Sunday's action elicited a level of anger we hadn't yet seen this season. It seems as if playoff pressure -- or the possibility of looming unemployment -- is getting to everyone.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady offered a brief and profane description of his team's play in a 24-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan walked out of his postgame news conference after another question about a drama he figures centrally in. Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant stormed off the field with almost 90 seconds remaining in what would be a historic loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Some of you might not blame Bryant, whose team lost a 23-point halftime lead amid some baffling fourth-quarter play calling. Regardless, it's our job to put it all into some kind of order in our weekly list of Studs and Duds.
1. Michael Thomas, Miami Dolphins cornerback: I loved the decision by Dolphins coach Joe Philbin to go for it on fourth-and-5 from his own 45-yard line, a decision that led ultimately to the winning touchdown. But that score would have been meaningless if Thomas did not break up two potential touchdown passes in the end zone on the Patriots' final drive. He denied receiver Danny Amendola with 27 seconds remaining and then intercepted Brady's pass to Austin Collie on fourth down. You might not find a less likely candidate to make a pair of big plays in a big game than Thomas, whom the Dolphins signed last week off the San Francisco 49ers' practice squad. He was needed for emergency depth but ended up sealing a game that put the Dolphins in strong contention for the AFC's sixth wild-card spot.
2. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs: It's difficult to pick one stud when a team nets the NFL's highest scoring output (56 points) of the season and the quarterback has a perfect passer rating (Alex Smith, 158.3). But I've settled on running back Jamaal Charles, who caught four of Smith's five touchdown passes and scored a fifth of his own on the ground. The scores included receptions of 71, 49 and 39 yards, and in total Charles accumulated 172 of his 195 passing yards after the catch. Along the way, Charles became the only NFL running back in the past 50 years to catch four touchdown passes. He is also the first player in league history to catch at least four and run for at least one in a game.
3. Matt Cassel, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: It was nice to see a player take advantage of an opportunity in what could have been perceived as a meaningless game. Cassel played Sunday like someone who wanted to separate himself from the mess of the Vikings' quarterback situation this season. He threw for 382 yards in an upset of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Vikings' biggest single-game total in the Leslie Frazier Era, and led the team to its largest point total (48) in 16 years. Making extensive use of the previously underutilized receiver Greg Jennings (11 receptions in 13 targets), Cassel if nothing else put himself in position to have an active offseason. Either he or the Vikings can opt out of the second and final year of his deal, and there is always a market for a veteran who might not be a franchise starter but is a proven winner off the bench.
4. Defenders rejoice: It doesn't happen often, but defensive players got their desired result out of at least two penalty calls Sunday. The first was a call for a peel-back block by Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, an accurate but rarely seen penalty that wiped out a touchdown. The other was a false start call against New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who was determined to have induced movement from the Seattle Seahawks by flashing his hands to simulate the snap while in shotgun. Manning's movement didn't seem abrupt to me, but I get the feeling a more obvious instance had been pointed out earlier by the Seahawks. Defenders say they are routinely on the losing end of NFL rules, but these were two instances when they benefited.
5. Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears receiver: I spent some time trying to establish the best representation of the Bears' ultimately winning decision to turn their offense back over to quarterback Jay Cutler. Coach Marc Trestman gets some credit for keeping a promise, but the whole thing could have turned if Jeffery's leaping 45-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter had gone differently. The Bears were trailing the Cleveland Browns 24-17, scoring 10 points off two Cutler interceptions. This throw should probably have been intercepted as well, but Jeffery capitalized on some poorly-timed jumps by Browns defenders to haul in the pass. It was the first of three consecutive touchdowns that lifted the Bears to a 38-31 victory. An interception would have been negated by a roughing-the-passer call. But it ultimately might have prompted Trestman to turn to backup Josh McCown. At the very least, Cutler's start is viewed much differently. This week, the Bears' once-raging quarterback debate is quiet.
1. Game management, Dallas Cowboys: The Packers were much sharper in the second half Sunday, outscoring the Cowboys 34-10 in the second half to win 37-36. But their historic comeback -- the Cowboys had never lost when leading by as many as 20 points at halftime -- would not have been possible were it not for some epically bad decision-making. Although tailback DeMarco Murray would run for 134 yards on just 18 carries, the Cowboys tried to throw on 23 of their final 30 plays. (Maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cowboys have the NFL's lowest percentage of running plays when ahead: 37 percent.) That approach left them unable to drain time from the clock and also unnecessarily risked turnovers, and quarterback Tony Romo committed two. According to Grantland.com contributor Chris Brown, the Cowboys actually were using "packaged plays" on some of those instances, but Romo opted to throw rather than run. Coach Jason Garrett seemed to confirm as much after the game, and Bryant's reaction will ensure another week of drama for the Cowboys. But it requires exceptional work, effort and determination to lose a 23-point halftime lead. Somehow the Cowboys managed it.
2. Dolphins field-goal team: Hey, Garo Yepremian wants his blooper back! You might recall seeing NFL video of Yepremian attempting the worst pass in NFL history during Super Bowl VII. (The ball slipped from a panicked Yepremian's hands after he picked up a blocked field goal. He tipped it in the air, and it was intercepted by the Redskins.) But the sanctity of his special-teams botch was challenged Sunday when Dolphins holder Brandon Fields wasn't looking for the snap from John Denney on what would have been a 42-yard field goal attempt. The ball hit Fields' facemask and bounced away. The Patriots recovered at the Dolphins' 31-yard line, setting up a possession that would give the Patriots a 10-point lead in the second quarter. Good thing Fields wasn't wearing a Yepremian-style single bar helmet.
3. Attendance, NFL Stadiums Part II: Just as in Week 13, we had a number of NFL stadiums whose ticketholders found other things to do besides, uh, hold their tickets as they walked through the gates. Check out these Twitter photographs from games in Cleveland (Bears-Browns), New Jersey (Seahawks-Giants), Minnesota (Eagles-Vikings), Miami (Patriots-Dolphins) and Tennessee (Cardinals-Titans). Week 15 wasn't a great slate of games. Only two of them included a pair of teams with winning records. And yes, we all know that NFL stadiums must technically be sold out to avoid local blackouts. But that doesn't mean every ticket is sold and surely doesn't require that they be used. It's worth noting the choices these fans are making.
4. Mike Shanahan, Washington Redskins coach: I'm not sure if I've ever seen a franchise make winning a lesser priority than the Redskins have under Shanahan in the past few weeks. On Wednesday, they benched their healthy franchise quarterback. Sunday, they opted against going to overtime and -- as teams often do in the preseason but rarely in games that count -- tried for a two-point conversion after a late score against the Atlanta Falcons. Both moves would be defensible if not for the context that surrounds them. Quarterback Robert Griffin III isn't being protected from injury as much as he is caught in a power play between Shanahan and owner Daniel Snyder. And the two-point conversion might appear fun and aggressive if it weren't so obvious that Shanahan just wants the season to end. It's too bad. The Redskins have a great fan base but are being feted to an abominable soap opera.
5. New Orleans Saints: Although they don't like the suggestion that they are a different team on the road, the Saints' recent play makes it difficult to dispute. They have been blown out in their past two road games, 34-7 to the Seahawks and 27-16 on Sunday to the St. Louis Rams. They are now tied with the Carolina Panthers for first place in the NFC South and will need to win Sunday -- in Charlotte, N.C. -- to secure the division title. Otherwise, they will have played their way out of a likely No. 2 seed and made their -- ahem -- road to the Super Bowl decidedly more difficult.