This could have been a Statement Sunday, a day on which the NFL's hot-and-cold-running 3-2 teams emphatically defeated opponents and proved that they belong in the Super Bowl conversation. But instead we got a bunch of close games, last-minute comebacks and a tie.
This could have been a Separation Sunday, a day on which the defending powerhouses won easily and pulled away from the league's second-tier contenders. Instead, we watched a Cowboys upset of the Seahawks, a tight Broncos win and a close call in Oakland for the Chargers. Also, a tie between two 2013 playoff teams.
This could have been a Stratification Sunday, a day on which we could at least write off some team that has lingered around .500 for no good reason. But instead we saw the Browns claw their way into relevance at the expense of the Steelers, the Bears slowly pull away from the Falcons and a freakin' tie.
Sunday taught us that the Patriots are much better than the Bills, something we have known for 13 years. Otherwise, Sunday's games resisted clever categorization and offered few substantial answers. It was a Suggestion Sunday. No team told us anything concrete, but many offered another set of veiled, tough-to-interpret hints about their quality, identity and direction.
Luckily, I am an expert at decoding vague-but-critically-important messages. I have been married for 20 years! (Kidding, honey, kidding!) So we kick off the Hangover this week with a translation of just what the major and minor contenders were trying to tell us on Sunday afternoon.
New England Patriots: "One-point favorites? Really, Vegas wiseguys? In Buffalo, against Kyle Orton? Did the last 14 years never happen? What have we done to earn such point-spread disrespect?
"Look, maybe it's not 2007 anymore, but we're not going to start losing regularly to the Bills. If you want to waste money following a silly rise-and-fall narrative, keep waiting in line for those Hobbit movies. If you want to gamble like a grown-up, lay the points until we face a tough opponent."
Dallas Cowboys: "Everyone likes to say that championships are won in the trenches, but when you win every week with the best offensive line in the NFL, people ask questions like 'Why is Tony Romo so much more effective this year?' or 'Who knew DeMarco Murray was so good?' Watch the line, folks. Also, that was the 22nd fourth-quarter comeback of Tony Romo's career, and he did it on the road against the defending champions. But feel free to keep calling him a choke artist, because facts are for squares."
Seattle Seahawks: "Maybe the penalties are a problem. Maybe the offensive line is a problem. Maybe the lack of playmakers beyond the Big Three is a problem. Maybe lining the cornerbacks up by field sides dogmatically, so opponents know they can match up a top receiver against Byron Maxwell or Marcus Burley just by sliding him to the left, is a problem. Maybe noodling whenever we get to the opponent's 35-yard line is a problem. Maybe it's time to stop talking about how dedicated we are to repeating and start dedicating ourselves to repeating."
Denver Broncos: "New Jersey scares us. The traffic is crazy, the people are loud, and the water tastes like someone dipped a coffee mug into an indoor swimming pool. We don't even like visiting Eli in the offseason. But as long as we are facing the Jets and not the Seahawks, all is well in the end."
Detroit Lions: "We are going to win all the games that can possibly be won by scoring 14-17 points and missing two to seven field goals! Those games do not include the Packers at Lambeau, the Bears at Soldier Field or any playoff games, unfortunately. If we don't find a kicker before opponents figure out that our cornerbacks are Darius Slay, Rashean Mathis and a bunch of guys named Danny Gorrer, there will be trouble. Say, maybe the Bengals will cut Mike Nugent..."
San Diego Chargers: "Yeah, our offense is great. But our defense has faced EJ Manuel, Blake Bortles, the Jets' Dubious Work Ethic Society and Derek Carr in the last month. We are also down to our fourth center and third running back. So you just might want to hold off on planning that Super Bowl party until after we face the Chiefs and travel to Denver."
Cincinnati Bengals: "Crippling self-inflicted errors: They are not just for road games in prime time anymore!"
Carolina Panthers: "A tie on the road should count for a point in the standings, like it used to in the NHL. Also, Cam Newton is running again: 107 yards on Sunday, making him our leading rusher and receiver. All we need now is for Newton to replace Thomas DeCoud at free safety and we can win the NFC South with a 5-3-8 record!"
Baltimore Ravens: "Gary Kubiak and Joe Flacco look really exciting and unpredictable when you put them on the same field as Lovie Smith. It's one of those optical-illusion deals."
Green Bay Packers: "Remember when we gave up running the ball in 2012 and let Aaron Rodgers or Randall Cobb lead the team with rushing on scrambles or trick plays? Did you ever think you would miss those days?"
Miami Dolphins: "Garble, garble, garble, not sure what our offensive identity is garble garble not that confident in our quarterback garble garble don't know who our leaders are garble garble whole does not equal sum of parts." Message provided by Joe Philbin, Dean of the Clear Communicators.
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Cleveland Browns: "PAY ATTENTION TO US!!!!!!"
Arizona Cardinals: "Bruce Arians has a smoke machine. Todd Bowles owns a funhouse full of mirrors. Actually, Arians and Bowles aren't coaching the team at all; they turned the reins over to Penn and Teller. Though let's face it, it's not that hard to saw Kirk Cousins in half."
Buffalo Bills: "Was the new owner watching? He was, like, talking to dignitaries or signing paperwork or meeting with Goodell, right? No? He was in the building? He saw the whole thing? Oh dear."
Pittsburgh Steelers: "It's time for the folks who make Iron City beer to issue some collectible beer cans with pictures of Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger that can go on the shelf next to Terry Bradshaw and Mean Joe Greene. Because it's all over but the nostalgia, folks."
Philadelphia Eagles: "DidyoureallythinktheNFLhadcaughtuptoChipKelly'soffense
New York Giants: "Welp, the last few weeks were fun. Now it's time to collapse in a heap of penalties and injuries like you thought we would."
Herschel's Legacy: The Trades That Shaped Sunday
The Herschel Walker trade may have celebrated its 25th anniversary on Sunday, but the fortunes of many NFL teams are still defined by bold, cunning, dangerous, visionary, shortsighted, lopsided, brilliant or disastrous trades. Sunday's action was shaped by dozens of trades which lacked the scope of the Herschel trade, yet it still built powerhouses, allowed contenders to maintain dominance, changed the culture of organizations or marked major rolls of the dice that came up a franchise-crushing snake eyes.
A major trade is usually more than just a turning point for the two or three franchises making the deal. It can be a fulcrum on which an era of NFL history pivots. Take the 1998 Ricky Williams trade. Its impact went beyond Williams, the three teams involved in the trade (Saints, Redskins, Bears) and the many players selected after the intricate series of secondary deals that followed.
The careers of Mike Ditka, Dan Snyder, Charley Casserly and former Bears general manager Mark Hatley (who ended up holding a bag full of Cade McNown when the smoke cleared) changed course after the Williams trade. The deal indirectly impacted Donovan McNabb, Edgerrin James and Bill Polian, spreading its effects to Andy Reid and Peyton Manning. Heck, rapper Master P and future Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell had roles in the saga.
When Champ Bailey spent training camp with the Saints this summer, he was "rejoining" a team that he might have played for in some parallel universe where the Saints stayed put in the 1998 draft. Threads of that 16-year-old trade were still pulling on organizations as of August.
Smaller trades can also shape history. The Patriots' success is as much the story of a decade of market-manipulating deals as it is a Tom Brady folk tale. The Patriots liberated Wes Welker from the Dolphins for a second-round pick and change, introducing the world to a player who would have a massive impact on a decade of Super Bowl runs for two teams. When the Patriots acquired Randy Moss from the Raiders in exchange for a sandwich platter and then traded Richard Seymour for the first-round pick that became Nate Solder, the moves represented the triumph of a 21st-century, data-driven approach over Mad Men-era, seat-of-the-pants wisdom.
From Chandler Jones to Dont'a Hightower to Shane Vereen, it's hard to find an important recent Patriots draft acquisition whose career did not begin with a Bill Belichick quest for market efficiency. When Jones strip-sacked Kyle Orton or Vince Wilfork made one of his six tackles up the middle in a 37-22 victory over the Bills on Sunday, the Patriots reaped the benefits of long-ago trades that involved the long-forgotten likes of Kyle Boller. The last-minute Logan Mankins trade set the tone for the Patriots' weak September, but not every trade works out perfectly, and a quick look at the Buccaneers' record suggests that Mankins has not exactly morphed into John Hannah.
Where would the Cowboys be without trade acquisition Rolando McClain? The Eagles without Darren Sproles? Free agency and the draft are the main tools for building a franchise, but trades make a major mark. And the Herschel Walker trade is the trade by which all other trades are judged.
A brief history lesson: As everyone knows, the Walker deal was the biggest trade in NFL history and one of the five or six biggest trades in sports history. It jump-started an era of greatness for the Cowboys, who selected Emmitt Smith, Alvin Harper, Darren Woodson and others with the picks the Vikings provided. The Walker deal was also the fulcrum for many massive NFL trends, some of which are still shaping the league:
The deterioration of the NCAA's credibility
Walker reached the Cowboys in the first place because he played in the USFL, which did not honor the NCAA and NFL's old four-year eligibility rule, instead plucking Walker before his senior season. It's fitting that a Heisman-hopeful Georgia running back is now in the news for running afoul of the NCAA's Autograph Stasi.
Walker proved that many NCAA regulations were self-serving, outdated nonsense 30 years ago. Todd Gurley may represent the next stage in our abandonment of the NCAA as a policy setter.
The death of the USFL
The Walker trade came at the end of the last period in human history when the NFL appeared vulnerable to forces from without. We are in the midst of a new era of NFL vulnerability now, this time from within.
The NFL only became an all-powerful entity answerable to no one after it destroyed its last rival for our hearts and football dollars. The institutional arrogance that came to a head last month started going super-critical when Walker and every other USFL superstar became NFL property in a $3 sheriff's sale.
The end of the pre-free-agent era
The Vikings believed they were "one player away" when they traded for Walker. They could not simply wait for free agency to sign that one player, because free agency would not arrive in the NFL for several years. Free agency has not eliminated blockbuster trades, but it has given franchises a different (and often less risky) avenue toward acquiring premium talent.
The rise of the draft
First-round draft choices were not as important through much of NFL history as they are now: there was nothing unusual about a team like the Redskins trading their first-round pick every year for over a decade in the name of acquiring "proven talent," for example. After the USFL inflated the salaries of top draft picks, some franchises approached the top of the draft with even greater skepticism. The Cowboys' draft success in the late 1980s and early 1990s was one of many factors that got both next-gen personnel experts and casual fans to look at the draft in a different light.
The decline of the classic running back era
Before the Walker trade, there was nothing unusual about thinking that a team with a superstar running back and custodian quarterback could reach the Super Bowl. That run-heavy style of play had been dying for a decade, but the perception that a 25-carry power back could be the focal point of a championship squad had been kept alive by Walter Payton, John Riggins and Marcus Allen.
You can draw a direct line from Walker's failure in Minnesota to our current era of committee running backs and the "gotta have an ELITE™ quarterback" mentality.
So Walker is still very much among us in spirit (and of course, he would be the first to tell you that he could still play). But recent trades had a much greater impact on Sunday's action, as the Patriots example earlier revealed. So, in honor of Walker, let's examine Week 6 through the prism of blockbuster trades:
Percy Harvin trade
Harvin had a miserable day against the Cowboys: three receptions for zero yards and three carries for a loss of one. He had a tiny role in the Seahawks' Super Bowl run last season and is now averaging just six yards per catch (not counting his many penalty-nullified touchdowns). He's a tremendous talent, and the Seahawks will continue to rely on him as they try to straighten out a fresh set of offensive line issues. But he is also an injury-prone situational threat, the kind of luxury item a contender can afford but a struggling team cannot get much use from.
That's why the Vikings should be pleased with cornerback Xavier Rhodes and all-purpose back Jerick McKinnon, their haul from the Harvin trade. Rhodes is a developing starter at cornerback; McKinnon gained 82 all-purpose yards in a 17-3 loss to the Lions. The Vikings have players like Jarius Wright and Cordarrelle Patterson who can play roles similar to Harvin's screen-and-reverse game.
They needed more building blocks. The Harvin trade provided a pair of them.
Jay Cutler trade
The 2009 Cutler trade is one of the closest parallels in recent history to the Herschel Walker trade. The Broncos turned the draft choices they received in exchange for Cutler into Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and Robert Ayers (a mind-blowing assortment of Mike Wallace, Aaron Hernandez and Dez Bryant types were involved in the many aftershock draft-sliding deals). So the Broncos received two starting receivers for a Super Bowl team and one of the best offenses in history in exchange for a good-not-great player with noticeable holes in his game.
Ah, but the Broncos did not win that Super Bowl. And both Decker (Jets) and Ayers (Giants) are gone, so there will be no powerhouse directly fueled by the Cutler trade. Cutler himself continues to play well for pretty good teams: He gave a gutsy performance in a 27-13 win over the Falcons on Sunday, overcoming some nasty hits to deliver the turnover-free version of his typical afternoon at the office. But Walker wasn't that bad after the trade either, with positive contributions to playoff-caliber Vikings and Eagles teams.
Thomas scorched the Jets for 10 receptions, 124 yards and a touchdown, and of course the Broncos are not lamenting the loss of Cutler. If Josh McDaniels were Jimmy Johnson, the Broncos might have done more with the fruits of the Cutler deal, but McDaniels ran the team like a hyperactive squirrel in a field of oak trees (one who could hold grudges against the most talented acorns). He made another trade that helped to build the current Bears...
Brandon Marshall trades
The combined trading forces of McDaniels and Jeff Ireland were too powerful for mere mortals to comprehend. The Marshall trade opened a rift in space-time that led directly to Tebowmania. McDaniels bundled one of the second-rounders he received for Marshall with other goodies to trade up with the Ravens and grab Tebow.
Ozzie Newsome, affected by the Cthulhu-like insanity emanating from McDaniels and Ireland, drafted two tight ends and Sergio Kindle, a player with narcolepsy who kept tragically injuring himself while sleepwalking. (Uncle Si Robertson also spontaneously generated as a result of this trade, though I cannot prove it.)
Those Ravens tight ends were Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson, so the Broncos and Dolphins helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl. But once McDaniels was gone, the Broncos used an extra Marshall pick to grab Orlando Franklin, one more piece of their current puzzle.
The Dolphins later traded Marshall to the Bears for picks that became Will Davis, Michael Egnew and B.J. Cunningham—only Davis is still with the team, as a reserve cornerback. The current Dolphins are defined by an era when they could insert themselves smack in the middle of a series of productive, mind-boggling trades, yet come away with exactly squat. If you watched the end of the Packers game, you are nodding right now.
The amazing thing about the current 3-2 Browns is how little they got in exchange for two massive draft-choice windfalls. The Falcons traded a rasher of picks in the 2011 draft to select Jones; like the 1989 Vikings, they were in "one player away" mode. The Browns traded up for now-injured Phil Taylor but lost a chance to select Justin Houston with the pick they gave away. They then whiffed by selecting Greg Little and Brandon Weeden. An extra pick from the Jones deal was handed to the Vikings in 2012. The Vikings got Matt Kalil and Jarius Wright; the Browns picked up Trent Richardson.
Richardson, of course, was then shipped to the Colts for a first-round pick that became Johnny Manziel after some dickering. The Browns got a good-but-injury-prone defensive tackle and little else, while the Falcons got a player who did indeed help two playoff runs (Jones was a non-factor on Sunday), the Vikings acquired some useful players, the Chiefs with Houston stumbled into a star as an afterthought, and the Colts got a beanstalk that they are sure will sprout any day now. How very Browns.
The Browns are winning thanks to a mix of big-money and small-money free agents, sprinkled with castoffs and a handful of wise draft selections like Joe Thomas and Joe Haden. It's a testimony to years of mismanagement that the Browns are at their best when they aren't relying on stacks of trade-acquired draft picks. Imagine how good they could be if their hit rate on extra picks was not so pathetic.
The RG3 trade
We wrap with what has become the cataclysmic cautionary trade of this generation. The Redskins are not only without Robert Griffin, but they are also completely understaffed. The Rams turned the Griffin picks into Janoris Jenkins, Alec Ogletree, Michael Brockers and Greg Robinson, plus loose change and the opportunity to slide all over the last three drafts.
The Rams, who play on Monday night, are not setting the world aflame, but the Redskins would love to have some of the talent they gave away in their quest for Griffin. It's also not too late for all of that young Rams talent to blossom. Walker was traded in October of 1989, but the Cowboys did not reach the Super Bowl until the 1992 season. Maybe the Rams will be thanking the Redskins for a Super Bowl in 2015.
Stranger things have happened, and blockbuster trades have a habit of shaping history in unpredictable ways.
Not everybody earns one, but everybody gets one!
Minimalist Stat Line Trophy
(Awarded to the player who did the least damage with the most touches.)
Chris Ivory, Chris Johnson and Bilal Powell combined for 20 yards on 13 carries in a week when the Jets were very much in the game and could have used a boost from the running game.
So...did their alarm clocks malfunction? Were the team itineraries printed in Greenwich Mean Time? Did they play NBA 2K15 with Michael Vick during practices? WE DEMAND A RIDICULOUS, JETS-STYLE EXPLANATION.
Fantasy Leech Trophy
(Awarded to the fullback, tight end, fourth receiver or moonlighting linebacker who scored so your first-round pick couldn't.)
The Ghost of Deion Branch floated down from Patriots Heaven wearing his No. 84 jersey, caught a 43-yard touchdown to remind us of the days when Tom Brady threw three or four long touchdowns per game and then floated back to Patriots Heaven to eat chicken wings with Joe Andruzzi. Onlookers claim that the ghost was, in fact, reserve receiver Brian Tyms, but I know what I saw.
Kenny Rogers Trophy
(Awarded to the coach who knows when to hold 'em, or when to fold 'em.)
Riverboat Ron Rivera loves to go for it on fourth down, and Mike Shula has become a cagey fourth-down play-caller. Facing 4th-and-2 midway through the fourth quarter of a tie game, Shula dialed up a play-action pass for Cam Newton, who rifled the ball through a forest of defender's hands for a 13-yard completion to Kelvin Benjamin. The Panthers scored the go-ahead touchdown, but their special teams allowed a 97-yard return on the next kickoff. Maybe Newton needs to also become a kick gunner.
Bonus points go to Charlie Whitehurst. Ken Whisenhunt opted to go for it on the 3-yard line with the Jaguars leading 13-7, but Whitehurst did not like what he saw and called a timeout. "What he saw" may have been the guys surrounding him in the huddle, or his own reflection, but never mind: The Titans kicked a field goal that became the margin of victory in a 16-14 win. The daring move is often the correct move on fourth down near the goal line, but when your name is Charlie Whitehurst, self-knowledge trumps probability.
Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown Trophy
(For the most unnecessary, yet fantasy-relevant, touchdown of the week.)
Don't worry, fantasy gamers: Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers may be terrible, but Big Ben has your back. He hit Lance Moore with 2:36 to play in the fourth quarter to pull the Steelers within 21 against the Browns.
Yes, Roethlisberger knows you would have preferred Antonio Brown. He prefers Antonio Brown, too. When you are trying to minimize your embarrassment against the Browns, you take what you can get.
Mysterious Touch Trophy
(Awarded to the defender, lineman or specialist who got the most unlikely carry or catch of the week.)
Eric Weddle failed to complete a pass on a fake punt when the Chargers faced 4th-and-35 on the Raiders' 46-yard line. That's a shame, because safeties have a long history of completing 36-yard passes.
Burn This Play Trophy
(Awarded to the most over-engineered play of the week.)
The Dolphins decided to unveil some wacky Stagger Lee-meets-the-A11 formation late in the third quarter against the Packers. Only three down linemen protected Ryan Tannehill, while a trio of receivers and blockers lined up on either side of the formation in a trips-right, trips-left, trips-middle wrinkle. It looked something like the diagram on the left.
Unfortunately, that's an illegal formation. And even if it were legal, Tannehill barely survived with five offensive linemen last season. There is no good reason to ask him to make do with three.
Ref, er…Madness of the Week
(Because the officials had to be smoking something.)
Eric Decker caught a deep sideline pass from Geno Smith to get the Jets into field-goal range just before halftime. Replays clearly showed the little field pellets flying into the air as Decker dragged his second foot. But the referees called it an incomplete pass, even after the review. Those pellets can be incredibly helpful, though they are hard to see. Maybe they should be painted bright pink. If Mythbusters has taught us anything, it's that pink objects show up clearly on high-speed cameras.
The Broncos-Jets crew made up for it when Broncos linebacker Lamin Barrow was flagged for unnecessary roughness late in the third quarter. "He threw a punch, and he got himself ejected," crew chief Brad Allen announced.
Thanks, Waylon Jennings—now, will those Duke boys be able to jump the old creek with the bridge out?
One last look (and listen) to Sunday's enduring images.
Jeremy Hill Does the Ickey Shuffle
It's an adorable dance. It's also a self-perpetuating cycle of disappointment for Bengals rookie running backs. Ickey Woods rushed for 1,066 yards in his rookie season and 459 yards the rest of his career. Resist the shuffle, Jeremy: Those GEICO commercials do not pay nearly as well as you think.
The Beautiful Charlie Whitehurst
If you watched the Jaguars-Titans game, which you probably did not, you saw CBS flash an image of Charlie Whitehurst that appeared in Nashville Lifestyles magazine's "25 Most Beautiful People" issue. (Warning: YOU CANNOT UNSEE THIS PICTURE.) It depicts a fedora-clad Whitehurst doing his best Glenn Frey circa-"Desperado"-saying-meet-me-backstage impersonation. He looks like the creepiest guy at the 1977 Conversion Van Expo.
This is Nashville, folks, not Oakland—that magazine should be teeming with winsome country music starlets and strapping guitar-twanging troubadours. Instead, we get Clipboard Jesus in a shirt Jim Croce's estate tried to give to Goodwill. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and since no one really watches the Titans play or reads magazines anymore, Whitehurst can market his grungy charms to a very select audience.
The Fake Spike
The fact that you can remember most of the fake spikes of the past 30 years (Dan Marino, Randall Cunningham) shows just how special Aaron Rodgers' play against the Dolphins was. Though, really, the final seven plays of that Packers drive were the stuff of legends.
The New Regime
Terry Pegula and his family earned a rousing applause from Bills fans before the loss to the Patriots. But as Cindy Bowen reports in The Washington Post, one member of the new Bills ownership family was not present: Family dog Sidney freaked out because of the noise and had to be whisked to the tunnel.
Actually, Sidney (who appears to be a border collie) was just channeling his inner Lassie.
TERRY PEGULA: What's that, boy? You say that little Timmy is stuck down a well?
TERRY PEGULA: EJ Manuel is stuck down a well?
TERRY PEGULA: By purchasing this terrible franchise in a dying market, I am throwing my own money down a well?
SIDNEY: Woof! Woof! Woof!
The Silence of the 12th Man
It's not a sound that Seahawks fans like, but it is music to the ears of 31 other NFL teams that just learned that the champions can be beaten at home.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.