Baltimore's relentless D puts dent in Jets' swagger, Mark Sanchez's back.
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Credit: Larry French/Getty Images

The NFL in 2011 is a quarterback’s paradise. In recent years, the league has tinkered with the rules to make passing easier, and the impact can be seen in the prolific QB performances of the first four weeks, where no lead is safe and a rookie (Carolina’s Cam Newton) is averaging nearly 350 yards passing per game. So what happened last night in Baltimore, where the Ravens ripped the New York Jets, 34-17, was as surprising as it was hideous, as two young quarterbacks — Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez — took turns looking like deer in the headlights.

Sadly for Dallas Cowboys fans, the two overwhelmed signal-callers weren’t alone on Sunday. Tony Romo cemented his reputation as the league’s most bipolar passer, throwing away a 24-point lead to the undefeated Detroit Lions with three second-half turnovers — two of which were returned for scores. The surprising Lions, who have ruined more Thanksgivings than your bigoted great-aunt, scored 17 straight fourth-quarter points to win, 34-30. “Thanksgiving, all of a sudden, is meaningful again — in terms of football,” said NBC’s Bob Costas, referring to the Lions traditional Turkey Day contest.

NEXT: Think pink

The Football Night in America crew’s tour of the afternoon games was painted in pink, as the NFL honored National Breast Cancer Awareness Month by allowing/encouraging/forcing its players to wear pink wristbands, cleats, towels, hats, etc. I’m all for the cause, but I still had fun deciding which touch of pink was the absolute worst. (I couldn’t choose between Chad Henne’s pink chin strap, or Andy Dalton’s sideline trucker cap, which incorporated pink with the Bengals’ orange and black.) Since NBC paid special attention to National Hispanic Heritage Month last week and Breast Cancer Awareness today, I assume they’ll also celebrate National Bullying Prevention Month next week. (Flacco and Sanchez probably wouldn’t protest.)

The rest of the pre-game show was notable for three things. (1) Peter King revealed that Stanford quarterback — and presumed No. 1 draft pick — Andrew Luck distanced himself from his rivals, in the eyes of one notable GM, with an acrobatic one-handed catch against UCLA last night. That’s right — Luck, the quarterback, made a razzle-dazzle reception. But the fact that that highlight would sway said talent-evaluator is perhaps evidence of why that GM’s team might be picking first next year in the first place. I mean, I believe in intangibles, but anyone who raises the stock of a top quarterback prospect based on a catch doesn’t deserve to draft him. (2) Dan Patrick, master of the in-highlight quip, downplayed the pop cultural references this time around. However, he did utter a phrase never before heard by human ears: “ …but here comes Alex Smith,” referring to the much-maligned 49ers quarterback who engineered a 20-point comeback against the heavily favored Eagles. (3) One of Costas’ sit-down interviews was with Ravens running back Ray Rice, who’s overcome a series of personal tragedies to become a star. While Costas listed the misfortunes Rice had endured (scroll to 5:28) — his father being shot, his cousin being killed by a drunk driver — I wasn’t sure if I was still watching Football Night in America, or if this was Roy Firestone interviewing Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire (“ …your brother loses a leg in a tragic bass-fishing accident… ”). When Rice later said he was in a contract year, just like Tidwell, I knew he was going to have a big night. Show him the money, Baltimore!

NEXT: Quoth the Raven, “The Jets are Nevermore.”

As soon as the game began, it was clear the fireworks were going to come from the defensive side of the ball. On the Jets’ first offensive play, Sanchez fumbled after being drilled in the back, and the Ravens scooped up the loose ball and returned it for a touchdown. Flacco was a little better, as he was able to remain (mostly) upright against the fierce Jets pass-rush, but he stumbled around the backfield like a wounded giraffe trying to stave off a pack of jackals. He managed a few nice throws, and after Rice scored from three yards out — “Show him the money!” — the Ravens were up 17-7.

Things only got worse, though, for Sanchez. His offensive line was in complete disarray, he fumbled two snaps from his backup center, and another bone-crushing sack/fumble resulted in a second defensive touchdown for Baltimore. In his defense, the refs may have bungled that call, as the fumble may have been a forward pass. Even the referee seemed confused, so mangling the official ruling after a video review — like he was Rick Perry at a debate podium — that Baltimore’s home crowd booed their own score. Nevermind that the Ravens player had illegally speared Sanchez in the back with his helmet — a detail analyst Cris Collinsworth eventually pointed out 24 replays after the initial hit. Whatever. It was Ravens, 27-7, and the Jets seemed finished.

But then a funny thing happened. Up 20, the Ravens decided to keep the Jets in the game by putting the ball in the air. (Clearly, the Ravens do not want to give Rice the quan.) Flacco found a wide-open Jets defender, who rumbled 35 yards for a New York touchdown. 27-14.

The second half was more of the same, as both quarterbacks were simply overmatched by fast, fierce, and merciless defenses. If it was a fight, they would have stopped it. Flacco didn’t complete one pass in the third quarter, while Sanchez threw a pick-6 that gave Baltimore’s defense its third touchdown of the game. Flacco finished 10-for-31; Sanchez was 11-for-35. Watching them drop back was like watching some excruciating gridiron version of Battleship. D-4? Miss. B-6? Miss. A-2? You just crushed my quarterback! “Whoever’s playing defense has the best chance of scoring in this crazy game,” said Collinsworth. And it was true. I was waiting for one of the offenses to punt on first down.

There’s nothing wrong with a game where the defenses dominate. But in this case, the two defenses so rattled the opponents — in particular, the demoralized quarterbacks — that the level of play suffered. Collinsworth and partner Al Michaels tried to keep the unbalanced game alive – admit it, you checked in on the baseball playoffs during the second half — but they flubbed the exchanges where they sprinkled golf anecdotes into the telecast. (Golf stories are the sports announcer equivalent of your coworkers talking about fantasy sports.) In their case, hearing Michael giggle about his golf game only made me picture him christening his new sloop, the Flying WASP.

The game ended with Rice’s score being the game’s only offensive touchdown. (Defense and special teams were responsible for the other five.) It was a tough, humbling loss for the Jets, who fall to 2-2 and play divisional rival New England next week. Some players, however, seemed to handle the setback with alarming ease. In the post-game, New York’s wide receiver Derrick Mason — a former Raven — interrupted Baltimore’s Ed Reed’s NBC interview to confirm their social plans for the evening. (Ruth’s Chris Steak House!) I hope he thinks to bring Sanchez back a doggy bag.

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