While trying to fall asleep last night after another Sunday devoted almost exclusively to covering another day of NFL action, I had a great idea for the first few paragraphs of this week’s Morning Aftermath.
It was one of those nice moments of satisfaction that come with having one less thing to worry about.
And so, naturally, I now cannot recall what in the hell the great idea was.
So we’ll just launch into this thing without the introductory few paragraphs. (Other than the ones I just wrote.) Here are the things that stand out most to yours truly based on the 14 games played on Sunday.
1. Momentum remains critical for Saints, Colts.
We’ve been banging the drum for a week now regarding the recent experiences — especially in the AFC — of teams that earn postseason byes.
In the last four years, those franchises have failed on five of eight occasions in the divisional round.
The Colts know this reality better than anyone. They’ve played in three division-round games in the past four years. In each game, the team that had earned the bye LOST.
Our theory for this odd dynamic in the AFC arises from the competitiveness of the conference. Over the past four years, the conference that was created upon the merger of the AFL and NFL has had a logjam of excellent teams at the top. (Last year, for example, the Patriots were on the outside looking in, despite an 11-5 record.) So the gap between the teams that earn a bye and the teams that don’t is small. And the boost to the confidence that comes from winning a wild-card game apparently allows the first-round victors to catch flatfooted the teams that had a weekend off.
That dynamic becomes even more pronounced where the team that earned a bye treats the final weeks of the regular season like the third week of the preseason, pulling starters after the first half.
Maybe the folks who are inside the sport are too close to it to recognize this dynamic. Last week, Colts president Bill Polian said that the facts don’t support the concept of rested teams losing momentum in the playoffs, despite the fact that five of eight AFC teams that secured a bye said farewell to the postseason after only one game.
Former Colts coach Tony Dungy agrees. After Sunday night’s Vikings-Cardinals game, Dungy expressed disagreement with the Saints’ intention (per Peter King) to try to run the table, and Dungy explained that going 16-0 “is not on the Colts’ mind,” and that their goal is to clinch home-field advantage as soon as possible so that they can give younger players reps and rest the key veterans.
For the Saints, having the hot, rancid breath of Hagar the Horrible and his cohorts on their necks has provided a strong incentive to keep winning. The Saints surely don’t want to go to the Metrodome in January — and they surely would love to force Minnesota to come to the Bayou. Last night’s loss by the Vikings means that the Saints need merely to win three of four to secure the top seed in the NFC, even if the suddenly average-looking Vikings somehow run the table.
And even if the Saints finish the regular season with no losses, they still will have to take a week off before playing a postseason game. Last year in the NFC, both teams that did were bounced in the divisional round.
So keep this concept in mind. It doesn’t mean that all — or even any — of this year’s top conference seeds will be done after one game. But there once was a presumption that the AFC and NFC semifinals largely represented tune-up games for the two teams on a collision course to meet in the conference title games. Lately, those games have been up for grabs, and several of the supposedly great teams that stopped trying to be great down the stretch have had real trouble finding their way through the postseason maze.
(For takes on why the Jaguars should move, the “down by contact” ruling in the Saints-Redskins game, the meaning of the Vikings’ performance on Sunday night, the hype regarding the Mike Vick touchdowns, and more, just click the link below.)
2. Jaguars should just move now.
On Sunday, the Jacksonville Jaguars hosted the Houston Texans in a key AFC South battle. With the Jags at 6-5 and the Texans at 5-6, the outcome would have a huge impact on a wild-card field that at times has assumed a “none of the above” vibe.
And a whopping 42,079 showed up to watch the game at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium.
On Sunday, the Jags host the 6-6 Dolphins in another key fight for postseason positioning. Then, four nights later, the currently 12-0 Colts come to town for a Thursday night game.
Though the league did the Jags no favors by giving them three home games in only eleven days apart, the last chapter in this trio of December games should be a sellout.
If it’s not, they should leave. Regardless of the reason(s), Jacksonville can’t or won’t support an NFL team, even when it’s winning.
But if they move, the stadium will at least get some use. In this year’s Gator Bowl, for example, 80,000 are expected to watch West Virginia play Florida State.
3. “Down by contact” rule needs tweaking.
Prior to 2006, the replay rules did not apply to plays resulting in a fumble after the officials determined that the runner was “down by contact.”
In 2005, the Competition Committee tried to push through a tweak to the rules that would allow possession to be award to the defense, even if possession is secured by the defense via a scrum that emerged after the whistle had blown. The owners, however, rejected the proposal.
“This is a big play,” Falcons president Rich McKay, a co-chair of the Competition Committee, said at the time. “This is a turnover. We haven’t heard the last of it. . . . These are game-changing plays. Change of possession is one of the most important things we deal with.”
He was right. The next year, the rule change surfaced again — and this time the owners accepted it.
For the most part, the rule has worked well, even though it encourages players to ignore the mandate to stop playing when the whistle is blown, if there’s any doubt as to the judgment made by the official who’s blowing his whistle loudly and pointing to the ground repeatedly and emphatically.
Still, there’s something about the rule that bothers us.
Based on yesterday’s critical call during overtime of the Saints-Redskins game, we finally figured out the source of our discomfort. There’s something counterintuitive about action continuing on the field well after an official, who is standing right by the spot where the player was down by contact, is blowing his whistle loudly and pointing to the ground repeatedly and emphatically.
For those of you who missed it (and for any Redskins fans who have already managed to drive the moment out of their minds), Washington fullback
Larry Mike Sellers caught a short pass from quarterback Jason Campbell on the first drive of overtime. Chris McAlister hit Sellers low, and Head Linesman Kent Payne began using his whistle like the horn of a New York cab, and Payne assumed the body language of a New York traffic cop.
Despite Payne’s sounds and gestures, linebacker Troy Evans dove at the ball and collided with Sellers. They both had a shot at the ball, the ball squirted away, and then McAlister scooped it up with a nonchalance that suggested he really didn’t expect his team to be awarded possession of it.
After a lengthy replay review (we thought there was a time limit), the right decision was made (even though we questioned it on Sunday via Twitter).
In our view, the question of whether Sellers actually had completed the process of catching the ball was sufficiently unclear to constitute “indisputable visual evidence” to overturn the decision that the Redskins should retain possession. But the play presented a somewhat unusual situation.
The ruling on the field was that Sellers had made the catch and that he was down before he fumbled. Thus, indisputable visual evidence was necessary to overturn the ruling of the catch and/or the ruling of “down by contact.”
In this case, there was insufficient visual evidence to overturn the decision that Sellers had caught the ball, but the video ultimately was clear regarding the fact that the ball was coming out before Sellers’ arm hit the ball.
Ultimately, then, the officials got it right. But that doesn’t alter our concern regarding the rule as currently written. At a visceral level, something simply strikes us as odd when the official is giving strong indications that the players should cease and desist, but when in reality the ball is still live.
It becomes even more troublesome when a ball squirts away from the initial post-whistle recovery attempt. Based on our crude Mississippi-style chronometric measurements, more than two seconds elapsed between the time the whistle blew and the moment McAlister picked up the ball.
And that’s simply too much time.
So the league needs to look at this rule again. Either the officials need to not be so demonstrative when doing the “down by contact” thing, or there needs to be a limit on the amount of time after the whistle is blown for the defense to demonstrate clear possession of the loose ball.
Thus, while the rules as currently applied were applied correctly, the visceral sense that the Redskins got jobbed comes from the fact that the Saints secured possession far too long after the whistle when McAlister lifted the ball with all the urgency that Paul Crewe used when picking up the game ball in both versions of The Longest Yard.
4. Steelers need Polamalu, but it might be too late to matter.
The Steelers have lost six games this year. In each defeat, safety Troy Polamalu didn’t play. (In one of the games — a November 15 loss to the Bengals — Polamalu reinjured his knee on the opening drive.)
Coincidence? Hell no.
Despite all the praise that gets heaped on the 3-4 and the zone blitz and James Harrison and Dick LeBeau, Polamalu has become the cornerstone of the defense. Without him, they’re average. With him, they can compete with anyone.
Actually, they might even be worse than average without him. In a span of 14 days, they’ve lost to the dregs of the AFC West — the Chiefs and the Raiders. Both losses were fueled by the kind of big plays that Polamalu prevents, like he did when he refused to concede a touchdown to Sidney Rice of the Vikings and tracked him down at the brink of the goal line on a drive that ultimately forced Minnesota to settle for a field goal.
On Sunday, the Polamalu-free Steelers gave up a 17-yard touchdown pass, a 75-yard touchdown pass, and an 88-yard touchdown drive. All in the fourth quarter.
Four year ago, the Steelers assumed they were done after falling to 7-5. They ended up running the table, stealing a spot in the playoffs as the sixth seed in the AFC, and then hitting the road to ultimately win the Super Bowl.
This year, that stellar 6-2 start has melted into a 6-6 reality. Even if they run the table on the regular season, it might not be enough to get a shot to go on the road again in the hopes of winning another championship.
5. Jim Mora makes his case for more time.
With G.M. Tim Ruskell gone from Seattle, first-year coach Jim Mora is likely feeling a little nervous.
General Managers typically like to hire their own head coaches. Regardless of how good or bad the current coach is, the G.M. doesn’t fully put his imprint on the
team until the G.M. hires his own coach.
Just ask Dick Jauron, who coached the Bears when G.M. Jerry Angelo was hired. An unexpected 13-3 season in Angelo’s first year forced the G.M. to bide some more time. After a 4-12 season and a 7-9 showing, Jauron was gone.
So Mora needs to hope that the team hires a G.M. that would have hired Mora in the first place, or Mora needs to do such a great job that the G.M. has no choice but to keep him.
On both accounts, Mora helped himself Sunday by upsetting a 49ers team that desperately needed the game in order to keep pace with the Cardinals in the NFC West race.
With Mike Holmgren sending out strong signals that he’d be willing to keep Mora around, the win also boosted the Big Show’s candidacy to return to the team.
Now, the Seahawks unexpectedly have climbed to 5-7, and they’ve got a chance to finish the year at .500, which would give Mora — and in turn Holmgren — an even better shot at working for the franchise in 2010.
6. Vikings loss an aberration, or a trend?
Ardent followers of the Minnesota Vikings have been waiting for it to happen. The bubble kept expanding each week; eventually, it had to implode.
And impolode it did on Sunday night in Arizona, the place were the the Vikings had gone last December (with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback) and toppled the eventual NFC champions by 21 points.
This time around, the Cardinals led by 20 before Minnesota scored a garbage-time touchdown that made the outcome look closer than it was.
So does this mean that the Cardinals have devised a blueprint (or, for the Emmitt Smith aficionados in the crowd, a bootprint) for beating the Vikings?
Probably not, unless the bootprint is “kick the asses of the Minnesota linemen on both sides of the ball.”
The Vikings’ offensive line had its worst showing of the year, with quarterback Brett Favre routinely hurried — and in turn doing the stuff that he usually does when hurried. He forced plenty of throws, and he had two interceptions. That number easily could have been a Cutleresque quartet, but for two drops by Adrian Wilson, confirming once again the career path that led fast, agile players to land on the defensive side of the ball.
On the other side of the ball, the neo-Purple People Eaters had zero sacks of a quarterback with all the mobility of a comatose turtle.
So it now appears that the Vikings will have to go on the road to play — and lose to — the Saints in the playoffs.
But before obsessing over that long-overdue payback for the 8-7 Vikings’ 44-10 surprise over the 12-3 Saints in the franchise’s first-ever playoff game some 22 years ago, Minnesota needs to qualify for the postseason. Based on how the team played last night, it’s no longer looking like a lock.
7. Chargers face tough decision on Turner.
For the third straight season of the Norv Turner era in San Diego, the Chargers limped out of the gates.
For the third straight season of the Norv Turner era in San Diego, the Chargers have gotten very hot.
Possibly for the third straight season of the Norv Turner era in San Diego, the Chargers will ultimately send the Colts home in January.
Currently, the fourth year of the Norv Turner era in San Diego is scheduled to be the final year of the Norv Turner era in San Diego.
The Chargers face a tough decision regarding the possibility of extending Turner’s contract. Giving him a new contract prematurely could lock the Lightning Bolts into a long-term arrangement that, in hindsight, might have been a bad idea. Waiting too long could put the Chargers in a position where they’re trying to determine Turner’s value after Bill Cowher and Mike Shanahan lift the market to eight-figure heights.
The best test regarding whether the Chargers have arrived arguably comes in six days, when they travel to Dallas, the city where Turner laid the foundation for his coaching career. Nearly three years ago, Turner was regarded as the favorite to become the new coach of the Cowboys. The Dallas decision to go with former Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips provided an occasion for more animosity between G.M. A.J. Smith and former Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, which resulted in the out-of-the-powder-blue February firing of Schottenheimer, as the exclamation point on a 14-2 season.
And so this game gives Turner a chance to show that his Bolts have bypassed the ‘Boys — and it might be wise for the Chargers to tie Turner up for several more years into the future before the price spikes after the next hiring cycle commences, if Turner can send the Cowboys to 8-5.
8. Beginning of the end for the ‘Boys.
Regardless of whether the Cowboys find a way to outscore the Chargers on Sunday, the Week 13 loss to the Giants in the Meadowlands confirms that the 8-3 record was deceptively strong, and that December again will result in reality catching up with the Cowboys.
The moment is coming in 12 days, when the Cowboys enter the Superdome to take their lumps.
The Saints, after all, have scored 48 against the Eagles and 48 against the Giants. Sean Payton, who worked in Dallas before becoming head coach of the Saints, likely has 48 or more in his back pocket for Jerry Jones and company.
Indeed, the Saints have won five straight games against the Cowboys, a streak that dates back two years before the streak of non-playoff wins started. The last time the two teams met, in 2006, New Orleans won easily, 41-17.
So with that Saturday night game being the centerpiece of the annual December Dallas slip-n-slide, look for the wheels to come off, and for the Cowboys again to either miss the playoffs, or to do nothing when they get there.
9. Miami roller coaster continues.
The Dolphins have generated an odd vibe this season. They play poorly, prompting folks to think they’re not very good. Then, they play well.
And then, after pulling off a particularly impressive win, they lose.
Then, after again being written off, they win.
Twelve games in, they’re at 6-6, riding the high of a 22-21 win over the Patriots, during which Miami came back from deficits of 14-0 and 21-10.
The season now arguably comes down to Sunday, against the Jaguars. Currently, Jacksonville holds the No. 6 seed, with a 7-5 record. A win by the Fins would pull them into the mix for the final spot in the field — a loss would force them to hope for an implosion by the Patriots, who lead the division at 7-5, or the Broncos, who have a firm grip on the top wild-card spot at 8-4.
It’ll be a tall order for the Dolphins. Which of course likely means they’ll win.
And then they’ll lose.
10. Too much is being made of Vick’s two-touchdown day.
We’ll admit that, as Michael Vick was nearing his reinstatement to the NFL, we argued that he was as good or better than many of the current NFL starting quarterbacks.
But that was before we got an eyeful of Post-Prison Mike.
His legendary burst is gone. Though he still possesses a potent passing arm, the thing that made him truly special was a combination of speed, agility, and elusiveness that allowed him to escape the pocket like Ben Roethlisberger, get to the corner like Vince Young, and then turn it north and outrun everyone like Chris Johnson.
Vick was a different guy from the moment he donned a metallic green helmet, and he has yet to approach the level he occupied during his time in Atlanta.
Our opinion didn’t change on Sunday.
Sure, he was re
sponsible for two touchdowns and one long pass play. But let’s take a closer look.
First came a five-yard touchdown run from Wildcat formation. It looked like most of the runs Vick has made all year. He gets the ball, he looks for some day light, and he gains a few yards. It just so happened that the play began a few yards from the end zone.
Next came a 43-yard pass to Reggie Brown, a play the Eagles unleashed with a 27-0 lead in the fourth quarter. At first blush, it appeared that Vick recklessly threw into double coverage. Actually, he underthrew Brown, who was streaking down the field with the cornerback trailing by a full step or more and the safety help arriving late.
If Vick had put a little more juice on the throw, it would have been a 50-yard touchdown pass.
(We realize that Peter King has a different interpretation of the play, and we respect his views. But I’ve watched it a dozen times. It was designed to be a touchdown, not a Randy Moss-style intentional fly-stop pattern.)
The defensive approach made sense, since Vick had thrown the ball only nine times all season, completing only three.
But for a great effort by Brown to stop and come back and make the catch despite being manhandled by a defender, Vick would have still be three-of-nine on the year after the play, because the Eagles would have accepted the interference penalty.
Then came the touchdown pass. It was a misdirection play that Eagles coach Andy Reid had spent all season setting up.
Vick takes the shotgun snap, he and nine other guys move left, and tight end Brent Celek bleeds out to the right. Vick stops and tosses the ball across the field. Celek catches it and breaks the plane of the end zone as he’s being tackled.
It was a gimmick play, a misdirection. There was no athletic ability involved other than the ability to stop, turn, and lob the ball back to the receiver.
But the mob is as gullible as it is fickle, and the handful of plays prompted those who had booed him earlier in the game to chant, “We want Mike!”
Bottom line? With the Eagles long since deciding that Vick won’t be back in 2010 but needing to conjure a market for the second year of his contract, the surgically-selected play calls from Reid and the reaction thereto might have done enough to persuade an unsuspecting owner to conclude that Vick is back.
Even if he actually isn’t.