What just happened?
It's a question we ask about 50 times per NFL Sunday. What just happened? How are the Rams winning by 35? Were both of his feet inbounds? Who is Scott Tolzien and what is he doing on RedZone channel? How do the 49ers only have nine points? Am I hallucinating? Did A.J. Green really catch that?
Week 10 was particularly shocking, for a variety of reasons (the Jaguars won), from stunning Hail Mary passes (the Jaguars won!) to bone-headed overtime decisions (the Jaguars won!!), lopsided upsets (the Jaguars won!!!), mystery quarterbacks (THE), defensive duels with surprising outcomes (JAGS), and out-of-character performances by players and teams. (WON, and there was silence in all the heavens for the space of half an hour).
If you are still trying to sort out the last 24 hours or so of football, you are in luck: Mandatory Monday has answers. Here is what just happened:
One of the smartest guys in the NFL made the stupidest possible play. James Ihedigbo has survived six NFL seasons by being one of the smartest players in the league. He is not very big or fast, but he sticks to rosters as an all-purpose special teamer and dime safety because he plays assignment-smart football and makes good decisions on the field.
Ihedigbo was the Ravens defender who provided the perfect volleyball setup for A.J. Green's Hail Mary touchdown. With everyone on earth except some Ohio residents screaming "KNOCK IT DOWN," Ihedigbo batted the football straight up like a beach ball at a Phish concert. The Ravens won in overtime, but Ihedigbo became a part of one of the craziest Hail Mary catches in history.
Ihedigbo made news for allegedly doing something foolish last week against the Browns, as well. Greg Little accused Ihedigbo of choking him at the end of a play; the receiver ripped off Ihedigbo's helmet in retaliation for the perceived act. Here is Ihedigbo's explanation: "It's kind of unfortunate that this is even being an issue. It's a divisional game, things get physical and get rowdy. I would never personally cross the lines or play outside the rules in any manner. You can freeze the clips. I have my hand on his chest. He ripped off my helmet and threw it."
Doesn't sound like a guy who would tap a last-second Hail Mary straight in the air, doesn't he? Well, we all do something dumb once in a while. Take Giovani Bernard, who chose overtime to prove that he can do a perfect imitation of someone rewinding a Barry Sanders highlight clip.
The Panthers Defense Issued a Statement. It went something like this:
"Hello America, our name is the Panthers defense. Not many of you take us seriously. We were really terrible in 2011, and pretty bad in 2012. Our quarterback is so famously inconsistent, and our schedule has been pretty tame so far this year, so it is easy to overlook the great work we have been doing.
"On Sunday, we held the 49ers to three field goals in a 10-9 victory. The 49ers only executed one drive that covered more than 22 yards all day. Colin Kaepernick got sacked six times and did not complete a pass longer than 14 yards. The 49ers were 2-of-13 on third down conversions.
"Earlier in the year, we held the Seahawks to 12 points. We have given up four touchdowns in our last five games. We are clearly among the best defenses in the NFL. Luke Kuechly is a worthy Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are an outstanding pass rush tandem; they combined with Kuechly for 3.5 sacks and six tackles for a loss against the 49ers. And it should be noted that while we have faced some soft opponents, we have mostly faced bona fide NFL starters, unlike a certain defense which is getting all the attention (cough Chiefs cough).
"So please, stop saying that you are 'waiting for Cam Newton to prove it' or 'waiting for us to beat a real team.' We just beat a real team, and we are doing the proving for Cam. Get to know us now, before the bandwagon gets crowded after next week's Patriots game."
The Packers were one hit away from making "KUUUUUHN" a quarterback chant. Aaron Rodgers looked very dapper on the sidelines with his David Niven moustache. Seneca Wallace, whose goatee is more reminiscent of a kung-fu grip-era G.I. Joe action figure, joined Rodgers on the sideline after a first quarter injury. That left Scott Tolzien, who wears the kind of shadow-stubble facial hair high school kids grow to match big brothers' driver's licenses, to play quarterback against the Eagles.
Tolzien played pretty darn well, completing a few deep passes, taking a lot of what the defense offered on short throws, scrambling for a first down or two. Mike McCarthy helped with lots of full-house backfields and Eddie Lacy runs. But as the Eagles slowly pulled away for a 27-13 win, Tolzien took a few nasty hits, including back-to-back rough-looking sacks in the third quarter (one of which was penalized). Tolzien hung tough, and it's a good thing: his backup was fullback John Kuhn!
Kuhn was a four-sport athlete in high school, but he was not a quarterback. As best as I can determine, he never threw a pass as a star running back at Shippensburg University. He has never thrown an NFL pass, though in fairness, neither had Tolzien until about 1:30 on Sunday. Kuhn could probably execute a fun little Wildcat series or two. Had Tolzien landed the wrong way, the Packers might have needed Kuhn for over a half.
Ted Thompson is on record stating that he does not factor a Rodgers injury into his roster decisions. "Quite frankly, you never think about your better players ever getting hurt. If you think that way, you might jinx it," he said this week. Most of us don't think about our cars getting stolen, either, but we risk the jinx by renewing our auto insurance rather than asking a fullback to keep an eye on the parking lot for us.
Now that there is nothing left to jinx, it's time for Thompson to stop procrastinating and look through his quarterback Rolodex. Or perhaps Clay Matthews could just cut a hole in the top of that club he is wearing on his right hand, rig up a high-pressure air nozzle to his forearm, and create a crude rocket launcher. It makes as much sense as asking John Kuhn to throw passes.
Field Goals Went Every Which Way But Through. Nick Novak of the Chargers missed a 37-yarder in the second quarter of the Broncos' 28-20 victory. The only thing worse than trying to keep up with the Broncos by answering touchdowns with field goals is actually missing the field goals. Novak made two others, including a 26-yarder when Mike McCoy tried out his latest red zone shenanigan: giving Ronnie Brown a few carries to get stuffed. Late in the game, McCoy finally relented and gave Ryan Mathews a chance. Mathews scored, and there was silence in all the heavens for the space of half an hour.
Mason Crosby missed 53- and 42-yarders for the Packers. Alex Henery answered with a 39-yard miss for the Eagles. The wind at Lambeau Field was blowing from the center out.
Garrett Hartley missed a short field goal in the Saints' 49-17 pummeling of the Cowboys. It was the Cowboys defensive highlight of the game.
Randy Bullock had a 40-yard field goal blocked before halftime of the Texans' 27-24 loss to the Cardinals. You would think that the Texans are so bad that Bullock's poor kicking could no longer affect the outcome of a game, but the Texans can find ways to surprise you.
Mike Nugent missed a 42-yard field goal for the Bengals. If some Ravens had batted the ball through the uprights for him, the Bengals might have won on that Hail Mary.
Steve Hauschka hit the left upright on one of his four attempts in the Seahawks' 33-10 victory over the Falcons, but it bounced through, because it has been that kind of Seahawks (and Falcons) season.
David Akers missed a fourth-quarter field goal with the Lions clinging to a 14-13 lead, but the Lions failed to collapse like they would in previous years, which brings us to …
Nick Fairley roughed a Bears player. Nick Fairley injured a quarterback. Jay Cutler got injured. But Nick Fairley did not rough Jay Cutler. Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh combined for just eight penalties for the year entering this week. Most astoundingly, five of those penalties were variations on offside fouls, and only one was an unnecessary roughness flag!
Well, like preschoolers on a rainy day, Suh and Fairley only have so much good behavior in them. Fairley knocked Jay Cutler out of the game late in the fourth quarter, but it was on a clean hit. He then roughed Earl Bennett at the end of a short catch, giving Josh McCown breathing room for some late-game heroics. McCown produced a touchdown, but the Lions defensive line came through with back-to-back stops on the two-point conversion, the first one nullified by (you guessed it) a roughing the passer penalty.
There may be no more "Lions" way to lose than on a roughing the passer penalty during a two-point conversion. But the Lions won. And that was just the second roughing the passer penalty on the Lions all year! This really is a different team, folks.
Coaches called some ill-advised end-arounds. Marc Trestman loves the Alshon Jeffery end-around the way supermarket managers like making the whole store smell like nutmeg this time of year. Jeffery carried twice for just five yards on Sunday, giving him nine carries for 94 yards on the year. That's an awful lot of end-arounds, particularly to a receiver known for ordering The Full McKinnie at the buffet line. Opponents may have figured out that the big guy is getting the ball.
Andrew Hawkins is the kind of jitterbug you want running an end-around. Unfortunately, Hawkins has been inactive much of the season and has barely touched the ball for the Bengals. Jay Gruden figured he would cross the Ravens up with a second-quarter end-around, but Hawkins lost the handle on the ball. The fumble rolled up to Terrell Suggs' feet, but Suggs somehow failed to flop on it correctly, and Hawkins recovered his own fumble for a two-yard loss.
Backup Ravens quarterback Tyrod Taylor also ran an end-around in the Ravens-Bengals game, gaining 18 yards. Now, with Scott Tolzien, Case Keenum and Kellen Clemens taking snaps around the NFL, and with immobile Joe Flacco enduring lots of hits behind a beat-up offensive line, you would think that Tyrod Taylor would be wrapped in old blankets on the bench somewhere, not on the field risking needless injury to run a play any of a half-dozen Ravens receivers or backs could execute. Luckily, Taylor did not get injured.
No, nothing about the Bengals-Ravens game made any sense.
Patrick Peterson ran a Wildcat play with Andre Ellington taking the direct snap. As play designs that involve a rookie running back taking a snap and handing off to a cornerback against a great defensive line go, this one worked out pretty well: The Cardinals only lost four yards. The Cardinals always look self-conscious when they use Peterson on offense, like middle-aged guys trying to be subtle about a new leg tattoo.
Tavon Austin rushed for four yards on an end-around, but the next segment suggests that he should get the ball a few more times.
Tavon Austin escaped SchottenFisher Prison. Austin was one of the most dynamic players in college football last year. This season, he was averaging just 8.5 yards per reception and had carried five times for 16 yards on various reverses and options before Sunday. His punt return results were nothing special, and he was not the primary kickoff returner because someone named Benny Cunningham beat him for the job.
Jeff Fisher and Brian Schottenheimer lack offensive imagination, so their master plan for Austin was a never-ending stream of five-yard hitch routes, like the ones Derrick Mason used to run. The problems: a) neither Sam Bradford nor (sigh) Kellen Clemens is Steve McNair; b) It took Mason three seasons to make something of those hitches; c) these are 2001-era strategies we are talking about, and d) the old hitch-to-Mason Titans offenses were never that great, anyway.
Austin burst free from his chains on Sunday. He needed a dangerous grab of a bouncing punt to start his escape, racing 98 yards for a touchdown. He then added an 81-yard catch-and-run and a 57-yard bomb, giving him three touchdowns in a 35-8 romp over the perplexing Colts.
Of course, Fisher and Schottenheimer can only take so much excitement. Austin earned one carry and just one other pass target for the day, meaning that he was involved in just four offensive plays despite 236 yards worth of touchdown romping. By contrast, Trent Richardson, who now measures his rushing production by the inch (he had 72 of them on Sunday) was given 10 touches to show how little he can do.
After his breakout performance, Austin may get targeted 10-to-12 times next week. But they will all be five-yard hitch routes.
The Jaguars won! All it took was a Chris Johnson fumble, a Jake Locker injury, a strip-sack of Ryan Fitzpatrick by Will Blackmon for a touchdown, a Titans holding penalty in the end zone, and a last-minute onside kick recovery. Next week, the Jaguars will try to insert a little offense into the winning formula.
Blame the Bengals. They get like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo whenever they come too close to the dizzying heights of the AFC North. The Bengals are keeping bad teams in the playoff chase.
Blame the Cowboys. They allow 500 total yards like they are allowing an extra point.
Blame all the third-string quarterbacks. The Packers played a pile of peach fuzz at quarterback for 3.5 quarters. Case Keenum has mastered the art of looking gritty in defeat; in ten years, he will be Seneca Wallace. The Bills relied on third-stringers for so long that E.J. Manuel played like one on Sunday. The third-stringers are keeping bad teams in the playoff chase.
Blame the Colts, a broken thermostat of a football team. Years ago, I worked in a climate-controlled office with an improperly programmed thermostat. It thought that its job was to prevent "extremes" above or below 70 degrees in temperature, which works great on a 90-degree summer day or 30-degree winter morning. But if the temperature dipped into the 60s on a rainy August afternoon, it would get mixed up and crank the air conditioning, and a 70-degree peak in March would bring suffocating heat. If the temperature swung wildly in the course of the day, it would trigger the fire alarm.
The Colts are like that thermostat. Their loss to the Rams was a fire drill. The Colts keep bad teams in the playoff chase.
At the end of Week 10, there is a pretty clear Superior Seven in the NFL: the Broncos, Chiefs, Niners, Panthers, Patriots, Saints and Seahawks. After that, there is an 18-team field with playoff aspirations. These are not 18 teams which are still mathematically alive according to the theorems of Bertrand Russell; these are 18 teams with a puncher's chance of reaching the postseason.
That "18 teams" figure was arrived at scientifically. An analyst named Mike Harris calculates playoff odds for Football Outsiders, mixing a team's performance with its upcoming schedule while running what us geekity-geeks call a Monte Carlo simulation. Harris needs a full week of NFL games, plus a little number-crunching time, to update each week's results, so we will not see Week 10's numbers until Tuesday night. As of Week 9, however, 18 teams still had a greater than 1% chance of making the playoffs, including the Superior Seven. All of those teams should have a better than 1% chance this week, thanks largely to the Bengals, Colts, Cowboys, and other division leaders that refuse to pull away.
In other words, the season is more than half over, and only seven teams can be written off: Jaguars, Buccaneers, Raiders, Rams, Vikings, Falcons and Texans. And the Rams may yet creep off the carpet.
Let's give the Superior Seven a break right now: Chiefs-Broncos and Panthers-Patriots games will help sort them out next week. In fact, let's give every team .500 or better the rest of the article off, from the Jets to the Eagles to the Cardinals. We are still left with nine teams that are below .500 but still firmly in the playoff picture. And all of these sub-.500 teams came by their records honestly: they are weak teams, just not weak enough to slink away.
Let's rank these nine sub-.500 contenders in terms of their playoff likeliness using Harris' calculations, Sunday's performances, and some guesswork. One of the following nine teams will probably make the playoffs. If two or three make it, let's hope it's because they started playing better.
Baltimore Ravens (4-5)
Playoff Odds as of Week 9: 6.6% (Trending Up)
Still Alive Because: The Bengals steadfastly refuse to win the AFC North outright, even if Giovanni Bernard has to run 25 yards backwards in overtime to keep things close.
Primary Assets: Defending champion mojo, as if that's a thing. The Ravens are following their proven formula: 3-1 at home, 1-4 on the road, wins that look like losses, losses that look like World War I reenactments. The Ravens defense has played well this year despite significant personnel departures.
Biggest Problems: The offense is playing poorly despite less-significant personnel departures. The Ravens don't really drive on offense; they cobble together a pass interference penalty with one or two productive runs and a sideline catch, hoping it will produce 20 points by game's end.
Playoff Skinny: The upcoming schedule is tough. But the way the Bengals are playing, the Ravens could be 8-6 and playing for the division title when the teams meet in Week 17.
Tennessee Titans (4-5)
Playoff Odds as of Week 9: 22.7% (Trending sideways)
Still Alive Because: The Colts loss keeps the AFC South in play, and the Titans have tiebreaker-friendly wins over the Jets, Chargers, and (if things get crazy) Steelers on their resume.
Primary Assets: The Titans secondary is very good. The team has more skill position talent than you think. Jake Locker (foot injury on Sunday) keeps showing signs of turning the corner, and Ryan Fitzpatrick will show he is one of the best backups in the league if he gets a start against an opponent besides the Chiefs and Seahawks.
Biggest Problems: They lost to the Jaguars. They lost to the Jaguars. They lost to the Jaguars. They lost to the Jaguars. They lost to the Jaguars. They lost to the Jaguars. They lost to the Jaguars.
Playoff Skinny: Despite Sunday's loss, the Titans remain both in the wild-card picture (thanks in part to the Chargers' loss and Dolphins' drama) and in play for the division (Colts owner Jim Irsay spent Sunday afternoon listening to Lou Reed's Berlin with the shades drawn).
Cleveland Browns (4-5)
Playoff Odds as of Week 9: 11.2% (Trending Up)
Still Alive Because: Brian Hoyer provided three weeks of hope at quarterback, and the AFC North is your one-stop source for ugly 24-18 victories that leave you doubled over with doubts about both teams, your own life decisions, and the fate of humanity.
Primary Assets: Ray Horton and a nasty defense. Tight end James Cameron. Two first-round picks next year, making these playoff odds a rather mixed blessing.
Biggest Problems: Jason Campbell and Willis McGahee: a backfield that would have depressed you in 2009, freeze-dried for four years and reconstituted to provide abject sorrow in 2013 (unless you keep your eyes on those draft picks).
Playoff Skinny: The Browns are 2-1 within the division and get to play the Steelers twice. Are you ready for Jason Campbell in the postseason? Do you have your therapist on speed dial? It's a long shot, but not as long as it should be.
San Diego Chargers (4-5)
Playoff Odds as of Week 9: 15.2% (Trending Down)
Still Alive Because: All the four-win teams in the AFC are still alive.
Primary Assets: The Chargers offense is very good until it reaches the red zone.
Biggest Problems: The defense is bad. The schedule has entered a rough patch.
Playoff Skinny: Back-to-back losses to the Redskins and Broncos have the Chargers sinking fast. The Chargers are just the Cowboys in a good division: veteran quarterback, solid passing game, terrible defense, quirky situational play-calling. Unfortunately, being as good as the Cowboys might not even help the Cowboys.
New York Giants (3-6)
Playoff Odds as of Week 9: 1.6% (Trending Up)
Still Alive Because: They beat the Raiders on Sunday and play in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Primary Assets: Eli Manning, Victor Cruz, Antrel Rolle, Tom Coughlin, and other veterans with lots and lots of experience overcoming vicious slumps.
Biggest Problems: The Giants committed three first-half turnovers against a Raiders defense that made Nick Foles and Riley Cooper look like a whole month of Montana-to-Rice in three hours last week. Their starting running back is Whoever's Healthy. Their front four is Those Guys Who Used to be Scary. And if Manning didn't have all that jewelry, he would be in this category, not the last one.
Playoff Skinny: The Giants face the Packers next week, who may be exhuming Artie Herber as you read this. After that, they get back-to-back meetings with the Cowboys (in the Meadowlands) and Redskins. They have a good chance of being .500 overall and 3-2 in their division in three weeks. A .500 team could win the NFC East, and no team is better equipped to win under those circumstances than the Giants.
Washington Redskins (3-6)
Playoff Odds as of Week 9: 4.3% (Trending Sideways)
Still Alive Because: Every once in a while, they don't quite lose a high-scoring game in the final moments.
Primary Assets: Robert Griffin, Alfred Morris, a still-surprising-at-times offensive scheme. Ryan Kerrigan, Brian Orokpo, and (yes) DeAngelo Hall on defense. The Redskins made the playoffs after a 3-6 start last year, so the motivational speeches write themselves.
Biggest Problems: Some of the most comically bumbling special teams in history. A defense that gives up three big plays for every one it produces. An amazing ability to go into funks on both sides of the ball that last nearly a half and result in 20+ point score swings.
Playoff Skinny: Prospects looked much better late in the third quarter on Thursday night. The upcoming schedule is pretty tough, and the Redskins have shown zero aptitude for beating a good opponent.
Pittsburgh Steelers (3-6)
Playoff Odds as of Week 9: 2.0% (Trending Up)
Still Alive Because: The Bills had a 10-drive series on Sunday that yielded nine punts and an interception, with no drive going further than 29 yards or netting more than two first downs. A 23-10 win, coupled with that Bengals-Ravens journey into mystery, is all it takes to stay in the hunt these days.
Primary Assets: The Steelers defense is still strong. Ben Roethlisberger and the receivers provide a handful of big plays per game.
Biggest Problems: An offensive line that started the season in trouble and has been losing ground ever since. A running game lucky to crack three yards per carry. A possible rift between Roethlisberger and Todd Haley. A possible rift between Antonio Brown and Todd Haley. A possible rift between reality and Todd Haley.
Playoff Skinny: The Steelers and Ravens always seem to cluster together. This year, they are huddled below .500, trying to find themselves on offense, and licking their chops at the possibility of a Bengals collapse. You probably would not bet on the Steelers or Ravens (or Browns), but if I offered you the AFC North "field," you would break my hand in your rush to shake it.
Buffalo Bills (3-7)
Playoff Odds as of Week 9: 4.4% (Trending Down)
Still Alive Because: Good heavens, the Bills are still alive?
Primary Assets: The defense is solid. The running back talent is fine. But really, the Bills?
Biggest Problems: Guess E.J. Manuel's return did not solve everything. That will happen when the savior is a rookie who barely had a training camp.
Playoff Skinny: Look for the Bills to fall out of the picture when Harris recalculates his odds this week. But then, the Rams may creep back in, and we will have to start all over again.
Miami Dolphins (4-4)
Playoff Odds as of Week 9: 14.9%
Still Alive Because: The Dolphins are .500 and have a few tiebreaker-friendly wins (Browns, Colts, Bengals) on their resume, though a loss to the Ravens hurts.
Primary Assets: The Dolphins defense is solid, and to the best of anyone's knowledge, no defender has left a script treatment for a Human Centipede movie on another's voicemail.
Biggest Problems: PLEASE CONSULT ANY MEDIA SOURCE ON EARTH WHICH EVEN TANGENTIALLY COVERS SPORTS.
Playoff Skinny: Well, the Dolphins' pass protection could not get any worse than it was before our blundering national bullying intervention. A Monday night win would put the Dolphins well above the Titans and Ravens in the wild-card picture, though two upcoming meetings with the Jets will ultimately seal their fate.
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