All the NFL truths went flying out the window in Week 14, from Cincy’s supremacy to Carolina’s vulnerability to New England’s uncertainty. A review of Sunday, plus the MVP race, playoff thoughts and much more
Remember those thrilling days of last week, when you knew everything about the NFL in 2015?
1. Finally, this is the Bengals’ year. And Andy Dalton’s.
2. The Patriots, all beat up, are in real trouble.
3. The Packers won’t figure it out this year, with the play-calling a mess, Eddie Lacy dog-housed and the receivers slumping.
4. Brock Osweiler must be declared Denver’s quarterback for the rest of the year.
5. The Colts had a blip against Pittsburgh, but they’re clearly the best team in a bad AFC South.
6. The Saints showed how vulnerable Carolina was in the secondary.
7. The Ravens can’t get any worse.
8. Here come the Bills.
9. Here come the Bucs.
10. Atlanta’s done.
Well, one out of 10’s not bad.
A pall over Paul Brown Stadium
On the Cincinnati Bengals bench Sunday afternoon, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and quarterback Andy Dalton sat down after their first possession of the day had ended in quasi-disaster—an interception by Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt at the Pittsburgh seven-yard line. Dalton submarine-tackled him and went to the bench to plot the next series.
“We were a little pissed off,” Jackson said Sunday night. “We sat down, and we both said, basically, The guy made a hell of a play.”
Then Dalton started trying to flex his fingers. “I think I hurt my thumb,” he said.
On the tackle, he explained. The more Dalton tried to bend it, the more he realized the thumb wouldn’t move. He got a football, and he couldn’t maneuver his hand on the ball.
“I can’t grip the football,” Dalton said.
“TRAINER!” Jackson called out. Medics came over, and they took Dalton underneath the stands to X-ray his thumb. Busted.
Sunday was going to be a sweet day for the Bengals. Challenging, but potentially division-changing. If they could win in Cincinnati, with a crowd lusting to beat the hated Pittsburghers, Cincinnati would clinch the AFC North for the third time since 2009. Baltimore and Pittsburgh have won the division twice apiece since then. The Bengals would have a season sweep over Pittsburgh for only the second time this century. Pittsburgh would seriously endanger its playoff chances, falling one game plus the tiebreaker behind both the Chiefs and Jets with three to play. Dalton might not be in Ben Roethlisberger’s league in the eyes of most, but he would be 4-3 versus Roethlisberger in recent meetings, and his case for the 2015 MVP would blow Big Ben’s out of the water.
Then Dalton made his first solo tackle of 2015. And everything changed. Pittsburgh won 33-20, keeping the division alive. More importantly, how long will Dalton be out? Coach Marvin Lewis said Dalton will miss the first game of his pro career Sunday in Santa Clara, after making 81 straight starts since being drafted in 2011. Beyond that, suspicions are that he’ll miss more. Dalton will see a hand specialist today, and then the team will know how long he’ll be out. The first playoff weekend is 26 days away; the second playoff weekend, should Cincinnati get a bye, is 33 days away. If the Bengals hang on to win the AFC North, will there be enough time for Dalton’s fracture to heal in an area so important to throwing the ball?
We shall see. For now the Bengals have a two-game lead and need one win in their final three games—at Niners, at Broncos, Ravens at home—to wrap up the division. Sounds like a cinch, except when you consider that Dalton’s backup, A.J. McCarron, has never started an NFL game. He started 40 in college, however, at the highest level. McCarron was 36-4 for Alabama, and you can bet Jackson will imbue his offense this week with a confidence borne of demonstrated ability in big college games. McCarron won back-to-back national championships with the Crimson Tide, completing 67 percent of his passes, with 77 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, in his four years in Tuscaloosa.
But there’s a reason he lasted until the fifth round of the 2014 draft. He doesn’t have a particularly strong arm—he floated a ball to the sideline Sunday that the Steelers’ William Gay intercepted and returned for a touchdown. He’s OK athletically. What McCarron will need Sunday against the Niners are options, particularly in short and intermediate areas. And with ace tight end Tyler Eifert in the NFL concussion protocol, that could be a problem. Eifert has been a perfect middle-of-the-field security blanket for Dalton, who has fed him for 12 touchdowns.
“We’re going to find enough good things A.J. can do,” said Jackson. “I’m not discouraged. I’m frustrated for Andy and for our team, because he has worked so hard and played so well. A.J. hasn’t take many reps with the [first unit], so he’s getting thrown into the fire. But he is a football junkie. He wanted to get together with me tonight—to start meeting about the week and the plan. This young man will make things happen, good things.”
I asked Jackson what he said to Dalton as the two men left the stadium Sunday.
“I said, ‘I love you,’” Jackson said. “He was good. He’s a strong guy. He’s worked so hard, and this was such a freak thing. You wonder, ‘How do those things happen? Why do they happen?’ I wish we had that play back, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
Nothing except getting A.J. McCarron ready to win some games if the Dalton prognosis is as feared, so this Cincinnati season isn’t for naught.
What will Riverboat Ron do?
Will Carolina coach Ron Rivera play for a perfect season, or to ensure the best health for his team entering the playoffs?
We are rapidly approaching the time when Rivera could have a big decision to make. It's the kind of decision that has tormented some coaches and caused others to second-guess their choice to rest players rather than expose them to injury as teams approach the playoffs. The Panthers (13-0) have clinched the NFC South and a first-round bye. Their magic number for clinching home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, over the 11-2 Arizona Cardinals, is two. Any combination of two Carolina victories or Arizona losses will hand the Panthers the No. 1 seed in the conference.
Rivera told me after Sunday's 38-0 victory over Atlanta that he has not decided how he will play the final game or games of the regular season if he has the top seed clinched.
He sounded a bit vexed by the prospect.
“I really don’t know what we are going to do if we are faced with that,” Rivera said from Charlotte on Sunday. “All along I have told our guys we are taking each week one at a time. But if we get to that point, then I will have a decision to make. It obviously isn't an easy decision. I remember back in 2005 when I was on coach [Lovie] Smith’s staff in Chicago and we had a bye going into the playoffs. We rested guys at the end, and we lost our first game to Carolina. After that game I think some of the guys on our team felt that maybe they were a little rusty because they had sat out. I have always thought about that.”
In Week 15, Carolina plays at the 5-7 Giants (who are at Miami tonight). Arizona plays at Philadelphia on Sunday night. Should the top spot not be clinched after next weekend, Carolina would play another game to the fullest—at Atlanta on Dec. 27, because Arizona plays a late game that day against Green Bay. The most logical scenario, then, would be for Rivera to have one game to play his players—or to rest some. As some coaches have said, you wouldn’t play your quarterback without playing your starting offensive line as a unit, because you don’t want to risk your quarterback getting hurt behind two or three backup linemen.
Players, of course, will want to go for perfection. “It would be silly to say we don't want to do that,” said tight end Greg Olsen, “but we will see what the future holds when the time comes. All season we have thought about one week at a time. We are going to prepare like we’re going to play every week. Then the powers that be will tell us if we’re playing or not and how much we’re going to play.”
That’s the kind of chemistry Rivera has with his team now. You get the feeling if the Panthers decide to hold their guys out in Week 17 against Tampa Bay, the locker room will be OK with it. Interesting side note: The only perfect team in the modern era of pro football to go unbeaten through the regular season and playoffs is the 1972 Dolphins. Don Shula coached that team, of course. And his son, Mike Shula, is Carolina’s offensive coordinator. I asked Mike Shula to be honest: Does his father want Carolina to go unbeaten, or is he just saying he does because he’s a good dad?
“Deep down?” said Mike Shula. “I think he’s rooting harder than anyone for us to do it.”
The one thing I like about Rivera’s approach is that he appreciates where Carolina is, and he appreciates what the team is doing. That comes from this statistic, and the perspective of a coach who understands the building process:
• Rivera’s first 60 regular-season games: 28-31-1.
• Rivera’s last 17 regular-season games: 17-0.
Rivera said he took a moment during the win over Atlanta to think about how good his team actually is. As Olsen said: “This was pretty amazing today. Atlanta’s playing for their lives. This is their game of the year—they’ve got to have it to stay alive [in the playoff race]. They gave us everything they had.” And the Panthers just smoked them; 369 yards by halftime, and it could have been a bigger margin had Carolina not called off the dogs in the second half.
“This is such a talented football team,” said Rivera. “Last week [a 41-38 win over New Orleans] we didn’t play to our ability. But we were playing a Hall of Fame quarterback and a great coach [Drew Brees, Sean Payton]. This week I felt we played the way we’re capable of. We can attack in a lot of different ways. Today we had Cam Newton to Ted Ginn over the top, with two long touchdown passes. But we can win other ways too. We’ve shown that.”
If Rivera is faced with the decision of whether to go for perfection, maybe he’ll think of the 2005 rust with the Bears. Or maybe how close he came to losing Olsen, who tweaked a knee but is fine, or running back Jonathan Stewart, who left with a sore foot—but that’s apparently all it is. What if either of those went down for the season in Week 17, in a game the Panthers were playing for posterity and not for what’s best for this season alone?
My take is you play your guys and go for the brass ring. It’s a risk, yes, and you’d be haunted if you lost Cam Newton or Greg Olsen or Kawann Short or Luke Kuechly in the second half of a Week 17 game with everything clinched. But look at it this way: You’re 15-0, and you choose to sit eight key guys against Tampa Bay, and you lose, and you go on to win the Super Bowl. You’re 18-1. You have a parade. You get your rings. You’re the coach. Won’t you always ask yourself: What if? What if we’d played to join the Dolphins as the only perfect team ever? That’s an intoxicating thought, and knowing Rivera, it’s something he’ll think about if he gets to cross that bridge.
My first one of the year. I will do one each of the next three Mondays, through the end of the regular season. It’s still a fairly open field, albeit a boring one. I can’t make a great case for a non-quarterback here.
1. Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina. Not sure this needs to be stat-supported. Watch Carolina play. The Panthers are 13-0, and far and away the most important player on football’s only perfect team is a quarterback who is significantly better than he’s ever been, with players around him on offense who are pretty average. Newton’s the rising tide lifting all Panther boats.
2. Tom Brady, quarterback, New England. Righted the ship Sunday night with a dominating win over Houston after the return of Rob Gronkowski. This could be Carson Palmer’s spot too; all that will shake out over the next three weeks.
3. Carson Palmer, quarterback, Arizona. Want to put him first? I’d disagree. Want to put him second? I can live with that.
4. Andy Dalton, quarterback, Cincinnati. The sheer level of sobriety inside the Bengals organization Sunday evening showed exactly how much of a gut punch Dalton’s busted thumb was. Dalton has been a strong MVP candidate all season, because he’d improved steadily in almost every way, from leadership to deep passing. Now, as he helps A.J. McCarron prepare to step in as starter, we’ll see if Dalton can add “quarterback whisperer” to his strong team-first résumé.
5. Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle. And climbing, with a league-high 110.0 rating, and a 16-to-0 touchdown-to-interception differential in the past four weeks.
A Sunday Wrap
• The Packers can’t fix everything by Mike McCarthy calling plays. Green Bay was significantly better on Sunday in the 28-7 win over wounded Dallas, though the Packers still struggle in short yardage and still lack the fluidity in the passing game that Aaron Rodgers has had for most of his previous seven starting seasons. They punted on five straight drives in a 20-minute mid-game span. But McCarthy decided to make this an old-fashioned, impose-your-will game on the Cowboys, and with the exception of some short-yardage stuff, it was a good plan. For the first time since opening day, Green Bay ran more than passed (44 runs, 37 passes). The Packers had 53 more yards rushing (230) than in any other of their 12 previous games. Eddie Lacy and James Starks rushed 35 times for 195 yards, signaling to future foes: Until you show you can stop us, we’re going to run it on you. Green Bay has three vexing games left (at Oakland, at Arizona, Minnesota at home); look for McCarthy to be less reliant on Rodgers as he goes.
• A week at a time in Denver, please. Gary Kubiak has handled the Manning/Osweiler thing the right way. When he needs to make a decision, he will. Each week he puts the team on the field that gives the Broncos the best chance to win that week. The cries to name Brock Osweiler the permanent starter are just dumb. For a first-time starter, he has played well. And unless Peyton Manning can throw the ball significantly better than he did against Kansas City a month ago when he last played, then Osweiler gives the Broncos the best chance to win. But Denver has scored one touchdown in the last two weeks and has been shut out in the second half two weeks running. The Broncos lost to Oakland at home on Sunday. The offense is struggling mightily—and not against great defenses either. So Osweiler likely gets his fifth start on Sunday in Pittsburgh … and then? Denver has two games left—Cincinnati at home, San Diego at home. Let’s see how Manning is feeling, and let’s see how Manning is throwing. No need to decide your starting quarterback for a Dec. 28 game on Dec. 14.
• It was a very bad day for Jim Caldwell, Thomas Dimitroff, Chuck Pagano and Jason Garrett. Garrett’s not going anywhere, but the offense is so reliant on Tony Romo that Jerry Jones seems justified in calling out his coach for awful offense—and Garrett’s going to have some answers for how it’ll be better in 2016. Caldwell and Pagano will likely be fired; I don’t see how it can be avoided—the last straws for each were Detroit’s offensive nothingness at St. Louis and another defensive meltdown for the Colts at Jacksonville. Re: Dimitroff, who is a very good personnel man, I can’t see Arthur Blank coming back after 4-12, 6-10 and whatever this disaster of a season ends up being without making changes. He’s not firing the rookie coach. I don’t know if he’ll fire Dimitroff, but he’s got to be thinking of it.
• It was a very good day for Chip Kelly, Jay Gruden, Reggie McKenzie and the program of Gus Bradley. If Kelly pays attention—and mostly, I am told, he doesn’t—he has taken more guff over the past two weeks than any other coach in the league will take this season. And his team has beaten the 10-1 Patriots and 6-6 Bills, in bigtime emotional games. Guys aren’t playing for him? I think not. The Gruden/Kirk Cousins marriage is working, and working well, after a 24-21 win in Chicago. Washington is thinking hard about a contract for Cousins that makes sense—and he shouldn’t leave a place that wants him, and where he knows the offense so well. How well? Cousins has completed 71 percent or better five games in a row. In Oakland, McKenzie was kept around after a 4-12 year in 2013 so he could take Khalil Mack and Derek Carr in the 2014 draft. He was kept around after 3-13 last year so he could draft Amari Cooper this year. Those are cornerstones. Stay in Oakland, Raiders. As for Bradley: Good for Shad Khan. I mean, very good. All along, the owner of the Jaguars said he trusted the Norman Vincent Peale of NFL coaches, the it’s-always-sunny-in-Jacksonville Bradley. Never did you hear anything but Gus is our guy, even when the Jags were awful in midseason and Bradley was 8-30 lifetime. He’s 4-3 since, with 34-, 39- and 51-point games, and the kind of young talent that makes Jacksonville a team to watch.
• Chip Kelly and the media, part II. So you probably heard that the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Sunday that Kelly phoned current nemesis LeSean McCoy this week, apparently to try to smooth over the hard feelings McCoy has post-trade, and McCoy, according to the paper, hung up on Kelly. After the game Sunday, Kelly addressed it. Seemed like good theater.
Kelly: “A lot of it to me is tabloid journalism that they just tried to stir things up but it didn't affect us … When people want to make up false stories about me calling someone during the week and them hanging up on me, I just think people are trying to get Twitter hits and things like that and make themselves significant when stuff doesn't happen.”
Inquirer: “So you didn’t call McCoy this week?”
Kelly: “No, I never called McCoy this week. I think it was the Inquirer. Is that you?”
Kelly: “Thanks, guys.”
• It’s amazing, but the Steelers might need help to make the playoffs. Pittsburgh’s one of the five to seven best teams in football today, but it's the seventh seed in the AFC this morning, behind the similarly 8-5 Chiefs and Jets. The Chiefs should finish 11-5 (10-6 at the worst), while the Jets have Dallas and Buffalo away and the Patriots at home remaining. Pittsburgh: Denver at home, at Baltimore, at Cleveland. Big game there, obviously, is Pats-Jets. Pittsburgh might have to be perfect to make it (if all three teams win out, it will have the tiebreaker over the Jets); if so, the Steelers would enter the playoffs on a 7-1 run. Talk about a team no one would want to play.
• This is why you play Johnny Manziel as long as you can. Manziel is an investment, a first-round pick you have to look hard at before the off-season, when you change coaches and perhaps the entire front office. The new regime has to know what Manziel is. So he should have had six games to show his stuff, but he was a twit during his bye week and now will have four games to give the Browns—and the rest of the league—a good window into his pro game. Manziel made good choices against a bad team (21 of 31, 270 yards, one TD, one pick), but what coach Mike Pettine noticed was the progression reads he made, and the fact that Manziel was asked to bleed the clock late in the 24-10 win and did, mostly. “He did a lot of good things today, and a lot of them were mental,” said Pettine. For the Browns to believe a little bit in Manziel, he’ll have to steal a win in one of these last three games: at Seattle, at Kansas City, Pittsburgh at home. I’m not optimistic.
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Coming soon, to The MMQB near you.
Previewing two interesting stories on our site this week:
• The relationship between Cam Newton and Steph Curry. The parallels between Newton and Curry go beyond a pair of undefeated records and MVP-favorite status. Curry, a Charlotte native, is a longtime Panthers fan. “Since ’95,” he says. Three years ago Ron Rivera invited Curry to training camp, and from there his relationship with Newton has only grown. They see each other when their schedules land them in Charlotte at the same time, and they exchange texts often.
“We really encourage each other,” Curry says. “We talk about the ride, but we also just kind of motivate each other without really speaking. What we’re seeing each other do on the floor and on the court, that’s just motivation for us.”
Robert Mays reports from Charlotte (and from a Warriors’ shootaround on their endless recent road trip) Tuesday.
• Is officiating really worse this year, or are people just yelling louder about it? The state of officiating has reached the nadir … at least that’s what headlines assert. Over the past two weeks, we have analyzed statistics, delved into policy and interviewed dozens of former NFL officials, current players, coaches and front office personnel to explore two questions: Is it really as bad as it seems? And how can the NFL snap out of this recurring headache?
Elevating officials to full-time employees surfaced as a simple solution. In conversing with vice president of officiating Dean Blandino, it appears the NFL is serious about trying to make the change. That may not be an easy fix, or even achievable. There are serious roadblocks in the CBA between the league and the officials that would prevent it from happening, and it doesn’t look as if the officials’ union (as of now) is willing to surrender. Another problem, according to the NFL Referees Association executive director Jim Quirk, is this: “We haven't conducted a poll anytime recently, but from what I know about the 122 guys in the league—now, I will say not everyone would refuse—but a large majority would refuse the opportunity to become full-time.” This is because many, if not most, have lucrative jobs and full-time careers outside the football arena.
Robert Klemko and Emily Kaplan report from New York, and from several game venues. In addition, we’ll have a player writing his view about how the sky isn’t falling for the officials—but this player has ideas about how to make the system better.
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Should college players be made to stay in school for three years?
At the Heisman weekend in New York, I got a chance to eyeball Christian McCaffrey, the versatile Stanford back, and my first reaction was: He’ll do well with another year or two of the Stanford weight program. At 6-0 and 201 pounds as a true sophomore, McCaffrey is no lock to come out for the 2017 draft anyway, but the comments I got from his coach and his father were interesting.
On whether college players should be mandated to stay in school for three years:
Stanford coach David Shaw: “I've heard this debate a lot. Andrew Luck wasn’t even ready after three. The difference with Andrew is that Andrew knew it. A lot of guys don’t know it. I tell our players, ‘It’s a different sport. It’s not the next level of your sport, it’s a different sport. In the NFL they are faster, they are stronger, the locker room is different, the coaching is different, the media is different. Your daily life is different.’ Look what happens in Major League Baseball—those really talented 18- and 19-year olds who disappear and you never hear from them again. It happens with a lot of NBA guys. First year, second year out of high school … Their lives are not in order. It’s sink or swim. You need to be as physically and mentally and emotionally developed. Some people just stop [developing] physically. Andrew is the perfect case. You can ask him the difference between him being year three or year four [at Stanford] and how much more ready he was for that world to jump in and not just play, but live.”
Ed McCaffrey, three-time Super Bowl wide receiver and father of Christian: “This is going to shock you … I think the rule, personally, should be that you can leave after two years. I’ll throw Leonard Fournette into the mix. You think Leonard Fournette is not physical enough to be in the NFL right now? I mean, look at the guy, he’s ready. But I do believe if you think you can leave after two years and you don’t get drafted, you should have an option to go back and play [in college]. Playing in the NFL was such a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I would encourage players who know that they are going to be drafted in the first or second round to leave early and take advantage of that opportunity. If someone was talking about an actor and they were young, they wouldn’t say, ‘Wait ’til you are older to act.’ I think it’s the same thing with football … Regarding Christian, I understand what you are saying and where you are coming from that he could grow and develop, but every single player I have seen enter the NFL had room to grow and develop. He’s the same size as Jamaal Charles, he’s taller than Barry Sanders, he’s a little heavier than Reggie Bush. He’s not a bigger back like some of the backs you see in the league, but that’s not his game. His game is speed and quickness and finesse.”
This might be the most amazing thing about Jerry Rice’s career.
With two new additions to the 1,000-reception club (making it 12 in NFL history who have caught 1,000 passes or more), this note struck me about the No. 1 receiver on that list:
Jerry Rice caught 571 NFL passes after his 34th birthday.
I mention that because of a fellow 544 catches behind Rice.
I was talking with Larry Fitzgerald the other day about the Rice record of 1,549 receptions, and a couple of things he said were interesting.
“I don’t think the record’s attainable,” Fitzgerald said.
No. 2 on the all-time list for receptions is Tony Gonzalez, who had 1,325 catches, putting him 224 behind Rice. Gonzalez played 17 years. Rice played 20. As far as wide receivers go, Rice has 447 catches more than the next man on the list. Marvin Harrison, with 1,102 catches, played 13 seasons; Cris Carter, with 1,101 receptions, played 16 seasons.
Fitzgerald is the youngest receiver ever to hit 1,000; he is 32 years, 3 months old. Rice didn’t get his 1,000th catch until he was 34. So, theoretically, I don’t see how a healthy Fitzgerald—who is signed through next season, and he told me that’s all he is committing to now—wouldn’t have a chance at it, with how coach Bruce Arians values him, and how quarterback Carson Palmer relies on him, and how healthy he continues to be. I’m not saying he can get 545 catches, which will take him at least five seasons and maybe six after this one … but I am saying I understand why he thinks Rice’s number isn’t attainable.
Said Fitzgerald: “Jerry played with two of the best [quarterbacks] ever for most of his career, Joe Montana and Steve Young.”
Right. For the 14 seasons from 1985 to 1998, the San Francisco starting quarterback was either Montana or Young.
Fitzgerald: “Then, those guys are gone, and he goes from a Pro Bowl quarterback to another MVP.”
Right. For his last two seasons in San Francisco, 1999 and 2000, the quarterback was Jeff Garcia, a four-time Pro Bowl passer. In his three seasons in Oakland, Rice caught balls from MVP Rich Gannon; while a Raider, at 39, 40 and 41, Rice caught 243 passes. One final note: Most of Rice’s last season, at 42, was played with Matt Hasselbeck the quarterback, in Seattle. Hasselbeck is a three-time Pro Bowl player.
None of these points are made to diminish anything Rice ever did. He showed up and played hard—as Fitzgerald does—every week, and he was incredibly durable. He didn’t miss any of his 43 games after turning 40 due to injury. That is amazing. In 19 of 20 seasons, he played every game (including 17 in 2004, due to a midseason trade). That’s borderline stunning. But it is notable, and a credit to Fitzgerald, that he is the youngest player to get to 1,000, and the starting quarterbacks for the majority of five of his 12 seasons have been Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson, John Skelton and Drew Stanton—and that doesn’t include big parts of two seasons when Kevin Kolb started.
Fitzgerald looks to me like the one player with the best chance to catch Rice, at least among veterans today with at least 800 catches. Who knows if he wants to? But if Arians stays the coach, and Palmer can play two or three more solid seasons, maybe Fitzgerald will wake up at 35 with 1,290 catches and say, “Maybe I can leave the ultimate footprints in the sand. Maybe I can give the great Jerry Rice a run for his money.”
And another thing about uniforms …
Three weeks ago I wrote this: The NFL does not have uniforms anymore. The NFL has costumes. It was prompted by many things, not the least of which was the “Color Rush” series, which had the Jaguars dressed in a sort of mustard/dung color for their Nov. 19 game against the Titans. I'm also tired of the fact that the NFL will stop at nothing to sell sell sell jerseys and odd-colored trinkets that really and truly no one would want to own. To those points, I present the uniforms of the 2015 St. Louis Rams.
Including the bright-urine full-body uniforms they will wear Thursday night when they play the all-red Bucs in St. Louis, the Rams will have worn eight uniform combinations in the first 14 games of this season. That includes the three games in October, when customary uniforms were festooned with all things pink—pink cleats, pink socks, pink uniform towels, pink wristbands—in honor of the NFL’s monthlong nod to breast cancer awareness.
The Rams’ uniform combinations, and how often they have worn each this regular season:
Blue shirts, blue pants: 2.
White shirts, blue pants: 2.
Blue shirts, white pants: 1.
White shirts, blue pants, pink adornments: 2.
Blue shirts, white pants, pink adornments: 1.
Classic Rams blue shirts, gold pants: 2.
White shirts, white pants: 2.
Yellow shirts, yellow pants, yellow adornments (including gloves): 1.
Fourteen games, eight uniforms: 1.7 games per uniform combination. Even if you don’t consider the pink adornments a different uniform, the most common “uniform” would have been worn by the Rams four times in 14 games.
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Quotes of the Week
“I got nothing to say.”
—LeSean McCoy, after Eagles 23, Bills 20, and saying quite a bit about Chip Kelly and the circumstances surrounding his trade from Philadelphia to Buffalo during the week leading up to this bitter loss.
“I had a chance to sit next to the commissioner of football, Pete Rozelle, tonight. Oh, excuse me, Roger Goodell. I apologize. I had six concussions in the NFL.”
—Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach, at a dinner in New York last week, per the Washington Post.
Not a joking matter, Mr. Staubach.
“Cleveland is such a great football town, with so many passionate fans who expect a lot, which is great. But I think sometimes those high expectations and that scrutiny work against them. They are so emotional about each loss, the natural human instinct is, Ah, we’ve got to start over; this isn’t the team; this isn’t the coaching staff; these aren’t the players we need. You have to give them a chance, to lay the foundation.”
—Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, in his ninth season as the team’s foundational player, to Jenny Vrentas for The MMQB’s “Corridor of Woe” series. (The corridor: Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo. The recent tradition: woeful. Hence the name of the series.) Next month, quite likely, Thomas will get his sixth head coach since being drafted by the team in 2007.
“I understand why he’s pissed. He has reason to be pissed. That’s on me.”
—Eagles coach Chip Kelly, on LeSean McCoy’s anger over the circumstances of his trade to Buffalo in the off-season; McCoy didn’t learn of the trade from the Eagles, and by the time Kelly called to tell him, McCoy was steaming. The Eagles and Bills played Sunday in Philadelphia, and McCoy said he would not shake Kelly’s hand at the game. Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Kelly tried to call McCoy this week, and McCoy hung up on him. Kelly refuted the report.
“I wish I had a hand, but I don't, so you make do with what you got.”
—Houston defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who bemoaned his play in the Sunday night loss to New England. Watt was playing with a padded broken hand suffered in practice last Wednesday.
The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Todd Gurley, running back, St. Louis. There is some connection to what I am about to write: Rams had a 3-1 stretch starting Oct. 4, during which Gurley gained more than 125 yards on the ground every time. Then they lost five straight entering Sunday’s game against Detroit; in all five, Gurley was held under 90 yards rushing. And Sunday against the Lions, Gurley went for 140 on 16 carries, an 8.8-yard average. How about this: Gurley had nine rushing yards in September, and this morning he’s fourth in the league with 975.
Doug Baldwin, wide receiver, Seattle. Not a fan of invented stats like this, but it’s an interesting one: Baldwin is the only receiver in the past 10 seasons to have eight touchdown catches over three weeks. Three TD balls came at Baltimore on Sunday, of 14, 22 and 16 yards in the second, third and fourth quarters of Seattle’s 35-6 win. Baldwin has Russell Wilson’s implicit trust, and the combo platter of Baldwin and rookie Tyler Lockett accounted for all five of Wilson’s TD passes Sunday.
Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle. Speaking of invented stats, this one’s a doozy: Wilson’s the first quarterback in NFL to have four straight games with a quarterback rating of 138 or more. Incredible: His ratings and touchdowns passes and interceptions in the past four weeks—138.5, 3 and 0 … 147.9, 5 and 0 … 146.0, 3 and 0 … 139.6, 5 and 0. You cannot play the position better than Wilson’s playing it right now. Well, actually...
Cam Newton, quarterback, Carolina. ...Unless it’s Cam Newton. He’s showing a mastery of the position now, with better touch than he’s ever used, and better knowledge of when he has to make a Matt Harvey throw too. On a four-yard touchdown throw to tight end Ed Dickson, Newton threw a ball as hard as he could throw it. It went whizzing past a Falcons defensive lineman’s helmet, through the first line of Atlanta’s defense, to the spot where only Dickson could have nabbed him. (How ironic that Dickson had a reputation for dropping balls in Baltimore. This ball was away from his body, and as fast a ball as a quarterback could throw, a bullet, and Dickson reeled it in.) For the day, Newton had a season-high 153.3 rating. He’s going to be very hard to stop in January.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Khalil Mack, outside linebacker, Oakland. Mack is threatening to become the most feared edge player in the game. He’s right there with Justin Houston now. With a five-sack game in Denver on Sunday—as the Raiders stunned the Broncos—Mack took advantage of a weak right side of the Denver line and tormented Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler with three additional pressures and two points. (One of his sacks was for a safety.) Then, for his fourth sack, he abused left tackle Ryan Harris. Mack now has nine sacks in the past three games.
Muhammad Wilkerson, defensive end, New York Jets. Unless your name is J.J. Watt, it’s hard to have a better defensive game than Wilkerson had in the Jets’ rout of Tennessee. Three sacks for 27 yards in loss—and the sacks came against one of the most mobile quarterbacks in football, Marcus Mariota. Two more tackles for loss. A pass batted down. A forced fumble. Wilkerson continues to put the Jets in a dilemma. They need to sign him; he’s their best defensive player. And he’s getting into the Watt/Suh stratosphere in terms of average pay.
Stephon Tuitt, defensive end, Pittsburgh. Tuitt, 22, a second-round draft choice from Notre Dame last year, picked a great time for the first interception of his career. It was also the last Andy Dalton pass of the day; Dalton left with an injured throwing thumb after this interception. Tuitt played it perfectly—lying in wait on a short pass to Gio Bernard inside the Steelers 10. That was the single biggest play of a game the Steelers needed desperately to stay playoff-relevant.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Jeff Janis, wide receiver, Green Bay. In a special-teams performance reminiscent of Steve Tasker, Janis had three tackles for loss on Dallas punt returns. One was a combo tackle with teammate Demetri Goodson, but the other two were solos on Dallas punt-returner Lucky Whitehead. Slithering between blocks and running around them, both of Janis’s tackles were for two-yard losses. A superb performance.
Marquette King, punter, Oakland. In a classic field-position game—Oakland at Denver, with both defenses playing peak football—King was a dominant force: 10 punts, 46.0-yard average, five punts inside the 20, a huge net average of 44.3 yards per punt. What makes King such a weapon is the way he punts—high, sacrificing distance for his teammates’ ability to cover punts well, which led to a fumbled Denver punt and a Jon Condo fumble recovery. The Raiders played the kind of game they had to play to compete with Denver and Kansas City, the best in their division: a ball-control game, using field position football. King’s a huge weapon.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Mike McCarthy, head coach, Green Bay. For two reasons: 1) Taking the play-calling from associate head coach Tom Clements before Sunday’s game against Dallas. This had to be really hard for McCarthy, because it will likely doom Clements’ hopes for ever being an NFL head coach, getting play-calling taken away after 12 shaky games. But McCarthy knew he couldn’t sit by and watch the offense stink the way it stunk in recent weeks. And McCarthy got 28 points and 435 yards (against a good Dallas defense), in part because of his play-calling. 2) Unlocking the doghouse and letting Eddie Lacy out of it. The result was 24 carries and 124 yards for Lacy. “I’ve always believed in Eddie,” McCarthy said. “We all make a couple of bad decisions along the way. He needed to refocus, and he did.”
GOATS OF THE WEEK
The Buffalo Bills. Fifteen penalties, 101 yards. When will it end, Rex?
Matt Kalil, left tackle, and Teddy Bridgewater, quarterback, Minnesota. Thought long and hard about whether to make Dwight Freeney defensive player of the week for his spin move on Kalil and strip-sack of Bridgewater on the Vikings’ last play of the game Thursday night, or whether to make Kalil the goat, or Bridgewater the goat, or both of the latter two the co-goats. I settled on Kalil and Bridgewater. Kalil is supposed to be the franchise left tackle, the man Bridgewater trusts to keep 35-year-old pass-rushers away from him when he drops back to pass. But Kalil let Freeney spin on him, watched Freeney lunge to the inside and strip Bridgewater of the ball. That’s on Kalil. The rest is on Bridgewater. No matter the play-call—and Norv Turner should have had a couple of quick outs called, just to get six or eight yards closer for a Blair Walsh field-goal try—Bridgewater had 3.13 seconds from the time the ball nestled in his hands until the time Freeney dislodged it. That’s enough time to find a target, or to get rid of the ball if he can’t find one. Bridgewater should have known to throw it away earlier, and not throwing it away cost the Vikings an attempt at the game-tying field goal.
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Stat of the Week
With Sunday night’s victory, the Patriots have now won at least 11 regular-season games six years in a row.
Cleveland has won 11 regular-season games once since 1987.
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Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Nick Buoniconti turns 75 on Tuesday. Rich Gannon turns 50 on Sunday. Where’d the time go?
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Saturday, late afternoon, Greenwich, Conn. Ever been there? Couple of bucks in the area.
Downtown shopping district. Greenwich Avenue. There is a dollar bill on the ground. I pick it up. I say to my daughter Mary Beth: “You know how in most towns you see a nickel or dime on the ground and you have to pick it up? In Greenwich, there are dollars on the ground.”
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Tweets of the Week
The U.S. women’s national team and Seattle Reign soccer player is recovering from ACL surgery.
I feel bad for LeSean McCoy. It must be really hard to be the first NFL player to ever be traded.— Grant Paulsen (@granthpaulsen) December 13, 2015
Ouch— Randy Peterson (@RandyPete) December 11, 2015
The Des Moines Register writer tweeted this late Thursday night, after Iowa State won a thriller late against Iowa in college basketball. The Cyclone fans stormed the court, and Peterson got in the way, was overrun and suffered a broken tibia and fibula in the melee.
Tell me again: Why are hundreds of fans allowed to sprint on a basketball court, with the litany of injuries suffered doing this over the years?
Witten was my host when I visited Tennessee coming out of HS. Being in Pro Bowl together last year was a highlight moment of my career.— Greg Olsen (@gregolsen88) December 8, 2015
STEPH CURRY IMMORTAL https://t.co/jDqbCiwHXI— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) December 12, 2015
Look at Curry’s quickness coming off the screen, and look at how quickly and effortlessly and flawlessly he puts up the three-point shot from 29 feet away.
Curry is one of the great performers in the world right now. I really appreciate watching him.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think this is what I liked about Week 14:
a. Michele Tafoya’s 200th game on the network sidelines. What a pro.
b. The sportsmanship from Patriot Jabaal Sheard, back-patting Brian Hoyer after creaming him on a near-sack … because Hoyer completed the pass. Like that a lot.
c. Johnathan Joseph with clinging coverage on Brandon LaFell, early in the first quarter.
d. The impact Keshawn Martin has made, quickly, for New England. Great little darter.
e. Philip Rivers, sick as a dog this week, with a tremendous fourth-quarter drive in the rain at Kansas City, with three fourth-down conversions … and failing because his most reliable back, Danny Woodhead, didn’t catch a very catchable ball in the end zone on the last play of the game.
f. Trumaine Johnson, with a great baiting move, making Matthew Stafford believe he would not be in position on Calvin Johnson, then bolting to intercept the ball as soon as Stafford committed. Johnson ran it back for a touchdown, a perfect play.
g. In the All First Name Collision of the Day, San Diego inside linebacker Denzel Perryman nailed Kansas City back Charcandrick West for a loss, forcing the Chiefs to punt on their first drive of the rainy day.
h. Trent Cole hasn’t made many plays this year, but he made a great one at Jacksonville, strip-sacking Blake Bortles with a Freeney-like rush.
i. The Jets, looking much like a playoff team (though against Tennessee). Late first half, first downs: Jets 16, Titans 1.
j. Darrius Heyward-Bey, the inconsistent wide receiver, with the very good downing of a Pittsburgh punt at the Cincinnati two-yard line.
k. Great camera shot of Mike McCoy by CBS late in the first half, in this lost cause of a season, staring into space.
l. The Steelers in Cincinnati: 21-5 in their last 26.
m. “I can’t heal bones,” said a glum Marvin Lewis. I know he’s down about Andy Dalton, but that quote really summed up the Cincinnati locker room postgame. Just glum.
n. “They have no chance to advance in the playoffs without Andy Dalton,” Rodney Harrison said on our NBC show Sunday night. There you go, A.J. McCarron.
o. If Everson Griffen swarmed the quarterback every week as he did Carson Palmer on Thursday night, he’d be in the Pro Bowl every year.
p. Excellent job by Patrick Peterson, shutting down Stefon Diggs (seven targets, two catches, 12 yards) Thursday night.
q. What a streak: 312 attempts without a pick for Alex Smith, before throwing one Sunday against the Chargers.
r. The Raiders are nobody’s pushovers anymore. I’d really hate to see them leave Oakland. They belong in Oakland.
s. Mike Scifres’ first three punts at Kansas City, which went to the 16-, 5- and 4-yard lines.
t. Fletcher Cox, a giant among Eagles. Big impact game against the Bills.
2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 14:
a. Vernon Davis dropping an absolutely vital pass—and don’t laugh; it could end up contributing to a loss of home-field through the AFC playoffs—in the waning minutes of Denver-Oakland.
b. I mean, how do you drop a ball right in your hands, with no one around you? With the game, and probably home-field in the playoffs, riding on the outcome?
c. Adrian Peterson fumbling.
d. Fumbles this season: 7. Touches: 296. Can’t continue that way.
e. Jason Myers kicking.
f. The Jacksonville kicker missed his seventh PAT in 13 games, against the Colts.
g. Robbie Gould’s cold. Could have been THE impact player in the last two games, and missed two huge field goals.
h. Seattle tight end Luke Willson, who is better than that, dropping a pass in the end zone at Baltimore.
i. Seattle running back Fred Jackson, juggling an easy throw from Wilson, dropping it.
j. Dive at Brandon Marshall and push him out of bounds, Michael Griffin. Don’t run with him and do nothing.
k. I can’t give Danny Woodhead the Goat of the Week, but I was tempted. That’s a catchable ball in the end zone he missed.
l. Lardarius Webb. Man, he’s fallen off a cliff for the Ravens.
m. The Niners, for losing by two touchdowns at Cleveland. Bad loss. Not the loss itself, but the non-competitiveness of it.
n. Donteea Dye’s drop at a crucial time for Tampa Bay.
o. Atlanta, for allowing 349 yards at Carolina. In the first half. What has happened to the pressure Dan Quinn’s D brought off the edge in the first month?
p. The abuse Matt Hasselbeck took Sunday. There is no facet of the Colts in good shape right now, and I do not envy Andrew Luck returning in the next week or two with the cast he’ll have around him.
3. I think there’s a good chance the Colts will be moving on from Chuck Pagano. I take no pleasure in saying that, because Pagano’s a good man. But this was the season Pagano’s defense had to make a big jump, coming off the Deflategate game debacle. The Colts gave up 45 points that day, and owner Jim Irsay didn’t give Pagano a great extension offer because of it. In the past two weeks, with the season on the line, the Colts have given up 45 points to Pittsburgh and 51 to Jacksonville. Will GM Ryan Grigson stay? That seems the most compelling question of the next three weeks.
4. I think there could be masters thesis written on the fall of the Falcons. Atlanta’s gone from an explosive offensive team to the feeblest in the league, capped by a 38-0 loss Sunday in Charlotte to the Panthers. Atlanta scored 137 points in the first four weeks. Atlanta has scored 117 points in the past eight weeks.
5. I think Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, a looming free agent, probably can cross Pittsburgh off his future-team list. The former Pacman, angry that the Steelers held a grudge against Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict—Steelers linebacker Vince Williams sent a veiled Tweet, since deleted, with a threat against Burfict—went on Instagram with this, directed at the Steelers: “Shut the f--- up and play football, because nothing gonna happen to 5-5, on the field or off the field. Dig that. You all wanna go report something, report that, bitches.” There’s something bad about not-so-veiled threats between NFL players. There’s something great about teams that hate each other.
6. I think if Mike Zimmer had called on Blair Walsh on third down to make a 49-yard field goal with 13 seconds left at Arizona on Thursday night, and Walsh had missed the kick, Zimmer would be getting grilled for giving up a play that could have gotten Walsh closer. “I thought about it,” said Zimmer—and wisely, he chose to run another play. Obviously in retrospect it looks like a dumb call by Zimmer, but it’s not. Walsh had made 44- and 54-yard field goals earlier in this game. But his two previous attempts at field goals longer than 45 yards were missed—a 51-yarder wide left, a 54-yarder wide right.
7. I think you can probably scratch highly respected Stanford coach David Shaw off the short list of NFL head-coaching candidates in the next month. As he told me Saturday at the Heisman festivities: “I know a lot of guys in the NFL. I know guys at almost every franchise in the NFL, and I can tell you, even the ones who are winning, nobody is having as much fun at his job as I am having at my job.” The NFL’s committee on head-coaching prospects, which has its next meeting Wednesday, will still put Shaw on the list, but will inform inquiring teams (and not every team with an opening seeks advice from this NFL committee of head-coaching authorities, which includes Bill Polian and Tony Dungy) that Shaw is very unlikely to leave Stanford.
8. I think, however, that Shaw should at least listen if John Mara calls from the Giants. When a flagship franchise with patience and a quarterback calls, you need to listen to that. (Not sure the Giants’ job will be open, but if it is, it’s an attractive job.)
9. I think real facts just must not fit the narrative on every Sunday morning show, as in the discussion about about how unfair DeMarco Murray’s demotion in Philadelphia was. Before Sunday’s game against Buffalo, Murray had rushed 163 times for 3.5 yards per rush. The other two main backs, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles, had rushed a combined 136 times for 4.9 yards per rush. Isn’t, uh, performance some slight reason for why coaching decisions are made? Now: The stuff about Chip Kelly not being a great communicator is valid.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Nothing wrong with 24-1.
b. Think about going on an NBA road trip of seven games in 13 nights, and winning by 3, 17, 3, 16, 8 and 5, then losing the last game by 13. Think about the high intensity on back-to-back nights 850 air miles apart, in different time zones: the double-overtime, emotion-packed victory over the Celtics, who had shots to win the game at the end of regulation and the first overtime; then getting into Milwaukee in the wee hours and playing before a crowd where a bunch of fans wore “24-1” T-shirts and the place was electric. Going 6-1 on any NBA road trip is a feat. I love how serious the Warriors took it all, too, with Draymond Green playing 50 minutes and Steph Curry 47 in the game at Boston.
c. Funniest thing I heard, and it says everything about the expectations the world has for Curry, is how off he was at Boston, after scoring 38 points with 11 rebounds and eight assists, hitting six of 13 threes. He missed 18 shots, so it wasn’t his normal marksmanship. But not a bad off night.
d. Steph Curry, in this column in three different places. That’s got to be a first in MMQB history for an NBAer.
e. Great speech by Derrick Henry in accepting the Heisman. Congrats to him for a great year, and for his humility and gratitude.
f. People shouldn’t get so upset over the Heisman. There are lots of great players in college football, and it’s just the opinion of 900-ish mostly media people on who the best player is. My feeling is the voter list probably ought to be weeded out a bit, and only the people who see a ton of college football should be casting ballots. That would make it the most reliable award.
g. Good luck in Columbus, Greg Schiano. Urban Meyer hired Schiano as defensive coordinator last week. Two interesting dates in the future of Greg Schiano: Oct. 1, 2016—Rutgers at Ohio State; Sept. 30, 2017—Ohio State visits Piscataway.
h. Coffeenerdness: Tried the Holiday Spice Flat White three times in the past 10 days. Tasted different three times. At its best, it’s amazing how good an espresso drink can taste with a touch of clove. But each drink tasted different. Maybe that’s a good thing. But one of them was basically a latte with barely a hint of the spices. As is often the case at Starbucks, consistency is lacking.
i. Beernerdness: Going lighter lately—Peroni, Allagash. Maybe it’s the warm weather. It’s ridiculously warm back East considering Christmas is 11 days away.
j. I don’t understand the Mets’ off-season. They’re apparently okay with opening defense of the National League title without a number 3 or 4 hitter. Unless you’re happy with David Wright or Lucas Duda there. They should be wading into the outfield market for Cespedes or Gordon, pronto.
k. I don’t understand the fascination with Jason Heyward.
l. I realize we’re supposed to worship at the altar of advanced offensive stats and defensive stats, and Heyward is a good player. But his average season: .353 on-base, 16 homers, 58 RBI. He’s going to have to make a heck of a lot of game-saving catches to be worth $23 million a year.
m. But $23 million a year is fairly boilerplate in baseball right now.
n. A couple of you asked for holiday book suggestions. I do my book suggestions around Fathers Day, but I’ll give you my four favorites of the year: Without You, There Is No Us, by Suki Kim (about life in North Korea); Being Nixon, by Evan Thomas (compelling look at Richard Nixon, particularly what made him tick); Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius, by Bill Pennington (incredible stories about such a complex guy); and Brady vs. Manning, by Gary Myers (as much as I thought I knew about Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, I discovered I was clearly a piker after reading this).
o. RIP, baseball writer extraordinaire Phil Pepe. Much respect to a top New York scribe.
p. Old friend Brian Hyland, a huge Frank Sinatra devotee, rode his motorcycle to the Sinatra boyhood home in Hoboken, N.J., on Saturday, the 100th anniversary of Sinatra's birth. “Had to pay my respects,” Hyland said. We all should.
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Who I Like Tonight
New York Giants 23, Miami 20. First visit by the Giants to Miami in 19 years, by the way. (Last Miami meeting: Bernie Kosar backed up Dan Marino for Miami; Danny Kanell backed up Dave Brown for the Giants.) … When you figure out the Giants, let me know what makes them tick. This game is a coin flip, and Miami’s defensive line could punish Eli Manning early and often behind a beat-up O-line. But this score is a vote for Manning over Ryan Tannehill. Cool side note is the meeting of best-friend receivers Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants and Jarvis Landry of the Dolphins. They played together at LSU. “It’s one of those games that I’ve had in my mind for a long time, playing against Jarvis,” said Beckham. “So there’s nothing extra that can really be added to it. We both understand the situation.” One thing can be added: Those at LSU when both receivers were there said there were practice days when Landry’s one-handed catches were better than Beckham’s. So there’s that to look forward to, even if you don’t have much interest in a game between two 5-7 teams. It’s going to be 77 and humid at kickoff, so it’ll be interesting how much of an edge that gives Miami over the northerners.
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The Adieu Haiku
Start spreadin’ the news …
Luck be a lady tonight …
Mmmmm, the summer wind.
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