Sunday was a day for the doubters, the naysayers, the skeptics and the nattering nabobs. It was a day of validation for those who dwell on losses instead of savoring victories, a confirmation of the belief that parity makes a parody of excellence. If you are the kind of fan who feels that the Super Bowl is won by the least-worst team, Week 10 was your national holiday.
Sunday was the day that the last undefeated team lost and the defending champions got clobbered. The ersatz Super Bowl preview on Sunday night was a rainy, sloppy slog that produced just one touchdown. The mighty 49ers played Luke 'n' Leia with the lowly Rams. Meanwhile, the league's smelliest tire fires smoldered on in Philadelphia, San Diego and New York.
There are some who see the glass half full, some who see it half empty, and some who see the 49ers tie the Rams and decide that they weren't really thirsty.
The handful of playoff teams that won on Sunday failed to answer many questions. We know the Ravens can win at home; running the score up on the Raiders just felt creepy. The Patriots and Bills played a Patriots-Bills game; the Bills walked away with the loss, the Patriots with the lingering self-doubts. The Texans forced two Jay Cutler interceptions early, then knocked Cutler out (concussion) and spent the second half toying with Jason Campbell. But Texans receivers could not hold onto the football in the rain, and Matt Schaub threw for just 95 yards. Like the Ravens, the Texans need to avoid road playoff games at all costs. The Seahawks enjoyed the week's most emphatic victory, but of course, we are obliged to think of it as a Jets loss.
Negativity can be taken too far on a Sunday full of upsets and train wrecks. Somewhere between optimism and pessimism lies realism: the recognition that the Falcons, 49ers and Bears are still very good, that the Jets, Eagles and Chargers are unraveling toward an empty spool, and that many of Sunday's close games were informative and entertaining. Infotainment at its best!
The Big Three Come Up Small
We learned a lot about the Falcons, Giants and 49ers in defeat or de-tying on Sunday. We also discovered a little bit about the teams that beat or tied them:
Falcons Education: The Falcons were incapable of covering Jimmy Graham, who caught seven passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. Safety William Moore could sometimes be seen trailing Graham by a few yards, and various linebackers were tossed aside by Graham before receptions, but it is inaccurate to say that anyone really covered him.
The Falcons' wide receiver screen game has been figured out. When the Falcons empty the backfield, they want to throw a screen to Julio Jones or one of the other receivers, and the Saints easily stomped these plays out. The Falcons have come to rely on their screen game because …
Michael Turner is toast. Turner carried 13 times for 15 yards. He got stuffed at the goal line three times in the game, once on the Falcons' doomed final drive, and got stuffed for no gain on third-and-one, forcing the Falcons to settle for an early field goal. Turner has had productive games against the Cowboys and Panthers this season but has plugged along at less than three yards per carry in most Falcons games. Teams are not respecting the I-formation run, even in short-yardage situations, and it is forcing the Falcons to spread the field and be more creative in situations where they would rather hammer the ball.
Saints Education: Their defense no longer reacts to every play-action fake like a Labrador retriever that thinks you threw a tennis ball. Chris Ivory remains the best fourth-string running back in the history of the NFL. As the likelihood that some 9-7 team sneaks into the NFC playoffs increases, so does the chance that some division winner will be forced to host Drew Brees when he has something to prove.
49ers Education: A balanced offense can move the ball against the 49ers' defense. The Rams reaffirmed what the Vikings taught us in Week Three. When the 49ers can focus on rushing the passer, they have the best defense in the NFL, hands down. But combine effective running with some spread-the-wealth passing, then play with the lead, and you can take the 49ers out of their game plan on both sides of the ball.
The 49ers did manage to come back from 14-0, then come back again to force overtime, despite the early-game loss of Alex Smith (concussion). Colin Kaepernick played exactly the way anyone not associated with Alex Smith Haters Anonymous would expect. He made plays with his legs, completed a few passes on the run, fumbled, took off running when he had open receivers, and marked off all the other boxes on the Scrambling Young Backup checklist. It was football in a blender, and it was good enough to tie the Rams, which means that it would not be good enough to beat the Packers. The 49ers offense is built around Alex Smith's strengths and calibrated to hide his weaknesses. Kaepernick does not do the little things Smith does incredibly well (pre-snap reads, merry dump-offs to backs for short gains), and the difference was very clear in the two overtime drives.
Rams Education: Danny Amendola (11 catches, 102 yards) is the most important player on the roster. When he is healthy, the Rams have a viable offense. When he was out with a collarbone injury, their passing game was an afternoon spent watching Austin Pettis catch five-yard passes. A pair of delay-of-game penalties in overtime, one of which negated a potential game-winning field goal, were a sign of a team that has not yet learned the subtleties of surviving tough games on the road.
Giants Education: Eli Manning is the fulcrum on which NFL quarterback hype cosmically counterbalances itself. When the "Eli/Elite" blatherstorm erupted during 2011 training camp, it was the cue for a narrative course correction, and Manning led the Giants on a critic-silencing championship run. But lo, the critics grew too silent, and after throwing the game-winning touchdown to beat the Redskins in Week 7, sports talk personalities began to float storylines like "Is Eli the best clutch quarterback ever?" or "Will Eli be remembered as the better of the Manning brothers?" The pendulum immediately began swinging, and Manning has not thrown a touchdown since. Wherever there's someone arguing that Super Bowl winners possess magical qualities, or that a proven veteran quarterback is gutter slime because he is in a two-game slump, Eli is there to argue the opposite side, a Tom Joad of quarterback contrarianism.
Manning was not solely to blame for the Giants loss to the Bengals; it was a true team effort. Giants cornerbacks can be beaten by quality cornerbacks. Their running game can disappear. The Giants blew a team-wide fuse in the third quarter of the Steelers game and are still fumbling around the garage with a flashlight.
The light will flicker back on for them soon, and the NFC East is laying down for them. But there's a big difference between the close losses/ties the Falcons and 49ers suffered and the bludgeoning the Giants took. Sometimes, the information a team takes away from a loss is "we are not that good."
Bengals Education: The Bengals are the soul of a .500 team, but they appear destined to do everything in streaks this year. If A.J. Green catches two 50-yard bombs in a game, the Bengals will win. Green caught only one 50-yard bomb against the Giants, but the Giants kept handing the Bengals the ball in Giants territory on turnovers and punt returns. It's hard to throw a bomb when you are already on the 15-yard line.
Meanwhile, over at the Public Humiliation Theatre, the Jets, Eagles, and Chargers pulled out their jackhammers and bored deeper into the earth's bowels in search of a new definition of rock bottom.
The Eagles positioned their pratfall at the front of the pitiful pack by launching the Nick Foles era in the most enthusiasm-smothering way possible. Michael Vick wobbled off the field against the Cowboys with a concussion in the second quarter, and folk hero Foles made his long-awaited debut by generating one offensive first down in his first three possessions.
Foles found Jeremy Maclin wide open in the end zone for a 44-yard touchdown to give the Eagles a 14-10 third quarter lead, then led a competent drive for a field goal. But then the Eagles collapsed into rubble, then the rubble collapsed, and finally the whole concept of collapsing rubble fell apart and left the Eagles heaped in a pile of quantum anti-rubble. Foles threw a pick-six, was strip-sacked in the end zone for another Cowboys touchdown, and had another interception called back. The Cowboys returned a punt for a touchdown. The 38-23 final doesn't begin to describe the lopsided game of mistake ball.
Cowboys supporters can probably mine the Eagles game for evidence that their team has bounced back from a series of sloppy performances, but they really just got out-slopped.
The Seahawks pummeled the Jets 28-7, and they were gracious enough to sew things up in less than three hours so we could focus our attention on the 49ers-Rams game. In the NFL media right now, there are reporters who cover the Jets, and everyone else is on standby. Tim Tebow hangs over the season like the Jump Pass Of Damocles, and we are all expected to go Code Red if he takes over as the starting quarterback, or leads a comeback, or does anything besides complete three passes for eight yards or rush four times for 14 yards (his Sunday production).
The Patriots and Steelers could be in the waning moments of a 38-38 game, having traded Tom Brady for Ben Roethlisberger straight-up at halftime, but we all know that the story would get bumped off the front page for "Tebow Breaks Sweat." So the Seahawks performed a public service by advancing us quickly to the press conference, where Rex Ryan affirmed Mark Sanchez as the starter and allowed us to go about our business.
The Chargers, bless their hearts, refused to let their East Coast counterparts have all of the self-defeating fun. A blocked punt (the signature play of the Norv Turner era) helped the Buccaneers take a 17-14 second quarter lead, and two horrific Philip Rivers interceptions (one a pick-six) erased memories of the three touchdowns he threw early in the game. After the 34-24 loss, Turner blew up at reporters, launching into a "playing hard and losing is not acceptable" rant that could really have used some punching up. Turner finally brought his verbal A-game when Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union-Tribune told the coach he sounded a little hot under the collar. Turner's answer: "I'm not hot under the collar," he said, his voice still angry. "You ask a stupid question you should get a stupid (bleeping) answer."
Ask the Chargers any question in the last five years and you were likely to get a stupid bleeping answer.
Our fascination with these melodramas continues. We should say more nice things about the Seahawks and Buccaneers and fewer bad things about the Eagles, Jets, and Chargers. We should watch C-SPAN instead of "Doomsday Preppers," too, but it ain't gonna happen. Andy Reid, Vick, Foles, Sanchez, Rex Ryan and Turner will dominate the headlines again this week, with the Cowboys taking the week off. These teams make every loss look like urban demolition gone horribly awry. You cannot look away. It's guilty pleasure football, so bad it's good, and we should make the most of it before everyone is fired in January.
Things You Don't See Every Sunday
Here's a wrap-up of football oddities from Sunday's early games.
Ravens running up the score: Say goodbye to John Harbaugh and hello to the Ol' Baugh Coach. Harbaugh channeled his inner Spurrier against the Raiders, with the Ravens pouring it on in the second half of a 55-20 win over the Raiders. The 20-yard Torrey Smith touchdown to make the score 41-17 was superfluous. The Sam Koch fake field goal to make the score 48-17 was superduperfluous. The Jacoby Jones kickoff return touchdown to make the score 55-20 was … well, you can't expect a guy to stop and take a knee during a kickoff return, but it was that kind of game.
Harbaugh pointed out after the game that it was still the third quarter when the Ravens started adding to their 24-point lead. "When I'm looking at the clock, and I'm seeing 25 minutes left in the game, a lot of things can happen," he said. "Turnovers can happen, people can score quick." Fair enough. But the fake field goal was really pushing it.
The Ravens offense was in a dustbowl-caliber dry spell entering the game, and Harbaugh may have subconsciously hoped that he could bank a few points until the next road game. If that were possible case, Steve Spurrier would still be living off leftover touchdowns from the early 1990s.
Soccer at the Metrodome: An errant second-quarter pass from Matthew Stafford caromed off defender A.J. Jefferson's foot and into the arms of Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield. Everybody on the field stopped. Jefferson shook his head and made an "aw, shucks" gesture, upset that he missed the chance to intercept the ball with his shoelace. Then, Winfield realized that there was no whistle. Winfield ran 34-yards for an apparent touchdown, except that the replay showed that the ball bounced from Jefferson's foot to the ground to Winfield. The call was reversed, but for a few seconds, Rupert Murdoch's dream of soccer catching on among American football fans was realized.
Johnson and Johnson in the end zone: It has been a while since Calvin Johnson caught a touchdown pass, but Megatron finally broke a five-game drought with a score late in the fourth quarter of the Lions' loss to the Vikings. But another Johnson beat Calvin into the end zone on Sunday: Backup Falcons tackle Mike Johnson caught a one-yard touchdown against the Saints on one of those "Betcha No One Covers No. 79" plays.
The Lions should always go back to the well as often as possible with Megatron, who finished with 12 catches for 207 yards. The Falcons made the mistake of going back to the well once, which is once too often, for Johnson. Late in the fourth quarter, during the Saints' game-winning goal-line stand, Johnson tried to leak into the flat for another sneaky touchdown. The Saints defense wasn't fooled, and they also didn't overcompensate. Tony Gonzalez tried to slip unnoticed behind Johnson, but a second defender picked him up. Matt Ryan couldn't connect with Gonzo, the Saints won, and a team with Michael Turner at running back was left wondering why short yardage touchdowns have become so difficult. (Two reasons: 1) the Falcons interior line is not that great and 2) Turner, as mentioned earlier, is toast.)
Quarterbacks tackled by molecules. Carson Palmer slipped and fell in the first quarter of the Raiders-Ravens game, apparently tripped up by the Ravens midfield logo. And if any logo can reach up and grab your ankles, it's the Ravens logo: a multicolored mash-up of stylized letters and patterns from the Maryland flag that looks like a coat of arms designed by the winner of an Inner Harbor Oyster Shooter competition. Palmer lay on the grass for several seconds waiting for a Ravens defender to arrive and officially sack him, an early sign of what the Raiders afternoon would be like.
Premature spikulation. Trindon Holliday returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown against the Panthers. Or, if you watched carefully, he returned the punt 75 yards, flipped the ball into the air to celebrate an apparent touchdown at the one-yard line, and let the ball roll through the back of the end zone for what should have been a touchback. The play was not reviewed, despite the fact that all touchdowns are technically supposed to be reviewed.
We are now obligated by law to rehearse the obligatory talking points about inconsistent officiating, the NFL's inability to adhere to its own standards, and the blood-freezing ramifications of such a call being missed in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl against any team but the Seahawks. Also, IF THE REPLACEMENT REFS HAD MADE THAT MISTAKE THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN BLASTED TO HIGH HEAVEN YADDA YADDA YADDA
Now that all of that is out of the way: blown call, bonehead play, had no impact whatsoever on an easy Broncos victory.
Football fans in general, and Vikings fans in particular, should follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero. Pelissero provides in-depth Vikings analysis during and after games, but this week he also filled us in on what it's like to work at the nation's most collapsible stadium. Here are two tweets from just before the start of Lions-Vikings:
In more important news, the Metrodome's gong-show catering crew has run out of coffee again
And now, I'm told the only bathroom in the press box is out of order. When this place gets torn down, I'll bring the sledgehammers.
Now, when you think about it, if you are going to run out of coffee, it is best to do so right before the bathroom goes out of order. That said, a press box with no restroom facilities is a potentially terrifying place.
Pelissero never revealed if the bathroom was reopened, and I really don't have the heart to start calling Vikings or Lions media members and asking them how this afternoon's bodily functions fared. But this game story from the Bemidji Gazetteer and Picayune website (since taken down), may reveal that the restroom problem lingered on for some time:
Vikings 34, Lions 24
Adrian Peterson ran like a mighty river, flowing and gushing for 171 yards as the Vikings gave their fans glorious relief and constricted the flow of a two-game losing streak on Sunday.
The Lions defense was unable to stop the free release of the Vikings offense, as Bill Musgrave emptied his playbook of ball-control plays that slowly drained the Lions' resolve.
Christian Ponder unleashed the torrent of points with a three-yard touchdown to … oh dear lord this is torture … Jarius Wright after Wright squirted past the Lions defense for a 54-yard completion. Later in quarter number one, Blair Walsh … why on earth did I drink a whole quart of iced tea while driving to the game? … added a 48-yard field goal.
The Lions kept the game tightly constricted, but the Vikings geyser erupted late in the third qu … I can't stand it anymore! I am going to stand behind the shrub on the far side of the media parking lot and end this horror once and for all! Then I will ladle antibacterial soap over this laptop keyboard like I am icing a cake! Then, a request for a transfer to the Twins beat so I will never have to write about Christian Ponder while doubled over in agony again.
Kyle Rudolph finished with seven catches for 65 yards and ahhhhhhhh touchdown.
Well, that certainly was revealing. Tune in two weeks from now, when the door to the open-air media smoking area at MetLife Stadium is locked and the headlines in several New York newspapers read "Eli Manning Gets Me a Cigarette in the Next Three Minutes or We Start a Jaguars Trade Rumor."