Tony Romo and the Cowboys shook off six years of playoff futility in a thrilling win over the Lions, setting the stage for a big divisional weekend. Plus, game-changing news about the NFL returning to L.A.
A weekend that looked so meh late Sunday afternoon suddenly exploded in charisma and controversy and storylines deep in the heart of Texas—and out west this morning, with the news that Rams owner Stan Kroenke plans to build an NFL stadium in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times reports today that Kroenke intends to develop a new venue in Inglewood, a few long spirals from Los Angeles International Airport. The news certainly will increase the pressure on St. Louis to make its best offer to keep the Rams by the end of this month. More about that lower in the column.
Back to game four of wild-card weekend. To the fourth quarter of game four, with more drama than the previous 3.75 games combined. Dinners all across the Eastern and Central time zones got very cold as Lions-Cowboys climaxed. Eating would have to wait. That’s what happens when careers are being defined right before our eyes.
Dallas 24, Detroit 20 was the kind of game that:
- Caused Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie to join Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones in a pulsating three-way Cowboymaniac hug in the owner’s box in Arlington, Texas.
- Made Cowboy-holic LeBron James tweet with 10 exclamation points to a player I’m sure he’d barely heard of before the game, young pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence.
- Transformed Lawrence from one of the biggest goats in Cowboy lore to its newest shining star—in the span of eight plays. “I am in shock," he said from Texas on Sunday evening.
- Caused every Lions fan—and nearly every Lion in a bitter Detroit locker room afterward—to feel indelibly jobbed by a reversed back judge’s call that gave Dallas fourth-quarter life.
- Opened the debate for something widely respected FOX officiating analyst Mike Pereira has campaigned for: keeping in-season crews together instead of splintering them into “all-star" crews with guys who never work together until the biggest games of the year. While we’re on the subject of that, by the way, how can they be “all-star crews” if two-thirds of the eligible officials in the league get to officiate playoff games? Are 70 officials really “stars?"
- Should forever change the national opinion of Tony Romo.
- Featured the 976th catch of tight end Jason Witten’s illustrious career, which will in six or eight years result in him being debated for entry into Canton. And that 976th reception, he told me, “is the biggest catch of my life.”
The last game of the weekend—I’ll get to the details in a few moments—likely made the Seahawks breathe easier. They won't have to face the frightening defensive front of the Lions in the divisional game Sunday at CenturyLink Field. And it certainly made FOX euphoric at getting America’s Teams in a showdown for the ages: an Ice Bowl rematch, 47 years later, between the Cowboys and Packers at Lambeau. Well, not exactly Ice-Bowlish. No snow is in the long-range forecast, and the wind-chill for Sunday at noon in Green Bay is forecast to be a balmy 8 degrees. Above zero.
Your first look at the matchups in the NFL’s final eight:
AFC: No. 6 Baltimore (11-6) at No. 1 New England (12-4), 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC. A dream matchup for everyone but Bill Belichick. The underappreciated John Harbaugh (much more about him from me on Tuesday, from my interview with him in Pittsburgh late Saturday night) will be taking his Ravens to New England for the fourth time since 2009 for a playoff game. Harbaugh is 2-1 against the mighty Belichick, and that easily could be 3-0. In 2009, Ray Rice steamrolled the Patriots with 159 rushing yards in the wild-card round, and the Ravens won 33-14. In the last 30 seconds of the 2011 AFC Championship Game, Baltimore receiver Lee Evans had the winning touchdown pass knocked out of his hands in the end zone, and kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal that would have sent the game to overtime; New England won, 23-20. In the conference title game the next season, Joe Flacco threw three second-half touchdown passes and Baltimore won, 28-13. “We all know the matchup the NFL wants to see," said Terrell Suggs, a Tom Brady nemesis, on Saturday night after eliminating Pittsburgh. New England-Seattle, presumably. “We’ll see if we can disrupt some people’s plans."
NFC: No. 4 Carolina (8-8-1) at No. 1 Seattle (12-4), 8:15 p.m., FOX. Seattle has allowed just three touchdowns and 39 points in the past six games. But these are not the midseason Panthers. In the past month, Carolina is 5-0, by an average of 16 points per win. Check out the Panthers’ running game the past five weeks, since they woke up from their 65-day winless streak. They’ve rushed for 271, 123, 209, 194 and 188 yards. Seattle’s stingy on the ground, though, allowing just 3.4 yards per rush. Cam Newton is going to have to come into play, with his legs and arm, for the Panthers to have a good shot Saturday evening in Seattle.
NFC: No. 3 Dallas (13-4) at No. 2 Green Bay (12-4), 1:05 p.m., FOX. I love the fact that this game happens at High Noon (Central Time) in Wisconsin. That’s when Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers will walk to midfield, shake hands, turn around, walk 10 paces … ooops. Wrong dueling imagery. This year, Romo led all NFL quarterbacks with a 113.2 rating, and Rodgers was second at 112.2. Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception at Lambeau Field in 25 months. Get ready to be educated on Ice Bowl I, which took place on New Year’s Eve 1967. Green Bay eschewed a game-tying field goal which would have sent it to overtime, instead sneaking Bart Starr for the final yard in the closing seconds in a game where the temperature at kickoff was 13 below zero and the wind-chill reached minus-40. Incredible go-for-broke call by Vince Lombardi. “It was so cold," he explained later, “I couldn’t bear for the fans to sit out in this weather anymore.”
AFC: No. 4 Indianapolis (12-5) at No. 2 Denver (12-4), 4:40 p.m., CBS. Peyton Manning and his Indy heir, Andrew Luck, have faced each other twice. Pretty close. Wins: Broncos 1, Colts 1. Score: Broncos 64, Colts 63. “I don’t know if it’s about hype," Demaryius Thomas said Sunday. “I know it’s just another playoff game.” Difference is, for the 38-year-old Manning, he’s at the point where he doesn’t know if this is his last shot. Amazing to think, really, that Manning might have to beat the man who succeeded him, Luck, and the man with whom he’s linked in history, Tom Brady, to get back to another Super Bowl.
And now, on to the Dallas-Detroit game, to the fourth quarter, arguably the best 15 minutes of drama this season.
The mystery reversal.
Midway through the third quarter, Dallas trailed 20-7. Romo drove Dallas 79 yards to the one, and DeMarco Murray got the 80th yard on fourth-and-goal; Detroit, 20-14. A Dan Bailey 51-yard field goal made it 20-17 five minutes later. On the next series for Detroit, the Lions had third-and-1 at the Dallas 46, and Matthew Stafford threw a pass up the left seam for tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens, with the ball in the air close to Pettigrew, never turned around and ran into Pettigrew as he reached to try to make the catch. Back judge Lee Dyer, with a clear sightline to the play, threw the flag for pass interference.
“Pass interference,’’ referee Peter Morelli said in the stadium. “Number 59, defense. Automatic first down.”
When the call was made, Dallas receiver Dez Bryant sprinted out on the field, helmetless, to protest to one of the officials. Players aren’t allowed to be on the field without helmets, so that should have been a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. Then head linesman Jerry Bergman spoke up in a crew conference, saying—according to a pool report after the game—that he thought this was more face-guarding (a penalty in college but not in the NFL) than interference, even though Hitchens seemed to clearly restrict Pettigrew’s attempt to make the catch while Hitchens wasn’t playing the ball. On TV, Pereira said it was clearly interference. Seventeen seconds after making the original call and announcing a first down, Morelli said over the PA: “There is no foul on the play.”
First: What is Morelli’s hurry? Why didn’t he say to Dyer: “Tell me exactly what you saw.” If an official throws a flag at that moment of a game, he sees something, and the referee’s job, I believe, is to sort that out, and to hear all sides—no matter how long it takes. Two teams’ seasons are on the line here. How do you reverse a call like that one, and do it in breakneck time? What kind of official is Dyer if he can be so easily convinced that his call was wrong? What kind of conviction does that show?
And would this have happened if Morelli—who had zero of his regular crew on the field with him Sunday, in his biggest game of the season—had his men with him, and they’d worked together the entire year, and the head linesman’s strident opinion clearly could be more trusted? This play changed my mind about the mixed crews in the postseason. Namely, there shouldn’t be mixed crews. Crews work together all season to form a chemistry. And the biggest game of the year, officials who are working together for the first time (in most cases) have to make season-deciding calls like this one. It’s just not a smart way to do business in the biggest games.
Apparently, Dyer didn’t stick with his call, deferring to Bergman’s judgment. But I’ve seen crew conferences after flags were thrown, and the flag is picked up. I have never seen a flag thrown, a referee announcing the penalty and the first down, and then going back and saying, in effect, it’s a do-over. When it happened, Pereira, on FOX, said: “Wow.” Sort of how I felt. Instead of having first down at about the Dallas 25 with eight minutes left, Detroit had fourth-and-1 at the 46… and then punter Sam Martin had an inopportune shank. Ten-yard punt.
Now for the moment of truth for Romo. And his best friend on the team, Witten.
The catch of a lifetime.
Five plays into the drive, with the season, and legacies, on the line, Dallas trailed 20-17. Fourth-and-6 at the Detroit 42. A 60-yard field goal try? Nope. A coffin-corner punt? Nope. “I give Jason [Garrett] credit,” said Witten, sitting on 975 catches for his career. He wasn’t sure what the call would be.
“Gutsy call,” said Witten. “We were going for it, and my route was an option route. Gronk runs it all the time in New England. You run down about 10 yards, and if you’re getting inside leverage [from the cover man], you hook outside. If he’s leveraging you to the outside, you hook in. It was all on the line right there, the season and so much else. Tony just got in the huddle and said, ‘Let’s make a play.’ You’re not really thinking of the moment, you’re just thinking you’ve got to make this play. I got vertical, and I felt the [safety] undercut me to the outside, and so I hooked back inside. It’s my job. I don’t make it more than it is.”
“Credit to Jason,” Romo said. “He wasn’t going to get open running it the other way. To go to him in that situation’s a no-brainer.”
The ball was right there from Romo. Right on target. Gain of 21. Five plays later, Dallas had the go-ahead touchdown. Romo to Terrance Williams, again.
“That’s the biggest catch of my career,” Witten said. “Me and Tony, we’ve been through so much. Playing for the division title the last three years in a row, and coming up short every time. The emotion involved in that … the resiliency he has, that this team has, to be able to make a play like that. It’s special.”
Now Dallas had to hang on, which wouldn’t be easy.
Growing up in eight plays.
DeMarcus Lawrence is 22. An edge rusher from Boise State picked in the second round last May, Lawrence hadn’t had a sack in seven games during an injury-marred rookie year. But he was on the field with the season on the line, and he watched as Anthony Spencer, at the two-minute warning, sacked Stafford. The ball skittered out of Stafford’s grasp, and there it was at the Detroit 24, and… well, Lawrence takes up the story.
“I just picked it up, and the first thing I thought was, ‘Score!’ ” Lawrence said from the Cowboys’ locker room.
The first thing Detroit offensive lineman Garrett Reynolds thought was, “Knock it out of his hands!” Which Reynolds did—and the Lions recovered.
What have I done! Something approximating that thought ran through Lawrence’s head as safety J.J. Wilcox came up and appeared to dress him down. But it wasn’t a dressing-down, Lawrence said. “He just said to me, ‘Make up for it now! You can win this game! Make a play!’ I just kept thinking I had to get that play out of my head. What I was trying to do was make a play, but I realized the most important thing there was possession. I gotta be smarter about the situation.”
Right after Lawrence fumbled, just around the time he was beating himself up on the field, LeBron James, the noted Cowboys fan, tweeted: "Are u kidding me!!!!!!!!!! Just fall on it big fella. SMH.'' America agreed.
A minute later, the Lions had a fourth-and-3 at the Dallas 42. Lawrence was working on Riley Reiff, Detroit’s left tackle. “I wanted to get around the edge to get to the quarterback,” Lawrence said. “I kind of gave him a double hand-swipe. When I came around, the quarterback looked like he was getting ready to throw it, and I had to get my arms around him.” That he did, forcing a fumble. The rest is a blur. Lawrence dived for the ball. Eight plays after he nearly cost Dallas the game, the rookie saved the game.
“In the locker room just now,” he said, “DeMarco Murray said to me, ‘That’s how you finish the fight!’ DeMarco Murray … Man, those words will stick with me for the rest of my life. What a day.’’
After the game, Witten found Romo. “We hugged it out,” Witten said. This is their 12th season together. Witten arrived as a third-round pick from Tennessee, Romo as a free-agent from Eastern Illinois.
“I had a moment with Tony,” he said. “It’s sort of ironic how it all played out. All the times we didn’t win, and how painful it was for so long, the disappointments … But I wouldn’t change anything now. Not at all. That’s what makes this moment so great. And now, to have the chance to play in Green Bay, after hearing so much over the years about the Ice Bowl. I’m a fan of Cowboy history, of all the players who have come before us. So many big-time players played in that game. It’s really humbling to know we’re going to be in the same place, in the same matchup, all these years later.”
* * *
Wrapping up the other three games …
Baltimore 30, Pittsburgh 17. I thought this rivalry was going down the tubes earlier this year. Baltimore and Pittsburgh split 20-point wins this year, and the thrill, much of it, seemed to be gone. But I wouldn’t say it’s gone. I’d say it’s just not the same—and now, with Troy Polamalu a regular player instead of a special one, and maybe aging out of the game at 33, the Steelers need to find some new blood to invigorate the rivalry. On the other side, though, Terrell Suggs made a huge play Saturday night to turn the tide, an interception he actually caught with his legs. Haloti Ngata came back from his suspension to have a big impact. And Joe Flacco continued to be a far better playoff than regular-season quarterback. In his last five playoff games, Flacco is 5-0, with 13 touchdowns and no interceptions—and ratings of more than 105 in each game. “Everybody’s different,” he said after the game, when I wondered why he’s so good when the stakes are so high. “I wish it was as easy as not caring, not giving a crap. But it’s just not that easy to figure out. In this game, Elvis Dumervil came up to me and said, ‘I was trying to talk to you during the game, but you were in this zone.’ I told him, ‘My mentality is a little different than yours as a defensive end. I mean, you’re going out there and you’re playing football, you’re in the trenches, you’re battling, you’re getting after it. I’m playing quarterback. It’s a lot different.’ I gotta be able to react to things and think, and not let my emotions get the best of me. My personality fits that. I get the most comfort before a game just sitting in here and saying to myself, ‘Go out there and just play the game. Take what they give you. Keep doing it, keep doing it, keep doing it.’ If you do it well enough, you’re going to win a football game. Having that peace definitely helps. You have to be in the moment and stay in the moment.’’ Good advice—for a lot of things.
Carolina 27, Arizona 16. There’s no crying in football. Coaches are fond of saying that nobody ever feels sorry for you, no matter how bad things get. But it’s hard to not feel some sympathy for the Cardinals, who once were 9-1, then played toothlessly once their starting quarterback and starting running back went down for the season. Arizona’s 78-yard day was as bad an offensive performance as I’ve seen in the playoffs. So what to make now of Carolina, on a five-game winning streak? The Panthers have allowed just 59 points during the streak, and they’re running as well as they have all season, and Cam Newton continues to get more comfortable with his receivers. His odd miscommunication with wideout Jerricho Cotchery Saturday, resulting in an ugly interception, was uncharacteristic based on how Newton has played recently. This stretch for Carolina is a great example of how the most important thing this time of year is not your overall record, but how you’re playing in December and January, which should mean that we’re going to see a surprisingly good and competitive game Saturday night in Seattle.
Indianapolis 26, Cincinnati 10. The MMQB’s Robert Klemko was at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday afternoon and will have a report on this site on Tuesday about Andy Dalton’s fourth loss in four playoff games. A bit about the Colts. Midway through the third quarter Sunday, the game was closer than it should have been—Colts 13-10—and the Bengals were hanging around even though they’d done next-to-nothing on offense. From the Cincinnati 36, Andrew Luck was chased by Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap, and as he began to fall, Luck threw a dart 36 yards into the end zone to rookie Donte Moncrief. The ball couldn’t haven been located better if Luck had carried it to him. An incredible display of keeping the play alive, and of throwing the ball where only his guy can make the catch. “Luck does those things—all the time,” Moncrief said afterward. “With Andrew, you just gotta play ball. Stay alive. You never know when it’s coming to you. Almost always, when he throws it to me, I know I’m going to have a great chance to catch it, because he wouldn’t throw a ball if he wasn’t confident we could catch it.” Sounds a little like Luck’s predecessor in Indianapolis, and the guy he’ll be facing in Denver on Sunday.
The NFL is getting closer to returning to Los Angeles.
Major news in the NFL-returns-to-L.A. saga early Monday morning. The Los Angeles Times reports that Rams owner Stan Kroenke is planning to build an NFL stadium in Inglewood. Kroenke is teaming up with Stockbridge Capital Group, which owns the 238-acre Hollywood Park site, to build an 80,000-seat stadium and a 6,000-seat performance venue as part of a major retail-office-residential development, which is being dubbed the City of Champions Revitalization Project.
News of the development will put pressure on the city of St. Louis, which owns the outdated Edward Jones Dome. The Rams can convert their lease there to year-to-year next month and leave as early as the end of the 2015 season.
This doesn't necessarily mean the Rams are moving to Los Angeles—yet. Shortly after the story broke this morning, I spoke with veteran Times NFL reporter Sam Farmer, who has covered the story of the NFL’s flirtations with Los Angeles since 2000.
The MMQB: How is this different from all the other proposals for returning a team to Los Angeles over the last 20 years?
Farmer: This is appreciably different than all the other concepts that have come and gone—the two dozen or so viable proposals. This is different, because it’s an existing owner with a site that can accommodate a stadium and all the parking and retail and a 6,000-seat theater. It’s a game-changer, because there hasn’t been a current owner who can identify a site and make it happen. If this were a game of Clue, we’d already have two of the answers—the who and the where. This is not a done deal. But this is the first major step toward returning the NFL to Los Angeles, and it could trigger a land rush between the Rams, Chargers and Raiders to all try to get to the market first.
How likely is it that St. Louis has lost the Rams?
Farmer: It would certainly be pins and needles time for the city of St. Louis. The city has to come back by the end of the month [of January] with a serious proposal to keep the Rams. That’s when the Rams can roll over the lease to a year-to-year deal. This move ratchets up the pressure on the city of St. Louis and will smoke out the city’s best deal. This is a dramatic, bold and aggressive move toward the nation’s second-largest market, and a market that had the Rams for decades. And it’s the second-richest owner in the league, with deep ties to Los Angeles, who has a history of making bold and aggressive moves like this one. So St. Louis certainly should be concerned.
When is the earliest the Rams could play in L.A.?
Farmer: 2016. They could conceivably play in the new stadium by 2018—but they won’t put shovels in the ground for the stadium until they get the Environmental Impact Report done, which is all the legal, environmental and political clearances to build the stadium. The earliest that could happen would probably be early in 2016.
Where would the Rams play until 2018, if they move?
Farmer: I think it’s most likely the [Los Angeles] Coliseum. But I wouldn’t rule out the Rose Bowl.
More possible in Los Angeles: one NFL team or two?
Farmer: The concept of dropping two teams into the city simultaneously is very difficult. Two teams at once might be overwhelming. The first team would be so much better off in Los Angeles. Would the second team basically want to be the Jets playing in Giants Stadium? The first team is much more enticing. My expectation is you wouldn’t see two teams for a while.
On Stuart Scott.
Scott, the longtime ESPN anchor, died of cancer of the appendix Sunday morning in Connecticut. He was 49. I didn’t know Scott, but I’ve thought for a while what a powerful and important person he was in the media—because of the void he filled. I thought Keyshawn Johnson put it perfectly on ESPN Sunday morning when he said, in effect, that Scott’s legacy is that all announcers should be themselves rather than try to conform to what he or she thinks some boss or network wants. After the show, Johnson called to expound.
“When I took the job,” Johnson said, “I went out to dinner with Stuart, and I basically said I didn’t want to change who I was to win an Emmy or anything like that. My Emmy is with the hearts of the fans I reach. And he said to me, ‘You have to be yourself.’ I just didn’t want to wear a white shirt and red or blue tie every day. If that’s what you want to do, great. I wanted to wear colors. I’m colorful. I wanted to wear pocket squares. I wasn’t necessarily going to conform to the King’s English. I wanted to resonate in my community.’’
Just before I spoke with Johnson, I saw that LeBron James made a statement about Scott that was similar. “Bringing that urban feel, that hip hop culture, to TV, something that’s never been done before,’’ James wrote, as if he were speaking to Scott. “What u did for our culture, bringing that Swag to reporting can only be copied (which I hear it today on tv watching sports). I would say not because they stealing your swag, it's all out of RESPECT!”
Johnson said he listened to Vin Scully growing up, and loved him. “‘High fly ball to left field, and she is gone!’ Well, what is ‘she?’ I always wondered. Then I heard Stuart said “as cool as the other side of the pillow,’ and ‘BOOYAH!’ How cool was that? That was like how I wanted to talk. I wanted to be him when I was in college. Cool. Smart. Lots of guys did. Now, I loved Vin Scully too. I idolize Bob Costas to this day. But to the hip hop community, and to everyone, black, while, purple, I don’t care, Stuart was influential. I don’t know exactly the word I would use, but he had an understanding of the hip hop culture, and communicated it, and everyone in our world knew what he meant. Everyone has a style. I loved his.’’
This is a totally uneducated guess, but I bet Scott influenced as many young broadcasters today as anyone in the field. And I bet he opened doors to scores of aspiring African-American broadcasters who thought, watching Scott, that they could do what he did. That is one great legacy to leave. I wish he could have been around longer to teach more people his way, but I’m glad one distinct generation had the chance to model itself after him.
Today at The MMQB, we asked Washington safety Ryan Clark, who has a unique perspective on Scott, to pen a column on what the announcer meant to him: “Stuart Scott Was My Idol.”
Too much information, perhaps, but you asked for it.
Last Tuesday, in the midst of awards season, The MMQB gathered 26 voices of respected analysts to vote on 2014 honors. Aaron Rodgers won The MMQB’s first MVP award, but the story may have been that J.J. Watt got 8.5 first-place votes to Rodgers’ 15.5. What follows is how each voter had his top three picks for MVP. A note: My first-place voted was split between Rodgers and Watt; The MMQB’s Greg Bedard split his second-place vote between Tony Romo and Rodgers. In those cases, my second-place vote was vacated, and Bedard’s third-place vote was vacated.
|Voter, Affiliation||1st Place Vote||2nd Place Vote||3rd Place Vote|
|Andy Benoit, The MMQB||Rodgers||Brady||Luck|
|Kevin Clark, Wall Street Journal||Rodgers||Watt||Gronkowski|
|Trent Dilfer, former player, ESPN||Rodgers||Watt||Brady|
|Rich Eisen, NFL Network||Rodgers||Watt||Murray|
|Mike Florio, Pro Football Talk||Rodgers||Romo||Wilson|
|Scott Fujita, former player, FOX Sports||Rodgers||Romo||Luck|
|Neil Hornsby, Pro Football Focus||Rodgers||Lynch||Watt|
|Robert Klemko, The MMQB||Rodgers||Watt||Roethlisberger|
|Scot McLoughlan, former NFL GM||Rodgers||Watt||Brady|
|Tom Pelissero, USA Today||Rodgers||Brady||Roethlisberger|
|Aaron Schatz, Football Outsiders||Rodgers||Watt||Roethlisberger|
|Mike Silver, NFL Network||Rodgers||Watt||Brady|
|Alex Stern, Elias Sports Bureau||Rodgers||Romo||Brady|
|Ben Stockwell, Pro Football Focus||Rodgers||Watt||Roethlisberger|
|Jenny Vrentas, The MMQB||Rodgers||Watt||Brady|
|Peter King, The MMQB||Watt/Rodgers||--||Romo|
|Greg Bedard, The MMQB||Watt||Romo/Rodgers||--|
|Albert Breer, NFL Network||Watt||Rodgers||Brady|
|Ryan Clark, player, Washington||Watt||Rodgers||Murray|
|Steve Cohen, Sirius XM NFL Radio||Watt||Murray||Rodgers|
|Alex Flanagan, NFL Network||Watt||Brady||Rodgers|
|Jason McCourty, player, Tennessee||Watt||Rodgers||Brady|
|Geoff Schwartz, player, NY Giants||Watt||Rodgers||Brady|
|Ross Tucker, former player, radio host||Watt||Rodgers||Romo|
|Steve Gleason, former player||Murray||Rodgers||Brady|
|Khaled Elsayed, Pro Football Focus||Luck||Rodgers||Watt|
* * *
The MMQB Playoff Poll.
It seems a fait accompli that the league will expand from 12 to 14 playoff teams, seven per conference, in 2015. I don’t like it. Wild-card weekend already has a good chance every year to have one or two slumping teams. What’s the purpose, other than money-making? It doesn’t make the game one iota better. Anyway, I wanted to see what the public thought, so on Sunday, on Twitter, I asked: “Do you favor the NFL expanding the playoff field from 6 teams to 7 per conference in 2015?”
I kept the Twitter poll open for eight hours, closing down at midnight. The results:
Yes: 121 votes.
No: 903 votes.
That’s encouraging: 88.1 percent of you—at least those of you who responded—do not want to see an expansion of the playoffs. I hope the 32 owners listen. I doubt they will.
The Fine Fifteen
1. Seattle (12-4). Two wins for the Seahawks in the bye week: They don’t have to face Detroit in the divisional game Saturday; Carolina is playing pretty well, but the Lions would have been a tougher first foe. And the Jets won’t be hiring ace Seattle director of pro personnel Trent Kirchner as GM. Bad news for Kirchner, good news for Seattle, keeping a winning personnel team intact.
2. New England (12-4). Dangerous game coming Saturday at 4:30 in Foxboro. The one matchup not in New England’s favor, against historically tough Baltimore, is happening. The Pats will need to disrupt Joe Flacco’s timing and be good in the intermediate areas—I’m assuming they’ll be on point downfield, with a vastly improved corner situation from the past couple of years—which is where a new New England star will be important, in my opinion. The Patriots have gotten very good at picking versatile linebackers, and this quote, by Bill Belichick on Jamie Collins (round two, 2013) would constitute high praise, after Collins' 110-tackle season as a do-it-all linebacker: “He’s a very smart player. He’s handled all the communication things that we’ve asked him to do. He’s got a lot of different assignments. He can go from anywhere, rushing the passer to playing in the deep part of the field." Two autumns ago, Collins played for 0-12 Southern Miss. The Pats saw through the muck and the position changes to see star potential in Collins.
3. Green Bay (12-4). This stat cannot get too much play this week: Dallas (8-0 on road, only unbeaten road team in the NFL) at Green Bay (8-0 at home, only unbeaten home team in the NFC). Is it possible that the best game in the entire postseason will be this divisional game at high noon Central time on Sunday?
4. Dallas (13-4). The Cowboys got lucky with the officials Sunday. A bitter pill for the Lions. An “about time” moment for Dallas.
5. Denver (12-4). Peyton Manning missing two bye-week practices. Not a big deal, but not nothing either.
6. Detroit (11-6). Lost in the mayhem of a controversial defeat: the fate of Ndamukong Suh. Has he played his last game for the Lions? “Please leave [questions] to just this game," a visibly shaken Suh said after the loss in Dallas. He is a great player, and some team will pay him hugely (the bidding will likely start in J.J. Watt territory, at $20 million per season) to anchor its defense starting in 2015. It's worth noting that if the Lions choose to franchise Suh, it'll cost them around $26 million in 2015. And I believe they will seriously consider devoting that much cap space to him, because he is an irreplaceable piece of their defense.
7. Baltimore (11-6). No clue where the Vegas line settles for Saturday night’s Baltimore-at-New England divisional game (it's currently around New England -7.5). The Pats and Ravens have played three times in the playoffs since John Harbaugh became coach in 2008. Baltimore has won twice. New England’s win came by three points when the Ravens missed the chippiest of chip-shot field goals (from 32 yards) and Lee Evans had the winning touchdown catch slapped out of his hands in the final minute.
8. Indianapolis (11-6). All of a sudden, with the Colts’ rebirth on defense, the divisional game at Denver got a lot more interesting. And more competitive.
9. Pittsburgh (11-6). I chortled at Twitter in the wee hours Sunday morning, with the calls for Mike Tomlin’s head. “Hasn’t won a playoff game in four years!” was the general theme. People, hasn’t it become pretty clear how the Pittsburgh Football Steelers operate? I call your attention to this interesting point made by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “The Steelers have not fired a head coach since 1968 … Of the Steelers’ two previous coaches [Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher], neither was fired; they left on their own and Pittsburgh was their one and only head coaching stop." Tomlin is more likely to go gray before the Steelers show him the door.
10. Cincinnati (10-6-1). It's absolutely not fair to blame the fourth wild-card loss in four seasons on Andy Dalton. He didn’t hand the game to Indianapolis, and he was missing so many key components. But—and this is an important but—Dalton did himself no favors by making zero plays on downfield throws. His receivers got little separation, to be sure. But Dalton did nothing to help his team either.
11. Carolina (8-8-1). I want to give the Panthers defense a modicum of credit for what happened Saturday, and I shall. But I have been covering the NFL since 1984, and the performance by Arizona was the worst offensive performance in a playoff game I’ve seen in those 31 seasons.
12. Houston (9-7). Some fun watches in 2015: J.J. Watt gets to chase Tom Brady and Drew Brees (in Houston) and Cam Newton (in Charlotte) next fall. Incredible as it may seem, this may be Watt’s only career visit to Carolina.
13. Arizona (11-6). Cards went 3-5 post-Carson Palmer injury, with some of the worst quarterbacking seen by mankind. Incredible, but Bruce Arians and GM Steve Keim are going to have to employ a third quarterback in 2015 who they figure can actually play winning football. That’s going to be tough duty, particularly because a third quarterback never gets to practice with the first unit and thus has his development stunted, but with the relative brittleness of Carson Palmer, the Cardinals have no choice.
14. Kansas City (9-7). Regarding the KC passing game, from Andy Reid’s first year to the second: 158 fewer yards, six fewer touchdowns, gave up eight more sacks and had a lower passer rating. And 7.0 yards per attempt is not good enough.
15. Buffalo (9-7). Look on the bright side after a bad week, Buffalo: The rivalry with the Jets—assuming that’s where Doug Marrone winds up—just got a lot more intense.
The Award Section
Offensive Players of the Week
Joe Flacco, quarterback, Baltimore. How symmetrical is this? Flacco’s rating in the 30-17 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday night at Heinz Field was 114.0, the same as Romo’s against Detroit. (Flacco: 18 of 29, 259 yards, two touchdowns, no picks.) I told Flacco I was one of the geniuses leading the “Flacco’s not an athlete” media brigade … an hour after both of his touchdowns came on athletic plays. He scrambled to his left after avoiding James Harrison before flipping an 11-yard touchdown throw to Torrey Smith in the third quarter. In the fourth, he rolled right and threw for tight end Crockett Gillmore (now there’s a football name) for a 21-yard score. “Yeah," said Flacco, “people have a good time saying I’m not athletic, but I’ve been a pretty good athlete my whole life, going back to high school. It’s just because I’m a big guy and maybe not a fast guy. But I can make plays out of the pocket when we need it." He made two of them, with pinpoint accuracy, to beat the Steelers.
Tony Romo, quarterback, Dallas. America kept waiting for Romo to make the big mistake Sunday, and it never came. Despite being harassed all day by a pass rush that is NFL state of the art, Romo complete 19 of 31 passes for 293 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions and a 114.0 rating. Maybe his signature moment as a Cowboy until Sunday was the botched hold in the playoff game at Seattle a hundred years ago, but not anymore. With six minutes left and Dallas down 20-17 on fourth-and-six from the Dallas 42, coach Jason Garrett eschewed the 60-yard field-goal try by Dan Bailey and gave Romo the chance to win it himself. He threw a perfect option-route completion to trusty Jason Witten to move the sticks (Witten said it was the biggest catch of his starry career), and nine plays later hit Terrance Williams with an eight-yard scramble route at the back of the end zone for the win. What a game. What redemption for Romo.
Defensive Players of the Week
Jerrell Freeman, linebacker, Indianapolis. In a stifling defensive performance (holding the Bengals to 254 yards), Freeman led the swarm all afternoon in Indy. He finished with 15 tackles, 1.5 sacks of the beleaguered Andy Dalton and a forced fumble, the best numbers of any defensive player on the playoff weekend. Five days after Ryan Grigson was named GM of the Colts in January 2012, he signed Freeman to a contract from the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders, and Freeman has been a playmaking godsend ever since.
Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Carolina. It’s difficult to separate the bad Arizona offense (like, all-time bad) from how well the Carolina defense played Saturday in Charlotte. But any team that holds another NFL offense, regardless how bad it is, to 78 yards deserves plaudits. With 12 minutes to go and Arizona threatening to score to cut Carolina’s lead to 27-21, Kuechly stepped in front of Larry Fitzgerald to pick off the Cards’ last gasp at the Panthers’ four-yard line. He added 10 tackles and another pass defensed, and he and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis—“those two hellacious players," as Fitzgerald called them—controlled the day.
Special Teams Players of the Week
Justin Tucker, kicker, Baltimore. Kicking in January in the toughest stadium (statistically) in the league for long kicks, Tucker made a 45-yard field goal to give Baltimore a four-point lead in the third quarter, then hit a 52-yarder midway through the fourth quarter to extend the Ravens’ lead to eight.
C.J. Spillman, defensive back, Dallas. Made two huge special-teams stops, tackling punt returner Golden Tate for a two-yard gain after the first Dallas drive of the day. In the fourth quarter, with Dallas having crept to within 20-17, Spillman made the special-teams stop of the weekend—tackling Jeremy Ross at the Detroit five-yard line to give Detroit an extremely long field.
Coach of the Week
Jason Garrett, coach, Dallas. God knows he deserves some back-pats after getting roasted for much of his tenure in Dallas. His decision to go for it on fourth-and-six from the Detroit 42 with six minutes to play could have backfired and given Detroit a very short field to add some insurance points. But Tony Romo—they’re joined at the hip—showed that Garrett made the right call by converting with a 21-yard pass to Jason Witten. Garrett’s been showing lots of faith in this team all season (and the previous three as well), and his players paid him back with the 24-20 win.
Goats of the Week
Sam Martin, punter, Detroit. The Lions were nursing a three-point lead with eight minutes to play, trying to win their first playoff game in 22 years, on the road in Texas. Fourth-and-six, Detroit 49. And Martin goes all shankapotomous. He sliced it 10 yards to his right, and the Cowboys took the gift and drove 59 yards to a winning touchdown.
Drew Butler, punter, Arizona. On a day the Cards needed perfect performances from all non-quarterbacks to have a good chance to win, Butler had one of the worst days a punter could have in the 27-14 loss at Carolina. The easy thing here would be to give the goat horns to Ryan Lindley, because he was perfectly dreadful. But it was also understandable, because no one had any expectations for Lindley to play remotely well. Butler punted nine times, and never inside the 20. The lengths: 20 yards, 28, 33, 52, 31, 31, 37, 43 and 38 yards. A high-schoolish 34.8-yard average. The first two punts resulted in short fields and 10 easy Carolina points. The third punt, from his own end zone, was a shank job that set up a short field the Panthers couldn’t capitalize on—but Butler did get chewed out by Bruce Arians when he got to the sideline.
Quotes of the Week
"As cool as the other side of the pillow."
—The late Stuart Scott, a thousand times.
"There is no ‘Next man up’ at ESPN. There will never be another Stuart Scott."
—Cris Carter, on ESPN’s NFL Countdown show Sunday.
"I want him on my team. He may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB.”
—Sterling Sharpe, commenting on Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh on NFL Network on Saturday.
"We’re winning off the field, but we’ve got to start winning on the field.”
—Washington GM Bruce Allen, at a press conference reviewing the team’s 4-12 season, which followed the team’s 3-13 season in 2013. He was referring to the team’s charitable endeavors in the community.
I believe the fans do not care about charitable endeavors when the team is 7-25 with nothing but questions about the coach, the quarterback and the entire roster (well, Ryan Kerrigan is darned good) … and the owner and the general manager.
Washington, in the five seasons that Allen has been GM, is 28-53 with one playoff appearance, zero playoff wins, and four last-place finishes in the NFC East.
"Six and 10 is an embarrassment."
"When I’m sitting on the bus after the Jacksonville game, I wanted to fire everybody."
“Jacksonville was an embarrassment. That is why I learned a long time ago that you don’t make those judgments during the season. You try not to make stupid comments during the season or give votes of confidence or anything like that. I was just happy that none of you approached me in the locker room after the game because I may have said something that I would have regretted for a long time after that."
“A year ago, I didn’t know Ben McAdoo from Bob McAdoo."
—A quadruple-quote from John Mara, Giants chief operating officer, on the day he announced Tom Coughlin would be returning in 2015 for his 12th season as coach and Jerry Reese his ninth as general manager with the Giants. The last quote refers to his unfamiliarity with the offensive coordinator Tom Coughlin hired a year ago, Ben McAdoo.
New York is 22-26 in three playoffless seasons since winning the Super Bowl.
“Winning isn’t the only thing matters. Winning with class is what matters.”
—49ers CEO Jed York, on KNBR radio in San Francisco after Jim Harbaugh left the team to coach Michigan.
That’s an important statement. I think it goes to the heart of an important disconnect between Harbaugh and upper management of the 49ers. I have always thought that management believed Harbaugh was too soft on Aldon Smith and his numerous run-ins with the law. The next coach of the 49ers will be tougher on miscreants regardless of how important they are to the team.
“A change was made that I believe is in the best interest of this team. Change is often accompanied by skepticism, and I respect your right to have questions. Ultimately, the decisions we make as an organization will be judged by their results, and the best way to answer concerns is by putting a championship product on the field.”
—Part of a letter sent by 49ers CEO Jed York to team season-ticket holders after the Niners divorced Jim Harbaugh, who had the best record in the NFC—49-22-1, with three playoff appearances—in the last four seasons.
Stat of the Week
The final numbers are in for penalties called in the 256 regular-season games this year (they’re up), and times of games (they’re down), and the surprise to me is the game times can be down more than a minute and a half per game, with the increase of stoppages for flags.
The game time numbers:
|Year||Average Time of Game|
And called penalties (not accepted penalties, but all flags) are up two per game over last year, which is significant:
|Year||Called penalties||Average per game|
League VP of officiating Dean Blandino said time has been cut this year “by the things that we can control … penalty administration, being more effective in that area. We feel like with our wireless communication [officials can communicate with wireless mikes for the first time] that has been the case. Although we still have conferences, there have been fewer. They have been more expeditious in terms of the basic fouls that, when there are line of scrimmage infractions and things like that, those can be expedited with the wireless communication versus having everybody run in to have a conversation.
"With replay and the system that we put in place, I think we’ve been more efficient in replay. Although the number of reviews is slightly up, the delay per review is down 12 seconds and then the delay per game through 16 weeks was down 13 seconds. Even though we’ve had more reviews, we’re being more efficient in administrating those reviews."
Blandino noted this is the first time since 2008 that time of games has decreased. It’ll be interesting to see in 2015 if players adapt to the hair-trigger flags, particularly hands-to-the-face and defensive contact with receivers past the five-yard bump zone. I get no indication that the enforcement is going to change at all in 2015.
Factoids of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Among amazing factoids that tell a grotesque truth, this is the Factoid of the Year:
The leaders in futility, the Oakland Raiders, over the past 13 seasons:
|Number||NFL Rank since 2002|
Owner Mark Davis is careening toward dispatching his eighth coach, Tony Sparano, in favor of his ninth. And, presumably, 10 to 15 new assistant coaches. And the line keeps on moving in Oakland.
On Sunday, Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who has been fined $450,875 in his five-year NFL career, was blocked by Dallas left guard Ron Leary, whose salary this year is $495,000.
The Cardinals gained 13 yards in the last 32 minutes of an NFL playoff game Saturday.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
I thwarted a pickpocket Friday. The guy was trying to pick my pocket near the corner of 52nd and Madison in Manhattan. Walking home from headquarters of The MMQB (also known as The Time-Life Building), I felt someone bump into me from behind. Odd, because the sidewalk was crowded but not teeming with people. I turned to see what the deal was, and as I turned, I felt a light tugging on my right rear pocket.
"What the …" I said, not finishing the thought.
The guy, maybe 50, dressed in a long winter coat, had a stunned look on his face. Like: I was just supposed to bump into you, and then apologize, and walk away with your wallet before you knew what happened.
“I know what you were doing," I said, while he extricated his hand from my rear pocket—my empty rear pocket, covered by the bottom of a hooded sweatshirt—and he walked very fast up the street and then jogged across Madison Avenue, disappearing into the crowd.
Two takeaways: Very thin wallets are good. And very thin wallets, in front pockets in New York City, are very good.
Tweets of the Week
This Cowboys "no name defense" looking like a no name defense. -SG
— steve gleason (@TeamGleason) January 4, 2015
The former Saints safety, while watching the Lions shred the Dallas defense 14-0 late in the first quarter Sunday afternoon.
For those asking Hochuli did make a reference to "Jungle Boy" in the 3rd Qtr. He was referring to Replay Official Tom Sifferman (cont.)
— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) January 4, 2015
That is Sifferman's nickname on his crew. Hochuli mistakenly opened up his stadium mic, instead of his wireless mic to the other officials.
— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) January 4, 2015
The NFL vice president of officiating, in a double-tweet after one of the most bizarre open-mike references in NFL officiating history during the Carolina-Arizona game.
Is Butler punting a bowling ball?
— Matt Williamson (@WilliamsonNFL) January 3, 2015
The former NFL scout and current ESPN analyst, after Cardinals punter Drew Butler had his fifth punt of the game of 33 yards or fewer in the third quarter at Carolina.
Mr official, my hands were frozen, otherwise I wouldn't have held that guy. Totally using that next season.
— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) December 31, 2014
The New York Giants guard, after word surfaced that Ndamukong Suh told appeals officer Ted Cottrell in the hearing to overturn his one-game suspension that he couldn’t feel his feet because they were numb, and thus didn’t know he was stepping on Aaron Rodgers in Week 17, leading to the ban. Cottrell didn’t buy that stupid, ridiculous, inane, awful excuse from Suh, but he overturned the suspension and let him play in Dallas, substituting a $70,000 fine.
Is Steve Smith active tonight?
— Ryan Clark (@Realrclark25) January 4, 2015
The former Pittsburgh and current Washington safety, needling the relatively unimpactful Steve Smith Sr., during the third quarter of the Steelers-Ravens playoff games—at which point Smith, the Ravens’ wideout, had two catches.
Five minutes later, Smith caught back-to-back passes. Gain of 46. “About time," Clark tweeted. “Have to give Steve Smith touches.”
You can take Clark out of the rivalry, but you can’t take the rivalry out of Clark. Or something like that.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about wild-card weekend:
a. What a hit to start the fourth game of the weekend, Rashean Mathis. Knocked the ball from Dez Bryant, mirroring the physicality that marked Detroit’s defensive play all season.
b. Matthew Stafford, with a nifty third-down conversion run around Dallas corner Tyler Patmon.
c. The Detroit pressure. So often it suffocated Dallas’ offensive efforts and just beat up Tony Romo.
d. The Ed Hochuli reversal, in Carolina-Arizona, of the Marion Grice fumble at the goal line, and his fairly economical but thorough explanation of it.
e. Cam Newton’s hustle to catch Antonio Cromartie—after his awful second-quarter pick.
f. Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ change-up blitzes by his safeties. Rashad Johnson clobbered Cam Newton on one late in the first half, forcing the Panthers to kick a field goal with great field position.
g. The under-appreciated Frostee Rucker sniffing out the read-option and smothering Newton.
h. Newton, surviving a brutal flying-shoulder hit from Deone Bucannon—but having the presence of mind to dive for the exact amount of yardage needed for a third-quarter first down.
i. Jonathan Stewart’s last five games: 104.8 rushing yards per game. That’s Ron Rivera football.
j. Haloti Ngata and Brandon Williams. The center of the Baltimore defensive front pushed the Steelers’ line back consistently. Ben Roethlisberger never was comfortable all night.
k. How do you not love Antonio Brown as a player, hustling to swoop in and recover Ben Tate’s first-quarter fumble for Pittsburgh?
l. William Gay, saving four points for the Steelers, deflecting a potential touchdown pass away as it headed for Marlon Brown’s waiting hands in the end zone. Instead of Baltimore going up 14-6 late second quarter, the Ravens settled for 10-6.
m. Bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson, noting Cincinnati was missing 11 touchdowns and 1,500 receiving yards with the de-activations of A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham.
n. Andrew Luck, who is borderline perfect at knowing when to pull it down and run. His 18-yard scramble with the pocket breaking down early against Cincinnati was just one more example.
o. The Colts’ beleaguered offensive line. Didn’t play beleaguered. Played very, very well.
p. Leon Hall, with a terrific pass breakup on Coby Fleener.
q. Who the heck is Rex Burkhead? Fifty-seven yards in the first half out of the Cincinnati backfield, plus drawing a defensive-hold that gave the Bengals another first down. Another product of the Duke Tobin-led scouting department that Cincinnati wants to keep hidden so Tobin doesn’t get stolen as a GM. Burkhead was a sixth-round pick from Nebraska in 2013.
r. Vontae Davis sniffing out the Cincinnati screen.
s. Great point by Justin Rogers, who covers the Lions for Mlive.com: Sunday was the 48th game of backup quarterback Kellen Moore’s NFL career. He’s been inactive for all 48.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about wild-card weekend:
a. Dekoda Watson running into the punter in the end zone, getting an idiotic running-into-the-kicker call and allowing Detroit to extend a drive—instead of simply taking the ball with great field position near midfield.
b. The communication between Cam Newton and Jerricho Cotchery on a second-quarter pick. Looked like Cotchery should have kept going on the crossing route, and when he didn’t, Cromartie had one of the easiest picks of his career. He looked like the intended receiver.
c. Ryan Lindley. Just not good enough, in any way.
d. “That’s the end of the first quarter," Cards-Panthers ref Ed Hochuli said … at the end of the third quarter.
e. Actually, that is something I liked about wild-card weekend.
f. Uncharacteristic olé block by Heath Miller in Pittsburgh, resulting in a crushing Terrell Suggs tackle-for-loss on Dri Archer.
g. Twelve men on the field, Baltimore. Big gaffe … and I will never figure out why that happens so often, but particularly in this case, when the Steelers were lined up to kick a difficult 47-yard field goal midway through the second quarter, trailing 7-3. The Ravens had an extra man on the field, allowing Pittsburgh to get closer and make the field goal a chippy.
h. Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, with a huge blown coverage on the Torrey Smith touchdown catch.
i. Mitchell, in fact, with an all-around bad game, which included taking a terrible angle on Owen Daniels and allowing a vital third-and-13 conversion on the drive that made it 23-15 Ravens with nine minutes left.
j. The Steelers leaving Elvis Dumervil unblocked on a crucial third-down play late in the third quarter, down 11. What kind of blocking scheme allows that?
k. David DeCastro. Huge false-start penalty … at the Baltimore one.
l. Ben Tate. Gotta come up bigger than a fumble and a pass through your hands for the clinching interception of the day.
m. Boom Herron, the sparkplug Indy running back, doing the one thing he absolutely shouldn’t have done on a late-first-half drive that could have broken open the game for the Colts. Fumble. Bengals ball. Instead of Indy leading 20-7 (dangerous to assume a touchdown, I know), the Colts led 13-10.
n. Events conspired against Andy Dalton, with all the injuries. But lord, can you make a play, man?
o. Bad holding call on Russell Bodine, the Bengal center, in a big second-half moment. Bodine scrapped and pushed. He didn’t hold, and that negated that rarest of Bengal events in the second half: a first down.
p. This is not a 24/7 macho game, Adam Jones. You don’t have to take every nine-yard-deep kickoff you catch out of the end zone.
3. I think this is everything you need to know about why Carson Palmer is one of the most valuable players in the NFL this season (though I do not advocate him getting MVP votes): With Palmer active this season in the first nine games of the season, Arizona scored 18, 25, 23, 20, 30, 24, 24, 28, and 31 points. In the eight games after he tore his ACL and was lost for the year, Arizona scored 14, 3, 18, 17, 12, 6, 17 and 16 points. That’s right: With Palmer, the Cards scored 18 or more every time. Without Palmer, the Cards scored 18 or less every game.
4. I think for those who would say, “The Steelers would have lost even with a healthy Le’Veon Bell playing," I say … not so fast. There was a vital play in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers down 23-15 with eight minutes left, trying to drive for the tying touchdown (plus two-point conversion). Two things Bell does exceedingly well—and two things a Steelers back would have to do exceedingly well to be known as great—are picking up blitzers and catching the ball out of the backfield. Ben Tate, just signed last week, failed to pick up the blitz, putting Roethlisberger in big trouble. Then, with Tate leaking out as the hot receiver, Roethlisberger had no choice but to throw it to him under pressure, and the ball came in a little high, and it was a ball Tate should have caught but didn’t, instead tipping it into the air and enabling Terrell Suggs to intercept it. On one play, Bell was missed twice—in blitz-pickup and receiving—and on the next play Joe Flacco threw the insurance touchdown pass to end it.
5. I think we get so excited about playoff football that we forget the quality of it … until wild-card weekend. Arizona at Carolina. Cincinnati at Indianapolis. Had the playoffs been expanded to seven teams per conference this year (and I realize it’s very likely to happen in 2015), 9-7 Houston and Case Keenum would have played at Peyton Manning’s Broncos, and the reeling Eagles would have played at Green Bay—where seven weeks earlier the Packers beat the Eagles 53-20.
6. I think the playoffs should be a reward for very good teams, not a television-filler because the NFL can get great ratings with two extra games. But then again, I know that’s a naïve way to look at it, thinking about the quality of the games rather than several more millions being generated.
7. I think if I were the Buffalo Bills, this is exactly what I’d do: Hire Mike Shanahan. Keep Jim Schwartz with an extension and a raise. And trade for Jay Cutler. Shanahan is the one who found and drafted Cutler and got him going on the right foot in Denver in 2006. The defense is ready to win playoff games now (not just qualify for the postseason), and it’s time to sell out to try to get the big-armed quarterback, who is scarred right now but still far better than the alternatives, to give Buffalo a legitimate offensive chance.
8. I think I’m not sure if this is just my imagination, but doesn’t it seem like Oakland’s spending a lot of time interviewing the JV candidates, while the other teams are questioning varsity ones?
9. I think the brightest prospect among the young front-office guys is Eliot Wolf, the son of former Packers GM Ron Wolf. Eliot Wolf is 32, and the Packers promoted him to director of player personnel last week, and I expect he’ll be running his own team within two years—if he chooses to leave the Green Bay womb.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. When I grow up, I want to be able to talk as cogently, emotionally and with such feeling about a lost loved one as Rich Eisen did about his friend Stuart Scott. Brilliant, I thought.
b. Just loved Scott bringing up his daughter to cap the ESPY speech last summer. Such a family move.
c. Had my first Primanti Brothers sandwich as my pregame meal Saturday: The Pitts-burger. Two pieces of Italian bread with a patty, cole slaw, fries and tomato. The woman at the table next to ours wore a Steelers’ tank top, and on her right shoulder was a tattoo of the Steelers’ logo.
d. Geez, don’t scare us like that, Bono.
e. Great Wall Street Journal story from Saturday on the guy who picks all the cool and quite applicable music for NBC’s Sunday night football telecasts.
f. Martin Brodeur lives: Got his 125th shutout the other night, 3-0 over the Avs.
g. Coffeenerdness: Was fortunate on New Year’s Night to be able to sample Hugh Jackman’s Laughing Man coffee. A latte, in fact, and a very good one. Strong espresso. Then I read about Laughing Man, and how all proceeds are plowed back into education and community development where the coffee comes from. Cool idea, and very good coffee.
h. Beernerdness: One of the good things about hitting the playoff trail is trying the local beers. Though Great Lakes Brewing is not technically in Pittsburgh, I’ve had several of its beers over the years in the ’Burgh. I’d never had one of the coolest-named beers—Eliot Ness Amber Lager—until Friday night, and I’ll be back for it again. A darker amber lager, Eliot Ness (and I had no idea why an amber lager is called “Eliot Ness Amber Lager,” until I read the label, which informed me that Ness, famous for trying to enforce Prohibition in Chicago after the Great Depression, was the former Cleveland Safety Director who loved the pub that became Great Lakes Brewing) is tasty and wintry. Happy to have had the experience.
i. Tremendous job by Ohio State. I wonder if Urban Meyer will ever be tempted to go to the NFL.
The Adieu Haiku
Stuart Scott is gone.
So many grew up with him.
"BOO-YAH!” they all say.
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