december 2013

After Thursday's win over the Steelers and a Sunday full of games that couldn't have gone any better for the Ravens, they moved from a several-way tie that put them one game away from the final wild card spot in the AFC to sole possession of that slot. Unbelievable as it seems, if the season were to end today, the Ravens would be in the playoffs.

There's one other team that shares their 6-6 record (Miami), but they beat the Dolphins earlier this season so they own the tiebreaker. And there are still several teams that are just one game behind, so this playoff spot is one they're going to have to fight for, but they are in complete control of their destiny right now—if they win out, no one can catch them.

Of course, that's not going to be easy. Of their final four games, three are to teams with winning records who are likely going to the playoffs, and only one of those games is a home game (and that's against the Patriots, the team that currently has the best record of the teams they still have to face). This makes next Sunday's game—at home against the terrible Minnesota Vikings—a vital game in terms of keeping their playoff spot. It's possible that they could still get in the playoffs if they go 3-1 in their final four games, but they're almost certainly out of it if they go 2-2 or worse, and this might be the easiest game on their schedule for the entire season (on paper, of course).

While it's great that they beat the Steelers, it's disappointing that it was so close given how many trips to the red zone they had. Just like the Jets game last week, they got to the red zone several times, but all but one of those trips resulted in a field goal instead of a touchdown. If even two of their five field goals had been converted to touchdowns, the score would have been a more lopsided 30-20 instead of the 22-20 nailbiter that was only kept from going to overtime when the Steelers couldn't pull off a two point conversion with only about a minute left in regulation.

My dad and stepmother were here from Tuesday through Saturday last week, and it was a pretty low key visit. Wednesday was working in the morning and grocery shopping/kitchen prep work in the afternoon, Thursday was cooking Thanksgiving dinner, eating, and watching the Ravens game with my dad while Julie and my stepmother went to the movies, and Friday was just hanging out at home with Will.

Julie's mother comes next week for several days, which means that in the past six weeks Will will have had all three sets of grandparents come of an extended solo visit (my mother was here in early November for several days). We're going to make a quick trip to North Carolina to see my grandfather just before Christmas, and we may see some or all of the grandparents during that visit, too, but it's nice that they all got to have a good quality visit with Will around the holidays since we're going to do Christmas at home with no visitors again this year.

I finally finished book 5 of Game of Thrones, and the salient point that I've taken away from books 4 and 5 is that...nothing important happens. Both of these books are just a buildup to some future event—neither of them have any real climax or significant plot development.

That's fine for awhile, as there are so many characters to keep track of and so many little ways to advance their individual stories, but unlike the first three books, there are no significant events that mark a major shift in the story or give you any sense of where we're going to end up at the end of all of this (assuming that this ever actually ends, which is looking more doubtful by the year).

I think what may have happened here is that writer George R.R. Martin has written himself into a corner—he's got all these great plotlines, any of which could be significant for the final outcome to this story, but all of which can't possibly be, which means he either has to kill people off (which he's certainly shown a willingness to do in the past) so their possibilities can't interfere with the real conclusion or simply abandon them because there's no way to work their story into whatever turns out to be the real story behind this whole mess. Both of these are insulting to fans, but by ignoring the issue and continuing to write and write and write without any ending, he's also damaging his relationship with his fanbase.

At this point I wouldn't be surprised if he's going to finish another book or two before he dies and then leave a complicated pile of notes and outcomes behind for another writer (probably hand-picked by Martin) to sort it all out and figure out some sort of reasonable way to wrap the series up. Based on what I've read the past two books, I just can't bring myself to believe that he actually has a plan to bring all these disparate threads together or that he himself knows how this is going to end yet.

The mid-season finale for the Walking Dead was on Sunday, and although I'm generally pleased with the first half of this season, I was not happy with the reintroduction of the Governor, especially the first couple of episodes where they tried to trick us into thinking that maybe he was a changed man (but one of the main overriding themes of this show is that people don't really change their nature, which also happened to be the main point of the Sopranos).

The only good thing about this loose end is that 1) he was only present for three episodes and 2) his storyline has now been concluded. The second half of the season holds some promise, too—in addition to a couple of clues that there might be someone in the group who is a pyschopath (my bet would be on the new African-American character with the drinking problem—he seems to spend a lot of time alone and always seems to be debating leaving the group and heading off by himself—although it wouldn't surprise me if it's one of the young girls that popped up as surprise heroes at the end of the firefight with the Governor's new group), it looks like they're finally going to abandon the prison, and odds are they're going to re-encounter the exiled Carol on the road (my bet would be that she becomes the leader of a new group and the group will need her help to survive, which she may grant but only if Rick and his lieutenants are cast out).

This has turned into a surprisingly great show, and if they continue with the generally strong writing that we've seen for the past season and a half, there's no reason this show couldn't go on for another three or four seasons without losing steam.

One of the most intriguing—and, for Ravens fans, infuriating—plays in last week's Ravens-Steelers game was Jacoby Jones getting tackled on a kick return that looked for all the world like it was going to be a touchdown—Jones was free on the sideline and running like the wind, and I've never seen him get caught once he breaks away from the pack.

But he was caught, and as soon as he got up from being tackled, he turned around and started gesturing animatedly towards the Steelers sideline. No flag was thrown but a few minutes later, a replay showed what Jones was so upset about—Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was not only in the forbidden six foot white strip immediately adjacent to the field, but just before Jones reached his position, he stepped into the field of play, which is likely what threw Jones off his stride and enabled defenders to catch up to him.

As the week went on and replays from other angles emerged, the question of whether or not Tomlin did this on purpose seemed to be more and more likely to be that he knowingly stepped in Jones path to prevent a touchdown. Not only did he shuffle from the sideline to the field of play a split second before Jones arrived, he also slid over from the true, legal sideline for coaches to put himself in position to block Jones a couple of seconds before he actually stepped onto the field. Replays also showed that TWO referees saw Tomlin take both of these actions, and Tomlin actually blocked one of these officials as he was trying to follow Jones down the sideline, and yet neither official threw a flag (which would have resulted in at least a 15 yard penalty and may have even given the Ravens a touchdown).

The Ravens only got a field goal out of that possession, and although they ended up winning by two points, I'm trying to imagine how angry I'd be if the Steelers had been able to kick a field goal on their final possession and the Ravens had lost 23-22 because of Tomlin's interference. These franchises already hate each other, and even though this completely classless act didn't end up affecting the final outcome, it will certainly be something that Baltimore remembers for a long, long time.

The NFL released their punishment for Tomlin yesterday: a $100,000 personal fine and the possibility that the Steelers could lose a draft pick next year. If they do end up losing a draft pick, I think that in combination with the fine would satisfy me because the Ravens won anyway, but if Tomlin's interference had ended up costing the Ravens the game, I don't think I'd settle for anything less than Tomlin being banned for the remainder of the season and the Ravens being awarded the victory after the fact. Watch the various angles and tell me that this wasn't an intentional act on Tomlin's part—especially the coverage from later in the game when the crowd was shown replays on the big board and started booing Tomlin. His response: a snarky grin that all but admitted guilt. If it was really accidental and he wasn't trying to interfere with the game, he wouldn't have responded so obnoxiously.

The Ravens game against Minnesota yesterday might have been the most exciting, emotional, and ultimately exhilarating game I've ever seen them play. It was a pretty slow game until the Ravens scored a touchdown (on a fourth and goal, after the Vikings had prevented the Ravens from converting two fourth down attempts earlier in the game) and a two point conversion with only 2:05 left in regulation, putting them up 15-12. Up to that point, the Ravens had done a pretty good job of stopping Minnesota, and I think what most fans were expecting was that we would make a strong defensive stand and get the ball back or at worst hold them to a field goal to force overtime.

But then backup running back Toby Gerhart broke away with a 41 yard run for a touchdown and putting Minnesota up 19-15, meaning that the Ravens couldn't settle for a field goal and had to score a touchdown with less that 90 seconds left on the clock. But the Ravens did just that—Jacoby Jones returned the Vikings kickoff for a touchdown, putting the Ravens up 22-19 with just over 75 seconds left in the game.

Then the Vikings pulled off another miracle: rookie reciever Cordarrelle Patterson took a short pass and broke through the secondary to score yet another Minnesota touchdown, putting them up 26-22 with only 45 seconds left in the game. So what did the Ravens do: they drove down the field (a great 35 yard pass and a pass interference call) to get to a 1st and Goal with 10 seconds left, which led to a leaping touchdown for Marlon Brown with only four seconds left on the clock.

Snow, sleet, and freezing rain. Five touchdowns and five lead changes in the final 125 seconds of the game (which made up well over half the points scored in the game). Two moments of pure elation when we scored touchdowns in the final two minutes when I thought we had the game in the bag, and two moments of heartbreaking agony when the defense broke down and allowed Minnesota to take back the lead. And the final last-second score that really did give us the game.

Baltimore has now won four of their last five games, and this win puts the Ravens at 7-6 for the season (the first time they've held a winning record since week 5 when they were 3-2 after a win against Miami) and keeps them in the final wildcard spot. It also means that they have now had eight of their thirteen games decided by three points or less, and moves their record for those games to 4-4.

But their remaining schedule is brutal—their final three games are all against teams that are currently the leaders in their respective divisions, and only one of those games is at home. If they win those three games, they get to the playoffs, and since they'll have to win them against teams that are all likely going to the playoffs, it will be a real test of whether this team deserves a postseason berth this year.

But nothing ever seems to come easy for this team—the best I can hope for as a fan at this point that they will continue to get hot at the right time, even though they seem bound and determined to make every game a heart-attack-inducing affair that goes until the last minute.

I was halfway through watching the first Thor movie on Netflix when the Netflix license for the film apparently expired. I'm not all that upset about this.

I also finally saw The Amazing Spider-Man, and while I like Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man better than I liked Toby Maguire in the second and third Spider-Man films directed by Sam Raimi, I'm not quite sure why this franchise needed a reboot and another origin story.

Affluenza is a word and concept that we need to get rid of RIGHT NOW.

Decision release today. These are much less stressful here than at my previous institution, but they are kind of anticlimactic since everything is configured hours beforehand and students just log in at a certain time to see their decisions (we didn't have this functionality in our SIS at my previous school, so we had to send out emails to every applicant at a designated time on release day, which meant there was actually a button to press and it was easier to make a mistake, although we never did).

It's been a tough cycle, but getting to this point means my team and I have gotten enough stuff done for the process to run, and since we won't have another release until February, we have some breathing room to tidy things up and redo some workarounds we had to implement just to keep us moving. I'm feeling much less stressed than I was a week ago—there's still a lot of work to do, and a whole lot I want to change before next year, but we've crossed a significant milestone by getting the ED1 decisions out the door, and the worst should be behind us.

Yesterday's Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game was the closest I've ever come, and hopefully the closest I will ever come, to rooting for the Steelers. The Bengals sit atop the AFC North, but with their loss last night, the Ravens can win out and win the division outright despite their terrible start.

Tonight in Detroit will be a real challenge for them—they've struggled on the road, and the Lions have some serious offensive weapons. But a victory tonight would put Baltimore only one game behind the Bengals, meaning that if the Bengals lose next week or both the Ravens and the Bengals win, the final game of the season will decide the division (although if the rest of the conference plays a certain way, both teams could be guaranteed a playoff spot no matter who wins the game). If that game ends with the two teams tied

I'm starting to believe the Ravens can get hot at the right time and blaze into the postseason, but the game tonight in Detroit will tell us a lot. A loss doesn't mathematically eliminate them from the playoffs—it doesn't even them take them out of play for the division title—but with Miami winning yesterday, the Ravens would drop behind the Dolphins in the wild card race and would have yet another hurdle to overcome to get to the playoffs.

Wow. Wow wow wow. Another amazing, last-second win puts the Ravens in prime position to make the playoffs for the sixth year in a row despite some heartbreaking losses earlier this year, and if the Bengals lose next week and the Ravens win, a final win for Baltimore against Cincinnati could make them the division winners outright.

That's not to say that the two games they have left will be easy. Aside from the final game against the Bengals in Cincinnati, which looks to be a meaningful game even if the division winner has been decided by then, the Ravens also have to face New England next week. Although the Patriots have already clinched their division, they are still playing for a top seed in the AFC that could give them home field advantage and possibly even a bye in the playoffs. Plus these two teams really hate each other, and I can't see either taking their foot off the gas even if the game doesn't have postseason implications. And even if there were no impacts in terms of New England's playoff positioning, they know that beating the Ravens might keep them from having to face Baltimore in the postseason again, and that's motivation enough not to phone it in.

But the game is in Baltimore, where the Ravens have been very tough to beat, even this season, and the wheels might finally be falling off in New England, so a Baltimore win is definitely doable. And with the focus this team is showing, and with them being able to legitimately taste the playoffs for the first time this season, they're going to be tough to beat at home. There's almost no way it's not going to be another nail-biter, though.

Whatever the outcome of this season, I've come to terms with what this team has done. Yes, many of the losses were realy heartbreakers because they were so close—four of them were decided by three points or less, and many of those were decided in the last two minutes of the game—but they've also given us some of the most thrilling football of the season with their wins, five of which were also decided by three points or less. They had to replace a lot of parts from last year's world champion team on both the offense and defense, but they've fought through tough times together and you can really see their us-against-the-world paying dividends now—the defense is closing things out in the fourth quarter (last week's Vikings game being an exception), and when the defense hasn't quite gotten it done, Flacco has led the offensive unit on some long drives to do just enough to win. Which is all that really matters in the end.

Last night's game was a perfect example—the Lions go up by one point with less than two minutes left, the Ravens drive down the field to get just barely in field goal range (a 61 yarder, three shy of the all-time record) to go up two points with less than 40 seconds left. But then the defense comes out and intercepts the ball on the first play in Detroit's final drive, all but sealing the victory for the Ravens. The offense comes out to run out the clock (Ray Rice even slid down when he had a touchdown in his sights just to make sure Detroit didn't even get the ball back), and the Lions, who still had three timeouts left, simply gave up and let time expire.

I want nothing more for them to make the postseason again, but I can honestly say I'll be satisfied with this season after their efforts over the last six games—they've won five of them (four in a row), and the one they lost was in overtime on the road in the worst field conditions I've ever seen them play in. They have become a team worth rooting for, and that's all a fan can ever really ask for.

Also: Justin Tucker is amazing. But I would have loved to have seen at least one of his field goals converted to a touchdown and leaving him only with extra point kicking duties.

You can look at my work calendar and get a good sense of the big vacation trends around the holidays: Monday was an average day, Tuesday was a little worse, today is about 75% meetings, and Thursday is packed to the gills. And Friday? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It's an exponential curve through Thursday, and then on Friday it drops to zero.

This tells me that 1) not only is everyone going to be out until after the new year, but a lot of people are going to start their holiday break on Friday, and 2) people waited way too late to schedule those last touch-base meetings to wrap everything up before everyone scatters, necessitating all the Thursday meetings.

I'm planning to be in the office on Friday, so if I can just make it through the next couple of days, I should have a whole day to make sure that I've finished everyting on my to-do list—which I would have been able to do well in advance of Friday if it weren't for all the meetings that got put on the calendar this week.

I just found out our office is going to close after half a day tomorrow, but I'm still going to have well more than half a day of work to do after today is all used up with meetings (8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., including lunch), and I expect that the three other members of my IT team will have a similar workload. It's not going to surprise me at all if we're the only people there after noon. But after that we're all taking a long stretch of time off, and I know I'd rather stay late tomorrow to finish everything than have to think about putting in more time early next week to get everything wrapped up before Christmas.

This will likely be my last post for the year. We're leaving tomorrow for a quick trip to North Carolina to visit my 93 year old grandfather, one of the men that Will is named for, but we'll be back on Monday so we can spend Christmas Eve and Christmas at home. After that Julie and I are both taking time off until after the new year, so we'll have a lot of time to hang out with Will and get some downtime.

december 2013
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