There is one week, every year, when I try to focus on the happy moments of an NFL week. This is that week. Since we're wrapping up Week 14, I found 14 little plays or performances or moments that I enjoyed mightily through Sunday night's action. And that starts in Washington, where we can all be happy that one of the league's stars is going to stay that way for a electrifying run toward the playoffs.
1. RG3 Seems to Be OK. As exciting as Washington's final drive in regulation and comeback victory over the Ravens were, the knee injury that Robert Griffin III suffered in leading the Redskins down the field cast a pall over the proceedings. Although he gamely tried to march his team to a game-tying score on one leg after his knee seemed to be hyperextended by a Haloti Ngata hit, RG3 eventually had to be removed from the game and his status was uncertain as the Redskins completed their come-from-behind win.
It was comforting to hear after the game that Griffin's MRI had come back negative and that there was a chance he would play against the Browns next Sunday. What I notice more and more, though, is that I find myself watching Redskins games simultaneously excited to see what RG3 does and terrified that he's going to get hurt. (And I say that as a Giants fan!) I don't think that RG3 is reckless, but I do worry that some of the things that make him great — his improvisational style, his abilities as a ballcarrier — make him more prone to injuries. I don't think it jeopardizes RG3's long-term viability as a quarterback, though. Take Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger's a similar player in that some of the things that make him a great quarterback (notably his ability to stand in the pocket until the very last moment and deliver strong passes) also raise his risk of being injured on any given play. That hasn't prevented him from winning championships in Pittsburgh, but if you're a Steelers fan (or a Roethlisberger fan), you're probably more worried about Roethlisberger on a play-by-play basis than, say, a Giants fan is worried about Eli Manning.
I don't anticipate much changing about the Washington offense with Griffin in the lineup through the end of this season, but I do think it'll be very interesting to see what happens over the next year or two. Will Griffin make it through without suffering a long-term injury and convince folks that he's not an injury risk? Or will the Redskins begin to shift out of the zone read packages and into a more conventional offense to try to keep Griffin healthier? And if that happens, will Griffin be an equally effective quarterback?
2. The Kirk Cousins Draw for Two. Quarterback controversy in Washington! OK, so probably not. When you consider that certain teams around the league can't even muster up one vaguely competent quarterback, it was pretty impressive to see the Redskins lose RG3 and promptly replace him with fellow rookie Kirk Cousins without missing a beat. That decision was forced upon the Redskins by injury, but the Shanaclan were the ones who decided to put the ball in Cousins's hands on the game-tying two-point conversion.
Running a designed quarterback draw with Griffin in the game is one thing. Doing the same thing with Cousins, who ran for -127 yards on 111 carries during his time at Michigan State?1 That's a different animal. Mike Shanahan claimed after the game that the draw was called because "We didn't think they'd be expecting it," but there's more to it than that. In a way, it's a brilliant call with a rookie quarterback because it really doesn't place many responsibilities on Cousins; all he has to do is drop back and run forward toward daylight. The Shanahans would have taken some flak if the play hadn't worked (something like LOL WHY'D YOU CALL THE RG3 PLAY FOR THE WRONG GUY would have been tweeted out 200,000 times in five minutes), but it was a great way to combine some element of surprise with the ability to take the decision out of Cousins's hands.
Of course, Cousins's half-drive to end regulation, the two-pointer, and the short drive in overtime to set up the win make him an appealing trade target for quarterback-hungry teams. This doesn't often result in a big draft pick, to which the likes of Brian Hoyer and Matt Flynn can attest, but it could be enough to get the Redskins a third-rounder in next year's draft. That would be an upgrade on the fourth-rounder they used on Cousins this past season.
3. The Matthew Stafford Bootleg. Speaking of would-be lambastings that were avoided through success, the Lions ran a nifty play on fourth-and-1 inside the Green Bay 5-yard line in the first quarter. While Detroit spread out their offense and teased like they were going to throw the ball, Matthew Stafford actually faked a handoff before running around the left end and beating a defender to the end zone for a touchdown. By freezing the linebackers with the play fake and making everyone stretch out horizontally to cover Calvin Johnson & Co., the Lions made it easy for the mammoth Stafford to get past the line of scrimmage and pick up one of the easier touchdowns of his career. For Detroit's first intentional2 attempt on fourth-and-1 this year, it was a pretty impressive play call.
Again, if Stafford had been stuffed and the play hadn't worked, the entire football community would have been on Jim Schwartz and his coaching staff for letting their franchise quarterback run the ball on a sweep as opposed to sneaking or throwing the ball. Instead, because the play worked, we never thought about it as meaningful the rest of the way. The Lions deserve plaudits for a brave move that worked out well for them, even if it wasn't enough to win Detroit the game.
4. Oh Yeah, Cam Newton. In what's become a lost year for the Panthers, they got to have one day where everything Carolina had planned for the 2012 season seemed to make sense and work. Had the 30-20 win over the Falcons at home come in Week 1, Carolina would have been able to enjoy some talk that they were ascending and arriving in the NFC South; instead, because it comes after a season of disappointment, it's a passing moment of glory that will likely be forgotten by February.
What won't be forgotten that quickly, of course, is the guy at the point of Carolina's rushing attack. Cam Newton ran for 116 yards on nine carries against his hometown team yesterday, and after a season in which he's been unfairly blamed as the cause of some Carolina problems, the only quandary on Sunday was figuring out which Cam play was best. As impressive as Newton's 72-yard touchdown run was, I thought his 14-yard scramble to pick up a first down on third-and-11 in the second quarter was even better. The Falcons get pressure with a three-man rush, but Newton somehow spins his way out of the grasp of Corey Peters like he's stuck inside a washing machine, then sprints downfield, reading his blocks and making two defenders miss before lunging forward and picking up the last few yards needed.
5. Oh Yeah, Nick Foles? While Newton and his Panthers were able to stake their claim to an early lead and hold on for a heartening victory, their brethren in the NFC South were having their hearts broken. That includes Tampa Bay, whose dramatic season continued with a loss to the Eagles on the final play of the game. The Eagles ran one of my favorite plays to produce a walkoff touchdown pass at the end of regulation: the edge-scraping rollout pass that the Saints normally use with Drew Brees and Lance Moore (notably for the two-point conversion in the Super Bowl). If timed well, it's close to impossible to stop in short yardage. And although Foles missed an open receiver earlier in the drive on what would have been a long touchdown pass, he was on the money with his pass to Jeremy Maclin to seal the game and end Philadelphia's eight-game losing streak.
The loss dropped Tampa to 6-7 and put a serious damper on their postseason hopes, which now rely on winning out and getting some help from their friends in the NFC North. They're now 2-6 in games decided by seven points or less, which sounds pretty bad until you realize that Carolina is incredibly 0-6 in those same games. Atlanta is 7-1 there, which is the most obvious reason why they'll be hosting a playoff game in January.
7. The Stocky Stuffers. While Tampa wasn't able to pull out the victory, its magnificent run defense managed to rear its head for yet another week. At one point during Sunday's game, Tampa Bay was holding Eagles running back Bryce Brown — who was averaging 6.5 yards per carry before Sunday — to seven carries for -9 yards. He finished with 12 carries for a mere six yards, with Dion Lewis adding a carry for -4 yards. Only Foles managed to enjoy any success as a runner, as his 27 yards included a glacial 10-yard touchdown run. Future opponents might also consider running at the speed of continental drift against the Bucs in the hopes that Gerald McCoy & Co. won't notice.
8. He's Earning the Respect of His Tiny Teammates. And one final note about the Eagles-Buccaneers game: It's always amusing to me that announcers still get excited about a quarterback blocking on the edge for one of his teammates like he's some pipsqueak. In this case, it was the Fox crew going gaga for Josh Freeman occupying Nnamdi Asomugha. Josh Freeman is 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds; he has four inches and 30 pounds on Asomugha. If anything, we should be impressed with Asomugha for taking on Freeman!
Now, of course, not all quarterbacks are created equal. Later in the evening, 5-foot-11 Russell Wilson made his way out onto the block floor and sorta vaguely got in the way of a defender on a Marshawn Lynch touchdown run. It was more about the thought than the actual blocking, but it's still impressive for the smaller guy to get out there and clear out space for his running back. That's the block attempt that deserves the fawning praise for effort and bravery, not Freeman engulfing a smaller cornerback.
9. The Seahawks Blowout! We haven't had a truly great blowout this year, so it was exciting to see the Seahawks surpass the listed 36-point total for the game by themselves before halftime, dropping 38 on the Cardinals in a raucous first half before finishing with 20 more in the second half. The 58-0 victory is one point short of the post-merger record for largest margin of victory, with only 59-0 wins by the 2009 Patriots and 1976 Rams surpassing the Seahawks. The Seahawks had a shot at breaking the record when the Cardinals gave them the ball back with 10 seconds left on Arizona's 31-yard line, but Pete Carroll chose kneeling over a 48-yard field goal attempt that would have pushed the Seahawks into history.
The loss put an emphatic exclamation point on the Cardinals' nine-game losing streak, a stretch that's now seen them get outscored 231-95 and produce a point differential akin to that of a 2-14 team. Arizona benched John Skelton for Ryan Lindley, brought Skelton back this week, and had to go back to Lindley by the end of the game to seem like they had any idea what they were doing. After the game, beat reporter Kent Somers asked Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt who the team planned on starting the following weekend, only for Whisenhunt to ask Somers if he could play. A pretty funny bit of gallows humor, but Whisenhunt's gone from a 4-0 start to seeing the writing on the wall very quickly. Although the organization has failed to identify and protect a starting quarterback as a whole, it's Whisenhunt who might have to pay for the failure with his job.
10. A Great Moment in Fantasy Football History. In this, the traditional first week of the playoffs in many fantasy football leagues, an untold number of matchups were won or lost merely by the presence of the Seahawks defense on a particular roster. While scoring for defenses and special teams remains the most arbitrary and specious of all fantasy football rule setups, the default ESPN scoring system credits the Seahawks with a truly stunning day. With an interception return and fumble return for a touchdown, three sacks, four fumble recoveries, four interceptions, and 154 yards allowed in a shutout, the Seattle D amassed a whopping 39 points for their fantasy owners. The Seattle defense, amazingly, was high scorer of the week.
Was this the greatest defensive performance in fantasy football history? It was close, but the crown (since 1990, at least) belongs to another big day from the Seattle defense. In 2005, the Seahawks actually returned three turnovers for touchdowns in a game over the Eagles that ended up producing 42 points for fantasy owners. That was in Week 13, so it probably helped a lot of people into the playoffs, but it didn't produce a playoff win. The previous record-holder for playoff drama belonged to the expansion year Texans, who went into Pittsburgh as 14-point underdogs and won 24-6 in Week 14 of the 2002 season. That Houston team accrued 47 yards of offense that day and allowed 422, but they returned three of their five takeaways for touchdowns, helping contribute to a 38-point day by their defense.
11. The Waiver Wire Churners. Of course, there is always that playoff team in every league whose lineup barely resembles the roster they put together on draft day. To you, the waiver wire churner, the FAAB Whisperer, I congratulate you. Somewhere out there is a team that started Nick Foles, David Wilson, Montell Owens, Danario Alexander, Brandon Gibson, Rod Streater, Clay Harbor, Kai Forbath, and the Seahawks defense this week. You scored 171 points this week, which is pretty impressive, even for somebody who sold their soul for a fantasy title.
12. David Wilson's Revenge. Week 2 was a long time ago. In Week 2, the Cardinals beat the Patriots in Foxboro, 20-18, to get off to a 2-0 start. Meanwhile, in New York, David Wilson was a deliberate afterthought in the Giants offense after an opening-night fumble that had contributed to New York's defeat at the hands of the hated Cowboys. In a dramatic comeback win over the Bucs, Wilson touched the ball three times on offense and gained six yards. He did contribute 86 yards on three kick returns, but announcers and fans alike joked about Wilson's exact depth within Tom Coughlin's massive doghouse.
Wilson has steadily gained confidence and seen his role expand since, but Sunday was his true coming-out-of-the-doghouse party. Wilson delivered one of the best games you'll ever see from a kick returner, running for 227 yards and a touchdown on four attempts. He also threw in two more touchdowns as a running back, including a 52-yard sprint on a sweep that seemingly saw him accelerate through the New Orleans defense. It's not unprecedented for a Giants rookie to see his role expand at the end of the regular season before becoming a bigger part of the offense during the playoffs; starter Ahmad Bradshaw notably broke in as New York's "closer" running back as a rookie with a big game against the Bills in Week 16 of the 2007 season, for one. He had 23 carries in the regular season before more than doubling that total during a 48-carry run in the postseason.
13. Christian Ponder's Pass. Ponder already has one pass attempt this year that made its way onto my list of the five worst passes of the NFL season when I compiled it a couple weeks ago. On Sunday, he tried to earn a second spot there. This attempted bomb to an open Jarius Wright was truly dreadful. Ponder doesn't step into the throw, which means it's all arm on the pass, and he just doesn't have the arm to do that. The result is a pass underthrown so badly that both Bears safeties are able to recover, converge on the football, and fight for the interception. The pass is five yards short of Wright, and if you consider that Ponder probably meant to hit his receiver in stride, it's a good 15 yards short of where it's supposed to be.
14. The Jets Are Back? The patron saint of bad quarterback play in 2012 might not be the Jets' starter for much longer, but Mark Sanchez might have another playoff appearance to add to his résumé by the time the Jets release him. That's right, folks: Somehow, someway, the Jets are back in the playoff picture. It took shakier-than-shaky wins over the Cardinals and Jaguars and losses by both the Steelers and Bengals to make it happen, but the Jets are now 6-7 and one game out of the sixth and final wild-card spot in the AFC.
New York's final three games are remarkably friendly, as they have a home game against the Chargers sandwiched between trips to Tennessee and Buffalo. The Steelers and Bengals play in Pittsburgh in Week 16, but the Steelers still have to play the Cowboys and (resurgent) Browns, while the Bengals get the Eagles and Ravens. The Jets lost to the Steelers in Week 2, so they'll be rooting for a Bengals win there in Week 16 to try to have some semblance of controlling their own destiny in Week 17.
The Jets have come up from deeper holes. Remember, Rex Ryan thought that his team had been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs in Week 15 of the 2010 season, only for the 7-7 Jets to get a reprieve upon further review. Then they faced a 14-0 Colts team that sat their starters in the second half and ceded a lead to the Jets, and followed that with a home win over a Bengals team that had already clinched a playoff spot and ran a vanilla scheme, knowing that they were to play the Jets the following week, pushing New York into the playoffs. The Jets somehow marched from that Ryan concession press conference to the AFC Championship Game. Empires have been built on stupider platforms than this Jets team, but not much stupider. If it happens again, maybe they'll even give Sanchez another contract extension.
Thank You for Not Coaching
The Ravens were presented with a situation to try to win the game on Sunday and took the easy way out in a decision that might have ended up costing them the game. With 4:47 left in the fourth quarter, a Ray Rice touchdown put the Ravens up 27-20, pending the extra point. Without fanfare, the Ravens kicked the extra point to go up 28-20.
In doing so, they missed out on a possibility that might have won the game altogether. Had the Ravens gone for two with the 27-20 lead, they would have gone up by nine points with less than five minutes to go. That would have given them a two-score lead, meaning that the Redskins would have had to drive down the field, score a touchdown, reacquire the football with a defensive stop or an onside kick, and then drive down the field again to attempt a game-winning field goal. That's not impossible to do in five minutes, but it's extremely tough. The two-to-go-up-nine move isn't really very exciting in a vacuum, but it's a play that exploits the amount of time left in a game to squeeze an opponent's chances of winning.
It also works by taking advantage of how the opposition approaches the two-point play. In a situation where they're down eight inside five minutes to go, the opponent will obviously always go for two to try to tie the game. When the Ravens would have considered the possibility of going up eight or nine, they were facing a healthy RG3 and what probably represents one of the most difficult teams in the league to stop on a two-point conversion.4 If the Ravens failed and maintained their seven-point lead, though, the Redskins would almost never line up for a game-winning two-point conversion and try to win the game after scoring a touchdown; it's just not in the nature of NFL coaches to do that.
As it turned out, of course, the Ravens kicked the extra point and weren't able to stop the Redskins from scoring a touchdown and getting a two-point conversion to tie the game. When Baltimore punted in overtime and allowed a long punt return, the game was over. Had the Ravens attempted the two-point conversion and failed, the game would have gone exactly the same way. If they had succeeded, though, the Redskins would have needed to rush through their over-four-minute drive to score a touchdown and try to get the ball back without using any of their timeouts. Perhaps they would have managed all that and kicked a game-winning field goal before regulation expired. On the other hand, though, the Ravens left the game in their defense's hands and got burned. I don't know that I can chastise Cam Cameron or John Harbaugh too harshly for not trying the two-pointer, but I do think that they would have been better off having gone for it in this situation.