Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 27, 2015

Fumbles, Bungles And Gaffes As The Playoffs Take Shape

A NOTE TO READERS: Because of travel plans there will be no post next Thursday, December 31st or Sunday, January 3rd. The next post and the regular schedule will resume on Thursday, January 7th. As always, thanks for your support, and have a happy and safe New Year!

As the penultimate weekend of the NFL’s regular season winds down, there are still playoff spots and seedings in both conferences to be decided. But while the final list of participants in the postseason tournament that will end with Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara next February won’t be known until next week, this weekend’s games did settle several questions.

Don Shula, Bob Griese and the other aging members of the 1972-73 Miami Dolphins can once again share a toast of champagne, or at this point more likely Metamucil. There will be no undefeated teams at the end of the regular season, so that old Dolphins team remains the only squad in the NFL’s modern era with a perfect season. Sunday afternoon the 14-0 Carolina Panthers were upset by the 7-7 Atlanta Falcons. Trailing by 20-13 with just over a minute remaining, the Panthers’ bid for a comeback ended when quarterback Cam Newton was stripped of the ball by Atlanta defensive end Vic Beasley. The Falcons recovered the resulting fumble to improve to a game over .500 and remain alive for a Wild Card slot, albeit barely.

The fact that the decisive play came on a turnover by Newton, the frontrunner for this year’s MVP Award, served to remind fans everywhere that just like his team, nobody’s perfect. That point was driven home in unusual fashion on the league’s website, where video of the Newton fumble was running under the caption “Panthers Cam Newton fumbles away prefect season.”  Prefect?

It wasn’t just an MVP candidate who made a crucial error on Sunday, but a head coach who is certain to one day be in the Hall of Fame as well. After the New England Patriots rallied from a 17-3 deficit to tie the New York Jets 20-20 and force overtime, Bill Belichick instructed captain Matthew Slater to elect to kick off if he won the coin flip before the start of the extra period. Slater correctly called heads and announced his coach’s fateful decision. Under NFL overtime rules, if the receiving team scores a touchdown on its initial overtime possession the game is over. At the Meadowlands the game is over, with New York now controlling its playoff fate after the 26-20 victory and the Steelers surprising defeat at the hands of the Ravens.

The logic behind Belichick’s call is that had the Patriots forced a three and out on the Jets, New England would likely have had better field position after the ensuing punt than from an opening kickoff. Across the NFL there have now been eleven games during the time Belichick has coached the Patriots in which the team winning the overtime coin toss has elected to kick. New England has been the team making that call in three of those eleven games. While it’s worth noting that the Patriots were 2-0 in those situations prior to today, it still seems like risking that the game could end without Tom Brady touching the football isn’t exactly brilliant coaching.

Newton’s fumble was an example of what can happen to even the best players in the barely controlled chaos that is an NFL contest. Belichick’s bungled call was a case of overthinking. But before either of those errors there was Kirk Cousins on Saturday night, and what can only be described as a nationally televised brain cramp.

Washington was at Philadelphia with a chance to claim the NFC East crown, the one division that none of the four teams in it seemed either capable of or especially interested in winning for much of the season. The visitors led 16-10 late in the second quarter, and had driven to a first and goal on the Eagles six yard line. With the clock showing just six ticks before halftime and Washington out of timeouts, quarterback Cousins had a couple of options. He could spike the ball, stopping the clock and allowing placekicker Dustin Hopkins to attempt a chip shot field goal to expand the lead. He could throw a quick out to either side, hoping for a touchdown or at worst an incompletion with a second or two still remaining. The latter was the play coach Jay Gruden had ordered.

Instead Cousins took the snap and promptly dropped to one knee, the normal play for a quarterback running out the clock. Realizing his error he then tried spiking the ball and even appealing to the referee, but the damage was done. After the game Cousins admitted that he had suffered a “lapse in my decision-making.” Well, yeah.

Fortunately for Washington, the mental blackout by Cousins did not impact the outcome. The Eagles made plenty of mistakes and Washington was the winner by a final score of 38-24. The win was Washington’s third in a row and advanced their record to 8-7. That’s good enough to win the NFC East and also means that regardless of what happens next week there won’t be a division champion with a losing record, as looked decidedly possible just a couple of weeks ago.

Washington fans should be deservedly happy, for a team picked by just about everyone to be the division doormat is instead going to the playoffs and hosting a Wild Card game. Of course their opponent will almost certainly have a better record, and none of Washington’s wins have come against a team with a mark over .500.

Still a team can’t win the Super Bowl without first making it to the playoffs. The Panthers are no longer perfect but they’re still the top seed in the NFC. The Patriots couldn’t overcome their coach’s gaffe, but they will still be the AFC number one seed if they beat Miami next week. The Jets have been on a late-season roll and are in if they beat Buffalo. Now Washington gets to play on, for the first time in three years. And when the tournament starts, every team in it begins at 0-0.

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