By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- It's amazing how quickly a season can turn in the NFL.
In a critical moment of the season, it was Mike Tomlin's Pittsburgh Steelers who were executing and it was Bill Belichick's New England Patriots who were falling apart.
Martavis Bryant expertly set a pick on Eric Rowe without making contact -- thus making it legal -- allowing JuJu Smith-Schuster to catch a short pass over the middle and sprint toward the sidelines. There, third-year Patriots safety Jordan Richards looked like an unsuspecting mall walker who found himself in the middle of a busy highway. Improbably, somehow, Smith-Schuster kept going, not getting tackled until he had gained 69 yards and set up the Steelers for at least the game-tying field goal and possibly the game-winning touchdown.
But then, things fell apart. Badly.
Jesse James couldn't make a simple catch. Everyone involved with the Steelers still believes James made the catch, and instead of blaming their tight end for dropping the football, they've been blaming the NFL and the vague catch rule. A simple "he should've held on to that ball" would have sufficed.
When given more than three minutes to strategize two offensive plays if the James drop was properly overturned, the Steelers did not plan properly. They only planned one play ... and it was a short pass over the middle which led to Darrius Heyward-Bey getting tackled in bounds.
Tomlin later tried to explain himself, saying the team had to prepare for a situation where the play was ruled a catch, with possession down at the 1-yard line ... on a play when James was clearly not touched. If Tomlin and his coaching staff spent even 1 second planning for that scenario after seeing one replay, then maybe football just isn't their sport.
With the clock running, the Steelers scrambled to the line for a spike. Only, Ben Roethlisberger didn't spike. He gave some signals to his receivers, took the snap, faked the spike, saw Eli Rogers surrounded by five white jerseys, threw the pass into a sea of humans, and watched it get intercepted by Duron Harmon.
After the game, Roethlisberger told reporters that it wasn't a fake spike, despite the fact that it was a fake spike (he faked a spike, you know). He then accepted some blame for making the bad pass, but he also passed the buck with regard to the play call, saying Todd Haley's call to run a play came in too late.
Later in the week in a radio interview, Roethlisberger inexplicably said he didn't actually call the timeout after Smith-Schuster's long catch-and-run, even though the television broadcast showed him frantically signaling for a timeout no fewer than a half-dozen times in the middle of the field and then pointing at referee Tony Corrente to affirm that the timeout call was made. (Tomlin was shown on the broadcast during this sequence standing on the sidelines, not saying anything.)
Tomlin confirmed Roethlisberger's claim, saying that Roethlisberger was only signaling timeout at the sideline, and that Corrente should have checked with Tomlin before granting the timeout, even though players on the field can call timeout. Tomlin actually said "the timeouts are supposed to come from the bench." That's not correct. There is a rulebook. It says players can call timeouts. In fact, players call timeouts all the time.
In a related story, Tomlin is a member of the NFL rules committee. Stellar.
It's a lot of finger-pointing for a team that had the AFC's No. 1 seed in its grasp and let it slip away.
Now, could they shake it off, beat the Texans and Browns, secure the first-round playoff bye, win a game, and find themselves in the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots with a Super Bowl trip on the line? Of course. Could they win the rematch? Surely.
But the way they responded to minor adversity late in that game, and the way they've done nothing but point fingers and throw others under buses in the days since, it makes you wonder whether we've gotten an inside glimpse at the mental makeup of that team. If they end up crashing and burning before Jan. 21, we shouldn't be surprised. Though it will be exciting to see how they shift the blame.
(Home team in CAPS; Wednesday lines)
BALTIMORE (-14) over Indianapolis
What a brilliant line. It's literally the only reason to watch this game. The Colts are so bad. The Ravens are OK. But 14 points? I don't know! As the old saying goes: When in doubt, pick against the bad team on the road on a Saturday afternoon.
Minnesota (-9) at GREEN BAY
The Packers are 0-3 as home underdogs. Not a whole lot of fight in that there Packers team.
CAROLINA (-10) over Tampa Bay
The Buccaneers are 1-5-1 against the spread in road games. They're 1-6 straight up in those games. Not a whole lot of fight in that there Buccaneers team.
NEW YORK JETS (+7) over Los Angeles Chargers
Tough to fly across the country to play on Christmas Eve in the cold when you just pooped away your season in Kansas City last weekend.
Los Angeles Rams (-7) over TENNESSEE
The Rams rule so hard. The Titans do not.
Miami (+10.5) over KANSAS CITY
The Dolphins have proven to be surprisingly feisty here. A blowout win over Denver. A Monday Night Football win over the Patriots. A little punch up in Buffalo. Very feisty!
Cleveland (+6.5) over CHICAGO
Screw it. Right?
Not that I think it's necessarily going to happen, but for the past two months we all agreed that if the Browns were going to win a football game in 2017, it was going to be against the Bears in Week 16. It's pretty much been their only shot.
So, shoot, why not? Let's get wild.
Detroit (-4.5) over CINCINNATI
Not enough people are talking about my hot streak. Frankly, I find it revolting. What the mainstream media doesn't want to tell you is that since Week 11, I'm running at a ridiculous 46-27-5 clip with these games. That's so toasty that I might be a Quiznos sub.
Overall, after Week 8, I'm 46-27-5. Pay no attention to what the record was before Week 8. The record after Week 8 is what matters. And I assure you, it is great.
Buffalo (+13) over NEW ENGLAND
Two weeks ago, I picked the Dolphins to cover vs. the Patriots, with this logic: "it's difficult to win via blowout against the same team twice in three weeks, unless that team is an abysmal disaster."
The Bills are not an abysmal disaster (though the last time the Bills played the Patriots, Sean McDermott made the dumbest challenge in the history of professional football), ERGO I'll take the points. Even though it's Bills at Patriots. In late December. When the Patriots need to win. And Tom Brady is healthy. I need to move on before I regret this one.
WASHINGTON (-3.5) over Denver
I wanted to go with the Broncos, who have been playing better lately. But then I saw this report: "Broncos coach Vance Joseph said Wednesday Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch split reps '50-50' in practice." That one sentence really crystallizes the state of the Denver Broncos, doesn't it?
Atlanta (+5.5) over NEW ORLEANS
Easily the weirdest story I saw in the whole NFL this week involved Sean Payton speaking at length about the choking signal he gave to Devonta Freeman a few weeks ago.
"Listen, the mistake I made that night was letting, obviously, my emotions get the best of me," Payton said. "It's the same thing we talk about with our players all the time, and it wasn't good. I felt like, man, as that game went on, it even affected me just in calling plays. I've got to be better that way. It was really more a frustration from some of the officiating. But you learn, even when you've been in this thing as long as I have, it's something that you regret. And you just look back on it and think, `What are you doing?' ... It bugged me for the better part of a week."
You just don't often see a 53-year-old man explain in meticulous detail how and why he taunted a football player in the middle of a game he was about to lose.
Anyways, the Falcons are BACK, after having gone through all 51 stages of grief from blowing Super Bowl LI. I hope we get a rematch!
Jacksonville (-4.5) over SAN FRANCISCO
Everybody's hopping all about the Garoppolo wagon, which is fun. But my Sacksonville Jaguars are no joke.
The Jaguars picked off Russell Wilson three times. They picked off Ben Roethlisberger five times ... in Pittsburgh. Andy Dalton had a miserable day against Jacksonville, as did Joe Flacco, and Philip Rivers and Jared Goff didn't fare much better.
We'll see how Garoppolo fares ... but it may not even matter. Leonard Fournette is back, and the 49ers allow 119 rushing yards per game. Garoppolo might have the ball for about 20 minutes all day.
ARIZONA (-3.5) over New York Giants
Seriously, though. Why aren't people talking about my record over the last four weeks? It's preposterous.
DALLAS (-5) over Seattle
The Cowboys are probably the NFL's least trustworthy team this year (they're 5-8 against the spread!), but they are getting a well-rested and (likely) angry Ezekiel Elliott back to help them out this week. Meanwhile, the Seahawks are bickering like Regina George and Gretchen Wieners.
I am of the mind that under a lawless coach like Pete Carroll, when things are going well, they're going really well. But when things turn bad (i.e. two straight December losses while falling out of the playoff picture), they turn really bad.
Pittsburgh (-10) over HOUSTON
Occasionally, I'll use this space to share my sympathies with certain people. Right now, I'd like to let it be known that I feel bad for every parking attendant, every popcorn and beer salesperson, every ticket taker, every security guard, every garbage collector, every law enforcement officer, every suite waiter and waitress, and really every game day employee who has to trudge to NRG Stadium on Christmas Day because the 4-10 Houston Texans, fresh off a 45-7 shellacking last week, have a football game to play. They should just count it as a forfeit and save everyone the trouble.
PHILADELPHIA (-10) over Oakland
What, in your mind is more negligent:
Going with Nick Foles covering a double-digit spread
Picking a Raiders team that's 1-4 against the spread on the road?
So much negligence, no matter which way you look.
Last week: 9-4-3
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