Movie-Script Endings

December 16, 2013 by Peter King

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.

“I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty emotional. I was going out there knowing Tom Brady was coming after me.”

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.”

Michael Thomas' breakup of a would-be Danny Amendola game-winning touchdown was the prelude to Thomas' interception. (J Pat Carter/AP)
Michael Thomas’s breakup of a would-be Danny Amendola game-winning touchdown was the prelude to his game-clinching interception. (J Pat Carter/AP)

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.

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?

* * *

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.”

“It’s all worth it now. This is the best day I’ve had in the NFL … and if you have to go through some tough times to get there, well, that’s the way it goes.”

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.

(Tim Sharp/AP)
(Tim Sharp/AP)

“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.”

* * *

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.

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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.

* * *

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.

peyton-manning-360Let’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.

* * *

Sneak preview.

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.

Fine Fifteen

1. Seattle (12-2). Whipped the Giants in a humiliating way. Next time the Seahawks get on a plane could be for the same road trip they just made this weekend—to Newark, but this time for the Super Bowl, six weeks from today. Two regular season games left in the Land of Noise, both early Sunday afternoon Pacific Time starts: Arizona next week, St. Louis in Week 17. Looks to me like the ’Hawks will glide comfortably into home-field through the NFC playoffs.

MASSIVE LINE OF DEMARCATION

2. San Francisco (10-4). Colin Kaepernick’s last four games: seven touchdowns, one interception, 104.6 rating, 29 carries, 111 yards … and totally in control.

3. Denver (11-3). Willing to think it was just an off-night against a foe who knows the Broncos so very well, and a coach who knows Peyton Manning so very well. But what I didn’t like was Denver’s inability to get a big stop, and Manning’s plodding last drive. The best offense in football has to be better than that, even without Wes Welker.

4. Carolina (10-4). What an amazing story: If Carolina beats the Saints at home in Week 16 and the Falcons on the road in Week 17, the Panthers win the NFC South, and New Orleans will be either the fifth or sixth seed.

5.  New Orleans (10-4). Saints at Panthers Sunday. I do not trust the Saints on the road. Who does, other than Mrs. Drew Brees? Last 10 weeks, Saints, away from the Superdome: 1-4 … losses by 3, 6, 27 and 11.

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6. New England (10-4). Five games in a row, every one on the edge of a cliff. Loss at Carolina. Twin 34-31 wins over Denver, Houston. Gift 27-26 win over Cleveland. And Sunday’s game, ending with three failed shots at the end zone, down 24-20 at very loud Miami in the final seconds. So 3-2 in those five, and all it means is the Patriots are in every game, dominating no one.

7. Kansas City (11-3). Two games, 101 points. Even against putrid defenses, that’s pretty good.

8. Cincinnati (9-5). This is the kind of year it’s been in the NFL: I woke up Sunday thinking the Bengals would beat New England and maybe Denver on neutral fields. Then there was an egg-laying of the highest degree in Pittsburgh. So now, you ask me about the Bengals, who have lost at Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh this season, and I’m throwing darts. 

9. Indianapolis (9-5). America’s (Psycho) Team checks in: In the last six, Colts have lost by 30, won by three, lost by 29, won by eight, lost by 14, won by 22. Football is a funny game.

10. Miami (8-6). Ryan Tannehill looks more like the 12-year fix for the Dolphins every Sunday.

11. Arizona (9-5). The nearly fatal onside kick by the Titans could not only have cost the Cardinals a win at Tennessee. It could have cost them a member of the hands team, Larry Fitzgerald, in the mayhem.

12.  Chicago (8-6). Just when we were ready to fry The Decision, and the coach and the quarterback, Jay Cutler goes and leads three fourth-quarter touchdown drives in Cleveland to win 38-31.

13.  Baltimore (7-6). Dennis Pitta on DeAndre Levy. Huge matchup tonight at Ford Field in what’s going to be a very, very good game—and in what kicks off three hellish games for the Ravens in 14 days: at Detroit, New England, at Cincinnati.

14.  Philadelphia (8-6). Some alarming failures on defense, but it’s the same D that allowed 21 or fewer in the previous nine games. Lucky for the Eagles, Dallas was Dallas Sunday.

15. (tie)  San Diego (7-7). Norv Turner’s last 50 games: 25-25. Mike McCoy’s first 14 games: 7-7. The Chargers look better than that, I know. But haven’t we said that six times a year for the last decade?

15.  (tie) Detroit (7-6). No turnovers, and the Lions are sixth or seventh here. The normal turnover-filled game, they’re 18th. You tell me which it is tonight. I have no clue.

The Award Section

Tony Romo (top left) suffered another fourth-quarter letdown, while Jamaal Charles (top right), Michael Thomas (bottom left) and Robert Quinn all had something to smile about Sunday. (Tim Sharp/AP :: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP :: Lynne Sladky/AP :: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
Tony Romo (top left) suffered another fourth-quarter letdown, while Jamaal Charles (top right), Michael Thomas (bottom left) and Robert Quinn all had something to smile about Sunday. (Tim Sharp/AP :: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP :: Lynne Sladky/AP :: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Offensive Players of the Week

Jamaal Charles, running back, Kansas City. When’s the last time a running back caught three touchdown passes in the first 25 minutes of a game? And four for the game? (Okay, Elias: Go scurrying for that one. You know what? Elias will find it. Guaranteed.) Charles caught screens for 49- and 39-yard scores in the first eight minutes, ran for a one-yard TD early in the second, then caught a 16-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith with 5:42 left in the half. Four touchdowns in the first half, three through the air. For the game, Charles had eight rushes for a modest 20 yards, and an intergalactic 195 receiving yards on eight catches. And the four touchdown receptions.

Ryan Tannehill, quarterback, Miami. Looked like more of the same seven-game losing streak to New England when the Pats broke out to a 10-0 lead in South Florida. But Tannehill (25-37, 312 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, 120.6 rating) led Miami on scoring drives of 82, 48, 66 and 60 yards in the last 33 minutes of the game, completing a 14-yard dart to Marcus Thigpen for what proved to be the game-winner. That’s seven straight games with a completion percentage of at least 60 for Tannehill, who outdueled Tom Brady when it mattered most. 

Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Washington. Can’t imagine a player feeling more pressure entering the game Sunday, with the focus of the Robert Griffin III benching and the spotlight on what Washington might be able to get in trade for Cousins after the season. Knowing that his every move would be watched on tape by the Clevelands and Jacksonvilles of the league, Cousins completed 29 of 45 passes for 381 yards, three touchdowns and two picks (94.8 rating), and drove Washington 80 yards in 13 plays for what appeared to be the tying touchdown at the end of the fourth quarter … but coach Mike Shanahan chose to go for the two-point conversion and the win, and Cousins threw incomplete.

Matt Cassel, quarterback, Minnesota. This was the Cassel that Scott Pioli staked his Kansas City reputation on four and half years ago: 26 of 35, 382 yards, two touchdowns, one pick and a six-yard quarterback draw for a touchdown. Maybe this is the quarterback the Vikings have been looking for all along.

Defensive Players of the Week

Robert Quinn, defensive end, St. Louis. Who in their right mind had the Saints scoring three points in the first 35 minutes of a game they had to have … and in a dome no less? St. Louis pestered Drew Brees all day, and Quinn had much to do with that, with two sacks (including a forced fumble), a tackle for loss and consistent pressure. For the year, Quinn has an NFC-leading 15 sacks.

Michael Thomas, cornerback, Miami. They write TV pilots about the week Thomas just had (see the lead to this column), and people watch them. Thomas was yanked off the 49ers’ practice squad on Monday afternoon, flew cross-country and arrived in Miami at midnight, learned bits of the defense during the week, was activated for the huge game against New England to play special teams, and was inserted in the regular defense when Brent Grimes was hurt in the fourth quarter. He broke up what looked to be a winning touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Danny Amendola on the last series, and, on the final play for the game, picked off Brady in the end zone to clinch the 24-20 Miami victory. “I am numb,” he told me. “I cannot believe this happened.”

Zack Bowman, cornerback, Chicago. In a game the Bears had to have, they got awful quarterbacking from Jay Cutler in his return to the starting lineup and needed two very big plays from Bowman to escape Cleveland with a win. With Jason Campbell driving the Browns in a 3-3 game in the first half, Bowman picked his first pass off at the Bears’ 40. And on the second play of the second half, Campbell special-delivered a throw to Bowman, who picked it off and ran 43 yards for the touchdown to give the Bears a 17-10 lead. Chicago won by that same margin, 38-31.

Corey Liuget, defensive tackle, San Diego. His rush through a double-team with less than six minutes to play at Denver, knocking Peyton Manning’s right arm off course, gave San Diego an easy interception and clinched a huge Thursday night upset. Liuget wants attention for his play, and for the play of the Charger defensive front, and he certainly deserves it based on his performance over the past three months.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Kendall Hunter, running back, San Francisco. In a terrific heads-up play, Hunter sprinted downfield on a kickoff with the Niners trying to close out a game at Tampa Bay with a 23-14 lead and fewer than five minutes left. The Bucs tried to execute a reverse, and Hunter was not fooled. He popped Eric Page trying to hand it off, the ball bounced free, and there was Hunter. He grabbed the loose ball and rolled in from two yards out. Ballgame. I just love how alert Hunter was not only in not falling for the reverse, but in following the ball.

Coach of the Week

Joe Philbin, head coach, Miami. Might not just be Coach of the Week. Might be Coach of the Year. Since Jonathan Martin threw his tray of pasta down in the Dolphins cafeteria and stalked off the team, followed soon by the suspension of Richie Incognito, sending the team into mayhem, Miami is 5-2 … including Sunday’s clutch 24-20 win over New England. The two losses have been by a total of seven points (to Tampa Bay and Carolina), and it’s very clear this is a well-grounded team with a mature approach. You’ve got to hand it to Philbin for keeping the team intact at such a fragile time.

Goats of the Week

Tony Romo, quarterback, Dallas. In the annals of blown ends of games in Tony Romo history, this one has to ascend to No. 1. Romo threw one interception with 2:50 to go and the Cowboys nursing a 36-31 lead trying to run out the clock … and a second interception with 1:24 left and the Cowboys trying to come back from a 37-36 deficit. This one was as ugly as they come, and the ramifications could involve jobs. Multiple jobs.

Garrett Hartley, kicker, New Orleans. Down 27-16 in the final seconds, the Saints needed a 26-yard field goal by Hartley, an onside-kick recovery and a touchdown to send the game to overtime. The field goal was the gimme, the lock. But Hartley shanked it left. That’s a mistake you simply cannot make.

Eli Manning, quarterback, New York Giants. Hate to pile on, but another in a long line of brutal performances this season, a five-interception job against Seattle, leaves him with 25 picks for the season … and a mind-boggling 81 in the last 62 games. An embarrassing 23-0 loss to the Seahawks was Sunday’s result in an increasingly horrible 5-9 season.

Quotes of the Week

I
“It’s my fault.”

—Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who took the blame for throwing the interception with 2:50 to play and the Cowboys nursing a lead over Green Bay. It was a play coach Jason Garrett said should have been a running play.

II
“I got the funniest email last night. Did you get it too? Come on, Peter. If you think you’re going to hit me up for $2,500, you’ve got the wrong guy.”

—Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, to The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas, in the Seahawks’ locker room after the 23-0 win over the Giants.

My email account got hacked, and so I guess all the people I’ve emailed pretty much my whole adult life got an email saying that I was in Spain currently, with a cousin who needs $2,500 for emergency kidney surgery, and could they please send it in a hurry.

And I was so counting on Russell Wilson to help.

III
“I doubt that any man can come back from this.”

—Michael Irvin, on the NFL Network pregame show Thursday, on the football future of Robert Griffin III after he was benched for the final three games of the season by Washington coach Mike Shanahan.

Retire now, Robert. Just walk away. You were the second player picked in the draft 20 months ago, and you’re just 23 years old, and you led your team to an unexpected playoff berth last season, but you’ve had a lousy, injury-plagued stretch, and Michael Irvin says you can’t come back after a coach sits you for the final three games of a football season.

Elaine Benes says it best about 19 seconds into this clip:

IV
“A hundred and 66 thousand dollars a week to do nothing.”

—ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio, on the luckiest man in the NFL, Josh Freeman, who is making $2 million for 12 weeks of mostly sitting out games, inactive, with Minnesota. Freeman has played in one game since being signed to great fanfare by the Vikings after he was cut by Tampa Bay. And his average pay per week, as Florio said, is $166,667.

Stat of the Week

Not trying to give you Steelers fans a lump of coal so close to Christmas. But this from The MMQB columnist Andrew Brandt: “I don’t think there’s a team in the last three years that’s mortgaged the future as much as the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

At the NFL’s one-day meeting in Dallas last week, the league projected the 2014 salary at $126.3 million, a rise of just over $3 million from this year’s cap. That’s not going to do the Steelers any favors. As their contracts stand now for 2014—according to the underrated site overthecap.com—the Steelers are set to spend two-thirds of their cap on seven players: Ben Roethlisberger ($18.9 million cap number), LaMarr Woodley ($13.6 million), Ike Taylor ($11.9 million), Lawrence Timmons ($11.8 million), Troy Polamalu ($10.9 million), Heath Miller ($9.5 million) and Antonio Brown ($8.5 million).

Is this alarming, to have seven players take up 67.4 percent of your salary cap? I should say so. I calculated the top-seven cap cost for every team in the league, and the Steelers’ situation is the worst. By the numbers:

Team Record Cap cost of top seven players Percentage of cap Note
Pittsburgh 6-8 $85.1M 67.4% Cutting Ike Taylor would save $7M
Dallas 7-7 $80.6M 63.8% Miles Austin: an $8.3m anchor
St. Louis 6-8 $75.5 59.8% Finnegan not playing like $10M man
Baltimore 7-6 $75.3 59.6% Flacco only $14.8M of the big number
Detroit 7-6 $74.0M 58.6% Brittle Delmas due $6.5M
New Orleans 10-4 $72.7M 57.6% Cutting Will Smith would save $11.6M
Seattle 12-2 $68.8M 54.5% Cutting Cliff Avril would save $7.0M
Houston 2-12 $68.2M 54.0% Combined cap of Schaub/Foster: $23.0M
Arizona 9-5 $67.2M 53.2% Fitzgerald takes up $18.0M
Kansas City 11-3 $65.3M 51.7% Alex Smith due $7.5M, all base salary

Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me

One of the things I learned in my recent foray into officialdom (the three-part series can be found here) was that each week the 119 NFL officials are required to take a test. The test generally consists of 10 questions on paper and five video questions. I was curious about it, and I asked the head linesman on Gene Steratore’s crew, Wayne Mackie, to educate me. So we took out the test and went to question No. 1, “2013 Regular Season Week 10 Test: FG/PAT.”

Here is the exact question:

“A 4-2 on B24. With 0:03 remaining in the 4th quarter, Team A is behind 17-14. They line up for a field-goal attempt from the B31 and the kick is good. At the snap B7 who was on the line of scrimmage pushed B8 into LG A5. Time expired on the play.”

It’s 4th-and-2 o on the opponents’ 24. Team A attempts a field-goal from the 31, and at the snap, one opponent pushed another opponent into the left guard on the line of scrimmage. The kick is good. Tie game, 17-all.

So what is the call, I asked Mackie.

Said Mackie: “B pushes another player into the offensive player. This year, that is a foul. That is a 15-yard foul, a la Bill Belichick in that New England game against the Jets. Two things happen in that play. The field goal was good. So, you have an option, as the offense. You can keep the three points for the field goal, tie the game up as you go into overtime. Or, you can take the penalty for 15 yards since you’re at the 24, you go half the distance to the 12, and it’s a first down, but it’s an extension because time ran out on the play. One untimed down. If you want to try to win the game you can do that, take that chance, because you are closer to the goal line. I don’t know why you would want to do that. If I’m on the 1 or 2, maybe. But the 12? I doubt it. If it happened with 12 minutes left, let’s say, I’ll tell you right now, they’ll take those three points on the board. You’re going 1st-and-10 from the 12.”

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week

I went nowhere this week. Could I have a week off from this item in the column? No? Well then, let’s dig into the vault of good travel notes. How about this one, from July 26, 2010. It’s the note that was responsible for changing the name of this specific part of the column:

The Westin Hotel/Michigan Avenue in Chicago has long been a hotel of choice for me, because of its proximity to everything in such a great city. Last week, on my last travel leg of vacation, it was also the scene of something I never could have expected: an argument that, in 10 seconds, almost escalated into a hotel-lobby brawl.

There are three elevators in the lobby of the Westin, and at rush-hour check-in last Tuesday, two were out of service. So when my wife and I got to the bank of elevators around 6 p.m., there were 15 or so people waiting for the one working lift. We waited two, three, four minutes. Now there were 25 or 30 people waiting. And then a 35ish man wedged in to the left of the crowd waiting for the elevator. He looked at the line of people and looked peeved. We all were, of course. Then the door opened and 10 or 12 people came off the one working elevator. And the 35ish man took three quick steps to the elevator.

“Hey, hey, hey,” I said. “Come on, buddy. That’s not right.”

The guy stopped. He looked at me. Angry. “Don’t tell me what to do,” he snarled. “I wasn’t going on.”

“Yes you were,” I said. “I saw what you were doing. That’s not right.”

He took a couple of steps toward me.

“I’m a Starwood Preferred member,” he said angrily.

Like that made cutting the line okay.

“You’re also an a——,” I said.

I obviously shouldn’t have said that, but he deserved it. Now he walked the final three steps toward me. “You wanna step outside?” Mr. Starwood Preferred said. He bumped my chest hard. “People who use that word are looking for a fight,” Mr. Starwood Preferred said. “People who use that word to me, I go outside with. You wanna go outside?”

Now the elevator was full, and the door closed.

“No, I don’t,” I said.

He was breathing hard on me. “You’re a big talker,” he said, stepping back a step or two.

“And you’re still an a——,” I said. Oh, so clever.

He stepped toward me again. Almost simultaneously, a front-desk gal near the bank of elevators chirped, “I can take a few people up the service elevator!” So my wife sidestepped the guy. I walked toward the door, me staring at Mr. Starwood Preferred the whole way. “— you, ————,” Mr. Starwood Preferred hissed at me.

“Have a nice day,” I said, and boarded the service elevator.

I don’t know exactly why—it’s not testosterone, I don’t think—but I almost wish Mr. Starwood Preferred had taken a swing at me. Even if he’d pummeled me (and he may well have), he’d have known that at least one person out of 30 sniffed out the real idiot in the crowd. Then again, I like my nose unbroken.

Tweets of the Week

I
“I just told my kids time for bed. They are ignoring me like I am the cowboys defense.”

—@dkaplanSBJ, Daniel Kaplan of Sports Business Journal, after the Cowboys gave up 34 points in the second half to Green Bay and lost 37-36.

II
“This is the worst loss I’ve seen and I have been covering the Cowboys since 1997.”

—@clarencehilljr, the longtime Fort Worth Star-Telegram Cowboys beat man, after the Packers came from way back to beat Dallas in Arlington on Sunday.

III
” ‘It’s so unlike Tony Romo to throw an interception at the end of the game.’

—nobody”

—@FrankCaliendo, the professional funnyman.

IV
“It’s Dec. 12 and every one of the 53 players on the #Eagles’ roster is at practice with a helmet on. #sportsscience”

—@GeoffMosherCSN, ComcastSportsNet reporter Geoff Mosher, from Eagles practice on Thursday.

I am starting to believe in all this new health stuff—the drinks, the different practice modes and days—that Chip Kelly brought from Oregon. This good health might be a coincidence. It might not be.

V
“So, Juan Uribe and Nick Saban just inked deals for the same amount per year…”

—@jimabbottum31, former Angel and Yankee left-hander Jim Abbott.

Do the math: Uribe, two years and $15 million with the Dodgers, on Saturday; Saban, an estimated $7 million per year through 2020 with Alabama, on Friday.

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 15:

a. Philip Rivers’ bolo tie.

b. Philip Rivers’ explosive, cheerleader-like enthusiasm on the NFL Network set after the 27-20 upset of the Broncos. Spare me the stuff about “I hate Rivers because he yells at everybody on the field.” How would you not want to play on that guy’s team?

c. Philip Rivers’ early chemistry with Keenan Allen, who is looking more and more like the offensive rookie of the year.

d. Chargers corner Shareece Wright, burned regularly entering Thursday night. He sure was in the right place a lot against Peyton Manning, with seven tackles and two passes defensed.

e. The FOX graphic before the Atlanta-Washington kickoff. “Recent Washington Shutdowns” was the headline, and Stephen Strasburg, the government closure and Robert Griffin III were in three boxes beneath. Loved it.

f. Jay Glazer’s video of the illegal coach on the field in Pittsburgh-Miami. Uh, that’s not supposed to happen. Especially in a game involving the Steelers.

g. The hands of Buffalo safety Aaron Williams, niftily picking off Chad Henne early.

h. Steven Jackson, punishing the defense the way he was supposed to be doing all season. Check out the absolute steam-rolling of Washington’s Josh Wilson.

i. Throw of the Day: Under heavy pressure, Matt Cassel stepped up in the pocket against Philadelphia and launched a ball 45 yards in the air right into the hands of a sprinting Greg Jennings. Touchdown, a 57-yard touchdown.

j. Cassel, first quarter, nine of nine, 163 yards with a touchdown.

k. Textbook legal hit on the quarterback by Sean Weatherspoon, leveling Kirk Cousins a millisecond after releasing the ball.

l. Cousins, with a nice touchdown pass downfield on the run to Fred Davis.

m. Adrian Clayborn, chasing down Colin Kaepernick from behind, for the kind of sack the Bucs drafted him to get.

n. Robert Quinn is playing himself into Defensive Player of the Year contention.

o. Tramon Williams, still a superior corner—even if sometimes he doesn’t play like it.

2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 15:

a. Denver’s cornerback depth. Rookie Kayvon Webster’s gotten his share of burn marks, but now he’s gone for at least a week after thumb surgery.

b. Time of possession for Denver: 21 minutes. At home? The best offense in football went three-and-out three straight series for the first time this season against a previously 6-7 team.

c. Madness of Being a Chargers Fan Dept.: San Diego’s 32-32 in its last 64.

d. Jay Cutler throwing into traffic on the first series of the game at Cleveland. Interception.

e. Come on, Texans. Have a little pride.

f. Compete for the ball, Jordan Cameron, and that wouldn’t have been an interception.

g. John Denney, for snapping a ball into the facemask of holder Brandon Field on what should been a cake Miami field goal by Caleb Sturgis.

h. Catch the ball in the fourth quarter, when the game is big, Greg Little.

i. Giants: First 11 possession, five first downs.

j. Eli Manning, now the Giants’ all-time interceptions leader. Five Sunday.

k. I love Drew Brees, but in the red zone throwing into triple-coverage for Jimmy Graham? I mean, you don’t throw into triple-coverage for Jerry Rice. Terrible decision, and the Rams made him pay.

l. I do not think there was indisputable visual evidence for Walt Coleman to reverse the Tramon Williams interception in Dallas. It was close, and the ball may have moved on the ground. But indisputable? I didn’t see it.

3. I think the Rams can cross off one more positional need off their 2014 draft to-do list: running back. Zac Stacy (133 yards) was tremendous against formerly formidable New Orleans, and he’s just the kind of back Jeff Fisher likes: some speed, but enough power to make people bounce off.

4. I think the maddening thing about what we’re seeing in Pittsburgh is the grace and power of Le’Veon Bell and the deep-threat ability of Antonio Brown … and the fact that it’s almost certainly going to be too little, too late. The Steelers have to go to Green Bay and likely face Aaron Rodgers Sunday in his return to the lineup, and whatever tiny mathematical chance they have to finish 8-8 and in the playoffs would be gone with a loss. But lest anyone think they should blow it up and dump Ben Roethlisberger, think again. My Stat of the Week tells you the Steelers will have to do some major surgery on the roster and cap come March. But this is a contending team with holes, which you can say about 20 to 24 teams in the league right now.

5. I think I’m hearing some crazy things about the quarterback race at the top of the draft. Namely: I know one team that, as of now, thinks it’s no sure thing Teddy Bridgewater will be the top quarterback on its board (and this is a team that could take a quarterback in the first round). Moreover, this team believes Central Florida’s Blake Bortles or Johnny Manziel could be the top quarterback on the board. That’s right. Blake Bortles. We don’t even know if Bortles, a redshirt junior, will return for his fifth season at UCF. He will reportedly make his decision after Central Florida’s Fiesta Bowl game against Baylor.

6. I think these are my thoughts about the tumult in Washington:

a. My friend Ian Rapoport reported on NFL Network that six GMs said they wouldn’t give better than a second-round pick for Kirk Cousins in trade after the season. The time to ask that question isn’t on Dec. 11, when Cousins has been in mothballs for a year. The time to ask the question is after Cousins plays three games. It’ll be apparent then, and only then, if Cousins is worth a first-round pick to some team. If he repeats his performance of Sunday in the last two games, it’s folly to think no team, say, between 20 and 32 with a quarterback need wouldn’t consider a deal. And I said “consider,” not “make.”

b. I continue to think Cleveland, using the late-first-round pick acquired from Indy in the Trent Richardson deal, is a realistic spot for Cousins if he plays very well in the final three games. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner wants more of a standard dropback quarterback than a run-around guy like Johnny Manziel. If the Browns could use their first first-rounder on another need position (wideout, corner) and the pick in the 20s on Cousins, that would give Turner a chance to get a young veteran ready for opening day faster than he could with anyone Cleveland would pick in a May draft four months from opening day.

c. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Washington owner Dan Snyder sniff around Art Briles, to see if he could recreate the Baylor magic Briles and Griffin made. But I can’t see it happening. I get the sense there’s already enough feeling in the Washington locker room that Griffin gets special treatment. Why feed into that more by importing a special coach for him?

d. Not that he’d ask me for advice, but what I’d say to Griffin is: Tell your father not to give interviews with his opinion about the team’s offense, and tell your father you’ll meet him after the game, outside the locker room. I just don’t think the NFL is the place for helicopter parents.

e. For his own good, and for the sake of the won-loss record, Snyder should draw a personal line between himself and the players. Over and over again, coaches are annoyed with some stars getting taken into the sanctuary and some not. It’s just not a good team thing.

f. I’d love to see David Shaw get a shot at RG3. I doubt he’d consider it, because I think the only place the well-satisfied Stanford coach would go in the NFL is an absolutely ideal one, and that’s not Washington right now. Wouldn’t mind Jay or Jon Gruden as the Shanahan heir either.

7. I think this will be the sixth straight season without a repeat rushing champion, unless Adrian Peterson can do something superhuman on his bad foot in the last two weeks. LeSean McCoy has a 122-yard lead over Peterson, and McCoy has games against generous run fronts (Chicago, at Dallas) remaining. Not since LaDainian Tomlinson won consecutive rushing titles in 2006 and ’07 has a man won two straight. Since then: Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew and Peterson have won the titles.

8. I think I say this every year around the middle of December, but the ballot for the Hall of Fame is on my desk (I have been looking at it nearly every day, puzzling over my last three or four spots), and this is such a tough year for the cut from 25 semifinalists to the 15 finalists the committee of 46 will consider in for election on Feb. 1 in New York. I think it’s because there are so many of the so-called marginal men I feel strongly about—Aeneas Williams, Jimmy Johnson, Kevin Greene, Jerome Bettis—and so many of those on the ballot I believe are long overdue.

9. I think, among the many difficult decisions the 46 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters face in winnowing the list for the class of 2014 is the Morten Andersen question, eloquently discussed by voter Len Pasquarelli. Shouldn’t a man who scored in 360 consecutive games (the equivalent of 22.5 seasons) be strongly considered, particularly with a résumé as good as Andersen’s?

10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:

a. Newtown, a year later. Nothing substantive done about gun control in Washington, and at the state level 37 states increasing mental-health budgets in 2013 and five beefing up background checks. Not nearly enough. Overall, a sin.

b. Scott Price with a story we all should read about “What We Lost” in little Jack Pinto.

c. Read that, and then tell me we’ve done the people of Newtown right.

d. Just when you think Martin Brodeur is ready for the pasture, he goes and shuts out a pretty good team (Tampa Bay, 3-0, Saturday). That’s his 124th shutout. That’s 1.55 full seasons of nothing but shutouts.

e. I like some of the things I read from Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on the Shawn Thornton assault of Brooks Orpik last week, so I asked him to weigh in on the future of fighting in hockey. I am anti-fighting. Here is Yohe’s view: “Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik is still having headaches and doesn’t remember what happened on Dec. 7 in Boston. Those who witnessed it will never forget. Orpik, only minutes after delivering a controversial hit that was deemed legal, was stalked by Boston enforcer Shawn Thornton for three consecutive shifts. Thornton continually offered to fight, and Orpik declined. Finally, Thornton slew-footed him to the ice from behind before delivering a barrage of punches that knocked Orpik unconscious for 45 seconds.

“The NFL (eliminating helmet-to-helmet hits) and MLB (collisions at home plate are on the verge of being extinct) have made giant strides to make their respective sports safer. What has hockey done? And really, the bigger question remains, do NHL officials and players want their sport safer? Even after the NHL leveled Thornton with a 15-game suspension, Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma exclaimed that this number was suitable, and both praised Thornton for being ‘an honest hockey player.’ Do honest hockey players commit assault on the ice because an opponent refuses to drop the gloves? Orpik, who is out indefinitely, might have a different take on Thornton’s honesty. Two years ago, I conducted a poll of 15 Penguins, asking if fighting still belonged in the NHL. Fourteen of them—even Sidney Crosby—said fighting remained an integral part of policing the game from dirty hits. The one player who believed the time had come to eliminate fighting was, of all people, Brooks Orpik.”

Talk Back

Have a question or comment for Peter? Email him at talkback@themmqb.com and it might be included in Tuesday’s mailbag.

f. Thanks, Josh.

g. Charles Barkley is fun to listen to.

h. It is very hard to walk by a television with The Big Lebowski on and not just sit there until the end of it. Saturday was one of those times, and if this were the offseason, I would have succumbed.

i. For Tyler Tettleton’s sake, go Bobcats. Beat East Carolina.

j. Coffeenerdness: Ground Central, the East 52nd Street coffee haven in Manhattan I recently praised, now gets more of it: Not only is the espresso heavenly, but also there’s a library-like reading and computing den, very cozy, in back. It’s an oasis of sanity in Midtown. And when Midtown is full of tourists, it’s almost useless to go to Starbucks. At least half the time, they get anything but “grande black coffee” wrong.

k. Beernerdness: Will stock up on a couple of Christmas beers this week. Suggestions?

Who I Like Tonight

Detroit 23, Baltimore 20. Remember a couple of weeks ago, when we were promised a Game of the Year on Monday, New Orleans at Seattle, and it fizzled, 27-7 by halftime? Tonight’s going to be different. Ravens, 7-6, playing for the AFC’s sixth seed with strong competition, at Lions, 7-6, playing for the NFC North title with strong competition. I expect the run games to struggle for both sides, so this could come down to whether Matthew Stafford has enough time to find Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson, and whether Joe Flacco can repeat the success of the last half of the fourth quarter in the weather in Baltimore last week, when the addition of rehabbed tight end Dennis Pitta was the key in the offense’s coming alive enough to beat Minnesota. Key player here: I’ll give you a clue. He entered Week 15 with the NFL lead in interceptions. Give up? Linebacker DeAndre Levy (with six), who will be vital in disrupting what Flacco likes to do in the middle of the field. I like the Fairley/Suh combo platter to make the difference, and Levy to make a couple of big plays, in the cacophonous den of the Lions tonight.

The Adieu Haiku

One simple question
in the Hall of Fame cutdown:
Where is Joe Klecko?

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