It was another distressing Sunday in an NFL season whose disturbance and cruelty has managed consistently to overshadow thrills and fun. The big headline was the feared loss of Carson Wentz to a torn anterior cruciate ligament for the remainder of the season. The lasting, unshakable image was Tom Savage lying prone, his hands vibrating in an involuntary fashion, before somehow reentering the game minutes later. Elsewhere, a Seattle Seahawks player attempted to climb into the stands in Jacksonville to fight a fan who had thrown a drink at him.
Underneath another serving of misery, hope for a more enjoyable future pulsed. While injuries and controversies have dominated the season, the NFL still may be partially redeemed by a showcase hinted at Sunday. The rain clouds over the season may be able to ruin anything, but right now the NFC playoffs appear to be as can’t-miss as can’t-miss could be. Barring a letdown, they are going to be great.
Sunday provided Vikings-Panthers and Eagles-Rams, an early taste of the NFC’s playoff field. Both games, Wentz’s injury notwithstanding, were awesome. Cam Newton overcame a late interception with a 62-yard run that set up Carolina’s game-winning touchdown. Adam Thielen caught six passes for 106 yards and a weaving, clutch touchdown. The Eagles and Rams seesawed for four quarters, pushing passes downfield and landing haymakers until Chris Long’s strip-sack of Jared Goff tilted it in the Eagles’ favor.
Every NFC playoff game has a chance to resemble those contests. The field, regardless of which teams make it, will be a combination of surprising contenders, established stars and rising powers. There is no combination of NFC contenders that would make for even one unappealing playoff game, with the possible exception of the 7-6 Lions — who provided an opening-weekend dud last January — sneaking in.
If the playoffs started next week, three of the NFC quarterbacks on opening weekend would be former MVPs, including the past two, and the fourth would be last year’s No. 1 overall pick. The highflying Rams (Jared Goff) would host the defending NFC champion Falcons (Matt Ryan), and Drew Brees’s Saints would host Newton’s Panthers.
The winners would play the Eagles and Vikings, teams with double-digits wins, ferocious defenses and tenuous quarterback situations, in very different ways. Can Nick Foles provide a suitable replacement for Wentz? Will Case Keenum continue his out-of-nowhere brilliance and hold off Teddy Bridgewater?
Should those teams fall back, Seattle currently would be the next team up, with scintillating Russell Wilson trying to keep a teetering Seahawks reign alive. Also lurking are the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, both 7-6, who are trying to make late-season charges with the returns of Aaron Rodgers and Ezekiel Elliott looming.
Story lines would tumble out of every conceivable matchup. Can the Falcons make another run in defense of their NFC title? Will Sean McVay’s offensive sorcery translate in the playoffs? Could Rodgers scare the daylights out of a top seed? (If the Packers can win out behind the presumed return of Rodgers next week, they have a 93 percent chance to make the playoffs, per the New York Times’s playoff odds calculator.) The Eagles will be pursuing the franchise’s first Super Bowl title and first appearance in more than a decade. The Vikings will be vying to be the first team to play the Super Bowl at its home stadium.
Further injury, as this season has so harshly reminded, could still spoil the NFC playoffs. For now, they are the league’s best hope to salvage an unpleasant year.
>>> The NFL’s concussion protocol failed Sunday to a degree it should be ashamed of. Texans quarterback Tom Savage took a hit to the head. While on the ground, his hands involuntarily rose toward his head, and his fingers trembled. He went to the sideline and, after getting checked out, reentered the game in five minutes.
Savage would eventually be removed. It is unconscionable he was allowed to play again after that reaction.
Any concussion protocol that allows that to happen is broken. There are many brain injuries the league cannot prevent or recognize, short of abolishing the sport. But this was a terrifying, obvious potential concussion that occurred in clear view to the player who holds the ball every play. Any system that makes it possible for Savage to enter the game again in five minutes after that needs to be fixed and cannot be taken seriously until it is.
When a player’s hands move reflexively to his head, it is a textbook sign a brain injury has happened. That doesn’t mean it has happened, and it is wrong to diagnose a concussion from only watching on television. But it is indicative. In those instances, returning to play in five minutes is simply too short. The NFL needs to do more to make sure teams err on the side of caution, and not in returning key players to the field.
The NFL has independent medical personnel who can keep players off the field. But something is not working. Even if the NFL finds the Texans did not violate the protocol, that would simply be an indictment of the protocol.
“I just coach the team,” Bill O’Brien said when asked about Savage reentering the game, laying responsibility off to the Texans’ medical staff. That is the problem: The NFL and its teams have not made protecting dangerously concussed players, even the ones most obviously and likeliest to be impacted by brain injury, a priority.
>>> The end of the Jaguars’ victory over the Seahawks was ugly and could lead to discipline, Sean Quinton writes. Michael Bennett sparked a fight by diving at an offensive lineman’s knees in victory formation, and the scuffle led to the ejections of Sheldon Richardson and Quinton Jefferson. Things took a nasty turn when Jefferson tried to climb into the stands to confront a fan who had thrown a drink at him on his way into the locker room. “What would you do?” Jefferson asked reporters. Those fans should be banned from the stadium if not prosecuted. But, man, you can’t go climbing into the crowd. Jefferson will probably get suspended, and it would be justified, even if he’s also worthy of sympathy.
>>> The Steelers’ crazy victory Sunday night might end up being a huge win. Pittsburgh seemed to be dead late Sunday, down by two possessions in the fourth quarter, with a defense the Ravens’ running game was shredding. They had an emotional week, playing six days after linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a harrowing spinal injury. But somehow, behind 500 yards from Ben Roethlisberger, more than 200 of which went to Antonio Brown, the Steelers pulled it out, 39-38.
It clinched the AFC North for Pittsburgh. More important, it helped protect their first-round bye. The Steelers will play the Patriots next week in a showdown that will decide the top seed. If the Steelers had lost, and for most of the second half it seemed like they would, they would have been in danger of falling into a tie with the Jaguars and out of the second seed. Now, their bye is pretty secure.
The Steelers dedicated the victory to Ryan Shazier, Ron Cook writes.
>> Eli Manning returned to his starting spot, but it didn’t do much for the Giants, Mark Maske writes. The Giants fell to 2-11 after a gaggle of big plays doomed them in the fourth quarter. They played with Dallas for most of the afternoon but still lost, 30-10. Manning had a poor game, completing 31 of 46 attempts for 228 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.