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Power rankings, strength-of-schedule, likes on Facebook -- there are many ways to assess NFL teams. As the home stretch approaches, Tuesday Morning Quarterback makes his annual contribution: the Authentic Games metric.
Authentic Games are those against other potent teams. The regular season is a smorgasbord of strong and weak; in the postseason, only strong opponents trot onto the field. That makes how a team performs against equal-caliber opposition the gauge TMQ likes.
The Authentic metric values most W's over best percentage. Thus I rank the Denver Broncos at 4-2 ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts at 3-1. The reasoning is that the more wins a team has versus power opponents, the better prepared the team is for the postseason.
Because some teams start slow and finish strong, while others do the reverse, I judge opponents as "authentic" based on current records. There is one exception. The asterisk in this ranking is the Green Bay Packers, since Green Bay is entirely a different team without Aaron Rodgers. Thus the San Francisco 49ers get credit for an authentic win for defeating the Packers, with Rodgers, to open the season. The Eagles don't get credit for defeating the Packers with Scott Tolzien at QB. Detroit's early loss to Green Bay with Rodgers counts as an authentic defeat, while Detroit's later win over the Pack led by Matt Flynn does not count as an authentic victory. Here are the Authentic Games standings:
Denver and New Orleans: 4-2
Cincinnati and Indianapolis: 3-1
Carolina, Kansas City and New England: 2-2
San Francisco: 2-4
This metric predicts a Super Bowl pairing of Broncos versus Seahawks. (If the teams are different, I will deny having said this.) Denver versus Seattle -- offense versus defense -- is a Super Bowl with tremendous potential audience appeal. Of course it's also outdoors in New Jersey in February, which won't bother Seattle.
In other football news, the Cowboys have won two straight, but now are doomed, doomed. Not because Tony Romo was just on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which is bad enough: rather, because December has begun. For his NFL career, Romo is a sparkling 24-5 in November, followed by a dismal 12-20 for the remainder of the season. Perhaps something in the Thanksgiving turkey doesn't seem to agree with Romo. But football is a team game, and the rest of the 'Boys seem to get tryptophan-drowsy and lose focus when Christmas approaches, too.
Whatever happens to Romo, doubt not the Sports Illustrated curse. Cover boy of the issue before the Dallas quarterback was AJ McCarron, with the headline, "On The Brink Of A Third National Title." No more! See Single Worst Play of the Season So Far.
In other sports news, what if your team lost 86-56? I'm not talking about your basketball team, I am talking about your large-school-division football team. See below.
Stats of the Week No. 1: Tony Romo and Joe Flacco are a combined 44-12 in the month of November.
Stats of the Week No. 2: The Giants and Jets, the New Jersey teams, are first and second for giveaways, combining to turn the ball over 58 times.
Stats of the Week No. 3: Nick Foles has 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Stats of the Week No. 4: Indianapolis is on a 10-1 streak in its division.
Stats of the Week No. 5: Kansas City became the first NFL team ever to open 9-0 then go 0-3.
Stats of the Week No. 6: In opening 9-0, Kansas City's defense allowed 11 touchdowns while scoring six. In going 0-3, the Chiefs' defense allowed 13 touchdowns while not scoring.
Stats of the Week No. 7: Outgaining the Packers by 435 yards, the Lions won at home on Thanksgiving for the first time in a decade.
Stats of the Week No. 8: The Eagles are a league-best 20-5 coming out of a bye week.
Stats of the Week No. 9: Carolina, which has allowed just two touchdowns in the first half, is on a 13-3 run.
Stats of the Week No. 10: The Seahawks are 14-0 at home when Russell Wilson starts.
Sweet Play of the Week: Seattle facing third-and-1 on its 36, the Bluish Men Group lined up in a three-tight end power set, suggesting run; the Seahawks are that rare contemporary NFL team that rushes more than it passes. Two tight ends were in line. The third lined up as a fullback, then went in motion left; two linebackers moved with the motion man, guessing toss left, a play Seattle uses a lot. At the snap, Russell Wilson bootlegged right with the tailback in front of him and the left-side in-line tight end running a short "drag" right. To the linebackers and safety on the play side, the action looked like fake left, bootleg flare pass right -- a common tactic on short yardage.
But where was the tight end from the right side, Zach Miller? He stutter-stepped once, then went deep. Tight end going deep is a surprise at every level of football, even professional. ILB David Hawthorne, who should have taken Miller in the New Orleans 3-4 scheme, instead let him bolt past, to defend what Hawthorne thought would be a flare pass or Wilson rush. Sixty-yard completion to the uncovered Miller. A few snaps later, Seattle led 17-0 and the rout was on.
Sweet bonus: With 18 seconds before intermission, Seattle was on the New Orleans 4. The Seahawks showed a trips bunch at the goal line -- exactly what New Orleans used earlier for its lone touchdown. Doug Baldwin ran from the trips bunch across the end zone and was uncovered for the touchdown that made the halftime score 27-7. Two uncovered receivers on key plays in the same half! The Saints' defense looked like its 2012 self.
Sour Play of the Week: Game tied at 21 midway through the third quarter, Kansas City faced fourth-and-2 on the Denver 42. That cannot be the punt team! The Broncos are the league's highest-scoring club, you cannot punt on fourth-and-short inside the territory of the league's highest-scoring club!
Denver required just two snaps to pass the point where the ball would have been, had the Chiefs gone for it and failed. On the day, Kansas City rushed for 159 yards and a 6.4 yard average. Yet when the Chiefs needed two yards at home to take command of the most important game of their season, their head coach, Andy Reid, sent in the punt unit.
Now mired in an 0-3 streak, Kansas City is making football IQ mistakes, such as Dexter McCluster fielding a punt on his own 3, where he was immediately tackled. The Chiefs went three-and-out, then Denver scored a touchdown the other way. Never field a punt inside your own 10! This standard isn't hard to follow: The return man is supposed to plant his feet on the 10 and not backpedal, no matter what.
Football IQ also says if what you're doing has been figured out, change tactics. Early in the season, the Chiefs' defense was surprising offenses with eight-man fronts and aggressive press corners. Nobody is surprised now. In its past two games, Kansas City has allowed 790 passing yards. The press corners are being torched, including on a 77-yard completion on which Demaryius Thomas just blew past press corner Marcus Cooper, who never so much as touched him. Pressing backfires if receivers run right past. Time for Kansas City to change tactics.
Sweet 'N' Sour Play: City of Tampa leading 3-0, Carolina lined up on the Buccaneers' 16 with flanker Brandon LaFell left, plus tight end Greg Olsen and a wide receiver forming a stack right. Olsen came in motion until he formed a stack left with LaFell, who ran uncovered for a touchdown catch. Sweet.
At the snap, a Bucs corner and linebacker were pointing and arguing about who should cover whom. The combo move is so common in the NFL that, by December, defenses should not be confused about how to react. At the snap, rookie Johnathan Banks, the confused corner, simply covered no one, standing like a piece of topiary. Sour.
Sweet 'N' Sour Play II: Trailing Cleveland 28-25, Jacksonville faced third-and-9 on the Browns' 20 with 45 seconds remaining. Cecil Shorts, of Division III Mount Union, ran a stop-and-go; Chad Henne pump-faked; cornerback Joe Haden bit; touchdown. And the Jags have followed an 0-8 streak with a 3-1 streak. Sweet. Sour was that Haden bit on the short fake and no safety was in sight deep, though Jax was already in field-goal range and nearly certain to try for the end zone.
Josh Gordon of the Browns had 626 receiving yards in his first seven games, and has 623 receiving yards in his past three contests. The Browns were 4-3 with Gordon receiving passes at a normal pace, and are 0-3 with Gordon at a record-setting pace.
TMQ News: Next week is my bye week. On Dec. 17, TMQ returns and will be on the case through that Super Bowl thing you might have heard about.
During the bye week, I will be the guest on NPR's "Diane Rehm Show." Date is Monday, Dec. 9, time is 11 a.m. till noon ET. Topic is, of course, "The King of Sports."
Preposterous Punt Watch: Trailing 7-0 at Baltimore, Pittsburgh punted on fourth-and-6 from the Ravens' 37. Later, trailing 10-0, the Steelers punted on fourth-and-1 from their 31. Pittsburgh went on to lose by two points, dropping the team to 5-7 and close to elimination.
Had Steelers coach Mike Tomlin kept his offense on the field instead of launching these Preposterous Punts, the outcome might have been different. But Tomlin is a traditionalist coach, and traditionalists punt on fourth down. Also, earlier in the contest, Tomlin gambled with a fake field goal, which failed. If a coin flip come ups tails five straight times, this tells nothing about the sixth flip. But it's human nature to think otherwise.
Black Friday Becomes Black Thursday: "Most lamentable day, most woeful day. Never was seen so black a day as this." That's Shakespeare, a line that for several years seemed to pertain to Black Friday, and in 2013 moved over to Thanksgiving Day itself.
Many big-box stores were open on Thanksgiving, including Macy's, creator of the famed Thanksgiving parade. At some Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Old Navy and other retailers, police were stationed at front doors to maintain order as shoppers rushed the entrance. More than a few people camped out overnight on Wednesday to be first in line for Thanksgiving Day shopping. Pizza Hut fired a manager in Elkhart, Ind., for daring to close his pizzeria on Thanksgiving. The manager has his job back, but the corporate arrogance shown is only one of several social indicators making Thanksgiving a "most lamentable day."
Perhaps it's spitting into the wind to say there is too much materialism, not enough sense of gratitude or reflection. After all, no one put guns to Americans' heads and forced them to abandon their communal tables, forget the meaning of the day, and rush to stores. People did that of their own free will. Perhaps Thanksgiving Day shoppers obtained significant savings. Chances are many did not -- they just let go of that whole gratitude nonsense and got on with the far more important task of materialism. In the modern context Tony Rohr, who refused to open the Pizza Hut, is a revolutionary.
Christmas can be vexing because it is both a religious and secular holiday. Observant Christians long have been concerned with the commercialization of Christmas. But there's no reason why those who aren't observant Christians should not approach Christmas purely as a gift-giving, feast-eating and under-the-mistletoe event. Wonderful as Christmas can be, it played no role in the nation's history and makes no claim on the American national spirit. The methodical corporate destruction of Christmas via commercialization can be objected to only by observant Christians, which most people are not.
But Thanksgiving Day is supposedly a national celebration of thanks for America's freedom and plenty -- engaging all citizens regardless of religious or political beliefs. Now corporate America is methodically destroying Thanksgiving, too.
And we are cooperating. There is a three-word solution to Black Friday becoming Black Thursday: Just say no. Don't go to corporate retailers on Thanksgiving. Be with friends and relatives, even if they drive you nuts, and keep your thoughts on gratitude and the meaning of the day. If a couple years pass without crowds rushing the doors of big-corporate stores on Thanksgiving, then retailers will go back to being closed and giving their workers a day off.
Lawsuits and legislation are not needed to return Thanksgiving to its original meaning -- all that's needed is for Americans to refuse to enter stores for one day of the year. Has materialism become such an almighty that Americans cannot do this? Then maybe Thanksgiving is a religious event after all.
"We Score More!" as the College Chant Goes: NFL teams are averaging 23.4 points per game, up slightly from the season record of 23.2. Don't count the chickens just yet -- scoring tends to tail off late, so a record season is far from assured. But if the record is beaten, bear this in mind: The best-ever NFL season for scoring per game was 1948.
Sportscasters call pass-wacky spread offenses radical. They were, in the 1940s when they were devised. One of the best books about football tactics is Dutch Meyer's "Spread Formation Football," published 1952. In it the TCU coach details how he learned to "spread the field" and produce high-scoring college games in the late 1940s. His ideas reached the pros, where high-scoring outcomes occurred before many of today's football enthusiasts were born. (ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach expertly summarized the history of high-octane offense in this 2009 story.) The most total points ever in an NFL game, 113, happened in 1966. The third-most, 101, happened in 1963. The most points ever in a first half, 49, happened in 1983. The most points ever in a second half, also 49, happened in 1941.
Today's pass-wacky offenses are fun to watch, and the season may end with a record pace for overall points production. But nothing is new under the sun: Shootouts would seem normal to Dutch Meyer.
StubHub World: Going into the weekend, 50-yard-line seats behind the home bench were being offered at $650 each for the monster New Orleans at Seattle contest. Bleacher seats for the woofer Jaguars A&M at Browns pairing were offered at $8 each -- until an eBay-like competition broke out, and someone began offering seats at $7.98 to undercut the $8 seller.
Best Purist Drive: In the rematch of Stanford versus Harvard quarterbacks, Indianapolis led 15-14 and took possession with eight minutes remaining. The Colts staged an 11-play clock-killer touchdown drive, rushing on nine of 11 snaps to keep the tick-tick-tick in progress.
Book News: The headline from France's parliament at first blush sounds absurd -- what do they mean there is no such thing as race? Actually, this is a hotly debated point in genetics, sociology and other fields, as Steve Olson laid out in The Atlantic Monthly 12 years ago. The more is known about DNA, the more race appears to be a social construct: that black and white people are no more different than blondes and brunettes.
This emerging theory is reflected in a book about to be released, "A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America," by Jacqueline Jones, a highly regarded University of Texas historian. Your columnist just finished an advance copy, and was impressed -- the volume may have a lasting impact on American thought.
Jones persuasively argues that the wealthy and powerful of previous centuries were obsessed with holding back the poor. Pretending blacks represent a different "race" than whites created an excuse, she contends, for the well-off to mistreat blacks; and also a lever to prevent poor blacks and poor whites from joining in common cause. Whites "fashioned their own identity by contrasting themselves to blacks," Jones writes, ingraining the concept that skin color is somehow fundamentally different from all the other cosmetic distinctions among persons, then using the biases to prevent blacks from achieving the education and economic power that would disprove racial assumptions.
"A Dreadful Deceit" is one of those books that may succeed more because it coincides with developments in public thought, than because of being a great work. Jones employs the "storytelling" structure that is all the rage in academia, which posits that because minorities and women of the past were marginalized, they can be understood only through their personal narratives. This may be true; the trouble is that for every personal narrative of oppression, there is a personal narrative of someone who was not mistreated. Grand themes of history, one of which Jones claims to have discovered, need more than anecdotes, however compelling. Jones also comes perilously close to contending, "Race is an imaginary concept for which the white race should be blamed."
Readers have little way of judging whether Jones' assertions about past centuries are true. Facts attached to the present day can be checked, and there are red flags. Jones declares, "Beginning in 2009, drastic cutbacks in public services and wholesale layoffs of public employees took a particularly high toll" on African-Americans. Government employment did decline. But considering record deficit spending, the "drastic cutbacks in public services" part didn't sound right to me, and indeed is not right. From 2009 to 2012, federal spending on social services, health care, and benefits to seniors and the disadvantaged rose 12 percent, by about $263 billion: see page 55. So I checked the article Jones cited to back her fact about "drastic" cuts. The article is on a different subject -- trends in median household income of those nearing retirement -- and does not mention public services.
When Jones switches to sports, she asserts, "An estimated 90 percent of NCAA revenue comes from just one percent of the 'stars,' 90 percent of whom are black." Besides bad grammar -- she means "from the 1 percent who are stars" -- the money part sounds way off. Last season Louisville won the men's basketball title and a BCS bowl; its revenue for these sports was $70 million, and the school had 100 scholarship football and men's basketball players. If 1 percent of those athletes generated 90 percent of the $70 million, who was the amazing man who made $63 million -- while the other 99 Louisville players were nearly worthless? This year the original Pac-12 schools receive $18 million each from ESPN and Fox for sports television rights. If a handful of stars generate nearly all college athletic revenue, why does cellar-dwelling Cal get exactly the same network sports income as bowl-bound Stanford and Oregon?
It may be true that in college sports, the top 1 percent of athletes receive 90 percent of the attention. But that's quite different from the economic claim Jones makes. I checked the source Jones cites, which turns out be a magazine article that quotes the ever-hyperbolic Sonny Vaccaro saying, "Ninety percent of the NCAA revenue is produced by 1 percent of the athletes." So an unsubstantiated opinion from a businessman who is prone to exaggerate becomes a fact in Jones' book. A historian should work to higher standards.
Such faults aside, "A Dreadful Deceit" may put into the national conversation the notion that categorizing by "race" is an obsolescent idea. Skin color tells nothing more about a person than eye color; there is simply one human race. That is a powerful, progressive idea.
Duke Football in Title Game -- Not a Misprint! Duke -- that's Duke football, not Duke basketball -- will face Florida State in the ACC title contest. Duke is not only winning, Duke football graduates 92 percent of its players, compared to the 58 percent of football players who graduated for Florida State. Seventy-one percent of Florida State students overall graduate, making the Seminoles' figure one the Florida alumni and trustees should feel ashamed of.
Manly Man Play of the Week: Scoring to pull within 42-41 versus undefeated Ohio State, Michigan went for two with 32 seconds remaining, and failed. The decision was the right one. Overtime is a 50/50 proposition in any case. Michigan was playing at home, and had crowd energy on its side. The play just didn't work.
The call was a shotgun-spread buttonhook to Michigan's possession receiver. Ohio State came out in a dime as the Buckeyes were expecting pass. Pre-snap, there were five Ohio State defenders in the tackle box, versus five Michigan linemen, a tight end, a quarterback and a running back. Had Michigan rushed against the dime look, its chances were good. Maybe it's just as well Bo Schembechler didn't live to see a Michigan quarterback sprinting backward when three yards were needed. Michigan could have run the Statue of Liberty play that Boise State used to defeat Oklahoma in this situation.
Really Important Economic Leading Indicator: A few years ago, TMQ warned of a looming fancy cupcake bubble. High-end cupcake bakeries, I thought, were not going to become the Subway of the new century.
Reader Elizabeth Schreppel of Gloversville, NY., notes a Wall Street Journal article reporting the decline of cupcake madness. Crumbs, the national chain attempting to be the Starbucks of cupcakes, peaked at $13 a share in 2011, and now is down to 92 cents. That's right -- a share of stock in a cupcake corporation costs less than a cupcake.
Give the Ball to the Law Firm! The Cincinnati Bengals are sitting pretty at 8-4, a two-game division lead with four games remaining and three of those contests at home. The Bengals and New England Patriots are a combined 30-5 when BenJarvus Green-Ellis scores a touchdown.
Don't Give a Hoot: Those who can remember the dim mists of history -- say, a couple decades ago -- recall that preservation of the northern spotted owl was a major American political issue during the 1980s, then played a role in the 1992 presidential election campaign, then was among the high-profile matters of the Bill Clinton administration. Decisions during the 1990s by the Fish and Wildlife Service, coupled to judge's orders, effectively ended much of the logging in the Pacific Northwest. This pleased affluent landowners, cost jobs for average people and shifted timber production to Malaysia, where there are almost no environmental regulations.
There are three other birds quite similar to the northern spotted, whose numbers continue to decline. The California spotted owl has a stable population. The Mexican spotted owl probably is in decline: about five years ago, a federal judge placed land-use restrictions on areas of Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico to protect the Mexican spotted. The barred owl, the third bird similar to northern spotted, doesn't need special protection as it is population is expanding, based on natural competition.
So the plan is to start shooting barred owls. Excuse me, "culling" them. The Fish and Wildlife Service wants to kill at least 3,000 barred owls, which are so similar to spotted owls that a trained eye is needed to distinguish the types. Spotted owls are federally protected, by the Endangered Species Act. Barred owls are not protected. So let's kill the disfavored owls in order to help the politically correct owls!
As recently as two generations ago, barred owls mainly were found east of the Mississippi, where they are commonly called hoot owls, for their whoot-woo-who territorial marking sound. The recovery of forests across the United States -- total forested acres have been increasing for a quarter century -- created a migratory pathway for barred owls to spread west. This development was unexpected; the literature of owl protection depicts such birds as so habitat-dependent they are vulnerable to any change. It turns out the barred owl is not fragile, able to adapt to many habitats. Barred owls are also more aggressive than spotted owls; the worry among defenders of the latter is that barred owls will out-compete spotted owls and take their territory in the Pacific Northwest.
So open fire on barred owls! Excuse me, employ " barred owl removal as a management tool."
This situation has a kind of daffy logic. Laws and court rulings have instructed federal officials to go to almost any length to protect the northern spotted. This policy may be wise or foolish, but is the policy federal wildlife officials are instructed to enforce. Many voters in the Pacific Northwest oppose logging, perhaps not caring if it is ridiculous to kill owls to protect owls. The voters' views may also be wise or foolish, since trees are a renewable resource. Well-regulated logging with replanting and erosion protection can be what everyone claims to want, sustainable economics.
Having thrown loggers out of work in order advance a contention there is something super-ultra-important about the northern spotted owl as opposed to other owls, federal officials painted themselves into a corner. They must either admit that the previous owl-protection initiatives were overdone, or kill barred owls. Government agencies do not excel at admitting error. If the "cull" begins, it won't be long until a northern spotted is mistaken for a barred and shot. We had to destroy the owl in order to save it!
Underneath this issue is a fallacy in human understanding of nature: the assumption that the environment and its creatures are brittle things whom the slightest disturbance will render extinct. The environment has survived ice ages, comet impacts and climate change far more dramatic than any that artificial greenhouse gas may cause. Inconveniently for Pacific Northwest environmental lobbyists, birds extremely similar to spotted owls are doing just fine on their own. So get rid of the evidence.
Max Bialystock's Dream Show: "Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark," the much-maligned musical, will close on Broadway after Christmas, then reopen in Las Vegas. Turns out Peter Parker and M.J. can just walk away. In a move after the heart of Max Bialystock, the producer in "The Producers," producers of the Spider-man musical claim it lost money though running two and a half years.
Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk: Miami leading 13-0 late in the third quarter at Jersey/B, the Jets faced fourth-and-goal on the Dolphins' 2. Don't wimp out! The field goal boomed, and that is all you need to know about the remainder of this contest, which at times looked like a preseason game on both sides of the ball. The Jets quietly are posting a disastrous season on offense, having failed to record a touchdown in four of their past seven games. Jersey/B leads the league in quarterback turnovers for the second consecutive season (Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith).
Before Jersey/B's fraidy-cat field goal, Miami twice went for it on fourth-and-1 and both times was denied. But the attempts communicated to Miami players that their coach was challenging them to win.
Calling All Snail Darters: Is it unfair to say that federal environmental rules are used not to protect the environment but stop economic activity?
Your columnist lives in prosperous, booming Montgomery County, in Maryland, where employment is high, public schools are strong and the population keeps swelling. Roads are clogged, which means not just inconvenience but greenhouse gases as cars idle in traffic. The county wants to build a light-rail system that would traverse the area of the worst traffic jams, providing an alternative to cars. The proposed line is being fought over the discovery of the rare Hay's Spring amphipod in a creek along the route.
That a life-form is small or little-known doesn't render it insignificant. But most likely few involved in this fight care about the tiny shrimp-like guy -- its discovery is an excuse to oppose development. People who own property in the area of the proposed light rail don't want construction noise and don't want a public-transportation system catering to working-class persons and immigrants. The situation is parallel to what happened in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, when people owning expensive exurban homes didn't want to get stuck behind log trucks on one-lane roads. If the goal is protecting the environment, logging (sustainable) and mass transit (reduces fossil fuel waste) are fine ideas. If the motivation is I've-got-mine-Jack, pretend you are deeply concerned with the Hay's Spring amphipod.
Romo's Last November Game of the Year: Blue-clad Dallas Cowboys leading 28-21, the Oakland Raiders faced third-and-9 on the hosts' 20 with nine minutes remaining. Presnap, third-string quarterback Matt McGloin saw speed receiver Jacoby Ford in single-man coverage with corner Brandon Carr playing press, and no safety over the top. Any quarterback would audible to a "go" in that situation. McGloin audibled to a go.
Just before the snap, Carr began to backpedal. Either because of the coverage called or because Carr correctly guessed the play, by the time McGloin started his throw, a best-case scenario had become a worst-case scenario -- the corner he thought would bump-and-run had instead "turned his hips" and was retreating at maximum speed. But McGloin made up his mind before the snap to throw to Ford. The ball went straight to Carr, whose pick was the game's decisive play. Soon the 'Boys were titans astride the NFC East, which this year means were 7-5.
Denver's Own Personal Stats Item: The Broncos are on a pace to score 619 points; the league record is 589 points. Peyton Manning is on pace to throw 55 touchdown passes; the league record is 50. Denver has outscored opponents by 147 points. The Broncos have kicked 59 extra points; the Jets have kicked 16 extra points. Denver's own personal worrisome stat: the Broncos have 25 giveaways, tied for third-worst in the league.
Adventures in Officiating: Jacoby Jones of the Baltimore Ravens was sprinting up the sideline in front of the Pittsburgh Steelers' bench for what seemed a likely kick return touchdown when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin put his feet onto the field in Jones' path. The Baltimore player sidestepped Tomlin, slowing down enough that he was caught from behind at the Steelers' 27. Tomlin wasn't flagged.
Set aside that during the offseason, the NFL said a 2013 officiating point of emphasis would be keeping head coaches off the field. Set aside that maybe Jones would have been caught anyway. That doesn't matter to rule enforcement, otherwise players could contend, "Sure I grabbed his facemask, but maybe he would have gone down anyway." And it does not matter whether Tomlin stepped into Jones' path on purpose or just made a knucklehead mistake; many sports penalties are unintentional. TMQ's question is: Why wasn't Baltimore awarded a touchdown?
The NFL rules list five ways a touchdown may be recorded, the fifth being, "The Referee awards a touchdown to a team that has been denied one by a palpably unfair act." An opposition coach steps directly into the path of a runner who is likely to score. The rules give the referee broad authority to determine what constitutes "palpably unfair" action. When Tommy Lewis left the Alabama bench to tackle a Rice runner in the 1954 Cotton Bowl, Rice was awarded a touchdown. What Tomlin did was not so spectacular, but the officiating decision should have been the same.
During the final drive of a one-score game at Washington on Sunday night, officials indicated first down when it was actually third down, then moved the chains to show first down, then didn't halt play to correct the chains and down marker, saying that would have stopped the clock in a beat-the-clock situation. Yours truly scanned the 114-page NFL rules and couldn't find any stricture declaring officials should allow their own mistakes in the endgame. You will not be surprised to learn the words "Jeff Triplette" are attached to yet another zebra blunder.
Atlanta trailing 31-24 and facing second-and-5 on the Buffalo 23 just before the two-minute warning at Toronto, Matt Ryan threw incomplete. Bills' safety Aaron Williams was called for illegal contact, giving Atlanta first down on the 18 rather than third down on the 23. Not only did Williams not make illegal contact with Tony Gonzalez, the man he was guarding, Williams didn't make any contact. He was playing "off," expecting a deep route. Check the tape. The call isn't even close.
TMQ thinks illegal contact should be only five yards, not an automatic first down. Readers have replied that it should be a first down because the contact might have prevented a long gain. True, but almost any penalty might have prevented something more valuable than the walk-off. There are too many automatic first downs in NFL rules. Under the National Federation of High Schools rules used in most states, roughing the passer isn't an automatic first down -- it is a 15-yard walk-off. And as of this season, defensive pass interference is no longer an automatic first, it's 15 yards and replay the down.
Eagles Winning with Defense?? Philadelphia's up-down-up season is confounding all predictions. One subtle factor for the Nesharim is that the same five offensive linemen have started every game, and now understand what Chip Kelly wants them to do. Another is that Nick Foles is studying the playbook and following it; Michael Vick, for all his talent, was prone to freelancing. The key is an improving Eagles defense, which allowed 35 points per game in the first month of the season, and has allowed 18 points per game since.
Cold Coach = Victory: Interim coach T.J. Weist took over the winless University of Connecticut squad and, among other things, began wearing short sleeves on game day, regardless of temperature. This appeases the football gods! Saturday, with kickoff temperature at 32 degrees, Weist wore a polo shirt, no jacket or hat, as the Huskies upset Rutgers for their second consecutive win with a cold coach.
Another Routine New England Win: In the first half at Houston, as New England fell behind, Tom Brady threw was 11-for-18 and an interception; in the second half, as New England rallied to win, Brady was 18-for-23 with no picks. The Flying Elvii are now assured their 13th consecutive winning season under Bill Belichick.
What the Hey??? Trailing San Francisco 16-6, the Rams punted on fourth-and-1. On the next possession, margin still 16-6, the Rams went for it on fourth-and-8 from their own 22. It resulted in a loss of yardage and an immediate 49ers touchdown. The attempt was a fake punt that was so confused, it was hard to tell what Les Mouflons were trying to do. Later, the Rams went on fourth-and-11. The time to go for it on fourth down is fourth-and-short.
Wacky Sushi of the Week: High-end sushi is a big-city fad. Apparently it's not enough that sushi be fine dining, it must be art! The New York Times reports of Kura, a star-rated raw-fish joint, "At the sushi counter at Kura, Norihiro Ishizuka, 70, stands alone … he has a benevolent and slightly rakish air, with his faint pencil mustache and white-gray hair peeking out of the bottom of his cap. He nods and grins, already halfway to a laugh, and the meal has not yet begun. The great sushi chefs of New York tend to be musical in their movements. Think of Masato Shimizu of 15 East, the curve of his fingers as elegant as a cellist's, or Eiji Ichimura of Ichimura at Brushstroke, bending intently over his creations like Glenn Gould and barely speaking above a whisper. Mr. Ishizuka is more of a Tony Bennett, a crooner working the crowd with a genial smile and a generous hand." The review continues in that humor.
Head over to Sushi Ko, where the chef defies tradition, by playing reggae instead of Japanese flute. Not just an artist -- a radical artist.
And not alone! "Over the last few months," the review reports, "It has become clear that there's a new crew to consider. Most prominent among the young guns is Daisuke Nakazawa, who so far has been best known to an American audience as that guy in the documentary 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi' whose tortured quest to learn how to make perfect tamagoyaki, the delicately sweet omelet that arrives toward the end of a meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, pushed him to the brink of tears. Mr. Nakazawa … spent 11 years studying the art of sushi as an apprentice to Jiro Ono, the octogenarian master whom some regard as the greatest sushi craftsman alive. After more than a decade of training, Mr. Nakazawa was told he was now considered a shokunin: a craftsman skilled enough to hang out his own sushi shingle someday. 'But I was not ready,' he said through an interpreter. So Mr. Nakazawa moved to Seattle and wandered until found by a businessman wanting to start the ultimate sushi place." Maybe while wandering the American west, he ran into David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine.
Rocky's Shopping List: Last week, I asked what Rocky the Dog, noble hound of ESPN contributor Bill Speros, should give for Christmas or Chanukah. Miles Custis of Lynden, Wash., suggests a gift that calls itself the "ultimate white elephant." Ohmikeoh of Washington, D.C., suggested Pet Chatz, which lets harried professionals talk to their dogs through a tiny video screen, then dispense a treat. The dog perhaps is thinking, "I'd be happier if she just stayed at work and kept pressing the button."
Angie Hernandez of Alexandria, Va., supposed, "Rocky's sense of smell will appreciate this fine gift. The product is underarm deodorant "made with bits of real bacon." Haven't you always wanted to go on a date with someone who smells like real bacon? Surely Rocky the Dog would go.
Why Certain Teams Have Not Made the Playoffs in This Century: Game tied at Toronto, less than a minute remaining in regulation, the Buffalo Bills' Stevie Johnson caught a pass and ran to the Atlanta Falcons' 30, position for a field goal to win: then fumbled, Falcons ball. On the first possession of overtime, Buffalo's Scott Chandler caught a pass and ran to midfield; then fumbled, Atlanta ball. The Falcons kicked the winning field goal a moment later. The Bills had found a way to lose at "home" to the sole NFL team eliminated from the postseason when the day began.
Buffalo's non-playoffs run now stretches to a league-worst 14 seasons leaving the Bills, once perennial Super Bowl contenders, the joke team of the 21st century so far. You know you're terrible when loose-cannon crack users get a VIP seat at your game.
Last Week's Ohio State Item: A reader questioned whether "leisure studies" and "exercise science" should be majors at a four-year university. Steven Hansen of Fort Worth, Texas, writes, "I graduated from college with a major in exercise science, which was a popular major, but not for reasons that people may assume. I am now in my second year of medical school, and can report that my degree prepared me more for my classes in medical school than the classes of some of my friends who majored in neuroscience, molecular neology or microbiology. For my exercise science degree, I was required to take human anatomy, human physiology, biology, molecular biology, tissue biology, physics, general chemistry and organic chemistry before going on to courses such as exercise physiology, orthopedic impairments and biomechanics. Exercise science may not sound prestigious, but is a legitimate major." Here are the program sheets for Ohio State's exercise science major.
Last Week's Psychic Item: I found it wrong that a New York City psychic should be sentenced to five years in prison, as opposed to just put out of business, considering that spiritual-world claims made by psychics are uncomfortably similar to claims made with full respectability by clergy. (Your columnist is a churchgoer.)
Remy Taborga of New York City writes, "Many victims in psychic scams are people who are in emotional distress and in their desperation turn to someone who exploits their circumstances to steal from them. This was a rare victory in which a psychic was held accountable for her despicable acts." But clergy, televangelists and organizations such as the Salvation Army may pressure people for donations in cash or via will, and some of those pressured may have come toward religion because they are in "emotional distress."
Taborga continues with his killer point: "Most important, fortune telling is illegal in New York state. Persons are not allowed to claim to have real powers, and most disclose that the reading is for entertainment only. The convicted psychic did not do this. New York law reads, 'A person is guilty of fortune telling when, for a fee or compensation which he directly or indirectly solicits or receives, he claims or pretends to tell fortunes, or holds himself out as [possessing] occult powers.'"
Whether fortune-telling ought to be a crime can be argued; since it is a crime, New York police and prosecutors must pursue those who break this law. Apparently the psychic in this case was warned she was breaking the law, and told to desist. When she didn't, she made her own fate -- which she did not foresee.
TMQ's Christmas List: Each year, I highlight holiday gifts of questionable merit. Given the recent anniversary of the death of John Kennedy, perhaps you should look under your tree and find a scale model of the car he was riding in when he was shot. Or give that special someone in your life a travel pillow that causes a person to look like a cartoon space alien.
Disclaimers of the Week: Fuze has a TV commercial in which a dog rides a surf board. The tiny-type crawl says "Do not attempt." Are the dogs in the audience supposed to read that?
Your columnist is happily motoring in a new Acura with a stick shift -- there's a big item on car tech upcoming in TMQ. Recently I received a postcard from the dealer not offering any discount, just urging me to schedule a maintenance visit. The ad declared, "No one knows your Acura like we do." Below that statement, in tiny type: "Expires 1/15/14."
The Football Gods Chortled: Overtime had become sudden death in the Chicago at Minnesota contest. The Vikings lined up for the winning kick on third-and-10 from the Bears 21. The kick was true, and the home stadium stage crew launched fireworks. But: facemask against the Vikings. Now it's repeat third down; Leslie Frazier sends the offense back out onto the field, and Adrian Peterson loses 3 yards. The 57-yard attempt on fourth-and-28 is no good.
Given good field position by the long miss, Chicago moves to second-and-7 on the Minnesota 29. Disdaining distance, Marc Trestman sends the kicking unit in on second down: and Chicago missed, too. Why settle for a 47-yard attempt on second down, advance the ball!
Hidden Play of the Week: Hidden plays are ones that never make highlight reels, but sustain or stop drives. Chicago leading 20-17, Minnesota faced fourth-and-11 deep in its territory inside the two-minute warning of regulation. Chicago big-blitzed; conversion; Minnesota went on to win in overtime. Sometimes the sweetest sound to a defense is the clang of an incomplete pass. But defensive coordinators can't resist calling the big blitz in hopes of a sack stat.
Sit RG III: Netting the Robert Griffin III, Donovan McNabb, Jason Campbell and Kirk Cousins transactions, Ultimate Leader Mike Shanahan of the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons has spent three first-rounders, two second-rounders and one third-round pick on quarterbacks. One of the first-round picks was near at the top of the 2012 draft and the first-round selection still owed St. Louis will be near the top of the 2014 draft. That is a king's ransom in return for an unsettled situation at quarterback. TMQ joins the chorus of voices saying Griffin should sit to heal while the team finds out what Cousins has got. That would protect the Griffin investment in what's a lost season anyway.
Bear in mind that with no first choice in the next draft and little cap space, Washington has scant hope of an offseason talent infusion. This means the best chance for 2014 is the same guys, but with Griffin healthy. If RG III sustains another bad injury, then 2014 is lost too.
The 500 Club: Hosting Miami of Florida -- TMQ likes sports season because it requires the construction "Miami of Florida" to differentiate from the older Miami University -- Pitt gained 501 yards, and lost. Hosting West Chester, Bloomsburg gained 533 yards, and lost. Visiting Indiana, Purdue gained 516 yards, and lost by 20 points. Hosting Iowa State, West Virginia gained 568 yards, and lost. Visiting Oregon in a contest whose clashing visible-from-orbit uniforms sent audiences racing to adjust the contrast on their TV sets, Oregon State gained 545 yards, and lost.
In an epic shootout, reader Bill Andrews of Santa Clarita, Calif., reports that Upland High of Upland, Calif., gained 557 yards, and lost by 30 points. The final was Corona Central 86, Upland 56: Tre Watson of Corona Central rushed for 519 yards.
The 600 Club: Visiting San Jose State, undefeated Fresno State gained 646 yards on offense, scored seven touchdowns, and lost. Surely the victors were empathetic since last week, San Jose State gained 600 yards, and lost. Hosting St. Cloud State, Minnesota State gained 637 yards, and lost. Hosting undefeated Ohio State, Michigan gained 603 yards, and lost.
Obscure College Score: Wisconsin-Whitewater 33, Franklin of Indiana 3. Not to be confused with Franklin of Ohio, Franklin of Indiana is located "in beautiful Franklin, Indiana."
Single Worst Play of the Season -- So Far (Special College Edition): Game tied 28-28 at Auburn, an Alabama runner stepped out-of-bounds as the clock expired in regulation, sending the contest to overtime. Then a second was put back on the clock, and Alabama attempted a 57-yard field goal that was returned for a touchdown with the clock expired. Auburn ousts the two-time defending BCS champion, plus goes the length of the field in the final seconds for the second time in as many games.
Nick Saban demanded the extra play on which his charges were defeated. Why did Saban argue vehemently to put one second back on the clock? The Crimson Tide had already gone 0-for-3 with field goal attempts on the night; a 57-yarder seemed improbable. Since college teams rarely attempt very long field goals, kicking team members don't prepare to defend runbacks. And how could Saban not be aware that a long field goal miss may be returned? LSU, in his own conference, ran a long missed field goal back for a touchdown this season. As Saban sent the kicking unit onto the field, Gus Malzahn called timeout. Why? To take out big guys and put in speed guys. When the kick boomed, the Tigers had five speed players on the field; Saban didn't seem aware of this.
Alabama demanded the extra second that caused its own demise, then failed to prepare for a return despite a bright flashing warning that was Auburn's plan. Nick Saban, you are guilty of the single worst play of the season. So far.
Next Week: TMQ's bye week. I will use the bye week to get healthy, draw up unorthodox new sentence structures, and seek corporate sponsors for my long-delayed celebrity Yahtzee tournament. I'll be back Dec. 17, and on the case through that Super Bowl thing you might have heard about.
In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback for ESPN, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "The King of Sports" and eight other books, and is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. His website is here and you can follow him on Twitter here. Every Tuesday during the football season, at 3 p.m. Eastern, he will answer questions on Twitter about that day's column.