With 12 minutes to go in the 12th game of his 13th NFL season, Mike Vrabel(notes) finally lost his swagger. The Chiefs' 34-year-old linebacker lost his composure, too: Upset after the Broncos went for it on fourth-and-1 with a 21-point lead – and rookie halfback Knowshon Moreno(notes) raced in for an 18-yard touchdown – Vrabel flipped his middle finger to the Denver bench as he walked off the field.
"I was frustrated," Vrabel told Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock after the game. "I've been on the other end of one of those [blowout victories] and it's a lot of fun. Well, now I've been on the other side, and it's not good."
Hey, payback's a bitch – and then you retire.
For eight years Vrabel was a key part of this decade's dominant NFL franchise, buying into the Bill Belichick code of boorish intimidation with a zealot's devotion. Then, on Feb. 28, he received an unceremonious excommunication from the family. So much for loyalty: Looking for nothing more than cap space, the Pats included Vrabel in the trade that sent quarterback Matt Cassel(notes) to the Chiefs, where Belichick's former right-hand man, Scott Pioli, was the newly hired general manager.
Now Vrabel is playing out his final football days for a 3-9 team that on Sunday allowed another Belichick prodigy, first-year Broncos coach Josh (I Wear a Hoodie, Too!) McDaniels, yet another opportunity to pay homage to his mentor. And if you think it was a coincidence that McDaniels chose to pour it on against the team run by Pioli, you probably also believe that Eric Mangini had nothing to do with Spygate.
Mangini's estrangement from his former boss might have been the most celebrated instance of pettiness between the Pats and ex-Pats, but it clearly wasn't an anomaly. From the Rocky Mountains to the shadow of the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame, Belichick's Boys seem locked in chest-puffing quests to prove their alpha-male dominance, and really, should we be surprised?
These are single-minded men who conducted themselves in New England as though they'd run it up against their own mothers in Scrabble and displayed all the personal charm of a box of a GPS direction-provider. They also seem to have issues with boundaries, as I was just discussing with my new life coach, Charlie (Playa Hater) Weis.
So yes, Mr. Vrabel – McDaniels was most certainly trying to show you who your daddy is. Or perhaps he was telling Pioli, "I'm Bill's best and brightest, not you." Or maybe it had something to do with retribution for the Cassel trade, which didn't exactly play out the way the Broncos had hoped, at least at the time.
It doesn't really matter. The point is, in the eyes of Belichick and his disciples, you're either ruthless or helpless, and if it's the latter don't expect your old buddies to help you up and assuage your pain.
The remotely amusing part of all of this is that the Don Mega himself may soon be reduced to flipping the middle finger to the world in frustration, which wouldn't be much different from the way he behaved after losing Super Bowl XLII.
The Patriots are 7-5, and Belichick's motivational magic seems to be a bit lacking. I say this because quarterback Tom Brady(notes), through his public comments Sunday and Monday, has taken over the role of locker-room warlord, questioning teammates' commitment and intensity.
Belichick, I'm fairly certain, doesn't have a problem with his future Hall of Fame quarterback sounding those notes. But it does mark a departure from the whole "One Voice" mission statement that the coach helped make famous, and I'm guessing that even if Belichick were bothered by Brady's comments, he wouldn't have the guts to censure him.
Loyalty might be a fleeting concept in Belichick's world, but right now, he needs as much of it as he can muster.
3. Minnesota Vikings: How much will E.J. Henderson's(notes) broken femur hurt Leslie Frazier's defense – and how touching was the sight of E.J.'s brother, Erin, holding his hand as he was driven off the field Sunday night?
4. San Diego Chargers: How cool was it to see LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) pass Jim Brown on the all-time rushing list, salute the Best Running Back Ever by pointing to Brown's luxury suite, and then get love from the Hall of Famer in the locker room after the game?
8. Philadelphia Eagles: If the Bills (or Cowboys) rammed a late Terrell Owens(notes) touchdown down the Eagles' throat the way Andy Reid did with Michael Vick's(notes) scoring pass against the Falcons Sunday, how bitter would the coach have been?
10. Denver Broncos: Why didn't the Broncos redo Elvis Dumervil's(notes) rookie deal before this season – and every time the linebacker makes a sack, is this what's flashing through Pat Bowlen's brain?
11. New England Patriots: Is the sky falling?
14. Pittsburgh Steelers: How did Joe Burnett(notes) drop that potential game-winning interception with 40 seconds to go in Sunday's defeat to the Raiders – and how desperately does this team miss Troy Polamalu(notes)?
16. Tennessee Titans: Will Chris Johnson run for 300 yards against the Rams on Sunday – and how bummed about this matchup is the person who has to face UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb in the first round of their fantasy-league playoffs?
22. San Francisco 49ers: Counterintuitive as it sounds, can a No. 1 overall draft pick become Mr. Irrelevant?
23. Seattle Seahawks: If Jim Mora had given a game ball to 49ers counterpart Mike Singletary after Sunday's game, would linebacker Aaron Curry(notes) have volunteered to deliver it to the visitors' locker room?
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Yo, Raheem Morris and Greg Olson – when your rookie quarterback throws five interceptions inside the red zone, do you think it might be a decent idea to run the ball a bit more down there?
32. Cleveland Browns: If I'd told you in August that Chargers fullback Mike Tolbert(notes) would score on a 66-yard touchdown pass this season, what percentage of you would have been able to predict which opponent it would come against?