What if your metric tells you one thing and your gut tells you another?
Last year at this juncture, TMQ's Authentic Games metric forecast a Super Bowl pairing of Denver versus Seattle, and I've been dining out on that ever since. This year, the Authentic Games standings (see below) forecast a Super Bowl of Denver versus Arizona.
Rah-rah sis boom bah, be true to your school! I must stay loyal to my super-advanced, data-driven metric and forecast a Super Bowl of Denver versus Arizona. (Disclosure: The Authentic Games index is neither super-advanced nor data-driven. I do it on the back of an envelope.) But in this era of alternative jerseys, my alternative Super Bowl pick is Seattle versus New England.
The Patriots and Seahawks are peaking at exactly the right time. Seattle can beat the Packers in a playoff game at Green Bay. New England can beat Denver if the game is in New England -- and the Patriots stand a good chance of hosting the Broncos in a potential postseason game.
A week ago, the Patriots lost at Green Bay, then flew directly to San Diego to focus on preparations for the Chargers. Most NFL teams would have flown home, then to the coast Thursday. No wasted motion with Bill Belichick! Surely Belichick has a clear understanding that his conference is likely to come down to whether the AFC title game is New England at Denver or Denver at New England, and he appears determined to make it the latter. Denver and New England are tied at 10-3, with the Pats holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. Facing Miami, Jersey/B and Buffalo down the stretch, two of the three at Foxborough, while the Broncos have road games at contenders San Diego and Cincinnati, the Patriots see a clear path to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
As for the resurgent defending champions, the killer-app stat of Seattle's 2013 trophy-hoisting season was 13 second-half touchdowns allowed in 19 games. Now, in its past three outings, Seattle has allowed just one second-half touchdown. Nothing is more potent than a defense that won't allow touchdowns after intermission. Seattle defenders are getting healthy for the home stretch. If the Bluish Men Group defense of 2013 really is back, nothing else might matter in the NFC.
In the Super Bowl, the Seahawks' defense faced the top high-tech attack of 2013 and shut the Broncos down. Sunday, the Seahawks' defense faced the top high-tech attack of 2014 and shut the Eagles down. Philadelphia's Blur Offense came in posting a league-high 73 snaps per game and was held to 45 snaps -- below the average of the league-worst Titans. The Eagles came in averaging 416 yards of offense and were held to 139 yards. Trailing by 10 points with 4:15 remaining, Chip Kelly passively sent in the punt unit, knowing all he could do at that juncture was keep the margin of defeat from getting worse.
So my pick is Denver versus Arizona. That's what my metric says. Unless my pick is Seattle versus New England. Since I have hedged bets with two Super Bowl forecasts, the football gods might ensure neither comes true.
In other playoff news, it is now impossible for the NFC South victor to have a winning record. Yet the NFL's postseason format, which rewards mediocrity while penalizing merit, will grant that victor a home playoff date. If the postseason began today, 5-8 Atlanta would host a playoff game while 9-4 Dallas, 8-5 Baltimore and six 7-6 clubs would be denied a postseason invitation.
Stats Of The Week No. 1: Tom Brady is on a 6-0 streak versus San Diego.
Stats Of The Week No. 2: Home teams New Orleans, Tennessee and Washington combined to lose 101-17.
Stats Of The Week No. 3: Pittsburgh tailback Le'Veon Bell has 1,231 yards rushing; all other running backs combined on the Steelers' roster have 50 rushing yards.
Stats Of The Week No. 4: After being among the league leaders versus the run for most of the season, Miami has allowed 661 yards rushing in its past three games.
Stats Of The Week No. 5: St. Louis has outscored its past two opponents 76-0.
Stats Of The Week No. 6: St. Louis and Washington, which met Sunday, are a combined 36-53-1 since the Robert Griffin III mega-trade.
Stats Of The Week No. 7: Jersey/A and Tennessee, which met Sunday, entered on a combined 0-13 streak.
Stats of the Week No. 8: The Cowboys are 6-0 on the road, 3-4 at home.
Stats Of The Week No. 9: In the Pac-12 and Big Ten title games, Oregon and Ohio State combined to outgain their opponents by 703 yards.
Stats Of The Week No. 10: At Lambeau Field, and including playoffs, Aaron Rodgers is on a streak of 36 touchdown passes without an interception.
Sweet Play Of The Week: Kansas City leading 14-9 late in the third quarter, the Chiefs had third-and-long on the Arizona 29. A draw play followed by a field goal would give the visitors a commanding position, putting the Cardinals in danger of losing their third straight.
In love with the pass, Andy Reid radios in a pass. For the game -- adjusting for sacks and scrambles -- Reid would radio in 47 passes and 14 rushes; the pass calls would average 6 yards gained, the rushes 7.4 yards gained. Alex Smith, with a defender in his face, makes a mental mistake, heave-hoeing the ball off his back foot directly into the hands of linebacker Alex Okafor, whose interception and run-back position the hosts for the go-ahead touchdown. Sweet for the home team!
Had Reid simply radioed in a rush, the likely outcome would have been a 17-9 Kansas City lead. Instead, the Chiefs became the contender that has lost three straight and the one the Go-Go's will sing "Fading Fast" to this week. Reid note: Specifically, he's in love with the super-short pass. Kansas City had the ball on its 36 trailing 17-14 with 22 seconds remaining, and on its final four downs threw super-short each time.
Sour Pair Of Plays: Overtime at Minnesota, Jersey/B has fourth-and-6 on the Vikings' 43. That cannot be the punt team! Possession of the ball matters more than field position; in the NFL overtime format, possession is everything! Punting in opposition territory in overtime: Words fail me. After the punt, the Vikings faced third-and-5 on their 13. That cannot be a safety blitz! A simple hitch screen turns into an 87-yard touchdown pass to Jarius Wright -- no safety on that side of the field.
Sweet 'N' Sour Play: Cleveland leading 24-19 midway through the fourth quarter, the Colts faced third-and-10 on the Browns' 43. Since this is a Maroon Zone down -- Indianapolis likely will go for it on fourth down -- a sack here is valuable. Cleveland ran a safety blitz. Undrafted free agent Jim Leonhard blew past Trent Richardson, the third selection of the 2012 draft, for the sack that caused Indianapolis to punt. Sweet.
The Colts got the ball back on their own 10 with 3:46 remaining, score still 24-19. On first down, Cleveland ran the same blitz again for another sack. Now it's third-and-7 -- don't press your luck. Andrew Luck learns fast! Another blitz, long completion. Now it's third-and-10, don't press your luck ... another blitz, first down.
Now Indianapolis has first-and-goal on the Cleveland 1 with 36 seconds remaining. The Browns have called timeout to get organized, yet out of the timeout, cornerback Joe Haden is arguing with the nickelback on his side about who covers whom. Haden turns his back to Luck. Word to the wise: Do not turn your back on the league's passing-yards leader. Touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton, the guy Haden was supposed to guard. From the point that things seemed sweet for Cleveland, things got really sour.
Maybe The Wendy In "Born to Run" And Wendy In "Peter Pan" Are The Same: TMQ grumbles about television and the movies using actors in their 20s to portray teens. In last week's "Peter Pan Live!" on NBC, 26-year-old Allison Williams played Peter. The gender-bending part is normal, as Peter is traditionally portrayed by a girl or woman. Considering the first Peter Pan story was published in 1902, maybe the message of the tale is that gender confusion is a lot older than we think.
Peter is supposed to be stuck forever at 13, the age of the brother of author J.M. Barrie when he died in an accident. The young James processed this trauma by imagining his brother in a magical place where he was still alive but better off because he'd never have to grow up. OK, Mary Martin was 40 years old when she played Peter Pan on Broadway. But of the nearly countless iterations of this tale, what seems missing in a story about the boy who won't grow up is a Peter Pan performed by someone who hasn't grown up.
Wacky Food Of The Week Kale crossbred with Brussels sprouts is the new arugula.
In Space, No One Can Hear You Point Out the Plot Holes: SyFy Channel is about to kick off a television event miniseries, "Ascension," about a starship launched in secret during the Kennedy presidency. OK, it's a TV show: One must accept the puzzling premise that interstellar technology existed in the 1960s, then was somehow forgotten and no longer exists today. But the vessel depicted in the show's trailers goes well beyond ridiculous.
The Ascension has parks, nightclubs, swimming pools, grand hallways with high ceilings. A character says the Ascension is "a spaceship the size of the Empire State Building." How did it get into space? The Empire State Building weighs about 365,000 tons. If minimum-weight design criteria allowed the Ascension to weigh half as much, that's still about 185,000 tons. The most powerful rocket of the 1960s, the Saturn V, could lift 130 tons into low-Earth orbit. So lifting the components of the Ascension would have required about 1,400 Saturn V launches. Considering the entire Apollo moon program entailed 12 launches of the Saturn V, building this far larger number of Saturn V's would have bankrupted the country. And how could there have been 1,400 Saturn V launches without anyone noticing?
More Space News From The 1960s: Last week NASA conducted a successful unmanned flight of its new Orion space capsule, launching one into high orbit and then recovering the capsule following a water landing. Good for NASA! But there was a lot of commentary nonsense about a "new era in space flight" when last week's mission was, for all intents and purposes, a re-enactment of the Apollo 4 mission that occurred 47 years ago. That 1967 mission sent an unmanned version of the Apollo capsule into high orbit, bringing it back for recovery in water. The new Orion capsule and service module differs only marginally from Apollo hardware -- a little bigger, better electronics. It's nice that the Orion's first try was a success, but all the mission did was replicate something the United States could do nearly half a century ago.
That NASA administrator Charles Bolden declared the flight to represent "a major step in meeting President Barack Obama's bold challenge, supported by Congress, that America send humans to Mars by the 2030s" shows how hopelessly out of touch NASA senior management is. There is no chance -- none, zero -- that Orion hardware will ever go to Mars; orbiting the moon is likely to be Orion's operational limit. The longest Apollo mission lasted 12 days -- there's no way the slightly larger Orion could be sufficient for a 520-day Mars trip, nor does Orion have any ability to touch down on Mars and blast off again.
TMQ noted in September that a pretty basic Mars mission would weigh about 4,000 tons at departure from Earth orbit. That's about 160 times the mass of an Orion. That the NASA administrator claims Orion has anything to do with Mars flight suggests either that he lives in a dream world or is reading from a political script that, at best, is misleading.
Cops And Campuses: Rolling Stone has all but retracted its story that depicts a horrific rape at the University of Virginia. That the sensationalized account drew such national attention is a commentary as much on public perceptions as the magazine's lack of journalistic standards -- many readers made the slippery-slope assumption that because something is claimed, therefore it must be true.
Yet even if the UVA case wasn't real, it is inarguable that campus sexual assault is a real concern. Even the controversial George Will column on this subject acknowledged the existence of the problem but disputed the optics and the magnitude of estimates.
Why are stories about campus sexual assault coming to the fore? One reason is social taboos on many topics are eroding, and that's good. Another reason is that when women were a minority on most campuses, they were in a weak political position. Now that female undergraduate enrollment is 56 percent and climbing -- while there are steadily more women in higher-education administration -- female students have a better chance of having concerns heard.
It's easy to forget that until a generation ago, many top colleges were male preserves. Yale didn't admit women until 1969, and UVA did not have full gender integration until 1970. In the category of past-is-prologue, your columnist just read Warren Goldstein's terrific biography, "William Sloane Coffin Jr.," about one of the leading liberals of the 20th century: Yale chaplain Bill Coffin, who participated in the Freedom Rides, then was a prominent Vietnam War protester. Despite his public liberalism, a few years after women were admitted to Yale, Coffin resigned, feeling out of place in the new, coeducational world. Goldstein writes that Coffin "had worked shoulder to shoulder with other men, thought of colleagues as male, and resented the pressure" to broaden his perspective. The institutional memory of many colleges and universities still mainly takes a male point of view -- and the male point of view, especially about fraternities, has long been that boys will be boys.
Contentions that sex-assault allegations are played down by universities sound like sections of this new Department of Defense report, which admits that many military service members who allege sexual assault have perceived retaliation from the military chain of command. A disturbing specific example of the latter is here, an account that, unlike the Rolling Stone article, has solid sourcing.
Colleges, the military and churches all appear to be acting approximately the same, trying to sweep allegations of sexual misconduct under the rug. Why the same response from such disparate sectors of life? Because academia, religion and the military are institutions, and institutions are terrible at policing themselves. Whenever anything happens that threatens the name of an institution, the response is to cover up.
The worst of institutional culture is brought out by sexual allegations because they can be stonewalled in a manner other problems cannot. If a ship sinks, there's no way that was supposed to happen and no way can the Pentagon deny it. Sex occurs behind doors and can be anything from really joyful to a crime. Because only those who were present know which it was, sexual misconduct is eminently deniable. And the instinct of big institutions is to deny.
All these are reasons the solution to campus sexual assault is not the suspension of due process, to which even female members of the Harvard Law School faculty object. The solution is to take such allegations out of the hands of universities and bring in law enforcement.
Campus conduct boards may be the correct places to consider instances of cheating, bias or unethical behavior. These things are wrong but not crimes. Sexual assault is a crime -- and a crime of violence. Where crimes of violence are alleged, police, not faculty committees, ought to investigate.
Colleges tell students who allege wrongdoing that everything will be handled internally, which might seem comforting at first: A college student has spent her life to that point trusting the adults who run schools. But the college doesn't want to get to the bottom of sex-assault claims. Generals, admirals and bishops don't want to get to the bottom of sexual allegations. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is leading a congressional push to move military sex-assault claims from the chain of command to independent military prosecutors. Universities and churches should follow her lead. Big institutions will simply never be honest about claims that reflect poorly on them.
Going to police would be traumatic for those who allege sexual assault, but talking to police is traumatic for all victims of violent crimes, including for all male victims. Some law enforcement departments now have specialists in personal trauma, trained to soften the nature of the complainant interview. If local police near a college knew they'd be the ones to handle sex-assault claims, departments that do not now have specialists likely soon would.
The core aspect of campus sexual assault is that male students think they will get away with it. If the new campus standard was that police would be involved from the get-go, male students would face real consequences, and it's possible their behavior would change. That would make women safer and also improve the situation for male students who respect women.
Authentic Games Standings: This week Les Mouflons are dropped from the Authentic standings. Though St. Louis has posted consecutive shutouts and is the sole team to have defeated both of last season's Super Bowl entrants, the Rams just can't be Authentic if they have a losing record and are last in their division with three games remaining.
Santa Clara lurks in the Authentic Games standings solely out of respect for three straight NFC title appearances, not for its performance. The Niners have all but exiled themselves from the postseason but could become an embittered spoiler for someone, since they face Seattle, San Diego and Arizona. Dallas appears the weakest contender by this metric, having just one Authentic victory.
Best Purist Drive: Baltimore leading 21-13, the Nevermores took possession on their 19 midway through the fourth quarter and staged a seven-play touchdown drive entirely by rushing. Trailing 10-0 with eight seconds remaining in the first half, out of timeouts, Harbaugh/East went for it, touchdown, setting a manly-man tone for the contest.
Miami's oft-troubled offensive line was terrible again. The Miami blockers allowed six sacks. Baltimore leading 14-10, Miami reached first-and-goal on the Ravens' 4 and went tackle for a loss, incompletion, sack, field goal -- the game's decisive series.
TMQ's Christmas List: Reader Chip Garrison of Galloway, New Jersey, hopes Santa brings him a wireless robot ball. Reader Brad Broyles hopes to hang on his tree a keepsake Hallmark ornament of a hideous monster. Nothing says jolly like a hideous monster! Reader Marcy Donald of Eugene, Oregon, reports she was Christmas shopping at this athletic gear seller, whose printed catalog says, "Our models are not models at all, but real women." She asks, "Aren't all women 'real?'"
Taking the Quiz Myself, I Only Got One Wrong: Many readers have pointed out this widget that challenges you to explain TMQ nicknames. I don't know anything about the creator but can attest the quiz is accurate. Thanks, "caramba," whoever you might be.
Stop Me Before I Blitz Again!: With the Steelers facing third-and-3 at the Bengals 8, Cincinnati coaches sent an all-out blitz. Completion to the Cincinnati 1, and touchdown on the next snap. What was the point of an all-out blitz? Even had a sack resulted, Pittsburgh still would have been in close field goal range.
Concussion Watch: This column often has made the point that while knockout hits that cause concussions get the attention, the accumulated effect on the brain of lots of regular hits can be just as bad. This disturbing new study, presented last week at a meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, shows even a routine season of high school football -- no concussions, no headaches -- can result in brain abnormalities that show up in tests.
The Football Gods Chortled: The 49ers played an "away" game in Oakland -- which is closer to San Francisco (16 miles) than Santa Clara (37 miles), where the 49ers play "home" games. Trailing 1-11 mega-underdog Oakland 24-13 with five minutes remaining, the Niners faced fourth-and-12. Harbaugh/West sent in the field goal unit. Outraged, the football gods caused the try to miss. Who cares if it was fourth-and-12? The moment was do-or-die!
A Game for Manly Men: With the game scoreless in the second quarter, Dallas reached fourth-and-1 on the Chicago 13. A majority of the time, an NFL coach would send in the kicking unit in this situation. The Boys went for it and got a first down. Soon it was fourth-and-goal on the Chicago 1. The Boys went again and got a touchdown. Playing on Thursday for the second straight week, Dallas was coming off being smacked at home by the Eagles. Two fourth-down tries on the same drive set an aggressive tone for the contest. The Bears responded by going for it on fourth-and-7 from the Dallas 30 -- classic Maroon Zone decision, given that a near-freezing temperature rendered unlikely a long field goal on grass. Chicago converted and scored a touchdown. On the night, the teams combined to go five-of-five on fourth-down conversion attempts -- a manly-man contest.
Recording a half-sack in the first half, the Bears' Willie Young did an elaborate dance. One does not thump one's chest when one's team is 5-7! Now the Bears are 5-8 and eliminated from the postseason.
In Regulation, Mercury Does Not Mean Fast: Word the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to White House attempts to restrict mercury from power plants made your columnist groan, "Here we go again."
Nearly 13 years ago, the younger George Bush proposed to regulate airborne mercury from power plants via amendments to the Clean Air Act. The 1970 version of the act, which forms the bulwark of U.S. air-pollution control, does not mention mercury. Environmentalists and Democrats fought the Bush proposal with fury, officially because the Bush timetable was gradual; the likely real reason was Democrats and environmentalists could not abide the notion of a Republican claiming credit for an anti-pollution advance. Bush's bill died in committee, so he tried to implement aspects using executive authority. Lawsuits resulted. The Clean Air Act has been very effective at reducing smog and acid rain but operates in a manner that invites litigation because key titles can be interpreted in more than one way. After Barack Obama took office, his EPA issued stricter rules about mercury. Now, the Supremes will review these rules -- all of which are vulnerable because they are executive orders, rather than legislation -- to see if they violate a specific provision of the Clean Air Act.
Bottom line: Almost 13 years ago, airborne mercury was said to be such an emergency only a crash program would suffice. Thirteen years later, action is still locked up in red tape.
The reason for the mercury scare around the beginning of the new century was higher concentrations were being detected in women, and coal-fired power plants emit the type of mercury that can cause birth defects. A 2013 report found levels of mercury in the blood of women of childbearing age are declining. The problem might be less pressing than once thought. Still, reducing the amount of neurotoxins in air and water does sound like a good idea. It's a good idea that would be pursued better via legislation than in the courts, yet Congress, whether Republican-run or Democrat-run, refuses to act. As you hear President Obama denounced for using executive orders where legislation would be preferred, bear in mind George W. Bush did the same thing under the same circumstances.
In related litigation, 17 state attorneys general have sued the EPA. They assert its proposed power plant greenhouse gas regulations actually are energy policy, and the Clean Air Act does not give the EPA authority over energy policy. Years of full employment for lawyers in this case could be avoided if Congress would simply enact clarification of some Clean Air Act language. But that would require Congress to come to a conclusion on something, rather than endlessly stalling while demanding campaign donations.
Postscript No. 1: Further, the EPA has proposed rules that would lower the maximum allowable smog level. The stats linked above show aggregate air emissions have declined 62 percent since 1980, even as the population and economic activity have grown. Smog is already way down, and a point of diminishing returns on smog reduction might be near. But making the smog standards more strict would be great for environmental fundraising, as the proposed rules would mean much of the United States suddenly would be reclassified as having unhealthy air. Politicians love things to panic about.
Postscript No. 2: Given that mercury is a neurotoxin, why is there a high-end cosmetics chain called Blue Mercury?
Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk: With New England leading 23-14 with six minutes remaining, the Bolts faced fourth-and-4 from the midfield stripe. That cannot be the punt unit trotting in! Down by two scores, ball at midfield, fourth-and-short, you can't surrender possession of the ball! Or apparently you can. When San Diego got possession back, it was the two-minute warning, and home fans were streaming to the exits.
Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk No.2: In the second quarter of the MAC title game, underdog Bowling Green punted on fourth-and-2. You don't need to know anything else about the contest.
In the first quarter of the Pac-12 title game, Arizona punted from the Oregon 37. Who cares if it was fourth-and-13? The Ducks came in averaging 46 points per game. It's impossible to defeat a high-scoring team by punting on that team's side of the field. Outraged, the football gods pushed the punt into the end zone for a touchback. In the second half, Arizona did try on fourth down, but only after they fell behind 23-0 -- an insurmountable margin against a high-scoring team.
Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk No. 3: Trailing Alabama 14-0 in the SEC title game, Missouri took a field goal. Trailing 28-13 in the fourth quarter, Mizzou punted at midfield. Who cares where the line-to-gain was in either case? The Tigers absolutely had to score touchdowns, and they went on to lose 42-13. The field goal was to keep a shutout off Gary Pinkel's resume; the punt was to hold down the margin of defeat. Alabama probably would have won no matter what tactics Missouri employed, but in a no-tomorrow title contest, shouldn't a coach go all-out? Now Pinkel will root for the Crimson Tide to take the national title so he can say, "We played the champions close until the fourth quarter."
Resume note: With Denver leading 7-0, Buffalo took a field goal on fourth-and-2 from the Broncos' 26. One doesn't defeat a high-scoring team on the road by settling for kicks on fourth-and-short. Bills coach Doug Marrone, on the hot seat with new management, wanted to make sure he kept a shutout off his CV.
Denver note: The Broncos benefit from the end of Peyton Manning's streak of touchdown passes. Last year at Super Bowl time, there was too much attention to Manning's numbers and endorsement deals and not enough to the team. The less media obsession with Manning, the better Denver's chances this postseason.
Unified Field Theory Of Creep No. 1: Reader Michael Santek of Pittsburgh reported, "I'm a sales consultant at a Ford-Lincoln dealer. A client came in on Black Friday to factory-order a 2015 Lincoln MKX. The MKX has been in the 2015 model year since early September. We 'speced' out the MKX the way the client wanted it, clicked the factory-order button and promptly got blindsided with an error message saying the 2015 MKX model year is already over. So the 2015 MKX model year began 18 weeks before the start of 2015 and ended six weeks before 2015. Needless to say, my head nearly exploded."
Unified Field Theory Of Creep No. 2: Tonight ABC airs "the astonishing winter finale" of "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." As reader Matt Ficke of San Diego noted, the "winter finale" occurs almost two weeks before the first day of winter in North America.
Unified Field Theory Of Creep No. 3: Last week, TMQ jumped the gun on the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, coming in 2016, with an item on those Gene Roddenberry projects that did not involve the United Federation of Planets. Many readers, including Shannon McCarthy of Santa Monica, California, noted that actually I did not jump the gun. Right now is the 50th anniversary of filming of the first Star Trek pilot, the episode with Captain Pike and Number One. Live long and perspire!
Happy Hour In Hell's Sports Bar: Hell's Sports Bar has a 2-for-1 drinks special during NFL games -- pay for two, get one. Because of the wild-card logjam, on Sunday afternoon there were a perhaps unprecedented six games between winning teams that both badly needed a W. The upper Midwest became Hell's Sports Bar, as this part of the country saw just one of those six, Seattle at Philadelphia, while being treated to two woofers, 2-10 Buccaneers at Lions and 2-10 Jets at Vikings.
About The New England Defense: The Flying Elvii defense has been improving in the season's second half and just held San Diego to 216 yards at home. This season, New England has shown a lot of Steelers-style zone rush -- five or six guys look like they're coming presnap, then only four do, but the offensive line can't guess which four it will be. A four-man zone rush caused a Philip Rivers interception when the San Diego quarterback was surprised by linebacker Akeem Ayers, who seemed like he'd rush but instead dropped into coverage. (Ayers is a classic Belichick find -- picked up midseason from Tennessee for a song. Placing a New England helmet on his head instantly made him a better player.) On a third-and-6, a confusing zone rush caused Rivers to throw the ball away. That kind of result -- incompletion that forces a punt -- can mean more to defense than a flashy sack.
Because focus for years has been on the Flying Elvii offense, many NFL faithful couldn't even name the New England defensive coordinator, Matt Patricia. He has a very Belichick-like resume. Patricia played Division III football at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, an academics-first college, just as Belichick played at academics-first Division III Wesleyan. Then Patricia coached at academics-first Amherst College before joining the Patriots in 2004 and slowly working his way up from intern to coordinator. Belichick's first NFL post was as an intern at the old Baltimore Colts.
What The Hey?: With East Carolina leading 30-26 with five seconds remaining, Central Florida lined up for a Hail Mary from midfield. What the hey -- why was East Carolina in press coverage? Breshad Perriman easily ran past the guy press-guarding him. Still, there were two safeties on the goal line. Instead of following the golden rule of these situations -- keep everything in front of you! -- both safeties stepped forward, which allowed Perriman to get behind them. The touchdown put Central Florida ahead 32-30 with time expired. Because there was a tiny chance a turnover return on the PAT by the Pirates would tie the score, officials cleared the field, Central Florida sent out its offense and knelt to conclude the contest.
Before Central Florida's Hail Mary possession, East Carolina had first down on the Knights 15 with 1:47 remaining and Central Florida holding one timeout. No game that wasn't over had ever seemed more over. The Pirates knelt twice, and UCF called its timeout. A third kneel made it fourth-and-19 at the UCF 24 with 16 seconds remaining, and East Carolina called timeout! This timeout saved UCF only a few seconds, but UCF would win as time expired. East Carolina tried a pass play, which led to a loss of 11 yards. That gave Central Florida possession on its own 35 with 10 seconds remaining; a short out set up the Hail Mary. On its final possession, East Carolina killed only 1:37 of the clock, lost 20 yards and moved Central Florida closer to midfield. In turn, the fact that the offense had been kneeling might have lulled the defense into considering the game over.
ESPN Grade is a fan of the University of Central Florida because its football graduation rate is a very impressive 90 percent. Should UCF appear at the bottom of either of the major polls, it will skyrocket in ESPN Grade, given that the Knights would tie for second by graduation rate.
What The Hey No. 2: Here are New Orleans' possession results while behind 41-3 to the 3-8-1 Carolina Panthers at home: fumble, interception, punt, field goal, missed field goal, punt, punt, punt, punt, downs. Trailing 24-3, the Saints punted on fourth-and-7. Disgusted, the football gods allowed the Cats a 69-yard touchdown run on the next snap. Once invincible in their dome, New Orleans has four straight home losses, and this one was hard to watch. In the second half, the Saints looked like the battleship Suvorov on fire at the battle of Tsushima Strait.
The Colt McCoy Era Might Be Over: Everything is wrong with the Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons, who fell to 3-10 for the second consecutive season. It's not just the defense, which, after allowing four touchdown receptions by receivers who weren't covered by anyone at all against Indianapolis, versus Les Mouflons allowed two touchdown receptions by receivers who weren't covered by anyone at all. It's not just the offense, which was shut out at home.
R*dsk*ns special teams also continue to be terrible. A fake punt on fourth-and-5 was stopped after just two yards gained. Scoring to take a 15-0 lead in the third quarter, St. Louis faked the PAT and scored two. Washington wasn't alert, though the Rams like to fake kicks and holder Johnny Hekker, who threw the deuce pass, came into the contest with two completions off fake kicks. Fittingly, the deuce receiver was not covered by anyone at all. A nice touch: Following the six-point score, Jeff Fisher, who'd just told his coaches to go for two, theatrically waved one finger in the air.
Does Sure-to-Be-Former Head Coach Jay Gruden want to be fired? Last week, The Washington Post reported Gruden has been saying he wants to unload Robert Griffin III, which is the same as saying Gruden accuses Chainsaw Dan of wasting three first-round draft picks in a failed trade. Fired, Gruden would receive the roughly $16 million Snyder owes him for the balance of his contract -- and no one in football would hold it against Gruden that he couldn't work with the league's worst owner.
Reader Animadversion: Last week, I noted driverless trucks could make transportation safer while costing jobs. Reader Dan Schmitt of Monroe, New York, replied, "I'm not sure there would be as many job cuts as you think. Wouldn't such technology lead to changes in protocol that would create alternate trades? An automated truck would be able to drive continuously. Someone -- the 'harbor pilot' -- would need to supervise the vehicle. Conceivably, self-guided trucks could travel from coast to coast with a pair of 'captains' aboard alternating supervision. I am a contractor in telecom, and from my point of view, for automated trucks to succeed there would have to be some sort of ground-based redundancy system in the event of a GPS disruption. I could envision a router or switch to piggyback off of existing fiber optic or coaxial backbone infrastructure. Start to do the math on the enormity of rolling out a change on that level, an awful lot of technicians would be required to make the automated truck a reality. Being a technicians is a more desirable job than being an exhausted driver in a sweatshop-on-wheels."
The Case For More Sousaphones: Check out the intriguing new book "Ball or Bands" by John Gerdy, which argues high schools and colleges should put less emphasis on athletics and more on music. Not only does music not cause head injuries -- well, there is listening to opera -- but it also teaches creativity. Sports, Gerdy contends, fundamentally are about improving the body, while music fundamentally is about improving the mind. Maybe the solution is Battle of the Bands standings to create an aspect of competition.
Adventures In Officiating: Zebras absolutely were correct to flag New England's Brandon Browner for a vicious hit on a defenseless receiver -- arms outstretched, no way to protect his head -- at San Diego. Browner's penchant for drawing major penalties could become a liability for New England in the playoffs, where there will be intense focus on officiating.
TMQ has been complaining this season that NFL officiating is now so offense-oriented, it's become a penalty to do something that merely might have been interference. With Denver leading Buffalo 7-3 in the second quarter, the Bills were called for pass interference on a third-and-long incompletion. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore made a perfectly timed hit using his shoulder (not his helmet) and was called for pass interference. (Denver declined that flag and took the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Buffalo for protesting the call.) The home scoreboard did not show the replay, perhaps because Denver's staff knew it was obviously not interference. The Broncos scored a touchdown on the possession.
At Arizona, a Kansas City long gain was turned into a lost fumble at a key juncture. It's certainly possible the play should have been ruled a fumble on the field, but there was no indisputable evidence. Unless on review it's totally obvious the initial call was wrong, the call on the field should stand.
The 500 Club: Visiting Cincinnati, University of Houston gained 594 yards and lost. Visiting Wisconsin-Whitewater in the Division III playoffs, Wartburg gained 500 yards and lost.
Obscure College Score: Linfield 45, Widener 7 (Division III playoffs). Located in Chester, Pennsylvania, a short distance from Philadelphia, Widener University was unhappy the Philadelphia Eagles assisted Linfield, an Oregon school, in preparing for the game. The football gods got their vengeance of Chip Kelly the next day in the Seahawks game! Widener is unusual in being a smallish school that names "university professors," the best kind of chair.
Next Week: Next week is TMQ's bye week. The column will be back Dec. 23 and will continue through that Super Bowl thing you might have heard about. I will use the bye week to get healthy, draw up new sentence structures and seek crowd-sourced funding for my celebrity Yahtzee tournament.