Going into this weekend's divisional playoffs, the NFL absolutely was hoping that the Cowboys would come out with a win. Green Bay is a popular team, sure, but it's hardly the ratings draw that the Cowboys were this season. Dallas pretty much saved the NFL's ass in 2016; the story for much of the year had been the league's down ratings, especially in prime time games, when here comes television behemoth Dallas to pick up the slack down the stretch.
It was not meant to be: on Sunday, a last-second field goal by Green Bay's Mason Crosby helped the Packers to a 34-31 win and a ticket to the NFC title game.
I hate Dallas and I'm sad that they're out. Don't get me wrong. I don't care about the NFL's finances, and I don't feel a scintilla of sympathy for Jerry Jones. But while it can be maddening at times, the huge hoopla that surrounds a Dallas team can also be fun. And it helped that this was an exciting Cowboys team to watch, led by two rookies, in quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, who figure to be the among the faces of the sport in the years to come.
And while having the best games is ideal, having the best games infused with a lot of dumb shit to joke about is even better. This is Dumb Football. If you can't find some enjoyment in the absurdity, then why bother? The NFL is certainly not something you should support out of a sense of duty.
Sunday's game didn't disappoint on that end. After the Cowboys got out to a slow start, social media working itself into a lather over whether Tony Romo should come in was delightful, especially because only about 20 percent of it was sincere, and the rest was amused trolling. Dallas eventually regained its senses, however, and wound up giving fans some of the best final minutes in a football game this season. Will that save Prescott from getting the kind of grief Romo got for failing in the postseason? Probably not. This is football, after all.
NFL Can't Define a Catch; How About a Huddle?
Trailing 7-3 midway through the first quarter with the ball at the Green Bay 37, Cowboys receiver Brice Butler was hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for coming into the Dallas huddle and then leaving for the sideline without participating in the play. You can debate about the potential for abuse in that situation, but it's still weird that that's a 15-yard penalty, on par with illegal helmet hits that remind everyone of the barbarity of the sport. Butler said after the game that he had never heard of the penalty and that the Cowboys "had to beat the stripes" in order to beat Green Bay, the implication being that the refs cost Dallas the game. It ended up being a tight contest, so there's greater scrutiny on things like this and some of the contact in pass coverage that was permitted, but ultimately, no, the refs did not cost Dallas the game.
Michael Bennett Is Right, But He Doesn't Have to Be a Dick About It
As for the other NFC divisional playoff: Clearly frustrated in the aftermath of his team's 36-20 loss to Atlanta, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett lashed out at a local reporter who asked about the lack of a pass rush on Matt Ryan during the game.
"We got a lot of pressure," the Seattle Times quotes Bennett saying. "He threw the ball really fast. There was some busted stuff going on so obviously you don't know football. He threw the ball pretty fast. He did his thing. We rushed as good as we could. Don't point and say we didn't do what we needed to do, OK? Don't do that.
"Get out of my face now. Don't tell me I didn't do my job (expletive). OK, exactly. Get the (expletive) out of my face. Like I said, get out of my face. Don't play with me. Don't play with me. I just put my heart on the (expletive) field. Don't (expletive) play with me. Get the (expletive) out of my face then. Try me again, see what happens. I ain't one of these (expletive) out here. Don't try to tell me what I didn't do (expletive)."
It's true that media members, myself included, don't have the full account of why everything happens on a given play, and may still not even after having a chance to review the game. Football's a complex sport. That said, that's why reporters are there to ask players questions: to pass on something resembling an understanding to their readers. Sometimes the questions are inane, which is why Bennett's former teammate Marshawn Lynch never bothered with them. But don't threaten the reporter, and maybe consider that there are other adversities in life besides losing a playoff game.
Civility in Politics: Still a Bad Idea
It's in a politician's best interest not to underestimate the pettiness of sports fans. For example, on Sunday Houston mayor Sylvester Turner wished the Dallas Cowboys the best of luck in their game against the Packers, a day after the Houston Texans were eliminated. The suggestion didn't go over too well with Houstonians who've seen enough Dallas success to last them a lifetime, or at least until their NFL team finally wins something. Lucky for Turner, the Cowboys lost and he can spin it as some sort of elaborate jinx. Remember, 2017 is an election year.
We Won't Need a Water Boy Rule, After All
Early in the fourth quarter on Saturday, Atlanta receiver Justin Hardy caught a pass going to the sideline. After getting both feet down, Hardy went out of bounds and collided with a trainer, who the internet swiftly concluded was a water boy. The ball was dislodged, and the pass was initially ruled incomplete. Thankfully, Hardy was awarded the catch after review, or else every team in the league was about to load up on people to stand on their sideline when the other team has the ball. I would take that job, if I'm being honest with myself. Alas, it's not to be, and if you want a more detailed explanation of why this is a catch (you don't) it's available from VP of officiating Dean Blandino.
Fan of the Week
If you're going to destroy a TV for retweets and likes on Twitter, best to make sure everyone on the house is onboard. From the sound of the hooting in the background, that seems to be the case here. There may be other circumstances to which I'm not privy, but I'm gonna go ahead and say none of that is my problem. I'm just here for the smashy smashy, and this delivers. Best of luck getting that ten grand out of ESPN, though.
Five Winners Who Covered Their Bloodline in Glory
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers. Not only did he make the perfect throw to set up the win—he insisted after the game it wasn't the best of his career—he drew the play, sandlot-style, just before the snap. Perhaps Mike McCarthy doesn't deserve to be dragged kicking and screaming into greatness like this, but it would just be unfair if the Packers actually had a good coach.
2. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons. His day was a contrast to Russell Wilson's in terms of protection. Whereas the Seahawks quarterback was running for his life on most plays, Ryan was left relatively unscathed by the vaunted Seattle defense. He made the most of the time, connecting on 26 of 37 passes for 338 yards and three touchdowns as Atlanta had a turnover-free day. Had Ryan folded immediately in the first postseason game, I could easily see MVP voters using that against him, even after an amazing postseason. Now Ryan is in his second conference championship game, after narrowly losing the first one, following the 2012 season against the 49ers. The Falcons will host Green Bay for the NFC title on Sunday.
3. Dion Lewis, New England Patriots. The Patriots back fumbled twice, marring what would otherwise have been an impressive outing in which he scored three touchdowns—one rushing, one receiving, and one on a kick return. New England is now 15-0 with him in the lineup since 2015 and 13-7 without, in case you believe running back wins is any better of a stat than quarterback wins. What really got Lewis over the hump and into this list was my desire to highlight this self-deprecating tweet from free agent linebacker Emmanuel Acho.
4. Mason Crosby, Green Bay Packers. His 56-yard kick to give Green Bay the lead with two and a half minutes to go was the third longest field goal in postseason history. That would have been impressive enough, but then he connected on a 51-yarder in the final seconds to move the Packers into the NFC championship. Technically, he hit the game-winner twice since Jason Garrett iced the kicker. Can't ice blood that's already ice water, my man.
5. Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers. Bell has made the most of his first career postseason appearance. On Sunday, he became just the fourth rusher since 1950 to run for more than 150 yards, joining former Steeler Franco Harris, who had to spread it across two seasons. Bell has done it in consecutive weeks, and now he'll look to do it again against the Patriots in the AFC championship game.
Five Losers Bathing in the Hard Water of Infinite Shame
1. Brock Osweiler. The Texans came in as 16-point underdogs, on the wrong end of the biggest postseason line since 1998. Suffice it to say, little was expected of them going into New England on Saturday. Houston's defense put together a performance worthy of victory and let the Texans hang around for three quarters, longer than anyone would have thought. And Osweiler laid the egg his entire season had presaged. There were one or two bad drops, but it's almost entirely on him that Houston's offense didn't have a play longer than 20 yards in the game. It wasn't until the midpoint of the third that he even eclipsed 100 yards passing, and then he threw the first of three second-half interceptions with a late throw on a sideline route that was picked by Devin McCourty.
2. The Seahawks O-line. Aside from center Justin Britt, it was a disaster in pass protection. Russell Wilson played a hell of a game, but couldn't possibly keep pace with Atlanta's offense while trying to create plays out of nothing. He was pressured on almost half of his dropbacks. After a long Devin Hester punt return was negated by penalty, Wilson's foot got stepped on by guard Rees Odhiambo, who had been pressed into action due to an injury to Germain Ifedi, which resulted in a safety and an ensuing field goal that gave the Falcons a lead they would never relinquish. In fact, it was a swing that kept the game from potentially being 17-7 Seattle to 12-10 Falcons. Atlanta still might have managed to win, but it would have been a hell of a lot closer.
3. Travis Kelce. The Chiefs tight end was Kansas City's leading receiver on the day, but Kelce had far from a perfect game. He had a killer drop late in the third quarter with the Chiefs trailing 15-7 that might have led to a tying touchdown. He immediately followed that up with a thoughtless personal foul penalty when he shoved Ross Cockrell, pushing Kansas City back another 15 yards. Only a superb third-and-20 conversion by Alex Smith to Jeremy Maclin allowed the Chiefs to get any points out of the drive. Credit where it's due, though: Kelce does give a nice ornery postgame quote about the officiating on what appeared to be a cut-and-dry holding penalty.
4. Rod Marinelli. It took Marinelli's defense too long to commit to bringing pressure with the blitz against Rodgers. By the time they started having success with it, Dallas was already down big. Their complacency on the third-and-20 in the final minute gave Rodgers time to find tight end Jared Cook downfield on what will be the most enduring play of the game. Rodgers caught the defense flat-footed trying to substitute early in the game. It's a savvy veteran move by the quarterback, but also something Rodgers does regularly.
5. Andy Reid. Burning through timeouts. A late fourth quarter scoring drive that took seven minutes and yet still failed to tie the game. These are all hallmarks of Bad Andy. But if the Chiefs are going to continue being a team that is just good enough to occupy a playoff spot and do nothing with it, at least they have an entertaining coach to get them there. See you in two months for the annual coaches photo, Andy. Be sure to bring the Hawaiian shirt again.
On to Championship Sunday
After a completely drab opening weekend of the playoffs, the divisional round had two pretty good games, and one instant goddamn classic. If nothing else, we're assured of good quarterback play the rest of the way, and let's be honest: all a professional sport really needs is a good championship for its postseason to be considered a success. Last year's NBA playoffs were garbage until the Finals, yet the Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead is all anybody remembers. So even if the NFL doesn't deserve it, there's still plenty of time for fans to be placated—and if there's another game anywhere nearly as good as Packers-Cowboys, they will be.
Green Bay at Atlanta, 3:05 PM ET
This is Matt Ryan's second conference championship game at home. Even if there's no shame in losing to Aaron Rodgers, there is a lot of potential reputation-defining criticism in failing to reach the Super Bowl multiple times. The Falcons defense has improved dramatically over the course of the season, and it did a fine job of buffeting Russell Wilson with pressure on Saturday. Problem is, the Packers' pass blocking is considerably better than Seattle's. The way Rodgers is playing, it would take Ryan's best performance even in an MVP season to hang with him. That's certainly possible, in which case we could be looking at a situation where the last man with the ball wins.
Pittsburgh at New England, 6:40 PM ET
Two of the first three Super Bowls of the Brady/Belichick era were reached thanks to conference championship wins in Pittsburgh. Only the latter of those, in 2004, was against Roethlisberger, and that was his rookie season. Still, the Patriots are 6-2 against the Steelers since; the only victory by Pittsburgh in Gillette Stadium came in 2008, when Matt Cassel was starting in place of an injured Brady. In the meantime, there's been a little bit of drama about Pittsburgh headset communication not working when the Steelers have come to town.
New England won in Pittsburgh earlier this season, though Ben Roethlisberger missed that game. The most promising takeaway from that loss is the Steelers had a huge problem covering Rob Gronkowski, and that's not something they have to worry about in the rematch.
It's not even 24 hours removed from the Chiefs game and there's already a media narrative to feast on, thanks to Antonio Brown's decision to post Mike Tomlin's locker room speech on Facebook Live. Tomlin told his team that the Patriots had a day and a half of advance rest on them, which is true, and that the Patriots are assholes, which is also true. It's pretty mild stuff that only the most desperate outlets will try to spin into controversy thanks to the always convenient "bulletin board material" trope. Still, it's fun to listen to Ben Roethlisberger tell his team to stay off social media on a Facebook Live video filmed by a teammate.
It harkens back to the Anthony Smith fiasco in 2007, when the then-Steelers safety guaranteed a victory over the Patriots before a game in Foxborough and the Pats in turn handed them a 34-13 drubbing. Again, Tomlin's comments hardly constitute a guarantee, and even if they did, that would have little, if any, effect on the game.
In other words, it's all anyone is going to talk about this week.
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