Adventures in Officiating

Officials – as you may have heard – are human, too.  Even the good ones make mistakes.  In the replay era, many of those mistakes can be caught, but not all.  When an officiating crew has a rough afternoon it’s bad enough.  When their bad day seems to tilt in favor of one of the teams, it can lead to significant frustration.

Unfortunately, three of Week Sixteen’s most important games were marred – to a greater or lesser degree – by curious officiating.

Kelvin Benjamin’s Touchdown that Wasn’t

Apparently the weekend’s most controversial call was the replay that overturned a touchdown that Buffalo’s Kelvin Benjamin seemed to score against New England.  Buffalo, here, is fighting for its playoff life and the Patriots are trying to tighten their grip on the number one seed in the AFC.

There are 6 seconds left in the first half, and New England is clinging to a 13-10 lead.  But the Bills have third-and-goal from the Patriot 4 yard line.

The Bills line up with three receivers bunched to quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s left, and Benjamin split out all by himself to the right, where he would be singled up against Patriot corner Stephon Gilmore.  Just before the snap, Gilmore backed up into the end zone in a position to hem Benjamin against the sideline.  Taylor lofted the ball to the very back right corner of the end zone, where Benjamin looked for all the world like he caught the pass that would give Buffalo the lead at the half.  Field Judge Steven Zimmer – with the play in front of him – was convinced enough to raise his arms for the touchdown.

Moments later – when the touchdown was reversed – there was consternation on the Buffalo sideline.  Yet, watching the replay, Kelvin didn’t catch the ball cleanly.  He reached with his right hand and batted the ball back toward him.  He did drag the left foot along the turf. But only while the ball was fluttering back toward his chest.  Once he secured the ball, Benjamin tried again to drag the toe.  But it hit against the heel of his right foot instead.

A lot of people in the NFL fandom get quite exercised when calls like this go New England’s way – and I get that.  Hating New England is a trendy position to take.  And this touchdown certainly could have stood.  It was exceedingly close.

But there was sufficient evidence for an overturn – and Buffalo settled for the field goal and the halftime tie.

Patriot quarterback Tom Brady threw only 9 passes in the second half – completing all of them for 105 yards and another touchdown.  He finished the game completing 21 of 28 passes (75%).  Meanwhile, the Patriot running attack ground away at the Bills.  Running back Dion Lewis rolled up 83 yards in the second half on his way to a 129-yard afternoon, and the Patriots finished with 193 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns to finish off Buffalo 37-16 (gamebook).  The Bills finished 0-for-4 in the red zone, and scored no offensive touchdowns on the day.  Even if the replay had upheld the Benjamin touchdown, it’s exceedingly hard to beat the Patriots scoring just one offensive touchdown.

Merry Christmas to the Los Angeles Rams

In Tennessee the fading Titans spent Christmas Eve struggling for their playoff lives matched against a Rams team that is right in the thick of the NFC playoff picture.  In fact, a victory in this contest would punch the Rams’ playoff ticket for the first time since 2004.  The officials (it was Walt Anderson’s crew) didn’t do the home team any favors.

At the center of the controversy was a handful of penalties that should have been called, but weren’t.  Two of them came on Titan punts.  Twice in the second half, Rams special team players pummeled Tennessee punter Brett Kern.  Both times Anderson claimed the kicks were partially blocked.  It is unlikely the first one was.  It is clear the second one was not.

That second missed roughing-the-kicker penalty was probably the more costly of the two.  There was 7:31 left in the game and Tennessee trailed by four.  They had fourth-and-ten at midfield.  The call there gives them a first down on the Ram 35-yard line.

If there was a call more galling to the Titan faithful than either of the missed roughing-the-kicker penalties, it could well have been the missed false start.

There is 7:13 left in the third quarter, with the game tied at 13.  The Rams are on the Tennessee 13-yard line, and have decided to go for it on fourth-and-one.  As they lined up to run the play, tight-end Tyler Higbee – lined up to the left side – flinched.  All of the Titan defenders on that side of the field started pointing and leaping desperately – trying to will the officials to throw a flag.

But they missed it.  False starts are almost never missed.  I don’t actually remember the last time I saw an offensive lineman get away with a false start.  But this one they missed.

Adding injury to insult, instead of being fourth-and-six (forcing a field goal try), the Rams ran the ball right into the area where the Tennessee defenders were flipping somersaults to draw the flag.  Ram running back Todd Gurley burst through the distracted defenders for a ten-yard gain.  On the next play, Jared Goff tossed the touchdown pass that gave Los Angeles the lead.

Sometimes It’s Best to Just Play

So.  Yes, it was an egregious error by the officials.  They should have stopped the play and assessed the penalty.  But increasingly the players are trying to officiate their games as well as playing them.  They spend endless energy reaching for their imaginary flags, as though they had some secret power over the officiating crew.  Usually it’s just harmless posing.  On this occasion, the Tennessee Titans would have been better served if they had just focused on stopping the play.  Had they stopped the Rams there, not only would Los Angeles not have scored the touchdown, but (since it was fourth down) they would not even have had the opportunity to kick the field goal.  That one stop – had Tennessee focused on it – may well have won them the game in spite of the officiating.

Sometimes, it’s best to just play.

There is one noteworthy exception to this rule, and that is the case of pass interference.  I like to believe this isn’t true, but I swear there are times when the official waits to see if the receiver complains before he throws the flag.

Of course, we can’t let this game pass without mention of the onside kick that wasn’t.

Immediately after Tennessee had tied the score at 20, they ran a hurry-up onside kick.  As soon as the official made it to the sideline after marking the ball for play – and while the Rams were still congregating on their sideline – the Titans rushed to the field and bounced an undefended on-side kick that they recovered around the fifty.

Unfortunately, they caught not only the Rams, but the officiating crew off-guard.  A flag was thrown.  A conference was held, and Walt and his crew decided that the play didn’t count because the Rams had called a time out.  Of course, they hadn’t – and after some further discussion the time out was restored to Los Angeles, but the play still never happened.  And this is probably just as well for the Titans, as one member of the kickoff team was certainly off-sides, at least half never set, and a couple were running forward with the kicker.

Still in all of this, Anderson and his crew seemed to be several ticks behind.  To some degree, they seemed that way the entire game.

Gurley’s Big Day

Of course, Tennessee might have won anyway if they had found an answer for running back Todd Gurley.  His 22 rushes for 118 yards added to his 10 catches for 158 yards.  He scored two touchdowns, one of them an 80-yard scoring play off of a screen pass.  It works out to 276 yards from scrimmage on 32 catches.  He was the driving force in Los Angeles’ 27-23 victory (gamebook).

Early Presents for the Saints

But of all the teams saddled with a lump of coal on Christmas Eve, the most frustrated may have been the Atlanta Falcons.  They spent the afternoon in New Orleans.

As the game began, Atlanta found itself trailing the Saints for the division lead by one game, and – since they had beaten the Saints two weeks earlier – a win here would give them the tie-breaker.  So they were playing Sunday afternoon for no less stakes than the division title.

This game came with an extra-helping of irony.  The Falcon win two weeks earlier came with the Saints being flagged 11 times for 87 yards (against only 4 penalties called against Atlanta), and ended with a frustrated coach Sean Payton rushing onto the field to try to get a time out called.  The Falcons had been given 9 first downs off Saint penalties that day.

From the very beginning, it was evident that things would be much different in this game.  The Falcons drew three penalties in their first two offensive series – including a phantom unnecessary roughness penalty against Devonta Freeman.  They were subsequently penalized 3 more times in their next offensive series.  Over those first three series, Atlanta pushed for 89 yards of offense, but gave back 59 of them in penalties.

For the game, Atlanta ended up with 10 penalties for 91 yards, while the Saints were only flagged 3 times for 30 yards.  But this wasn’t to say that the Saints played a clean game.  Notable among the plays the Saints got away with were two fairly obvious pass interferences against Julio Jones.  Julio was also involved in the most head-shaking play of the day.

On the very last snap of the third quarter, Atlanta – trailing 20-3 at the time – had third and goal on the New Orleans 6-yard line. Quarterback Matt Ryan tolled to his right and rifled the ball to Jones, standing a yard deep in the end zone.  Just behind Jones was Saint cornerback Marshon Lattimore.  As the pass arrived in Jones’ hands, Lattimore pushed him out of the end zone.  Jones made the catch, but Down Judge Steve Stelljes called him down at the half-yard line.

A myriad of replays from all angles seemed to show that Julio had caught the ball with at least half of the ball over the line.  But it wasn’t convincing enough for the replay official to overturn.

As with many other opportunities presented to Atlanta that afternoon, the damage could have been mitigated if they could have pressed their advantage.  Facing fourth-and-inches for the touchdown that would put them back in the game, Freeman was buried in the backfield and the ball went over on downs.  Devonta Freeman was in the eye of the storm the entire game.  He had fumbled away an earlier chance at the one-yard line (in addition to getting called for the phantom penalty).

For the game, Atlanta scored just one red-zone touchdown in four such opportunities.  In half of their trips to the red zone – and both of their goal-to-go opportunities – Atlanta came away with no points at all.  Additionally, the aroused New Orleans defense sacked Ryan 5 times and held Atlanta to just 2 of 13 on third down.  That – in combination with the inconsistent performance of Peter Morelli’s crew – pushed the Saints to a 23-13 victory (gamebook).

Summary

My belief going into the weekend was that the teams that ended up winning these games were the teams that I thought were the better teams, so part of me wants to suppose that the Patriots, Rams and Saints would have found ways to win anyway.  It’s easy to say that about New England, as they dominated the second half of their game.  But the other two contests were quite a bit closer – ten points in the case of the Atlanta game, and Tennessee fell just four points short of their upset.  Close enough that a reversal of any of those calls would certainly have profoundly affected the game.

With one game left in the season, Buffalo, Tennessee and Atlanta all still have playoff chances.  Tennessee and Atlanta both face significant challenges (Jacksonville and Carolina, respectively).  The Bills immediate task (beat Miami) is easier, but they will be playing on the road and will need substantial help (beginning with Cincinnati beating Baltimore).

In all cases, these teams will be hoping for more consistency from the officiating crew.

Clarity at the Top of the AFC Playoff Race

There were two minutes and six seconds left in what was arguably the most significant game in the AFC this season.  After finishing second to the Patriots so many times, the Pittsburgh Steelers were one defensive stop away from claiming this victory.  New England broke the huddle, first down with the ball on their own 23, holding two time outs, but trailing 19-24.

On the first play of the drive, quarterback Tom Brady stepped up into the pocket and tossed the ball toward tight end Rob Gronkowski, running a shallow cross from the offensive right toward the left.  But the ball was tipped.  Cameron Heyward grazed the ball with his fingertips – enough to throw it off course.

For a small eternity the game – like the football itself – hovered over the turf of Heinz Field.  And standing beneath it was Steeler defensive back Sean Davis well positioned to make the game-sealing interception.

But the ball was fluttering unevenly – and it was quite wet from the continuous rain – and it glanced off Sean’s left hand, falling harmlessly to the ground.

And, in that moment, you knew how things would turn out.  The exact details of this one couldn’t possibly have been foreseen, but as Davis lay on cold-wet turf mourning the interception that got away, you knew that that was the mistake that would cost Pittsburgh the top seed in the conference.

Consecutive 26-yard passes from Brady to Gronkowski positioned New England at the Steeler 25-yard line.  From here, Rob made the play that Davis couldn’t.  Brady’s next pass was short and looked like it would land at Gronkowski’s feet.  But Rob managed to turn his body back toward the ball and was able to pluck it cleanly before it hit the ground.

New England scored the touchdown on the next play, that – after the two-point conversion (that also went to Gronkowski) – gave New England its 27-24 lead.

At that point, there were 56 seconds left.  Just enough time for another fantastic finish.

On the first play of the succeeding Pittsburgh drive, rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster took a short pass over the middle and flanked the New England defense.  Sixty-nine yards later he was pulled down on the Patriot ten-yard line.  There were 34 seconds left as Pittsburgh called its final time out.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger then found tight end Jesse James just in front of the end zone.  James’ knees touched down short of the goal line, but as no Patriot had touched him he was free to fall the rest of the way into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

But not so fast.

As the officials kept reviewing the play and as the announcers in the booth kept cycling through the replay, it began to dawn on everyone that James hadn’t held the ball all the way to the ground.  As he was landing in the end zone, he came down ball-first.  The impact jarred it enough that it popped loose – just for an instant before Jesse gathered it back in.  But that instant was enough.  The call on the field was reversed – and Pittsburgh never would score that touchdown.

Even more shocking would be that the Pittsburgh offense wouldn’t even walk off the field with the game-tying field goal.  Two plays later – on a play that looked like Ben was going to spike the ball to set up the field goal – Roethlisberger’s end-zone pass was deflected and intercepted.  The Patriots had escaped again with a 27-24 victory (game book), and that it came with a twist of controversy made it seem all the more familiar.

Up until those devastating last two minutes, Pittsburgh achieved everything it needed to.  Roethlisberger started 15 of 19 with 2 touchdown passes, and the Steelers went 7 for 9 on third downs and held the ball for 19:53 of the first 30 minutes of play.  The Patriots went to the locker at the half trailing 17-10 with only 20 yards rushing.

Pittsburgh finished the game out-rushing New England 143-77, with featured back Le’Veon Bell chalking up 117 yards on 24 carries (4.9 yards per).  Meanwhile, after superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown left the game with an ankle injury, rookie Smith-Schuster rose to the occasion.  His 69-yard catch and run finished his evening with 6 catches (in 6 targets) for 114 yards.  Pittsburgh ended the afternoon 10 of 16 on third down while holding New England to just 3 of 9 on that down.  The Steelers ended with 35:07 of possession time.

If this were a fantasy league matchup and statistics were the driving force, this would have been a victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  But this is the lesson that the Patriots repeatedly teach the rest of the NFL.  Both Davis and James had the chance to end the game, but neither could finish.  When you play New England, you pay dearly for all your mistakes.  No matter how well you play through the rest of the game, even slight errors in the fourth quarter will cost you almost every time.

Just ask the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.

Deciding Things in the West

Four weeks into this NFL season, when the Kansas City Chiefs sat at 4-0 and the Los Angeles Chargers had fallen to 0-4, few would have predicted that their December 16 matchup would have been for control of the AFC West.  Yet, with LA winning seven of nine after an 0-4 start, and the Chiefs dropping six of eight after winning their first five, both teams brought 7-6 records into last Saturday’s matchup in Arrowhead.

For the Chiefs, the year-long indicator has been the running game.  In their 5-0 start, they ran for at least 112 yards in every game, averaging 156.2 yards on the ground.  They averaged 33 points a game through the first five.  Over the next six games, the running attack slowed to a crawl.  They averaged just 76.3 rushing yards in those games.  Kansas City lost 5 of the 6, averaging just 18 points a contest.

But the KC tailspin ended just in time – and it was the running game that led out.  Even though they lost their Week 13 contest against the Jets, the running attack started to resurface (they finished that game with 112 rushing yards).  They ran for 165 in Week 14 while beating Oakland 26-15.

Now hosting LA in Week 15 they carried a tight 10-6 lead into halftime.  From there – looking like the early season Chiefs – they rolled to a 30-13 win (game book). While the defense took the ball away four times, the second half belonged to rookie running back Kareem Hunt and his offensive line.  Hunt motored for 115 yards on 16 carries, and the team finished with 126 rushing yards on 21 carries.

In the second half alone.

For the game – while quarterback Alex Smith kept the Charger pass defense honest completing 23 of 30 passes (76.7%) – Hunt finished the afternoon with 155 yards rushing, another 51 receiving, and 2 total touchdowns.  The Chiefs hung 174 rushing yards onto the Charger defense.

Even with the loss, though, Los Angeles’ playoff chances weren’t damaged all that much.  With games remaining in New York against the 5-9 Jets and at home against the 6-8 Oakland Raiders, the Chargers have a legitimate shot at a 9-7 record.  They trail three other teams (all currently 8-6) for one of the two wild-card positions.  One of those teams (Baltimore) also has a fairly soft closing schedule (they finish at home against 3-11 Indianapolis and at 5-9 Cincinnati).  But the other two teams in front of the Chargers face significant challenges.

Buffalo closes its season on the road against the Patriots and Dolphins.  Since the Chargers beat Buffalo back in Week 11, if the Bills lose either game they will lose a tie-breaker to Los Angeles based on head-to-head record (assuming LA can win its last two).  Meanwhile Tennessee finishes with the 10-4 Rams and the 10-4 Jaguars – a daunting challenge for a team that has lost three of its last five, including back-to-back losses to Arizona (6-8) and San Francisco (4-10).

As expected, New England’s win brings clarity to the top of the AFC playoff picture.  The Patriots, the Steelers, the Jaguars and the Chiefs.

At least that’s how it looks now.

Marquee Games Entertain, But Resolve Little

Two of the most anticipated games of Week 14 turned out to be two of the most entertaining games of the season.  Ultimately, though, neither may have added any clarity to the playoff picture.

Sunday night saw the suddenly hot Baltimore Ravens invade Pittsburgh.  Baltimore may not have been getting the attention that they – perhaps – merit this season.  In their Week Four game at home against these same Steelers, Baltimore trailed 19-0 at the half, staggering to an uninspiring 26-9 loss.  (Curious in that game is that other-worldly wide receiver Antonio Brown caught only one second half pass for just 8 yards, on his way to a 4-catch, 34-yards game.)

They entered their bye at just 4-5, and as late as the beginning of Week 13 they still ranked last in passing yards and next to last in total offense.

Through all the low moments of the season, John Harbaugh’s troops never flinched.  Believers in their locker room and trusting that over the course of the 16-game schedule the cream would eventually rise, the Ravens kept putting the pieces together.

In their Week 13 game, they overhauled the Detroit Lions 44-20.  They churned out a season-high 370 yards that day.  They also held the Lions to 78 rushing yards.  From Week Three to Week Seven, they surrendered at least 100 rushing yards in every game – and were pounded for at least 160 rushing yards in four of the five games.  In the five games since Week Seven, they have not allowed more than 78 yards in any of them.

Now it was the Sunday night of Week 14, and the Ravens found themselves with a 7-5 record and facing their 10-2 nemesis in Pittsburgh.  Offensively, the Ravens showed themselves every bit the equal of the Steeler defense that entered the game ranked second against the pass, fourth overall, fifth in points allowed, and eighth against the run (although it is worth noting that Pittsburgh was playing its first game without injured linebacker Ryan Shazier).  The Ravens put together six different drives of at least 50 yards, pounded Pittsburgh for 152 yards on the ground (led by Alex Collins and his 120 yards on 18 carries), scored touchdowns on all four of their red zone possessions (and all three of their goal-to-go possessions), and after falling behind 14-0 early in the second quarter, raced to a 31-20 lead by the end of the third quarter and a 38-29 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

But it was the Raven’s defense – the defense that had kept Baltimore alive all through the team’s offensive struggles – that was not up to the task at hand.  The Ravens’ defense entered the contest ranked first in interception percentage (5.1%), second in lowest passer rating against them (68.2), third in total pass defense and points allowed (207), fourth in sacks (33) and seventh in total defense.

But Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense had their way with them.  They converted 6 of 7 third downs in the first half – on their way to converting 12 of 18 for the night. Roethlisberger ended up throwing the ball 66 times for 506 yards – much of the damage coming on passes to Antonio Brown.

Held to just 34 yards in the first game against the Ravens, Brown scorched the Baltimore defense for 139 yards on 7 catches.  And that was just the second half.  For the game, Antonio checked in with 11 catches for 213 yards as the Steelers scored 10 points in the last 3:30 of the game to pull out a gutsy 39-38 victory (gamebook).

The win does – I suppose – demonstrate that Pittsburgh is still the better team.  But of course, their comparative records already hinted at that.  Very little else changed with the verdict.  The victory doesn’t change Pittsburgh’s trajectory that much.  Winners again of their division, all of their chips are on the table for this week’s game against the defending champion Patriots.  That game will likely determine the AFC’s top playoff spot.

For Baltimore, the loss isn’t devastating – although certainly disappointing.  Even with a win, Baltimore was unlikely to overtake the Steelers for the division title.  Meanwhile, their remaining schedule is less than frightening.  This week they travel to Cleveland to face the 0-13 Browns.  They end with home games against Indianapolis (3-11) and Cincinnati (5-8).  No victories are assured in the NFL, but this is a very manageable closing schedule.  A 10-6 record and a probable fifth-seed are all before them – if they take care of business.  Depending on who else does what to whom, a loss in one of those games may not sink them, but it will certainly open the door for a myriad of other teams.

The Changing AFC Playoff Picture

Also rising in the AFC race are the Los Angeles Chargers.  After their 0-4 start, I have been hesitant to jump on their bandwagon.  With last week’s conquest of Washington, the Chargers now sit in a tie for the division lead with the Kansas City team that was – at one point – 5-0.  Those two teams meet tonight (I am typing this it is about 2:30 Central Time), with the winner probably taking the division crown and the loser probably making the playoffs as a wild card team.

Both Baltimore and Los Angeles have profited from the demise of the Tennessee Titans.  After stubbing their toes in Arizona, the Titans are still 8-5 and are still clinging to the first wildcard spot.  Buffalo (7-6) currently has the other, with the Ravens and Chargers (who are both also 7-6) currently out of the picture – separated by the NFL’s intricate tie-breaking system.

But Tennessee still has the re-invigorated San Francisco 49ers, followed by the Rams and Jaguars (both 9-4 teams) left on their schedule.  Tennessee really needed the Arizona game.  Seeing them finish at better than 8-8 now is a stretch.  For their part, the Bills host the Miami Dolphins this week (the Dolphins hot off their surprise conquest of New England), but then finish the season on the road in New England and in Miami.

Like Baltimore, the Chargers are finally coming to the soft spot of their schedule.  After tonight’s big game, they finish with the Jets and Raiders.  Given the remaining schedules, it is not at all difficult to see Baltimore and LA pushing Tennessee and Buffalo out of the last two playoff spots.

The Dolphins’ victory did not materially damage the Patriot’s playoff chances.  With the conference’s second best record, it would be hard to imagine them not getting a playoff invite.  Nonetheless, the loss was not insignificant.  If they now lose to Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon, New England’s chances of finishing with the third seed and being relegated to the wild card round increases significantly.  A loss on Sunday would be their fourth.  If Jacksonville wins out (and their remaining schedule is Houston, San Francisco and Tennessee) they will also finish the season with just four losses, and a conference-record tie breaker over the Patriots.  (Under this scenario, the Jags would finish 10-2 in conference play with the Patriots finishing 9-3).

Of course, if New England beats Pittsburgh, they will probably go in as the number one seed.  That is how much is riding on this particular game.

Meanwhile, in the NFC Showdown

A few hours before Baltimore and Pittsburgh squared off, the big NFC showdown between Philadelphia and the LA Rams took place. With the Eagles starting play at 10-2 and the Rams at 9-3 (and playing at home) it was easy to see home field throughout the playoffs riding on this game.

Coming off a disappointing loss to Seattle the previous week, the Eagles were ready for the Rams from the opening kick.  They scored 3 touchdowns in the game’s first 20 minutes, and took a 24-14 lead into halftime.  The Eagles rolled up 304 yards of offense and 17 first downs in the first half alone.

But the Rams would not go away quietly.  In a furious second half that featured two touchdown drives of 70 or more yards (each of which took less than three-and-a-half minutes) and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, the Rams pushed their way to a 35-31 lead early in the fourth quarter.  But the Eagles scored the last 12 points of the day to finish with a 43-35 victory (game book).

Now at 11-2, the Eagles sit on top of the conference – and with the win over Los Angeles (and the tie-breaker that comes with that) – a clear path to the top seed in the division.

Except for the fact that they lost their quarterback along the way.

With about four minutes left in the third quarter, quarterback phenom Carson Wentz squirted into the end zone for an apparent touchdown.  The play wouldn’t count due to a penalty, but the hit he endured certainly would.  Sandwiched between two defenders as he dove over the line, the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in Carson’s left knee gave way.

Wentz actually finished the drive – even throwing an eventual touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffrey – before retiring to the sideline for good.  His spectacular 2017 season has come to a close.

Into the breach now is Philadelphia’s once-and-future starter, Nick Foles.

Foles led Philadelphia to a playoff berth in 2013, and was so impressive that the Rams traded Sam Bradford to Philadelphia for Nick.  But Foles was a disappointment in his one season for the then-St-Louis Rams, going 4-7 in his 11 starts for them in 2015.

So now Nick is back in Philly.  As I have pointed out numerous times this season (here for example), the Eagles have been more than just Wentz.  They have been bolstered by an excellent defense and a running game that has – at times – bordered on the phenomenal.  It is not inconceivable that Foles can bring them home with the top seed in the conference.  With the Giants, Raiders and Cowboys left (those last two games at home) the Eagles chances at home field throughout the playoffs are better than OK.

The question will be, what happens once the playoffs start.

The NFC Playoff Picture – as it Now Stands

Last week, the Seahawks took a leg up on the last NFC playoff spot with their upset win over Philadelphia.  This week, they gave it back through the combination of their own loss in Jacksonville and Atlanta’s upset of the New Orleans Saints.

Behind the 11-2 Eagles sit the 10-3 Minnesota Vikings (who are also coming off a loss).  The Rams and Saints – both 9-4 – come next, with the Rams holding the tie-breaker with their earlier win over New Orleans.

Carolina – after their big victory over Minnesota – has tied New Orleans at 9-4, but the Saints won both games against the Panthers, so they hold the tie-breaker.  The Panthers are solidly entrenched as the fifth seed, while Atlanta (by virtue of their win over New Orleans) has currently passed Seattle (after their loss to Jacksonville) for the last playoff spot.  Both of those teams are 8-5, with the Falcons holding the tie-breaker due to an earlier victory over the Seahawks.

While I think we’ll still see some shifting in the AFC, the NFC is starting to look pretty settled to me.

Congratulations to the Fans of the Miami Marlins

In a quick baseball note, it was announced earlier this week that the baseball team in Miami had traded All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals.  In exchange, Miami received arguably the most electric arm in all of the minors and three more prospects.

The 2018 season will obviously be another re-building year in Miami, but for the years 2019 and beyond Marlin fans should be giddy about the trade.  Sandy Alcantara – the key figure in the trade – lights up the radar gun, routinely hitting 101 and sometimes 102 with an almost nonchalant delivery.  He also has devastating breaking pitches.  Sandy is just 22, and his command isn’t major league ready just yet.  But he has all the ability to be a dominant pitcher in this league for years to come.

If it were me, I would have never traded Alcantara for Ozuna even straight up.  Miami would have had to give me another solid major league player and one or two top prospects for Sandy.  To think that the Marlins not only didn’t have to give anything else to the Cardinals, but actually received three other excellent prospects – including a very exciting outfielder in Magneuris Sierra makes this trade nothing short of highway robbery.

My congratulations to the Marlin organization.  They read the smell of desperation coming from the Cardinal front office and took full advantage.  You may need to wait a year or two to see the fruits of this effort, but they will come.

Vikings Continue to Scramble NFC Playoffs

Sunday began with the Minnesota Vikings winning their eighth consecutive game – and the third in a row against playoff contending teams.  Still with Case Keenum at quarterback, the Vikings have conquered the 9-3 Los Angeles Rams 24-7; the 6-6 Detroit Lions in Detroit 30-23; and now the 7-5 Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta 14-9.  It has been a stunning performance to say the least.

Left for the Vikings is another difficult road game in Carolina, and a Week 16 matchup in Green Bay against a Packer team that might or might not have Aaron Rodgers back.  The other two games will be home games against Cincinnati and Chicago.

With Seattle pulling off a season-saving 24-10 win over the previously untouchable Philadelphia Eagles, Week 13 scrambled the NFC picture a bit.  If the playoffs began today, it would be the Vikings going in as the NFC’s top seeded team (based on strength of victory over the Eagles).

If the Vikings stub their toe either in Carolina or in Green Bay, they would probably yield the top seed to New Orleans whose strength of victory (if they win out) would eclipse Minnesota’s.  Either way, the Vikings are in excellent position to finish with the first or second seed in the conference.

The Eagle’s loss pulls them back into the scrum with a tough road game coming up in Los Angeles against the Rams.  LA’s loss to Minnesota would really sting in this situation, since it would give the Vikings the head-to-head tie breaker, and would also toss them a game behind the other teams in conference record.  Philadelphia and LA are currently second and third in the conference.  They could easily slide to third and fourth.

The Seahawks’ upset win and the Falcons’ upset loss could very send the Falcons’ playoff position to Seattle.  That’s how things currently sit.  Both face daunting finishes to the regular season.  The Falcons’ last four games include two against New Orleans and one against Carolina.  The Seahawks’ last four include Jacksonville, the Rams and Dallas.  This last NFC playoff spot could shift back and forth several more times before the season ends.

Re-Thinking the Last AFC Spot

Last week, I think I read too much into Buffalo’s win over Kansas City.  It seemed big at the time – the win that they needed to get their hands on that last playoff spot.  But as I watched them fold meekly against the Patriots last week – and as I watched Miami show a significant pulse against Denver, I am increasingly doubtful that the Bills can go into Miami on the last day of the season and beat the Dolphins – which will make it very unlikely that they will make the playoffs.  Increasingly it looks like the Tennessee Titans (a team I still don’t have great confidence in) will slip into the playoffs – probably as the fifth seed, as they have an earlier victory over Baltimore.

At this point, Tennessee in the playoffs is the most likely scenario – but I still don’t expect them to hang around long.

Minnesota Rising

Two weeks ago, when I contemplated the playoff teams, I relegated the Minnesota Vikings – 7-2 at that point – to a wild card spot.  Even from the vantage, now, of hind-sight, that is still the sensible call – given what we knew at that point.

Minnesota had reached 7-2 on the strength of a five-game winning streak – mostly against sub-.500 teams.  They beat Chicago (currently 3-8), Green Bay (5-6) in the game Aaron Rodgers was injured, Baltimore (6-5), Cleveland (0-11) and Washington (5-7).

The Vikings are also playing through the season with a back-up quarterback.  The final stop on back-up quarterback week is Minnesota and the emerging Case Keenum.  Previously, we have spent time with Tom Savage in Houston and Brett Hundley in Green Bay.

So it was that – at 7-2 – the Vikings faced the toughest part of their schedule.  In successive weeks they would face the Rams, Lions, Falcons and Panthers.  These were all games that I expected them to lose.  Instead they have won the first two games of this impressive gauntlet and now stand at 9-2, with a three-game lead in their division.  They have all but clinched their division title and must be part of the conversation about the best in the conference.

So, how good are the Vikings?  And how realistic are their chances with Keenum at the helm?

The Viking Defense

All season, Minnesota’s calling card has been their defense.  They currently rank fifth overall and fifth in fewest points allowed.  They are especially dominant against the run, where they rank second in yards per game (75.5) and third in yards per carry (3.4).  Against the pass, only 3.0% of the passes thrown against them result in touchdowns (the third lowest percentage in the league) and they rank sixth in yards per pass (6.51) and yards per completion (10.6).  The pass rush has generated 30 sacks – the ninth highest total in the league, and the passer rating against them is just 81.2 – the tenth best total in the league.

They have held the Saints to just 19 points and the Rams to just 7 – although they have also given up 30 points to Washington and 23 to Detroit,  The game against Los Angeles was particularly impressive.  They inhaled Los Angeles’ very potent running attack (Todd Gurley finished the game with just 37 yards on 15 carries), while the pass defense eliminated the big plays from the Ram passing game.  Jared Goff finished with 23 completions, but for only 225 yards.

By all measures, I think you have to concede that the defense is a legitimate top five defense.

And the Running Attack

Possibly the least recognized aspect of the Viking success story is the running attack, which now ranks sixth in the NFL , averaging 124.5 yards per game.  This figure has gone up appreciably after the Vikings pounded the Rams and Lions for a combined 307 yards in the last two games.

Here, though, it is worthwhile to note that Detroit ranks twenty-second against the run, and Los Angeles checks in at twenty-sixth.  To date, Minnesota has played only two teams that rank defensively in the top ten against the run.  They would be Pittsburgh at #6, and Cleveland at #8.  The Vikings managed 91 rushing yards against Pittsburgh and 88 against Cleveland.

I think there is a legitimate question about how well the Viking running game would do against a top defense in the playoffs.

The Puzzling Case of Case

And then, of course, there is Keenum.  His numbers so far this season have been all that anyone could hope for.  He has completed 66.1% of his passes, has chucked 14 touchdown passes against just 5 interceptions, and holds a 96.2 passer rating.  And watching him play confirms that those numbers aren’t flukes.  On Thanksgiving Day, he made excellent decisions, and threw with great accuracy and better confidence.  But, of course, he was throwing with a lead, a dominating running game, ample pass protection, and an excellent defense at his back.

In four prior seasons, Case’s record as a starter was 9-15.  He entered the season with a career 20-24 touchdown to interception ratio, and never managed a passer rating above 87.7.  He has no fourth-quarter comebacks this year and only 2 in his 33 start career.  Pardon me if I am still skeptical.

What Los Angeles and Detroit were unable to do was to force Keenum to win the game.  With all the other pieces operating efficiently, Case was at liberty to make plays, both with his arm and with his feet.

I take nothing away from Case Keenum.  He has played very, very well.  But in my mind he is still a caretaker quarterback until he takes this team on his shoulders and wins an “adversity game” against a quality opponent.

Speaking of the Rams

In, perhaps, the most intriguing game of Week Twelve, the Rams bounced back from their disappointing loss to Minnesota the week before and ended New Orleans’ eight-game winning streak, 26-20 (gamebook).  After the Viking loss, I had some question whether this would be the beginning of the end for this young LA team.  Their win was something of a statement victory and kept them in the conversation for the top seed in the NFC.

Detroit Fading

While Minnesota is rising, their division rivals in Detroit are fading.  Never a great running team, the gulf between their rush offense and rush defense is widening.  Over the last three games, the Lions have totaled 222 rushing yards, while allowing 559.  They have now fallen a full game behind the suddenly resurgent Falcons.

The Lions have great heart, but are one-dimensional on offense and mediocre on defense.  Even though Atlanta’s remaining schedule is significantly harder, it is hard to see the Lions catching them from behind.

Two weeks ago, this team looked like a probable division champ.  But they have regressed and will now probably be watching the playoffs on TV.

Pack Not Quite Back

The Sunday before, Packer quarterback Brett Hundley melted down on his home turf, tossing 3 interceptions and taking 6 sacks in a disappointing 23-0 loss to Baltimore.  Now there was about 4:25 left in the game as Hundley and the Packers broke the huddle.  The visiting Pack was facing off against one of the best and hottest teams in the NFL, Green Bay stood first-and-10 on the Pittsburgh 16, trailing just 28-21.

Green Bay is the middle stop on what I have called “back-up quarterback week”. (On Thursday we dropped in on Houston and Tom Savage).  Off to a 4-1 start with Aaron Rodgers behind center, the Packer season tilted suddenly in Week Six when a broken collarbone removed Rodgers from the equation – possibly for the season.

Into the breach stepped Hundley – a fifth-round pick out of UCLA in 2015.  Having thrown just 11 career passes before that fateful game, Brett was tossed into the middle of what has turned out to be a fairly brutal schedule.  After Minnesota (currently 9-2), Hundley’s first two career starts were against New Orleans (8-3) and Detroit (6-5).  After facing the 3-8 Bears in Week Ten, Hundley’s education tour led him against Baltimore (6-5) and now Pittsburgh (who started the day 8-2).

Of the teams he has faced so far, three of the six boast top-five total defenses – and Baltimore and Pittsburgh are numbers two and three in pass defense. But Hundley is a confident kid.  After being a bit overwhelmed by the Vikings and Saints, he rebounded nicely in his next two games.  He completed just 30 of 58 passes in those first two games (51.7%) for just 244 yards – an average of just 4.21 yards per pass and 8.1 per completion.  His 1 touchdown pass in those games was more than offset by 4 early interceptions, and his 39.7 passer rating was a concern.

But in his games against softer defenses in Detroit and Chicago, Brett was 44 of 63 (69.8%).  While this was much better, the down-field attack was still lagging.  He totaled just 457 yards in the two games – an average of just 7.25 yards per attempted pass, and only 10.4 per completion.  He threw no interceptions in those two games, but also threw just 1 touchdown pass.  Still, for someone making just his second and third career starts, his 95.8 passer rating was encouraging.

And then came the Baltimore game.

Understandably, few fans or pundits expected much from Hundley against the elite Steeler defense.

The Game of His Life

The Steelers opened the game with a 59-yard, 12-play, 6:46 touchdown drive to take a 6-0 lead (the extra-point was missed).

Now it was Hundley’s turn to answer.  After two running plays gave Green Bay a first-down on the Steeler 48, Brett threw his first pass of the game – a five-yard out to Davante Adams.

The drive seemed to stall immediately, as a running play gained nothing and Hundley seemed to take his eighteenth sack in just 178 drop-backs.  But Pittsburgh cornerback Artie Burns was flagged for a penalty that gave Green Bay a first down on the Steeler 38.

Two plays later – with the Packers facing a second-and-11 – Pittsburgh dropped into a cover-three zone.  At least 10 of the Steelers dropped into cover-three.  Cornerback Burns trumped his earlier mistake by chasing Adams back over the middle, leaving his deep third of the field uncovered.  Hundley looked up to find receiver Randall Cobb running all alone up the left sideline.  Seconds later, Hundley had tossed a 39-yard touchdown pass, and the Packers had a 7-6 lead.

After an interception gave the Packers the ball back at their own 45, a one-yard run and an incompletion put Green Bay at third-and-9.  The Steelers faked a blitz.  Five defenders started toward the line at the snap, but linebacker Ryan Shazier fell almost immediately back into coverage, looking for the running back he was supposed to cover.  But that first step in would prove fatal.  That running back – rookie Jamaal Williams – already had three or four steps on Shazier.  Shortly after Hundley flipped Williams the ball, center Corey Linsley peeled back and picked off Shazier.  Jamaal then found an alley and bolted the rest of the way for a 54-yard touchdown.  There was 1:22 left in the first quarter and Hundley had already thrown for 98 yards and two touchdowns (on only 3 completions).  The Steelers ended the quarter with 10:41 of possession, but trailing 14-6.

But Brett was not done.

The rest of the first half would pass uneventfully, and Green Bay’s first possession of the second half came down to a third-and-3 at their own 45.  The Packers defeated Pittsburgh’s single-high coverage with outside vertical routes from Jordy Nelson on the left and Adams on the right – the twin vertical routes preventing safety Mike Mitchell from committing to either side.  Adams shed cornerback Coty Sensabaugh with a slick stop-and-go, and Brett hit him in stride up the sideline.  From there, Davante eluded the late-arriving Mitchell and outran the rest of the defense for the 55-yard touchdown.

The game was 32 minutes and 54 seconds old, and the Packers had stunned the Pittsburgh defense for 3 touchdown passes of at least 39 yards – two of them over 50 yards.

To that point of the season, Green Bay had produced no touchdown passes of 35 yards or more, and only 2 over 30 yards.  In Brett’s first 158 passes, he had managed just 2 touchdowns and only 4 completions of more than 30 yards, none longer than 46 yards.  Through his first 12 passes against the Steelers, Brett already had 3 touchdown passes and 170 yards on 9 completions.

Back Come the Steelers

At that point, though, the game turned decisively in the favor of the Steelers – and especially their defense.  Reverting to simple man coverages and basic zones, the Steelers stopped trying to confuse the rookie, opting instead to force him to hold the ball long enough for the Steeler pass rush (second best in the NFL at the start of the night) to get home.  The strategy worked as well as could be hoped.  The next 8 times Brett dropped back he went 0 for 5 with 3 sacks.  Over their next three series, Green Bay ran a total of 13 plays netting 0 yards.  During this stretch, the Steelers never reverted to blitzing, finding ample pressure with simple line stunts that Green Bay struggled to adjust to.

So now, there are just less than nine minutes left in the game.  The Packers are seven points down, and are starting on their own 23.  But now their approach has changed.  Instead of giving the pass rush a shot to disrupt him, Hundley would line up in the pistol and fire at the first receiver that broke open.  This approach would depend on Hundley’s ability to quickly recognize and accurately react to what the Steller defense would present him.

As exciting as the earlier big plays had been, if I were a Packer fan I would be even more excited by Hundley’s performance in this last drive.

On first down, Pittsburgh got cute again.  They brought cornerback Mike Hilton off the corner.  The defense became a zone-blitz, with four rushers coming from Hundley’s left and the presumed rushers on his right dropping into coverage.  But the rushers from his left gave tight end Richard Rodgers a brief opening.  Hundley saw it immediately and had the ball in Rodgers’ hands before Shazier could slide over and close the window.  That play picked up 25 yards and put the ball on the Packer 48.

Now the Steelers dialed up one of their rare blitzes, but wanted to play zone behind it.  With Bud Dupree coming untouched from the edge, Hundley rolled away from the pressure and noted that Hilton – responsible for the right flat – was slow getting into his zone.  He tossed the ball to a wide-open Cobb for 12 more yards. And suddenly Green Bay was on the Steeler 40 with 7:28 left.

A one yard run left Brett with a second-and-9.  From a single-high man look, the Steelers dropped into zone coverage.  Again, Hundley saw it immediately.  With a quick glance to his left, Brett caused Shazier to take a step in that direction, widening the gap between him and Dupree (who had the right flat) just enough open a seam in the zone for Davante Adams to pop through for a 12-yard reception.  First-and-10 Packers on the Pittsburgh 27.

With both corners lined up 12 yards off the receivers, Hundley picked up 7 easy yards on a quick toss to Nelson lined up wide left.  A run and another short pass to Nelson (with Jordy stretching for the chains) picked up the first down at the Steeler 16 with still more than four minutes to go.

But here the Steelers would make their stand.  A running play was buried in the backfield for a 2-yard loss.  Hundley’s second-down pass flew over the head of a well-covered Adams.  On third-and-12, a dump pass to Cobb got half of the yardage.  Now it was fourth-and-6 with the clock spinning under three minutes to play.  The Packers decided to go for it, but spent their second time out when they didn’t like the defense that they saw.

Now down to one time out, still trailing by seven with 2:50 left, The Packers came out with an empty backfield, with Nelson, Geronimo Allison, and Rodgers lined up to the right of the formation, and Adams stacked behind Cobb to the left.  Pittsburgh played man coverage across with two high safeties.  This allowed Adams a one-on-one opportunity against William Gay, who he beat quickly with an inside-outside move.  Hundley delivered the ball perfectly, and the Packers had first and goal at the Pittsburgh 4.  Seconds later, Jamaal Williams soared over the goal line, and the game was tied.

No Joy in Green Bay

The game wouldn’t finish in story-book fashion though.  Green Bay would get one more possession starting on their own 18 with 1:20 left and just the one time out.  After a first-down sack, the Pack went conservative – a short pass and a run – and punted, playing for overtime.  With 17 seconds left, Pittsburgh moved from their own 30 to Green Bay’s 33 on two sideline throws to Antonio Brown (who finished with 169 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches for the day).  One play later, Chris Boswell ended the evening with a 53-yard field goal.

After controlling the ball for 19:05 of the first half, after going 3-for-4 on third down in the second half, and after Le’Veon Bell racked up 114 yards from scrimmage (53 rushing and 61 receiving) in the second half alone, Pittsburgh still needed a long field goal as time expired to subdue the Packers (gamebook).

Aftermath

For the Steelers, they are now 9-2 and three games ahead in their conference with five to play.  They currently hold the top seed in the conference – getting a strength of victory nod over the Patriots.  Those two will meet in a significant contest in a couple of weeks.

Green Bay is now 5-6 and has four teams ahead of them for the final playoff spot in the NFC.  A 9-7 mark will probably not get you in on the NFC side, so the Pack – as they had to last year – will pretty much have to win out to stand a chance.

For the next two weeks they will face the 4-7 Buccaneers and then the 0-10 Browns.  After that, the schedule gets nasty, again.  They go into Carolina to play the 8-3 Panthers, then face the 9-2 Vikings at home, before ending the season on the road in Detroit (6-5).

The intriguing thing about this concluding schedule is that Aaron Rodgers – who was throwing the football prior to the game – will work out tomorrow (Friday) to see if he could return to the practice field Saturday.  If healthy, Aaron would be eligible to come off IR in time for those last three games.

So, if the improving Brett Hundley can keep this team alive with wins against two lesser opponents, this Green Bay team may well have playoff hope.  It’s still a very long shot, and the Pack has no margin for error anymore.  But the pieces are there, at least, for another fantastic finish.