$.01--Frequent readers know I’ve been a Detroit Lions fan for almost 40 years, but I try to avoid making them the lead story. Often that’s pretty easy, because the team has seldom been all that noteworthy in the 12 years I’ve been writing in this space.

So forgive me for being boastful about my first-place Detroit Lions. Matthew Stafford and his mates played their best, most complete game of the season in soundly beating the Saints 28-13 in New Orleans. Detroit is now 8-4 after starting the season 1-3, and this road win is easily the most impressive.

Stafford was on the money form the opening drive, shredding apart a New Orleans defense which had quietly improved over the last month.

He completed 13 in a row in one stretch, including two conversions on 3rd and long. Golden Tate broke out for 145 yards and a long TD where two Saints lost him in coverage and he outraced everyone with some artful dodging to the end zone. 

It’s not all that surprising the Lions scored 28 on New Orleans, even with the Saints’ recent defensive uptick. What is a stunner is how well an undermanned Detroit defense bottled up Drew Brees and the explosive Saints offense. New Orleans posted just 122 yards in the first half, 75 of which came on the final drive. Detroit picked off Brees three times, two of them clear baiting jobs on the veteran QB, and dominated the time of possession battle almost 2-to-1 as the New Orleans offense couldn’t sustain an attack.

This is Detroit’s first win by more than one score all year. Heck, it’s the first game they haven’t trailed in the final 2 minutes all year. They never trailed and even though the offense struggled in the end zone, this game never really seemed out of the Lions control. Lions fans have been reluctant--justifiably--to put much faith in this team even with the recent run of wins. This is the kind of game to change perspective. The offense and the defense both had strong, consistent games at the same time. That hasn’t happened all year. It hasn’t really happened since Jim Caldwell took over as head coach in 2014. Detroit now holds a two-game lead in the NFC North and draws 3-9 Chicago in Ford Field next Sunday. The odds are very high this is the year the Lions win their first-ever NFC North title. If they play like they did in New Orleans, they’ll be winning just the franchise’s second playoff game in the Super Bowl era.

$.02--Kansas City staked its claim to being New England’s prime challenger in the AFC with a gusty, impressive and somewhat lucky 29-28 win in Atlanta.

The manner in which Kansas City got to 29 is about as crazy as you can get. After racing out to a 27-16 lead into the fourth quarter, the Chiefs started to lose their grip. An outstanding drive, helped in part by two Chiefs penalties, closed the gap to 27-22. The Falcons failed on the 2-pt. conversion but quickly came up with a defensive stop to get Matt Ryan another shot. Ryan atoned for an earlier pick-six with a methodical, balanced drive covering 80 yards in 10 plays. He found Aldrick Robinson on a delayed slant from 5 yards out to put the Falcons back on top 28-27.

Atlanta fatefully opted to try another 2-pt. conversion to push the margin to 3. As there is no real difference to being up 1 or 2, it’s a sound decision. Or rather it should have been a sound decision. Then this happened…

That’s two points for Kansas City and all of the sudden the 28-27 lead is a 29-28 deficit for a shell-shocked Georgia Dome crowd.

The Chiefs manufactured a great win with crazy plays like this. Berry was responsible for the earlier pick-six on a late and inaccurate toss from Ryan over the middle, and his lightning struck twice. Kansas City also scored a touchdown on a brilliant fake punt where Albert Wilson caught the deceptive snap and burst up the middle almost untouched.

When the offense is sputtering, teams need to get creative and find ways to win. Atlanta posted 32 first downs. Kansas City committed 13 penalties to the Falcons’ 5. Take away Wilson’s TD scamper and the Chiefs averaged just 3 yards per carry. It’s not easy to win that way without luck or creativity.

That’s exactly what the Chiefs did in Atlanta, and it’s why they’re a dangerous 9-3 team heading towards the playoffs.

$.03--We have our first official playoff team in 2016. Congrats to the Dallas Cowboys, who clinched a postseason nod when Patrick Peterson picked off Kirk Cousins and the Arizona Cardinals defeated Washington.

The Cowboys are 11-1 and that loss came by one point on opening weekend. This week they didn’t look all that impressive but still managed to knock off the Vikings in Minnesota on Thursday night. Dak Prescott had a quiet 139 yards passing, Ezekiel Elliott never really broke out and the Cowboys lost two fumbles against an inspired, stingy Vikings defense. That purple-clad D probably had some words with the offense and special teams, both of which were abysmal for Minnesota.

Sam Bradford managed just 247 yards on 45 attempts, a pathetic efficiency. This was actually Minnesota’s best rushing outing on the season, but it still wasn’t nearly enough to loosen up the coverage or convince Bradford to look down the field. He had chances as the Dallas defense showed some cracks, but Sammy Sleeves just isn’t good enough to deliver when needed. Now the Cowboys head into a primetime showdown with the team who handed them that opening loss, the New York Giants. While Dallas continues to win, they’re now getting other team’s best shots and that can take a toll after a bit. New York desperately needs the win after an ugly loss at Pittsburgh dropped them to 8-4 and all but handed the NFC East division to Dallas.

In Arizona’s win, the Cardinals just might have salvaged the season thanks to increased aggression and decision making from Coach Bruce Arians. He consistently dictated the action, from a fourth-down call which had everyone mimicking Bill Raftery’s iconic “Onions” to some heavy blitzes. The pressure on the final play forced Cousins to misfire, and the loss reshuffled the bottom of the NFC playoff deck. Washington is now 6-5-1 and looking up at 7-5 Tampa Bay, an impressive comeback winner in San Diego. Arizona sits at 5-6-1, with Green Bay and Minnesota both 6-6 also firmly in the mix.

$.04--The Los Angeles Rams apparently love finishing 7-9 and in third place in the NFC West. That is the message owner Stan Kroenke sent on Sunday with the surprise contract extension for Head Coach Jeff Fisher.

Normally I advocate for organizational stability, but not for the Rams. Fisher seized second place on the all-time coaching loss list last week. He hasn’t coached a team to more than 8 wins in his last seven coaching seasons, including all 5 with the Rams. Fisher has won 5 playoff games in 22 coaching seasons, and three of those came with the 1999 Titans. “Drain the swamp” was a common political refrain this year. The Rams swamp moved from St. Louis, but even moving to a drought-stricken area did little to sop up the swampy mess. This explains a lot:

The dismal swamp got yuckier on Sunday. New England chummed them into the murky water 26-10 in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the 16-point margin would indicate. Rookie No. 1 overall pick QB Jared Goff looked like alligator bait in completing 14 of 32 while under constant duress behind an offensive line that is worse than the sum of its inadequate parts.

Fisher has more influence on roster decisions than most head coaches, so those shortcomings are on him. He’s still trying to win that 1999 Super Bowl with his monster defensive line and great special teams even though the NFL game has moved onto different trends, schemes and even rules since. His Rams are now 4-8 and that includes a 28-0 loss to a San Francisco team which might be the worst all-around team of the entire Super Bowl era. It’s inexcusable for Kroenke to reward this historic range of coaching ineptitude. Although if Fisher can somehow guide this mess to his annual 7-9 finish he might deserve to remain swamp master.

$.05--Any Given Sunday, Week 13 edition came in Baltimore. It’s not that anyone is really surprised the Ravens would beat the Dolphins; Baltimore is a capable squad and the two teams now have the same 7-5 record. The oddity is the 38-6 shellacking over a Miami team that had won six in a row and was playing great on both sides of the ball.

The Dolphins had no answers for Joe Flacco, who lit up the “Elite Meter” against the largely bland Miami zone. Flacco consistently made the correct read and delivered strikes, none more impressive than his TD laser to TE Dennis Pitta between two defenders. Miami’s defense seemed both passive and easily confused by crosses and play fakes. Flacco threw 4 TDs and dealt with very little pressure from a Miami defense that has been playing quite well during the six-game win streak.

Then there was the Miami offense. Ryan Tannehill couldn’t get anything going. The Ravens seemed to know where the ball was headed before the improving QB even threw it. They didn’t score until a fluke turnover gave them the ball inside the Baltimore 10 in the fourth quarter and the game already well out of hand. Tannehill threw three INTs and struggled with the Baltimore pass rush, which was unrelenting as Miami had to play from way behind early. The pressure is now on Miami to prove this was just a one-off bad outing after a week where the team struggled more than anticipated with lowly San Francisco.

Honorable mention here goes to Cincinnati for upending Philadelphia 32-14. This is the starkest clarion call yet that the Eagles’ 3-0 start was a major false positive. This was one of Andy Dalton’s most productive and efficient games despite no A.J. Green, no Gio Bernard, no running attack from Jeremy Hill (33 yards on 23 carries) and no real momentum while mired in a 1-5-1 run.

Somehow the Bengals registered 15 official passes defended (PDs) on Carson Wentz. At least six of those were batted down at the line. Even Bengals reporters and fans commented on social media how uninspired and predictable the Eagles were on both sides of the ball. Cincinnati might not win again this year, and that includes a date with the winless Browns. Philadelphia might not either, and that’s why this game was a lot more about the Eagles than the Bengals.

$.06--We finally have resolution on the CFB playoff thanks to the oddly scheduled selection show extravaganza on ESPN.

Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington are the national semifinalists. There is little surprise here even with Saturday’s outcomes, notably Penn State winning the B1G.

Washington proved they belong in the CFB playoff by annihilating Colorado 41-10 in the PAC-12 Championship. As soon as freshman safety Taylor Rapp pick-sixed walking wounded Colorado QB Sefo Liufau on the first play of the third quarter, the Huskies were poised for the playoff. If Washington’s defense plays the way it has the last two weeks, they’re the only team that can stay within a touchdown of Alabama…but only if QB Jake Browning plays significantly better than he did against Colorado’s strong defense.

Yes, Penn State beat Ohio State and they won the title in what was hands down the best conference this year. And one of their two losses came early on to a Pittsburgh team which later beat Clemson. It’s the two losses that are the problem, and the second loss was a boat race devastation by a Michigan team Ohio State just beat last week. Two losses is more than one and it’s that simplistic mindset that helps justify Clemson and Ohio State being in over Penn State. Though I will say for the record I do think Penn State would beat Clemson on a neutral field. I’m picking them to beat an overhyped USC team in the Rose Bowl.

Oklahoma never really had much of an argument. Ohio State thumped them in Norman, and their loss to Houston looked worse after the Cougars suffered some brutal losses of their own. Michigan lost two of its last three and wasn’t impressive in the win over Indiana sandwiched between. I would argue the Wolverines were one of the four best teams in the country up until November, but over the last 4-5 games they were merely pretty good. The Harbaughs should destroy Florida State in the Orange Bowl as long as their outstanding defense can step up and handle Dalvin Cook.

ESPN ran the selection show on Sunday at noon, just when most folks are making the transition from college to NFL mindset. They spent the next four hours going over all the bowls at a time where all eyes are on the pros. I get the desire to capitalize on the championship weekend momentum, but why not put it off until 7 PM? Or better yet, push it back to Monday when folks could actually patronize title sponsor Chick-Fil-A…

$.07--Friday night was all about the #MACtion. I am a proud Ohio University grad, and I got the rare chance to see my Bobcats take on the undefeated Western Michigan Broncos for the Mid-American Conference title in Ford Field in Detroit.

This caused a little bit of internal strife, as I live near WMU and attended two Broncos games this year. I have a real affection for this Western Michigan team and Coach P.J. Fleck, whom I’ve had the opportunity to interview on-air a handful of times. They’re a special team, the best MAC team I’ve seen in my 26-year affiliation with the conference. But against my beloved alma mater, a perennial laughingstock for most of the last 40 years until a solid recent run? Go Bobcats!

The game was a legit thriller. Ohio overcame two early fumbles and kept it close despite Western Michigan’s clearly superior offense. A couple of rare Zach Terrell interceptions allowed the Bobcats to hang around. Ultimately the Broncos, led by record-setting wideout Corey Davis, held on 29-23 to remain undefeated and capture the school’s first conference title since 1988.

The MAC is mostly known for the funny hashtag and playing on odd nights in front of sparse crowds. The schools live in the shadow of the Big Ten neighbors who graciously schedule one just about every season as a way to pad the win column and keep the money fairly local. So for Western Michigan to run the table and earn a Cotton Bowl berth as the top Group of Five team, it means a great deal to the member schools.

These Broncos deserve it. There were over 45,000 of us packed into Ford Field and it was as loud as any Lions game. The ovation Fleck got from both fan bases when announced as MAC Coach of the Year shows the unique bond between MAC schools. Every Ohio fan there desperately wants WMU to win the Cotton Bowl against Wisconsin, and you’d better believe the Broncos fans will pull for Ohio in the Dollar General Bowl. Unless it’s your school’s direct rival (OUrs is Miami, WMU’s is Central Michigan) the fans of all the schools are very keen and dutiful in rooting for the other MAC members. It’s far beyond what you see in the Big Ten or ACC. It’s the antithesis of the SEC, where wishing nothing less than painful humiliation on conference rivals in outside contests is the norm.

Congrats to the Broncos, and thank you Frank Solich for revolutionizing Ohio Bobcat football into something we can be proud of year in and out!

$.08--NFL Quickies

--Really enjoyed the ESPN feature on the customized cleats and the artists who created them for this special week. And kudos to the No Fun League for relenting and allowing the players to express themselves and support causes important to them, if only for a week.

--Have we seen the last of Gronk? The stud Patriots TE is now on IR after his third back surgery. It’s Rob Gronkowski’s eighth significant surgery of his pro career. He’s only 27 but this is the second surgery on the same herniated disk, and he’s also herniated the disk two below it. You don’t need to be a doctor to know that is not good.

--In case you wonder why I will never pick the Jaguars to win a game as long as Blake Bortles is their QB…

--One reason why the Broncos are still dangerous even though they have quarterback and offensive line issues:

Then again they were facing Bortles and the Jaguars…

--Derek Anderson surprisingly got the start for Carolina in Seattle in the Sunday Night game, as Cam Newton was benched for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. Anderson promptly threw an INT on the game’s first play. Not a good way to start.

$.09--College/Draft quickies

--Best moment of the Big Ten Championship came at the coin toss. The B1G had the families of Mike Sadler and Sam Foltz featured at midfield. Those were the punters from Michigan State and Nebraska who were tragically killed in a car accident last summer. Michigan State honored Sadler at the Spartans’ home game against Wisconsin and it was one of the best moments I’ve ever seen in person in sports.

--Longtime SEC voice Verne Lundquist called his final game Saturday in Alabama’s embarrassing romp over Florida. CBS did a wonderful job honoring one of the most iconic college football presences, too. My father’s interaction with Lundquist many years ago wasn’t so warm and fuzzy…

Back in the 1980s my father got tabbed to provide ice cream in the press box for an Ohio State game. I tagged along and enjoyed the free field-side seat in the Horseshoe. After the game my dad told me about what it was like up there, and he said everyone was really nice and welcoming, except one Verne Lundquist. Apparently Lundquist doesn’t like vanilla ice cream and unloaded on my dad--who is an imposing physical presence with a Bill Belichick-like scowl at times--that he was a no-good jackass (I’m paraphrasing) for not having strawberry ice cream.

Complaining about free ice cream in the press box. Sigh. I never wanted to be that guy, and you’d better believe I remember that every time I walk into a press box and enjoy whatever we credentialed media are lucky enough to receive. Here ends my wet blanket Verne Lundquist anecdote.

--I don’t have a Heisman Trophy vote, but this year my ballot would have looked like this:

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

2. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan

3. Donnell Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State

Jackson had his down moments but his highs were more than enough to merit the award. Davis and Pumphrey both set records by consistently being amazing individual talents who also elevated their teams. I’d have Alabama DL Jonathan Allen over any other offensive player and wouldn’t object to anyone who had him No. 2.

--If you missed it, I released my offensive positional big board on Friday. Defense is coming this week. 

$.10--Sunday marked the 18-month mark for my heart surgery. If you haven’t read the story behind it or wish to read it again, check it out here before you proceed.

Some things have changed a little since I wrote that back in June, and because I still get asked about it quite a bit, I thought I’d share more of the journey.

Everything is still doing well, but it’s not without complications. As it was at the year mark, it’s hard to tell sometimes if the issues are as much about my advancing age as it is my bovine heart valve.

Foremost is the loss of strength. I’ve never been a muscular guy but didn’t lack strength as an adult. For those who’ve never seen or met me, I looked like a fairly fit beach volleyball player…which I was. While not being a weight room junkie, I did fairly intense strength training a couple of times a week for several years.

Now when I weight train, particularly with my chest and shoulders, I can barely use half the weight I used to work out. I can feel it in my chest long after I’m done too. Even though my sternum is fully healed, it’s still just not what it used to be. Nor is my peak lung capacity.

The cold air really bothers me. There is no medical rationale behind it, but I’m much more sensitive to cold now. Perhaps it’s because my normal body temperature is now a full degree higher than pre-surgery. I never get numb fingers or toes anymore.

My resting pulse is back to a normal, stable range, which is great. Unfortunately the increased blood flow and efficiency stresses some of my blood vessels from time to time, and it causes terrible cramping and muscle spasms. Sometimes I get them so badly in my upper back that it forces all the air out of me and I nearly choke. I also have an official diagnosis of vertigo, which is a very annoying though fairly innocuous malady for the relatively minor degree I suffer.

I’m still as active as I can be. I got back on the competitive volleyball court this fall and I recently started playing in a basketball league. My weight range is consistently 10-15 pounds heavier than before surgery and unfortunately that’s not apt to change, though that has as much to do with the aging process than the cow part in my heart.

I appreciate all the support I’ve received over the last 18 months. The linked piece I wrote above has been shared over 5,000 times on social media and I’ve been blessed to talk about my experience on the air and in interviews with a couple of medical programs. Please take care of yourself and if something doesn’t feel right, get it checked out. It just might save your life. It saved mine.