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Something about snow brings out the little kid in all of us -- even Chip Kelly, who looked like a bundled-up Mickey Rooney Santa on the Eagles sideline. No wonder so many of my colleagues acted like kids who just heard their school closing number. Football in the snow! Here's a pic! From noon to the early kickoff, my Twitter feed looked like an art gallery installation from the Greenish-White Rectangles movement.
Still photographs did not do Sunday's not-quite-winter storm justice. It was very telegenic snow. Flipping channels in the Mandatory Monday home office, I watched Doctor Zhivago for five minutes before realizing that it wasn't NFL Red Zone. (In fairness, Scott Hanson looks a lot like Pasha Strelnikov). Snow fell at so many venues that it was hard to watch footage of the Bills-Buccaneers game from Tampa. Well, harder than it usually would be to watch a Bills-Buccaneers game, anyway. The sudden switch to sunlight after nonstop images of foggy fields beneath gray clouds caused some corneal searing.
Snow looks beautiful, whether in a photograph, on television, on tree branches, or just about anywhere but the highway ahead. At the same time, snow makes for some sloppy football, and not every team can afford to be sloppy in December. Here's a rundown of the top weather games of Week 14, ranked not by quality, but by wintriness. Some of these games were playoff significant, and it's important to remember that February's Super Bowl will take place roughly 90 miles north of the stadium that looked like Ice Station Zebra on Sunday. Don't like the cold? Don't expect to win in North Jersey around Groundhog Day.
Game: Lions at Eagles
Conditions: Somewhere between "emperor penguin documentary" and Hoth. The whiteout conditions were cinematographically beautiful, with giant, dramatic white flakes slanting diagonally across a dark backdrop. But FOX television producers saw the icy conditions and decided to dust off their 1990s hockey broadcast model: superimpose weird images over everything!
First, FOX laid down a rainbow of bright lines to represent the line of scrimmage, first-down distance, midfield, and likely landing places for Lions shotgun snaps (the tenth row, in some cases). They later went whole hog and superimposed ghostly gray field numbers onto the snow. Players sometimes appeared to "phase" through the numbers before the graphical kinks were worked out; you half-expected LeSean McCoy to disappear through the 20-yardline image and materialize in the end zone, Portal style. The FOX producers stopped just short of adding elves, candy canes, and (why not) Barry Sanders to the confusing telecast.
Results: The Lions fumbled seven times, a mix of Joique Bell cough-ups and Dominic Raiola shotgun snaps that looked like three-pointer attempts. The Eagles compensated by running straight backward on many first-half offensive plays; it was Chip Kelly's first time driving an NFL offense on the ice, and lining DeSean Jackson up at running back is the opposite of steering into the skid.
As the game wore on, snow made the dome-bound Lions more Lions-like: bigger big plays, dumber dumb ones. Some special teams touchdowns kept them in the lead until the fourth quarter, when Kelly and McCoy finally figured out how to get traction, and the Eagles rushed for 299 yards (244 of them in the second half) while roaring to a 34-20 victory.
Two notes. 1) Neither team wanted to attempt an extra point because field conditions were so terrible; the Lions' lone attempt was blocked. Won't that make for a fun Super Bowl if it snows in February? 2) Reggie Bush slipped and injured a calf muscle during warm-ups, which should henceforth be referred to as "taking the Lions way out." Bush would have given the Lions dozen-fumble potential.
Game: Chiefs at Redskins
Conditions: Put an inch or two of snow atop the shoddiest playing surface this side of a World War I no-man's land, and you get a gloppy mess. FedEx Field looked like a sledding hill at sundown: streaks of brown mud and gray slush slashed across a field of tramped, dirty snow. The snow turned to wintry mix around halftime; by that point, anyone with any sense was already driving home.
Results: The fun thing about Redskins blowout losses (the Chiefs humiliated them 45-10) is that they now come bundled with "Shanny Tales," weird little dysfunction fables leaked by someone in the organization with either a crazy agenda or overactive imagination. (Or both, as those things tend to go hand-in-hand). Past whoppers include the "Mike Shanahan wanted Ryan Tannehill, not Robert Griffin" story. This week, we learn that Shanahan "cleaned out his desk" before last year's playoff loss because he was angry about Dan Snyder's preferential treatment of Robert Griffin.
Given a chance to denounce the story as poppycock, Shanahan deflected the report in a way that suggested that there was some fire to the smoke. "It's not the right time or place to talk about my relationship with Dan Snyder," Shanahan said in his postgame press conference, a spooky black backdrop instead of the usual team logos behind him. "It's not the right time or place to talk about something that happened a year ago."
Now, whatever you think of Shanahan, and whatever conflict he may have had with Snyder and/or Griffin, it is hard to imagine him LITERALLY cleaning out his desk the week before a playoff game, filling cardboard boxes with staple removers and taking down pictures of his wife. What did Shanahan plan to do in this scenario: not show up to the Seahawks game? The story makes him sound like a seven-year-old running away from home because his parents won't let him watch Family Guy. (They'll be sooooo sorry when they realize how much they miss me, Mikey thought, wrapping two peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for the walk to the downtown bus terminal.) Furthermore, even if Snyder was starting to give Griffin the full Clinton Portis "honorary general manager/wine buddy" treatment, just how bad could things have been while the Redskins were enjoying a seven-game winning streak and Griffin was overcoming injuries to run for over 800 yards and throw four times more touchdowns than interceptions? Doesn't a performance like that merit a little "preferential treatment?" Shouldn't success like that keep everyone playing nice-nice until season's end?
What makes Shanny Tales so great is that they make everyone sound foolish: Snyder an oaf, Shanahan a jerk, Griffin a spoiled malcontent. The biggest Redskins basher on earth couldn't come up with this stuff, yet it originates from the organization itself, presumably from someone with loyalty to one of the three parties. Soon Shanahan will be gone, but this "mole" will live on. If the mole was still watching the Redskins at FedEx Field in the fourth quarter on Sunday, he or she is in very select company.
Game: Vikings at Ravens
Conditions: Somewhere between Philadelphia and Washington. That's actually what's written on Baltimore's city seal, and the civic reaction of Baltimoreans to bad weather typically falls between Philly's snow tizzies (three-tenths of an inch? Send the weathergirl out to City Line Avenue in an ushanka!) and the capital's weather denial (We're the south, dammit, we don't need a salt budget!)
Snowfall totals at the Inner Harbor were manageable, but an attempt to shovel the hashmarks in the first half failed badly and created two muddy gashes, as if someone dragged a Christmas tree behind a pickup truck don the middle of the field. Snow turned to rain and back to light snow again, with the field changing color like a giant Ravens mood ring.
Results: The Ravens never need an excuse to play an ugly game. Just as snow made the Lions more Lion-like, it made the Ravens more Ravenesque, and they led just 7-6 entering the fourth quarter and trailed 12-7 as the two-minute warning approached.
The next part is best explained by a nine-year-old who just ate a plate of Oreo triple-stuffs:
Flacco threw a one-yard pass to Dennis Pitta before the two-minute warning and they made the two-point conversion but the Vikings ran two plays and scored because Toby Gerhart ran 41 yards for a touchdown in place of Adrian Peterson who got hurt but Jacoby Jones ran the next kickoff back for a touchdown and Matt Cassel responded with a 79-yard touchdown to Cordarrelle Patterson and Flacco threw an interception but it got called back because Dennis Pitta was held and then Flacco threw a touchdown into the back of the end zone with nine seconds left to win the game.
Got that? It was 36 points in the final two minutes and seven seconds; the Ravens won 29-26. Hope you weren't in the bathroom. The Ravens have now played in near-hurricane conditions (Bears game), extreme winds (Jets game), and snow. If they can claw their way back into the playoff picture, they are ready for whatever Mother Nature throws at them.
As for the Peterson injury, it looked frightening in real time, but Peterson was seen on the sideline wearing a parka in the fourth quarter. Ian Rapoport reported that Peterson suffered a right mid-foot sprain, which could sideline him but is a heck of a lot less worrisome than a knee injury.
And finally, the Vikings got stuck in Baltimore when a catering truck crashed into their plane on the tarmac. There were no injuries, and with temperatures near freezing, the crabcakes stayed fresh. You can hear Bryant McKinnie grumbling from Pittsburgh: "All those years in Minnesota and Baltimore, and not once did a food truck crash into my plane."
Game: Falcons at Packers
Conditions: Tundra-tastic! Something about a gentle frosting of white atop the green-brown Lambeau steppe perma-frost transports viewers immediately to a nostalgic Vince Lombardi fantasy realm. But with light snow and moist grass, the mossy surface was slowly trodden into beige, soupy mud.
Results: Matt Flynn made plays with his arm and his leg in a 22-21 win. Seriously: it wasn't a bad game, though Flynn's game-winning drive spanned just 21 yards and the Packers defense had to hold the Falcons off for most of the fourth quarter while their offense played three-and-punt. Flynn sprayed just enough passes around the muddy field to keep the Packers alive in the NFC North race. Assuming Aaron Rodgers is a mirage at this point, Matt Flynn does not have to be great to get the team into the postseason: he just has to be less inept than the Bears and Lions.
Game: Dolphins at Steelers
Conditions: Dusty, then blustery, then dusty again. Pittsburgh is a Midwestern city at heart, and Midwesterners prepare annually for Halloween-to-Mother's Day snowfalls and shimmering coatings of crackly ice over every outdoor surface. So the Steelers ground crew was ready for Sunday. They were so far ahead of the storm that they were able to shovel ornate little squiggle designs as they cleared off the yard lines. That's right, FOX was using Avatar technology to make educated guesses about what field numbers look like, and FedEx looked like an Alaskan truck depot, but in Pittsburgh, they had time for snow-blower calligraphy.
Results: The Dolphins and Steelers are the last two teams you would ever accuse of "breaking the scoreboard." But the Dolphins' 34-28 comeback win was so wild that it fried the NFL's Internet circuits: game information froze at the 14:56 mark in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers leading by four, for hours after the game. Even the score crawl beneath other telecasts was stuck. Were the Internet routers frozen? Did Richie Incognito arrive and berate the web producers until they were too demoralized to go on? It does not matter: the lead changed four times in the second half, Ryan Tannehill and Ben Roethlisberger shook off the conditions for three touchdowns each, and the Steelers final wacky-lateral play came up short when Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds before an apparent touchdown. Just because it's snowing, with a 16 degree wind chill, doesn't mean everyone has to play like their fingers are falling off. The Steelers are mercifully out of the playoffs; the Dolphins still lead a crowded chase for the final Wild Card berth.
The Dolphins are the only warm-weather-or-dome team to beat a cold weather team in the snow on Sunday. But considering how close the Vikings came to beating the Ravens (without Peterson) and the Falcons came to beating the Packers, it's dangerous to make assumptions about the weather-readiness of a team based on their location. Except for the Lions: they could find a way to screw up at home, on the road, on a field of pillows, during a sandstorm, or in three feet of water.
Game: Raiders at Jets
Conditions: Sideways thunder-snow, breadfruit-sized hail, sleet like tiny daggers.
No, wait, that's wrong: it was clear in the Meadowlands, so clear that Geno Smith could get his career back (somewhat) on track with 219 passing yards in a 37-27 win.
What kind of storm system dumps half a foot on Philadelphia but leaves northern New Jersey alone? Did the storm's EZ pass malfunction on Exit 9A of the Turnpike? It is almost as if Roger Goodell took steps to make sure that the Super Bowl site itself was not affected by a winter storm.
That's right: Goodell is now cutting deals with these characters:
Sunday promised clarity but offered everything but. Other than eliminating some bottom-rung Wild Card contenders and awarding some foregone conclusion playoff berths, not a whole lot got settled. Here are some notes on a Sunday when teams clenched while losing, looked vulnerable while winning, and assaulted the record books in unpredictable ways.
So Much in Common: The Seahawks and 49ers are alike in many ways. Low-scoring slugfests like Sunday's 19-17 Niners win should surprise no one, even those of us who expected Seahawks victories. The Seahawks and 49ers are like the Ravens and Steelers of 2008-2012, only better. The last two Seahawks blowouts were out of character; Sunday's near-stalemate better reflects the clash of familiar styles.
How similar are the Seahawks and 49ers? I grabbed a snapshot of Sunday's game statistics early in the fourth quarter, when the Niners led 16-14. Take a look:
|Penalties (Yds)||9 (85)||6 (60)|
|Punts (AVG)||6 (27)||3 (45)|
|Time of Pos.||24:29:00||23:08|
Good luck sliding a putty knife between those numbers.
The 49ers pulled away statistically on their final drive: an 11-play, 76-yard, 5:54 grinder that forced the Seahawks to use all of their timeouts and left them with just 26 seconds and a two-point deficit. Frank Gore's 51-yard run was the backbone of that drive, but the 49ers also converted two third downs to keep the clock moving once they were within field goal range. The 49ers executed a similar earth-mover drive against the Cardinals in October. Give them a chance to ice a game by shoving footballs down your esophagus, and they will find a way to do it, even against a great defense.
The Seahawks clinched a playoff berth despite the bye, and they still hold a two-game lead over the 49ers. If they meet again in the playoffs, it will almost certainly be in Seattle, and the Seahawks will be favorites. The Seahawks are still the stronger team, and the 49ers can't afford to settle for four field goals next time. But it was enlightening to see the 49ers reassert themselves in a rivalry that was slipping away from them. These teams are like cousins, and football will be more fun if their two (or three) meetings per year are as tight as this one.
The Ultimate Advantage. Home field advantage always matters, in the regular season and the playoffs, but the NFL postseason race provides a study in extremes. In the span of six days, the Saints looked like a disorganized wreck in Seattle, then performed precision surgery at home. The Panthers, unbeatable for two months, crumbled in the noisy Superdome. The Seahawks slipped back to mortality when separated from their noise canyon, and the Lions proved incapable of executing basic shotgun snaps with a little snow on the ground.
The Saints and Seahawks are undefeated at home; the Panthers and Cowboys have one loss. The Cowboys, Lions, Bears, and Packers are all under .500 on the road, while the Saints are 3-3. The Eagles are actually 3-4 at home but 5-1 on the road, where they are more likely to get fan support. (Kidding!) These are extreme splits, and while there is a random element, noise and weather and travel clearly play a role.
That makes the Saints' victory against the Panthers crucial: the Saints are Super Bowl contender at home and a one-and-done playoff team on the road. The same could be said for the Panthers, though we should not make too much of their first loss in two months. (Yes, their secondary is vulnerable. How many teams have the Saints-caliber weapons to attack it?) Everyone accepts that they will have to fly to Seattle at some point -- the Saints can still catch them, but the Seahawks earned the tiebreaker on Monday Night -- but everyone wants to forestall the trip as long as possible. And every fanbase is getting jazzed about breaking volume records. Heck, Jerry Jones might just mount some Howitzers and declare Cowboys Stadium a battleship.
So even as the Seahawks clinch and the Saints come close, every game matters, as does every decibel and frequent-flyer mile.
The Long and Short of It: Matt Prater broke the NFL record with a 64-yard field goal just before halftime of the Broncos 51-28 victory over the Titans. He later kicked an 19-yard field goal, which is roughly two yards longer than the shortest possible field goal under NFL rules. Prater has zero chance of breaking the pro football record for shortest field goal ever. George Blanda and Gino Cappelletti share that record, at seven yards.
Seven yards? Remember that the goal posts were in the front of the end zone until 1973. It's hard to imagine a zany world where the fathers of football would erect two rigid poles smack in the middle of the field of play, but it's the world many of us were born in. A field goal from the one-foot line, with the holder seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, was a true 7-yarder, and they were tricky to execute: imagine getting that kind of loft with so little lateral distance.
There are tales that Don Cockroft kicked a six-yarder, but box scores list the debated kick as a 27-yarder; as this was the 1970s, not the 1930s, it seems unlikely that the official boxes are in error. To kick a six-yarder, Cockroft's holder would have to line up closer than usual to the line of scrimmage, which sounds like a recipe for a block on such a short attempt. Eight-yard field goals were not unusual in the old days. When Tom Dempsey set the 63-yard record in 1970 (several others tied him over the years), he also kicked an eight-yarder in the same game. So Prater had a similar Sunday to Dempsey's, 43-years later.
Field goals in the 17-19 yard range are rapidly going out of style. Teams attempted just 15 of them (making them all) through the first 13 weeks of the season. Offenses are more efficient, and teams are much more daring on fourth down, than in the days of Dempsey, Cockroft, and Cappelletti. Eight-yarders made more sense in the cloud of dust era than 18-yarders do now. As for 64-yarders, they are great when you can get them.
Magic Magic Brady Magic: Another Patriots game ended with Tom Brady last-second sparkle magic and a ticky-tacky call. We've seen the magic for over a decade, and only a grump, a Jets fan, or an Irsay can begrudge its beauty. The need for Brady sparkle magic, however, is becoming increasingly troublesome, and the tacky calls have just become a chore.
Let's not get into the whole Kuechly-McFadden-Jones push-Vernon Bat-erased rulebook-tinfoil hat debate. Patriots games have begun to feel like political causes: there are red states and blue states, Patriots fans and Patriots bashers, and we never sound as bright or informed as we should when we divide into camps and rally around flags. The problem the Patriots face is that Tom Brady spends too many last seconds throwing end zone passes into tight coverage to win games, against good competition and (this week) bad. There are few quarterbacks in NFL history you would want leading that final desperate drive more than Brady, but it's not a good business model to rely on his skills -- or the vagaries of officiating -- a couple of times per month.
The Patriots are now without Rob Gronkowski again. They are much better equipped to handle the loss than they were in Week 1, but we saw the early-season Patriots offense, complete with a frustrated, out-of-kilter Brady, return for three quarters against the Browns. That offense was good enough to beat the Browns, as it beat the Jets, Bills, and Bucs. It might not be good enough on the road against the Dolphins and Ravens as the Patriots try to sew up a first-round bye. It definitely won't be good enough against the Chiefs, Bengals, and Broncos in the playoffs.
Bill Belichick has done an amazing job cycling through ways to win this year. After Sunday, it's hard to imagine what he and Brady have left. And if they can find a way to go back to simply bludgeoning their foes, we can all stop worrying about pass interference in the end zone and go back to complaints about running up the score.
Worst Early Clinch Ever. The Colts clinched a playoff berth on a day when they lost 42-28, their running backs combined for 31 yards, and their opponent controlled the ball for nearly 38 minutes. Has a weaker team ever clinched this early under worse circumstances? The Colts get the Texans on a new-coach bump next week, then the Chiefs, then the suddenly competitive Jaguars. I give them about a 25% chance of finishing 8-8.
Peyton Manning probably has the MVP award in the bag, and there is not much drama for other postseason awards. But what about great players on terrible teams who have no hope of award season attention? Submitted for your approval, this list of great 2013 seasons that turned out to be lost causes.
I joked at the start of the article about kids listening for school closing numbers. Do kids do that anymore? The phone rang at Mandatory Monday headquarters during the Saints game, and it was a recorded message from my childrens' superintendent, announcing that schools had a two-hour delay on Monday. Even without the phone call, the news was easy to come by. The school website flashes the news on its homepage. Parents spread the news on Facebook. Kids text each other.
The old days of "Now over to Cripple Creek County, where the following schools are closed: 540, 541, 542, 543, 544, 546, 547, and 548" are now a distant memory for you and the other graduates of school 545. Some radio stations still read off the lists, but parents incapable of using a computer or checking a message are not going to find the all-news channel. In my teaching days, we assigned an extra secretary to answer dozens of morning phone calls with a cheery "Good morning, and yes we are open!" for parents who missed out in the information age. Snow days, like everything else, aren't quite what they used to be.
Snow games are not what they used to be either. Joe Flacco said after the Ravens game that he has never been involved in a snow game. He may have been referring to his NFL experience, but it might also have been his life experience. It does not snow often in New Jersey or Delaware in November or December, when his high school and college seasons ended. (February is another story, Super Bowl fans!) If a guy who spent his whole life in cold regions has never played a game in the snow, what about players from Florida, Texas, or California? Hundreds of professional football players probably played in the snow for the first time in their lives on Sunday. Under those circumstances, messy results were hardly surprising.
Snow games aren't common anymore, and snow days no longer begin with a numerical litany, but some things never change: shoveling, salting, and sitting around the fireplace app on your tablet listening to Christmas carols on Pandora. The world changes, but the crunch of snow and the romantic allure of a football game on windswept tundra remain timeless.
That said, I really, really, really don't want it to snow during Super Bowl week.