League admits errors on Lions-Saints fumble

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Sunday’s game between the Steelers and Broncos included a bad call on an apparent fumble that allowed the Steelers to force an overtime period from which the Broncos emerged with a memorable win.  Saturday night’s game between the Lions and Saints included a bad call on an apparent fumble that could have allowed the Lions to seize a 21-7 lead late in the first half.

The league admits that two mistakes were made on the play.  One hurt the Lions, and one helped the Lions.

With 5:39 left in the second quarter, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was hit while attempting a pass.  The ball popped forward.  Believing it to be an incomplete pass, an official blew his whistle.  Lions linebacker Justin Durant thereafter recovered the ball and ran toward the end zone.  Then, it was announced that the ruling on the field was that Brees had fumbled — and that Detroit had recovered.

This prompted outrage from Lions fans, who believed that Detroit had been robbed of a touchdown.  Those Lions fans are right, but it could have been even worse.

“Referee Tony Corrente ruled the play was a fumble and a recovery by Detroit,” the league said in a statement emailed Sunday night to PFT.  “However, during the play and before Detroit recovered the fumble, another official blew the whistle believing it was an incomplete pass.  Because the ruling on the field was a fumble, and the whistle came before the recovery, the play is dead because of the inadvertent whistle and the Saints should have retained possession of the ball.  New Orleans would then have had the choice to put the ball in play at the spot where possession was lost or to replay the down.  Inadvertent whistles are not reviewable.”

So, basically, the inadvertent whistle took away the Lions’ touchdown.  But the rules dictate that the inadvertent whistle also should have given possession back to the Saints, since the ball had not been recovered at the time the inadvertent whistle blew.  (Given the option of taking possession at the spot of the fumble or playing the down over, the Saints would have taken the Mulligan.)

It’s a nonsensical provision, and if the Lions had lost possession of the ball entirely there could have been a “Fire Millen”-style march upon the league offices.  Given that video is now used to award possession after a whistle is blown in multiple other situations, the league needs to ensure that, if/when last night’s events happen again, the defense will at a minimum retain possession in the event of an inadvertent whistle.

Not because the officiating crew made a mistake in applying the rules, but because that’s what the rules require.

Steelers age shows up at wrong time


Way back before the season even started, we wondered aloud about the age of the Steelers defense.

After the team lost in Week 1, Warren Sapp said the following about Pittsburgh’s crew: “Old, slow, and it’s over.”

In the weeks to follow, the Steelers defense seemed to answer any doubts. They finished first in the league in yards allowed, and first in passing yards allowed. They helped Pittsburgh win 12 games.

On Sunday in Denver, that same defense looked old once again.

Stalwart defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel both left the game with injuries. You can say that injuries are simply bad luck, but the reality is that all three of Pittsburgh’s Week 1 starting defensive linemen (including Aaron Smith) didn’t contribute against the Broncos.

At linebacker, James Farrior and James Harrison were not big difference makers. At cornerback, Ike Taylor was beaten soundly many times by Demaryius Thomas. Safety Troy Polamalu didn’t make one of his trademark game-changing plays.

There were other factors that hurt Pittsburgh than age. It was bad luck that Ryan Clark missed the game because of his sickle cell disease and his absence really hurt.  LaMarr Woodley wasn’t 100%, but he’s not exactly a graybeard.

On top of the defensive problems, injuries to center Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger, and running back Rashard Mendenhall were all factors in Pittsburgh’s loss.

The biggest factor, however, was the defense. The top-ranked pass defense in the league completely collapsed against the 31st passing attack. They lacked discipline and explosion. They didn’t get a single quarterback hit on Tim Tebow, much less a sack.

This Steelers defense is far from “over” but there’s no denying they are in transition. Many of their best players are on the downside of their career.

Eric Decker injury believed to be MCL sprain


The Broncos don’t sound likely get starting receiver Eric Decker back for their Divisional Round game against the Patriots.

Mike Klis of the Denver Post reports that Decker suffered a “serious” ACL injury.  Coach John Fox said the injury was “significant.”

A short time later, Klis updated his report to say that further tests revealed it was more likely that Decker suffered an MCL sprain. He will undergo an MRI on Monday to get a final diagnosis. Either way, it seems unlikely Decker would be able to recover in one week.

Decker was Tim Tebow’s favorite receiver earlier in the season, but Demaryius Thomas has taken over lately as the team’s biggest playmaker out wide. Eddie Royal will continue to have a big role, with Matt Willis likely to get more snaps.

Pats announce return of Josh McDaniels

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In the same hour that the two players former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels drafted three picks apart in 2010 delivered a playoff win with a stirring 80-yard catch-and-run, the team that will face Tim Tebow and Demaryius Thomas next Saturday night announced that McDaniels has returned.

The Patriots have made it official, via a press release sent via email not long after Tebow and Thomas connected to ensure a rematch of the December 18 game between the two teams.

McDaniels will be an “offensive assistant” for the balance of the season, making his debut on Saturday night when the Patriots host the Broncos.  He served as the Rams’ offensive coordinator in 2011, and it’s believed he’ll become New England’s offensive coordinator after Bill O’Brien leaves for Penn State, following the postseason.

Last time around, the Patriots went to Denver and outscored the Broncos by 18, winning 41-23.  This time, the game will be played at Gillette Stadium, and it will be difficult for the Broncos to win.

The presence on the Patriots’ staff of a guy who knows Tebow and Thomas well won’t make it any easier.

Broncos make history with first win under new postseason overtime rules


In the first regular-season overtime game in NFL history, the Steelers and Broncos battled to a 35-35 tie at Mile High Stadium, way back in 1974.  (I can actually remember watching that game.)

In the first postseason overtime game under new rules that modify the sudden-death dynamic, the same two teams squared off, also in Denver.

This one took a lot less time to resolve.

On the first play from scrimmage in the extra session, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow found receiver Demaryius Thomas for an 80-yard catch and run, delivering a six-point, 29-23 instant win for the Broncos.

The play capped a remarkably wild wild-card game, including the Steelers cutting a 14-point halftime deficit in half after a bad call on an incomplete pass that was a lateral and erasing a subsequent 10-point gap to force overtime.

Despite the exciting outcome, it’s hard not to think the Steelers should have gotten a chance to match the Denver touchdown.  Though the modified rules make even more sense in Denver, where the ball flies a lot farther, which makes it even easier to get into position for a one-possession game-winning field goal, the fact remains that this game was resolved by a coin toss.

Yes, the Steelers failed to stop the Broncos.  But what if the Broncos had been unable to stop the Steelers?  With the season riding on the outcome of the game, the Steelers should have at least gotten a chance to match the score.

And so while the NFL has removed a significant portion of the inequity of true sudden-death overtime, today’s game shows that the NFL should go even farther, and that no team that has battled to a tie through 60 minutes of playoff football should have the season end without ever actually possession the ball.

Tebowmania has been extended a week

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Tim Tebow pulled the trigger.

On the first and only play from scrimmage in the shortest overtime in NFL history, Tebow saw Demaryius Thomas streaking over the middle and hit him in stride for a stunning 80-yard touchdown and 29-23 overtime victory.

Cornerback Ike Taylor had Thomas one-on-one on the play and allowed Thomas to take the middle of the field. Tebow hit him perfectly in stride.  Thomas showed off his strength with a stiff arm and his speed to take it the distance.

It was a perfect play call by the Broncos. As pointed out by Chris Brown here, they motioned a wide receiver to block before the snap. That is a heavy run tendency for the Broncos, so the Steelers rotated a safety down into the box to stop the run like they did most of the game. Nine Steelers were in the box.

That left Thomas against Taylor. Thomas won, like he did most of the game. The second-year player finished with 204 yards on only four catches. Tebow threw for 316 yards on only 10 completions.

Taylor looked a little old on that play, like the Steelers defense did for much of the day. Defensive linemen Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton couldn’t finish the game. LaMarr Woodley was limited and effective.

This was a night for youth. A night for Tebow to show that he could hit vertical throws into small windows; for Denver’s defense to come up with the big sack of Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers threatening to win in regulation; for Thomas to show that he’s one of the league’s most promising young receivers.

Tebow Time has been extended a week. Now he and Thomas get to face the man that drafted them next week in New England, with a trip to the AFC Conference Championship on the line.

If someone was writing this stuff into a Tim Tebow movie, they would have been fired by now because it all sounds too unbelievable.

Pereira explains why Denver couldn’t have gotten possession of backward pass via replay


In our prior post regarding the inability of the Broncos to obtain possession via replay review that would have converted a ruling of an incomplete pass to a determination that the ball had been thrown backward, I mentioned that we were trying to get in contact with former NFL V.P. of officiating (and current FOX rules analyst) Mike Pereira for elaboration on his 140-character-or-less explanation of the rule.

And within minutes, Mike called.  Here’s what he said.

After the Hochuli incident, the league decided only to allow possession to be awarded to the defense on replay review as to the question of whether the passer who had thrown an incompletion (per the ruling on the field) actually had fumbled the ball.  Pereira explained that the league specifically exempted possible lateral passes because there was a chance that more time would elapse after the whistle blew and before a defender clearly recovered the ball than when a quarterback possibly fumbles.

Pereira said that NCAA rules permit possession to be awarded in those situations, and he acknowledged that the NFL could alter the rules to permit possession to be awarded via replay review.  Currently, however, the so-called “Hochuli Rule” applies only to the question of whether the quarterback fumbled the ball while trying to throw it.

The problem in such situations is that players will be diving for a loose ball after the whistle has blown, despite being generally told since pee-wee days to stop all action when the whistle blows.  But since the league already has crossed the post-whistle bridge by permitting a possession change via replay review when a runner is ruled “down by contact” and in the “Hochuli Rule” setting, the league should allow the officials to get it right when assessing whether an incomplete pass actually was a fumble recovered by the defense.

If the Steelers win the game, it’s safe to say the rule will be changed.

Questionable call saves Steelers’ scoring drive


The best teams make it to the postseason.  Ditto for the best officials.  This weekend, however, the men in black and white are at times playing more like the Bengals, Lions, and/or Falcons.

During Sunday’s game between the Steelers and Broncos, referee Ron Winter’s crew incorrectly determined a lateral pass that was not caught (and thus fumbled) to be a forward pass.  A Broncos defender clearly recovered the loose ball.

Broncos coach John Fox wanted to challenge the ruling on the field, in the hopes that the officials would determine that:  (1) it was a lateral and thus fumble; and (2) possession belongs to the Broncos.  Winter eventually explained that the Broncos opted not to challenge the play, because a successful review would have resulted in the play being over at the point where it hit the ground.

But that’s similar to the situation the league addressed when modifying the replay rules after the Ed Hochuli debacle in 2008, when former Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler clearly lost the ball, Hochuli inexplicably deemed it to be a forward pass, the Chargers clearly recovered, but on review possession remained with the Broncos at the spot where the ball hit the ground.

After the 2008 season, the rules changed to allow possession to be given to the defense via replay.

Former V.P. of officiating Mike Pereira, who ultimately presided over the Hochuli call and the ensuing adjustment to the replay rules, said via Twitter that possession could not have been given to the Broncos.

We’re trying to get an explanation from Pereira, and we’ll contact the league office for more after this one ends.  Regardless of the manner in which the replay rules apply, Winter and company should have gotten it right in real time.  If they had, the Steelers wouldn’t have finished that drive with a touchdown.

UPDATE 7:58 p.m. ET:  We’ve spoken to Pereira.  Here’s his explanation.

Broncos break out, take big halftime lead

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The first quarter of Steelers-Broncos Sunday went about as expected. The Broncos had eight total yards, and the Denver defense was keeping the Broncos in the game.

The second quarter, well, was a little different than anything we’ve seen all season.

Denver exploded for 20 points in the quarter thanks to a monster performance by Tim Tebow. He threw a handful of pinpoint vertical shots and rushed for a score as well. The Broncos lead 20-6 after settling for two field goals to end the half.

While Tebow has only completed five passes, the five throws have gone for an amazing 185 yards.

Pittsburgh has a lot working against them. They are playing without nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Brett Keisel. Tackle Max Starks is doubtful to return. Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t look 100%.  The receivers have dropped three passes.

While Tebow Time usually comes in the fourth quarter, it came in the second quarter this time. Roethlisberger will have pull off a signature comeback or we’ll get a rematch of Tebow-Brady in New England next week.

Harrison goes low on defenseless receiver, injures Decker’s knee

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The good news for Steelers linebacker James Harrison?  He has learned to lower his target area when hitting a defenseless receiver.

The bad news for Broncos receiver Eric Decker?  Harrison has lowered the target area too far.

Decker made a catch in the second quarter of Sunday’s playoff game, and Harrison hit Decker low.  Right on the knee.

The Broncos immediately took Decker to the locker room, and the team promptly ruled Decker out for the rest of the game.  On review, it was determined that Decker did not maintain control of the ball through the act of falling to the ground.

Under the written rules of the game, Harrison’s hit was clean.  Under the unwritten rules of the game, some players would consider it a dirty move, since it can limit or end a guy’s career by blowing out a knee.

It’s the natural result of the league’s effort to protect players from concussions and/or the league against further lawsuits.  Still, most receivers would prefer to be hit high in that case, gladly trading their knees and their careers for their noggins and any long-term health risks.

Casey Hampton leaves with knee injury


Sunday’s Broncos-Steelers game has continued a few themes of the end of the season.

Pittsburgh players keep getting injured. And the Broncos have punted after two three and outs.

Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton is questionable to return with a knee injury.  Steelers linebacker Lamarr Woodley has also been on and off the field, although we suspect the Steelers are just trying to make sure he stays healthy by limiting his snaps.

Pittsburgh leads 6-0 after one quarter. The Broncos don’t have a single first down. If Pittsburgh has the better running game on Sunday, it’s going to be a long day for the fighting Tebows.

UPDATE 5:27 p.m. ET: Defensive end Brett Keisel has also been shaken up for the Steelers.

Coughlin optimistic about Aaron Ross after concussion


The Giants announced during Sunday’s win that cornerback Aaron Ross suffered a concussion against the Falcons.

The team also saw safety Deon Grant in and out of the lineup with a groin injury, so there has to be some concern about the secondary heading into Green Bay.

Coach Tom Coughlin sounded optimistic after the game. He said Ross “counted fingers for me” which is a good sign.

Then again, the NFL’s post-concussion testing procedures are a lot more involved than simply counting fingers.

The Giants present some matchup problems for the Packers with their improved running game and peaking defensive line. But there is no matchup advantage as big as Green Bay’s passing attack against the Giants secondary, especially if the Giants secondary isn’t healthy.


Report: Concerns over move to L.A. could be “hangup” in Fisher-to-Rams deal

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As Jeff Fisher moves toward becoming the head coach of the team that beat Fisher’s Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV nearly 12 years ago, an unlikely factor has surfaced as a potential area of concern.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports via Twitter that it “looks like” the “only possible hangup” for an agreement between the Rams and Fisher “are concerns about [the] team moving to [Los Angeles].”

The Rams remain on the short list of franchises that eventually could relocate to L.A.  They can exit St. Louis after 2014, if their stadium isn’t among the top 25 percent of all NFL venues.  (It’s unclear whether that’s in size, revenue streams, amenities, or Family Feud-style polling.)

It’s hard to tell whether Thomas is reporting that Fisher actually is concerned that the team will move to L.A., or that the issue has emerged, or could emerge, as a sticking point in negotiations.  At the end of the day, it could be that Fisher simply wants his pay to be adjusted if at some point he’ll be coaching not in St. Louis but in a much larger, and thus more challenging and intense, media market.  (He also could be disinclined to live through another move of a franchise, which he experienced when the Oilers moved from Houston fairly early in his time with the team that became the Titans.)

If that’s what happens, it would be fitting.  For any team that moves to L.A., plenty of palms will be extended.  Why shouldn’t the head coach have a clause in his contract that pays him more money to account for the fundamental differences between the two cities?

Regardless, the fact that this issue has bubbled to the surface as Fisher is potentially arriving to town won’t be the best way to launch his tenure with the team.

Irsay calls out ESPN’s report on Caserio interest


The Raiders once issued a press release accusing Adam Schefter of being a “false rumor monger.”  Colts owner Jim Irsay has yet to use a similar term, but Irsay nevertheless has taken to (where else?) Twitter to take issue with one of Schefter’s items from Sunday.

Schefter reported that the Colts “tried to hire” Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, and that the Patriots mobilized to persuade Caserio to stay.  Said Irsay in response:  “Adam, don’t say I wanted to hire someone I never talked to or met .. MISLEADING .. come on, your better than that .. get your head in the game, son!”

Irsay seems to think that the story originated with Caserio’s camp.  “That’s the way people get false promo about being so coveted just because they don’t interview somewhere; SHELL GAME .. leave us out of that BS,” Irsay wrote.

Meanwhile, Irsay confirmed that there has been no talk about extending the early March deadline for Peyton Manning’s $28 million bonus.  But Irsay disputed reports that he plans to select quarterback Andrew Luck with the first overall pick in the 2012 draft.

“[J]ust like ’98 with Manning/Leaf .. u have 2 go thru a long, disciplined process of evaluation,” Irsay said.

We’ve got a feeling that similar discipline won’t extend to Irsay’s Twitter page.  As a result, plenty of clues — cryptic and otherwise — will continue to emerge regarding any of the various issues facing the Colts in the coming days and weeks.

Giants earn a trip to Green Bay

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Eli Manning shook off a slow start to put together a brilliant game on Sunday, leading his Giants to a 24-2 wild-card playoff victory over the Falcons and punching a ticket to Green Bay next week.

For the first 20 minutes of the game, it was a defense-dominant punt-fest, with the only scoring coming when Manning gave the Falcons a safety by committing intentional grounding in the end zone. But late in the second quarter — and throughout the second half — Manning did what Matt Ryan was never able to do: He moved his offense effectively.

Manning was superb, passing accurately and in complete command of his offense, while Ryan never really looked comfortable. Manning went 22-of-32 for 277 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Ryan went 24-of-41 for 199 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions. Giants receivers Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham both turned in big games as well, and Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw effectively shared the running load.

But this game was about much more than the offensive playmakers. In particular, it was about the Giants’ short-yardage defense, which consistently stuffed the Falcons: On five different occasions, the Falcons faced a third or fourth down with one or two yards to go. Only once out of those five plays did the Falcons pick up the necessary yardage. The Giants’ defensive line is outstanding, and it was fitting that the Falcons’ final offensive drive ended with Osi Umenyiora sacking Ryan.

Now the Falcons’ season is over, and it’s a season that has to be viewed as a disappointment, considering that there was talk about the Falcons being a Super Bowl team prior to the season. Atlanta has been to the playoffs three of the last four years, but hasn’t won a playoff game since 2004.

For the Giants, it’s on to Green Bay and a meeting with the Packers. The Giants will obviously be heavy underdogs against the team with the best record in the NFL, but then again the Giants were heavy underdogs the last time they took a postseason trip to Green Bay, four years ago. That time they beat the Packers in the NFC Championship Game and went on to win the Super Bowl. With Manning playing well and a great front four leading the defense, the Giants have a chance of pulling the upset at Lambeau Field.