The Lofton Files: Neck and neck at the close-out of the 2013 NFL season

12/17/2013

The Lofton FilesI’m a big fan of old tried and true sporting phrases, terms like “toe to toe” in boxing and “neck and neck” in racing – whether that’s of the auto, horse or human variety. Baseball’s “full count” for the three-and-two pitch is another favorite. Basketball has a great one to describe a possible series-ending game, the so-called “close-out game” in their best-of-seven playoff series.

As the NFL season winds down and we try to figure out what type of seeding our favorite teams will earn, we should realize how tough it is to get a win when the opponent on the other side of the ball is looking at a “close-out game” of their own.

A recent and perfect example is the Cincinnati Bengals traveling to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers. The Steelers were clinging to about a 2% chance to somehow make the playoffs. Teams will go to extreme measures when faced with playoff extinction. As part of the NFL’s Homecoming celebration, the Steelers trotted out Hall of Famers Franco Harris and Mel Blount for the coin toss. When you fly into and out of the Pittsburgh airport you see a life-sized replica of Franco catching the ball inches off the turf for the Immaculate Reception as the Steelers got a playoff win over the Oakland Raiders. The victory pushed Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl titles with the core of that team. If Franco wasn’t enough, there was Mel Blount. At 6’4”, Mel was one of the biggest and meanest corners of all time. He likes to wear a ten-gallon hat that makes him look even more imposing. I still get nervous around him thinking he’s going to have a flashback and jam me right there. And what would homecoming be without the cheer squad? The Steelerettes from 1961-69 were invited back to participate in the Terrible Towel Twirl. Who knew there were Steelerettes?

Before long the Towels were waving again and again. The Bengals didn’t know what hit them. Three first-quarter special teams blunders put them “squarely behind the eight ball,” to use another great sports phrase. A dropped punt snap led to a Steelers 1-yard touchdown drive, later an inadvertent fair catch signal on a kickoff gave the Bengals poor field position. Finally, to cap off punter Kevin Huber’s evening, he had his jaw broken as Antonio Brown returned his effort 67 yards for a touchdown. The Steelers never looked back from a 21-0 first-quarter lead.

The Bengals came in looking at the possibility of moving up into the slot for the #2 seed in the AFC. Now they need to regroup before facing Minnesota and Baltimore at home the next two weeks. Likewise Denver, the Philadelphia Eagles and the New Orleans Saints all need to check their mojo and figure out a way to get that winning touch back.

Have the playoffs started for the Dallas Cowboys? The ‘Boys were talking about a three-game run to head into the playoffs and they were cruising along with a 23-point halftime lead over the Aaron Rodgers-less Green Bay Packers. All the Packers and Matt Flynn did after the break was mount the largest comeback in team history – matching a 1982 comeback against the Los Angeles Rams, a game in which I played. I had four catches for 59 yards and a touchdown in our 35-23 victory in the strike-shortened ‘82 season opener. That ’82 team was the first playoff team since the Lombardi era.

But back to the Cowboys. In the final three minutes of the game, Tony Romo threw two – yes, two – interceptions. The first came with Dallas on 2nd and 6 and ahead in the game 36-31! Funny thing is the Cowboys, like a lot of other teams that stubbed their toes this past weekend, still “control their own destiny.” Now that’s a great sports term. How come no one ever talks about a team controlling its own destiny coming out of training camp?

Hit me up on Twitter and give me your favorite sports phrase. And in honor of my good pal and fellow San Dieagan (San Diegoite?), you stay classy NFL fans! Thanks for stopping by!

– James Lofton

James Lofton is the analyst for WestwoodOne’s coverage of Sunday Night Football. This week, James will be in Pittsburgh where the Steelers host the Cincinnati Bengals. Coverage begins at 7:30 PM Eastern.

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