NEW YORK — For one of those rare times, the focus at NFL stadiums was on what happened before the games. What occurred on the sidelines, or in the tunnels leading to the locker rooms.
After those extraordinary demonstrations of unity by players, coaches, staff and owners, the action Sunday could have been anticlimactic. Instead, the league delivered some scintillating stuff punctuated by fantastic finishes in Detroit, Foxborough, Green Bay, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Following two weeks of, well, blah, the NFL gave us WOW.
“Awesome, awesome, awesome,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said after Jake Elliott boomed a 61-yard field goal to beat the Giants as time expired, 27-24.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” noted Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu after Detroit had a go-ahead touchdown with 8 seconds remaining taken away by replay — and the Lions lost any chance for another play because of a relatively obscure rule requiring a 10-second runoff.
“You always dream about stuff like that but it never happens, so it was real crazy,” Bears running back Jordan Howard said following his 19-yard TD to beat Pittsburgh in overtime. That came moments after rookie Tarik Cohen sped 73 yards to win it, only to discover his tip-toeing on the sideline wasn’t precise enough. “Definitely, it was a very wacky game but through everything that happened we found a way to win.”
Wacky, yep, but given what we’d seen thus far in 2017, very welcome.
The NFL tends to have weekends where about the only predictable thing is that they will actually play the games. Exhilaration usually comes deeper into the schedule, when teams have created an identity — then perform directly opposite of that identity.
This year, it came in September. Consider:
— The Jaguars were blown out by Tennessee in their only game so far in Jacksonville. But they are 2-0 elsewhere after a 44-7 annihilation of previously unbeaten Baltimore in London on Sunday.
— The J-E-T-S got their initial W-I-N over archrival Miami, which looked more like the rebuilding franchise than did New York.
— New Orleans’ Swiss cheese defense turned into an opportunistic wall in a 34-13 romp at previously undefeated Carolina.
— Buffalo, which almost never wins if LeSean McCoy doesn’t run wild, knocked off unbeaten Denver despite McCoy being mediocre.
But for true excitement, the nail-biters at Ford Field, Soldier Field, the Linc, Gillette Stadium and Lambeau couldn’t be beat.
And boy, did the NFL need it.
“Everyone came together to make the plays to help us win,” Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski said somewhat breathlessly. Tom Brady had driven New England 75 yards on eight plays and thrown his fifth TD pass of the night, 25 yards to Brandin Cooks , with 23 seconds remaining for the 36-33 victory over Houston. “It just shows how big of a team game this is, NFL football. That was a great NFL football game. After that win I was like, ‘That’s what NFL football is right there.’ You’ve got great players on both sides of the ball, on the defensive side, the offensive side of both teams and everyone fighting to the end.”
Sometimes beyond the end, as they did in Green Bay and Chicago.
The Bengals, now 0-3, were in complete control against the Packers until Aaron Rodgers and crew got really serious. Green Bay tied the game when Rodgers — Brady isn’t the only quarterback capable of such heroics — guided the Packers 75 yards in just over three minutes to a 3-yard TD pass to Jordy Nelson. A mere 17 seconds remained, and Mason Crosby then won it in overtime.
Pittsburgh also had to hustle from behind to catch the Bears, doing so in the second half after trailing 17-7. But Chicago, which showed plenty of resilience in an opening loss to Atlanta in which Howard dropped a potential winning TD pass, turned it up in OT.
It was a singular Sunday, one that won’t and shouldn’t be forgotten. Not only sports lovers were paying attention, but pretty much everyone in America focused on the memorable pregame displays from Philly to Indy, from Music City to the Windy City, from East Rutherford to Southern California. The headlines deserved to emanate from those displays.
And then came the games. If this is the kind of stuff fans can look forward to over the next 3 1/2 months, maybe the action on the field will be drawing those headlines.