A winter wonderland of football: Week 14 musings

If your heart didn’t palpitate a few times during the tail end of the early games from Sunday, the NFL just simply is not for you

A bevy of fantastic finishes were early christmas presents to NFL fans as games in Pittsburgh, New England and Baltimore were filled with high drama.

Here is my review of some of the great action from Sunday

Bad weather isn’t so detrimental to the overall flow of the game after all.

Admittedly, I had told a few people how bad weather games took away from the enjoyment of a great matchup. The Lions and Eagles featured two division leaders and offenses that are both ranked in the top 10 of the league. Not only were fans looking forward to a solid quarterback matchup in Matthew Stafford versus Nick Foles, but you also had two of the most dynamic running backs in the league in Reggie Bush (who ended up injuring his calf during warm ups) and LeSean McCoy.

As 1:00 pm approached and the cold front continued to move towards eastern Pennsylvania, we all saw the winter wonderland that was developing in Lincoln Financial Field. The beginning of the game was an abomination. The Eagles were trying to run their fast-paced offense and kept throwing the ball, failing to adjust to the conditions. They had -1 yards at the half. Similarly, Matthew Stafford could not hold onto the ball as all of his 5 fumbles came off shotgun formations.

The only offense the Lions could muster, was a nice 33 yard catch by Calvin Johnson and the screen game with Joique Bell. If not for two electric special teams return touchdowns by Jeremy Ross–A 58 yard punt return and a 98 yard kickoff return– the Lions would not have been able to stay in the game.

The second half was different as both Scott Linehan and Chip Kelly opted for more reliance on the running game. The result? LeSean McCoy continued to show that he is one of the top two runners in the league. The cuts that McCoy was able to make despite eight inches of snow –I could not see any of the player’s feet–completely defy physics. His 29 carry, 217 yard performance was one of his best in his career as he battled the elements as much as he did linebackers and defensive tackles.

McCoy should get much of the credit, but the Eagles offensive line completely demoralized a defensive front that has a lot of talent, but remains undisciplined in their gap control. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley have all the talent in the world at their positions, but they have a lot of work to do before they live up to the lofty expectations that have been bestowed upon them by various pundits.

The Eagles are definitely a legitimate contender because of their underrated pass rush and a secondary that continues to improve thanks to the consistent play of Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher.

In Pittsburgh and Baltimore, the weather and slippery fields produced two amazing finishes. The Vikings and Ravens displayed poor tackling and terrible late game defensive strategies as they went back and forth between scores. It was clear on the Toby Gerhart run as well as the Cordarrelle Patterson catch and run, that the field had a direct impact on the footing of the defenses. See how number 26, Matt Elam, completely blows his tire and is left skating as he tries to corral Patterson. Within the final 2:05 of the game, there were five touchdowns.

-Dennis Pitta 1 yard touchdown catch with 2:05 left (MIN-12 BAL-15)

-Toby Gerhart 41 yard touchdown run with 1:27 left (MIN-19 BAL-15)

-Jacoby Jones 77 yard Kickoff Return with 1:16 left (MIN-19 BAL-22)

-Cordarrelle Patterson 79 yard touchdown catch with :45 left (MIN-26 BAL-22)

-Marlon Brown 9 yard touchdown catch with 0:06 left (MIN-26 BAL-29)

The back and forth exchange of touchdowns was one of the wildest endings in any football game. There has never been a game with five lead changes in the final two minutes of a game.

The prevailing thought has always been that bad weather should mean more of a reliance on the runner game. While that remains true, the advantage that offenses have is that the receivers know where they are going whereas the defenses do not.

Although connecting with deep passes was an issue due to wind and the added wetness on the ball, you could routinely see receivers open on downfield passing plays.  Jordy Nelson beat his defender on a double move where the corner could not properly execute his back pedal. The Dolphins, who are typical conservative with the long ball due to their offensive line’s inability to allow Ryan Tannehill to get the ball downfield, were able to exploit the Steelers in a play where Charles Clay (more on him later), beat his defender easily on a 40 yard play. Clay, earlier in the game, also had a great 12 yard touchdown catch and run where he broke two tackles. Proper tackling and footing are two areas that weather will greatly affect and although it leads to bad football, we saw how it helped keep numerous amounts of teams in games. We saw at the end of the game, a series of laterals that would have made the alums of the California Golden Bears proud, as Antonio Brown nearly scored on a miraculous touchdown. He had more than enough room to get passed Chris Clemons and while it was admirable to even come close to scoring, it is still disappointing as the Steelers probably would’ve won the game on that once in a million type of play. In Washington, there was a cesspool of bad tackling exhibited by the Redskins, whose fans decided dress up all in red and yellow winter jackets (or maybe those were empty seats). The tackling exhibited by their secondary and special teams on runs by Jamaal Charles ands Knile Davis and returns by Quinton Demps and Dexter McCluster were an embarrassment for a Redskins team that has virtually given up on the season.

The officiating in the NFL is at an all time low

People actually clamouring for replacement referees? Yes, we are at that point. The recent run of incompetence of the officiating crew is at an all time high. Whether it is botching the fourth down sticks in Washington, or obvious pass interference flags, being picked up with no explanation, it is clear there is a disconnect between the referees and the actual rules of the game. BenJarvis Green-Ellis, on third and two, had a run in the first quarter where, it seemed, his knee went down prior to him stretching his arm and the ball into the end zone. The call on the field was correctly called down at the goaline, as replay had shown the “Law firm” was indeed short by a hair. After a good two minutes of review, Triplette came out of the hood (the mini video booth where referees review plays) , hovered around the center of the field and made his call. The call on the field was overturned based on the assumption that the runner was never touched, meaning Green-Ellis’ knee being on the ground is a moot point as he was not downed by contact.

The call was a terrible one as it is generally known that there needs to be indisputable and conclusive evidence to overturn a decision. In that case, there was simply not enough visual evidence to go against the call on the field, which was no touchdown. A second week in a row with Triplette completely botching a call on the field is inexcusable. Dean Blandino, who is the Vice President of Officiating has been very forthright when commenting on bad calls his referees make. One can only hope that he will use the same candor for a second week in a row to point out that Triplette is doing a terrible job. Referees are often deducted rating points which affect their ability to do playoffs games or even the Super Bowl. Triplette, at this point, should be relegated to preseason games only.

The other controversial call was during the final stages of a thriller in Foxboro, with the Browns up 26-20, Tom Brady threw up a deep pass to Josh Boyce on first and ten, which he should’ve caught but the ball fell right between his hands but into the ground. Leon McFadden was in coverage and while there was some hand battling–nothing out of the norm between a corner and receiver–it looked relatively harmless. But the side judge called a pass interference penalty which set up the eventual one-yard touchdown catch from Danny Amendola. Another terrible pass interference which has become a trend in the league.

There is no doubt the complexity that goes into making this call as there are so many judments and variables. Is it at the beginning of the game or is it a last minute play? Is the team that benefits from the call at home or on the road? Bill Belichick has been a proponent of challenging pass interference calls. Football games already last upwards of four hours, but this could be a wrinkle that is available only during the last five minutes of the fourth quarter. There is too much that rides on these games and for them to be decided on murky pass interference calls makes for a valid argument to have pass interference calls challenged.

Quick Slants

-Please do yourselves a favour and watch Charles Clay during the next Dolphins game. He is a swiss army knife type of player in that he lines up as an in-line tight end who can catch swing passes, run the ball and plow through people. He is also one of the best run and pass blockers at his position, despite his height. He is a throwback player who doesn’t have a true position, but does so many things well.

-Remember the name Da’Rick Rodgers. Heard a lot about him during the draft. Off-field issues made him drop, but he has a lot of talent and did some damage against a good Bengals secondary.

-How good is Shane Vereen? Still think he can be a better runner. Could be the next Marshall Faulk as he is a true receiver out of the back field who can line up out wide or in the slot. Not just a screen demon. His 12 catches for 153 yards displayed the kind of route running that most receivers cannot master.

-The situation in Washington is at a critical juncture. Who knows who is leaking all these stories, but someone does not like RGIII or Dan Snyder. Can’t see Shanahan back next season.

-So much for Peyton Manning struggling in the cold right? Legit inclement weather and he still dismantled one of the best pass defenses in the league that had only allowed the lowest amount of passing touchdowns all season (8). The Broncos offense is downright scary. Manning can fall three yards short of 400 yards, pass for four touchdowns and yet, as a team, the Broncos still rush for over 150 yards. Good luck with that. Another historic season for Manning as he closes in on another MVP title. He desperately needs another title in order to truly be considered an all-time great.

-Bobby Rainey had another big game in Tampa Bay. Mike James ran very well before he broke his ankle against the Dolphins. Doug Martin had struggled for the first eight weeks of the season prior to getting injured. This is not to say that Martin is overrated and he is in no danger of losing his job next season, but it makes one wonder if last year he was a product of a dominant offensive line and why did he struggle so much this season.

-Drew Brees exploits safeties as well as any quarterback I have ever seen. Unless you have an Earl Thomas who can play a single high safety and can disguise coverages, good luck not having the middle of your end compromised.

-You have to love the resolve of the Packers. No Cobb, No Rodgers, a depleted defense and Eddie Lacy battling an ankle injury. The Packers gutted out a tough win against the Falcons. No way Aaron Rodgers shuts it down now with the Packers now a half game out of first place.

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