Robert Griffin crumpled to the ground after a Haloti Ngata wallop at the end of a fourth-quarter scramble. He tumbled, and his legs whipped and snapped in the air like willow branches in a tropical storm.
"I screamed. Like a man, of course," Griffin quipped after the game.
Also like a man, Griffin returned to the field after missing one play. He threw a 15-yard pass to Santana Moss. He hobbled to the line of scrimmage and tried to continue, but buckled as if he had the weight of a franchise on his shoulders. Which, of course, he does every time he takes the field.
Observers feared the worst, but the always-upbeat Griffin was certain that he did not have an ACL tear when he chuckled about manly screams in the postgame press conference. "I'm no doctor, but I know what an ACL tear feels like," Griffin said. Doctors and an MRI confirmed Griffin's self-prognosis: He has an knee sprain of undetermined severity. The Griffin story upgraded quickly from "will he ever be the same?" to "will he play next week?" The entire Beltway exhaled.
Teammates came through during those grim moments when Redskins trainers performed meatball surgery on the sideline. Griffin leaned back on the bench like poor Cavity Sam from "Operation" before being transferred to the Redskins' top-secret sideline mystery box for HIPAA compliance purposes. Kirk Cousins finished the Redskins' scoring drive, tying the Ravens with a touchdown to Pierre Garcon and a scramble for a two-point conversion. Rookie return man Richard Crawford took an overtime punt back 64 yards, rookie kicker Kai Forbath kicked the game-winning field goal for a 31-28 win and we learned two things very quickly:
1) The Redskins can win without Griffin, as long as several other rookies step up and Griffin provides 20 points and most of the yardage needed for eight more before collapsing; and
2) The playoff races in both the AFC North and NFC East are now more muddled and confusing than ever.
The Redskins, Cowboys and Giants all won on Sunday. The NFC East, historically one of the best (and least predictable) divisions in the NFL, looked like the Giants and the Three Pokey Kittens a month ago. Since then, the Redskins won four straight, the Cowboys won four of five and the Giants took a meandering autumn stroll before showering touchdowns on the Saints. The East became a three-team race last week. This week, it became a pretty good one.
The Ravens, Steelers and Bengals all lost on Sunday. The AFC North has been a source of stick-to-your-ribs football for a decade. The Steelers are perennial favorites, the Ravens are usually good for an 11-5 record built on 13-10 wins and the other teams cavort around Ohio wearing orange helmets. That status quo did not change when Ben Roethlisberger got hurt, because Ben Roethlisberger getting hurt is part of the status quo. But the Steelers are now 1-3 in their last four games, the Ravens have lost two straight and the Bengals keep butting up against a glass ceiling: They play like they have a mental block against passing the Steelers or Ravens in the standings.
The AFC North contenders have little to fear but each other. One will win the division, a second will join the Colts as a wild card team and the third knew the risks when the season started. Of course, the final wild card team is likely to earn a playoff-opening trip to Denver or New England, which is one unpleasant consolation prize. The NFC is a tougher conference; assuming the Seahawks sew up the first wild card spot in the NFC, teams like the Bears, Vikings, Buccaneers and even the Rams can still overtake the runner-up in the East.
The message for teams in both divisions is simple: If you want to make the playoffs and be more than Peyton fodder, you had better come in first place.
How to Stand Out
Now that Griffin looks like he will return in a week or two (the Redskins have the Browns next week and can scrape by without him for a bit), all six of the playoff hopefuls in the two Muddle Divisions have a chance. But each team needs to get better if it hopes to overtake the others. Here are some helpful hints for each NFC East and AFC South contender on how to get an edge in the final three games.
Ravens: End Blitz Denial. This is what happens when the Ravens face third-and-medium:
Opponents line up in man coverage on the Ravens receivers, and they show blitz from the outside. Often, two or three defenders threaten the edge, jumping and seething in plain view of Joe Flacco. Everyone in the Ravens organization - Flacco, John Harbaugh, Cam Cameron, possibly Ozzie Newsome and Poe the Raven - engages in a solemn, unspoken oath to pretend that the oncoming blitz will never occur. Flacco takes the snap and holds the ball, figuring that his catlike reflexes will save him when those blitzing defenders inevitably breach the Ravens first line of pass protection, which was, after all, wishful thinking.
The Redskins exploited the Ravens' blitz denial over and over again. London Fletcher's red-zone interception came on a play where the Ravens simply ignored a hungry linebacker hovering outside the right tackle. The Ravens faced third-and-six early in overtime, and Flacco not only tried to scramble away from the blitz after holding the ball too long, but actually attempted to juke a defender. By the time you read this, Flacco's hips will have stopped migrating left and will begin their geologic shift to the right. Needless to say, he did not pick up the first down.
The Ravens solved the Redskins' third-down blitz only once all game: late in the fourth quarter, when Flacco threw to Anquan Boldin in the flat. Boldin was covered by the fellow we will talk about in the next segment.
Redskins: Deck the Hall. At this point in his career, DeAngelo Hall is not going to become a great cornerback. He will always have sloppy technique, double-move gullibility and an unfounded faith that his raw athleticism will cover for his errors. He stays employed by having big games against terrible quarterbacks or catching guys like Tony Romo or Jay Cutler in a biorhythmic trough. He has a three-interception game once per year and earns Defensive Player of the Week honors which offset, slightly, his lifetime achievement award as Headache of the Other Fifteen.
But while Hall will never learn in coverage, he could at least try to stop being foolish after allowing the reception. He gave the Ravens 15 penalty yards on totally unnecessary roughness against Torrey Smith, but the Ravens turned the ball over moments later. (It was his fifth "roughness-type" penalty of the season.) A more costly bonehead play occurred when Boldin beat him to the flat on third down late in the fourth quarter. Hall followed Boldin down the field trying to poke the ball out of his hands instead of doing something zany like trying to tackle him.
When not being a knucklehead, Hall allowed two easy touchdowns.
With Griffin likely to be out or limited for a week or two, the Redskins will have to play mistake-free football. They cannot give up 15 yards because Hall feels like hitting someone, or 10 more because Hall thinks the football is a piñata, and expect to keep pace in the division.
Cowboys: Set the Alarm Clock. The Cowboys looked awful for the first 50 minutes of their 20-19 victory over the Bengals. Brandon Carr's interception to set up a DeMarco Murray touchdown was their only true highlight of the first three quarters. The Cowboys stayed in the game thanks to some dropped Bengals passes (see below) and a little bit of unpredictable officiating: The refs threw 15-yard roughness flags more-or-less randomly against both teams, but the Cowboys rated a slight edge after all the eccentric penalties were tallied.
In the final two drives, the Cowboys suddenly woke up. Romo and his receivers, who were having one of those games in which it seems like they game-planned via singing telegram, connected time and again for big plays. The defense stiffened, with downfield coverage causing two late sacks of Andy Dalton.
The Cowboys had serious issues on their minds this week, so it is understandable that they came out of the gate a little sloppy. But they also let the Redskins mount a 28-3 lead on Thanksgiving, and the Eagles led at halftime last week. The Cowboys have been outscored 64-33 in the first quarter this season and 164-93 in the first half. They are a good comeback team because Romo is unpredictable and the skill position stars are dangerous. But they would be better off being a good overall team than a good comeback team.
Bengals: Play (and Coach) Like You Belong. Andrew Hawkins returned to the Bengals lineup this week, and the 5-foot-7 receiver made his presence felt immediately, catching a screen for six yards before taking an end around for an eight-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Hawkins looked like the missing link in the Bengals offense With A.J. Green working deep, Jermaine Gresham working the middle and BenJarvus Green-Ellis grinding out dependable yardage, Hawkins provided the short passing and constraint-play threat that should have stretched the Cowboys defense until it snapped.
But mistakes piled up for the Bengals offense. Green dropped two important passes: one a would-be touchdown, the second a critical third-down conversion opportunity. Hawkins also dropped a third-down pass. When the Cowboys defense stepped up late in the game, none of the Bengals receivers were able to get open.
The Bengals coaching staff made matters worse. Marv Lewis called three timeouts in strange situations early in the second half, one while setting up a long field goal, two others after Cowboys first downs. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden abandoned the run after a 43-yard rush by Green-Ellis in the fourth quarter. With the Bengals leading by two points, Gruden called five straight pass plays, the final one an Andy Dalton sack. As a result, the Cowboys got the football with plenty of time left, needing only a field goal to win, and the Bengals had no way to stop the clock.
When we talk about teams "not knowing how to win," we are usually just being vague and blowing smoke. The Bengals got mixed up with their timeouts, made bad decisions when playing with the lead, and got sloppy with the football in critical situations. They need a better plan for seizing control of games like this one.
Steelers: Know Thyself. Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich were not the problem with the Steelers offense. The Steelers offense is the problem with the Steelers offense. Ben Roethlisberger returned this week, and while a rusty Big Ben is a clear upgrade over the Piltdown Men, he could not solve the Steelers problems alone. The Steelers cannot run the ball: Their running backs carried eight times for 12 yards in the first half. Pass protection remains a major issue. The Steelers' screens and end-arounds too often amounted to much ado about nothing in a 34-24 loss to the Chargers that was not really that close.
The Steelers have not come to terms with their offensive limitations. Just before the two-minute warning, Jonathan Dwyer was stuffed on third-and-one at the Steelers 47-yard line. The Steelers went for it on fourth down, and because Todd Haley's OCD prevents any running back from carrying the ball twice in a row, Isaac Redman entered the game on fourth-and-one. He was stuffed as well, and the Chargers drove for a quick field goal to make the score 13-0.
Members of the Statistical Orthodox Congregation will no doubt remind me that going for it on fourth-and-one near midfield is one of the central tenets of the faith, and I have not lapsed. But the Steelers were trailing, their running game has been weak all year and the Chargers offense is more likely to do something stupid in the shadow of its end zone than within 15 yards of field-goal range. The Steelers executed 23 plays on their first seven drives, so their average possession was a three-and-out. They were in no position to ride the probabilistic cutting edge. They need to embrace punt-and-pin football and subsist on 16-13 wins to survive the next few weeks, no matter who is at quarterback.
Giants: Stomp on the Accelerator. The Giants want you to think that they are a grind-it-out, conservative team. They are really the Patriots in business wear. Sunday's 52-27 Arena Football shootout against the Saints seemed out of character, just like their 41-34 shootout with the Bucs, their 41-27 win over the Browns, their 29-24 victory over the Cowboys and other high-scoring games. After a while, you have to update the character: The Giants really are a high-scoring, defensively inconsistent team.
The Giants have a full complement of offensive weapons for once. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are at full speed. Domenik Hixon is enjoying a rare healthy window. Ahmad Bradshaw is playing well, and David Wilson (who set a Giants total yardage record on Sunday) has arrived at that brief, magical period between "rookie forever in Tom Coughlin's doghouse" and "unlucky soul who is always next to Hixon on the injury report." The Giants defense is well-equipped for shootout football. Their pass rushers can tee off, while their secondary can overcome numerous gaffes with one or two big plays.
The Giants should have no trouble beating the Falcons and Ravens the way those two teams are playing. All they have to do is stop worrying and start bombing.
Skeptic Mouse is Coming to Town
It often seems like it takes a miracle to reach the playoffs. But even a miracle needs a hand! In honor of one of the greatest Christmas specials ever, "Twas the Night Before Christmas" (actually a weird little cartoon about how Santa Claus is willing to spite an entire community to teach one skeptical rodent a lesson, but with one incredible song in the middle), Mandatory Monday is proud to welcome the incomparable musical styling of Tony Award winner Joel Grey:
Miracles happen most every day/To teams from sea to sea/But don't expect a miracle/Unless you help make it to be:
You hope while I hurry: The Eagles did not give up hope while trailing 21-10 in the final minutes against the Buccaneers. Nick Foles led a quick touchdown drive, and the Eagles went into hurry-up mode when they got the ball back with 2:55 to play.
All hope appeared lost when Foles could not connect with Riley Cooper or Marvin McNutt from the 23-yard line (these are actual Eagles players nowadays, folks), forcing fourth-and-long. But Foles found Jason Avant in the middle of the field at the one-yard line with 11 seconds left. Foles and his obscure eaglets then hurried to the line and spiked the ball in a display of awareness and competitiveness that has been lacking in Eagles football for about two months. Foles tossed a touchdown pass into the flat, and the Eagles ruined the 2002 Buccaneers reunion. It wasn't much, but it gave Eagles fans some hope for the future. Buccaneers fans may now need to tuck their hopes away until 2013.
You pray while I plan: Andrew Luck wasn't praying, but he was kneeling when he threw an interception straight into Will Witherspoon's chest. Witherspoon could not help but catch a football that was screwed into his torso at point blank range. He returned the pick for a Titans touchdown, and replay officials were unconvinced by the video evidence that Luck's knees were down.
But the Colts always have a comeback planned. When the Titans lined up with two tight ends and split receivers deep in their own territory, cornerback Cassius Vaughn sniffed out a slant to Nate Washington. Vaughn ignored Washington and raced to exactly the spot on the field Jake Locker planned to throw, hauling the ball in for an itty-bitty three-yard pick-six that gave the Colts the lead they would keep in a 27-23 win. Plays like that are the fruit of careful film study: When a cornerback plans, he can prey.
We'll do what's necessary 'cause: Even a miracle needs a hand. The Rams did what was necessary, hammering out 15-12 wins against the Bills to stay alive in the NFC playoff race. Unlike Joel Grey singing a holiday classic, "necessary" ain't necessarily pretty.
You love and I'll labor: Chad Henne is the NFL's designated Romance Elf right now; his wife's decision to upload a Christmas photo of the couple cuddling in their jammies reminds us that teams, seasons and championships may come and go, but true love and matching horizontal-striped candy-cane pajamas are forever.
We can get carried away with picking on Henne for wearing something only slightly sillier than the Steelers throwback uniform. The poor guy had to play without injured go-to receiver Cecil Shorts, and the Jaguars were so banged-up at running back that Montell Owens, a seventh-year special teams whiz, was pressed into service at running back. Lewis carried 14 times for 91 yards and a touchdown, but it was not enough, as the Jets running backs labored all afternoon: Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell plowed out 39 carries for 155 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 17-10 Tony Sparano fantasy made real.
After giving up two interceptions and getting sacked three times, it probably felt good for Henne to slip into footies and curl up beside his fetching spouse. That said, Henne Pajamas are not going to be big sellers anytime soon. If the Jaguars really want to rake in some holiday bucks, they need to market bedtime Cecil shorts.
You sit while I stand: Alex Smith sat for another week while Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers to a 27-13 win over the Dolphins. Kaepernick still stands in the pocket too long (Cameron Wake had three of the Dolphins' four sacks), but he was 18-of-23 for 185 yards, plus a 50-yard rushing touchdown to put the game out of reach. As always, the new quarterback's 185 passing yards and 53 rushing yards and four sacks against a mediocre opponent are better than the old quarterback's 185 passing yards and 53 rushing yards and four sacks against a mediocre opponent because he is the new quarterback.
Get help from a next door neighbor 'cause: Even a miracle needs a hand. The Eagles helped their neighbors in the NFC East by dropping the Buccaneers to 6-7: the likelihood that a wild card will come from the East increases as teams like the Bucs fall off the pace. The Redskins not only helped themselves by beating the Ravens, but also helped their former next-door neighbors, the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts are now nearly assured a wild card berth, and can start angling for the fifth seed. The Lions could not provide help to the Bears in the late game, as the Packers pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 27-20 win. But then, the Lions are not very neighborly.
We'll help our maker/to make our dreams come true/but I can't do it alone/So here's what we're gonna do: The irony that makes "Even a Miracle Needs a Hand" such a classic is cleverly concealed within the bouncy melody. The singer extolls the virtues of teamwork, but because he is singing to his children, he is really telling them to stay the heck away from him so he can get the job done right. Their "helper" role consists of love, prayers and wishes. This is a powerful acknowledgement of the burdens of parenthood, and also an eerily accurate allegory for Adrian Peterson's role in the Vikings' success this year. Peterson cannot do it alone, but he can make a miracle happen if his offensive teammates cross their fingers and block as hard as they can.
You wish while I whittle: The Seahawks whittled away at the Cardinals until there was nothing left in their 58-0 win. The Cardinals wished they were elsewhere, or at least had not based their entire quarterback situation on the wishful thinking that John Skelton was Ben Roethlisberger.
You drip while I dry: The weather in the Meadowlands was drippy, and Eli Manning and Drew Brees made footballs fall like raindrops. Weather in Lambeau started out wet but soon chilled into a Winter Wonderland. That's a different song, folks.
One person who was high 'n' dry was the NFL's favorite towel bearer: Cam Newton. Newton hasn't thrown an interception in four weeks, and his dominant performance in a 30-20 win over the Falcons recalled the Cam of yesteryear, aka last year. As for the Falcons, they remain the NFL's soggiest playoff team.
Let's all try to help a little 'cause: Even a miracle needs a hand! You cannot help yourself, you just have to hear the song after all of that. And here it is in all its glory.
Death looms over the NFL for the second straight week, making it hard to compartmentalize the action on the field, let alone put on the clown nose and frolic around like the court jester and tell Chad Henne jokes.
Society's Big Issues became the NFL's issues for the second Saturday in a row, and there is a risk of trivializing those issues by setting them aside to talk about the NFC East playoff race. There is also a risk of conflating them, connecting the dots between Jovan Belcher, Kasandra Perkins, Josh Brent and Jerry Brown Jr., to create some "NFL epidemic" where there are only isolated incidents of selfishness, foolishness, horror and tragedy that happened to occur a week apart.
We trivialize by dramatizing as much as by marginalizing. Society's Big Issues become Movie of the Week fodder when the football world ham-handedly tackles them. "Bob Costas disapproves" runs the risk of being taken exactly as seriously as "Tori Spelling plays a woman with a rare disease." At the same time, not mentioning the serious incidents that claimed three lives in the last eight days feels like an irresponsible denial of events that are far more important than some Redskins-Ravens game.
Society's Big Issues deserve their own weighty forums, whether those issues dovetail with professional sports or not. That does not mean that sportswriters or sports websites should not try to cover them, only that the coverage should not be shoehorned into our traditional forms: the back-slappy pregame show, the halftime rant, the Monday around-the-league wrap-up. They require hour-long documentaries, in-depth investigative reports and the voices of people who are experts in more than the Cover-2 defense or Eagles history. The best way to acknowledge that something big-M Matters is to treat it separately than the stuff that little-m matters.
Mandatory Monday is meant to be a safe harbor for those who want a football column to be about football and goofy pop culture references. It is meant to be light-hearted, and it remains light-hearted, even when the football world is beset by news of cancer, hurricanes, manslaughter and suicide. At its core the game remains an inspiring spectacle and beautiful diversion, played by men who are - still - mostly exemplary individuals. They play football to bring us joy, and we insist on enjoying it. Mandatory Monday respects Society's Big Issues, applauds every attempt to solve them and provides you with an opportunity to set them aside for a few minutes and discuss the Steelers.
Tony Romo said it best after the Cowboys beat the Bengals: "There's no playbook for this kind of thing." We improvise. We grieve. We curse dangerous behavior and its devastating consequences. We draw inspiration where we can. And like Romo and the Cowboys, we keep trying, because football's power to heal - we have to believe -- still dwarfs its power to harm.