NFL wild-card Cheat Sheet: Romo has hit a high point in his career
We in the sports media tend to lean on hyperbole a bit too much. A routine punt return for a score is instantly dubbed "unbelievable," though certainly it can be believed, because one just like it happens every other weekend. A tennis match that goes five sets is described as "unforgettable" or an "instant classic," but rest assured, even the breathless Twitter mob watching it from afar has forgotten it by the next morning.
I’m always cautious of hyperbole. It trips you up; makes your words seem weightless.
So, I say this with no hyperbole whatsoever: Tony Romo is playing the best football of his NFL career.
Lost in the J.J. Watt MVP chatter and Aaron Rodgers’ dream season was a December to remember for the guy who’s long been forced to forget the month altogether. Romo, at 34 years old, and facing arguably the most pressure-packed four-game swing of his NFL career, silenced any doubters by lighting it up in Chicago on national television, in Philadelphia on a Sunday night, at home against the Colts, and at Washington in Week 17. The Cowboys scored more than 38 points in all four of their December games, and Romo finished his best season with career highs in QB rating (113.2) and completion percentage (69.9) — both led the league. These past four weeks, he had the highest December passer rating (133.7) in NFL history (minimum 100 pass attempts).
Romo’s no spring chicken and he, perhaps more than anyone, has seen the ups and the downs of the NFL. A negative "big-game" stigma follows Peyton Manning; it haunts Romo. And yet he is playing at a level we haven’t seen from him before. Think back to the 2014 offseason, in which Romo was coming off yet another surgery, and there were concerns over his missing practices throughout training camp. The Cowboys were expected to be even worse than they were a season ago, and the defense was without stars DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and Jason Hatcher. Hell, there were whispers about Dallas wanting to draft Johnny Manziel (they got Zack Martin, a Pro Bowl guard, instead) back in April.
Week 1, Romo played terribly against the 49ers, threw a few forced interceptions, and everyone got their pitchforks out for Jason Garrett’s head. Final year left on the coach’s contract. "Why not just cut the cord?" they asked on the screaming talking head shows. There was talk of 3-13, or maybe 0-16. And it didn’t get much easier as the season went on, with Romo suffering fractures in his back in November, and Cowboys fans sweating every step of the way.
But Romo’s not a 25-year-old quarterback, scared of the moment and prone to listening to such toxicity. He’s a veteran, soothing presence, the leader who has seen much more dire times than this. He’s on the cusp of the greatest season of a distinguished NFL career.
Romo’s not the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. He’s not necessarily the best quarterback suiting up Sunday. But Romo’s never played as well as he has this season, and specifically the past few weeks.
There’s no calling "hyperbole" on that.
WILD-CARD WEEKEND CHEAT SHEET TRIVA QUESTION 1
DeMarco Murray had 12 100-yard rushing games in 2014. Only one other player in NFL history had more 100-yard rushing games in a season. Who was it, and what year did he do it?
WILD-CARD WEEKEND CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA QUESTION 2
Of all active quarterbacks, four of the top seven leaders in career wins (starts in the regular season and postseason) will be suiting up for playoff teams this year. Who are those four quarterbacks?
WILD-CARD WEEKEND CHEAT SHEET THROWBACK JERSEY OF THE WEEK
Each week, we like to give you a throwback jersey you should buy and wear while watching the games. In honor of the Cardinals’ trip to Carolina, pick up this tremendous Jim Hart St. Louis Cardinals top.
And now, on to the picks.
Arizona at Carolina
The Pick: Panthers 19, Cardinals 13
The Result: Panthers 27, Cardinals 16
Baltimore at Pittsburgh: The Ravens have won 10 games, but just two of those victories came against eventual playoff participants: a Week 2 win at home over the Steelers and a Week 4 demolishing of the Panthers. Other than that, Baltimore’s struggled with the league’s best and lately has had trouble with some of the league’s least accomplished starting quarterbacks. The Ravens lost to Case Keenum in Houston and nearly lost at home to Connor Shaw and the Browns in Week 17. Ben Roethlisberger’s not Keenum or Shaw. He has 114 more career wins than both of those guys combined.
But there are few January quarterbacks better than Flacco. Big Game Joe has beaten Peyton Manning in Denver, Tom Brady in New England twice, and the last time we saw him in postseason mode, he threw 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions en route to a Lombardi Trophy and a Super Bowl MVP. A $100 million man with the ring and the résumé, Flacco still has one unchecked box on his list: He’s 0-2 all-time against the Steelers in the playoffs, and has yet to beat Roethlisberger in a postseason game. The Ravens are big underdogs, but their quarterback has played that role to perfection plenty of times before. I just don’t see this Baltimore team going into Pittsburgh on a Saturday night and coming out on top.
The Pick: Steelers 31, Ravens 20
Cincinnati at Indianapolis: It’s been 25 years since the Bengals last won a playoff game, a 41-14 walloping of the Houston Oilers in which Cody Carlson and Boomer Esiason were the starting quarterbacks. Cody Carlson! It’s been just a few months, though, since the Colts defense absolutely manhandled the Bengals offense in a 27-0 win at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts have been up and down all season, and if the Ravens have a bad success rate against the NFL’s best, Indianapolis could be worse. Aside from that win over Cincinnati and an October victory over the Ravens, Indianapolis went 0-4 against the other playoff participants they faced in 2014. The Colts haven’t been themselves lately, but I don’t see them losing in their building. Marvin Lewis, Andy Dalton and Adam Jones have been down this road too many times in recent years, but I don’t see the drought ending on Sunday. T.Y. Hilton goes bonkers, Reggie Wayne makes a few plays and Andrew Luck proves why he’s still the best young quarterback in the game.
The Pick: Colts 30, Bengals 20
Detroit at Dallas: The Cowboys were a lot better off when Ndamukong Suh was sidelined for this one. Now, Dallas has to face the game’s best defensive tackle in what could be his last game as a Detroit Lion on national television — where he is at his best and, at times, meanest. Another offensive line, I’d be concerned. But this unit has played too well and been too stout all season long to allow Suh, Ziggy Ansah and the rest of the Detroit front seven to have its way. We’re used to seeing both these teams on Thanksgiving. Now a national audience will get them both at once. One fun side note: Rod Marinelli, the coach of the 0-16 Lions who was fired by Detroit a few years back, could get the last laugh as the Cowboys defensive coordinator in this one. Everyone’s waiting for the other shoe to drop on this Dallas team. I don’t see it happening just yet.
The Pick: Cowboys 31, Lions 16
READER EMAIL OF THE WEEK
I’ve seen all the big blockbusters but am home for another week, off from work. Give me a movie I haven’t seen that I should, please. I trust your opinion, though I do remember you liked "Draft Day." "Draft Day" was terrible.
What were you expecting from "Draft Day" exactly, Henry? It’s called "Draft Day." What’d you want, an Oscar-winning performance from Denis Leary in the role of a lifetime? It was fine. I saw it on a plane and didn’t hate it. You were upset that they didn’t incorporate sexy things like the salary cap or the collective bargaining agreement? You wanted MORE realism from a movie called "Draft Day" that starred Kevin Costner? If you want a great movie that is better than "Draft Day," see "Whiplash" starring the always great J.K. Simmons. It’s about a college-age drummer and a difficult coach, but it felt like a sports movie from beginning to end. It’s shot beautifully and has you on the edge of your seat the whole way. It might not break any box office records, but you’ll like it. And go watch "Draft Day" again, you snob.
WILD-CARD WEEKEND CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER 1
Barry Sanders had 14 100-yard rushing games in 1997. He retired from the NFL after the following season.
WILD-CARD WEEKEND CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA ANSWER 2
Peyton Manning (190), Tom Brady (178), Ben Roethlisberger (116), and Matt Hasselbeck (85) are first, second, fourth and seventh on the career wins list for active NFL quarterbacks.