The descent of a surprise snowstorm on the East Coast brought some instant warnings Sunday afternoon. Namely: Look at what could be in store for Super Bowl XLVIII, to be played outside in New Jersey's MetLife Stadium.
The implication, of course, is that snowy conditions could alter the natural course of events, giving the championship to a team that wouldn't have otherwise won it. But all Sunday's games did was elevate the entertainment level -- an NFL record 90 touchdowns were scored Sunday -- and give us an experience that fans and observers rarely see. Nothing I saw Sunday told me that the eventual loser would have won in normal conditions. It required adjustments for each winner to pull it off, of course, but to me that's part of being a winning team. If you can't adjust to adversity in the Super Bowl, you probably aren't a championship team.
The snow games will figure prominently in our weekly "Studs and Duds" post, which will also include the now-obligatory section dedicated to officiating.
1. All-time drama, Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens: A 7-6 game after three quarters ended in a 29-26 final, with an NFL-record six lead changes in the fourth quarter and the shortest span (2 minutes, 5 seconds) featuring five combined touchdowns in the past 50 years, per the Elias Sports Bureau. In succession, the game produced: a 1-yard touchdown catch, a 41-yard touchdown run, a 77-yard kickoff return, a 79-yard touchdown pass and a winning touchdown from Joe Flacco to Marlon Brown with four seconds remaining. It was the darndest thing you've ever seen, and it was great to see two teams that really, really wanted to win. But in the end, the better team won. That's what I'm saying about weather affecting a game without influencing the final result. The Ravens won because their two-minute offense is way ahead of the Vikings' two-minute defense, which has now given up last-possession touchdowns in four losses this season.
2. Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns receiver: Were it not for the New England Patriots' incredible comeback, you would be hearing more about Gordon's 185 yards rushing/receiving. He ran away from the Patriots' defense for an 80-yard touchdown and now leads the NFL in receiving yards (1,400). Gordon, in fact, has 649 receiving yards in his past three games and 774 in his past four, the most in a four-game stretch in NFL history. Through 14 weeks of the season, it's safe to say that Gordon should be the most feared receiver in the game other than Calvin Johnson. Can you believe that earlier this season it was reasonable to wonder whether the Browns would trade him for the same reason they shipped out running back Trent Richardson? Suddenly the Browns have one of the most potent weapons in the game.
3. Rushing offense, Philadelphia Eagles: Evaluating NFL play is always a tricky balance. Did the successful team play well? Or did its opponent play poorly? I'm going to choose the former as giving credit to an Eagles offense that rushed for 299 yards, including 223 in the fourth quarter, against a Detroit Lions team that had allowed an average of 40.6 rushing yards over its past six games. I know that Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy said the team played "soft" defense, but it's not as though Sunday was the Eagles' first success in running the ball. LeSean McCoy's 217-yard day raised his league-leading total to 1,305 yards this season. Much of the Eagles' fourth-quarter success came via the zone-read (204 yards), but in the end, the Eagles went strength against strength and demolished the Lions at their own game.
4. Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers: A running joke carried us through much of the NFL Nation blitz chat during the 49ers' 19-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks: The 49ers weren't going to win with field goals. That's often the case when facing an elite team like the Seahawks. But this game never seemed like the kind of score-fest that would leave behind a team making conservative decisions in scoring position. Instead, it was an instance that projected relatively few scoring opportunities. The most important task, it seemed, was to get something in each case. I like to see teams play aggressively on fourth down, especially early in a game, but I didn't blame Harbaugh for ordering a 23-yard field goal on fourth-and-1 in the first quarter. Nor was I bent out of shape when he played for a field goal on the winning drive. There are times to play it safe, and when your own defense is holding the opponent in check, Sunday at Candlestick Park seemed like one of them. I like analytics, but I also think context is important. Based on how the game was going -- including quarterback Colin Kaepernick's shaky performance -- the 49ers seemed more likely to lose by making a mistake on a throw to the end zone than by their defense allowing the Seahawks to get into position for a winning field goal.
5. Matt Prater, Denver Broncos place-kicker: Prater broke the NFL record with a 64-yard field goal just before halftime of the Broncos' 51-28 victory over the Tennessee Titans. And immediately, there were calls to qualify the record given Denver's well-chronicled altitude. (I'm told the city sits a mile higher than sea level.) So it's important to note that cold temperatures also impact field goals, and at kickoff Sunday, it was 18 degrees at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Brian Burke of NFL Advanced Stats published this analysis of cold-weather field goal attempts in January 2012, finding that long-distance attempts lose 5 yards of distance for every 30 degrees colder than the ideal. The graph available via the link provides a visual look at the impact. So let's be careful about downgrading Prater's accomplishment.
1. Haters of T.J. Ward, Cleveland Browns safety: According to ESPN and media reports, Ward's hit on Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski likely caused a season-ending ACL injury. The play could have dramatic consequences on the AFC playoff race, considering the Patriots' struggles earlier this season without Gronkowski, but it's wrong to blame Ward for a dirty or even an unethical hit. Ward had two choices in this instance. He could have hit Gronkowski low and threatened his knee. Or he could have hit him high and risked not only a concussion (or two) but also a 15-yard penalty, a fine and a possible ejection. I've heard from some knowledgeable football people who saw an opportunity for a third option -- a good, legal, strong hit to the chest -- but I don't think we're going to see many players reposition themselves at full speed for that kind of hit. I also question whether Ward at 200 pounds would have brought Gronkowski (265 pounds) to the ground with that kind of tackle attempt. Regardless, at full speed, it seems to me that the options are high and low. And we know what the NFL prefers. ACL injuries are up, but fortunately, we have seen only a handful of serious injuries this season that can be connected to intentionally low hits. I'm not sure what else Ward could or should have done in this situation.
2. Jeff Triplette, referee: Sunday brought us another series of baffling officiating decisions, but for the most part I thought we were making progress. In most cases, the controversies originated from judgment calls and not from the kind of administrative and game-flow mistakes that have plagued the NFL this season. But Triplette's reversal and subsequent awarding of a touchdown to the Cincinnati Bengals was so egregious that it should fall in the same black-and-white category as his failure to keep the downs straight in last week's game at FedEx Field. On fourth down, Triplette's crew originally called Cincinnati Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis down by contact before he crossed into the end zone. Replays indicated some question about whether Green-Ellis was ever touched, but they came nowhere close to being "indisputable evidence." Triplette reversed the call regardless, giving the Bengals a touchdown on a play where the Indianapolis Colts would have gained possession. To its credit, the NFL has worked to demystify officiating this season. But we might not know how the past two weeks will impact Triplette's standing until we see the list of 2014 referee assignments next summer.
3. Dan Snyder, Washington Redskins owner: Say what you want about the timing and potential source of Dan Graziano's report Sunday morning for ESPN, one that indicated coach Mike Shanahan nearly resigned in January 2013 and that he is put off by Snyder's relationship with quarterback Robert Griffin III. Shanahan certainly deserves some blame for the Redskins' disappointing season. But it's Snyder's franchise, and this is not the first season in his tenure -- nor the first coaching reign -- that has descended into bitter backbiting. In the big picture, Snyder is well on the way to losing his sixth coach in 14 years. Shanahan and Joe Gibbs are two of the NFL's best coaches in the past 40 years, and neither will have made it past four seasons under Snyder. There is only one common thread to be seen. The buck has to stop there. I don't have an answer for why the Redskins aren't more successful under Snyder, but the fact is that he is now into his second decade presiding over perennially disappointing and drama-filled teams. It's on him and him alone to figure it out.
4. Detroit Lions: No team in the NFL has been handed a bigger gift than the Lions, who are by far the healthiest and as a result most talented team in the NFC North. The Green Bay Packers have played nearly six full games without quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Most of the Chicago Bears' best defensive players are injured, and the Vikings have started three different quarterbacks this season. If there were ever a year for the Lions to break through as a division champion, it's this one. What have they done with the opportunity? They lost for the third time in five games Sunday, suffering that epic defensive collapse in the fourth quarter while also fumbling seven times (losing three) in snowy Philadelphia. They are now 7-6, barely ahead of the Bears (6-6) and the Packers (6-6-1). If the Lions don't win the NFC North this season, given the head start they've received, it'll be time to move on from the Jim Schwartz era.
5. Dennis Allen, Oakland Raiders coach: The truth is that we can't be certain who decided it was a good idea to set aside the third series Sunday for former starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Allen is the head coach, so it was presumably his call unless someone higher in the Raiders' chain of command wanted to see Pryor get more snaps before the end of this rebuilding season. (You never know in Oakland.) Rookie starter Matt McGloin might not be a better alternative, but purposely rotating quarterbacks is a low-level college move that should never happen in the NFL. The rhythm, chemistry and timing required of a successful NFL quarterback can't be attained by using multiple players at the position. I'm guessing Allen thought better of the plan, or at least I hope so. Pryor played only one series. If the plan was to use Pryor only once, then it was even nuttier than originally contemplated.