CINCINNATI -- The Dallas Cowboys' win was merely seconds old, with kicker Dan Bailey's final 40-yarder having just split the uprights. A trying, emotional 48 hours had culminated in a come-from-behind victory in a tight playoff race, yet it felt nothing like that.
Celebrations were either hidden or barely noticeable. Instead, tears were visible, streaming down the faces of players like fullback Lawrence Vickers and guard Nate Livings. One player pumped his fists; another bowed his head; another walked, stone-faced.
Less than two days before the 20-19 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium, the Cowboys lost practice squad player Jerry Brown, a victim to a horrific car accident at 2:21 a.m. Saturday in Irving, Texas. And well-liked nose tackle Josh Brent, nicknamed "Beast Mode," was the driver, landing in jail to face a charge of intoxication manslaughter, his life changed forever.
Minds were not on football on Sunday.
"A sad, sad day for everyone all-around," said running back DeMarco Murray, who gained 53 yards, including the 6-yarder around right end that secured the key first down with 24 seconds left and spurred Bailey's attempt. "We won, but it doesn't feel like that. It was hard in the locker room. Hearing coach (Jason) Garrett speak. Looking at guys' faces with tears coming down. It was hard to be focused mentally, but we pulled through."
When the Cowboys boarded the plane back to Texas on Sunday night, it was just the beginning of their grieving process. Nothing has healed; nothing is over. The emotions are too complex for that. Everything about the past two days is complex. Efforts to draw dramatic conclusions about handling adversity were minimized. What happened for three hours Sunday was football -- nothing compared to what was happening in life. Owner Jerry Jones viewed it as "a respite" for the team -- nothing more, nothing less. He was proud of the effort. They had gone to work amid tragedy and finished out the day.
The lines were drawn sharply by Garrett when he addressed the team. The players took a break from dealing with one of the most trying situations they've known to play a game and attempt to honor a friend who had passed. The performance, as impressive as it was, didn't bring back Brown or free Brent from the burden of an incident he said will haunt him forever.
It was this message from Garrett that struck the right chord:
"I talked about how football is very different than life," Garrett said after the win. "I made it clear that this is a life situation, and we lost a 25-year-old young man who had his whole life in front of him. He was a teammate and a friend. All we asked our team last night was to understand what happened and to somehow channel their emotions into honoring Jerry today. It was a hard thing to do. Football is a game of emotion, and somehow we had to process it all and do our job today. ... The win was nice. But to play and do their job was just as nice."
Within minutes of the game ending, Garrett was on the phone with Brown's mother, promising her the game ball. Jerry Jones had already spoken with her twice that day to set up Tuesday's memorial service. Tight end Jason Witten pondered the vision of Brown's mom watching the game and said, "If, for just a moment, we could put a smile on her face in the grieving process, that's what it's all about."
Yet the thoughts were so deep, so convoluted -- hurting for the loss of one teammate, hurting in a different way for another teammate whose life will never be the same. Vickers captured the emotion in a tearful moment at his locker, thanking Brown for watching over them, and also offering a prayer for Brent.
"Two of our fallen soldiers aren't here," Vickers said. "And this, this is a happy/sad moment."
Vickers cried before the game. He cried during the game. ("Can you imagine crying before every play?" he said.) He cried after the game. Asked how he focused on the game, he said he simply didn't know. "I played the game emotionally drained," he said. Asked what he learned about his own performance and that of the team, he said, "It's what I already knew: That I'm our brother's keeper. And I'm not the only person that felt this. This is a moment in time that I'll never forget."
Vickers simply appreciated getting time away from the pain.
"This is what I needed," Vickers said. "With that on my mind, to play the game is what I needed. I don't think me sitting in a room helps. I needed this to occupy my mind. At the same time, we were able to find some good in a bad situation."
Often, football is described using life metaphors. A play was "kept alive." A win was "heart-stopping." There were no metaphors on Sunday. Pressed to find meaning, Vickers said he couldn't put it into words.
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Quarterback Tony Romo, who completed 25 of 43 passes for 268 yards with a touchdown and an interception, tried to describe his celebratory thoughts. Instead, Romo said he kept thinking of Brown's life and of Brent's plight. He said that, while the public didn't see him much, Brown embodied what you'd want in a football player.
"That's what you think about," Romo said. "You consistently go back to that, even in the tough moments out there -- the adverse situations. At the same time, (thinking about) the positives and the win. You kind of sit back and think about him, and you think about Josh and the tough situation that he's obviously in now. It's a hard, hard situation. There's no playbook for this sort of thing in life."
There were some football developments. How the defense, playing at one point with fewer than half of its starters from opening day, stood tall by allowing just two field goals in the second half. How Dez Bryant shook off a sprained finger to catch a clutch, 27-yard touchdown pass with 6:35 left. How defensive coordinator Rob Ryan dialed up a quirky defense on third-and-4 with 4:40 remaining, getting a sack from Anthony Spencer that gave the Cowboys the ball back for the last time. But it all happened because the team showed up to work. Somehow.
"The core group of guys kept everyone focused, and that's what teams do," said Witten, who had 62 receiving yards. "People have questioned the leadership throughout the years, but people have stepped up. We handled it the right way, keeping perspective that that's real life."
What else is going on? Here is a rundown:
The selection of Kirk Cousins pays off
Let's not pretend I saw any of what happened Sunday coming. Who would've thought that Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III would sprain his knee, try like crazy to keep playing, leave the game late in the fourth quarter, then watch his backup (Cousins) save the day with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon followed by a game-tying two-point conversion on a QB draw? But that's what happened.
I did think -- and I still think -- the selection of Cousins in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft was one of the smartest things the 'Skins did. Maybe not as smart as engineering the RG3 trade, but nearly. Why? Because teams need good players. And if you're a team with good receivers, a good running game and solid tight ends, you need a quarterback. And because running quarterbacks like RG3 sometimes get hurt.
Did the Redskins have other, more pressing needs? Sure. None seem too pressing now, but they did then. The Redskins, however, stuck to their board. They saw a player whose value was better than his draft spot, and they grabbed him. Who cares that they had already selected a touted prospect like Griffin at the position? The move was similar to the New England Patriots drafting Aaron Hernandez after Rob Gronkowski in 2010, or the New York Giants drafting Jason Pierre-Paul in that same draft, despite their D-line strength. If you're a team that relies heavily on one spot, you need depth there. It paid off for the 'Skins on Sunday in a crucial overtime win against the Baltimore Ravens.
"For me to put Kirk in that situation as the second-team quarterback so early in his career kind of gives you an idea what I think of Kirk," coach Mike Shanahan told reporters after the game.
The Falcons of old?
A month ago, I spoke with Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez about the lack of respect his team was receiving. Back then, the Falcons were undefeated and high-flying, yet national buzz about them was nearly nonexistent.
Ever the savvy veteran, Gonzalez knew why.
"We haven't done anything," Gonzalez said in early November. "We get to the playoffs and we've lost. I understand why they're not making that big of a deal. But we go out there and keep doing what we're doing, eventually they will take notice."
The Falcons got noticed on Sunday, losing 30-20 to the raggedy Carolina Panthers and Cam Newton, whose team had entered the game full of trash talk and vigor and left with much more. Sure, it was just Atlanta's second loss, and sure, everyone loses. But it was another example of a team taking the fight to the Falcons, and the Falcons letting it happen. It sparked all the same concerns about the lack of physicality and toughness, the stuff that helps teams thrive in the playoffs.
Atlanta couldn't run the ball (35 yards), for instance, and allowed the Panthers to do it all day (195 yards). Gonzalez and the rest are right: We're still left thinking this regular season doesn't mean much. They're paper tigers until they prove otherwise.
Who else are the Giants hiding?
I'm well past the point of ignoring the New York Giants' injury report. I don't care who is injured, who isn't, who is starting or who is on the bench. Tom Coughlin's team just plugs another guy in there to do the job as well as -- or better than -- the man he's replacing, and off they go.
Was there a better example than Sunday, in a 52-27 shellacking of the New Orleans Saints? Breakout star Andre Brown, a running back, goes on injured reserve? OK, how about David Wilson? The Giants' first-round pick from Virginia Tech had escaped the doghouse, but just enough to warrant getting 28 carries on the season. Before Sunday.
All he did in his real debut was rush for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries, and race 97 yards on a kickoff return for another score. Ho hum. Just 327 all-purpose yards in a coming-out party. This was the guy on the Giants' bench. This was the guy receiver Victor Cruz called "the most athletic on the team." And he barely played before Sunday.
It's one facet that makes the Giants one of the NFL's model franchises.
Some rapid-fire takes:
» The New York Jets' offense was its usual snoozing self, the game was being played in Jacksonville, and quarterback Mark Sanchez was barely getting it done. And yet? No Tim Tebow. Apparently, unless he's the last quarterback standing, he's not playing. Tebow can put a bright face on it all he wants, but those who talk to him can sense the disappointment. He still feels like he's good enough to start. Yet his window appears shut.
» Adrian Peterson or Peyton Manning for the Comeback Player of the Year award? That's just unfair. If only New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady wasn't playing so well, we could all just get together and give the Denver Broncos quarterback the MVP and the Minnesota Vikings running back an award to honor his comeback.
» Or, Peterson could just gain 400 yards in his last three games to hit 2,000. That's better than an award, right? He had 154 on Sunday.
» Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows there's no need to impress the pollsters, right? That the Seahawks, at this rate, might make the BCS? (I kid, I kid.) Instead of running up the score in what ended up being a 58-0 stomping of the Arizona Cardinals, was Carroll auditioning backup quarterback Matt Flynn for a possible offseason trade? That would explain the deep ball to set up the final touchdown.
» After his 50-yard touchdown run, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick appeared to kiss his biceps and show off his tattoos. After the hateful column on Kaepernick lacking a CEO-like image, he deserves it. Looks don't make a leader, regardless of whether you're a fan of tats or not. Kaepernick picked the right moment to have his say, still doing so in an understated way.
» Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck will be a great player one day, a consistent and steadying force like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. I believe that. But until then, it's fun to watch the good Luck overtake the bad Luck, as we saw happen in the thrilling second half of the Colts' 27-23 win over the Tennessee Titans.
» Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a warrior. No one will ever question his toughness. Nor should anyone question coach Mike Tomlin's decision to start him on Sunday, considering he had been medically cleared. But did Big Ben do a disservice to his team by playing in the home loss to the San Diego Chargers? He finished 22 of 42 for 285 yards, but allowed his team to fall behind, 27-3, with a pick and a fumble.
» I don't know whether to be impressed or disgusted with the Panthers. Few players are as stunningly impressive as Cam Newton, and that brash, cocky team showed it can play with anybody by dropping the Falcons, 30-20. So, what happened the rest of the season? I can't figure out if Sunday's result makes me more or less impressed with coach Ron Rivera.
» More good numbers for Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, who finished 32 of 51 for 381 yards and directed two touchdown drives in the final eight minutes. Oh, and a win! The assignment isn't easy for the Eagles' personnel department, which must decide whether Foles is the franchise quarterback of the future. Maybe those folks are learning.
» Just when people want to talk about St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford's stunted growth, he'll turn in another fourth-quarter comeback, just like last year. His potential is still considerable, if the team can ever harness it.
» Say what you want about Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, but his innovative and outside-the-box kickoff plan was so interesting that Commissioner Roger Goodell mentioned it to TIME magazine. Schiano takes the same open-minded approach to his football team. Often, conventional wisdom is just tired and easy. Eventually, people will realize this guy knows what he's talking about. It's one reason he's a good bet to eventually turn that team around.
» For all his considerable talent, Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker faces a crucial offseason. At times Sunday, he looked sharp in teaming with new play-caller Dowell Loggains. But mind-numbing mistakes like the pick-six he threw out of his own end zone are as frustrating as the bright spots are exciting. Locker said, "I should be able to handle that position." He still gives away too many plays.
» Only the Buffalo Bills, who played so well for about 55 minutes, could lose like they did to the Rams. And only the Bills could give the ball to the electric C.J. Spiller just seven times. They've now guaranteed they won't have a winning record, and are facing tough calls with regard to coach Chan Gailey, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt.
» If New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees gets offensive sage Sean Payton back this offseason, how long until Brees is once again his old, mistake-free self? My guess? Not long. Don't expect to see too many more multi-interception games like we saw Sunday.
» I have nothing to say about the Jacksonville Jaguars. Nothing. Even quarterback Chad Henne doesn't represent the promise he did when he initially took over for former first-round draft pick Blaine Gabbert, going 21 of 43 for 185 yards Sunday. Bleh. Is an entirely new regime the only answer?
» I guess we're not wondering what's wrong with the Green Bay Packers anymore.
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