On any typical Sunday in the last five years, Ravens-Steelers, Patriots-Jets or Cowboys-Eagles would be the Game of the Week, a grudge match between division rivals and perennial playoff participants.
Times have changed. These marquee matchups of the past earned second billing or lower this week. And it was not just because Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis caused a storyline eclipse. Neither the Ravens nor Steelers look much like contenders this year. The Jets' court jester routine during the Reign of Belichick has grown stale. The Cowboys and Eagles are competing to win the divisional equivalent of a public access cable television station.
But old rivalries die hard, and most of the divisional matchups of Week 7 delivered the goods. The Jets shocked the Patriots in a 30-27 overtime victory loaded with comebacks, clutch plays, and controversial calls. The Steelers slugged out a classic 19-16 win against the Ravens that had all the ugly beauty of a rusty tractor. The Bills and Dolphins, rivals of a past era, played a compelling, enlightening back-and-forth game that ended with defensive heroics (or offensive line incompetence) and a 23-21 Bills win. The Cowboys embarrassed the Eagles in a 17-3 win that had all the thrills of spellchecking, but what the game lacked in quality, it made up for in potential importance.
The old rivalries are still compelling. They are also still important. None of the teams involved are totally out of the playoff race just yet. Here is a rundown of Sunday's five divisional battles, from the arch rivalries to the also-rans: what's new about the matchup this year, what will never change, and what we can expect moving forward from a Week 7 full of surprises and upsets.
Recent Rivalry Heyday: They faced off in the AFC playoffs after the 2010 season and were still playing relevant games with 23-20 final scores last year.
Current State of Rivalry: The Ravens are hoping their defense can compensate for their offense, but this version of that strategy looks more like 2005 than 2010 through late 2012. The Steelers spent the first six weeks throwing screen passes, running up the middle for three feet per carry, and hoping no one noticed that their offensive coordinator turned into Keith Moon.
Sunday in a Nutshell: Crunch. Thud. Wham. The Ravens and Steelers traded inside runs, slants over the middle and field goals. Emmanuel Sanders ran a kickoff back 44 yards after the Ravens tied the game at 16-16, Ben Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown twice for 24 total yards, and Shaun Suisham hit a short game-winning field goal at the gun.
Seems-Like-Old-Times Moment: There were many. Midway through the third quarter, Roethlisberger spun out of Terrell Suggs' arms on 3rd-and-1, then sprinted along the left sideline for 19 yards to set up a field goal. That play could have happened in the 2008 playoffs. Needing a response, Joe Flacco stood in against a big blitz and threaded a patented 41-yard sideline bomb to Torrey Smith to set up a field goal. And of course, there were plenty of long drives that ended in frustration and whacks over the middle. It was like Ravens-Steelers frozen concentrate. Troy Polamalu even tried to time his block of an extra point attempt, though he wound up leaping over the line of scrimmage like Jimmy Snuka off the top rope.
Times Have Changed Moment: Before his 19-yard scramble, Big Ben lined up in the slot for a pair of direct snap plays to rookie Le'Veon Bell. The Wildcat wrinkles were reminders that the Steelers are still finding their offensive way behind a hobbled (and deteriorating) offensive line. Bell gave the Steelers a running game they have lacked during his early-season injuries, and he is starting to look like a solid, standard-issue Steelers big back. The more things change …
What Happens Next: The Bengals are slow-walking away with the AFC North, but the Ravens get two meetings with them, and the Steelers one more, to reassert themselves. The Ravens have a bye this week that they could have used two weeks ago. The Steelers have some manageable games (at Oakland, at Cleveland, vs. Buffalo) in the next few weeks. Their rematch with the Ravens in the Inner Harbor is on Thanksgiving, Nov. 28. Both teams could easily have something to play for.
Recent Rivalry Heyday: A Jets playoff victory after the 2010 season announced that this was a rivalry to be taken seriously. Five-straight Patriots victories after that clarified that it is not, though the Jets kept things interesting as recently as Week 6 of last season, when they entered the game 3-3 and forced overtime in a 29-26 loss.
Current State of Rivalry: The Jets entered Sunday in a Stardust Memories stage where they were no longer funny but are not really all that good. Teams kept losing to the Patriots out of a sense of obligation this season, the way Pearl Jam fans keep buying albums.
Sunday in a Nutshell: The Jets defense gave Tom Brady more than he bargained for. Geno Smith made two good throws for each terrible one. The Jets, not the Patriots, looked like the team with all the answers at the end of a 30-27 overtime win which at times looked like a photographic negative of last year's Week 7 game.
Seems-Like-Old-Times Moment: A seam pass to Rob Gronkowski near the goal line in the first quarter signaled the return of Brady passing confidence. Gronk caught eight of 17 passes thrown to him, and while he flailed at the ball instead of snatching it a few times, he made an obvious difference. Brady's two fourth-quarter field goal drives were vintage Patriots-Jets moments: the Patriots were just effective enough to knife down the field, but the Jets defense was just good enough to sack, nettle, and harass the Patriots into settling for three.
Times Have Changed Moment: Chris Jones' unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during a Jets overtime field goal attempt was the kind of play the Jets became famous for in the last two years: a bumbling, ineffective, unnecessary mistake in a critical situation. (The whole "did not know the rule/the NFL changed the rule" storyline is self-serving Bill Belichick grandstanding mixed with the Boston sports persecution complex.) There were other reminders throughout the game that the Jets are playing smarter football this year. Twice, the Patriots tried to hurry to the line and run a quick play on third-and-short, and twice the Jets defense was ready and able to make a stop. Smith's ability to convert third downs - the Jets were 11-of-21 on third down, while the Patriots went 1-of-12 -- is another far cry from what the Patriots became used to in recent meetings.
What Happens Next: These smarter, sturdier Jets are now a Wild Card threat. As for the Patriots, their dynasty started with a technically-correct but mind-boggling call in a critical situation. Could it end the same way? These are the things that keep Patriots fans awake at night, which is why they are so much fun to bring up.
Recent Rivalry Heyday: The Cowboys trounced the Eagles in the 2009 playoffs; Tony Romo historians/haters recall that this was his lone playoff victory. The Cowboys also won a pair of memorable games last year as a sinkhole engulfed the Andy Reid era. This rivalry is always relevant in Philadelphia, where I heard several fans call it a "must-win" game, as if Chip Kelly would be fired in his first season because the Eagles fell to 3-4.
Current State of Rivalry: Both teams are better than they look at their worst moments but worse than any NFC East contender should be. That said, Sunday was overloaded with "worst moments."
Sunday in a Nutshell: Thirteen first half punts, the public humiliation of Matt Barkley, and a 17-3 Cowboys victory which was memorably forgettable.
Seems-Like-Old-Times Moment: Chip Kelly turned into an Andy Reid caricature in the first half. The run-oriented coach saw what opponents have done to the Cowboys secondary and decided to call 26 passes and only 12 runs (counting sacks and scrambles as pass plays). Unfortunately, Nick Foles looks much better against a team waiting for its coach to get fired (the Bucs last week) than against a defense that still cares, so he completed just eight passes for 80 yards in the half.
Facing 4th-and-1 from the Eagles 42-yard line with 14 seconds left and one timeout, Kelly channeled late-era Reid again. Kelly, the guru of up-tempo/data-driven strategy, attempted a 60-yard field goal. Perhaps cheesesteak grease targets and kills clock-management brain cells.
Times Have Changed Moment: Barkley entered the game for the injured Foles and began targeting Dallas Cowboys with a precision that would make Troy Aikman jealous. Eagles fans, who are conditioned to like all backup quarterbacks better than all starters - seriously, bring A.J. Feeley up in a Philly bar sometime - and to treating losses to the Cowboys like a cinderblock through the windshield, were reduced to giggles as Barkley fluttered passes directly to defenders.
What Happens Next: The Cowboys and Eagles are still the best teams in the NFC Eek, unless you put tons of stock in the Redskins' accomplishment of holding the Josh McCown Bears below 40 points. When these teams meet in Week 17, playoffs will probably be at stake. The game may even be flexed to prime time, though the FCC may rule that such an announcement constitutes a threat.
Recent Rivalry Heyday: The Dan Marino-Jim Kelly glory years, when you dialed in to Prodigy with your Intel 386 processor to argue on a BBS while listening to "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" by Crash Test Dummies wearing … a zoot suit or something.
Current State of Rivalry: The Bills keep finding ways to hang around in games. The Dolphins keep finding ways to allow opponents to hang around. Both have strung together so many 7-9 and 6-10 seasons in recent years that it is hard to remember how much fun this snow-and-sun matchup once was.
Sunday in a Nutshell: The Dolphins finally protected Ryan Tannehill for three-and-a-half quarters, and Tannehill used the extra time to throw a pair of interceptions, one to the perfectly-named Nickell Robey. (Robey and his brothers Slotts, Hollder, and Te'Hback, all made the high school football team but had a hard time cracking the starting lineup.) With the game close thanks to their defense and Thad Lewis, the Dolphins offensive line decided to quit the protection racket in the fourth quarter. Tannehill fumbled, Kyle Williams picked it up like he was scooping after his dog, and the Bills won.
Seems-Like-Old-Times Moment: Brandon Gibson looked like Nat Moore when he leapt and spun into the end zone for a second quarter touchdown. (Moore made the helicopter catch against the Jets, but whatever). When Mike Wallace finally got open for a 46-yard bomb, it was easy to picture Tannehill-to-Wallace as a tandem to someday rival Marino-to-Mark Clayton.
Times Have Changed Moment: Tannehill has been sacked more times through six games (26) than Marino was in 1983 and 84 combined (23) and from 1987 through 1989 (25). Thad Lewis has a fine arm, runs well, and stands tough, but he has no pocket presence or blitz recognition ability at all. In the Bills quarterback pantheon, he is more Dennis Shaw than Jim Kelly.
What Happens Next: The Bills continue waiting for EJ Manuel. No one is certain who the Dolphins have spent the last half-decade waiting for. They face the Patriots next week, so if they are really a better-than-.500 team this year, the procrastination period is over.
Recent Rivalry Heyday: This is not really a rivalry. But the Bucs and Falcons are in the same division, and are fun to pick on, so I threw it in.
Current State of Rivalry: The Falcons are hobbled, confused, and coping with the likelihood that their Super Bowl dream ended when Frank Gore scored that fourth-quarter touchdown in January. The Buccaneers are like some football-themed soap opera penned by a screenwriter trying to impress Showtime executives. The coach has gone mad with power. Players are trying contracting mysterious illnesses! The quarterback was back-stabbed on his way out of town! It's like Game of Thrones meets Friday Night Lights meets Outbreak!
Sunday in a Nutshell: The Buccaneers sleep-walked through the first half as if they wanted to get their coach fired for some crazy reason. They were trailing 24-10 and ready to play possum when the Falcons Special Teams Self-Destruction Squadron stuck. Rookie return man Robert Alford fumbled the ball to the Buccaneers at the Falcons 23-yard line, so the Bucs sighed heavily and decided to look busy for a while. After the Falcons took a 31-17 lead, however, the Buccaneers were content to spend the fourth quarter going through the motions and scoring just enough points to make it look like they were really trying. The Falcons held on to win 31-23, shocking themselves in the final moments by successfully recovering an onside kick without incurring a penalty or somehow injuring Tony Gonzalez.
Matt Ryan knelt three times to end the game. As usual, the Buccaneers gave a maximum effort on these plays.
Seems-Like-Old-Times Moment: Put Mike Glennon's first-quarter strip-six fumble into the 1976 Buccaneers highlight reel, adjust the uniform color a little bit, and see if anyone notices.
Times Have Changed Moment: Ryan's pass targets were Harry Douglas, Tony Gonzalez, Darius Johnson, Drew Davis and Brian Robiskie, plus running back Jacquizz Rodgers. A team with Darrelle Revis, Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron in its secondary could not stop Ryan from completing 20-of-26 passes for 273 yards to this collection of rookies, backups and Browns castoffs (plus a Hall of Fame tight end, but you get the idea).
What Happens Next: The Saints and Panthers compete for the NFC South. The Falcons try to master punt returns and coverage. If Greg Schiano is still employed by Friday afternoon (the Buccaneers play the Panthers Thursday night), it is only because the world is a safer place when we know his precise whereabouts.
Are Oreos as addictive as cocaine? Undergraduate researchers at Connecticut College may have found out. They placed Oreos on one side of a maze, rice cakes on the other and recorded the amount of time lab rats spent on each side. The resulting headlines suggest lab rats are literally junk food junkies, and so are we. A more scientific set of conclusions:
- The neurological reward centers of tiny rodents who spend their entire lives scavenging for the maximum number of calories may be different than those of higher life forms who derive satisfaction from activities like staying up all night recording concept albums.
- Students at small colleges find clicks-and-headlines-generating research 200 times more addictive than meaningful research.
- Lab rats find rice cakes even more depressing than humans do.
Given a choice between an all-Oreo or all-rice cake diet, I would become the Tony Montana of sandwich cookies, too; at least life would be worth living until the point I could no longer fit through a door frame. But that's not the point. For a rat, choosing an Oreo is a successful survival strategy. Rats do not work in cubicles. They do not need to watch their waistlines before the big homecoming mixer. Those sugar calories are good for them.
The following NFL teams appear to be "hooked" on particular plays, players or strategies. But are they junkies hurting themselves in the quest for a habituated fix, or wily survivors who know what they need to gorge upon?
Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles Junkies
The Habit: Charles leads the Chiefs in rushing, receptions, receiving yards and passes targeted; 42 percent of Chiefs offensive plays involve Charles somehow. Sunday's 17-16 win over the Texans was no exception. Charles rushed 21 times for 86 yards and caught three passes in four targets for 37 yards.
Charles carried the load during the Chiefs' most productive drives, but there was a downside: He fumbled after a hit from J.J. Watt and got stuffed at the one-yard line. The Chiefs' victory over a reeling team with a novice hometown hero at quarterback was much closer than needed.
Helping or Hurting? Helping. The Chiefs only have a handful of offensive weapons. Charles' change-up back is fumble-prone rookie Knile Davis. Their receivers, besides Dwayne Bowe, are good for little more than screen passes. When the Chiefs want a Wildcat wrinkle, and they are not content to just let Alex Smith run a keeper (he took one for a touchdown on Sunday), they call on someone named Cyrus Gray, who sounds like the inventor of the mechanical barley harvester. On most snaps, the Chiefs are best off handing the ball or tossing it to Charles, blocking like heck, and seeing what happens, because they have a whole offense full of rice cakes.
Tennessee Titans: CJ2K Junkies
The Habit: Oh wow, what a rush Chris Johnson provided when the Titans first tried him in 2008. For a while, they were flying high. But soon, they needed ever-increasing doses of Johnson to feel anything at all, and the highs became increasingly fleeting. On Sunday, they cooked up nine carries for 39 yards and four catches for 71 yards. The numbers are not bad, but 66 of those yards came on a fourth-quarter reception that made the score 24-10. (The 49ers won 31-17). Johnson's three other catches gained four, minus-four and five yards. His longest run gained nine yards. Yet the Titans remain fixated on Johnson, jonesing for feelings that started to fade in 2010.
Helping or hurting? Hurting. The Titans are squandering a great defensive effort and a suddenly-squishy division because they keep chasing the CJ2K dragon. If Johnson were Charles, the Titans would be like the Chiefs; maybe not undefeated, but in great wild-card position. They have had a problem for years, but they have not sought help.
Chicago Bears: Brandon Marshall Junkies
The Habit: Jay Cutler is not as hooked on Marshall as he was last season, when more than 40 percent of Bears pass attempts were thrown Marshall's way (a record for the 20+ years for which we have pass target data). But Marshall was still targeted 58 times entering Sunday's game. Before Cutler hobbled off the field looking like he needed a walker with tennis balls on its feet, he targeted Marshall four times, completing three passes for 28 yards, while all other Bears receivers had zero catches on four attempts.
Josh McCown -- yes, the Josh McCown of the 2004 Cardinals, not his son or some rookie with a similar name -- spread the ball to Alshon Jeffery (four catches, 105 yards, all from McCown) and others. Matt Forte, the methadone of the Bears offense, contributed three touchdowns. It was not enough, as the Redskins came back late for a wild 45-41 win.
Helping or Hurting? Hurting. The problem with "spreading the ball around" in Chicago is Marshall so dominates the passing game there are few people to spread the ball to. Jeffrey is coming around, Martellus Bennett had a touchdown, and Forte gets his touches, but backup tight ends, change-up runners and fourth/fifth receivers have zero impact on the game plan. This season is turning into just another Bears season -- terrifying backup quarterback options, Forte-and-Marshall dependence, Devin Hester -- except that the defense is not as good. That's not encouraging.
Seattle Seahawks: Pass Rusher Junkies
The Habit: When Pete Carroll started stockpiling pass-rushers like Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett in the offseason, it looked as though he was compensating for Bruce Irvin's suspension and Chris Clemons' injuries. But Carroll is finding excuses to work all four of them into his game plans. Bennett played 56 snaps against the Cardinals, Bennett 50, Avril 37 and Clemons 31, with 32 more from run-stuffer Red Bryant. The Cardinals executed just 75 offensive plays, so there was a lot of double- and triple-dosage at work.
Helping or Hurting? Helping. Seven sacks split among eight defenders kept the scrappy Cardinals from hanging around late in Thursday's 34-22 Seahawks win. The banged-up Seahawks offensive line is giving the team problems, so they really need the extra boost.
New York Jets: Wildcat Junkies
The Habit: For a team that cannot resist running some Wildcat tomfoolery the moment Geno Smith finds a rhythm, acquiring Josh Cribbs was like buying a two-foot tall water bong, covering it with Blue Oyster Cult stickers, wiping it with a hemp cloth every night and naming it "Excalibur." (May have provided a little too much detail there, but … moving on). Cribbs was a Wildcat before it had a name, and he entered the game against the Patriots for a three-play series immediately after a 25-yard Smith completion.
Cribbs gained 12 yards on two runs, with Bilal Powell adding a few yards. Smith threw a pick-6 a few plays later, but that had nothing to do with being shuttled off to the sideline for half a series, right? Right?
Helping or Hurting? Hurting. Smith is a prospect making legitimate progress, not some emergency quarterback who needs lots of scaffolding in his game plans. At best, the Wildcat plays are waste pitches. At worst, they are disrupting the offensive timing and sending Smith the wrong message. Every time the Wildcat appears, the 2012 Jets appear for a few seconds. There is no reason for that team to ever appear again.
Detroit Lions: Goofball Junkies
The Habit: The Lions are the Keith Richards of the NFL. There is no dumb mistake they have not just made over and over again, but trademarked. This season, they are steering clear of the violent penalties (just four flags against the Bengals) and imbalanced game plans (they ran 25 times, though ineffectively), so they have to get their kicks in other ways.
Sunday's self-destructive tendencies included a blocked field goal (the Lions' second of the year) and an inexcusably bad punt late in the game. With the score tied at 27 in the final seconds, Sam Martin lofted a 28-yard pumpkin out of bounds. Given the ball near midfield, Andy Dalton needed just two short passes to set Mike Nugent up with a 54-yard game-winner. Martin has never specifically cost the Lions a game before, and may have been feeling left out.
Helping or hurting? Helping. Switching from curb-stomping personal fouls to shanked punts is like trading in heroin for herbal supplements and chocolate covered espresso beans. The Bengals are a solid opponent, and the Lions played them tough. If the Lions were in the NFC East, they would be a playoff lock right now. They can stay in the NFC North hunt, too, as long as they stay away from the hard stuff.
Uncle Payton and Admiral Irsay
Did you know that Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?
Did you also know that joke is roughly 35 years old? It dates back to the original Saturday Night Live cast. The joke is also essentially gibberish to anyone under the age of 30. Most young people today know who Paul McCartney is, know who The Beatles were, and know both are/were incredibly culturally significant. But Wings, McCartney's glorified sidemen from the 1970s, are a cultural asterisk. The "band before Wings" joke, a wisecrack about whippersnappers with short backgrounds, is still in use, but it is a joke that backfires on the teller: The new kid may have a short memory, but the person still talking about Wings has a fossilized sense of relevance.
Peyton Manning and Jim Irsay reminded me of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, the Beatles and Wings with their hyper-sensationalized min-tiff last week. Did you know Peyton Manning was on a team before the Broncos? He was the Paul McCartney of the 2000s Colts, professional to the point of perfectionism, insanely talented and a little boring when his quest for the perfect eight-yard audible got in the way of something more risky and thrilling. Irsay was Lennon, a howling beatnik given to inspiration and excess. Together, they were not as big as the Beatles -- which fueled the music-minded Irsay's midweek lament -- but they were bigger than Jesus Jones.
Before the metaphor lapses into Plastic Pagano Band territory, we should recognize just how silly the Manning-Irsay war of (few) words really was. The Beatles breakup taught us not to be surprised when people of immense talent, success, wealth and ego are torn apart by grudges and disagreements. In fact, we should be surprised when people of immense talent, success, wealth and ego do NOT get torn apart by grudges and disagreements.
Separations like Manning and Irsay, McCartney and Lennon are the rule of life, not the exception. If your community is like mine, you probably have a small chain of competing shops -- pizza parlors, taverns, pet food suppliers -- that are owned by rival family members. Thirty years ago, Frankie had a fight with Ricky, and 20 lawsuits later there are two places to get nearly identical cheesesteaks. If the strain and glamour of running the most successful car wash chain in Cumberland County can send blood brothers to court, imagine what the creative differences over The White Album or Manning's rehabilitation/compensation in 2011 were like.
That Irsay and Manning still harbor small grudges is simply human nature. That they grunt them out in unguarded moments -- and Irsay rarely has a guarded moment anymore -- is trivial. They don't work together anymore and never will. A stray hard feeling here and there diminishes nothing that either accomplished together or hopes to accomplish separately.
Sunday night's game was magnificent. It would have lived up to the hype had the "hype" -- mostly a tawdry, overcooked dispute not even the participants had any stomach for -- been anything worthy of the event. It will make the 2013 highlight reel. But it is more likely to be forgotten like Back to the Egg than remembered like Abbey Road.
The Peyton Manning Colts will be remembered by football fans forever. Manning and Irsay, like McCartney and Lennon, will remain legends individually. But are the Manning Broncos just another version of Wings? Remember that Wings had a string of major hits, but those songs are now just thought of by younger listeners as McCartney solo songs. Without a Super Bowl, the last two years may be remembered as a side project. And until the Colts do more than mix inspiration surprises with flat performances, everything that happens from now until the next regime change could fade away as Jim's #12 Dream.
Manning and Irsay did not compete against each other Sunday night so much as against history. But history has a habit of producing double-knockouts, turning today's news into footnotes and preserving only the magical moments when exceptional people put ego and ambition aside and worked together to create something legendary.
Irsay tweeted a lot of song lyrics about his feelings in the week leading up to this game. While he was opening the stadium roof, he would have better served history by climbing to the rooftop with Manning. They could have serenaded us with a duet from the best of times, one about memories longer than the road that stretches out of here: