Now that the Panthers are 14-0 and two favorable matchups away from completing a perfect regular season, it's apparently time to renew the debate of whether the Panthers should actually pursue 16-0 or concentrate on keeping the team fresh for a run at the franchise's first Super Bowl victory, even if that means conceding a loss or two down the stretch.
Let me assure you there is no correct answer. Or, if there is, no way of knowing what it is right now.
We know—everyone, even Chris Berman, knows—that the Panthers will have a bye going into the playoffs, though one week won't mean a whole lot if a player sustains a serious injury the next two games. Cam Newton left Sunday's win against the Giants a hero, but he was seriously banged up as well, including a scary moment in which he had to be attended to by trainers after a hit to the torso. It's hard to see Carolina even winning one playoff game if Cam is out.
Earlier this season, while discussing the then-undefeated Patriots, Rodney Harrison reflected on the 2007 Pats team that ended up 18-1, saying that team should have lost earlier in the season in order to alleviate the pressure of trying to go unbeaten. Had you asked Harrison at the time if he wanted to take a loss, it seems pretty unlikely he would have responded the same way. It's not that players struggle to stay motivated if they're not playing every week. They don't forget how to do their jobs or forget to care about doing them. But a week or two off disrupts the that routine a team establishes over a long season, and that sort of thing is essential for a team surviving the multi-month ordeal that is a NFL season.
And that's the risk. Teams can get out of sync quickly when they stop going full-bore for an extended period. There are teams that have rested starters and finished the run to a Super Bowl, though there are just as many instances when a team's starters return after several weeks off and are not quite themselves; in some cases, teams have come out so tight that they wind up getting upset in the playoffs by an inferior team that had been fighting for its life for several weeks.
Wanting the perfect season is understandable, although it carries some serious and obvious risks. Choosing to rest starters guarantees that they will be there for the playoffs, although it may also cost them a fluidity of play that could make them vulnerable to an upset. Naturally, whichever route Carolina takes will be intensely scrutinized and brutally criticized if it doesn't result in a title. None of us know which is the "right" call, which seems like a thing worth acknowledging now, before we start pretending that we always did. Of course, none of us know whether the Panthers are fated to go all the way, regardless of what they do the final two weeks of the season. Also Carolina almost duffed away a 28-point lead to the Giants on Sunday, speaking of which…
Odell Beckham Gettin' Suspanndded
There was a lot of ugliness in that Panthers-Giants game between Josh Norman and Odell Beckham. Both players are easy All-Pro picks, but both acted like total chippy maniacs all game. Each engaged in roughness after the play, although the most egregious move of the day belonged to Beckham, who launched a blindside spear into Norman's helmet. Already the rumblings of NFL insiders suggest Beckham is likely to be hit with a suspension. He deserves one, as does the Steelers' center Cody Wallace for his wild flying headbutt against the Broncos' David Bruton, who was somehow unhurt.
The officials certainly deserve a share of the blame for how bad things got between Beckham and Norman for not policing the chippiness early in the game. Some are more honest than others in their desire to see football as a bloodsport.
When The Grit Chips Are Down, The Tough Lose To Brandon Weeden
Two weeks ago, Chuck Pagano gave each player a poker chip with 'GRIT' inscribed on it. Said his team was 'all in.' Colts have busted out.
— Zak Keefer (@zkeefer)December 20, 2015
Houston won in Indianapolis on Sunday, for the first time in 14 tries. That's a lot of being oppressed by Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. But no more. The Texans finally seized on a down season by the Colts and got their win in Indy, however brutally ugly it was. Congratulations to Brandon Weeden, too, on an absolutely acceptable performance in relief of the injured T.J. Yates. Houston's in first place in the AFC South, by the way.
Matt Cassel's Achievement In Bad Quarterbacking May Never Be Matched
On Saturday night, the Cowboys gave The Matt Cassel Experience one more go against the Jets. For their foolishness, Dallas was rewarded with a play in which Cassell threw an interception while also being penalized for intentional grounding. He couldn't even throw the ball out of bounds right.
Which, not to belabor it, is fantastic. It is tough to come up with a more comically awful moment for a quarterback. Mark Sanchez's legendary buttfumble is close, but for sheer ineptitude, it doesn't quite hold up, and it loses points for not being a pass attempt. It would take a quarterback somehow throwing a pick-six on a stop-the-clock spike to eclipse this moment of Cassellian anti-excellence. Cassell has two weeks left in which to make this dream a reality.
Colton Schmidt Is A Hero To The Downtrodden
The Bills punter inadvertently hit a 17-yard grounder yesterday. All in all, a great week for uproarious bloopers that allow dinguses like me to smugly chuckle at far more talented professional athletes.
Patrick Peterson Needs To Be More Visible On The Labor Front Against Santa
The cornerback for the newly crowd NFC West champion Cardinals lost a weekly practice challenge with his teammates and had to dress as an elf for the flight to Philly. Speaking of which, I never want to know what Elf on a Shelf is and you can't make me look it up.
An Update On How Many Fucks The Ravens Are Giving These Days
As if starting Jimmy Clausen and complementing their purple jerseys with mustard-colored pants weren't enough indications that Baltimore is done dispensing fucks in 2015, the Ravens decided to fake a punt from their own 17. It did not go well, as so much did not in Sunday's loss to the Chiefs. The exception was a Hail Mary touchdown at the end of the first half that only worked because Chiefs defenders gave Clausen too much credit for how far he could throw the ball.
Copyright Lawyers Like That
Washington won easily against Buffalo and took sole possession of first place in the NFC East, meaning D.C. fans are back to losing their minds and believing a Super Bowl run is a possible outcome. It also means people are still referencing Kirk Cousins yelling YOU LIKE THAT at a camera. It's everywhere at games and Cousins spoke of fans yelling it at him as he had some celebratory Shake Shack after the game. I can't blame Cousins for soaking it in, but everyone else doing this is bad. Please stop saying this.
Anyway, as with all sports catch phrases, a trademark is being taken out on the phrase. I envision this fad lasting forever, like Tebowing.
Two Teams Join The Illustrious Four-Quarterback Club
This weekend, the Cowboys and Texans each used their fourth different quarterback this season. For Dallas, it was the first time they've used four since 2001. Ooh, equaling Dave Campo era achievements. That's… that's really bad. The Cowboys had Ryan Leaf in 2001, if you'd like an idea of how bad that was. (He was not objectively the worst of a four-man crew that included Quincy Carter, Anthony Wright, and Clint Stoerner, if you'd like an idea of how bad that team was.)
NB: the aforementioned Brandon Weeden has played for both the Cowboys and Texans this season. If you don't see the beauty in that, I don't understand you as a football fan.
FYI Important NFL History Being Made
The Panthers are the fourth team in NFL history
— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer)December 20, 2015
Finally. Four. The NFL is king.
Fan of the Week
Highlighting any intersection of simians and football is very on-brand for me, so you'll have to excuse me if you think there is a more notable NFL fan this week than Santa sitting outside the Vikings game upon his giant gorilla throne. Frankly, the real Santa could take some notes from this dude. If nothing else, take a Christmas gorilla along for protection. The odds say someone is eventually going to be crazy enough to try to fuck with Santa. America is a big country, and has a lot of problems.
Sorry, Giants fans fighting in a bathroom stall. Just not your week. You'll be back, I'm sure.
Five Winners Who Covered Their Bloodline in Glory
1. Cam Newton passed for five touchdowns and 340 yards. Rushed for 100 yards. Led a game-winning drive after the Giants erased a 28-point lead. Cam has 13 touchdown passes the last three weeks and two game-winning drives, only further solidifying his case for league MVP.
2. Teddy Bridgewater threw for four tuddies of his own and had one of the most accurate outings in franchise history, going 17-for-20 while Adrian Peterson was sidelined for a significant portion of the game. It's worth noting that two of the three incompletions were drops. Bridgewater gets slapped with the game manager label, but he is really coming into his own in recent weeks.
3. Aaron Donald, along with Todd Gurley, is among the few bright spots in yet another middling season under Jeff Fisher in St. Louis. Donald had six pressures in the Thursday night win over Tampa, during which the teams looked like ketchup and mustard, in case you missed every joke told on social media about the game.
4. With apologies to Danny Woodhead's four-touchdown day, Melvin Ingram had the most impressive performance for the Chargers on Sunday. The linebacker was in the backfield all day, notching two sacks and forcing a fumble in the victory over Miami.
5. Antonio Brown posting the first score allowed by Broncos cornerback Chris Harris in two years is notable enough. Overall, Brown went off for two scores and 189 yards, 164 of which came against Harris, who had yet to allow more than 100 in a game in his career.
Five Losers Bathing in the Hard Water of Infinite Shame
1. The Colts. Automatic loserdom status for being defeated by a team giving snaps to Brandon Weeden, per Dumb Football policy. He may have been on the winning side, but T.J. Yates still deserves a hard look himself for being outplayed by Weeden.
2. Vernon Davis, for the second week in a row, had a drop at a critical point in a Broncos loss. This time, it came on a key third down in the fourth quarter when Denver was trying to retake the lead after squandering a 17-point advantage.
3. Matt Cassel, in what very well might have been his last chance to hilariously screw things up for Dallas, produced his magnum opus. It was a dismal showing that was mercifully curtailed by a benching.
4. The referees in Panthers-Giants. "Let's allow two star players to maul each other the whole game, even after one speared the other in the head, see how it plays out."
5. Eagles tackling, epitomized by Byron Maxwell being carried 18 yards by Arizona tight end Darren Fells. The Maxwell piggyback was the most egregious/amusing, but Philadelphia's tackling was horrendous all of Sunday evening. There were at least five missed tackles before David Johnson broke free for his 47-yard score in the second quarter. A 40-point outing for the Cards is made all the worse by knowing John Brown probably left even more points on the field thanks to a few drops.
As For Tonight…
I'll need extra motivation to watch this one. Giant football coach motivational placard, don't let me down. Sean Payton's beady eyes and stern Zoolander face aren't doing much for his 5-8 team, although I suspect they will be able to inspire me to follow some inconsequential football.
Anyway, potential IRL draft pick order and fantasy football playoffs are at stake tonight as the Lions come into the Superdome to face the Saints. Thanks to a poor two season stretch and instability in the Saints ownership, Payton could very well be available after the season. And hey, the Lions will be needing a head coach soon. Nothing like a good networking session disguised as a football game.
Given how horrid New Orleans' defense has been, viewers are at least likely to be treated to a high-scoring affair. Following a 1-7 start, the Lions flirted with respectability in the four weeks after their bye week, but having their guts ripped out on a last-second Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary touchdown seems to have crushed whatever was left of Detroit's spirit. They lost to the Rams last week, for instance. I guess I could have just written that.