It may not have matched the scoring flurry of Week 14, but Week 15 was the stuff movies are made of. From an unknown (to his own team) cornerback to a cast-off quarterback both getting redemption, Hollywood might have just gotten a couple of ideas
No, Week 15 didn’t top Week 14, because you don’t top five lead changes in the last three minutes of a game (Baltimore-Minnesota) and a back (LeSean McCoy) running for 100 yards in eight inches of snow in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter at Philadelphia.
But the stories in Week 15 … priceless. You just have to read the one, just six paragraphs south of here, about the man who was awakened in his California apartment a week ago today by the continual buzzing of his cell phone and a text from his agent imploring, “WAKE UP!” or he’d blow the chance of a lifetime: the chance to stare down Tom Brady and make the kind of play he was convinced he would never, ever have a chance to make because, you know, well, life’s not always fair to the undrafted guys who die on the vine on practice squads around the league. Michael Thomas, come on down! And there will be other stories. But here’s what you should know about the NFL pennant race with 33 games left in the regular season:
Five of the top six playoff seeds in the league lost over the weekend—by an average of 10 points. Anyone want to win the AFC? The Broncos ceded top seed in the AFC to New England by losing Thursday night. The Patriots gave it right back by losing Sunday afternoon and plummeting down to the third seed. The Bengals then lost Sunday night, going from second to third. End result: Nothing happened at the top of the AFC race. Absolutely nothing.
A lot happened in the NFC. Seattle looked like the ’76 Steelers shutting out the ’76 Bucs in the 23-0 whipping of the Giants, who were stunningly non-competitive. And three divisions got very interesting:
NFC North: Three teams separated by a half-game: Chicago (8-6), Detroit (7-6), Green Bay (7-6-1). The Packers’ win in Dallas, which, as I’ll explain in a few moments, had the victorious quarterback still emotional when he landed back in Wisconsin early this morning, may end up totally retooling the division. The Pack had been left for dead at 6-6-1, with Matt Flynn playing for a bitterly disappointed Aaron Rodgers, who wanted to start in Dallas but was overruled by the team doc. But the Packers found a bizarre way, thanks to Tony Romo’s generosity, to stay alive. If Green Bay wins out (Pittsburgh at home, at Chicago) and Detroit loses just one of its last three (Baltimore tonight, Giants next week, at Minnesota to close), Green Bay wins the division … and Chicago and Detroit wouldn’t even have a chance to be wild cards.
NFC South: The Saints have bristled against the they-stink-on-the-road label, but let’s face it: They stink on the road. They were crushed by the weirdo Rams in the Ed Jones Dome, and now they face an uphill battle to win the NFC South. Carolina wins the division by winning out (Saints at home, then at Atlanta), and the Saints, as the fifth or sixth playoff seed, could have a ridiculous path to a second world title in the Brees era: at a team like Philly or Detroit in a wild card game, at Carolina in a divisional game and at Seattle for the conference championship … all for the right to play a potentially sleety outdoor Super Bowl in New Jersey, when the Saints have lost four of their last five road games. Pardon the good people of Louisiana if they aren’t catching playoff fever this morning.
NFC West: Seattle looks like a lock for home field. Now the question is: Can surprisingly 9-5 Arizona reach the playoffs by winning two brutal games: at Seattle, San Francisco at home? It’s amazing that the Cards are in it at all, with the pace the Niners and Panthers have been setting. The good news for Arizona: Any team that’s 6-1 in a seven-game stretch cannot be ignored. The bad news: The Cards lost their last game at Seattle 58-0.
* * *
Miami snapped the schneid against the Pats. A guy some Dolphins don’t know was key.
Last Monday morning, San Francisco practice squad safety Michael Thomas was sleeping in on a victory Monday for the Niners. A day off, other than getting a lift and a workout in at some point during the day. At 10:20 a.m., late for Thomas, he finally paid attention to the vibrating phone and sat up. He’d missed four calls from his agent, Christina Phillips, and a text that said, “WAKE UP! There’s a team that wants you. If you don’t wake up soon they’re going to move on.” Thomas called, and the team was Miami. There was no time to think. Miami was offering a spot on the 53-man roster, the Holy Grail for practice squad players, and seeing that Thomas had spent all 22 game weeks last year and all 14 weeks so far this year on the San Francisco practice squad, he figured he’d better grab an active-roster spot. There was a flight at 2:30 from San Francisco to Miami, and he had to be on it. He made it, not even bothering to close down his Bay Area apartment. “No time,” he said. “I was just like, ‘Holy crap! I gotta go!’ ”
Thomas began to get schooled Tuesday by Dolphins assistant defensive backs coach Blue Adams, but all week he got the sense that the more immediate focus would be on playing special teams against the Patriots Sunday. “I was going to start on the punt-return team, I knew that,” Thomas said Sunday afternoon from the Miami locker room. He took no defensive snaps all week.
The night before the game, Thomas heard about its importance: Miami hadn’t beaten New England in the last seven tries. If the Dolphins wanted to have a good shot at being a wild card team, this game was the big one. So on Sunday, Thomas went in and played his part, running down on two special teams units, making a tackle on one punt play. But by the fourth quarter, corners Nolan Carroll and Brent Grimes were down. Thomas is a safety. He played the position at Stanford and in practice for the Niners. But right now, in the last five minutes, Miami didn’t need a safety. The Dolphins had to have a corner.
“You want your opportunity?” Adams said. “It’s time.”
“I’m not gonna lie,” Thomas said by phone from the locker room Sunday afternoon, when it was over. “I was pretty emotional. I was going out there knowing Tom Brady was coming after me.”
On the first snap of the last New England series, Brady found Thomas. Brady threw to Danny Amendola for 11. On the second snap, he found Thomas. Brady threw to Shane Vereen for two. “I was out there, getting help from [safety] Reshad Jones,” said Thomas. “He’d basically tell me what to do on most plays, like where to go and who to cover.”
Brady got to the Miami 19, with 27 seconds left. First down. The defense broke the huddle and saw the spread New England formation. Jones nodded over to Amendola, split right. “You got no help,” Jones said to Thomas.
No help. A safety playing cornerback in his first NFL game, in his first NFL quarter, against Tom Brady, in single coverage against one of Brady’s favorite targets. Thomas ran with Amendola.
“Then there it was,” Thomas said. “Tom Brady throwing at me.”
The ball was over Thomas’ head, bound for Amendola’s hands. All Thomas could think of was the lesson he’d learned as a defensive back long ago. Play through his hands. As a trailer on the play, Thomas knew to do everything he could to disrupt the ball in Amendola’s hands, and he did. Thomas knocked the ball away. No touchdown. Huge play.
Three plays later. Fourth-and-5 from the 14. Likely the last chance for Brady. This time Thomas would be in the slot, determined not to let a Patriots receiver get behind him with any cushion. Again Brady threw at Thomas, for Austin Collie, with another Dolphin also in coverage. The ball never got to Collie. Thomas jumped and picked it off.
The players he barely knew now were jumping on him, slapping him, celebrating. “Mama, I did it! I did it!” Thomas yelled over and over, but no one could hear him. No one could hear anything, because the stadium was so loud. And after the game, he cried. In Joe Philbin’s post-game press conference, the coach seemed not to remember the name of the hero who broke up one touchdown pass in the end zone and then intercepted another. “We had a player in there that I think got into the building on Tuesday,” Philbin said. That just added to the lore.
“I am overwhelmed,” said Thomas. “It is so much to realize, how my life has changed and how this happened—Tom Brady throwing at me, and I answered the call. The only thing I can say is I am blessed.”
Next time you hear some coach say, “It takes all 53 to win,” think of Michael Thomas. Imagine if he’d slept a couple more hours last Monday. Maybe Miami would be on an eight-game losing streak to New England right now instead of a one-game winning streak.