Dennis Pitta walked out for warm-ups, saw the snow, felt the cold and couldn’t believe his first game back — a game he once didn’t think he’d play — could be such a treacherous endeavor.
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"I did make that comment jokingly to somebody: ‘Great one to come back in, with these conditions,’" the Baltimore Ravens tight end, who made his return from a fractured hip suffered in training camp, told FOX Sports by phone from the victorious locker room. "But it turned out to be a pretty remarkable game. I haven’t been part of a last two minutes like that, and, obviously, the conditions were something I never played in. So it was really a tale of two halves.
"The first half, the conditions were really sloppy. The footing was really bad and the tempo of the game was so slow. It improved dramatically. Those last two minutes were pretty exciting."
This entire day of NFL football was exciting — nay, thrilling.
The six fourth-quarter lead changes in that Ravens’ 29-26 victory over the Minnesota Vikings were an NFL record, and the five touchdowns in the final 2:05 were the most since 1983.
The 90 total touchdowns were the most on any day in NFL history. The three kickoff returns for a touchdown nearly matched the four from the first 13 weeks, combined. And the late comebacks by the Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots added even more drama.
But what made it all was the snow — deep enough to cover the feet of the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles players, sticky enough to clump together and cover Calvin Johnson’s entire face, dense enough to cloud players’ vision and camera views and white enough to obscure the lines on the field, even when they needed to be seen for crucial plays.
The NFL has welcomed the elements this year by holding the Super Bowl in New Jersey (more on that in a bit) and has trumpeted how some of the most memorable games have been played in such conditions. Sunday’s slate proved that once again, and the teams that adapted the best are the ones that came away with victories.
Here’s a look at some of the adjustments made, courtesy of the players who made them:
Eagles find traction
It was practically a heat wave in the second half in Philly. Well, at least it felt that way as compared to a miserable first two quarters for a couple of sliding teams.
Eagles center Jason Kelce said it felt like the temperature warmed up a bit and it stopped snowing long enough for the snow to get trampled down and become a bit slushier. While that might sound slippery, it provided much better footing than the powdery, 8-inch piles of snow of the first half.
That’s why LeSean McCoy was able to start planting and juking his way to a franchise-record 217 yards. The Eagles as a team had 244 yards rushing in the second half after gaining only 55 in the first two quarters.
Kelce, listed at 295 pounds, adjusted to the conditions better than the Detroit Lions’ defensive tackles. He and guard Evan Mathis easily moved Nick Fairley out of the hole on McCoy’s 40-yard touchdown, and Kelce then was able to handle Fairley by himself on McCoy’s 57-yard touchdown run. On that play, Fairley tried to shoot the gap and couldn’t make it.
It was obvious Kelce wasn’t rushing his footwork and chose stability over quickness. It was a wise decision.
"When it snows that bad, a line like them that’s so explosive, that slows them down a bit. And for us, we’re a very athletic offensive line, so it slows us down a bit," Kelce told FOX Sports by phone after the Eagles’ 34-20 victory. "So it really gets down to technique and making sure you keep your feet under you. It was a tough battle on either side and we both had our situations where we were losing our footing, but, overall, we were able to do a good job of keeping our feet when it mattered."
Kelce said, believe it or not, it was hard for him to see the linebackers he had to block during the first half. The vision, and in turn the blocking, improved over the final two quarters.
"Even just seeing five yards in front of you was a little bit of a gray area," he said. "You could see them, but it was like watching a TV that’s got all the static and everything on the channel, as opposed to a high-definition TV. You could still see, but it was difficult and easier to lose track of guys."
Offensive linemen keeping their feet under them with short, choppy steps is one thing. McCoy making cuts like it’s 60 degrees and dry is quite different.
"No question. I think he’s the best running back in the league," Kelce said. "We’re very fortunate to have a guy like that running behind us. It was fun watching him take off today. The one where he jumped over the defender (Louis Delmas) was impressive. I was giving him a good time about that one."
In a league where the kick return is being phased out in favor of player safety, Sunday’s conditions gave the returners a better chance to impact the outcome of the game.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ Quintin Demps went 95 yards for a touchdown, the Lions’ Jeremy Ross had a 98-yard touchdown return and the Ravens’ Jacoby Jones had a huge 77-yard touchdown to answer one of the Vikings’ fourth-quarter touchdowns. Ross also had a 58-yard punt-return touchdown, and the Chiefs’ Dexter McCluster scored from 74 yards on a punt.
"It’s cold outside, and nobody wants to tackle," Demps told FOX Sports as the Chiefs made their way to the airport following the blowout victory over the Washington Redskins. "But with the way the field is, it’s hard for a returner to cut, so you have to sprint."
In fact, Demps started to make a cut on the opening kickoff but realized he would lose his footing if he did. He decided sprinting was his best option. That’s when the returner has the advantage because kick-coverage units have to "break down" (i.e. stop their feet) to make a tackle, whereas returners can just go full-speed ahead.
Demps told himself to identify a hole early in his return and then just make a break for it.
"It’s tough for (coverage units). You see the Lions and the Eagles game, same thing," Demps said. "It worked out for me and (McCluster)."
And it worked out for the Chiefs, who ended their three-game losing streak after starting 9-0.
"We’re just rejoicing. We’ve been through adversity the last few weeks, so it just feels good to finally win a game," Demps said. "Just play four quarters together. All three units. It’s huge for us."
Pitta doesn’t hesitate in his return
Much as he made that comment about the weather conditions, Pitta didn’t think twice about protecting his hip – or so he says.
There’s reason to believe him because he had six catches for 48 yards, including a fourth-quarter touchdown, and drew a key pass-interference penalty on the Ravens’ game-winning drive.
"I feel good. Ask me that question again (Monday), and I might let you know something different," Pitta said with a laugh. "But I’m feeling good, feeling healthy and no real soreness. I wasn’t extra cautious because of the hip."
Think about what this guy means to this team, that he could come back and catch six passes after being sidelined for four months. Joe Flacco has had an up-and-down season, and Sunday’s game was no different, but suddenly he’s looking more comfortable and his three touchdown passes were a season high.
"He’s the same guy I remember. It’s fun playing with him, and he showed again today the elite quarterback he is," Pitta said. "This week, we battled through getting on the same page and working through our chemistry, and we certainly found that in the second half."
Having Pitta to work the middle of the field makes things easier on days like Sunday, when throwing to the sidelines can be tricky. Knowing he has a reliable target between the numbers surely made Flacco feel more comfortable in snowy, slick conditions.
As for Pitta, realizing he could survive a game like that in his return will provide confidence in the coming weeks. And pretty soon, he’ll realize how far he’s come since suffering what was first thought to be a very serious injury.
"Yeah, it’s been a long road back, and, obviously, when it first happened, I didn’t really know, nobody knew what my future held, whether it was going to be career-ending, which it could have been, or something to a lesser degree," he said. "I was fortunate there wasn’t as much significant damage as there could have been and I was able to rehab and get back on the field. Certainly fortunate and blessed to be able to play again."
5 quick takes
1.) So we’re close enough now that we can wonder what would happen if Super Bowl Sunday in New Jersey looks like this Sunday did in Philly. The NFL and the New York/New Jersey host committee has practically been daring Mother Nature by saying they’ll embrace the elements, but would the biggest game in American sports really be played in such horrendous conditions? Didn’t the NFL say they have contingency plans in place in case there’s a bad storm rolling in?
Well, sort of. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email to FOX Sports those contingency plans only apply to issues of public safety. In other words, it’s going to take a really bad blizzard to move kickoff to a time other than 6:30 p.m. ET on Feb. 2. Otherwise, it’ll be treated like any other game. And since the fans in Philly had little problem getting to the stadium on Sunday, the Super Bowl could absolutely be played in similar conditions and would look like that first half where neither the Eagles nor the Lions could get their footing.
"If there is snow like there is in Philadelphia and other locations (Sunday)," McCarthy wrote, "that would not impact the Super Bowl."
2.) The ACL injuries to New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Arizona Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu were tough to see. Some might have trouble mustering up sympathy for either because, to them, Gronkowski is little more than the "Yo soy fiesta" party-boy caricature and Mathieu is still the troubled Honey Badger of his LSU days. But the truth is, Gronkowski is a tough guy and a well-liked teammate whose future effectiveness is once again in question. FOX Sports first reported he tore his ACL, though the full extent of the injury could wind up being a lot worse once all the tests are completed. As for Mathieu, all indications are he’s worked hard to be a model teammate since arriving in Arizona. His tweet on Sunday evening — "I appreciate everyone prayers. We go through things in life to test our faith & strength.." — is, hopefully, a sign this setback won’t distract him from that goal.
And by the way, the hit by Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward on Gronkowski was another low hit on a defenseless receiver that resulted in an injury. Those hits will be addressed by the competition committee this offseason and could be illegal soon. Ward went up to Gronkowski as Gronkowski was being loaded on a cart to quickly wish him well and Ward said after the game he wasn’t trying to hurt Gronkowski. It’s not a cheap shot and it’s a complex issue. Look for the NFL to try simplifying it this offseason.
3.) “Whoever wrote that narrative can shove that where the sun don’t shine.” Those were the words of Peyton Manning, on the criticism he can’t play in the cold, after his four-touchdown performance Sunday. That’s how you control the narrative right there, with outstanding quotes like that. Manning is no stranger to those kinds of media relations and has been excellent in that department for his entire career. He got some help on Sunday from Broncos executive director of media relations Patrick Smyth, who went the presented-without-comment route during a run of tweets that stated Manning: became the first player in nine years to throw four touchdowns when the temperature was under 20 degrees; threw for the most yards (397) by an NFL quarterback in sub-20-degree temperatures in five seasons; and became the only NFL player in at least 15 years to have four touchdowns and zero interceptions when the temperature is below 20. Three tweets and seven words — "stick it where the sun don’t shine" — pretty much said the same thing.
4.) There was some chatter Sunday morning that the Texans’ firing Gary Kubiak before the end of the season could set up some kind of scramble for Lovie Smith, who is out of work this year after getting fired by the Chicago Bears at the end of last season. Don’t expect that to be the case. Sources say the Texans are taking their time, as owner Bob McNair indicated he would during his Friday press conference, and want to interview candidates who currently have jobs — again, as McNair indicated. Plus, Smith wants to know what his options are going to be. While the Texans’ job is certainly admirable, Smith would want to see what else is available to him and whether another gig might suit him better.
5.) Many around the league believe the fact Mike Shanahan didn’t shoot down the ESPN report stating he wanted to quit last season was a sign he’s trying to maneuver his way out of Washington. That may very well be the case, and owner Daniel Snyder may fall for the ruse and go back to his ways of firing coaches nearly as quickly as he can hire them, but some of those observers around the league note that Shanahan’s ploy — if indeed that is what’s going on here — also makes him look like a quitter. That’s a bad look for a head coach and could backfire on him.
10 even quicker takes
• John Abraham: Teams that think a guy is done and let him walk are usually right. The Atlanta Falcons were very wrong. Abraham’s three-sack day gave him 11 on the season for Arizona and put him ahead of Lawrence Taylor and Leslie O’Neal for ninth all-time, with 133 sacks.
• Lions-Eagles: Minus the snow, that would’ve been a really interesting matchup between a terrific defensive front and a budding offense that runs it well. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get to see these teams meet in better weather next month. Probably not, based on both teams being division leaders right now, but we’ll see.
• Panthers-Saints: Expect a much better game from Carolina in two weeks. Much better.
• Aaron Rodgers: Never mind the storyline on whether the Green Bay Packers will shut him down if they’re out of contention. They’re currently a half-game out of first place after Sunday’s 22-21 victory over the Falcons. If only Matt Flynn/Scott Tolzien/Seneca Wallace could’ve stolen one more win along the way.
• Ben Roethlisberger: Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds on the desperation final play, but Roethlisberger might’ve had a forward lateral that wasn’t called. That would’ve been awfully interesting, had it come down to a replay review.
• Mike Munchak: That Tennessee Titans situation has total house cleaning written all over it. Munchak figures to be the first to go.
• Leon McFadden: Our Mike Pereira said plenty on this one, but that clearly wasn’t pass interference on the Cleveland Browns’ cornerback. The Patriots were fortunate to get that flag and the victory that came with it.
• Darnell Dockett: It remains to be seen how the NFL will handle his stomping on the hand of St. Louis Rams guard Chris Williams, but that has to be considered suspension-worthy, no?
• Indianapolis Colts: Careful when it comes to counting that team out. They still have a lot of talent and seem really close to putting it together. Don’t assume they’ll be one-and-done in the postseason.
• Tom Dempsey: With all the advancements in technology, and coaching, it’s amazing he held the record for longest field goal for 63 yards — along with three other kickers — until Matt Prater’s 64-yarder on Sunday. Well done, Tom.