$.01--The Dallas Cowboys remain the top story, plowing forward with the NFL’s top record. Now 9-1, Dallas has won a team-record nine in a row.
This one, a competitive but never really threatened 27-17 outcome over Baltimore, shows just how good these Cowboys can be. All season, dynamic rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have played outstanding football. The line, while not as impervious as advertised, is still the best in football. Jason Witten, Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams have been solid as secondary receiving options. Yet they’ve lacked the gamebreaker the coverage dictator, the commanding presence at wide receiver.
That changed against the Ravens. Dez Bryant finally looked healthy and on the same page as Prescott. Bryant has missed time with injuries and seemed to miss Tony Romo more than any other Cowboy, which is understandable. Romo and Bryant have been an outstanding pitch-and-catch duo, developing a preternatural chemistry which doesn’t come easily or often.
Bryant caught 6 passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns. The touchdowns need to be the focus, because they were plays no other Cowboy but Dez can make. The first was a quick back-shoulder throw from just inside the Ravens 5 yard line where Bryant used his great size to provide an excellent target and shield off the defender. On throws like that he more resembles a broad-shouldered tight end. What makes Dez special in those situations is how well he extends out to snatch the ball before the defender can get an arm around.
The second touchdown showed off Bryant’s running ability. Prescott found him on a quick slant and Bryant turned into an angry bull, charging into the end zone with a defender riding him helplessly. Bryant’s competitive spirit and brute power as a receiver are too much for most secondary defenders to handle.
If this Bryant reemergence sticks, and there’s little reason to think it will not, the Dallas offense goes from pretty good to great. Lethal, even. Baltimore found that out despite handling Elliott (25 carries, 97 yards) relatively well. If Prescott and Bryant advance beyond this fun second date type of dalliance, we could very well be seeing them have public displays of affection with the Lombardi Trophy.
$.02--Seattle provided some separation and confidence in their stock as Dallas’ top contender by shredding the visiting Philadelphia Eagles 26-13.
Russell Wilson is healthy and that makes so much difference. How healthy? How about enough to risk bodily harm and catch a touchdown pass from wideout Doug Baldwin in the third quarter.
At that point Wilson had more receiving yards than any Eagles wideout, which illustrates both the strength of the Seahawks defense and the biggest reason why the Eagles have fluttered to the bottom of the NFC East. Seattle thrives on the big play on offense, while the Eagles seem incapable of such a feat.
Wilson’s touchdown reception was one of several big plays from the Seattle offense. Jimmy Graham scored on a broken play and ridiculous sidearm throw from a scrambling Wilson, breaking a tackle and galloping into the end zone on a play where most teams would have been happy with an incompletion. Rookie RB C.J. Prosise broke off a 72-yard touchdown run before exiting with an injury.
Their defense comes up with big plays too. Cliff Avril notched yet another strip sack, something he does with more regularity than anyone. Richard Sherman picked off Carson Wentz almost too easily. Even return man Tyler Lockett provided some excitement with a 20-yard return. They set a season high with 439 yards of offense. With Wilson looking strong once again and the offensive line…dare I say it…not looking too bad, the explosive Seahawks are a legit threat.
Philadelphia had just two plays all afternoon that netted even 20 yards. The Eagles rank near the bottom in creating big plays in the passing game, and the run game couldn’t pick up the slack against Seattle’s disciplined aggression on defense. Their receivers don’t separate well, and Wentz isn’t sharp or savvy enough to throw them open yet.
$.03--Sunday Night Football saw Green Bay travel to Washington in hopes of snapping its three-game losing streak. It did not go well. Washington successfully attacked the plodding, injury-ravaged Green Bay defense over the top all night en route to a big 42-24 win.
Kirk Cousins and the Washington offense knew they had an advantage on the outside and down the field. Even in a fairly brisk wind, they kept taking shots down the field. Green Bay’s glaring lack of speed on defense couldn’t keep up, and the big plays rained down upon them.
We are seeing the window close on this particular group of Packers. It’s painful to watch. Myriad injuries bear some degree of culpability, but this is a team that no longer seems well-prepared or motivated early on. Witness this…
This is the first time in Aaron Rodgers' career that the Packers have gone 3-and-out on their first 3 drives of the game— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) November 21, 2016
That’s not good when the defense gives up 153 points in the last four games, no fewer than 31 in any of them. That’s asking way too much of Aaron Rodgers, even on a night where TE Jared Cook finally showed up and Randall Cobb made a couple of nice plays. He doesn’t have the line or the depth of weapons to compete in shootouts.
Very quietly, Washington is on a 6-1-1 run since opening 0-2. Two of those wins are in the NFC East, and the second loss in the 0-2 start was a 4-point squeaker to Dallas. It’s time for the wider football world to wake up to what Washington is doing. They have an outstanding cast of diverse targets for Cousins, who is playing better than Rodgers this year. Their confidence is sky high, as evidenced by Coach Jay Gruden’s ballsy decision to go for it on 4th down with the game very much in doubt. That’s the same kind of decision Jack Del Rio used to catapult his young Raiders early this season. Keep sleeping on Washington at your peril. You can probably ignore Green Bay as they fall 2.5 games behind Washington and 3 behind the New York Giants in the NFC Wild Card race, two games behind Minnesota and Detroit in the NFC North.
$.04--Thursday night’s matchup between the Saints and Panthers offered a glimpse into why the NFL is both outstanding and problematic.
Carolina held off New Orleans 23-20 despite a furious New Orleans comeback. The Panthers led 23-3 entering the fourth quarter and held on for dear life as Drew Brees rallied the Saints back on the road. Cam Newton didn’t complete many passes--just 14 on 33 attempts--but his strike to Kelvin Benjamin on 3rd and long extended Carolina’s final drive long enough to give Brees too little time to muster a final score.
The fourth quarter was as exciting of football as you’ll see all year. While the Saints didn’t exactly go at frantic pace, they nonetheless dominated the action on both sides of the ball. Stirring comebacks, replete with interesting coaching decisions and questionable officiating, make for great television.
What doesn’t make quality television are scary injuries, and unfortunately this game had a couple of very disturbing ones. Saints RB Mark Ingram was knocked out cold on a hit in the third quarter. On the sidelines he was both wobbly and animated in agitation.
The scarier one came when Panthers star LB Luke Kuechly took what looked to be a fairly innocuous hit while making a tackle. Ingram’s replacement Tim Hightower’s facemask struck Kuechly’s chest pad, and Panthers teammate Thomas Davis brushed the back of his head. Yet the All Pro’s reaction was terrifying.
Photo from Charlotte Observer
He gasped for breath as if hyperventilating. Shortly thereafter No. 59 openly cried as he was tended to on the field and again as he was carted off. Kuechly missed time in 2015 with a concussion and it was quite easy to make the leap and conclude he knew he’d suffered another one. It was also easy to think about his bigger picture beyond just missing the rest of this game in this era of heightened CTE awareness.
Unfortunately for the NFL, this is the picture everyone will remember from the nationally spotlighted game.
$.05--Any Given Sunday, Week 11 Edition went down in Kansas City. Tampa Bay knocked off the Chiefs 19-17 to end the home team’s 5-game win streak.
Chiefs fans can take solace in a couple of aspects even in defeat. Top corner Marcus Peters, a strong candidate for first-team All-Pro status, missed this game. That directly contributed to Jameis Winston lighting up the Kansas City secondary for 331 yards and a couple of critical strikes down the stretch. His clutch throw to Mike Evans might not have happened with Peters’ blanket cover skills on the field. The Chiefs defense couldn’t get off the field all day…
Bucs' first seven offensive drives all netted at least 50 yards -- only one that didn't was final drive in last three minutes.— Greg Auman (@gregauman) November 20, 2016
Then there’s the very odd history between these two teams. Tampa Bay has won the last five meetings over the last 23 seasons, their longest string by chronology against any team. In fact, Kansas City is the only team that doesn’t have a win over the Buccaneers in the 21st century.
Maybe it was a trap game, as the Chiefs face Denver for a critical AFC West battle next Sunday night. Maybe they were overconfident, even though the Bucs played quite well in blistering the Bears in Week 10. Maybe Alex Smith and the offense were due for a bad game; he certainly had one with a red zone pick to Chris Conte and playing without top receiver Jeremy Maclin. The Chiefs need to get it out of their system quickly even though they’re still two games clear of the closest AFC Wild Card competitors chasing them.
Tampa Bay improves to 5-5 and that thrusts them into the NFC playoff picture. Heck, it’s just a game behind NFC South-leading Atlanta. They’re an odd team, 4-1 on the road and 1-4 at home. Winston continues to ride the sophomore roller coaster with a revolving door of unhealthy running backs around him. In this one, top back Doug Martin returned and played better than his numbers (24 carries, 63 yards) would indicate. They’re just good enough to be dangerous in a dangerously mediocre NFC, but also just bad enough to lose their next four games.
$.06--NFL teams set a record nobody should be proud of on Sunday. Kickers combined to miss 11 extra points, one more than any other week of games in the Super Bowl era. And just like that I had to edit this--Dustin Hopkins of Washington just missed the 12th. That doesn’t count one missed Thursday night either.
Even normally reliable kickers missed some. Matt Prater in Detroit and Stephen Gostkowski for New England both missed. Prater’s was a comedy of slight errors: a low wobbler of a snap, a hold by Sam Martin that forced Prater to kick the laces, and a bad block up front which led to a tipped ball.
The NFL moved the extra point back in order to make it less of a formality and more of an actual action. Mission accomplished. Just last week I devoted space to Pittsburgh eschewing the more difficult extra point and instead going for two on all four of their touchdowns. They failed on all four in a game where Dallas also missed on two two-point conversions.
The uncertainty of the longer extra point creates real drama. Never forget the NFL is an entertainment production, and any drama adds to the entertainment engagement. Will more coaches opt to take Mike Tomlin’s lead and go for two? Will kickers practice it more? Will the competition committee move the distance once again, perhaps splitting the difference between the automatic old spot and the more troublesome new length?
What’s fascinating is how some of the national media treats this change. Many who decry the lack of meaningful action are the same who grouse that the NFL modified what was handily the least exciting play and made it interesting. I thought that’s what everyone wanted.
$.07--One of my privileges as a member of the FWAA is I get to vote for NCAA All-American teams. Here is my 2016 ballot, which we filed out over two separate weeks. I completed the second part as the Saturday night games played out this week.
QB - Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
RB - Donnell Pumphrey, San Diego State and Jeremy McNichols, Boise State
WR - Corey Davis, Western Michigan and Zay Jones, East Carolina
TE - Evan Engram, Ole Miss
OT - Taylor Moton, Western Michigan and Adam Bisnowaty, Pittsburgh
OG - Nico Sirgausa, San Diego State and Braden Smith, Auburn
C - Tyler Orlovsky, West Virginia
DL - Jonathan Allen, Alabama; Hunter Dimick, Utah; Harold Landry, Boston College and Ed Oliver, Houston
LB - Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt; Reuben Foster, Alabama and Jabrill Peppers, Michigan
DB - Jaire Alexander, Louisville; Jamal Adams, LSU; Malik Hooker, Ohio State and Jourdan Lewis, Michigan
K - Zane Gonzalez, Arizona State
P - Michael Dickson, Texas
RS - Quadree Henderson, Pittsburgh
Coach of the Year: We nominate three. I chose P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan; Chris Petersen, Washington and Nick Saban, Alabama
The toughest choices were at QB, the second RB after the record-setting Pumphrey, offensive tackle and whittling down the amazing defensive line talent to just four.
--Cincinnati lost 16-12 at home to Buffalo. They also lost A.J. Green and Gio Bernard to season-ending injuries. The Bengals are now 3-6-1 and their playoff string is officially dead in the water. There is already ample speculation on Marvin Lewis’ future as head coach. Lewis has been great in Cincinnati but his window with this particular core team is glued shut with zero playoff wins to show for it.
--On my 6-4 Detroit Lions…
#Lions ran for 14 yards, didn't get a sack, turned ball over twice, missed an extra point and still won.— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) November 20, 2016
The Jaguars cannot possibly consider going forward with the broken Blake Bortles after this season. The new head coach should demand such a stipulation before taking over for dead man walking Gus Bradley.
--San Francisco’s Phil Dawson became just the 10th NFL kicker to make 400 career field goals. He’s played almost his entire career on terrible teams in Cleveland and now San Francisco so most fans probably haven’t seen much of Dawson, who for some time held the NFL record for FG accuracy too.
--Big comeback win by Ryan Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins, who were largely terrible until the final two drives of their 14-10 win over the punchless Rams in Los Angeles. Miami has now won five in a row, all in comeback fashion. This spoiled the underwhelming debut of No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff at the helm for Jeff Fisher’s undisciplined LA team.
--From that game, Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi broke 4 tackles on 16 carries. Rams RB Todd Gurley, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, has broken exactly one tackle since Week 6. Since his spectacular debut month, Gurley has consistently been one of the least effective runners in the league despite playing behind a line specifically molded to help him. That’s on Fisher and Rams management as much as it’s on Gurley, but his startling lack of production and big plays is going severely underreported.
--Phil Simms remains a broadcasting abomination. As CBS opened the coverage of the Philly/Seattle game, Jim Nantz smugly set up his color man for an obviously rehearsed and canned segment. Simms fumbled it away with a mush-mouthed, clueless nonchalance that is a direct insult to every broadcaster who gives a damn about his/her performance. Later he reinforced his egregiousness by boldly declaring that Russell Wilson was either going to run or throw on a play with an empty backfield. You figured that out all by yourself, Phil…?
This play might seem like nothing special…
…except No. 42 carrying the ball is 55-year-old Joe Thomas. He became the oldest player ever to record a D-I carry for FCS-level South Carolina State. Fifty-five years old. Awesome.
--Florida beat LSU 17-16 with a great goal line stand to end the game. Tigers fans will forever wonder about the final two play calls. Third and goal from just inside the 2 and LSU dials up the fullback dive. Fourth and goal from just outside the 1 and RB Derrius Guice thinks the pitch is to the right and not the left; he dives into the giant scrum in the middle and comes up short. LSU had four 1st and goal situations and scored 6 points. That’s not good for Ed Orgeron’s hopes to remove the “interim” from his current head coaching title in Baton Rouge. I endorse my friend Murf Baldwin’s position in this fine commentary over at Scout.com.
--A week before their huge matchup, both Michigan and Ohio State struggled. The Wolverines trailed at halftime before snuffing out Indiana 20-10, while Ohio State survived 17-16 at Michigan State in a game where Urban Meyer was badly outcoached by Spartans counterpart Mark Dantonio. If the same two teams we saw on Saturday show up in Columbus, the sputtering Wolverines still beat those Buckeyes by at least a touchdown.
--Kansas won its first Big 12 game in almost exactly two years by beating Texas. This comes on a day where ESPN ran a crawl stating major Longhorn boosters were ready to dump Coach Charlie Strong and go all out after Houston Coach Tom Herman. Bad day for Strong, who has definitely improved the Longhorns but unfortunately not as fast as the impatient Texas fan base demands. He’d be a fine hire for Purdue.
--Nice win for Colorado in beating Washington State 38-24 to improve to 9-2 and stay in the top 10 of the CFB playoff rankings. Washington State was red hot but the Buffaloes strong secondary and cagey play from QB Sefo Liufau keep Colorado in the driver’s seat in the PAC-12 South. They must beat Utah, which stunningly lost 30-28 to a bad Oregon team. The Cougars play archrival Washington in the Apple Cup for the PAC-12 North. These two could very well meet again in two weeks.
$.10--One of the common themes in this column and around the sports media in general is the overall lousy state of officiating. It’s especially pronounced in football, as anyone who watched any game this weekend can attest.
Yet there are some great officials out there across all sports. And the sport I played--beach volleyball--lost a great one this week.
If you’ve even casually watched beach volleyball over the last decade, including the Rio Olympics, chances are you’ve seen Dan Apol. His signature goatee, sunglasses and half-smile with whistle in mouth were instantly recognizable.
Apol collapsed this week while working an indoor match in Colorado Springs this week. He had an aneurysm and passed away shortly thereafter.
Like me, Dan is 44 years old. Like me, Apol is from West Michigan and a former player.
I can’t even write about him in past tense yet. I didn’t know Apol well, but we have many mutual good friends. The beach volleyball community is tough to describe to outsiders, but it’s tight-knit and incredibly warm inside.
Immediately, every FIVB and AVP player you’ve ever heard of took to social media to honor and respect Apol. FIVB players stopped a match in Brazil for a moment of silence…on their own.
Here’s a top-level official in a sport where the officials often play critical roles in the outcome. Volleyball is full of judgment calls with no replay available for 99.95% of matches. From questions about if a ball was touched by a block, to hands and rotation on a set to if the ball landed in or out, volleyball officials must make those in an instant. They get some wrong and players let them know about it. I know I have and I’m fairly mild-mannered on the court.
Yet the players around the world loved and respected Apol. I asked one of his best friends and frequent officiating partner David Vandermeer, who happens to be a very good friend of mine for the last 15 years as well, about why everyone felt so strongly about an official.
He loved the sport first.
He had the temperament of being firm when needed and fun (approachable) when needed.
Had a smile/smirk when off the court that showed nothing was ever personal.
One of the things him and I talked about a long time ago was 'what is the best match you ever officiated'. We always agreed that it was hopefully our last one. Always striving to improve. If something ever went wrong in a match he would take it hard and internalize it and then improve.
Always had a high 'professionalism' attitude/appearance while doing his match.
These don’t seem all that unusual personal characteristics, but how often do you ever hear any of those things ever said about NFL officials? Of baseball umpires, or NBA referees? Would dozens of NFL players shed real tears if Jeff Triplette or Walt Coleman tragically passed? How often do NFL officials make themselves the center of the game above the players? Apol never once did that. Never.
Again, it really shouldn’t be so revolutionary for an official to be universally respected and beloved by players, fans and peers. Sadly it is, and we lost one of the few who wore the whistle that way this week. RIP Dan.