Mike Tanier's Monday Morning Hangover: Attack of the Zombie Quarterbacks

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 22, 2014

AP Images/Charles Rex Arbogast

The NFL is a copycat league. So when cable zombie programs started beating the NFL in the television ratings, it was only natural for coaches to begin turning to zombie quarterbacks for a competitive edge. It's like the Wildcat fad from six years ago, only with shambling, rotted, undead corpses instead of Dolphins running backs.

News that The Walking Dead had defeated Sunday Night Football in the autumn Nielsen ratings swept through the football world last week like a contagion that causes law-abiding citizens to suddenly start feasting on their neighbors' flesh—or, in the case of Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch, led him to discuss the phenomenon with AMC and NBC personnel.

Yes, The Walking Dead only beat SNF five weeks out of eight, and even then needed a surgical killshot-to-the-head strategy of airing its zombie adventures in October and November—after the hoopla of football's return, before the playoffs heat up—to score its narrow victories. (Baseball does roughly the same thing with the World Series.)

Also, when special TiVo/Netflix-friendly "Live +7 Days" metrics are used to track viewers who might watch prerecorded zombies later in the week, the modified ratings favor the zombies (only weirdos like me record and watch football games).

BERLIN, GERMANY - MAY 18:  A zombie clown prepares to catch the runners as he takes part in the 'Zombie Run' on May 18, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. The race sees participants attempt to complete a 5 kilometre cross-country run,  overcoming a series of obstac
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Still: Stumbling, mindless hordes of undead are hot, and the NFL is loath to admit that any sector of the American public might prefer well-written, tense drama to, say, the Eagles shutting out the Giants or yet another Sunday night Tom Brady deification. So why not turn the end of the NFL season into a giant zombie standoff between Ryan Lindley-caliber backup quarterbacks and the proud defenders determined to do anything to stop them?

Led by the likes of Lindley, Case Keenum and Jimmy Clausen, Week 16 featured slowly advancing offensive onslaughts that could only attack in the most primitive ways. Stopping them seemed easy at first, but all it takes is one mistake for the zombies to start devouring your society from within. As the Eagles learned Saturday night: If the zombie bites you, you become a zombie too.

Zombie quarterbacks caused big trouble for some contenders and threw real scares into others. Here's a look at how the zombies overwhelmed some heroes, while others escaped through a mixture of skill, good fortune and, of course, braaaainnnnns.

Ryan Lindley, Cardinals

Conventional strategies don't work against zombies, because zombies are not strategic. Zombies don't care if you just killed 50 of their friends. They don't think about themselves or the situation. They just keep coming. Everything the zombie does is a mistake, but you cannot afford to make a single error against them. That's as appropriate a metaphor for facing the 2014 Cardinals as you could hope for.

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 21:  Head coach Bruce Arians of the Arizona Cardinals talks with quarterback Ryan Lindley #14 in the first half of the NFL game against the Seattle Seahawks at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 21, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona
Norm Hall/Getty Images

Bruce Arians opted for the direct approach with third-stringer Lindley under center. Instead of curling up into the offensive fetal position or unveiling some kitchen-sink trick plays, Arians made Lindley attempt a surprising number of deep passes along the sidelines.

Lindley had no hope of dissecting the Seahawks defense, but there was hope that a few well-placed bombs might cause enough damage to give the Cardinals defense a chance. Most of the attempts were slightly off-target, but Seattle could take nothing for granted.

The Seahawks tried to go about business as usual, which for them meant driving to about the opponent's 30-yard line, then doing something dumb. Steven Hauschka missed three midrange field goals after the usual Russell Wilson scramble-and-throwaway plays from that part of the field, and Seattle clung to a 14-6 lead after Lindley finally connected on a bomb to Michael Floyd to set up a field goal.

Pete Carroll refused to switch to anti-zombie tactics: The Seahawks should have been pinning the Cardinals deep in their own territory, the equivalent of digging a deep zombie trench, instead of gift-wrapping good field position. Arizona was one mistake from madness.

With his coach confused by the relentlessly awful but awfully relentless opponent, Wilson resorted to one-man heroics, dropping several deep passes directly onto tight end Luke Willson's fingers to give the Seahawks the 21-6 separation they needed. Lindley's only hope was keeping the game within one big play, and interception-and-Marshawn Lynch mayhem ensued once Seattle seized the upper hand. The 35-6 final score does not reflect how tense this game was for roughly three quarters.

The Cardinals have not scored a touchdown in nine quarters. It's hard to determine how they will survive in the playoffs. But they are going to keep coming and coming; a first-round opponent like the Lions or NFC Southlandia winner cannot afford to let its guard down.

Jimmy Clausen, Bears

Dec 21, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears quarterback Jimmy Clausen (8) scrambles out of the pocket during the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Zombie stories are really about how surviving communities persevere and remain united (or fall apart) in the face of a mounting catastrophe. The real enemy is within; the zombies just bring those inner demons to the fore. Since no NFL team is less likely to persevere in December than the Lions—who could descend into anarchy and resort to cannibalism in about 90 minutes if faced with a minor flu outbreak—it was no surprise that Clausen's undead Bears almost spooked them into defeating themselves.

Clausen was 23-of-39 for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the Bears' 20-14 loss to the Lions, who entered the game with a clinched playoff berth and can now win the NFC North by beating the Packers next week. The numbers aren't bad, but Clausen's two touchdown passes—a soft toss to Matt Forte leaking from the backfield and a 20-yard jump ball to Alshon Jeffery—were his only two noteworthy accomplishments of the afternoon. (It did not help that Jeffery and Marquess Wilson each dropped several passes.)

Clausen just fed the ball to Forte and noodled around while Matthew Stafford threw interceptions in the red zone, punt returner Jeremy Ross muffed an attempt to set up a Bears touchdown, a roughing-the-punter penalty set up another Chicago scoring opportunity, Matt Prater had a field goal blocked and Detroit generally worked harder to help the Bears win than Chicago has worked all season to help itself win.

Only the Lions' sudden rediscovery of Joique Bell early in the fourth quarter—oh look, we have a power runner on our roster, and our opponent cannot tackle!—prevented them from entering the playoffs in an infected state. Remember: Every zombie-readiness shelter should be equipped with fresh water, blunt weapons and, if at all possible, decent special teams.

Geno Smith, Jets

Smith did not do much to hurt the Patriots, but the Jets still managed to throw a scare into their hated rivals, losing 17-16.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 21:  Tight end Jeff Cumberland #85 of the New York Jets celebrates a touchdown in the second quarter against the New England Patriots during a game at MetLife Stadium on December 21, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Ph
Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Smith threw one nifty touchdown pass to a wide-open Jeff Cumberland, who celebrated with an intricate but silly sword-fighting routine. It was only Cumberland's second touchdown of the year, and you get the impression that Jets receivers have a lot of touchdown celebrations bottled up inside them, dying for release.

If Cumberland erupted into an entire scene from The Pirates of Penzance, no one would have blinked. For most of the afternoon, however, Smith mixed non-nourishing short passes with predicable options, and no one channeled his inner Inigo Montoya.

The Jets kept the game close because the Patriots often looked surprised at how much pass pressure they were facing. Most of us assumed that Rex Ryan, battling New England one last time, would chase Tom Brady around the field with a forklift if it was legal, right? The Patriots decided not to establish the run, making it easy for New York to tee off and generate four Brady sacks and lots of sloppy, pressured throws.

Luckily, the Jets know more ways to lose than even the Patriots know to win, and Nick Folk's potential game-winner fell short after Smith could not move the ball when gifted with a Brady interception.

Case Keenum, Texans

I did not watch the Texans' 25-13 win over Baltimore. It was my Christmas present to myself: a Sunday without an ugly Ravens game. And boy, did I pick a doozy to miss. Texans-Ravens featured 33 offensive possessions, 51 incomplete passes, four interceptions and two teams combining to average 2.888888888 yards per carry (the extra eights dramatize the futility).

Patric Schneider/Associated Press

Technically, Keenum out-dueled Joe Flacco, who is not a zombie but moves very slowly and rarely speaks, so there is some resemblance. But Keenum threw for just 185 yards as the Houston defense turned Flacco interceptions and Baltimore three-and-outs into six Randy Bullock field goals, while Arian Foster threw the Texans' lone touchdown on a halfback option.

There are not even many 2014 photos of Keenum in the databases Bleacher Report uses. J.J. Watt got a cut on his head, you see, so all of the photographers took pictures of it until they ran out of film. The Texans and Ravens both remain alive in the wild-card race, but you know how it is with the infected in a zombie movie: Things could go south in a hurry at any time.

Shaun Hill, Rams

ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 21: Jason Pierre-Paul #90 of the New York Giants looks to sack Shaun Hill #14 of the St. Louis Rams during the third quarter at the Edward Jones Dome on December 21, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Im
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

It's easy to forget that the Rams have endured a whole season of zombie quarterbacking. Hill and youngster Austin Davis handled themselves well all year; St. Louis never had a game in which terrible quarterback play was the primary culprit in a loss, though last week's 12-6 Cardinals game came close.

Sunday's 37-27 loss to the Giants was no exception. Hill was down by 10 points before he ever took the field, thanks to a fumbled kickoff. A tipped pass to Tavon Austin turned into an interception. Hill had two interceptions nullified by penalties, but he also threw two touchdowns and engineered a 90-yard touchdown drive. The Rams were beaten by their opponent, not their own quarterback.

The Giants have now beaten the Titans, Redskins and Rams during their three-game winning streak. A win over the eliminated Eagles next week will lift them to 7-9 and make the team's decision about Tom Coughlin difficult.

Coughlin has done a great job rallying the Giants, who suddenly have many more 2015 building blocks than they appeared to have about eight weeks ago. That said, too much can be made about killing zombie teams at the end of the year. The Giants might not have had the same success with opponents who still had their whole hearts and minds in the game.

Robert Griffin III, Redskins

Mark Tenally/Associated Press

There's nothing like going to your bench and finding one of the most talented prospects of the last decade loitering by the Gatorade table and waiting for a second (fifth, seventh, whatever) chance.

Griffin mixed a pair of DeSean Jackson bombs with less-than-terrible decision-making on Saturday, but there is a danger of mythologizing his performance in the Redskins' 27-24 win. Washington would have lost if Eagles kicker Cody Parkey didn't miss two makeable attempts. If Jay Gruden really had his druthers, Griffin would still have been in the thinking chair while Colt McCoy stumbled around with an achy neck.

There now appears to be hope of peaceful Griffin-Gruden coexistence, but there is a ton of work to be done to ensure that we are not right back in the same place in 10 months.

Mark Sanchez, Eagles

It usually takes four to six games for opponents to get a book on a new starting quarterback, and the Eagles' three-game losing streak began when Sanchez made his fifth start. What's unique about Sanchez is that he managed to commit two turnovers per game whether Philadelphia won or lost.

Sanchez played well enough to win in the Redskins loss. Missed field goals, Bradley Fletcher toastings by Jackson, red-zone settling and other errors made the loss a true team effort. Now eliminated from the playoffs, the Eagles have multiple items on their offseason agenda. Finding a true competitor/insurance policy for Nick Foles is just one of them.

Some might chalk up the Eagles' late-season fade to opponents "figuring out" Chip Kelly's hurry-up offense, players on the Cary Williams conditioning regimen losing their legs late in the year, or some other hypothesis. Before subscribing to these theories, ask yourself this question: If a team forced to start Mark Sanchez for half a season faded late in the year while using a conventional offense, would you blame the problem on conventional offenses?

Charlie Whitehurst, Titans

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 18: Charlie Whitehurst #12; Zach Mettenberger #7 and Jordan Palmer #5 of the Tennessee Titans look on during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on December 18, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Whitehurst is not a zombie. He's a roadie. There's a big difference.

Josh McCown, Buccaneers

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 21: Inside linebacker Brad Jones #59 of the Green Bay Packers puts pressure on quarterback Josh McCown #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the fourth quarter at Raymond James Stadium on December 21, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cl
Cliff McBride/Getty Images

Persistence is the zombie's ultimate weapon: It keeps coming, no matter what, even if you set it on fire or tear off a pair of limbs.

Give McCown credit for still starting for an NFL team at age 35, six full years after even the Raiders forgot about him. Give him credit for convincing Lovie Smith that he still belongs in the huddle even after weeks of proving that 17 offensive points is his absolute limit.

Give him credit for getting up from seven sacks in Sunday's 20-3 loss to the Packers and still having enough McCown Magic to throw a loopy interception into the arms of Datone Jones while getting sacked at the end of the game.

And please, give him a clipboard and an opportunity to mentor Marcus Mariota next year. We've seen enough of this particular zombie.

Playoff Atmosphere: 78 Percent Nitrogen, 21 Percent Oxygen, Trace Awesomeness

Several de facto playoff games took place Sunday that did not involve any backup quarterbacks, at least at kickoff. Here's a not-so-serious romp through Week 16's most mutually important contests.

Cowboys 42, Colts 7

Brandon Wade/Associated Press

The Colts won the toss and elected to kick off. It was all downhill from there.

The Cowboys marched down the field and scored, the only Indianapolis stop of the drive negated by a taunting penalty. The Colts attempted a fake punt from their own 19-yard line. Dallas scored again. Colts three-and-out, Cowboys touchdown. Repeat.

Andrew Luck, continuing a wicked turnover jag that has turned the last month into a series of panic attacks for Colts fans, ended the first half with one interception and started the second half with another. Dan Bailey missed a field goal for the Cowboys, and it was the Colts' defensive highlight of the game.

Matt Hasselbeck entered the game and played like a quarterback you thought retired in 2011. DeMarco Murray left the game, but not before taking 22 handoffs with a hand injury, because that was totally necessary when the Cowboys held at least a four-touchdown lead for the entire second half.

Dallas seized the NFC East crown for the first time in five years and looked like a team peaking at precisely the right time. Indianapolis played one of its signature dig-a-hole-real-deep games against a top competitor but did not bother trying to climb out this time. Those seeking surprises in the AFC playoffs should look elsewhere.

Falcons 30, Saints 14

Saints rookie Jalen Saunders returned the opening kickoff 99 yards to set up a Mark Ingram touchdown. The team took the rest of the afternoon off. 

Drew Brees threw an interception on 4th-and-7. A fracas broke out after the play, and Kenny Stills punched Falcons defender Kroy Biermann. Anyone who ever watched The Real Housewives of Atlanta has felt the same urge. Brees later took a sack on 3rd-and-5 and essentially pitched the football straight backward to set up 4th-and-23. The Falcons did their part on offense by stacking penalties together to create 2nd-and-30 situations. 

Eventually, Saints bad tackling began to overwhelm Falcons bad tackling, and Atlanta built a 20-7 lead as New Orleans defenders tripped one another while lunging to stop screen passes. But the Falcons were eager to make the NFC Southlandia race as fascinatingly tragic as possible. Three defensive backs suffered injuries in a span of four plays: William Moore, Josh Wilson and Dwight Lowery. (Lowery later returned; the severity of the other injuries was unknown at press time.)

Keep in mind that the Falcons secondary already consisted of Desmond Trufant, Moore and a bunch of guys who got promoted from the Home Depot lawn and garden department. Surely Brees, Jimmy Graham and the other veteran playmakers could exploit the Kemal Ishmael and Dezmen Southward types pressed into duty by the injuries!

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 21:  Jimmy Graham #80 of the New Orleans Saints looks to the scoreboard late in the fourth quarter of a game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 21, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by C
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Nope. Ishmael stripped Graham as he tried to cross the goal line, setting back the NFL's tight end salary structure for the next 10 years. Graham later beat Southward for a touchdown, but Brees threw an ugly interception deep in his own territory and Biermann got some punch revenge when he stripped Brees to set up a meaningless Osi Umenyiora fumble-return touchdown (with a ticked-off-looking Stills the only player really giving chase) to ice the game.

The Saints are eliminated from the playoffs. They went 3-5 at home this year and are just 2-3 in the worst division in NFL history, with a Buccaneers game left to play. I had New Orleans challenging the Seahawks and 49ers for a Super Bowl appearance this year. The Saints probably had a similar goal. Boy, were we wrong.

Steelers 20, Chiefs 12

Ben Roethlisberger threw a beautiful 44-yard strike to Martavis Bryant on the third play of the game, then the Steelers forgot about Bryant for the rest of the afternoon. The Chiefs countered with their horizontal offense: Every play ran parallel to the yard lines, and receivers sometimes lined up inches from the sidelines in an effort to stretch the Steelers defense like chewing gum.

To throw five yards downfield, Alex Smith sometimes threw the ball about 35 yards in the air. Sometimes, but not often, Kansas City allowed Jamaal Charles, its lone offensive superstar, to touch the ball (he had nine carries and five receptions).

Tom Puskar/Associated Press

The horizontal tactics often worked, but the Chiefs could not find the end zone. Travis Kelce took a handoff on a fake field goal tight end around, but he only picked up a first down, not a touchdown. Dwayne Bowe dropped what would have been the first touchdown of the season by a Chiefs wide receiver. Charles got stuffed on 4th-and-1 before halftime—more on that later.

The Steelers answered with some dropped touchdowns of their own, but Antonio Brown is only going to drop so many of them. Unlike Chiefs receivers, he gets more than one opportunity per game to catch one. Kansas City kicked a late field goal to cut the Pittsburgh lead to eight—more on that later, too—but Cairo Santos' onside kick attempt landed in Will Johnson's belly as if it had always belonged there.

The Steelers clinched a playoff berth with the win. This synopsis does not come close to expressing just how many booth reviews took place in this game. I heard Mike Carey's voice almost as much as I heard my wife's. Both provided equal insight into officiating decisions.

Panthers 17, Browns 13

Two of the most dynamic young quarterbacks in the NFL squared off in a game that still had significant playoff stakes for the Panthers and symbolic importance for the Browns. Unfortunately, one of the quarterbacks had been in a major truck accident the Tuesday of Week 15, while the other had had a really bad week.

Cam Newton looked mobile and confident, though a little rusty early in the game. Johnny Manziel completed one sweet 28-yard pass to Andrew Hawkins, then went back to doing a lot of nothing before suffering a hamstring injury on a scramble. Newton bootlegged for a touchdown. Brian Hoyer entered the game and reminded everyone why we so eagerly anticipated Manziel (one of the reasons, anyway).

Newton scrambled for his life and threw a dopey interception. Hoyer found Jordan Cameron up the seam and delivered the first real Browns offensive highlight in three weeks. Newton woke up and engineered an efficient touchdown drive.

Hoyer threw an interception, but defender Josh Norman fumbled it. Hoyer then threw an eight-yard pass on 3rd-and-21, forcing the Browns to punt when trailing by four points at midfield with 3:24 to play. The once-resilient Cleveland defense allowed a 30-yard Jonathan Stewart run on 3rd-and-5, and Carolina ran out the clock.

The Panthers and Falcons face off next week in the most significant sporting event between two teams with 6-8-1 and 6-9 records ever. Set your DVRs now. Try not to think about the portion of your life you will waste wondering who will reign supreme in NFC Southlandia.

Participation Trophies

Not everybody earns one, but everybody gets one!

Kenny Rogers Trophy

(Awarded to the coach who does not know when to hold 'em or when to fold 'em.) 

Fourth-down conversion attempts are becoming so commonplace that it is hard to single out a particularly clever or effective one. On the flip side, arch-conservative decisions to punt on 4th-and-1 from midfield are becoming far less automatic.

When the Lions lined up for 4th-and-6 from the Bears' 34-yard line in the first quarter, it was not nearly as shocking as such a decision might have been 15 years ago. Stafford threw an ugly screen to Reggie Bush, but Bush scooped it from his ankles and weaved through traffic for 21 yards, setting up a touchdown run on the next play.

Similarly, when Aaron Rodgers threw an incomplete pass to Randall Cobb on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line while nursing a 10-3 lead early in the third quarter, there was not much gnashing of teeth about the decision (judging by my Twitter timeline, at least). The Packers got the ball back with good field position a few plays later: a typical fringe benefit of the failed goal-line conversion attempt.

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 21:  Jamaal Charles #25 of the Kansas City Chiefs is stopped on fourth down by Ryan Shazier #50 and James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second quarter at Heinz Field on December 21, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsy
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

So let's examine out a very specific situation when going for it on fourth down is a bad idea. The Chiefs faced 4th-and-1 from the 12-yard line with 27 seconds left before halftime and one timeout. Andy Reid called for Charles up the middle, but he was stuffed.

Now imagine if Charles picked up the first down without scoring. The Chiefs would have to burn that final timeout and would then try to score from around the 10-yard line with their running game essentially out of the equation.

The most likely outcome is the field goal that Kansas City passed up, and there are many ways the Chiefs could have come up empty: sack, turnover or simply inbounds tackle. If they had Odell Beckham or Calvin Johnson, the chance to throw a few fades might be worth it, but as everyone knows, the Chiefs lack a worthy end-zone target at wide receiver. They took a moderate risk that provided only a minimal chance at reward.

Reid made another strange decision involving field goals and timeouts later in the game. We will get to that soon.

Awesome Meaningless Game Trophy

(Awarded to a game that was as meaningless as it was awesome.)

Technically, the Dolphins' 37-35 last-second victory against the Vikings was not totally meaningless, at least at kickoff. They still held slim playoff hopes until the Steelers beat the Chiefs, a result that did not become final until late in the wild shootout in Miami.

The Dolphins probably did not know they were only playing for pride in the final minutes, and the news may not have mattered (they still coughed up a fourth-quarter lead, then needed a comeback to tie and win), but they sure did deliver some drama.

The Dolphins and Vikings combined for seven fourth-quarter scores, including the game-ending blocked-punt safety. There were three lead changes in the fourth quarter. Early in the game, safety Harrison Smith intercepted Ryan Tannehill on a blitz by leaping and gobbling the ball instead of just swatting it. The Dolphins got their own fluky interception when lineman Derrick Shelby hauled in a pass that bounced high in the air off Matt Asiata's hands.

Tannehill threw for 396 yards, which does not even seem possible, while Teddy Bridgewater continued to spread the ball to anyone wearing a purple jersey within 120 feet of him. Some Sunday next year, Bridgewater is going to complete 17 passes to 19 different receivers.

Also, this sequence of events happened late in the fourth, as copied directly from the official play-by-play (with some formatting beautification):

  • 1st-and-8 at the Miami 8-yard line (4:59) (shotgun) Teddy Bridgewater pass short right to Jarius Wright for eight yards, touchdown.
  • Penalty on Miami's Brent Grimes, defensive pass interference, declined.
  • The replay official challenged the pass completion ruling, and the play was upheld. The ruling on the field was confirmed.
  • (Pass formation) penalty on Miami's Olivier Vernon, encroachment, one yard, enforced at Miami's 2-yard line. No play.
  • (Run formation) two-point conversion attempt. Bridgewater rushes left tackle. Attempt fails.
  • Penalty on Miami's Cameron Wake, defensive offside, zero yards, enforced at Miami's 1-yard line. No play.
  • Timeout No. 1 by Miami at 4:46.
  • (Run formation) two-point conversion attempt. Matt Asiata rushes left tackle. Attempt succeeds.
  • Penalty on Miami's Vernon, personal foul, 15 yards, enforced between downs.

You know, your basic touchdown-penalty-review-penalty-failed-two-pointer-penalty-timeout-successful-two-pointer-penalty sequence to tie the game. It took about an hour. But it was fun in the way the last 30 seconds of a college basketball game are fun.

Fantasy Leech Trophy

(Awarded to the fullback, tight end, fourth receiver or moonlighting linebacker who scored so your fantasy first-round pick could not.)

Sunday's Giants-Rams game only served two real purposes: To make the season schedule work out evenly, and to generate Odell Beckham highlights. Beckham caught two touchdown passes and got in the middle of an epic rumble, but every touchdown by some lesser Giants player is a touchdown Beckham could have used to brighten our lives.

ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 21: Orleans Darkwa #43 of the New York Giants scores a second quarter touchdown against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on December 21, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Reserve running back Orleans Darkwa, who sounds like a witch doctor in a cheesy Anne Rice novel ripoff, had the audacity to score a 12-yard rushing touchdown, robbing us of the opportunity to see Beckham leap 30 feet in the air and catch a touchdown with his tongue. Shame on you for scoring your first career touchdown, Darkwa.

Salvador Dali Melting Clock Trophy

(Awarded for the strangest clock management of the week.)

Tom Puskar/Associated Press

Andy Reid is taking a lot of heat this week, but he has a long history of rupturing the time stream. Reid needed two second-half timeouts to stop the clock while the Steelers dawdled at the end of a field-goal drive that gave them an 11-point lead. So far, so good.

Alex Smith then led the Chiefs to the Steelers 5-yard line in the final minutes; Kansas City did not exactly blaze down the field, but they moved the ball without squandering the timeout. Reid called his final timeout on 4th-and-3 from the 5-yard line with 1:40 to play...so the Chiefs could get their field-goal unit on the field.

The field-goal unit should have been ready to rush onto the field at any point after the two-minute warning. It only takes about 20 seconds for a well-coached group to line up and kick, but Reid used his final precious timeout to make sure his special teams could execute a relatively routine play.

Imagine if the ensuing onside kick had worked. The timeout-less Chiefs would have been forced to score a touchdown (and two-point conversion) with 1:36 left. Keep in mind that this is a team whose receivers never score touchdowns. It would never have happened. At any rate, an easily handled onside kick made the whole matter moot.

Meaningless Fantasy Touchdown Trophy

(Awarded for the most unnecessary, yet fantasy-relevant, touchdown of the week.)

Tony Romo's third-quarter touchdown pass to Jason Witten was not really meaningless, even if it gave the Cowboys a 35-point lead. The Colts are known for their improbable comebacks, and no NFL team can safely take its foot off the gas until the fourth quarter these days.

ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 21:  D'Qwell Jackson #52 of the Indianapolis Colts rolls on the turf as Jason Witten #82 of the Dallas Cowboys scores a touchdown in the second half at AT&T Stadium on December 21, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Marti
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

But there was a sense that Romo was just making sure everyone got a piece of the action. Let's see, DeMarco scored, Dez scored, even Cole [Beasley] and Terrance [Williams] scored...oh my, how did I forget ol' Jason? Once every significant Cowboys fantasy player was on the board, it was safe for Brandon Weeden to step onto the field.

Necessary Adjustment Trophy

(Awarded to the coaching staff that figured things out.)

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Joique Bell carried the ball just twice in the first half as the Lions rushed seven times while attempting 21 passes. Bell carried 11 times for 71 yards in the second half as the coaching staff realized their opponent lacked the heart for serious run defense.

Burn This Play Trophy

(Awarded to the most over-engineered play of the week.)

The Colts handed off to Trent Richardson on 3rd-and-14 in the first quarter of the Cowboys loss. For most teams, the 3rd-and-14 draw play is a low-risk chance to get the ball into the hands of a nifty Darren Sproles-type player: There's a slim chance of a 14-yard run but a good chance for a 10-yard run to set up a long punt, plus there is little risk of turnover catastrophe.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 14:  Trent Richardson #34 of the Indianapolis Colts catches a pass while defended by D.J Swearinger #36 of the Houston Texans during the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 14, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Colts won 17-
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

For the Colts, the 3rd-and-14 draw play is the ideal low-leverage situation to give Richardson a carry so they can still pretend he has a real role in the offense. The next step after that is personal protector for the punter, while still being listed as the starting running back.

Richardson gained three yards. It was his only carry of the half. The Colts then attempted an ill-conceived fake punt deep in their own territory. Maybe it is a good thing that Richardson isn't the personal protector.

Last Call

One last look at the enduring images from the penultimate week of the 2014 season:

Giants' Fight Club

Tom Gannam/Associated Press

For two eliminated teams that rarely face each other in critical games, the Rams and Giants sure had some bad blood on Sunday.

Kicker Josh Brown stuck his nose in a post-kickoff scrum in the first quarter and got cantilevered into the pile, his feet lifting into the air. Cody Davis figured he could grab himself a handful of kicker foot, but he did not anticipate that Brown would just haul off and kick him in the face. Brown drew a roughness foul, but really, what would you do if someone started grabbing at your leg?

Brown-Davis was just the undercard for everybody vs. everybody.

Alec Ogletree delivered a late hit on Odell Beckham on the Giants sideline, giving Beckham a chance to prove that he is one of the world's most interesting football players and MMA fighters right now. Beckham did not get to show off his pugilism chops, however, as half the Giants roster came to his defense.

Receivers Preston Parker and Kevin Ogletree acted as Beckham's stunt doubles; Ogletree cleverly slipped into Beckham's place, figuring that both opponents and referees would get No. 15 and No. 13 mixed up or would just assume that there was no way one fight could involve two men named Ogletree.

ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 21: Odell Beckham Jr. #13 of the New York Giants runs up field after making a catch against the St. Louis Rams during the fourth quarter at the Edward Jones Dome on December 21, 2014 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwa
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Watch any clip of the brawl, and you will be hard-pressed to figure out when Beckham disappears and Kevin Ogletree appears in the thick of the action. Parker was one of three non-Beckhams ejected from the game. That's taking one for the team.

There is a lot of cool cinema verite footage of the scrum, because cameramen are never far from Beckham and several found themselves embedded in the battle. If Beckham falls out of a tree, three videographers are likely to break his fall. And I am likely to lead with the story.

Feeling a Lot of Tension

Devin Hester gave referee John Parry a back rub before the Falcons' first possession of the game. Referees were reprimanded for fist-bumping each other a few weeks ago, so it's anyone's guess how the NFL will respond to an act that straddles the borders of good-natured bonhomie, a flagrant attempt to get preferential treatment and an unwanted romantic advance.

Hester starts working his way down Parry's biceps at one point. We all know that the next move is the lower back, then the fireworks. THANK HEAVENS THE SAINTS DID NOT SCORE VERY OFTEN, OR THE KICKOFFS WOULD HAVE REALLY GOTTEN CREEPY.

A Kid with a Mike Tolbert Jersey Should Have Ended Up with the Football

After Newton bootlegged for a two-yard touchdown and celebrated like a man who was lying on the street surrounded by auto parts 12 days ago, he tried to hand the football to a child in the crowd wearing a Jonathan Stewart jersey.

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 21:  Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers and Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns exchange words after their game at Bank of America Stadium on December 21, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Gett
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Unfortunately, a second child wearing a Stewart jersey also tried to claim the ball, and the two wrestled so vigorously that a sideline cameraman stopped taking pictures and tried to intervene. Nothing says "Christmas spirit" like two kids fighting tooth-and-nail to acquire a souvenir. Santa's watching, Stewart I and Stewart II, though Cam isn't: He walked away and did not notice the incident.

Newton later criticized fans who cheered when Manziel got injured: "I was saddened to see the crowd's response to when he got hurt," Newton told reporters. "It was classless. Anytime when a person gets hurt you don't celebrate. I have had that done in my career and it just takes the integrity out of the game."

Newton should know that truly classless fans really do not care about his opinion.

Play 5029 in the Missouri Lottery

Justin Houston sacked Ben Roethlisberger, then began pulling up his jersey to reveal a T-shirt underneath. A political statement to spark another unproductive weeklong social networking debate?

(I may not agree with everything you say, but defend your right to say it, as well as my right to mute both you and the person you are arguing with so I can look at Christmas pictures of my nieces and nephews for five non-controversial minutes.)

A referee tried to shield Houston's torso from the television cameras, for fear of what the defender might have been revealing. Censorship is not usually part of a referee's job, but then again, neither is getting a back rub. Houston was not making a social statement, but a personal one. He wore a No. 29 T-shirt beneath his No. 50 jersey in honor of teammate Eric Berry, who is battling lymphoma.

Sociopolitical debate is important, of course, but so is a reminder both of the human race's biggest enemy and the love and fellowship that defines the holiday season. Keep fighting, Eric Berry, and everyone whose holiday cheer is tempered this year by serious illness.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.