The best thing you could say about Ron Rivera's martinet-like insistence on Cam Newton wearing a tie is that the Carolina Panthers were so bad against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night that the decision to bench his starting quarterback for the first play from scrimmage seems, in retrospect, like a curious embarrassment rather than the difference in a potential upset.
The Panthers needed to execute perfectly to have a chance at an upset, but even if backup QB Derek Anderson hadn't thrown an interception on their first possession, it's difficult to see how the game could have gone any better for Carolina, so outclassed were the Panthers in Seattle on Sunday. And that gets to the point of why dress codes are so pointless to begin with. No amount of rigid professionalism was going to result in anything but the Panthers getting their ass handed to them by the Seahawks.
Benching Cam was Rivera's prerogative as coach, though bear in mind he's also a coach who had no problem with Greg Hardy playing following his initial domestic violence conviction in 2014. Even after Hardy was placed on the commissioner's exempt list later that season, Rivera maintained that Hardy should have been able to play with the team if his appeal was going to be moved until after the season. Maintaining morality and maintaining a sense of order can often be confused, but it's clear Rivera is less concerned with what is right and more concerned with things going according to his design.
Rivera doesn't have clear answers for why his team has declined so dramatically from its Super Bowl season of 2015. Controlling what's transpiring on the field appears increasingly hopeless, so his focus now seems to be strict control of his own players—a desperate attempt to cling to order among the chaos.
Nowhere else is this more apparent than in how Newton has been treated. Last year, the quarterback was given freedom to be exuberant and speak his mind. Even before the 2016 season started, the team had Republican political consultant Frank Luntz meeting with the team to control player messaging. Obviously, Newton's ability to speak freely isn't the difference between a losing season and a near championship one, though it shows the many ways this franchise has operated in fear since nearly claiming the top spot in the sport. For a team supposedly led by a riverboat gambler, that's a precarious place to be.
Eric Berry: One Good Thing
The NFL did its best to manufacture some positive press in Week 13 by allowing players to wear customized cleats promoting their causes or charities for one game only. It's the first season the league has done this, and it was only possible due to the extensive complaints the league received after fining players for trying to deliver any message that isn't 100 percent on the NFL's terms.
And that's a minor positive, if you ignore the NFL calculating that they can give a little ground if it means legitimizing their game day appearance standards the rest of the season.
For an unquestionably great development, look no further than Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry putting on a show in his first NFL appearance before his hometown crowd in Atlanta. Berry returned an interception for a touchdown in the second quarter and handed the ball to his mother in the stands. That alone would have made it a highlight day, but then Berry swung the fortune of the game in the fourth quarter.
In 2015, the NFL allowed defensive two-point scores, changing the previous rule that two-point attempts would be blown dead in the event of a turnover. While there have been defensive two-point scores before Sunday, they all involved blocked extra points that were returned. What we were really waiting on was the pick-two, or an interception returned for two points. Berry insured that Matt Ryan will always have his name in the NFL history books for that first, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
The Falcons scored a touchdown with four and a half minutes left to take a 28-27 lead. Atlanta decided to be aggressive and go for two, figuring with that much time Kansas City likely would be able to cobble together a field-goal drive. What they didn't figure was Berry stepping in front of Ryan's pass and taking it the length of the field to regain the lead for good for Kansas City. Since Atlanta had just scored a touchdown, they were still compelled to kick the ball off. The Chiefs were able to kill the clock by picking up a few first downs, and that was that.
After the game, Berry said that it was his first time home since he came for treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma two years ago. "Last time I came home during the season was to get chemotherapy," he said. "And then this time it was to play the game so I just thankful for the opportunity." He certainly made the most of it.
Marquette King: A Second Good Thing
Oakland Raiders punter Marquette King is fantastic, and good at his job, which makes his joy that much easier to defend when curmudgeons have a problem with it.
As you can hear in the clip above, announcer Dan Fouts expressed Joe Buck-levels of disgust that King did a "Hit Dem Folks" dance with a penalty flag. Yes, such a penalty could conceivably cost the Oakland Raiders, but here some more context is required:
The flag King is dancing with was thrown on the Bills for roughing the kicker, giving the Raiders a first down in a game they were leading 38-24 with 2:27 left in the fourth quarter. The 15-yard penalty assessed on King is enforced between downs, meaning it didn't nullify the Raiders' new first down; it was just first-and-25. The game was still basically over and King got to do his dance, and the resulting penalty affected nothing.
Let us have our brief moments of joy where we can find them. Apparently even when they come, we have to fight for them.
Of course, sometimes fellow players are the enemy too.
Jeff Fisher Is Going to Build an Unbeatable Loss Record
Even before the Los Angeles Rams were predictably pantsed in Foxborough, news broke that the team is indeed rewarding Living Argument Against (Or is it For?) Meritocracy Jeff Fisher with a two-year contract extension. Sunday's loss to the New England Patriots puts Fisher one "L" away from the all-time mark of 165 regular-season losses set by Dan Reeves. With games against Atlanta and Seattle over the next two weeks, the likelihood of him at least tying that record is high.
We Fishermaniacs don't want to have to wait until 2017. We want him to hit that loss record this year. Nevertheless, it's comforting to know that even if the Rams have a freakish streak of competence left in them to finish the season, Fisher is assured of setting the mark and then some.
Leave it to Jeff to celebrate the news of his extension by not only getting mercilessly stomped but looking clueless in the process. You know, I used to mock Tom Coughlin for keeping his challenge flag in his sock, but Coughlin hunching over to grab a flag is certainly less goofy than Fisher ferreting through his coat pockets before the next snap goes off.
The Cowboys Clinch and the NFL Doubles Down on Dallas
Not that there was a ton of suspense, but the Dallas Cowboys became the first team to clinch a playoff spot in the 2016 season thanks to Washington's loss in Arizona on Sunday. The NFL reacted by flexing the Cowboys' Week 15 game against the climbing Tampa Bay Buccaneers into the Sunday night slot. That means Dallas will occupy the NFL week's most prized timeslot for the next two weeks, with the Giants-Cowboys game in Week 14 already having been scheduled for Sunday night.
The NFL is dumb in many ways, though not dumb enough to fail to capitalize on an extremely popular team like the Cowboys being at the top of the sport. One sure-fire way to spur lagging prime-time ratings is to load up on matchups featuring America's team, and that's just the NFL is doing.
Meanwhile, Tom Brady became the winningest quarterback in the history of quarterback wins. The Patriots' victory over the Rams marked the 201st of Brady's career. If it weren't for the fact that the NFL and the Patriots just spent a year and a half at war over Deflategate, it would make a lot of sense for the league to be rooting for a Patriots-Cowboys Super Bowl. Some potential taunting press aide, the NFL likely wouldn't have a problem with it happening. Ratings would be huge. Roger Goodell would have to eat some crow, but that's his main function as representative of the owners anyway.
Dallas's most obvious competition in the NFC took a huge blow on Sunday night. Though the Seahawks prevailed easily over the Panthers, Earl Thomas broke his leg and will miss the remainder of the season. The Seahawks have been considerably less dominant this season when missing a member of The Legion of Boom. It was hard enough when a less important player like Kam Chancellor was out of the lineup—losing Thomas will be tough to overcome for a team that already struggles some on the road, and almost certainly will have to play in Dallas if the teams meet in the postseason.
The Dos and Don'ts of Snow Angels
The NFL season has blessedly reached the point where snow games are possible. Snow lends beauty to what can otherwise be a gruesome sport while providing an additional strategic challenge.
We were graced with two snow games on Sunday, both of which featured players celebrating by making snow angels. Because it's the San Francisco 49ers, their version was celebrating a touchdown that didn't end up counting, and they were flagged for it. The Green Bay Packers' Randall Cobb also did a snow angel in the game against Houston, except his touchdown counted, and he wasn't flagged.
No, in this case, it isn't maddeningly inconsistent enforcement by the officials. It's the other thing that's just as likely in the NFL: correct enforcement of a dumb rule. Cobb was already on the ground when he began his angel, whereas San Francisco's Dontae Johnson was not. Per NFL rules, it's illegal to go to the ground as part of a celebration, so be sure to refrain from snow angels unless you already find yourself knocked onto the ground while scoring a touchdown. Would it be great if the NFL made a special exemption for snow? Sure, but that would mean the league sees weather conditions as more powerful than its own puffed-up sense of decorum, and that will never happen.
Fan of the Week
Impersonating a head coach like Andy Reid is an amateur move. I've seen, like, close to a half-dozen different Reid doppelgangers out there. Only the truly obsessive bother to dress up like assistant coaches. So kudos to this Patriots fan for styling himself as defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who manages to have a uniquely gruff look—impressive given the options on a Bill Belichick staff.
Should you be in need of profane celeb fandom, there's always Pittsburgh Steelers fan Snoop Dogg caroling the New York Giants to the tune of "Deez nuts roasted on an open mouth." We'll just have to wait and see whether that one goes down as an enduring holiday classic.
Five Winners Who Covered Their Bloodline in Glory
1. Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs. With a pick-six and the first-ever pick-two, the latter being the decisive score in the game, it was a tremendous day for a star who's had to overcome more than most in recent years and who was playing for the first time in front of his hometown crowd.
2. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals. Washington was driving near midfield with a 13-10 lead midway through the third quarter when Campbell broke through the line and stripped Kirk Cousins. Arizona recovered, and got in the end zone three plays later to take the lead. He also batted down a pass and had four hurries.
3. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills. While it might have been in a losing effort, it's hard to overlook 191 total yards, including 130 rushing on 17 carries. Buffalo had good enough run blocking to average more than seven yards per carry against the Raiders, which is the kind of stat that should make one wonder how they managed to lose. As always, the Bills find a way.
4. Matt Stafford, Detroit Lions. In a season where the expectation was that he would wilt without Calvin Johnson, Stafford has continued to thrive under Jim Bob Cooter. Cooterball isn't just a fun thing to say, it's a system that works. The Lions were without starting wideout Marvin Jones against the New Orleans Saints, so Stafford relied on the other one: Golden Tate totaled 145 receiving yards on the game, including a 66-yard score in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
5. Lardarius Webb, Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore's defense did a fine job of shutting down the Miami Dolphins, and Webb's athletic interception of Ryan Tannehill early in the second quarter really let them know it was going to be a long day. That Joe Flacco returned the favor on the next play mattered little, as the Dolphins failed to capitalize. Baltimore's 14-0 lead held, and a rout was soon on with another ensuing touchdown drive.
Five Losers Bathing in the Hard Water of Infinite Shame
1. Blake Bortles. Another pick-six on Sunday in a loss to the Broncos means the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback now has more interceptions returned for touchdowns in his career (11) than victories (10). Quarterback wins might be a deeply flawed stat, but in this case, it's safe to assume Bortles has had a hand in the fact that the Jags have been so bad with him as quarterback.
2. Ryan Tannehill. It has been the Miami Dolphins' M.O. in recent years to lay an egg as soon as the team flirts with a playoff bid. Miami had been even with Denver for the last AFC Wild Card spot, but then were decimated in Baltimore on Sunday, as Tannehill was intercepted three times and didn't complete a pass of 20 yards or more all game.The best defense they could muster were complaints about the playing surface.
3. Josh Bellamy. Take your pick on who came away from 49ers-Chicago Bears game having done the most to ensure no one ever watches football again. The Niners players celebrating a touchdown that didn't count? Colin Kaepernick? All worthy, sure, but I'll go with the Bears receiver who twice on Sunday—and seemingly always—drops wide-open passes.
4. Erick Flowers. The Giants left tackle gave up nearly double the amount of pressures as the rest of New York's offensive line, as he was menaced by the 38-year-old James Harrison. Flowers gave up a sack and five pressures to Harrison, and committed holding in the end zone, giving the Steelers the first score of the game with a first-quarter safety.
5. The Rams offense. Jared Goff had an awful game, though it's unfair to single out a rookie on the road in New England making his third career start. There was plenty of ineptitude to go around for the Rams offense, which compiled only seven first downs on Sunday, the lowest total for any team all season. Los Angeles was nearly held under 100 yards for the game, until Goff found a wide-open Kenny Britt for a 66-yard gain on a fourth down in garbage time, as New England led 26-3 with a minute and change left. That pushed the Rams yardage to a still-paltry 162 for the day, and also allowed them to get to double-digit points, enough to trick casual fans into thinking they were just kind of bad instead of noteworthy bad.
As for Tonight...
Remember the New York Jets kid spotted with a beer bottle in his popcorn bucket during a late-season Monday night game two years back? ESPN should run a 30 for 30 on him instead of this game. Just my opinion.
If it weren't for the AFC South being its usual disaster self, there might not be much at stake in this battle of losing teams. However, thanks to Houston losing on Sunday in Green Bay, an Indianapolis win creates a three-way tie at 6-6 atop the NFL's perennial punchline division. So there's something.
Andrew Luck is back in the lineup after missing the Colts' Thanksgiving loss due to a concussion suffered in Week 11. That the Jets are continuing to counter with Ryan Fitzpatrick, despite essentially being out of playoff contention, and the fact that Fitz has an icy relationship with the front office, suggests a lack of interest in developing the young quarterback talent available in either Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg. Given that the Jets overpaid for another year of Fitz, perhaps they just want to get their money's worth playing out the string. Or they're of the opinion that what the nation craves right now is a battle of beardy quarterbacks from good schools in prime time. Interpreting the Jets' motives can lead to madness, so unless Fitzgerald decides against wearing a tie, he looks like the starter for New York.
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