We begin with the playoff scenarios, as only Mandatory Monday can present them:
Despite an impressive 34-0 victory over the Giants, the Falcons can still clinch vague, unfounded skepticism throughout the playoffs with back-to-back season-ending losses to the Lions and Buccaneers. The Giants can still clinch unearned benefit of the doubt throughout the playoffs with wins against the Ravens and Eagles.
With their 34-17 loss to the Broncos, the Ravens have been eliminated from serious discussion as anything but postseason fodder. Because of the Steelers' 27-24 loss to the Cowboys, the Ravens have officially backed in to the playoffs. With a win against the Browns next week, the Broncos clinch a week of overheated arguments about whether it would be a good idea to rest Peyton Manning in Week 17, or if the guy who shook off 16 months of surgeries and inactivity to pick up almost exactly where he left off might get "rusty" if he takes a brief break.
The Bears clinched the right to blame injuries if they fail to reach the playoffs with their loss to the Packers. The Packers could have clinched the same excuse with a loss. The Packers can nail down either "former champions seeking redemption" or "team that can only go as far as their quarterback can take them" based on a complex combination of their wins and Patriots losses.
By beating the Browns without Robert Griffin, the Redskins have clinched "playing with house money" throughout the playoffs. The Colts can sew up same phrase in the AFC with one more victory. Their close win over the Colts, coming after a blowout Monday Night loss, seeds the Texans as "vulnerable" and "beatable" in their first playoff game.
With any combination of one more good Kirk Cousins game and one unimpressive Griffin game, the Redskins also clinch the opportunity to spawn a talk-radio quarterback controversy so mind-bogglingly stupid that it makes "First Take" sound like Plato's "Apology."
The Buccaneers and Rams have been mathematically eliminated from being remotely interesting to a national audience.
With their easy victory over the Bills, the Seahawks clinch the right to call themselves "overlooked" and "disrespected." Their fans again clinch the right to complain about an "East Coast Media Bias," even as we fawn over the 49ers, who have already clinched "enigmatic" but need a win over the Seahawks and two-straight Jets losses to qualify as "seriously overexposed" throughout the playoffs.
The Jets face elimination on Monday night, which is not soon enough.
The Cowboys, Vikings, Steelers and Bengals are still in the hunt to be the team that drips into the playoffs on a series of fluky wins, catches some weak division champion with its pants down, prompts television analysts to gush about their "momentum," then gets hammered by the Patriots or 49ers.
Despite their loss to the 49ers, the Patriots, for the eighth straight season, have clinched hated-team advantage throughout the playoffs.
Thoughts and analysis from a cold, rainy night in New England, where the 49ers and Patriots battled into the night in a blowout, that became a nail-biter, that became something that cannot be pigeon-holed.
First Quarter: There is no question of who has the stronger arm between Colin Kaepernick and Tom Brady. Kaepernick blows Brady away. Just compare Kaepernick's laser touchdown to Randy Moss (which damaged no Mossfingers) to Brady's ugly duckling interception to Carlos Rogers.
Brady has been losing heat from his deep ball for years, and bad weather makes it worse. Peyton Manning has lost even more heat, though he compensates by floating helium-filled footballs along the sideline on Saturday afternoon so Eric Decker can retrieve them by Sunday. The fact that Brady and Manning may meet for one more playoff duel reminds us that there is much more to quarterbacking than fastballs: touch, timing, accuracy and the ability to read the defense. Brady will demonstrate all of those things in this game. Kaepernick, meanwhile, will bring more heaters. Very, very hot heaters.
First Quarter: The 49ers call the formation where Kaepernick is in the pistol, with a triangle of backs surrounding him, the "Q" formation. There is either a James Bond joke or a "Star Trek: The Next Generation" joke here, but I will refrain from either. I like to think of it as a "cue" formation, because they are trying to sink Frank Gore into a side pocket. Or a "queue" formation, because the 49ers have a backlog of skill position players and need to get as many of them involved in the game plan as possible.
First Quarter: Dashon Goldson gained 38 yards on a fake punt because Anthony Dixon delivered a textbook block to seal the edge, and because Kyle Arrington was late to react when he saw Goldson running toward him with the ball. Wes Welker made a touchdown saving tackle. Brady made a touchdown saving tackle after his interception, and the 49ers came away from two huge plays with zero points, all because the Patriots offensive stars played a little defense. These little things almost made a huge impact.
Second Quarter: The story of the early game: Patriots keep completing short passes but fail to convert on third down, or they fumble. The 49ers keep executing solid runs but fail to convert on third down, or they fumble. Jim Harbaugh calls a rugby scrum on fourth-and-short, with a diamond of backs surrounding Kaepernick like lawyers around the defendant on the courthouse steps. Kaepernick fumbles the snap and collapses. Call that the P-U formation.
Second Quarter: Kaepernick hits a wide-open Delanie Walker for a touchdown, thanks to some crafty formations. The 49ers start out in the Q, with Walker in the backfield. Walker then slides up to tight end, with Vernon Davis split wide. Then, Davis slips between Walker and the right tackle for a two-tight end look. Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard appears to lose sight of who is the outside receiver, so he focuses on Davis and just lets Walker fade along the sideline. At this rate of formation confusion, the 49ers may need the Cyrillic alphabet.
Second Quarter: Game interrupted for 10 minutes of coaches yelling and pointing fingers after Ted Ginn appears to fumble a punt. Ed Hochuli and his staff conclude, unconvincingly, that Ginn did not touch the ball. Ginn's body language suggests otherwise. He reaches down, turns as the ball rolls past him, then clutches his hands to his chest as if he just clasped the cookie sheet in a blazing oven. He visibly cringes as he tries to slink away. Hochuli should have watched Ginn's reaction instead of the ball.
Third Quarter: Kaepernick throws a deep pass to Moss in the end zone without even checking where the Patriots safeties are. Devin McCourty picks it off. This game was so wacky that this interception in the end zone was essentially irrelevant to the outcome. Amazing. But Kaepernick must learn to find the safety before going deep.
Third Quarter: Stevan Ridley fumbles. Aaron Hernandez tackles Goldson after his fumble return, but the whole "offensive star saves touchdown" plan can only be taken so far. 49ers punch it in this time. Frank Gore finds the side pocket.
Third Quarter: Aldon Smith intercepts a tipped screen pass. J.J. Watt had three sacks earlier in the day. They should arm wrestle on New Year's Eve in Times Square for Defensive Player of the Year honors. Kaepernick drills a touchdown to Michael Crabtree, between two safeties. He knew they were there this time. When the ball leaves a contrail, it doesn't matter.
Third Quarter: The Patriots answer with two quick touchdown drives. The downside of the Patriots system is that they must execute, execute, execute down the field in seven-yard chunks without Rob Gronkowski to provide a big-play threat (though Michael Hoomanawanui sped things along in the second drive with a bomb up the seam). On the upside, the Patriots have so much experience in an up-tempo, no-huddle offense that they can complete nine-play, 86-yard drives in less than four minutes. Their second drive would have been even faster had the 49ers defense not forced them to use four plays (and about 1:41) to go three yards. Those ticks made a difference late in the game, when the Patriots did not have time to mount a second comeback. Every little thing matters.
Fourth Quarter: The 49ers suddenly cannot get a first down. Brady and Welker outfox the 49ers with a play-action waggle on fourth-and-two. The Patriots try a flea flicker, but Brady overthrows Welker. The Patriots catch the 49ers changing personnel, but the 49ers call timeout to prevent a disaster. Brady, livid, spikes the ball in disgust. The game starts to feel like Mr. Spock battling Deep Blue in chess while George "The Animal" Steele wrestles a grizzly bear. Pass interference, plus a Brady-to-Hernandez touchdown, make it a 31-24 game. Check-and-suplex.
Fourth Quarter: Andy Lee drills a 64-yard punt after another stalled 49ers drive, and a holding penalty tacks on seven more yards, putting the Patriots on their own eight-yard line. Maybe field position can help the 49ers. Maybe not. Brady throws a teardrop along the sideline to Brandon Lloyd. Brady notices that no defenders are in the A-gaps and sneaks for five yards on first down. Commander Data replaces Mister Spock at the chess board. Danny Woodhead punches the ball in. Tie game.
Fourth Quarter: LaMichael James returns the next kickoff to the Patriots' 38-yard line. Crabtree catches a hitch, eludes Arrington, and scores a 38-yard touchdown. Momentum is an illusion. Momentum is an illusion.
Fourth Quarter: Sebastian Vollmer rips Ray McDonald's helmet off, stalling a Patriots drive. Ginn fumbles the punt return, but recovers it. Remember Ginn's earlier incident? That was 11 hours ago. There's a long delay as the referees spot the football. The game is officially bonkers. Harbaugh seethes and growls like George "The Animal" Steele. He would gnaw on a turnbuckle if he could find one. The 49ers cannot get a first down. Here we go again. More Lee punting heroics, more Patriots holding, Patriots ball on their own three-yard line.
Fourth Quarter: The 49ers defense forces fourth-and-one. Brady sees a vintage Patriots matchup: Woodhead, split wide, covered by linebacker NaVorro Bowman. The Patriots offense is designed to create and exploit this kind of speed mismatch. But Woodhead is just 5-foot-8, and Brady throws a pass only a leaping A.J. Green could catch. 49ers ball, deep in Patriots territory.
Fourth Quarter: Midnight. The two-minute warning. David Akers gives the 49ers a 10-point lead. In that order.
Fourth Quarter: The Patriots drive for a field goal, but Walker flops on the onside kick to give the 49ers a victory and the football world a chance to catch our breath.
The great Chase Stuart of Pro Football Reference found three instances in NFL history where a team came back from a 28-point deficit, then lost. Two of those games occurred in 1944 and 1951. The third, in 1994, saw Dan Marino erase a 28-0 deficit against the Vikings, but Warren Moon's team, like Sunday's 49ers, pulled away with 10 fourth-quarter points.
Games like these undermine the whole notion of "clutch" play or "comeback ability" for a quarterback. Sometimes the circumstances will be against you, no matter what you do, even if you are Tom Brady. Sunday night's game also reminds us of the absurdity of the notion of the "statement" game. The 49ers appeared to blow out to the Patriots, then appeared to cough up a lead, then pulled out a win. What sort of statement is that? And while the 49ers beat the Patriots, the Giants have also crushed the 49ers, but the Giants were just shut out by the Falcons, who were embarrassed by the Panthers, who were beaten by the Chiefs, who were dominated by the Browns. Does that make the Browns better than the 49ers? Don't be silly. But "statement" games are simply a matter of who is listening, and when.
The 49ers did not make a statement on Monday morning. They beat an outstanding team, in thrilling fashion, and proved they are one of the best teams in the NFL, which we already knew, and would still have known if Brady had found a way past them. The only real takeaways from the breathless 49ers victory were obvious: Kaepernick is better than promising, Brady is a legend, football in the rain is unpredictable and fun, and these two teams would give us one whale of a Super Bowl.
Working Hard for the Money
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its 2013 induction class this week, and once again Ray Guy got snubbed.
But seriously: Rush finally got in, and Rush was like the Ray Guy of rock 'n' roll bands. Guy punted; Geddy Lee played keyboards with his feet. The similarities are endless.
The great thing about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that there are never any arguments about performance-enhancing drugs. At the same time, this year's induction class has some surprising parallels to the events of Week 15. (Yes, these transitions are really starting to strain. Don't worry folks: There are only three weeks left.) Here is a list of 2013 inductees, what made him/her/them great, and what one of the artist's signature songs can tell us about Sunday's action.
The only band to blare from a Panasonic boombox when playing street hockey in a cul-de-sac wearing a Tim Kerr jersey. Rush was famously snubbed by the RRHoF for years because of: mullets, multi-part songs that stretched across multiple albums (the "Fear" cycle was essentially "Trapped in the Closet" for people who have never, ever dated), and Alex Lifeson attempting to rap on "Roll the Bones." Sometimes pretentious, always ambitious, Rush's "Permanent Waves" and "Moving Pictures" albums changed the way pot was smoked in suburban basements in the early 1980s.
Limelight: The Seahawks should be living in the limelight. They marched into Toronto (Rush's hometown) and stomped all over the Bills. Cast in the unlikely role of Rookie of the Year candidate, Russell Wilson has been well-equipped to act, rushing for three touchdowns in a 50-17 win. The Seahawks deserve more attention, and they will get it, because their game against the 49ers next week was flexed into the Sunday night slot. All the world, indeed, is a stage. But until next week, we will keep ignoring the Seahawks, because their fans, like Rush fans, get comically angry when they feel their favorites are being slighted.
Over-complication is a fundamental component of Rush music, and Mike McCarthy must have been listening to "Hemispheres" in the fourth quarter of the Packers game. Having forced the Bears to punt, and leading by 11 points, McCarthy called a dangerous "Homerun Throwback" play, with Randall Cobb fielding the punt and throwing across the field to Jeremy Ross, whom you have never heard of. Ross bobbled the throw as if he were caught in the process of switching from synthesizer to bass guitar for the "Tom Sawyer" guitar solo, and the Bears recovered.
The Packers held an eight-point lead and faced third-and-three on the next series, but McCarthy called a play-action fly pattern up the right sideline, a play with a low probability of success and a high probability of stopping the clock. He even sent Aaron Rodgers on a bootleg during the final clock-killer drive, all the better to risk a fumble or an injury (Rodgers slid to a halt, in bounds, surrounded by angry Bears. At least he was using his noggin.) McCarthy's mind is not for rent, but don't put him down as arrogant. He just needs to make permanent changes to that end-of-game strategy.
Ann Wilson was equal parts Robert Plant, Little Richard and Sandy Denny; and no, that wasn't meant as a fat joke. Mandatory Monday does not subscribe to the sexist double standard: No one made a peep when Van Morrison became The Blimp that Ate Dublin, and Wilson is no different than dozens of other rock legends who conquered her demons and emerged stronger and healthier. Heart's 1970s oeuvre contained elements of prog rock, early metal and soul, before descending into droopy power ballads in the 1980s. Heart's discography contains as many odd wrinkles and dead ends as Todd Haley's playbook, except that Heart actually clicked more often than not.
Magic Man: Nothing Adrian Peterson does on a weekly basis should even be possible for a human being. He has rushed for 1,812 yards (212 on Sunday) during the time in the ACL-injury recovery period when most people have just started hopping on one foot without collapsing in agony. He is single-handedly keeping the Vikings in the playoff race. No Vikings receiver gained more than 27 yards from scrimmage against the Rams. Try, try, try to understand: He's the MVP.
Tony Romo has been known to pull some rabbits out of his hat. He has also inspired a female singer-songwriter or two. Romo had a handful of magical plays in the Cowboys' 27-24 overtime win against the Steelers, and his magic appears to be rubbing off. Dez Bryant, like Jason Witten in the season opener, gained mutant healing powers that allowed him to catch four passes for 59 yards and a touchdown despite a dislocated finger. (Romo possesses a Talisman of Splenic and Digital Healing. Very rare.) Romo can also cloud the minds of opponents so that they muff punts and ignore obvious blitzes in the fourth quarter. Brandon Carr wins the game ball for his overtime interception, and the Steelers have a lot to answer for in their late-game offensive play-calling, but when it comes to defining a game's storyline, Romo always comes straight on.
Soulful disco diva no self-respecting rock fan would admit to liking in her heyday. Summer, like Rush, was capable of writing 17-minute long songs (her big hit "Love to Love You" was an album-length epic that was trimmed for radio), but you could move to Summer's music without looking like you were having involuntary muscle contractions. Disco was polarizing in the 1970s, but if rock fans knew things like Auto-Tune, Kidz Bop and "fun." were on the horizon, we would have made room for "Bad Girls" right between "2112" and "Dreamboat Annie."
Hot Stuff: Several players got hot under the collar, on the field and on the sidelines, in Week 15. Mount Cutler erupted briefly after Jay Cutler and Devin Hester got their signals crossed, resulting in a Casey Heyward interception before halftime. Cutler's elaborate pantomime of throwing motions, shoulder shrugs and melodramatic facial expressions suggested that Hester was to blame. But Cutler took responsibility for the interception in his postgame press conference, unconvincingly. Not to harp on the guy, who is playing through multiple injuries behind an offensive line made out of stale gingerbread, but he could really use an effective communications course. He sometimes looks like an Internet gif come to life, or someone whose native language has 65 words for "sneer."
Roddy White and Corey Webster got into a shoving match a few plays after Chris Hope walloped the defenseless Victor Cruz in the middle of the field in the Falcons-Giants game. Under the circumstances, Webster had reason to be chippy. Eli Manning's pass was nowhere near Cruz, and Hope could see both the receiver and the throw, but he left his feet and launched anyway. Cruz underwent concussion protocols. Hope should have been ejected. Tape of the hit should be used as a benchmark for the league for exactly the type of play that must absolutely be eliminated.
The biggest sparks of the week came between Buccaneers linebacker Adam Hayward and his own coach, Bryan Cox. Heyward stepped in front of Cox while the coach was shouting instructions, and the former Dolphins-Bears-Jets linebacker arm-barred Heyward to the side. Heyward responded by shoving Cox, and an end-of-game kneel play erupted on the Buccaneers sideline before other players stepped in.
And you thought "Bryan Cox gets in a scuffle" was a played-out storyline by 1998. Rock 'n' roll never forgets.
Old blues guy ripped off completely by Eric Clapton. To be more specific, King was the old blues guy completely ripped off by Clapton whose music was based on sturdy three-chord progressions, minor-key instrumental solos and lyrics about hard times and failed relationships. To be even more specific, King was the old blues guy completely ripped off by Clapton whose music was based on sturdy three-chord progressions, minor-key instrumental solos and lyrics about hard times and failed relationships who grew up in the rural South, struggled to break through racial barriers for much of his career, and didn't enjoy his greatest success until white artists finally acknowledged his influence. Okay, this isn't helping at all. King wrote "Born Under a Bad Sign." How's that?
Born Under a Bad Sign: The Falcons were star-crossed on fourth down in the playoffs last year, but in a spooky reversal of fortune, the Giants found themselves incapable of converting a fourth down in Falcons territory on Sunday. Spookier still, the Giants could not stop themselves from trying. It was as if they made some deal with the devil at the crossroads that exchanged excellence for some ironic punishment. (Yes, that was Robert Johnson. Please hold your angry emails, blues literalists.)
They failed on fourth-and-one from the Falcons' 32-yard line and fourth-and-one from the Falcons' 11-yard line before halftime, then on fourth-and-two from the Falcons' 25-yard line in the third quarter. All of their attempts were halting and sloppily executed: a David Wilson handoff that the Falcons easily stuffed, a couple of ragged Eli Manning passes under pressure to receivers in traffic.
Statistically, going for it on fourth-and-short in situations like these is usually the correct play. Statistically, investing boldly in the stock market is also usually the correct play, except for those nasty "crashes." Realistic risk analysis requires sane people to temper their enthusiasm for let-it-ride tactics, which is why even aggressive investors stick some money in bonds, and a little more in the mattress. Had the Giants trailed 17-6 instead of 17-0 at half, they could have been in better position to come back later.
That's not to second guess Tom Coughlin on Sunday or Mike Smith last January, just to point out that it is never a good idea to shout "Nanny, nanny, poo poo" into the face of karma.
Chuck D., Flavor Flav and their collaborators were rap pioneers whose best work pushed American racial discourse forward 25 years so. "First Take" could push it right back. Without Public Enemy's challenging mix of politics, pulsating beats and energized fun, there would be no Jay-Z. That means there would be no Brooklyn Nets, no Rihanna (she's his niece or something, right?) and Beyoncé Knowles would be single and, conceivably, playing the field in search of paunchy, middle-aged sportswriters. In other words, Public Enemy has a lot to answer for.
Fight the Power: The Saints fought The Powers That Be this week, then battled the Buccaneers, and came away with back-to-back shutouts. We make too much of "distractions" in the sportswriting business. I often ask fans what workplace incidents actually cause a "distraction" to them in their everyday jobs. The dude in accounting mouthing off that he wants a raise probably does not affect you much; indictments and lawsuits that trickle down from senior management to the cube farmers certainly do. Similarly, a 10-month full-court press of accusations, suspensions and legal wrangles cannot really be compared to, say, Bart Scott acting like a nitwit. The Saints may well have been a 12-4 team, even with Sean Payton and others suspended, that got buried in affidavits. It was fun to see them dig themselves out for a few hours.