NEW YORK — All the close finishes and individual heroics in Week 12 of the NFL season were overshadowed by fighting, filming and fouling.
Even on a holiday weekend featuring marquee matchups of playoff contenders and division leaders, the focus wound up on Andre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan slugging away in Houston, Spygate II involving the Denver Broncos, and Steelers linebacker James Harrison being flagged for yet another illegal hit.
Sometimes it seems as if pinpoint passing by Tom Brady, dynamic defense by Brian Urlacher and powerful runs by Peyton Hillis — all stars in their teams' latest wins — aren't juicy enough to keep attention on the game. Not, at least, when there is mayhem and cheating on the menu.
The NFL has had its share of salacious scandal (Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger), hefty fines for helmet hits (Harrison, Brandon Meriweather) and labor unrest this year. It's also had a collection of edge-of-your-seat endings that continued with the Saints' rally past Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, the Falcons' decisive march against Green Bay, and the Steelers' nail-biting victory at Buffalo.
Yet the airwaves get filled with the fisticuffs between Texans receiver Johnson and Titans cornerback Finnegan, or the league slamming the Broncos for taking videos of a 49ers walkthrough before their game in London. Or Harrison's roughing-the-passer shot on Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Boxing might not draw much attention anywhere except pay-per-view TV these days. But let two of football's premier players duke it out, ripping helmets off heads amid haymakers and taunts, and suddenly it's Ali-Frazier all over again.
Indeed, Texans owner Bob McNair said he awarded the fight to Johnson "on points," and the team's website played up the fight on its Twitter account. Coach Gary Kubiak gave Johnson a game ball, ostensibly for his nine receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown in the 20-0 win over Tennessee.
Johnson wasn't bragging about any of it.
"I would like to apologize to the organization, our owner, and my teammates," he said." What happened out there today was not me. I just lost my cool and I wish that I could take back what happened, but I can't. It's over and done with now.
"I'm pretty sure that I'll be disciplined for it. When that time comes, I'll find out what it is and have to deal with it from there. ... I hope that I'm not suspended for the next game."
Finnegan has a history of goading receivers, but also is good enough in coverage and as a tackler to have made the 2008 All-Pro team. He and Johnson have a history — the Texans' All-Pro wideout last season was fined $7,500 for taking Finnegan to the ground by the face mask during a scuffle after a play in a 34-31 Texans win.
Earning just as much notice on the weekend was the London caper that led to Saturday's $50,000 fine for the Broncos and another $50,000 for coach Josh McDaniels. Essentially, they were docked because an assistant spied on a San Francisco walkthrough the day before the Oct. 31 game at Wembley Stadium.
The team and McDaniels insist that Steve Scarnecchia acted alone and no one watched the tape. Sarnecchia is no stranger to this territory, having had a hand in New England's taping of opponents in the original Spygate.
"I would say this: He knew full well what was expected from him in terms of the types of behavior we would expect out of him, what Josh stood for, what Mr. Bowlen stood for, what the Denver Broncos stood for, how we conducted ourselves," said Broncos chief operating officer Joe Ellis, who speaks for team owner Pat Bowlen. "It's disappointing that he chose the wrong path when he was in London. But he was fully aware of the standards here."
When standards are ignored and rules violated, particularly involving such a web of intrigue, and when teams and coaches are fined big-time, what chances do touchdown passes and sacks have?
Well, when a tackle is made by the Steelers' star linebacker and he gets flagged — and potentially fined or even suspended — yet again, that does raise eyebrows. And it further obscures what the NFL and most of its fans would prefer to concentrate on.
So, on the Monday after a weekend of drama and shuffled standings, the talk tends to center on brawls, fines and firings, not division races and memorable games.
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