The AFC playoff picture is crystal clear: The Patriots, Texans, Ravens and Broncos are the division winners, and the Bengals and Colts are the wild cards. There is still some jockeying to be done for home games and byes, but the fundamentals are clear.
The NFC playoff picture is a complex quagmire of baffling scenarios and multi-tiered tiebreakers. The Falcons clinched home-field advantage on Saturday night (in the fine Falcons tradition, they made sure there was as little drama as possible), and the 49ers and Packers have clinched playoff berths. After that, it is so muddled that I fear trying to sort it out in the wee hours of Dec. 24. No one at Sports on Earth wants to have to post corrections on Christmas Eve because, in a blur of flavored coffee, chocolate covered pretzels and Saints-Cowboys replays, I lost my marbles and gave a wild-card berth to the Arizona Cardinals.
Suffice it to say that next week's Redskins-Cowboys game is extremely important, as is Packers-Vikings, surprisingly. Next week's Panthers-Saints game has no significance whatsoever, but will probably be a lot of fun to watch. Redskins-Cowboys has been moved to prime time, guaranteeing one more late night here at Mandatory Monday headquarters.
Here is the helpful NFL.com page that explains the scenarios further. Let's get to the fun stuff.
Here are thoughts from selected games:
Seahawks 42, 49ers 13: Either the Seahawks suddenly flipped a switch and became the 1985 Bears a few weeks ago, or we are seeing something else at work here. One of the big "somethings" at work is that the Seahawks have been playing with a 17-point or more lead for 130 of their last 180 minutes of football. They took a 17-0 lead at the start of the second quarter against the Cardinals. They took a 24-7 lead midway through the second quarter against the Bills. They took a 21-0 lead at the start of the second quarter against the 49ers.
It takes a very good team to take a commanding early lead, and it is a testament to the Seahawks defense and their ball-control offense that they hold and expand these leads. But the ability to play with a lead also makes life easier for a team. Russell Wilson does not have to force passes. Run defense becomes less of a bother for the defense, which is a big deal when facing the 49ers. Opponents cannot settle for field goals, increasing the likelihood of red-zone interceptions. This is how many blowouts snowball, but the Seahawks are starting the blowout process so early that their early "tilt" distorts convincing victories into something that appears epic.
That said, they just crushed an outstanding opponent. The Seahawks are going to be scary in the playoffs. We are just trying to caution the folks in Washington who are contemplating a Super Bowl parlay with Junior's college fund.
As for the 49ers, they remain a great team when leading any opponent but the Patriots, and a poorly equipped team to come back against any opponent but the Patriots. They will now have to win three playoff games if they hope to face the Patriots.
Bengals 13, Steelers 10: The world's longest game of "Red Light, Green Light" has ended. The Bengals finally passed the Steelers after 60 minutes (and about two seasons) of bumping into their backs and stepping on their heels every time they came to a sudden stop.
It was a halting victory for the Bengals. The team had two 10-play drives that ended in nothing, thanks to a failed fourth-down conversion and a missed field goal. A.J. Green had 10 receptions for 116 yards but fumbled at the end of one catch, killing a drive. If the Bengals ran the football at all, I didn't see it. (Stat check: they rushed 16 times for 14 yards.) A few big passes, interceptions by Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson, plus two-and-a-half sacks from Geno Atkins, allowed the Bengals to grind out the ugly win against the Steelers. Hey, that formula has worked for the Ravens for years.
The Steelers had their moments: Antonio Brown's 60-yard touchdown, a play where Troy Polamalu snuck into the A-gap, timed the snap count and gave Andy Dalton a wedgie just as the ball was snapped. But there were inexplicable mistakes, most notably Ben Roethlisberger's decision to roll out and throw into coverage from Steelers territory in the waning seconds of regulation, resulting in Nelson's pick. What about the previous 14 possessions suggested to the Steelers that Roethlisberger was suddenly going to make magic happen?
Game-deciding interceptions aside (that makes two straight for Roethlisberger), the best way to win when your offense scores 10 points in 59 minutes is to score more than 10 points in 59 minutes. The Steelers averaged two-thirds of a point per possession. That would not have even gotten them into the playoffs with their 1976 defense.
Ravens 33, Giants 14: Long ago, from September to November of 2012, there was something called the "Ravens offense." It was not brilliant, but it undeniably existed. Ray Rice dodged and strove for every available inch. Joe Flacco stood stationary in the pocket and threw long bombs and lasers over the middle that reached their targets just often enough. The passing weapons - Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith, the tight ends - all got their touches. It was adequate, hot soup and a soft dinner roll on a cold night. But it suddenly disappeared, and everyone started to doubt it was ever real in the first place.
The Ravens offense returned in all its ragged glory on Sunday afternoon. There were bombs, long runs by both Rice and Bernard Pierce, and field goals galore (a staple of Ravens football dating back to the Matt Stover days). With their offense back, the Ravens once again look like the Ravens, for better or for worse.
As for the Giants, waiting for them to suddenly snap their fingers and become awesome again has become something of an existential journey into nihilism and doubt after back-to-back blowouts. Albert Camus would have had some fascinating insights into this season. On second thought, Camus would be on the Jets beat.
Saints 34, Cowboys 31, Overtime: Jay Glazer reported on the Fox pregame show that the Cowboys would retain Jason Garrett as head coach. You know what that means, Cowboys: Everyone can start slacking!
Just kidding. Dez Bryant did not slack during the first three quarters. Bryant had two highlight-reel touchdowns in which he made the Saints defenders look like those digitally altered "The Hobbit" dwarves who stand a foot smaller than the actors who portray them. The rest of the Cowboys were not quite as impressive, and the Saints picked their defense apart while mounting a 31-17 lead.
The Cowboys, however, are either: a) The most resilient team in the NFL; b) the team that has faced the least-resilient opponents in the NFL; or c) some combination of both. They scored two quick touchdowns against Thorin and Company to force overtime. And I do mean quick. The score was 31-17 when the Eagles game ended. I sat through Andy Reid's press conference, then Mike Shanahan's, then Kai Forbath's (more on that in a moment), then ducked out to the tunnel to check finals around the league, and suddenly it was overtime. Reid and Shanahan don't talk much, and Forbath is a kicker, so he talks less. That was a quick turnaround, even by Cowboys standards.
By the time I reached a television, they were reviewing the Marques Colston-to-Jimmy Graham Holy Roller. You have seen the replay by now: Colston catches the ball and makes the metaphysically-perplexing "football move," then the ball spurts forward from his arms in lands in Jimmy Graham's at the two-yard line. The call appeared correct. If any game should end with the kind of fluky forward fumble that happens once every 34 years or so, it should be a 2012 Saints-Cowboys game.
Redskins 27, Eagles 20: Robert Griffin returned, and he executed the read-option-screen-rollout offense until the Eagles defense was befuddled and ready to quit, which occurred midway through the second quarter. Griffin then dropped in a few perfect deep passes to Pierre Garcon (to set up one touchdown) and Santana Moss (to score another) and called it an afternoon.
Rookie counterpart Nick Foles made some fine throws but two critical mistakes with the ball. He overestimated his forklift-on-a-steep-ramp speed during a second-quarter scramble and got strip-sacked to kill an Eagles drive. He later neglected to throw through the back of the end zone when no one was open on the final drive, holding the ball until the rush arrived and heaving a pass toward a lineman for a game-ending penalty. Foles threw through the back of the end zone on the previous play. Maybe he did not know he could do it twice. Maybe some Eagles receivers should have tried getting open.
The star of the game, besides Griffin, was kicker Kai Forbath, who set a record with his 17th consecutive field goal without a miss at the start of his career. Does this sound like a rather arbitrary record to you? Forbath broke Garrett Hartley's record, so this isn't a mark that dates back to Jan Stenerud or anything. It's an exceedingly minor record, determined largely by circumstance (Forbath has no attempts longer than 50 yards this season), yet it got the press box buzzing, and Forbath preceded Griffin on the press podium. It must be the Mark Moseley Effect: Redskins fans really love their kickers, but they haven't had a great one to get behind for years. If Forbath finished the year 20-for-21, like Moseley in 1982, look out.
Forbath is just one of many great rookie kickers this year. Justin Tucker had another big game for the Ravens, with four short field goals and three touchbacks on eight kickoffs. Blair Walsh had three field goals for the Vikings, including a 56-yarder, and has also been a monster on kickoffs all season. Greg Zuerlein has been one of the Rams' brightest young stars all year, though they did not need him this week, as their offense tried touchdowns for a change in a 28-13 win over the Buccaneers. This would be the Year of the Rookie Kicker except for, you know, all of the completely awesome rookie quarterbacks.
Packers 55, Titans 7: A Packers "Family Night" scrimmage against the kids from East Oshkosh middle school. I was shocked to discover that Jake Locker completed 13 passes in this game, but then I did not see the final drive: four completions for 59 yards to cut the Packers' lead to 48. In the rest of the game, he completed nine passes for 81 yards and two interceptions. Not only did Graham Harrell finish out this game for the Packers, but backup fans were called in to catch players making the Lambeau Leap after touchdowns, in the name of good sportsmanship.
Dental Elf Will Drive You Mad
As a special guest this week, Mandatory Monday welcomes Hermey, the NFL's official Elf on the Shelf.
You may remember Hermey from his supporting role in the Christmas classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," his work as an extra in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, or that famous dental malpractice case from the late 1970s. When Santa abandoned his magic-snowball spyware technology a few years ago in favor of a small army of pint-sized Stasi who live in private homes and provide real-time updates to the Naughty-Nice list, Hermey left the security of the real estate industry and leaped, sleigh bells jingling, at the new opportunity,
Hermey spent most of the season as the elf in Jets headquarters. What did he see, you ask? What didn't he see is the real question. The shelf-shocked little sprite was reassigned to Park Avenue while he recovers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Hermey now watches the NFL on a bank of high-definition televisions and reports directly to Paul Tagliabue, who acts as a sort of North Pole ombudsman these days.
Hermey received permission to share his preliminary Week 16 Naughty-Nice list with Mandatory Monday. You may not agree with all of his decisions, but this is what we must expect when we sacrifice a lot privacy to gain a little control over children's tantrums.
Naughty: Cam Newton. Newton appeared to kick Raiders defender Tommy Kelly while trying to get up at the end of a run. "I realize it looked like I kicked him, but I was just trying to get up as fast as I can to get to the next play," he said in the fine "see, what happened was …" tradition. Newton later bumped a referee while arguing a penalty, incurring 15 extra yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. Newton apologized for that one. It is yet to be determined whether Chippy, Feisty Cam will be more of a hit with fans than Moody, Droopy Cam was. But it sounds like someone remembered the "better not pout" directive but missed the "better not shout" one.
Nice: Jason Witten. Witten set the all-time single-season reception mark for tight ends with two overtime receptions to give him 103 catches, passing Tony Gonzalez's old mark of 102. If you are going to break a record, do it with two overtime catches in the heat of a playoff push. Witten may be on pace to break some other tight end records when Gonzo retires, but since that will never happen, never mind.
Naughty: Kam Chancellor, Seahawks. Chancellor drew a roughness foul for walloping Vernon Davis in the second quarter, separating Davis from the football, and possibly some fillings. A few plays later, Chancellor harassed Michael Crabtree in the back of the end zone after a tipped pass, tossing Crabtree face-first to the ground before he could make the highlight reel. The red-zone stand set up a blocked field and touchdown that started the Seahawks' rout. Come to think of it, this was more "nasty" than "naughty."
Later, with the Seahawks game out of hand, Russell Okung got into a shoving match with a 49ers defender. Okung was shoved backward until he tripped over another 49ers defender, flipping backward. It was "nice," in the sense that you could not set up a push-and-trip routine like that if you tried. Okung squatted near the ground and celebrated for a few seconds. Forget looking silly, he drew a flag.
Naughty: Adam Jones, Bengals. The cornerback formerly known as "Pacman" bit hard on a double move, allowing Antonio Brown's 60-yard touchdown catch. It wasn't much of a double move, either. Brown executed a perfunctory hip turn before racing upfield, and Jones responded as if Brown had made a DC-10 disappear. Keep in mind that "naughty lists" are relative. This blown coverage merited a report to Santa, but it did not crack Jones' personal top 10.
Nice: The Vikings' offensive game plan. Adrian Peterson is trying to break a rushing record. The Vikings are trying to win a playoff berth. Even Peterson knows which is more important, but since he is the Vikings' best (only) offensive threat, Leslie Frazier would have been forgiven for handcuffing the football to Peterson's wrist.
Instead, the Vikings fooled the Texans with a balanced game plan. Jarius Wright assumed Percy Harvin's old role, sneaking into the backfield to catch flair passes and make plays in space. Kyle Rudolph caught a touchdown pass off play-action. Christian Ponder played point guard, rushing for 48 of his own yards while dishing just enough passes around to keep the chains moving. Peterson hammered out 86 yards on 25 grueling rushes, but Ponder threw 30 passes and rushed seven times, and Toby Gerhart added eight rushes late in the game. Record or no record, the Vikings know they need to keep Peterson healthy. For the playoffs.
Incidentally, Ponder got married this week. Note to newlyweds: Put a towel over your Elf on the Shelf during the honeymoon. There is some stuff elves are just not meant to see. (Yes, most newlyweds do not have children, and therefore do not need an Elf on the Shelf, but times are changing, and the little tattle-tales are everywhere.)
Naughty: Zach Potter, Jaguars. Potter kicked off a fourth quarter of bad red-zone behavior for the Jaguars. He jumped offside at the one-yard line when the Jaguars trailed by seven late in the fourth quarter. Potter's penalty was followed by a Chad Henne sack, then a Patrick Chung interception of a Chad Henne pass. The Jaguars drove downfield again in the final seconds, but Henne threw another interception. Henne is facing a coal-filled stocking, too, but it is an elf's job to determine just who started the downward spiral toward naughtiness. Even if that means watching the Jaguars.
Nice: Correct Fourth-and-Short Calculations: The Saints boldly went where the Falcons and Giants have gone (tragically) just before halftime against the Cowboys. Trailing 14-7, the Saints faced fourth-and-one deep in Cowboys territory. A field goal would be the conventional, safe decision, but going for it is the more statistically correct choice.
Not only did the Saints go for it, but they ran a play-action pass, with Drew Brees finding Marques Colston for an apparent 15-yard reception. The play was overturned after a long review, but the Cowboys jumped offside anyway. The Saints punched in a touchdown a few plays later. It's easy to imagine Mike Smith leaping from his recliner at home and spewing masticated popcorn everywhere, shouting, "How come we never get a break like that!"
After so many high-profile failures of this particular strategy (the Giants failed to convert three times in field-goal range last week), the fact that coaches keep trying it can only mean that they are doing their math homework. Elves like it when boys do their homework.
Naughty: The Jets. First, they declared Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow as co-backup quarterbacks behind Greg McElroy, redefining the very concept of a depth chart to fit their own festering neuroses. Then, they stopped just short of creating a sweepstakes that allowed random spectators to do what Sanchez and Tebow were not allowed to do on Sunday: take a snap. Jeremy Kerley took four snaps. Shonn Greene took one. Joe McKnight probably took one when everyone had stopped paying attention; it sounds like something the Jets would do. Kerley completed a 42-yard pass on his lone attempt, giving him three more passing yards than Tebow for the year. Let the four-way quarterback controversy commence.
Oh dear, that Jets segment caused Hermey to double over in pain and start muttering: "Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends." It must have been too soon. Hermey will bounce back after a few peppermint martinis, and he will be back on the job next week!
Searching for the Santa Man
Calvin Johnson broke Jerry Rice's single-season receiving yardage record as the Falcons beat the Lions to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs on Saturday night. It was another example of a contemporary player setting a tainted record under dubious circumstances against an unimpressive playoff team in the uninspiring, talent-diluted NFL.
(Jingle, jingle, jingle …)
Johnson caught 11 passes for 225 yards, but he also fumbled once, and the Falcons intercepted a pass Matthew Stafford was trying to force to him late in the game. The Lions are a bad team forced to play catch-up constantly, and they are one of the pass-happiest teams in the pass-happy NFL to begin with. All of Johnson's fellow Lions receivers are either injured or letting their oppositional-defiance disorder run wild, so Stafford has had no choice but to target Johnson non-stop. Meanwhile, Jerry Rice caught each of his 122 passes in 1995 in the fourth quarter of a tie game against the Cowboys in the heat of the playoff race. There is no comparing Johnson to Rice. Plus, Johnson failed to score a touchdown on Saturday night, and some of us are in a third-place battle for our fantasy leagues, so what good was he to us?
(Up on the rooftop, click-click-click …)
The Atlanta Falcons are the most uninspiring first-seed team since the Atlanta Falcons in 2010. Just one week after a supposed "statement" game against the Giants, they nearly laid an egg against the self-destructive Lions, only pulling away with two late drives. The Falcons only look good because the whole NFL looks bad compared to the glory days of 1995, when every single game pitted Troy Aikman against Steve Young and it took a Herculean effort just to reach the playoffs.
(Ho, Ho, HOOOO!)
Santa, is that you?
SANTA: Yeah, Tanier, it's me. WTF is up with this segment?
ME: I was just writing up my opinions on the Saturday night game, touching on a couple of news items with a bit of spin.
SANTA: Spin? Is that what you call this? Dumping all over a very good team, as well as a great player breaking an exciting record? It's Christmas: Where is your spirit of charity?
ME: I dunno, Santa, I am just having a hard time getting jazzed up about the Falcons, and about Calvin Johnson.
SANTA: Yes, I know. The holidays are hard. When the stresses of a family, a long football season, and current events get the better of us, we can fall prey to our worst instincts. But listen to yourself! You of all people know that records are set by excellent players under extraordinary circumstances. That is the perfect definition of Johnson in 2012. And pining for the great teams of 1995? That was the year Neil O'Donnell led a team to the Super Bowl, so let's not get carried away about how strong the NFL was that year. And I can remember an aspiring sportswriter toiling away in 1995 who would make fun of the old columnists who pined away for the glory days of 1975.
ME: Gee whiz, Santa, you are right. In my haste, in my exhaustion and exasperation, I have lost sight of the True Meaning of Football.
SANTA: That's why I come once per year, right around Week 16, to spread joy and wonder. Now, you finish working and being jolly into the night, and I will take over tomorrow night. No more knee-jerk negativity from you, pal. And no more cliché. Don't think for a moment that the whole "Naughty or Nice" trope escaped my attention. Kapish?
ME: Kapish. Though some would say your very arrival represents the very cliché you just ordered me too avoid.
SANTA: Too meta-textual. I'm outta here.
Merry Christmas, Falcons: Enjoy some well-deserved rest before the playoffs. Merry, Christmas, Megatron: You are a joy to watch and a worthy challenger to the all-time greats. Thanks for a season full of great moments and surprises. Merry Christmas, readers, see you all on Boxing Day.
And to all, a good night.