RENTON, Wash. -- It's so strange to see Ryan Longwell here, out of retirement, into the NFL's Final Eight. This is the day he should have been doing a light jog, just to stay loose as his final pre-race prep for Sunday's Walt Disney World Marathon, which winds its way through all four Disney parks in Orlando, where Longwell now calls home. It was to be the first marathon of his life.
But that all changed with a crappy field, a Sunday night phone call and a chance to put some ghosts to bed forever. Longwell is happy to have one more chance in the NFL playoffs, to try to make up for a chance he never had that he can never forget
Longwell, 38, who hadn't kicked anywhere since the Vikings cut him in training camp, will be the Seahawks' kicker Sunday in Atlanta. Four years ago, he was a 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty from a field goal that would have put the Vikings, not the Saints, in the Super Bowl against Peyton Manning and the Colts. Imagine if he gets the chance to win a game this month ... and put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl against Peyton Manning and the Broncos
"Every year when the playoffs come around, I think about that day in New Orleans,'' Longwell said at the Seahawks complex. "One of my biggest regrets in football was not having the chance to make that kick.''
Recall the day, Jan. 24, 2010 ... the infamous Brett Favre Bounty Game (or not), the NFC Championship Game. Minnesota and New Orleans were tied at 28, and the Vikes had a third-and-10 at the Saints' 33 with 19 seconds to go. Longwell was on the sidelines, ready to go in to try a field goal of 50 or 51 yards, or maybe a couple of yards shorter, after one more rushing attempt.
Minnesota called a timeout to discuss strategy. In what will go down as an all-time gaffe in Vikings history, two personnel groups were sent back on the field, including one with a fullback. That week, the Vikings tinkered with a safe pass play, removing fullback Naufahu Tahi and inserting wide receiver Bernard Berrian to make it a three-wide "bunch'' formation on the right side. Only thing wrong was, Tahi -- either sent by a coach or mistakenly thinking he should be on the field instead of Berrian -- ran into the huddle. By the time the Vikings huddled for the play call, Tahi realized he shouldn't be in the game, but it was too late. Flag. Twelve men in the huddle. Five-yard penalty.
(The amazing part of the play call, in retrospect: The Vikings called the exact same pass play on third down both before the penalty and after. Though normal wisdom with a gun-slinging quarterback like Favre in the game would call for a safe run to try to get Longwell two yards or so closer, the coaches called for a pass.)
KING: DIVISIONAL ROUND PREDICTIONS
Third-and-15 from the 38 now. A 55-yard try, maybe 56, if the Vikings don't advance the ball on third down.
"I wanted a try,'' Longwell said, leaning up against a wall at the Seahawks' facility. "We gave them [the coaches] the green light. I could make it. I was ready. We were in a dome. No weather. The adrenaline was flowing. I was very confident. I hit the ball really well in pregame. They wanted to try to get closer.''
Then Favre made a play that made Vikings fans sick. He rolled out, and, seeing his safe receiver, Berrian, closely covered by a cornerback, eschewed a run that probably would have netted him six or eight yards. He threw across his body for Sidney Rice. He didn't have much juice on the ball. And Tracy Porter stepped in front of Rice and picked the ball off.
The Vikings never touched the ball again. New Orleans won on a 40-yard Garrett Hartley field goal in overtime.
"I still feel in my heart of hearts I could have made the kick,'' Longwell said.
He was sitting on his couch Sunday night when agent Frank Bauer called and told him Seattle kicker Steve Hauschka had gotten hurt that day in Washington. Would he like one more chance? Longwell won a kicking derby on Tuesday and was signed for that one more chance. That's what Longwell hopes for sometime in the next three weeks.
Player You Need to Know This Weekend
Michael Oher, RT, Baltimore (No. 74). He won't have Von Miller rushing against him on every play, but Oher, who moved last week from the left to the right side to accommodate the return of Bryant McKinnie to the Baltimore lineup, will have to keep Miller away from Joe Flacco on at least half of Saturday's snaps. Oher's had an up-and-down year, and I'd look for some help from the Ravens' two tight ends on Miller.
Ten Things I'll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The end, maybe, for Ray Lewis, 37. Great story from Gil Brandt the other day about Lewis. Brandt ran the Playboy All-America team photo shoot for years, and in 1995, Lewis, 20, was about to enter his senior season at Miami, and he was a linebacker on the Playboy team -- and the youngest player gathered at the photo shoot. "He was clearly the leader, which was strange for a guy who was so young,'' said Brandt. But whether it was pickup basketball or going out at night, Lewis was the pied piper. It was sort of a sign of things to come. Saturday afternoon in Denver, Lewis needs a win to come back for more, or else he'll be on the ESPN set that much quicker.
2. The end, maybe, for Tony Gonzalez, 36. I told Seattle safety Kam Chancellor that he might be covering Gonzalez -- and Chancellor will be one of the prime men shadowing the great Gonzalez Sunday at the Georgia Dome -- in his final NFL game. "Really?'' Chancellor said he didn't know Gonzalez said before the year and again this week that he was 95 percent sure this will be the last season of his career. "He sure can still play,'' Chancellor said.
3. Tom Brady goes for the gold. Brady and Joe Montana are tied for the most career playoff wins (16) in NFL history. The longer he plays, the more idols he leaves behind.
4. Whither Brian Kelly? The Notre Dame coach was at Cincinnati for three years before leaving for Notre Dame. He's been at Notre Dame now for three years. Coincidence? We'll see in the next day or two. Because of recruiting, Kelly can't let the will-he-or-won't-he thing last forever.
5. Anyone want to coach Philadelphia? One former head coach told me Thursday: "Good coaches are scared of Philadelphia.'' The two guys they really liked, Chip Kelly and Bill O'Brien, are back at Oregon and Penn State, respectively, and the Eagles are looking for Mr. Goodbar still. I hear they very much want a coach with prior head-coaching experience.
BURKE: BREAKING DOWN FALCONS-SEAHAWKS
6. Art Modell's back. Notable in the final 15 candidates released this morning for the 2013 Pro Football Hall of Fame class (a maximum of five modern-era candidates can be elected annually) was the return of the late owner of the Browns and Ravens. Should be some lively discussion about him this weekend -- and for the next three weeks, leading up to the Feb. 2 vote.
7. The Broncos look to stay hot. On a very cold day, apparently. With the temperature forecast to be 19 degrees with a chance of flurries at Mile High, Denver looks to win its 12th straight. The Broncos haven't lost since the first weekend of the baseball playoffs. Remember one thing: John Harbaugh has won four road playoff games in four previous seasons.
8. Tebow, eh? Head north, Tim Tebow. To the CFL. Unless a smart quarterback mentor like Mike McCarthy takes you on as a backup to an established starter, Canada is your best chance to do what you want to do, which is to become an every-down NFL starter. "I can't imagine a scenario in which he'll be a Jacksonville Jaguar -- even if he's released,'' new Jags general manager David Caldwell said Thursday.
9. Pressure on David Akers and Mason Crosby. The Niners-Packers game could come down to a late field goal, and both teams have kickers coming off D-minus regular seasons. Akers won a contest with Billy Cundiff this week to kick this weekend, but he knows he can't feel very secure.
10. This just in: NFL teams like offense. Doug Marrone in Buffalo, Rob Chudzinski in Cleveland, Andy Reid in K.C., Chip Kelly and Bill O'Brien before they went back to college, maybe Marc Trestman in Chicago, maybe Greg Roman in Jacksonville ... get the message?