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Week 10 “Three and Out”

Peyton

Yeah, the “Three and Out” feature has been posted a little later than usual this week. Thank you for noticing. I wanted to see if you’d notice.

Actually, there was no specific reason for posting it now other than I ran out of time to finish the thing before the weekly trip to NBC for a Sunday and Monday of watching football and talking football.

So it’s now finished. So now finish reading it. (Actually, your click already has been registered. Do whatever you want. Like perhaps click another story or 10?)

Titans at Ravens

1. How will Ravens deal with loss of Jimmy Smith?

We’ll be fine,” coach John Harbaugh said Friday. “We’ll recover.”

It won’t be easy. The whole “next man up” thing only goes so far when the guy who starts is a lot better than the guy behind him. As a practical matter, Smith’s season-ending injury puts more pressure on the front seven to keep the quarterback from targeting the guy who’s doing what Smith would be doing if Smith were still playing.

Smith won’t be doing anything done after having surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury in his foot. The fourth-year former first-round pick was playing very well for the Ravens. So while they may be “fine,” they will have a hard time being great.

2. Has Lorenzo Taliaferro landed in Gary Kubiak’s doghouse?

Not yet. The running back’s fumble last Sunday night won’t prompt the offensive coordinator to stop trusting the rookie.

“My nature as a coach when that happens is to go right back to him,” Kubiak said. “I believe in the guys we’ve got and believe in what we’re doing. We wouldn’t have him out there if we didn’t trust him.vvSometimes, those things are going to happen. They can’t happen too often, we all know that, but I think the players need to know that you’re going to come right back to them and expect them.”

It was the first NFL fumble for Taliaferro, who has become the No. 2 rusher on the team. He has 247 yards on the season, nearly 50 more than Bernard Pierce.

3. How will the Titans try to turn around a horrible start?

In an effort to get even, they plan to get mad.

That’s what we need,” tight end Delanie Walker said this week. “We are 2-6, and if you are not mad about that then something might be wrong. We need to play with more anger, and play angry for four quarters. Just go out there and be nasty. Baltimore is a nasty team, but we have guys who can be nasty too.”

The Titans need something, because they continue to be mired in a multi-year funk that has left them non-competitive and, perhaps more importantly, nationally irrelevant.

Chiefs at Bills

1. Can Seantrel Henderson handle the Chiefs?

We will soon find out. The rookie tackle, a seventh-round steal, has started all eight games this season. But he’s never seen anyone quite as talented as the twosome of Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.

If Henderson can’t slow down either or both, the Chiefs will be knocking down the slow-footed Kyle Orton, repeatedly.

2. Are Chiefs ready to part ways with Dwayne Bowe?

With no touchdown receptions through eight games and a $14 million cap number for 2015, Bowe’s tenure with the Chiefs could be ending. While he became only the second member of the franchise to catch 500 passes with the team last week, he’s got only 31 on the season, for fewer than 400 yards.

Assuming the Chiefs don’t keep Bowe, they’ll need to address the position via free agency or the draft. With half the season in the books, none of the team’s wideouts has a single touchdown reception.

3. Will Fred Jackson or Sammy Watkins play?

Both have groin injuries, both are questionable. Jackson’s came on October 19; he was limited in practice all week, but coach Doug Marrone has suggested Jackson’s not yet ready to return.

Watkins injured his groin during practice on Wednesday, missing both Thursday’s and Friday’s sessions. If he can’t go, Robert Woods becomes the top option. Woods has a touchdown catch in two of the team’s past three games.

Dolphins at Lions

1. How close to 100 percent is Calvin Johnson?

Pretty close. Johnson has said he won’t play until he once again can be Megatron. And it’s not as if the Lions need him. They’ve won three straight without Johnson in the lineup.

Using him as a decoy doesn’t really work; if he’s playing, that means he’s healthy. And that’s very good news for a Lions franchise that in past years would find a way to blow a 6-2 start.

2. Can Reggie Bush get it done against a former team?

Bush struggled against the Saints, finishing with four carries for 10 yards and five receptions for 22. And he aggravated the ankle injury that had knocked him out of the prior week’s game.

With the bye, Bush has had three weeks to heal for a game against his other team. Like Johnson, Bush appears on the injury report as probable. Which means he’ll play. How effective he’ll be depends largely on how the ankle holds up.

3. Which one of these teams is for real?

Possibly both. But one will emerge from this one with the strong scent of a postseason berth emanating mingled with sweat and FieldTurf pebbles. For the Dolphins, a looming Thursday night visit from the Bills makes it a critical five-day stretch during which much will be learned about the team that lambasted the Chargers, 37-0, in Week Nine.

Cowboys at Jaguars

1. Will Tony Romo play?

If he doesn’t, Dr. Jones will have some explaining to do. The team has listed its starting quarterback as probable, which means by rule it’s a virtual certainty he’ll be available for normal duty. Which means that, despite being injured, Romo is good to go.

Rarely, a player listed as probable doesn’t play. When that happens, the NFL wants a full explanation. Basically, if a player is probable, it’s definite he’ll play.

2. Is London visit a harbinger of good things for Jaguars?

Possibly. Last year, the trip to England helped bring the Jags together. While they lost convincingly to the 49ers at Wembley, the Jaguars then reeled off four wins in five games.

This year, they’re not winless and they’ve been more competitive in defeat than a year ago. Perhaps the return to their home-a-long-way-away-from-home will spark another run.

3. Can DeMarco Murray run into nine-man fronts?

Not as well as he’d like. The NFL’s leading rusher expressed frustration about having to do it with Brandon Weeden at quarterback last week against Arizona.

And that reality keeps the Cowboys in play for Adrian Peterson in 2015, if the Vikings decide to move on. (And if the Vikings ever actually make a decision about what to do with Peterson.) While Murray is younger, Peterson has barreled into a box filled with eight and nine guys for his entire career. He may not have many years left, but he may be able to do more with his remaining time in the game that Murray ever will.

49ers at Saints

1. Why have the 49ers forgotten about Frank Gore?

In back-to-back wins over the Eagles and Chiefs, which came after back-to-back losses, Gore racked up more than 100 yards rushing. In three games since then, Gore has touched the ball a total of 40 times.

The decision not to give Gore the ball at the goal line with the game in the balance last Sunday surprised the Rams, given Gore’s ability to push the pile in tight spaces.

If the 49ers, who have become a great team by relying on defense and the running game, don’t get back to using Gore more, they won’t be using him in January. Or anyone else.

2. Will the Saints keep riding Mark Ingram?

Yes, if he can play. Both Khiry Robinson (forearm) and Pierre Thomas (rib, shoulder) will miss Sunday’s game. Which makes Ingram a key component of the offense.

He’s questionable with a shoulder injury, after back-to-back 100-yard games only four days apart, a performance that helped move the Saints from 2-4 to .500. Making the feat even more impressive was the fact that, for his career, Ingram had only one 100-yard game.

3. How’s Michael Crabtree’s contract year going?

Not too well. Catches are yards are down, drops are up. And Crabtree is touchy about the perception that he’s struggling with another injury to his left foot, which has had a pair of surgeries since 2009.

What are you talking about about a foot?” Crabtree recently said. “I’ve played eight games since then and you’re talking about my foot? We’re good, man. That ain’t even a question to even ask me.”

Eventually, the question to ask may be, “Which team will you sign a one-year deal with after you don’t get big money on the open market?”

Steelers at Jets

1. How expensive could Ben Roethlisberger’s recent success be for the Steelers?

Very expensive. The Steelers opted not to replace the last two years of Roethlisberger’s 2008 contract with a deal that better reflects his market value. After a pair of six-touchdown, no-pick games, Roethlisberger’s value is going up.

As a result, he could want a lot more after the season than he would have wanted before the season. If the two sides can’t work something out before next September (and if the Steelers stick to their artificial rule of not extending contracts during the regular season), Ben will hit the market in 2016 -- or get more than $22 million for one year under the franchise tag.

2. Could Rex Ryan be fired if he loses?

Perhaps. The Jets would be 1-9 at the bye, and it would be a given that Rex would be gone in January. So why not get rid of him now?

The problem is that there’s no clear candidate on the coaching staff to take over on an interim basis. Defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman routinely defers to Rex, and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is, well, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.

Perhaps more importantly, G.M. John Idzik possibly needs a few more wins to save his job. Ryan remains the best option to help lift the Jets to 4-12 or 5-11. Either final record will be hard to pull off if the Jets lose to the Steelers on Sunday.

3. What’s gotten into James Harrison?

From retired to unretired after a rash of linebacker injuries got the Steelers to lure him back, Harrison has registered four sacks in the last two games. He’s now first among all Steeelers with, um, four sacks. It’s also twice as many sacks as he got last year in Cincinnati, despite playing in 15 games.

So this is a guy who really missed football, right?

“I’m not going to lie and say I missed football,” Harrison said this week. “To be honest with you, I didn’t miss football. I was comfortable where I was at, being retired. I felt like I had an obligation to come back if my kids wanted me to. They were OK with it, and I came back because I didn’t want to let the [Steelers] down and I felt like them guys are like my brothers -- [Brett] Keisel, Troy [Polamalu], Ike [Taylor]. Kind of hard to say no to them.”

It’s even harder to imagine Harrison caring about saying “no” or “yes” or anything else, to anyone.

Falcons at Buccaneers

1. Could Julio Jones have a big day?

Against the Bucs, he usually does. In five career games vs. Tampa Bay, Jones has 28 catches for 555 yards and five touchdowns.

During the first encounter of 2014 between the two teams, Jones racked up 161 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns. So it’s safe to assume another big day for Jones could be in the offing.

2. Is Mike Glennon no longer the quarterback of the future?

He’s gone from quarterback of the present to quarterback of the past and future to quarterback of the past, present, and future to now just a guy back on the bench behind Josh McCown.

The decision to take the ball out of Glennon’s hands raises real questions about whether the Buccaneers still view him as a viable option over the long haul. With the team at 1-7, why not give Glennon more chances to develop into a guy who possibly will help the Bucs do a little more winning in 2015?

3. Is Doug Martin the odd man out?

It sure looks that way. Firmly on the trading block until he sprained an ankle two weeks ago, the 2012 first-round pick likely will now slide behind Bobby Rainey and Charles Sims on the depth chart, whenever Martin is healthy. The final year of a low-first-round rookie-wage-scale deal could prompt the Bucs to consider keeping him for 2015. Then again, it also makes Martin an attractive trade option for another team that thinks he can recapture his “Muscle Hamster” form.

Regardless, don’t look for the Buccaneers to pick up the fifth-year option on Martin’s contract next May. Until then, don’t expect him to play very much, either.

Broncos at Raiders

1. Who’s the top running back for the Broncos?

Even with Montee Ball recovering from a groin injury, it looks to be Ronnie Hillman. And that seems to be okay with Ball.

Generally, the situation isn’t okay with offensive coordinator Adam Gase. He’s “really frustrated” with the running game.

Fortunately, Gase’s team has a pretty good passing game.

2. Why isn’t Julius Thomas getting more opportunities?

Because the Broncos are using him more to block.

“I know that’s not ideal since he’s one of our better players at a skill position, but we’ll figure out some ways to help our protection and make sure he’s still a big impact player for our offense,” offensive coordinator Adam Gase recently said.

Since catching nine touchdown passes in five games, Thomas has one in three. With a total of 83 yards in those three games.

3. Where’s Matt Hasselbeck?

With his Colts on a bye, Hasselbeck should be heading to Oakland for this one. If he did, the only three active players from the 1998 draft would be in the same place, at the same time.

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson make up the rest of the trio, and Woodson will be trying to intercept passes in the same way he picked off the 1997 Heisman trophy.

There are only three of us?” Woodson said this week. Yep, there are only three. And it’ll stay that way, unless and until Randy Moss unretires to play for the Broncos.

Rams at Cardinals

1. How did the Rams rediscover their ability to get to the quarterback?

With an explosion of eight sacks against the 49ers after struggling all year, the Rams surely did something differently, right? Like changing blitz packages?
No, we really didn’t,” defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said this week. “There were a lot of things that people wanted to say were new, but our guys just did a great job in the execution part of it. . . . The D-line won the one-on-one matchups.

“We were able to finish some one-on-one pass rushes and not allow [Colin] Kaepernick to extend the play. He’s been very, very good on extending plays with his feet. I think our plan was sound in what we tried to do to make sure he stayed in the pocket.”

Defensive end Robert Quinn thinks the turnaround flows from something else: Switching jerseys.

“It’s something fun to do at practice,” Quinn said. “Switch jerseys with whoever. Make it a little rough for the coaches to grade film.”

It’s even more fun to average two sacks per quarter of football as a team.

2. Are the Rams thinking about the team moving?

Nope. With talk intensifying of a 2015 or 2016 relocation to L.A., the players and coaches don’t care at all.

“[W]e’ve got too much going on, too much in front of us and way bigger fish to fry,” quarterback Austin Davis told reporters this week.

It makes sense. Life in the NFL means addresses can change in the blink of an eye, whether through being cut or traded, becoming a free agent, or having the team move. For players and coaches, what goes with the territory is the reality that, at any time, the territory where the work is may change.

Whether it happens or not, it won’t matter if the players and coaches aren’t getting it done. Those who aren’t won’t be making the move.

3. Aren’t the Cardinals due for a letdown?

In theory, yes. But there’s something about this team that defies convention. And every other obstacle placed in its path.

With seven wins in eight games, the Cardinals continue to move toward a date with the unlikeliest of destinies -- playing in a Super Bowl played in their home stadium. That’s never happened, due in large part to an actual or perceived jinx that afflicts the teams who are hosting the game.

Fate threw everything it has at the Cardinals, from season-ending injuries to a dead nerve in the quarterback’s shoulder to the suspension of a key defensive player to the defection via free agency of another key defensive player. Through it all, coach Bruce Arians has turned the jinx on its head, reminding players that someone else will be using their locker room if they don’t earn a berth in the Super Bowl.

Few believe they will. Which is just another obstacle for Arians ans company to overcome.

Giants at Seahawks

1. Why is Marshawn Lynch catching so many passes?

He’s one of the best players on the team, and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has made it clear that the Seahawks want to get Lynch the ball every way they can.

Last week, Lynch rushed for 67 yards and added 76 yards in receiving. Not bad, given that the Seahawks had only 177 total passing yards.

So look for plenty of Lynch, in any way they can use him. As long as he’s healthy enough to play.

2. Does Russell Wilson own the Mannings?

Yes. Yes he does. Last year, Wilson faced Peyton and Eli for the same time, in the same stadium. Wilson beat Eli and the Giants 23-0 at MetLife Stadium in the regular season. Wilson then beat Peyton and the Broncos 43-8 in the same place. That’s a total score of 66-8.

This year, Wilson barely overcame Peyton at CenturyLink Field, 26-20 in overtime. Odds are that Wilson will extend his run against the best two quarterbacking brothers in NFL history (sorry, Koy and Ty Detmer) to an impressive 4-0.

3. Aren’t injuries a cancer?

When Tom Coughlin became head coach of the Giants in 2004, he notoriously criticized the rash of injuries that had helped seal the fate of his predecessor, Jim Fassel.

“I’m aware of the injury factor, the number of IRs, which is a cancer, let’s face it,” Coughlin said at the time. “It’s something that has to be corrected. It’s a mental thing, I believe, as much as anything else.”

In what could be Coughlin’s final year with the Giants, the cancer is back -- and spreading. Multiple key players have been sidelined this year due to legitimate injuries, from receiver Victor Cruz to cornerback Prince Amukumara to running back Rashad Jennings.

Injuries aren’t a cancer; they’re injuries. And they’re unavoidable in football.

But there also should be no excuses for injuries. If Coughlin returns for 2015 despite what appears to be an inevitable failure to get to the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, it’ll happen only if those injuries become a permitted excuse.

Bears at Packers

1. Will the Bears take away Jordy Nelson?

The Saints did, doubling Nelson and limiting him to a season-low 25 yards on three catches. And the Saints seemed to be the first team to regard Nelson for what he has become -- one of the best receivers in the NFL.

Nelson entered the game against the Saints averaging more than 100 yards per game. The last time Green Bay faced the Bears, Nelson caught 10 for 108 yards and two scores. So whatever they did the last time, they need to better account for Nelson if they want to slow down Green Bay’s offense.

2. Could Jared Allen snap out of his funk?

The Packers give him the best chance to do it. Allen has sacked Aaron Rodgers more than anyone else in the league, with 15.5 sacks in the regular season and one more in the playoffs.

So far in 2014, Allen has only 1.5 sacks. The last time these two teams played, Allen missed the game due to a bout with pneumonia.

3. Do the Bears have a realistic chance to win?

If we learned nothing from Thursday night’s Browns-Bengals game, it’s that the team everyone is writing off can win the game. Like so many teams already have done this year (and in prior years), unanimous doubt becomes potent ammunition.

Of course, finding a way to turn that motivation into triumph requires something the Bears may not have: An overwhelming desire to prevail sparked by one or more strong voices who will get the players to snap out of their collective funk.

Given Jay Cutler’s 1-9 record against the Packers and Aaron Rodgers’ historic mastery of the Bears, don’t count on that happening.