The game of the season came when football fans needed it, because face it: There's more suspense in a three-game Marlins-Nationals series than there was in the first three games of wild-card weekend.
First, a few words about Green Bay. I feel for Packers fans this morning. That's an excruciating loss. The worst. It'll take days, weeks, to get over it, I'm sure. But that's sports. Sometimes you get your heart broken, and the only way to not get your heart broken is to not fall in love. And there is much to love about this Green Bay team. The quarterback's scary good, even if he did hold on to the ball too long on the last play of the season. (
Now some words about the quarterback who is singlehandedly forcing me, one of the 44 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters, to act like the five-year donut hole in the middle of his career is a crack in the sidewalk and not the Grand Canyon. I don't like to judge active players for the Hall, and I won't. But
When the game was over, and Arizona had survived 51-45, I looked at the stats online and saw this:
My God. Look hard. More touchdowns than incompletions.
I texted New Orleans defensive coordinator
"It reminded me of the games we used to see
Warner agreed. "I knew early on it was going to be a good day,'' he told me as he drove home. "Sometimes I know when I'm on, when I'm going to play well, and there were specific things I knew they were going to have trouble stopping. Like the touchdown to
That way was to line up Breaston wide left, with another receiver in the slot, then motion Breaston in toward the formation, and at the snap of the ball have him jet upfield. The corner wouldn't follow him all the way inside, tape study told Warner, and a linebacker would pick him up. That's exactly what happen.
The other play that interested me -- on the passing and receiving ends -- was Warner's touchdown to
"That was luck,'' said Warner. Luck? Warner was trying to throw the ball away, or at least to the far back of the end zone so it wouldn't be picked off, and when Jenkins hit him and drove him back, the ball didn't go as far as he wanted it to go. And that was the luck. Because it wasn't thrown far, Fitzgerald could corral it. Barely.
"I heard it was complete by the fans,'' he said. "I never saw it.''
As Green Bay defensive coordinator
"I think it garners a kicker a lot of respect when he can do something more than kick,'' Feely told me. "All I was doing was catching it, taking one step and kicking, just making sure nothing got blocked.'' Even though every punt was basically a pooch punt, Feely directionally kicked well and did just what he was supposed to do -- not put his team in a hole. For the Jets, just one more hero on a team of them.
Now, as for the Ravens, I was hugely impressed with their defensive game plan and the fact they could win without hip-hampered
"One of our emphases this week was the middle of their line,'' said Johnson, the hybrid end/linebacker who is vital to what the Ravens do. "Not so much we saw a weakness, but Tom does such a good job sliding out of the way, that we felt like if we could get him off his spot his accuracy would go way down. I thought [defensive coordinator]
Now come the Colts, who have beaten Baltimore seven straight. The Ravens had a shot to win Indy's 17-15 verdict earlier this year. Several shots, in fact. If they don't turn it over, this will be a great game.
There's a maximum of five modern-era candidates who can be inducted each year; the two Senior men are voted on separately. With
As for Johnson, it's simple. We have one vote. He might be a close second, but unless you judge Johnson, a runner on an 8-8 team, to be more valuable than Manning, who had his second-best season of a walk-in Hall of Fame career for a 14-2 team, or more valuable than Favre or Brees or Rivers, he's not going to get any votes. I was surprised that Manning got 79 percent of the vote to be sure, but to have that good a year with a poor running team and a team with two new receivers is why he's deserving.
1. Regarding the non-facemask call on the last play of Arizona-Green Bay: I've watched the TiVoed combination of replays six times now. Arizona's Michael Adams blitzes, dislodges the ball from Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, rakes his hands over the facemask of Rodgers, then appears to grab the facemask, and the ball is inadvertently kicked by Rodgers.
The ball flies briefly into the air and is grabbed by Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby, who secures it and runs into the end zone for the winning touchdown. Adams keeps his hands on the mask as he plows into Rodgers and brings him to the ground. Adams didn't tackle him by the mask, but his hand did stay secured on the mask as Rodgers fell to the ground. (I say it that way because from the mountain of e-mails and Tweets last night, most of you think he got yanked to the ground by the facemask. It didn't appear that way to me.)
For a facemask penalty to be called, there has to be evidence not just of a hand on the mask, but of twisting and pulling of the facemask. And there is a slight pulling of it, but not in a flagrant way. To me, it's a close call. But what complicates matters is this: The referee,
Of course, the reason this is a big concern is if a facemask had been called, Green Bay would have had a first down at its 32 in a game where defense was optional. I don't see how the call could have been made any differently with the current rules and officiating assignments the way they are.
2. Re the non-tuck-rule call on the last play of Arizona-Green Bay: the ball, once it somehow became dislodged from Rodgers, never hit the ground. If the ball doesn't hit the ground, it's live, and the tuck rule doesn't apply.
3. Re the Ravens' failure to challenge a punting play in the second quarter at New England: A major gaffe by the Ravens. On the New England punt, the ball hit Baltimore's
I spoke with Baltimore coach
Out of the mouths of Sanchezes ...
After the Jets' playoff win in Cincinnati, former USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, smiling, said this about USC coach Pete Carroll's imminent decision to coach the Seahawks: "Speaking of coach Carroll, I just want everyone to know I completely disagree with his decision to go to the NFL. Statistics show it's not a good choice.'' Obviously referencing Carroll's press conference last winter when the junior announced he was leaving USC early, Sanchez said he was just kidding. But he's right.
Statistics show even the most celebrated college coach make terrible NFL coaches. Or at least go to terrible situations, with players they can't reach the same way they reached in college. As Tony Dungy said on NBC Saturday night: "Most college coaches find out it's a lot harder to coach rich 25-year-olds than it is poor 19-year-olds."
With the exception of
This chart is about the 10 established college coaches who built their résumé in college football, then went to the pros. Johnson's the only one who won a playoff game in his career. He won two Super Bowls in his five-year run with the Cowboys.
Looking at the tough road Carroll has to travel with the 10 hires from college football since 1989:
Think of it this way: In the past 10 years, four of the biggest college hires in the league were Butch Davis, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino. They coached nine seasons, with a combined record of 29 games below .500.
There's one other factor in the failures of so many of these coaches: the lack of a top quarterback where they landed. Spurrier thought he could win with
Other than the big paycheck Carroll will collect, there's not a lot to envy about his decision. He always said if he was going to go back to the NFL, he'd want full control over the 53-man roster. Yet in Seattle, owner
History says Carroll will build a team with great defensive energy. He has a few good defensive players to start with -- linebacker
The quarterback is always the hardest puzzle piece to find. Just ask the nine teams who got so little out of such big hires.
Aah, the wonders of the NFL schedule, which has AFC teams visiting NFC teams once every four years, and vice versa:
Kansas City (Weis' new employer) at Seattle, date TBA, next fall, Qwest Field.
That'll be an interesting pregame conversation on the field between the new Kansas City offensive coordinator and the new Seattle head coach.
I wrote last week about Drew Brees sitting in Week 17 and setting the NFL record for the most accurate passing season (70.62 percent, beating
I was with Brees in New Orleans Thursday night and asked him about it, and a pained expression came over his face. He wears number 9 because he grew up idolizing Ted Williams. When he was drafted by the Chargers, he moved into his first house because it was on Ted Williams Way. I can tell you he's still conflicted about setting the record the way he did -- but understands he couldn't have done anything about it.
Turns out that on the day after Minnesota lost to Chicago in Week 16, clinching home-field advantage for the Saints, Sean Payton called Brees into his office and told him he wasn't going to play in the season's final game at Carolina. You know -- it's the whole thing about resting starters, avoiding injury, giving other guys a chance to play. Later that day, doing a media interview, Brees was told that, though he and Anderson were both at 70.6, if the figure were taken out to the next decimal place, Brees' number was better, and thus he was ahead of Anderson.
Brees didn't want to spill the beans about Payton's lineup plan, so he said nothing. But he said he got a terrible feeling right then.
"I immediate thought of Ted Williams going into the last day of the '41 season batting .399995, or whatever it was,'' Brees said, "and I thought, 'If I don't play, I'm letting Teddy down.' ''
Most players aren't students of sports history. What was so rare about Brees' knowledge, obviously, is it was about a guy from a different sport.
"When I was growing up in Austin [Texas], every Sunday morning before my brother and I went to church, we popped in a video called 'The Golden Greats of Baseball.' It was like a religious thing between me and my brother. We loved baseball. All the great players --
"Everything about him was great. The hitting, the fact that he left baseball twice to serve in two wars. So when Sean told me, 'You're not playing, and it's not up for discussion,' that was tough. On the one hand, I don't want to set the record by sitting. On the other hand, if I say I want to play because I don't want to set a record this way, it's selfish. So I didn't say anything.''
The obvious question: What would Williams have thought of Brees sitting and breaking the record?
"Well, the next day, Ted Williams has nothing to do but go marlin-fishing,'' said Brees. "They're not in the World Series. And I've got playoff games to play. The sports are different. The risks are different. Apples and oranges.''
"I felt great. I loved our plan. I was seeing everything well. And it accumulated into 50 points.''
"I know what's coming. Eighteen's coming.''
"The issue is they haven't always been the big dog and they won't always be the big dog, and I think they're being really short-sighted and that's pretty much in my mind the definition of the ugly American where you say, 'Hey, it's all about me and this is the way it's always going to be, and if you don't like it, that's your problem.' ''
"I wanted to be the guy today to start this game right. I wanted to be the guy to say, 'This is going to be a fast-tempo game,' '' Rice said after motoring for 83 yards and a touchdown on the first play of the game at Foxboro. It set up Rice's 22-carry, 159-yard day. Rice was right. The Ravens ran it 52 times for 234 yards, the kind of running game you'd have against the Detroit Lions, not the once-proud Patriots. And Rice continued to prove he belongs in the discussion when you're talking about the top 10 backs in the game.
For filling almost every defensive category on the stat sheet: six tackles, one sack, one tackle-for-loss, two quarterback hits, one pass defensed, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery. And for making the play that I thought snuffed out the Eagles' last hope. One minute left in the half, Philly driving, down 24-7, ball at the Dallas 48 ... Donovan McNabb dumped a hot-route to fullback
I celebrated Jay Feely higher in the column, so I'm reserving this for a guy who made one of the heads-up plays of the weekend -- and I bet you don't even remember it. First: Imagine you're
We all know that was a flawed Patriots team on the field Sunday in Foxboro, but to hold an experienced playoff team with a top quarterback to 196 yards at home is tremendous achievement. Mattison called a terrific game. Figuring Baltimore needed to move Brady out of his comfort zone in the pocket, he had middle blitzes called early and often, forcing Brady to throw on the move. And Pagano, according to Harbaugh, "did a fantastic job of dissecting their pass routes, to the point where our defenders felt they had a handle on everything New England ran.'' It helps to have
I could have easily given this to Carson Palmer, who had a horrible day in Paul Brown Stadium. And Neil Rackers was a candidate too, very nearly blowing the Arizona season by missing a chippy. But Graham lined up for a 35-yard field goal, with the Bengals down seven in the third quarter, and curled it barely wide left. And then, kicking a gimme to bring the Bengals to within one score with four minutes left, Graham inexplicably missed wide right to insure the Jet victory. Graham helped the 2009 Bengals look like so many other Bengals teams -- not clutch, playing dumb when it counts.
I've said it more than once:
Russell is on his way, but I've got to hand it to Leaf, who is almost singular in his badness in recent NFL history. Comparing the first three ill-fated seasons of Russell's Oakland career with the entire three years of Leaf's run (he played two years in San Diego and one in Dallas):
This is what happens when you give a city hope:
In March 2006, the Saints had 44,000 tickets available.
Today, the Saints have a season-ticket waiting list of 50,000.
Flew to New Orleans and back in midweek and found nothing different about the security process. Nothing. Other than putting my toiletries in one of those one-quart Ziplocs, I didn't change at all either. Strange. Thought it'd be a lot more bothersome.
One other note, from a quiet Amtrak regional train home from New York Sunday. Five people in my car. I sit in the middle of the car and continue typing out a story for the magazine on Drew Brees. A smartly dressed woman in the back of the car, eight rows behind me, is on the phone. She is Loudwoman. "CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? ... YEP, 35 TOMORROW! THE BIG 3-5! ... NO, NOTHING. NOTHING. WHAT SHOULD I DO, GO TO A STRIP CLUB? ... YEAH, LIKE RICHIE WOULD DO THAT ...'' And on and on it went. After a couple of minutes, I packed everything up and went to the front row of the car. It was better, but still not silent, for the next 10 minutes. Then it got quiet for a while. Then clip ... clip ... clip
Loudwoman, clipping her nails on Amtrak. Fingers, not toes.
In the immortal words of
"Did the Rooney Rule go to Ireland with its namesake?''
Or, as I said on NBC Saturday, Seattle conducted the longest sham interview in NFL history with Minnesota defensive coordinator
"Just got back in town. Wow.''
Wonder what he means.
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of wild-card weekend:
a. Don't shut up, Rex. Win or lose, you're fun for the game.
b. You know which Ryan quote received far too little attention: "The Jets will be making a White House visit during the Obama Administration.'' Love that one.
c. The story never ran in SI, but I remember going to Florham Park, N.J., when the Jets were 3-0 to do reporting for a Jets story. And I think this side of Ryan gets far too little attention. He likes players to say what they want, as long as they keep the team in mind. "Rex spent 45 seconds with the players when he took over, talking about the media policy. He basically said, 'Say whatever you want as long as it doesn't hurt the team. And when you do an interview, make sure you mention two teammates and one coach every time you talk.' ''
d. A smart man told me: "Watch out for Ron Rivera in Buffalo.'' Not buying it, but the man is smart, so I wanted to throw it out there.
e. A smart man in Buffalo told me: "They love Leslie Frazier.'' Bills interviewed him for five hours Thursday, and as I said on NBC Saturday night, he's the leader in the clubhouse for that job, but so many golfers are still out on the course -- like Jets offensive coordinator
f. Everybody in Cleveland: Calm down about
g. Predictions of the Week:
h. The Patriots need a running back. A big-time running back. How much longer can Belichick put up with a running back like
j. Think of how many really good tight ends there are in football right now, speaking of Finley:
2. I think this is the stat the San Diego Chargers should be worried about with the Jets coming to town Sunday: The Chargers allowed 4.5 yards per opposing rush. No secret what'll be coming at them in the divisional playoff game.
3. I think you did the right thing,
4. I think I'm pretty skeptical that this shotgun wedding between Pete Carroll and this John Doe GM can work long-term.
5. I think I'd be stunned if the Eagles got rid of McNabb, because
We saw some bad quarterback play over the weekend out of a couple of other vets -- Carson Palmer and Tom Brady -- but the difference is that Palmer has no one behind him and Brady's a three-time Super Bowl winner coming off an injury and was beat up the whole year. The Eagles have a strong prospect behind McNabb,
6. I think this is what I liked about wild-card weekend:
b. The Sanchize. The Jets didn't win in spite of him, and they didn't have to be cautious with him.
d. I thought that was
g. You had to love Ray Rice's long touchdown run on the first snap of the game, of course. I liked his third-down conversion run on the next drive better. Third and four, and he breaks a tackle at the line of scrimmage, then lunges through two Patriots for the first down. Baltimore got a touchdown instead of a field goal, and it was due to Rice's conversion.
h. I liked
i. Green Bay's passing game. Aaron Rodgers, Jermichael Finley,
7. I think this is what I didn't like about wild-card weekend:
a. Come on,
b. Ridiculous challenge by the Bengals, the first-quarter catch near the sidelines, prompting, for some reason, the Bengals' second challenge of the game. And last challenge. Have some common sense up there in the booth, coaches.
c. Nice catch,
d. My dumb comments about Jets punter
e. The Eagles. By halftime of Saturday's game, the composite score in their two meeting six days apart in Arlington was Dallas 51, Philly 7. I mean, that has to cost someone his job.
f. Tom Brady, you have to run when you have that much pasture in front of you.
g. Not sure Joe Flacco can make enough plays to match Manning Saturday night. He's creaky. Looks a lot more injured than the Ravens are letting on.
8. I think the reason the silence is deafening with
9. I think
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
b. Well, I'll say this about Nick Saban: He may not have the greatest conscience in the world (you remember his I'm-not-coaching-Alabama vow two weeks before he coached Alabama, two years into a five-year contract with the Dolphins), but he sure can coach.
c. Movie Observation I:
d. Movie Observation II:
e. Coffeenerdness: Shared a coffee with Drew Brees at P.J.'s Coffee House in the University Section of Uptown New Orleans the other day. Actually, he is lactose intolerant and had a soy latte. I had a triple latte. Interesting that there's a Starbucks across the street and this place holds its own. It does that because the espresso is excellent -- rich, no bitterness. Highly recommended if you're around Tulane or Loyola, or visiting the Mannings down there.
f. Sympathy to the family of
g. Congrats to Jets director of media relations
h. I can only imagine what kind of handsprings
"Nice hearing from you again. I always have all these football questions I want to ask you when we talk but then I figure that you get tired of it all the time so never do. One day we will have a beer (or a few) and then I will get all my questions out.
"Life is going good here, rumors are flying now about our next deployment. Can't give you dates yet due to OPSEC [security] and all but will let you know when we get there and where we are. I am now a First Sergeant (E-8). When we first met I was a Staff Sergeant (E-6). Seems like a long time ago. Since the deployment rumors started flying, its been hard to sleep, constantly thinking and working out things in my mind. Just recently I have been sleeping horribly due to dreams or whatever to call them but I am reliving certain days from previous deployments when our men got hit over and over. [Wife]
"It's every leader's worst nightmare to lose a man, I have had more than that even. My company consists of over 150 soldiers and many MOS's (Military Occupational Specialty). Soldiers seem like they are getting younger and younger. My son
"On the football side of the house, getting ready for a big weekend of games. Tell you what, with the games on so late here it makes the next day very difficult, but would not miss it. I have a lot of favorite football moments, but all time has to be