Two stupid NFL rules carry big consequences

Quick, what is the worst rule in the NFL? Is it the definition of what is and what is not a catch, or the rule that says a fumble out of the end zone results in a touchback for the other team?

They both popped up on Sunday and ended up swinging the outcome of each game involving teams in different degrees of playoff battles. And with both costing the home team a win in a nationally televised game, you will not be able to avoid it. One may have swung the home-field advantage in the AFC and the other potentially cost a team any shot at making the playoff (subsequently allowing the other to keep hope alive).

Personally, I was most baffled by how we continue to determine first downs when the spotting of a football is just a pure guessing game at best.

The Steelers just cannot beat the Patriots

Two questions. Did Jesse James make that catch? Of course he did. Except, he didn’t.

One of the most discussed plays of the week will undoubtedly be the catch by Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James for a touchdown that was overturned by an official’s review. After initially being ruled a touchdown to momentarily put the Steelers ahead of the New England Patriots late in the fourth quarter, the first down pass from Ben Roethlisberger was ruled incomplete as it was determined James did not maintain possession of the football as he went to the ground. In this case, the ball popped loose as James took the ball across the goal line.

Though common sense for most of us would concede the touchdown should count because anyone with half a brain would likely believe that is a catch, the NFL rule book’s interpretation of the rule was correctly upheld by the officials in the game.

Others had a different opinion on the subject.

And that’s the bottom line

Perhaps we are never talking about that call if the Steelers kick a game-tying field goal and win the game in overtime. But two plays after the touchdown was wiped off the scoreboard, Roethlisberger tried to fool the Patriots with a fake spiking of the football and was picked off in the end zone with five seconds left to play. Ballgame. Patriots win. Whew.

The matchup between the Steelers and Patriots had been hyped for the past few weeks, including by Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. All things considered, it lived up to the hype and will easily be one of the best games of the NFL’s regular season. Unfortunately, although the correct call was made according to the rules of the game, it will go down as one of the more controversial endings of the season as well.

Consider the stakes. With the win, the Patriots evened their AFC-best record with Pittsburgh and gained the head-to-head tiebreaker for the home-field advantage in the postseason if the two AFC leaders should end the season with identical records. In the end, this could have determined which team will win the Super Bowl this season.

And I haven’t even mentioned just how close Pittsburgh was to winning this one before making the costly mistake of giving Tom Brady a second chance. What gets lost in the ending to this game is the missed interception by the Steelers on New England’s final (real) possession of the game. On an errant pass from Brady, the Steelers almost picked off the play and likely would have been able to put the clamps down on a 24-19 win.

Instead, after the near-disaster on first down, Brady locked in and completed a 26-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski, then another for a 26-yard gain after the two-minute warning to Gronkowski. Then another for 17 yards to (you guessed it) Gronkowski, followed by a Dion Lewis run for the go-ahead touchdown. Brady once again found his favorite target for a two-point conversion, giving the Patriots a three-point lead. Gronkowski could not help but laugh at the result.

The Patriots have done plenty of laughing at the Steelers over the years. Tom Brady is now 11-2 in his career against the Steelers, including a clean 3-0 record in the postseason. As good as the Steelers have been over the years, they have been no match for the Patriots. New England really is the kryptonite to the team from the Steel City. These two teams appear to be destined for a rematch in the AFC Championship Game in a month, and it may be played in Foxboro.

NFC Playoff race coming down to the wire

Carson Wentz going down with a season-ending injury in last week’s win against the Los Angeles Rams put a big dent in the Super Bowl aspirations for the Philadelphia Eagles. But that did not stop them from moving one step closer to securing home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs on Sunday.

Despite an inspired effort by the New York Giants and Eli Manning picking apart the suddenly porous Eagles defense (the past three weeks on the road have not been kind to the Eagles defense), Nick Foles served well in his first start in place of Wentz with four touchdown passes in a 35-29 victory over the Giants. The win clinched a first-round bye week for the Eagles and moves the Eagles one step closer to potentially clinching home-field.

Considering the Eagles have been much better at home than on the road this season, that could be a huge factor next month as the Eagles attempt to drive toward the Super Bowl without Wentz.

Foles was far from the biggest concern for the Eagles on Sunday, and he may not even be the biggest concern moving forward. It’s that defense. The Giants piled up over 500 yards of offense on the Eagles and scored touchdowns on their first three possessions of the game, each traveling either 75 or 80 yards to do so.

Jim Schwartz will have some work to do with this defense as they return home with the Raiders and Cowboys coming up. But if Sunday was any indication, Foles won’t be the guy who makes the Eagles a Super Bowl threat, but he won’t be the reason the Eagles blow an opportunity either.

Sunday proved the Eagles may own the best record in the league, but they have plenty of competition in the NFC this season. As we have been discussing on a weekly basis the past few weeks, the NFC is hotly contested this year and any one of a handful of teams can make a legitimate case to be considered the favorite.

The Minnesota Vikings certainly left no doubt about their outcome on Sunday afternoon. While the Eagles were digging out of a big hole early on against the Giants, the Vikings were running all over the Cincinnati Bengals en route to a 34-7 victory at home. The blowout of the Bengals wrapped up the NFC North Division for the Vikings, guaranteeing a home game in the playoffs. The Vikings still have some work to do to secure a first-round bye, beginning with a road game next week against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

By the way, this reception for Teddy Bridgewater coming into the game was fantastic.

Out west, the Los Angeles Rams certainly rose to the occasion on the road against the Seattle Seahawks. A week after dropping a home game to the Eagles, the Rams stormed back in a huge way in one of the NFL’s toughest environments to win and obliterated Seattle, 42-7.The defense sacked Russell Wilson seven times for a loss of 71 yards, while Todd Gurley played a big factor with 152 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

All of a sudden, the Rams have a two-game lead in the NFC West and can clinch the division next week. Seattle, on the other hand, is sitting on the outside of the NFC Playoff picture with two teams they now need to pass just to scramble into the postseason. The loss dropped Seattle behind the Atlanta Falcons (who play Monday night against Tampa Bay) and the Detroit Lions (who won Saturday against Chicago).

With the East and North all locked up and the West about to be settled, the race in the NFC South continues to go down to the wire. The New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers each won their games on Sunday against the New York Jets and Green Bay Packers, respectively, keeping the division race a neck-and-neck race between the two, with the Falcons looming just behind. The Saints and Panthers are each 10-4, but New Orleans has the leg up thanks to a 2-0 head-to-head record against the Panthers this season.

A Falcons win against Tampa Bay puts them one game behind the Saints and Panthers), but New Orleans hosts Atlanta next week. Carolina will host Tampa Bay, and then the Saints and Panthers swap division opponents in the final week of the season. That gives Atlanta a shot at this thing too.

Getting the division crown will be huge here, because all three could be heading to the postseason and only one will get a home game in the wild-card weekend, while the others will have to go on the road to either the division winner or Los Angeles (or Minnesota?).

Here is a look at the current NFC playoff picture:

  1. Eagles (12-2; clinched NFC East; clinched a first-round bye)
  2. Vikings (11-3; clinched NFC North)
  3. Rams (10-4; clinch NFC West with win or Seattle loss)
  4. Saints (10-4)
  5. Panthers (10-4)
  6. Falcons (8-5)

The Detroit Lions are next in line at 8-6. Detroit owns a tiebreaker against Seattle based on win percentage in conference games.l

Marvin Lewis and Bengals moving in different directions

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The end of the Marvin Lewis era in Cincinnati is coming to an end. Despite a 15-year run with zero playoff wins, the Bengals are allowing Lewis to leave on decent terms with what is being reported as a mutual separation. This is generally a polite way to say a coach has been fired, but Lewis has never done anything to deserve being trashed on his way out. Lewis’s tenure in Cincinnati has had more than a fair share of frustrations, but he was always seemingly respected and a good representative for the franchise for a long time.

And perhaps a change of scenery will do good for Lewis, who could pursue another coaching job somewhere (Giants?) or dabble in some front office work (uhh, Giants?). Where Lewis goes from here will be interesting (I know Arizona State could use a couple of coordinators on Herm Edwards’ staff), but the time has clearly come for the Bengals to start a new direction.

Finding a new head coach is only the start, however. After a blowout loss to the Vikings, the Bengals have fallen to 5-9. Andy Dalton, in his seventh season, has to be evaluated and the team needs to decide if a new coach can get Dalton and the rest of the team over the playoff hurdle.

Dalton completed 11 of 22 passes for 113 yards with two interceptions against the Vikings. It can’t all be his fault, but if the Bengals don’t start making some better decisions with the roster moving forward, it may not matter who the next head coach is. But hey, at least they are not the Cleveland Browns.

Cleveland Browns one step closer to No. 1 draft pick and 0-16

The Browns dropped to 0-14 on Sunday, losing at home to the Baltimore Ravens, 27-10. That puts Cleveland one loss (or New York Giants win) away from clinching the top pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. At this point, it is almost a guarantee the Browns will get the top pick in the draft next spring. And it is nearly as much a guarantee the Browns will find a way to screw it up.

DeShone Kizer was picked off twice and sacked two times in the loss to the Ravens, who managed to stay in the AFC playoff hunt with the win. This all went down a day after a Twitter giveaway from the Browns for a free autographed football by Kizer didn’t go over so well with fans.

Ouch.

So are the Browns about to go 0-16? They very well could. The season ends with two road games. First up is next week’s game against the Chicago Bears, and then the season concludes in Pittsburgh against the Steelers. The Steelers could still be playing for home-field advantage, so that could get ugly. If the Browns can’t beat the Bears next week, they are going 0-16, guaranteed.

NFL Blitz

Catching you up on what happened around the NFL on Sunday.

Cowboys 20, Raiders 17: With the two teams fighting for their playoff lives, this game may have come down to a first down being decided by using a piece of paper to determine if the ball reached the mark. In a league with countless advanced technological advancements at its disposal, we’re deciding first downs like this?

Paper don’t lie, I suppose.

The Cowboys went on to kick a field goal to take a 20-17 lead on that drive. Just when it looked as though the Raiders might stun Dallas in the final minute of the game, Derek Carr tried reaching for the pylon on a run, lost the football before being ruled down, and the fumble went out of bounds in the end zone for a Cowboys touchback.

Jaguars 45, Texans 7: Blake Bortles had a three-touchdown game in a rout of the Texans. Jacksonville is now sitting in a pretty good spot atop the AFC South. The Jags can clinch the AFC South Division with a win or a Tennessee loss. These two teams will face off in Nashville in the final game of the season, but Jacksonville has already punched a playoff ticket regardless of who wins the division.

49ers 25, Titans 23: The Jaguars were big fans of the 49ers on Sunday. Robbie Gould sent a 45-yard field goal through the posts as time expired Sunday on the West Coast. Jimmy Garoppolo fever is brewing with the 49ers quarterback tossing 381 yards and a touchdown, leading the team to a game-winning drive in the end of the game.

After winning three straight games, it may be time to discuss how good of a year new 49ers general manager John Lynch is having. The record may not show it, but the moves Lynch has made could be about to pay off, even if the 49ers are winning their way out of a higher draft pick.

That is just a brutal loss for the Titans, who now sit in the fifth seed in the AFC playoff picture. It may not cost them a playoff spot in the end, but it makes getting a game at home much more difficult. As of today, the Titans would have to play at Kansas City in the wild card round.

Panthers 31, Packers 24: This game was mentioned briefly earlier, but it was worth mentioning here due to the return of Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers passed for 290 yards and three touchdowns, but was picked off three times while Cam Newton passed for four touchdowns in a pivotal home win. Green Bay’s playoff hopes are not eliminated with two games to play, but the uphill climb just got a bit steeper. To get there, they’ll have to beat Minnesota next week in Lambeau Field. Davante Adams was also knocked out with a concussion in the loss, putting his availability for next week in question.

Bills 24, Dolphins 16: The Bills remain in the AFC playoff picture, thanks to a home win over the Miami Dolphins. A week after dropping the Patriots in Miami, Jay Cutler was picked off three times. LeSean McCoy did not have a huge day in the box score, but did eclipse the 10,000 career rushing yard mark in the win and scored two touchdowns. He is the 30th player in league history to rush for at least 10,000 yards.

Redskins 20, Cardinals 15: Kirk Cousins had two touchdown passes and the Cardinals were held to five field goals by Phil Dawson. Arizona is one loss away from a losing season, while Washington still has a chance to end the season with a .500 record.

All your rowdy friends are coming over tonight

The 8-5 Falcons need a win to stay just one game behind the Saints and Panthers in the NFC South. To do that, they must win on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9), which seems likely. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the Falcons won the previous matchup a few weeks ago, 34-20, and they should manage to get out of town with a comfortable victory.

The Falcons did get to Tampa without much hassle despite power failures at the Atlanta airport causing problems on Sunday. Tevin Coleman will not play for Atlanta due to a concussion.

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to NBCSports.com's College Football Talk, Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Host of the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher Radio and iHeart Radio. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.