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Tuesday, October 1, 2013
The NFL's unblemished Final Five

By Gregg Easterbrook
ESPN.com

It's down to the Final Five -- five undefeated NFL teams remaining: Denver, Kansas City, New England, Seattle and New Orleans. Sports talk complains about too many .500 NFL teams. This young season is showing five high-fliers.

Here is a rundown of the NFL's remaining undefeated clubs:

Kansas City: Already twice as many victories as it posted in 2012. The Chiefs had a run of bad luck in 2012 games. This year they are having good luck, and luck is a larger factor in outcomes -- sports, romance, economics -- than most of us care to admit. The Alex Smith trade is looking like a masterstroke. A disciplined West Coast quarterback is what Andy Reid always wanted. Now he's got one.

Seattle: TMQ's Law of Comebacks holds: Defense starts comebacks, offense stops them. Down 20-3 at intermission at Houston, Seattle staged a tremendous defensive performance for the rest of the contest, holding the hosts to six first downs from the fourth quarter on, while posting a pick-six. In the first half, the Seahawks surrendered 324 yards of offense -- more than their defense was allowing per game. In the second half and overtime, Seattle gave up only 152 yards.

Russell Wilson asserted himself, shaking things up in the second half by running. Trailing 20-6, Seattle went for it on fourth-and-3 from the Houston 7. Wilson play-faked, then gave ground all the way back to the Houston 21. Seattle's goose seemed cooked. Somehow, Wilson got around the edge and got the first down, plus a touchdown to Marshawn Lynch on the possession. The score capped a high-pressure 99-yard drive. The Seahawks showed they are mentally tough. That's bad news for the rest of the league.

New England: Tom Brady wings it to Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, Matthew Mulligan and James Develin. To whom? All had major catches versus Atlanta. Brady and Bill Belichick seem able to work with volunteers from the audience at the receiver positions. New England's first three wins were against Buffalo, Jersey/B and City of Tampa, all lower-echelon teams. Then the Patriots handled highly touted Atlanta on its own field. Leading 13-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, New England faced third-and-19. Nobody converts third-and-19 on the road! Atlanta rushed three, putting no pressure on Brady. Though Atlanta had eight defenders to check five receivers, when Tompkins ran a deep in, no one covered him and he went for 26 yards. Later on third-and-8, Brady connected with Julian Edelman on a simple pivot route, and Edelman legged it for 44 yards.

As usual, the New England defense allowed a bucket of yards but stiffened when necessary. Score 30-23, the Falcons reached first down on the New England 13 in the final minute and went incompletion, incompletion, short pass, incompletion. Needless to say, it did not occur to Atlanta coaches to surprise the Patriots' dime defense with a rushing play. Atlanta held a timeout it never used; now the timeout can be donated to charity.

New Orleans: Their excommunication having ended, the Saints are back to normal -- flashy, lots of swagger. This franchise loves the limelight, as its 9-0 streak on "Monday Night Football" attests. Drew Brees is a confident, sophisticated quarterback who once again, as in the Saints' Super Bowl year, is standing behind a solid offensive line. Saints blockers completely outperformed the front seven of the Dolphins -- Miami put no pressure on Brees, and allowed Darren Sproles to walk into the end zone untouched on a draw to open the scoring in the first quarter. No NFL team can match New Orleans for fun-to-watch quotient. The Saints may be 6-2 or even 7-1 at the midway point, then face a killer three weeks of San Francisco, Atlanta and Seattle in succession.

Denver: Is there enough room for the dazzling stats? Peyton Manning has 16 touchdown passes, no interceptions. He's averaging 9.4 yards per pass attempt. The Broncos lead the league in scoring at 45 points per game and in yards gained at 483. Most impressively, Denver is on a 15-1 streak. The Broncos are as hot as any NFL team has ever been.

Denver's offense lost Ryan Clady, one of the league's best players, and didn't miss a beat. Near-perfect pass-blocking allows Manning to have his way with defenses while the Broncos show constant small variations in formations and tendencies. At one point in the Eagles game, Wes Welker lined up in the backfield to Manning's right, as if to blitz block; a man went in motion on the left, causing the safeties to look there; then Welker ran a simple "pin" route right: touchdown.

The Broncos' defense is pedestrian, though it might improve, assuming Von Miller returns. The main cautionary note for Denver faithful is that the formula the Broncs are using -- fantastic pass-wacky offense, middling defense -- is the formula the Patriots have used for the last five years, and the Patriots have petered out in the playoffs.

In TMQ news, last week I did a live Twitter test of my "game over" notations, and came out smelling like a rose. I promised to repeat the test this week, and came out -- ahem, see below.

Stats of the Week No. 1: Since taking the field at home for the NFC title game, the Falcons are 1-4.

Stats of the Week No. 2: Tom Brady, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers have combined to start 402 consecutive games.

Stats of the Week No. 3: In two home losses, the Buccaneers have been outscored 16-7 in the fourth quarter.

Stats of the Week No. 4: In two home losses, the Jaguars have scored 5 points.

Stats of the Week No. 5: St. Louis was outrushed by 201 yards at home.

Stats of the Week No. 6: Against Dallas and then San Francisco, the Rams allowed 412 yards rushing in five days.

Stats of the Week No. 7: Matt Schaub has thrown interceptions returned for touchdowns in three consecutive games.

Stats of the Week No. 8: The Giants have been outscored 69-7 in their last two games.

Stats of the Week No. 9: Trindon Holliday has six kick-and-punt return touchdowns in 21 games with Denver.

Stats of the Week No. 10: The traditionally strong NFC East is 4-12; the often weak AFC West is 11-5.

Sweet Plays of the Week: Dallas leading 21-13 at San Diego, undrafted utility player Danny Woodhead lined up in the backfield as if to blitz block. Woodhead ran a "wheel," cutting out, then up. Touchdown and the Bolts, prone to collapsing late, outscored the Boys 17-0 in the second half. At Jacksonville, Coby Fleener, the Colts' wide receiver-like "F" tight end, lined up inline, the traditional "Y" position for a blocking tight end. Then he took off on a deep seam, the sort of route an "F" runs. Thirty-one yard touchdown catch by an unguarded man, the cherry on the sundae of the Indianapolis rout.

Sour Play of the Week: Trailing 30-13 in the third quarter at Detroit, Chicago coach Marc Trestman sent in the kicking unit on fourth-and-5 from the Lions' 7. It was the kind of play that makes a guy want to write "game over."

Sweet 'N' Sour Play: Leading Seattle 20-13 at home, the Texans faced third-and-4 on the Seahawks' 40 with 2:50 remaining in regulation, on a day when Houston would rush for 151 yards. The Texans needed to protect the ball and keep the clock moving. Instead, Matt Schaub play-faked and threw a terrible sideways pass that was intercepted by Richard Sherman and returned for a touchdown. Sweet for Seattle, which went on to victory in overtime. Sour not only for Schaub but for Houston coaches, who radioed in this puzzling call.

The Texans did not distinguish themselves in the second half, failing to hold a 20-3 lead at home. Play-calling was consistently sour. On the previous possession, Houston got the ball with 8 minutes remaining in regulation, leading 20-13 and needing to control the action to dull the Bluish Men Group comeback. Instead, the Texans went incompletion, sack, short completion, punt -- a no-rush three-and-out. Very sour.

Sweet 'N' Sour Special Teams: NFL teams often send only a token rush after the punter -- when seven or eight rush, it's a shock to the punt blockers. Oakland sent seven to block a punt for a touchdown against the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons. Sweet. Facing fourth-and-1 on their own 29, the Raiders had their kicking unit trot in -- but it formed a Wildcat offense and ran for the first down as Rdskns coaches failed to signal timeout. Also sweet. Later, Oakland, which entered with the league's fourth-ranked running offense, punted on fourth-and-2 in Washington territory. Sweet special teams became sour. Sour bonus: The Raiders have allowed seven touchdown passes while getting no interceptions.

Three Cheers for Union High: Many readers noted the story of Matt Labrum, football coach at Union High School in Utah, who suspended his entire team because their grades were poor and some were involved in bullying. Play as a team, get suspended as a team! Too many high school football coaches care only about victories. It's nice to see a coach take a stand for character.

Perhaps the best argument in favor of high school football is that it helps boys learn to become men -- to express their masculinity within a structure of rules. Looking the other way on bad behavior does boys no favor: indeed, it might inculcate a sense of entitlement that backfires in later life. I'd put 10 bucks on the notion that 20 years from now, every Union High football player who was suspended will agree their coach acted out of love. Other coaches might follow the example.

We'll Miss "Breaking Bad" But We Won't Miss Hank (Spoiler alert): Who is the stupidest law enforcement officer in television crime? The detectives on "The Bridge" are candidates: see more below. Sheriff Esquivel in "Under the Dome" is a contender. She arrives just after two people are shot to death and finds two men standing at the scene, each with a gun. One committed the murders, the other tried to stop him. Sheriff Esquivel puts the good guy in jail while letting the evil guy walk, setting in motion the season-finale cliffhanger. It never occurs to her to examine the guns the men are holding (one would have a warm barrel) or check their hands (one would have powder residue). It never occurs to her to take both men into custody, then do a ballistics investigation. None of these thoughts cross her mind. She just blames the wrong guy.

That's seriously stupid, but nothing like DEA agent Hank Schrader in the just-wrapped "Breaking Bad." Formulaic television crime procedurals present super-sleuths who solve crimes with blinding speed and always close the case. One of the guilty pleasures of "Breaking Bad" is that it depicted Walter White as an amoral but very intelligent man operating in a world of idiots. Hank is the worst idiot of all.

Walt is directly under Hank's nose for the show's run, yet Hank takes till almost the end to notice. When Hank finally puts it together, he doesn't simply arrest Walt -- by that point he has probable cause -- or go to a judge for a search warrant. Officers who investigate drug running and other forms of organized crime have broad powers, and they know that arresting a suspect prevents the destruction or hiding of evidence. But even after Walt comes to Hank's garage, admits his "criminal enterprise" and threatens Hank -- threatening a federal agent is cause for arrest -- Hank does not act. He mumbles some B.S. about how he needs to catch Walt in the act. If law enforcement officers could take into custody only those caught in the act, every jail would have a VACANCY sign.

Then there's Hank's final scene. He thinks of a way to get Walt to drive to the place where his ill-gotten gains are buried in the desert. Hank and his partner Gomez tail Walt. Though they are going after a stone killer involved in perhaps 20 murders, they don't bring along backup. They do bring along Jesse Pinkman, himself a suspect. That makes for two lawmen handling two very dangerous suspects, yet they don't call for backup. Arresting Walt in mid-desert, Hank observes pickup trucks full of men approaching their isolated off-road location. Seeing those trucks, Hank doesn't call for backup. Since Walt alone knew the desert location, the approaching vehicles must contain someone Walt contacted. Hank mumbles, "Maybe that's the tribal police." If that was the tribal police, they would have been in uniform. When thugs hired by Walt get out and show rifles, Hank and Gomez don't take cover; they stand in the clear, exposed. Even when the shooting starts, they never call for backup.

Of course, if Hank had not been a total idiot, Walt would have been thrown in prison, and the series could not have lasted five seasons.

Is That Your Last Name or Your First Name on Your Jersey? Reader Nick Pousson of Covington, La., writes, "It's a pity the Saints and Browns don't play this year, which means we can't see Cameron Jordan and Jordan Cameron in the same game. Would love to hear the announcer describing how Jordan Cameron blocked Cameron Jordan." Nick, your wish could be granted if Cleveland meets New Orleans in the Super Bowl.

Cupcakes Are Expensive: Boutique cupcakes at $3 a pop are bad enough. Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead reports on the cost of cupcakes the football factories hired last month to generate auto-wins at home. Alabama paid Colorado State a whopping $1.5 million to come to Tuscaloosa and be pounded; Ohio State paid a combined $2.2 million to San Diego State and Buffalo to visit Columbus and lose badly.

Cupcake matchups -- stunts, not games -- mock the sportsmanship the NCAA claims to teach. Why do cupcakes go along? For the 2011-12 school year, Alabama had a $45 million profit on football revenue of $82 million, according to Department of Education figures. The price of hiring Colorado State meant nothing to the Crimson Tide, which came out ahead on the contest despite the fee paid to what might be considered extras on a movie set. Colorado State, by contrast in 2011-12, had a football profit of zero on revenue of $8.9 million. For the Rams, the paycheck was a substantial benefit. Similar numbers apply to San Diego State and Buffalo.

On the subject of NCAA economics, lately some college players have been wearing the letters APU -- for All Players United. Whether big-time college football players should be paid is a contentious issue. But one item on the APU wish list seems like a slam dunk -- a stipend of $3,000 to $5,000 annually for football factory players to cover travel and incidentals so their college days are fully funded. It's common for a college kid to need roughly this amount each year for incidentals; Tuesday Morning Quarterback has backed a football stipend before. At some universities, the student stage crew and newspaper editors receive stipends, because they contribute to the life of the college. Why not the football players too?

In 2011, the NCAA proposed that it would allow a $2,000 annual football stipend. This has not taken effect because small colleges, where athletic money is tight, vote against it. The rule could be revised to apply only to football factories, where money is plentiful -- $3,000 per year to every scholarship football player at a Division 1 school would cost $255,000, less than many assistant coaches earn. Stipends are a reasonable compromise that could be implemented immediately while larger issues are debated. One worry is that the football factories will use the fact that small colleges blocked a stipend regime as an excuse to break away and form a superconference where education means absolutely nothing. TMQ thinks if a superconference forms, then Division I will have the Football Bowl Subdivision, the Football Championship Subdivision and the new FSS -- Football Sellout Subdivision.

The 500 Club: Hosting Northern Illinois, Purdue gained 524 yards and lost by 31 points. Hosting Butler, Jacksonville gained 568 yards and lost by 18 points. Visiting Duke, Troy gained 512 yards and lost. Visiting Valparaiso, Campbell gained 591 yards, made 30 first downs, and lost. Visiting Carnegie Mellon, Geneva gained 557 yards and lost. Visiting Arizona State, USC gained 542 yards and lost by 21 points. The Philadelphia Eagles are an honorary member of the 500 Club. Chip Kelly's offense is second in the NFL, averaging 459 yards per game, but the Eagles are 1-3.

The 600 Club: Bryce Tutjer of Richardson, Texas reports a Texas double. Fort Worth Paschal High gained 622 yards, scored 51 points and lost to Arlington Sam Houston: The game featured five rushers with at least 100 yards. Corsicana High of Texas gained 688 yards against Sulphur Springs, scored 65 points -- and lost. Tray Owens of Corsicana rushed for 467 yards in a losing cause. Adam Augustine of Chicago reports Madison Memorial High School of Wisconsin amassed 655 passing yards against Sun Prairie -- and lost. Hosting Millikin, Aurora University gained 638 yards -- and lost.

The 700 Club: This season the 500 Club is practically routine, and there are enough teams vying to get into the 600 Club that doormen must check their stat sheets. The 700 Club is where the elite meet -- a pro or college team that gains 700 yards and loses, or a high school team that scores 70 points and loses.

Reader Chad Jorgenson reports that Wisconsin Lutheran High School of Milwaukee gained 708 yards, scored 82 points -- and lost, to Oconomowoc High School of Oconomowoc, Wis. Wisconsin Lutheran put up 11 touchdowns, recorded eight successful deuce tries -- and it wasn't enough.

Visiting Worcester State, Mass Maritime gained 722 yards, made a hard-to-believe 44 first downs and lost. The contest had a really-hard-to-believe 230 snaps -- there were 130 snaps in the most recent Super Bowl. Located in Buzzards Bay, Mass., Mass Maritime offers a wide variety of oceangoing certifications.

The 800 Club: As secretive and exclusive as the Trilateral Commission. Krystopher Scroggins of Huntsville, Texas notes by Twitter that hosting Prairie View A&M, Stephen F. Austin gained 827 yards and lost. The schools combined for 1,409 yards, or eight-tenths of a mile. When I kicked off the 500 Club item, then rapidly needed to add the 600 Club and 700 Club, I wondered if an 800 Club outcome could occur. It happened before September even ended.

United Kingdom Breaks Diplomatic Relations with United States: The first of this year's London games paired winless Pittsburgh with winless Minnesota; the second will pair San Francisco with Jacksonville, which soon might become the Lake Woebegon Jaguars. The London NFL matchup has never paired two teams that both arrived in Old Europe with winning records. Sunday, the Steelers looked out of gas. Adrian Peterson is hard to tackle, but on his 60-yard touchdown dash, Ike Taylor and LaMarr Woodley badly whiffed. The Steelers might be at the end of a talent cycle, with an offseason housecleaning in prospect.

Untouched Touchdown of the Week: Dexter McCluster of Kansas City was only lightly brushed on an 89-yard touchdown punt return. Adrian Peterson went 7 yards for an untouched touchdown in London. Because the play was on first-and-goal, Pittsburgh was in a run defense, yet laid no hand on Peterson. The Minnesota offensive line, which had a fine outing, zone-blocked to the left: Peterson cut underneath and ran back toward the right. Detroit's Reggie Bush was just brushed a bit on a very sweet 37-yard touchdown run, Bush's second spectacular long touchdown of the young season. Trindon Holliday went untouched for 105 yards with a kickoff against Philadelphia. It's pretty fun to run 105 yards for a touchdown when everyone in front of you has already been knocked down.

Wacky Food of the Week: Louro, a Greenwich Village eatery, is "not self-impressed. None of the courses seemed intended to make a point." What a relief! Your columnist always sends back an entrée that insists on an ideological dialogue.

Food that was not self-impressed included "tempura-style triangles of piquillos with a lively stew of fresh chorizo" and "fish fritters with paprika aioli." Chicken breasts, though, were "left to fend for themselves on a dull plate of oatmeal with a dribble of maple-sweetened jus" while the "risotto of slightly undercooked lobster on gummy Himalayan red rice" was so "dull" that the food critic "slipped into depression."

Emerald City Football Update: TMQ had been hoping the Cal-at-Oregon pairing would break the NCAA Division I record for combined offensive yards, a mark that stands at 1,640 -- nine-tenths of a mile (San Jose State versus Nevada in 2001). But the contest was played in driving rain, dampening yardage. Though the Ducks' Blur Offense functioned just fine in duck-friendly conditions -- Oregon led 41-3 at intermission, with first-half touchdown drives of 41 seconds, 1:26, 1:33 and 1:46. Cal is accustomed to the perfect weather of Northern California; Oregon is accustomed to rain, and the difference showed. Oregon has exceeded 50 points in all games so far, and could have posted more if not for trying to avoid scoring in the fourth quarter.

TMQ continues to think that neither pace nor skill-player speed but downfield blocking is the key to Oregon's offense. If you've been wondering how Oregon gets so many untouched long runs, downfield blocking is the explanation. In most of football, including at the NFL level, offensive linemen deliver one block and then stand watching the play, while the wide receivers casually bump their men. There's an NFL gentlemen's agreement that corners don't pursue an opposite-side rush if wide receivers don't try to block them -- look away from the ball during an NFL run and you're likely to see a wide receiver and corner just watching.

Oregon Ducks offensive linemen hustle downfield looking for secondary blocks better than any offensive linemen in college or the pros. The receivers at Oregon block, too. The offensive linemen at Oregon are athletes -- no stomachs bugling over their belts. There are only two offensive linemen over 300 pounds on the Ducks' roster, with the heaviest a 305-pound guy who is 6-foot-7. Ole Miss looked sluggish against Alabama; one reason might be nine offensive linemen who weigh at least 25 pounds more than the heaviest player at Oregon. Why other football programs don't notice Oregon's success with downfield blocking and switch to lean, fit offensive linemen is a minor mystery.

The SEC is switching from traditional to Xbox offense tactics, as the is-that-a-misprint score of George 44, LSU 41 shows. But most of the Pac-12 has been using some version of the quick-snap attack, and making the scoreboard spin, for several seasons. Because Pac-12 night games start too late for East Coast viewers, the conference's impact on the evolution of football tactics is not widely appreciated by sports media. In a contest that kicked off as right-thinking people east of the Mississippi were preparing for bed, the final from Tempe was Arizona State 62, USC 41. NFL coaches will pore over film of that shootout, looking for tactical ideas to borrow.

Also Bear in Mind that Democrats Were Once the Opponents of Strong Federal Government: In the 19th century, liberals loved radical Republicans. Liberals now loathe the same group. This pithy must-read from TMQ's pal James Fallows notes the current Washington situation is not gridlock, but "It is a ferocious struggle within one party, between its traditionalists and its radical factions."

Kiffin Fired for All the Wrong Reasons: The above-cited game was the second time in their last 10 outings that the Trojans have allowed 62 points; Lane Kiffin was shown the door afterward. Weirdly, USC announced the decision on Sunday morning before dawn California time. TMQ's Law of Weasel Coaches holds: When you hire a coach who only cares about himself, you get a coach who only cares about himself. USC hired Kiffin away from Tennessee under weasel circumstances. What made USC think he would stop being a weasel?

Though Kiffin was fired for losing games, he should have been fired for USC football's dismal African American graduation rate, as TMQ detailed three weeks ago. So far as I am aware, no sports-media commentary on the firing of Kiffin noted USC football's dismal African American graduation rate.

To repeat what the Kiffin item said three weeks ago: "True, most of the college football audience only wants exciting games. But that is no excuse for universities to accept tax exemptions and public subsidies, then stage NFL Lite contests without educating players; nor any excuse for the sports press to treat rushing yards allowed as a scandal, but say nothing about graduation rates."

Don't Give to Harvard! A running TMQ cause is that rich people give money to schools such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford, places already possessing gargantuan endowments, rather than to schools where money is needed. The rich underwrite elite schools for ego reasons -- at cocktail parties they can say, "I just donated $10 million to Harvard, now a shower stall will be named after me." At colleges and universities that serve average people, donations can change lives. If you've got money, donate to noble Berea College, which accepts only poor students and charges no tuition, or to gallant Bethune-Cookman, a historically black school that mainly serves the underprivileged. Alumnus Charles Johnson just gave $250 million to Yale -- which is already sitting on a $19 billion endowment. At a place like Berea College, $250 million would have been a transformative event in the lives of the deserving. At Yale, it's a rounding error in the lives of the privileged.

Reader Jon Miller of Beaumont, Texas, notes that despite having a world's-best endowment of $32 billion -- nearly double the GDP of Honduras -- Harvard just kicked off a capital campaign, asking for another $6.5 billion. Rich people, show a little class: Don't give to Harvard. Or Yale, Princeton or Stanford. Make your donation count.

Fortune Favors the Bold: Mired in a losing streak and sputtering versus the lower-echelon Rams, San Francisco faced fourth-and-inches on Les Mouflons 34 with 44 seconds remaining before intermission, leading 7-3. The Niners put six offensive linemen on the field, sent a tight end in motion, pulled guard Mike Iupati to trap at the point of attack. A 34-yard touchdown run by Frank Gore, and the rout was on.

This decision was not a "huge gamble," as announcers say of going for it on fourth-and-short. St. Louis has the league's worst run defense, while San Francisco held two timeouts, meaning if a first down was obtained, the 49ers could use anything in the playbook to try for a touchdown. Not only did the odds favor the play, but San Francisco needed to shake up its young season, and succeeded.

Star Power: In 2006, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research predicted "the next sunspot cycle will be 30-50 percent stronger ... according to a breakthrough forecast using a computer model of solar dynamics ... scientists have confidence in the forecast because, in a series of test runs, the newly developed model simulated the strength of the past eight solar cycles with more than 98 percent accuracy." In 2009, researchers dialed back the prediction somewhat to a new solar cycle that would peak around now and would be milder than previously forecast, but still capable of generating a solar storm causing "$1 to 2 trillion in damages to society's high-tech infrastructure" and requiring "four to ten years for complete recovery."

Well, about that new solar cycle -- it's a dud. Now is the peak of the current cycle, and the sun's surface is all but clear of spots. That 98 percent accurate model? Back to the drawing board.

After Earth, the sun is the most important object in the solar system, yet NASA and other space agencies spend comparatively little on solar telescopes and probes. A debonair writer noted two years ago that solar study should be a higher priority than study of Mars. Better understanding of Sol could contribute to the global warming debate, to design of electronics -- and to estimation of the human prospect.

Are the Falcons Toast? The New England at Atlanta game was one the Falcons had to win. Entering 1-2, if they can't defeat a quality opponent on their home field, they are goin' nowhere this season. The Patriots did not have to win. Entering at 3-0, they could have absorbed a loss without much trouble. That New England dominated Atlanta might mean the Falcons are goin' nowhere.

Two weeks ago TMQ supposed, "The Falcons' allergy to rushing stands between this strong team and the Super Bowl." First drive of the night, Atlanta reached first-and-goal at the New England 6 and went short pass, incompletion, incompletion, field goal. Later, on fourth-and-2 in the New England red zone, Atlanta was incomplete on a rolling-pocket play where Matt Ryan had only one receiver on his side of the field and ended up throwing the ball away -- on fourth down! Hoover dam.

See You in September: In recent years the league has done the Bills' box office a favor by front-loading Buffalo's schedule with an early homestand, thus reducing December home dates that are hard to sell out due to weather. But this means the Bills have an annual late road swoon. Buffalo played three of its first four games at home. Considering the annual Toronto "home" game, the Bills face eight of their remaining 12 contests on the road.

The Rarest of Football Plays? Last week, TMQ excoriated Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier for not knowing that a muffed punt cannot be advanced. Flash forward to the Rams-Niners game on Thursday. Trailing 14-3, Les Mouflons punted with 12 seconds remaining in the first half. The 49ers fair caught at their 39 yard line and called timeout. This set up the rare fair catch kick -- a field goal attempt from the San Francisco 39, though with no defensive rush allowed. Any team can "fair catch kick" following a fair catch -- it's just that there is almost never a reason to do so. The Niners' fair catch kick, a 71-yard field goal attempt, fell short. Fair catch kicks are like any other field goal attempt, except for lack of rush. St. Louis attempted to return the kickoff, but its runner stopped at the St. Louis 9.

Reader Reg Downs of Regina, Saskatchewan, notes that had there been a couple seconds more, St. Louis could have let the ball roll out of the end zone for a touchback -- which would have given the Rams possession on the San Francisco 39, as with a missed field goal attempt. That is sufficient range for the team's strong-legged placekicker to attempt a regular field goal.

Your columnist has attended way too many football games and never seen a field goal on the down after a failed fair catch kick. If you have, tell me with specifics at @EasterbrookG. You can also tweet to me on this or any topic using @EasterbrookG -- finally, I am paying attention to Twitter, having consulted an expert (a high school kid) who coached me up.

Concussion Watch: One reason Virginia Tech is featured in three chapters of my new book "The King of Sports" -- say, have I mentioned my new book? -- is that the school is at the forefront of football brain-risk science. Stefan Duma of Virginia Tech leads a team of researchers who have been studying youth football. Their latest findings, released last week at a conference, are disturbing.

Duma and others found that more head hits occur in practice than in games, simply because there are more practice hours. This is a reason TMQ has been pounding the table for practice reform, some of which has occurred recently in the NFL, Ivy League, Pac-12 and Pop Warner. Duma further found that young players may sustain helmet-to-helmet contact comparable in force to hits sustained by NFL players. Youth and high school players averaged nine head hits per practice and 11 head hits per game -- unsettling given neurologists increasingly believe the accumulation of lots of minor head hits can cause as much damage as a few spectacular hits. In a 120-player study group, Duma reported no concussions, but 9 percent of boys sustained an NFL-caliber hit of 80 or more G's. To see the papers go here, choose "browse," then search "Duma."

Why Does Hollywood Depict Serial Killers as Having Superpowers? The FX series "The Bridge" wraps its first season this week. Initially advertised as social commentary about Mexican poverty and American hypocrisy, the social commentary lasted about two episodes and was quickly replaced with a slasher-film-style splatter -- more on that in a minute. First, the idiot detectives.

On "The Bridge," a serial killer murders two dozen people in the same area in just a few weeks, yet only a couple local cops are working the case. And what idiots they are. The show's law enforcement leads are played by Diane Kruger and Demian Bichir. The latter's character, viewers learn after a half-dozen episodes, has known all along that the serial killer has a strong reason to want revenge against him personally -- yet it never occurs to him mention this, or to protect his family. Kruger's character is supposed to be the smartest detective in Texas. Yet even after being warned that the Big Bad knows everything that's happening at the police station, she drives off with someone the serial killer wants to slay -- without taking another police officer along and without telling anyone where she is headed, which turns out to be (inexplicably) a dark, isolated country road. When she and her fellow idiot cops locate the house the serial killer uses to build things, not only do they fail to notice the huge, elaborate "Saw"-style doom trap there, they leave the house unwatched, allowing the killer to return and place someone in the doom trap.

Much recent pulp television and cinema has presented serial killers who have superhuman strength, incredible ability to sneak up on people without making the slightest sound, and never-explained knowledge of where everyone in the plot will be at specific moments. The absurd serial killer on "The Bridge" tops them all.

The serial killer has a small wireless device that allows him to shut down the electric power at the United States-Mexico border by pressing a button, then press another button to turn the power back on; this device is never explained. He possesses unlimited money and resources, unexplained and odd since viewers are told he was fired by the FBI years ago after flunking a psych evaluation. He's a skilled surgeon, which is never explained, and also has plumbing skills. He needs only minutes to rig cars so the doors can't be opened from the inside. He can overpower police officers without making a sound. He can sneak up on people in public in broad daylight without his targets noticing or calling "Help!" when grabbed. He knows exactly where everyone essential to the plot is at all times, without any explanation of how that could be possible.

He's got a hypo of something that renders a person instantaneously unconscious. (Depicted in many action movies and slasher flicks, no instant-unconsciousness substance exists: if one did, it would be issued to law enforcement officers.) When a witness the serial killer wants dead runs away from Kruger's character into the streets of El Paso, the serial killer knows in advance which direction she will run; he kills her and vanishes, though cops are converging from all directions. When the Kruger character idiotically drives away alone with someone the killer wants dead, he not only knows in advance exactly what dark remote road she will take but is able to position two cars precisely where she will pass -- one to slam into her car, another to use for his escape. Though the Kruger character is badly hurt by the collision, the serial killer isn't scratched. Later, he is shot in the chest at close range, is not wearing a vest -- and gets up and walks away.

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Most absurd, at a black-tie party, the serial killer follows a man into the washroom and murders him with a knife. Young and seemingly fit, the man does not resist and never cries for help. No one wanders into the washroom while the serial killer stabs the victim, who dies in mere seconds -- even a mortally wounded person who is bleeding profusely would live for a while. The serial killer then strolls out of the washroom back to the party without a drop of blood anywhere on his tuxedo, which remains crisply pressed.

FX's "The Bridge" is a remake of a Scandinavian television show about a crime at a bridge between Denmark and Sweden. Before centering the remake on a bridge between Texas and Mexico, producers first proposed using the bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. A hyper-violent crime drama about U.S.-Canadian relations -- there's no minimum to the potential ratings of that concept. A cross-border tunnel between a Texas ranch and a Mexican cartel's hideout, used to smuggle heroin, figures in "The Bridge" plot. If the Detroit-Windsor setting had been chosen, it would have been a tunnel into a Tim Horton's doughnut shop, used to smuggle government-financed Canadian prescription drugs.

Second Live Twitter Test: Seeking to prove that I really do write "game over" in my notebook, a week ago, yours truly tweeted of a contest still in the first quarter, "game over" -- and it came to pass that I was right. I promised to try this again. When the Bills kicked on fourth-and-2 from the Baltimore 9, I tweeted "game over." Verily, what I foresaw did not come to pass: the Bills prevailing over the defending champions.

"Game over" doesn't go into my notebook any time a team kicks on fourth-and-short -- fourth-and-short kicks can be smart moves. I write "game over" if I think a coaching decision dooms a team, either by surrendering a chance for badly needed points or by making it seem the coach won't put it all on the line in search of victory. Trailing 14-3 on the road versus high-scoring Denver, Chip Kelly took a field goal on fourth-and-4 from the Broncs' 7 -- I wrote "game over" in my notebook. Kelly was communicating to his players that he expected to lose, and wanted to keep the margin of defeat respectable; the ridiculous field goal attempt when trailing 49-13 is proof of that.

My feeling in the first quarter of Baltimore at Buffalo was that you can't dance with the champ, you've got to knock them down -- settling for a field goal on fourth-and-short from close range against the defending champs isn't enough. Obviously I will now reassess this feeling, and the live Twitter test concept.

Buffalo's secondary and linebackers had a sterling day, taking five interceptions from the Super Bowl MVP. Several third-stringers were on the field for the Buffalo defense. In recent drafts, the Bills have invested two first-round picks and two second-round choices in defensive backs; by the middle of the third quarter, all of them were out injured. Baltimore coaches seem to have entered thinking it would be so easy to throw against Buffalo's depleted secondary that the rush could be removed from the game plan: Baltimore only ran twice in the second half. The Ravens made themselves predictable, and interceptions resulted.

Adventures in Officiating: With Buffalo leading 23-20 in the final minute, the Bills were snapping to E.J. Manuel, who would wait until a defender approached and then drop to the ground. So it wasn't the classic end-of-game kneel-down -- potentially Manuel was a runner, while Baltimore had a chance of forcing either a last-second punt or a Buffalo deliberate safety followed by a last-second free kick. On third down, Terrell Suggs tackled Manuel hard, but cleanly. Zebras called unnecessary roughness, giving Buffalo a first down that put the contest on ice. Much as your columnist pounds the table for strict enforcement of safety rules, I could find nothing wrong with what Suggs did. Officials seemed to be flagging the fact that Manuel's helmet came off during the tackle. Did Manuel have his chinstraps properly snapped?

Officiating was odd in both directions. Two weeks ago, Cleveland coaches complained the Baltimore offensive linemen were lining up off the line of scrimmage -- being set back a bit is helpful to pass-blocking. Sunday, Baltimore offensive linemen consistently were lined up illegally; zebras only flagged this once.

Officials called pass interference in the end zone against Philadelphia, giving Denver the ball on the Nesharim 1; touchdown pass on the next snap. No clue what the call was for -- the defender didn't interfere.

Obscure College Score: Indiana of Pennsylvania 20, California of Pennsylvania 7 in the annual Tuesday Morning Quarterback Obscure College Game of the Year. Located in Indiana, Pa., Indiana of Pennsylvania has an optional "Learning Management System that offers collaborative learning tools, activity-based learning and interaction with materials that encourage critical reflection." Isn't that what the entire college is supposed to do?

Last week, noting that retired Indiana of Pennsylvania coach Frank Cignetti made the Division II Hall of Fame, I wrote, "A lifetime coaching small-college football has Jimmy Stewart appeal." Many readers, including Judith Miller of Pittsburgh, reported that Indiana, Pa. is Stewart's hometown.

Reader Animadversion Many readers have written about my item asserting clean-diesel cars to be the best current-technology means to reduce petroleum use in a cost-effective way. B.J. Marshall of Farragut, Tenn., notes about diesel air emissions: "Diesel fuel results in more carbon dioxide per gallon than gasoline. This Department of Energy report indicates a diesel car would need something like 14 percent better mileage than the comparable gasoline model break even on carbon dioxide emissions. So take the example of the clean-diesel Chevy Cruze you lauded. The gasoline version EPA estimated mileage with the 1.8 liter engine is 27 MPG on the combined cycle; the comparable 2.0 liter diesel model has a 33 MPG combined rating. That's not quite enough for the diesel car to come out ahead in terms of greenhouse gases. The clean-diesel model definitely uses less petroleum, so maybe that's an end in itself. But as with anything, there are many competing parameters to consider and they rarely align to make a clear winner in every category."

Next Week Cameron Jordan wears Air Jordans to Cameron Indoor Stadium.

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.