Chiefs should have gotten another chance to boot Steelers into playoffs

At a time when plenty of Steelers fans are griping about the decision to wipe what would have been a game-clinching fumble return off the scoreboard in overtime of the contest between the Chiefs-Chargers, all Steelers fans should be complaining about the failure of the officials to miss a blatant foul as the Chiefs tried to win in regulation.

As kicker Ryan Succop lined up on the right hash mark to try a 41-yard field goal with eight seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, seven Chargers positioned themselves on the line of scrimmage to the left of the long snapper.  But a new provision added this year by the NFL to Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3 states that “[n]o more than six Team B players may be on the line of scrimmage on either side of the snapper at the snap” when Team A lines up in a conventional field goal formation.

Per a league source with knowledge of the situation, the NFL believes a flag should have been thrown.  The league office could acknowledge the error publicly as soon as Monday.

The seven Chargers lined up to the left of the Chiefs snapper in plain view of at least two members of referee Bill Leavy’s crew.  If the officials had called a penalty for illegal formation, the Chiefs would have had another chance to make what would have been the game-winning kick.

Succop’s shot at immediate redemption would have come from  36 yards out, with four seconds on the clock.  If good, the Chargers most likely would have had no time left for a Stanford-band attempt to win the game.

While it’s impossible to know whether Succop would have made his Mulligan, the point is that he should have had a second chance, due to the San Diego penalty that somehow wasn’t called.  If Succop had converted, the Steelers would be celebrating one of the most unlikely playoff berths in franchise history, courtesy of Week 17 losses by the Ravens, Dolphins, and Chargers.

Instead, Steelers fans will spend the offseason wondering whether their team could have replicated what the Steelers accomplished in 2005, when Pittsburgh parlayed the No. 6 seed into the long-coveted One for the Thumb.

Four-team scrum coming for No. 6 seed in AFC

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In the NFC, Week 17 will have a pair of division championship games.  In the AFC, the primary excitement comes from a four-team game of one-seat musical chairs.

And each of the four candidates needs help in order to nail down the No. 6 seed in the conference.

Here’s what it will take for the Ravens, Dolphins, Chargers, and Steelers to acquire a seat at the table, and in turn a chance to run the table.

The 8-7 Ravens secure the spot with a win over the Bengals in Cincinnati plus a Dolphins loss at home to the Jets or a loss by the Chargers at home to the Chiefs.  Baltimore wins a two-team tiebreaker with Miami or San Diego, but loses a three-team tie.

The 8-7 Dolphins win the No. 6 seed with a win over the Jets and a Ravens loss or a Chargers win.  A win by all three teams would result in a three-team tie, which would go to the Dolphins based on won-loss record in conference games (8-4 for Miami vs. 7-5 for Baltimore vs. 6-6 for San Diego).

The 8-7 Chargers get the berth with a win over the Chiefs and losses by the Ravens and Dolphins, since San Diego would be the only 9-7 team in the conference.

The 7-8 Steelers get in with a win over the Browns in Cleveland plus losses by the Ravens, Dolphins, and Chargers.  That would result in a five-team tie at 8-8.  Since the rules require ties in the division to be resolved first, the Jets would knock out the Dolphins based on division record (4-2 vs. 3-3), the Steelers would trump Baltimore via division record (4-2 vs. 3-3), and then the Steelers would win the three-team tiebreaker with the Jets and Chargers based on conference record (6-6 vs. 5-7 and 5-7).

If all four teams lose, the Dolphins would win the three-team tiebreaker between Miami, Baltimore, and San Diego via a superior conference record (7-5 for Miami vs. 6-6 for Baltimore vs. 5-7 for San Diego).

Three of the games (Ravens-Bengals, Jets-Dolphins, Steelers-Browns begin at 1:00 p.m. ET).  The final piece of the puzzle comes when Chiefs-Chargers kick off at 4:25 p.m. ET.

For more on which of the four teams still viable for the No. 6 seed is the most likely to make it and the most likely to make noise in the postseason, here’s Peter King of and yours truly from the set of NBC’s Football Night in America.

Dez Bryant walks off the field before game ended


The Cowboys weren’t at risk of Dez Bryant having another sideline outburst yesterday.

Because he was already headed to the locker room before the game was over.

The Cowboys wide receiver walked to the locker room alone with 1:21 left in yesterday’s stunning loss to the Packers. He waited until replay confirmed Tony Romo’s game-clinching interception, but then stormed off to leave his teammates to watch the Packers kill the clock.

According to Calvin Watkins of, Bryant told reporters he was too upset to talk about it after the game, but took to Twitter last night to say he was “emotional.”

“It’s an emotional game,” Romo said. “You get to the end there, obviously, it’s not fun for any of us to lose a football game. It’s not an enjoyable process the way it ends, no matter how it ends. It’s always tough emotionally so it is what it is.”

Bryant had an excellent game prior to that, with 11 receptions for 153 yards and a touchdown.

But leaving his teammates at a low moment will make those stats fade from memory, and add context the next time he decides to make a spectacle of himself.

Josh Gordon completes historic quartet of games


Browns receiver Josh Gordon was planning to make more plays than Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib on Sunday.

And Gordon did.

Following a franchise-record 261 receiving yards in Week 13, Gordon added 151 receiving yards against New England.  It gives Gordon 774 receiving yards in the last four games, which is the highest total generated by any player over a four-game stretch.

Earlier this year, Calvin Johnson generated 746 yards in a four-game span, which included 329 against the Cowboys, the highest production in any non-overtime game.

Gordon’s brilliance nevertheless has been wasted.  The Browns have lost each of the last four games, all of which came after the bye.

Still, the second-year wideout’s performance provides hope for the future.  If — and only if — the man believed to be in Stage Three of the substance-abuse program for the rest of his career can avoid another violation of the policy, which would get him banished for at least one year.

Antonio Smith: Patriots are either spying on us or scouting us


Texans defensive end Antonio Smith suggested that “spying” could be the reason the Patriots’ offense was able to make such effective adjustments in today’s win.

Or maybe it’s just that the Patriots scouted the Texans and found some tendencies they could exploit.

“Either teams are spying on us or scouting us . . . I don’t know what it is,” Smith said, via the Boston Globe. “We had some ways that we were going to play this week that just got put in this week, and it was just miraculous that they changed up some things that they did on offense and keyed on what we put in this week to stop what they were doing. It was things that they had never done before out here. It just seems miraculous to me.”

There’s a pretty big difference between spying and scouting. Spying on an opposing team is a violation of NFL rules. Scouting is what every team does. Smith suggested, however, that the Patriots were ready for something the Texans hadn’t done before, which would be the product of spying, not scouting.

“It is a specific thing that was important to what we were going to do today, to how we would call the defense,” Smith said. “They changed it up in a way to where you were in in-decision in calling the defense that way. There’s no way . . . we have not done it ever before and they had never changed it ever before. So it was just kind of fishy how it got changed. It just let me know that something just ain’t right.”

Smith acknowledged, however, that the Patriots might have just been smart enough to pick up on what the Texans were doing and adjusted accordingly.

“I would say they’re pretty good,” Smith said. “I know Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the best at their craft, because they put so much into their craft.”

So maybe the Texans’ problems were just a matter of facing a team with a good coach and a good quarterback, not a matter of spying.

Patriots’ captains thought Belichick was crazy for taking the wind


After the Patriots won the overtime coin toss on Sunday night, Bill Belichick took the unusual step of taking the wind, instead of receiving the opening kickoff. You could hear Monday morning’s hot sports takes coming: If the Patriots won, it would be, “Belichick is a genius! He knew to take the wind in overtime!” If the Patriots lost, it would be, “Belichick is an idiot! Everyone knows you always take the ball in overtime!”

As it turned out, the Patriots won. And as Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski pointed out afterward, that made it the right call.

Great decision,” Gronkowski told WEEI. “He is our coach [and] we’re behind him with everything, especially Coach Belichick. Whatever he has, we’re behind him. So it was a great call because we won.”

Logan Mankins said afterward that he and the Patriots’ other three captains were shocked when Belichick instructed them to take the wind if they won the coin toss.

We all looked at each other like he was crazy — then we all asked again and again and again,” Mankins told Comcast SportsNet’s Postgame Live. “And we just wanted to make sure we were doing exactly what he wanted.”

As for Belichick, he said he simply thought he’d rather have the wind at his back in overtime.

“The wind, it was a strong wind,” Belichick said. “We just had to keep the out of the end zone, obviously. I just felt like the wind would be an advantage if we could keep them out of the end zone on that first drive. We were able to do that. The wind was significant in the game, it was definitely significant.”

And Belichick’s call was definitely the right one. Especially considering that Belichick — unlike the rest of us talking about it on Monday morning — doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight.

Reggie Bush: Nobody but myself to blame for benching


The Lions slumped to a 37-27 loss against the Steelers on Sunday after being held scoreless in the second half of the game.

Part of the reason they were shut out was the lack of production from running back Reggie Bush. Bush had 54 total yards in the game, most of them coming in the first half before Bush fumbled in the second quarter and the Lions decided to go with a heavier dose of Joique Bell in the backfield. Bush confirmed after the game that he was fine physically and that the trip to the bench came because of performance.

“Probably because I fumbled the ball. You turn the ball over, that’s what happens. I’ve been in this league long enough to know that. There is nobody to blame but myself,” Bush said, via the Detroit News.

Bush returned in the second half after Bell got hurt, but he wasn’t any more effective than he was in the first half and the Lions took a step back in the drive for an NFC North title. Coach Jim Schwartz said Bell wasn’t seriously injured after the game, although you’d expect Bush to still get first crack in the backfield again next week based on his overall body of work this season.

Jerry Jones: Replacing Ryan with Kiffin doesn’t look good right now


Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin could do nothing to stop the Saints’ offense on Sunday night, while Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense held the Cowboys in check. After the game, Cowboys owner and General Manager Jerry Jones admitted that his decision to fire Ryan and hire Kiffin is now open to criticism.

“We thought it was best for us to go in the direction we are, and it doesn’t look good right now,” Jones said. “Hopefully we can make it look good, but I have all the feelings you have any time you look back at a decision, and I realize when some of them work you have to have a few things go along with it.”

Jones credited Ryan for getting the Saints’ defense ready.

“I thought Rob’s defense was outstanding. They got after us good,” Jones said. “This is not only a tough place to play, but we know, where we are right now with our personnel on defense, we’ve got to go out and score. We’ve got to get in there and score some points. To their credit, they didn’t let us keep our offense out there.”

Although Sunday night’s loss stung, Jones said he still hopes the Cowboys can face the Saints again in the playoffs, and have a better showing.

“It’s embarrassing to lose, it’s embarrassing to not be representative, not be competitive – all of those things. But more importantly, the real issue, can we do something about it,” Jones said. “Can we get in here and use this time off, get some of our guys back, get a little healthier, come up with some ideas of how to go against the rest of the schedule and see if we can have a happier day this year – not next year but this year.”

Dallas does still lead the NFC East. But unless the Cowboys get a whole lot better, a playoff rematch with the Saints would not be pretty.

Texans players found it hard to block out Kubiak’s absence in second half


There are plenty of games each season where one team dominates in the first half and then falls flat in the second half, but explanations for the difference are rarely as stark as the one in Houston on Sunday night.

After coach Gary Kubiak collapsed at halftime and left for the hospital, the air clearly went out of the Texans’ sails and the Colts stormed back to take a 27-24 victory. After the game, Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips talked about there being “a lot of unknown” around the team as they went back out for the second half and several players said it was hard to block thoughts of the coach out of their heads while trying to beat the Colts.

Wide receiver Andre Johnson also said he thought Kubiak’s absence may have had an effect on the team’s offense in the second half.

“I don’t know. It probably could have. It was our first time really having it where he wasn’t there,” Johnson said, via the team’s website. “As far as getting the plays in and stuff like that, so it was definitely different. Sometimes it seemed like it took the plays a little bit longer to come in and stuff like that, but that’s no excuse. We didn’t make enough plays to win, and we had opportunities to.”

Several other players echoed Johnson’s belief that Kubiak’s absence was no excuse and the Texans certainly had their chances to win the game in the second half, but it’s hard to judge any human being too harshly for being impacted by what we saw on Sunday night.

Dez Bryant defends his sideline outbursts


The first of Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant’s rants was mild by comparison, just your run of the mill yelling at the quarterback and the receivers coach.

The next one had a little more heat behind it, as he jawed back and forth with tight end Jason Witten, to the extent that injured teammate DeMarcus Ware stepped between them.

But after the fact, and after the Cowboys lost a crushing 31-30 decision to the Lions, Bryant wasn’t about to apologize.

“My passion is always positive,” Bryant said, via Tim McMahon of “It’s always positive. It’s going to remain the same way. I’m not saying anything wrong. I’m not saying anything bad. It’s all positive. That’s just what it is.

“I’m the nicest person off the field. When I’m on the field, even when I look angry, it’s still all good passion. It’s all good passion. I feel like that’s what we need. I’m going to remain the same way. I feel like I love this game. I love it. In order to win, you’ve got to be passionate about this game. You have to be. You’ve got to let that dog come out and just put it all out there on the line.”

There was barking, and maybe he felt a bit like a chihuahua after his own good day three catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns) was eclipsed by the true big dog in the neighborhood (Calvin Johnson’s 329-yard event).

But he said he didn’t care how the outbursts were received.

“That’s [the media’s] problem, because everybody knows up in this locker room who I am,” Bryant said. “It’s been that way since Day 1. The day that I got drafted, like I told y’all, don’t get it twisted: I love this game. I love my teammates. That’s what it is.

“It’s going to forever remain the same. It started in Pop Warner, went to middle school, went to high school, went to college, and it’s here. It’s going to stay that way. It won’t change.”

Tony Romo shrugged off the first one, saying Bryant was more concerned with team welfare than his own stats, pointing out they scored touchdowns on the next two drives. Likewise, the man who signs the checks didn’t mind either.

“Not in any way did it concern me,” owner Jerry Jones said. “It’s not a negative for our team. Matter of fact, when he started that as I saw timing-wise, we started playing better on our offense and the defense didn’t hear it. They were out on the field. It’s not an issue.

“I’m not trying to make light of it. But he’s a very passionate player and he competes and works and does all the things that give him the collateral to use with his teammates and with me relative to a few awkward moments on the sideline, overexpression of passion. He’s bought enough slack with me.”

As long as he continues making plays, most teammates will accept it as part of the package.

Jim Irsay has last laugh on Twitter

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Anyone who thought Colts owner Jim Irsay would take the high road following his team’s victory over Peyton Manning in his return to Lucas Oil Stadium hasn’t paid much attention to Colts owner Jim Irsay.

After inadvertently spicing up the game by explaining that the decision to move on from Manning arose at least in part from a desire to pursue championships over statistics, Irsay opted to attack those in the media who gave his words their plain meaning — a plain meaning that left Broncos coach John Fox livid.  It’s no surprise that Irsay, emboldened by Sunday night’s win and the game ball he received after it, would keep swinging.

“As OWNER,Buck stops with U,” Irsay declared after the 39-33 win.  “In 1997 n January 2012,alone n the room, plotting the vision 4 Greatness! Strategically decades of success follows.”

Later, Irsay threw one final grenade at those who dared point out that the emperor may have been riding down the street, butt naked on a horse.

“Thanks 2 many ignorant n mean spirited media types,only some,certaInly not all;Man you helped FIRE UP our were AWESOME! Thank YOU!” Irsay said.

So let’s get this straight.  Irsay said something stupid, Broncos coach John Fox and “some” in the media reacted, and that “helped FIRE UP” the Colts?

The truth could be that the Colts managed to win despite the best (worst) efforts of their owner to screw everything up.

Meanwhile, Irsay and the Colts will have to sweat out the possibility of a rematch with Manning in January.

“I am kind of in some ways somewhat relieved that this game is over and I feel like hopefully we will have a chance to play these guys again because that would mean we made the playoffs,” Manning told reporters after the game.  “We have a long way to go before then but you can certainly see them being in the postseason for sure and if there is a next time, it may be a little bit easier just because it was somewhat of an emotional week and it can be a little bit draining, I will say that.”

There’s indeed a long way to go, and the Broncos now have to focus on digging out of a one-game hole in their own division.  But last night’s game clearly involved a pair of teams destined for the postseason.  Maybe they’re destined to meet again when they get there.

And maybe the Colts once again will win despite the best (worst) efforts of their owner to screw everything up.

Mike Shanahan not happy with officials on touched punt ruling


Washington appeared to catch a break on Sunday night when a punt bounced into a Dallas player, and Washington recovered. But the break didn’t last long.

After the officials discussed it, they ruled that the Washington player blocked the Dallas player into the ball while the Dallas player was standing there passively, which under the rules means the Dallas player did not touch the ball at all. After the game, Shanahan sounded unhappy with the officials about that ruling.

“I can’t figure it out. I can’t figure it out. I don’t think they could figure it out,” Shanahan said.

NFL Rule 9, Article 2, Section 4 says that “a player is not considered to have touched the ball if he is blocked into it by an opponent, provided he is in a passive position and not blocking. A player who is engaged with and blocking his opponent when he contacts the ball is deemed to have touched the ball.” So what it comes down to is a judgment call by the officials: Was the Dallas player engaged and blocking? Or was he in a passive position?

The officials thought he was passive. Shanahan disagreed, but the call isn’t reviewable.

“You can’t challenge it,” Shanahan said. “When the official makes that call there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Jerry Jones “so proud of Romo” after tough loss to Broncos


Tony Romo played a masterful game on Sunday, right up until his final pass, an interception that set the Broncos up for their game-winning field goal. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones says he’ll remember that game for the way Romo played before that final pass.

Jones said after the game that although it will take some time for the Cowboys to get over their 51-48 loss, he is proud of his team. And Jones noted that this was more a game that Peyton Manning and his team won than a game that Romo and his teammates lost.

“We’re sick. We’re really sick,” Jones said. “Not a lot to be said. These guys — are they going to get over it? Well, they’re not going to get over it any time soon, over the next few hours or days. We’ve got a lot of ‘what ifs’ in our mind. Certainly, we’re going to go over specific plays, but the ones we really could criticize, Peyton had a lot to do with that. But I am so proud of our team, I am so proud of Romo.”

Jones should be proud. Romo deserves an enormous amount of credit for completing 25 of 36 passes for 506 yards, with five touchdowns and one interception. Romo played well enough for the Cowboys to beat 30 of the NFL’s 31 other teams. Unfortunately, the Cowboys were playing Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

Rex Ryan says Geno Smith isn’t absolved because he’s a rookie

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Jets quarterback Geno Smith turned the ball over four times on Sunday against the Titans, including a fumble recovered for a Tennessee touchdown that came loose when Smith was trying to shift the ball from one hand to the other behind his back.

That makes 11 turnovers on the season for Smith, which leaves him tied for the most in the NFL and the most among quarterbacks who call MetLife Stadium home with Eli Manning. The Titans turned all four of Sunday’s turnovers into touchdowns, which is pretty significant in a game that ends with a 38-13 score, and Smith showed he was more successful describing the game than he was playing it when he said he was “just piss poor” on the field.

Coach Rex Ryan, who offered all manner of support for Mark Sanchez in the wake of similar performances in recent years, said Smith is remaining in the starting lineup for the Week Five date with the Falcons. His support wasn’t quite unwavering, however, as he also said that there’s a statute of limitations on making rookie mistakes.

“How many times are we going to make that an excuse?” Ryan said, via Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. “One of these days we’re going to have to learn from them and it better be soon…. We better learn in a hurry. It has to get better.”

As much as Ryan might like to suggest otherwise, the Jets are going to have to make excuses for Smith a little longer because there isn’t a particularly viable option on the roster. Benching your second-round pick for Matt Simms seems highly unlikely and Mark Sanchez still has several more weeks on injured reserve before he’s eligible to return, which means Smith is going to be learning on the job.

And he’ll be making mistakes as he goes, whether they are growing pains or simply a manifestation of his shortcomings. That won’t do much to help Ryan’s chances of holding onto his job, but it is in the Jets’ best long-term interest to figure out which way Smith is going to go even if it means that 2013 winds up being less successful than Ryan needs it to be.

Adrian Peterson says boos for Ponder are unfair

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The Vikings fell to 0-3 on Sunday and they lost a game that they led into the final minutes for the second straight week.

Cleveland’s winning drive was set up by a three-and-out by the Vikings that ended when quarterback Christian Ponder couldn’t connect with wide receiver Greg Jennings, forcing a punt and leading to boos for the quarterback from the home crowd. After a hot start throwing the ball, Ponder had another erratic day that included a pair of turnovers and a pair of touchdown runs that helped the Vikings take the 27-24 lead that they would not be able to hold.

The bad parts of the game featured more boos and calls for Matt Cassel to replace Ponder, something that didn’t sit well with running back Adrian Peterson.

“I got his back. He scored two touchdowns and kept us in the game,” Peterson said, via the Pioneer Press. “They were cheering him when he scored and booing him when a pass wasn’t as good as they wanted it.”

Quarterbacks of 0-3 teams are not going to be the most popular guys at the party, but it bears mentioning that the Vikings offensive line leaked all day long and that the defense has now failed at the end of the game in two straight weeks. Teams don’t lose three straight games because of one player, which means there are plenty targets for catcalls in Minnesota these days.