Jon Gruden, I thought I knew you. Granted, the refs made a terrible call, but is that any reason to go conservative? Of all the coaches in this league, I never thought you would be the one to kneel down with the game on the line. Sure, the Patriots had momentum on their side, and snow can lead to fluke turnovers, but, hey, that can happen in overtime, too. Rich Gannon is a veteran with a cool head, and Sebastian Janikowski nailed a 45 yarder earlier in the game. You had two timeouts, which would’ve allowed you throw over the middle, and good field position at your own 35-yard line. A few quick throws to future Hall of Famers Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, and you could’ve easily gained the 35 yards needed to put you in field-goal range.
Instead you chose to kneel the ball with 22 seconds left and send the game to overtime. You deserved to lose that game, Jon Gruden. You decided to try your luck in overtime and paid the price. It is only fitting that New England won the toss, marched down the field, and beat you. Be happy with your job in Oakland, Jon. If you continue to make decisions like that, you won’t have it for long.
Still, I have to give credit to the New England Patriots. They hung tough against a Raiders team that was not intimidated by the relentless snow flurries. Tom Brady showed a lot of moxie in leading the Patriots to victory after being down 10 at the end of three quarters. With a little help from the refs, Adam Vinatieri came through on his 45-yard field goal with 27 seconds left to send the game to overtime, where he would win it.
The call in question, an apparent fumble by Brady on the Pats game-tying drive that was ruled an incomplete pass, was technically sound. The real problem is the rule itself, which states that as long as the quarterback’s arm is going forward, whether he’s throwing it or tucking it in, the loose ball is ruled a pass. Brady clearly made a pump fake before trying to pull the ball in. Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson knocked the ball loose, and it looked like Oakland had won. Brady did not attempt to release the ball, so it should have been a fumble. But rules are rules, and the Patriots advanced to face Pittsburgh.
Speaking of Pittsburgh, or “Blitzburgh,” as Dan Dierdorf insisted on calling them throughout the CBS broadcast, it looks as though the Steelers will be hard to stop. In dismantling the Ravens on Sunday, Pittsburgh not only looked like a defensive juggernaut, but an offensive one as well. Kordell Stewart played a near-perfect game, his lone mistake being an interception that could have been huge if not for the ineptitude of Elvis Grbac. Meanwhile, Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward looked like Stallworth and Swann, finding more holes in Baltimore’s D than in most Swiss cheeses.
With the Bus out of the game, Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala looked like large automobiles in their own right. Baltimore must now limp home, wondering what went wrong. Ravens, I’ll give you a little hint: his first name bears the likeness of a king, and his last name could use a few more vowels. Somewhere out west, Trent Dilfer is laughing.
On the NFC side of things, the Eagles were the ones laughing on Saturday, as they blew past Dick Jauron’s Bears into the NFC championship game. Donovan McNabb proved too much for Chicago’s top ranked defense, as the Windy City native passed for two touchdowns and added another on the ground. After Eagles defensive end Hugh Douglas laid a nasty hit on Bears QB Jim Miller, the Bears could not muster any offensive rhythm. Chicago’s two touchdowns came off a long reverse and an interception return. The Bears offense is no powerhouse, but the Eagles performance was still impressive. Andy Reid can only hope to duplicate it against the Rams next weekend.
Duplication of this past weekend’s effort is also the goal of St. Louis head coach Mike Martz, whose Rams obliterated Green Bay in the friendly confines of “The Dome at America’s Center.” The surprising thing about the rout was that Kurt Warner and the Rams’ offense were not that impressive. Everyone had heard the hubbub about the much-improved Rams defense, but nobody expected them to dismantle Brett Favre the way it did on Sunday. The charismatic passer was picked off six times by the opportunistic St. Louis defense, including two epic interception returns for touchdowns by Aeneas Williams. Include Tommy Polley’s return for a score and a short touchdown set up by Kim Herring’s pick, and you’ve accounted for 28 of the Rams’ 45 points. Take away the turnover scores, and the game ended in a 17-17 tie. That’s heartening news for Eagles fans, who’ll see the Birds head dome-ward for next Sunday’s contest.