The Schedule: Might as well start with the playoff matchups and schedule, right?
AFC: Bengals at Texans, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET; Colts at Ravens, Sunday, 1 p.m. Remember that bye week the Texans appeared to have sewn up a month ago? They will spend this practice week remembering it.
NFC: Vikings at Packers, Saturday, 8 p.m.; Seahawks at Redskins, Sunday, 4:30 p.m. The Redskins are really lucky that home games are determined by division titles in the first round, not by record.
Byes: Broncos, Patriots, Falcons, 49ers. Broncos and Falcons have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
How the Rest Was Won
While the AFC teams jockeyed for playoff seeds with varying degrees of enthusiasm, several NFC teams battled with all their might for division titles and playoff berths. Here's a brief rundown of how a complicated conference picture slowly became clear:
Step One: The Giants watched the Eagles execute a perfect onside kick to start the game, then took control of the next 59 minutes and 57 seconds in a 42-7 win. Unfortunately, that gave them plenty of time to sneak peeks at score updates from the Lions-Bears game.
Step Two: The Bears' defense set the table for their offense by forcing a pair of turnovers in Lions territory, and for once their offense didn't respond by throwing a tantrum and throwing the plates all over the floor. Earl Bennett took a screen pass 60 yards for a touchdown and had several other key receptions, Alshon Jeffery managed to get open without pushing off, and the Bears were able to move the ball despite the fact that Brandon Marshall was in the throes of an all-day concentration lapse.
The Lions stayed in the game, but Matthew Stafford is starting to look like a young baseball pitcher who is too in love with his repertoire. Stafford's fastballs are still on target, but his sidearm knuckle-slurves often sail behind Calvin Johnson, and every once in a while he throws a big Eephus pitch along the sideline. A Stafford sidewinder flew off-target to stall the Lions' final drive, and the Bears responded with two key clock-killing plays in a 26-24 win: a Jay Cutler scramble after a timeout on third-and-two (the timeout was key, as the Bears looked like they were about to handoff and get stuffed again before the reset), and a gritty Matt Forte run to pick up a first down to burn the final Lions timeout.
With that Bears win, the Giants were eliminated.
Step Three: Maybe it's the 44 ounces of dark roast coffee talking, but the Vikings-Packers game was one of the best games I have seen in the last decade. It featured MVP-caliber performances by both Adrian Peterson and Aaron Rodgers, shockingly positive contributions by journeymen (Vikings receiver Michael Jenkins) and little-used bit players (Packers running back DuJuan Harris), some officiating comic relief, tons of strategy, comebacks, lead changes and Jordy Nelson palming a red challenge flag like an eighth-grader trying to hide a cigarette from the cafeteria monitor.
More on Nelson later. The Vikings-Packers game would take 3,000 words to summarize, so let's discuss it metaphorically. The Vikings' 37-34 win was like a basketball game. The Vikings are a basketball team with a low-post superstar. Their offense is built around using Peterson as a hammer, then hoping his presence opens up opportunities for others on the periphery. The Packers are a basketball team built around a backcourt superstar in Rodgers who can shoot from long range, distribute the ball or penetrate (scramble) and score. The Packers can run the court and score in transition. The Vikings are all half-court sets. You get the idea.
Peterson pounded and pounded, providing a series of gritty runs amid a healthy dose of stuffs. He also opened up opportunities. The second option in the Vikings game plan should be called "Hide a Jarius." Rookie receiver Jarius Wright lined up in the backfield and snuck into the flat for a touchdown, then beat defender Sam Shields on a double-move early in the fourth quarter after a play-fake to Peterson. Wright's 65-yard catch was the only Vikings pass play of more than 21 yards and their first real downfield shot of the game. There's setting up a defense, and there's setting them up for more than 47 minutes.
Rodgers, meanwhile, shook off a slow start, overcame a complete lack of pass protection and threw strike after strike. Packers possessions became a battle of mismatches. Packers lineman Don Barclay (a rookie free agent pressed into service due to multiple injuries) could not block pass rusher Everson Griffen, but Vikings cornerback A.J. Jefferson could not cover any of the Packers receivers. Rodgers dropped to pass and tried to get Jefferson before Griffen got him. Along the way, Harris replaced Ryan Grant and gave the Packers the wisp of a running game they need to be successful. The Packers, in other words, battled a pressure defense and came away with enough fast-break points to keep the game close.
Late in the third quarter, in the middle of all of this fabulous, fascinating football, this happened, as recorded in the official play-by-play:
(2:14) (Shotgun) A.Rodgers pass short left to Ja.Jones to MIN 1 for 7 yards. FUMBLES, RECOVERED by MIN-E.Henderson at MIN 0. Touchback. PENALTY on GB, Unsportsmanlike Conduct, 15 yards, enforced at MIN 20. The Replay Assistant challenged the fumble ruling, and the play was REVERSED. (Shotgun) A.Rodgers pass short left to Ja.Jones for 8 yards, TOUCHDOWN. PENALTY on GB, Unsportsmanlike Conduct, 15 yards, enforced between downs. Penalty on GB head coach.
It looked to me like James Jones was down by contact at the one-yard line after a reception. The fumble call on the field was understandable. The play was fast and confusing, various officials were making various hand signals (one hailed a cab), and the turnover ruling would spark a replay to sort matters out. Mike McCarthy threw a challenge flag despite the automatic challenge, which of course is not just illegal but immoral and has the power to nullify anything that came before and after it, for reasons only a crazy person could make sense of. Cue angry guy on Twitter:
ANGRY GUY ON TWITTER: These coaches are idiots for not knowing the challenge rules! They should be ashamed of themselves! All announcers stink!
Well, McCarthy is a pretty smart coach, and Mike Smith and Jim Schwartz both made the same mistake this year. If a door has a flat surface for a handle, you can stamp PULL on it in giant neon letters and people will still push on it. That doesn't make people stupid; it is how the brain works. The NFL coach's brain thinks "bad call means challenge," and hammering them with 15-yard penalties and negated challenges is like electrocuting people for pushing a pull door.
At any rate, the great philosophers and Talmudic scholars gathered and determined that not only could they review the Packers fumble (the review was already instigated, they explained), but that Jones scored a touchdown, turning the McCarthy penalty into a kickoff penalty, not a first-and-goal-from-the-16 situation.
Confused? It does not matter. The Vikings won, because a third option suddenly appeared in their low-post offense: Michael Jenkins, the former Falcons first round pick for whom "he's a good blocker" became a "Seinfeld"-like euphemism for "he cannot get open or catch." The receiver with the nice personality caught a fourth-quarter touchdown pass in traffic, then snuck away from the Packers coverage on third-and-11 on the final drive. The Packers probably didn't cover Jenkins because they didn't think he was in the league anymore. Jenkins' 25-yard catch set up some final Peterson messianics: a 26-yard run to set up a Blair Walsh chip-shot field goal.
Oh yeah, Peterson did not break Eric Dickerson's rushing record. But he did become the second running back in history to record seven 150-yard games in a season. Earl Campbell was the other, in 1980. Campbell led an Oilers team with a comically bumbling passing attack to an 11-5 record that season. Sounds familiar, though the Vikings don't bumble quite so badly when passing these days. Peterson will have to settle for 2,097 yards, a playoff berth, a possible MVP award and a season we will be talking about for the next 30 years.
With that breathtaking Vikings win, the Bears were eliminated, and the Vikings set up a rematch with the Packers.
Step Four: The Seahawks still had a chance to take the NFC West from the 49ers during that division's traditional end-of-season round robin/comedy jam. But the Seahawks faced a force more powerful than Russelmania, Skittletopia, ShermanLeaks.com and the 12th man's grunge scream combined: the Cardinals quarterback situation.
Brian Hoyer, a Tom Brady intern, started against the 49ers, and the Seahawks became so demoralized when they heard the news that their offense stood around for three quarters and waited for their defense to beat the Rams. (In other words, the Seahawks played the way they played through the first 12 weeks of the season.) Both the 49ers and Seahawks eventually won without incident. Hoyer played slightly better than the three quarterbacks Ken Whisenhunt spent the season coaching (though his 225 passing yards and lone touchdown contain a lot of garbage time), and Larry Fitzgerald had one more stat line of regret: two catches for 13 yards on five targets.
With those wins, the 49ers clinched a first-round bye, the Seahawks the fifth seed.
Step 5: The FedEx Field playing surface was muddy after a couple of days of rain and sleet on the East Coast: perfect for the old-school Mike Shanahan running game, not so perfect for the loose association of big plays the Cowboys call an offense. Alfred Morris looked like a 21st-century Terrell Davis, rushing for 200 yards and three touchdowns in a newfangled Pistol-tinged version of Shanahan's old attack.
Robert Griffin also rushed for a touchdown, but please, this is Morris' moment.
Tony Romo's romocoaster had more ups than downs: three interceptions, plus more than the usual allotment of miscommunication. The game was scoreless and ponderous in the first half. The Redskins missed a field goal, Romo sprayed the ball in random directions and the Redskins had one of their drives that takes forever but ends in a punt. Morris took over in the second half, taking option handoffs from Griffin and racking up big gains en route to a 21-10 Redskins lead.
Then came Cowboys comeback time, and a long Cowboys punt return (plus a Sav Rocca Australian-rules wallaby-collar tackle) set up a short Romo touchdown pass. The Redskins executed another quality drive that ended with a punt once the Cowboys defense finally corralled Griffin.
That put the ball in Tony Romo's hands. As the old song says, it's either sadness or euphoria. The Redskins blitzed up the middle on the second play of a Cowboys drive, and what's a Romo to do except throw off his back foot to a running back in the flat without looking? Rob Jackson made a fine leaping interception. Morris pounded the ball across the goal line seven plays later.
And with that, the Cowboys, who somehow managed to be the last team alive, were eliminated. It was that simple.
Many of today's games were meaningless, but that doesn't mean they weren't fun. Meaningless games (or games with vague "can earn a home game with a win and eight other coincidences" meaning) often provide opportunities to see things you just don't see every day. Here are some of the unexpected sights from Week 17.
The Butt-erception: Wes Welker ran a skinny post, caught a Tom Brady pass and rolled over so he was on his knees and his tuckus was in the air. Suddenly, something brown extruded from the area around Welker's derriere. Dolphins safety Chris Clemons did what any man would do with something dangling from another man's rear end: He snatched it an raced for a touchdown. A butt-erception! Whole Adam Sandler movies were inspired by less.
Alas, it was all an optical illusion. Replays showed that Welker never came close to having possession, and only one angle looked like a "South Park" outtake. For a moment, though, Mark Sanchez thought he would finally live the butt fumble down.
Matt Ryan Wearing Out His Welcome: Mike Smith decided that Falcons starters would play all four quarters against the Buccaneers despite the fact that they clinched home field throughout the playoffs. Publically, Smith rationalized that the team had the bye week to rest, anyway. Privately, he was probably trying to exorcise every possible playoff demon. It was another example of the human tendency to fear the wrong things. Dunta Robinson and John Abraham both left the game with injuries (Abraham's is minor; no word on Robinson's), and the Falcons lost 22-17, so they didn't gain any magical "momentum."
Neither Matt Ryan nor Tony Gonzalez got injured, but Ryan scrambled around and took multiple hits, and the Falcons' last play of the game was an overthrown seam route to Gonzo on fourth-and-10 that exposed the Hall of Famer's ribcage to any Buccaneers defenders who wanted to impress Greg Schiano before the lockers were cleaned out. After the game, Smith invited Ryan to his home to change some fuses in the flooded basement, take down the Christmas decorations with the rickety ladder and make some bathtub toast.
The Hynoceros Dance: The Giants beat the Eagles so badly that even fullback Henry Hynoski got involved with the scoring. Hynoski caught a short pass into the flat for his first NFL touchdown, then did his "Hynoceros Dance," placing his palm over his facemask like a horn and kicking the dirt like an angry bull. The Hynoceros is an exemplar of interpretive dance: It looks exactly like a fullback who rarely scores a touchdown trying to impersonate a rhinoceros.
Concealed Evidence: During the insane Packers challenge late in the third quarter against the Vikings, Jordy Nelson kept his head while those around him lost theirs. Nelson knew that coach Mike McCarthy was not allowed to throw a challenge flag, having read the informative pamphlet Punitive, Counterintuitive Gotcha Rules of the NFL. So Nelson picked up the red flag and palmed it.
Kudos to Nelson for the heads-up effort (the refs already saw the flag and were formulating their mind-boggling justification for doing whatever the heck they felt like doing), but Nelson could have been a little more blasé. He could have feigned blowing his nose on the flag, for instance. Or perhaps he could have doubled over in pain, wrapped the red flag around his sock, and leaped to his feet in shock, shouting, "Good heavens, I have Curt Schilling stigmata!" Finally, he could have taken the action-movie approach, leaping sideways onto the flag in slow motion while shouting "Noooooooo!" Like I said, blasé. Conversely, the NFL could just make logical rules in the first place.
Poetic Endings: The Chargers beat the Raiders 24-21 in their last full game under Norv Turner, but the final snap of the Turner era (not counting a few kneels) was a blocked punt. Nothing quite typifies the inattention to detail and flagging effort level of the Turner era quite like a blocked punt. It was, in fact, the seventh Chargers blocked punt of the last three seasons.
The Chargers-Raiders game also marked the starting debut of Terrelle Pryor, who … was pretty good. Pryor threw for two touchdowns and rushed for a third. He was intercepted once but was not sacked. He led too many three-and-out drives, but he was not exactly surrounded by the 1994 49ers, and his coaches did not appear eager to let him throw on the first few series. Maybe the problem wasn't Pryor.
An All-Return Blowout: The Titans scored five touchdowns in their 38-20 win over the Jaguars: two on punt returns, two on interception returns and one by Chris Johnson. Connoisseurs of awful football know that the Titans have a knack for return touchdowns. In fact, they had nine return touchdowns this season, as opposed to 10 rushing touchdowns and 17 passing touchdowns. The moral of the story: The Titans were a pretty good team when they kept their own offense off the field.
The Ravens Running the Option: Tyrod Taylor replaced Joe Flacco early in a mostly meaningless Ravens loss to the Bengals, and Taylor did his Pesky McScrambles routine, rushing for 65 yards while passing for 149 yards and an interception. Taylor also executed some option pitches. After four years of the stationary Joe Flacco, seeing the Ravens run an option play is disconcerting. It's like seeing the Ents of Fangorn spring suddenly to life.
Saints Shattering a (Bad) Defensive Record: The Saints gave up 530 yards to the Panthers in a 44-38 loss, raising their total yards allowed this season to 7,042. That figure blows away the previous record for defensive futility set by the 1981 Baltimore Colts. None of the 1981 Colts celebrated with a champagne toast, however: They are still working on a way to keep Freeman McNeil out of the end zone.
Jaguars Doing Something Interesting: When two Titans defenders brought down Chad Henne midway through the second quarter of their loss to the Titans, it marked the 44th straight game in which the Jaguars allowed at least one sack. Their last sack-free offensive game was Week 4 of the 2010 season, when David Garrard threw two touchdown passes and rushed for a third in a 31-28 victory over the Colts. Since then, the Colts have gone from the playoffs to the first overall pick in the draft and back again. The Jaguars have just been getting sacked.
Dueling Gradkowskis: Both of the Gradkowski brothers saw action in the Bengals-Ravens non-narcotic sleep aid. Bruce Gradkowski took over for Andy Dalton when the Bengals stopped pretending to care about the result, while Gino Gradkowski saw some action as a Ravens offensive lineman. Historians of the Gradkowski clan will surely remember Dec. 30, 2012, as a turning point in Gradkowski history.
The Duke of Hurl: With Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy both injured, the Browns turned to their third-string quarterback, the most prolific passer in Duke University history. That's right, Bobby Hurley took the field for the Browns and played well, diming out 22 completions for 204 yards and a touchdown in a 24-10 loss to the Steelers. It's a testament to Mike Krzyzewski's system that his point guards from 20 years ago are so multi-faceted that they can change sports and still compete at a high level.
(Editor's Note: The Browns' quarterback on Sunday was not Bobby Hurley. We forgive the writer for the mistake; after all, a team that would draft a 28-year old in the first round is capable of anything. The Browns' Week 17 quarterback was, in fact, Spergon Wynn).
(Senior Editor's Note: The Browns quarterback on Sunday was not Spergon Wynn. He was the quarterback who finished out the 2000 season. It was also not Charlie Frye or Ken Dorsey. It was Thaddeus Lewis, who has become part of a fascinating, dubious legacy of Browns Week 17 crash test dummies).
You're in Good Hands
Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman successfully appealed and overturned a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing substances late last week. His attorneys convinced an arbiter that there were a number of procedural irregularities during his drug test, including a cracked, leaking sample container.
The Sherman case touches on a number of issues important to both the NFL and workplace jurisprudence: the reliability and standards of drug testing, medical privacy and the importance of a meaningful appeals process, among others. But at the heart of the Sherman case is a leaking cup full of piddle, which for better or worse is my territory. I am the Tom Joad of pee-pee related football news. Wherever there is a lab technician with a mop, I will be there. Wherever someone mistakes a novelty dribble glass for medical equipment, I will be there. Wherever a cornerback scores a touchdown on a blocked field goal, tries to hand the ball to the ref and is told that he can keep it, I will be there.
The collection procedures for samples are outlined in Appendix C of the NFL's official Steroid Policy Documentation. The language is precise and detailed. Here's the first paragraph of the procedure:
Upon reporting to the collection site, the player to be tested shall be required to produce a government-issued photo ID. Once his identity is confirmed, the player will be given the opportunity to select a sealed urine specimen cup. The player will furnish a urine specimen under observation by an authorized specimen collector. Thereafter, the player will be given the opportunity to select a sealed collection kit which will be used to store and ship his urine specimen. In the player's presence, the specimen will be split between an "A" bottle and a "B" bottle and sealed with security seals. The specimen collector will note any irregularities concerning the specimen, following which the player will be given the opportunity to sign the chain-of-custody form.
According to Sherman's attorney, Sherman was not allowed to select his cup, he was not watched during the "furnishing" and some paperwork was filled out incorrectly. The initial sample cup was cracked, and the technician attempted to transfer the sample into another container, which apparently was not sealed. There are also questions about who separated the "A" and "B" samples, and how those two samples were handled and tested.
This is all very serious stuff on a practical level. Not watching the "furnishing" of the sample is a huge drug-testing no-no: That vial could be filled with apple juice, so to speak, when the tester's back is turned. Cracked, unsealed medical equipment is downright unsafe.
At the root of all of these serious topics, though, is the stuff of a Farrelly brothers movie. You can picture the little trail of droplets along the lab floor, the technician quickly rinsing Mountain Dew out of a Slurpee cup for temporary storage, Sherman using his thumb to staunch the leak, only to find the stream shooting from his pinkie, and so on. The proceedings were surely not this madcap, but there is no way they were professional and dignified, and when you think of the Super Bowl hanging in the balance while legal, scientific and hygienic protocols literally dripped away, well, it's hard to not dwell on the absurdity.
(According to the unsubstantiated scuttlebutt, Sherman's positive test was the result of drinking from a cup in a teammate's locker in the first place; the alleged cup allegedly contained diluted, alleged Adderall. Cup selection is a serious problem for Sherman, which explains why he was snubbed from the Pro Bowl: Dude could think he was reaching for a cocktail in a coconut and grab a bug zapper instead. Given the choice of the chalice from the palace and the flagon with the dragon, Sherman would choose the tureen with the … let's change the subject.)
Ryan Van Bibber published an interview with Sherman's attorney about the appeal on SB Nation. Keeping in mind that we are hearing one side of the story, Sherman's attorney claims his cross-examination poked several holes in the lab technician's version of events, including a claim that the whole test was completed in five minutes. The attorney's remarks, however, raise as many questions as they answer:
"You can't take off your shirt, remove your pants, provide the sample, have the cracked cup thing, transfer the sample over, do all the paper work, that's just not going to get done in five minutes."
Sherman takes off his shirt and pants to provide a urine sample? Well, if I were built like Sherman, I would use any excuse to take my shirt off, too. Now, the image is complete: naked Sherman, emerging from the bathroom, asking for some paper towels, and the lab tech thinking, "gee, nothing abnormal to report here."
Note that Sherman's attorney does not specify that his client got dressed before doing the paperwork. It is hard to fill out your health insurance group number when your wallet is on the bathroom floor.
Sophomoric jokes aside, the lesson to take away from the appeal is that protocols are extremely important in any scientific testing, particularly when health information and professional reputation are at stake. That is a point that was lost on many people who commented on Sherman's case, without the sixth-grade humor, but also without a sense of how scientific testing must be performed. Sherman did not test positive but "get off on a technicality." He took an invalid test, and therefore all results are invalid.
The "technicalities" are there because of the delicacy of the testing. The whole Sample A/Sample B procedure is in place because there must be repeatability of results, an essential component of valid science. The margin of error in medical testing is typically misunderstood and underestimated by the general public, and anything that adds to that margin of error -- cracked cups, unsealed cups and unsupervised data collection are giant contributors to margin of error -- must be viewed as reasonable grounds for invalidating results.
The Sherman case reminds me of one of my favorite math problems. Suppose a drug test is 98 percent accurate. If you have taken the drug in question, the test reveals that fact 98 percent of the time. If you are clean, the test also reveals that 98 percent of the time. Now, let's assume this particular substance is taken by five percent of all NFL players, meaning the other 95 percent are clean. Finally, let's subject 1,000 NFL players to the test.
According to the numbers listed above, 50 of the players being tested use the drug, 950 do not (that's the five and 95 percent of the 1000 players). Of the 50 players who are users, the test will catch 49 of them (98 percent of 50) with one lucky miscreant wriggling free. Of the 950 clean players, 931 will be identified as clean (98 percent of 950), while 19 will be misidentified as users (2 percent of 950).
At the conclusion of testing 68 players will have been labeled as users of this substance, but 19 of them -- 28 percent -- will have been misidentified. If what follows a positive test is punishment and an assumption of guilt, this is a real problem.
The statistics above are an oversimplification of how the margin of error works for chemical testing; the percentages for false positives and false negatives are usually very different, for example. But the conceptual math remains the same no matter how accurate the test is, which is why there are repeat tests, rigid protocols and an appeals process. Under the best of circumstances, a drug test is a useful-but-imperfect tool. Under sloppy circumstances, it can be worse than useless, a source of misleading information bearing a scientific sheen which makes people willing to unquestioningly accept it.
So this is serious stuff, even if you are now stuck with the image of a naked cornerback sitting in a plastic chair scrawling paperwork while a harried tech reaches into the top shelf for some shot glasses. Some strange things have happened behind closed doors in the NFL this calendar year, but none of them may be stranger than what happened to Richard Sherman that day. The NFL is not all glory and glamor. Sometimes it is personal, clinical and embarrassing.
Drug testing is a complex issue, but I think everyone can agree that we all deserve the right to know, going in, just what we are going in to.