The winds of what looked to be a Broncos rout over the Patriots changed dramatically Sunday night. In a game of oddities, it was only fitting that in the end it all came down to a relative cast of unknowns and the unpredictable landing of one punt
Well, if you went to bed at halftime, when Denver led New England 24-0, you missed:
• The Patriots scoring 31 points in a row.
• Tom Brady throwing three touchdown passes into the teeth of a 22-mph wind in the third quarter.
• Peyton Manning driving the Broncos 80 yards into said stiff wind for the tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter to force overtime.
• On the 11-year anniversary of the ill-fated Marty Mornhinweg deferral to start overtime (Lions-Bears, Champaign, Ill.; for more details, that is why Google and Bing were invented, but suffice to say it did not end well for coach Mornhinweg), the Patriots won the toss, and Bill Belichick chose to give Manning the ball to start overtime. "We were like, 'Defer? Take the wind?' Even the captains didn’t know," said Patriots defensive captain Devin McCourty.
• Very nearly the first day in the NFL in 40 years with two ties.
• The last of 11 fumbles (a muff, actually, though it goes on the stat sheet as a fumble), this one with three minutes left in overtime, leading to the most disheartening loss in Denver hist—oh, wait, there was that double-overtime divisional loss to Baltimore last January. That would be more disheartening than this. But it’s close.
• The name "Peter" (no relation) playing a huge role in the outcome.
• New England winning Brady-Manning XIV, 34-31.
So Belichick handed Manning the ball willingly. (Which, as you know, hasn’t always been the best practice.)
I was trying to get away from the ball, but it took a bounce. I was hoping it was something else, not the ball. —Tony Carter
Back and forth. With 3:11 left in OT, Manning would get one last chance to end the game. The Patriots lined up to punt from their 43. The punter, rookie Ryan Allen, stood near his 28. His personal protector, second-year former college rugby player Nate Ebner, was a few yards in front of him.
"Just a normal punt play," Ebner said.
But not so normal. Back for Denver was Wes Welker, a sure-handed returner. Sure-handed, yes. But not the normal guy back there. The Broncos yanked Trindon Holliday, the normal (and dangerous) return man, because he’d fumbled earlier, and Welker, who’d returned but four punts all season, awaited. When the Denver returner waves off the return—when he doesn’t want to bring it back and simply wants to let the ball bounce—he yells, "Peter! Peter!" At the same time he waves his arms in a "no-good" motion. In front of Welker as the punt came down were two men, the closest a backup defensive back (like Ebner), Tony Carter.
"I've got to get to him earlier, and get those guys out of the way if I’m not going to make the catch," said Welker.
In other words, as soon as the punt starts coming down, Welker has to see there’s too much traffic around him from the other team, and he has to scream "PETER" to be sure his guys look for the ball and stay away from it. When a falling or bouncing punt hits a member of the receiving team, it can be recovered by either side.
"I was a little bit in-between," Welker said, “and you can’t be that way."
Carter said, "At the last second I heard the get-away-from-the-ball call, like a 'Peter' call."
Ebner, meanwhile, made his way through the morass at the line of scrimmage, fought through some traffic, and was steaming toward the punt spot. "Great punt by Ryan, and at the last second I saw the returner waiving it off. At the last second."
Carter said, "I was trying to get away from the ball, but it took a bounce."
With Ebner four yards away, the ball hit the turf and careened into Carter's leg.
Carter said, "I was hoping it was something else, not the ball."
It was the ball.
"Free ball then," said Ebner. "All I’m thinking is, Fall on it. Recover the ball."
Carter said, "Tough bounce."
The Patriots lined up the winning field goal, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked it.
"At halftime," said Ebner, "we knew it was a 60-minute game. We had a lot of time to go. [Belichick] just said, 'Keep playing.' We had time. The game wasn’t over."
My two takeaways from this game:
1. I will take Tom Brady in a weather game over Peyton Manning. Without question. Brady’s arm is better.
2. We’ve spent a lot of time ripping New England’s player-acquisition process in the last few years. The draft, free-agency, trades. But look at how many new players made plays to help this team win. Ebner, a 2012 sixth-rounder, recovers the decisive fumble. Allen, an undrafted free-agent this year, places the punt well. Duron Harmon and Jamie Collins, 2013 draft picks, with 21 tackles between then. Logan Ryan, the third-round corner, with the game’s only interception, a diving job. Aqib Talib, acquired in trade from Tampa Bay, playing huge against Manning all night. Free agent Dane Fletcher recovering a fumble, and 2013 seventh-rounder Michael Buchanan and street free agent Marquice Cole forcing key fumbles. New England beat a very good team Sunday night, and it wasn’t just Brady that did it. It took a village.
* * *
Brady-Manning XV. That’s right. Again in 2014.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have opposed each other in Foxboro in nine of their 14 career meetings, including the last three times (2010, 2012, 2013). Denver and New England will play each other again in 2014, per the NFL future scheduling formula. That formula this season had New England playing every team in the AFC North plus the teams in the AFC West and AFC South that finished in the same position as the Patriots in 2012; that, of course, being Denver and Houston. Next season the formula has New England playing every team in the AFC West, plus the like-positioned teams in the AFC North and South.
Of course the 2014 Denver-New England game, it happens, would be in Foxboro.
If he’s still around next season at 38, Manning would be playing his 13th career game in Foxboro, and it would be the 10th time in 12 seasons he has competed against Brady in the town halfway between Boston and Providence (not including 2008, when Brady was hurt, and 2011, when Manning was out).
Conversely, Dan Marino and John Elway played their careers in the AFC, as have Manning and Brady. But Marino and Elway once went 12 seasons, from 1986 to 1997, without facing each other.
I never thought the Colts would be in free fall, but they are.
Indianapolis is a shell of the team it was in September. I didn’t watch much of their game (my NBC duties precluded it), but I keep seeing Andrew Luck trying to force things. He’s doing so with so many of his important players gone for the season—guard Donald Thomas (the best offensive lineman on the team), wideout Reggie Wayne, tight end Dwayne Allen—that you wonder if Indianapolis will be able to hold off the flawed Titans and rebound for the playoffs. Watching Chuck Pagano after the game, he seemed shell-shocked, trying to figure how to get the Colts out of the spin that finds them incapable of playing competitively in the first half. "We gotta figure out a way, 27-3 [at halftime against Arizona], we can’t get off the field … 73-9, I think, in the last [three] first halves," Pagano said, almost in disbelief. "When we say we’re gonna stop talking about it, it doesn’t mean we’re gonna stop talking about it. We gotta figure a way to get off the field."
Then, on Sunday, Indy’s best cornerback, Vontae Davis, went down with a groin injury, and he may miss some time. We gotta figure a way to get off the field. Well, that’s pretty tough to do when your best secondary player, the man whose job it is to get you off the field, is standing on the sidelines.
Sunday was the seventh straight game the Colts have trailed in the first half. Two of the last three have been downright embarrassing. The tale of woe:
Week 5. After 11 minutes: Seattle 12, Indianapolis 0. (Colts win.)
Week 6. After 50 minutes: San Diego 16, Indianapolis 6. (Chargers win.)
Week 7. After 20 minutes: Denver 14, Indianapolis 10. (Colts win.)
Week 8. Bye. Even that didn’t stop Indy from starting in quicksand.
Week 9. After 30 minutes: Houston 21, Indianapolis 3. (Colts win.)
Week 10. After 40 minutes: St. Louis 38, Indianapolis 0. (Rams win.)
Week 11. After 28 minutes: Tennessee 17, Indianapolis 3. (Colts win.)
Week 12. After 40 minutes: Arizona 34, Indianapolis 3. (Cards win.)
The Colts (7-4) have a two-game lead over Tennessee (5-6), Sunday’s foe in Indianapolis. With road games at Cincinnati and Kansas City remaining in the last five weeks, it’s fair to say if they can’t beat the Titans at home, their once rock-solid playoff hopes are in jeopardy.
* * *
My quick hit on a fun weekend of football: There’s no unbeatable team.
Now that Seattle has lost two of its top three corners for the next month—Brandon Browner to injury, Walter Thurmond (according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network) to a four-game substance-abuse suspension—even the 10-1 Seahawks might be vulnerable to a productive passing team. Look at the league. Tampa Bay is pathetic for seven weeks, riven by strife, then goes on a 3-1 run, and goes to Detroit Sunday and beats the NFC North leaders. The Colts look like a Super Bowl team for six weeks, and now they’re beat up and awful. Admit it: You’re not sure San Francisco is better than Arizona today. You get the picture.
"The parity is unbelievable," San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers told me after the Chargers—who’d lost three in a row before Sunday—put up 41 on the formerly impenetrable Chiefs. At Arrowhead. "More than I remember it. That’s what makes the NFL so much fun. The way this league is, we got five games left, four of ’em at home. We could win ’em all. We could lose ’em all. I can look back and say, 'We should have beaten Washington. Should have beaten Houston. Should have beaten Miami.' You know what? So could everybody. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. That’s what makes it awesome."
(Rivers actually speaks like that. He’s like Wally Cleaver. I keep thinking, during an interview, he’s going to say, "Want to go down to the malt shoppe with me and Mary Ann?")
"I mean, scoring 41 here at Arrowhead? I never thought that. I thought maybe this would be a 24-20 game, something like that. But our receivers have just come through for us. Keenan Allen’s been huge for us all year. [Tight end] Ladarius Green with a huge play today. Seyi Ajirotutu with the winning touchdown. Different guys making the plays for us. It’s awesome to see."
The Chargers are 5-6. There are six of those 5-6 teams in the AFC, and the one that wins the tiebreaker currently, Tennessee, is the sixth playoff seed at the moment. Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego, the Jets, Miami ... With the exception of the Jets, who are playing poorly, you can’t count one of those teams out. Too close.
Say you pick Seattle No. 1 in the league now. That’s logical. After that, what do you do? Where do you put, say, Arizona? Carolina?
"I think the playoff spots will come down to each team’s quarterback that day," Bruce Arians told me after the Cards beat Indy, 40-11. "You have a solid defense and your quarterback can score and not turn it over, you’ve got a great chance. That why I like us. I love our defense. I love our special teams. And I love the way Carson Palmer’s playing for us."
That’s this year’s NFL. I ask again: Can you tell me with conviction right now that San Francisco is better than Arizona? That’s an unthinkable question a month ago. It’s a legitimate one today.
* * *
Three things you need to know.
1. The 49ers, wisely, proved they are equal-opportunity employers over the weekend. Cornerback Tramaine Brock signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Niners Friday, and he’ll make his first NFL start at cornerback tonight against Washington at FedEx Field. He made the Niners in 2010 out of Belhaven (Miss.) College after becoming academically ineligible at Minnesota, and for three years he played special teams mostly. This year it looked no better, with Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Nnamdi Asomugha and Chris Culliver ahead of him entering camp. But Brock kept working. Culliver was lost in August with a torn ACL. Asomugha beat out Brock for the nickel corner job entering the season, but Brock got a shot against Houston and responded with two interceptions that day, winning the nickel job. The Niners went to Brown first and offered him a similar-sized extension, but Brown wanted more. So Brock was next in line, and he took the deal. Rogers and Brown had started 47 straight games next to each other at corner—until tonight. Brown’s out with sore ribs. Brock starts. "Tramaine is a great example of what hard work and dedication can lead to," said GM Trent Baalke.
On Saturday I asked Brock, who signed as an undrafted free agent for a $500 bonus and has played for the minimum since, what his new deal meant. "It says a lot," he said. "It says this organization gives guys like me a chance. I kept working and working, and for a while I didn’t think anyone believed in me except my position coach [Ed Donatell]. This year I made plays in training camp, and I thought I was doing well, but then Nnamdi beat me out for the nickel job, and I just had to stay positive. For this day to come—it’s been a long journey, and it’s no surprise to me, but I am so happy."
He said he hopes his story is a lesson to young players with ability who keep fighting to climb depth charts in college football—particularly small-college football. "I hope this says to kids at small schools: Hey, this is possible. Playing in the NFL is possible. When I was at Belhaven a story like this would have been an inspiration to me." Now he’s an inspiration to others. And Jim Harbaugh can hold up Brock as example to every Niners rookie in camp from now on. Forget where you were drafted, or if you were drafted. When you get out on the practice field, if you’re good, we’ll see it, and you’ll play, eventually.
2. Dan Dierdorf’s done. At 64, with two artificial hips and two artificial knees, Dierdorf announced his retirement effective at the end of this season. He’ll do the rest of the season in the CBS booth, and at least one playoff game, and he’ll be finished. The travel’s become too much for a man as physically limited as he is. We talked Saturday about growing up in Canton, riding his bike as a kid to the under-construction Pro Football Hall of Fame, and playing against the players he worshiped growing up, beginning his 13-year career on the St. Louis Cardinals offensive line in 1971. "To play against Butkus, Nitschke, Deacon Jones, Bob Lilly—I thought those guys came down from Mount Olympus," he said. "They were gods to me. I remember my first [start] came against Lilly, and he just killed me. I tried to hold him on every play to stop him, and I wasn’t even good enough to hold him. I said, If this is what this league is like, I better get ready to teach school for a living."
But he worked to make five All-Pro teams and the Hall of Fame, and then he climbed the ladder quickly in the TV world, finding himself in the ABC Monday night booth on an October night in 1990, when he saw Eagles safety Andre Waters go for Vikings quarterback Rich Gannon’s knees. He raged at Waters on national TV. "Andre Waters is the cheap-shot artist of the NFL. This is a guy who goes after people with the intention of hurting them," Dierdorf said. Imagine that today, with the Twitterverse and 416 football websites monitoring the game. "I’ve never been sorry for that," said Dierdorf. "Now, I was very sorry for what happened to Andre. [He committed suicide in 2006.] But I remember getting together with Andre later that season, brokered by some of the Eagles people. He was angry. He told me he didn’t like what I said. I told him I didn’t care. He blamed me for getting fined by the league. I said the league’s not listening to me to decide whether you should be fined."
Dierdorf wanted to leave one message for those who might look upon him with some pity, for the damage football did to his knees and hips. "Don’t feel sorry for me," he said. "I have had a wonderful life in this game. I have loved every minute of it."
3. You need to watch NFL Network Tuesday night at 9 Eastern. I screened the 42-minute documentary about Steve Gleason's life and times and trip to Machu Picchu earlier this year. Steve Gleason: A Football Life airs Tuesday. I’ve known what an incredible person Gleason is since profiling him and his gallant wife, Michel Varisco, one year into his battle against ALS for NBC before the Super Bowl almost two years ago, and you’ll see it in this show. You’ll also see what a loyal friend Scott Fujita is to the family, with the physical load it took for Fujita and a crew to get Gleason and his party 11,000 feet above sea level to the hidden city in Peru.
"No double-day practice could touch this," Fujita said of the all-day climb taking two chair-bound ALS patients along a narrow and sometimes harrowing mountain path. "This is ridiculous." Gleason has lost virtually all motor function, and cannot speak except by maneuvering his eyes to spell words on a computer screen, which then are enunciated by a computer voice that sounds something like Gleason’s. And in that way, Gleason says in the documentary: "My life isn’t easy. But it’s awesome."
1. Seattle (10-1). Tough call for No. 1. Seattle, New England, Carolina, Denver and New Orleans in contention. There is no runaway. This week it’s Seattle. Could be the most rested Monday night game ever in a week. Saints (11 days off) at ’Hawks (14 days off). With the suspension of Walter Thurmond keeping him out the next four games, and the groin injury to Brandon Browner keeping him out at least that long, Seattle will need Byron Maxwell, a third-year dime back from Clemson, to step up in the next four weeks. No problem! ’Hawks just have Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick, Eli Manning and Carson Palmer on the horizon.
2. New England (8-3). I like a team that, in a short week, can forget the bitter, focus on the now, have an absolutely pathetic half of football, believe a win is still in reach, and reach it. Having Tom Brady helps.
3. Denver (9-2). Trent Dilfer came up with a good stat about Brady having more passing yards into the wind Sunday night than Peyton Manning had in all four quarters. Let’s see. Manning has three straight potential cold and/or windy games coming up (at Kansas City, Tennessee and San Diego at home), and could have playoff games in January in Denver, Foxboro, Kansas City or Cincinnati, and the Super Bowl is on the first Sunday of February in New Jersey. Manning might have to go 6-0 or 5-1 in cold weather to win his second Super Bowl.
4. New Orleans (9-2). No team has it tougher over 21 December days starting next Monday: at 10-1 Seattle, 7-3 Carolina at home, at 5-6 St. Louis, at 7-3 Carolina.
5. Carolina (8-3). Seriously: The Panthers could be No. 2. Seven-game winning streak. Nobody wants to play them now. Pretty mysterious game coming Sunday: Bucs, with their three-game streak, coming to Charlotte.
6. San Francisco (6-4). Talk about a lucky break. When Seattle travels to Candlestick for a game the Niners have to have in two weeks, the Seahawks will be without their second and third corners, and, presumably, San Francisco will have Michael Crabtree back.
7. Arizona (7-4). Cards 5-2 in their last seven. Niners 5-2 in their last seven. Look it up: Arizona’s playing more consistent football on both sides of the ball in the last month.
8. Kansas City (9-2). Denver coming to town Sunday. Division on the line. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston in MRI tubes today. Remember the optimism of three weeks ago? Vanished.
9. Indianapolis (7-4). Talked to an influential Colts guy a few days ago. "The guy we really miss is Dwayne Allen," he said. That’s the tight end who was one of the best rookies in football last year, drafted to pair with Coby Fleener in two-tight-end sets and star individually. Bruising blocker and sure-handed receiver. That, plus the loss of Reggie Wayne, is killing this offense.
10. Philadelphia (6-5). Kudos to Mike Vick for saying the other day he couldn’t justify pulling Nick Foles to return himself to the starting lineup. Everybody can see that, and often the incumbent quarterback can’t.
11. Cincinnati (7-4). The bye week’s a time to re-adjust the load for the running backs, Jay Gruden. Gio Bernard has 4.4 per rush, BenJarvus Green-Ellis 3.3. Bernard’s a true threat, and I’d like to see him get more than 9.5 carries a game.
12. Pittsburgh (5-6). All the defensive players interviewed post-game said things like they wanted to make Dick LeBeau proud, or they felt like LeBeau was a father figure they’d been disappointing this year. Not over the last three weeks. Steelers 3-0. Steelers 87, Foes 48. Pittsburgh’s 5-2 since the dreadful 0-4 start.
13. Detroit (6-5). Lions make too many mistakes for a team that talks like it can be a January impact player.
14. Baltimore (5-6). Pretty sure Geno Smith learned how to spell "embarrass" Sunday.
15. (tie) San Diego (5-6). Hat tip to Antonio Gates. Here’s a basketball player at Kent State who took a flyer on football because he was the size-speed type of athlete to be a good tight end. Good call. Sunday in Kansas City, Gates became the fourth tight end in NFL history to pass the 700-catch and 9,000-yard plateaus. He now has 701 receptions and 9,006 yards. Don’t want to bum him out, but Gates needs only 600 catches to pass Tony Gonzalez.
Dallas (6-5). Cowboys come off the canvas to save their season in New Jersey, thanks to a late Tony Romo drive and big days from Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Biggest stat on the Cowboys’ side: Dallas is 4-0 in the division. That’s a huge potential edge heading into the final five games.
The Awards Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Tom Brady, quarterback, New England. The wind became a prominent part of last night's game when the Patriots chose to defend in overtime, but Brady looked as if he was playing in a light breeze in the Patriots' incredible second-half and overtime comeback. Brady managed a respectable 6.9 yards per passing attempt despite the elements (4.2 for Manning), and had 274 of his 344 yards after the half. His experience kept the team composed when it looked like all was falling apart, and the Patriots came back from the break to embark on five straight Brady-led scoring drives.
Knowshon Moreno, running back, Denver. Rarely has a 200-plus-yard rushing game been this overshadowed, but Moreno's efforts Sunday night shouldn't be overlooked. The Broncos fed Moreno 37 times for those 224 yards, and why not when it seemed as if every Moreno carry was good for an automatic six yards at least? Moreno's day wasn't padded by one or two monster runs; he had a long of 18, which just shows how consistently the revived rusher gashed a Patriots front missing Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo for solid gains.
Josh Gordon, wide receiver, Cleveland. He had the best individual day in the league—14 catches, 237 yards, one touchdown—in a 27-11 loss to Pittsburgh (but I won’t penalize him for a coverage off-day by Joe Haden). The Browns have to be thrilled they didn’t get serious with any of the teams that inquired about Gordon before the trade deadline.
Adrian Peterson, running back, Minnesota. A classic Peterson-carries-the-Vikings game (32 carries, 146 yards, one touchdown) in the first tie of the season.
Defensive Players of the Week
Von Miller, outside linebacker, Denver. He was player of the week in the first half alone at New England as the Broncos built a 24-0 lead in Foxboro after 30 minutes. He ran a fumble back 60 yards for the first points of the game. Two plays later, Miller strip-sacked Tom Brady, leading to the second touchdown two plays later. For the half, he had two sacks, four tackles and the TD. And now everyone can stop asking, "What’s wrong with Von Miller?"
Troy Polamalu, strong safety, Pittsburgh. One of the best individual plays by a defender all season helped keep the Steelers in the AFC playoff race Sunday. The Steelers were nursing a 10-3 lead late in the first half on a gusty, frigid day in Cleveland, and Polamalu smashed into the center of the Cleveland line on a run blitz. He bounced off two linemen, and running back Chris Ogbonnaya came through a gap with the ball. Polamalu tackled Ogbonnaya, ripped the ball away while he was doing it, and then recovered the strip. Amazing. Classic Polamalu. Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham kicked a field goal before the half, and the Steelers were in command.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback/quick-kick punter. Pittsburgh. Play of the day. Fourth-and-18, Cleveland 29, midway through the fourth quarter. Roethlisberger in the shotgun. Takes the snap. Pooch-punts the ball toward the left pylon on the goal line. It bounces. Emmanuel Sanders sprints down. Downs it at the Cleveland 1-yard line. The fifth punt of Roethlisberger's NFL career was a thing of beauty. In his other job Sunday, he threw two touchdown passes.
Justin Tucker, kicker, Baltimore. On a frigid day (20 degrees wind chill) kicking in a 26-mph crosswind, Tucker, the most efficient kicker in NFL history (minimum 50 made field goals) converted on field goals from 30, 26, 33 and 53 yards in the 19-3 rout of the woeful Jets. For his career, the University of Texas kicker is 54 of 59, a conversion rate of 91.5%. A generation or so ago that was a good kicker’s PAT percentage. (Think I’m kidding? Chris Bahr of the Raiders was 27 of 33 in extra points in 1981.)
Coach of the Week
Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Arizona. The Cards were in mourning when defensive coordinator Ray Horton left in the offseason to take the same role in Cleveland, but Bowles has done a terrific job molding his beliefs to the talent in-house … and to new acquisitions John Abraham, Matt Shaughnessy, Yeremiah Bell, Jerraud Powers and Tyrann Mathieu. In the Cards’ four-game winning streak, the defense has allowed 239, 274, 235 and 292 yards. Arizona’s a force, and the defense and special teams are very big reasons.
Goat of the Week
Matthew Stafford, quarterback, Detroit. Four interceptions against the Bucs, the third with the Lions driving for a potential 11-point lead. Detroit lost to the previously 2-8 Bucs. A bad day for the young gunslinger.
Quotes of the Week
—Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson, after the Texans lost their 10th in a row (for the first time in franchise history) to the lowly Jaguars. At home.
"Jason Pierre-Paul was like, 'There will be bloodshed.' C’mon, man. Did he even have a stat on the final stat sheet?"
—Dallas cornerback Orlando Scandrick, on the big talking done by some Giants before the 24-21 Dallas victory Sunday in New Jersey, to Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post.
Be fair, Orlando. Pierre-Paul did have one tackle. No sacks. No quarterback pressures. No forced fumbles. No fumble recoveries. No nothing else whatsoever.
"Do you think I sit around all day looking at magazines, or what? I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I haven’t seen a newspaper today. I don’t know what’s happening in the world."
—Alabama coach Nick Saban, asked Thursday what he thought of the new Sports Illustrated cover, with his own quarterback, A.J. McCarron, on it.
—Dallas owner Jerry Jones, asked Thursday, with six games left in the regular season and the Cowboys reeling, if Jason Garrett will return to coach the team in 2014.
"I personally feel like the flag went down for a reason, and it looked like a foul to me."
—Rams coach Jeff Fisher, with the last word on the ill-fated picked-up flag on the last play of the Panthers-Patriots game last Monday night.
"As former players (along with thousands of others) who have worked hard in different eras of the game to leave proud legacies for those who follow us, we are appalled and extremely disappointed to learn that the worst and most derogatory word ever spoken in our country is being used during games as well as casually in the locker room."
—A statement from John Wooten and Harry Carson of the equality-seeking pro football watchdog group The Fritz Pollard Alliance, urging all players to refrain from using the n-word.
Stat of the Week
The last seven NFL tie games, dating back to 1989, have been played in November.
Ten starts. A nice, even number to compare Colin Kaepernick’s play this year to last. He had 10 starts, including the playoffs, in 2012. He’s had 10 this season, entering tonight’s game in Washington. The numbers:
I think I can explain, at least in part.
In Kaepernick’s 10 starts last year, Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Randy Moss totaled 94 catches, 1,313 yards and seven touchdowns.
In Kaepernick’s 10 starts this year, Crabtree hasn’t played, Manningham has played two games, and Moss is off the team. Their Niner totals this year: four catches, 38 yards.
In other words, it’s Anquan Boldin—new to Kaepernick this year—or bust at the receiver position. Kaepernick needs Crabtree, still rehabbing an offseason Achilles tear and due back before the end of the season, badly.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Former NFL quarterback Hugh Millen (a backup mostly, 1987-95; Rams, Falcons, Patriots, Broncos) was born on Nov. 22, 1963, three hours before the president was assassinated. His father, on cloud nine, left the hospital in Des Moines after spending time with his wife and the new baby boy and went to Sears to buy some baby clothes. Walking into the store, he found scores of people clustered around a TV watching news of the Kennedy assassination.
"My dad had a tough time handing out cigars that day," Millen said Saturday. "That’s been an interesting little asterisk to my life."
John F. Kennedy was a huge football fan, and he spent the last Sunday of his life, in part, watching the game of the week in the National Football League: the 8-1 Packers (winners of two straight NFL titles) and the 8-1 Bears, live from Wrigley Field on Nov. 17, 1963.
It was unseasonably warm in the friendly confines that afternoon, 62 degrees and breezy, and the Bears had two distinct advantages: Bart Starr was out with a broken hand, and Paul Hornung was suspended for the year because commissioner Pete Rozelle found that he had bet on football games. Kennedy watched for a couple of reasons. He loved the sport, and he was fairly tight with Lombardi. They met on the 1960 campaign trail in Wisconsin, and Kennedy gave Lombardi his phone number and told him to call anytime. Well, before the 1961 NFL Championship Game, Lombardi did just that. He called the president and asked for a favor regarding Hornung. At the time, Hornung was one of three Packers called up as an Army reservist during the 1961 season. But unlike the other two, Hornung was not scheduled to have leave for the Dec. 31 championship game. Lombardi called the president and asked if Hornung’s leave could be re-arranged so he’d be able to come to Green Bay for the game. The president phoned the troop commander at Fort Riley, Kans., and Hornung’s schedule was amended. He arrived in Green Bay on the 28th, practiced twice, and played in the game. Hornung scored the first touchdown of the game on a six-yard run, kicked a field goal and four extra points, and the Packers routed the Giants, 37-0, for their first of five championships under Lombardi. The famed coach was forever grateful that the president stepped in and let Hornung participate in the game.
Kennedy, then, had a bit of rooting interest there, sitting at home before taking off on two early 1964 campaign trips on Monday: first to Tampa and Miami, and then to five cities in Texas later in the week—including Dallas on Friday at noon. But without Starr and Hornung, Lombardi suffered one of the worst losses of his career: a 26-7 rout by the Bears. Green Bay turned it over seven times.
So now you know the answer to the JFK Trivia Contest: What was the last game this football-mad president ever watched?
Tweets of the Week
"Ed Reed: ‘It was a great football game and we had some fun.’ OK, Ed. If you say so."
—@BrianCoz, Jets beat man Brian Costello of the New York Post, relaying one of the Bizarre Quotes of the Season from a football player. The Jets were embarrassed in Baltimore, their quarterback performed like a person stepping on a football field for the first time, they played haplessly for the second straight week, and they fell into the mire of AFC playoff mediocrity after holding a wild-card spot for the last three weeks.
Other than that, it was a fine day for the Green and White.
"Honorary captain Mary Lou Retton has a better chance of turning back flips at 45 than the Texans have of scoring an offensive TD."
—@McClain_on_NFL, Houston Chronicle beat man John McClain, in the midst of another Texans offensive nightmare, losing to one-win Jacksonville at home.
"Jimmy Johnson not having his own line of hair products has got to be one of the greatest marketing oversights ever."
—@BrandonBeachy, the Atlanta Braves pitcher, presumably watching Sunday’s pregame show on FOX featuring the iron-coiffed Johnson.
"Any chance we could ever have the National Anthem sung by someone who lets it be about the song and not an exercise in vocal powerlifting?"
—@CSNMoonMullin, John Mullen of CSN Chicago, in the Edward Jones Dome before Bears-Rams, listening to, presumably, a National Anthem that was an exercise in vocal powerlifting.
"I MUST call Bull---- on da slide! #scaredycat!!’’
—@SamuelLJackson, Falcons fan and movie star, after watching quarterback Matt Ryan slide at the Saints’ 5-yard-line on 3rd-and-goal instead of trying to score a touchdown. Atlanta settled for a field goal. Jackson did not settle for the field goal, however.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 12:
a. Pierre Thomas. The terminally underrated back for the Saints was one of the few positive offensive forces Thursday night in Atlanta.
b. Kyle Long interrupting his mother, Diane, with a kiss on the cheek while she prepared for a FOX interview before the Rams-Bears game.
c. Cam Jordan, the precocious Saints defensive end, returning from a mini-slump to sack Matt Ryan twice, share in a third sack and knock him down another time.
d. Linebacker Paul Worrilow of the Falcons, with 44 tackles in the last three weeks. As with Tramaine Brock of the Niners, Worrilow has gone from nowhere to vital in half a season.
e. Adrian Clayborn with a tremendously instinctive pursuit and tackle of Reggie Bush on the first series at Detroit.
f. Now you know why Jacksonville spent a fifth-round pick on Ace Sanders, the poor man’s Tavon Austin.
g. Scott Tolzien with one of the great quarterback-spin moves of this, or any, year.
h. Good picks on pass plays by the San Diego receivers. Legal, as far as I can see.
i. Excuse me for praising Miami GM Jeff Ireland—that is quite out of fashion these days—but the value of getting pass rusher Olivier Vernon with the 72nd pick of the 2012 draft is pretty good. Vernon is a big help to Cameron Wake, giving offensive coordinators another pass-rushing headache when they play Miami.
j. Excellent example of the correct way to pick up a flag in Baltimore. Jets safety Ed Reed crashed into Ravens wideout Jacoby Jones in the end zone, but he hit him absolutely correctly—without the helmet, and below the shoulders.
k. Great TD route by Donnie Avery, turning Chargers corner Derek Cox beautifully in Kansas City.
l. What an incredible play by Joe Flacco against a seven-man Jets rush. While being tackled by two Jets, Flacco let a throw go to Dallas Clark, who caught it for a first down.
m. See how much Matthew Stafford missed Nate Burleson after that pizza-box incident? Stafford found Burleson five times for 67 yards in the first 18 minutes of the Bucs-Lions game.
n. Maurice Jones-Drew, looking very much like the 2011 version of MJD.
o. Zac Stacy, proving the Rams were lucky Steven Jackson walked. Hope he’s okay after leaving with a head injury.
p. The more I see Mike Glennon, the more I like him.
q. Great job, I thought, by Chris Long, rushing on the field and possibly preventing his brother Kyle from being kicked out of the game after seeing him kick (and miss) a Ram.
r. Cam Newton is so impressive, physically, in the pocket. What a weapon. So hard to bring down, and to catch.
s. Nice acrobatic pick by thrice-waived Jags defensive end Ryan Davis.
t. Just as Joe Buck says Tony Romo has to step up in the fourth quarter, less than four minutes left in a 21-all tie at the Meadowlands, Romo lofts a perfect back-shoulder 18-yard third-down conversion on Antrel Rolle to keep the Dallas drive going.
u. Fourteen plays, 80 yards for Tennessee … for the win at Oakland. Great final drive. The Titans are alive.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 12:
a. Ref Ron Winter in the Saints-Falcons game missing both a facemask and blow to the head call on Akiem Hicks against Matt Ryan.
b. This business of players dunking the ball over the crossbar (as Jimmy Graham did Thursday night) and bending the crossbar down so time has to be taken to fix it before play resumes. When that happens and the game is delayed, the offending team should get a delay-of-game penalty.
c. Seriously: Were 50 percent of the seats in Miami filled by the middle of the first quarter? Sure didn’t look like it, via the overhead camera shot.
d. Again, Antonio Cromartie, getting beat for a big play when your defense can’t afford it.
e. Tamba Hali limping off. Now that could be a disastrous injury if his foot/ankle/Achilles is seriously hurt.
f. I’d bet a significant sum that when the Lions look at offensive tape of Sunday’s game, they’ll look at Brandon Pettigrew and say, "You've got to help your quarterback and break up the interception." Pettigrew hurt his team there Sunday.
g. You’re not supposed to boot a field goal into the helmet of a lineman on your own team, Graham Gano.
h. Dee Milliner, who still looks awful for the Jets.
i. Ed Reed, who looks done for the Jets.
j. Very bad call on the Muhammed Wilkerson low hit on Joe Flacco. Not a foul—not when he’s tripped into the quarterback by a Baltimore lineman.
k. Luke Kuechly’s a lucky man. Two weeks in a row now.
l. Terrible pick thrown by Alex Smith. He is sometimes inaccurate, but very rarely makes a dumb throw deep in his own turf. The Marcus Gilchrist pick leading to the go-ahead third-quarter TD, that was dumb.
m. The Giants may well have scored on the drive anyway. But tight end Brandon Myers caught a deep ball from Eli Manning, fell to the ground, and Cowboys linebacker Bruce Carter simply ran past him on the ground without touching him. Myers got up and ran the final seven yards for the touchdown. Just a lazy play by Carter.
n. Stevan Ridley, whose fourth lost fumble of the season couldn’t have come at a worse time. On New England’s first drive of a frigid night at Foxboro, Mr. Fumble got stripped by linebacker Wesley Woodyard, and Von Miller picked it up and ran it back 60 yards for the first points of an ugly half for the Patriots.
3. I think this tells you what you need to know about how much of a lead Jerry Rice has on the field on the NFL’s all-time receptions list. Tony Gonzalez caught his 1,300th pass on Thursday night. Gonzalez has five games left in his NFL career. If Gonzalez averages 50 catches a game in his final five games, he’ll pass Rice. By one reception. (Rice had 1,549 in his career.)
4. I think, regarding the Pro Football Hall of Fame semifinal vote, the four men I feel for this morning are Steve Tasker, the best special-teams player in history; Gil Brandt, whose career in football deserves to have an airing in the room when the final 15 candidates are debated the day before the Super Bowl; Steve Sabol, whose role in the history of football is undisputed; and Ron Wolf, who set up the long-term greatness of the Packers with the trade for Brett Favre, the hiring of Mike Holmgren, and the convincing—somehow, some way—of Reggie White to sign a free-agent contract in Green Bay. I am glad for the 25 men who have reached the semifinals. All have rich histories and are worthy of the collective consideration of the 46 voters. I look forward to winnowing the list to 15 in the coming weeks.
5. I think sometimes you can tell which refs the NFL wants to do which games. Sunday night was the third straight meeting between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady that Gene Steratore has presided over. (The first was a Colts-Pats game, the second two Broncos-Pats ... 2010 in Foxboro, 2012 in Foxboro, and last night in Foxboro.)
6. I think Pete Carroll might need to redouble his efforts to warn players about substances they can’t put in their bodies, with Walter Thurmond blowing the chance of a lifetime by accepting a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. He’s the third Seattle defensive back to get similarly whacked in 12 months, and this will put tremendous pressure now on Richard Sherman to be really good over the next four weeks.
7. I think Darnell Dockett is the winner of the NFL’s Most Underrated Interview award.
8. I think under the category of "Contracts They’d Love To Have Back," I give you Cortland Finnegan, the 108th- and lowest-rated cornerback in the NFL after 11 weeks, according to ProFootballFocus.com. The Rams paid him $50 million over five years in 2012, and place him on injured-reserve Saturday ... after he’d allowed 76.5 percent of the passes to his men to be complete, and allowed opposing quarterbacks a 136.0 rating on passes thrown in his area. Finnegan’s due $26 million in his last three years, including a $3 million roster guarantee next year, so you can bet the Rams will try to make him take a financial haircut next spring.
9. I think this is This Week’s Sign of the Journalistic Apocalypse: The lead story on the aol.com front page Thursday night was headlined, "Ex-NFL player makes confession." Subhead: "Played six seasons with Miami. ‘Nobody in the stands would know.’ " So of course I look. Aren’t these things designed only to make you look? To get another click? The story is about former Dolphin Channing Crowder saying he urinated on himself during every game of his NFL career. Lord help us.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Seen those Bonnie and Clyde ads or billboards? Hope the upcoming TV show is more realistic than the blood spatterings that look nothing like blood.
b. I am an incredible know-nothing about the NBA, but there’s a chance I knew what I was talking about when I said the Nets were dumb for thinking you could win an NBA title with an Old Timers team.
c. Even I can see Paul George is an incredible basketball player.
d. The Yankees got better by signing Brian McCann. No doubt about it. Great ballpark for him. But …
e. I know we’re not supposed to care about batting average anymore, but he has hit .242 over the past two years. RBI high over the last four years: 77. I would have liked the signing a lot more in 2009 than 2014.
f. Jason Vargas is 51-58 with a 4.30 lifetime ERA. Guess what the Royals just paid him? Four years, $32 million.
g. Jamaal Charles is in the midst of a six-year, $28 million contract in Kansas City as a top-five NFL running back. Odd athlete salaries in Kansas City: Jason Vargas, $8 million per. Jamaal Charles, $4.7 million per.
h. Devils went out west for three games in four nights, playing teams (Ducks, Kings, Sharks) with three of the best eight records in hockey. Beat Anaheim 4-3 in overtime. Beat Los Angeles 2-1 in OT. Lost to San Jose 2-1. Cory Schneider is a heck of a goalie. Well worth the ninth pick in the 2013 draft, which is what Lou Lamoriello paid for him.
i. Tough luck, Iceland. Would have loved to have seen the ultimate World Cup underdog playing in Brazil.
j. Coffeenerdness: There is not much better in life early on a Sunday morning than the smell of Italian roast coffee wafting through the home.
k. Beernerdness: Tried perhaps my last pumpkin brew for the year (they start to disappear in favor of winter ales now), the River Horse Hipp-o-Lantern Pumpkin Ale from Ewing, N.J., the other night. Not enough pumpkin nose or taste for me. A little too alcohol-laden at 8.7 percent. I’ve had better.
l. Best TV show I saw (and I didn’t see many) on the JFK anniversary: Tom Brokaw’s two-hour special Friday night with so many of the vital characters in the story. The shoe-store manager who followed Oswald into the theater where he was captured, one of the two cops who nabbed Oswald, the guy who drove Oswald to work (with his gun disguised as curtain rods) on the fateful day, the doctor who tended to Kennedy when he was wheeled into the operating room at Parkland Hospital. Great work.
m. Why, exactly, does UMass (average margin in 10 losses this year: 22.5 points) play football? And what student in Amherst thinks it’s a good idea to drive 92 miles to home games in Foxboro?
n. Duke’s football team has eight more wins than UConn’s.
o. That’s not the strangest stat of college football. Georgia Southern winning at Florida without completing a forward pass is.
p. Speaking of weird football stats: Montclair (N.J.) High School, the alma mater of my two daughters, won a New Jersey state tournament game Saturday against Union City while recovering three onside kicks.
Who I Like Tonight
San Francisco 23, Washington 20. This will be a better game than people think, and not just because the Niners have to travel. With ace guard Mike Iupati out, and with Washington linebackers London Fletcher and Perry Riley having good seasons in the run game, the result could turn on Colin Kaepernick’s ability to hit three or four balls downfield (which he’s struggled to do all season), or his ability to make front-seven Washingtonians miss. On the other side, I see Robert Griffin III channeling his inner anger (though it’s of his own making) and out-playing Kaepernick. The difference in this game, though, will be that the Niners’ defense is capable of making more plays. And will.
The Adieu Haiku
Dan Dierdorf rode his
bike to the Hall as a kid.