The Fix Is In Presents:
Who's Gonna Be the NFL's Fall Guy?
My Guide to the 2015 NFL Season
To be held at the home of the San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl 50 will be the culmination of this year's NFL season. So is it any wonder that the team with the most tumultuous off-season was the same SF 49ers, almost ensuring they won't be playing in a home Super Bowl? The Super Bowl curse will remain.
But just how bad was the 49ers off-season? Head coach Jim Harbaugh returned to the college ranks to lead Michigan. Among other free agent departures, the team lost a pair of cornerbacks along with two key offensive players, RB Frank Gore and G Mike Iupati. DE Aldon Smith was (finally) cut after yet another run-in with the law (DUI with an added bonus of hit-and-run). A defensive tackle, and offensive tackle and two linebackers, Patrick Willis and Chris Borland, all retired. To add insult to injury, the team was forced to trade punter Andy Lee (for a 7th round pick) because GM Trent Baalke decided to take a new punter in the 5th round of the 2015 Draft.
But it was the retirement of soon-to-be-second-year player Borland which really caught pundits off-guard. In a lengthy piece written by the Fainaru brothers for ESPN, Borland basically said his health was more important than the NFL. He also cited much of the NFL's nonsense as a factor in his decision (such as the above video taken from the 2014 rookie symposium Borland attended. Out of all the retired players the NFL has produced, how did the league choose these two yahoos to speak?). In fact, in an overlooked quote from Borland in that article, he said, "It's like a spectacle of violence, for entertainment, and you're the actors in it. You're complicit in that: You put on the uniform. And it's a trivial thing at its core. It's make-believe, really. That's the truth about it."
This was a sentiment Cleveland Browns OT Joe Thomas echoed was asked about the ongoing Patriots' Deflategate story. Said Thomas: "I'm not sure if he [Roger Goodell] realizes what he's doing is brilliant, but what he's doing is brilliant because he's made the NFL relevant 365 [days] by having these outrageous, ridiculous witch hunts [Deflategate]. It's made the game more popular than ever and it's become so much more of an entertainment business and it's making so much money. That's why I'm sure there's plenty of people saying this is embarrassing for the league. But it's an entertainment business when it comes right down to it. When the game gets eyeballs in newspapers and on TV, that's what in the end is the goal for everyone. And that's what this controversy is giving them....But I think we're talking about a different NFL now. Like I said, before it was more about the game. Now it's such an entertainment business. It's almost like the Kim Kardashian factor that any news is good news when you're in the NFL....It's an entertainment business. It's turning into the WWE really. It's like the Vince McMahon stuff. Basically Goodell is like Vince McMahon."
And as icing on the cake, former wide receiver-turned-broadcaster Cris Collinsworth added this in the LA Times. When discussing wide receivers' gloves and the catches those gloves aid players in making, Collinsworth said, "Every Sunday we say, 'Oh, my goodness! Look at that!' That's a good thing. It's an entertainment business. Why not make it as entertaining as possible?"
Here we go already.
Not even a full week into the season, and the NFL's shenanigans are at the forefront of the conversation. The prime example of this was the Sunday Night Football game between the Giants and Cowboys. New York had this game locked up. Already leading 23-20, the Giants had the ball within the Cowboys' five-yard line very late into the fourth quarter. On first down, they ran and fell short of the end zone. On second down, they ran and again failed to score. On third down, they decided to pass. Incomplete. They kicked a field goal to go up 26-20, but following the ensuing kick-off, the Giants' defense allowed the Cowboys to walk down field - in 1:34 without a timeout - and score the game winning touchdown with :07 on the clock.
At least, that's what appeared to happen on the surface.
In reality, Giants' RB Rashard Jennings was told not to score on either of his two runs. The thought behind this was allegedly to drain the Cowboys' remaining time-outs rather than go ahead by two scores (10 points) with just two minutes left in the game. Now, who directed Jennings to lay down? QB Eli Manning took the fall, saying it was his call. Yet Jennings seemed adamant that the order came direct from the coaches (which would make more sense), and head coach Tom Coughlin said the decision was his.
(UPDATE: On Wednesday, Jennings apologized in the NY Post, saying "I admit in retrospect that I should not have shared that information with the world. I chose to do so, and for that choice, I am truly sorry." His only apology should have been for scoring the game-winning touchdown despite his coach and QB telling him not to)
This decision not to score should inform every NFL fan that the league is not what it claims to be. There was no reason not to score that TD. None. And it doesn't matter who takes the fall (notice, blame was passed around making no one really culpable). This game was rigged for Dallas.
Watch the third down pass play below. Notice how Eli's target for the pass (TE Daniel Fells) is wrapped up, held, and interfered with the entire time prior to Manning releasing the pass. No flag. No penalty.
Then, after the meaningless field goal, the Giants' D lays down a red carpet for Romo to play hero and win this game. I'm already thinking Dallas might be the NFC's representative in SB 50.
And if that wasn't enough for you, what was the deal with the Steelers' coaches getting the Patriots' play-by-play radio feed in their headsets during the NFL's opening night game on Thursday Night Football? Supposedly, this was a "power problem" within Gillette Stadium. Right. There's no reason that the wireless communication system the coaches use should be anywhere near the frequency of an AM/FM radio broadcast. Yet, it apparently happened and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was none too happy about it. Amazing how this happens again and again with the Patriots. Owner Robert Kraft can deflect all of these controversies he wants, but at the end of the day, his franchise is dirty and the NFL allows it to continue - and awards them Super Bowl titles - because Kraft is a powerhouse in the league. Why else does CBS CEO Les Moonves always sit in Kraft's personal box at the stadium?
Penalties. You gotta love them. Doled out against the guilty offenders by the highly trained observers known as the NFL officiating crew.
Week 2 was perhaps one of the most penalized in recent memory. Every game - and I watched a few thanks to a solid Sunday hangover - seem deluged by yellow flags, bogging down play. Though I no longer track penalties as I once did for this site, someone else took up the banner and does so at NFLpenalties.com. Week 2 saw 298 penalties - 18.6 per game - hand out nearly 2,700 free yards to teams. Think any of this yardage in a "game of inches" could be altering outcomes?
Referees are taking control. And the guy overseeing them - VP of Officiating Dean Blandino - is a former stand up comic (no lie; I write about this in further detail in A Season in the Abyss). Blandino was able to accurately predict the level of penalties called in 2014 prior to the season. Think he, Goodell, and the rest aren't massaging all of this? Nothing seems to happen in the NFL by accident.
And yet it is perhaps the non-calls that really affect games.
Case in point, the Sunday night Seahawks v. Packers game. Now I have no idea why the Seahawks would trade for Jimmy Graham and then decide to completely ignore him in their offensive scheme, but the Packers were a clear beneficiary of both the Seahawks' coaching decisions as well as the referees' generosity. I swear during this game I witnessed head referee Gene Steratore (who called Dez Bryant's catch in the DAL-GB playoff game a non-catch) repeatedly smirk while announcing certain on-the-field decisions (like the disputed interception turned fumble that Seattle recovered but Steratore rebutted). Just prior to halftime, a Seahawks "false start" (which wasn't) allowed Aaron Rodgers to throw a ball 50-yards downfield which Richard Sherman defended by committing blatant pass interference. Of course, had the false start not have been called (the defender never crossed into the neutral zone to be offsides) none of the following play would have occurred. The extra 50+ yards led to a Packers' field goal.
But what was worse was the blantant holding the Packers' O-line was committing without a single flag thrown. Why would this be allowed? Because (a) the Packers were at home (and yes, "home cookin'" is a real, tangible thing) and (b) Rodgers is one of the few star QBs the league can hang its hat on. By giving him more leeway on the field in the same way NBA refs give LeBron James the constant benefit of the doubt, Rodgers can be the star they want/need him to be. I'm not about to do the research, but I'd love someone to find when the last time a Rodgers' completion was called back due to offensive holding. I'd bet the answer would date back years.
Elsewhere, this happened. Let me tell you, unless Tony Romo's backup Brandon Weeden can't hold it together to go .500 while Romo oft-broken collarbone heels, the Cowboys will still be in the playoffs. Who else is going to take that division? The Giants? The Redskins? I doubt the Eagles will put Chip Kelly's "genius" offense together, especially when the other team knows their plays are coming.
In a Spygate-esque turn to the Cowboys v. Eagles game, it seems the 'Boys knew when the Eagles were going to use DeMarco Murray prior to Sam Bradford handing him the ball. According to Philadelphia sportswriter Les Bowen (and thanks to Brandon for the tip):
Josh Huff said a few times when he was lined up near Dallas sideline, they were calling out Eagles plays. Said problem is being addressed.
As usual when something like this comes to light (remember Week 1? It wasn't too long ago...), the person(s) involved back off such a statement. Same happened here as Bowen later wrote this in which Eagles center Jason Kelce claimed WR Huff's contention was "not anything new." Right. Teams always know what plays their opponents are going to run prior to the snap of the ball. It's what makes the NFL so exciting.
Josh Huff said a few times when he was lined up near Dallas sideline, they were calling out Eagles plays. Said problem is being addressed.— Les Bowen (@LesBowen) September 22, 2015
So there is an ongoing "war of words" over some words a referee allegedly said to a player. On one hand, we have Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton who claimed during the post-game press conference that referee Ed Hochuli told Newton he "wasn't old enough" to get a late-hit personal foul call which could have been justifiably flagged. This sent the league into a tizzy. But why would Newton make such a claim if it weren't true? What was there to gain by revealing Hochuli's statement?
Watch the video below (well, at least watch the actual game footage of the event). Notice how the two talk, then Hochuli says something which causes Newton to literally stop in his tracks. He seems shocked by what Hochuli says to him. Would a simple explanation of a rule cause such a reaction?
Hochuli, of course, is "adamant" he said no such thing (or so says the former stand-up comic Dean Blandino). Hochuli claims he simply told Newton no penality should've been assessed because Newton was running at the time, making it a legal hit.
ESPN reported during Monday Night Football that since neither Newton or Hochuli were mic'd up at the time, the league can't really know what was said (even though Hochuli clearly was mic'd - see the one attached to his head in the video above? You know, the one with which he communicated with his fellow on-field officials and league HQ? None of that is recorded, huh?). Yet even though the league claims ignorance, it backs Hochuli...unless so evidence turns up refuting Hochuli's statement.
Then, on Colin Cowherd's show, former NFL VP of Officiating (and current FOX Sports stooge) Mike Pereira says he "resents" (!) Newton making such accusations as no NFL official would be "stupid enough" to say something like that (yet on Sunday Night Football, the entire crew lead by Jeff Triplette didn't know when, where, or how to enforce a borderline "taunting" penalty called against the Broncos. So, I guess they're stupid, but only just so stupid).
Of course, Pereira's resentment doesn't mean Newton's allegation isn't true. In fact, it might just be that Hochuli shouldn't have been stupid enough to verbalize such an unwritten duality to the NFL's rules. But let's face it, even with flags flying at a record rate so far this season, some teams/players get the calls, and others don't. It's just rare to see/hear actual confirmation of this made public.
Meanwhile, the Peyton Manning led Denver Broncos are ranked 30th in total offense, yet the team is 3-0. How is this possible? Technically speaking, it's because they have the #1 defense in the NFL. But they rank that high because other teams keep giving the Broncos the ball. The Ravens threw them the game-winning INT in Week 1, the Chiefs did the same in Week 2, and in Week 3, the Lions kept feeding the Denver D the ball (of course, it's not helping the Lions that teams apparently know their plays before they're running them. Something the Eagles claimed was happening to them as well if you recall).
Wouldn't the NFL love to see Peyton Manning win Super Bowl 50? Of course it would. But Manning admits he has limited feeling in his hand, and if you've see a pass of his lately, the guy can't throw a spiral to save his life. Is he really a top notch QB anymore? No, he old (for football) and hanging on by a thread. But he's still a clean-cut, all-American boy - the perfect player for the NFL to perch atop a champion's pedestal. With the rest of the AFC West falling to pieces, Manning's already punched a ticket to the playoffs. From there, it's just a hop, skip, and fix to the Super Bowl.
Because I'm pretty sure Roger Goodell handing the Lombardi Trophy to Tom Brady at the end of this season would be the final sign of the Apocalypse.
Sometimes, this website writes itself.
Once again the NFL treats us to another Seattle Seahawks Monday Night Football officiating disaster, yet they don't have the replacement referees to blame this time around. I'm guessing you know the play I'm writing about, Calvin Johnson's near touchdown turned fumble which LB K.J. Wright intentionally knocked out of the back of the endzone. You can tell he did this because, well, just watch the play with him celebrating after it leaves the field of play:
Yet he didn't call a penalty on it as he should have. The NFL, as seen/heard in the tweet above and elsewhere, quickly admitted this was an "error" on the official's part - though it was not an "overt" foul. It should've been Lions' ball at the spot of the foul (the 6" line), but alas, the referees didn't confer on the play nor could instant replay be checked (because, you know, there's no reason to use the technology employed by the league to get all the calls correct, just some of them).
But let me get this straight. The official pictured above -- who's only job description is to fully know and understand league rules and then enforce them -- utterly failed to do his job. Will he be punished and/or downgraded by the league for his incompetence? Of course not. Which begs the question, did he really do his job incorrectly? Or did the NFL want the Seahawks to win?
Certainly, the officials didn't know when to actually enforce the penalty of offensive holding when it came to the Seahawks offensive line. There were numerous instances of holding by the Seahawks when Russell Wilson took off running. But would the refs throw a flag to reel in a NFL superstar? Can't do that, although flags continue to be thrown at a record pace which is bogging down most games. This nonstop enforcement of fouls makes fans assume the refs are calling every ticky-tack play on the field. But they're not. Not by a long shot. If they were, the Lions would have a win in their pocket and not seven fan-funded billboards protesting the league's officiating.
In other news, yet another Broncos victory is achieved through their opponent's miscue. As the Vikings attempted a last minute drive to either tie the game through a field goal or outright win with a TD, they fumbled the ball away to Denver. Game over. So the 4-0 Manning-led Broncos have that record strictly through the other team's turnovers. Nothing seems odd about that, huh?
Another suspect game which I'd guess no one really watched was the Oakland Raiders v. Chicago Bears game. I didn't see a lick of it myself, but how did the Bears -- who traded away two of their defensive leaders in the week leading up to this game -- manage to beat an up-and-coming Raiders team? The Bears are bad, downright horrible and ranked by many as the 32nd team in the league. Yet they won. Unlike the Lions, they're not 0-4 as they should be, they have a win. A home win. Which is key. Because neither team is really has a shot this year -- both the Packers and the Broncos have pretty much wrapped up each of their respective divisions. So why not gift the Bears a win? Does a lot of morale. Not the players' but the fans'. And it's their money the league is after.
Speaking of money, how's your FanDuel or DraftKings team doing? Ever heard of these sites or "daily" fantasy sports? Seen one of their ads? Win any money on either site? If you did win a dime at either site, you might've been one of the lucky few. I wrote about these sites in my new book A Season in the Abyss (which you should really buy), but since then, it's gotten worse than I initially wrote. First, the New York Times revealed that inside information was being used by workers on both sites to play (not bet, because remember, this isn't gambling so it doesn't have to be regulated) on their competition's site. Now, it looks as if the NY attorney general is going to look into these allegations. I bet this gets real ugly, real fast...unless, you know, FOX Sports and their other major investors manage to muck up any such investigations.
Seriously. This was overturned via replay. A different set of professional officials failed to recognize :18 of clock time wrongly tick off late in the fourth quarter of the Steelers v. Chargers game on MNF. Remarkably, both "wronged" teams still wound up winning.
But is the NFL doing anything about these gaffes? Are heads rolling within its officiating ranks? No (with a slight exception. After I initially posted this, the league did suspend - one week, with pay - the side judge in charge of keeping time on the field. I would argue this occurred only because it wasn't able to be written off as a "judgement call"). The league simply states errors were made - though the call above was considered "correct" within the NFL's ever-expanding and increasingly insane rulebook - and goes about its business. And fans not only gobble this crap up as fast as possible, they bet billions of dollars on it.
(By the way, despite the NFL forcing Twitter to suspend SB Nation and Deadspin until they removed their "offending" gifs and Vines from their feeds - because Twitter is now an official partner of the NFL and only the NFL can tweet out such highlights...while keeping questionable content the league doesn't want posted from going viral - I will continue to use such "copyrighted" material here. Come sue me, Goodell. I'll take on your Fair Use objections).
I'll admit I'm not a stats guy. I'm not FiveThrityEight (thank God). I write because although I was once above average at math, my high school days are well behind me and trigonometry isn't needed in the sports writing field. So perhaps I make too much out of what follows or perhaps more can be deciphered from this, but either way, I think it's important to note a few things five weeks into the season.
Out of the 77 games played thus far, 43 have ended with a margin of 8 points or less. In other words, a single score differential. Seven games have needed overtime to determine a winner. Of the 16 primetime games, 10 have ended with the losing team within a single score and two have needed overtime to be settled. The average point differential of primetime games thus far is 7.25 points. For the entire season of 77 games, the average point differential is 10.57. Seems high, right? But if you remove the 13 blowout games in which the winning team won by 20 or more points, the point differential for the remaining 64 games drops to 7.28.
The long and short of it is this: games in which the score is close are going to hold fans interest longer. Especially when it's the fourth quarter and a team is one score away from tying, taking the lead, or outright winning the game (such as this week's Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football offerings which were determined in the final seconds).
As we've seen this week as well as in the prior weeks, the officials are making some very wonky calls, affecting how games play out. Why is it such a stretch to think that perhaps these calls aren't being mistakenly made as the NFL alleges (but doesn't punish its workers for making), but rather are intentionally made to keep games tight and further adhere fans to their TVs (which would explain the lack of discipline from the league)?
The NFL's bread-and-butter is TV money. TV networks don't want fans tuning out at halftime. Advertisers don't want such behavior either. So how do these massive corporations protect their money? By letting haphazardness rule the day? Or by controlling as much as possible to ensure profits are made?
You can send your answer here: email@example.com
SPECIAL BONUS WEEK
I put this in my News of Note section as well, but I don't want people to miss this prior to YouTube yanking it. It's the long-lost 1983 episode of the PBS investigative program Frontline about the NFL, gambling, and game fixing. If you thought their special on the NFL and concussions was something, wait 'til to get a load of this. It'll be the best hour you spend this week. Trust me. And if you don't believe me, then skip ahead to about the 30 minute mark to hear the exchange between reporter Jessica Savitch and then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle where he flat-out states the NFL keeps certain things internal (read: covered up).
By the way, Jessica Savitch died in a one-car accident not long after this aired. Some believe she was murdered. I'm not saying the two were connected, but...
UPDATE: A fan (Ron) sent me this link to Sports Illustrated's 1983 hit piece on the above Frontline special. While making a few valid points, it also evades some of the damning evidence PBS put forth.
So if Davonte Freeman's catch (as seen above in last week's gif) wasn't a touchdown, then how in the world is Golden Tate's catch (seen below) ruled as such?
Before you come to your conclusion on this, remember that on the field it was not ruled a TD nor incomplete, but rather the play was called an interception and the Bears' ball. Of course, the NFL's biggest shill outside of Goodell, Dean Blandino, could explain it all away for concerned fans...sort of.
This Bears v. Lions game was funky above and beyond the above ruling. Of course, the ball ultimately bounced the Lions way, giving them their first win of the season. A home win. Much like the Bears unlikely home victory back in Week 4. So here's two games not many NFL fans cared about and through a bit of sleight-of-hand, the NFL gave much needed wins to the home team. Neither of which will affect who wins the division (Packers) or the playoff race, yet it helps "spread the love" among the league.
Speaking of divisional races, Monday's Eagles win over the Giants was a bit suspect as well. After Gruden got finished talking up how Eli Manning moved around in the pocket to make the offense work, Eli stood stone still and was repeatedly sacked. The Giants offense which trucked down the field in its opening drive failed to score again. So the Eagles haphazard offense pieced together a win (a home win) which tightened up the divisional race while keeping the Cowboys (still my chosen NFC playoff team) alive and well in the chase.
But perhaps the biggest snow job of the week had to come on Thursday night in the Falcons v. Saints match-up.
Look, if you've ever had a discussion about the NFL fixing its own games with someone who doubts this is possible, simply show them video of the Monday Night Football telecast of the Saints' first home game after Hurricane Katrina in 2006. That game was a complete fix, beginning to end. One of the most memorable highlights from that game was Steve Gleason blocking a Falcons punt which was returned for a touchdown.
They actually built a statue outside of the (insert name here for a price) SuperDome commemorating the event which was unveiled in 2012.
Now comes this past Thursday. Gleason, who is now confined to wheelchair having been sadly stricken with ALS, was awarded the George Halas Award by the Professional Football Writers Association at the game. In perhaps the greatest coincidence in recent NFL history, midway through the first quarter Saints linebacker Michael Mauti blocks a Falcons punt which is returned for a touchdown. Up 14-0 on the heavily favorite Falcons, the Saints cruise their way to a 31-21 upset home victory. Gleason actually tweets "Hey Falcons, #NeverPunt."
Seriously. That happened. And no one has dared call out CBS or the NFL out on this grand production.
And believe me, it was a production.
Many Americans don't follow soccer (no matter how hard ESPN attempts to push the sport) because when they watch it, they don't comprehend the rules. "What's offsides? Why is that guy getting a free kick? Who determines the extra time, and why is it added? Because that player rolled around on the field faking an injury, the game lasts three minutes longer? This sport is weird...."
So when UK fans show up at Wembley Stadium to watch the NFL, they have to have many of the same questions about American football (and they also wonder why the betting windows at Wembley are closed for the day).
This second of three games to be held in the UK this season featured a team that's unofficially become London's squad: the Jacksonville Jaguars. No team has played more overseas games than the Jags, and it will continue to do so, agreeing to play a "home" game a year in London through 2020. So is it any wonder that a game-deciding call went the "home" team's way in a game vs. the Bills, and in the process, left a lot of UK (and US) fans scratching their heads wondering what exactly constitutes pass interference?
Down 27-31 with three minutes remaining, Jags QB Blake Bortles threw a slightly off target pass on 3rd-and-15 which fell incomplete. The Jags would have to punt. Only, no, they wouldn't. The refs flagged Bills CB Nickell Robey for pass interference. Why? I have no idea. Watch the play and decide for yourself.
Actually, it doesn't matter what you think or what the rule book says, Robey was penalized for his play. The Jaguars were gifted a first down, and they went on to win 34-31. UK fans not only saw an exciting, last minute comeback victory, their "home" team won.
Of course, no one really cared because (a) it was the Bills vs. Jaguars and (b) this was the NFL's first streaming-only game, strictly available on Yahoo. A whopping 2.36 million worldwide tuned into the game (more than half of which were Americans). That's a far cry from the typical TV numbers even a bad game like this will draw (somewhere in the 20+ million range). But it was still considered a success (because of course it was), even though the NFL knows streaming games online isn't going to net the league the $6 billion a year it currently enjoys coming from the major TV networks. So I don't get what the NFL is up to with this. The "event" didn't open up the league to the world as it had hoped, and it can't make the likes of CBS and FOX too happy. Baby steps, I guess.
Not much else of note happened this week, besides the Redskins' greatest comeback in team history vs. the Buccaneers. Once again, it was a game few cared about, and once again, it was a great home win (have you noticed this on-going "trend" here?). Here's a good takeaway about this comeback. The Redskins were penalized four times for 20 yards. The Buccaneers? They were flagged 16 times for 142 yards! Twelve of those penalties were called after the Bucs posted a 24-0 first half lead. Think that made a difference in the outcome?
Otherwise, let's see how long the NFL can use the five remaining undefeated teams. One - either the Packers or Broncos - will have to lose in Week 8 on Sunday Night Football. But the reminders could keep this hype train rolling for a long, long time....Hopefully not long enough to have two undefeateds matching up head-to-head in the Super Bowl. That would just be ridiculous. Right?
WEEK 7 ADDENDUM: I posted Week 7 prior to the end of Monday Night Football as I was leaving town the next morning. So I failed to mention how the Ravens may have been screwed on their final, potentially game-tying drive against the Cardinals because (once again this season) their communication equipment failed. According to John Harbaugh, the team was having issues all game, but this intensified during the team's final drive. Did it lead to Joe Flacco's game-ending interception? Not likely. But it certainly didn't help the Ravens' chances.
I just have to add that I've worked in the music industry for nearly 20 years, and have seen an untold number of live performances. Never have I seen/heard a wireless system fail - even when used by a lame bar band. Yet this $10+ billion industry, equipped with state-of-the-art wireless systems direct from their corporate sponsors have twice failed this season? And both times it affected the losing, away team? I don't believe this is an accident, a system failure, or a mere coincidence. It's just more of the NFL's shenanigans.
Unfortunately for me, not only do I live in Packers-land, I married a Packers fan. And despite the books I've written and this website, she still demands we watch the Packers every Sunday.
What I saw on Sunday Night Football was not the Packers.
Now, I know this may sound crazy, but I swear I'm not making this up. Just prior to the game kicking off, NBC showed the Packers coming out of the tunnel and onto the field. There was an odd look on Aaron Rodgers' face. I saw it, turned to my wife, and told her, "it's not his night."
I've seen that look before. Not often. But when I see it, I know it, and it's always meant doom for the player/team on who's face its plastered. (Peyton Manning had a more drastic look of pre-game failure prior to the Super Bowl he lost to the Saints). Did it mean ARog knew this game was going Denver's way? In my gut, I'd say "yes." He knew what was coming and what had to be done.
If you watched this game, the bias Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth showed toward the Broncos was undeniable. It was as if the Packers weren't a 6-0 team, but some 1-5 also-ran playing a future champion in Denver. It was never, "What's wrong with the Packers' and their offense?" Instead, it was always "How great is Manning and this Denver defense?" The Packers were an afterthought. Tack on to that the halftime tribute Bob Costas gave to Denver's owner Pat Bowlen, and there was no other outcome possible on Sunday night than a Broncos victory.
This game and its coinciding broadcast may have been a bit of NFL propaganda, gearing the public up for a Manning & Co. Super Bowl...after they eliminate the "cheating" Patriots in a final Brady v. Manning playoff duel.
Meanwhile, other stuff happened. In a rare turn of events, a slew of home teams dropped close games: the Bears, Steelers, Falcons and Cowboys all lost. Of course, the Bears and Steelers losses helped (likely future playoff teams) the Vikings and (still undefeated) Bengals while Matt Ryan literally gave the game to the Buccaneers. The Vikings success may be a bit surprising to people, but don't forget they are one of the "new stadium" teams. The NFL loves seeing teams in need of or receiving a new stadium to be successful so the locals don't feel too ripped off having to publicly fund a private company.
But to me, the Cowboys loss to the Seahawks is a bit perplexing. Maybe I was wrong thinking this was the Cowboys' year as the NFL could've certainly assisted Matt Cassel to a win on Sunday. But it didn't. Though the Giants dropped a wild one to the Saints, maybe it's NYC that's about to make a run in the NFC.
One home team that didn't lose a tight one was the still undefeated Panthers who blew a huge 4th quarter lead to Andrew Luck and the Colts only to come back and win in OT. That had to make ESPN happy. I mean, that broadcast only cost the network about $110-120 million (which I would guess was probably more than a year's worth of operating costs on its now-defunct website Grantland). Those MNF games can't all be like Thursday night's snooze-fests.... And don't forget, even though Luck's looked bad and the Colts lost, at 3-5 they're still in first place. He gets healthy, and this is a playoff team with an NFL-anointed QB at the helm. Who else of worth is going to come out of that division?
Lastly, recall prior to the season starting I mentioned how the 49ers were doomed thanks to the "Super Bowl curse?" Yeah, now that Colin Kaepernick has been benched, that's a done deal.
So after saving Peyton Manning for two full months, the Broncos defense completely failed in their game against the Colts, ending the team's shot at an undefeated season. But it wasn't a failure in terms of pass coverage or run-stopping (though it did contribute to the defeat). No, the Denver D lost all discipline, culminating in this:
Who does that? Who just walks up to someone else and pokes them in the eye? And how did CBS have a camera ready to capture it?
The odd part was that although Jim Nance and Phil Simms lavished even more praise on Manning, the QB legend fell a mere 3 yards shy of breaking Brett Favre's all-time passing yardage mark in the loss. Was it intentional? Manning can now break Favre's record while also setting a new record for all-time wins by a QB on Sunday at home versus the Chiefs. What are the chances that doesn't play out on national TV during the Peyton Manning send-off celebration of 2015?
This game along with the Sunday night Eagles v. Cowboys matchup and Monday night's stellar Bears vs. Chargers game, all came down to the final moments, leaving the games (and the point spread) uncertain. All three games had lines of 3 or 3.5, and remarkably, two of the games ended with a three point differential while the Eagles beat the Cowboys by six...in overtime. How'd that do for ratings and keeping fans tuned in until the bitter end?
Meanwhile, the Bengals, Panthers, and Patriots all remained unbeaten. The Bengals beat up on poor Johnny Football (no surprise), while the Panthers' D made MVP Aaron Rodgers look just as clueless at times. But here's my question about the Patriots steamrolling the Redskins: While the Pats' win wasn't a shock - even though they somehow won with only 4 healthy O-linemen - how is it that during this "dynasty" no one's figured out Brady and the Pats' offense? I mean, the run-and-shoot, the wildcat, Tim Tebow - every offensive scheme gets countered sooner or later by the defensive coordinators in this league (same as things like the 46 defense have their weaknesses exposed). But Brady and Belichick? They keep winning despite having a vanilla offensive scheme which, barring Gronk, is lacking in real "playmakers." So how come no one can figure out how to stop these guys in the past 12 years? It doesn't seem possible, yet here they are again and undefeated.
A fan of the site, Norman, sent me this link to USA Today's answer (sort of) to the very question I posed above. I think that writer's argument is BS as it doesn't take into account the fact that the Pats have been running this scheme for more than a decade. Nor does he question the Pats cheating ways. Don't forget that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was busted in what's called Spygate II while he was the Broncos head coach. After that incident, he came crawling back to Belichick who eagerly took him back. Wonder why? Could it be these are two cheaters willing to stop at nothing?
That said, they will not go undefeated, nor will they win the Super Bowl. Ain't no way that happens.
Let me start this week with talking about this:
(Ronda Rousey or a symbolic representation of NFL bettors this weekend?)
Now, I hold absolutely no ill will against former UFC champion Ronda Rousey (as many suddenly seem to possess). But I want to use her stunning defeat as a springboard to talk about odds and oddsmaking.
After this fight, many - in retrospect - seemed to think Holly Holm's victory was obvious. A foregone conclusion. Some even point to Rousey's appearance on The Tonight Show as a harbinger of doom, where she seems to predict her loss to Holm.
Yet in Las Vegas and at other legal betting establishments, Rousey was a huge favorite. I saw Rousey's odds posted as a -1000 favorite (and as high as -1200 in some places) while Holm was an underdog with a price of +850 which slowly lowered (to around +650) as fight night approached.
To many, this would lead to the conclusion that "Vegas" (let's use that term loosely as a collective for all legal gambling outlets) assumed Rousey would win. Why else would the odds be so lopsided, right?
In reality, there may not have been a single oddsmaker out there who truly thought Rousey would win. As I've learned and written about over the years, the odds and betting lines do not reflect the oddsmakers' actual assessment of a future outcome. In other words, they are a work of fiction. Created by individuals not to truly "handicap" a match-up, but rather intended to manufacture equal betting interest on the event in question. All these "experts" who discuss the odds/betting lines/point spreads never discuss this fact. Instead, it's often treated as Gospel, despite the basis of its creation. "Upsets," when the occur, are only upsets in relation to these fairy tale "odds." I'm sure Holm never thought of her victory as an "upset." For her, it was a win (and hopefully, not a tainted one as she's tied to a company that sells supplements banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency).
So the odds/lines really reflect the betting public's own beliefs. Nothing more. And most of the time, the betting public is foolhardy, if not outright delusional. Except in the case of Rousey v. Holm. Here, they were very right and, if the stories are to be believed, Vegas lost big on Holm's KO of Rousey.
Then came the NFL.
Let's just start with this summation of Sunday:
NFL underdogs went 10-2 against the spread Sunday with nine outright upsets. Related: Vegas is rich.
For the betting public, Sunday left many looking like Rousey post-KO: bloody. The Lions beat the Packers in Lambeau Field for the first time since 1991 as Aaron Rodgers lost all comprehension of how to lead his offense. Despite the Lions giving the Pack not one, but two chances to win (thanks to two blown extra point attempts and Calvin Johnson's inability to catch an easy pop-up of an onside kick), Mason Crosby's whiffed field goal attempt gave the Lions a win. As a "kicker'" (pun intended) the Lions only had 10 men on the field when this happened:
NFL underdogs went 10-2 against the spread Sunday with nine outright upsets. Related: Vegas is rich.— David Payne Purdum (@DavidPurdum) November 16, 2015
The Buccaneers beat the Cowboys (handing them their 7th straight loss) thanks to a pair of questionable calls. Dez Bryant appeared set to catch the game-winning touchdown until he was pushed in the back by Bucs safety Brandon McDougald. No P.I. was called on McDougald. Then, just as the Bucs were on the verge of winning with a TD of their own, Jameis Winston fumbled the ball into the Cowboys arms. But a defensive holding call against Jeff Heath (which occurred on the opposite side of the field from the play), gave the Bucs a second life, and ultimately, the game.
Another team benefited from an unlikely second chance was the Jaguars, who lost their game to the Ravens, except, well, they didn't. The officials completely blew an illegal formation/false start penalty with no time on the clock, and instead called facemasking on the Ravens Elvis Dumervil, giving the Jags an extra down and 15 yards - just enough to get them into field goal position for the eventual game-winning kick. The NFL admitted this critical error, but do the Ravens get the win? Nope. Have the refs who screwed up been punished? Not publicly. Just another case of the NFL altering a victory, then shrugging its collective shoulders as it tells its fans, "Oh well. What're you going to do about it?"
But wait, there's more!
The Chiefs beat the Broncos as Peyton Manning broke Brett Favre's all-time passing yardage record, and then proceeded to do his best Favre impression by tossing four interceptions. He was benched. No, wait. He was injured. No, wait. He was nursing a rib injury prior to the game, and according to head coach Gary Kubiak, shouldn't have even played! Funny Kubiak came to that conclusion because Manning was listed as "Probable" on the team's official injury report - with a foot injury. Where'd this "rib injury" come from that was so bad Manning shouldn't have played? Technically, this breaks NFL rules regarding the injury list, but no one's raising an eyebrow over it. Not now that Manning's really hurt (though I never saw him limping around on this torn plantar fascia on Sunday) and the potential of having him win Super Bowl 50 appears to be drifting away. What will the league impliment as its backup plan?
Oh, no. Not the Patriots.
Once again, we have no clear cut idea of what's a catch or a touchdown in a league whose games rely on knowing when each of these events actually occur. Example #1,458,016: Odell Beckham's non-TD catch:
Two feet down in the end zone with clear control apparently doesn't mean it's a touchdown because the league now claims he has to "act like a runner." What? When this come into being?
So after the (perhaps game-winning) TD was taken away, the Giants forgot how to bleed the clock, kicked a field goal, and then allowed Tom Brady & Co to march down field and kick the real game-winning field goal with no time left.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Plus, I really want to get back to playing Star Wars Battlefront on Xbox One (if you're playing too, let me know and I'll give you my ID and you can shoot me in the back like all the 12-year olds playing the game do). I mean, the Bengals blew a home Monday night game against the Texans for cry-eye, giving yet another win to Vegas. I've never given too much credence to the idea that Vegas and the NFL work together to fleece the public (never bet on whom the "public" takes), but after this weekend? I'm not so sure. I still don't think "Vegas" is involved, but to think the NFL doesn't deal with the mafia that controls the real betting going on in the illegal gambling trade isn't too far fetched. Not after they all cleaned up in incredible fashion, making not only the bookies happy, but tightening up every playoff race to keep more teams in the hunt, more games meaningful, and more fans hooked on this drug known as the NFL.
Whatever happened to family programming on television? I can recall as a youth sitting around the TV with my entire family to watch several shows we could all enjoy on one level or another (or at least somewhat stomach). Granted, this was a time before most homes featured 3+ TVs with attached DVRs and/or streaming services allowing kids to watch cartoons in one room, teenagers to watch the Kardashians in another, while the parents watch some version of CSI/Law & Order in which police uncover the true criminal based on the variety of bodily fluids left at the crime scene. But if you search the listings on most prominent TV networks today, you'd be hard pressed to find a show everyone in the family could really come together and enjoy. Even the Muppets have been corrupted into less than "family friendly" shows - and they're now owned by freakin' Disney!
Almost by default sports has filled this programming void. But is that a good thing? Not on the "Is this a legitimate competition or is it all fixed" level, but in the honest to goodness, "Is this really family entertainment?"
Let's run down the NFL this weekend with this question in mind.
For starters, just look at the vast majority of commercials aired during these broadcasts. The main products advertised are sex (Viagra & Cialis), gambling (FanDuel & DraftKings), and alcohol (beer, beer, and more beer plus some bourbon, whiskey, and vodka for good measure). All that's good for the kiddies and teens, right?
But what about the main attraction?
Well, we can start with racism I suppose. Washington Redskins defensive end Jason Hatcher declared that the reason his team doesn't get any calls from the referees is because his team is named the Redskins. While I'm not about to open the whole can of worms that is whether the Redskins should/shouldn't keep their name, what if this just isn't the typical "boo, hoo, things aren't going my way" type of rant, but rather a legitimate gripe? What if the NFL isn't giving the 'Skins any benefit of doubt in a subtle push to get the team to change its name to appease the growing PC culture that's overwhelming America today?
Perhaps the focal point of Hatcher's moaning appeared to be a second quarter pass from the Panthers Cam Newton to Greg Olsen which was knocked into the air when Redskins CB Chris Culliver collided with Olsen. The pass was subsequently intercepted and returned 75-yards for a touchdown, putting the Redskins up 20-14. Except the play was called back as Culliver was flagged for unnecessary roughness for hitting Olsen in the "head/neck area."
Now I've heard some sports pundits say of this play, "Well, big deal. It was called back. The game was still tied 14-14 at the time, and from that point on the Panthers dominated to win 44-16." This is true, but what about something called momentum? If the 'Skins were suddenly up 21-14 (after the extra point), wouldn't that have necessarily changed the entire flow of the game? Might not that have altered each team's approach to the remainder of this contest?
I mean, let's be honest. One play in the middle of a game can, in fact, alter an entire game. If the pundits' argument of "it was still early" held any water, then a three-run home run hit in the 4th inning to put a team up by two runs doesn't matter because there's still five innings of baseball to play. Or a early second period goal to break a 0-0 tie doesn't affect the rest of an NHL playoff game because there's still 35 minutes of hockey to be played. Culliver's play mattered to the outcome of that contest. It helped keep the Panthers undefeated, and notched another loss in the NFC East...where my early season pick of the Cowboys came back to life with Romo at the helm this week.
If a team name isn't bothersome to the kiddies, how does violence sit with the family? Let's examine the ignored Rams v. Ravens game. With the score tied at 13-13 and 1:10 remaining in the game, the Rams have the ball on their own 41-yard line, driving toward a potential game-winning field goal attempt. On second-and-ten, the Ravens' Elvis Dumervil is flagged for a neutral zone infraction and the refs blow their whistles to stop the play. Only this happens:
No one helps poor Casey Keenum (except that lineman, sort of). Even though recently demoted QB Nick Foles immediately began to warm up, Rams coach Jeff Fisher leaves Keenum in the game. The next play he throws an incomplete pass. And on third down, he sacked again, fumbles, the Ravens recover and less than a minute later win the game with a field goal.
Chris Mortensen said at halftime on ESPN's Monday Night Football that the league was going to have a meeting with all its teams and their officials about this incident to ensure it doesn't happen again. Wait a second. THE NFL ALREADY HAS ASSURED US THAT IT HAS EVERY POSSIBLE SAFEGUARD IN PLACE TO MAKE SURE THIS "NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN." All the "concussion protocols" and medical personnel and spotters already in place didn't help Keenum on Sunday, nor are of all these "precautions" going to help the next unfortunate athlete to get his "bell rung." This is all lip-service said to assure fans that they aren't watching a true blood sport--despite the very real fact that it is!
So we've got "family entertainment" filled alleged racism and excessive violence bookended by advertisements promoting all seven of the deadly sins. Why not toss a little "R" rated language in there for fun?
How many close-ups of Tom Brady or Rex Ryan dropping F-bombs could ESPN have shown on MNF? I lost count myself. But the pair did have good reason to be so upset.
Look, if you went to see an orchestra supposedly comprised of the "best of the best" musicians America has to offer, and each time a soloist attempted to perform they screwed up their part because of what you can only call basic incompetence, you (a) wouldn't be satisfied with the product and (b) probably wouldn't go see another show featuring those same performers.
But if this was the NFL and its officiating crews, well, you can't stop people from watching these goofs screw up week after week.
Monday night's Bills vs. Patriots game featured the "inadvertent whistle" which was a call screwed up in three ways, none of which was corrected despite a lengthy discussion about it--despite the refs being hardwired to NFL HQ in New York City. First, the whistle shouldn't have been blown (my theory - the ref though Brady was throwing the ball away and not attempting an actual pass), second, he blew the whistle prior to Amendola catching it, making the play dead and what should have been an honest to goodness "do over," and third, the penalty on Rex Ryan for "interference" would not have counted as the play was dead. One play, three screw ups, and not one official is sanctioned, demoted, or lost his job. Ah, the integrity of the NFL.
Oh, but wait! There's more! Another official blew the final call of the game. Instead of ruling Bills WR Sammy Watkins out of bounds and stopping the clock with :02 left as he should have, the ref in question here let the clock run and gave the Patriots a win. Here's the play:
Sammy Watkins was never touched and rolled out of bounds, they should have one more play with 2 seconds left pic.twitter.com/AQF7zmiIc3— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) November 24, 2015
Happy Thanksgiving & avoid the NFL on Thursday, folks! It's not wholesome, family entertainment.
I'm sure I'm going to disappoint a fair amount of my fans, but I'll be honest: I didn't watch a lick of football this week outside of the Bears v. Packers game Thanksgiving night (because I had to) and the last three minutes of the Ravens v. Browns Monday night game (which had to be a production because no one should've been watching that game, yet its outcome was decided on the last play). I received a ton of emails about how the refs screwed the Patriots out of the Sunday night game against the Broncos, and thanks to Rick, I learned that the refs jobbed the Titans in their loss versus the Raiders.
So since I don't feel I have the proper perspective on which to comment on this week's round of contests, I want to play a little game - the "what if?" game.
Here's the thing. The NFL is playing this game itself right now. I could be wrong, but I believe only three AFC teams (Browns, Chargers, and Titans) and one NFC team (49ers - go fig) are truly out of the running for a playoff spot. The Cowboys sans Romo (again) could be included in that list, but given the state of the NFC East, the 'Boys are only two games out of first place.
So here we are, entering Week 13, and the NFL's fabled "parity" has allowed fans from 28 of the league's 32 teams to think "what if we make the playoffs?" I don't think I have to spell it out for you, but those strange upsets that have recently taken place tightened up every division, every conference, and as a result, will continue to make nearly every game played matter...how fortunate for the NFL.
So let me ponder a few things related to this:
What if Peyton Manning isn't really injured? Sure, his foot is in a walking boot, but as mentioned above, I never saw the man limp despite a torn tendon/ligament in his foot. What if the Broncos - and by extension, the league - is protecting him for the time being? The Broncos are already playoff bound, so why not put old man Manning on ice for a while and save him for when the games really count again? Osweiler appears to be the odd backup QB that can actually play NFL football...at least enough to keep the media asking questions about who should start, is Manning going to be traded, or retire, blah, blah, blah. But what if it's all a ruse intended to build suspense and interest until Manning's return for that final Super Bowl push?
What if the Panthers really go undefeated into the playoffs (or beyond)? Will NFL fans believe it? Will you accept that team as one of the NFL's greatest ever? With that roster? With Cam Newton leading the charge? What if the Panthers success is just a device to help breed a new era of QBs? Let's face it, Manning, Brady, Brees, Palmer, etc. are getting old. What fresh crop of star QBs is on the horizon? Kurt Cousins? Ryan Tannehill? David Carr? Jameis Winston? Tyrod Taylor? Yeah, Teddy Bridgewater is helming the 8-3 Vikings, but does anyone really think it's Bridgewater that's made the team a playoff contender? The NFL needs star power at the QB position, and the Johnny Manziels and RGIIIs aren't panning out. If this is going to be a passing league, then there needs to be players who can not just throw, but put up record setting numbers. Who amongst these young QBs appears capable of doing that? What if Cam Newton is actually the face of the future NFL?
What if the league has two sub-.500 teams win divisions? It's possible in both the NFC East and the AFC South. Though I doubt it will transpire, right now the Redskins and Giants lead the division at 5-6 while the Texans and Colts sit tied atop theirs at 6-5. None of these teams look playoff good, yet Eli Manning and (a currently injured) Andrew Luck reside on two of the four squads mentioned. Which teams would the NFL perfer to make it through, no matter their records? Manning and Luck, or Cousins and whoever is QBing for the Texans? (Hey, at least the Texans have JJ Watt). With a couple of teams looking to play musical cities and abandon their current homes for the allure of LA, might not the NFL be ready to either realign or change how teams make the playoffs? Having slop like these teams reach the playoffs because of divisional titles might stir the competition committee into action. What if the end game here is to "create excitment" with a new playoff system?
What if the Bears, Buccaneers, and Raiders all make the playoffs? Nevermind, they won't. Each teams' chance is between slim and none, yet it's enough hope to get fans calling into sports talk radio and tuning in on Sunday to see if miracles really do happen. (Sorry, they don't.)
What if the Patriots are playing "off script?" What if the referees' take over on Sunday night - which actually got Skip Bayless to tweet out stuff like this:
Congrats to CJ Anderson and Brock Osweiler. Both played very well. But after Gronk went down and the refs took over, outcome inevitable.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) November 30, 2015
was to ensure the Patriots not just lost, but reminded the franchise who has the power? I honestly cannot see the Patriots reaching the Super Bowl, much less winning it. Not after Deflategate made Goodell and Co. look like buffoons (it's not that hard to do, but...). There's no way Goodell could happily hand over the Lombardi Trophy to Brady with a smile on his face, no matter how chummy he is with Robert Kraft. So they have to fall. But it certainly doesn't look like they want to. Despite injuries tearing that roster apart, they keep winning....until the refs said "no more" Sunday night. What if the Patriots are actually the good guys, and not the villains? What if they are playing "off script" because they don't want to play football the way the NFL demands (as in, throw games when told)?
What if we're treated to a Cardinals v. Bengals Super Bowl 50? Or a Chiefs v. Falcons championship game? Those are possible outcomes. They're not sexy by any means. But what if that's what the NFL doles out? What will it mean in the grand scheme of things?
Feel free to play the "what if" game yourself. There's a lot of choices and questions to ask with these remaining weeks, but I doubt the NFL is going to leave it's golden Super Bowl up to chance.
I wanted to write off the Packers v. Lions game as just one of those things. But the more I heard about it, the more I thought about it, I just couldn't.
Just so we're clear. The main play in question wasn't what it was called as. Devin Taylor, the Lions player called for facemasking Aaron Rodgers, said he "didn't believe he touched it [Rodger's mask]." Rodgers, of course, stated the exact opposite, "I don't really flop any calls. That was a legit face mask." Yet even Pro Football Weekly admitted this wasn't a facemask. Football Zebras stated this was the wrong call, but correctly made. Huh? If it's not a foul, then it shouldn't have been flagged. There is a difference between what something may look like, and what it really it.
But I'm really starting to wonder if this entire game wasn't a set-up. The Lions big lead, the Packers comeback, the facemask, the "hail mary," all of it.
On the lateral play which should've been the final play had the facemask penalty not been assessed (and would Matthew Stafford gotten that call if the roles were reversed?), what were the two Lions defenders thinking? Rodgers completes the initial pass, it's lateraled, then it's thrown back to Rodgers who (a) can't throw another forward pass, (b) has no blockers around him, and (c) has no one behind him to lateral the ball. He'd dead in the water. The Lions defense could've just let him run towards a sidelines and wait for the other nine defenders to close in on him. But no, in the age of head trauma, Taylor doesn't go for Rodgers' waist, he swings for his head. Why? It was as if he was begging for a flag. If not the facemask, then an illegal blow to the head. Either way, the game's extended.
Which leads to the hail mary. Apparently, even after the Packers lateral play completely failed, the Lions assumed they would run it again, despite a 60 yard pass/hail mary being well within any NFL QB's reach:
Which only somewhat explains why two Lions were defending completely empty areas of the field when the ball was thrown.
It doesn't explain why two or three Lions were standing at the back of the endzone when the ball was launched and airborne.
Sure, you could chalk it all up to bad coaching. I mean, these are the Lions, a sub-.500 team whose 90+ year old owner recently fired most of the team's management. There were a lot of questionable decisions the team made in this game. The one that stuck out to me was the offense's inability to find Calvin Johnson (arguably one of the top 10 if not top 5 WRs in football) in the second half. When the Packers stacked eight men in the box to stop the run - which they did with a surprising frequency - the Lions didn't counter by throwing to Megatron who was covered man-to-man with zero defensive help over the top. No, they decided to run the ball using their 31st ranked running game.
But like the wrong call being right, maybe the "bad" coaching was exactly as intended. Maybe the Lions were intentionally setting the table for this made-for-TV drama. Because, believe it or not, Rodgers and TE Richard Rodgers (who caught the pass) ACTUALLY PRACTICED THE HIGH ARCHING HAIL MARY PASS BEFORE THE GAME, supposedly "for fun." If that doesn't flat-out tell you this was a production, I don't know what else can. That and the fact that the betting line was Packers -3 or -2.5, and the TD let them cover the spread. A nice little bonus for Vegas (and their larger, shadier bookie friends nationwide) considering this fact:
So CBS gets yet another primetime game to come down to literally the final play, the NFL has yet another controversial call which it supposedly hates but secretly relishes because it gets fans and pundits talking, the Lions are eliminated from the playoffs (as they rightfully should be), the Packers get a needed win to ensure their star QB reaches the playoffs where he's needed while increasing his legend Green Bay, and Vegas cleans up thanks to the "bad beat."
All just coincidence, right?
So I'm listening to a sports radio show on Monday, and the host says, "Boy, did you see that Patriots v. Eagles game? When that Eagles RB [Kenjon Barner - not mega-priced free agent DeMarco Murray or Darren Sproles] fumbled [which came after a very ill-advised Eagles time out, helping the Patriots] his third down carry and gave Tom Brady a minute a game clock to potentially tie the game, I could swear the NFL was duping me. That this was just like something out of the WWE. It was just too much to be believed." At which point the co-host chimed in, "Yeah, but isn't that what makes the NFL great?" "Yeah," the host responded, "It really does." It's right in front of this guy, and he just doesn't get it or won't accept it.
Look at Sunday's games: the aforementioned Eagles v. Patriots contest came down to the wire (only because the Patriots special teams completely imploded), the Jets v. Giants game ended in OT (thanks to some highly questionable play calling and Eli Manning's questionable passing), the 49ers v. Bears game ended in OT, the Buccaneers upset (?) the Falcons in the final minute, the usual train wreck of the Jaguars v. Titans turned into a high scoring shoot-out decided in the final moments as did the Saints near upset of the still-undefeated Panthers. I don't know if one could classify any of that as good football, but it certainly made for good entertainment, didn't it? Just ask that radio show host.
Then there was the Monday night game. A 9-9 snooze-fest until the final minutes (yet again in a prime time game) when Deshawn Jackson made an ill-advised backwards punt return/fumble, handing the Cowboys their first TD of game. Then on the ensuing kickoff, a good return coupled with a facemasking penalty (not on the returnman, but on a blocker) gave the Redskins great field position and bam! Jackson "makes up" for the fumble by catching the game tying TD. But wait! On the kickoff, Dallas got a great return which a few plays later set up the game-winning field goal. And miraculously, the Cowboys' win (tied to the Redskins' loss) keeps the dumpster fire of the NFC East very interesting for the playoff race.
I really can't comprehend how more people can't/won't/don't see through these "coincidences" for what they really are: manipulated entertainment events.
So was this a catch on Monday Night Football or not?
I only ask because the referee standing not three feet from the play said it wasn't. Notice he didn't rule Odell Beckham Jr. out-of-bounds, he signaled incomplete because the ball hit the ground (which isn't visible in the above replay, but trust me, Beckham's momentum carried him and the ball some distance across the turf). And shouldn't the official know the rules on what's a catch and what isn't? Despite making an final ruling on a play he clearly saw, instant replay overturned this and made it a touchdown because of course it did. The NFL and ESPN got another highlight Beckham catch to add to the on-going hype machine.
Consider this (and you might want to pass this fact along to all your non-believing friends): ESPN shells out $1.9 billion a season right now to broadcast MNF. That's over $110 million per game, prior to adding the additional costs for Tirico, Gruden, the cameramen, directors, producers, equipment, etc. So let's call it $120 million per game. That's a lot of cash for a single football game.
Now, I don't know if you've heard, but ESPN's parent company Disney is releasing a new movie this week:
The estimated budget for Star Wars: The Force Awakens is rumored to be $200 million (prior to any advertising costs, which on a film like this, usually double its budget). This film could potentially make $2 billion worldwide, giving Disney a 10x return on its investment.
Now I could be wrong, but I'd guess since Disney bought the rights for Star Wars from George Lucas (for an alleged $4 billion) and kindly pushed the old codger aside, the company hasn't left anything to chance with this initial Star Wars-related project. They brought in the best writers they could (including one of the writers who worked on Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), hired the best available director (JJ Abrams who revitalized the Star Trek film franchise), and cast the brightest young actors they thought best fit the roles. They are doing all they possibly can to ensure this movie is not just a winner, but launches several more successful films with which the company can not just recoup those costs, but make a significant profit. I mean, that'd be the smart business decision to make here, right?
So, then what's ESPN doing with MNF? Is the company really leaving that $1.9 billion investment up the chance? Did Disney write that check out to the NFL while saying to itself, "Well, I hope these games are somewhat entertaining...." Or like with Star Wars, is everyone involved doing everything possible to ensure these $120 million-a-week productions are as thrilling as freakin' possible? Because that would indeed be the wisest business decision to make.
And this week's MNF game didn't disappoint as the deciding play in the Giants win over the Dolphins didn't occur until the final two minutes of the game. Something that hearkened back to the Thursday Night Football game where the Cardinals victory over the Vikings wasn't secured until the final seconds of that game.
It's just amazing that these prime-time match-up keep coming down to the wire by coincidence, isn't it?
I typically throw a lot of shade toward the referees and players on this site, so let me turn my attention to the coaches for once this week. Because if I headed a business (such as an NFL team) that was worth perhaps $1 billion (such as an NFL team), I wouldn't allow these men to run my company after the decisions they made. For example:
--The Dolphins Dan Campbell. Granted, he's just an interm head coach, but after watching RB Lamar Miller break off two long TD runs with ease against the Giants in the first half, why didn't he keep feeding Miller the ball? And why didn't he make absolutely sure Odell Beckham Jr. was double covered all night? Instead, Miller was barely given a carry in the second half (12 carries for the entire game) and Beckham was left uncovered (2 TDs, including a 84-yard reception). Could that be because the main focus of the broadcast was the friendship between Beckham and Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry (targeted 18 times with 11 receptions) who exchanged jerseys after the game? The Dolphins loss knocked them out of the playoffs, ensured the Patriots are in the playoffs, and kept the horrific NFC East nice and tight for the final three games.
--Speaking of the NFC East, how is the Cowboys Jason Garrett employed? That team is a complete train wreck, led by a weak armed-Matt Cassel. Of course with Jerry Jones at the helm....
--The Vikings Mike Zimmer. Oh, I know. The team's a contender, perhaps playoff bound if all shakes out right (won't that make the MN taxpayers happy for funding the team's new stadium?). But trailing by three points with the clock ticking down under 20 seconds, he allows Teddy Bridgewater to fade back on third down to throw a deep ball - which gets stripped from his hand and is recovered by Arizona to win the game - rather than attempting a 49-yard, game-tying field goal. Genius. There were so many ways this play could've gone wrong (and one way in which it did), that kicking at that point in time only made sense. Except, not to Zimmer. So now the Cardinals are in the playoffs while the Vikings loss keeps both the NFC North and the NFC Wildcard race interesting.
--The Bills Rex Ryan. Has this guy ever done anything of note besides mouth off? And how do you let your star running back "Shady" McCoy show allegance to your opponent by kissing the Eagles' logo at midfield and hugging the Eagles owner (his former employer)? Oh, I heard he flipped the bird to the Eagles' sidelines (which didn't make the highlight reel), still those two displays couldn't be too reassuring to the Bills' faithful. And sure enough, McCoy wasn't the game-changer his pre-game talk alluded to. The Eagles won, keeping that NFC East...well, you know.
--The entire Texans coaching staff. Head coach Bill O'Brien plus their defensive coordinator, linebackers coach, and tight-end coach (as well as two starting players - QB Brian Hoyer and DT Vince Wilfork) ALL were former members of the Texans opponent this week, the Patriots. Yet all this team could muster was six points, losing 27-6. Seriously, if any team understood what the (depleted) Patriots were capable of doing and what sort of scheme they would run, it should've been this Texans team which was playing at home and fighting for a playoff spot. Instead, they completely sh*t the bed. Unbelievable. Now thanks to the Jaguars destruction of the Colts (and while I'm at it, why is Chuck Pagano still employed in Indy?), all three teams are in the running for the abysmal AFC South title.
Let me bring up to other QB-related notes before I close out this week. Number one, how's that Brock Osweiler panning out in Denver? Looked very iffy against the Raiders, didn't he? Four first half field goals, then...crickets. I'm thinking my Peyton Manning "injury" story above isn't too far fetched. Number two, how about that Johnny Football? Is it just me, or does Manziel seem exactly like the type of guy who'd sell his soul for the fortune and fame the NFL could deliver? If he sticks around, my guess is he'd be the perfect "company man" for the league, willing to do its bidding when and where called for just because.
The sad part is, I think Johnny Football and his ilk are this league's future.
Here's Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio on Minnesota's KFAN radio being "facetious" about the NFL manipulating this coming week's Vikings game for the good of the league. It sounds like (a) he's thought about this subject before, (b) doesn't dismiss it, and (c) thinks you shouldn't either, but you know, he's just kidding. Of course, neither Florio or the KFAN host laugh at the "joke." Give it a listen for yourself and see what your conclusion is. (Thanks to Dennis on Twitter for the lead & recording)
I have to make this week's entry short and sweet because (a) it's the holidays and like many of you, I have family to deal with and (b) my computer is giving me issues. So if any of you readers have an up-to-date laptop you're willing to donate to The Fix Is In, we'd be happy to have it.
Now, on with the show...like the near Miracle in the Meadowlands.
This is the only game people are (seemingly) talking about, and for all the wrong reasons. Did I miss something, or did the NFL hire a few of the NBA's best and brightest referees to take over its officiating duties? Because the only reason it would make sense that Odell Beckham Jr. and (probably) Josh Norman weren't ejected from Sunday's game had to be due to an implementation of the NBA's "don't foul out the star" policy. And much like the NBA's manipulations, this one nearly altered the outcome of the game as Beckham's TD late in the fourth quarter tied the game (and cost me a berth in my fantasy league's Super Bowl, thank you very much). Had the Panthers not rallied for a field goal, they might not still be undefeated.
Of course, this entire game--the Panthers' huge lead, their inability to hold it, then the rally to win over the Giants--was pure theater. As was the victories in "final home games" of both the Rams (on Thursday night) and the Chargers. The Buccaneers threw away their playoff hopes by dropping their must-win game to the-soon-to-be-LA-again Rams while, after a shoulda-coulda-woulda win against the Giants last week, the Dolphins decided to leave their abilities in Miami when they traveled to San Diego. Both of these "good-bye" games reeked of sentimentalism, and both sent the home fans away with tears of joy in their eyes thanks to the wins.
The main thing worth noting this week, however, was the NFL's apparent abandonment of its own rules and code of operation. The league announced that it will expand its use of its communication abilities and allow NFL HQ to directly talk with on-the-field officals during this year's playoff games.
This is supposed to be a "limited" roll-out and only be used for "administrative" issues "regarding the correct application of playing rules" such as penalty yardage and clock operation. Do you believe that? That Dean Blandino and Co. won't chime in for any other reason during a game, such as a judgement call or anything else? (And that they haven't done so already?)
Now, surprisingly, former VP of Officiating and current FOX Sports analyst Mike Pereira sees through the league's charade. In this ESPN article, Pereira is quoted as saying, "There's really no context in the rule book [before this week's expansion] for allowing the replay official or New York to give any input [beyond replay], so it's not something they would acknowledge. But really, to think that it wasn't happening is probably being very, very, very naive."
Then Pereira drops this bombshell: "Basically, what it looks like is that the league office is making decisions on who possibly wins or loses the game," Pereira said. "You could go back to the old theory of the conspiracy of the Raiders, that the league didn't like [former owner] Al Davis and all the stuff that went along with it."
I can't believe someone with Pereira's pedigree would utter such a statement. But couple that with the quote from Mike Florio in Week 14.5 above, and you've got two major NFL media players openly stating that the league "may be" messing with games to get the results/match-ups it desires.
Keep that in mind moving forward, as this week the NFL cut some of its dead-weight teams and focused fan attention back on the major franchises. Sure, the league may have to deal with a .500 (or sub .500) team winning the NFC East and AFC South, but Super Bowl 50 isn't meant to be played by weaklings. It's meant for powerhouses and superstars.
And come hell or high water, that's what the league's going to deliver.
So now there's this:
Al Jazeera's undercover investigation of PEDs in sports which happened to kinda, sorta finger Peyton Manning as using HGH during his recovery from neck surgery in 2011. Before this documentary even ran, the guy named "Sly" pointing the finger at Manning released this (incredibly lame) retraction:
Manning's threatening to sue, and Al Jazeera's reporter on the story went on the Today show to kinda, sorta distance herself/the network from the allegations.
So what should we think about all of this?
Well, let's see. First off, it took Al Jazeera to actually investigate PED usage in sports. Not ESPN. Not Sports Illustrated. Not Deadspin. Al Jazeera. So is it any surprise that, secondly, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Deadspin and the rest are all instantly attacking the "shoddy journalism" of Al Jazeera in accusing Manning in its report on PED usage? Nevermind the bigger picture here of (a) how easy it is to obtain PEDs or (b) how shoddy all of sports testing programs are, no, let's attack the low hanging fruit of Manning's name appearing once in the hour long program. Third, remember when all of these same sports media outlets defended (or in ESPN's case, actually employed) Lance Armstrong while denying the accusations against him? Yeah, that turned out in Lance and the sports media's favor, didn't it?
Look, I don't know if Manning used PEDs or HGH. And honestly, neither do any of the sports media pundits defending him. But all of those same pundits lecturing Al Jazeera on their ethics need to take a good, long hard look in the mirror. At least that network is trying, and if those same pundit don't think that PEDs are being used by a vast majority of professional athletes, "naive" isn't strong enough word to use.
Seriously, the NFL has yet to catch a single one of its athletes using HGH. Not one in all of the supposed testing the league is conducting (which, don't forget, is completely done by the league without any sort of outside oversight). Yet I'm supposed to believe that every one of these supermen playing the game got that big, strong, and fast thanks to good food and exercise? That they can heal that quickly? That a 40-year old player like Manning or Brady can play at the same level as a bunch of 25-year olds? All of that just happens naturally without any sort of chemical or artificial help? Sure.
Oh yeah, and there was some football played this past week. Monday Night Football saw its 13th game this season end with a final score within a single score (eight points). That's normal. Funny what $110 million a week can buy ESPN.
The Panthers lost their bid to be undefeated to the Falcons. The Falcons. Seriously, I've had so many people email me asking if the Panthers would actually go undefeated this season and my response has been consistent: "Ain't no way the Panthers go undefeated because there's no reason that roster should be considered one of--if not the--best teams in NFL history." And now that they've lost, they can indeed be a Super Bowl team and keep the Cam Newton hype train rolling.
The Steelers lost to the Ravens. The Ravens. Any given Sunday, right? Especially the Sunday a week after "Vegas" lost its butt to the public. This week--and games like this one, the Jets over the Patriots (in OT no less), and the Browns keeping it tight with the Chiefs--"Vegas" got it all back...and then some.
I know critics of this site will say, "Ha! The NFL had chances to make more Week 17 games interesting, but they didn't. The NFC playoff picture is set [outside of the Vikings-Packers game on Sunday Night Football], and the AFC comes down to two or three games. If it was all about TV, how does that happen?"
Yes, the Redskins beat the Eagles (who axed Chip Kelly afterwards) and the Texans creamed the Titans. Had those two games gone the "preferred" way, the NFL would've had a few more games of interest on this upcoming week's slate. But at the same time, with the Redskins and Texans victories, it ensures that the NFL won't have a sub .500 team in the playoffs. In fact, it's probable both division winners will be 9-7. The NFL needs this because, if you haven't checked the standings recently, the NFL is resembling the NBA. Every non-playoff team with the exception of the Falcons and Jets/Steelers has a losing record. Fourteen teams are above .500 (12 make the playoffs) and 18 are below .500. In other words, 56 percent of this league has losing records. There are more bad teams than good. But if you just look at the playoff teams, you won't recognize this, will you? And that's good for the NFL--and for TV--especially heading into Super Bowl 50.
If you don't want to take the 11 minutes to watch his video, I'll hit the highlights for you. The video was posted on December 7, and he says two things of note: one, that Super Bowl 50 will be Carolina v. Denver and two, he predicted a "major scandal" to erupt from one of these two teams prior to then (the Al Jazeera Peyton Manning story anyone?). We'll see how he does shortly.
As for this week, well, only a few games mattered in the grand scheme of things. What was interesting was how those games played out because fans had to constantly keep one eye on the scoreboard all afternoon to know who was in, who was out, and where each team would ultimately be seeded. None of these games with "playoff implications" were determined until the fourth quarter.
In the first round (the 1 pm EST games), the Jets and Steelers duked it out for the last Wildcard spot while the Texans and the (longshot) Colts worked out the AFC South. The Colts won to keep the hometown faithful's fading hopes alive...until the Texans finished off the Jaguars and secured the division. The Steelers had to come back from an early deficit and didn't pull away from the lowly Browns until late in the 4th quarter while at the same time the Jets blew their playoff hopes in "Rex Bowl II" with three fourth quarter interceptions (with only the final one really sealing the deal). Meanwhile, the nothing-to-play-for Dolphins shockingly tore apart the Patriots' O-line, nearly knocked Tom Brady out for the playoffs, and walked away a 20-10 victor.
The Patriots' loss made the 4 pm EST games all the more interesting as if the Chiefs beat the Raiders and the Broncos lost to the Chargers, KC would win the AFC West whereas a Denver win would lock them in as the #1 seed in the AFC. And once again, both games were tight late into the fourth quarter as the Raiders didn't bow out until less than two minutes remained in the game while--surprise, surprise--Peyton Manning triumphantly came off the bench and helped rally the Broncos to a late victory, securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
All that was left to decide was the champion of the NFC North which was decided in the Vikings v. Packers Sunday night game. Despite the NFC's playoff teams already decided in Week 16, this game determined who would play who in the Wildcard round, making the game slightly more interesting that it should have been. Speaking of which, the Vikings managed to make the game more interesting that it should have been as late defensive lapses and a couple of fumbles (exactly why was Cordarrelle Patterson laughing after fumbling his kickoff return anyway?) gave Green Bay a shot to tie the game...on the very last play of the game...yet another "hail mary." Amazing how the final regular season game wasn't decided until the very last possible moment. I love how the NFL sucks everything it can out of its fans.
So we're on to the playoffs. Who's the story de jour? The streaking Redskins? The surging Seahawks? The nearly undefeated Panthers? The Andy Dalton-less Bengals? We'll see what the NFL has in store as we head toward Super Bowl 50, and who winds up being the league's fall guy.
Well, I thought the outcome in the Texans v. Chiefs game was pretty legit. In fact, why don't more playoff games end as lopsided as the 30-0 Chiefs' blowout? The Texans limped into the playoffs--some team had to win the AFC South--and the Chiefs were on a 10 game winning streak. This result should've surprised no one.
Even the Packers beating the Redskins wasn't that shocking. Some team had to win the NFC East, and since two of the three other NFC East team's fired their head coaches asap (right, Tom Coughlin "resigned") and the other should've followed suit, that left the Redskins. Record-wise, the Packers were the better team, and though their offense was non-existent for the second half of the season (and for the first quarter of this game), something woke Aaron Rodgers and away they went.
What was odd was seeing all four road teams win in the Wildcard round. I believe it was an NFL first. But if you look at the NFL in the manner I choose to, then these results aren't that surprising. It was very plausible that all four home teams won, and had they, the quarterbacks advancing to the next round would have been Brian Hoyer, AJ McCarron, Teddy Bridgewater, and Kirk Cousins. Instead, we have Alex Smith, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, and the aforementioned Aaron Rodgers. If you were the NFL and/or its broadcast partners, which group of QBs would you prefer to hype?
Oh, I know. The pundits will tell you that the difference maker was the "playoff experience" of the latter group of QBs. The former group entered their respective games with zero playoff victories and left with that same number. But c'mon. Playoff game or not, it's still football. Same game. Same rules. Does making it a "playoff" game really matter that much to the athletes on the field? Was it really pressure or "choking" that led to these results that put a smile on Roger Goodell's smarmy face?
So let's get to the ridiculousness of the weekend.
How does Vikings kicker Blair Walsh miss a 27 yard chip shot? I mean, he missed it bad. Like unbelievably bad for a guy who's profession is to kick field goals. You'd think someone with such a job would have to try really hard to miss it by that much given how close the Vikings were to the goal posts. But miss he did, and to his credit, Walsh absorbed all the blame.
Some pointed to the holder have the laces facing the wrong way (those are the people who watched Ace Ventura Pet Detective one too many times), yet Walsh nailed a longer kick earlier in the game under similar conditions. Some went so far as to completely break down the attempt, yet only Walsh and his foot really knows what went wrong.
Now, you'd think that if you completely blew a major opportunity in your company in a manner similar to the way Walsh did to the Vikings Super Bowl hopes, you'd find yourself either (a) limited in further advancement until you had proven otherwise or (b) unemployed. Walsh, however, doesn't exactly face such issues since he signed a four year, $14 million contract extension (with $5.25 million guaranteed) in the preseason.
Walsh isn't the only one to blame here, however. Adrian Peterson (you know, the guy who was suspended for 15 games for alleged child abuse last season and whom many said would never play for the Vikings again) didn't help matters as he fumbled--yet again--at a key moment in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings defense also allowed this game changing play to occur:
Seattle did something similar to Green Bay last year, yet to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, how lucky can one team be? More than some fans choose to believe as simply "luck."
Despite this, I could let all of the above slide. All of it, even Walsh's hard-to-fathom field goal miss. I mean sometimes that really just is the way the ball bounces.
But when it comes to that Steelers v. Bengals game, well...
How is this a catch?
Oh, I won't deny Martavis Bryant caught the ball. Not in the least. It was an amazing acrobatic feat. But there's no way he caught that ball--two feet down inbounds, with control, through the "process" of completing the reception--by the NFL's standards. We've seen much more obvious receptions declared incomplete, and yet, no one (and by that, I mean from the NFL or the media) seems to be labeling this as anything except a touchdown.
In an 18-16 game, those six points were huge, and yet, the call went the Steelers way. In fact, most of the calls I saw went the Steelers' way. As one fan of this site wrote me, it was as if the referees were throwing Terrible Towels instead of flags during this game. (The only call that didn't appear to go their way was the excessive celebration penalty on William Gay's non-TD).
First, there was a personal foul penalty for unnecessary roughness on the Bengals' safety Shawn Williams late in the first half for hitting a supposed "defenseless" Markus Wheaton--which was absurd because Wheaton wasn't a defenseless receiver, he caught the ball. It was a tackle, and worse yet, it was a legal hit on Wheaton, not a helmet-to-helmet blow. But the catch plus the 15 yards set the Steelers up for an easy field goal just before halftime.
This penalty is key because it set up what followed. Namely, this:
This was a legal hit...or so I've been told by the powers that be. No, Shazier didn't lead with the crown of his helmet. It wasn't a helmet-to-helmet hit on a defenseless receiver. It was a legal, well-timed tackle which knocked Giovanni Bernard out of the game. Worse still, the play was ruled a fumble which the Steelers recovered (though I'd argue it could've easily been called an incomplete pass if the refs so chose). So instead of a 15 yard penalty and it being Bengals' ball, first-and-10 on about the Steelers 12-yard line, the Bengals lost possession (and their running back).
Immediately following Bernard's injury, a bit of insanity resembling a bench-clearing baseball-style brouhaha ensued. But the referees took control of the game...or so I've been told again by TPTB...despite not flagging (or ejecting) anyone for unnecessarily being of the field or fighting. Had the referees actually taken control at that point, none of what follows would've been possible.
So a quarter, a Roethlisberger shoulder injury, and 17 unanswered Bengals points later, Vontaze Burfict's interception seals the game for the home team. Except, no. The WWE takes over. Jeremy Hill immediately fumbles the ball back to the Steelers, Big Ben returns from the locker room for the final drive, and then this followed:
Now, I'm not that naive to think Vontaze Burfict wasn't engaged in a bit of headhunting here (even though it was a shoulder-to-head hit, and not a helmet-to-helmet blow). And I'm not buying into Pacman Jones' theory that Antonio Brown was faking it. So I feel the 15 yard penalty here was justified (if not extremely foolish/dangerous).
But then the referees--who were "in control" remember--didn't appear so in control of the field as a downed Brown was being examined, allowing players as well as a few coaches to mill about, including the Steelers' LB coach Joey Porter. Words were exchanged, maybe a few players were spit on, and suddenly Pacman was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Let's not mince words here. The referees at that moment gave the Steelers the game. The Steelers had no timeouts remaining and only :18 seconds to play with, yet they went from the Bengals' 47 to their 17-yard line in a heartbeat. And the clock was stopped because of the foul. This set up the game-winning 35-yard field goal (no Blair Walsh syndrome here).
In my mind, Pacman Jones would've/should've had to do something so egregious to warrant that flag--without an offsetting penalty being assessed on the Steelers' Porter or its bench--that the refs' cannot justify their call. They had to realize assessing such a penalty was essentially giving the Steelers the game. Yet that was their decision, and they had plenty of time to think about it as the last few moments of the game seem to take forever because of all this nonsense.
What drama. What excitment. What BS.
I might've chucked a water bottle or two onto the field, too, had I been there. But then again, I've never taken this league as seriously as this:
SEA v. PIT = Super Bowl rematch (in which SEA would be "owed" one), SEA v. NE = Super Bowl rematch (from last year), SEA v. DEN = Super Bowl rematch (Peyton Manning's last appearance v. SEA was a blowout), SEA v. KC = ???
GB v. PIT = Super Bowl rematch, GB v. NE = Super Bowl rematch, GB v. DEN = Super Bowl rematch (Elway's first SB win & retirement would mirror Peyton Manning's send off), GB v. KC = Super Bowl rematch (of SB I, perfect symmetry)
AZ v. PIT = Super Bowl rematch (in which AZ would be "owed" one), AZ v. NE, AZ v. DEN, and AZ v. KC = swan song of Palmer & Fitzgerald, Bruce Arians' coaching prowess, etc.
CAR v. NE = Super Bowl rematch, CAR v. DEN, CAR v. PIT, and CAR v. KC = Cam "MVP" Newton, "Riverboat" Ron Rivera, near-perfect season, etc.
DEN v. anyone is the Peyton Manning story, pure and simple. NE vs. anyone is Brady/Belichick ad naseum, and KC v. anyone is their win streak (which is by far the softest story to promote, and by my reckoning, the least likely to occur.)
So where does the NFL lose here? What's uninteresting? Unpromotable? This is a "can't lose" Super Bowl which is no surprise given the meaning attached to it being the 50th anniversary of SB I.
Yet in the course of these four games, offensive holding--you know, the penalty some say could be called on every down--was flagged a total of four times: once on Kansas City, once on Green Bay (during a kick return), once on Seattle, and once on Denver. Defensive pass interference--another subjective call--was absent from three of the four games played. Only in the Steelers v. Broncos game was it ever called (twice on Denver, once on Pittsburgh). So in these, the most important games played thus far, the referees apparently decided to "let them play" and ignored the NFL rule book. Because if you didn't see clear cases of holding and pass interference, you weren't watching.
The highlight of my viewing experience this weekend came at halftime of the Seahawks v. Panthers game. With Carolina leading 31-0 at the break, FOX Sports' Terry Bradshaw told the viewing audience (without exaggeration on my part), "There's no need to watch the second half of this game. It's over." To which anchorman Curt Menefee almost jumped out of this chair, telling Bradshaw, "You can't say that! You can't tell people to stop watching! There's still another half of football!" Bradshaw, unfazed, then said, "Bah. I don't see how Seattle comes back to win this." Bradshaw was correct, but--surprise, surprise--if Seattle didn't make a game of it, scoring 24 unanswered second-half points to make it a 31-24 final.
And didn't every team make a game of it? Three of the four games offered the trailing team a chance to regain possession late in the fourth quarter with an onside kick to potentially come from behind to win and/or tie, and the fourth game went into overtime. That kept people watching to the bitter end, didn't it? One score games not truly decided until after the two minute warning? And all won by the home team.
The Patritos, depleted offensive line and all, took care of the Chiefs. Was that unexpected? As soon as that game ended with Tom Brady trotting off the field victorious, was there any doubt that Peyton Manning would triumph over the Steelers, leading to the 17th Brady v. Manning showdown in the AFC Championship Game? And the injury-riddled Steelers were more than happy to oblige.
The Steelers' punter (who's name I'm not bothering to dig up) couldn't kick his way out a telephone booth and kept providing the Broncos with excellent field position. Manning couldn't do much of anything with those openings, however, yet those field goals were enough to keep the game tight. In fact, Manning's best play of the day--where he fell/slipped/dove to the turf to avoid a sack--was actually pre-planned believe it or not (...and people say I make this stuff up).
This game had a very telegraphed feel to it, especially come the second half. It was as if fans had seen this story before: visiting team gets ahead of the home team, things look bleak, momentum-shifting turnover, star QB leads the game-saving drive, home team holds on for a huge win. Seriously, the ending of this game hit every bullet-point available in the script, and your Super Bowl announcing team of Jim Nance and Phil Simms were making every excuse in the book to make sure Manning sounded like the MVP he once was, despite looking like an old, inaccurate second-stringer.
But if the Steelers v. Broncos game felt like a production, then what the hell would someone call the Packers v. Cardinals game? As much as the Steelers seemed to be underperforming to keep the Broncos within striking distance, the Cardinals seemed to be doing the same to ensure they didn't blow out the Packers (again). Carson Palmer kept throwing passes that were (or nearly were) intercepted while their running game that tore the Packers apart not four weeks ago disappeared. But, oh yeah, on "any given Sunday" these sorts of turnarounds can occur.
Meanwhile, down to their 4th, 5th, and 6th string wide receivers (of which only the #5 and #6 WRs even caught a pass) plus a slow, overweight starting running back, the Packers shouldn't have been an offensive threat against the Cardinals aggressive defense. Yet it was the Packers holding the lead late into the fourth quarter.
A near-INT turned TD put the Cardinals in front late, but then came miracle time. Aaron Rodgers completed not one, but two "hail marys": one on 4th-and-20 from the depths of his own end zone for 60+ yards, and a second with no time on the clock for a touchdown to tie (with an extra point) the game. I've seen defenses meltdown, but this was a new low. Allow the first one, sure. Allow the second one? Ever heard the phrase, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me?" That can easily be applied here.
But that wasn't all. On the heels of Rodgers' second miracle comeback, you had the greatest coin flip in NFL history--the non-flip.
If the ineptitude of this moment didn't sum up all of NFL officiating this year, I don't know what else could.
With the Cardinals winning the second go-around of the coin toss, the Packers apparently decided Larry Fitzgerald wasn't worth covering despite the phenominal game he had been having. Lo-and-behold, Fitzgerald goes 75+ yards on a 10-yard pass, then adds another five yards to score the game-winning TD. Vince McMahon could've have written it better.
And we still have three games to go. #1 v. #2 and #1 v. #2. No matter which teams win and which lose, one thing's for certain: the NFL will not lose.
Two of these teams--the Patriots and Panthers--shouldn't have come as surprise, if this Rutgers professor is worth his salt. According to his study, a scheduling "quirk" gave these two frachises the easiest of easy schedules. And he was quick point out, "The idea that the schedule configuration is so different compared to other years is really weird," the prof said, "Think about how much money is at stake in the NFL--players and their contracts and TV deals--it's amazing there would be any room for a little mistake like this." So was it really a "mistake?"
Stephen Gostkowski made a mistake. He missed a PAT--something he hadn't done in 523 consecutive attempts. Odd timing to blow that streak, don't you think? And yet thanks to the new PAT rule--which none other than the Patriots suggested be implimented--the entire complex of the Manning v. Brady match-up was altered. With Gostkowski's inopportune failure, the Patriots were pretty much forced to go for a TD late in the fourth quarter because settling for the field goal while being down by eight did them little good.
So as has been the script for these playoff games, the Patriots had to pull off a small miracle for any chance at a comeback win. Which, again, following the storyline they did to keep fans tuned in until the bitter end. Much like the Packers a week before, they converted on not one, but two fourth down pass plays--both to Rob Gronkowski--the second of which cut it a two point game with just seconds to play. On the two point conversion--made necessary by Gostkowski's gaffe--who does Tom Brady look to? Of course it was their best red zone target, Rob Gronk...oh wait. Brady didn't go to the wide open Gronk. Instead, under pressure as he had been all day thanks to the two turnstiles playing tackle on the Patriots' offensive line, Brady tried a quickie to Julian Edelman and...well...you know the rest.
The question left to ask about this game is what was up with Tom Brady? For a guy normally fired up and yelling, he was strangely docile all day. Then, there was his overall play. For example, this throw:
That was a gift wrapped pick-six if ever there was one (had Von Miller not fallen down). The other INT he threw could've been picked off by one of two Broncos. And to top it off, why was Brady's most targeted receiver the backup to the backup to the backup RB James White (with 16 targets)? If Belichick is such a genius and Brady's so great, little of this makes sense.
Unless, of course, the NFL wants Peyton Manning to go out in style...as expected.
So I started this season asking who is going to be the NFL's Fall Guy? Looks like that will land squarely on the shoulders of Cam Newton. If the Super Bowl is legit, then my belief is that the Panthers will destroy the Broncos much like they did the Cardinals this past weekend. If Carson Palmer can be picked off four times by the swarming Carolina D, then how many times should they snare Manning's wobbly passes? Six? Eight? I don't care how good Denver's #1 ranked defense is, Newton can will that team down field while Carolina should basically shut out Manning...again, if this game is played without any outside influence.
But could the NFL really allow the over-hyped Super Bowl 50 to play out like Super Bowl 48 in which the Seahawks D made mincemeat out of Manning and Co? I would be highly surprised if they did. Don't be surprised to see the ball in Manning's hands with the game on the line as time ticks down. That's the Hollywood ending Super Bowl 50 wants, and by Goodell's hands, may get.
Or should I have written "non-fall guy" since Cam Newton--in the midst of the biggest game of his career--decided against diving for the loose ball that had recently been knocked from his hand. It was perhaps the most telling moment of Super Bowl 50 in a game that offered few surprises on its boring way to crowning Peyton Manning king of the NFL once more. This was a supposed shock to many pundits, but to the faithful readers of this site, I believe we all knew the outcome was never in doubt.
Of course, Manning in his advanced state wasn't a really factor in the game. He was a warm body playing game manager in the QB position. But didn't matter. He was still the story, winning an NFL record 200th game in the process. Now you'd think given his career, this "injury" plagued season of his, the doubters who swore Brock Osweiler was the QB for Denver, his likley post-season retirement, and just the fulfillment of a dream that millions of American men hold--and doing so not just once, but a second time--that Manning would be an emotional mess. Instead, as soon as the game ended, he kissed Papa John and talked about drinking Budweiser--twice (which Bud claims they didn't pay him for, but they didn't bother to mention that Manning owns Bud distributorships in Colorado). He post-game reaction was about as thrilling as that of brother Eli's on Sunday:
Perhaps it's hard to get excited about a forgone conclusion.
Earlier in the season, I mentioned "the look" of a player beaten prior to even setting foot on the field. Cam Newton had that look Sunday. Even Panthers coach Ron Rivera had a 1000-yard stare prior to kick off. Take a gander at their faces during the national anthem and tell me either look confident in what's about to transpire.
This game was a foregone conclusion, and most everyone on the field seemed to know it. Take this great punt coverage from the Panthers for example:
Five Panthers prevented themselves from tackling the returnman. But there were other lapses in tackling, and the turnovers...oh, the turnovers. At one point, Cam nearly fumbled on a run, and then to make up for it, Mike Tolbert went ahead and fumbled the ball away on the very next play. If Cam Newton was that mobile of a QB, why was he continually being sacked, hit, and fumbling away the game...that is, when he wasn't overthrowing his open WRs?
Oh, that's right. It was because of Denver's #1 ranked defense. You know, led by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. Remember him? The guy who two years ago tried to corrupt the NFL's drug testing policy? He did that because he was clean, right? He couldn't be a Super Bowl MVP and be using PEDs, could he? Nah. Neither was Peyton Manning getting and using HGH post-surgery, despite the fact that at that time, HGH wasn't a banned substance under the NFL's drug policy. That's, as he's claimed, "garbage." (Of course, the NFL is "investigating" Al Jazeera's allegations...up until Manning retires and he falls outside their reach, or care).
So that's it. That's how the NFL wrapped up Super Bowl 50 and its 2015 season. And that's how I'll wrap up my take on it all. Thanks for reading, for writing to me, and for being kind enough to buy a book (or two) along the way. See you next season!