Where do you begin on one of the most dramatic NFL Sundays ever?
NEW YORK -- When Cris Collinsworth walked out of the eighth-floor NBC "Football Night in America'' studio Sunday night around 8:15, he closed his eyes and shook his head back and forth four or five times quickly, in sort of a Jack Buck I-don't-believe-what-I-just-saw moment.
Frenetic show Sunday night. Frenetic day around the league, the kind of day when network executives say, "You cannot overpay for the NFL.'' This had to be one of the most dramatic Sundays in the 24 years I've covered the league. Around 9:30 Sunday night, I got Mike Shanahan on the phone (now there's a guy who was in the vortex of this compelling day) and started telling him about the weirdness in Seattle, about Kurt Warner looking like a '58 Johnny Unitas, about Green Bay leading by 21 and trailing by one and winning by 23 (all in the same game), about Matt Cassel on the road against Brett Favre, winning his first start since high school ... and, well, I guess at one point I paused.
"What happened to the Colts?'' Shanahan said. "How'd they win?''
"Peyton Manning,'' I said. "Four offensive linemen out, Dallas Clark out, down 15-0 in the Metrodome, they can't run, Vinatieri misses a chip-shot and it looks like they'll lose, and Manning just, I don't know, wouldn't let them.''
"Wow,'' he said.
Let's start the five stories of the day where the wows deserved an exclamation point. In Denver.
Denver 39, San Diego 38.
The call heard 'round the NFL.
The Chargers got robbed. Much more about that later, but suffice it to say referee Ed Hochuli's blown call of what should have been a Jay Cutler fumble with 1:17 remaining and San Diego up 38-31, could be the type of millstone around the Chargers' neck from which they never recover this year. It's the kind of mistake that surely has Hochuli sick this morning and the Chargers, and their fans, sicker.
Putting that call aside for a moment, what about this action: Denver was up 31-17 at the half. San Diego drove 59, 75 and 71 yards in the first 16 minutes of the second half to a touchdown, field goal and field goal, and it was 31-30, Denver. Here came Cutler, the heroic diabetic, with a fourth quarter worthy of Elway. He drove the Broncos 76 yards, then threw his first interception of the season, in the end zone. Philip Rivers came back with a 66-yard catch-and-run scoring pass to Darren Sproles, and hit the two-point conversion. With 4:22 left, Denver got the ball at its 20, needing a touchdown to send the game to overtime. Or so we thought.
"I knew with four and a half minutes to go that if we scored and there wasn't much time left on the clock, I'd probably go for two,'' Shanahan said. "Just a gut feeling. I looked at my defense. They were spent. I figured I didn't want overtime to come down to a coin flip where we might not see the ball again if we lost [the coin toss.]''
Methodically, Cutler drove Denver downfield. On second-and-one from the Charger 17 with 77 seconds left, Cutler rolled right and the ball popped out of his right hand as he raised it to throw. He definitely was not in the throwing motion. The ball landed on the ground near the Chargers' 10, and San Diego recovered. But wait. Hochuli had blown his whistle. The play was dead. When a quarterback loses the ball on a play like this, any whistle means the play is over, unlike if it happens to a running back or receiver; those balls can be recovered. Not this one. Denver retained possession. Two plays later, Cutler threw to second-round rookie Eddie Royal for a four-yard touchdown. Immediately, Shanahan held up two fingers.
"You don't make that kind of call unless you've got 100 percent confidence in your quarterback, which I do,'' he said. "In a case like that, you're prepared for what comes, and I knew I'd get killed if it didn't work. It goes with the territory. I knew it was the right call.''
"You'd say that even if it failed?' I asked.
"Oh yeah,'' Shanahan said.
The great thing about the conversion was Cutler's coolness. I always say what makes Manny Ramirez such a great hitter is he treats an at-bat in the World Series the same as he treats one on March 17 in Bradenton. Same deal with Cutler. Maybe he was churning inside, but as he dropped back with a division victory on his shoulders -- complete the ball you win, throw it away and you lose -- he looked like it was the middle of the first quarter. Just another pass. He threaded it between three Chargers, again to the precocious Royal. Ballgame.
We love Shanahan for his moxie. We'd have killed him if the play had failed. But can you argue with Shanahan's call, now that you've heard his logic, even if Cutler hadn't converted?
Indianapolis 18, Minnesota 15
With Manning, you've always got a chance.
In the NBC viewing room, with all the early games on HD monitors, I watched most of this one. I forget who said it -- Jerome Bettis or Collinsworth or Tiki Barber -- but at one point, when Manning was getting bum-rushed by Jared Allen or Ray Edwards for the 18th time, someone said, "Poor Manning." After every series, Manning had a sourpuss look on his face on the bench, where he mostly was left alone.
The Colts had four backup offensive linemen playing, guys with names like Federkeil and Justin and Johnson -- not Manning's guys. But they were in Minneapolis on this day. The Colts trailed 15-0 with 17 minutes left. They had 15 rushes for 10 yards through 55 minutes. They saw Adam Vinatieri push a vital 30-yard chippy wide right, inexplicably, with the game on the line late. But the Colts had Manning.
"It's one of those games we probably shouldn't have won,'' Tony Dungy said from the Colts bus, hightailing back to the airport for the trip home. "But we've been in that position before, where we hadn't played that well and were down a lot and came back. We were down to New England by 18, down to Tampa Bay 21. And we came back. We were holding [the Vikings] to threes, and we kept saying, 'Just keep playing. We're one play away from getting back in it.' ''
You should read Don "Donnie Brasco'' Banks' account of the game this morning; he has the cliffhanging details. But suffice it to say Manning got the Colts back to 15-15, and he got the ball back at midfield with no timeouts and 67 seconds left. An eternity. On third-and-nine, he found Reggie Wayne up the left seam for 20 yards, far enough to put the Colts in Vinatieri's range again. He wouldn't miss twice. Ballgame. The Colts will have to get used to surviving with the no-names until, piecemeal, they get key cogs like Jeff Saturday back. But when you have Manning, 0-2 seems impossible.
"He never ceases to amaze me,'' Dungy said. "Part of his greatness is he never, ever says, 'This is not our day.' ''
Green Bay 48, Detroit 25
Maybe rocky times will be coming for Aaron Rodgers, but when?
"It's only two games,'' he cautioned via the cell phone Sunday evening. "But I hope the fans buy myself and this team.''
Buy him? You kidding? If Rodgers were a stock, he'd be Microsoft in 1991. His two-game stat line:
In the same week the first pick in the 2005 draft, Alex Smith, went on IR and likely ended his busted career with San Francisco, the 24th pick in that same draft, Rodgers, began making a name for himself. Rodgers looks confident. He throws with a soft touch to some excellent receivers -- Greg Jennings is going to be a big star -- and the QB doesn't get rattled when things like blowing a 21-0 lead happen, as the Pack did in Detroit. And he is not surprised. "In my mind, I've been preparing for this for three years. I've been dreaming of this for three years,'' he said.
Rodgers is in a weird spot with Favre. At the end of last season, the formerly chilly relationship got warm, with Rodgers going to Favre's home for dinner. But a frost settled over the friendship in the offseason, when Favre retired and then came back, hopeful of getting his old job back, a job the Packers had given to Rodgers. When they both went to the ESPYs in Los Angeles, they didn't connect, even though they were in the same audience. I asked if the relationship was harmed forever.
"I sure hope not,'' Rodgers said. "I have so much admiration for Brett. I would love for the relationship to go back to what it was.''
New England 19, New York Jets 10
In the New England locker room after the game, Matt Cassel had a smile so wide it looked like it was painted on. It wouldn't leave his face. He can say what he wants, as can the Patriots, but they never really knew what they had in Cassel, except that he was experienced. But after quarterbacking New England for seven quarters, here is what they have:
· A 71 percent passer.
· A manager of the game who, above all, has minimized negative plays. He's thrown zero interceptions and lost zero fumbles, though he has taken too many sacks (five) and sometimes must be more decisive in throwing the ball away when he's got nothing.
· A cautious player. He'll eventually have to take some chances and be bolder. If he doesn't, New England will lose games against teams with competent defenses that have productive offensive days. But for now, cautious is better than impetuous.
Bill Belichick wants Cassel to steer the ship. In the Meadowlands, he led the Patriots to five scoring drives in eight possessions, and on the ninth and final possession of the day, he did what the Patriots dreamed he'd do but probably didn't think actually would happen. He knelt on the ball for the final play of the game, before a two-thirds-empty stadium.
On fourth-and-three from the New York 29 with 1:56 left, out of the shotgun, he had dumped a safe five-yarder to Wes Welker to get a new set of downs and seal the game. He didn't try to do too much, just end the game. If he keeps doing that, he might invite comparisons to the last unknown quarterback the Patriots thrust in the lineup after an injury to a famous quarterback. But let's not go there yet. Way, way, way too early.
Carolina 20, Chicago 17
The Panthers prove a point.
Six weeks ago, Carolina's season was in turmoil. Steve Smith, the star receiver, blindsided teammate and cornerback Ken Lucas in training camp. Even with the tough early schedule Carolina faced, coach John Fox had to do something severe to discipline Smith, and he decided on a two-game suspension. Games at San Diego and home with Chicago loomed. As did, quite possibly, an 0-2 start.
Sunday's game was hardly an artistic success, but Jake Delhomme knew it was vital to the psyche of the team. Smith can be a diva, albeit a hard-working one, and now, when he reports back to the team this morning for the final 14 games of the season, he'll realize, They can win without me. They just did.
"Guys have believed in our team from the first day of camp,'' said Delhomme. "But we needed to win without Steve. That's not a knock on Steve at all. I love him to death. We will welcome him back with open arms. But we had to prove we're the kind of team that could take something like that and come back strong.''
In Smith's absence, Carolina has built more of a power running game than it's had in Fox's tenure, with rookie Jonathan Stewart and fellow rookie right tackle Jeff Otah paving the way. "I'm no dummy,'' Delhomme said. "I want to throw it as much as anyone. But I realize the power running is what's really helping us succeed right now.'' With Smith coming back, no one should underestimate this team. Carolina looks like the class of the NFC South right now.