Every year, there are big shake-ups in the NFL playoff picture, and every year I’m somehow surprised by them. I don’t know why; I know the numbers. Over the last decade, the league is averaging 4.5 new division winners every year. Usually, at least one of the previous Super Bowl participants misses the playoffs entirely.
Entering the season, I wouldn’t have been surprised if you told me the Dallas Cowboys or Oakland Raiders would be playoff participants. The idea that they could both have home-field advantage would’ve been much harder to wrap my head around.
But the lower seeds are where things are getting even weirder. The Miami Dolphins are currently in a position to end their lengthy playoff drought, and perhaps the team they need to be most worried about is their division rival, the Buffalo Bills (and their even more tortured fan base).
Then, there’s the NFL’s worst team over the past three seasons, the Tennessee Titans, who sit only a half-game back of the AFC South lead. Titans QB Marcus Mariota will always be tied at the hip to Jameis Winston, who has his usually terrible Buccaneers just a half-game out of an NFC Wild Card spot. Grabbing that sixth seed would match them up with the surprising Detroit Lions, who are so close to clinching their first division title in 22 years.
This season just seems to be a constant reminder that the football I grew up with is changing. New stars are taking over the league, ties are a weekly possibility now, and Brian Urlacher isn’t walking through that door to save my dumb Bears. Despite some of these uneasy changes, the 2016 NFL season continues to be one of the most unpredictable and intriguing years to follow football. And Week 12 was no different.
This week I give a shout-out to a couple of aging quarterbacks and a great punter, plus break down Gary Kubiak’s controversial decision. (It’s in the bad section, so you can probably guess how I felt about it.)
Week 12 in a Nutshell
Shout-Out of the Week
Drew Brees, QB, and the Saints backfield
The Rams may be perpetually 7-9 under Jeff Fisher, but they at least usually boast one of the toughest defenses in the league. In fact, under the mustachioed one, L.A. had only surrendered over 40 points once (to New England back in 2012). Armed with a reinvigorated offense thanks to rookie Jared Goff, the Rams scored 21 first-half points on the road in New Orleans. Surely their dominant defense would give them a chance to win this game?
Not even a little. Drew Brees and Sean Payton took out any lingering frustration they may have had with former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for his “Bountygate” scandal, by torching his defense for 555 yards and seven touchdowns.
Over his career, Brees’s level of play has been so sublime that this really just looks like another ho-hum stat line for him. After all, he’s on pace for his fifth 5,000-yard, 40-TD season. But don’t get jaded about his greatness: Brees finished 28 of 36 for 310 yards and five touchdowns (four passing, one rushing), and never once targeted his leading receiver coming into the day, Brandin Cooks.
It was a well balanced attack from the often pass-heavy Saints, as Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower led a rushing attack that bulldozed L.A. for over 200 yards on the ground (the most rushing yards against the Rams in 54 games). Nawlins even mixed in a beauty trick play for receiver Willie Snead.
I’d been praising a lot of defensive efforts in this space in recent weeks, and there were some great ones, particularly the Bucs. But once in awhile, it’s just nice to see the Saints come out firing. I made note of some of the changes the league seems to be going through in the open, but one thing that may never change is New Orleans being a crazy good offense, as long as Brees is under center anyway. The way he’s still carving up the league, that could probably be the case for another eight seasons.
Other great things from Week 12
Pat McAfee gives the Colts at least one “quarterback” worth watching.
Scott Tolzien was in about as tough a spot as a backup quarterback can be, thrust into the starting role with just three days’ notice. To make matters worse, that starting spot was for the Indianapolis Colts: a terrible team that looks deceptively average because its starting QB is so fantastic.
Tolzien wasn’t bad for a QB thrust into a no-win situation, but he certainly wasn’t the best passer on the Colts on Thursday night. That honor falls to punter Pat McAfee, who not only finished one of one for 35 yards, but did so with swagger. On the run to his right, the punter fired a beautiful ball into Erik Swoope, even though the Steelers were seemingly expecting some sort of trickery. Then McAfee did his best Vince McMahon impression.
— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) November 26, 2016
Apparently McAfee was the “emergency quarterback” for Thursday’s game, if something happened to Tolzien and Stephen Morris. News flash Colts: any game Luck misses should be considered an “emergency.” If you aren’t going to win without your franchise pivot, couldn’t you at least put the entertaining guy at QB?
Taylor Gabriel screens.
Fewest yards allowed. Third in defensive DVOA. Four Pro Bowlers. These are some of the accolades the Arizona Cardinals boasted heading into their matchup with the Atlanta Falcons. But all those honors won’t help you if you’re trying to stop former Cleveland Brown Taylor Gabriel … apparently. The Falcons weren’t exactly creative in how they got the speedy Gabriel the ball on Sunday, running two identical wide receiver screens. Both plays went over 25 yards for a touchdown.
It was as if Kyle Shanahan had found that play in Madden that his little brother couldn’t stop, and was just going to keep running it until he turned the game off.
The Grey Cup.
The championship game of the Canadian Football League also took place on Sunday, and on a loaded weekend of football action, the zany game from the north may have been the best offering of the bunch.
The beauty of the Canadian game is that, with just three downs and a shorter play clock, no deficit is insurmountable. The Calgary Stampeders entered the game as ten-point favorites, and trailed by that much with just over three minutes left, when their quarterback threw an interception. That’s a death sentence in the NFL; but for the Stamps, it was merely a minor roadblock. They got the ball back so quickly, they were able to score a TD with 1:40 left, then perfectly executed a high-arching onside kick that would make NFL special teams coordinators drool.
Calgary quickly drove the ball to the two-yard line, and the game went from a sure Ottawa REDBLACKS win (yes the names up there are weird) to a potentially historic comeback in under two minutes. Yet Ottawa held, and the game went to overtime.
For those of you fed up with NFL overtime, the CFL’s OT follows college rules, meaning the game wasn’t decided by a battle of incompetent kickers. In the end, Ottawa prevailed, pulling off a historic upset and turning me very much onto the Canadian brand of football.
Unlike Michigan vs. Ohio State or Kansas City vs. Denver – the other banner gridiron games of the weekend – nobody left the Grey Cup whining about officiating or questioning the overtime rules for the zillionth time. It was a much more positive vibe, with everyone basking in the glow of a 41-year-old Henry Burris winning a title.
Perhaps everyone feels more satisfied with the result because the CFL allows coaches to challenge calls like pass interference or roughing the passer. Or maybe it’s just because Canadians don’t complain about anything? Either way, the CFL offered a nice escape from the negativity that often surrounds the NFL…
Oh well, escape over!
Other bad things from Week 12
James White, you’re looking for the orange!
We laud the Patriots for never making mistakes, but White made one on Sunday that could’ve ultimately cost them the game … you know, if they weren’t playing the Jets.
White took a handoff on a sweep and got shoved in the back while nearing the pylon. Admittedly, he made an athletic move to tiptoe inside the pylon and ensure his body crossed the plane: except that’s not what matters in football! Holding the ball in his outside arm, the running back somehow never brought the ball into the endzone before going out of bounds.
The mishap didn’t cost New England anything this week, but I’m guessing when the season comes down to a two-point convert again this year, Bill Belichick won’t dial up that play.
Player beefs. All of them.
I do love watching an epic clash between great corners and dominant receivers. Not so long ago, I got to watch Peanut Tillman and Calvin Johnson go at each other twice a year. I’ve come to realize that what I loved most about their matchups was the absence of a week’s worth of trash talk before and after the games. Each player had a deep respect for the others’ skills, one that continued on even after their playing careers.
I like watching Josh Norman and Dez Bryant go at it, too, right up until the final whistle. Then I don’t care. I don’t care what either of them has to say about the other. Deep down, they know the other is a great player, and pretending that’s not the case in front of the media is just a waste of time. This isn’t the WWE, we don’t need to play up some rivalry storyline. If you need to call out another player just to get fired up to play in the NFL, how did you make the league in the first place?
(At this point, I’d like to also give credit to Terrelle Pryor – who is quickly becoming one of my favorite players in the league – after he took the high road in a random beef started by Janoris Jenkins. Although I’m sure we’ll still hear all about this exchange when the teams play again in four years.)
Kubiak “going for the win.”
Don’t even try to point out the hypocrisy of me touting Jack Del Rio for going for the win in Week 1, while burying Kubiak for trying a 62-yard field goal late in OT. The situations were different, and the odds of success were wildly different. The two-point convert is nearly a 50-50 proposition, and the alternative for Oakland was to enter the uncertainty that is an overtime period against a high-scoring Saints team. Denver’s alternative was this: punt the ball and (likely) end the game tied. The Chiefs are not a quick-moving offense, there was almost no conceivable way they could move the ball the 50-plus yards required for the game-winning kick.
Instead, like so many fans that despise the misunderstood tie, Kubiak screamed “F**k it!” and spit in the face of reason. Sure, Brandon McManus was eight of 13 on kicks of 50-plus for his career; but that’s a wildly unspecific range that includes kicks a full 12 yards shorter than the one he attempted Sunday night. It was a risky call even if the conditions were perfect – and as we were reminded throughout the broadcast – they weren’t! McManus said his range was 60 in a pregame interview.
Let’s also not ignore that, even if McManus was able to get the necessary leg behind his kick, an attempt of that distance is usually a low-driving ball. Kansas City had been pushing around the Broncos offensive line for much of the night, and the odds of Justin Houston getting a mitt on that ball were pretty darn good, too.
Now here we sit on Monday morning, and Denver’s loss has temporarily put them out of a playoff spot. The Broncos no longer control their postseason fate. You know what result would’ve put their destiny back in their hands? It’s something you’ve given you dad way too many of for Father’s Day.
To recap: Del Rio’s gamble was an identity-forming one in the first week of the season when the playoff picture wasn’t even in the dark room. Del Rio’s gamble was also a coin-flip.
Kubiak’s gamble was a greedy move by a coach seemingly terrified that his team would otherwise never catch the Raiders. It was the equivalent of taking only one bullet out of the cylinder, then playing Russian Roulette.