Lots to like in Week 10, but one weird game stands above the rest
In quirkiest game of 2012, the Rams proved that they can compete with the best
Texans passed another big test, while the Saints proved they're still dangerous
More on Sean Payton's contract situation; Fine Fifteen; Ten Things I Think; more
Tie Trivia as we wrap up another week in the playoff race to determine who'll square off in New Orleans:
This is the 39th season with a form of regular-season overtime, and Sunday's 24-24 Rams-49ers tie was the first on the West Coast since the system was established in 1974.
The last six overtime ties have been November games -- on Nov. 19, 16, 23, 10, 16 and 11.
In the last tie -- Cincinnati 13, Philadelphia 13 four years ago -- Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (yes, that Ryan Fitzpatrick) drove the Bengals to a shot at the winning field goal with seven seconds left, but Shayne Graham shanked it right.
Sunday was a rollicking, fun day in the NFL, but before we get to the 11 non-ties, we have to spend a few paragraphs on the quirkiest game of the year.
A little before noon Pacific Time, as the San Francisco crowd began to settle in their seats, fans in the lower bowl at Candlestick Park were treated to an odd display. Two Rams starters in sweat clothes, cornerback Janoris Jenkins and wide receiver Chris Givens, both rookies, began sprinting up and down the stairs in one section of the stands, supervised by assistant strength coach Adam Bailey. How odd, the fans with trays of Gordon Biersch craft beers and garlic fries reporting for the game must have thought. What are these Rams doing running the stairs at this hour? Shouldn't they be stretching for the game, or doing something down on the field?
"It was two-fold,'' said Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who suspended Jenkins and Givens for an unspecified violation of team rules Saturday. "They weren't going to play, so they needed a workout. And I guess you can say it was part punitive. We still have to sort some things out about what happened, but hopefully this helps them get the message.''
|NFL Tie Games|
|In overtime era, since 1974|
"I didn't even know that happened,'' said St. Louis receiver Danny Amendola.
Early in the second quarter, with the Rams holding a 14-0 lead, Alex Smith had a 3rd-and-15 at his 38. He completed a pass to Michael Crabtree that got very close to the first down, and the officials called for a measurement, with 13:32 to go. Out came the sticks. On ticked the clock. The Niners were a few inches short of the first down. The ball was spotted at the Ram 48. Tick, tick, tick. Now the clock was down to about 12:10 when someone on the field finally noticed the clock never stopped.
Referee Clete Blakeman got on his mic and said: "We are checking the game clock for accuracy.'' OK, now he'd just have the clock reset to 12:32. Nope. He came back on the mike shortly thereafter and said: "The game clock is correct." Who'd he check with? The drunk tailgaters who never came into the game? And the band played on.
We'd have skewered the replacement officials for this; the NFL needs to come down hard on the stadium timekeeper and seven men who apparently never saw a minimum of 72 and maximum of 90 seconds tick off what should have been a stopped clock.
Then Smith left with a concussion. Then Rams punter Johnny Hekker completed a 1-yard pass on a fake punt, just before the half. Then the Niners went ahead 21-17 in the fourth quarter. Then the Rams, at their own 33 with 5:23 to play, had a 4th-and-8. Fisher called for the fake again. "I didn't think they could stop it,'' he said, and Hekker, sure enough, threw a perfect spiral to a wide-open Lance Kendricks. Gain of 19. First down.
Two fake punts, one from the Ram 10, one from the Rams 33. Now that's different. Who fakes a punt standing in his own end zone?
Here came the Rams, Sam Bradford evading the rush long enough to find Amendola -- playing his first game since severely fracturing his collarbone five weeks ago, the injury so grotesque and graphic that it made Rams COO Kevin Demoff faint when it was described to him -- for five yards and then 16 yards and then eight yards, down to the Niners' 2 with 73 seconds left. "It hurt sometimes,'' Amendola said from the locker room afterward. "But you just have to block that out." For 70 snaps Amendola blocked it out. For 11 catches he blocked it out.
Timeout, Rams. First-and-goal at the 2. Now, as Bradford dropped to pass, the Niners came with a middle blitz. And not just any middle blitzer -- Patrick Willis was steaming in through the "A" gap for the quarterback. But Steven Jackson, who was good all day in a 101-yard rushing effort against one of the league top three defenses, was magnificent here. He got his pads low and blasted into Willis, standing him up and knocking him out of the path of Bradford's pass. Which, stunningly, went to a wide-open Austin Pettis in the back of the end zone. Rams, 24-21.
But the timeout by the Rams gave the Niners 63 seconds to get into field-goal range to tie, which they did. And so it went to overtime.
On the first play, Amendola ran a double-move up the right side, got an edge on the coverage, and Bradford led him perfectly. Now it was a horse race, Amendola versus the hard-charging safety, Donte Whitner, and Whitner caught him. Gain of 80. Out at the Niners' 2.
A flag. Illegal formation ... on the other side of the play, having absolutely nothing to do with the play. Brandon Gibson, a fourth-year wide receiver, lined up two yards behind the line instead of on the line. "By rule,'' NBC officiating consultant Jim Daopoulos, a former NFL zebra, said, "you have to have seven on the line of scrimmage. You can only have four in the backfield. To be considered on the line, you have to be within one yard of the line. The wideout was clearly two yards off the line, which made him the fifth man in the backfield.''
"I didn't know what happened,'' said a downcast Amendola. "All I knew is there was a flag. I mean, it is what it is. What can you do?"
Uhhh, line up properly. That's what Brandon Gibson can do.
With 8:14 to go in overtime, David Akers missed a chippy field goal from 41 yards. Wide left. In fits and starts, the Rams got the ball down to the San Francisco 35 with 3:25 to play. Fourth down. Hekker was the holder, Greg Zuerlein the kicker. Both rookies.
"They're out of timeouts,'' Fisher told Zuerlein on the sidelines. "They can't ice you.''
Hekker did what he was supposed to do, perhaps a little nonchalantly, counting to be sure he had nine linemen, which he did. He got into position to hold, got a nod from Zuerlein that he was ready, gave the signal to the snapper ... tick, tick, tick ... and the snap was perfect, and Zuerlein, who has made field goals from 70 yards easily in practice, drilled the 53-yard winner straight and true.
A whistle. A yellow flag. Delay of game. Hekker didn't get the snap off in time. "I'm still kind of puzzled how that happened,'' Hekker told reporters afterward. "Greg said he gave me the hand sign with four seconds left, and we've never had a snap ... take more than four seconds."
The Rams moved back five yards. Zuerlein tried too hard on the 58-yard attempt, pushing it wide right.
Each team had another chance, but there was no more drama. When the clock got to :00, Amendola -- and he wasn't the only one -- didn't know the rule that the game was over. (Shades of Donovan McNabb, 2008, Cincinnati.) "I thought we were going to keep playing,'' he said.
And everyone in the game was left to feel ... odd.
At midfield, the coaches met and Fisher said to Jim Harbaugh: "Wow ... Good luck ... How's your quarterback feeling?"
"That's the weirdest feeling I've ever had at the end of a football game,'' Amendola said. "We're disappointed. We're bummed. We left a lot of plays out on the field. But I think as a team we grew today. Coach Fisher has done a good job getting us to play with the fire you need to play with to win in this league."
"In the long run,'' said Fisher, "this will be a good step for our team. But it hurts a little right now."
Youth and costly mistakes. That's the headline. But the upshot is this: The Rams are not pushovers anymore. Three NFC West games this year: St. Louis, 2-0-1. Rams 60, Foes 40.
Now onto the other news of the day:
The Texans prove something to America, and themselves. Bears weather. Driving rain, windy, slippery turf, chunks of grass and dirt flying all night. Houston 13, Chicago 6. "I've been doing this a long time,'' coach Gary Kubiak said afterward, "and I don't know if I've ever been more proud of a team. We just kept playing great defense and doing our job on special teams. Two great defenses were doing it out there, and ours was absolutely magnificent.'' Arian Foster was magnificent too, running for 102 yards on the worst track he's ever run on in his four NFL seasons, and making a circus catch on the goal line for the only touchdown of the night.
Most impressive: Houston never fumbled on a night made for fumbling. The Bears turned it over four times, Houston twice. The call has gone out to the rest of the league. Houston's not going to fold if they have a crummy field in Nashville Dec. 2 or Foxboro Dec. 10, or if they have to go on the road to a Baltimore or Foxboro or Pittsburgh in January. After Sunday night, with a one-game lead for AFC home-field advantage and a 7-0 AFC record, they're the favorites to be home as long as they last in January.
I hope you were careful not to put a stake in the Saints a month ago. They've got the 49ers, Falcons and Giants in a 15-day span starting in Week 12, but New Orleans is 4-5 with Oakland next Sunday, and the 31-27 win over Atlanta was no fluke. Drew Brees is hot, the defense is generous but not hopeless and New Orleans is dangerous. Can you imagine the story if they wiggle into the sixth seed and have a prayer to play in a home Super Bowl, after what this team has been through this year? I thought the hero of the day Sunday was cornerback Jabari Greer. He was as shaky as a corner can be, and felt he'd let his team down on two long Atlanta completions earlier in the game.
But with New Orleans hanging on to the 31-27 lead on 4th-and-2 at the Saints' 2, Matt Ryan sent his Mr. Reliable, Roddy White, on a simple in-cut from the right flank with Greer in pursuit. White had a step on Greer. But to the far right, Tony Gonzalez was wide open. Ryan didn't see him. He thought he could laser the ball into White, and tried to. "All I was thinking was, 'I gotta make that play,' " Greer said from New Orleans afterward. "I gave up two big balls, very big. And here it was, a chance to get something back.'' Ryan threw a line drive to White, and Greer leaped in from the right, with both hands, tipping it away -- barely. "A blessing,'' Greer said. "Just incredible, really. A quality win against a great opponent, a huge rivalry game, a game we had to have.'' Here come the Saints.