As the final hours of a memorable 2012 regular season played out in living color, Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey sat back, relaxed and enjoyed a hi-def glimpse into his past.
Bailey, whose Broncos had earlier claimed the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed with a 38-3 cold-cocking of the calamitous Kansas City Chiefs, spent Sunday night watching the Washington Redskins secure the league's 12th and final postseason slot with a 28-18, NFC East-clinching victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Bailey, fresh off his 12th Pro Bowl selection and still seeking a Super Bowl ring at age 34, had all sorts of nostalgic pangs as he stared at the television set. The 'Skins, the team that picked him in the first round of the 1999 NFL draft, were gunning for their first division title since his rookie season. And Washington's current coach, ex-Broncos boss Mike Shanahan, was the man who brought the future Hall of Famer to Denver in March of 2004, trading star halfback Clinton Portis for Bailey and a second-round draft pick.
NBC's cameras even showed Portis, who last played in 2010 and formally retired last August, taking in the game with the aid of retro-chic sunglasses from a FedEx Field luxury suite, having been summoned to witness 'Skins rookie running back Alfred Morris break his franchise record for single-season rushing yards.
"It was cool to watch," Bailey said an hour after the Redskins' seventh consecutive victory. "I was feeling some emotions because, I mean, I played there. My old head coach is there. I like Shanahan. I want to see him do well. And I'm a fan of football. It was fun checking out [Robert Griffin III]."
Thanks to the Broncos' 11th consecutive triumph, Bailey will get to do some additional football-watching next weekend, as Denver is one of four teams to have earned a first-round bye. And thanks to the spirited performance of the Indianapolis Colts — or, depending upon your point of view, the Houston Texans' lack of mettle — Bailey and his teammates will host the AFC championship game at Invesco Field at Mile High should they win their divisional-round clash on Saturday, Jan. 12.
[Related: Texans lose swagger, grip on AFC's top seed]
And here, on a compelling day that featured the defiant dominance of Adrian Peterson, is where Bailey's story circles back upon itself once more.
First, consider that when Shanahan made the blockbuster deal for Bailey — the NFL's first high-profile, player-to-player exchange since the Oakland Raiders had traded Ken Stabler to the Houston Oilers for Dan Pastorini in 1980 — it was viewed as a direct response to the Broncos' lopsided defeat to the Colts in the 2003 playoffs.
The Indy quarterback who terrorized Denver's secondary that day, of course, was Peyton Manning. That would be the same Peyton Manning who, in his first year with the Broncos after a tumultuous, neck-surgery-triggered breakup with the franchise with which he'd long been identified, provoked the dramatic comeback that helped Denver go from struggling sub-.500 team to Super Bowl favorites.
Let's flash back to October, when the Broncos were 2-3 and trailing 24-0 on the road at halftime to the San Diego Chargers, who led the AFC West at the time. Manning, as Denver wideout Demaryius Thomas recalled later that month, "walked around the [locker] room and talked to us, one by one, very calm and very sure about what we needed to do. He said, 'We're cool. We can come back. Just chill and play your game.' "
And Manning, who has joined Minnesota Vikings running back Peterson in a two-man race for Most Valuable Player, Comeback Player of the Year and Most Likely To Make LeBron James Ask For An Autograph, will get to work any and all of his January playoff magic amid the mile-high chill of the Rockies.
For that, the legendary quarterback owes a debt of gratitude to —wait, for it — the Indianapolis Colts, who did the Broncos a solid by playing hard when they didn't have to. Though already guaranteed to hold the No. 5 playoff seed, regardless of the outcome of Sunday's game against the Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts went all out in rookie coach Chuck Pagano's return from treatment for leukemia and defeated the Texans, 28-16.
As a result, Houston fell from a presumptive No. 1 seed all the way to No. 3 — and a first-round meeting Saturday with the Cincinnati Bengals, who on Sunday gutted out a 23-17 victory over the Baltimore Ravens — the team which will host the Colts in the AFC's other first-round game.
This means that a potential dream matchup between the Broncos and No. 2 seeded New England Patriots — or, as it will justifiably be billed, Manning vs. (Tom) Brady — would take place in the AFC championship game, and in a stadium that would evoke memories of Bailey's epic, 100-yard interception return of a Brady pass in the Broncos' divisional-playoff victory over the Pats in 2006.
"Now I would love that!!" Brady said Sunday night via email, speaking for millions of football fans.
Is your head spinning yet? Bailey's isn't, partly because his mind has been dutifully programmed to focus on the here and now, rather than looking ahead or at the larger landscape. He attributes that to the steady leadership of coach John Fox, a.k.a. The Tsunami, and to the businesslike demeanor of the Broncos' exacting, 36-year-old quarterback.
"[Sunday] was business as usual, and that's one thing I like about Peyton: He kind of stays the same every week," Bailey said. "He gets guys hyped up when he has to — and there've been several times when they've needed it — but it really is just about the task at hand.
"The way everything was shaking out, we didn't really pay much attention to that. I think finishing strong was the main thing, and we didn't really get caught up in what else was going on. Whether [the Colts] did us a favor or not, we were going to focus on ourselves."
For those interested in the big picture, here are some of the important things we learned on the final Sunday of 2012:
• Peterson isn't just a fantastic and ridiculously productive player. He's also valuable in the purest sense of the word. With the Green Bay Packers needing a victory to avoid being leapfrogged by the San Francisco 49ers for the No. 2 seed — and with Aaron Rodgers putting on one of those space-age displays that makes it obvious the Packers are a legitimate threat to win their second championship in three seasons — Peterson simply carried his team to victory. His 27-yard run in the final minute set up Blair Walsh's game-winning, 29-yard field goal that gave the Vikes a 37-34 triumph as time expired and put Minnesota, coming off a 3-13 season in 2011, into the postseason at the Chicago Bears' expense. "AD" finished with 199 yards in the game and 2,097 for the year, eight shy of Eric Dickerson's 28-year-old, single-season record. "As the quarterback, you're supposed to turn and carry out a fake after you hand off the ball," said Christian Ponder, the Vikings' much-maligned second-year signal-caller, who had the best game of his career on Sunday. "But Adrian's so amazing that sometimes it's hard not to look back and watch, just to see what he's gonna do."
• Watching helplessly while rooting for your biggest rival to facilitate your path into the playoffs is not a terribly pleasant experience. After the Bears closed out a 26-24 victory over the Detroit Lions to put themselves within a Vikings defeat of the postseason, I spoke to Chicago defensive tackle Henry Melton, who was attempting to get in touch with his inner Cheesehead. "It's not the best feeling," he said, laughing. "But we kind of put ourselves in this situation by losing some games, so hey, we've got to deal with it." Now, the Bears will spend the offseason dealing with the knowledge that they squandered a 7-1 start.
• There will be a new champion come February. The New York Giants — despite their 42-7 blowout of the Philadelphia Eagles — were eliminated from playoff contention once the Bears defeated the Lions. There also will be a new coach in Philadelphia, as Andy Reid was reportedly fired after 14 seasons, likely putting him in play for one or more of the other openings expected to occur in the coming days. Some people call it "Black Monday." I refer to it as "Headset Twister."
• None of next weekend's first-round matchups should be taken for granted. The Bengals, who lost to the Texans in a first-round game a year ago, have a much better defense this time around, and Houston looks utterly discombobulated. "They could beat Houston with their defense," said one head coach familiar with both teams. Similarly, the team that once inhabited Baltimore (the Colts) is far hotter than the team that will host Sunday's game in Charm City, though in fairness the Ravens clearly coasted on Sunday in Cincinnati, pulling quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice after two series. The third meeting in five weeks between the Packers and Vikings will take place Saturday night at Lambeau Field, where Green Bay defeated Minnesota, 23-14, on Dec. 2. And the Seattle Seahawks, who pulled out a 20-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams for their fifth consecutive victory, will be favored on the road against the Redskins, despite the fact that Washington's current winning streak exceeds the Seahawks' by two.
• Finally, while the Broncos seem to be ideally situated, nobody in today's unpredictable NFL can feel like his team is sitting pretty. In the NFC, the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons elected to play to win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a meaningless game — and still suffered a 22-17 home defeat, which will do nothing to quell all those Regular-Season Warriors fears.
For now, eight of the 12 teams still alive are preparing for battle, while the other four chill and wait to see how the first weekend shakes out. Though some players, including veteran Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, have said that they prefer not to have a bye, reasoning that such a break messes with a team's rhythm and momentum, Bailey has no such objections.
"It feels great," he said. "We get a week to rest, and there are a lot of guys who need it. We can get some guys back who are injured, and it just helps our team. I think it'll make us more focused, because we can prepare for the teams we might end up playing."
[Winners/losers: Bad habits cost Packers a first-round bye]
And after watching the Redskins' victory over the Cowboys — and taking that detour down Memory Lane — Bailey is even more excited about the prospect of playing in (and hosting) his first AFC championship game since the Broncos' January '06 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who'd upset (yep) the Colts the week before.
This time, Manning — the man whose mastery provoked Bailey's arrival in Denver in the first place — would be playing for the home team. That sounds just fine to the most decorated cornerback of his era, who certainly doesn't mind that his and Manning's careers are perceived as intertwined.
"Well, people did say that a lot when I got here — that [the trade] was because of Peyton," Bailey said. "I just think it was a team that needed a good corner and went out and took a chance. It was a risky move. They gave up a great player to get me. It turned out to be a good situation for me."
And thanks to Manning's old friends in Indy, the Broncos' current situation couldn't be any better.
1. For the record, while the infamous "Fail Mary" didn't derail any team's championship hopes — the Packers overcame that replacement-ref fiasco to win the NFC North, and the Seahawks would have been seeded fifth even without that dubious victory — it did leave one stain: Had Green Bay emerged victorious that September night at CenturyLink Field, the Pack would have earned the second seed (and a first-round bye), and the 49ers would have slipped to No. 3 and hosted the Vikings.
2. For those of you who read my column about the dearth of minority offensive play-callers Friday and indignantly responded along the lines of, "Why are you bringing up race and why don't you write about how there aren't any white cornerbacks?" here are a few things to consider: 1) This is a very real issue in NFL coaching circles, not one I created to advance a social agenda. 2) A similar underrepresentation exists in the high-level front office ranks, so keep an eye on all the GM firings and hirings in the days and weeks to come. 3) If you think this column was "militant," you should have read what I used to write in the days when star coordinators like Marvin Lewis were getting snubbed for head-coaching jobs, and even after things got less dreary.
3. If I told you that an NFL team was capable of surrendering 28 consecutive points in less than five minutes without its opponent taking a single offensive snap, how many of you would have yelled "Jaguars!" before I completed the sentence? Even before watching his team achieve that unthinkable feat in Sunday's 38-20 defeat to the Titans to complete a 2-14 season, Jacksonville owner Shad Khan had already decided to fire the general manager he inherited, Gene Smith, on Monday. His new general manager will then determine the fate of coach Mike Mularkey, who's hoping the last impression isn't the best impression. Then again, Mularkey didn't make much of a first impression. And the middle impression wasn't thrilling, either.
4. The Saints got some great news Friday when exiled coach Sean Payton agreed to a five-year contract extension, but their lost 2012 season ended as horrifically as it began. New Orleans (7-9) suffered a 44-38 defeat to the Carolina Panthers (7-9) at the Superdome, and its defense allowed 530 yards to run its horrendous season total to 7,042, eclipsing the "record" set by 1981 Baltimore Colts, which allowed 6,793. "Yeah, what a way to be part of history, huh?" said veteran linebacker Scott Shanle, one of several defenders who may not return to the team in 2013. "What a miserable, up-and-down season."
5. That the Cowboys' season was essentially ended by a roughing-the-passer call on defensive end Jason Hatcher was regrettable, especially because he seemed to be making an honest effort to deflect Griffin's pass while being blocked low and likely didn't intend to make contact with the quarterback's head. But hey, that's the way the rule is applied these days, and it happens. That the Cowboys' season was dealt its KO blow three plays later on Alfred Morris' touchdown run without the benefit of an official, on-field replay review was just silly. Yes, it looked like Morris crossed the goal line with the ball before fumbling, but there was enough confusion on the field — and the initial replay angles were murky enough, in my view — to at least warrant the upstairs replay official calling down to the referee for another look, rather than quickly determining that the call would stand. At that point, with two teams' postseason fates on the line, why not spend an extra 30 or 60 seconds making absolutely sure the call was right? In that context, I think we can all handle waiting a minute, if only for appearances. Especially when they routinely make us sit there for several minutes for officials while they determine the proper spot of a second-down catch near midfield in the second quarter of a game in early October. For what it's worth, I felt the same way after the penultimate play of Super Bowl XLIII: With so much on the line, why not indulge us and take another look?
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That a monkey can be trained to ride a dog in front of tens of thousands of people and that the sight of such a spectacle makes everyone so damned ecstatic.
2. How much I hate the illegal-throwing-of-challenge-flag penalty. Yes, I broached this back in November, when Falcons coach Mike Smith threw the red flag on a turnover that would have been automatically reviewed, costing Atlanta 15 yards (steep, but understandable) and preventing the review from taking place at all (ridiculous). Four days later in a widely viewed Thanksgiving Day fiasco, a similar transgression by Lions coach Jim Schwartz allowed the Texans' Justin Forsett to score a bogus, 81-yard touchdown in a game Detroit would lose in overtime. The rule is dumb, and inordinately punitive, and its uneven application on Sunday evening nearly affected the NFC playoff field.
After the Packers' James Jones caught a short pass from Aaron Rodgers late in the third quarter, the wideout lost the ball as he lunged for the goal line, and Minnesota recovered in the end zone. Packers coach Mike McCarthy hurled the challenge flag — oops — and receiver Jordy Nelson raced from the sidelines to grab and conceal it, hoping the officials wouldn't notice. It didn't work; McCarthy was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. However, referee Mike Carey ruled that because a replay review had already been initiated, it would be allowed to commence, and only the 15-yard penalty portion of the punishment would apply. I admire Carey for doing what cagey NBA officials like Jake O'Donnell used to do all the time back in the day — find a way to manipulate the rules to mete out justice, technicalities be damned. Carey, I believe, finessed the situation so that the review would take place but McCarthy would still pay a price for having thrown the flag. And, sure enough, the call was overturned, and it was ruled that Jones had crossed the goal line. After Mason Crosby's extra point pulled the Pack to within 27-24, the 15 yards were applied before the kickoff, and Crosby had to tee it up from his own 20. In this case, that seemed about right … unless you are Schwartz, or a member of the Lions, or a Lions fan, in which case you wanted to scream a two-syllable word that rhymes with "Full-spit!"
Given that the Bears' fate was also impacted by the Packers-Vikings clash, what we had was an uneven application of a dumb rule that had the entire NFC North in a tizzy. Tremendous. If the competition committee doesn't vote to recommend changing this rule at next February's NFL scouting combine, I am going to accost each and every one of its members outside the meeting. (Actually, I'll be speed-typing somewhere so that I can ditch my computer and have a big night on the town — and end up at Steak 'n Shake. (I will be very disappointed, however.)
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE THE DAWN
Before the season began, I was high on the Houston Texans. How high? Put it this way: If they were a certain recreational drug recently legalized in Washington and Colorado, I would have been Snoop Dogg — er, Snoop Lion. Coming off the first playoff appearance in franchise history, and armed with still-developing young studs like Arian Foster, J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin and Kareem Jackson, the Texans looked like Super Bowl material. I picked them to win the AFC, and when they captured 11 of their first 12 games in 2012, including a Sunday night beatdown of the Bears (who were 7-1 coming in), that seemed like a pretty solid prediction. Even after a miserable final month that included an embarrassing, 42-14 Monday night defeat to the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., Houston was in position to lock down the conference's No. 1 seed Sunday by defeating a Colts team that was already locked into the No. 5 seed. And when the Texans took a 16-14 lead with 5:22 left in the third quarter, it seemed as though they were finally asserting their superiority. What happened next was a Low Five of embarrassing proportions: 1) Houston surrendered a 101-yard kickoff return on which Deji Karim fielded the ball in the end zone and burst up the middle untouched; 2) Quarterback Matt Schaub took an unconscionable third-down sack that forced Shayne Graham to attempt a 52-yard field goal, which he missed; 3) With Indy facing third-and-23 from its own 30, the Texans allowed Andrew Luck to burn them on a seam route to T.Y. Hilton, who caught the ball at the Houston 35 with three defenders in the vicinity and raced in for the TD; 4) On first-and-10 from the Indy 30, Schaub threw an errant sideline pass toward Andre Johnson, and it fell incomplete. Had the pass been accurate, it likely would have been picked for a touchdown. Ugly. 5) On the next play Schaub forced an end-zone pass to Johnson that was easily intercepted by Vontae Davis, and that was that.
Typically, with a significant game on the line in late December, the best team in the conference doesn't do any of those things. The fact that the Texans did all of them leads me to believe that, to flip the old Denny Green trademark phrase, they aren't who I thought they were. Instead, they look like a team that will be lucky to match last year's postseason performance, which was accomplished with then-rookie T.J. Yates playing quarterback in place of the injured Schaub, of winning a single playoff game before bowing out. For even if the Texans beat the Bengals, their next opponent will be the Patriots. In Foxborough, a.k.a. Foxbrrrrrrrrrrrrrough. Yes, it's quite cold in the Texans' world right now, and understandably so. And, with apologies to a certain rapper-turned-reggae singer, I am pretty far from high on them.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
– Text Sunday afternoon from Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck, after the Bears' victory over the Lions ended New York's playoff hopes.
"I am getting good at that!"
– Text Sunday from Browns Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas, on rebuilding.
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