The Bengals have done something this year that hadn't been done since Boomer Esiason was a junior at Maryland.
Bruce Arians has done something no one in the NFL has done in 60 years.
Seattle's averaging 50 points a game in its last three games, which hasn't been done in a three-game span in Bill Belichick's lifetime.
We'll get to all those, but first: Happy Christmas Eve to all. Got a few story lines for you, starting with the brunt of the playoff news.
? We know 10 of the 12 teams in the big dance, including all six in the AFC -- division champs Houston, Denver, New England and Baltimore, and I-74 wild card twins Indianapolis and Cincinnati. All that's left is determining the NFC West winner (San Francisco and Seattle have clinched playoff berths, and the second-place team in the division will be the NFC's fifth seed), the NFC East winner and the sixth seed in the NFC playoffs.
Math lesson over for the day. Sixteen games to play, all next Sunday (nine early, six late, one at night), and Week 17 won't be as suspenseful as some final regular season weekends. But in a league of stories, we'll have plenty. This week we're starting with the story of the year ... on the Indianapolis Colts team bus. It's a story we can't seem to get enough of.
In the third quarter.
At one point in the fourth quarter at Arrowhead Stadium, interim coach Bruce Arians looked out onto the field and surveyed just who was playing for him. On offense, on the 73-yard game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown drive, he counted seven first-year players. On defense, well, he wasn't quite sure what he saw. Indy already had four defensive tackles on injured reserve, the nominal starter at the nose, Antonio Johnson, was inactive with an ankle injury, and two other defensive linemen went down during the game. So trying to somehow plug the leak were four Colts who'd been plucked off the street, off waivers from the Packers, Jets, Cowboys and Rams during this season. "Hang in there,'' Arians kept telling his waiver wonders. A week or so ago, Arians didn't know the name of the seventh nose tackle the Colts had employed this year, undrafted 355-pound plugger Kellen Heard, picked up from the Rams and activated earlier this month, but now he was trying to stone Peyton Hillis and Charles, and somehow it worked. Somehow, 352 Chief rushing yards later, it worked, and the Indianapolis Colts, 2-14 a year ago, won their 10th game of 2012, clinching a playoff spot.
"Mission accomplished,'' a totally spent Arians, 60, said from the bus, on the way to the airport. "This is the greatest moment of my coaching career. This is the top. I called the plays in a two-minute drive to win the Super Bowl, but this beats that. I mean, we're the College All-Stars. Remember when the NFL champion used to play the college all-stars in the preseason every year? That's who we are -- the College All-Stars. And we're in the playoffs.''
Arians was the perfect junkyard dog for one of the most difficult coaching assignments in NFL history. The Steelers let him walk last year, and Arians was bitter about it. For eight years he coached Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense, getting very close to Roethlisberger. Too close, some in the organization thought, and after last year the Steelers decided to make a change -- to get a fresh offensive voice and approach for the league's 12th-rated offense, and to challenge Roethlisberger too. It was Arians who called the plays, as he said, on the length-of-the-field drive in the final minutes of the Super Bowl four years ago, including the pass play into the corner of the end zone for Santonio Holmes that won it. When Chuck Pagano got the Colts' coaching job last January, he saw his old friend Arians on the street and hired him to coach the offense, including the new franchise quarterback in town, Andrew Luck. And when Pagano had to take a leave to treat his leukemia when the Colts were 1-2, the team tabbed Arians to take his place.
Arians won nine games and lost three. This morning, Pagano, his cancer in remission, returns to take his team back. And Arians will be in the office too ... only perhaps a few minutes late.
Arians and Pagano had an emotional phone conversation after the 20-13 win over the Chiefs. Pagano thanked Arians, twice. Arians told Pagano that he'd been given a job, and he tried to do it to the best of his ability. And Arians said: "Don't you come in too early tomorrow, because I won't be early. I might have a little hangover when I get there."
Imagine Arians' emotion today. He walked off the Arrowhead field at 3:07 p.m., having piloted a reeling team into the playoffs as an interim coach; no interim coach since 1952 had won nine games with any NFL teams. And while he was in the locker room, word came down that the team that dumped him was eliminated from playoff contention. Arians is no gloater, and he did none of that Sunday. But come on. Who wouldn't be thinking emotional thoughts at a time like that?
Owner Jim Irsay gave Arians a bearhug in the locker room and said into the coach's ear: "Thank you. Thank you."
"To be respected that much by Mr. Irsay after what I've been through this year ... '' and his voice trailed off.
Saturday night, Arians told his players to "finish the job. Chuck doesn't need a stressful week when he comes back Monday. He doesn't need to have a must-win to make the playoffs.'' And he said Sunday: "You give a professional athlete a cause, and he'll respond. These guys responded.''
Arians responded. He kept a new team with a 70 percent turnover from last year from fracturing, and he did it on his first shot to be an NFL head coach. "I finally got a chance to be a head coach,'' he said, "and I got the chance while leading a group of men on a special mission for a great man [Pagano] himself. Nothing can compare to this.''
Of all the stats on all the NFL play sheets Sunday, this seemed most amazing to me: Seattle converted 11 of 13 third downs (11 of 12, really, because the final conversion attempt was a kneeldown at the end of the game) against the team that had held Seattle to six points two months ago. The key for Seattle, of course, has been the precocious play of Wilson, who was remarkable in and out of the pocket. He doesn't scramble like a normal quarterback, or even a quick quarterback. His scrambling is totally unpredictable, and he breaks the rules that say passers should never double-back and go 12 or 15 yards behind the line to try to find a new hole. He does it all the time, fearlessly.
"Russell hasn't changed,'' Carroll said afterward. "All he has done is just won us over. We've changed, he's the same. He's more experienced now with what we're asking him to do, and he's had more reps and turns and all of that, so he's more efficient at everything. He's rock solid after this win. He's ready to go to the next game already, and that's just who he is and how he is. We're just thrilled that he's playing on our team.'' Want an example of Wilson the leader? He went to all the rookies after the game Sunday night. "We got work to do tomorrow,'' Wilson told his fellow first-year players. "Come in and get your lift in.'' Christmas Eve wouldn't influence the work schedule for Wilson. Tape analysis, 8 a.m. Lift, 10 a.m. That's what leaders do.
Drafted in the second round last year, Dalton led Cincinnati to a wild card berth last year, and Sunday, in Pittsburgh, helped the Bengals beat the Steelers for the first time since 2009, 13-10. "It's good, really good,'' Dalton said from Pittsburgh, "especially for a team that hadn't been to the playoffs back-to-back in 30 years.'' He's right -- the last time Cincinnati made the playoffs for a second straight year was the strike-shortened season of 1982, when teams played only nine regular season games. Dalton and A.J. Green, the top two picks of this new era in 2011, combined to make the play that led to Sunday's win. With 14 seconds to play in a 10-10 game, and the ball at the Steelers 46, Green ran a deep out pattern to the right. "A play we run a lot,'' Dalton said. "I saw the corer soft on A.J., and A.J. was able to get across his face [run in front of him] and get a couple of steps on him.'' Dalton's throw was perfect -- gain of 21.
The resulting 43-yard Josh Brown field goal was the winner, and sent Cincinnati to a playoff road opener, again. Last year, playing in Houston was tough enough; the Bengals lost 31-10. This year, the wild-card game could be in a tougher spot -- New England, if form holds in Week 17. But Cincinnati's defense, led by terrific defensive tackle Geno Atkins (2.5 sacks in Pittsburgh), is improved from last year, and will make it hard for good passing games like New England's to get traction. If Dalton plays mistake-free, the Bengals will be in any game they play in January.
Johnson, with one game left, has 117 catches for 1,892 yards. Imagine a player averaging 132 yards receiving a game. On Sunday, I asked the man who drafted Johnson, if he had a tough choice when the second pick in the 2007 draft came up and it was the Lions turn to pick. "If the Raiders [who chose JaMarcus Russell first overall] had taken Calvin, we'd have crossed our fingers and taken Adrian Peterson,'' Millen said. "Remember, he had that shoulder issue before the draft, and some people were concerned about it. But we were comfortable with him. We liked Calvin better. We thought he was a once-in-a-lifetime guy." On this pick at least, Millen was right.
So many numbers I like this morning in the Nothing is Forever League, but how about this about the 49ers, who, a week ago, could have passed for the best team in football: After Seattle throttled the Niners Sunday night, San Francisco, which started the season as the great power of a supposedly weak division, is 2-2-1 in NFC West games this year. In those five division games, San Francisco's been outscored 91-87 ... Vikings coach Leslie Frazier told me after the Texans held Adrian Peterson to 86 yards -- and Peterson left the game with a stomach injury -- that "he'll be fine'' for the finale against Green Bay. He'll need 207 yards to pass Eric Dickerson. It's possible Peterson got hurt on a three-yard loss when tackled hard by J.J. Watt ... "I think we'll be a dangerous team if we get in,'' Frazier said. They looked it. There was nothing fluky about the 23-6 win in Houston. GM Rick Spielman has done a good job reinforcing the defense with talented kids like Notre Dame rookie safety Harrison Smith ...
I understand the incredible frustration of Tim Tebow, who was either lied to by his team or misled, or lost any ability to play the sport of football since being traded to the Jets last spring. The Jets pushed him to rebel, as, according to ESPNNewYork.com, he did last week when he said he didn't want to participate in the team's Wildcat plays in the San Diego game. But it's not acceptable to do it. As bad as he believes he's been wronged, he's got to do what the team says as long as he's under contract there.
Coach Mike Tomlin, finishing his sixth season as coach of the Steelers, won't be taking his team to the playoffs. "Not our day,'' Tomlin said after the 13-10 loss to Cincinnati. "Not our year. Sounds like a broken record. But reality.'' I've heard from many Steeler fans over the past few weeks, and many are unhappy with Tomlin for not leading a talented team out of its funk. These fans are not just unhappy with Tomlin. They want a new coach. To which I say: Are you crazy?
Tomlin's not only signed through 2016, but the Rooney family never panics after a subpar year, or after a subpar year following a year Tim Tebow beat them in the playoffs. Here's another reason Tomlin won't be going anywhere for a while -- a long while. I call it The Shula Defense. To the right, a comparison of Comparing Tomlin's first six seasons to the first six seasons of the winningest coach of all time, Don Shula.
The Deep End
The way things have broken down in 2012, there are three legitimate options for this award.
His primary job, though, is still run defense, and in that regard he couldn't have done better than his first ranked position in run-stop percentage (a metric that looks at tackles made in the running game that constitute a defeat for the offense), edging Derrick Johnson and NaVorro Bowman among middle linebackers.
He has not been outstanding in coverage, but has made few major errors and never looks out of place. His 0.88 yards allowed per coverage snap through Week 15 ranks him 21st among 48 qualifying inside linebackers, and while he has allowed two touchdowns he has also made three interceptions. Detractors may point to him being quieter in the last half of the season (the Arizona game aside), but he's never played poorly.
In doing this he has given up neither a penalty nor touchdown while making six interceptions and deflecting 10 more passes. When you throw in the fact he's played the run well too -- ranking 9th in run stop percentage among corners, without missing a tackle -- you can see this is a man who should be going to the Pro Bowl. The only point against him is that he's not currently an every-down player; he generally doesn't play in the Packers base defense.
Another difference is that David is used to blitz much more frequently (23 percent of passing plays compared to 10 percent for Wagner) and while he has at least hurried the quarterback 18 times, statistically this isn't a good reward for 143 blitzes.
The Award Section
Hall's 17-yard pick of Roethlisberger put the first points of the game on the board and accounted for the only Cincinnati touchdown of the game. And Nelson's pick of Roethlisberger with 14 seconds left, returned to the Pittsburgh 46, set up the winning field goal. "The defense,'' said Andy Dalton, "was phenomenal, and gave us the chances we needed to win a huge game." Right he is.
Quote of the Week I
"It was important for us to go out and dominate the opponents late in the year. We have momentum going for us -- particularly what we've done over the last nine weeks, 10 weeks -- so we wanted to take the next step as a football team and I felt we were able to accomplish that today."
Quote of the Week II
"They don't keep a record of meaningless yards, and these are meaningless yards. I hate to say it, but they are."
These are the kinds of points a great analyst makes. Good job by Gruden.
Quote of the Week III
"I was disappointed he could find conduct detrimental and there is no discipline, that he could excuse that type of accountability as a coach's responsibility. I don't share that perspective. This isn't a new policy. The bounty rule has been in place for decades. It's a core part of our rules."
If you still think Tagliabue was somehow "protecting'' Goodell with his ruling, you wouldn't think that from talking to those close to Goodell -- or, now with Battista's story, by hearing from Goodell himself. It's clear the mentee, Goodell, is angry with the decision of his mentor, Tagliabue. The other money quote from Goodell: "If you want to be a cheerleader, go be a cheerleader. If you want to be a commissioner, then go make the decisions."
Quote of the Week IV
"You look at one franchise, the Giants. They have ups and downs. But it's never catastrophic. It's never like this.''
Quote of the Week V
"You can literally s--- on me, and I will still be kind to you.''
Well, that would certainly be a Festivus miracle.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Among the draft choices picked by teams in desperate quarterback straits before Seattle took its current starting QB, Russell Wilson (75th overall) and Washington selected its backup QB, Kirk Cousins (102th overall) in last April's draft:
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
Friday, 9:40 a.m., dog-walking near the corner of 56th Street and Second Avenue, on the east side of Manhattan, and I encountered several 40-ish women walking off the property of the High School of Art & Design. One was sobbing. I stopped for a second. A few other people stopped. One of the women looked at me and said, "Just had the moment of silence for Newtown." We all understood.
Tweet of the Week I
"Not trying to cause trouble. Just pointing out Alex Smith won his last 4 starts vs Seattle. OK, trying to cause trouble.''
Tweet of the Week II
"Lets go Seahawks! You owe us one!!!"
Tweet of the Week III
"I am a believer in the Constitution and the 2nd amendment, but after watching the NRA press conference, I believe they have lost their soul."
Tweet of the Week IV
MT "Officers from around CT organizing/rallying to work Christmas Day so no Newtown, Conn., officers have to work Dec. 25."
Tweet of the Week V
"I am deeply saddened by the news of Ryan Freel's death. I never covered anyone who played harder. RIP, Freely. #reds''
Freel, 36, killed himself in Jacksonville Saturday. Being a big rotisserie baseball owner, I had Freel on the roster for steals, eight years ago, and grew to greatly admire him as a guy who made the most of his talent -- sort of a Jacquizz Rodgers utility player. He played so hard. Sad story.
Ten Things I Think I Think
b. Good job, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, pumping up Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's case for being a head coach. Zimmer should be on every owner's radar with the job he's done in Cincinnati.
c. Chad (6 of 6 on the first drive against New England) Henne, staving off Tim Tebow already.
e. Roddy White is far better, and far more reliable, than he gets credit for.
f. Sack/strip by J.J. Watt, giving him 20.5 sacks for the year. A 3-4 defensive end, 20.5 sacks.
k. Jerome Simpson! How'd you get both feet inbounds on that sideline catch?
p. Russell Wilson's downfield arm -- better than virtually every scout thought before the draft.
q. What a great defensive battle in Pittsburgh.
s. Thom Brennaman with the TV Stat of the Week: Washington's first delay-of-game penalty came in the fourth quarter of the 15th game. With a rookie quarterback, backed up by a rookie quarterback. May I say, "Wow?"
b. Reggie Nelson hit Heath Miller hard in the knees with Miller in full gallop, and Miller wasn't happy. I wouldn't be either. But it's the kind of hit defenders have to make since they can't go high on receivers anymore.
c. Cover the man, Adam Jones. Don't be baited for a long TD by going for the interception.
d. The most fruitless 443-yard passing game (Matthew Stafford's) that you'll ever see.
e. Stafford's going to have over 700 throws this year (he has 685 now), and the Lions are 4-11. Message there.
f. Can't miss a 24-yard field goal, Shaun Suisham. And I don't care about the shaky spot.
h. There's a rule for receivers, Brian Quick. Catch it before you run.
i. Cam Newton, who should have been thrown out of the game for contacting the ref, Jerome Boger, in Carolina.
j. The Tennessee defense, as usual. In the last 14 games, the D has allowed 38, 41, 38, 51 and 55 (on Sunday in Green Bay).
True: Gronkowski ($2.75 million), Hernandez ($4.07 million) and Ridley ($805,500) are cap-friendly in 2013, and may allow the Krafts to think this way of a 32-year-old Welker in 2013: We don't want to devote lots of cap money to the future with Welker, but if we buy one more year of his production, $11 million is worth it.
b. The busts in this draft, compared to who was picked, are all-timers, and I don't just mean Oakland choosing Russell over Johnson. The Bucs picked the late Gaines Adams over Adrian Peterson. Atlanta chose Jamaal Anderson over Patrick Willis. Houston picked Amobi Okoye over Darrelle Revis.
c. The value players in this draft jump out. Eric Weddle went at No. 37. LaMarr Woodley and David Harris went 46-47, Brandon Mebane and Marshal Yanda 86-87, Jermon Bushrod and Dashon Goldson 125-126, Ahmad Bradshaw 250th ... and every one of the seven New York Giants draft choices that season not only made the roster but also were active during the playoffs.
d. Has there been a draft, ever, with two non-quarterbacks -- Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson - putting up these sick kinds of numbers in their first six years? Peterson's averaged 1,427 yards rushing in his first six years, Johnson 1,294 yards receiving.
f. Randy Moss put one final dagger in the Raiders after day one of the draft. Oakland traded Moss to New England for the 110th overall pick. Oakland drafted defensive back John Bowie of the University of Cincinnati with the Moss pick, and Bowie went on to quite a celebrated NFL career: five games, one tackle, no other statistics of any kind. Moss set the NFL record with 23 touchdowns in 2007 for New England, helping the Patriots win the AFC title. JaMarcus Russell and Moss-for-Bowie. That sums up the latter years of Al Davis quite well.
a. I'm so surprised that the NRA's executive vice president, first in a statement to the media Friday and then to
b. Nope. Guns never have anything to do with any of these mass killings. Because guns don't kill people. People kill people. Just keep repeating that mantra, over and over, because it's the only one you're allowed to believe, according to men like Wayne LaPierre.
c. Shame on you, Wayne LaPierre. And shame on those who blindly back a gun culture more interested in protecting the rights of citizens to own semi-automatic weapons than protecting the rights of first-graders and elementary school teachers.
d. We need the Second Amendment. We don't need incendiary people like LaPierre who pervert it to protect the ownership of guns no founding father would ever have meant for private citizens to own. And I'm not just saying "I support the Second Amendment'' blandly or blindly. I do support it. Private citizens have a right to hunt, and to protect themselves in their homes. But no one can convince me the killing machines like the one Adam Lanza used in Sandy Hook Elementary should be owned by the average citizen in this country.
f. It's nine days after an event that still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it long enough. I'm going to skip the other non-football thoughts, except this one: I wish great holidays to all, and a peaceful Christmas to all those who celebrate it.
Who I Like Tonight, and I Mean Gene Collier
One of the great sports columnists in America, Gene Collier, of the
Whereas Frenchy Fuqua has made a career of playing coy about what happened on the play, those who know Franco Harris have told me he seriously doesn't know if the ball hit the ground or whether he caught the boomerang before it touched the turf at Three Rivers Stadium. Anyway, a great remembrance of the most mysterious -- and perhaps the most famous -- play in NFL history, which happened at 3:29 p.m., 40 years ago yesterday.
And there is no game tonight, as it should be on Christmas Eve. Enjoy your families.
The Adieu Haiku
Merry Christmas, Colts. Coach Pagano returneth. Who needs other gifts?