THE GAMES — Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin made a mistake on Thanksgiving night, one that cost him $100,000 and the possible forfeiture of a draft choice.
Tomlin, one of three coaches on the NFL's nine-member competition committee, called his actions on Jacoby Jones' 73-yard kickoff return on Turkey Day "a blunder," and had no problem taking responsibility for them.
"As head coaches, we're held to higher standards of conduct, and that blunder fell woefully short and in that vein I accept the repercussions of a blunder of that nature," Tomlin said on Tuesday. "I embrace it. With my position comes preserving the integrity of the game of football."
Tomlin, of course, stepped on the field of play and interfered with Jones as the kickoff returner was loose on the sidelines and heading toward the end zone during Baltimore's eventual 22-20 heart-stopping win over the Steelers.
The narrative of this story, however, has been all wrong since the moment it happened.
Most are caught up in trying to figure out if Tomlin was the second shooter on the grassy knoll or if he is a big fan of NASCAR's if you ain't cheatin,' you ain't tryin'-mantra.
The Zapruder film in this conspiracy came from a local Pittsburgh television station which released footage of a great camera angle from behind the play. In it, Tomlin sees the play unfolding on the jumbotron and, just as Jones approaches, makes a strange hiccup while trying to flee from his illegal position, one in which his right leg juts out on the field before he scurries left and out of harm's way.
Jones was unquestionably forced to change his gait because of the motion and was chased down by the Steelers' Cortez Allen.
Never mind that Allen had the angle on Jones and looked like he was going to catch him with or without Tomlin's help, to some the coach's actions turned a sure seven points into just three and gave Pittsburgh a chance to deadlock things at the end of the game, something they were ultimately unable to do when Emmanuel Sanders' dropped Ben Roethlisberger's back-shoulder fade on a two-point conversion.
Perhaps that was karma but whether or not Tomlin did it on purpose (he didn't), has clouded the larger and far more important point -- the officials blew the call.
Let's address Tomlin's actions first.
For all the conspiracy theorists who will forever brand the Super Bowl-winning coach as an underhanded cheat, who has little to no respect for the idea of competition or the game, understand you're also labeling him as a genius -- an evil one perhaps -- but nonetheless a genius.
Think about it. We all know Jones is a great kickoff returner but to assume he's taking one to the house and to station yourself in that particular position at that exact time, knowing it generally takes less than 15 seconds for any top-tier return man to traverse 100-plus yards defines incredulity.
"I did see the Soul Train picture," Tomlin said of his strange jig. "That was interesting. I've heard all the jokes. And I've got it coming."
This is not about painting Tomlin or any other NFL coach as Mother Theresa either. There are plenty of guys who would do anything to win and if they thought they could get away with what Tomlin did, they certainly would. And that speaks directly to the more level-headed who understand Tomlin didn't position himself there on purpose but took advantage of it when he realized Jones was barreling toward six points.
Remember, however, Tomlin did his dirty deed in the open field, yards away from two different zebras who had a better view than the 27 high-definition cameras capturing the faux pas. Expecting to get away with that is relying on the incompetence of officials, the eventual outcome but hardly one which can be counted on as strategy.
The truth is nearly every NFL coach and many assistants step on the field of play during an NFL game, technically a rules violation, but it's allowed unless it actually affects things on the field. Most coaches never do it when the action is near them so it's a no-harm, no-foul kind of situation.
"I do it quite often, like everybody else in the National Football League," Tomlin admitted. "I was wrong. I accept responsibility for it."
As a member of that competition committee, which heavily influences the rules of this game, Tomlin should be setting an example for the rest of the league's coaches. A fine here is appropriate. A suspension is probably a bit much and losing a draft pick over this is ludicrous.
Think about it -- when a player holds on a kickoff return for a TD in full view of the zebras but isn't caught, are we all clamoring for suspensions or draft picks?
Tomlin can't complain though. His hand was in the cookie jar and lack of pre- meditation isn't a defense.
"I will take this unfortunate incident -- this blunder on my part -- and in doing so, I will honor to stand up and champion our game, and in particular, the National Football League, and the integrity of that," Tomlin said. "It's all that I have professionally. It's been very good to me in my life, and to be honest with you, quite frankly, the winning of any game is not important enough for me to jeopardize that."
If only the league itself had a similar code of ethics.
The real danger to "the shield" here isn't Tomlin's integrity, it's the league's. It was the zebras who blew a simple call yet the NFL doesn't seemed all that concerned with punishing them.
Remember if the two officials who had a clear view of Tomlin standing on the field had thrown the flag, this wouldn't even be a controversy. Baltimore could have been awarded a touchdown or a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct call on Tomlin (the proper penalty with 20-20 hindsight as a guide).
And understand the officiating miscue in Baltimore was hardly the only egregious one over the holiday weekend.
Titans coach Mike Munchak confirmed the NFL admitted that three different officiating mistakes cost his team big in Sunday's monster loss at Indianapolis.
"Mistakes are going to happen," Munchak said. "It's upsetting when you feel they could affect a game one way or another. But you just want consistency when things aren't going your way. This game is getting very hard to play because of a lot of the ways that it's being called."
Arizona mentor Bruce Arians took the high-road after a huge three-point loss in Philadelphia, which featured a handful of key calls going against the Cardinals. After watching the film, however, Arians sent "about 15 calls" -- yes, 15! -- to the league, expecting answers from NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino.
"There were obviously very, very many problems (with the officiating)," Arians understated.
The Cards coach refused to share what the results were but asked if he got any satisfaction from the answers, he told the Associated Press, "No, I just get madder."
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the Redskins-Giants game, the league was forced to admit referee Jeff Triplette should have stopped the contest to clear up mass confusion over what down it was late in the game.
The statement made sure to confirm a second-down pass to the Redskins' Pierre Garcon was "correctly spotted" short of a first down, but that the head linesman "incorrectly motioned for the chain crew to advance the chains, which caused the down boxes to read first down" and confuse the Washington sideline.
You may say Garcon's eventual fourth-down conversion and subsequent fumble made the whole matter moot but if the Redskins understood they never converted on second down, the entire thought process on the ensuing play calls changes.
In all, that's at least four games in Week 13 being directly affected by poor officiating. Simple math says that's 25 percent of the league's product and that number is hardly a rarity on a week to week basis.
Blandino can assure you that certain officials will be "downgraded." What he can't do is assure you or coaches like Munchak, Arians and Mike Shanahan that their players will be deciding games moving forward.
Accountability was always the issue here but not Mike Tomlin's.
NFL POWER POLL
The Sports Network's updated NFL Power Poll, which ranks all 32 league teams, can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/2cjp9l8 WEEK 14
Houston (2-10) at Jacksonville (3-9), Thursday, 8:25 p.m.
LINE: Texans by 3
THE SKINNY: Teddy Bridgewater was probably trying to find a good realtor in Northeast Florida for months but all of a sudden the Louisville star and projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft has to expand his search to South Texas.
After starting the season 0-9, first-year coach Gus Bradley and the Jaguars have won three of four games. Meanwhile, the Texans, who won back-to- back AFC South crowns in 2011 and 2012, have dropped a franchise-worst 10 consecutive contests after a promising 2-0 beginning.
Both teams remain in play for Bridgewater and some of the other top talent expected to be available in May's selection process but all of a sudden the Texans are looking up at the Jags in the standings as the team's prepare to meet in the Sunshine State on "Thursday Night Football."
The Jags will be aiming to sweep the season series after stopping a five-game skid against the Texans by winning in Houston, 13-6, back on Nov. 24, something Texans star receiver Andre Johnson called the "lowest point" of his NFL career.
PREDICTION: Jaguars 20, Texans 14
Minnesota (3-8-1) at Baltimore (6-6), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Ravens by 7
THE SKINNY: The reigning Super Bowl champion Ravens currently hold the AFC's sixth and final playoff spot with four games to go. Baltimore has a slim margin for error, however, and needs to take advantage of a lesser opponent on its home field. The Ravens have won 26 of their last 30 in the Charm City and quarterback Joe Flacco is an imposing 10-1 on his home field against NFC opponents.
The Vikings continue to ride the quarterback carousel despite the fact Matt Cassel has been far more effective than Christian Ponder. Whomever starts at the game's most important position, however, Minnesota lives and dies with Adrian Peterson, who ran for 211 yards in Week 13 against Chicago and became the third fastest player in NFL history to reach 10,000 career rushing yards (101 games). In Peterson's only other meeting against the Ravens, he piled up 143 yards.
PREDICTION: Ravens 27, Vikings 20
Indianapolis (8-4) at Cincinnati (8-4), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Bengals by 5 1/2
THE SKINNY: Two division leaders meet when the Bengals host the Colts. Cincinnati leads the AFC North by two games over Baltimore, while Indianapolis has opened up a three-game lead over Tennessee and can clinch he AFC South with a win over the Bengals or a loss by the Titans, who are at 10-2 Denver.
Last week, the Colts defeated the Titans 22-14 behind veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri, who matched his career high with five field goals. The game marked the 87th time in Vinatieri's career that he has accounted for his team's margin of victory, the second most in NFL history.
"It was time to put something together," said Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano. "The division was hanging in the balance and everything was on the line. The guys manned up."
For the Bengals, quarterback Andy Dalton joined Peyton Manning as the only players in NFL history to pass for at least 3,000 yards in each of their first three seasons during a 17-10 win at San Diego last week.
PREDICTION: Bengals 21, Colts 17
Cleveland (4-8) at New England (9-3), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: No Line
THE SKINNY: The Patriots are on the verge of another AFC East title. New England can clinch the division by beating or tying the slumping Browns coupled with a Miami loss or tie at Pittsburgh. The Pats can also notch a postseason berth by taking care of business against Cleveland paired with a Baltimore loss against Minnesota.
New England has won 16 of its past 17 December games and Tom Brady is 4-1 as a starter in his career versus the Browns. For Cleveland these days, it's all about dynamic receiver Josh Gordon, who had 10 catches for a franchise record 261 yards and two TDs last week against Jacksonville last week, becoming the first player in NFL history to have 200 receiving yards in consecutive games. Gordon also has 623 yards over his last three contests, the most in NFL history over a three-game stretch.
PREDICTION: Patriots 34, Browns 17
Oakland (4-8) at NY Jets (5-7), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Jets by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY: Despite being unable to complete 10 passes in any of his last four games, the Jets will stick with embattled rookie QB Geno Smith.
"I'm going to go with Geno as our quarterback," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "I believe in Geno. I think he has the tools to be a good quarterback in this league."
Smith might have the tools but the former West Virginia star has completed just 29 total passes over his previous four starts with one touchdown and 11 interceptions in that span.
Meanwhile, Raiders undrafted rookie Matt McGloin, a former walk-on at Penn State, has played pretty well since being inserted in the starting lineup, recording 452 passing yards and a 90.3 passer rating in his two career starts away from Oakland.
PREDICTION: Raiders 17, Jets 16
Detroit (7-5) at Philadelphia (7-5), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Eagles by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY: Both the Lions and Eagles enter the final quarter of the 2013 season with 7-5 records and an eye on the playoffs. Detroit currently leads the NFC North by a game over Chicago, while Philadelphia is deadlocked with Dallas atop the NFC East.
On Thanksgiving Day, the Lions knocked off an Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay team, 40-10. Detroit running back Reggie Bush had 182 scrimmage yards with a touchdown, and wide receiver Calvin Johnson had six catches for 101 yards with a touchdown. Defensively, the Lions limited the Packers to 126 total net yards and did not allow an offensive touchdown.
"It was a huge win for us," said Bush. "We answered the call. We came out with a win and we're in first place right now. We have another big game coming up this week."
The Eagles have won four in a row, including last week's 24-21 win over Arizona. Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles threw three touchdown passes and has now thrown 19 touchdown passes and no interceptions this year, the second- longest streak to begin a season for the most touchdown passes before an interception.
"Each week is a big test for us," said Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who leads the NFL with 1,523 scrimmage yards. "We cannot look too far ahead. We have to look to our next game against Detroit and try to be 1-0 this week."
PREDICTION: Eagles 23, Lions 20
Miami (6-6) at Pittsburgh (5-7), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Steelers by 3
THE SKINNY: Six teams are within one game of the final playoff spot in the AFC with just four games to go and two of them will meet in Western Pennsylvania. At 6-6 Miami is currently tied with Baltimore for the last postseason berth although the Ravens own the tiebreaker. The Steelers are one of four teams a game back after a tough Thanksgiving Day loss at Baltimore.
The Steelers have won three in a row at home against Miami and will be leaning heavily on a weather forecast that calls for temperatures in the 30s come Sunday.
PREDICTION: Steelers 24, Dolphins 14
Buffalo (4-8) at Tampa Bay (3-9), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Buccaneers by 2 1/2
THE SKINNY: Two of the game's promising young QBs meet in Central Florida when Tampa Bay's Mike Glennon and Buffalo's EJ Manuel square off. Glennon has completed 76-of-109 (nearly 70 percent) for 965 yards with seven TDs and just two INTs for a 110.8 passer rating over his past five games and was named NFL Offensive Rookie of Month for November. Manuel is just two TD passes shy for the most ever by a Bills rookie and has amassed a 103.1 rating in his last three games.
PREDICTION: Bills 23, Buccaneers 20
Kansas City (9-3) at Washington (3-9), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: Chiefs by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: Kansas City coach Andy Reid will take a fourth stab at becoming the 21st coach in NFL history to pile up 150 wins when his suddenly slumping Chiefs visit the moribund Redskins.
After a 9-0 start Kansas City has dropped three straight while facing a murderer's row of QBs featuring Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Manning again. The Chiefs are 7-1 all-time against Washington, however, and Reid himself is 17-11 against the 'Skins. Meanwhile, despite the three-game skid, Kansas City can clinch a postseason berth with a win and some help.
PREDICTION: Chiefs 24, Redskins 16
Atlanta (3-9) at Green Bay (5-6-1), Sunday, 1 p.m.
LINE: No Line
THE SKINNY: For Green Bay, it all boils down to whether or not QB Aaron Rodgers get back in the lineup. With Rodgers, the Packers are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Without him they are 0-4-1 and the Grey Cup seems out of reach in Titletown.
The Pack haven't cleared Rodgers, who is recovering from a broken collarbone suffered against Chicago back on Nov. 4, but they haven't ruled him out either. Rodgers is expected to participate on a limited basis in practice and if he can't go, it looks as if Matt Flynn will get the start over Scott Tolzien again.
"At this point, it's really about the risk of going back out there," Rodgers said Tuesday night on his weekly radio show). "I can't say this morning was the greatest news because I was hoping for full clearance to get back out there and we didn't get that."
My guess is Rodgers plays and that puts Green Bay back in the win column.
PREDICTION: Packers 27, Falcons 17
Tennessee (5-7) at Denver (10-2), Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
LINE: Broncos by 11 1/2
THE SKINNY: John Fox is back and the Broncos are on the verge of another postseason berth. Denver can clinch a spot in the dance by taking care of the Titans or hoping for a Miami and/or Baltimore loss or tie.
Interim coach Jack Del Rio had been piloting the Broncos since Fox had a procedure to replace his aortic valve on Nov. 4, a condition which he tried to delay until after the season before he felt dizzy and light-headed during a bye-week trip to his offseason home in Charlotte.
"I feel as healthy as I've ever felt in the last 20 years," Fox said. "I feel tremendous, obviously the doctors feel good about me getting back to work. I actually would have preferred to have been back sooner, but there was a pretty hard deadline after the surgery of four weeks, and I honored that."
Fox returns to a team that has scored 464 points through 12 games, the third- best total in NFL history over that span (New England, 469 in 2007; LA Rams, 466 in 1950), and is 13-1 at home since 2012. On the other hand Fox has never neaten Tennessee, going 0-3 against the Titans in his career.
PREDICTION: Broncos 34, Titans 23
St. Louis (5-7) at Arizona (7-5), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Cardinals by 6
THE SKINNY: The Cardinals face a virtual must-win situation if they hope to remain in the thick of a tightly contested battle for the final playoff berth in the NFC. Outside of the four NFC division leaders -- Seattle, New Orleans, Detroit and Dallas -- and 9-3 Carolina, four teams have at least seven wins and are battling for the last postseason spot.
Arizona has lost three straight to the Rams, including a 27-24 decision in Week 1, but the Cardinals have won three consecutive at home and have outscored opponents 94-48 over that span.
PREDICTION: Cardinals 27, Rams 20
NY Giants (5-7) at San Diego (5-7), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: Chargers by 3
THE SKINNY: This could serve as an interconference elimination game for two 5-7 teams on the outside, looking in at the postseason race.
For San Diego, Philip Rivers hopes to build on his big season. The veteran needs just 367 passing yards to register his fifth 4,000-yard season and already has four games with at least 390 passing yards this season, tied with Hall of Famers Dan Marino (1984) and Joe Montana (1990) for the most such games in season. The Giants are looking to build on Justin Tuck's career-best, four-sack performance in a win over Washington last week.
PREDICTION: Chargers 23, Giants 17
Seattle (11-1) at San Francisco (8-4), Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
LINE: 49ers by 3
THE SKINNY: At 11-1, the Seahawks are the only NFL team to have clinched a postseason berth and have a three-game lead over the 49ers in the NFC West. Seattle will clinch the division -- and a first-round bye -- with a win on Sunday.
The Seahawks have won their past two meetings against the 49ers by a combined 71-16 score and are coming off Monday night's 34-7 thrashing of the Saints to take a commanding two-game lead in the race for the conference's best record.
"For us to come out in that fashion and to win that game the way that we did was awesome," said Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, who threw three touchdown passes and won his 22nd game, tied for the most in the Super Bowl era in a quarterback's first two NFL seasons.
The 49ers have started to pick up their play and have won two in a row after last week's 23-13 win over St. Louis. San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has recorded a 100-plus passer rating in each of the past two games and the 49ers are now 10-0 when he reaches that number.
PREDICTION: 49ers 24, Seahawks 23
Carolina (9-3) at New Orleans (9-3), Sunday, 8:30 p.m.
LINE: Saints by 3 1/2
THE SKINNY: With two meetings in the next three weeks, the Panthers and Saints will battle for the top spot in the NFC South.
"It's like you're getting the best of the best," said NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth. "You're going to see Carolina's defense, led by Luke Kuechly, going into the Superdome where we've seen everybody struggle to try and stop that offense with Drew Brees. It's going to be fantastic."
Carolina has won a franchise-record eight consecutive games, including last week's 27-6 victory over Tampa Bay. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton passed for two touchdowns and rushed for another in that one, while Carolina's defense, which leads the NFL in fewest points allowed (157), limited the Buccaneers to 206 total net yards and no touchdowns.
The Saints, meanwhile, are 6-0 at home this season and Brees leads the NFL with a 122.2 home passer rating, which includes 19 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
PREDICTION: Saints 27, Panthers 17
Dallas (7-5) at Chicago (6-6), Monday, 8:40 p.m.
LINE: Cowboys by 2
THE SKINNY: The Cowboys enter Week 14 tied for first place in the NFC East with Philadelphia, while the Bears sit a game out of first place in the NFC North behind Detroit with a 6-6 record.
Dallas has won two in a row, including a 31-24 win on Thanksgiving over Oakland when DeMarco Murray rushed for a career-high three touchdowns, becoming the first Cowboy with three rushing TDs on Thanksgiving Day since 1998 when Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith accomplished the feat.
"We just need to keep winning games," said Dallas quarterback Tony Romo. "Our football team continues to try and improve each week and I think we're playing some of our best football right now."
The Bears have been riding wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey, who had 12 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns in an overtime loss to Minnesota last week, his second 200-yard game this season.
PREDICTION: Cowboys 21, Bears 16