The NFL playoff picture got murkier on Sunday. That's not supposed to happen. It felt as though we started the day with four clinched playoff berths but ended it with three. That's not really possible, and that is not quite what happened. But never have so many teams backed, sidled, idled, u-turned, k-turned, parallel parked, or otherwise contorted themselves into little balls and crammed themselves uncomfortably into the playoff picture in one week. A few foregone conclusions forewent on Sunday. Everyone else just formed a seven-to-11-win dog-pile of indecision.
The Chiefs endured a messy loss to the Colts, a playoff team that inspires as much true faith as a bullhorn preacher at a downtown parade. The Lions traded turnovers with the Giants like they were performing a gridiron reenactment of The Gift of the Magi, before losing in overtime. The Packers lost College Basketball Ice Capades to the Steelers. The Dallas Cowboys needed all manner of heroics to overcome their dreaded nemesis, the Dallas Cowboys, while the Redskins looked on. The Ravens and Dolphins, two teams in a tooth-and-claw battle for one wild-card spot, treated the end zone like it was covered in lava.
Among the teams that actually looked good: the Bengals, who were voted Most Likely to Lose in the First Round in their high school yearbook; the Panthers, whose quarterback inspires a perma-skepticism that never quite thaws; and the Cardinals, whose slim playoff chances feel like a cruel practical joke, the prom queen asking the pimply kid to dance then standing him up at the last minute. The Eagles looked downright impressive, which was a double-edged sword, because there is still a chance that they will miss the playoffs, while one of the unwatchable NFC North teams is guaranteed entry. Also, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady played well, which was really informative.
By the end of Sunday night, it was possible for the Steelers to make the playoffs and the 49ers to miss them. This is the opposite of clarity, folks.
There are so many inconsistent, unreliable, flaw-riddled and downward-trending teams in the playoff picture that it is hard to imagine most of them winning a playoff game. But someone has to win games that do not involve the Broncos, Patriots, or Seahawks (who also managed to look weak on Sunday). The teams that win a playoff game or two and earn the right to be Seahawks fodder or Brady-Manning appetizers -- or something more -- must have step-up performances: either a stellar effort by one of their stars or a sudden improvement from one of their slacking units.
So Mandatory Monday has selected an All Step-Up team for the final playoff push. Some of these players and units have already stepped up. Others had better hear the alarm clock soon. All of them are still alive, somehow, and can still make their teams a more important part of the 2013 story than "the 9-7 opponent who lost 34-10 in the first round."
Quarterback: Cam Newton, Panthers
Heading In: Newton spent most of this season trying to wriggle free of the pigeonhole we crammed him into last season. Never as great as the hype at his best, nor as bad as his reputation at his worst, Newton improved a little this season while his teammates improved a lot. The stage was set for a tidy Potential-Frustration-Redemption three-year story arc loosely based on the true story of Newton's actual performance.
Of course, the Potential-Frustration-Even-More-Frustration arc is just as entertaining, and every time Newton's Panthers cleared a hurdle this year, many fans and experts declared the next hurdle to be the one that really mattered. After losing to the Saints two weeks ago, this particular hurdle looked like it had barbed wire and rotating blades at the top of it. Newton has made great strides as a third-down passer and is much better at ball security, but no one cares about the details: he entered Sunday in Win the Big Game limbo.
Stepped Up: Steve Smith got injured early on Sunday, and a deluge turned Panthers stadium into a scene from The Poseidon Adventure just after halftime. Both events appeared to be major setbacks for Newton and the Panthers, yet they overcame both. Smith's early exit bogged down the Panthers offense: when Newton wasn't lingering in the backfield and taking sacks, his passes bounced off the hands of his secondary receivers. The monsoon forced both teams to use 1930s punt-and-pin tactics for a quarter, but Newton (who looked gimpy after a few hits) threw a few ugly passes after the rain subsided, including a wild overthrow of Domenik Hixon on what would have been a 3rd-and-6 conversion.
Unlike the 2011 and 2012 Newton, the 2013 Newton is equipped with a great defense that can shut the Saints down late in the game and give him extra opportunities. Given 55 seconds and no timeouts on one last drive, Newton knifed a 37-yard pass to Ted Ginn, a 14-yarder over the middle to Greg Olsen, and a 14-yard teardrop into the front corner of the end zone to Hixon for a 17-13 victory. It is hard to imagine a better-orchestrated drive, under still-soggy conditions, against a resourceful defense, with the quarterback's best offensive weapon sidelined.
Looking Ahead: Saints conquered. Playoffs clinched. Adversity overcome. The next hurdle is the playoff victory, and the Panthers appear to be up to the challenge.
Newton's resilient performances, both on Sunday and in the face of overwhelming narration, mean as much to the next generation of prospects as to Newton. Even a force-fitted storyline takes time to play out, and making final judgments about a promising first or second year quarterback can lead to major mistakes.
Running Backs: Donald Brown and Trent Richardson, Colts
Heading In: You are as sick of reading about Trent Richardson as most of us are of writing about him. He averages about 250 words per yard these days. The bottom line with Richardson -- and with Brown, who remains the Colts' most consistent and versatile running back -- is that most NFL rushers can be sorted into three bins:
- The Special Runners can do things that few others can do, allowing them to dictate to the defense and generate yards without outstanding blocking or scheming. There are only a few of these runners on earth at any moment: Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, maybe one or two others. Chris Johnson's ability to turn any 20-yard run into a 75-yard run puts him in this category, but not squarely.
- The Ordinary Runners take what the defense gives them. They can catch screen passes and turn upfield for productive yardage, hit a backside hole, break an arm tackle. There are dozens of these in the NFL, some better at one element of the game than another. When one of them has a 1,400-yard rushing season by virtue of great teammates and circumstances, we are sometimes fooled into thinking these are special runners. The Patriots usually keep three or four of them stockpiled on the roster; in Foxboro, there are a lot of "yards that the defense gives you."
- The Liability Runners have some deficiency which causes problems for the offense. They lack adequate speed, receiving ability, vision, ball security, or are just mediocre in all elements of the game. These guys can carry 15 times for 50 yards without incident and can make a play now or then, but they do nothing much to elevate the offense and a little to deflate it. The Packers had the market cornered on liability runners for many years; Brandon Jackson should have the phrase scrawled onto the bottoms of his football cards.
Brown is an Ordinary Runner. Richardson has the characteristics of a Special Runner, but his habits from the instant he gets the football until he reaches the line of scrimmage are so bad that he has become a Liability Runner. Unfortunately, the Colts need him, not just because they must save face after trading a first round pick for him, but because Brown is not durable enough to hold up in a 20-25 touch role.
Stepped Up, Needs to Step Up: The Colts took advantage of numerous Chiefs mistakes and an offensive short-circuiting to grind out a 23-7 win. Brown had a 51-yard touchdown run and a 33-yard touchdown catch-and-run; Brown is a fine open-field runner, though getting him there can be tricky.
Richardson averaged 2.7 yards per carry, had a long run of six yards, and got stuffed on fourth-and-1. Every time Richardson reaches the line of scrimmage and sees a double-team block he could snuggle behind for a three-yard gain, he flinches and bounces outside. I am starting to flinch when I watch him.
Looking Ahead: The key word in the phrase "Liability Runner" is "Liability." Giving Richardson 19 touches in a playoff game is a disaster recipe, even when trying to clock the lead: most playoff opponents will have more comeback ability than the Chiefs possess. Although if they are facing the Ravens or Dolphins, the Colts could give 19 carries to nose tackle Fili Moala and still win.
Wide Receiver: Michael Crabtree
Heading In: Crabtree's most interesting play against the Buccaneers last week was an incomplete pass; this is not unusual, since some of the most interesting 49ers offensive plays are three-yard runs. Crabtree raced up the seam and executed a sweet double move to shake his defender: a fake to the corner, then a twist and cut to the post. Colin Kaepernick's pass sailed two yards beyond Crabtree, but it becomes clearer every week that the 49ers have more deep capability now than they did when their offense was all Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin and tight ends.
Crabtree also caught a four-yard touchdown against the Bucs last week by shaking free of rookie cornerback Jonathan Banks twice while Kaepernick scrambled. He has been catching a few passes per week on comeback routes: threatening the cornerback with a deep route, then sneaking in a little shove when he comes back for the football. Crabtree brings craft and savvy to the 49ers second receiver slot after weeks of Jon Baldwin/Kyle Williams -- novices who played like they still needed to brush up on the route tree before every series.
Needs to Step Up: Crabtree plays Monday night, and the combination of the Cardinals win and Saints loss puts the 49ers playoff situation in a state of higgedly-piggedly.
Looking Ahead: After the way Sunday turned out, there will be no looking past any opponents, thank you very much.
Wide Receiver: The non-Larry Fitzgerald Cardinals Wide Receivers
Heading In: Back when the Cardinals were a Super Bowl team, Larry Fitzgerald was part of a one-two punch with Anquan Boldin. Boldin left, and Fitzgerald's solo career has produced a lot of hit singles but few truly memorable moments: better than Kenny Loggins, not quite Paul McCartney, but nowhere near Paul Simon. This year, Michael Floyd has emerged as a complementary all-purpose target while Andre Roberts has thrived as a true third receiver. Quarterback professionalism has helped, of course.
Stepped Up: Floyd caught just one pass, but it counted: a 31-yard leaping touchdown in the final minutes to give the Cardinals a 17-10 lead and eventual victory. Roberts added two third-down conversion catches, including one on 3rd-and-16 to extend a field goal drive. Newcomer Brittan Golden surprised the Seahawks with a 63-yard first quarter catch. On a day when Seahawks defenders caught four Carson Palmer passes while Fitzgerald caught just three, the Cardinals got just enough big plays from their other receivers to beat the best defense in the NFL.
Looking Ahead: The 49ers, like the Seahawks, do not allow many long drives. You need a few big plays to beat them. The Cardinals now know that someone besides Fitzgerald can provide those big plays.
Tight End: Jimmy Graham, Saints
Heading In: We have grown so used to talking about Drew Brees' many, many offensive weapons that we haven't noticed that many of those weapons have either left New Orleans or gotten old in recent years. Marques Colston is still an excellent possession receiver, but Lance Moore is just a role player at this point in his career; Devery Henderson is gone, Robert Meachem never developed into much more than a bomb-per-game specialist; and youngsters like Kenny Stills just aren't the same caliber as their predecessors.
The Saints passing game has revolved around Graham all season. Graham tailed off after a blistering start (37 catches and six touchdowns in his first five games), but if Graham catches five passes in a Saints game, chances are they are five of the most crucial plays in the game.
Stepped Up: Graham caught five passes in the Saints game, and two of them were among the most crucial plays of the game. His 46-yard catch-and-run, which started when he wrested a tipped ball away from a defender on a crossing route, took the Saints out of the bad-field-position purgatory they were stuck in for most of the second half. Graham then punctuated the drive with a leaping five-yard touchdown catch.
Graham's problem is that there remains only one of him. The Saints offensive line got swamped by the Panthers front four, so Brees could not find his remaining deep targets. When looking to the short middle, Brees was throwing into Luke Kuechly territory; both Kuechly and Thomas Davis reeled in short interceptions, while Kuechly feasted to the tune of 24 tackles.
Looking Ahead: Graham steps up every week. He must now find a way to drag his teammates -- including his slumping Hall of Fame quarterback -- along with him.
Offensive Line: Miami Dolphins
Heading In: There's a big difference between "stable" and "satisfactory." The Dolphins are no longer a junior high crisis resolution failure, but while their line has improved slightly now that all five starters can stomach each other's company, progress is a relative thing. Bryant McKinnie sustains blocks about as long as a moth maintains contact with a light bulb, while Tyson Clabo sometimes looks like he's going out of his way to block the spot on the field his defender just left.
Joe Philbin and Mike Sherman have used a lot of two-tight end sets to get Charles Clay, Dion Sims, and Michael Egnew involved in edge run blocking, and tight ends and running backs do a lot of pass protecting. It's not unusual to see Lamar Miller or Daniel Thomas taking on the edge rusher coming from the right while Clabo takes an easier interior assignment. All of the scheming, plus Ryan Tannehill's mobility, have lowered sack totals, but they also removed elements from the Dolphins' downfield passing game. Opponents took note.
Needs to Step Up: Ryan Tannehill endured seven sacks in a 19-0 shutout by the Bills. Miller and Thomas rushed 12 times for 14 yards, and both surrendered sacks in the first half when they were isolated against edge rushers in pass protection. The tackles fared no better than the running backs, which is why the running backs were saddled with such duties in the first place. It was the worst performance by the Dolphins offensive line all year, worse than their bully-era pratfalls against opponents like the Buccaneers.
Looking Ahead: Cancel the feel-good "put our problems behind us" Dolphins human interest stories, and remember that the team's offensive line woes have ramifications beyond any one-and-done postseason cameo. The cornerstone of the franchise has been sacked 58 times, and while he has been admirably resilient, we won't discover the bad habits he is picking up while running for his life until the dust settles.
Defensive Line: Cincinnati Bengals
Heading In: Watch film of the Bengals defensive line in the post-Geno Atkins era and you may be shocked at just how blockable their other linemen are. Michael Johnson shows a pretty good bull rush, Carlos Dunlap can work inside on his blocker a little, and Domata Peko is still solid as an anchor against double teams, but none of the three is a difference maker without Atkins' disruption in the interior. These are not relentless pass rushers: a lot of relenting goes on in Cincinnati.
The Bengals have been blitzing and stunting to apply pressure, but their blitzes are slow-developing; James Harrison has lost a step, and safeties look reluctant to slam full-speed into 310-pound linemen. Role players Wallace Gilberry and Brandon Thompson are showing flashes, but pass pressure was supposed to be an area of strength for the Bengals this season. Since Atkins got hurt, it has been a weakness.
Stepped Up … a Little: There's nothing like a terrible quarterback and an out-of-hand game to make your pass rush look better. Vontaze Burfict blitzed for two of the Bengals four sacks in a 42-7 win, but one came with a roughness penalty attached, and another Bengals sack occurred in fourth-quarter silly time. The Bengals front four played the run well for as long as they had to: the Vikings only possessed the football for 20 minutes and 28 seconds.
It was a statement game for the Bengals. The statement: we can blow out all of the terrible out-of-division opponents you throw at us!
Looking Ahead: Burfict and Vincent Rey were the big stars on Sunday, so perhaps the linebackers can pick up slack for the defensive line. The Bengals have a nasty habit of leaving a lot of slack about when they face better opponents.
Linebackers: Chicago Bears
Heading In: The Bears run defense has been comically awful since Lance Briggs got hurt, allowing three 200-yard rushing games, plus 199 and 198-yard games. Briggs returned against the Eagles, and other changes on the front seven -- the arrival of former Cowboys Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff, a redefined role for Julius Peppers -- have offered the Bears hope that they would get their run defense sorted out by the playoffs.
Needs to Step Up: Chip Kelly's scheme can be murder for linebackers. Kelly uses a lot of base or multi-tight end packages, keeping linebackers on the field, but he then spreads those tight ends out in unusual formations, leaving linebackers split out like cornerbacks at times. Between option threats and play-action, linebackers facing the Eagles run the risk of spending the first two seconds of every play flat-footed and trying to locate the ball. Factor in LeSean McCoy's elusiveness, and even good linebackers will spend some time getting outrun to the sideline or watching play-action slants sail over their heads.
Bad linebackers look like the Bears looked on Sunday night: nearly invisible. Basic misdirection concepts -- Kelly liked to split two tight ends to the left, then run right on Sunday -- erased Bears linebackers easily from the equation. Every screen pass was an adventure, and McCoy spun away from the rare linebackers who got close to him. Briggs was a non-factor.
The Bears defensive line and secondary got into the easily-blocked, poor tackling routine, as they have often during the season. The Bears offense also took the evening off. Not to take anything away from the Eagles defense, but their secondary made Matt Cassel look like Joe Montana last week. This week, Jay Cutler was under siege until he was benched, and Matt Forte could escape neither the backfield nor his own end zone. The Sunday night game was part Eagles beat-down, part Bears meltdown. It proved the utter playoff unworthiness of every single NFC North team.
Looking Ahead: Let the Cardinals replace the NFC North representative in the playoffs let the Cardinals replace the NFC North representative in the playoffs let the Cardinals replace the NFC North representative in the playoffs let the Cardinals replace the NFC North representative in the playoffs …
Secondary: Dallas Cowboys
Heading In: In a world where 51-48, 48-25, and 37-36 losses are blamed exclusively on the quarterback and head coach, can a non-elite squadron of defensive backs pull off the ultimate heist: collecting millions of dollars for staggeringly awful play while rarely getting called out for their failures? Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church, Sterling Moore and Jeff Heath star in Flops Force Five, a Jerry Jones production directed by Monte Kiffin.
Need to Step Up: The Cowboys secondary had plenty of allies in their 24-23 win against the Redskins. FedEx Field looked like a dog park after three days of rain and the Ultimate Rottweiler Tug of War exhibition. The Redskins started their backup quarterback again, on purpose, and Mike Shanahan has now reached the "call weird timeouts" and "never challenge anything" stages of bald-faced insubordination. It should have been an easy afternoon against a team that really really REALLY really REALLY really REALLY wants to go home.
But nothing is easy for the Cowboys secondary. Simple crossing routes give them fits. The Redskins generated 28 yards to set up a second-quarter field goal on a simple double-drag, where Pierre Garcon and another receiver crisscrossed in the middle of the field. The Cowboys middle linebacker and both defensive backs followed the other receiver. Sterling Moore is particularly awful in deep coverage: he stands flat-footed while slants and skinny posts are executed in front of him, as if he is happy to have such a great view. Cousins only threw for 197 yards (his one interception was a tipped ball), but it was easy to see that a starting quarterback for a team that cared on a non-mudflat would have picked the Cowboys apart yet again.
Looking Ahead: Tony Romo led two late scoring drives to atone for the interception and sack that gave the Redskins a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter. Romo remains the cause of, and solution to, many of life's problems. But the template for a high-scoring, blamed-on-Romo Cowboys loss is well established. The Cowboys defense shows little evidence of being able to flip the script and give us something else to talk about.
By the way, how long will it take FedEx to realize that it does not want to be associated with the muddiest patch of ill-maintained glob on the East Coast and take its name off that stadium? Nothing screams "safe, efficient package delivery" like torn up sod.
Special Teams: Baltimore Ravens
Heading In: Justin Tucker became an Angry Birds character after his Monday night heroics and a season of physics-defying field goals. He had the little bluebird field goal that separates into three field goals, the green boomerang bird that can twist around obstacles, and the Mighty Eagle from 60-plus yards.
Needs to Step Up: The Ravens laid an egg like Matilda the white bird on Sunday. Tucker missed his only field goal attempt in the Ravens' 41-7 loss to the Patriots. Way to get it out of your system in a lost cause, big guy!
Looking Ahead: The Ravens' playoff hopes hinge upon 18 points per game from Tucker and another six on kick returns. Stop slacking, kick units!
Week 16 of the 2013 season will be remembered as the time when Peyton Manning set a passing touchdown record and Bear Pascoe took a handoff in overtime to help the Giants knock the Lions out of the playoffs.
One event is significant, the other a bit of trivia… and I am not sure which is which.
Manning has had an exceptional season, and he broke the five-year-old touchdown record while pulling away from a terrible opponent with a four-touchdown performance. It was Manning's eighth four-or-more touchdown performance of the season. Ho hum. Every week it's the same thing, Peyton: historic excellence. Show me something I have never seen before, like a journeyman tight end taking a handoff in a crucial situation.
When it comes to Manning's latest record, the sentence "none of this will matter to anyone if the Broncos don't win the Super Bowl" is such a painfully obvious cliché that I felt dirty typing it. Touchdown records should matter, even for players and teams that fail to win Super Bowls. The champion or pond-scum mentality has become so ingrained in sports conversations that it is hard to even explain that there is another way to look at an NFL season than as a Highlander battle with a 96.875% mortality rate. But yes, the touchdown record will not matter to Manning, and might be perversely held against him. Ten quarterbacks have thrown over 40 touchdowns in a season (counting Manning and Drew Brees twice each) but only one has won the Super Bowl in that season: Kurt Warner in 1999. There are passing records and championships, and rarely the twain shall meet, for reasons that boil down to dumb luck in most instances.
So Manning's latest passing record is hard to get jazzed about. He broke this record in 2004. Tom Brady took it back from him in 2007. This record may last until 2016 or so. I have seen Manning and Brady break records before. I have never seen Bear Pascoe take a handoff.
Pascoe is a 27-year-old-265-pound blocking tight end. He is a spot starter with 37 career receptions, the longest of which spanned 22 yards. He is one of many Giants with a ring, part of the professional bench which played a major role in the 2011 Super Bowl run. He spent Sunday playing out the string in an awful game against an awful team. The Giants and Lions traded turnovers and listless drives until the game was knotted 20-20 in overtime. The Giants lost two running backs to injury during the game, a little over par for their course this season. Their second overtime drive stalled at 4th-and-7 on the 42-yard line.
Tom Coughlin, bless him, is past the point of punting in meaningless end-of-season games. He kept the offense on the field, and Eli Manning threw a strike to Jerrel Jernigan to reach field goal range. The catch was near the ground and not 100% clean, so Eli hurried the offense to the line of scrimmage and called any old play. That play was a fullback give, and Pascoe was the closest thing on the field to a fullback. Pascoe gained two yards, but more importantly, he prevented a replay review.
How often does a team actually succeed in running a hurry-up play to prevent a challenge or review? It probably happens less often than breaking a touchdown record these days. Pascoe's rare run capped a strange sequence that knocked the Lions out of the playoffs and probably ended Jim Schwartz's coaching tenure. Pascoe helped the Giants reacquire a little dignity and pride while hammering the coffin shut on another team's administration. All Peyton Manning did was win a game we all knew he would win.
We are in a magnificent era for quarterbacks and passing records, which is why the quarterbacks cannot buy a break and the records feel perfunctory. It's us, not the players or the records. Manning will be remembered for dozens of feats, and he will also be dogged by detractors for mostly-imaginary weaknesses in a way quarterbacks of past generations never faced. This touchdown record sits atop a pile of records, victories, and championships, a medium-sized pebble in a 15-year avalanche of accomplishments.
Pascoe's two-yard run will remain singular forever, and the strange circumstances surrounding it -- the fourth down gamble, the lost 2013 Giants season, the Lions' 1964-Phillies level collapse, the rare feat of out-drawing the replay booth -- is the kind of strange-but-true football story that keeps fans coming back for more after miserable seasons.
A great player did a great thing that felt ordinary on Sunday. An ordinary player did something ordinary that felt unique. As 2013 draws to a close, we should find room in our hearts to cherish both memories.