Christmas isn’t for two days, but Sunday saw three major gifts given across the league—a likely division title and thrilling comeback for Carolina, a record for Peyton Manning and a landmark win for Bruce Arians and the Cardinals
So it’s the final football game at Candlestick Park tonight, Falcons at Niners, and I am strongly recommending my Factoid of the Week, which is about the Beatles, and Candlestick and Cincinnati and St. Louis. I know it’s not altogether football, but it’s a stunner. You’ll find it on page 4 of the column. Anyway, this from 49ers CEO Jed York: “You know, it’s not the most beautiful place. We know that. But the history there is so great. Willie Mays and Joe Montana and Jerry Rice played there. The Raiders, I think, played a year there. [True: 1961.] The Beatles played there. The Pope had a mass there. So many people have such great memories of the place.” Then a pause. “We have to get people to realize they can’t rip out the seats and take them home Monday night. Because there’s still a chance, a slight chance, we could host the NFC Championship Game. We need Candlestick to stay intact after the game.” I told him I’d pass along the message. So seat vandals: Be forewarned. You can’t have take-home souvenirs Monday night.
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Before we start on the three big events of the weekend (by my estimation: Panthers slay the Saints, Peyton Manning makes history, Arizona shocks the world), let’s talk about My Favorite Tiebreaker. That would be for the final playoff spot in the AFC.
For a moment, let’s say in Week 17 we have the following four results: Jets over Miami, Cincinnati (which has but a vague hope of getting a bye) beats Baltimore, Kansas City over San Diego, and Pittsburgh over Cleveland. That would create this logjam for the sixth seed:
|New York Jets||8-8|
In a five-way playoff tie, you first break ties within divisions. The Jets would eliminate Miami by virtue of a better division record (3-3 to 2-4). Pittsburgh eliminates Baltimore by having a better division record (4-2 to 3-3). That narrows it to Pittsburgh, San Diego and the Jets.
We go to conference-games tiebreaker. Pittsburgh would be 6-6. San Diego and the Jets would be 5-7. That’s it. And Pittsburgh would make it … after being 2-6 at the midway point, losing to Minnesota in London and Oakland in the Black Hole, and giving up 55 points to the wounded Patriots. Crazy league.
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Cam, Kuechly, Carolina climb Mount Payton
Time was drawing short for Cam Newton to justify why he’d been the first pick in the 2011 draft, and why the Carolina Panthers made him the franchise cornerstone 32 months ago. In the last 20 minutes of the NFC South title game Sunday in Charlotte, he’d gone three-and-out four straight times. Four series with the division on the line, 16 yards. Playing at home. Losing, 13-10, the only touchdown coming on a 43-yard run by DeAngelo Williams. Sitting there at NBC, I’d seen enough. I tweeted: “Has Cam Newton made a play today? One?” Then: “Carolina drafted Newton first overall for games like this, and he’s failing them miserably today.”
Which he was—until the final minute happened. Handcuffed to 157 yards over the first 59 minutes, the Panthers got three clutch completions from Newton, the last a 14-yard touchdown throw on which street free-agent Domenik Hixon made a good diving catch. One of the marks of great quarterbacks is playing big when it counts, and Newton’s 65-yard, 32-second, no-timeouts drive to all but win the division (the Saints need to beat the Bucs and have the Panthers lose to the Falcons in Week 17) was as big as it gets, and on this day, it showed that the Panthers’ faith in Newton in 2011 was well-placed.
“It’s kind of frustrating when you don’t put up the performance that you want to,” Newton said afterward. “But this was a big team win. We got the job done.”
Good for Newton, who has morphed from a quarterback too reliant on his running ability to a good all-around quarterback who can make the biggest plays when it counts the most. On Sunday he got a ton of help from a defense that found the Saints’ Achilles heel—first-time starter Terron Armstead at left tackle, beating him for three sacks and nearly a fourth—and pounded Drew Brees for six sacks. No linebacker combination has played a better game in the NFL this year than Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis (38 tackles, two timely interceptions—Davis’s a ridiculously athletic one).
“Luke Kuechly, with 24 tackles,” said Newton. “That’s unheard of.”
If Kuechly’s the game’s most instinctive linebacker, Davis is close. One of the amazing and least-celebrated stories in football is Davis’s coming back from ACL tears in the same knee three years in a row; now he’s playing at a clear Pro Bowl level. “Thomas is an incredible player,” Kuechly said. “A couple of times in the game, we just looked at each other and we didn’t have to say anything; we knew exactly what the other was going to do on that play.
“What is so great about this game is all three phases worked. We got the big touchdown drive from Cam at the end. It’s what he’s done all year when it counted—the San Francisco game, the Miami game, the New England game. We got a great game in the kicking game. Our punter [Brad Nortman] pinned them back [twice inside the 5-yard line] and helped control the game. And I thought we played pretty well on defense.”
Pretty well. What’s better than a 24-tackle game? Kuechly said he’d never had 24 tackles before. I wonder: Who has?
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Peyton Manning thinks his records are temporary.
They probably are. Manning threw his 51st touchdown pass of the season with 4:34 left in the fourth quarter in a 37-13 rout of Houston Sunday, breaking Tom Brady’s six-year-old record. If he throws for 266 yards next week at Oakland (he’s been held under that total once in 15 games this year, in Week 12 against the Patriots), he’ll break Drew Brees’s two-year-old record for passing yards in a year. Manning, as it is, is the first player in the 94-year history of the league to exceed 50 touchdown passes and 5,000 passing yards in the same season.
Now about that record-breaker …
The Broncos found the weak link, and his name was D.J. Swearinger.
Offensive coordinator Adam Gase sent in the play, with first down at the Houston 25. This would be the last series of the game the Broncos would try to score, and Gase thought of a smart one. Five receivers. Four split wide to the left—Andre Caldwell, Montee Ball, Jacob Tamme, Eric Decker—straight across outside the left tackle, and one receiver to the right, tight end Julius Thomas.
“Adam and his creativity,” Manning told me after the game from Houston. “When he sent that play in, I smiled.”
No fooling around on the snap; all five running for the end zone. “The defense has to figure out who to cover with who,” Manning said, “and not everyone can have a corner or safety on them. So Julius gets a linebacker [Darryl Sharpton] and, you know, that’s not really fair, a linebacker on somebody as athletic and fast as Julius. They had a single safety …”
Swearinger was playing centerfield on the fateful throw. Peyton Manning has made a living of freezing safeties for a second with his eyes, and he did it with Swearinger this time.
“I held the safety for a second and let it got for Julius,” he said. Thomas had beaten Sharpton by a step and a half, and the rainbow was perfect, right in Thomas’ hands.
Thomas wasn’t too worried about the ball. “Knowing Julius,” Manning said, “I wouldn’t have been surprised if he traded it with a cute girl for her phone number.” In fact, he dropped it on the sidelines, and Decker scurried over to capture it, and gave it to a Broncos’ equipment guy, telling him to put it away.
“I will enjoy it while it lasts,” the 37-year-old Manning said. “I’m such a fan of the game, a student of the history of the game. So obviously this is a big thing for me. But personally, I feel all these passing records are going to fall. [Tom] Brady will probably break this next year. And you look at the colleges spreading the field and throwing it all over the place, and you see that style being played in the NFL now, and you’re going to see numbers like this happen a lot.
“What I think I amazing is Dan Marino throwing 48 back in ’84. That record lasted for 20 years. That’s amazing to me.
“For me, it’s hard to take much time to think about it now, but I did take a moment on the field, when everybody was congratulating me and I was thanking them right back for making this new transition so great. I told them, and I’m serious, how important they all have been in making this happen. And I thought for a second about what’s happened—how no doctor two years ago could give me any guarantee about anything. It really is a rewarding thing.”
Manning, being the history guy he is, will give the ball to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For now.
“When someone breaks the record,” he said, “I hope they’ll give it back.”