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Who will survive to reach wild card?

If Charles Darwin were alive today he'd be an NFL fan because the final month of the season shapes up as a contest of survival of the fittest for wild-card invitations.

The meltdown in the 15-32-1 NFC South has a ripple effect: more victories elsewhere, resulting in a high number of strong teams with wild-card hopes. Down the stretch, 11 good-record teams are competing for four wild-card slots. By quirk of the schedule, these teams spend the final month mainly playing each other. How Darwinian!

Often, December in the NFL is the month of mismatches, with dominant teams tuning up for the playoffs against losers that are already eliminated. Not this year. December will feature game after game pitting winning teams in must-win situations. Arguably, December 2014 may be the best month ever to watch NFL regular season football. Consider:

San Diego plays four of four versus other contenders: the Patriots, Broncos, 49ers and Chiefs. Six of the strong teams play three of four versus other contenders. Kansas City faces Arizona, Pittsburgh and San Diego. Seattle faces the Eagles, Niners and Cardinals. Santa Clara meets the Seahawks, Chargers and Cardinals. Pittsburgh faces Kansas City and plays in Cincinnati before finishing the season at home against the Bengals. The Browns play Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Baltimore. The Bills face Denver, Green Bay and New England.

Of the other teams with realistic postseason hopes, Dallas meets Philadelphia and Indianapolis; Baltimore plays Miami and Cleveland; Miami plays Baltimore and New England. Among the contenders, only Detroit, paired with Green Bay plus three also-rans, does not face a murderers' row in December.

The fact that December offers so many strong-on-strong pairings ensures the contenders will inflict defeats on each other, causing some to fall by the wayside. Just like in natural selection! At least those teams that lose the month's upcoming power games won't see their DNA eliminated from the gene pool. But Darwin would feel right at home with what's about to occur in the NFL.

Now about that NFC South. If the season ended today, 5-7 Atlanta would host a playoff game as division champion, while the NFC East's 8-4 Cowboys would be denied the postseason. For years TMQ has advocated a seeded tournament as the alternative to the NFL's goofy anti-meritocracy playoff format. But perhaps revolutionary change is just too much for the league's hidebound ownership class.

How about incremental change? Establish a bowl-eligible rule for the NFL playoffs. Reader Michael Donnelly ‏of Ridgefield, Connecticut, suggests that a division winner should get an automatic qualifier to the postseason only if it finishes above .500. Otherwise the first-in-division slot that year would become another wild card.

If in effect today, the NFL bowl-eligible concept would mean no playoff slot for the NFC South; Seattle, next-best if Atlanta is eliminated, would host a playoff contest; Dallas would make the playoffs on the road as a wild card. That's a far stronger postseason field. The goofy NFL playoff format continues to reward failure and penalize success. At least add a bowl-eligible standard.

In spinning-scoreboard news, what if your team put up 66 points and lost? I'm not talking about your rec-league basketball team, I am talking about your nationally ranked major college football team. See below.

Stats Of The Week No. 1: At Lambeau Field, Aaron Rodgers is on a streak of 33 touchdown passes to zero interceptions, including playoffs.

Stats Of The Week No. 2: Atlanta, which goes to Lambeau Field on the next "Monday Night Football," is an NFL-worst .278 -- 10-26 -- in Monday games.

Stats Of The Week No. 3: Niners possession results at home versus Seattle: Punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, punt, end of half, field goal, interception, end of game.

Stats Of The Week No. 4: After going 453 games without a punt block for a touchdown, Minnesota did it twice in the same half versus Carolina.

Stats Of The Week No. 5: Since the start of 2013, the Chiefs are 3-7 in their division, 15-4 versus all other teams, including playoffs.

Stats Of The Week No. 6: The 49ers are 1-3 in their division. In the three previous seasons, they were 13-5-1 including playoffs.

Stats Of The Week No. 7: The Raiders have not won on the road since Nov. 17, 2013.

Stats of the Week No. 8: Boise State is on a 91-4 run when playing on blue.

Stats Of The Week No. 9: Defensive end J.J. Watt has more touchdown receptions (three) than the entire Kansas City wide receiver corps (none).

Stats Of The Week No. 10: The 2-10 Buccaneers are alive for the first overall draft pick -- and also alive to win their division and host a playoff game.

Sweet Play Of The Week: TMQ loves the tactic of bringing in a guy who never plays, then giving him the ball on a big play. With the Bills leading Cleveland 20-10 in the fourth quarter, the Browns were energized by the arrival of Johnny Football and a quick touchdown. Now Buffalo faces third-and-1. If Cleveland gets a stop, as it did on an earlier third-and-1, momentum shifts the visitors' way. Little-known MarQueis Gray -- an undrafted free agent with three career receptions for 24 yards entering the contest -- came in, apparently as an extra blocker. Play-fake then a pass to the uncovered Gray, whose 41-yard catch-and-run set up the field goal that made the score 23-10.

Sour Play Of The Week: Leading San Diego 30-27, Baltimore faced third-and-4 at the Bolts' 13 with 2:32 remaining and the Chargers out of timeouts. A rush might get the first down, but at least keeps the clock moving to the two-minute warning. Instead: incompletion, clock stops, field goal; the extra time keeps San Diego's comeback hopes alive. Before the field goal, Baltimore tried to run the "lonesome end" fake, but San Diego noticed, leading to a regular kick. Failing to keep the clock ticking was quite sour. (Favored Cincinnati also threw an incompletion with 2:14 remaining in a clock-killer situation at City of Tampa, nearly allowing the Buccaneers to come back.)

Earlier in the contest, Baltimore faced fourth-and-1 on the San Diego 10, initially kept its offense out, then drew a delay-of-game penalty owing to indecision and ended up kicking. Four points were left on the table in a contest the Ravens would lose by one point. Also sour.

The Ravens jumped to an early lead, appeared to be cruising, led 30-20 with six minutes remaining. At that juncture, Baltimore seemed to grow overconfident: San Diego ended up scoring three fourth-quarter touchdowns on the road. The Bolts may have gone into December mode one day early.

Sweet 'N' Sour Plays: TMQ lauds the Patriots for always having something they haven't shown. Two can play at that game! With Green Bay leading 13-7, the Packers, facing third-and-5, lined up wide receiver Randall Cobb in the backfield, with a trips right. At the snap all the trips guys went shallow left to drag away the secondary, while Cobb ran a wheel right -- covered by a linebacker, 33-yard reception setting up a field goal. Sweet.

Cobb also caught the third-down short-yardage pass at the two-minute warning that allowed the Packers to send in the victory formation. But his sweetest play doesn't show in the stats. With Green Bay ahead 16-14, the Packers had third-and-2 on the Flying Elvii 45 with 23 seconds before intermission. Jordy Nelson caught a short down-and-in and was trying to outrun Darrelle Revis laterally. Cobb hustled downfield to block Revis out of the picture, allowing his teammate to score a touchdown just before the half.

New England tried to get sweet in the second half by showing an unorthodox 1-4-6 defensive front. It worked: Green Bay put up 23 points in the first half but just three points in the second half, despite crowd energy favoring the home team.

But classic defense never goes out of style! With Green Bay leading 26-21, New England reached first-and-10 on the Packers' 21 with 4:10 remaining. Big blitzes? Funky fronts? Green Bay stayed in a vanilla 4-3-4 with straight four-man rush. Result: run for 1 yard, incompletion, sack, missed field goal. On the sack, New England had five to block four: linebacker Mike Neal overpowered New England left tackle Nate Solder off the snap, creating the game's decisive down. Sweet for the home team, sour for the visitors. A moment later, on the sideline, CBS cameras caught Tom Brady shouting two words that were not "Merry Christmas."

Sweet Special Teams Plays: TMQ's law of blocked punts holds -- rush seven if you want to block that kick. Watch how NFL teams line up versus punts. They rarely send more than a token rush: Not risking roughing-the-kicker is the "safe" move, and NFL coaches love "safe" tactics. The result is that when an NFL team does go after the punter, the kicking team is shocked.

In the first quarter versus Carolina, Minnesota rushed seven, blocking a punt and returning the ball for a touchdown. Now it's the second quarter, the Cats seemed to reason: They'd never go after our punter twice in the same game! Minnesota rushes eight, block, touchdown.

Disclaimer Of The Week Reader Jillian Berg of Brooklyn reports that General Motors now has an entire website devoted to disclaimers, including a disclaimer archive. Perhaps future historians will study archived disclaimers.

Siri, Bring The Car Around: Autonomous cars may be in the works. Obviously there are all kinds of issues to get worked out, including insurance liability. Assuming the technology can be achieved (reasonably likely but not proven), the transition period may be daunting -- imagine conventional and computer-driven vehicles mingling on the roads. Will driving eventually be banned, or confined to hobbyists? The tech that may make cars able to guide themselves also will create a super-detailed record not only of where your vehicle has been, but where it's going right now. Surely the NSA won't eavesdrop!

If achievable, the autonomous car should be a huge safety breakthrough. Most crashes result from human error: Computer errors will never be zero, but should be far less frequent. Young drivers won't be reckless, older drivers won't lose focus. Our grandchildren may be shocked to learn we once drove these big, fast-moving hunks of metal down freeways where the slightest steering mistake could lead to tragedy. Future generations may say, "Grandpa, wasn't driving a car dangerous?"

And if it works, the autonomous vehicle may revolutionize how we think about cars. A family group won't need two or three. In the morning, the car will drive one parent to work, return and drive a kid to school, come back and drive the other parent to work, then repeat the process to pick them up later. Two families or some friends could share a car, if the vehicle could deliver itself wherever required. Parking won't need to be near the office, school or other destination: The car could drop you off, go on to park itself in some satellite facility, then return when summoned. Traveling and commuting will become less stressful if you can read or nod off as the car controls itself. No longer will senior citizens dread the moment when the car keys are taken away: They'll be more mobile and independent.

The downside is that if cars become safer, more convenient and less of an urban burden from a parking standpoint, we'll never be rid of them.

Now think about the impact of autonomous vehicles on the wheel as a profession. Some 1.7 million Americans work as licensed truck drivers, and truck driving currently is an employment growth sector. What if trucks drive themselves? Because the capital cost of a tractor-trailer truck is much higher than that of a car, and because wages and benefits could be eliminated, putting complicated autonomous operation equipment into trucks could be easier to justify as an expense than putting such equipment into cars.

People may be uncomfortable with driverless 18-wheelers barreling down the highway. But if electronic trucks eliminated the risk of crashes like this one -- 10 people killed by a truck driver who'd been on the road 11 hours and probably fell asleep -- autonomous trucks could be seen as a boon, at least to those who aren't truck drivers. Daimler is targeting 2025 for sales of drone trucks that drive themselves on highways, with an operator -- sort of a harbor pilot -- taking over for city streets, according to Wired Magazine.

Off-road autonomous trucks may happen before robot semis hit the freeways. Thousands of truck drivers work at construction sites and mines where there are no public roads and no risk of colliding with civilians. Self-driving ocean-going ships may be in the works, considering the ocean environment is more predictable than roads. And TMQ's pal James Fallows continues to think that pilotless aircraft are coming. Initially passengers will feel terrified of boarding a plane that has no pilot. Future generations may feel safer on such flying machines.

Uber is working hard to convince you that its executives are creepy and arrogant. But surely you love the friendly, punctual drivers. So wait till this or some similar firm rolls out automated taxis. No tipping required!

Autonomous driving, or sailing and flying, could generate benefits for society while costing jobs. Does that mean improving technology should be banned? If improving vehicle technology had been banned in the 1950s, today we'd all be in smog-belching, finned 10 mpg land yachts with no seat belts. A century ago when agriculture was the dominant job engine, Americans would have been horrified to learn that in 2014, only about 2 percent of employment would be in the farm sector. But nearly everyone, including most farmers, is better off as a result. The likely advent of autonomous driving technology has to be seen through that lens.

ESPN Grade Projects The Final Four: Entrants in the initial College Football Playoff will be announced Sunday. Perhaps the selection committee will pause to give lip service to education, but the choices will be all about which teams generate the best sports entertainment -- as if NCAA football were an NFL junior league, rather than an aspect of college.

Of course, that's what many people think. But ESPN Grade takes the NCAA and the Power 5 at their word and ranks the top teams as if players were actual student-athletes. ESPN Grade says the final four should be:

  1. 1. Alabama

  2. 2. TCU

  3. 3. Oregon

  4. 4. Ohio State

ESPN Grade adds the Associated Press and USA Today rankings with a sort of the top programs by graduation rate, giving each the same weight. So Alabama is 1 + 1 + 7 = 9, the best ranking. TCU is 4 + 4+ 4 = 12. Oregon is 3 + 3 + 13 = 19. Ohio State 6 + 6 + 8 = 20. Florida State drops out of the picture at 2 + 2 + 21 = 25. Mississippi State plummets at 10 + 10 + 18 = 38.

Sun Setting On RG III?: Sure-to-be-former head coach Jay Gruden benched Robert Griffin III for the Washington at Indianapolis contest. At this point the R*dsk*ns may have a better chance to win with Colt McCoy than with RG III, but the move was also public relations-driven. Luck went first in the 2012 draft, Griffin went second. Luck is a huge success, Griffin's head is barely above water. Had they faced each other, commentary would have focused on how bad Chainsaw Dan Snyder looks for making the king's-ransom Griffin trade. Benching Griffin reduced embarrassment for Chainsaw Dan.

Washington acquired the 2012 second selection about a month before the draft. At that time, some touts felt Indianapolis would use the first choice on Griffin, leaving Luck to Washington with the second selection. The mindset of Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons management was that making the deal ensured they'd land one player or the other, and both would become franchise quarterbacks. So although Washington's 2012 draft strategy now looks like a fiasco, had the Colts chosen Griffin, Washington's 2012 draft strategy now would look like the smoothest move of all time.

Nevertheless, the Persons are left with this: Netting several transactions, in the past five years, Washington has invested first-round draft choices, two second-round selections and a fourth-round choice in the quarterback position, and its starting signal-caller is a street free agent. Washington may shop Griffin in the offseason. Unless there's a major turnaround, the 2012 pre-draft deal by the R*dsk*ns will go down as among the worst trades in sports annals.

Post-Thanksgiving Thanks Giving: Obviously, there are all sorts of things going wrong all over the world. The best that can be hoped for is positive trend lines. As last week's column noted, most U.S. trend lines are positive: declining unemployment, declining crime, declining rates of most disease, declining pollution, higher education levels, longer life spans and the lowest risk of death from war or violence in human history. These mostly positive trend lines apply to a rising human population, which might be expected to trigger negative trends, but so far has not.

Now think about two monster-big positive trends, both invisible from the standpoint of most Americans: declining numbers of nuclear weapons and the dramatic drop of developing-world extreme poverty.

Half a century ago, the United States possessed about 30,000 nuclear warheads, enough to end global civilization, if not life altogether. The old Soviet Union possessed a similar number. The doomsday total has steadily declined, now down to around 7,300 in the United States and around 8,000 in the Russian Federation. Future historians may scratch their heads that our generation obsessed about low-likelihood threats while barely even noticing the decline of the No. 1 genuine threat to humanity.

As for extreme poverty, it remains a moral outrage that about one person in six worldwide lives on $1.25 a day or less. But check the trend: A quarter century ago more than a third of the world lived in such extreme poverty, about a decade ago it was down to about a fifth, today it's about 12 percent and on track to fall to only about 5 percent in 2030.

This spectacular reduction in extreme poverty has occurred at the same time that the global population has skyrocketed. In 1990, there were about 5.2 billion people with 36 percent in extreme poverty, or about 2 billion impoverished. Now there are more than 7 billion people with about 12 percent impoverished, or about 840 million impoverished. That's still way too many. Yet the post-war world shows a long-term trend toward more people, but less extreme want.

Mark Strand, 1934-2014: Mark Strand, one of the great poets of the post-war generation, passed away over the weekend at age 80. Your columnist knew Strand slightly and once had the honor of arguing with him. An agreeable assignment: In prose he was bleak, in person lovable. Strand's philosophy can be summed up in the lines below from his 1990 work "The Continuous Life," among the most important American poems. In the verses, the speaker advises parents to teach children the bittersweet nature of existence:

Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
with an ending, the second without one. That the luckiest
thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
of hours and days, months and years, and believe
it has meaning despite the occasional fear
you are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
to prove you existed.

I disagree with this view, and for anyone who may be interested, detailed my disagreement with Strand in my 1998 book "Beside Still Waters." But the power of the verses is undeniable, and that statement was true of the full body of Strand's poetry. He left proof he existed.

Unified Field Theory Of Creep Comes To Doomsday: Last week's column detailed the fixation of movies, television and novels on post-apocalyptic futures. This brings to mind the two post-apocalypse TV shows attempted by Gene Roddenberry after the "Star Trek" series concluded. With the 50th anniversary of "Star Trek" approaching in 2016, Unified Field Theory of Creep says to analyze Roddenberry now.

Roddenberry, who died in 1991, was the most successful producer ever -- the "Star Trek" franchise totaled 716 prime-time television episodes plus 12 big-budget motion pictures and counting. Yet "Star Trek" was Roddenberry's sole home run. He conceived and produced the original series of the 1960s, produced the 1979 movie that began the Trek theatrical colossus and played a role in the creation of "The Next Generation," which arrived on TV in 1987. Everything else Roddenberry tried was a bust.

After what's now called "Star Trek: The Original Series" was canceled by NBC in 1969, Roddenberry devoted himself to writing the screen adaptation of "Pretty Maids All in Row", a major-studio movie loaded with stars of the time (Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas). The flick was promoted as a pleasingly risqué ode to free love, with bare breasts and lots of giggling girls who just can't get enough. Today, everything about this movie is cringe-worthy.

The plot had Hudson, the football coach of Oceanfront High School, seducing gorgeous, 17-year-old, high school girls then murdering them. This was supposed to be dark comedy -- southern California beach bunnies have such empty heads they are too stupid to realize it's bad to get murdered! Dickinson played a teacher who seduced a 17-year-old boy. That major Hollywood producers and stars of the time thought sex between adults and teen children ought to be depicted as liberating sure doesn't say much for Hollywood of the time. Plot aside, the writing is simply awful -- wooden dialogue and pretentious asides about human psychology.

After "Pretty Maids All in a Row," Roddenberry did a television film pilot, "Genesis II," about 22nd century life following a nuclear apocalypse. When no network bit, Roddenberry rebooted the pilot -- using the same sets and costumes -- as "Planet Earth," with a new lead actor who looked and behaved like William Shatner as James T. Kirk. The bad guys of "Planet Earth" were very similar to the bad guys of the "Mad Max" flicks, the first of which would open five years later. "Planet Earth" aired on ABC in 1974 as a made-for-TV movie, but again no network bought the series. So Roddenberry rebooted the pilot again as "Strange New World," with the same characters but a different apocalypse.

Three tries at the same show! All were excruciatingly bad; their only virtue was advancing the career of writer Juanita Bartlett, who would later do a fantastic job with "The Rockford Files." Following his failed movie and network projects, Roddenberry found himself tossed from production of the second "Star Trek" theatrical film, then given the heave-ho from work on "The Next Generation." Residuals made him wealthy, but he wore out his welcome on the set, while the post-"Original Series" scripts he personally worked on were terrible.

The post-apocalyptic gloom of Roddenberry's "Genesis II" and "Planet Earth," rejected by network suits of the 1970s, might fit right in to today's doomsday-loving celluloid landscape. Maybe someone should reboot these shows a fourth time! "The Original Series," by contrast, was idealistic and hopeful: Democracy would save the galaxy, while all 23rd century women looked great in miniskirts. In the series finale of "The Next Generation," time-travel required female crew members of the 24th century Enterprise to wriggle into 1960s miniskirts -- a nice joke in Roddenberry's memory.

Best Pass Pattern By A Defensive End: With Houston leading 38-14, the Texans had first-and-goal at the Flaming Thumbtacks' 1. Defensive end J.J. Watt, who wears an eligible number, lined up as flex tight end. Tennessee didn't seem to react, though Watt came into the contest with two touchdown receptions. The play was a "rub" pattern, and on rubs, the ball always goes to the second man. A Houston receiver cut in front of Watt, which caused the rub; Watt delayed and cut out for a touchdown catch.

Earlier, with Houston leading by the new economy score of 24-7, Tennessee starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger was injured. Backup Jake Locker came in cold; Tennessee coaches called a pass on his first play. Interception.

The Football Gods Promised An Investigation: With Green Bay leading 3-0, New England punted on fourth-and-2 from midfield. Pace the Madagascar penguins, TMQ wanted to grab the person on the Patriots' sideline pretending to be the head coach and say, "What have you done with the real Bill Belichick?" The person pretending to be Belichick did go for it in a similar situation in the fourth quarter, but by then it was too little, too late.

Maybe This Year The TMQ Non-QB Non-RB NFL MVP Should Go To The Most Outstanding Non-QB Non-RB: Shabazz Napier was not the Most Valuable Player of the 2014 men's basketball tournament; he was Most Outstanding. As sports award season approaches, be on the lookout for Most Outstanding replacing Most Valuable. This designation is a form of grade inflation -- no one is more valuable than anyone else; everyone's outstanding; we're only saying one is most outstanding! The construction is non-grammatical, like announcing a Most Unique player.

TMQ's Christmas List: Aren't you hoping Santa leaves you a fake jellyfish aquarium? The print version of the catalog declares it SIMULATES THE GRACEFUL MOTION OF JELLYFISH. The product "shuts off automatically after four hours for safety." For whose safety? The jellyfish are fake! If you've seen an absurd holiday gift, tweet it to me @EasterbrookG with a URL.

Happy Hour In Hell's Sports Bar: Hell's Sports Bar has an infinite number of flatscreen HD TVs, but certain blackout restrictions might apply. Reader Kenji Kojima of Cupertino, California, reported that on Sunday he found himself in Hell's Sports Bar. Northern California saw the woofer Oakland at St. Louis pairing rather than the red-hot San Diego at Baltimore contest. CBS, airing the Oakland game, also had the rights to Chargers-Ravens. With St. Louis ahead 45-0 in the fourth quarter, while the Bolts-Ravens game was going down to the last snap, did Bay area CBS affiliates shift to the meaningful game? "Nope, we were shown the entire debacle, right through the handshakes," Kojima reported.

One Goes Viral, The Other Overlooked: The worlds of sports and social media went bonkers over the fantastic catch by the Giants' Odell Beckham versus the Cowboys. Two weeks earlier, Brent Grimes of the Dolphins made a nearly identical catch, and only the world of TMQ seemed to notice. Why the difference? Beckham is a first-round draft choice who plays for the New York media's favorite team, and he made his catch in a prime-time game. Grimes is an undrafted free agent from Division II Shippensburg who made his catch in a contest broadcast regionally. Beckham had the power of the press on his side. The power of the press might not be what it used to be but does still exist.

Ho-Ho-Ho Forecast: December is here, which means two things: Expect the Cowboys to collapse, and look out for New England and San Diego. In the past decade, Dallas has followed a winning November with a 20-26 December, then vanished after New Year's Day. Over the same period, New England is 43-5 in December, and San Diego is next best at 37-12. Something's got to give, given that the Bolts and Flying Elvii face off Sunday. Of other current contenders, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have in the past decade played well in December, while Kansas City and Miami have tailed off. The Chiefs' loss of Eric Berry might contribute to a December swoon, unless those monochrome red unis are energized by a Santa flyover.

There's No Law Of Nature That Says Football Remains Popular: TMQ contends the big threat to football is not litigation against the NFL, which can buy its way out of any problem, but litigation against public high school districts. If public high schools stop participating in football owing to brain-trauma settlements or can no longer afford football liability insurance, the sport will crumble. Scot Bertram of Cherry Valley, Illinois, reported this ticking time bomb.

Thanksgiving Afterthoughts: Are the Eagles an elite team, or did the Cowboys begin their annual December swoon a few days early? Not only did Philadelphia pound Dallas on the scoreboard, but it also controlled the line of scrimmage and outgained the Boys 464-267 on their turf. Dallas' offense entered the contest ranked fifth, which means a highly ranked offense was shut down at home by the Eagles' defense. Although it might seem Philadelphia's defense is playing better this season than the past, the Eagles are still just 24th in yards against and 19th in points against. The difference is takeaways -- Philadelphia already has 22, versus 22 all of the past season. Takeaways are wonderful, but the element of luck involved means they can't be relied on.

As the 49ers sink slowly into the west, reports of front office dysfunction continue. The Niners seem uptight on offense. Colin Kaepernick kept faking the second half, though down by multiple scores and with only 23 yards rushing in the first half. This fooled no one: the second half play calling suggested Santa Clara has a playbook for holding a lead but doesn't have one for comeback situations. Seattle might have returned to form on defense, yet everything about the 49ers offense was horrible. Kaepernick had a 36.7 passer rating, a longest completion of 16 yards (to a running back), an egregious 3 yards per pass attempt. Playing at home in a nationally televised showdown, the Niners gained just 93 net yards in the second half and scored just three second half points. On the game, Santa Clara managed a grand total of one red zone snap.

Trailing 16-0 at the end of the third quarter and facing fourth-and-11 on the Seattle 22, Harbaugh/West did the "safe" thing and sent in the kicking unit. Perhaps for postseason job-shopping reasons, Harbaugh/West seemed more concerned with keeping a shutout off his resume than going all-out in attempts to win.

Authentic Games Standings: In this season of wild-card logjam, the Niners' Thanksgiving Day loss at defending champion Seattle all but eliminates the team that made the past three NFC title games. Santa Clara is now fourth in the chase for the two wild-card invites. The Niners not only need to win out, which is never a good master plan, but winning out would also entail a victory Dec. 14 at Seattle. The Bluish Men Group has won three straight at home versus the Niners and has outscored the Niners 94-33 in those contests.

A week ago, Kansas City lost to woeful Oakland but did not drop in the Authentic Games standings because the Raiders are not an Authentic opponent. This week, Arizona lost to woeful Atlanta but did not drop in the Authentic Games standings because the Falcons are not Authentic. However, scoring only 11 points on offense versus a defense that came in ranked 31st was not something for the Cardinals to write home about.

Denver takes over the pole position. Early front-runner Arizona has dropped two straight, and as Hillary Clinton learned in 2008 and might learn again in 2016, early front-runner status can be the kiss of death. Four games ago, Carson Palmer got hurt. Next man up Drew Stanton played well in a win versus Detroit. I am pretty sure it was Dean Smith who once said when a star gets hurt, the next game is the best game of the year for his teammates -- and then things go downhill. That's been the pattern here, with the game after Palmer going well, then consecutive poor performances versus Seattle and Atlanta.

The Bills make a surprise appearance in the Authentic Games Index. Don't expect them to linger -- their next two opponents are the Broncos and Packers. The Ravens are the team the Go-Gos will be singing "Fading Fast" to this week.

ESPN Grade Evaluates the UCLA-Stanford Game: Bruins alumni and boosters might feel crushed by the surprise loss, but ESPN Grade thinks UCLA is having a fantastic season -- 9-3 in the standings and third in graduation rates among the football powers. The NFL has no purpose other than entertainment, so when NFL teams lose, there's never a silver lining. In college football, entertainment is one of several goals, with the most important being fostering education. UCLA has played well on the field and performed well in the classroom. The Bruins have had one of the best seasons in college football.

Hidden Play of the Week: Hidden plays are ones that never make highlight reels but sustain or stop drives. In this case it's a hidden series. In a Darwinian struggle for wild-card survival, Seattle led 13-0 late in the first half, and Santa Clara had first-and-10 on its 20. The Niners went tackle for a loss (on a run into an eight-man box, Kaepernick should have audibled to a play fake), short completion on a ultra-conservative call and incompletion forced into double coverage with a man open on the opposite side of the field. As the punt boomed, the home crowd sensed blowout. Verily, it came to pass.

Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk: With underdog Michigan trailing 28-21 midway through the fourth quarter at Ohio State, Brady Hoke sent in the punt unit at the Buckeyes' 39. At moments such as these, TMQ fairly shouts -- Coach, can you see the scoreboard? Who cares that it was fourth-and-14? Seattle went for it in roughly this situation in last season's NFC title contest and scored a touchdown. What matters is not the line-to-gain, it's not punting in opposition territory when trailing in the fourth quarter. Perhaps Hoke hoped Ohio State's backup quarterback would make a mistake. But the football gods favor those who play to win, not those who hope others err.

You really don't need to know anything more about the game than that Michigan punted in Ohio State territory when trailing in the fourth quarter. Just in case you're interested, the punt netted 19 yards. The Buckeyes needed six snaps to pass the point at which the ball would have been spotted had Michigan tried and been denied. On its possession, Ohio State faced fourth-and-1 in Michigan territory, went for it and scored the touchdown that turned a close contest into a walkover.

Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk No.2: Reader Brian Vigue of Pleasantville, New Jersey, noted that while trailing Utah 38-34 midway through the fourth quarter, Colorado punted on fourth-and-2 at midfield. You don't need to know anything else about the game.

Buck-Buck-Brawkkkkkk No.3: The Oakland Raiders, who hadn't won on the road in more than a year and entered 1-10, punted on fourth-and-1, on fourth-and-2 at midfield and twice in St. Louis territory on the way to a 0-38 first-half deficit.

Manly Man Play Of The Week (Pro Edition): With the game scoreless, Atlanta faced fourth-and-goal on the Arizona 1. The Falcons sent in six offensive linemen for a play fake -- touchdown pass. The aggressive call set the tone for Atlanta's upset victory.

Fantasy Play Of The Day: With New Orleans leading 35-24 with four seconds remaining, Pittsburgh still had all starters on the field. Ben Roethlisberger threw a touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, then threw a deuce conversion. The eight points as the clock expired meant nothing to the game but a lot to fantasy owners.

Good Offense Or Bad Defense?: To think the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers, playing at home, could score 32 points and lose. But the Steelers were terrible on defense: Among other things, a busted coverage left Kenny Stills running alone behind the secondary for a 69-yard touchdown. The Washington-Indianapolis collision saw eight touchdown passes, including strikes of 79, 73, 48 and 42 yards. Six times the Washington secondary allowed a man to get deep covered by no one at all, which resulted in four touchdowns, a deep drop and a down on which Andrew Luck didn't see the deep man. At Tampa, the division-leading Bengals missed so many tackles it seemed "tackling drill" is not in their vocabulary. Yes, the rules have been tweaked to favor offense. But defenders need to step it up.

Football News From The Frozen North: It was title weekend in Canada, where championship games must be in the books before glaciers cover the fields. The final at the Vanier Cup, Canada's college football title, was Carabins 20, Marauders 19. How many can identify the universities involved without using the Internet?

Reader Jordan Epstein of Richmond Hill, Ontario, noted there were two consequential fourth-down decisions in the endgame -- bearing in mind that in Canada, fourth down comes on third down. With University of Montreal leading 20-19 with 59 seconds remaining, McMaster University faced fourth-and-1 -- that is, third-and-1 -- on the Montreal 24 and did the "safe" thing by kicking. Outraged, les dieux du football caused the kick to be blocked. Most NFL coaches would kick in this situation, given that the field goal creates a lead with a minute remaining. The difference is under Canadian rules, the defense must line up one yard off the ball. Third-and-1 is a cinch to convert -- that's why the football gods were outraged McMaster did not try. Now Montreal faces third-and-1 on its own 33 with 23 seconds remaining and goes for it. Fortune sourit aux audacieux! First down, and the Carabins begin to kneel.

The next day, it was Stampeders over Ti-Cats in the Grey Cup, and one hopes you can identify the cities involved without peeking on the Internet -- also, one hopes you've even heard of Hamilton, which is offering free parking for Christmas shopping. The traditional horse in the hotel lobby accompanied the Stampeders' arrival in town. When the Denver Broncos play a road game, why don't they bring a horse into the hotel lobby?

Such football glory made me want to burst into song -- into this song I learned as a boy.

Adventures In Officiating: Trailing 34-17 with five minutes remaining, Bears coach Marc Trestman -- who might soon be saying bonjour to the CFL -- sent in the punting unit. Who cares that it was fourth-and-13? The punt meant running up the white flag and accepting a 5-7 record and all but mathematical elimination before December begins.

Then, with 22 seconds remaining and the score still 34-17, when it made absolutely no difference whether the Bears scored or began square dancing, Trestman had his charges go all-out for a consolation-prize touchdown. The result was an apparent six points as time expired.

Offsetting penalties led to zebras allowing Chicago one untimed down from the Detroit 14, though with Detroit leading by 17, nothing that might have happened could have altered the outcome. The problem was, if Detroit declined the penalty against Chicago, the touchdown would have counted, while if Chicago declined the penalty against Detroit, the touchdown would not have counted. The football gods chortled when the meaningless untimed down became an interception by James Ihedigbo, who ended up stat-padding for his next contract round.

A 23-yard defensive pass interference on Baltimore's Anthony Levine in the Ravens' end zone with 46 seconds remaining positioned San Diego for its winning touchdown. The call was sketchy at best -- Levine and Malcolm Floyd were jockeying for position, with both making contact and playing toward the ball. Floyd could have been flagged for offensive interference. The best call would have been no call. As TMQ noted two weeks ago, NFL zebras need a refresher course on this officiating standard -- "If there is any question whether contact is incidental, the ruling shall be no interference."

At City of Tampa, Marvin Lewis threw a challenge flag with 32 seconds remaining, though coaches can't challenge in the final two minutes of a half. The Buccaneers had 12 men on the field on the previous play, a big gainer -- Lewis wanted to slow the action so officials would notice. The confusing situation ended up with City of Tampa penalized for 12 men, while Cincinnati was assessed a timeout; Lewis could simply have called timeout and asked to speak to the referee.

Under the National Federation of High Schools rules that govern prep play in most states, there is no challenge, but coaches can call timeout to discuss officiating with the referee, and if the ref agrees a mistake was made, the timeout is returned. Perhaps a variation on this could be added to the NFL's rules.

The Football Gods Chortled: At Buffalo, Cleveland ran a toss with Jerry Hughes, the end on the playside, strung out. He stripped the ball from the runner, then recovered and returned it for a touchdown. Hughes did this as the man trying to block him was called for holding.

The 500 Club: Versus Southern, Grambling gained 511 yards and lost. Versus Minnesota-Duluth, Ouachita Baptist gained 576 yards and lost. New Mexico State becomes an honorary member: Versus Arkansas State, the Aggies gained 492 yards and lost by 33 points. Maybe New Mexico State's problem is an Aggies nickname but a cowboy gunfighter logo. Hosting New Orleans, the Steelers gained 538 yards and lost.

The 600 Club: Auburn gained 628 yards against No. 1 Alabama and lost. It was the third time this season an opponent gained more than 500 yards versus that week's No. 1 and lost. North Carolina State gained 520 yards versus then-No. 1 Florida State and lost. Kentucky gained 504 yards against then-No. 1 Mississippi State and lost.

The 700 Club: Facing seventh-ranked Baylor, Texas Tech gained 712 yards and lost. Hosting Western Kentucky, 24th-ranked Marshall gained 708 yards, made 37 first downs, scored 66 points and lost. The contest was played in one of the few football stadiums named for women: Joan Edwards Stadium, "The Joan."

Manly Man Play Of The Week (College Edition): Scoring at the end of the first overtime to pull within 66-65 of heavily favored Marshall at The Joan, Western Kentucky could kick and proceed to a second overtime or accept the challenge of one play to win or lose. Novice head coach Jeff Brohm went for two, and fortune favors the bold!

Over To You, Paul Lukas: Tuesday Morning Quarterback cannot wait until Arizona's monochrome, visible-from-orbit reds versus Oregon's monochrome, visible-from-orbit greens in the Pac-12 title game. Merry Christmas!

Obscure College Score: Bloomsburg 35, Virginia State 21 (Division II playoffs). Located in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, Bloomsburg University does not require applicants to submit essays or references.

Back To The Library, Boys: It was Armageddon for the super-smart small colleges in the Division III playoffs: MIT lost 59-0 to Wesley, while Johns Hopkins was nudged 24-21 by much less prestigious Hobart. Oh, well. In August, who expected MIT or Johns Hopkins to reach the football playoffs?

Single Worst Play Of The Season -- So Far: It might have been Frank Gore doing nothing as the man he was supposed to block flushed Colin Kaepernick from the pocket and caused a third-quarter sack. Gore is prone to lecturing his teammates about stepping up. Check the down that begins with 4:31 of the third quarter, when Gore simply stands watching his quarterback in distress.

Worse was Santa Clara's sole red zone snap versus Seattle. The Seahawks led 16-0, and the Niners faced third-and-8 on the visitor's 19 late in the third quarter. Santa Clara had five to block four. Offensive linemen Marcus Martin and Alex Boone stood doing nothing as Michael Bennett came through untouched and forced Kaepernick to step into a sack.

Maybe the Niners are all bent out of shape about the Jim Harbaugh rumors. Maybe they're all bent out of shape about no longer performing near the Tadich Grill. Maybe, as Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee noted in a smart piece, the 49ers have so many offensive coaches no one's really in charge. Whatever the excuse du jour, 49ers offensive line, you are guilty of single worst play of the season -- so far.

Next Week: TMQ will employ the Authentic Games standings to project the Super Bowl pairing. Last year, this metric projected Seattle versus Denver. I've been dining out on that ever since. But given that I've warned this metric is largely hocus-pocus, I might come up with some perfectly legitimate-sounding reason to favor Green Bay over Arizona.