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NFL Week 15: Three dubious coaching calls, one by the refs

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Bills, Titans, Ravens lose close ones; the Steelers get a gift call; the state of the playoff race and Peyton is the MVP.

By Jim Buzinski
Outsports.com


Cyd is traveling the next couple of weeks, so I will be doing the notes solo.

Coaching head scratchers: Three coaching "huhs?" left me wondering about late-game play calling.

First, came Buffalo’s decision to throw the ball facing 2nd-and-5 with 2:05 left and holding a 27-24 lead against the New York Jets. Bills QB J.P. Losman got sacked, fumbled the ball and it was picked up by New York’s Shaun Ellis, who returned it for the game-winning touchdown.

Hot player of the week: Baltimore Ravens safety Jim Leonhard really caught my eye Sunday. They showed him on the sidelines sans helmet a couple of times, which was a real treat.
What were the Bills thinking? Buffalo had been running the ball well and its defense had forced three punts and gotten one interception in the Jets previous five drives. Even if two runs don't yield a first down, the Bills would have punted and forced the Jets to drive for the tying field goal.

“Clearly the responsibility for the last call, the play-action pass, that was mine,” Bills coach Dick Jauron said. “That goes right on me. It backfired clearly and caused us to lose the game. … It’s one of those times in a game that’s pretty good for a pass, right before the 2-minute.”

Jauron’s Bills have gone 2-8 after starting 4-0, and he is rumored to be fired after the season. Play calling like that will not help his job security.

Second, we have Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher, who eschewed a 49-yard field goal try with two minutes left and the Titans trailing the Houston Texans, 13-12. It was an odd decision considering that kicker Rob Bironas was 4 for 4 on field goals and had kicked a 51-yarder in the third period.

The Titans (12-2) threw an incomplete pass on fourth down and the Texans (7-7) ran out the clock for their fourth straight win. Fisher put the game in the hands of a shaky Kerry Collins rather than with a clutch kicker. This headline in the Nashville Tennesseean says it all: "Fisher's baffling decision doomed Titans."

Third, we have the decision by the Baltimore Ravens defensive coaches to rush only three players on most of Pittsburgh’s last drive. The Steelers drove 92 yards, all of it passing, and scored the game-winning TD on a pass from Ben Roethlisberher to Santonio Holmes with 43 seconds left.

The Ravens were successful blitzing all game, while the three-man rush gave Roethlisberger way too much time to throw. They got conservative when aggressive was most called for and the Ravens paid for it, losing 13-9 after never trailing all game.

Huge controversy: The Steelers’ winning score came on a replay reversal. The officials first ruled that Holmes gained possession of the ball at the 1, not in the end zone. After looking at the replay a dozen times, I thought the call was correct.

But head referee Walt Coleman reversed it, saying Holmes had two feet and possession in the end zone; didn’t look that way to me, nor to the CBS announcers. Coleman is the same ref who bailed out the Patriots in the 2001 playoffs by overruling that Tom Brady fumbled against the Raiders. Coleman blew the call in 2001 and blew the call Sunday. Maybe he likes the Patriots, since the Ravens’ loss Sunday immensely helps New England’s playoff chances (since Cyd’s not writing this week, somebody has to spin conspiracy theories!).

Since the original call was no touchdown, there was no indisputable evidence to overturn that; having such evidence is the standard for overturning the call on the field. I still don't know what Coleman saw that was indisputable. I think he screwed up, but is not man enough to admit it.

It didn't help that Coleman tried to cover his butt after the game, as the Baltimore Sun details so well:

The original announcement was that receiver Santonio Holmes had both feet in the end zone and possession of the ball, which supposedly made it a touchdown whether the ball broke the plane of the goal line or not.

Of course, the rule is that the ball must break the plane, so referee Walt Coleman told pool reporter Jamison Hensley that he misspoke originally and the ruling was that the ball did, in fact, break the plane, even though there wasn't a single replay that showed that conclusively. Remember, the ball was not ruled a touchdown on the field, so the replay is supposed to show overwhelming evidence that the call was incorrect.


A bonehead saved: San Diego rallied from a 21-3 deficit to beat Kansas City, 22-21, and keep their faint playoff hopes alive. The Chargers had to survive a last-play 50-yard field goal try by the Chiefs’ Connor Barth that sailed right. The Chiefs should never been able to attempt the field goal since they were not able to get set to spike the ball and the clock should have run out. But the Chargers got a 5-yard delay of game penalty after Antoine Cason obstructed an official who was trying to set the ball; this gave the Chiefs one more play. Had the Chiefs won, Cason’s bonehead move would have been shown about a million times.

Yawn: Am I the only one not absorbed by all the drama surrounding the Cowboys? ESPN runs regular bulletins on the ‘Boys locker room tiffs and NBC beat the story to death Sunday night. All this for a franchise that has not won a playoff game since the 1995 season.

Playoff chase: The AFC has eight teams fighting for six spots. Tennessee (12-2) and Pittsburgh (11-3) have won their divisions and earned first-round byes. The two teams meet next week, with the winner the bet to get home field through the playoffs.

Denver (8-6) needs one win or one San Diego loss to win the West. Miami, New York and New England are all 9-5 in the East, but the Patriots could be the odd man out. If the Jets (at Seattle) and the Dolphins (at Kansas City) win next week, they play in Week 17 for the division title. This would leave the Patriots vying for a wild card spot.

The Colts (10-4) need one win (or one of three teams to lose once) to clinch one wild card spot. The Ravens are in with two wins (at Dallas, vs. Jacksonville). The Patriots need to win twice and have the Ravens lose once, or have either the Jets or Dolphins lose next week. We could have a situation where an 11-5 Patriots team is out, while Denver is in with a 10-6 or 9-7 record.

In the NFC, New York (11-3) and Arizona (8-6) have clinched their divisions, while Minnesota (9-5) and Carolina (11-3) are one win away. The wild card race is more muddled than the AFC, with Dallas, Atlanta and Tampa Bay (9-5) with the best chances, and a lot coming down to tiebreakers. Carolina plays at New York next week, and the winner will get home field advantage in the NFC.

Arizona is the worst playoff team in the league, having clinched simply by playing in the NFC West, where the other three teams are a combined 10-32. The Cardinals are 5-0 in the division and 3-6 outside.

The Cardinals (and Broncos if they clinch) are guaranteed a home playoff game by winning their division. Both teams will likely face a wild card team with a better record. The NFL needs to change its playoff format to give division winners a playoff spot, but seed the first round home games by record. We could have the 12-4 Colts or 11-5 Patriots at a Denver team with no more than 10 wins; that’s simply not fair.

MVP watch: After 15 weeks, it should be Peyton Manning’s to win. Part of it is that there is no standout this season, part of it is Manning’s play down the stretch.

Manning has led the Colts to seven straight wins (and 10 overall) despite having two or three rookies on the offensive line for large chunks of the season. The Colts are ranked 19th in total offensive plays, thanks to a defense that has had a hard time getting off the field; this forces Manning to score with much fewer possessions than most teams.

In those seven straight wins, Manning has thrown 13 touchdowns and only three interceptions. The Colts lead the league in third-down conversions and red zone touchdown percentage. Manning has led three road comeback wins while trailing by 10 or more points. The Steelers and Ravens have the league’s two best defenses, yet Manning put up 24 at Pittsburgh and 31 against the Ravens, both wins, with six touchdowns and no interceptions combined.

The other top contenders? Kurt Warner? Please. Warner has as many interceptions as touchdown passes the past five games and in any other division the Cardinals would be 5-9. Drew Brees? Don’t make me laugh. The Saints won’t make the playoffs and have won once on the road; Brees has one fourth-quarter comeback in almost three seasons with the Saints, meaning he does not carry his team when it counts. I could accept running back Adrian Peterson (Minnesota) or a defensive player like Albert Haynesworth (Tennessee), James Harrison or Troy Polamalu (Pittsburgh) before any QB other than Manning.

Bengals tough in the East: Cincinnati (2-11-1) has looked awful except when they have played the NFC East. The Bengals beat the Redskins on Sunday and tied Philadelphia earlier this season, while taking the Giants to overtime and the Cowboys deep into the fourth quarter before losing.