Today, let us keep light hearts in the face of dark circumstances.
Let us defeat despair with our joy, defy pain by allowing ourselves pleasure and conquer fear with laughter. Let us hate the actions which brought so much sorrow to the football world by loving the sport that gives us so much to share.
We grieve senseless deaths, but we also cheer. Those are not separate actions or opposite impulses. They are intertwined. We honor the dead and the suffering by celebrating the living, and life.
The Jovan Belcher murder-suicide was unfathomable. We acknowledge and condemn the horrible by rededicating ourselves to the wonderful: the joys of family, the comfort of friends, the excitement and awe that our favorite sport brings to us during our precious leisure hours. This week, we remember to love football, and the time we invest in watching it and reading about it.
And because we are human, and because it heals, we reserve the right to laugh a little.
To Clinch and Clinch Not
When trying to clinch a playoff berth before the leaves have completely fallen, while there are still edible turkey leftovers in the fridge, during the time of year when each day still has its own capitalistic holiday shopping catch phrase (Black Friday! Small Business Saturday! Cyber Monday! Loan Shark Sunday! Overcompensate for Neglect with Jewelry Wednesday!), teams need a healthy dose of self-knowledge.
The Texans, Ravens, Patriots and Broncos were in position to clinch playoff berths -- or their division crowns -- in Week 13 because they are very good, but also because their division challengers are very bad. It’s a codependency, and the Patriots, Texans and Ravens actually faced their enablers this week, making the win-plus-a-loss calculations easy and granting the playoff frontrunners favorable matchups against the opponents who made them frontrunners in the first place.
For the AFC clinchables, winning -- and earning a solid month of jockeying for playoff seeding and blowing the stink off the backup quarterbacks -- was simply a matter of doing what they always do, while waiting for their all-too-accommodating foes to do what they always do. There was no reason to reinvent a wheel that started turning in September.
Three of the clinchables handled their business, while a fourth came up short. None of them really showed us anything new, but they didn’t have to: They’ve clinched, after all. Or in the Ravens’ case, they will do so soon enough.
The Texans Way: Make a big deal about being a great rushing team, then annihilate opponents with play-action passes. Once you have a lead, start handing off the way your opponent expected you to in the first place, and munch the clock like it’s toffee popcorn. Unleash J.J. Watt as needed.
The Titans Assist: Flail around for four quarters with no offensive identity whatsoever. Project Jake Locker’s unpreparedness across the clouds like an ugly laser show.
How it Worked: Like a charm. The Texans clinched a playoff berth with a 24-10 win.
The Texans have run the ball 413 times and passed 418 times this season, making them about as balanced offensively as a team can be. But their rushing percentages are inflated by a lot of fourth-quarter clamp downs. The Texans have spent a lot of time this season leading 43-13 and watching the mile markers roll by. A near 50-50 run-pass ratio in today’s NFL looks like a George Halas offense, so some teams appear shocked when the Texans begin the game faking more handoffs than they execute.
The Texans’ first touchdown drive consisted of one run and five passes, the final one a 54-yard strike from Matt Schaub to Lestar Jean, formerly of The Fugees. (The Jean play was not a play-action pass.) The Texans threw 24 times and rushed 14 times in the first half, with a play-action touchdown to James Casey and an Arian Foster run capping short drives.
The Texans would have been greater except for one strange play: Chris Johnson took a handoff (from a full house backfield; oh, those unpredictably inept Titans) and had the ball punched loose in the backfield. Antonio Smith scooped it up and began rumbling for a touchdown, but suddenly the whistle from the Justin Forsett Thanksgiving play, trapped in a sonic vortex for nearly 10 days, bleated the Smith run dead. Someone should compose a theme song for the Texans called “Random Whistle Blues.”
Locker, meanwhile, sent footballs randomly whistling in all directions. The Texans’ effort to stash the football in an egg incubator for 30 minutes was thwarted by their offense’s sudden inability to piece together drives in the second half. But Locker overthrew receivers, underthrew them, bounced passes to them, threw too late and, most often, just stood in the pocket and waited to get flushed or sacked.
The real fun of watching the Texans offense, besides seeing three linebackers and a safety get sucked in by every fake handoff, is watching defenders get mowed like tall grass behind the ball carrier. When you watch Arian Foster run, do not watch Foster, but all the action in Foster’s wake. You are likely to see a defender tripped, elbowed in the face, or if things are going really well for the Texans, sat upon.
The Ravens Way: Work Ray Rice like the new intern. Go Punkin Chunkin with Joe Flacco and hope a few of the launches reach their targets. Hope that Ed Reed has not lost his Master of Football Magnetism touch for snatching loose footballs.
The Steelers Assist: Put the game in rickety ancient journeyman backup quarterback’s hands. Fumble with elan. Keep the score close and hope Todd Haley calls an end-around-receiver-option at the nuttiest possible time.
Why it failed: These are still the Steelers, and they still know how to win 23-20 games against the Ravens, having now done it three times since 2008. (The Ravens also beat the Steelers 23-20 once. These teams play each other way too often).
The Ravens did not overwork Rice against the Steelers, giving him the ball just 12 times for 78 yards and one touchdown. Little Ray could have helped the Ravens with a doubled workload. Too many satellites were launched from Cape Flacco; the quarterback was just 3 of 12 on passes marked as “deep” in the play-by-play, with one touchdown and one interception. (The official game book lists any pass that travels 15 or more yards downfield as “deep;” most of the Ravens passes were their traditional low-orbital craft.) Jacoby Jones spent a lot of Sunday afternoon leaping with his fingers outstretched, as if he were trying to change the battery of a smoke alarm on the ceiling of a cathedral.
Baltimore held a narrow lead for much of the game thanks to Todd Haley’s grand Antonio Brown passing experiment (interception), and some spooky Ed Reed precognition. Emmanuel Sanders caught a deep pass over the middle in the third quarter, and Reed totally ignored him, running downfield as if he had a prior engagement in some other game. Sanders suddenly lost the handle on the ball, which skittered away and came to a rolling stop right at Reed’s fingertips. Have you ever played a strategy game against the computer (which of course, knows all the game’s secrets) and noticed your enemy fiercely defending an otherwise useless plot of territory, only to discover 20 turns later that oil or uranium or some other resource will spawn in that very spot? Reed does things like that. Except in real life.
When a Ravens-Steelers game stays competitive into the fourth quarter, it is inevitable that the least mobile quarterback on the field will get strip-sacked. Usually, that’s Flacco, though sometimes Byron Leftwich or Ben Roethlisberger with four fractured body parts takes his place. Charlie Batch looked spry for much of the game, even charging downfield to block on running plays, so it was up to Flacco to cough up the ball deep in Baltimore territory, giving Batch a chance to throw a game-tying touchdown pass that took the wind out of the Ravens' bid for an early clinch.
The Patriots Way: Try to run up a 45-3 halftime lead as a springboard for a really wide-open second half. Avoid getting lured into a “We’re the Patriots Dammit!” (WTPD) game, in which your stubborn insistence that you can score two points per minute despite key offensive injuries keeps getting Tom Brady sacked.
The Dolphins Assist: Be somewhat competent but incredibly plodding. Try to establish Brian Hartline as a deep threat. Play exactly to the level of the 7-9 also-ran that you have been for going on four full seasons.
How it Worked: Barely. The Patriots escaped with a 23-16 win and the AFC East crown.
The Patriots nearly trapped themselves in a WTPD game. They spent much of the first half in empty backfield formations, with Brady throwing short passes and pretending that he doesn't miss Rob Gronkowski at all when Aaron Hernandez drops the ball or he is forced to take a coverage sack. An 11-play drive resulted in a missed field goal, and when the Dolphins cut the Patriots' lead to 17-10, it started to look like one of those games for New England. The Dolphins kept getting pressure. The Patriots had no downfield capability, so every drive had to be a playbook exhibition.
But the Patriots had a secret weapon: the Dolphins receivers. Ryan Tannehill overthrew a wide-open Brian Hartline early in the game; you got the impression that Tannehill, like most observers, expected the team’s designated deep threat to be a step or two faster. Hartline could not bring down his feet inbounds in the back of the end zone, forcing the Dolphins to settle for a field goal early in the fourth quarter. At least Tannehill and Hartline connected five times, once during a late desperation drive. Davone Bess had one catch on six targets. Third receiver Rishard Matthews caught just one pass, down by 10 points in the final minute. That was it for Dolphins wide receivers: seven catches. Even when the Patriots are sputtering, no team can keep pace with them while getting just five catches from wide receivers in the first 58 minutes of the game.
The Patriots ultimately escaped WTPD mode by running the ball in their late drives. Just as the Texans can torture opponents with play action because their running game is both threat and reality, the Patriots can often hammer away at opponents with their shotgun draws and delays instead of throwing a billion passes. They sometimes forget this, because close games seem to genuinely shock them, but Stevan Ridley helped them grind out two long, slow field goal drives when they really needed them.
The Broncos Way: Get a great effort from the entire defense and an MVP-caliber one from Von Miller. Balance the pass and run well. Get surprising production from Knowshon Moreno. Watch as Peyton Manning receives all of the credit, though in fairness he deserves quite a bit of it.
The Chargers Assist: The Broncos did not get an assist from the Buccaneers, a tough out-of-conference opponent who had a flat game but has generally played everyone tough in the last two months. But the Chargers faced the Bengals at the same time that the Broncos hosted the Bucs, and the Chargers are reliable surrender chipmunks.
How it Worked: Smoothly. The Broncos clinched the AFC West with a 31-23 win which was not that close.
The Broncos excel at tilted-field football. Their defense forces many three-and-out drives, while Manning produces few of them. So even as the Broncos trade punts with opponents, they slowly earn a significant field position advantage.
The Buccaneers started eight of their first nine drives at or inside the 20-yard line, making life tough for their station-to-station offense. The Broncos scored touchdowns on drives that started at their 35, 48 and 43-yard lines, and moved the ball far enough to flip field position in their other drives. By the time the Buccaneers earned some field position breaks late in the game, the Broncos had the lead.
As for the Chargers, well, you are only obligated to care as much as they do.
Note: The Falcons also clinched their division with their win on Thursday night and the Buccaneers’ loss. Leave it to the Falcons to win their division with a month left to play in the most unprepossessing way possible.
And the World Laughs With You
A roundup of the unusual, amusing and generally wacky goings-on from Week 13:
Fourth-and-Shortsighted. The Bears went for it on fourth-and-one from the Seahawks’ 15-yard line while leading 7-0 early in the second quarter. They attempted a one-yard plunge by Michael Bush from a jumbo, six-offensive lineman formation. If you thought the Bears did not even have six healthy offensive lineman, you are technically correct. Undrafted rookie James Brown was the extra blocker, because it is better to have practice squad fodder on the field for a crucial play than, say, Matt Forte. Bush was stuffed.
The Rams went for it on fourth-and-one from the four-yard line late in the third quarter while trailing 7-2. Daryl Richardson started out at running back, then went in motion before the snap to empty the backfield. Sam Bradford threw an incomplete pass to a well-covered Austin Pettis in the back of the end zone, because it is better to make it obvious that you are going to pass, and to put your faith in the stellar Rams receiving corps, than to threaten the defense with, say, Steven Jackson.
The Titans faced a fourth-and-three at the Texans seven-yard line early enough in the fourth quarter of a 24-10 game to make things interesting. Jake Locker rolled directly in the direction of J.J. Watt, got all flustered, and just crumpled to the ground while bobbling the football. Because it’s … well, any decision that involves Jake Locker making a decision is not a wise decision.
As a disclaimer, this segment is not an indictment of going for it on fourth-and-short in opponent’s territory, which is often a good percentage play. It’s just best to play to your strengths, as opposed to your biggest weaknesses, as the teams above did. The Dolphins faced a fourth-and-one against the Patriots in the fourth quarter and did something crazy. They ran from the I-formation, something they are good at doing and their opponent is bad at stopping. The result: nine yards by Daniel Thomas, keeping a field goal drive alive. No mystery linemen or empty backfields required.
Marshall’s Flying Wedgie: Brandon Marshall nearly crossed the line between offensive pass interference and serious personal space violation when he grabbed Richard Sherman’s shirt tail to keep the defender from jumping a route and picking off a Jay Cutler pass. At first, it looked like Marshall may have gotten hold of some underpants elastic as well; Sherman was in danger of getting snapped backward while arguing for the flag.
Britt’s Tots: The Titans mounted a spunky little drive late in the third quarter against the Texans, with Kendall Wright catching a 38-yard pass to set up a 34-yard touchdown by Kenny Britt. Both Wight and Britt stood up after their receptions and struck action-figure poses, which sent the message that a little thing like a 24-10 score was not going to keep them from looking fabulous.
After scoring, Britt headed to the stands to hand the football to a little girl. This particular Cindy Lou Who was not even two, and she looked baffled about what she was supposed to do (a look of befuddlement is common among adult Titans fans as well). The adorable tyke finally clutched the football and toddled away. Don’t worry, Sweetie, it is safe to approach Britt when he's not behind the wheel. And you can keep the football, because the Titans offense is done with it for the year.
Worth Three Points in “Feedback Ball:” Charlie Batch overthrew a wide-open Mike Wallace in the closing seconds of the first half, but the ball swished into the parabolic microphone held by a sound man in the back of the end zone. Did you know that any football that lands in a parabolic microphone ricochets directly toward the focus, even if it is thrown by Charlie Batch? It’s true.
The soundman crouched on all fours for several seconds after the ball hit his microphone. No wonder: If his headphones were on, he probably felt like the guy who stands next to the cannons when AC/DC performs “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)”
Luck the Truck: Andrew Luck engineered a 35-33 comeback against the Lions with his arm, his mind, his legs and his unexpected ability to channel Christian Okoye. Luck drew an illegal block penalty against Jacob Lacey while chasing down Drayton Florence along the sideline after an interception. Illegally blocking the quarterback on what was nearly a pick-six may seem like a foolish decision by Lacey, but a) the commotion behind Florence was enough to nudge him out of bounds, so who knows what Luck might have done with a clean shot; and b) Ndamukong Suh was just a stride away, so Lacey may have figured that a 10-yard penalty by him was better than a 15-yard penalty, fine, ejection and an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
Luck later bounced off Nick Fairley while scrambling as if Fairley were a pinball bumper (a very angry pinball bumper), and set up his game-winning touchdown pass with two hard-charging scrambles. He did not, however, complete a pass to himself; only one quarterback was cool enough to do that this week.
Mystery Receivers: Matt Schaub completed a batted pass to himself for a loss of six yards. Unlike his counterparts on the Titans, Schaub did not strike a manly pose after the catch.
Peyton Manning’s first touchdown of the game against the Buccaneers went to Mitch Unrein, a 290-pound defensive tackle. Manning also completed a third-and-one pass to Knowshon Moreno, who was seated on the ground a few inches past the first down marker. Manning can get the ball to you, even when you are obviously loafing. (Kidding! Moreno had just been knocked over). When Manning is completing passes to defenders and to the seated, there is no chance of stopping his passes to teammates who are standing up and trained to catch them.
Barn Burner: The Cowboys and Eagles made a great show of presenting a crowd-pleasing, back-and-forth offensive battle. If you looked closely, the Cowboys' 38-33 win was more like two fourth-graders playing “Madden” on the rookie setting. The fourth quarter was a 21-10 slopdown that featured a fumble-return touchdown and a punt-return touchdown, plus some defensive nonexistence by the Eagles. It could have been worse. At least it was watchable, unlike the goings-on in East Rutherford …
McElweenie: Yes, Greg McElroy really replaced Mark Sanchez. Yes, three quarterbacks combined to go 25 of 58 for 198 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions in the Jets’ 7-6 win over the Cardinals. Yes, they charged full price for this. And yes, it was more funny “unusual” than funny “ha-ha,” but we take our comedy where we can get it.
Jackhammer: Coby Fleener calls his touchdown celebration “the Jackhammer.” He basically holds out his arms and vibrates. Fleener said he got the idea from a fan on Twitter. Here’s another idea: never vibrate. It is always weird.
Here We Go Again
It only feels like the Colin Kaepernick saga has gone on for eight years. It was only eight weeks ago that you did not know his name, or at least thought nothing of him. Now, he is the central figure in an exhaustingly banal quarterback controversy.
The Rams beat the 49ers, and thank heavens Greg “Legatron” Zuerlein kicked a 54-yarder in the final seconds of overtime for a 16-13 win, or else the Rams and 49ers would have tied twice. Kiss your sister once, and you are Luke Skywalker. Do it twice, and you are Caligula. You really don’t want to strain those kiss-your-sister metaphors with multiple ties. Things get Southern Gothic real fast.
Kaepernick is exceptionally talented. He should be the 49ers' starter in 2013, and will be ready to take the team very far by then. On Sunday, he took a safety for intentional grounding in the end zone on a play that started at the 17-yard line. He gave the Rams a touchdown on a sloppy option pitch to Ted Ginn. After one productive early drive, he led seven drives that went essentially nowhere, while his defense pitched a shutout. If Kaepernick’s first receiver was not open, he just ran for daylight or tried to force the ball.
The fact that Kaepernick was pitching to Ginn, a wide receiver, in the shadow of his own goal posts shows just what the 49ers offense devolved into as the game wore on. Harbaugh emptied his playbook of gimmicks. There were T-formations and full-house backfields as the 49ers went Cro-Magnon with their running game. Harbaugh realized by halftime that his best hope was to try to sit on a seven-point lead, then a five-point lead, then an eight-point lead after a David Akers field goal. After the Rams tied the game, Kaepernick peeled off a 50-yard run to set up a field goal. The 49ers would have won if their defense, taxed beyond the breaking point, had not tacked roughness penalties onto Sam Bradford scrambles, and if Zuerlein did not have a huge leg.
Does all of that sound familiar to you? The 13-point final score, wacky options, disguise-the-passer strategies and heroic late runs? Kaepernick played a Tebow Time game, except that the 49ers fell short.
And you thought the quarterback controversy was bad before.
Kaepernick was far better in his Tebow Time game than Tebow was in any of his Tebow Time games. Kaepernick is a far, far, better quarterback than you-know-who. But when Harbaugh called the pistol-option to Ginn on third down at his own 17-yard line, he tacitly admitted that he had no faith in his quarterback’s ability to make a good decision when throwing the football. That’s a problem he never had with Alex Smith.
So we get to do this for another week. Harbaugh will preen and pontificate. The folks who buried Smith last week will excavate him this week. The “Told You So” columns will weigh the Internet down like sandbags, and this is not meant to be one of them. I thought Kaepernick would be fine until the New England-Seattle road trip, where he would need to do more than run fast and fire a few speedballs to win. The oscillation frequency on this controversy is frighteningly fast, which explains why it's such a piercing whine of a topic.
You never thought much about Kaepernick eight weeks ago. Smith was 18 of 19 in a prime-time game a month ago. We were Jive Turkey Gobblers for suggesting that Harbaugh might contemplate a switch as of Halloween. Good heavens, there is still Halloween candy in the house, and it is not stale yet. This story has already rounded the block and returned.
And it is about to do another lap.
And, worst of all, the Jets are now up to something, too.