Pardon the cliché-fest, but it's the little things that, very often, are the difference between winning and losing in a football game. Sometimes they're so little that you don't see them when you watch the game, and you don't even notice on the fourth or fifth replay.
I'm talking about the precocious early play of Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, who has his team in a playoff-contending game on national TV Monday night against the Super Bowl champs. In Washington's 38-31 Thanksgiving Day win in Dallas, Griffin diagnosed the Dallas defense on the first touchdown of the game in a manner I never noticed, but I guarantee the Giants have studied it this week to learn that, with Griffin, all is possible.
First-and-15 at the Washington 32. Early second quarter. Dallas 3, Washington 0. Anticipating a possible blitz, Washington kept fullback Darrel Young and tight end Logan Paulsen in as sidecars to Griffin, with running back Alfred Morris behind him. Play-action is a dangerous thing with Griffin, because not only is he a risk to hand the ball off to a 982-yard rookie rusher in Morris, but also he's a threat to run himself, and he has such a good downfield arm that he could go bombs-away too. "Watching RGIII,'' Giants linebacker Michael Boley told me Thursday, "you learn that you eliminate nothing as a possibility.''
So the Cowboys, on the play, disguised whether they'd blitz, which Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan does well. At the snap of the ball, well-armored with protection, Griffin did just as expected: play-action. And in center field, about 15 yards downfield, Dallas safety Danny McCray bit, feet in cement, waiting.
"Just for a second,'' Washington coach Mike Shanahan said over the phone from Virginia Thursday. "Not even a second. But it was just long enough that, when he realizes what's happening, he can't catch up."
From the right of the Washington formation, Aldrick Robinson (as Troy Aikman said on the FOX telecast, How was this guy, with this speed, a sixth-round pick?) sprinted downfield, with cornerback Brandon Carr in coverage, toward McCray's spot in the secondary. The way Carr played it -- loose, ensuring against a double-move or a go route down the right sideline -- he was clearly expecting McCray's help if Robinson went over the top down the middle of the field. But as Shanahan said, by the time Griffin threw the ball, Robinson had five yards on McCray and Carr, and he caught the ball in stride. It was an easy 68-yard touchdown throw. Playground easy.
"On that play, you've got to be very good on the play-action fake,'' Shanahan said. "You've got to sell it. Which Robert did. You've got to have a great arm to make that throw, which he does. Not many quarterbacks can throw a 60-yard pass and hit a receiver in stride. And you've got to know which guy is the right guy. Once Robert saw the safety hesitate, he knew Aldrick would be open. He didn't have to see it -- he knew it would develop, and it did."
It's tough to be a more dangerous quarterback than Griffin is right now. In his last two games, he's completed 79 percent of his throws, for eight touchdowns and one interception, for an incredible 12.0 yards per attempt. And yet, when I asked Boley what's the most important thing about controlling Griffin right now, he said: "Eliminating the four- and five-yard gains on first and second down. You can't give him third-and-three, third-and-four. That's when he's so dangerous, because he can do anything well then -- run, hand it off, throw short, throw deep. What we need to do is get him on third-and-long to limit what he might do."
"He's exactly right,'' Shanahan said. "Robert's trouble when he has too many options."
This is the stat the Giants must be looking at this week, though Boley didn't tell me about it: Washington has thrown the ball 44 times this year on third-and-eight or longer, and Griffin has converted but four of those into first downs.
Third-and-long. That has to be the Giants' mantra come Monday night. Oh, and watch the deep posts off play-action on first-and-15.
I think we can all agree -- and I'll be looking into this over the weekend -- that the season-long suspension of Sean Payton and the accompanying pressure on Drew Brees to carry a New Orleans offense that's been far too dependent on him has taken its toll on a great quarterback and his 5-7 team. We saw that Thursday night, particularly with the game and the Saints season on the line in the last 17 minutes, when Brees threw a stunning four interceptions (one was whistled off because of an Atlanta penalty). The worst: his throw across the body, rolling right, when he absolutely had to see safety William Moore laying in wait but threw it anyway. Brees finished the night with five interceptions, giving him a league-high 16, and knocking out the Saints as a playoff long shot in the crowded NFC pool.
He took all the blame after the game, which Brees regularly does, but I think what interim coach Joe Vitt and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael must do is tell Brees to stop trying to be Superman. It hurt the Saints badly in the two losses that have doomed their season -- San Francisco and Atlanta. Brees is going to take his place among the greats of this era, and every era, but he's also pressing right now, and it's costing New Orleans.
Tampa Bay cornerbacks E.J. Biggers (No. 31) and Leonard Johnson (No. 29). Nice, easy Sunday ahead for these fellows, walking into Denver to face a red-hot Peyton Manning. It shouldn't have been this way, of course. The starting Bucs corners in this playoff-preparedness test should have been Aqib Talib and Eric Wright, but their PED usage led to Talib being traded and Wright being benched. So it's Biggers, a seventh-rounder from Western Michigan in 2009, and Johnson, an undrafted rookie from Iowa State, in the most important game of the year for the Bucs, who are in a six-team race for the last NFC playoff spot.
1. Jobs on the line. So December's dawning, with five games left for every team, and it would be wise for these five coaches to get quite hot in the last month of the season: Buffalo's Chan Gailey (versus Jags at home), Carolina's Ron Rivera (at the Chiefs), Dallas' Jason Garrett (Eagles at home), Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt (at Jets), Cleveland's Pat Shurmur (at Raiders). It's too late for Norv Turner and Andy Reid, and likely too late for Romeo Crennel. Am I missing anyone?
2. Russell Wilson trying to match himself. The Seattle rookie's on quite a streak -- he's the first rookie passer to have three straight games with a passer rating of 125 or better. His 128.6 rating led all quarterbacks in November. Quarterback rating penalizes players harshly for incompletions and interceptions. So for the Seahawks to have a chance to pull the upset at Chicago Sunday, Wilson has to be similarly efficient.
3. Something's got to give in Denver. The Bucs average 32.6 points a game in their last six, Denver 30.5. Love this game.
4. The NFC playoff race. Five teams (now that the Saints have fallen to a Rams-like two under .500), one spot ... unless Green Bay continues its slide, which I don't expect. Still think it looks best for Washington -- if the 'Skins can go 1-1 against the Giants and Ravens over the next two weeks.
5. NFC home field. Huge win for the Falcons Thursday night, because it'll now take an upset for them to lose home field through the NFC playoffs. Say the Niners run the table, with games left at New England and at Seattle in consecutive weeks. That'd leave them 13-2-1. For the Niners to win home field in the playoffs, Atlanta would have to lose two of its last four. Not likely.
6. Hello Greg Jennings. Good to have you back. I never thought a Western Michigan wide receiver would be more famous for his commercials than his football, but that's been Jennings' luckless, strange year. Now that he's nearly a month removed from abdominal surgery, we'll finally see what he can add to Green Bay's offense Sunday at Lambeau against the Vikings. Easy on the Lambeau leap, though.
7. Alex Smith continuing to swallow his pride. Lost in the ascension of Colin Kaepernick has been the class of Alex Smith, who instructed and advised Kaepernick on the sidelines during the Niners' win at New Orleans last week. That'll continue, because Smith, despite feeling jobbed by Jim Harbaugh, will be a team guy to the end. That's who he is.
8. Sit, Ben, sit. That's what I expect Ben Roethlisberger to do, 20 days after his shoulder and rib injuries, when the Steelers face Baltimore. The injury's too severe for the Steelers to rush him back, and they know it.
9. The Bengals staying hot. You never know which San Diego team will show up, but the Bengals have won three in a row by an average of three touchdowns a game. Can't imagine Norv's guys mustering enough energy to beat a Bengals team playing well enough to be a road Wild Card team for the second straight year.
10. Now it's Miami's turn to stop the insane New England offense. The Pats are averaging 47.5 points per game in the last four weeks. The Dolphins have given Tom Brady 36 points a game in their last four meetings. I'm not optimistic for the Fins.