These are the days that remind us how great the NFL is.
Two playoff classics — the Ravens beating the Broncos in double overtime and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick emerging as a superstar in a win over the Packers — made Saturday a wonderful day to be an NFL fan. It was one of those games that made us nod our heads and say, “Yep, this is why we love football.”
I think the lasting image of this great Saturday in the NFL may be the postgame embrace between Ray Lewis and Peyton Manning. These are perhaps the two best football players of their generation, meeting on the field for the last time, and after a playoff game that went into a sixth quarter, both men looked drained as they hugged and then went their separate ways, Manning hanging his head and Lewis yelling exuberantly.
“I’ve never been a part of a game so crazy in my life,” Lewis said after the Ravens’ field goal in the game’s 77th minute gave them a 38-35 win.
I’ve never watched a couple of games so crazy in my life. That Ravens-Broncos game was simply insane. Double overtime in the playoffs? Broncos return man Trindon Holliday having the greatest game for a returner ever — and the Broncos losing anyway? Manning throwing an awful interception at the worst possible time? Crazy.
And then came Kaepernick, who has been transformed over a couple months from Alex Smith’s backup to one of the brightest young talents in the NFL. Kaepernick still makes some youthful mistakes, including a bad interception on the 49ers’ first drive and a stupid penalty for taunting. But my oh my is he a talented player. He throws with incredible velocity, and he’s such a good runner that he had 181 yards on the ground, more yards than any quarterback had ever had in any game — regular season or postseason — in NFL history. Until Saturday, the all-time record for rushing yards by a quarterback was 173 by Michael Vick of the Falcons in an overtime win over the Vikings in 2002. I remember watching Vick in that game and thinking no quarterback would ever do what Vick just did. Kaepernick broke Vick’s record in just his eighth NFL start.
What a day. Here are some thoughts on Saturday’s action:
The Broncos made some appalling mistakes. Denver ended both the first half and the second half by simply running out the clock, even though the Broncos had enough time and timeouts to at least get into field goal range. You’ve got Peyton Manning! Try to score! But going conservative at the end of both halves wasn’t even the worst mistake of all. No, the worst mistake was the inexcusable coverage by the Broncos’ secondary, which somehow allowed Jacoby Jones to get open for a 70-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left in the fourth quarter. An emotional Rahim Moore, who was covering Jones, stood up after the game and said, “It was my fault.” Sorry to be harsh, but he’s right: It was his fault.
Michael Crabtree and Frank Gore are the perfect complements to Kaepernick. Crabtree had 119 yards receiving; Gore had 119 yards rushing. I don’t know if any NFL team can be happier with its top quarterback, running back and receiver than the 49ers are right now.
Joe Flacco throws a beautiful deep ball. I’m not totally sold on Flacco as an elite NFL quarterback, but he certainly has a big arm, and he’s made a lot of things happen by throwing deep in these playoffs. Flacco averaged 23.5 yards a completion last weekend against the Colts, and he had touchdown passes of 59, 32 and 70 yards against the Broncos.
Pass interference is ill-defined and inconsistently called in the NFL. It’s frustrating, with how big a penalty pass interference can be, to see how the NFL’s officials can never agree on what is — and what is not — pass interference. We saw that three times in the first 10 minutes of the Ravens-Broncos game, and it went against Denver all three times: Baltimore’s first-quarter touchdown drive was kept alive by a shaky pass interference call on a third-down incompletion, then Corey Graham appeared to commit pass interference but wasn’t flagged on his interception return for a touchdown, then Demaryius Thomas was tripped on a deep pass from Peyton Manning but didn’t get the call. In overtime another questionable pass interference call went against Denver’s Champ Bailey. It’s not so much that any of those calls were blatantly wrong, it’s more that the NFL officials are so inconsistent in the way they call pass interference that no one ever knows when the official will throw the flag and when he’ll keep it in his pocket. On such a pivotal penalty — the only penalty that can give a team more than 15 yards — the NFL has to find more consistency.
The Ravens-Broncos officiating stunk even aside from pass interference. A phantom hold that called off a Broncos first down run. An absurdly long series of conferences while the officials debated an illegal hands to the face call. A referee’s decision to unilaterally abolish the tuck rule. I could go on but I think I’ll stop, because it’s depressing to focus too much on the officials after a great game. The officiating was a mess.
Aaron Rodgers was good on a day the Packers needed him to be great. This loss doesn’t fall on Rodgers. He was fine, completing 26 of 39 passes for 257 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. But the Packers’ defense simply couldn’t stop Kaepernick, so the only way the Packers were going to win was if Rodgers played a perfect game. Instead, he played just a pretty good game. On a great day of NFL action when the starting quarterbacks were Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers and Colin Kaepernick, Kaepernick was the best. By a lot. No one could have expected that. And these unexpectedly great days are why the NFL will keep us coming back for more.