In my job, athletes are not very good interviews after 34-0 losses. They don't want to talk after 34-0 losses. They will find every excuse not to pick up the phone after 34-0 losses. But Sunday was different. Victor Cruz is different. This weekend was different, around the country and certainly within a short drive from Newtown, Conn., where 20 elementary school children and six women charged with teaching and protecting them were murdered.
"When I heard about the shootings,'' Cruz said from Atlanta, "I was just fighting back tears. I couldn't stop, all [Friday] night. I took my [11-month-old] daughter, grabbed her, and held her, and she slept with me Friday night. I didn't want to let her go. I don't know ... You drop your child off at school. A routine dropoff, parents do it every day. And this happens, and what can you do.''
The Giants and their ace wide receiver, Cruz, went to Atlanta to play a football game. In the hotel Saturday night, Cruz kept noticing messages on his Twitter feed. All were about someone named Jack Pinto. "Fifty, 100 tweets, right in a row, people wanting me to get in touch with the Pinto family,'' Cruz said. He found out young Jack Pinto, 6, was one of those murdered in Newtown, and Jack was a huge Victor Cruz fan, and so he asked his girlfriend and publicist, Elaina Watley, to try to find the Pintos' phone number in Newtown, and she did. At 10 p.m. Saturday, here he was, on the phone with the father, Dean Pinto, and then Jack's brother Benjamin, and then Dean again.
The conversations weren't long, because no one could talk very well.
"The father was taken aback that the message got to me,'' Cruz said. "I told him I was going to do whatever I could to honor Jack. And Jack's brother, he was very emotional, fighting back tears. He barely got any words out.''
On Sunday morning, Cruz wrote on Twitter: "Today's game is for you Jack.''
On one shoe, Cruz wrote in black Sharpie: "Jack Pinto My Hero." On the other, "RIP Jack Pinto."
Falcons 34, Giants 0. Cruz wishes he, and the team, could have played better. But when the family says a murdered boy may be buried in his jersey, and all Cruz wants to do is anything to make them feel better, the game is a game. Now Cruz will do something, privately, he hopes, this week for the family.
"I just want to go down there and help any way I can, if I can,'' Cruz said quietly. "It's hard to know what to do. You just have to put your faith in God and pray."
There is no way to segue to football without seeming totally crass, so forgive me. Before I do, praise to the Giants, in Atlanta, and the Jets tonight, in Nashville, for remembering Sandy Hook Elementary School on their helmets. And to the Patriots, New England's team, for the Newtown helmet decals (right), and for sending up 26 flares honoring the school victims during a prolonged moment of silence before their game with the 49ers">49ers.
It's hard to know what to do.
Before muddling the playoff picture, here's the game of the day. No, the year.
You may have been asleep for the end of the game of the season; it ended after midnight on the East Coast, a good half hour after most Sunday-nighters are put to bed. In a game with eight fumbles, three interceptions, 51 first downs, 75 points and a blown 28-point lead, the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick beat New England 41-34. It's the first Patriots' home loss in December in 10 years, and that is not a misprint.
"You just beat Tom Brady!'' a smiling, wide-eyed Jim Harbaugh told Kaepernick when he found him on the field after the game.
"It feels amazing,'' Kaepernick said from Foxboro, an hour after the game. "Watching Tom, when I grew up, play the position so well, he was someone I always really admired.''
I could pick out lots to write about in this game. The Patriots scored four touchdowns in 14 and a half minutes against the best defense in football; there's one thing. I mean, the 49ers allowed 317 yards and 28 points to the Patriots, in freezing rain, in 19 minutes ... and won. "Tom Brady-ish,'' Harbaugh said afterward, describing the offensive display that nearly cost San Francisco the game.
But a 62-yard kickoff return by LaMichael James -- apparently the only Niner who doesn't promote agita in the return game -- and Kaepernick's biggest throw of the night saved the day for San Francisco midway through the fourth quarter. The Patriots had just tied it at 31, and in the huddle, before first down at the Patriots 38, Kaepernick said: "We have to score. We gotta put up seven right here.''
As in, right now. This play.
"I expected Cover Zero,'' Kaepernick told me. "And it's what we got.''
In Cover Zero, safety help vanishes, and defensive backs are in man coverage. They're the last line of defense. And or the quarterback, he just has to find a receiver fast, and make a decision fast.
BURKE: BEST AND WORST OF WEEK 15
New England clogged the line with six rushers: Rob Ninkovich, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Deaderick, Dont'a Hightower and Justin Francis. Before the snap, all quick-twitched like they were coming, and behind Deaderick lurked Brandon Spikes. Kaepernick was in his preferred Pistol distance from center, about 4.5 yards, and at the snap, all seven rushed. To Kaepernick's left was physical wideout Michael Crabtree, with cornerback Kyle Arrington poised to cover him. With the ball in his hands, Kaepernick had just one thought: "Find a quick answer and get it out of my hands.'' He whipped it to Crabtree five or six yards downfield, and Crabtree broke free from Arrington's grasp. And that was it. No safety between Arrington and the goal line. Devin McCourty sprinted from midfield to help, but he was too late. Touchdown.
"The biggest thing we learned today is it's never over 'til it's over,'' Kaepernick said. "They're down 28, and in a flash, they score 28. We've just got to put the pedal to the metal for 60 minutes every game.''
Kaepernick is growing into the job well. He's 4-1 as a starter now, and anyone (me included) who thought it was a mistake to bench Alex Smith has to look at Kaepernick's fastball and his 202 rushing yards in five starts and his surprising early accuracy (65.6 percent) and know Harbaugh knew what he was doing. Harbaugh had to figure: We're a very good team, maybe even a Super Bowl team, with Smith; but we could be a great team with Kaepernick. Making the move when he made it gave Harbaugh time to grow with Kaepernick, gave him the security to know if the kid couldn't handle it he could go back to Smith, and also gave Kaepernick the chance to be able to handle the kind of pressure he's going to have to endure and thrive in during the playoffs.
You don't get full explanations from Harbaugh about much. You get clues. And this, from his postgame presser early this morning, is about as far as he'll go to explain why Sunday's game was important for his team -- and Kaepernick. "I used to live next to a train station in Chicago,'' said the former Bears first-round pick. "It's like, the more you hear the train, the less you hear it. I feel that way with our team in terms of pressure in big games. The more you hear it, the less you hear. The more you feel it, the less you feel it. So, I feel good about that. I feel good about our team in those big game situations.''
He shouldn't feel good after winning in Foxboro. He should feel great.
BURKE: KAEPERNICK, 49ERS WITHSTAND RALLY
T-minus 13 days and counting ...
With 33 games left in the regular season, let's go over what we know of the playoff races, and the most compelling teams:
UPDATED PLAYOFF SCENARIOS
NFC: Three-way tie in the East between Washington, Dallas and New York, all 8-6. Washington wins the division by winning out (at Philadelphia, Dallas at home). The Cowboys, oddly and potentially painfully, could face the exact same scenario as in 2011: Be tied for the division lead entering Week 17, get flexed into the Sunday night game on NBC, play on the road for the division title, and be out of the playoffs with a loss. The Giants win the division only by winning out (at Baltimore, Philly at home) while Washington and Dallas lose at least one game each. The Giants win at least a wild card by going 2-0 ... Green Bay clinched the North by winning in Chicago Sunday. The Bears, losers of five of six, and Vikings are in play at 8-6. But the Bears have the advantageous schedule (at Arizona, at Detroit), while the Vikes play at Houston and home to Green Bay ... Atlanta has a five-game lead in the South, where the Bucs were eliminated Sunday ... San Francisco would have to be swept by Seattle and Arizona to lose the West. Seattle (9-5) looks solid as the fifth or sixth seed.
AFC: New England has clinched the East, Houston won the South by beating Indy Sunday, and Denver has officially lapped the West ... In the North, the Ravens (9-5) clinched a playoff spot thanks to the Steelers' loss, but are in free-fall, on a three-game losing streak with a moribund offense and generous defense, with the similarly desperate Giants coming to Baltimore Sunday. Baltimore clinches the division with one win in its last two games. The Bengals win the division only by going 2-0 against Pittsburgh and Baltimore while Baltimore goes 0-2. The Steelers, 7-7, can get the sixth seed by winning their last two. The Colts are a wild card with one win in their last two games (at Kansas City, Houston at home).
Playoff matchups to behold: If Washington wins the East, it likely would be the fourth seed. If Seattle wins one more game, it's likely the fifth seed. That would set up Russell Wilson at Robert Griffin, rookie quarterbacks facing off in Washington in what would be the game of wild-card weekend ... Imagine Chicago or Minnesota as six seeds -- with a wild-card game at likely third seed Green Bay ... Or, if the Giants can't once again pull a Houdini, opening the playoffs at Green Bay. I can hear Packers fans shrieking at the thought ... The attractions aren't as marquee in the AFC, though wherever Andrew Luck goes attention will follow. It'd be Indy at Baltimore if the playoffs were today, and Luck could certainly win that game.
Think of this: Three rookie quarterbacks starting playoff games.
Seattle's a sight to behold. Last nine quarters: Seattle 114, Foes 17. The Seahawks have won five of six, and in five of the last six, Wilson has a passer rating over 100. He's running the offense the way he ran the Wisconsin offense -- with freedom and instinctiveness, running to make plays and not just to get out of trouble -- as his three rushing touchdowns against Buffalo suggested. The Seahawks are a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and Wilson is afraid of nothing. But it's hard to imagine a playoff-green team with a rookie quarterback winning three straight on the road in January, which is what they'll almost certainly have to do to make it to New Orleans.
Atlanta, and Atlantans, feel better about themselves this morning. Sunday showcased the Indian Summer Matt Ryan, who was dominant against the Giants with a 23-of-28, three-touchdown day. Much needed, after five mediocre weeks for the Falcons. With the 34-0 win over the Giants, Atlanta showed the kind of explosiveness and defensive pressure the Falcons will have to have to beat explosive teams like Green Bay and San Francisco (and maybe Seattle) in the playoffs. Ryan said afterward the atmosphere around practice was "tense -- well, not tense, but intense, and that was good. We needed that. There was an edge to practice, like, 'This isn't good enough.' '' Ryan now has four weapons he relies on in the passing game, with slot receiver Harry Douglas (27 targets in the last six games) earning more of the offense's trust, and Tony Gonzalez continuing to be Mr. Reliable. In the last four games, he's caught 23 of the 26 balls Ryan's thrown his way. "Tony's willingness to work on his game in his 16th year in an inspiration to me,'' said Ryan, "and I see him do it every day."
Not much of a hangover for Houston. Embarrassing night in Foxboro Monday, with New England's 42-28 win. I asked J.J. Watt how long it took him to get over it. "The public perception would be that game was really damaging, but we never let it be,'' he said from Houston after the 29-17 win over Indianapolis. "Our bandwagon got a little lighter, and rightfully so. Playing like we did, I can't blame people for doubting us. But we didn't doubt ourselves.'' Watt was dominant against the patchwork Indy line in the 29-17 AFC South-clinching win Sunday, with three sacks and three more tackles for loss. He's putting together one of the best seasons ever by a 3-4 end ... in fact, name one who's had 19.5 sacks and 16 passes deflected in one year. You can't. There isn't one. "You know me,'' he said. "I don't care who's in there to block.''
BURKE: WATT AGAIN MAKES HIS CASE FOR DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
James Jones is this year's breakout star.Aaron Rodgers is as good as ever, and as long as he's in Green Bay, he'll be Chicago's kryptonite. He just doesn't make the mistakes most quarterbacks make, and he knows he can get out of trouble with his feet when he has to. And it helps for him to have the most underrated (but not for long) wide receiver in football, James Jones. The hands and speed and route-running of Jones make it possible for Rodgers to feel confident about throwing a pass to a spot, knowing if it's supposed to be a 13-yard curl, Jones isn't going to cut it off at 11 or lengthen it to 15. When I watch Jones, I think of a guy who shuts out all the outside distractions and focuses on one thing -- catching the ball. You saw it on one of his three touchdown catches from Rodgers at Soldier Field, in the far left of the end zone, being screened by a Chicago corner ... and not looking at the hands or arms in front of him. Only the ball. Touchdown. Here's a stat of the day: Jones has a league-leading 12 touchdown receptions. Twelve -- that's the number of touchdowns Calvin Johnson, Wes Welker and Steve Smith have combined to catch.
The Tagliabue aftermath.
The takeaways from Tagliabue's 22-page ruling in the Saints bounty case:
? I never knew Gregg Williams offered $5,000 to knock Brett Favre out of the NFC title game. But Tagliabue's brief says he did.
? The former commissioner's strategy was clear: Get this thing over with so the league can get on with the overwhelming issue of player health and safety. Tagliabue threw roundhouses at the Saints ("This sad chapter in the otherwise praiseworthy history of the New Orleans Saints casts no executive, coach or player in a favorable light") but seemed to olive-branch the players while comparing their intractable togetherness in backing their peers to a police-department blue wall of silence. (Wish I'd thought of that.)
? Yes, the evidence on Jonathan Vilma offering $10,000 to knock Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game three years ago had some holes shot in it in the testimony before Tagliabue ... even though Tagliabue writes, "There is more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell's findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty." And union boss De Smith is clear: He thinks it never happened -- though Tagliabue says it's "unequivocal'' that two former coaches testified that Vilma offered the bounty. But I can't help but think that Favre's forgiving boys-will-be-boys reaction to the entire story -- after getting battered so much in the NFC Championship that three Saints were fined for vicious hits on him -- and his desire that the story simply go away helped the union say it never happened.
? I understand the former commissioner doesn't want to release the transcripts of his appeals hearings, because of unnecessary collateral damage on other issues not relevant to the case. I hear him, but I think the public good would be better served by a full airing of the testimony so we can decide for ourselves if former Saints coaches Gregg Williams and Mike Cerullo are to be believed.
? As Chris Mortensen reported Sunday, Vilma's defamation case against Roger Goodell will include evidence that Cerullo is having his legal fees paid by the NFL. That, Vilma's attorneys will argue, puts his pro-NFL testimony in doubt. But the question will be: Was Cerullo having his legal fees paid by the NFL at the time he first blew the whistle on the Vilma bounty charge? If so, it's a roundhouse to the NFL's case. If not, it's dicey, but I don't see how it affects what he originally told the league.
? Amazing the different directions the two men implicated most by Tagliabue for the Saints' program, directly and indirectly, are headed. Someone, probably the Saints, is going to pay Sean Payton $8 million a year, or some such number, to coach. Williams will be hard-pressed to find a job in the NFL, or anywhere, for years.
No team in L.A. until at least 2014
That's the upshot of momentum-less franchise movement talks among the shaky teams -- the Raiders and Chargers, most notably -- as the new year approaches. In June, commissioner Roger Goodell laid out a scenario whereby a team would be allowed to move to Los Angeles, and a source at the league meetings in Dallas last week told me none of the tenuous teams are close to meeting the requisites. A team wanting to move would have to demonstrate these three conditions:
1. A team has to establish market failure where it now plays.
2. A new stadium deal would have to be in place in Los Angeles with the moving franchise. Four sites -- downtown, Chavez Ravine, Carson or City of Industry -- are possible landing spots for a relocated franchise.
3. An interim stadium deal -- at the Rose Bowl or Coliseum -- would have to be in place for the 2013 season and beyond.
As of Thursday, I'm told no team had satisfied any of the three conditions, and none is in serious discussions for a temporary place to play while a new stadium is built. Though the window for satisfying all three conditions is open until Feb. 15, progress has been nil, and it's now impossible that a team could get all three things done in the next eight weeks. That means we won't see a resolution on a new team for Los Angeles until early 2014, at the earliest.
The Deep End
Each week, thanks to play-by-play game dissection by ProFootballFocus.com, I'll look at one important matchup or individual performance metric from one of the Sunday games, and this week it's an analysis of Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, days after the Ravens fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and replaced him with Jim Caldwell:
"If the offensive output by Ravens was a referendum on the validity of the move from Cameron to Caldwell, it would qualify as an unmitigated failure. Flacco's box score figures themselves don't look too bad (20 of 40 for 254 yards with two touchdowns and an interception) but when you consider most of the "good" stuff came in garbage time and most of the bad getting them to garbage time, the true picture emerges.
"There was no blindingly obvious change in play-calling philosophy from Cameron to Caldwell, but when you go three-and-out on your first five possessions (netting only 25 yards in the process) it's difficult to spot trends anyway. Before having to go exclusively 11 personnel (three wide receivers) from the two-minute mark of the first half on, the Ravens used their base package -- two wides, two backs --more than normal (48 percent as opposed to Cameron's average of 36 percent). If there were any difference, Baltimore ran more frequently, but the sample size was small because of the way the game played out.
"When the Ravens eventually did manage to move the ball late in the half, Flacco served up a terrible interception on a two-yard out, and it was returned by Chris Harris 98 yards for a pick-6. Flacco eyeballed Anquan Boldin from snap to throw and it was probably one of the easiest plays Harris has had to make all year.
"The truth is that Flacco is inaccurate and inconsistent. In ProFootballFocus.com's adjusted accuracy ratings (which counts drops as completions and discounts throw-aways, batted passes, spikes and when the QB was hit as he threw) he ranks 32nd of 37 qualifying players with a 68.1 completion percentage; by way of comparison Peyton Manning is fifth with 78.7 percent. Flacco has not played well now since the 55-20 demolition of Oakland five weeks ago. As an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, he's not giving the Ravens the easy decision they hoped he might. And for one week, the change to Caldwell did not bear fruit."
BANKS: RAVENS' SEASON CONTINUES DOWNWARD SLIDE
1. San Francisco (10-3-1). This is the best example of what a strange year this is: The team that can't beat the Rams is, this morning, the best team in football.
2. Denver (11-3). Won nine straight by an average of 13 points. What's most important: If the Broncos win out, New England would have to play in Denver in a playoff matchup.
3. New England (10-4). Not too fired up over Andy Dalton's chances to beat an angry New England team in a wild-card game. Now, if it were Andrew Luck, I wouldn't like his chances much either, but I would like the drama of him trying to atone for his Week 11 Foxboro debacle.
4. Houston (12-2).Arian Foster (27 for 165 yards) shows week after week that there's only one back in the league more valuable, and that's the superior being playing in Minnesota. Foster is the biggest reason the Texans beat the Colts and won their second straight AFC South title.
5. Atlanta (12-2). Forty-nine weeks after losing to the Giants by 22, the Falcons, with basically the same cast, beat them by 34. Strange league.
6. Seattle (9-5). Next Sunday's game versus the Niners has morphed from an NFC West championship game at CenturyLink Field to Seattle trying to solidify its grip on the fifth seed in the NFC. Important, but not the way it would have been if the Niners had lost Sunday night. By the way, Russell Wilson made a pretty good case Sunday in Toronto for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
7. Green Bay (10-4). Green Bay's 25-5 in the last two regular seasons, best in the league over that span. Green Bay's getting healthier too. It owns Chicago; Sunday's win was the sixth straight in this series. Green Bay won the NFC North for the second straight year. Not a lot bad to say about this one -- except surviving one of the dumbest calls I've seen in years, the throwback on the punt return in the fourth quarter, en route to defeating the Bears at Soldier Field.
8. Washington (8-6). The Redskins enter the driver's seat in the NFC East, with an edge in the schedule too. At Philly and Dallas at home in the last two weeks, and if they go 2-0, the 'Skins play a home playoff game on Wild Card weekend.
9. Cincinnati (8-6). The Bengals are 5-1 in their last six, even if they haven't looked playoff-threatening doing so.
10. Indianapolis (9-5). TheColts clinch a playoff spot with one win in their last two (at Kansas City, Houston at home), and Andrew Luck is 22 passing yards from 4,000 with two games to play. Those are two things I didn't think I'd be writing early in the morning of Dec. 17, 2012.
11. Dallas (8-6). The Saints come to town Sunday, fresh off a shutout of Tampa Bay. That's trouble.
12. New York Giants (8-6). The Giants travel to Baltimore Sunday, fresh off being shut out at Atlanta. That's trouble.
13. Minnesota (8-6). The Vikes may have to win out to be a wild card, and I don't see them winning at Houston next Sunday. That they're in it at all is a tribute to Peterson, of course.
14. Pittsburgh (7-7). Stunned at all the Steeler fans who want to see Mike Tomlin fired. I read those silly message boards on Steelers fan sites. Part scary, part alarmist, part unwillingness to realize every team is 7-7 now and again.
15. Baltimore (9-5). This is a playoff team? The Ravens are 0-3 this month, and they've been outscored by 23 points, and their quarterback is completing 53 percent of his throws. Bad.
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco. The first Niners quarterback to throw four touchdown passes in one game since 2003 walked into Gillette Stadium and beat the hottest team in football Sunday night, in a cold rain. What was most impressive was the fourth touchdown, coming on the first play from scrimmage after the Patriots stormed back from a 28-point deficit to tie the game. Kaepernick recognized the Patriots blitzing the house and giving him a Cover Zero look (no safety help for his corners), so he found Michael Crabtree for the winning touchdown. Jim Harbaugh has an amazing football player, if the Kaepernick's first five starting weeks are any indication.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle. A perfect game for Russell Wilson, just the way Wilson wants to play -- running a lot, playing option football, playing from the pocket. "Whatever we call, we know something good can happen with Russell right now,'' said coach Pete Carroll after the 50-17 rout of Buffalo in Toronto. Wilson rushed nine times for 92 yards and three touchdowns on runs of 14, 25 and 13 yards. He completed 14 of 23 for 205 yards and a touchdown.
Wilson's been such a revelation that, week by week, it's hard to fathom how good he's become versus the image of what 90 percent of the NFL coaching and scouting community had of him before the draft.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota. That's it. I'm retiring the Offensive Player of the Week award. Peterson has it forever. His 24-carry, 212-yard day leaves him 294 shy of Eric Dickerson's single-season NFL record of 2,105 rushing yards. We're watching one of the most amazing rushing seasons we've ever seen.
Defensive Players of the Week
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston. Another in a string of amazing games for Watt. I read a note in Greg Bedard's excellent Sunday notes column in the Boston Globe. He quoted an anonymous offensive assistant and personnel man about the 49ers, and one of the quotes extolling the virtues of San Francisco's superb defensive lineman Justin Smith was that "Smith is 20 times better'' than Watt. That would lead me to wonder: Does this expert actually watch football?
No criticism of Bedard here; he's just quoting someone he relies on as a source. But this expert has an interesting view. It's like a rock promoter saying Springsteen's 20 times better than Bono. Watt destroyed the Colts Sunday. Ten tackles. Three sacks. Three tackles of running backs behind the line. A forced fumble. In 14 games, this 3-4 defensive end has the impossible statistical resume of 19.5 sacks and 16 passes deflected.
Justin Smith is one of the best defensive players in recent history, but J.J. Watt is having one of the best seasons by a defensive lineman in years. It helped that the Colts' offensive line has been hit by injuries and backups were playing center and a guard spot, but Watt ruined everything in his path Sunday.
Brandon Carr, CB, Dallas. When the Cowboys signed Carr at five years and $50 million, they did it in the hope he'd give them moments like Sunday's. Carr dove in front of Steelers wideout Mike Wallace on the second snap of overtime, intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass that hung up just a moment too long, and returned it 36 yards to the 1-yard line, setting up the winning field goal in a 27-24 Dallas win. "I saw [Roethlisberger's] eyes,'' said Carr. "I knew." He gets paid to know, and his pick drew the Cowboys into a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Bryan Braman, LB, Houston. A second-year free agent from West Texas A&M, Braman continued his play as one of the premier special-teams players in league. With the Texans up 13-3 and Pat McAfee punting from his 29, Braman broke through protection, blocked the punt, chased it down, recovered it at the 8, and ran it in for the touchdown.
Sebastian Janikowski, K, Oakland. Only one person scored points in the Raiders' 15-0 home win over the Chiefs Sunday. Janikowski booted field goals from 20, 50, 57, 30 and 41 yards.
Dr. Z Unsung Men in the Trenches of the Week
The award for the offensive linemen who were the biggest factors in the weekend's games, named for my friend Paul Zimmerman, the longtime SI football writer struggling in New Jersey to recover from three strokes suffered in November 2008. Zim, a former collegiate offensive lineman himself, loved watching offensive line play.
Anthony Dixon, RB, and Larry Grant, LB, San Francisco. An unusual choice this week, because of the most unique play of the weekend -- a fake punt on a diagonal Pistol snap from Niners long-snapper Brian Jennings to safety Dashon Goldson, playing a cockeyed personal protector. Goldson took the snap, and Dixon, playing left end, and Grant, playing left tackle on the punt team, were the keystones to a 31-yard run that made the play work.
Dixon crashed into rusher Brandon Bolden of the Patriots, and Grant caved in Patriots linebacker Mike Rivera. Once Goldson was around the end, he made a couple of moves and was in the clear. Dixon's a former sixth-round pick, and Grant came in as a veteran free agent, and all too often, it's those kinds of players who become huge factors down the stretch of the season.
Coach of the Week
Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator, New Orleans. The game didn't mean a lot, this 41-0 shutout of the Bucs, because the Saints are out of playoff contention. But Spagnuolo has been preaching patience with his defense, knowing his players would eventually get it, and Sunday they did. The Bucs went up and down the field more than the Saints would have liked, but they never pierced the end zone, and afterward the players and coaches said it was a tribute to Spagnuolo's work and scheme that finally paid off.
Said interim coach Joe Vitt: "It's certainly a tribute to Steve Spagnuolo and his staff and players, the way they've stuck together. That's staying the course with the right players and the right coaches and the right attitude and the right teaching and the proper accountability.''
Goats of the Week
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore. Playing his first game since offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired (a move he had to believe was long overdue), Flacco drove the Ravens deep into Denver territory, trailing 10-0 in the second quarter. Flacco threw to Anquan Boldin near the left pylon, and spying him all along, cornerback Chris Harris nabbed the interception at the Denver 2-yard line. Harris ran 98 yards to give the Broncos a 17-0 lead and effectively ending the game.
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh. Fumbled a punt return at a crucial time, allowing the Cowboys to come back and force overtime. Misplayed a punt by positioning himself too deep and letting the punt bounce to the Cowboys' benefit. And he went out of bounds when he could have run for a first down. All contributed nicely to the Steelers' overtime loss in Dallas.
Quote of the Week I
"Ed's charging $1,000 an hour at his law firm."
-- NBC's Al Michaels, on the interminable delay in the second quarter caused by referee Ed Hochuli's crew reviewing a bizarre punt play in the Patriots-Niners game. Hochuli, in his other life, is an attorney.
Quote of the Week II
"That's tough for me to answer right now. The second half we didn't do much of it, and that's disappointing.''
-- Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, on the lack of a no-huddle offense called by offensive coordinator Todd Haley in the second half of the overtime loss at Dallas.
Quote of the Week III
"That's about as bad as I can play.''
-- Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford, after throwing three interceptions -- two returned for touchdowns -- in the Lions' shocking 38-10 loss at Arizona.
Quote of the Week IV
"We've heard a couple of times now of a black guy kind of distancing himself away from black people ... I've talked to some people down in Washington D.C., friends of mine, who are around and at some of the press conferences, people I've known for a long time. But my question, which is just a straight honest question: 'Is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?' ... He's black, he kind of does his thing, but he's not really down with the cause, he's not one of us. He's kind of black, but he's not really the guy you'd really want to hang out with ... I keep hearing these things. We all know he has a white fiancée. There was all this talk about he's a Republican, which, there's no information [about that] at all.''
-- ESPN commentator Rob Parker, on Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Separation of the races. That's what we need in America!
Parker was suspended by ESPN for his words.
DEITSCH: PARKER'S COMMENTS GIVE ESPN A BAD NAME
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
President Obama wants to play basketball with Robert Griffin III this offseason, and that will almost certainly happen. Griffin has another idea, different from the kind of 5-on-5 that the president likes to play. Griffin wants to get his friend, Baylor women's star Brittany Greiner, and play a 2-on-2 match: Griffin and President Obama vs. Greiner and First Lady Michelle Obama.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
So I'm walking into work Sunday at the NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center, and I come upon a tour group with a pleasant middle-aged man showing a group of tourists around the historic building. "I was giving a tour earlier this fall,'' he said, "when I saw Dan Patrick walk into the building!"
Just then, maybe 15 seconds behind me, Dan Patrick walked into the building, right by the tour group, having no idea what the man had said 15 seconds earlier. The tour guide said nothing. Apparently he didn't see Patrick.
Dawn Hochsprung Tweets of the Year
Hochsprung, 47, was the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary, holding a staff meeting Friday morning when a man armed with three guns broke into the school and came looking for victims to kill. One of the first, if not the first, was Hochsprung, who tore out of the meeting when she heard the first shots from his semi-automatic machine gun inside the school.
Hochsprung used Twitter quite a bit, and you can see from her account how inspirational and how enthusiastic she was at her job. Who wouldn't want to work for Hochsprung? Who wouldn't want their children in a school run by Hochsprung?
How heartbroken must every parent of a child in that school be to know Hochsprung was assassinated and won't be there for their kids for one more day, one more hour?
Getting to know Hochsprung through her tweets since the school year began:
Aug. 24, 5:53 a.m., on the first day of school for kindergartners: "Welcoming our Kinders this morning ... 74 new opportunities to inspire lifelong learning!"
Aug. 24, 3:17 p.m., "Sandy Hook teachers, students, and parents planted a garden and donated their harvested veggies to the soup kitchen throughout the summer!''
Sept. 2, 7:40 a.m., one of a series of philosophical tweets about learning: "Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important. -- Bill Gates"
Oct. 13, 4:56 p.m., "Mary Ehrenworth, 'When people ask me how much a child should read every day always I say, 'As much as humanly possible.' "
Oct. 17, 9:47 a.m., and if you don't get chills from this ... "Safety first at Sandy Hook ... It's a beautiful day for our annual evacuation drill! ''
Nov. 6, 6:31 a.m., "Vote today... and talk to your kids about it!!''
Nov. 9, 1:37 p.m., "In a fourth grade classroom right now... Completely blown away by the caliber of instruction and by students' deep thinking!"
Nov. 23, 4:30 p.m., " 'Books are the perfect entertainment: no commercials, no batteries, hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent.' -- Stephen King''
Dec. 4, 8:05 a.m., "30 Sandy Hook teachers gather for an early morning Appy Hour... sharing the best iPad apps for our classrooms! ?
Dec. 10, 11:45 a.m., "Sandy Hook kinders write lists, select grocery items, and pay the cashier at Mrs. Vollmer's new Supermarket Center! "
Dec. 12, 2:42 p.m., "Sandy Hook students enjoy the rehearsal for our 4th grade winter concert - a talented group led by Maryrose Kristopik!"
Forty-three hours after that last tweet, Dawn Hochsprung ran at a crazed 20-year-old Newtown resident aiming a semi-automatic rifle, and the man, Adam Lanza, shot her dead.
After Lanza killed Hochsprung, he went down a hall in the school and banged on a door, demanding to be let in. The music teacher, Maryrose Kristopik, who her principal had been so proud of a day and a half earlier, locked one door, barricaded another with musical instruments, and locked her fourth-grade students in a closet in case Lanza was able to break in. In the closet, Kristopik told the fourth-graders she loved them. She told them they would be with their parents soon. She told them to be quiet. She told them to hug each other. Lanza moved on. And they survived.
Tweet of the Week I
"Nothing like Rex's night before the game speeches to get your mind right. I'm jacked out of my mind. Btw congrats to the Seahawks. 50 again?''
-- @OfficialBraylon, Jets wide receiver Braylon Edwards, at 10:26 p.m. Eastern Time, back in his room in Nashville, presumably, after coach Rex Ryan's Sunday evening talk to his team in advance of tonight's game at Tennessee. Edwards was just picked up on waivers from Seattle last week.
Tweet of the Week II
"Kaepernick 6, Nerves 0."
-- @mattbarrows, 49ers beat man for the Sacramento Bee, tweeting live from Foxboro Sunday night after the Niners went up on the Patriots with an early Colin Kaepernick-to-Randy Moss touchdown pass.
Tweet of the Week III
"My favorite part of the fine email from the NFL -- they end it with 'sincerely.' It's the little touches that let you know they care."
-- @chriswarcraft, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, acknowledging the receipt of a fine letter from the NFL, saying he'd be docked $5,250 for a uniform violation for covering a Pro Football Hall of Fame patch with "Vote Ray Guy'' written on a piece of athletic tape.
Tweet of the Week IV
"Felix Hernandez has just asked if he can play for the Seahawks. #RunSupport"
-- @PeterBotte, baseball writer for the New York Daily News, after the 'Hawks' 108-point explosion over two games, including Sunday's 50-17 win over Buffalo.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 15:
a. The amazing first-quarter pass rush by Houston's J.J. Watt, who swatted away the Colts' right guard, stormed past a whiffing running back trying to protect Andrew Luck, then slammed Luck down for a drive-killing sack.
b. Leslie Frazier going for it on 4th-and-1 in a game that the Vikings had to have to stay in the playoff race -- with shaky Christian Ponder at quarterback.
c. Ponder, somehow, evading about five Rams and lunging in for a touchdown on said 4th-and-1 call.
d. Trent Richardson running like the season's on the line.
e. Kirk Cousins, with a beautiful throw to Leonard Hankerson over the Cleveland coverage, on the run, evading traffic. Athletic play, strong-armed play ... and illustrative of why Mike Shanahan double-dipped with the rookie quarterbacks this year.
f. Julio Jones with a 1,000-yard receiving season, which the Falcons should get used to.
g. With Giant defender Will Hill hanging onto him, Tony Gonzalez skying and grabbing a Matt Ryan touchdown throw.
h. Knowshon Moreno (22 for 118) using Ed Reed like a high hurdle. With days and moves like that, he affords Willis McGahee time to get healthy.
i. Number 37 for Charles Tillman -- the 37th forced fumble of his career, against Green Bay. Hard to imagine any future defender forcing more.
j. Asante Samuel, with an athletic tipped interception of Eli Manning to open the floodgates in Atlanta.
k. At least Joe Flacco can talk better than he plays -- for now: "It feels like we're 0-14."
l. Andre Johnson, 11 for 151. Old man river.
m. Rashad Johnson and Greg Toler, with 155 yards worth of interception returns for touchdown for the Cards.
n. The Panthers, for showing up.
2. This is what I didn't like about Week 15:
a. The Chargers, for not.
b. Sometimes coaches have to do tough things. John Harbaugh did it last week, firing Cam Cameron with three weeks left in a playoff season. Might be time for Mike McCarthy to do the same with his slumping kicker, Mason Crosby. In a scoreless game likely for the division title, Crosby missed as far wide right on a 42-yarder as you can miss. Later he missed a 43-yarder. Can't wait any longer.
c. Crosby's 17 of 29. That's 59 percent. In the NFL, that's a prehistoric field goal rate.
d. Some would look at the Texans' first drive against Indianapolis and say, "Good job. Getting three on the first drive and taking an early lead." I'd say: A bad Matt Schaub throw to Andre Johnson cost the Texans four points on the play. Schaub threw far too short for Johnson, who had to wait for the ball and got caught by Vontae Davis. What should have been a 7-0 lead morphed into 3-0 when Houston couldn't finish the drive.
e. Lawrence Tynes, with his third miss in three weeks for the Giants.
f. Kirk Cousins' 0-for-3 passing start, and his early interception, into traffic. Cannot take those chances.
g. Jayron Hosley, for getting beat on a double-move by Atlanta wideout Harry Douglas, setting up Atlanta's second score.
h. David Akers, who is giving the Niners plenty of reason to bring in kickers for tryouts this week.
i. Antonio Brown's judgment.
j. Patriots 0-for-7 in third downs in the first half Sunday night. Wes Welker with zero catches. In the wise words of Vince Lombardi, "What the hell's going on here!"
k. Kaepernick's dumb interception in the third quarter, into double coverage when he tried to force a throw into Randy Moss. Not a whole lot else dumb done by the young quarterback.
3. I think I loved the analysis by Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal on Sunday. He wrote insightfully about the end of the Jermichael Finley run with Green Bay, and concluded he's gone.
Wrote McGinn: "Barring a shocking turn of events in the next month or so, tight end Jermichael Finley is playing his fifth and final season for the team. Sources familiar with the Packers' thinking say the club not only wants to get rid of Finley but has decided to do exactly that in the offseason. It means that if the Packers cannot find a trade partner, they are prepared to release Finley because of financial, competitive and behavioral reasons.''
Someone's going to get a very good tight end, if Finley can learn to be quieter and more team-centric. But in a flat-cap era, I doubt he'll make $7 million a year, which was his average under his current deal.
4. I think the design of the Seahawks regarding their Adderall-suspended starting cornerbacks is as smart as it can possibly be: Brandon Browner takes the last four games of the regular season as his suspension and would return for any playoff games. Richard Sherman tries to push his appeal off so he can finish the regular season.
5. I think, now that the Saints' appeal has been heard and adjudicated by Paul Tagliabue, one thing that has to happen is this: Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith have to rebuild their relationship. It's not good right now. It's not quite Obama-Boehner, but it's close. Too many important things at stake (HGH testing the first one) to have a cold war between the league and union.
6. I think the charity function of the week, and a very good one, is a live auction benefiting the valuable and important Gridiron Greats, which helps needy retired players. You can go online tonight at 7 Eastern Time and bid on a number of items, live. The coolest thing, by far, is bidding on dinner with Marv Levy at Ditka's in Chicago. Not just because you'd be able to dine with a guy who's coached in four Super Bowls, but because you'd be able to get a history lesson on football.
7. I think, as I've thought since news of the canceled Sean Payton contract in New Orleans broke, that the longer the stalemate lasted, the bigger the chance Payton would leave. And maybe Jay Glazer's strong report Sunday -- that Payton isn't close to a deal and will not limit his options to New Orleans and Dallas if a deal isn't reached soon -- is posturing, but keep in mind that Glazer is closer than anyone in the media to Payton. He knows.
8. I think my biggest question of the day came at halftime of Panthers-Chargers, Carolina up 24-0: Will San Diego come out for the second half?
9. I think the bush league play of the day was Seattle running a fake punt up 47-17 on Buffalo in the fourth quarter. Pete Carroll took responsibility for it after the game, saying he could have called it off. But the call, likely by special teams coordinator Brian Schneider, should never, ever have been made. Why rub a team's face in it?
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Three straight Sundays with moments of silence, homage to tragedies in Kansas City, Dallas and Newtown. Please don't let us get used to that, ever.
b. I don't have an intelligent solution to the gun violence in this country, the violence that can allow an unstable man to murder 20 children with between three and 11 shots apiece from a semi-automatic weapon firing terroristic hollow-point bullets designed to inflict the most damage possible. But smarter people than I must have ideas what to do, while protecting the right of law-abiding Americans to bear arms.
We have to stop cowering to those opposed to meaningful gun reform, to those who blindly and obediently say, "Gun don't kill; people kill." That's a nice slogan. It's also ridiculously and cruelly blind to the events of recent months in America, where a movie theater, shopping mall and idyllic New England elementary school have been shot up by sick people -- and, in the case of the Newton shootings, a sick person with access to the kinds of guns used in war zones.
c. Having said that, it's obvious too that we have to address the mental health aspect of this, and to care better for those on society's fringes. When our politicians are cutting budgets, as they certainly are on the eve of the fiscal cliff talks, they'd better be careful about slashing public funding for mental health in this country.
d. Your moves, President Obama, and leaders of the House and Senate, on both sides of the aisle. Be leaders. Do the right thing. Do something.
e. And for those who say to me, "Stick to sports,'' you've got the wrong guy. I won't be offended if you never click on this column again, or if you stop listening to me on radio or TV, or stop following me on Twitter. It's a free country, and we're not going to agree on everything. The media world has changed -- maybe for the better, maybe not. But it's different than the world was in 1989, when I was hired by Sports Illustrated.
A generation or two ago, a sportswriter covering the NFL might never have been asked for his opinion on anything -- he might have reported on the NFL and not been opinionated about it, but rather have been right down the middle on everything. I was hired by the magazine strictly to be a reporter and writer 23 years ago; that started to change with the advent of the internet a few years later.
Now, my job in this multi-media world is to report on events in a straightforward way in stories for Sports Illustrated -- as happened a couple of weeks ago with my cover story on the Colts -- and on NBC's Football Night in America, then to be a reporter with football opinions and personal opinions in this column and others on SI.com. And to do pretty much whatever I want on Twitter, keeping in mind my SI bosses asked me in 2009 to interact with readers for a few minutes every day. So that's my job. It's not everyone's job in this business, but it's mine. And I respect you if you think I do it poorly, or you disagree with me. It's also your option to skip over my rantings if you wish, particularly in a long column like this. There should be enough football in it for anyone. Your call.
f. I bet a lot of parents, sitting around the dinner table Friday night, said to one another: "We've got to home-school our kids."
g. Saw Lincoln the other day and was wowed. Loved the movie, loved the story, loved the drama about getting the anti-slavery bill passed. Daniel Day-Lewis did one of the best acting jobs I've ever seen, showing Lincoln as a great compromiser, good Washington game-player, dealing with a troubled wife and angry son, and as a witty guy. I walked out of the theater thinking how history repeats itself. We see the rancor and intractability in Washington now and think it must never have been this bad ... and yet if anything 150 years ago, it was worse.
I also tried to think of what Roger Goodell thought when he left the movie -- assuming he's seen it. If he thinks he's doing the right thing on something (such as the Saints bounty sanctions), his backbone is such, with the family history of his father being a strong-willed New York politician, that he won't back down either.
h. The Angels are going to lose a lot of 14-9 games next year.
i. Josh Hamilton with a five-year contract worth $25 million a year, with no language protecting the team in the event of a relapse by Hamilton, who freely admits he has sometimes struggled with his sobriety. Was Thursday "Free Reefer Day" in the Angels front office?
j. Rick Reilly, you hit a grand slam the other day with your ESPN feature on J.J. Watt being a big brother to the orphaned handicapped kids in Houston. Wow. What a story.
k. Coffeenerdness: I see you, Dunkin Donuts, infringing on Starbucks turf in Manhattan. You're everywhere! Coffee wars!
l. Beernerdness: Congrats to my old Jersey hangout, the Cloverleaf Tavern, for importing Allagash White and seasonal brew Allagash Black. Why'd I move again?
m. I am dizzy from following the Big East defections. Marietta College get invited in yet? And this Catholic basketball version of the conference ... What's that going to be called? I'd suggest The Vatican League.
Who I Like Tonight, and I Mean Aditi Kinkhabwala
The former Wall Street Journal staffer, now with NFL Network and NFL.com, has a terrific profile on the Steelers' backup running back, Baron Batch, with an emphasis on just how far a person with intense desire can go in life. There can't be many athletes in sports today who have risen from as humble a childhood as Batch did, growing up hungry and shuffled from one caregiver to another, and "I'd much rather have nothing and now this than to be born with everything and not know how to work,'' Baron says in the story.
Now for Tennessee 15, New York Jets 13. Mike Munchak likely has to win two of his last three (Jets at home, at Packers, Jags at home) to have a good chance to come back for year three. And much of his success in the next 14 days will be up to the quarterback who is on his second coordinator of the season; Dowell Loggains took over for Chris Palmer last month, with the offense stalled.
You can change coaches all you want, but the issue for Jake Locker has been, and may always be, his accuracy. In his four seasons at Washington, Locker completed 47, 54, 58 and 55 percent of his throws, yet the Titans chose him eighth overall in 2011. Near the end of his second season in the NFL, Locker's accuracy rate is 56.2 percent.
Great guy, eager learner, very competitive ... Locker has all the things you want in a quarterback, except the most important one -- the ability to move the chains with accurate throws. At least so far that's the case. In the last three weeks, starting against a resurgent Jets defense tonight, he has to be better to help this coaching staff not get blown out at the end of the season.
The Adieu Haku
Why I'm not a coach:
Kaepernick over Alex.
Harbaugh knows his craft.