The Hangover is a fevered attempt to collect thoughts on the NFL and anything else stuck in the craws of the brain on Tuesday after all football has burned out. All opinions belong solely to the author and all facts belong to that evil new war god of unfeeling thought.
Last week I declared the Patriots busted and potentially done-zo. This was on the assumption that Rob Gronkowski was gone for a good while; that this was the arch-injury of the offense and deprived Tom Brady of his game-breaking weapon. Instead, Gronk took the field Sunday against the Houston Texans, proving once and for all he's a mutated gorilla with cybernetic implants. Sure enough, the Patriots are back on top of the AFC. Hooray.
Daytime Disney movies
The Bengals took on the Steelers in a hard-fought battle on Sunday, and I guess they also played a football game afterwards. The biggest knock came when Andy Dalton fractured his thumb attempting to tackle Stephon Tuitt following an interception. It was a blow that seems catastrophic at the time for the Bengals, who are in the midst of perhaps their greatest season in the Dalton era. Thankfully, the injury may not be season-ending and the Red Rifle (that's his nickname, yeah?) could return by week 17.
In the interim, we get to watch AJ McCarron get pasted by NFL defenders and this should bring joy to the land. We got a glimpse of it on Sunday when the former Alabama quarterback attempted a screen pass, only to get hammered by a defensive end while William Gay took the ball back for six points. That was my highlight of the game. It left me whooping and hollering even as the Lions game attempted to drag me down into the doldrums.
If this seems excessive, it's because AJ McCarron fits a particular mold of player in attitude and circumstance that makes him the ultimate heel, especially if you know anything about his college career. He comes from the Alabama dynasty that won two national titles while he was starting, an Alabama program that few root for outside of its own fanbase. His play was nothing memorable in Tuscaloosa, but he was repeatedly shoe-horned into the national conversation for Heisman and beyond because he was The Alabama Quarterback and thus all winning and glory had to be attributed to him and not the most feared linemen in all of division 1 college football. He bristled vociferously during draft analysis, believing he should have been in the same conversation as Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel (okay, he might have a point on the last one). After his time came on Sunday, he compared his situation to that of Tom Brady, sending Boston sports fans and media into a clucking madness because someone deigned to talk about themselves in the same terms as their golden son.
It's all too perfect. Did AJ walk out of a Disney daytime television movie about some sort of high school drama? He fits the role so perfectly! McCarron's the cocky, silver spoon-born, letterman-jacketed jock of the rival snobby prep school who firmly believes all there is to life is winning, a cockeyed caricature sentiment that reverberates down from the joyless coach (hi Nick Saban!) to every last member of the varsity football team, a juggernaut the plucky hapless protagonists are supposed to take down through shenanigans and last minute miracles (this actually happened).
Let this not read as a condemnation of McCarron. Indeed, I'd rather see him do well in the NFL. The desire to watch him get smashed by defenders on Sunday just means he's playing to his role perfectly. After all, we're going to need a new arch-villain once Brady rides off into the sunset.
I got through talking about AJ McCarron but I'd be remiss if I didn't speak my terror watching the Steelers right now.
They're good. Really, really good. Their record is the biggest hindrance to a playoff push, but if they were to make the show I'd be hard-pressed to find any reason to put money against them. This offense looks unbelievably dangerous and the Steelers could conceivably catch fire at just the right time to start bulldozing their way to the AFC Championship.
Of course, they have to reach the playoffs first, which may be insurmountable at this point. They're currently sitting behind the Jets and Chiefs for the wild cards. The records are tied, but both teams have tie-breakers over Pittsburgh due to conference records. Thankfully, the Jets have to play a Patriots squad that now has their secret Frankenstein weapon back and go on the road to Buffalo to end the year. The Steelers just need to win one more than either them or KC, and they need to do it against three teams with backup quarterbacks in (one of those is Jimmy Clausen to boot).
Return to earth
As the exclamation point on a hellfire season, the Atlanta Falcons were shut out 38-0 by a Carolina Panthers war machine that continues to roll on towards the postseason. Things look grim for first year coach Dan Quinn, who was brought in to replace hapless Mike Smith, devourer of timeouts. It certainly was not a good day for an Atlanta offense featuring Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, and swath of talent that continues to find itself devoid of victory.
The Falcons are now three years removed from a remarkable run featuring four out of five years with double-digit wins and playoff appearances. In 2012 they were at the doorstep of a trip to the Super Bowl, falling in the final minutes to the 49ers. For all their offensive talent and explosive might, nothing has been doing the trick. They continue to find new ways to fail and increase the misery and apathy of Atlanta professional sports.
It's a bitter moment because this might be the high-water mark for the franchise's foreseeable future. I mentioned four years of double-digit wins; those account for half of those such seasons in franchise history. The Falcons have never been a team to sustain success for long periods of time, and even the squad that went to the Super Bowl followed up that performance with a 5-11 record in 1999.
The narrative is that fans in Atlanta care little for professional sports; that their interest lies solely with the football of the SEC and the Georgia Bulldogs. It's an unfair narrative, but this was also a franchise that was a forgotten footnote for a good portion of its history until recent memory and had to pump in artificial crowd noise not long ago. The Falcons are looking to finally move out of the decrepit Georgia Dome, but by the time they move into the new flat all the magic on the field might be gone.
Who's running this thing?
The Seahawks have rebounded from a miserable start and have taken a wild card firmly in their grip. Russell Wilson is making work with a motley crew of receivers, but who are the Seahawks going to hand the ball off to on a ground game? Anyone?
Marshawn Lynch is a while away and might return, which would be a windfall for the Seahawks in the playoffs. But until then, they face an immediate future without Lynch and without rookie phenom Thomas Rawls, who left Sunday with a broken ankle and is done for the season.
Without a credible run game, can the Seahawks sustain success? Signs points to likely as Seattle boasts the 4th ranked passing offense per DVOA, but more teams could decide to sell out on defense to rush Wilson if they know the best that can be mustered against them is Bryce Brown. Of course, sacking Russell Wilson always sounds good and fine in theory, but in practice...
The price is just okay
Monday Night Football rolled into Miami Gardens and the Dolphins haplessly fiddled around for 60 minutes. By MNF standards it was a surprisingly good game and did not feature nor require a crazed ending to redeem itself.
A lot was made on the broadcast about Ndamukong Suh, the contract he received and the "production" he was giving to the floundering team that had swiftly downgraded from playoff contender to bottom-feeder. This struck me as a little odd. Perhaps my memory is shot from all the abuse the gray matter's taken through the years (most likely) but I never regarded Suh as a "producer" of counting stats on defense once the league got to know who he was -- his rookie year remains his statistical zenith for sacks and tackles. Rather, he's been the guy who could command double- or even triple-teams from the offensive line, because when he was left alone he'd break the whole damn thing.
This quality allowed Suh to improve the whole unit around him. I don't know if that's been the case in Miami and I freely admit I haven't really been dialing in to watch Dolphins games. Nevertheless, it seems as if his mega-contract has warped expectations from him. That's not to say he did not have a weak start to the season, but no one should expect Suh to lead the league in sacks. The price tag might command that interest to be so, but not the facts.