Vikings Flip the Script

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Monday November 9th, 2015

I’ve always had a lot of respect for Mike Zimmer, who has some elements of cornball, Parcells and wide-eyed kid in his coaching repertoire. So here he was Sunday, in the wind tunnel of a stadium on the campus of the University of Minnesota (14 mph, gusting to 26 mph), with the wind playing tricks on the kickers and the quarterbacks. He’d seen Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein bomb a 61-yard field goal going mostly with the wind, but then, going the same way, a Zuerlein 48-yarder broke sharply to the right, like a Clayton Kershaw curveball. It was a weird wind.

End of regulation. Rams 18, Vikings 18.

Zimmer sent captain Chad Greenway out for the overtime coin flip. First, he had to decide what to do if the Rams lost the flip and it was Minnesota’s decision—elect to receive or to defend a goal. “It wasn’t an easy decision, I can tell you that,” Zimmer said after the game.

The announcers thought it was fairly obvious. “I don’t think the wind’s enough of a factor to turn [the ball] down,” said FOX’s Charles Davis.

• ROMO CAN’T FIX THIS: As Sunday's loss showed, the Cowboys’ issues go beyond missing their starting quarterback

In the 42 years since the NFL adopted overtime as a rule, this was the 530th OT game. Only 10 times had a coach not taken the ball if given the choice to start the extra period. Even with the wind as a factor, it didn’t seem as if there was much of a decision to make. Who’d want to hand the ball to a team with the hottest running back in football, Todd Gurley, to start OT, especially after he had run for 52 yards in the last 12 minutes of regulation?

At midfield, Rams captain James Laurinaitis called tails. Referee Ronald Torbert flipped the coin. Heads.

“We want to defend this end,” Greenway said, pointing to the west goalpost.

“You want to defend this end?” Torbert said, with a rise in his voice on the word “defend.”

Greenway nodded.

* * *

Blair Walsh's winning field goal came after the Vikings opted to defend to start overtime.
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Upstairs, Thom Brennaman told his audience, “How about that?”

“You don’t see that very often,” said Charles Davis. “Hey, that’s a lot of confidence in your defense.”

“When they come asking about it after the game,” Brennaman said ominously, “it better be.”

Coaches who have made such a call know they will either be ridiculed or lionized. In 2002, taking the light wind and trusting his defense in overtime backfired on Detroit coach Marty Mornhinweg in Champaign, Ill., the Bears’ home that year while Soldier Field was being refurbished. Chicago took the ball on the first possession and drove to the winning field goal. That was in the last half-season of Mornhinweg’s forgettable 5-27 reign. Two years ago Bill Belichick actually did it, handing the ball to Peyton Manning in Foxboro on a brutally cold November night with 22-mph winds swirling around Gillette Stadium. “The wind,” Belichick said. “It was definitely significant.” On the fifth possession of overtime, New England kicked a field goal to win, 34-31.

• FanDuelDouble your money playing fantasy football on Sunday. Refunds for all losing teams! New users only. Sponsored by FanDuel

The wind, again, here.

The Vikings took the wind, and Zimmer sent his defense out to load the box on Gurley on first down. Terrific diagnosis by safety Harrison Smith on first down. He burst through the line, got a great pursuit angle on Gurley, grabbed his arm and waited for reinforcements. Nose tackle Linval Joseph smothered Gurley for a six-yard loss. Then it was pretty easy. A screen to Tavon Austin was stuffed, Nick Foles threw an incompletion, the Rams punted, and the Vikings took over at their 49. They drove to the Rams’ 22, mostly using Adrian Peterson’s legs to get there, and Blair Walsh, with the wind, blasted a 40-yard perfecto halfway up the net. Vikings 21, Rams 18.

“It was the wind,” Zimmer said, sounding like Belichick. “I thought, ‘Man, I don’t want to give them the opportunity to kick another long field goal to win the football game.’ So, we decided to defend the goal.”

He didn’t seem particularly bothered by what might have been had the Rams driven to the winning touchdown on the first series.

• PETER KING’S FINE FIFTEEN: A look at Wes Welker’s surprise signing in St. Louis. The Pats stay on top, while the Colts make a jump after Sunday’s big win.

* * *

I asked Zimmer: “So you’re tied for the division lead with Green Bay—both 6-2. You surprised?”

“I try not to look at the records,” Zimmer said from Minnesota. “I just try to prepare the best we can for every game, every day. Our coaches do a really good job working with our players on why exactly we win games and why exactly we lose them. And I talk to them about New England a lot. I have a lot of respect for Bill Belichick’s approach to the game, and he transmits that to his players. They could win by 40 or lose by 40, and after the game you hear his players and coaches say all they’re focused on is the next game. That’s all that matters. The records, the playoffs, there’s nothing we can do about that today. We’ve just got to play the next game the best we can.”

That makes so much sense, but in today’s world with players and teams and owners being bombarded by fans in all kinds of ways, it’s often harder to keep that perspective. This won’t help Zimmer. It’s great that the Vikings have rebounded from a 2-2 start to win four straight over the past month. But the road ahead, compared to Green Bay’s, looks tougher. The remaining schedules:

Minnesota (6-2) Green Bay (6-2)
NFC North: 3-0 NFC North: 1-0
NFC: 4-1 NFC: 4-1
Streak: Won 4 Streak: Lost 2
at Oakland (4-4) Detroit (1-7)
Green Bay (6-2) at Minnesota (6-2)
at Atlanta (6-3) Chicago (2-5) Thu.
Seattle (4-4) at Detroit (1-7) Thu.
at Arizona (6-2) Thu. Dallas (2-6)
Chicago (2-5) at Oakland (4-4)
N.Y. Giants (5-4) at Arizona (6-2)
at Green Bay (6-2) Minnesota (6-2)
4 home, 4 road 4 home, 4 road
Foes W-L: 39-26, .600 Foes W-L: 28-35, .444
 

What the Vikings will have to do is hope Teddy Bridgewater gets out of concussion protocol this week so he can face the surging Raiders out west. Zimmer seemed optimistic that Bridgewater would be okay after taking a shot to the head from St. Louis cornerback Lamarcus Joyner while sliding in the second half Sunday.

“I thought it was a cheap shot,” Zimmer said. “I don’t think they’re a very clean football team. I hope the league checks into the history of the defensive coordinator [Gregg Williams] when they consider [discipline] this week.”

Zimmer said he thought Bridgewater would be fine this week. After the game, Bridgewater, who’d been in the trainers’ room, met the team coming up the tunnel and said, “Great win, coach.”

“We’re not always a perfect team,” Zimmer said. “But we’ve got good enough weapons at all the spots we need them, we play really hard on defense, and Teddy’s our guy. He’ll continue to be our guy. Sometimes he tries to be too perfect. Like today, I told him, ‘Don’t be afraid to pull the ball down and run with it. Just play. Go play.’” Shortly after that talk, Bridgewater ran up the middle through an empty midsection of the St. Louis defense for a six-yard touchdown. And then he ran around right end for the two-point conversion.

It’s an interesting team—Adrian Peterson chipped in with 125 rushing yards—with a coach learning to make the kind of bold calls veteran coaches make, without fear of failure. Green Bay probably didn’t expect to feel Minnesota’s hot breath on its neck this year, but it’s there, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away.

* * *

Greg Hardy has played four games for the Cowboys this season.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

On Greg Hardy.

What Greg Hardy has done and said in the past 18 months repulses me. Starting with the alleged serious abuse of girlfriend Nicole Holder in Charlotte on May 13, 2014 … being found guilty in a North Carolina bench trial for assaulting and threatening to kill her … his flippant remarks when he returned to play football last month with the Cowboys about coming out “with guns blazing’’ against the Patriots—he had allegedly thrown Holder onto a futon covered with a stash of automatic weapons … seeing the graphic photos of Holder on Deadspin on Friday, showing the marks and welts from the alleged Hardy abuse  … and reading his way-too-little-too-late Twitter apology Saturday (“I express my regret 4 what happened in past”) that defined shallow. 

But I also think Greg Hardy has the right to play football for the Dallas Cowboys.

Since 2000, approximately 51 NFL players have been found culpable in domestic-violence cases. We have been moved to widespread public outrage twice: in the Hardy case and in the Ray Rice case last year. Both times we saw images, once in a video (Rice) and once in photos of the abuse victim (Hardy), after a trial with graphic testimony. In many of the other cases, surely the abuse would be comparable to—if not quite as stunning as—what Rice did, and what Hardy allegedly did. But we haven’t been outraged, because we haven’t seen the images. Why weren’t we outraged over Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington pleading guilty in 2014 to assaulting the mother of his child, leaving her with a broken collarbone? Or when former Dolphin Phillip Merling was accused by a tearful girlfriend of battery when she was pregnant? Or the numerous other incidents that have left girlfriends and wives battered and in fear of more abuse?

• THE ORIGINAL GREG HARDY REPORT: In September 2014, SI’s Jon Wertheim and Emily Kaplan reported on the horrifying details of the Greg Hardy domestic violence case

I said the same thing after Rice paid his penalty to the league and to society: He deserves a second chance to ply his professional trade. Rice was suspended by the league for a total of 12 games and won his reinstatement on appeal, and now he sits, almost a full year later, waiting for a team to sign him. Hardy was put on the league’s exempt list for 15 games last year (paid leave), then suspended by commissioner Roger Goodell for the first 10 games of this year after a league investigation into the alleged battery of Holder; Goodell’s ban was cut to four games on appeal, Hardy signed with Dallas, and he began playing for the Cowboys a month ago.

Maybe we can find it in our hearts to forgive Rice because he has been so outspoken against domestic violence and so repentant. Maybe we can’t forgive Hardy because he’s hasn’t. Regardless, the criminal justice system is finished with both men, for now. After Hardy appealed his conviction, Holder refused to cooperate in the case and the charges were dismissed, and, last week, expunged from his record.

The Hardy case stinks. We can all smell it. But the American justice system has released him into society. The NFL kept him off the field for 19 games—Goodell tried for 25 and was rebuffed. If the vast majority of teams in the league wouldn’t touch Hardy, good for them. But Hardy has the right to work, and any of the 32 teams has the right to sign him.

For there to be a realistic movement to ban batterers, this isn’t something Goodell could unilaterally impose. (Goodell, recent history suggests, can unilaterally impose nothing.) It would have to be collectively bargained with the union, and the current CBA does not expire until after the 2020 season. Or the union would have to deem it so important that it would hand the ability to ban domestic abusers to the league. That’s highly unlikely. Where would it stop? Would this be the only crime worthy of a ban? And what if the alleged batterer was never found guilty of a crime, or had charges dropped or expunged, as happened in Hardy’s case? How would that be handled?

What also worries me about a ban is the potential for threats against the battered. Or the potential that victims will refuse to come forward rather than help bring charges that could cost a spouse or boyfriend millions.

Watching Greg Hardy play doesn’t feel good, nor does it look good for the Cowboys or the NFL. And I know we’re a country of second chances. Sometimes the second chance feels cheap and rotten, as this one does. But as bad as it feels, Greg Hardy has the right to work in the field in which he excels, and Jerry Jones has the right to employ him.

* * *

Marcus Mariota and the play of the day.

How difficult last week must have been for the Titans, who had lost six in a row, who saw their head coach get fired; who would be playing against a quarterback coming off a 505-yard, seven-touchdown performance; who had three of their top four corners not healthy; and who weren’t sure how sturdy starting quarterback Marcus Mariota would be after missing two games with a strained knee.

“Pretty tough, hectic week,” Mariota said from New Orleans. “Losing our coach [Ken Whisenhunt]—not easy at all. But we prepared hard the whole week.” I loved the touchdown throw by Mariota on the first series of OT. To hear him tell it, the play was imported to the team by journeyman tight end Anthony Fasano, and coach Mike Mularkey okayed its placement in the game plan against the Saints.

The idea all centered around misdirection. For the second straight play on that drive, Mariota would roll right and look for a target either on the right or in the middle of the field. But unlike the previous play—when Mariota found tight end Delanie Walker open in the middle of the field for just three yards, and the Saints stuck with their men—this time the quarterback would roll to the far right and draw as many Saints as he could with him. At the Saints’ five-yard line, Fasano went in motion from left to right in the formation, and lined up to make a seal block as Mariota took the shotgun snap and rolled right. And rolled and rolled. The three other Tennessee receivers on the play rolled right with him. And after Fasano held his block for a couple of seconds, he leaked in No Man’s Land. Suddenly, Mariota came to a dead stop and lofted a high arcing throw to where he thought Fasano would be in a couple of moments. The four Saints who saw and gave chase were all too late. Fasano caught the easiest touchdown he’ll ever catch.

“First of all,” Mariota said, “Anthony thought of that play. We had it in the game plan a few weeks ago. Hats off to everyone for running it right and not giving anything away. Hats off to the coaches for having the guts to call it.”

Guts, maybe, because no one could have figured Fasano would fool the entire linebacking crew of the Saints and hold them to the formation instead of at least being right on his tail. Or because when you throw a football that high, with such a rainbow, a speedy corner could dart in and make a play on it.

To me, the play showed how much the Titans trust their rookie quarterback. Smart of them, in this case. For the second time this season he had a four-touchdown, no-interception game; this time he threw for 379 yards. And he wasn’t sacked. That was one of the beefs about Whisenhunt; he got his quarterback hit too much. Who knows how it will end with interim coach Mike Mularkey, but it was clear he put additional emphasis on protecting Mariota, and that emphasis paid off on Sunday.

Before the game, Mularkey told Mariota one of the most basic things a coach can tell a passer: Take what the defense gives you. For five quarters, Mariota did that. He’s not a big risk-taker, and he’s accurate for a rookie. You figure he’s going to have more great days like this one.

• FanDuelDouble your money playing fantasy football on Sunday. Refunds for all losing teams! New users only. Sponsored by FanDuel

* * *

Through eight games, Russell Wilson has been hit 60 percent more often than in 2014.
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

The fate of Russell Wilson.

“I’m 100 percent,” Wilson told me the other day. “Absolutely. A hundred percent. The goal is to feel great every week, and right now I do.” Wilson must be wearing some pretty flexible and impenetrable armor, because he has taken hits at an alarming rate in the first half of the season, per Pro Football Focus metrics.

Here is a look at the punishment of Wilson, 2014 vs. 2015, through eight games:

  Sacks Hits Total Hits
2014 17 26 43
2015 31 33 64
 

The one good sign for Wilson is that his remade offensive line had its first sackless game of the season eight days ago against Dallas. (Seattle had its bye this weekend.) “We’ve got a lot of room to grow,” said Wilson. “I’m confident we’ll continue to grow as an offense.”

Wilson said all the right things about his line, and he was earnest about it. As former NFL quarterback and current Seattle-based radio analyst Hugh Millen says, Wilson has to take some responsibility for protection calls at the line gone awry. But it stands to reason he would have had to take the same responsibility last year too, and he’s getting hit significantly more this year. It’s been a struggle nearly every week for the Seahawks, and when they play three home games in 15 days coming off the bye beginning next Sunday—against the NFC West-leading Cardinals, the Niners and the Steelers—Seattle will get the briefest of respites. None of those three teams has a great pressure defense.

PFF ranks center Drew Nowak 25th among starting centers, right guard J.R. Sweezy and left guard Justin Britt the 66th and 73rd-rated guards, and left tackle Russell Okung 35th and right tackle Garry Gilliam 72nd among tackles. That’s bad, and that has to improve for Seattle to be a playoff factor in two months.

“It seems like every week, more than ever, we’re getting every team’s best shot,” Wilson said. “We’ve just got to keep finding ways to win.”

* * *

Percy Harvin caught 71 passes for three teams over the past three seasons, including 19 with the Bills in 2015.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Well, I guess $31.5M doesn’t buy what it used to.

The strange career of 27-year-old Percy Harvin—there needs to be a book written on it—stalled Saturday, when the Bills placed him on injured reserve with what the team said was a knee injury. He had been plagued by a sore hip, the same hip that short-circuited his 2013 season in Seattle and required surgery, but the knee was a new thing. I would think some team would want to sign Harvin for close to the minimum with little guaranteed money next year, but after the Seahawks blew a $12 million bonus on him in 2013, and after Buffalo blew through $6 million this year for such little impact, Harvin will have to re-dedicate himself and really love the game to rekindle his career in 2016.

Exactly three years ago, at the midpoint of the 2012 season, Harvin was one of the two or three most dangerous weapons in football, scoring as a rusher, receiver and returner for Minnesota in the season’s first two months. But he suffered an ankle sprain in Week 9 at Seattle, and in what would be a precursor of the next three seasons, was plagued by the injuries to the point that he couldn’t return, and the Vikings placed him on IR. Notable as we consider whether Harvin has played his last snap:

• Touchdowns scored in the first 3.5 seasons of his career: 29.

• Touchdowns scored in the last 3.5 seasons of his career: 4, including postseason.

• Games played for Seattle, the New York Jets and Buffalo: 21, including postseason.

• Money Harvin earned from the Seahawks, Jets and Bills: $31.5 million.

• Offensive touches for the Seahawks, Jets and Bills: 116. Yards: 1,069.

• Touchdowns from scrimmage for the Seahawks: 1.

• Touchdowns from scrimmage for the Jets: 1.

• Touchdowns from scrimmage for the Bills: 1.

• FOUR FREE AGENT FAILS: Pro Football Focus’s list of the worst big-money free agents of 2015

There is only one positive tributary for Seattle this morning, if it ponders the money and draft capital it spent on Harvin. When the Seahawks dealt Harvin to the Jets in mid-2014 for a sixth-round pick, they used that sixth-round pick (along with third-, fourth- and fifth-round choices) to trade up for receiver/returner Tyler Lockett of Kansas State.

Harvin: 5-10 ½, 183.

Lockett: 5-10, 182.

The whippet-like Lockett has scored three ways in the first half of his rookie season—on a 43-yard reception, a 57-yard punt return and a 105-yard kickoff return.

Who does that remind you of?

* * *

Ray Lewis's recent book tour has resulted in more questions about the linebacker's involvement in a double-murder in Atlanta in 2000.
CBS

ICYMI … Ray Lewis on Atlanta, on NPR.

Ray Lewis has written a book, I Feel Like Going On: Life, Game and Glory, with Daniel Paisner, and has a version of the events that unfolded in the winter and spring of 2000 in Atlanta when two men were murdered and Lewis and two friends were charged with the killings. Lewis eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and got 12 months of probation. NPR’s David Greene asked Lewis about the experience.

“It’s always interesting that the first thing people go to is they always say, ‘You were charged with double murder,’” Lewis told Greene. “But nobody ever wants to say that from day one there was not one inch of evidence on me. I hear people bring up Atlanta like, ‘Oh Atlanta is supposed to scare me.’ Atlanta doesn’t scare me, Atlanta wakes me up, only to realize that first of all, put your trust in no man, and second of all, you don’t ever have to live like you are guilty when you know you are innocent.”

Greene pointed out there were some facts missing from the re-telling of the story in Lewis’ book. “You’re only talking about facts that was already [thrown out] of the case 100 percent,” Lewis said. “ … So you talk about blood, but we’re not talking about the facts, because you are only coming from the perspective … because you don’t have a clue what happened that night! So when you ask someone—”

Interrupted Greene: “Many of your fans read some of that stuff, like, ‘Blood found in Ray Lewis limo.’ Do you feel like you offered enough details in this book to really explain?”

“You don’t have to bring up those details when you already lived it,” Lewis said. “The part that I brought up was the part that was left out. All the stuff that you’re talking about, that was all through the case, so if you really wanted to know about all of that, go through the case and you will find out all of that. This is kind of how I leave Atlanta. Nobody ever has to convince me or ask me to prove myself to people. I don’t prove myself to people, I don’t live to prove myself to people and I never will. Never!”

Greene: “Two powerful images of you: devout man, father, [Michael] Phelps described you as inspiration. Then there is Ray Lewis who some people suggest is a murderer. Is it hard to live with those two personas out there?”

Lewis: “No. No, absolutely not. That’s why I wrote the book. Because who Michael Phelps knows, that’s who Ray Lewis is. Everything else that you just said—the only thing I heard that you said, honestly, of the whole thing, was murder.”

An uneasy conversation, but good radio.

* * *

Lamarcus Joyner was penalized for this hit on a sliding Teddy Bridgewater.
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Quotes of the Week

I

“I know that guy. My mom knows his mom, my dad knows his mom. I would never intentionally do a dirty play like that on Teddy Bridgewater. It was a bam-bam play. He’s a taller stature guy compared to me. I did not know he was gonna slide. When I launched, he slid, and we connected. If I could take it back, I would take it back, because I am not a dirty player. Was it intentional? Not at all. So I can’t fix the problem. But how I feel inside, it’s not good.”

—St. Louis cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, after knocking an acquaintance from his Miami youth, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, out of the game Sunday with a clubbing to the head as Bridgewater was sliding.

II

“If we were on the street, we probably would have had a fight.”

—Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer, after the 21-18 win over St. Louis, referring to Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Zimmer was angry that Rams cornerback Lamarcus Joyner cheap-shotted quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on a slide, knocking Bridgewater out of the game. Zimmer blamed Williams, whose defenses are notoriously aggressive.

III

“The Wells Report, such as it was, was a piece of astonishing garbage. I mean, just because a report is produced at great cost by a fancy-sounding law firm and a lawyer with a long reputation does not mean it clarifies the issues or represents an intelligent and thoughtful analysis of the issues. That report was just bull----. It’s just, like, ordered up by the NFL’s office to cover their disastrous decisions.”

—Author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell, on the Bill Simmons podcast last week.

I figured that a smart person engaging in logic would see some holes in the NFL’s case. Despite significant scientific claims to the contrary when he upheld Tom Brady’s suspension in July, Roger Goodell went strong with his belief that air was removed from the New England footballs deliberately before the AFC Championship Game. “At least a substantial part of the decline was the result of tampering,” he wrote. And though the Wells Report used the words “more likely than not” in describing Brady’s involvement, Goodell went much further. “Mr. Brady knew about, approved of, consented to, and provided inducements and rewards” supporting a system of tampering with the game balls, Goodell wrote. I have felt for some time that Goodell going from probably to absolutely, without further evidence to support the jump, will be a haunting point in this case.

IV

“I’m not out of breath, so I don’t understand that reference.”

—Benched 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, responding to coach Jim Tomsula’s opinion that Kaepernick needed to “step back and breathe” rather than continue to play at a poor level.

Tomsula also could have said, “We haven’t scored a touchdown in 27 straight drives over the past three games, and I subscribe to the old philosophical quotation of, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’”

V

“Patriots … win coin flip at impossible clip.”

—A CBSSports.com headline, noting in a story that New England had won 19 of its previous 25 coin flips.

How is something impossible if it just happened?

The mythology around the Patriots is going a tad overboard.

* * *

Antonio Brown set Steelers' team records with his 17-catch, 284-yard day.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The Award Section

OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Tennessee. After missing two games with a caved-in knee, the rookie was brilliant in his first game back Sunday at New Orleans: 28 of 39, 371 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions. The winning touchdown was a brilliant call by the new coaching staff, a rollout right, with tight end Anthony Fasano leaking out to the left, and Mariota stopping and throwing across the formation for the easy touchdown. Titans 34, Saints 28.

Tyler Eifert, tight end, Cincinnati. This is why you should never gamble on football: We’re at the season’s midpoint, and someone named Tyler Eifert leads the NFL with nine touchdown receptions. The tight end from Notre Dame, who had all of three catches last year before being lost for the year with an injury in the season-opener, caught scoring passes of nine, two and 19 yards from Andy Dalton on Thursday night as the Bengals routed the Browns 31-10. Fun with numbers: Eifert has more touchdown catches (nine) than Rob Gronkowski and Heath Miller combined (eight).

Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh. The best receiving day in the glorious history of a glorious franchise deserves this spot. Brown had 100-yard games in both halves. First half: 14 targets, 10 catches, 180 yards. Second half: Nine targets, seven catches, 104 yards. For those of you adding at home, that’s a 17-catch, 284-yard game. “I had a good flow,” said Brown. Oh really? The biggest play came with 55 seconds to go in a 35-35 game. On third-and-two from the Steeler 28, Landry Jones (in for the injured Ben Roethlisberger) flipped a pass to Brown on the right side of the formation, and he motored 57 yards to the Oakland 15, setting up the winning field goal.

• PETER KING’S FINE FIFTEEN: A look at Wes Welker’s surprise signing in St. Louis. The Pats stay on top, while the Colts make a jump after Sunday’s big win.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK 

Darius Butler, cornerback, Indianapolis. Talk about a clutch play. With Peyton Manning throwing downfield for Demaryius Thomas with six minutes left at Indianapolis—and with a completion meaning Manning would break Brett Favre’s all-time passing-yardage record—Butler made a diving interception in front of Thomas, barely getting his arms under the ball to make it a valid catch. Of all the great plays on Sunday, Butler’s was the best. Denver never saw the ball again. Colts win, 27-24.

Calvin Pace, linebacker, New York Jets. Jags down 21-16, 5:29 left in New Jersey. Jags driving. First and goal at the Jets’ 20. Pace makes a blind-side hit of Blake Bortles, jarring the ball loose. Ball goes bounding away. Pace sprints after it, diving on it at the Jets’ 34. The most vital play in a 28-23 Jets victory.

• FanDuelDouble your money playing fantasy football on Sunday. Refunds for all losing teams! New users only. Sponsored by FanDuel

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK 

Adam Vinatieri, kicker, Indianapolis. At age 42, in what was probably Peyton Manning’s last game ever in Indianapolis, Vinatieri had the clutch moment of the day. That is not new. With 6:13 to play in a 24-24 game, Vinatieri, the oldest player in football, booted a 55-yard field goal to knock Denver from the undefeated ranks … and just maybe save the job of his embattled coach. Of course the kick was straight down the middle, and good with six or eight yards to spare.

Greg Zuerlein, kicker, St. Louis. It’s one thing to kick a 61-yard field goal outdoors in Minnesota in November. It’s another to kick said field goal with a 17-mph wind blowing across the field … and to be so solidly hit it would been good from 68 yards or so. They don’t call him Greg the Leg for nothing. Though Zuerlein missed a crucial 45-yarder in the fourth quarter that would have tied it, he came back and hit his fourth of the day, from 53 yards, to send it to overtime. For the day, in the wind, he hit from 45, 61, 35 and 53.

COACH OF THE WEEK

Marvin Lewis, head coach, Cincinnati. In his 200th regular-season game as coach of the Bengals (he’s 108-90-2), a 31-10 win over Cleveland on Thursday night, Lewis did something else significant: He piloted the Bengals to their eighth win without a loss, and no AFC North team has ever been 8-0 in the 14-year history of the latest gerrymandered NFL division structure. For all the heat Lewis takes (he’s 0-6 as a playoff coach), think of coaching the same team for 13 years, and building a team competitive almost every year in a division with powers Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

GOAT OF THE WEEK

Lamarcus Joyner, cornerback, St. Louis. For taking a cheap shot at an obviously sliding Teddy Bridgewater in the fourth quarter, a hit to Bridgewater's head that appeared to knock the quarterback out for at least a few seconds. Totally unnecessary. Joyner should have been thrown out for it, in addition to getting a roughness call.

* * *

Stats of the Week

I

Only one NFL player over the past four years is averaging more than a sack per game.

He is not an edge rusher.

But I bet you can guess who it is.

Player, Team Games Sacks Sacks Per Game
J.J. Watt, Houston 56 60 1.07
 

Lawrence Taylor’s best four-year sack run came from 1986 through 1989; Taylor had 63 sacks over those four years, which included an MVP season in 1986—the last defensive player to be so honored. Watt’s got eight more games to beat Taylor’s four-year best. And keep in mind that Watt has to go through more traffic, in general, to get his sacks than Taylor did rushing mostly (but certainly not exclusively) off the edge.

 

II

Significance Of Coaching Dept.:

The Bengals enter the second half of the season with a commanding 3.5-game lead in the AFC North. Just assume Cincinnati hangs on to win the division. If that happens, this would be the history of division champions in the AFC North since 2008:

Team Titles Coaches
Pittsburgh 3 1
Cincinnati 3 1
Baltimore 2 1
*Cleveland 0 5
 

*Last-place finishes for Cleveland in the past seven years: six.

* * *

Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me

One night last week, I hosted a Citibank “Pro Talks” chalk-talk event at NYY Steak in New York with former Giants offensive linemen Shaun O’Hara and David Diehl. Very good time was had by all. Anyway, I asked a question about “Coughlin Time” to O’Hara and Diehl—the habit of coach Tom Coughlin to start meetings five minutes early, and to set the clocks in the Giants’ meetings rooms and locker room and offices five minutes early. They said they still subscribe to setting their watches early to this day.

I grabbed Diehl’s wrist. “Let me see,” I said.

My watch said 7:40.

Diehl’s watch was set to 7:45, exactly.

Then I asked O’Hara to let me see his watch. It was set to 7:46.

“Hey,” O’Hara said. “I was an undrafted free agent from Rutgers. I had to work harder.”

* * *

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week

This happened on a JFK-to-Phoenix flight (actually 13 days ago, not this week) on Delta. Packed flight. I had a middle seat in coach. Couldn’t move it. Only good thing was it had a few inches of extra leg room, and I’ll take whatever I can get on a five-hour-plus flight.

This should have been six hours of misery, including the boarding and the waiting and the taxiing and the flying and the taxiing. But it wasn’t. While it wasn’t pleasant, it was the anti-coach treatment, at least from my airline experiences of the past few years. On this flight, there were five offers of drinks (two Starbucks coffees, three waters/no ice for me), and two passes of the basket of stuff (banana the first time, Nature’s Bakery Stone Ground Whole Wheat Fig Bar the second). There was no restriction on using either the first-class or coach restrooms. The wifi was balky, but overall, that’s an experience in coach that should have been awful but was tolerable. I used to be at war with Delta, but this airline, at least for me, has changed very much for the better.

* * *

Tweets of the Week

I

II

That’s rather notable. New England has played 32 quarters and scored in the last 31.

III

IV

* * *

Cam Newton threw for three touchdowns and ran for another as the Panthers improved to 8-0.
Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 9:

a. The early maturity and versatility of Dallas cornerback Byron Jones, the Cowboys’ first-round pick, who knocked away a potential second-quarter Sam Bradford touchdown pass at the goal line. Jones, from UConn, has been a revelation early for a team that lost the invaluable Orlando Scandrick from the secondary in the preseason.​

b. Through 48 minutes, the Patriots were an ideal 31 passes, 31 rushes. On their 63rd play, Tom Brady ensured New England’s eighth win with a perfect touchdown throw to Brandon Bolden.

c. The physical wrestling-match of an interception by Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson at Minnesota, preventing a Vikings touchdown.

d. Love the early needle-threading by Teddy Bridgewater through the Rams secondary.

e. Reggie Bush saying he would likely sue the city of St. Louis for having exposed concrete so near the playing field at the Edward Jones Dome. Bush slipped on the concrete and tore his MCL.

f. Bridgewater’s decision to run for a third-quarter TD instead of making a riskier throw, and then running around right end for the two-point conversion.

g. Julian Edelman’s courage. Utterly fearless.

h. The Panthers’ defensive tackle combination of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Tremendous playmakers.

i. Andy Dalton last year: 19 touchdown passes, 17 interceptions. This year: 18 and 4.

j. Ryan Kerrigan’s backside pursuit against the Patriots and Dion Lewis, capturing Lewis for a loss of 11 at New England.

k. Will Blackmon’s strip of Julian Edelman, and his fumble recovery.

l. Ben Roethlisberger’s perfect touch on his downfield throws against the Raiders, especially on two in the first half to Antonio Brown.

m. Matching Roethlisberger: Cam Newton, with a perfect rainbow touchdown throw to Philly Brown.

n. Rams safety Rodney McLeod’s stout stop of Vikings receiver Mike Wallace short of a first down late in the first half, and then later, in the open field on Adrian Peterson.

o. DeAngelo Williams, with two rushing touchdowns when the Steelers so desperately were trying to make up for the loss of Le’Veon Bell.

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p. Vikings defensive tackle Linval Joseph—my Player To Watch This Weekend—dragging down Todd Gurley on a failed Ram two-point conversion. Joseph looked like a cowboy roping a steer and overpowering it.

q. How did Davante Adams stay inbounds on his third-quarter tightrope catch for Green Bay?

r. FOX catching a Washington fan at New England with a team towel draped over his head. Presumably in shame.

s. Everson Griffen’s athletic spin move on a vital third-down against the Rams, forcing Nick Foles into a fourth-quarter intentional grounding call.

t. Delanie Walker, with three tipped receptions for the Titans at New Orleans. 

u. Blaine Gabbert, justifying Jim Tomsula’s move, looking a lot more than competent against Atlanta.

v. Tyrod Taylor to Sammy Watkins. Perfect together.

w. Best camera-work of the day, FOX capturing Aaron Rodgers on the bench after he missed Randall Cobb on the potential game-tying touchdown throw.

2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 9:

a. I mean, how did Rodgers miss a wide-open Cobb in the end zone, down eight, inside the two-minute warning, on fourth down, with the game on the line? You could tell how disgusted he was with himself. You can’t blame Rodgers totally, because the line leaked all day. But it’s a throw he certainly, absolutely wishes he had back.

b. Know the rules, Mike Mitchell. You can’t come from out of bounds to recover a fumble. Key play in Pittsburgh-Oakland.

c. Bush-league eye poke by Denver cornerback Aqib Talib on Indianapolis tight end Dwayne Allen. It had nothing to do with the final score, happening with 2:24 left to play and the Colts, up 27-24, deep in Denver territory. But for a very good player like Talib, who’s been great for the Broncos all season, it was a bad look and poor sportsmanship.

d. The Falcons. Losers of three of their past four, to three teams with a combined 10-16 record.

e. Good for the Giants to get a win against a Bucs team that's playing better. But zero sacks, 5.9 yards per rush allowed, zero interceptions. I’ll give them time to adjust to having Jason Pierre-Paul back, but that defense has to be more impactful for the Giants to hang on to the lead in the NFC East.

f. Bummer that Peyton Manning will break that record on the first or second throw in a division game against the 3-5 Chiefs on Sunday, in one of the few Denver games that isn't an attention-grabber.

g. Saints 28, Titans 28, fourth quarter, Titans driving … and the most penalized player in the sport this year, Saints corner Brandon Browner, with a crucial pass-interference penalty.

h. Dion Lewis dropping a touchdown pass from Tom Brady. Not that it was going to matter much in New England-Washington, but …

i. Lord, no interference on Damarious Randall for being draped on Devin Funchess at Carolina?

j. The left side of Green Bay’s offensive line. Leaky.

k. Pierre Garçon with a ridiculous first-half drop at New England.

l. Same third-quarter series: Matt Jones drops a Kirk Cousins pass right in his hands, then fumbles away a rushing attempt. Things like those errors by Garçon and Jones make a highly improbable dream impossible.

m. Cousins, throwing it five yards short on a key third-quarter third down.

n. Ryan Succop doinking the potential game-winner for the Titans in regulation.

3. I think I’d like to get excited about the Oakland Raiders, and it’s easy to do so with such an explosive and opportunistic offense, but 597 yards allowed in Pittsburgh, and 6.5 rushing yards per carry allowed? Press the pause button there … unless Derek Carr can put up 35 a game for the rest of the season. 

• NO LONGER A BLACK HOLE: Andy Benoit breaks down a Raiders offense that is on pace to become one of the NFL’s best

4. I think the great thing about Blaine Gabbert’s play in the Niners' 17-16 victory over the Falcons on Sunday, his first win as a quarterback in more than three years, is what it says about what Gabbert has done since the debacle of his time in Jacksonville. He learned. He improved. In the game, you saw a player who saw the field better than he did in Jacksonville, and a player more comfortable with his role—even in a game that surely engendered butterflies. Good to see a guy who took so much crap for playing so poorly after being drafted to be the franchise guy for the Jaguars get some redemption Sunday. Though Jim Tomsula wouldn't say who his quarterback would be for the next game (at Seattle, after a Week 10 bye), it's incomprehensible to think he'd go back to Colin Kaepernick after Gabbert's success Sunday.

5. I think the best guess—from what I was told Sunday night—is three weeks out of work for Ben Roethlisberger due to the mid-foot sprain he suffered against the Raiders. So, let’s examine what that would do to the Steelers. Pittsburgh is 5-4. As of this morning, the Steelers and Jets (5-3) would be the wild-card teams in the AFC. Pittsburgh’s next three weeks: Cleveland at home, bye, at Seattle. I’ll be the orchestrator of God here. Pittsburgh should beat Cleveland with Landry Jones playing; Pittsburgh 6-4. Pittsburgh should lose in Seattle with Landry Jones playing, and if somehow Roethlisberger makes it back for the game, it’s doubtful the Steelers win there anyway. So let’s say 6-5 heading into the final five: Indianapolis, at Cincinnati, Denver, at Baltimore, at Cleveland. Even if Roethlisberger misses those three weeks, I still think the Steelers have a good chance to be a wild-card team if Roethlisberger makes it back for the final five.

Dimitri got to meet Markus Kuhn and Eli Manning before the game.
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6. I think the Giants had a good-luck charm on their side Sunday in their 32-18 win over the Bucs. Dimitri Manoukis, a 12-year-old fan from Whitestone, N.Y., who is suffering from Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), was asked by Giants coach Tom Coughlin to address the team in the locker room after the victory. Dimitri obliged, telling the team “they were doing a great job and they worked hard,” he said. Dimitri had the honor of being the Giants' guest for the weekend thanks to an anonymous donor, who bid on the trip at the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund foundation’s Champions for Children Gala last month. The donor opted to give the trip to a Jay Fund beneficiary, and Dimitri was the recipient. He has suffered from ALL since age 5 and was thrilled with the opportunity to be a part of the team’s traveling party to Tampa. He scored a window seat on the team’s private jet and stayed at the team hotel, where he ate with the players. Before the game, Dimitri gave Eli Manning a serious pep talk on the sideline and got to hang out with his favorite Giants player, defensive tackle Markus Kuhn. After the game in the locker room, Dimitri’s dad, George, was shocked to see the Giants players hanging on his son's words. “I didn’t expect that,” said George, who couldn’t help but cry. “You could just see how happy he was.”

7. I think if you lost track of Green Beret free-agent long-snapper Nate Boyer, formerly of the Seattle Seahawks, he’s doing something cool with his life now that he’s looking for the proverbial next challenge. Our exchange late in the week:

The MMQB: How did it end in Seattle in training camp when they waived you Aug. 18?

Boyer: I had breakfast at the facility, and I see [GM] John Schneider walking toward me. He had a sad look on his face. He came up to me and said, “Man, I” … I said forget it. I appreciate the opportunity, sir. I can’t be upset about it. The equipment manager gave me my jersey and said basically, “Take whatever you want.” I just wanted to slip out the back. They’ve got to get ready for the season. But I walked by a room, and Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett were hanging out. Marshawn came out and said, “You done, bro?” He talked to me, and they all came out, hugged me. Sherman said to me, “Bro, it meant a lot to me that you were out here. I am a huge supporter of the military. It meant so much to me to be able to share a field with you.” That was great. Unforgettable.

The MMQB: How about your highlight on the field as a Seahawk?

Boyer: I got to run the American flag out of the tunnel before a game. That was insane. What a highlight. I’m not gonna kick rocks and cry. That was an amazing day. We played Denver. Before the game, 10 yards over from me, there’s Peyton Manning throwing footballs. I just had to laugh. Five years ago I had no idea about ever playing football, ever. Twelve years ago I was lost. A totally lost human being. It’s easy to forget how far I’ve come. At the anthem that day, I had a Knowshon Moreno moment. I was having trouble holding it in, with what that song stands for, what I stand for, everything coming to this point. But I was on the field for five snaps—three punts, an extra point and a field goal. What I did just increased my confidence in these crazy dreams I have about playing pro football. With long-snappers, though, there’s just no turnover, man. It’s tough. Last year, zero turnover among snappers. This year, one, a fifth-round pick. But I don’t want to give up. I guess I am just cursed with ambition.

The MMQB: Now you’re climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with a wounded combat veteran, Blake Watson.

Boyer: Chris Long of the Rams reached out to me the day I got cut. He asked me if I had any ideas what to do [for vets]. I said we’ve got 22 suicides a day among veterans. We have nothing to fight for. We need a challenge. We want to continue to serve. Part of our makeup is to face the obstacles and do something good for the world. Chris has this initiative to build wells for these communities in East Africa desperate for water. I said how about if I take a wounded vet, a friend of mine, a single-leg amputee, and we climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money? First we thought we would raise enough money to build two wells, but now we want to raise $1 million and get 22 wells built. And I’ll do it with my friend Blake, who took a knee on an IED and had three years of depression. Now that’s started to change. I’m not a mountain-climber, but I love challenges, I love new things, and I love working in the Third World.

For more information on the Waterboys Initiative project, go here.

8. I think, on behalf of all of my peers on the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting committee, I want to thank the retiring Len Pasquarelli for his dedication toward every aspect of the committee, and his honor as a voter. I’ve had so much respect for Len as a writer and reporter over the years. His care for the process showed every Saturday before the Super Bowl, when the committee (now of 46 media people) gathered to elect the new class for the Hall. No one took the job more seriously, and no one was as honest and forthright and diligent as Len. What’s so valuable on that committee is the ability to speak freely and intelligently—often negatively—about the candidates. Len never shied away from criticism. I mean this sincerely: It’s been an honor to serve with him.

9. I think my story of the week this week was Robert Klemko’s, about the revival of a comatose football program and the meaning of high school sports and the influence of a retired former Division I coach in Benton Harbor, Mich. Just a terrific story. Sad to see the Benton Harbor season end Friday night with a 62-8 state playoff loss to Zeeland West. But it doesn’t diminish, not a bit, the job coach Elliott Uzelac did, and the way so many of his players turned their football and real lives around.

10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:

a. I like seeing the real world intrude on the fun-and-games world, as is happening with the boycotting football players at Missouri. Glad to see them exercising their rights as Americans.

• THE MESSAGE OF MISSOURI: A grad student's hunger strike, the resignations of two school leaders and a media spotlight on institutionalized racism resulted in one indisputable takeaway: Athletes—in this case, football players—hold significant power.

b. If that was my son hanging the sign at the off-campus Alabama apartment Saturday, before the LSU-Alabama football game Saturday night, the sign that said, “Finish What Katrina Started,” we would have a very big problem.

c. Of all the shameful signs connected with an athletic competition that I’ve ever seen, I truly cannot think of a worse one.

d. Michigan State got jobbed on the Nebraska receiver going our of bounds on the winning play, the play that will cost Michigan State a shot at the national title.

e. Just explain one thing to me: Why is such an easy call to get right not replay-reviewable?

f. Spartans QB Connor Cook, however, sure played it dumb with seven seconds left and one timeout remaining, holding the ball so long the clock ran out instead of taking a short gain and trying for the winning field goal.

g. Spotlight is the best movie I’ve seen this year. I don’t see a lot of movies, but this one about a team of reporters and smart editors from the Boston Globe uncovering a widespread sex-abuse scandal by Catholic priests in greater Boston was real and taut and smart. I loved it. Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo were particularly good as a dogged editor and reporter, respectively. Ruffalo’s mannerisms and diligence, I thought, perfectly mirrored some of the reporters I’ve known. I’m not going to be a spoiler here, but one of the best things about this movie was witnessing a crucial error made by one of the main characters, and seeing how hard he worked to overcome that error. Very human. It happens.

h. You can hate reporters. You can hate the media. But it’s hard to watch Spotlight, or All The President’s Men after Watergate, and not think good reporting plays an important role in our society.

i. Coffeenerdness: I did praise Delta for some fine snacks and Starbucks coffee in coach. But Delta deserves one ding: non-dairy creamers. That stuff is swill. Splurge for half-and-half, Delta.

j. Beernerdness: Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale (Smuttynose Brewing, Hampton, N.H.), unfortunately, continues my bad run of pumpkin beers this fall. Heavy on the cinnamon, and could hardly distinguish any pumpkin. Maybe I’ve just lost my taste for this particular kind of beer, but I haven’t had one this fall that I’ve loved.

k. Larry David as Bernie Sanders, again on Saturday Night Live, is the most perfect satirist as politician, ever.

l. I met Elton John the other day at the benefit for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Interesting to note what a big football fan he is. He loves the Patriots, and is close to Robert Kraft. After finding out I write about football, Elton said: “Did you see that game, the Giants and the Saints? I think they’re still scoring.”

* * *

Who I Like Tonight

San Diego 27, Chicago 20. Hard to get excited about the 2-5 Bears traveling to play the 2-6 Chargers. If I’m watching this game for something significant, it’s this: Every game Jay Cutler (61.8% accuracy, 1,442 yards, eight touchdowns, four interceptions, 19th-ranked NFL rating of 87.5) plays is another game that Bears GM Ryan Pace has to judge Cutler for the long-term. Pace didn’t draft Cutler. He never knew Cutler before this season. And if he’s going to marry Cutler for the future, he’s going to need to see Cutler play consistently better in the second half of this season.

* * *

The Adieu Haiku

Vikings and Packers.
Tied for first in the Great North.
Aaron Rodgers pukes.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.  

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