1. No, it wasn’t a catch
I’m going to start here, because at least three times per season, the league’s definition of a “catch” gets a healthy workout. Most times, a borderline catch slips under the radar with only a minor hiccup, but in games like Sunday’s Patriots-Steelers matchup, the difference between catch and no catch can have season changing repercussions. Put simply, Jesse James was falling to the ground when he tried to catch the football. In this scenario, per the NFL rulebook, he must demonstrate control of the football as he contacts the ground and beyond. He didn’t. The ball popped loose and visibly spun when it touched the ground. It wasn’t close, and there’s nothing to debate. The NFL rules are clear and specific about this exact scenario, no matter where on the field it occurs. You might be tempted to say (especially if you live in Pittsburgh, or are prone to Patriots conspiracy theories), but…but…but… he extended the ball over the plane, into the end zone before it came loose. That’s true, and if he had run with the ball or previously completed the catch and then did that, you’d be correct, because a different rule would be used to interpret that play. James was falling as he attempted to make the reception, so the rule about going to the ground and surviving the ground comes into play, instead of the rule about breaking the plane. The mandatory scoring review absolutely got it right. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin was salty after the game, but he’s on the competition committee and he knows why that rule is there.
2. The Steelers can beat the Patriots
I’m not saying they will. Just that Sunday’s game proved that they can. Aside from the not-really-controversial catch rule frustration, the Steelers looked much better against the Patriots this weekend than they have in recent years. Their traditional zone-based defense is great against a lot of the league’s offensive schemes, but not the Patriot’s chameleon offense that can beat you with practice squad rejects if you give Brady time and the receiver a three-yard cushion. Changing their defensive look to a man-based format was the right thing to do, and for the most part, it worked. This game was every bit the prize fight we expected from start to finish. The anticipated AFC Championship rematch should be more fireworks if it materializes, and that one will be anyone’s game. The Steeler’s will have some work to do, however. The end of game management by Tomlin and the Steelers staff was, at best, chaotic, and it cost the Steelers dearly. Pittsburgh should be really worried about why they had an utter communication breakdown in the final seconds. After a stuffed crossing route left the clock ticking and the ball in bounds, the clear choice is to spike the ball, kick the field goal and go to overtime. Rothlisberger’s fake spike throw into triple coverage was…ill-advised. The Patriots knew full well that if the Steelers wanted to take a crack at scoring, then they had to pass the ball to only a few places. I’m not the first one to say this by any stretch, but doing what Belichick knows you’re going to do is more-often-than-not a recipe for disaster. The Steelers put all of their eggs in one basket. The Patriot defense made an omelet.
3. But can they (or anyone) contain Gronk?
The inevitability of what happened to the Steelers on the Patriot’s final drive was simultaneously mind-boggling and wildly predictable. It was the perfect explanation of why the Steelers have chosen to play zone for the past decade and beyond. In a man-scheme, there’s no hiding from offensive mismatches, and there isn’t a bigger mismatch in the NFL than Rob Gronkowski being covered one-on-one by…well…any human being. Here’s the drive chart. Gronk-incomplete. Gronk-26 yards. Gronk-26 yards. Gronk-17 yards. Dion Lewis 8-yard TD. Gronk-2pt conversion. Seriously. That’s the entire thing. Five plays, 77 yards, TD. No illusion of spreading the ball around. No wasting time with run plays to legitimize play action. Just displaying why Gronkowski is beyond dangerous with the game on the line. Oh, and if you want to know what a catch looks like when a receiver is going to the ground, take a gander at the shoestring grab that he makes while dive-rolling to the turf. That, my friends, was a catch.
4. It’s a game of inches…or less
I’m not sure why Gene Steratore was smirking after he awarded a first down to the Cowboys on Sunday night. The seldom used practice of inserting paper to confirm that the ball has reached the line to gain is not exactly scientific. The camera appeared to show a gap between the first down marker and the ball, but Steratore’s folded over index card somehow closed that gap? Is the measure of a first down actually ten yards minus the width of a doubled up index card? I guess we’ll never know. The unusual event gave Dallas a much-needed fourth down conversion and helped propel the Cowboys to a win over the Raiders which kept their (ahem) paper thin playoff hopes alive
5. The Titans are on very thin ice
The Tennesee Titans were a popular pick pre-season to win the AFC South and contend for an AFC title. They’re in position to snatch a wildcard berth, despite the emergence of Jacksonville as the best team in their division. There’s only one problem. With two games left in the season, the Titans need to fight off three teams with an identical 8-6 record and a dangerous Chargers team that sits at 7-7. A split would possibly get the Titans into the playoffs, but the schedule is cruel sometimes. Before the season, if you told me that Tennessee would need to beat either the Rams, or the Jaguars to snatch a wildcard, I would have considered it a safe bet. Now, I just don’t see how the Titans could possibly snatch either of those games, much less both. Both of those opponents will win their divisions, but are fighting to get a first round bye. It’s a tough road that will more than likely open the door for the Ravens who are sitting just on the outside, looking in.
6. Carolina is in upheaval. Is Diddy the answer?
Following the revelation that Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has been accused of a range of workplace violations, he has stepped down from his day-to-day responsibilities, choosing to focus on the sale, which would likely occur only after the season’s end. Long time Panthers executive Tina Becker will take control of the team, effective immediately, making her one of the highest placed female executives in NFL history. There will, of course, be a range of offers for Richardson’s shares, but none are more intriguing than the immediate statement from Sean “Diddy” Combs, who has indicated his desire to take over Richardson’s ownership stake. Support and offers to partner up with Combs have come in from all corners, including Colin Kaepernick and Warriors guard Stephen Curry. Patriots owner Robert Kraft has already made a statement supporting Combs as a potential owner, and as we know, Kraft has the ear of many of his fellow owners. Only time will tell if we get to see an African-American NFL owner. It would certainly be a breath of fresh air for the league.
7. The Rams had their statement game
Well that was surprising. The Rams have been on the come-up all season, but to really stake their claim in the NFC, they needed to put the Seahawks in their rearview mirror for good and all. While I’m not surprised that the Rams won that game, I am surprised by how dominant they were. 42-7? Damn. I think we can all agree that the Legion of Boom is officially no longer a thing. Almost 250 yards rushing as a team for the Rams and three TD’s to go with 152 yards for Todd Gurley. The Seahawks got flat-out steamrolled, and the team didn’t take long to turn on each other with Bobby Wagner and Earl Thomas sending barbs and bad feeling all over the Twitter-verse. If this is how the Legion ends, I think it’s fitting that they’ll go down fighting, even if it’s amongst themselves.
8. The Packers are packing it in
I can’t even fathom why the Packers would risk Aaron Rodgers in the first place, but following a 31-24 loss to the Panthers that sealed their fates, they’ve packed it in definitively, sending Rodgers to the IR list and shutting him down for the season. I’m just hoping that this move is for safety’s sake, not because he re-injured the surgically repaired shoulder in the ill-conceived losing effort.
9. The Chiefs aren’t? Are they?
For a team that looked absolutely done two weeks ago, the Chiefs certainly seem to have some life. The middle of the season was an absolute nightmare for Alex Smith and company, surrendering six losses in seven games and full-on floundering in a loss to the moribund Giants. The last two weeks have seen the Chiefs reclaim some of their swagger with back-to-back divisional wins over the Raiders and Chargers. I’m not going to say that the former win is a big deal, but the Chargers have been one of the hottest teams in football and looked poised to run over the Chiefs on their way to an unlikely division title after starting 0-4. Instead it was Chiefs rusher Kareem Hunt who ran over the Chargers to the tune of 155 yards and a touchdown in a game that wasn’t even close. It’s become quite clear that this Chiefs team will go as Hunt goes. Alex Smith is simply a different (read: better) quarterback when Hunt is able to move the chains. I’m not sure if this team can make a deep run, but if Hunt can wear down defenses, anything is possible.
10. The Wildcard race is going to be awesome
It’s week sixteen, and five of eight divisions have a champion already. The AFC West is still undecided, but the Chiefs have taken the inside track as I’ve mentioned above. The two teams in the wildcard slots currently are probably going to change, as the Titans have the most brutal last two weeks in the league, facing two juggernauts in the Rams and Jags. The Bills have won three of their last four games, but have to play a Patriots team that has the AFC’s one-seed, and isn’t likely to risk losing it. The Ravens are the most likely to benefit from these tricky end of season schedules, finishing with the Colts and Bengals. Over in the NFC, the West is still technically in play, but the real fireworks are in the South, where the Saints, Falcons and Panthers are all in playoff position with two to play, and all three can potentially win the division. Perhaps most intriguing is that the Falcons still control their own destiny, with one game left against each. If they win out, they take the crown. Outside looking in are the Cowboys, Seahawks and Lions, all at 8-6 and looking for cracks in the armor to exploit. Seattle and Dallas will play each other this weekend, closing the door for one, and opening it for the other. The Lions have an easier path, with the Bengals and the packed-in Packers in week seventeen. It’s going to get weird people, so get your popcorn.
Question of the Week:
“Will Ezekiel Elliot’s return make any difference in Dallas?” -Melissa B.
I don’t think that there’s any doubt that the Cowboys are a better team with Elliot on the field. Here’s the thing though, Alfred Morris has kept them alive at running back and they’ve won three straight in Elliot’s absence to split the suspension at 3-3. The yardage isn’t likely to be Elliot’s most important contribution upon his return. He’s more likely to make a difference to both the team’s morale, and to Dak Prescott’s confidence. The latter is probably the most important factor. Seeing Dak fall apart the first few weeks of the suspension can’t have felt good for the coaching staff in Dallas, who now know what a fragile ecosystem an NFL offense can be. If Dallas gets a pep in its step from the return of their leading rusher and a few breaks, they could snag a wildcard by winning out.
Got a burning question? Disagree with me? Want more proof? Want to know my thoughts on your rookie that I didn’t mention? Hit me in the comments and I’ll answer the week’s best question (or questions) in next week’s edition.
Tom Capo writes about sports, parenting, food, wine and travel; but seldom all at once. He’s currently working on his first novel and collection of shorter fiction. He lives in the Bay Area with all of his girls; wife Allison, daughter Liliana and dog Artemis.