As the regular season careens closer to conclusion, the wins get bigger and the losses trigger a steeper slide into despair.
On Sunday, no fewer than six playoff contenders suffering devastated losses, while four teams have rocketed to 10-3 records in the AFC.
And we’ll sum it all up as we always do with 10 story lines from the Sunday that was.
1. The kicker who was iced by his own coach gets iced again.
It’s easy for a coach who bungled the closing moments of regulation in a game his team eventually lost to insist that the page is being turned and no one is looking back. It’s harder to pull it off when the next game contains multiple flashbacks to the mistakes that were made in the last one.
In the final moments of the latest Cowboys collapse, we were reminded in two ways of coach Jason Garrett’s mismanagement of his remaining time outs during crunch time of last Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals. For starters, Garrett waited way too long to call a time out when the Giants, down by five with barely a minute to go, moved the ball inside the Dallas one. Even owner Jerry Jones was yelling for a time out from his suite above the stadium floor.
Eventually, the Cowboys called a time out, but not until too many precious seconds had forever evaporated.
Then, after the Giants scored the go-ahead touchdown and converted the two-pointer that put New York up by three and quarterback Tony Romo moved the Cowboys quickly into position for a game-tying field goal attempt, Giants coach Tom Coughlin called for a time out just before the snap, the hold, and the 47-yard kick that split the uprights.
Regardless of what anyone says about the mindset of a professional athlete, kicker Dan Bailey’s thoughts surely strayed back to Week 13, when it was his own head coach who called the time out that wiped out a potential game winner and forced Bailey to try again. And just like last week, the second try missed — and the Cowboys lost.
The defeat hurt Jones so much that he didn’t show up in the locker room after the game, issuing instead a statement. If the Cowboys can’t turn this thing around down the stretch, it’s tempting to wonder what kind of statements will be issued by Jones after the season ends.
2. Facemask penalties should be subject to replay review.
What would have been a stunning, 21-point comeback by the Vikings was thwarted by the failure of the officials to notice Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy grabbing and pulling the facemask of Minnesota quarterback Joe Webb. Just like an identical blown call on the game deciding sack, fumble, and touchdown in overtime of the epic 2009 wild-card game between the Cardinals and Packers, the referee undoubtedly was watching Webb’s arm, to ensure that the fumble was a fumble and not a result of the notorious tuck rule or some esoteric variation thereof.
But whether Webb had fumbled would have been subject to replay review. Levy’s grabbing of Webb’s facemask wasn’t.
It wasn’t reviewable because it’s not among the specific list of plays that can be reviewed. The official list reflects a menu that has grown from time to time, typically after an embarrassing outcome prompts the league to decide to add another situation for using replay the existing situations in which replay is allowed.
Some fear that an increased range of reviewable plays will make the games take too long to play. The easy fix, as we’ve said in the past, is to eliminate the time-wasting dog-and-pony show resulting from the referee walking to the sideline, putting on the Dukakis tank helmet headset, peering under the black curtain for a minute or so, emerging from the contraption, talking on the Dukakis tank helmet headset, and then eventually telling us all the outcome.
Besides, isn’t it more important to get it right? An obvious, game-deciding penalty was missed on Sunday, and the replay assistant could do nothing about it because the question of whether a player has grabbed another player’s facemask by rule can’t be reviewed.
That rule needs to be changed, and replay needs to be expanded to ensure that other obvious blunders can and will be corrected.
3. T.J. Yates is getting playoff experience in the regular season.
When Texans quarterback Matt Schaub went down for the season, I was concerned about the ability of Matt Leinart to get the job done. Not in the regular season, but in the postseason.
When Leinart went down, I was even more concerned about the ability of rookie T.J. Yates to get the job done. Again, not in the regular season. In the postseason.
The challenge has been and will continue to be to get Yates ready for the rigors of playoff football, where the speed and intensity and everything else are amplified. Sunday’s experience in Cincinnati will go a long way toward making that happen.
In a game that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis called the most important of his long tenure in Ohio’s Queen City, the Texans fell behind 16-3 at the half and 19-10 after three quarters. But Yates led the Texans back, with a clutch touchdown pass late that, with Tennessee’s loss, gave the Texans the first playoff berth in franchise history.
Though Yates may still not be completely ready to face the Ravens or Steelers or Patriots in the playoffs, he’s a lot more ready today than he was before 1:00 p.m. ET on Sunday.
4. Jennings injury could scare McCarthy into playing it safe.
As the Packers clinch a first-round playoff bye and move closer to nailing down home-field advantage throughout the NFC tournament, the question is getting louder and louder.
Will coach Mike McCarthy go for 16-0? Or will he empty the bench and rest — and protect — his key players?
The stakes were raised on Sunday, when receiver Greg Jennings left the blowout win over the Raiders with a knee sprain. Though the joint wasn’t blown out, the damage will be determined Monday, and Jennings could miss some time.
Without Jennings, the Packers will be fine, given the sheer number of weapons they have acquired and maintained. But it will be fair to at least wonder who could be injured next — especially if the next injury happens to a less interchangeable part, like Aaron Rodgers.
In the end, the Packers likely will, and probably should, aim for history. They won the Super Bowl earlier this year, and they can follow it with the unprecedented accomplishment of winning 19 and losing none. Though Bears, Vikings, and Lions fans may strongly disagree, if any NFL team is going to pull off that feat, it makes sense for the Packers to do it.
5. Tebowmania gets inside Marion Barber’s head.
Several years ago, a Dallas fan known as “Cowboy Chris” famously proclaimed that he had gotten inside the head of ESPN’s Ed Werder.
On Sunday, Tebowmania crawled into the cranium of Bears running back Marion Barber.
Though it’s impossible to know with certainty why Barber inexplicably ran out of bounds late in regulation or how he inexplicably fumbled in field-goal range during overtime, the most overlooked aspect of Tebowmania isn’t the contribution of Broncos not named Tim but the manner in which the impending sense that the Broncos will prevail creeps into the brains of their opponents. When guys like Dolphins linebacker Karlos Danbsy say that he and other members of his team believed that God was working through Tebow, how can guys like Barber not sense, consciously or otherwise, that they’re simply killing time with the Washington Generals while the Great Football Fan in the Sky gets ready to throw a bucket of confetti on someone sitting in the front row?
Each week, as the Broncos finds their stride late, the would-be Anti-Tebows realize that they are supporting characters in a much bigger story. In six days, Tom Brady and the Patriots will try their damnedest to deviate from the script.
6. When exactly are two feet in bounds?
We had an interesting debate in the NBC viewing room regarding a catch made in the end zone by Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.
Of course, it wasn’t much of a debate because, of the dozen or so people in the room, only one agreed with me.
With the focus of the review being whether the front of Graham’s foot grazed a piece of white grass as it clamped onto the ground, I was arguing that the play should have ended once Graham’s heel truck the turf, clearly in bounds.
The rule book offers no specific help, since it says only that two feet or some body part other than a hand must land in bounds to complete a catch. But on countless occasions we’ve seen a guy get only his toes in bounds as he falls out of play, never getting the entirety of both feet down.
So why discriminate against the heel?
I’ve asked the league of an explanation. The answer likely will be, “Florio, you’re an idiot.”
Just like the other 10 people in the room said yesterday.
7. The pylons should be extended.
The Titans-Saints game produced another moment that caught my ever-roving ways-we-can-make-the-game-better meter. Last month, we suggested that the goal posts be extended, given the habit of modern kickers to put the ball well above them. So with players now required to get the ball inside the pylon when diving toward the end zone and landing out of bounds, why not make the pylons higher, too?
Sure, it’ll look goofy. But no goofier than the rectangular circus peanuts looked when they replaced the organ-piercing flags that previously marked the four corners of the end zone.
In contrast, the pylons can hurt no one, and it would cause no harm to double — or triple — the length of the devices.
If longer pylons were used, it would have been obvious whether Titans quarterback Jake Locker got the ball inside it when he dove past the pylon on Sunday. Instead, it was far from obvious — prompting the ruling to be quickly upheld via replay review because there was no reliable way to know whether the ball passed inside the pylon, because the pylon is too short.
8. The chase for the first seed in the AFC is wide open.
With three weeks to go, four teams in the AFC have a 10-3 record. And none of them play each other over the balance of the year.
And so, in theory, four teams could finish with a 13-3 record. Tiebreakers would then determine whether the Steelers or the Ravens win the AFC North. (The Ravens would, via their sweep of the Steelers.) Tiebreakers then would determine whether the Patriots, Ravens, or Texans claim the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.
It gets confusing and complicated at that point, but the fact that the Ravens would potentially win a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Texans (since the Ravens beat them) and the Patriots (via record in common games) may not deliver the top seed to Baltimore in the event of a menage-a-tie.
It’s too early to delve into the specifics. For now, be aware that the ultimate assignment of playoff seeds may have less to do with hitting a hole and more to do with splitting a hair.
9. The chase for the two seed in the NFC could determine the Super Bowl winner.
The top of the playoff field has far less complexity in the NFC. The Packers are destined to be No. 1, a year after winning the Super Bowl from the No. 6 position. The real intrigue arises from whether the 49ers or the Saints will finish at No. 2.
Before Sunday, it appeared that San Fran coach Jim Harbaugh’s team was immune to his brother’s Ravens’ propensity to play down to the level of the competition. After the Niners surprisingly fell in Arizona and the Saints won in Nashville, the two teams are 10-3, with three to go.
The 49ers currently hold the tiebreaker, and the location of the looming renewal of an old NFC West rivalry will be a huge factor in whether the 49ers or the Saints move to the NFC title game. The Saints are extremely hard to beat in the Superdome, and they’re much more beatable when playing elsewhere — especially outside.
And here’s where it gets even more interesting. With the threat of bad weather in late January at Lambeau Field, the Packers could be vulnerable. They’d be more vulnerable to the 49ers than to the Saints, if the wind is blowing and the snow is flying and the tundra is frozen.
Though the Packers never will say it, they’re surely rooting for the Saints to finish with the second seed.
10. A Monday night flex option.
Yes, the 10-pack focuses on Sunday’s action. But another compelling day (and night) of games serves only to highlight the fact that the NFL and ESPN will be serving up to the American public a Monday night stinker.
It’s not ESPN’s fault. And it’s not the league’s fault, either. In April, it seemed reasonable to believe that the two teams who finished at the top of the NFC West in 2010 would be playing a relevant game in the middle of December. Thanks to the 49ers, Rams-Seahawks provides intrigue only for folks who have a fantasy football interest in the game, and the hardest of the hard-core gamblers.
So what can the league do? Flexing in the Sunday night sense simply isn’t an option, given the logistical challenges associated with team travel and lodging and, more importantly, the travel and lodging and babysitting and other issues associated with buying a ticket and showing up for the game.
But there’s a middle ground that the league and ESPN should explore. For the final month or six weeks of the season, the official schedule should designate a pair of tentative Monday night games on an either/or basis. Then, three weeks before the game is played, one of the two will be picked for the Monday night spot, and the other game will slide back to Sunday.
It could still create some inconveniences, but if the teams and the fans know in April that there’s a chance the game will move from Monday, folks will be well aware of the possibility. With three weeks to prepare if a change is made, teams and fans should be able to make the appropriate arrangements.
There’s no guarantee that every Monday night game would be compelling, but after having to tolerate Chargers-Jaguars and Rams-Seahawks in an eight-day period, many would be willing to take their chances.