More twists and turns in the story of the 2014 NFL season. Start in the NFC, where Green Bay’s surprise loss to Buffalo opened the door for Seattle in the home-field race. Plus, the Cowboys deliver a big December win, Johnny Manziel’s disastrous debut, updated MVP Watch, weekly awards and much more
The Season That Went Too Fast
A Pro Football Book in Twenty-One Chapters
"Only in AMERICA!" Don King used to bellow, and some story about a long-shot palooka who toiled his way from Loserville to Las Vegas and into a championship fight would spill out of King’s mouth, the drama making it Must-Pay TV. Or so the legendary boxing promoter hoped.
The home stretch of the NFL season is often like that. Weren’t we all thinking a few days ago that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC would lead through Green Bay? Few times in recent history has home-field in the playoffs been as significant as this year in the NFC. I asked a friend of mine who gambles a lot: If Seattle and Green Bay met in the playoffs, with neither team changing appreciably between now and then, what would be the difference in the spread if the game were played at CenturyLink Field in Seattle versus Lambeau Field in Green Bay. He thought for a minute, then said: “Packers by five at Lambeau. Seahawks by seven in Seattle."
To win home-field, Green Bay would have to beat three teams with a combined record of 18-21 in the final three games. Seattle would have it slightly tougher, against archrival but flailing San Francisco, then at division leader Arizona, and then St. Louis at home.
And this is why every chapter in The Season That Went Too Fast has some Grisham in it, some element you never, ever expected:
Buffalo, hosting Green Bay for the first time in Aaron Rodgers’ career, scored one touchdown Sunday. It came on a 75-yard punt return by the team’s sixth wide receiver and punt returner, Marcus Thigpen, who was cut by Tampa Bay last month. Tampa Bay is 2-12.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the presumptive front-runner for his second MVP award, threw his fourth and fifth interceptions of the year at Buffalo on Sunday, both to safety Bacarri Rambo, cut by Washington three months ago. Washington is 3-11.
Buffalo 21, Green Bay 13. Marcus Thigpen and Bacarri Rambo, men no one in Wisconsin had heard of at noon on Sunday, playing the big roles in sending the Packers trudging back to the Tundra.
Seattle 17, San Francisco 7. Which figured. So now it could be setting up for the playoff road to go through Seattle.
Unless Dallas stays hot.
Only in the NFL!
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Week 15 winners
Detroit. Another day, another dogfight for a confusing offense, another win (Lions 16, Vikes 14). The Lions have been held under 275 yards four times in the past 10 games. But they’ve survived, and they’ll be in the playoffs with two more wins. Of course, the finale is at Green Bay, and if form holds, both will be 11-4 heading into the final game of the season Dec. 28 at Lambeau Field. Not to jinx the Lions or anything, but Detroit is 0-23 at Lambeau Field since 1992. In Week 16, Detroit is at Chicago; Green Bay at Tampa Bay. Week 17 shapes up to be a classic. So many storylines. Can the Lions break the schneid? Is it Ndamukong Suh’s last game as a Lion? What’s better than a winter night at Lambeau determining the shape of the NFC playoffs?
Dallas. Imagine if the Cowboys had lost at Philadelphia. The loser of the NFC East showdown for first place would face a serious chance of not making the playoffs. Jerry Jones hasn’t re-signed coach Jason Garrett yet, and with Indianapolis and Andrew Luck coming to town this week, the Cowboys' finishing 10-6 and out of the playoffs would have been a real possibility. (It’s still no lock that Dallas will make it, because finishing tied with Philadelphia at 11-5 would give the division to the Eagles on the basis of Philadelphia’s better division record.) It’s highly likely Garrett will continue in Dallas—Jones loves him and thinks he’s got the perfect temperament to be the long-term coach—but another crushing loss in a division title game for the fourth year in a row would have left ownership grasping for answers. Would Jones have considered a run at a Sean Payton or a Jim Harbaugh? Doubtful, but the 38-27 win, Garrett’s biggest in his five-year tenure, makes it likely Dallas will win the division and keep the Cowboys on the same track.
The AFC North. “This is the craziest division I have ever seen," Terrell Suggs said from Baltimore Sunday. Through 14 games, Cincinnati (9-4-1), Pittsburgh (9-5), and Baltimore (9-5) are the 4-5-6 seeds in the AFC playoffs. Very tricky road for Cincinnati (Denver, at Pittsburgh) and Pittsburgh (Kansas City, Cincinnati); an easier way for Baltimore (at Houston, Cleveland). It seems hard to fathom, but the Bengals could not make it if they go 0-2 and Buffalo or Kansas City or San Diego—all 8-6, on the outside looking in—go 2-0.
Carolina. Derek Anderson is 2-0 against Tampa Bay this year, and that’s what has Carolina in first place in the NFC South at 5-8-1. New Orleans re-takes first in the moribund division with a win at Chicago tonight (hardly the surest thing), and in any case, it’ll be a race of mediocrity to the finish. Who will quarterback Carolina against Cleveland at home, then in the finale at Atlanta? Cam Newton is counting his blessings to be alive after Tuesday’s truck-rollover accident that left him with two broken bones in his back. “Hard to say," coach Ron Rivera said Sunday from Charlotte after the 19-17 win over the Bucs. “Cam wasn’t able to do anything after the accident last week except work on an underwater treadmill. We’ll get a better idea [today] when we try to have him do a few things. We should know a lot more early in the week.”
Marcus Mariota. The Jets won, meaning he doesn’t have to think of going to the vortex of pain and tabloid embarrassment that has eaten alive so many young quarterbacks. And the Bucs lost, meaning Tampa Bay is number one in line for Mariota, the Heisman winner and by far safest quarterback prospect in the 2015 draft. No one is saying it's a cinch, but Tampa Bay—with two very good receivers, a good young tight end, a smart front office and a stay-the-course coach in Lovie Smith—gives a young quarterback as good a chance as anywhere to be able to reach his potential.
Week 15 Losers
Green Bay. One ugly afternoon took the Packers from the two seed in the NFC to six. And it won’t be easy to get back up there. Wins in the next two games would do it, but beating Detroit at home in Week 17 means beating the team that has beaten you by 30 and 12 in your last two meetings. That last game could leave Green Bay battered, without a bye and on the road for the playoffs. Moral of the last eight days in the NFL, by the way: You don’t want to play the Buffalo Bills right now. Or in January, for that matter. The Bills have pulverized two terrific offenses—Denver, Green Bay—and had help from the Packers themselves on Sunday in Orchard Park. Green Bay dropped seven Aaron Rodgers passes, including a sure touchdown from the redoubtable Jordy Nelson. I know what you’re saying: “How bad can it be? All the Packers have to do is beat Detroit at home to win the division.” Well, the difference now is not December. It’s January. In all likelihood, Green Bay making the Super Bowl now depends on winning the last two and then winning at an unfriendly place like Seattle or Arizona for all the NFC marbles.
Mark Sanchez. Before Sunday night’s game against Dallas, Nick Foles was on the Lincoln Financial Field turf, throwing crisp passes and reporting no pain in his broken left collarbone, which was injured against Houston Nov. 2. If he returns this week, it would be right on schedule—seven weeks after the injury. It doesn’t help that the Eagles play Saturday against Washington, which compresses the week, but it shouldn’t factor into whether Foles can play or not.
Chip Kelly has seen Sanchez pilot the Eagles to 33-, 10- and 11-point losses to Green Bay, Seattle and Dallas, respectively, in the last five weeks, and it’s likely he’ll go to Foles when he thinks he’s healthy enough to play. Sanchez could have grabbed the job for good with an impressive five or six weeks, and though he has shown flashes, there haven’t been enough of them. Bad news for the Eagles, who, to win the NFC East, now have to sweep their last two while hoping Dallas stumbles once. Not impossible, but also not likely.
Joe Philbin. His Dolphins collapsed down the stretch last year, scoring seven points total in season-ending losses to the Bills and Jets. This year Miami has lost three of the last four, including Sunday’s no-show 41-13 loss at New England that gave the Patriots the AFC East title, again. Miami’s playoff hopes are on life support at 7-7, a month after being in the hunt at 6-4. Now the drumbeat will grow louder that owner Stephen Ross will go hard after Jim Harbaugh again, and is there any doubt he’d pay the compensation to San Francisco to get Harbaugh?
San Diego. Not the Chargers’ finest eight days. New England and Denver are better than San Diego. But scoring 24 points in eight quarters against the two AFC powers—both at home—illustrates, again, that this franchise is not ready for prime time. And how many more chances will Philip Rivers have?
Johnny Manziel and hope in Cleveland. All along, Manziel held out the prospect of the big surprise, the quarterback to ride in on the steed to save the franchise. Now everyone in Cleveland is thinking, “We should have listened to Merril Hoge.” The 30-0 loss to Cincinnati was deflating in so many ways, but if you didn’t see Mike Pettine’s postgame press conference, and you want to get really depressed, give it a look. Pettine was heartbroken, which I am sure mirrored the emotion of his city. It’s another wait-til-next-year situation in Cleveland, and a cautionary tale for Manziel: Get to work. Nothing is going to be handed to you. Become a student of the game. It’s too early to write Manziel off. (Really? One game is too soon?) He has some gifts. But they can only be developed through hard work.
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Now for the rest of Chapter 15.
There will at least be a Manning-Brady XVII. Assuming, of course, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady play in 2015, which I believe is very likely. New England and Denver had to finish in like places in their 2014 division standings, and both clinched division titles Sunday. Next season's game will be in Denver, after three straight regular-season meetings in Foxboro.
The Seattle Effect. “It’ll be interesting to see how Philadelphia comes out of the Seattle game physically,’’ said one Dallas Cowboy last week, before his team's trip to Philadelphia for the Sunday night game. This player remembered how physically spent the Cowboys were after playing Settle earlier in the year, and said it could be a big factor in how the team recovered to play the next week. Well, maybe he is on to something. The Eagles are the eighth team in a row to lose the week after playing Seattle; Philadelphia, San Francisco, Arizona, Kansas City, the New York Giants, Oakland, Carolina and St. Louis all lost the week after playing the Seahawks. The Seattle Effect bodes well for San Diego’s playoff chances. Not only do the Chargers play Week 16 against San Francisco, which lost to Seattle on Sunday, but also the game is on Saturday, so the Niners have one fewer day to recover from playing the Seahawks.
Why players want to play for Bruce Arians. The Arizona coach said this to Ryan Lindley, the backup to the backup, when No. 2 quarterback Drew Stanton went down with a knee injury Thursday night at St. Louis: “I trust you. Don’t be a game manager. Be a game winner.” Lindley didn’t play particularly well—he completed four of 10 passes in the 12-6 Arizona win—but a win’s a win, especially on the road against a team with two straight shutouts coming in, and especially when the Cardinals have been so beat up with so many key players lost. With Stanton likely out this week and possibly two or three more with strained knee ligaments, the Cardinals seem likely to go with Lindley, and maybe with a package of plays for the rookie quarterback who is more mobile, Logan Thomas. “We’ll figure something out,’’ said Arians. “We’ll just keep on swinging, scratching out points.” Worked pretty well so far.
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MVP Watch: Week 15
Not a great week for the top candidates, but I’m not changing much from last week—just subbing Andrew Luck for DeMarco Murray.
1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. First mulligan since Week 3 at Detroit. I’m sticking with the best player in football as the most valuable.
2. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston. Now with 16.5 sacks, five in the past two weeks. Just unstoppable.
3. Tom Brady, QB, New England. Hasn’t had a bad game in two and a half months. I get the Rob Gronkowski sentiment, but the Pats would be nowhere without Brady. They’d win the AFC East without Gronk.
4. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis. Leads all passers in touchdown throws (38) and yards (4,492).
5. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver. Not as explosive lately, but still winning. Tough road win Sunday, as Manning fought through a flu bug and bum thigh to win 22-10.
Chris Harris Jr.: The Player You Need to Know This Week
Harris, who quietly has become one of the best cornerbacks in football, signed a five-year, $42.5-million contract with the Broncos late Friday, a stunning rise to prominence considering:
- He got one college scholarship offer out of high school in Oklahoma, to Kansas.
- He was not invited to the combine, despite starting 40 games as a Jayhawk and finishing his career as the second-leading tackler in school history.
- Though 36 cornerbacks and 17 safeties were drafted in 2011, Harris was not.
- He signed a minimum rookie contract with Denver, including a $2,000 signing bonus, at the conclusion of the 2011 lockout and made the Broncos as a special-teamer out of training camp.
I am going to write about Harris out of order here, but you will see why in a moment. Before getting into Harris’ career, let’s get into the reason Denver GM John Elway felt so compelled to enter the stalled negotiations with Harris—who would have commanded $10 million a year or more as a free agent after the season, most likely—in the past few days.
The end result: Elway was proactive, reading the market correctly and knowing that a really good 25-year-old cover corner would be a $12-million-a-year player on the open market (and could even get a sniff if the Broncos franchised him). Harris, realizing the tenuousness of life in the NFL, took a $10 million bonus and $8.5 million average. Seems like a good deal for both sides.
Now, a quick side trip to...
Stat of the Week
The snaps of Chris Harris Jr., by position since entering the NFL as an undrafted free-agent in 2011, as tracked by the analytics site Pro Football Focus, show him to be one of the most versatile defensive players—not just corners or defensive backs—in the league. Looking at his plays by position year-by-year:
|Year||LCB||RCB||Slot CB||Safety||Total snaps||Pro Football Focus CB rank|
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What makes the contract, and Harris’ play this season, all the more impressive is that eight months before opening day this fall, he wrecked his knee. In the divisional playoff game against San Diego, Harris tore the ACL in his left knee. Amazingly, 31 weeks after the Feb. 6 surgery, he suited up and played 39 of 76 snaps in the Denver season-opener. By October he was an every-down player again.
In other words, the rise of Harris is a surprise, in so many ways.
In chronological order: After starting his entire career at Kansas, a coaching change before his senior season (from Mark Mangino to Turner Gill) probably ruined his combine chances. “I was told it was because my coach [Gill] didn’t promote me to the scouts that year," Harris said Saturday. “I sat home and watched the combine. I was sick about it, because I thought I was better than a lot of those guys." Then, because of the lockout, he couldn’t sign with anyone until late July. He chose Denver over Jacksonville. But that was seven months without organized football, working out on his own mostly, hoping but not knowing if he’d get a chance. When he led the Broncos in special-teams tackles in the preseason, he earned his way onto the roster. His first memorable snap in the regular defense? In Week 7 he found himself in man coverage on Brandon Marshall, then of Miami, and he deflected the pass away. More and more, Denver coach John Fox trusted him—all over the defense.
"I’m a true cover corner," Harris said. “I’ve played right, I’ve played left, I’ve played lots in the slot. The new rules don’t bother me either, because I don’t have to use my hands much to cover. I don’t need to touch guys to win. The difference with me and the other top corners, I think, is most of them play one spot, and I play everywhere. I don’t care. Just line me up.”
The two sides starting talking contract a month ago, but talks stalled in the last week to 10 days. Then Elway got involved. “That was huge," said Harris. “I felt like it was stagnant for a while, and he got involved, and things got very urgent. It was good to see how they really felt about me."
Locking up a young cover corner for his prime seasons, through 2019, is a smart move by Elway. For Harris, a veteran of one knee surgery already, he gets less than he could have gotten had he hit the market in March … but he gets to play without worry of injury the rest of this year, and he gets to stay in Denver, where the defense fits him. Some will say he should have gambled on himself. Maybe. But there’s no telling if Denver would have been as aggressive in trying to lock him up after the season, particularly with other contract priorities looming. And consider how you’d feel if you were Harris. You’ve starred for three of your first four NFL seasons, yet in three of those years you’ve played for the minimum, and you’ve made a little more than $5 million total. And the team you love is offering a contract with a $10 million bonus. Easy to say you’d wait until March to do anything contractually. But sometimes the proverbial bird in the hand is too good to refuse.
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And now for the business of football.
Four points to make concerning the new personal conduct policy, the denial of the Adrian Peterson appeal, the future of football in Los Angeles and the relationship between the players and owners:
This is not a perfect system—not even close. The league hopes to hire what it is calling a special counsel for investigations and conduct to lord over the process of this new personal conduct policy. This person, likely a former judge, former prosecutor or former top law-enforcement official, will have a staff to judge early on whether a player should be taken off the field while an investigation is happening. But the process will still be fraught with difficulty. There will be false accusations, stale accusations, accusations not made that should have been made because of threats against spouses or partners. What happens during the season when a potentially serious accusation is made, and the special counsel has to decide if the player should be taken off the field immediately or allowed to play in a game that week? How quickly can the process work—and, most importantly, how quickly can the process work fairly?
I think the impression that the league has acted and put out this far-reaching policy is fine and it is progress … but the system can still be abused. The best thing I heard last week from league counsel Jeff Pash is that 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald would likely not have been taken off the field under the new policy. He shouldn’t have been, because of the conflicting and, as it turned out, unproven nature of the charges against him last August. But in the rush to judgment now, with the spotlight on the problem of domestic violence, will the special counsel be able to rationally make the correct call in situations like McDonald's?
I think Adrian Peterson should have been reinstated. When the arbitrator in the Peterson case, Harold Henderson, issued his ruling upholding Peterson’s ban Friday, a few things were given short shrift. Before this season, the suspension for domestic or family violence was never longer than two games and most often a fine or one game. Peterson is 29. He will miss at least 15 games (with most of them treated as paid leave), and those are games he can never get back. He’s not like a 29-year-old teacher who can miss three months and get right back to teaching. Peterson’s season is over. There’s no more work until next summer. I believe the punishment is egregious for the crime—and I realize how serious the crime is. But the punishment will be at least seven times as long as any player, except Ray Rice, has ever received. It strikes me as excessive. Now: Peterson didn’t do himself any favors. He should have pled his case in the appeals process if he truly wanted to play this year. I still don’t understand why he didn’t.
Regarding Los Angeles… It sounds unlikely that the league will put a team in Los Angeles in time to play in 2015. Too many loose ends, too many problems with stadium sites. And now Roger Goodell, with the new personal conduct policy in place, will begin spending significantly more time on issues like Los Angeles. “There’s a schism about what to do in Los Angeles,’’ said one source with knowledge of the L.A. effort. “The big issue is not only whether it should be one or two teams, and where the team or teams will be, but also which franchise should get the first shot? There is sentiment that [Rams owner] Stan Kroenke shouldn’t have the first shot. The Raiders are in horrible shape. The Chargers have a terrible stadium. In St. Louis, the city is trying at least to find a solution.”
And regarding the union... There’s a CBA in place through the balance of this decade, but not labor peace. NFL Players Association executive director De Smith issued this statement, in part, to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk for use on the NBC Football Night in America show last night, regarding the new personal conduct policy: “In light of the NFL's wild inconsistencies and egregious mismanagement, it does not go far enough. If the only goal of this policy was to appease our sponsors in the short-term to get through this crisis then they succeeded, but they missed an opportunity to bridge the credibility gap with players that is nearing the point of no return." Other than that, Mr. Smith, how’d you like the play?
The Fine Fifteen
1. New England (11-3). Dominating performance puts them first. Winners of nine of 10, with the narrow loss at Green Bay the only blemish. Sign of a Ridiculously Good Franchise Dept.: The Patriots won their 11th AFC East title in the past 12 seasons on Sunday. The year they didn’t win? In 2008 they tied Miami for first with an 11-5 record and lost on a tiebreaker … with Matt Cassel playing quarterback the whole season. One more thought: I bet the football hurts when Rob Gronkowski spikes it.
2. Seattle (10-4). After the Niners showed some life in the first half, the ’Hawks crushed it out of them in the last 30 minutes. For the past two seasons it appeared Seahawks-Niners was becoming a rivalry for the ages. Still might be. But the two mismatches in 2014 have pretty much killed that for now.
3. Green Bay (10-4). Not to rain on the Super Bowl parade or anything, but that was the first grim performance by Aaron Rodgers in, like, forever. Now he goes to a place that has not been good to him. At all. Green Bay at Tampa Bay on Sunday. Rodgers has played there twice, in 2008 and 2009. Lost twice. Completed 50 percent of his throws in the two games, with four touchdowns and six picks, and a 54.6 rating at the Pirate Ship. I expect a vengeful game after the Buffalo debacle.
4. Denver (11-3). Very strange for the Manning Broncos: three straight games scoring in the 20s. Good thing for the bottom line that they’ve allowed only 16, 17 and 10 in those three.
5. Arizona (11-3). It’s hard to have any more respect for the job Bruce Arians and staff have done coaching this team, and for the job Steve Keim and staff have done in personnel management of this team. They should write a book on coping with crap. I just gave them the title! Coping With Crap: The Life and Times of the Resilient 2014 Arizona Cardinals.
6. Dallas (10-4). So much on the line in Philadelphia, and the old Cowboys would have folded after blowing the 21-0 first-half lead. The new Cowboys rallied to win a game that could have been a franchise-changer if they went down.
7. Detroit (10-4). Another touchdown catch for Golden Tate in the 16-14 win over Minnesota. Tate has been a total surprise. He’s going to end up with 100 receptions. (He has 91 now.) Imagine this: Tate has more catches per game, on average (6.5), than Calvin Johnson (5.6)—and that accounts for Johnson missing three games with injury. Divide Johnson's 61 catches by 11, and Tate’s 91 catches by 14, and Tate’s been more productive per game.
8. Indianapolis (10-4). Colts hadn’t been held under 20 points in the past 20 games … before Sunday. Good for them it was toothless Houston on the other side of the field. Houston, lifetime, at Indianapolis: 0-13.
9. Philadelphia (9-5). Bradley Cooper sure looked sad sitting in Jeffrey Lurie’s box, his beloved Philadelphia Silverlining Playbooks down 21-7 to the Cowboys in the second quarter. Cooper was dancing in the second half, but Mark Sanchez just couldn’t make enough plays to win this one.
10. Cincinnati (9-4-1). No idea how I rate the Bengals two slots higher than Pittsburgh, which beat Cincinnati by 21 in Ohio last week. It’s just about a week-to-week coin flip right now. The Bengals had about as dominating a performance as any team in the division has had all year in the Dawg Pound.
11. Buffalo (8-6). Last two games: Buffalo 38, Denver/Green Bay 37. Composite Peyton Manning/Aaron Rodgers stat line: 31 of 62, 358 yards, no touchdowns, four interceptions, 40.9 passer rating.
12. Pittsburgh (9-5). What a play, William Gay. Even when Le’Veon Bell is held to 47 yards, as he was in Atlanta, Pittsburgh has enough from Ben Roethlisberger and a strong secondary to win.
13. Baltimore (9-5). Won four out of five. I have no idea if they’re the best team in the division, second-best or third-best. But Ravens probably have a slight schedule edge (at Houston, Cleveland at home) down the stretch.
14. Kansas City (8-6). Broke a three-game skid with a rout of the Raiders. One of the strangest stats in recent history—a team can be 8-6 in this era of football with no touchdowns caught by a wideout—has surprisingly not crippled the Chiefs, though Dwayne Bowe's ho-hum season is a major surprise.
15. Vacant. No other team deserves to be here.
The Award Section
Offensive Player of the Week
Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver, New York Giants. Beckham’s best game as a pro—12 catches, 143 yards, three touchdowns, all in different ways—lifted the save-Coughlin’s-job Giants to their second straight win. He fought a Washington corner to win the first, outran the entire secondary on the second and caught a well-aimed worm-burner from Eli Manning for the third. Amazing thing about Beckham: He missed the first four games of the season, and, with two games left, this rookie has 71 catches for 972 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games.
Defensive Player of the Week
Bacarri Rambo, safety, Buffalo. Bacarri Rambo is not just a great name anymore. In September, Washington cut the second-year safety from Georgia, feeling he gave up too many big plays. He was on the street for two months. “It really humbled me,’’ Rambo said from Buffalo on Sunday evening. “I went to work out for some teams, but no one was signing me. You wonder, Is it over? Doesn’t anybody want me?” Then the Bills worked him out and signed him a month ago, and after injuries to incumbents Da’Norris Searcy and Duke Williams, Rambo got his shot Sunday against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
He intercepted two passes in the game’s last 19 minutes, ending two of Green Bay’s 13 scoring chances and handing Rodgers only his fourth and fifth picks of what could be an MVP season. He stepped in front of Randall Cobb for the first interception and got the second on a ball that bounced off wideout Jarrett Boykin. Over the phone, Rambo sounded stunned, an hour or so after Buffalo’s 21-13 upset win. “For the first pick of my career to come off Aaron Rodgers, that’s incredible,’’ said the former sixth-round pick. “Two, in the same game? I don’t know what to say. It’s a blessing. I am blessed. I just thank the Bill organization for believing in me.”
The Bills passed the praise back to him Sunday. “It’s a credit to him,’’ said coach Doug Marrone. “Let me tell you, there’s a lot of stuff going on out there formationally—the checks, the things that are going on. You can’t sit there and just play normal stuff against an offense like Green Bay.” Good to have a player in the right place at the right time against a quarterback like Rodgers.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Chandler Catanzaro, kicker, Arizona. Cards GM Steve Keim had to take a leap of faith before the season, picking the rookie (Catanzaro) from Clemson over the trusted veteran (Jay Feely). With one night as a referendum, Catanzaro redeemed Keim’s faith in him. Catanzaro accounted for all of Arizona’s points, on field goals of 23, 44, 51 and 46. His kickoffs traveled three yards deep, three yards deep, out of the end zone, seven yards deep and three yards deep. One very big reason for the Arizona win: St. Louis started one of its 13 drives all night past its own 33-yard line.
Marcus Thigpen, punt-returner, Buffalo. Claimed on waivers only because of an injury to starter Leodis McKelvin, Thigpen provided the spark the Bills needed to start their surprising win over Green Bay. A vision in blue with two minutes left in the first quarter—the Bills' all-blue uniforms are keepers; if I were club president Russ Brandon, I'd move to make that my home uni in 2015—Thigpen took a Tim Masthay punt at the Buffalo 25, zigged out of traffic up the left hashmark, zagged to the left sideline and sprinted almost unbothered for a 75-yard touchdown, giving Buffalo a 7-3 lead. A gorgeous play, bordering on effortless, and vital to a 21-13 Buffalo win.
Coaches of the Week
Paul Guenther, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati. The night before the game, Guenther showed his troops tape of Johnny Manziel’s loss against LSU last year, when pressure from the left and super-containment doomed Manziel in a lopsided loss. That’s one of things the Bengals did well in suffocating Manziel in his first NFL start. For the game, Cincinnati held Cleveland to a stunning 107 total yards. For the Bengals to beat Cleveland 30-0, on the road, after losing to them a month ago by 21 at home is amazing. Give Guenther props for digging deep and finding a logical solution to playing a new quarterback: study who played him the best the last time he struggled.
Bruce Arians, head coach, Arizona. Not to make these awards a clean Cardinal sweep, but to have the Arizona Cardinals tied for the best record in the NFL after 15 weeks, with Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley playing quarterback, and hanging in to beat a St. Louis team that had won the previous two games by shutout … well, you can see why Arians is so revered inside the Cardinals’ building and outside the building by a growing legion of fans. Check out his head-coaching record, after being dismissed by the Steelers following the 2011 season:
For some perspective: The top three coaches on the all-time wins list in the NFL, and their winning percentages: Don Shula, .666; George Halas, .682; Tom Landry, .603.
“This may be as fine a coaching job as I have ever seen," Jimmy Johnson said on the FOX pregame show Sunday afternoon.
Shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves, though. Arians has never head-coached a playoff game yet, never mind won one. But he is off to quite a start.
Goat of the Week
Johnny Manziel, quarterback, Cleveland. First time in memory I had Goat of the Week locked at 2:23 p.m. Eastern Time. That’s when Manziel threw his second interception in the first half, a stupid floater intercepted by Adam Jones a yard deep in the end zone with the Browns down 20-0 just before halftime. This game showed many things, among them that Manziel had better start spending a lot more time studying his craft. The entire game had the feel of fool’s gold, with the Browns, for the moment, feeling fooled by Manziel in his first NFL start. He was 10 of 18 for 80 yards, with no touchdowns and two picks, a 27.3 rating … with just 13 yards rushing on five scrambles. An awful opener for the 22nd pick in the 2014 draft.
Quotes of the Week
“You can’t throw that ball if you’re in Pop Warner or 6 years old, playing out in the driveway. That’s 100 percent on me.”
—Johnny Manziel, on the second interception he threw against Cincinnati, a truly horrible decision, the lowlight of a 30-0 loss in his first NFL start Sunday.
“The way it was handled also indicates that the NFL was behind the curve, as a lot of institutions have been behind the curve, in sending a clear message. You don’t want to be winging it when something like this happens. You want to have clear policies in place. The fact that policies have now been established I think will be helpful in sending a message that there’s no place for that kind of behavior in society, whether it’s in sports or anyplace else.”
—President Barack Obama, to Colin Cowherd, on ESPN Radio, on the NFL’s new personal conduct policy.
"It fell out of my pocket.”
—Arizona coach Bruce Arians, to referee Walt Coleman Thursday night, after Arians threw the challenge flag following a Ryan Lindley interception. It is against the rules for a coach to throw the challenge flag after a turnover, and Coleman charged the Cardinals with their first timeout of the half because of it. That led to Arians telling Coleman an interesting story as an alibi. Coleman didn’t buy it. Nor should he have.
"Think seven times, Tweet once."
—Bears safety Ryan Mundy, on his social media advice for young (and impetuous) players.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Steve Palazzolo, one of the tape-graders for Pro Football Focus, is a former minor-league relief pitcher. In 2009, with Triple-A Fresno, a San Francisco Giants farm team, Palazzolo threw 16 consecutive scoreless innings. His catcher was Buster Posey.
This is the 14th straight year that New England has not been swept by a division foe.
Think of that.
For the Baltimore Ravens to be 9-5 this morning, and for the franchise to be in position to win its third AFC North title in four years, is a pretty amazing thing, considering 17 of the 22 starters from the team that won the Super Bowl 22 months ago are new. Usually when a winning team has turnover like that, the bottom has fallen out, or injuries have ripped the roster apart. Well, the Ravens are in the thick of the playoff race with this kind of turnover:
|Super Bowl XLVII Starters||2014 Week 14 Starters|
|Torrey Smith||WR||Torrey Smith|
|Anquan Boldin||WR||Marlon Brown|
|Jacoby Jones||WR||Steve Smith|
|Bryant McKinnie||T||Eugene Monroe|
|Kelechi Osemele||G||Kelechi Osemele|
|Matt Birk||C||Jeremy Zuttah|
|Marshal Yanda||G||Marshal Yanda|
|Michael Oher||T||Rick Wagner|
|Joe Flacco||QB||Joe Flacco|
|Ray Rice||RB||Justin Forsett|
|Vonta Leach||FB/TE||Owen Daniels|
|Terrell Suggs||Rusher||Terrell Suggs|
|Haloti Ngata||DL||Elvis Dumervil|
|Arthur Jones||DL||Chris Canty|
|Ma'ake Kemoeatu||DL||Brandon Williams|
|Dannell Ellerbe||LB||C.J. Mosley|
|Ray Lewis||LB||Daryl Smith|
|Courtney Upshaw||LB/S||Jeromy Miles|
|Corey Graham||CB||Asa Jackson|
|Cary Williams||CB||Lardarius Webb|
|Ed Reed||FS||Will Hill|
|Bernard Pollard||SS||Matt Elam|
Tweets of the Week
Last time Bengals gave up fewer than 130 yards: Joe Namath's last game as Jet 12 12 76
— Geoff Hobson (@GeoffHobsonCin) December 15, 2014
Cincinnati held Cleveland to 107 total yards Sunday.
Odell Beckham Jr & Jarvis Landry lead all rookies with 71 catches. @NFL #LSU
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) December 15, 2014
Beckham and Landry were roommates and best friends at LSU, both drafted in May—Beckham by the Giants, Landry by Miami. Each has 71 receptions this season.
Boy Manziel looks like a child out there. Awful game in everyway.
— Wade Davis II (@Wade_Davis28) December 14, 2014
The former pro cornerback tweeted this when it was Cincinnati 20, Cleveland 0 … with the Browns having exactly zero first downs.
Am I hallucinating from a lack of sleep, or did somebody bring a reindeer to the Bengals/Browns game? http://t.co/QS3tZhKdxd
— Dan Hoard (@Dan_Hoard) December 14, 2014
The radio voice of the Bengals saw something looking very much like Blitzen (get it?) on the way to Browns-Bengals in downtown Cleveland on Sunday morning. I always thought reindeer were hockey fans.
Rambo has out-Ramboed Rambo
— Sam Farmer (@LATimesfarmer) December 14, 2014
The Los Angeles Times writer, after the second interception of the great Aaron Rodgers by Buffalo safety Bacarri Rambo.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 15:
a. Most everything about Buffalo’s defense.
b. Detroit safety Glover Quin, the Pro Bowl protester, with a vital interception of Teddy Bridgewater.
c. And a beautiful interception by Darius Slay, also off Bridgewater.
d. O’Brien Schofield’s game-clinching stop on fourth-and-a-yard with 5:30 to go against San Francisco, showing the depth of the Seahawks roster.
e. Geno Smith taking the Jets 76 yards to the winning touchdown in Nashville, a quarter after taking them 81 yards to give them their first lead of the game.
f. Eight sacks by the Ravens. Timmy Jernigan, Pernell McPhee … you have officially been introduced to America.
g. Great call by Baltimore offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak on third-and-five late fourth, green-lighting the glacially slow Joe Flacco to run. It worked.
h. Darian Stewart, the Baltimore strong safety and special-teamer, with a power-move on the punt-rush against Jacksonville, and a strong block of a Bryan Anger punt.
i. Doug Martin’s 64-yard, field-shifting run at Carolina.
j. Even a better play after that—the 8-yard pirouetting catch by Mike Evans for a touchdown. Good job by Evans getting both feet down just before the stripe in the end zone.
k. The terrific, athletic pass deflection and interception by Miami linebacker Jason Trusnik, reading Tom Brady perfectly.
l. The stiff-arm of Jeremy Hill, the Cincinnati running back, on Cleveland safety Jim Leonhard.
m. On that same Hill touchdown run, a great seal block by free-agent tight end Ryan Hewitt. (Hewitt’s from Stanford, the cradle of tight ends. There’s about 20 of them in the NFL.)
n. Cedric Peerman’s crushing kickoff-team tackle against Cleveland, pinning the Browns back when they were already down 17-0.
o. Jacksonville special-teams coordinator Mike Mallory, with a brilliantly executed onside kick in Baltimore.
p. The Cincinnati defense really showed up.
q. Charles Sims, the Bucs’ rookie runner, deking Luke Kuechly.
r. The Mike Reiss Sunday column at ESPN Boston. “Sub is the new base," writes Reiss, noting of the previous six New England games, the Patriots played just 43 snaps in base defense. And with New England’s secondary being so good this year, that’s hardly a bad thing.
s. Josh McCown making it a game, late, in Carolina.
t. Dez Bryant, huge in a huge game.
u. The New York Post, with a picture of a commode on the back page Sunday, dubbing the match between the 2-11 Titans and the 2-11 Jets the Toilet Bowl.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 15:
a. Johnny Football.
b. Brock Osweiler’s tattoo, which is grammatically incorrect: “Live Life To It’s Fullest.”
c. Thats unfortunate.
d. The grim horror that was the first half of Jets-Titans.
e. Damien Williams, the rookie Miami running back, wide open, dropping a touchdown pass against New England … when it was still very much a game in Foxboro.
f. Pity the 49ers. No Glenn Dorsey or NaVorro Bowman for the home stretch. Just not recovered from their injuries. Bowman, in particular, was just a killer loss for San Francisco this year.
g. Bad horse-collar call in Cleveland.
h. Way too many leaky offensive lines on punt teams.
i. For his talent, Andrew Luck makes some dumb throws.
j. Heck of a tackle on J.J. Watt, Anthony Castonzo. Too bad the correct way to say “tackle" in this case is “blatant hold."
k. The Bucs’ throwback socks.
l. Here’s the deal, Bucs: You put either the entire throwback uniform on, or the modern one. You can't mix them. Orange socks do not go with a red and white uniform.
m. While I’m at it, those bizarre numbers on the Tampa Bay uniforms—the ones that look like Fred Flintstone hand-wrote them—have got to go.
n. Come on, Andrew Hawkins. Catch the ball. Poor concentration, or poor something, killed the second Cleveland drive of the day.
o. St. Louis guard Davin Joseph not holding the line early on Thursday night, letting Frostee Rucker bust through the Rams line to nail Tre Mason five yards behind the line.
p. Dumb taunting by Rey Maualuga. Then again, I doubt I’ll ever write these words: “Smart taunting by …"
q. Jordy Nelson? You’re dropping a big opportunity too? Even you?
r. The Niners, as Joe Buck said correctly “with no urgency whatsoever’’ needing two scores and plodding along midway through the fourth quarter.
s. Cary Williams in coverage for Philly.
3. I think I have a difficult question for you in the Bay Area to answer this morning: Which 36th overall pick in the draft would you rather build your franchise around: Colin Kaepernick (2011) or Derek Carr (2014)? I think there would have been no question about that in August. Slam dunk. But with Kaepernick's maturation as a player put in serious questions this season, now it’s a contest.
4. I think when we hear about knee surgeries, we just assume that players go in and have the surgery done and in seven or eight months they’ll be as good as new. Well, now we know they’re not all that easy, with two excellent examples in the last week. With NaVorro Bowman put on IR by the Niners, it’s clear the breadth of his surgery was far more concerning than we first thought last January. Bowman, you recall, had the ugly injury against Seattle in the NFC Championship Game, when his knee snapped back grotesquely; he tore his ACL and MCL against Seattle, and the surgery and recovery were just too extensive for him to make it back. As concerning, or more so, is the microfracture surgery for Houston rookie pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney. Microfracture is no slam-dunk, especially for a speed rusher. Indianapolis tackle Gosder Cherilus, who has had the surgery, told the Indianapolis Star of Clowney: "He's screwed. His game is all about explosion. That's a problem. I'm out there dancing. I'm an offensive lineman. That's a different ballgame. He's screwed. I'm just being honest." The Texans have to be concerned about whether Clowney can come back to be the same player, regardless what they say publicly.
5. I think a worthy program got overlooked in the hubbub of the season and the controversies that have dogged the league this year. Fifteen NFL teams partnered with the league to provide certified athletic trainers to high school football teams in their immediate areas. Owners would put up $25,000, and the league would provide a matching $25,000, and the team’s trainers would be in charge of seeding the program in the local area and making sure underserved areas were covered. Nationally, it is estimated that at least 40 percent of high school varsity, JV and freshman football games are played without a certified athletic trainer on site.
Last year, The MMQB wrote about the problem in our series on head trauma in football. It was alarming to see full athletic conferences in sparsely populated areas of the Midwest with one athletic trainer, total, for all of their teams. One of the places the grant system worked well this season was in Minnesota, where Vikings head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman and athletic trainers from the TRIA Orthopedic Center made sure that every frosh, JV and varsity high school game in the 13 public high schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul were covered—and that injured players would get treatment between games. In all, 600 football players were covered by certified athletic trainers during all games, and for some practices as well.
“It is crucial to have a certified athletic trainer on site,” Sugarman said. “It provides parents the peace of mind knowing their kids are being taken care of by certified professionals. It’s so important for the future of the game.”
In addition to the Vikings, these teams put in seed money: Arizona, Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Miami, the New York Giants and Philadelphia. In all, 644 schools have been assisted by the certified athletic trainers. It’s a great effort. If you want your child to play high school football, you should be sure a certified athletic trainer is on hand for every game—and if not, you should press to make sure the school gets one on hand.
6. I think, for the sake of full disclosure, we should set the record straight about the incident Cleveland quarterback Johnny Manziel had 16 days ago with a fan in the wee hours the day before a game. The fan, Chris Gonos, accused Manziel and friends of roughing him up for no reason when he approached Manziel in downtown Cleveland after 2 a.m. On Facebook the other day, Gonos wrote as though he were talking to Manziel: “I would like to apologize for approaching you the way I did. All I ever wanted was to show love and give respect. What occurred that night was a huge misunderstanding. Never did I intend to escalate an altercation." Or, as someone with more knowledge of the situation than I have said to me: “Not much good happens when you’ve been drinking and you’re still out at 2:30. This is a classic example."
7. I think Bobby Bell finishing his last 12 credit hours for his degree at the University of Minnesota—at age 74—is a pretty cool story.
8. I think there should be a special place in the game for players like Mike Leach, the Arizona long-snapper. Playing Thursday night in his 217th career game as a snapper (he’s snapped in more games than any active player), and in a game defined by field position, Leach made the kind of play you rarely see a man in his position make, never mind a 38-year-old snapper. With the Cards nursing a 9-3 lead late in the third quarter, they punted from the Rams’ 39-yard line. Leach sprinted down on the punt and downed it at the six-yard line. This became significant because Arizona held St. Louis without a first down on the ensuing drive, and the resulting short field for the Cards led to a field goal that gave them a two-score lead (12-3) in this classic points-at-a-premium game. When Bruce Arians stands up and talks to his team about the high points in the win at St. Louis, I certainly hope he mentions the desire of Leach.
9. I think this is why the crown-of-the-helmet-into-Russell Wilson was called Sunday, giving the Seahawks a fresh set of downs at a critical time late in their win over the Niners: Prohibited contact against a defenseless player, which includes a player in the act of passing or just after releasing a pass, came into play on this call. Wilson, in this case, was a defenseless player. According to strict interpretation of the rules: "Lowering the head and making forcible contact with the top/crown or forehead/”hairline” parts of the helmet against any part of the defenseless player’s body" is illegal. The officials ruled Wilson was struck with the helmet either at the hairline or crown level. It's close, very close. I watched the replay at least 10 times and it's hard to tell if the helmet was in the right position or not.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. The Newtown shootings happened two years ago Sunday, and the daughter of Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung who died trying to protect her students that day, wrote a heartfelt plea for gun legislation. Wrote Erica Lafferty: “There have been almost 100 school shootings since Sandy Hook. We can do better. We have to do better … I am asking everyone to take one small step to honor my mother and all of the other victims taken too soon by gun violence. Call your lawmakers. Sign a petition, donate, or just ask your friends to join in and take part.”
b. Good advice. Try it.
c. My daughter has hooked me on the “Serial” podcast. First, praise for “This American Life,” which made “Serial” come to life, and which is one of the reasons a Saturday working at home with the radio on is such a pleasure. And the “Serial” story, a mystery about a 1999 murder in Baltimore, is a great example of how a simple story told well can be as spellbinding as the best movie. Maybe more, because your imagination is so much a part of it.
d. Now, onto junk-food old TV that is good to watch when you want to give your brain a total rest. I hadn’t seen Hogan’s Heroes, a staple of my youth, for years until Friday. And there it was, on something called Me-TV, with Bob Crane outsmarting Werner Klemperer again, and John Banner looking the other way. That Sergeant Schulz, he sees nothing. Love that show.
e. Rerun line of the week, from George Costanza, plaintively, after becoming Kramer’s apartment-mate was proposed: “Thank you. That might not work out."
f. I am wondering when you will cover something cheery, Miguel Almaguer.
g. Re the SONY hack: I have changed my email password six times in the last week. And I believe it doesn’t matter.
h. Really bright to skip your team’s fan festival, Bryce Harper, because of a contract dispute. That scores lots of points with fans.
i. The Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year event last Tuesday was memorable. Highlight of the night: Spending a few minutes with Madison Bumgarner, talking about how one of the best traits he has—in my opinion—is the I-don’t-give-a-crap trait. Meaning, when you give up a big hit, you shrug and don’t make too big a deal of it—you just move on and get the next guy. It’s what good cornerbacks and quarterbacks have. Analyze why you erred, but don’t let the errors own you.
j. Illinois State will have to travel a winding road if it wants to make the FCS (Division I-AA, for us dinosaurs) championship in Texas in January: The Redbirds won their first playoff game at home (Normal, Ill.), and then won in Cheney, Wash., against Eastern Washington on Saturday. Now they travel to Durham, N.H., to face New Hampshire on Saturday afternoon. Normal to Cheney to Normal to Durham. Now there’s a heck of an eight-day journey, especially in December, with the threat of weather everywhere.
k. Coffeenerdness: Here’s what I don’t get when I bring my reusable grande cup into Starbucks and ask for a triple grande macchiato: Most baristas take a small cup, brew the three shots of espresso, pour them on top of the foamed milk, then throw the little cup away. Not using the normal espresso shot glasses sort of defeats the purpose of using the same grande cup over and over, right?
l. Beernerdness: Don’t have a new beer for you this week, but I will throw in my vote for the best $25-or-under Cabernet Sauvignon out there: Simi Alexander Valley Cab.
m. Happy 25th anniversary, Christmas Vacation. Still funny after all these years, Clark Griswold.
o. Perfect metaphor for the New York Mets: While much of the rest of baseball made mega moves at the winter meetings last week, the Mets signed a platoon outfielder (maybe) who batted .212 for Toronto and Philadelphia last year, John Mayberry.
p. Re the Red Sox: I have tremendous respect for Jon Lester, and gratitude for what he has done for the franchise. But I’m very much on board with not paying a pitcher who will be 31 in January $26 million a year for six years … I do not support paying Cole Hamels $22 million a year for the next five years plus the surrender of two prime prospects … I’d wait for a Johnny Cueto type in free agency next year, when the pitching crop will be richer, or at the trading deadline this year … I like Rick Porcello a lot. Wade Miley seems like just a guy. They need another pitcher. Without one, Boston will have to win a lot of 7-5 games to be relevant in August.
q. Good luck, Jon Lester. And good luck, Cubs. It’s time.
r. Ran five treadmill miles in 41:18 (8:16 average mile) on Saturday. Ran mile two in 7:53, and just couldn’t keep it up. I’m just not the athlete you all thought I was.
Who I Like Tonight
Chicago 24, New Orleans 20. Though I have no idea why.
The Adieu Haiku
Aaron Kromer blabs.
Cutler forgives. So he says.
Forget? No way, Jay.
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