Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 17: Wild-card weekend storylines
Sorting the Sunday Pile takes a look at the week that was in the NFL and breaks down all the biggest storylines from the NFL action.
We'll have plenty of time to talk about the playoffs in the six or seven days leading up to the beginning of the postseason on Saturday afternoon, but why wait? There's drama galore in every single game. Let's examine the biggest storyline from each ranked from least to most drama.
4. Houston-Cincinnati 2.0
There's relatively limited drama in this matchup and it's not the sexiest of games. But you'll recall that the Texans and Bengals squared off in a matchup last season in the playoffs. So there's some measure of revenge available for Andy Dalton (he got J.J. Watt in the Rose Bowl, then Watt got him with a pick six in the playoffs). Houston's favored by 4.5, but they're absolutely reeling right now.
3. Minnesota-Green Bay 2.0
Now this is a rematch. The Vikings and Packers hate each other and just finished what might've been the best game of the entire 2012 NFL season on Sunday, with Adrian Peterson dominating and Aaron Rodgers dealing. The defenses weren't spectacular, but that's OK. The biggest difference will be the move from inside Minnesota's dome to outdoors at Lambeau Field. That shift makes the Packers 8-point favorites in this matchup. That's a lot of points given that, you know, Minnesota just beat Green Bay. And bad weather might actually favor the Vikings, who are run heavy (Rodgers dome numbers are outstanding). But the Vikings secondary is torn up after a rough day against Green Bay and it's possible Rodgers could have a field day.
2. Pagano Returns to Baltimore
Think about Chuck Pagano's last 24 months: he took over as Ravens defensive coordinator in 2011, helped Baltimore turn out the third-ranked defense in the NFL, got hired in 2012 by the Colts to help turn around the worst team in football, was diagnosed with leukemia, was the subject of #chuckstrong, returned to the sidelines and is now heading back to Baltimore for a playoff game with those Colts. Oh and did I mention that the Colts actually left Baltimore for Indianapolis? That part actually isn't that juicy compared to Pagano's return. It should be emotional, it should be charged and it's going to be interesting. The Ravens are favored by 6.5 points and there's plenty of reason to think the Ravens can crush the Colts. But do you really want to bet against Pagano and Andrew Luck at this point?
1. Russell vs. RG3
This isn't technically the first-ever playoff game featuring two rookie quarterbacks but it might as well be; I'm not counting T.J. Yates and Andy Dalton in 2011. Wilson won his job over Matt Flynn and the Redskins gave up piles and piles of draft picks to grab Griffin. They are the respective faces of their franchises now, they complete percentages at a high rate, they score in the air, they score on the ground, and they're two of the top three guys in the discussion for Offensive Rookie of the Year. And they're also squaring off in D.C. on Sunday afternoon.
Can we call the dogs off on handing out the award and, with all due respect to one Mr. Andrew Luck, just let the winner take all for this one? OK probably not since, uh, Luck will get lots of votes. But still: someone is walking out of Washington with a win in the playoffs as a rookie quarterback.
That's something rare, kind of like this draft class.
Fix the Challenge Issue Now Please
Remember on Thanksgiving when Jim Schwartz challenged a Justin Forsett touchdown run against the Texans and ended up having to forsake the play because he challenged? Yeah, that rule is stupid. But it popped up again when James Jones appeared to score a touchdown against the Vikings Sunday.
He was either down or scored, to the naked eye. But the ruling on the field, somehow, was a fumble, Mike McCarthy threw his challenge flag and probably cost his team a shot at getting the ball back ... until the refs announced that when McCarthy threw his flag a challenge had already been commenced.
So McCarthy wasn't allowed to challenge and was penalized for throwing the flag and the Packers got the touchdown.
That's maddeningly inconsistent and it needs to be fixed. This is especially true since there's no public protocol or acknowledgment that the challenge has already begun; it gives off a sense of shadiness.
I'm sure the NFL will handle it this offseason, but if something like that pops up in the playoffs it's going to be awkward.
Titans Score 28 Unanswered Points Without O
Scoring 28 unanswered points in the NFL isn't exactly easy. It require a combination of a dominant defensive performance and a dominant offensive performance. Or just a total meltdown by the other team.
That's what happened with the Jaguars when the Titans put up four touchdowns in the span of five game minutes.
Chad Henne, with the Jaguars leading 14-7, and trying to drive down and extend that lead, threw a pick that was taken to the house by Zach Brown. The Titans kicked off, the Jaguars ran four plays, punted the ball with 33 seconds left in the half and Darius Reynaud took the kick back the entire way. The Jags would run five more plays before the half that produced about 25 yards. The Titans kicked off to start the half and after a Jacksonville three-and-out, Reynaud took another punt to the house. After a Tennessee kick, the Jaguars ran one play and Henne threw another pick that Brown again took to the house.
Five minutes, 28 points, no offensive plays ... and the score went from 14-7 Jacksonville to 35-14 Titans. It's a fantastic anomaly and you probably won't ever see it happen again.
Nine Yards What?
The MVP debate will be quite heated this year. All I know is that Adrian Peterson put his team on his back and took them to the playoffs. And, oddly enough, broke off a run that set up a game-winning Blair Walsh field goal while also leaving Peterson nine yards shy of Eric Dickerson's record.
But the best part about all of it wasn't Peterson dominating or the Vikings winning (I not-so-secretly wanted Walsh to shank the kick) and improbably making the playoffs. The best part was Peterson's reaction when Pam Oliver asked him how it felt to be nine yards short of the record.
"Nine yards what? From breaking it??" an incredulous Peterson asked back. "Well, ultimately, we got the W That was my main focus and if it happened it happened but don't focus on it."
I don't know if Peterson actually knew how close he was or not; a cynic would say he definitely knew, but I think there was too much on the line for him to care at that point in time. Peterson was running with a purpose and that purpose was getting in the playoffs.
But I do know that if I had an MVP vote, Peterson would get it. Regardless of whether or not Peterson can meet the high expectations of Dickerson's small baby.
Daddy keeps the record!!!!!My son will break one day :) twitter.com/EricDickerson/…— Eric Dickerson (@EricDickerson) December 31, 2012
I also know this: AP ain't done chasing Dickerson yet. He rushed for 199 yards a year removed -- to the day -- from reconstructive knee surgery. That would be called impossible, but it just happened.
Andy Reid's Fitting Ending in Philly
I'm probably among a large number of folks who thought the Eagles would show up and produce at a high level for what is certain to be Andy Reid's last game as coach of the Eagles. Whoops.
But it's a fitting end for Reid in Philadelphia. Not because the Eagles got blown out, but because they were blown out because Michael Vick couldn't produce and because the secondary was repeatedly torched.
The "Dream Team" crew that Reid assembled revolved largely around Vick at quarterback and the addition of Nnadmi Asomugha at cornerback. Both were awful Sunday and Asomugha, once considered potentially the best cornerback in the NFL, is just flat-out terrible these days.
He's been beat all season long and was abused by Eli Manning and the Giants on Sunday. Reid shoved all in with other high-priced players as well. But Vick and Asomugha were the two biggest investments of the final years of his Eagles tenure. That they were the primary culprits in his final game is quite fitting.
Greg Jennings Made Himself Some Money
The common belief is that Greg Jennings is on his way out of Green Bay. It makes sense: he wants lots of money, and the Packers would prefer to divert resources elsewhere, especially when they keep hitting home runs (Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb) with wideouts in the second round.
But on Sunday, Jennings looked stupendous against the Vikings. He caught eight passes for 120 yards and appeared to be the Greg Jennings of old, the one who piled up five-straight seasons of over 900 receiving yards recently.
The Packers might (will?) franchise him this offseason, but it would be surprising to see Jennings inked to a deal. Green Bay's got Nelson and Cobb and that makes them plenty dynamic enough, especially when Ted Thompson knocks wideout picks out of the park (they also grabbed James Jones in the third round).
It'll be interesting to see, too, how much Jennings would fetch in an open market that also features Dwayne Bowe, should the Chiefs wideout not be franchised a second-straight year. Regardless, Jennings big performance on Sunday only served to make him additional money, especially if he rolls that momentum into the playoffs.
Coaches Going YOLO
How many times on Sunday did we see a coach doing something insane simply because they weren't going to the playoffs and/or were a lock to get fired?
Sunday was less predictable than a preseason week's worth of action: Andy Reid thought fourth downs were laughable and both Pat Shurmur and Norv Turner faked punts (successfully no less!).
There's one thing all those guys have in common: they're getting fired. It made for quite the difficult day picking games (sigh) and caused an incredible lack of predictability around the NFL on Sunday.
I'd never advocate as if coaches roll with a gameplan that's predicated on them assuming they're losing their jobs. That would be stupid. But it's interesting what coaches will do when they aren't worried about their gigs being second guessed. Some of them would be wise to at least be a little more aggressive on a regular basis. Maybe they wouldn't find themselves brazenly flaunting their job status quite as often.
Aldon Smith completely sack-less in 10-ish quarters since Justin Smith left with injury. Hmmmmm.— Will Brinson (@willbrinson) December 31, 2012
Leading up to that injury, Aldon had at least one sack in seven consecutive games. He faced Arizona and Seattle previously, and compiled three total sacks against them. He had 5.5 (!) against Chicago in a terrorizing run that ultimately fell short of breaking Michael Strahan's record.
And, more important, after Justin went out, the 49ers defense wasn't all that great. They were shredded in the second half by the Patriots and destroyed by the Seahawks and sacked Brian Hoyer of the Cardinals only twice. (I'm not counting points because the Cardinals don't score points anyway.)
Smith, simply, is an anchor in the middle of the Niners line. He commands attention from multiple players and when you yank the linchpin out of the San Francisco defense, it's much harder for them to do damage.
Morris got props from my colleague Clark Judge leading up to Week 17 because he was the rookie the Cowboys couldn't ignore. And Clark was right -- Morris carried the ball 33 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns against the Cowboys, sealing the Redskins' NFC East title.
Morris won't end up being in the top three for voting of the ROY award, but the dude is over 1,600 yards for the season, with 13 touchdowns. He was certainly helped by having a mobile quarterback and it probably doesn't hurt that he's in Mike Shanahan's offense. But the guy balled it up all year long. It's a shame he won't get more consideration.
Last Name Wilson
Damn you, Deion Sanders. Damn you. Anyway, some stats to leave you with re: Wilson's candidacy for ROY.
Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) December 31, 2012
Look, it's the first time in NFL history we're going to have three rookie quarterbacks starting playoff games. I wrote about it last week, but the median age for quarterbacks in the playoffs is 26. That's freaking young, man.
And the combo of Luck, Wilson and RG3 won a combined 32 -- THIRTY-TWO! -- games this year (if you're willing to give RG3 the game Kirk Cousins won anyway ...).
It's a young man's game and we're going to see that once the playoffs roll around.
GIF O' THE WEEK
So, so, so many choices. I'm going with Demaryius Thomas, though, who managed to make one of the more incredible catches you'll see on Sunday.
The ending to New England-Pittsburgh was wild, and one play appeared to change the game at...
The Steelers' best player is expected back but not until the postseason
The Panthers owner announced he would sell the team after the year concludes
All of the best highlights from Week 15 are right here
Week 15 provided a lot of clarity to the NFL postseason
Here are the Week 15 grades for every team that played Sunday