Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 15: Rams go from plucky underdog to NFC West titan
Plus the catch rule is still terrible, the Panthers quash the Packers' playoff hopes and much more
If you come at the king, you best not miss. The Rams did not miss on Sunday. And in the process of throttling the Seahawks 42-7, they didn't orchestrate some David-Goliath scenario. Nope, the Rams flipped the script on the NFC West -- a division they will likely win now -- and established themselves as the team to beat moving forward in a division that's been owned by the Seahawks for nearly half a decade.
Seattle had not trailed by 27 points at home since 2010; the Rams led 34-0 at half in CenturyLink Field, thanks to Todd Gurley, an unheralded MVP candidate who could find himself in the fray after Week 15's 160-yard, four-score performance that propelled the Rams to 10 wins and secured millions of Fantasy Football semifinals wins.
In a game where Jared Goff and the passing attack was fine but not necessarily explosive, Gurley provided a public reminder why the Rams will be so dangerous come playoff time. He's a multi-faceted back who is dangerous at the goal line (two 1-yard scores) and capable of breaking off long scores.
The Seahawks got the best of the Rams earlier in the year, but this could have been a sweep situation if Cooper Kupp had made a touchdown catch late against Seattle. And the Seahawks are banged up in a bad way: Earl Thomas has been playing hurt for a while; Bobby Wagner battled through a busted hamstring on Sunday; Richard Sherman, Cliff Avril and Kam Chancellor are all injured; they have no offensive line; and the team hasn't been able to keep a running back healthy all season long.
But it is fair to wonder if this is the decline of the Seahawks' defensive dynasty. Seattle cannot continue in its current iteration; expecting an aging defense to dominate for another five years while also expecting Russell Wilson to work his spinning magic with no protection is not a formula for sustainable success.
Seattle is an older team trying to change its identity on the fly. John Schneider is one of the best talent evaluators in the league, having shown an aggressive ability to acquire the requisite pieces for a championship team. The Seahawks have a franchise quarterback in Wilson. They will not evaporate into the maw.
But Los Angeles, the new kid on the block, is better positioned for the future. Sean McVay is a mortal lock for Coach of the Year in 2017, having turned a boring and staid Rams team into a powerhouse with double-digit wins and one of the more exciting teams to watch in the NFL. McVay has twice as many 40-point games this season (four) as Jeff Fisher had for the Rams from 2012 through 2016.
"Seattle's been in the playoffs a handful of years in a row now, they've won this division three out of the last four years now," McVay remarked during his postgame press conference.
It was tough to imagine a scenario where the Rams didn't run into trouble in Seattle or the Seahawks didn't at least keep the game close. This was one of those "big brother games" right? Very wrong.
The Rams are just a better team than Seattle right now. And they might be the better team moving forward, too. Seattle has to go play the Cowboys in Dallas with Ezekiel Elliott coming back before playing host to Arizona in Week 17. Nine wins is not going to get you in the playoffs. The Rams get Tennessee and San Francisco. They might win 12 games and, with a lot of help from Minnesota and Chicago, could steal a bye. That likely won't happen, but they are going to be hosting a playoff game come January 2018.
With Goff, Gurley, Robert Woods, Aaron Donald and a host of young talent as well as an outstanding coaching staff in place, this might not be the last time we see them in this position over the next few years.
Seven layers of insanity
Good luck matching Patriots-Steelers when it comes to late-game drama. We knew it would be a great game but it somehow managed to exceed even the highest levels of hype, and the football gods doubled down by an absolutely bananas ending. The final two minutes of this game had, well, everything.
The Patriots had struggled a bit on offense in the first half but started to come alive after the break. The decision to feed Rob Gronkowski was a big reason why -- the tight end was a force on their final drive, racking up 69 receiving yards, moving the Patriots down the field at the speed of light and then drawing single coverage on the 2-point conversion play to put the Pats up by three points (bettors with New England minus-2.5, rejoice).
Pittsburgh answered immediately, with Ben Roethlisberger hitting JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 69-yard catch-and-run that put them in the red zone with a first-and-goal. On the next play, Roethlisberger would find tight end Jesse James over the middle for a touchdown that would ... .
This would be ruled an incomplete pass because of Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3, Item 1 in the NFL rulebook, and, frankly, it's not wrong. Here's the full rule:
Item 1. Player Going to the Ground. A player is considered to be going to the ground if he does not remain upright long enough to demonstrate that he is clearly a runner. If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent), he must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, the pass is incomplete. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, the pass is complete.
James clearly lost control of the ball and the ball clearly touched the ground. Any argument in the Steelers' favor -- Pete Prisco tried to argue on the Pick Six Podcast Sunday recap that the ball was rolling on his right hand and he never lost control, but it was clearly moving -- is one born out of a hatred for the rule itself, not the interpretation.
And that is fine. The rule is stupid. James caught a pass and reached over the goal line with the ball. He crossed the plane in a situation where he was not in the end zone when he caught the ball. It's dumb to establish yourself as a runner in a situation where you are required to run/move/leap/jump/fall toward the end zone in order to score. If you're outside the end zone and you catch the ball, and then you put the ball over the plane of the goal line, it should be a touchdown.
Additionally, having to "survive the ground" is just silly. You're asking football players to try and not score. Plus, the idea of slowing things down to a crawl and then determining whether a ball was rolling on a finger feels more wrong than it does right at this stage of utilizing replay.
"You know, I don't have HD and all of that stuff. So it's really irrelevant how I feel about it to be honest with you," Mike Tomlin said after the game in his press conference. "It's not going to change the outcome of the game. I'm not going to cry over spilt milk and all of that crap and talk about replay. I ain't doing it."
But whatever, that's what the rule is. And as such, the Steelers did not score, the pass was incomplete.
After a complete pass on the next play that stayed in-bounds, there was a major issue with Roethlisberger's communication with the sideline. Ben said he was planning to clock the ball, but then said offensive coordinator. The result was a mangled fake spike slant that led to a Patriots game-winning interception.
You don't want to run a fake spike against the Patriots.
"It was something we worked on from the beginning of the season. In April, we're always talking about that because Tom does it and all the great quarterbacks do it," Devin McCourty told Scott Van Pelt on ESPN after the game. "So you can see us scrambling to get set and make sure we were able to play the play."
CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora reported that Roethlisberger had a pair of plays called and simply decided to run what he ran.
So, on a day in which the catch rule might have changed the course of the AFC postseason chase, everything changed for the Steelers. Antonio Brown suffered an injury that could put his postseason at risk, and we might have this loss create some drama between the quarterback and offensive coordinator.
Pittsburgh's probably going to earn a bye despite the loss, because they've got the Texans and Browns to close. Don't sleep on a Steelers hangover creating an issue in Houston next week for a team that is unafraid to lay an egg against a bad team on the road.
Just when you think you've seen everything in the NFL, you realize you've never seen Gene Steratore -- the guy who called the "Dez Caught It" playoff game between the Packers and Cowboys -- hand Dallas a first down by pulling out a piece of paper on a first-down measurement situation.
The Cowboys went for it on fourth-and-inches and snuck Dak Prescott. Because the NFL is super precise in the way it handles measurements, a couple of old guys holding a chain and two sticks ran onto the field and placed said chain and sticks near the football.
Steratore couldn't determine immediately if the ball qualified for a first down so ...?
It was a very bizarre scene all around.
Many, many questions here.
First of all, wouldn't the paper fitting between the ball and the marker mean it was not a first down? Why on earth would you fold the paper, when folding the paper creates more space and therefore makes it easier to rule a first down? WHY WOULD YOU USE PAPER IN THE FIRST PLACE?
According to Steratore after the game, he did not use the paper to confirm the first down.
"Didn't use the card to make the final decision," Steratore said, via a pool report from the game. "The final decision was made visually. The card was used nothing more than a reaffirmation of what was visually done. My decision was visually done based on the looks from the pole."
Asked repeatedly about his decision to use the card and why he did what he did, Steratore would only say the card had nothing to do with the decision and that it was clearly a first down.
Maybe he was using the card as a way to measure whether the two things were evenly lined up? That still doesn't account for why you would operate with a folded piece of paper.
As Jack Del Rio noted after the game, if there is air in between the stick and the ball, how on earth is it a first down? The biggest issue is that the NFL is a billion-dollar industry and it has equipped its referees with pieces of paper to determine game-changing -- and season-altering -- plays on a national television stage. There has to be a better way.
Killing the dream
The return of Aaron Rodgers was supposed to be the Packers' launch pad for a playoff run. But instead, Green Bay could easily be sitting at home when the postseason rolls around, and you can easily blame it on the return of Rodgers being too early. While he looked like he could turn into pre-injury Rodgers at times, he was definitely rusty for long stretches, leading to the one-time MVP suffering three interceptions.
Rodgers had the ball down seven points in the fourth quarter with plenty of time left on the clock, but credit the Panthers for an impressive defensive effort that probably quashed the Packers' playoff hopes while simultaneously boosting Carolina's NFC South odds. If Carolina wins out, including against the Falcons in Week 17, and Atlanta can beat New Orleans next week, the Panthers will come away with a division crown and a home playoff game.
They're a team that would be scary to see on the other side; Cam Newton is heating up, and Greg Olsen's return makes the Carolina offense only that much more dangerous. Olsen topped the 100-yard mark and scored a touchdown, although he did not do a great job of breaking down a bizarre moment that featured a touchdown for Damiere Byrd.
It will be known as the Butt Down. Or something, because Byrd -- who caught the ball, got feet in, then bobbled the ball, then landed on his rear end -- was literally ruled in by a single cheek.
No, really. They ruled that he got a cheek down, which equated to his whole body.
Olsen was actually irate bout the challenge when it happened.
But probably thrilled to be wrong. The whole thing was pretty freaking absurd.
It wasn't the only viral moment in this game, either. Cam Newton had Clay Matthews. The Packers linebacker sprinted up to the line and started yelling about the Panthers running a wheel route. Newton responded by yelling, "Oh you watched film ... watch this," and throwing a touchdown pass.where he called out
Lost in this silliness was Christian McCaffrey having his best game from a scrimmage-yards perspective. He hasn't hit any massive home runs yet this season, but he has really become a steadying presence on the offensive side of the ball. Carolina's got a stout defense and an offense that is starting to click. I'm telling you, they are dangerous.
Literally, too. Linebacker Thomas Davis, who no doubt felt bad about the way he hit Davante Adams -- Davis was seen on the Panthers' sideline with his head in his hands -- probably for what can be described only as a dirty play in this game.
Davis, a former Walter Payton Man of the Year, is not a dirty player. He's a good person and a great football player. But this was a dirty hit.
The refs flagged him for it, but you have to start wondering about the league not handing out punishments for guys who lay into players in a situation where the consequences could be serious.
"I think it was an unnecessary hit. Unfortunately, throw a better ball and the situation doesn't happen," Rodgers said after the game. "He's a repeat offender, so I'm sure the league will deal with him according to that."
Maybe Davis gets suspended. Maybe not. The league hasn't shown any real consistency when it comes to meting out discipline for stuff like this. But the issue with the league not stepping in and ejecting guys on dangerous helmet-to-helmet, concussion-causing hits is a problem that does not appear to be going away.
Celebration of the Week
There's a dude in my neighborhood who is always power-walking around. Rain or shine. Couldn't not think of him when the Packers busted this out.
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