't understand why everyone got so worked up over my comment to Phillips. Heck, I basically cussed out my offense on national television, and no one blinked an eye, except for the network censors, who were left scrambling, much like Cassel is prone to do. It's that 'sharp' language that has earned me the nickname 'Mc-The-Knife,' or 'Josh Spice.' Now, many people may have written us off after our four-game losing streak, but we've got the Chargers right where we want them. We're no longer the hunted; we're the hunters. Which is just a nice way of saying 'we blew a huge division lead.'"
Denver wins, 27-13.
Tennessee @ Indianapolis (-7)
The Titans out-gained the Cardinals by 240 yards last week, but still needed the last-second heroics of Vince Young to capture a 20-17 win, Tennessee's fifth victory in a row. Young's 10-yard strike to Kenny Britt as time expired gave Tennessee the win and kept the Titans playoff hopes intact.
"Remarkably, I've gone from 'zero' to 'hero,'" says Young. "But enough about my Wonderlic score. That's just one of the many things I can count on one hand. There's 'five' wins in a row, Bud Adams 'two' middle fingers, and a high 'five' from an official. Of course, it takes two hands to count our losses, a number which always takes a little luster off of a five-game winning streak."
The Colts are 11-0 and have clinched the AFC South, and a win against the Titans would give Indy its 22nd regular season win in a row, breaking the Patriots record of 21. The Colts rallied last week to beat the Texans 35-27, Indy's fifth consecutive come from behind win.
"What the Titans have done is really impressive," says Peyton Manning. "Chris Johnson is practically unstoppable, and the smartening up of Vince Young is intersecting nicely with the dumbing down of the offense. Not only is a Peyton Manning jersey responsible for the Colts' success, it's also responsible for the Titans.' I'm clearly the league's most valuable player. But I look forward to this matchup, particularly to get a personal gauge on Young's progress. That time on the bench really seems to have made a difference. Vince has been a sponge, soaking up as much information as possible. And, like a sponge, there are still a lot of holes in his game, which our defense is sure to exploit."
Titans owner Adams has his fingers crossed, not for good luck that Tennessee's streak continues, but because it's a Roger Goodell-mandated stipulation of punishment for Adams finger-flying incident against the Bills. Luck or no luck, though, the Colts have the real "Oilers," a raucous Lucas Oil Stadium crowd, not to mention Manning, to pull them through.
Manning throws for 286 yards and 3 scores, and out-duels Johnson, who rushes for 157 yards and a touchdown.
Indianapolis wins, 31-27.
Philadelphia @ Atlanta (+6)
Don't expect any being in the Michael Vick welcoming committee to be standing on four legs. Vick makes his return to Atlanta as a Philadelphia Eagle when the 7-4 Eagles face the 6-5 Falcons in a game both teams need to stay firmly in the playoff hunt.
"Of course, dogs will be on everyone's minds because of Michael's situation," says Donovan McNabb. "But in Atlanta, the Southeast's strip club Mecca, dogs always take a back seat to 'puppies.' I'm sure Mike and I will buddy up and hit the hot night spots while introducing ourselves as 'Ron Mexico' and 'Don McMexico.'"
Injuries continue to mount for the Falcons. Michael Turner aggravated his right ankle injury, and Matt Ryan incurred a turf toe injury, and has already been ruled out of Sunday's game, and may miss more time depending on the results of further examinations.
"And this little piggy went to see a specialist," says Ryan. "Turf toe has to be the most aggravating injury in football. It's probably just from overuse, because I've been stubbing my toe all year."
Vick is welcomed back to the Georgia Dome to the sounds of "The Woof is on Fire" from the public address system. Vick gets the last laugh, though, and marks his old territory with a seven-yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter.
Eagles win, 23-20.
New Orleans @ Washington (+9??)
The Saints continue to roll, and are 11-0 after easily handling the Patriots 38-17 on Monday night. Next up are the Redskins, who are 3-8, but have taken the Cowboys and Eagles to the limit in the last two weeks before falling late. The Saints can clinch the NFC South with a win.
"Although the Redskins are struggling," says Drew Brees, "I expect them to defend their side of the playing field better than New England did. 'Patriot' is the operative word in 'Patriot defense,' because they're all about 'freedom.' Our receivers basically ran untouched, before and after catching the ball. I'm not even sure a warning from Paul Revere would have done the Pats much good. John Paul Jones isn't the only Patriot to have famously uttered the words 'I have not yet begun to fight.' We were in no way 'looking past' New England, but their defensive backs are the easiest in the league to 'look off.' The whites in their eyes signaled 'surrender.'"
If the 'Skins need motivation, handing the Saints their first loss should be plenty.
"This team feels just like I did," says Jim Zorn, "after being stripped of play-calling duties - 'upset'-minded. Sure, we'd love to knock off the Saints. Is it likely? Probably not. But we've bucked odds all year. Heck, what were the chances of finding an offensive coordinator in a bingo parlor? Anyway, Chris Cooley has really blown the roof off of the play-calling situation here. It's true, Sherman Lewis doesn't even talk to Jason Campbell while creating a game plan or during a game. What's even more amazing is the process Lewis uses to choose a play. Sherm just rotates the bingo cage until a play comes out. Then he sends it to the field via a vacuum tube. Daniel Snyder won't blind anyone with his allegiance, and we darn sure won't blind anyone with our science."
New Orleans wins, 27-16.
Oakland @ Pittsburgh (-13??)
Although it's too soon to panic, "worry" is not too harsh of a word to describe the Steelers' predicament. After a tough 20-17 overtime loss to the Ravens, Pittsburgh is 6-5 and struggling to hang on for what promises to be a wildcard race decided by a number of tiebreakers. An unhappy Mike Tomlin promised the Steelers "would not go gently" and would "unleash hell" in the month of December.
"We're by no means down for the count," says Hines Ward, "and unlike Ben Roethlisberger, we plan to answer the bell. I don't mean to question Roethlisberger's commitment, but maybe a new nickname is in order, such as 'Gentle Ben' or 'Ben Her.' Ask anyone. I've played with a concussion on numerous occasions, and I think my show of toughness is good for my teammates to see. Heck, you know me. I'm always being accused of 'leading with my head.'"
"Hines is entitled to his opinion," says Roethsliberger. "But what does he think? I didn't have a concussion? Would that be called the 'Immaculate Concussion?' Hines is a tough guy, and we're all very proud. Sure he's played with a concussion. Now I realize I've played with a 'jackass.'"
The Raiders will be playing the underdog, but with 10 days to prepare, Oakland should be well-rested for a Steelers team drained from both a tough game and dissent from within.
"In-fighting amongst the Steelers is music to my ears," says Tom Cable. "And the song that comes most to mind is Foreigner's 'Head Games,' not to mention 'Double Vision,' and 'Feels Like the First Time,' an ode to Dennis Dixon. In addition, Troy Polamalu won't be playing. Troy's exactly what the Steelers need to emerge from their funk. Not necessarily his defensive skills, but his even-tempered, soft-spoken mannerisms are perfect for creating unity. Besides, if you ask him about the Roethlisberger situation, he'll just comment on his hair, or accuse you of doing so. But Troy's gone Hollywood; he's in more commercials than games."
Here's a Foreigner song the Steelers should really take a listen to - "Urgent." With a heavy heart and a light head, Roethlisberger plays, and plays well, finding Ward for 2 scores, and knocking Ward to the ground with a celebratory head butt after the first score.
Pittsburgh wins, 24-6.
Detroit @ Cincinnati (-13)
The Bengals' 16-7 win over Cleveland was certainly a much-needed win, but it surely won't be sending shivers down the spines on any future opponents, although it may raise the hackles of the 2-9 Lions. Detroit lost a 34-12 Thanksgiving contest to the Packers, a team the Bengals beat 31-24 in Green Bay in Week 2.
"Only in the NFL can Lions and Tigers meet in the 'Jungle,'" says Chad Ochocinco. "I'm not sure we have a 'king' of the jungle, but we do have a 'Chief,' former Kansas City running back Larry Johnson. L.J. is a great addition to this team. He busted out for 100 yards last week, and like a true team player, he knows how to pick up the blitz. Unfortunately, he also knows how to pickup the Schlitz, and toss it in your face. But since when do character issues matter in Cincinnati?"
"As for people who question our performance, I honestly can't tell you which Cincy team will show up, whether it be the team that beat the Steelers 23-20, or the team that beat the Steelers 18-12, or the team that beat the Ravens 17-14, or the team that beat the Ravens 17-7. Hopefully, the team that lost to the Raiders 20-17 won't be seen again this season."
Lions rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford has endured his share of hardships this year, from injuries to interceptions.
"I've suffered numerous bumps and bruises," says Stafford, "as well as a dislocated kneecap. But the shoulder has been a real problem area. I've felt the pain of a separated shoulder, and the indignity of Daunte Culpepper's cold shoulder. But the wealth of playing time has lead to improvement - in my pain threshold."
The Bengals certainly look playoff-worthy, but a deep trip into the playoffs seems unlikely for a team whose best offensive weapon is its kicker, Shayne Graham. Are the Bengals the team most likely to lose at home after a first-round bye. Maybe, but that won't matter Sunday, because there's no such thing as a "playoff atmosphere" when the Lions are in town.
Cincinnati wins, 30-14.
San Diego @ Cleveland (+13)
The Chargers could very well be the hottest non-undefeated team in the league after winning their sixth consecutive game, a 43-14 trouncing of the Chiefs. At 8-3, San Diego will likely battle the Bengals, Patriots, and Broncos down the stretch for the No. 2 playoff seed and a first-round bye.
"We try to be careful of what we throw around," says Philip Rivers, "and that includes superlatives. Too many pats on the back, and the next thing you know, you're giving the Heimlich maneuver to a washed-up reality star, only to be accused of choking her. But that's about the only thing Shawne Merriman has got his hands on this year."
"But playing in Cleveland is never easy. And I'm just talking about the home team. But it looks like Eric Mangini's reign of terrible will terminate at season's end. If the Cleveland front office is smart, they'll look somewhere besides the Bill Belichick coaching tree for a new coach, or from what is going to be a deep pool of just-fired head coaches."
At 1-10, the Browns have little to play for, save for pride, the role of spoiler, and getting Brady Quinn his incentive money.
"Don't forget," says Quinn, "we're also in a race for the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. You think John Elway didn't want to go to Baltimore? Wait until the Browns announce who they plan on choosing. If it's an underclassman, he'll be going back to school. If it's a senior, he'll be going to graduate school."
Chargers win, 30-13.
Dallas @ NY Giants (-1)
After offering little resistance in Thanksgiving night's 26-6 loss to the Broncos, the Giants have lost five of their last six, and trail the visiting Cowboys by two games in the tight NFC East race. In addition, Eli Manning has been diagnosed with another foot problem, a stress reaction in his right foot, a condition that could end his season if it worsens.
"Those injuries haven't affected my play at all," says Manning. "After all, I don't even use my legs to throw, and I surely won't be using them to walk to the Pro Bowl. But having subpar feet is the story of my life. All my life, big brother Peyton has been known more for his feats than me."
The Cowboys will be out to avenge a 33-31 Week 2 loss in Dallas. But the Giants now are just a shell of the team the Cowboys saw then.
"I think this New York team is still searching for its identity," says Tony Romo. "Well, I know exactly where it is. It's in the nine digits at Riker's Island corresponding to Plaxico Burress' prisoner number. But there are a number of Giants in need of 'correctional' facilities, notably their defensive and offensive lines."
"But we've been playing some of our best ball lately. However, I'm reluctant to say 'you ain't seen nothing yet.' It's way too early for such confident talk. Usually, we show 'nothing' in our first playoff game."
Dallas wins, 30-27.
San Francisco @ Seattle (-1)
A shakeup could be brewing in the Great Northwest. Reports out of Seattle indicate that general manger Tim Ruskell won't be back next year, and that former coach Mike Holmgren will replace him. Rumor has in that Holmgren wants Jon Gruden to coach the Seahawks, which would leave Jim Mora out in the cold.
"Please tell me there's a buyout involved," says Mora. "Not that I'm greedy. That would just be a great situation to channel my father's famous words and say 'Payoffs!? Payoffs!? You're asking me about payoffs!? Payoffs!?' But please tell me those Coors Light guys won't be showing up at my press conference. You think the Madden video game cover jinx is bad? Anytime those Coors Light jesters appear, the coach always get fired."
The 5-6 49ers trail the Cardinals in the NFC West by two games, a deficit that could shrink should San Fran win and Arizona falls to the Vikings.
"It sounds to me like Mora's getting 'Punk'd,'" says Mike Singletary. "And that's exactly what I thought back in 1985 when me and the Bears were recording 'The Super Bowl Shuffle.' Ashton Kutcher wasn't around then, but I could have sworn Allen Funt had something to do with that stunt. Jim McMahon and Gary Fencik rapping then is comparable to getting Kurt Warner to bust a rhyme today. From what I hear, Kurt's skilled in 'verse;' too bad it's Bible verse. Oh yeah, go Vikings!"
San Francisco wins, 23-20.
New England @ Miami (+5)
In Monday night's 38-17 loss in New Orleans, Tom Brady looked confused, Bill Belichick looked disheveled, and the Patriots looked merely ordinary.
New England is now 1-4 on the road, with a visit to Miami's Landshark Stadium upcoming.
"And they had to leave the country to get that one," says Joey Porter. "Now, they have to come to our house, which is likely the only time they'll make an appearance in Miami this season. I imagine the Patriots will come here looking for a convincing victory in order to 'save face.' Well, that's probably the only body part they'll be looking for, because last Monday, they got their asses 'handed' to them by the Saints."
The Patriots have yet to lose two straight games this year, and a win will maintain a comfortable division lead in the East.
"I'm not going to get into a war of words with Porter," says Tom Brady. "Pillow talk, not trash talk, is my game. That's why I can't 'jive' '55.' Besides, does Porter ever back up what he says? On occasion, yes. But usually, it's just empty trash talk. I whisper 'sweet nothings'; Porter yells 'not so sweet nothings.'"
"I fully expect Belichick to give us a fail-proof game plan. Sean Payton really had us figured out, almost like he knew what we were doing before we did it. And that just eats Belichick up. Payton should be proud. It's not often you can out-scheme the schemer. That's why Belichick was so gracious in defeat. Compared to his usual post-game congratulations, he was downright making out with those guys. It's like what I tell Bill when he's got a juicy bootlegged practice video to watch - 'get a room.'"
Brady and Randy Moss hook up for 2 scores, and New England wins, 30-20.
Minnesota @ Arizona (+4)
It's a duel in the desert as Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, the NFL's two oldest quarterbacks, battle at University of Phoenix Stadium. Favre will break the NFL's consecutive games started streak when he takes the field, while Warner will likely play with some lingering effects of a concussion suffered two weeks ago.
"Hey, the great thing about concussions," says Favre, "is that you don't remember them. I've had my share of them, and, over the course of 282 games, there's quite a bit you forget. People tell me I spent a year with the New York Jets. I guess concussions wreak more havoc on your selective memory, as well."
If Warner is unable to play, the quarterbacking duties will fall into the semi-capable hands of Matt Leinart, who prefers his shots not to the head, but to the stomach, in the form of jello.
"Hey, I've got something that no one else on this entire team has," says Leinart, "and that's confidence in myself. As for Kurt, he's got clearance from the doctors. We're just waiting on his wife, Brenda, to do the same. I can't blame her. You don't want to lose your meal ticket, at least not until he cashes in in 2010."
They'll call it a game-time decision, but Warner will start, and the Cards receiving corps will carry them to the win, as a fired-up defense contains Adrian Peterson and Favre.
Arizona wins, 34-30.
Baltimore @ Green Bay (-3)
Historic Lambeau Field is the site of Monday Night Football's broadcast, featuring the 7-4 Packers hosting the 6-5 Ravens in a contest replete with playoff implications. MNF's resident "Love Guru," Jon Gruden, will undoubtedly be singing the praises of players and coaches alike in his opening statement.
"Gruden loves more people than Jesus Christ," says Aaron Rodgers. "And some people believe he can even turn water to wine. That's debatable, but I know when he was in Tampa, he turned 'whine' to water when he made Keyshawn Johnson cry."
"As for the Ravens, they've played probably the toughest schedule in the NFL. As their results would indicate, they just don't lose to bad teams. I'm not sure whether that bodes well for us or not. We've beaten only one team with a winning record, and we've lost to only one team with a losing record. So, if we win, our strength of schedule goes up. If we lose, the Ravens' strength of schedule goes down."
A loss at this point would be more damaging to the Ravens' playoff hopes, and that sense of urgency will be the catalyst for a Baltimore win.
Ravens win, 27-26.