Mike Tomlin had one foot on the field, but did the Pittsburgh coach cross the line?
The Jacoby Jones kickoff return was the most talked-about play after the Thanksgiving game between the Steelers and Baltimore, the moment Mr. Tomlin became Mr. Magoo.
As the blistering-fast Jones was flying up the visitors’ sideline, probably on his way to a touchdown, Tomlin was staring up at the video board and, with his back to the play, wandered to the edge of the field. Jones came perilously close to running him over, and would have had Tomlin not hopped out of the way at the last instant.
That might have caused a hiccup of hesitation in Jones, who was pulled down from behind after a 73-yard gain. TV cameras showed Tomlin breaking into a huge grin afterward, enhancing suspicions that it was an intentional move to slow or distract the Ravens returner.
Baltimore wound up winning the bitter AFC North rivalry game, 22-20, so Jones could laugh about the play in the aftermath.
“As soon as I hit the hole and I was running down the sideline, I promise you I’m looking at him the whole time like … ‘Is he going to move?’” Jones said. “I just weaved out of the way. It broke my stride a little bit, but I still shouldn’t have gotten caught. It is what it is. [The Steelers’ Cortez Allen] made the tackle. If I was him, I’d do the same thing.”
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said Tomlin knew precisely what he was doing.
“I took some flak, I think, for kind of joking around in the Super Bowl and saying that maybe you should run on the field and tackle somebody if this guy breaks it,” Flacco said. “That’s exactly what he just did. He was looking at the big screen the whole entire time. He knew where he was. He knew where Jacoby was. He did. He pulled my move. He did what I thought we should do.”
The Steelers coach denied he was intentionally trying to interfere.
“I lost my placement as he broke free, and saw at the last second how close I was to the field,” he said.
Tomlin wasn’t flagged on the play, although Jones could have been awarded a touchdown under a rule for “palpably unfair” play. Tomlin should have been given a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct call. The NFL is reviewing the non-call by referee Clete Blakeman’s crew. Not only would it have been a fair punishment for the infraction, but the reminder might have helped save a coach from serious injury in a future game.
However, judging by Tomlin’s body language in the moments before the near-collision, the move didn’t look intentional. He had a freight train bearing down on him, and he didn’t wince, brace himself, or even remove his hand from his jacket pocket. There is no way he could stay that relaxed if he had any idea of what was about to hit him.
It was nothing like Jason Kidd intentionally spilling his soda on the court a night earlier, a clock-stopping scheme by the Brooklyn Nets coach that earned him a $50,000 fine by the NBA. A moment before the drink was “knocked” out of Kidd’s hand, he appeared to mouth the words “hit me” to one of his players.
Tomlin’s meander might have been undisciplined and flag-worthy, but there was no way he was thinking “hit me.”
The return of Michael Crabtree couldn’t come at a better time for the San Francisco 49ers, who got the star receiver back this week for the first time since he suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon in May. Their offense has been mostly sluggish for several weeks and Colin Kaepernick could use another sure-handed target.
Crabtree is expected to play against St. Louis on Sunday, and that game should help him ramp up for the pivotal Week 14 matchup against first-place Seattle. The Seahawks will be without suspended cornerback Walter Thurmond, so anything that improves an opponent’s passing game could be especially effective.
Even the losers
There’s still hope for teams that are currently underwater.
Since the 12-team playoff format began in 1990, 16 teams that were below .500 after 11 games wound up making the playoffs.
That’s particularly relevant in the AFC, where Tennessee, San Diego, Miami and the New York Jets are 5-6 and eyeing the No. 6 wild-card spot. The Ravens did their part to stay in that race by beating the Steelers to improve to 6-6.
For seven consecutive seasons, from 2004 to 2010, a team that was sub-.500 through 11 games reached the postseason, and six of those seven teams wound up winning a playoff game.
It’s getting more expensive to be a 12th Man. According to the Seattle Times, bottom-of-the-barrel tickets for Monday night’s game between New Orleans and Seattle are going for $300. That’s up $75 from the huge game earlier this season between the Seahawks and 49ers, the previous price record.
A perfect 10?
Denver quarterback Peyton Manning is 9-0 in AFC West games, and has a chance to reach double digits Sunday at Kansas City.
Since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, the only quarterback to win his first 10 games against division opponents was St. Louis’ Kurt Warner, who got off to an 11-0 start in those games.
Chicago’s Mike Tomczak matched Manning’s 9-0 mark.