Pardon the cliché-fest, but it's the little things that, very often, are the difference between winning and losing in a football game. Sometimes they're so little that you don't see them when you watch the game, and you don't even notice on the fourth or fifth replay.
I'm talking about the precocious early play of Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, who has his team in a playoff-contending game on national TV Monday night against the Super Bowl champs. In Washington's 38-31 Thanksgiving Day win in Dallas, Griffin diagnosed the Dallas defense on the first touchdown of the game in a manner I never noticed, but I guarantee the Giants have studied it this week to learn that, with Griffin, all is possible.
First-and-15 at the Washington 32. Early second quarter. Dallas 3, Washington 0. Anticipating a possible blitz, Washington kept fullback Darrel Young and tight end Logan Paulsen in as sidecars to Griffin, with running back Alfred Morris behind him. Play-action is a dangerous thing with Griffin, because not only is he a risk to hand the ball off to a 982-yard rookie rusher in Morris, but also he's a threat to run himself, and he has such a good downfield arm that he could go bombs-away too. "Watching RGIII,'' Giants linebacker Michael Boley told me Thursday, "you learn that you eliminate nothing as a possibility.''
So the Cowboys, on the play, disguised whether they'd blitz, which Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan does well. At the snap of the ball, well-armored with protection, Griffin did just as expected: play-action. And in center field, about 15 yards downfield, Dallas safety Danny McCray bit, feet in cement, waiting.
"Just for a second,'' Washington coach Mike Shanahan said over the phone from Virginia Thursday. "Not even a second. But it was just long enough that, when he realizes what's happening, he can't catch up."
From the right of the Washington formation, Aldrick Robinson (as Troy Aikman said on the FOX telecast, How was this guy, with this speed, a sixth-round pick?) sprinted downfield, with cornerback Brandon Carr in coverage, toward McCray's spot in the secondary. The way Carr played it -- loose, ensuring against a double-move or a go route down the right sideline -- he was clearly expecting McCray's help if Robinson went over the top down the middle of the field. But as Shanahan said, by the time Griffin threw the ball, Robinson had five yards on McCray and Carr, and he caught the ball in stride. It was an easy 68-yard touchdown throw. Playground easy.
"On that play, you've got to be very good on the play-action fake,'' Shanahan said. "You've got to sell it. Which Robert did. You've got to have a great arm to make that throw, which he does. Not many quarterbacks can throw a 60-yard pass and hit a receiver in stride. And you've got to know which guy is the right guy. Once Robert saw the safety hesitate, he knew Aldrick would be open. He didn't have to see it -- he knew it would develop, and it did."
It's tough to be a more dangerous quarterback than Griffin is right now. In his last two games, he's completed 79 percent of his throws, for eight touchdowns and one interception, for an incredible 12.0 yards per attempt. And yet, when I asked Boley what's the most important thing about controlling Griffin right now, he said: "Eliminating the four- and five-yard gains on first and second down. You can't give him third-and-three, third-and-four. That's when he's so dangerous, because he can do anything well then -- run, hand it off, throw short, throw deep. What we need to do is get him on third-and-long to limit what he might do."
"He's exactly right,'' Shanahan said. "Robert's trouble when he has too many options."
This is the stat the Giants must be looking at this week, though Boley didn't tell me about it: Washington has thrown the ball 44 times this year on third-and-eight or longer, and Griffin has converted but four of those into first downs.
Third-and-long. That has to be the Giants' mantra come Monday night. Oh, and watch the deep posts off play-action on first-and-15.
I think we can all agree -- and I'll be looking into this over the weekend -- that the season-long suspension of Sean Payton and the accompanying pressure on Drew Brees to carry a New Orleans offense that's been far too dependent on him has taken its toll on a great quarterback and his 5-7 team. We saw that Thursday night, particularly with the game and the Saints season on the line in the last 17 minutes, when Brees threw a stunning four interceptions (one was whistled off because of an Atlanta penalty). The worst: his throw across the body, rolling right, when he absolutely had to see safety William Moore laying in wait but threw it anyway. Brees finished the night with five interceptions, giving him a league-high 16, and knocking out the Saints as a playoff long shot in the crowded NFC pool.
He took all the blame after the game, which Brees regularly does, but I think what interim coach Joe Vitt and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael must do is tell Brees to stop trying to be Superman. It hurt the Saints badly in the two losses that have doomed their season -- San Francisco and Atlanta. Brees is going to take his place among the greats of this era, and every era, but he's also pressing right now, and it's costing New Orleans.