Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we wish the Super Bowl host jinx a happy 49th anniversary this wild-card round weekend (sorry, Cardinals, you had it absolutely nailed if the regular season lasted only 10 games).
• It figures. Maybe we should have even expected this, in the NFL’s version of annus horribilis. Though the calendar has turned to 2015, it’s still the 2014 season for the NFL, and somehow that makes the controversy that engulfed the fourth quarter of Sunday’s Detroit at Dallas game a rather fitting reminder of one of the worst years in league history.
After a season in which the NFL had its credibility and motives questioned as never before in the fallout from the Ray Rice scandal, along comes a call -- or non-call as it were -- that could prompt widespread credibility issues for the league once again. The Cowboys won Sunday’s wild-card playoff thriller at AT&T Stadium 24-20 over the Lions in comeback fashion, but the outcome was immediately questioned in light of referee Pete Morelli bizarrely and belatedly picking up a critical pass interference flag against Dallas in the fourth quarter, with Detroit clinging to a 20-17 lead and driving for perhaps a game-clinching score.
That the flag against Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens was picked up so long after the initial call was made was unusual enough, with even former head of NFL officiating, Mike Pereira, who worked the game for FOX, saying he could not recall a similar instance of such a belatedly overturned call. But then -- and here’s where the league’s real credibility problem lies -- there was absolutely no explanation for the reversal offered by Morelli to either the crowd or the national television audience. He simply announced there was no foul, and the game went on, to its dramatic and highly disputed finish. After the game, Morelli told pool reporter Todd Archer that another official thought the contact was "minimal and didn't warrant pass interference," thus they picked up the flag.
For a league that struggled mightily in 2014 with a lack of transparency and dubious decision-making, the Morelli non-explanation of the non-call during the game was the perfect opposite of what the NFL hoped to highlight in this first weekend of its month-long 12-team Super Bowl tournament. Instead of everyone talking about what was by far the most compelling and competitive game of the wild-card round, the focus is now largely on the debate spawned by the officiating, and whether or not the Lions quite possibly were robbed of their best chance to record the franchise’s first playoff win in 23 years.
And as the league has learned the hard way in this 2014 season, when the spotlight shifts from the field and the games themselves, unwanted headlines and uncomfortable spots ensue. In the best matchup the NFL had to offer this weekend, the league and its officiating process managed to overshadow the game itself. And the echoes of the league not explaining itself sufficiently and in a timely fashion on Sunday evening in Dallas only underlined where it fell so woefully short as a league this season on far more important matters of consistency in its personal conduct policy.
And that’s not even the end of the debate over that highly scrutinized sequence in the game. The Lions faced a 3rd-and-1 at the Dallas 46 on that pass play to tight end Brandon Pettigrew, but before the penalty on Hitchens was picked up, Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant stormed on to the field without his helmet to argue against the flag, voicing his displeasure to officials. Bryant inexplicably wasn’t given a personal foul for being on the field helmet-less at that point, when the Cowboys’ defense was on the field. So Dallas actually avoided two penalties in one fell swoop, dramatically changing the field position and possibly the outcome of the game.
No matter how you view the case for picking up the flag, as a needed correction that was done in fairness to Dallas, or a glaring injustice to Detroit, the entire incident was a train wreck of a situation for the NFL, which didn’t need to create any more credibility issues for itself this season. The year 2014 might have passed into history, but for the league, the misery continues.
• Maybe, just maybe, we don’t have Tony Romo to kick around anymore. Wouldn’t that be a fresh narrative? Say what you will about the officiating issues in the game, the Cowboys’ quarterback was the ultimate survivor on Sunday, and that’s exactly the trait the NFL’s single-elimination playoffs reward each January.
Romo endured a season-worst six sacks and was hit numerous times beyond that, but when the season was on the line, Romo responded. He led Dallas to a touchdown, field goal, touchdown on the three most critical Cowboys’ possessions in the game, giving his team a 24-20 lead with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Williams with 2:32 to play. Romo came up plenty big in the biggest game he’s played in in five years, finishing 19 of 31 for 293 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
It wasn’t artistic. But for Romo, logging a playoff win in comeback fashion -- the Cowboys trailed 17-7 at the half -- made it a masterpiece in his body of work.
• Good for Cowboys rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, vindicating himself with his first career sack, after nearly being the goat of the game for fumbling away a recovery that would have ended Detroit’s comeback hopes in the final minutes. Lawrence strip-sacked Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on 4th-and-3 at the Dallas 42, with 54 seconds to go, icing the victory for the Cowboys and sending Jerry and Stephen Jones into a memorable group man-hug with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the owners’ box.
But what in the name of Leon Lett, who happens to be his Cowboys’ position coach, was Lawrence thinking by trying to run with that fumble recovery in the first place? Dallas didn’t need yards at that point. It needed possession, and thanks to Lawrence, the Cowboys would have had the ball with 2:00 left on the clock deep in Detroit territory with a four-point lead. But everybody’s got to make SportsCenter highlights these days by being a return man, so Lawrence took the ball and promptly fumbled it back to the Lions.
The kid came through with the play that un-did his horrible gaffe about a minute later, but it boggles my mind that NFL players can be so routinely oblivious to situational football and still find their way onto a team’s roster.
• Stafford’s record drops to 0-18 in his career (including playoffs) when he plays a road game against a team that finished the season with a winning record. But I still liked an awful lot of what I saw from the Lions’ sixth-year quarterback on Sunday at Jerry World.
Stafford was pretty cool under pressure against Dallas, and he wasn’t the reason the Lions came up just short in what would have been the signature win of his career and the franchise’s biggest victory since January 1992. Stafford led the Lions to an early 14-0 lead, and finished 28 of 42 for an impressive 323 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
He’s 0-2 in the playoffs, but Stafford played a more disciplined and sustainable style of game this season, and he took a step forward with the help of first-year Lions head coach Jim Caldwell’s guidance.
• Make way for Riverboat Garrett, head coach of the 13-4 Dallas Cowboys. Jason Garrett showed some unaccustomed moxie against the Lions, and his decision to go on 4th-and-6 from the Detroit 42 with 6:00 to play was one of the key moments of the game. Romo connected with tight end Jason Witten for 21 yards, down to the Lions’ 21, and that gain set up the Cowboys’ go-ahead touchdown and first lead of the game.
In fairness to Garrett, he has been bolder this season in his decision-making, but his nerve on Sunday was impressive, because the Cowboys’ season was on the line and there was no safety net of next week.
• I know all too well what a laughingstock the Bengals were before Marvin Lewis arrived in early 2003, and making the playoffs in six of the past 10 years is no small feat. But Lewis himself framed this season as one in which the Bengals had to take another step, and yet they haven’t, falling for a fourth consecutive year in a first-round playoff game, 26-10 at Indianapolis.
Of the plight that he and quarterback Andy Dalton faced in 2014, Lewis last May told me: “He and I both, we know what we're up against. We've set a high standard and now the expectations are to win everything. That's the good thing. Winning is just not good enough any longer. Winning the division is no longer good enough. The opportunity to win enough to get to the playoffs and become world champions is the goal. Otherwise people will feel this has been a failure.”
And by that measure, the Bengals being stuck at status quo again has be judged as a failure. I don’t expect Cincinnati owner Mike Brown to make a coaching move, but the reality is, with Lewis entering the final year of his contract in 2015, it has to be make-or-break time for him at some point. Doesn’t it? Isn’t that the way the NFL has to work?
Lewis owns 100 career victories in his 12 seasons with the Bengals and that’s pretty impressive. But his 198 games in Cincinnati without a playoff win makes him the longest-tenured coach with the same team to never taste success in the postseason. He and Jim Mora Sr. are now 0-6 in the playoffs, the most losses ever for coaches without a postseason victory (Mora’s record was with the Saints and Colts).
Lewis’ team was decimated by key injuries this season, especially in recent weeks. But other teams overcome injury plagues (see Baltimore’s cornerbacks depth chart) and keep finding other ways to win. The Ravens are again in the AFC’s Final Four. And the Bengals are again going home early in January.
• If you like glamor in your NFL divisional round, next week’s Elite Eight might work out for you. First off, there’s the four quarterbacks for the four highest seeds: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. That group owns six Super Bowls rings, with everybody owning at least one. Same goes for the head coaches, with one exception: Denver’s John Fox is 0-for-2 in the Super Bowl, while Bill Belichick, Mike McCarthy and Pete Carroll have five rings among them.
Then there’s Andrew Luck facing the man he replaced in Manning for the third time in the past two seasons; and the fourth renewal of the intriguing Baltimore-New England playoff rivalry, which has seen the Ravens win twice in three tries at Gillette Stadium from January 2010 on.
Still not enough? How about Dallas at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, for the first time since the legendary Ice Bowl in the 1967 NFL Championship Game? Yeah, we’ll probably watch.
• So on the first day of the NFL playoffs this season, we were reminded of a very old and familiar lesson: It doesn’t always matter what you look like in getting into the postseason, as long you get there. Then you can work on your style points and put together a legitimate run in January.
Case in point: On Saturday, the two 11-win teams were bounced early from Super Bowl tournament, with Arizona and Pittsburgh falling by double-digit margins. The survivors? The Panthers and Ravens, both of whom barely squeaked into the playoffs in Week 17, with Carolina besting Atlanta on the road in a win-or-go-home showdown for the NFC South title, and Baltimore needing a sloppy home win over struggling Cleveland plus a Chiefs defeat of the visiting Chargers in order to lay claim to the AFC’s sixth seed.
Survive. Advance. Those are the key words come playoff time. What happened in the regular season matters not. In the AFC North, the Steelers and Bengals wrapped up playoff berths in Week 16, then faced off for the division title in Week 17 in Pittsburgh. Now they’re both gone, and it’s the wild-card Ravens, the third-place team in the division, who continue on.
• After watching the Colts dismiss the Bengals on Sunday, this much seems clear, even if it’s a less-than-bold call: A recent AFC champion will again be going to the Super Bowl. The Patriots (2011), Ravens ('12) and Broncos ('13) are the three most recent AFC champs, and I don’t see Indianapolis really being in the same class as those three. So it’s Tom Brady, Joe Flacco or Peyton Manning headed back to the big game. Surprise, surprise, right?
• If we have now seen the last of Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona due to his contract and salary cap number issues -- and I certainly hope it isn’t, because some players deserve one-team careers -- I don’t want to remember him going out the way Saturday unfolded, trying desperately to make some big plays while catching passes from Arizona’s overmatched Ryan Lindley.
But you have to admit, Fitzgerald knows no-name quarterbacks. He has probably played with more underwhelming passers than any great receiver in NFL history. Other than his glory run with Kurt Warner, Fitzgerald has dealt with the likes of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Drew Stanton, Max Hall, Josh McCown, Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson and Lindley. That’s a lot of mediocrity at best.
And this makes Fitzgerald even better as a receiver than we even already appreciate.
• Remember when Ben Roethlisberger won the Super Bowl with the 2005 Steelers as a second-year quarterback, but didn’t seem all that happy about it because he said he didn’t play well enough against Seattle to really feel like a significant part of the victory?
Cam Newton had no such reservations on Saturday in Carolina’s win over Arizona. Newton exulted in the victory -- as well he should, it was his first career playoff victory -- even though he at times he did plenty to keep the Cardinals in the game. Newton’s throwing mechanics are still a work in progress, and he consistently threw off his back foot against Arizona, sailing some passes, missing some easier throws and leaving a number of big plays on the field. He also didn’t seem to see Cardinals cornerback Antonio Cromartie on the interception he made in the second half, and that play briefly proved costly, until the Panthers defense re-asserted itself in the second half and almost completely shut down Arizona.
Carolina’s stout defense, as well as it’s playing these past five weeks, is really fairly comparable to Seattle’s defense, so that part of the Panthers-Seahawks divisional-round game next week won’t be a mismatch. But the efficient Seattle offense, led by dual-threat quarterback Wilson, should have a decided edge over Carolina’s Newton-led attack.
• Ex-Eagles defensive assistants had a quality day on Saturday in No. 4-seeded Carolina’s defeat of No. 5 Arizona. The Panthers defense coordinated by Sean McDermott has been superb of late. And despite the injury-depleted Cardinals losing five of their last seven games this season, Arizona’s defense was one of the league’s best this season under the direction of coordinator Todd Bowles, who remains a very popular head-coaching candidate.
McDermott and Bowles are former Eagles defensive coordinators under Andy Reid, and Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was Reid’s linebackers coach from 1999-2003. And on Sunday, Lions assistant defensive line coach Jim Washburn -- himself an ex-Eagles defensive line coach -- had his guys making life miserable for Romo.
• Oh, that wacky Ed Hochuli. "Jungle Boy," huh? Wondering who gets credit for that particular moniker, which the veteran referee shared with those in-stadium at the Arizona-Carolina game, after he inadvertently opened the wrong microphone in trying to communicate with his fellow officials? Replay official Tom Sifferman is apparently known as "Jungle Boy" to his fellow crew members, because he once toured a jungle on a trip to Hawaii.
Upon further review, Hochuli should probably go with the non-call of nicknames from now on, at least mid-game.
• Can’t remember ever covering a Steelers game without noticing strong safety Troy Polamalu make a big play or two. But there’s a first time for everything, and Saturday’s game against Baltimore was it. The stat sheet says Polamalu actually led the Steelers with a team-high eight tackles at Heinz Field, but every time I noticed him Saturday night, he was a step behind or out of position in pass coverage, and not all that close to the ball.
Polamalu turns 34 in April and has two years left on his contract, but his future in Pittsburgh may be in doubt, coming off a season in which he failed to record either an interception or a forced fumble. The Steelers have said they hope Polamalu retires a Steeler, a consideration that reflects his eight-time Pro Bowl status and that he was a member off all three Pittsburgh Super Bowl teams in the past decade. But Polamalu’s time in Pittsburgh may be nearing its conclusion, and he’s clearly not the impact player of yesteryear.
• Stat of the week that absolutely stuns me -- but probably shouldn’t -- courtesy of ESPN.com: Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has four career playoff starts, and Sunday represented his third game with at least 330 yards passing in the postseason. That’s as many as Joe Montana logged in 23 playoffs starts, and more than John Elway (21 starts), Dan Marino (18 starts), and Jim Kelly (17 starts) had.
Luck completed 31 of 44 passes for 376 yards against the Bengals, with a touchdown and no turnovers, improving to 2-0 at home in his playoff career, to go with his 0-2 road record.
• Give it another few days and I’m pretty sure a report citing unnamed sources will come out that ex-Bills head coach Doug Marrone has horns on his head and likes to kick puppies. The guy is slightly under .500 as an NFL head coach, so I don’t quite get the apparent land rush to hire him now that he’s on the market, but the whisper campaign being waged against him and his reputation is a little much. So Marrone’s a control freak? Show me many successful coaches who aren’t, at least to some degree?
Had it happened in today’s media climate, wonder what they would have said about Don Shula when he left Baltimore for Miami? He’s kind of imperial at times and over-wedded to the running game?