We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.
From: Tom Scocca
To: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Josh Levin
Were you talking about civilization? I got distracted by that Ravens-Steelers introductory montage. There's competitive balance, and then there's Ali-Frazier. Joe Frazier, his obituaries and the old reprints today will tell you, brought out the best in Ali. And he surely helped leave Ali in neurological ruins. "It was like death," Ali said after their third encounter, the Thrilla in Manila, which ended after 14 rounds because Frazier's face was so battered that he couldn't see anymore.
There never will be another event like it. The 15-round championship bout has been outlawed in the name of humanity and progress, like the helmet-to-helmet shot on a defenseless receiver.
But it's not always the length of the fight that makes the difference. As soon as I saw that series of boxing clips, I paused the football and tabbed over to watch Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns on YouTube.
It's been 26 years, and it's still electrifying. I want to use some more disapproving adjective there, but I can't come up with anything honest. Hagler-Hearns was a thrill, and the fact that it was a savage and bloody thrill did not diminish it at all. It was a real-world answer to the preposterous stagey hammering of the Rocky movies: What would happen if two actual boxers actually hit each other that hard and that fast, toe to toe, without relenting?
Answer: They would both get hurt, badly, right away, and they would stay hurt till one of them dropped. The whole thing wouldn't—couldn't—take long:
"He can't continue! It's Hagler, full of blood! Blood no doubt impeding his vision! Stopping him in the third round, after Hearns almost ended it on a first-round knockout! It didn't go very far, but it was a beauty!"
"And Tommy Hearns predicted a knockout in the third. Instead it is Marvin Hagler. And we certainly hope Tommy Hearns will be all right. He is still wobbly!"
We certainly hope Tommy Hearns will be all right. Appropriate formalities must be observed. The Ravens and the Steelers will pay their fines, and we will get some uninhibited and unapologetic (or minimally and grudgingly apologetic) mayhem on the field.
You imagined a future Baltimore-Pittsburgh matchup, Josh, where even the civilizing influence of the refs would be done away with. One of the most telling moments of this game, though, revolved around the officials: Right after Ray Lewis's old-fashioned helmet-to-helmet shot on Hines Ward, which knocked the receiver out of the game and had Al Michaels musing about the twilight of Ward's rugged career, Ravens coach John Harbaugh threw his challenge flag.
The refs had ruled the play a catch by Ward, but as Lewis sent the receiver's stunned body to the ground, a second Ravens player had driven him into the turf, and the ball had popped out of his grasp. A video review changed the officials' minds: "The receiver did not maintain possession going to the ground." Scratch the fourth-and-1, make it fourth-and-7. Whatever penalty the league ends up giving Ray Lewis, he hit Ward hard enough to cost the Steelers six yards.
And with the help of those six yards, which persuaded Pittsburgh to settle for a field goal, the Ravens have swept Pittsburgh and are in a first-place tie with—you did say the Bengals, didn't you? Huh. The Bengals! Speaking of atavistic visions from the '80s. Who figured that the 49ers' fourth-quarter comeback against Cincinnati back in Week 3 would be anything more than a sad parody of the glories of 22 years ago? And who thought the Bengals' win the week after that, against Buffalo, would be a major milepost in the playoff race?
That's one difference between the pro game and the college one: Saturday's showdown between Alabama and LSU was penciled in as a critical game before the season even began. The top five college teams in the current AP poll, two months into the season, are the teams that were ranked 4, 9, 2, 7, and 5 in the preseason. Overall, the AP preseason top five have a collective record of 41-3, which works out to a .931 winning percentage. On any given Saturday (or Thursday night, or whenever the scholar-athletes may be pursuing their recreational activities), most people have a pretty good guess who's going to win.
Meanwhile, in the pros, there are the Niners, who haven't had a winning season since 2002, sitting at 7-1. And they still have five games left against their hapless divisional rivals. If they beat only bad teams the rest of the way, they'll finish 12-4. The Detroit Lions are 6-2. The Bills are in a three-way tie for first. The Raiders, Chiefs, and Chargers are in a three-way tie for first, while they're also only one game out of last. Halfway through the season, half of everyone's expectations have been upended.
Yet when I went to the NFL Rewind menu, with all this wealth of surprise and success to choose from, the first thing I clicked on was the Rams-Cardinals game. This was its own kind of balanced contest; the announcing crew dignified it by saying that "both teams are very good at creating negative plays by the defense."
That is to say, I was clicking through the game to try to figure out how it was that Cardinals quarterback-of-the-moment John Skelton had surrendered safeties on consecutive possessions. Alas, on replay, this was not a triumph of '80s-style slobberknocking; Skelton just spaced out a little both times, under stress or confusion, and got chased down and tripped in the end zone while trying to throw the ball away.
"This is a field-goal battle, and an extra two points can mean all the difference in the world for the outcome of the game," an announcer said. World was a figure of speech, there.
Yet after the scatter-armed quarterbacks—or the relentless and frustrating defenses, if you prefer—had dueled to a standstill, even this game had one fantastic play. In overtime, after a stalled opening drive, the Rams punted. Cardinals rookie Patrick Peterson retreated from his own 10 yard line all the way to the one, contrary to sound football tactics, and fielded the ball outside the left hash.
For a tiny moment, Peterson did nothing. In that pause, the onrushing St. Louis gunner lost his bearings—and then Peterson skittered to the right, with the gunner, now deprived of an angle, chasing him straight across the field. Peterson crossed the right hash and made a sharp turn upfield. He caught a block at the eight, broke an arm tackle at the 17. Around the 27, with traffic closing in, he cut outside to make another Rams player dive and miss. At the 30, he shrugged off another tackle, going three yards with his body turned fully sideways. Still pivoting, he ran the next four yards facing backward, then, breaking through the punter's would-be tackle, he finished his spin, crossing the 40 and breaking free. He outran the final Ram with one last burst of speed as he crossed the St. Louis 45, then switched to a bouncy, celebratory high step as he crossed the 15. Ninety-nine yards to win the game. It was Peterson's third punt-return touchdown this season, meaning he's already tied Arizona's franchise career record for punt-return TDs. If nobody gives him a traditional maiming, who knows what he might go on to do?