The end of the Baltimore Ravens' triumph Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals was a bad look for the NFL.
It's no one's fault. The Ravens took full advantage of the rules. The game officials, according to the NFL, officiated the play properly.
But the rule itself should be re-examined because it made for a scene a half-step from pro wrestling. About the only thing missing was the Ravens sending someone onto the field to hit a Bengals player with a folding chair while the officials' attention was somehow diverted.
It certainly wasn't football that was taking place.
To recap: The Ravens led 19-12 with 11 seconds remaining and were lined up in punt formation. Rather than risking a punt that might be blocked or returned, and rather than giving the Cincinnati offense enough time for a Hail Mary pass or two, the Ravens snapped the football and then had all of their blockers grab, hold, bear-hug and tackle the Bengals' rushers. Punter Sam Koch backpedaled, moved back and forth and stood with the ball in his hands while penalty flags flew and the time ticked off the clock, finally stepping out of the back of the end zone for a safety.
Ravens win, 19-14.
The NFL rule book allows for the possibility of a "palpably unfair act" and gives the referee the power, if that occurs, to put time back on the clock or award a team the yardage it would have gained or a touchdown. An offender can be ejected. Commissioner Roger Goodell is empowered to act if the game officials don't handle a palpably unfair act properly.
The rules say that a player or substitute cannot "interfere with play by any act which is palpably unfair." They also say that a team cannot "commit successive or repeated fouls to prevent a score." But a team first must be warned, under the rules, before a score is awarded.
So, in the league's view, a palpably unfair act is defined as successive or repeated fouls. That's why the NFL concluded that the officials acted properly Sunday in Baltimore. They could not have declared a palpably unfair act based on one play, according to the league's interpretation of the rules. If the Ravens had used their intentional holding tactic for a second straight play, then the officials could have stepped in.
So, in other words, it's OK to do anything you want for one play, if it serves your purposes. Just don't try it twice.
That makes no sense. If doing something intentionally unfair on consecutive plays is wrong and punishable under the rules, then doing the same thing for one play must also be something that the officials can address. The NFL should take another look at the rule. It's not the first time that such a tactic has been used, and it probably won't be the last. It certainly won't be the last if the team that uses the approach can benefit as the Ravens did.
It won't always be as blatant as what the Ravens did Sunday. But when it is, the officials should not be powerless to act. Once teams know that's the case, what happened Sunday won't happen again.
This is not to say that the rule affected the outcome of the game. The Bengals had their chances to win and failed. Even if the Ravens had punted, Cincinnati would have had only the slimmest of chances to tie.
But it's a slim chance that the Bengals rightfully should have had.
1. Chiefs-Broncos replay: There are many complaints, and justifiably so, when the officials and the NFL get things wrong.
So it must be said that they got it right on the instant replay reversal at the end of regulation Sunday night in Denver in the Broncos-Chiefs thriller.
The play was exactly what replay is for: to prevent a game-deciding officiating mistake.
The Chiefs trailed 24-16 in the closing seconds when quarterback Alex Smith completed a pass to wide receiver Tyreek Hill at the goal line. Hill made the catch and was touched down by the Broncos' Bradley Roby. The official ruled Hill down by contact inside the 1-yard line, and the clock would have expired before the Chiefs could have run another play.
Instead, the officials stopped the clock with a second left and reviewed the play. The replay showed that Hill juggled the football slightly and did not have complete control of the ball until after he'd crossed the goal line. The Chiefs were awarded a touchdown. They got a tying two-point conversion and won the game, 30-27, in overtime.
2. Kubiak's call: Gary Kubiak played to win.
That cost him a tie and handed him a loss.
It still says here that he made the right choice.
With Denver facing a fourth-and-10 play from the Kansas City 44-yard line with just more than one minute remaining in overtime, everything was in play for the coach of the Broncos. The Broncos could have taken a fourth-down gamble. They could have punted, likely pinning the Chiefs deep in their own territory and probably setting up the third tie league-wide this season.
Instead, Kubiak went to placekicker Brandon McManus for a 62-yard field goal attempt. McManus is a long-range kicker and had the altitude in Denver working in his favor. But he pulled the kick wide left. The Chiefs took possession at the Denver 48-yard line, the spot from which McManus attempted the failed kick. That favorable field position led to the winning 34-yard field goal by Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos as time expired, with the ball caroming off the left upright and somehow through the goal posts.
The loss could prove extremely costly to Kubiak and the Broncos. The defending Super Bowl champs are a game behind the second-place Chiefs and two games in back of the division-leading Oakland Raiders in the AFC West. They are essentially tied with the Miami Dolphins for the second wild-card spot in the AFC.
But Kubiak gave his team a chance to win. He shouldn't regret it.
3. Turkey Day ratings: For so much of this season, the debate raged as to why the NFL's television ratings were down.
How much of it was attributable to the intense national interest in the presidential election? Was there a fan backlash, as many claimed but some industry experts seemed to discount, about players' national anthem protests? How much did other factors -- such as quality of play, oversaturation of the product, modern viewing habits or the public's possible uneasiness with the concussion issue -- play into it?
Viewership of the Thanksgiving Day games, at least, appears to indicate that if the NFL provides compelling games, people will continue to watch in huge numbers.
The late-afternoon Redskins-Cowboys game on Fox was competitive and entertaining, and its average of 35.1 million viewers made it the most-watched regular season game ever on that network. The early-afternoon Vikings-Lions game on CBS, decided on a late interception and a field goal as time expired, averaged 27.6 million viewers, making it the most-watched game this season on that network.
Captive holiday audience, you say? If so, that doesn't explain why Thursday night's drab Steelers-Colts game on NBC, with Indianapolis minus quarterback Andrew Luck, drew a relatively modest 21 million viewers, down from the 27.8 million who watched Packers-Bears on Thanksgiving night a year earlier.
The quality of the product, it appears, is a significant factor in all of this.
4. Carr and Gronk injuries: The New England Patriots and the Raiders both won Sunday to remain essentially tied for the top seed in the AFC playoffs with matching 9-2 records.
But one has to wonder if the injuries suffered by Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski could affect how things shape up down the stretch in the regular season and into the postseason.
Carr's dislocated pinky on his throwing hand obviously won't keep him from playing. He returned to Sunday's 35-32 victory over the Carolina Panthers. But the issue going forward will be how effectively Carr can play with the injury. This isn't a lineman playing with a dislocated finger. This is a quarterback whose ability to grip and guide the football properly could be affected.
Gronkowski exited the Patriots' 22-17 triumph over the New York Jets in the Meadowlands in the first quarter. He didn't have a catch in his return to the lineup after missing one game with a chest injury suffered on a hit by Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.
The Patriots need Gronkowski. He is their next-most-valuable offensive player after quarterback Tom Brady, creating matchup headaches for defenses and making every player around him that much more dangerous based on the attention that he commands and the adjustments that he forces. Perhaps the Patriots should have given Gronkowski another week to get fully healed before playing. But it's too late for that at this point, and the consequences of his latest injury must be faced.
5. Two powerful divisions: The NFC East and AFC West each has a chance to put three teams in the playoffs this season, the division winner plus both of the conference's wild card entrants.
If it happens, it would be only the second time since the NFL's 2002 realignment - when the league went to eight divisions of four teams each - that power has been consolidated that way.
The 2007 season is the only time that each conference had a division with three playoff teams. That season, the NFC East put the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins in the postseason field. The Colts, Jaguars and Titans all reached the playoffs from the AFC South that year.
There have been only four other instances of a single division having three playoff teams. The NFC East sent the Eagles, Cowboys and Giants to the postseason in 2006. The AFC North put the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals in the playoffs in 2011. The AFC West had the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers in 2013. The AFC North struck again with the Steelers, Bengals and Ravens in 2014.
The revival by the NFC East this season is particularly striking. The division has sent only one team to the playoffs in each of the previous six seasons. An NFC East team last reached the postseason as a wild card in 2009, when the Eagles joined the division-winning Cowboys in the playoffs.
6. Raiders and Oakland: There is an interesting dynamic at work in Oakland, with the city's announcement that it has the framework of a stadium deal in place with a group led by Pro Football Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott.
The deal, at least for now, does not include the Raiders nor their owner, Mark Davis, who has said he is committed to moving the franchise to Las Vegas.
But a Raiders' relocation would have to be ratified by at least 24 of the 32 NFL owners, some of whom appear to have concerns over the size of the Las Vegas market. There also has been speculation that there could be wariness among owners about the involvement of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league would prefer for the Raiders to remain in Oakland if a stadium deal there can be worked out.
Stadium negotiations between Davis and leaders in Oakland stalled long ago and that relationship has been strained. But the deal with Lott's group is significant because if it creates the belief among enough owners that there remains a realistic possibility of keeping the team in Oakland on at least relatively favorable terms, the group could block Davis's path to Las Vegas and leave him with little choice but to stay put and work things out.
7. Norman and Bryant: The league does not seem overly concerned, even with this season's emphasis on sportsmanship, about the on-field postgame exchange of unpleasantries Thursday between Redskins cornerback Josh Norman and Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant. It's possible that Norman and Bryant will be fined later this week, but the league did not take up the matter last week outside the context of its usual weekly fine-levying deliberations.
That is just a bit surprising, given that the renewed emphasis on sportsmanship came about in part because of another on-field incident involving Norman, his series of on-field confrontations with Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. during a game last season while he was with Carolina.
Norman is a superb player. His absence from the Panthers this season has been a major factor in their struggles. And perhaps he would not be the same player if he were to take a less confrontational on-field approach.
But it does get a bit wearying that he makes everything so personal so often, from the Beckham episode to the repeated hands-to-the-face penalties against Cincinnati's A.J. Green during this season's game in London to the Bryant incident. Beckham has faced intense scrutiny this season for his ongoing emotional on-field outbursts. Norman mostly has avoided similar scrutiny.
Maybe, just maybe Norman could try turning it down a few notches and see if that still works?
8. Cou$in$: Kirk Cousins is making himself a lot of money.
The Redskins quarterback threw for 449 yards and three touchdowns in the Thanksgiving defeat at Dallas. In a five-day span, he completed 62 of 83 passes for 824 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions against the Packers and Cowboys. He has thrown for 3,540 yards and 20 touchdowns on the season and has a passer rating of 101.4. He has cut down on the game-altering mistakes.
Cousins is eligible for unrestricted free agency again this coming offseason after the Redskins used their franchise player tag on him last offseason but failed to sign him to a long-term contract. The Redskins, of course, simply could use their franchise tag on him again. But that would cost them nearly $24 million on a one-year deal. So a long-term deal probably is preferable for both sides. But that is becoming an increasingly expensive proposition, with the way Cousins in playing.
Few within the sport viewed him last offseason as a potential $100 million quarterback. But now the possibility that it will take a $100 million deal to sign him must be considered. He is 28 and playing at an extremely high level. There are likely to be other big-name quarterbacks available this offseason, possibly including the Cowboys' Tony Romo and the Bears' Jay Cutler. But they will come with sizable question marks.
Cousins will have considerable leverage in his dealings with the Redskins, who will have to spend big money to keep him but appear to have little choice. Cousins has earned his enviable position.
9. Peterson's tenuous return: There has been talk about the possibility of tailback Adrian Peterson returning to the Vikings' lineup this season. But it's fair to wonder at this point if Minnesota still will be playing games with postseason implications by the time Peterson might be available.
The Vikings lost Thursday in Detroit to fall a game behind the Lions in the NFC North. They're currently a half-game behind the Redskins for the final wild card spot in the NFC. But Minnesota is headed decidedly in the wrong direction. The Vikings have lost five of six games since their 5-0 beginning.
Their schedule from this point on is favorable. They host the Cowboys this Thursday night but play the Jaguars, Colts, Packers and Bears after that. Still, it's not clear right now that they're capable of beating even lowly teams.
Peterson reportedly is leaving open the possibility of a late-December return after undergoing surgery in September for a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. The Vikings have been unable to establish a running game without Peterson and certainly could use him back in the lineup. But if they don't win a game or two in the meantime, it would make little sense for Peterson to rush his way back.
10. Luck-less: When Luck and the Colts reached the AFC title game at the end of the 2014 season before losing to the Patriots in lopsided fashion in the Deflategate affair, the team and its franchise quarterback seemed to be right on course. Luck would take over as the sport's next great quarterback and the Colts would go on to win Super Bowls with him in charge.
That still could happen. Luck still is young and it remains relatively early in his career.
But those involved had better be careful. If they aren't, they'll look up one day in the not-too-distant future and they'll still be waiting for that greatness, and Luck won't be quite so young or quite so early in his career any longer.
He is 27 and a second straight season appears on its way to going to waste. Luck has played well this season when healthy, throwing for 2,827 yards and 19 touchdowns. But the Colts stumbled early with him and lost Thursday without him. They have a record of 5-6 and will need a late-season rush to overtake the first-place Houston Texans and second-place Titans in the AFC South. Otherwise, there will be further cause to wonder if owner Jim Irsay made the right choice last offseason when he stuck with Chuck Pagano as his coach and Ryan Grigson as his general manager.