Five points from the games that hit me Sunday.
1. How do the Dallas Cowboys run the ball seven times on 30 second-half plays when the back, DeMarco Murray, is knocking it out of the park (seven carries, 41 second-half yards, 5.8-yard average)? The two late interceptions reinforce what Tony Romo is at this point in his career: a very good quarterback who is allergic to the last five minutes of games. It’s happened too many times now to call it a coincidence. But you know the series of this game I thought was so indicative of the way the Cowboys run their offense? Late third quarter, Dallas up 29-17, Dallas ball at its 15. Romo incomplete right, Romo incomplete middle, Romo sack, punt. The Cowboys, trying to run the clock down, spent all of 63 seconds on this drive … when the only thing that mattered at this point was bleeding the clock. Greg A. Bedard has more on this game, and on the play-calling, for The MMQB.
2. The Rams are 6-8. They’ve lost five games by double-digits. They’ve won five games by double-digits. Against the Saints, they controlled the line of scrimmage well, battering Drew Brees with the Robert Quinn- and Chris Long-led rush, and they got an excellent ball-control performance by rookie back Zac Stacy. St. Louis is at its best when it doesn’t have to fill the air with footballs, and when Quinn has time to make an impact rushing the passer.
3. Julian Edelman in the fourth quarter Sunday: 10 targets, eight catches, 93 yards. His numbers in that quarter and in the last four games (37 catches, 414 yards) say he’s going to be the Welker-type crutch for Tom Brady.
4. We all can see Seattle is a terrific defensive team, but the offensive consistency, even without Percy Harvin, is something to behold. The Seahawks have outrushed the opposition by 500 yards exactly, and out-passed foes by 550 yards. Aside from the road loss at the Niners last week, Seattle’s consistently the best team in football, and it’s not close for second. San Francisco’s the second-best team, I just don’t think it’s going to be that close if they meet in Seattle in the playoffs.
5. If Matt Asiata was precocious enough to score three touchdowns in the absence of Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart Sunday, I wonder what our good friend Zach Line would have done were he not placed on IR early in the year?
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Tony Romo helped, but Matt Flynn’s second half saved the Packers.
When the strangest game of his life was over, the 37-36 win over Dallas in Texas on Sunday, Matt Flynn jumped around the locker room with his teammates—yes, they really jumped around, “like little kids at recess,” Flynn said—and then he sat for a few minutes with his offensive linemen. “Did that really just happen?” he said to them.
“I mean, we couldn’t believe it,” Flynn, still hoarse from the game, said via cell phone when the Packers landed back in Wisconsin. “How do you explain that? I don’t know that you can. When we were in the locker room at halftime [down 26-3], did we really think there was a chance, the way we played, that we could come back and win the game? Not really. Then, at the end of the game, when we get the ball back and the one-point lead, we were so giddy because we did the math on the sidelines and realized we could just run the clock out by kneeling. I had to say to [center] Evan Dietrich-Smith, ‘Make sure the snap is clean,’ because we were so happy and we needed to concentrate on getting three snaps done.”
Flynn started believing when he dumped a three-yard TD to tight end Andrew Quarless with 16 minutes left in the game. That made it 29-17, and the fact that it was a two-score game after how poorly the Packers had played made it seem realistic they could catch up. After holding Dallas, they scored again—but this is when a Tramon Williams interception was overturned on review. And Romo went on to drive the length of the field then, re-establishing a 12-point lead midway through the fourth quarter.
“By then,” Flynn said, “we were in the game. We thought we could do it. The ball was coming out of my hand great, and I knew we’d have a chance at least to come back.”
Ten plays and 80 yards later, through the sieve of the Dallas defense, Flynn hit James Jones for a short touchdown and it was 36-31, with 4:17 to play. Green Bay needed a stop. Something better happened for them. Romo should have been handing to DeMarco Murray then, just to run the clock. But he was still throwing, and Sam Shields made a good read and pick on a crossing route. “On the next series,” Flynn said, “I checked from a pass to a run twice, because they were in a two-deep.” Burgeoning star Eddie Lacy got the benefit of one of those checks, and barreled to the Dallas 4. A minute later he flew over from the one, and it was 37-36. Romo obliged with another pick on the next series, and then, incredibly after trailing by 23 at the half, Green Bay had to bleed the final 90 seconds by kneeling.
It’s been a long, strange trip for Flynn. Traded from Seattle to Oakland to be the starter before the 2013 draft. Lost the Raiders’ starting job to Terrelle Pryor late in preseason. Cut by Oakland in October. Signed by Buffalo a week later. Cut by Buffalo on Nov. 4, in the afternoon. Four hours later Aaron Rodgers was smashed to the Lambeau turf in a Monday night game against Chicago, suffering a broken collarbone. The next week Flynn was back with the Packers. He suffered through the ignominy of the Thanksgiving Day massacre by the Lions, and in the last two weeks Green Bay has beaten Atlanta and Dallas (Flynn is 50 of 71 for 557 yards, five touchdowns and two picks in those two games), keeping the seat warm for Rodgers. Look for Rodgers to return next Sunday to face Pittsburgh.
“It’s all worth it now,” Flynn said. “This is the best day I’ve had in the NFL. You work for a long time to have the kind of fun we had today, and if you have to go through some tough times to get there, well, that’s the way it goes.”
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The strangest thing that happened Sunday.
Yes, stranger than the Cowboys at home blowing a 23-point second-half lead to a backup quarterback.
I am still trying to figure out what happened at the end of regulation in the Arizona-Tennessee game. To recap: The Titans, down 34-24 with three minutes to go, kicked a field goal, recovered an onside kick and drove to a touchdown with 10 seconds left. So it was 34-33, Arizona, with 10 seconds left, and Tennessee coach Mike Munchak chose to kick the extra point to send the game to overtime. Rob Bironas kicked the PAT. But there was a flag on the play. Offside, Arizona. Munchak had a choice: take the five-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff, or go half the distance to the goal line and go for two—and the win—from the Arizona 1-yard line.
Munchak chose to keep the point, and the tie, and play for overtime. In overtime, Arizona kicked the winning field goal and beat Tennessee, 37-34.
My problem is twofold. Tennessee had Arizona reeling. In the final minutes the Titans drove 87 yards to a field goal and 54 yards to a touchdown. That’s 141 yards, in about three minutes. And they had a chance to get one yard to win the game, with no overtime. Of course, if they didn’t make the yard, the game would be over, and they’d lose bitterly.
Bigger than capitalizing on the flow of the game (I’ve never been convinced that momentum is that big a deal, but 141 yards in 15 plays—now that’s a big deal), to me, was the calendar year of 2013. What, exactly, was Munchak saying to his team and fan base after building a team in the offseason that was supposed to be able to grind out a tough yard when needed? The Titans made Andy Levitre the highest-paid guard in football in free agency last March. They drafted Chance Warmack, another guard, with their first-round pick in April. Levitre and left tackle Michael Roos would be one of the premier guard-tackle combinations in football.
And so Mike Munchak, a steely baron of the run game himself, had this choice: one play for the win from the 1-yard line; or overtime, where his chance would be, at best, 50-50, and a little less if he lost the coin flip before OT. Ask yourself this question: If the Titans had 10 shots from the 1-yard line behind Levitre and Roos, with Chris Johnson running behind them, isn’t the team Mike Munchak created in the offseason built to succeed there a majority of the time?
This, really, is the most damning evidence about what is happening in Tennessee. Munchak went all-in on the running game and the tough offensive line, and Tennessee spent that way all offseason, even buying a beefy backup to Johnson, Shonn Greene, to help with the running load. And when it came time to get one yard to win a football game that would have been a tremendous boost in a mostly depressing year—and might have saved the jobs of the entire coaching staff as well—Munchak played for overtime.
That’s a terrible decision. And when it comes time for new club czar Tommy Smith to pass judgment on Munchak after the season, we’d be naïve to think he’s not going to wonder the same thing I just did.
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The Sportsman of the Year decision.
Apologies to all of you in advance: I am not the one who decides Sportsman of the Year. I did announce it on NBC’s Football Night in America Sunday night, but that was a marriage of convenience because I work for NBC too. Chris Stone, the managing editor of the magazine, and the editors of Sports Illustrated pick the award. Many have asked about the decision to pick Peyton Manning over the many qualified others: David Ortiz/Boston Strong, Mariano Rivera, AJ McCarron, Jimmie Johnson, Phil Mickelson … and I’m sure I am leaving out many.
Let’s look at the competition this year. In baseball, the great Rivera took a victory lap as the best reliever ever, but the Yankees had a rare mediocre season and he didn’t pitch in the kind of big games he usually does; David Ortiz led the Red Sox to another World Series title in a year the Boston region needed a lift, and he was as clutch as players come. Ortiz would have been a great pick. Both are more than solid candidates. Basketball: LeBron was named Sportsman in 2012. Hockey: No one stands out. Racing: Jimmie Johnson has won six NASCAR crowns, including this year’s. Golf: Phil Mickelson won the Scottish and British opens, and almost the U.S. Open. Tennis: Serena Williams won the French and U.S. Opens, but half a slam is hardly a rarity in tennis circles. Colleges: I could be convinced on Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, who piloted the Tide to a title last January and had a great year again this season.
Some years the choice is a slam dunk. The U.S. Olympic hockey team in 1980, Michael Jordan in 1991 (first NBA championship, NBA MVP), Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games record in 1995, Tom Brady in 2005 after his third Super Bowl title, Michael Phelps in 2008 for his eight Olympic golds. This year the picture is murkier, but I’d go, in order: Manning, Ortiz, Rivera, McCarron, Johnson.
Stone will give his reasoning, because it’s ultimately his call. I like Manning for the award because, at 37 and maybe 85 percent of his former grip and arm strength because of his four neck procedures in 2010 and 2011, he is apace to challenge the two big single-season pro football passing records: touchdowns (50, held by Brady) and yards (5,476, held by Drew Brees). Having one’s best year under the circumstances and with so many young pups with stronger arms and faster legs chasing him is worthy of our praise and respect. And the way he approaches life—this is not Athlete of the Year; it’s Sportsman of the Year—and his job is something admirable. Lee Jenkins wrote about that beautifully.
I was in Denver last month. I asked Manning a year-and-a-half after his free-agency foray, Was there one moment in that process when you said, It’s not going to happen?
“Yeah,” he said, sitting in the Broncos’ cafeteria. “Ashley [his wife] and I actually had those conversations. More than one. Because, you know, you don’t want to embarrass yourself. Because, they’re signing you and people are thinking they’re getting the player they had always seen before. And so, Ashley was the one that was saying, ‘Peyton, you’ve got to try. You’ve got to try.’ With this injury, nothing was happening. Nothing. For weeks. There was no progress. It was so frustrating. And really, I had a peace about it. I had a peace. Because, I had this unbelievable string of health for 20 years—since I was 15 years old as a sophomore in high school. So who was I to complain now that I’m injured? I’ve given it as good a run as I can give it. I’ve got kids now. I had a peace about it. So I didn’t feel like I had to play to get another win or a touchdown. But she’s like, ‘You’ve got to try.’ So I was glad that she pushed me to do it. Once I did it, I was going at it, and then I started seeing a little bit of light there. So, yeah, she was the one who kind of pushed me through it.”
I appreciate the difference of opinion about the award. There usually is one. Manning didn’t win a title this year, and he didn’t win a playoff game, and both of those should be factors in the decision. Factors, not musts. As I said, Stone will give his reasoning today in various venues, but I am bullish on the call for the eighth football person to win Sportsman in this, the 60th year of the award.
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I’ll write some in my Tuesday column about Jamaal Charles and his amazing Sunday in Oakland. But I wondered last night if he had some disappointment in not at least tying the NFL record for touchdowns in a game. He scored his fifth touchdown with 18 minutes to play.
“No, no,” he said. “I’m not upset about that at all. That’s crazy. What a great day I had. There’s no way I can be upset after scoring five touchdowns in a game.”
All is right with the world in Kansas City, and with Charles, over the last two games. He has seven touchdowns and 373 total yards, and he’s thrust himself into the debate for the awards—Offensive Player of the Year and MVP—that players find most prestigious. We’ll look at that in tomorrow’s column.