A Raiders-Cowboys Super Bowl? The NFL can dream

So every week watching the NFL we try to draw conclusions on what we’ve just seen. This is the Patriots’ bye week, so the best team in football is out of mind for the moment, and we wake up this morning with the most unthinkable thought we could have ever thought two months ago, at the dawn of the 2016 season:

Super Bowl 51, Feb. 6, 2017, in Houston: Dallas versus Oakland.

The Cowboys, off a 25-point road rout of the woebegone Browns, have won seven in a row, and please, look at their schedule. They don’t play a team better than 5-3 the rest of the way. The two best rookies in football, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, have revolutionized their team. No offensive line can touch theirs.

The Raiders just dismantled the Super Bowl champions. Oakland 30, Denver 20, and it wasn’t that close. The hottest young quarterback in the game threw zero touchdown passes, and Derek Carr didn’t need any either. The Raiders out-rushed Denver 218-33 and held the ball for 41 minutes, like an old Bill Parcells team. The defense is coming alive, finally.

They’re easy teams to fall for, with 25-year-old (Carr) and 23-year-old (Prescott) leaders who seem made for NFL stardom. They can take some adversity and unfriendly faces; combined, Dallas and Oakland are 9-0 on the road. There are eight weeks for reality to slap each team in the face, which undoubtedly will happen. But this morning, when your thoughts are anxious with the most significant and potentially outlandish election day in the recent history of this country, think for a moment that the one matchup that probably should have happened sometime, some place in the previous 50 Super Bowls but never did actually has a prayer of coming true this year.

Cowboys-Raiders. Want a cure for the sinking-like-a-stone TV ratings? That Super Bowl just might be it.

A lot has to happen for it to happen. The NFC part of the equation isn’t so unlikely. Dallas has to be the NFC favorite right now; the road to Houston likely goes through Jerry World. But the AFC’s a different deal. New England (7-1 and rested and healthy) is football’s Everest, and the last time Oakland played a playoff game in Foxboro, funny things happened that have haunted the franchise ever since. The Chiefs (6-2) own a 16-point win over Oakland already this year; as my buddy Don Banks pointed out Sunday night, Kansas City’s won an NFL-best 17 of its last 20.

But Roger Staubach and John Madden and Jim Otto and Gil Brandt can dream. At the season’s midpoint, there’s lots of time for that.

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LAST-SECOND LEOS STRIKE AGAIN

 

My favorite scene of the weekend, though, happened in a tense time in Minneapolis, and is a huge reason why the Lions passed Green Bay and moved to within a half-game of the slumping Vikings in the NFC North on Sunday. And there’s a very good chance you have no idea it even happened.

Two seconds. Jim Caldwell got two seconds added to the clock in the game’s 58th minute, and two seconds turned out to be an eternity for Detroit. Two seconds gave the Lions life at the end of the fourth quarter.

TV didn’t catch it. Nobody caught it. The key people in the game didn’t know about it, not even three-and-a-half hours after the game.

“I had no idea,” Detroit wide receiver Andre Roberts, who made a game-prolonging 27-yard catch in the final seconds of the fourth quarter, said when the team arrived back in Michigan on Sunday night. “I wasn’t aware of that.”

The story of the amazing and ridiculous Detroit Lions season grows in legend weekly. The Lions are 5-4. In each of the five wins, Detroit trailed in the last 90 seconds. Truly, the Lions could be 0-9 right now. It’d be a heartbreaking 0-9, but it’d be an explainable 0-9.

 

They beat Minnesota because of a play offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter just installed last week, because Matthew Stafford likes playing when it is darkest, because Roberts executed a perfect in-cut at the perfect depth, because Matt Prater kicked a 58-yard field goal at the end of the fourth quarter, because Golden Tate has balance rivaling Simone Biles, and because Jim Caldwell made the kind of coaching decision and made the kind of convincing argument with referee Ed Hochuli’s crew that affected the outcome of the game.

Start with Caldwell. Detroit led 13-9 with 1:17 left in the fourth. Minnesota had the ball at the Lions’ 11. Fourth and four. Detroit had one timeout left. If the Vikings converted but didn’t score on this play, Caldwell knew they had to burn the last timeout and hope that if the Vikings scored, they’d score with enough time left that Stafford would have a play or two to get the Lions in long Prater range for the tie.

Stefon Diggs caught a pass from Sam Bradford and went down at the Detroit three-yard line with 1:14 left. Detroit called for a timeout. The clock stopped with 1:11 left. On the Lions sideline, they knew they should have a second or two, at least, added. Caldwell called for a conference. Officials blew their whistles, and Caldwell made his case. He was right, they determined. On TV, a few seconds before the next play was run, you heard the muffled sound asking for the timekeeper to add time to the game clock, and on the screen, in the little score box, the “1:11” changed to “1:13.”

It took the Vikings three plays to get in for the go-ahead touchdown, and the drive included a dubiously called Minnesota timeout with 27 seconds left, which ended up aiding Detroit tremendously. Trailing 16-13, Stafford took the ball at the Lions’ 25. After an eight-yard sideline pass to Tate, 17 seconds remained. The clock was stopped. And it was time to run Cooter’s new play.

“Most end-of-game defenses don’t let you get out of bounds,” Roberts said. “They’ll play their guys near the sidelines so you can’t out of bounds. So we had this play where our guys run in-cuts and get down right away. Then we run to the line and try to spike it so we can run another play or kick the field goal.”

Cooter’s theory was the in-cuts, run by four receivers, would be open—at least one of them anyway—with the defenders cheating toward guarding the sidelines. Before the huddle broke, Stafford said to his receivers: “Catch it! Get down! Then get back to the line!”

Roberts, starting from the right flank, was supposed to run 25 yards downfield. “I went 27,” he said. Then he pivoted left.

With 13 seconds left, Stafford threw a line drive.

With 11 seconds left, a sliding Roberts caught the pass at the Minnesota 40.

With 10 seconds left, Minnesota linebacker Emmanuel Lamur flopped onto Roberts, preventing him from getting up. “Just doing his job,” Roberts said. “That’s what defenders are supposed to do. We know it. We work on that a lot.”

With eight seconds left, Roberts wrestled free of Lamur and got up and ran to line up—anywhere. He ended up in the backfield.

With six seconds left, sprinting to the line with his linemen, Stafford made the clocking motion.

With three seconds left, the Lions, after sprinting 30 yards and getting set, motionless, so they wouldn’t get a game-ending flag for not being set at the snap of the ball, were 11 statues at the Minnesota 40.

With two seconds left, Stafford clocked the ball.

Deep breaths.

As the clock hit :00, Prater’s kick was long and high and straight down the middle, like an old Tiger Woods drive on a straight par 5.

Tie game.

When I told Roberts about the Caldwell timeout and the successful plea for two seconds, he said, “Hey, luckily we got those two seconds. If we didn’t, who knows? Maybe we run a different play at the end. I don’t know.”

Overtime. Deflated crowd. Lions won the toss. In six minutes, Stafford drove the Lions from his 13 to the Vikings’ 28. Tate lined up flanked left, by the numbers. Across from him: Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota’s best cover corner. Lurking nearby: Harrison Smith, one of the best safeties in football, to double Tate if Stafford chose him. Surely Stafford would look elsewhere. Right?

“That specific play,” said Tate, “I ran my route and just tried to get some space. Matthew threw a dart. He made some great throws today. That was one of them.”

Tate ran a simple out-route, to the Vikings’ 15. He caught the ball with his feet maybe eight inches from the white stripe of the sideline. Here came Rhodes, shoulder lowered. How did he miss? No idea. He was aiming for Tate to lunge forward, but Tate stayed at the 15, readying himself for the hit from Smith, approaching on his blind side, from behind.

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“Smith’s a great, phenomenal player,” Tate of his former Notre Dame teammate. “God took over. God pushed me off Harrison, and somehow I stayed in.”

Smith grabbed Tate with both arms around the 14. Tate, somehow, stopped his momentum with a man hanging on him, pushed off Smith around the 10, ran toward the end zone, and pirouetted through the air in joy, diving into the end zone.

The 58-yard field goal and the long gain and the clocking just in time and then Tate staying in bounds. Week after week, it’s something with this team. If one thing goes wrong … just one thing …

“If its and buts were pots and pans, the whole world would be a kitchen,” Tate said.

Never heard that one before. Pretty good.

“We got incredible heart,” Tate continued. “We truly don’t believe it’s over till there’s two zeroes on the clock. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know how I stayed in. But we got an incredible quarterback, incredible athletes on the perimeter, and we don’t give up. This group, we love the game.”

So we see.

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WEEK 9, IN BRIEF

• Life for the Colts. Sunday’s 31-26 Indy victory at Lambeau Field was precisely the kind of game Andrew Luck has to win. It’s a cliché, but to whom much is given, much is expected, and when Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay made Luck the highest-paid player in football last June, it was with the expectation that he would carry the team to some wins when it was outmanned in a tough road place. So far this season, Luck hadn’t done that. On Sunday, numbers be damned (one touchdown, two picks, 74.2 rating), Luck led touchdown drives of 62, 91 and 66 yards, and was a commanding presence physically and mentally. Indy’s not out of the woods by any means, surrendering 28.4 points per game and needing every bit of Luck as a modern bombs-away Dan Fouts. The Packers, meanwhile, continue to dig holes and not get out of them. They’ve lost three of four. They’re in third place in the NFC North. “I don’t understand it,” Aaron Rodgers said. “I mean, this is what we get paid to do, is to bring it every week … I mean, I love this game and I bring energy. I’m not a rah-rah guy, but I’m a focused, enthusiastic player, and I don’t know what the lack of juice was. You kind of felt it over the entire sideline. We didn’t have the same kind of enthusiasm and encouragement that we had the previous two weeks. So we’ve got to look deep in the mirror there, because that’s just not acceptable.” Not good. See Stat of the Week, below, for more swell news.

— He’s the last quarterback to look like an iron man, but Manning, 35, hasn’t missed a football game in 12 years; his streak of 202 straight starts, including playoffs, is third all-time. It’s amazing. He never even winces in pain.

— His 257-yard day Sunday moved him into ninth place all-time on the passing yards list, with 46,428, with No. 8 Fran Tarkenton only three good Sundays away. Everyone ahead of Manning is either in Canton or a lock to be there.

— His four touchdown passes Sunday gave him 306, good for seventh all-time. Three-and-a-half more years at his pace, and Manning will be in range of Dan Marino, at 420. That’s a very big assumption at 35, but seeing quarterbacks play the way they do (Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning), being prolific in their late thirties is no surprise.

A quarterback cannot do it on his own. Manning’s had zero running game, a leaky offensive line and some good to great receivers in the past two or three years. The fact that he’s ahead of draft-class-mates Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers in the above numbers games and has won two Super Bowls says tons about Manning.

• The Raider road. As much as Oakland is a crowd favorite entering the second half of the season, and the Raiders should be, they’ll have a tough road to the top of the AFC West and to a home playoff game in the Black Hole. The Raiders have a bye this week, then a “home” game with Houston in Mexico City. Then Carolina and Buffalo come to Oakland on successive Sundays. That leaves the final four weeks. Kind of a doozy: every division foe on the road. In order, Oakland is at Kansas City on a short-week Thursday, at San Diego 10 days later, hosting the Colts on Christmas Eve, then at Denver on the final Sunday of the regular season. Look on the bright side: Oakland’s won its first five road games of the year, so what’s a trip to Mexico City, and three division games in hostile venues?

• As a rivalry turns. Steelers-Ravens ain’t what it used to be … in many ways. Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh have been squaring off for nine seasons now, dating back to Harbaugh’s appointment as Ravens coach in 2008. Check out the dichotomy of the rivalry:

2008 to 2010: Eight games, including playoffs. Pittsburgh 6, Baltimore 2.

2011 to 2016: Twelve games, including playoffs. Baltimore 9, Pittsburgh 3.

Fifteen of the 20 meetings have been one-score games, including Ravens 21, Steelers 14 in Baltimore on Sunday.

* * *

A WORLD SERIES INTERLUDE

One-eighth of the column today covers one of the best baseball games of all time, plus a pretty darned good World Series, in a micro version of MMQB.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon got very lucky Wednesday night. In the last 10 weeks of the regular season and his first 10 appearances of this postseason, covering 36 games, Aroldis Chapman never pitched more than one inning in a game. In his last six appearances of the postseason, over 12 days, Chapman pitched more than an inning five times. Most notable was the final three appearances. The first was understandable: 2.2 innings in an elimination game that the Cubs won to make the series 3-2 Cleveland. But Chapman threw 42 pitches. Two nights later, he entered the game with the Cubs up 7-2 and two outs in the seventh and got four outs; 20 more pitches.

Using the closer up five? In the seventh inning? Two days after he’d thrown 42 pitches? With a potential Game 7 the next night? Was anyone that surprised at the double-homer-single that made a 6-3 Cubs lead a 6-6 tie in the first three hitters Chapman faced?

The removal of Kyle Hendricks after he’d retired eight in a row and then given up a fifth-inning walk was classic over-managing, but nothing compared to the Chapman decision. Maddon is fortunate the Cubs won this game, or there’d be a chapter in the Woe Is Cubs book about him. Right after the Bartman chapter.

• Baseball Fan of the Week: Running back Kapri Bibbs, Denver Broncos. Not a lot of NFL players are big baseball fans, and I couldn’t find one who loved the Cubs as much as Bibbs, who grew up in Chicagoland. Bibbs grew up in a split house—his brother loved the White Sox—but catching a Sammy Sosa foul ball at a Cubs game sealed the deal for Kapri. “I’m gonna be honest,” Bibbs said Friday. “I’m not big on watching a lot of baseball. But watching this series, watching that last game, it was like a movie. You just couldn’t look away. You grow up loving the Cubs and always hear from people when they find out you’re a Cubs fan, ‘The Cubs suck!’ … When they won it, I was just staring at the TV. I couldn’t move. I stared at the screen in disbelief for five minutes. What a night.”

Quotes of the Week

I:  “I can’t control myself right now. I’m an emotional wreck.”

—Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, to catcher David Ross in the Chicago dugout mid-game seven, captured by a wireless FOX microphone worn by Ross.

II: “It’s only gonna get worse. Just continue to breathe. That’s all you can do, buddy.”

—Ross, to Rizzo.

III: “I’m relinquishing my presidential duties. I’m going on a month-long bender. Wake me up for the winter meetings.”

—Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, an hour after game seven ended.

IV: “Don’t worry Grandma. Grandpa Rossy’ll take good care of ya.”

—David Ross, appearing with Anthony Rizzo and Dexter Fowler as three male strippers at a granny’s bachelorette party in a sketch on “Saturday Night Live.”

• Tweet of the Week

 

• Baseball Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me: Theo Epstein, graduate of Yale, ran baseball ops in Boston when the Red Sox ended an 86-year title drought in 2004 and won the World Series. Epstein ran baseball ops in Chicago when the Cubs ended a 108-year title drought last week and won the World Series. Fairly impressive. His intro to professional baseball came two decades ago, partially thanks to the best running back Yale ever produced. Former Cowboys running back Calvin Hill was an Orioles executive at the time, and interviewed Epstein for a job, and the Orioles hired Epstein as a summer intern, and the rest is baseball history.

• Five Things I Think About The World Series: I think this won’t surprise anyone—71 percent of all TVs in use in greater Chicago had on Game 7, making it the most-watched baseball game in the history of Chicago … I think the story of the week belongs to Tom Verducci of SI, on deadline. Imagine writing this after working the game for FOX, working the locker room of the winning team, and writing it so fast that the mag was able to close its special issue at 5 a.m. (thanks to the hard work of many, led by exec editor Stephen Canella) … I think it would be blessed relief for everyone if Chicagoans stopped the vilification of Steve Bartman now … I think Theo Epstein walks into the Hall of Fame if he retires tomorrow. Right? … I think it was notable that with all the hand-wringing over not enough kids in this country playing baseball, so many key people in Game 7, and this series, were American. Dexter Fowler (Atlanta) led off the game by homering off Corey Kluber (Coppell, Texas). David Ross (Bainbridge, Ga.) had a huge homer in his last baseball game. Jason Heyward (Ridgewood, N.J.) made a big Game 7 speech. Rajai Davis (Norwich, Conn.) had the vital two-run homer in the eighth for Cleveland. The MVP was Ben Zobrist (Eureka, Ill.). The Cub pitchers who closed it out: Carl Edwards Jr. (Prosperity, S.C.) and Mike Montgomery (Santa Clarita, Calif.). Combining on the last out of the game: a Kris Bryant (Las Vegas) to Anthony Rizzo (Fort Lauderdale) groundout.

* * *

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

 

I

“We didn’t make plays. I didn’t make plays. I didn’t convert third downs. I turned the ball over. It’s frustrating, because I hold myself to a higher standard than that.”

— Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after the Steelers’ 21-14 loss in Baltimore.

II

“We have Irving on Erving crime going on.”

— FOX analyst Charles Davis, when Dallas defensive end David Irving and Cleveland center Cam Erving tussled on the first drive of the game—and were thrown out when it got too violent.

III

“This is the guy we’ve got to hurt. This is the guy we’ve got to take out of the game. There’s got to be 10 guys that want to hurt him every single play. We may even put a little bounty on Ezekiel Elliott.”

— Brian Baldinger, NFL Network analyst, prior to the Dallas-Philadelphia game eight days ago, on 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia. The NFL suspended him for six months for the comments, meaning he’ll be off the air till at least the 2017 NFL Draft. Baldinger told Richard Deitsch of SI.com that he was speaking in the voice that he presumed a coach of a team playing the Cowboys would speak in, but the NFL didn’t buy it.

IV

“What professional athlete don’t have a gun?”

— The Eagles’ Josh Huff, arrested for having an unregistered one, plus marijuana, in a car in Philadelphia last week. The Eagles fired him two days later.

Just a hunch, Josh, but I would guess it’s more than one or two.

V

“To the men of Harvard Soccer and any future men who may lay claim to our bodies and choose to objectify us as sexual objects, in the words of one of us, we say together: ‘I can offer you my forgiveness, which is—and forever will be—the only part of me that you can ever claim as yours.’”

— Former Harvard women’s soccer players Brooke Dickens, Kelsey Clayman, Alika Keene, Emily Mosbacher, Lauren Varela, and Haley Washburn, in a Harvard Crimson op-ed column, responding to a Crimson story than the men’s soccer team in 2012 wrote sexual scouting reports on each of the incoming freshman soccer players. These six women were among them. The university canceled the rest of the men’s season as a sanction for the detailed and graphic scouting report.

Thankfully.

Not sure how much professional writing these six women have done, but that is one great message to people who have wronged them.

* * *

THE AWARD SECTION

OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Melvin Gordon, running back, San Diego. With 261 total yards against an oft-formidable Tennessee front, Gordon controlled the wild 43-35 win over the pesky Titans in San Diego in a crucial game for the long-term future of the franchise. With the Chargers’ stadium initiative needing a two-thirds approval vote Tuesday (not likely under even ideal circumstances), the Chargers just couldn’t lose a game to Tennessee in the final show-me event before the vote. Gordon took care of that. He led all NFL rushers with 196 yards on 32 carries (with one touchdown), and added 65 yards on four catches. This game was a good template for the Chargers down the stretch: play possession football (they held the ball for over 36 minutes) without turning it over. And it was Gordon who was most responsible for that Sunday.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Khalil Mack, outside linebacker, Oakland. Two more sacks (7.0 for the year), and also the biggest defensive play of the game for the oh-my-gosh-they’re-really-pretty-good Raiders. Midway through the fourth quarter, Denver down 10 and driving, Mack steamed into quarterback Trevor Siemian and punched the ball out while sacking him. Mack recovered the fumble at the Denver 39, and one minute later, the Raiders ran in an insurance touchdown. It was over, and Oakland was the undisputed leader of the AFC West.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

An incredible day of special teams play. Four winners.

Jordan Todman, kick-returner/running back, Indianapolis. Talk about a serendipitous start to a game. Todman took the opening kickoff of a game the pressurized coaching staff and scouting staff had to have at Green Bay at the Colts’ one-yard line. He was never touched. Running through a tremendously well-blocked return unit, Todman didn’t stop till he was in the Green Bay end zone. After 12 seconds, the Colts were up 7-zip.

Kenyon Drake, kick-returner/running back, Miami. He’s not quite Darren Sproles in terms of burst and acceleration. But Drake was one of those guys before the draft last year who had the label of home-run hitter and not an every-down back. His home run beat the Jets on Sunday. With less than six minutes left in Miami, Drake took a Nick Folk kick at the four-yard line and sprinted through the Jets’ kick-coverage team, 96 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. An amazing turn of events.

Matt Prater, kicker, Detroit. Two seconds to go. Fourth quarter. Vikes 16, Lions 13. Lions line up for a 58-yard field goal. Need it to extend the game to overtime, obviously. The amazing thing about this kick? It would have been good from 66, and it was absolutely down the heart of the plate. The Lions lived to play overtime, won the toss, and went down the field to score and keep hope alive at 5-3 in the NFC North.

Javorious Allen, running back, Baltimore. An assist is needed here, for Pittsburgh rookie safety Sean Davis, for an abominable matador block that allowed a juking Allen the freedom to rush in and cleanly block a Pittsburgh punt from the left end. Allen absolutely smothered the Jordan Berry punt, and rookie wideout Chris Moore picked it up off the turf and returned it for an insurance touchdown.

COACH OF THE WEEK

Dan Quinn, head coach, Atlanta. This is a nod to Quinn’s complete job over the first half of the season, as well as for the two wins in five days, over Green Bay and Tampa Bay, and for going on the road on a short week and throttling the Bucs on Thursday night. “We looked fresh, we looked fast,” Quinn said after the Falcons, without pass-rusher Dwight Freeney all game and top cover guy Desmond Trufant (shoulder) missing much of the game, built a 40-14 lead in the first 50 minutes. “I thought we had a real edge.” Atlanta’s 6-3, and this is a different team than the one that followed a 5-0 start in 2015 with a 3-8 finish. The Falcons play fast, the way Pete Carroll’s Seahawks always play, and the way Quinn polished his head-coaching profile as Carroll’s defensive coordinator in 2013 and ’14.

GOAT OF THE WEEK

Antonio Allen, safety, New York Jets. With the Jets nursing a three-point lead with less than six minutes left, Nick Folk lined up to kick off after the go-ahead touchdown. He kicked, and the Dolphins returned it to the Miami 22. But wait. Allen was a yard offside on the kick, meaning the Jets would now have to kick again, penalized five yards. This time, Folk mooned one to the Miami four-yard line, and rookie Kenyon Drake returned it 96 yards for the winning touchdown. Allen’s offside put a dagger in any faint playoff pulse the Jets (3-6) had.

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PHOTO OP