More and more, when you watch a NFL game, you end up noticing the officials.
A lot of times, the flags that change the course of games are thrown in the name of player safety. An iffy roughing the passer penalty here, an arguable defenseless receiver hit flag there, and that's your ballgame.
The horrible call that cost the Miami Dolphins a chance to beat the Patriots can't be chalked up to safety, just officials being way too excited to throw penalty flags.
The Dolphins trailed 20-17 in the fourth quarter when Tom Brady was sacked and fumbled. Dolphins end Olivier Vernon reached out for the ball as he went to the ground, because that's really the only thing to do in that situation. He swiped at the ball and couldn't grab it, and he knocked it back a few yards. The Patriots recovered for a 22-yard loss. All of it was quite normal.
Except that the officials couldn't let the players decide the game.
They threw a flag on Vernon for intentionally batting the ball. It was fairly ridiculous. So instead of the Patriots facing third and 29 at the 45-yard line, they had first and 10 at the 13-yard line. New England scored a touchdown four plays later.
Fans in the New England area can complain about MLB's umpires and the obstruction call that cost the Red Sox in Game 3 of the World Series on Saturday night, but the NFL's officials made up for it by giving the Patriots the game on Sunday. It was a bad call, and unnecessary.
Fans don't tune in to see football officials throw flags. Too many times this year, they're getting in the way of the players determining the outcome. Ask Miami.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Sunday's action:
Denver Broncos offensive records: The Broncos didn't look that great for the first half and then some against Washington, but ended up with 45 points. There are many teams that would kill for that kind of "bad" day.
The rally helped the Broncos set some NFL records, according to Broncos PR chief Patrick Smyth. Most notably, Denver has 336 points through eight games, beating the old record of 331 set by the legendary 2007 Patriots. They're the third team in NFL history to score at least 28 points in each of its first eight games, joining the 2007 Pats and 2000 Rams.
Peyton Manning extended his NFL records with his 79th 300-yard game and his 26th four-touchdown game. Manning has at least two touchdowns in his first eight games, joining Aaron Rodgers (2011), Tom Brady (2007), Dan Marino (1984) and himself in 2004 as the only players to accomplish that. Manning has 2,919 yards, most in NFL history through eight weeks. If he keeps up this pace, 5,838 yards would shatter the single-season record.
When people try to compare the Broncos to other units in the NFL this season, just keep in mind: Those units might be very good, but Denver's offense might be the best of all time.
Calvin Johnson's legacy: Some people are scared to proclaim a player one of the best ever when he's still in the middle of his career. Well, no need to wait on Calvin Johnson anymore. He's one of the three greatest receivers of all time, with Jerry Rice and Don Hutson. He does things on a football field that we've never seen before.
Johnson had the fifth 300-yard receiving game in NFL history on Sunday. His 329 yards was second-most in NFL history, only 7 yards from breaking Flipper Anderson's NFL record. Even though the NFL's passing stats have exploded, nobody had gone over 300 yards receiving since Anderson in 1989.
It's time to call it. Johnson is better than Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Lance Alworth (Johnson's fifth 200-yard receiving game tied Alworth's record), Cris Carter, Randy Moss, Steve Largent or any others outside of Rice or Hutson. The only question is if Megatron can climb another spot or two on that all-time list before he's done. It's possible. He's just 28 years old.
The chances that Tony Gonzalez gets traded this week: Gonzalez has said he doesn't want to leave the Falcons, and he should finish his final season however he wants. But it's very possible he would accept a trade. He could not say that publicly even if he was thinking it, so it's tough to know how much weight to put in his comments about wanting to stay in Atlanta. And after the Falcons' ugly 27-13 loss to Arizona knocked them to 2-5, the team has to know that trading Gonzalez is its best move.
Nobody wants to admit a season is over, but this one is. The Falcons could use another draft pick, and plenty of contenders could use Gonzalez. It would be good for the league to see Gonzalez go back to the playoffs. Hopefully it happens.
Cincinnati Bengals: This isn't the kind of team that would mess around at home against a bad team playing a backup quarterback. The Bengals left no doubt on Sunday that they're ready to be a real contender in the AFC (but we knew that last week, right?).
Cincinnati blew out the Jets 49-9 to improve to 6-2 and take a two-and-a-half game lead in the AFC North. Andy Dalton is playing really well right now, and his targets are taking shape. The defense is good. The Bengals have only one road game remaining against a team with a winning record (at Chargers in Week 13), and have a real chance to get a bye in the AFC playoffs.
San Francisco's offense: Even though Sunday was an easy win against the NFL's junior-varsity team, the 49ers have quietly put it together on offense and continued that roll in their 42-10 win over the Jaguars. Since scoring just a touchdown at home against the Colts, San Francisco has scored 35, 34, 32, 31 and 42 points its last five games. And the offense will probably add Michael Crabtree at some point. You know the 49ers can still play defense. The NFC West race might end up being everything we thought it would be.
NFC East ... again: The only halfway decent team in the NFC East, Dallas, completely blew a winnable game against Detroit. Washington allowed 38 unanswered points at Denver. The Giants only won because they were playing a more incompetent Eagles team.
About those Giants ... they started the season 0-6, and are only two games out of first place at the midway point. If they can go 5-3 the rest of the way, a 7-9 record might take the division. It's that bad.
Unless the Cowboys (who are 4-4, but just 1-4 outside of the division) can win a few in the second half, this has a legitimate chance to be the worst division in NFL history. The 2010 NFC West, with the first 7-9 division champion in history, had 25 total wins. Halfway through the season, this year's NFC East has 11.
Michael Vick's career: Vick can't stay healthy anymore. He battled back after missing two-plus games with a hamstring injury and couldn't last a half against the Giants. He aggravated his hamstring injury, and it doesn't sound like he'll be back right away, either.
Vick on feeling his hamstring pop again. “As soon as it happened, I knew exactly what that feeling was and how my body would react to it."
— Tom Rock (@TomRock_Newsday) October 27, 2013
It seems like we've written Vick off a dozen times already, but it's hard to see much of a NFL future for him at age 33. He can't stay on the field, hasn't been overly effective this season, and will be a free agent next offseason. Why would Philadelphia want to depend on him again? With so many talented quarterbacks coming in the league next year through the draft, will Vick be able to land a starting job? Time may be running out on one of the most unique players in NFL history.
Arizona's running back evaluation: The Cardinals somehow watched tailbacks Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington every day in practice for weeks before the season, through preseason and the season's first six games, and still decided in Week 7 that Mendenhall should get 13 carries against Seattle, compared to just three for Ellington.
Anyone could see Mendenhall (3.1-yard average) was hindering the offense and Ellington was better. But it took Mendenhall's injury to force the Cardinals coaches to give the better back more carries. So how did Ellington respond against Atlanta with Mendenhall out? He rushed for 153 yards on 15 carries.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, NFL coaches can be oblivious to something that even the common fan can see.
Thad Lewis' health: The Bills quarterback will be feeling Sunday's game all week. He took as many hard hits as any NFL quarterback has in a game this year, from the first play when he lost a fumble on a huge hit from Saints linebacker David Hawthorne. Lewis stayed down for a while after the hit by Hawthorne, and it looked like he might be done for the game. He might wish that he had stayed out.
Lewis was banged around by a very active and improved Saints defense in a 35-17 loss. Give Lewis a ton of credit for hanging in the game and playing fairly well. He went 22-of-39 for 234 yards, and the Bills again showed that while they're not quite there yet, they are making progress. That won't help Lewis' bruises heal any quicker, however. He took a beating.
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