Cowboys' win, Vikes' loss, Tomlin's call make Week 15 most compelling
Tony Romo drew a line of demarcation in his career Saturday night
Record-breaking games by Josh Cribbs, Jerome Harrison give Browns hope
More: Shakeup at top of Fine 15, individual awards and 10 Things I Think
Oh, it's going to be a wild Monday in the NFL, all right. The Saints have fallen to earth and Brett Favre almost got yanked from Sunday night's toothless loss at Carolina. In one weekend, the best NFC Championship game scenario may have morphed from Minnesota-New Orleans to Philadelphia-Dallas.
Meanwhile, Peyton Manning might have clinched his fourth MVP thanks to four telling days. Mike Tomlin turned Belichickian. Vince Young turned into John Wayne. Ndamukong Suh turned into a Ram. Chad Ochocinco, in defeat, turned noble. Tony Romo turned clutch, and that's where we start this morning in Chapter 15 of a compelling NFL season.
NEW ORLEANS -- Into the gym bag at the foot of his locker in the emptied-out Superdome as Saturday turned into Sunday, Romo stuffed his possessions for the trip home after the biggest win of his young NFL career. Dallas 24, previously unbeaten New Orleans 17. If you saw it, you know it wasn't an upset. On this night the Cowboys were better than the best.
In the middle of the gym bag, a slightly scuffed NFL football peeked out.
"Game ball?'' I asked.
"Yup,'' he said, and smiled. "I'll be keeping that one for a while.''
Like, forever. We have a tendency in micro-examining this game to make judgments too fast on players at difficult positions to judge -- such as quarterback. A month ago, after two playoff games and 50 starts, Romo, a free-agent from Eastern Illinois in the eye of the constant America's Team storm, either couldn't rise to the occasion when times were big, couldn't win in December, couldn't win in January, was a bad leader because he took occasional quiet trips to Las Vegas, or ... well, does that about sum up the shortcomings of Tony Romo?
I'm going to take you to the moment when, in my opinion, we all just might draw the line of demarcation on Romo's career when we look back in 10 years. I think it came Saturday night in a place so raucous that even the nuns were standing and screaming. Yes, nuns attend the Saints' games -- eight of them. They're friends of owner Tom Benson, and they and three local monsignors come to most of the home games. There they were, in the crowd of 70,213, and midway through the fourth quarter all the locals were howling at the roof, and it was so loud, as I wrote Saturday night, that you couldn't read sign language.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Saints, trying to win 'em all for the first time in team history, trailed 24-3. Now it was 24-17. Cowboys running back Felix Jones just got stuffed for a two-yard loss by a blitzing Roman Harper, making it third-and-seven at the Dallas 23, with blood in the water. Every Saints player and fan smelled it. It was Cowboy blood. It was also only a matter of time before Dallas pulled another December el foldo and dropped out of the playoff race, getting Wade Phillips fired in the process.
Timeout, Dallas. So much at stake for both sides.
(Forty minutes later, as I walked off the field after the game alongside Romo, the first thing he said, "Loudest game I've ever been in, anywhere, anytime. Incredible.'')
So loud that Romo knew he wouldn't be heard by any of his teammates for the rest of the game, except in very close contact in the huddle. So loud that to save time in the huddle, he gave the snap count with hand gestures rather than yelling it two or three times. As he came to the line, with two wide receivers to the right, he liked the matchup he saw on the outside: Miles Austin, the deceptively fast emerging star, across from wily veteran Mike McKenzie.
With the crowd at full throat, Romo bobbed his right leg and started the silent snap count. All that was at stake here was everything, but all Romo could think about was what offensive coordinator Jason Garrett had drilled into his head over the past couple of years: If you throw this pass in a March workout, then throw it again in April minicamp, and again in June minicamp, then through training camp and again in September and October in games, don't make this play any different than any of them. Because that's all this is -- a football play, like the thousands and thousands you've made since high school.
Romo got the snap, looked over the coverage, saw Austin get inside McKenzie on a quick slant toward the post, and zzzzzip, he threw the ball to Austin in full stride eight yards past the line of scrimmage, just enough for the first down ... and more. Austin ran for 24 more yards.
"In that situation,'' Austin said later, "I can hear myself think, but that's all I can hear. You've just got to trust the route you run and the throw. Tony put the ball right where it needed to be.''
On the next play, Romo wheeled out of pressure, pirouetting to his left, rolled out and hit third-string tight end John Phillips for 23, and on the next play hit backup wideout Sam Hurd for six more on a simple out pattern at the sideline. Three plays, two minutes, 61 yards, air out of the crowd. Dallas got no points out of the drive because Nick Folk clanked a field-goal try off the right upright, but the defense saved Dallas on the Saints' last-gasp drive.
My point about the three plays that silenced a city: Romo did what very good players have to do when the times are most important: He played naturally, like it was an August practice.
"Maturity,'' said Garrett. "It's so important for a quarterback. His approach is outstanding. He loves being in these situations. I'm a firm believer that you don't rise to the occasion. You just play like you always play. Why does Tiger Woods play so well in the clutch? Because he plays like he always plays, even at the biggest. That's how Michael Jordan was.''
One other interesting thing about Romo Saturday night: He said he does a lot of Sudoku. I told him he ought to try crosswords, but that would necessitate him listening to NPR on the way to work or watching the news semi-regularly. But that wouldn't fit his lifestyle, because he finds the best thing for him is to pretty much shut out the outside world.
"It's just best for me to put what everyone says and writes about us to the side,'' he said. "Like, I have no idea what you've written about me or said about me on TV. Have you been critical? I don't know. I don't care. It's all good. You've got a job to do, and sometimes that's going to entail being critical about us. But I just find it's best for me if I don't know any of it.''
Maturity, Garrett said. At 29, Romo has it, and the Cowboys ought to be the better for it over the next month -- and the next six or eight years.
There's a storm brewing in the North Country.
OK, start the e-mails coming now. Texts, Tweets, e-mails, whatever. But here's how I saw last night's Viking debacle: Not Brett Favre's fault.
Julius Peppers was Deacon Jones and Lawrence Taylor rolled into one dominant force for four quarters. It's the best I've ever seen Peppers play. I don't care what the stats said -- one sack, three other quarterback hits, one tackle. Peppers was as dominant as a defensive lineman can be. Once, he fought through two blockers, forced Favre to throw a wasted incompletion, and wrapped him up legally and fell atop him, crushing him to the ground. If Favre wasn't thinking, I came back at 40 for this?, when exactly would he ever question his decision to come back for another year?
Peppers' dominance got Bryant McKinnie yanked from the game. (When's the last time you saw a top-10 left tackle get pulled for performance, not being hurt? Ever? I don't recall it.) It forced Brad Childress to put pedestrian Artis Hicks at left tackle, and to keep a back in to chip on Peppers when the game got desperate and the Vikings fell behind in the second half.
But in the middle of the Minnesota ineffectiveness, the NBC cameras caught a semi-heated exchange between Favre and coach Childress. Evidently, it was Childress suggesting that maybe it was time for a relief pitcher. Maybe. (Two weeks ago, I was told Childress had suggested this once before this season, and Favre went batcrap then.)
Last night, there was no change. But Favre seemed peeved about it after the game.
"Yeah,'' Favre said, "we were up 7-6 at the time. No secret, I was getting hit a little bit. I felt the pressure on a lot of plays. We had seven points. So I think everyone in the building was like, 'They're not moving the ball. They're not getting points.' Brad wanted to go in a different direction and I wanted to stay in the game. We were up 7-6. Yeah, it's not 70-6, but we're up 7-6.
"So I said, 'I'm staying in the game, I'm playing.' I don't know if [Childress' effort] was exactly to protect me, or we had seven points, I'm not sure. That's his call. But we talked it out. We didn't have time, I didn't have time to sit there and say why or what. My response was, we've got to win this ballgame and I want to stay in and do whatever I can.''
You recall last year when Favre had the Jets 8-3 after 11 games, then fell apart in December. Could it happen again? Sure it could. But last year happened because of an injury. Favre's sore this season but not hurt, by all accounts. I'm sure there's plenty of blame to go around, and I'm not saying a quarterback should be so sacred that he should never get yanked from a game. But should a quarterback get yanked if he's got pressure in his face on play after play? Only to protect him from injury?
If that's what Childress was doing, I might understand it -- but I emphasize "might.'' A night earlier, the Saints had shown serious vulnerability, and now, with the gap between the two teams for NFC homefield edge only one game if the Vikings won here, this was no time to yank Favre. This was the time to battle through a bad game, survive, and try to fix what ails the team schematically this week.
This will be to Week 16 what Randy Moss-is-dogging-it was to Week 15. Get ready for all Favre, all the time.
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