$.01--NBC smartly flexed the Dallas/New York Giants showdown to the Sunday night feature. Dallas is always a great draw, but facing the only team to beat them this year? Sign me up!
Except it didn’t turn out so grand. The Giants prevailed 10-7 in a game which was more offensive struggle than great defense, though the Giants' defense was pretty darn impressive.
There really wasn’t much excitement despite the charmingly enthusiastic broadcast from Al Michaels and an unusually poignant Cris Collinsworth. They were selling the stuffing out of a 7-0 first half full of bad quarterback play and timely gaffes from both sides. One of those gaffes led to the sole score, a Dallas TD where the Giants somehow forgot to cover Terrance Williams on a deep route for an easy pitch-and-catch. The teams combined to convert just 1 of the first 16 third downs.
The quarterback play was consistently terrible all night on both sides. Manning failed to see an uncovered Roger Lewis for an easy TD early, and forced several bad throws at covered receivers with more prudent options nearby. A brutal INT in the fourth gave Dallas life, and Manning tried his hardest to throw about 4 others. Lucky for Eli, Dak Prescott was arguably even worse. He threw two INTs, the second of which set up New York’s go-ahead touchdown. He threw two other passes which should have been pick-sixes too, and wildly misfired as often as he delivered a strike.
As the game progressed, so too did the Giants defensive confidence. They brought extra rushers and found success in rattling the rookie Prescott, finding gaps in the formidable Cowboys offensive line. It almost seemed like they found a run/pass “tell” on Prescott the way they swarmed to the right point so quickly. Two plays after throwing what one informed observer called his eighth interceptable ball of the night, Prescott finally made a great read in finding Dez Bryant on a hot route, Dez’s first catch of the night on 8 targets…and he promptly fumbled it away.
What did we learn Sunday night?
Foremost, this game should give fans of any potential NFC playoff team hope. Dallas hasn’t been as impressive lately as they were in October. That’s not a slight, just failure to sustain such a high bar. The Giants, who will almost certainly be the No. 5 seed, showed in the same game they are capable of beating anyone but also throw away a game to anyone, too.
For Dallas fans, there should be real concern over Prescott’s errant ball placement. It’s been a simmering issue for a few weeks now, one the Cowboys nation has done its best to sweep under the carpet. It’s not getting better with experience. In fact, it seems defenses are zeroing in on how to more effectively play him. As nice as the solid play in the secondary was, the worries about the precocious young quarterback need to be taken seriously. And no, Tony Romo is not the answer, not on the field anyway. Perhaps it’s time he ups his consigliere role.
New York found a pass rush with a combination of savvy blitzing and strong play from rookie end Romeo Okwara. Their secondary, other than the blown TD, was sticky in coverage and smartly aggressive. Yet they couldn’t run the ball and Manning tried repeatedly to give the game away, with little help from terrible left tackle Ereck Flowers. The win is nice and important, but don’t get too carried away.
$.02--Thursday night finally brought us a significant game, with Kansas City hosting Oakland for the AFC West lead. What was supposed to be a showcase game for Derek Carr in his MVP quest backfired, though in the process we might have found another worthy candidate in Alex Smith.
Smith emphatically outdueled Carr, and the Chiefs held onto a halftime lead to survive 21-13. Carr was clearly bothered by his broken right pinkie, misfiring several times and favoring it between shotgun snaps. Meanwhile Smith was his typical smart, efficient self, though a couple of downfield strikes really made a difference.
One of those went to rookie dynamo Tyreek Hill, who has become the outside weapon and gamebreaker the Chiefs have sorely lacked. He’s one of the fastest players in the league and showed it with his incredible acceleration on a 78-yard punt return house call. A couple of Raiders had angles on Hill but he simply ran past them. Hill also caught a 36-yard TD to open the scoring.
Oakland had chances but couldn’t convert. Two early third quarter takeaways in Chiefs territory netted just one field goal. Even without stalwart ILB Derrick Johnson, who tore his Achilles and is likely to call it a career, the Kansas City defense did a great job stymying Carr and the Raiders wideouts.
This was such a game of role reversal. Kansas City attacked down the field but couldn’t run. Oakland played stout defense up front and even forced some uncharacteristic KC turnovers, but they couldn’t pass and got routed on special teams. As a result, the Chiefs now control the AFC West even though both teams are 10-3.
$.03--The marquee late afternoon game featured one of the NFC’s most heated rivalries in recent times, with Seattle visiting Green Bay. It turned into a complete rout as the Packers rolled the Seahawks 38-10 and the FOX broadcast mercifully switched coverage away early in the fourth quarter.
There are contrasting takeaways from this game, and taken together they explain the odd confluence of events which led to Green Bay’s season apex and Seattle’s season nadir. Russell Wilson threw five interceptions, one of which bounced off receiver Doug Baldwin’s face and up in the air. It was that kind of day for Seattle and Wilson, who was under heavy pressure on just about every pass. Of course he created some of that pressure on himself, showing poor vision in the pocket and choosing ridiculous escape angles.
That’s why I’m not going to read too much into the lopsided outcome. Sure, the Packers looked great. They ran the ball well against the strong Seattle defensive front, which is encouraging, but beyond that it clearly showed how much the Seahawks are scrambling to replace injured safety Earl Thomas. While he cannot be replaced, they will figure things out and progress from this hole. As several folks intimated on Twitter, when the Seahawks are bad they tend to be really, really bad.
I’m not sold the Packers will find so much success on the ground again, though Mike McCarthy was smart to lean on Christine Michael in a revenge game situation. Aaron Rodgers looked impressive before getting some late rest but was clearly favoring his hamstring too. On defense is where Green Bay stood out. Their secondary made plays and their pass rush impacted Wilson from the first drive onward. Given their remaining schedule (@CHI, MIN, @DET), igniting the pass rush and getting some speed back in the secondary is arguably the best shot they’ve got to pull off the improbable division title.
As for the playoff implications, Seattle actually came closer to clinching the NFC West. Every team in the division lost. They did lose control of the No. 2 seed and the coveted bye with Detroit winning. The Packers stayed two games behind Detroit, a team they face in Week 17, but more importantly they stayed in the Wild Card race at 7-6. They still need some help but are nicely posited to help themselves too.
Another surprise was the game FOX switched once this one was out of hand. The other top draw game in the late afternoon slot was Atlanta at Los Angeles, but that game was even more lopsided--it was 42-0 entering the fourth quarter. Instead we got treated to the exciting Tampa Bay/New Orleans finish with the best broadcast team in the business: Thom Brenneman between Chris Spielman and Charles Davis. More of that, less of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, please…
$.04--Denver and Tennessee held a royal rumble brawl with surprising football playoff implications. The Titans pulled off this week’s minor Any Given Sunday in the process, running past the Broncos 13-10.
This game was terse from the get-go, and the pot boiled over with this disgusting cheap shot from Titans wideout Harry Douglas:
A retaliatory hit from Aqib Talib on Douglas ignited a brawl. While I never advocate retaliatory violence, there is no question Douglas should have been ejected for this blatant attempt at injuring Denver’s Chris Harris. It didn’t even draw a flag, and in discussing the play with some folks I’m not entirely convinced anything was technically illegal. And this is why the NFL continues its hypocritical dive in the ratings. Incidentally graze Aaron Rodgers on the shoulder pad as he throws the ball and it’s roughing the passer, but diving at the knees of an unsuspecting defender in the name of blocking is perfectly fine? To quote Al Powell from Die Hard (the best Christmas movie ever), why don’t you start smelling what you’re shoveling, Roger Goodell…
Tennessee’s win puts the Titans at 7-6 while dropping the Broncos to 8-5. On a day where Miami won again to improve to 8-5 despite losing QB Ryan Tannehill to a torn ACL, the AFC playoff race just got a lot more interesting. Tennessee is now tied with the Houston Texans atop the AFC South after Houston downed mistake-plagued Indianapolis. Houston and Tennessee meet in Week 17 and the winner almost certainly wins the division. Both teams also face Jacksonville, which is essentially a guaranteed win at this point as Blake Bortles continues to stink up the joint. The Titans securing the tie-break here with Denver could wind up being critical, as these Broncos are likely to be underdogs in all three of their remaining games. Consider Tennessee potentially making the playoffs over Denver the Any Given Sunday, season edition.
$.05--Sunday was the best opportunity for the Cleveland Browns to escape the humiliating clutches of a winless season. The injury-ravaged, dispirited Cincinnati Bengals came to First Energy Field with little to play for other than dignity, and that often goes out the window against a desperate team like the Browns figured to be. I seriously toyed with picking the Browns in this week’s Football Meteorology.
Fortunately I read the prevailing winds aloft correctly and ignored the surface front. This game was over after each team had the ball twice. Cincinnati scored touchdowns on both, while the Browns ran 11 plays and gained 13 net yards after a penalty. The Bengals trudged on thru the light snow and prevailed 23-10 in front of a gradually diminishing crowd that was almost entirely orange seats by the middle of the third quarter. Nobody in Cleveland wanted to watch this sad excuse any longer, and when resale tickets were going for just $3 it’s hard to blame folks for bailing.
This was Robert Griffin III’s big chance to write his redemption story. RG3 returned to the Cleveland starting lineup after missing almost the entire season so far with injury. In theory, this seemed to line up perfectly for the dual-threat quarterback. In theory. In practice, well…
Cleveland racked up 52 yards in the first half. Griffin threw an interception on the first play of the fourth drive on a flea flicker from his own end zone, a heave into triple coverage which set up an easy Bengals TD to push the lead to 20-0 and sap any hope. RGIII finished 12-for-28 for 104 yards and was sacked 3 times for a QB Rating of 38.4. I’m not a huge fan of the QB Rating formula but that one’s pretty indicative of how awful Griffin was as a passer. He did run for a TD and helped Isaiah Crowell break the century mark on just 10 carries, but that’s not sustainable in the NFL.
So the Browns will be forced to move on from yet another quarterback. Granted the odds were extremely low Griffin would be the answer, but for him to be so terrible is depressing. The question for Hue Jackson now is, do you ride out the historically awful season with him or do you try something else? Griffin finds himself in an odd spot here too. If he plays more and continues to look terrible, this is probably his last chance. But if he doesn’t play more, this is the lasting impression potential suitors will have of him.
$.06--The San Diego Chargers are coming to an end in more ways than one. Sunday’s 28-16 loss to Carolina dropped the Chargers to 5-8 and ended any faint hope of a playoff miracle. Now the countdown is on for the Chargers to move up the Pacific coast to Los Angeles. Per numerous reports and after voters defeated a funding proposal to keep the team in San Diego, the Chargers won’t be in San Diego beyond the final three games of 2016.
After the loss in Carolina, those three games cannot end soon enough. The Chargers offense played about as poorly as possible. Philip Rivers was responsible for five turnovers, with three INTs and two fumbles. He was also sacked in the end zone for a safety.
One of those fumbles came on a strip sack, and in the scrum to recover Rivers’ mishap the Chargers lost star running back Melvin Gordon to a hip injury. He was carted off and did not return. Gordon wasn’t the only costly loss, unfortunately; outstanding rookie defensive end Joey Bosa left the game after an ugly neck injury suffered on a collision with Cam Netwon. The initial diagnosis was a concussion, though he later cleared protocol.
San Diego’s defense was outstanding even with Bosa sidelined for a significant portion. Newton completed just 10 of 27 and threw an INT to balance his TD throw. Carolina netted just 126 rushing yards on 38 carries, but this game was never really in doubt because of how atrocious Rivers and the San Diego offense played. Rivers now has 10 INT, 11 sacks and 2 lost fumbles in the last four weeks. You might recall last season Rivers, now 35, tailed off badly at the end as well, enough that many prominent draft media expected them to select his eventual successor at No. 3 overall instead of Bosa. Expect those talks to get even hotter this year as the team relocates, a perfect time to transition to a new quarterback.
$.07--Louisville QB Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, running away with the most prominent individual award in any team sport.
He won fairly convincingly:
1. Lamar Jackson, 2144 votes
2. Deshaun Watson, 1524
3. Baker Mayfield, 361
4. Dede Westbrook, 209
5. Jabrill Peppers, 208
The top three are all quarterbacks, which is about as surprising as a Geico ad. This was a two-horse race between Jackson and Watson, who guided the Clemson Tigers to the CFB Playoff as well as beating Jackson head to head on the field.
I have no problem with Jackson winning. He burst out of the gate with enough momentum to carry him through a midseason lull, and his exciting style imprinted strongly in voters’ minds. Watson belonged in New York for the ceremony as well, indicative of his strong statistical output for a team cemented in the top 3 since last year. He has some flaws from a scouting standpoint, but as a college football player Watson was a treasure.
The other three players…?
I would have gone with Western Michigan wideout Corey Davis over Westbrook. Davis posted 91 catches, 1427 yards, 18 TDs, and his team went 13-0. Westbrook caught 74 for 1465 yards and 16 TDs but did so playing 5 pass defenses which finished in the bottom 20; Davis faced just 2 but also 3 in the top 25. And if wins matter, Davis plays for an undefeated team while Westbrook’s Sooners lost twice in September.
Neither is close to the most prolific individual receiving talent. That would be Zay Jones from East Carolina and his record-setting 158 catches and 1746 yards. Jones at least deserved as many votes as Peppers, who had a fair amount of tackles for loss and some thrilling punt returns but was overall sorely lacking in the impact play department. Peppers wasn’t even the best candidate on his own defense; Jourdan Lewis was a better college football player in 2016. So was San Diego State RB Donnell Pumphrey. So too was Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen, winner of the Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player.
From a scouting perspective, the Heisman means next to nothing. Of course Jackson isn’t draft-eligible this year. Watson and the others are, but don’t include their Heisman finish in their list of NFL-worthy assets.
--San Francisco signed tight end Vance McDonald to a 5-year-$35M contract extension. That’s outrageous for a guy who is an underachieving talent who has struggled to stay on the field. He has 64 receptions in four seasons with a catch rate of about 55 percent. On a better team he’d be a backup. The Niners have cap space galore but overpaying minor role players like McDonald will help explain why no players on great consequence will have any interest in taking any of it.
--In related news to the Niners, several sources this week reported GM Trent Baalke is not likely to return to San Francisco. Baalke cooked his own goose by drafting so many players with major injury concerns. Not one, from Marcus Lattimore to Brandon Thomas to Tank Carradine to Deandre Smelter, ever panned out. Beyond Baalke’s toxic relationship with Jim Harbaugh, to replacing him with traveling meat salesman Jim Tomsula and then validating the take that Chip Kelly belongs in college, the high-risk draft strategy blowing up in his face belongs on Baalke’s GM epitaph.
--Following up on last week’s Jeff Fisher rant…
Touchdowns in Los Angeles Coliseum in 2016:— Josh Levin (@josh_levin) December 12, 2016
Rams offense: 5
Next week Fisher will tie the all-time record for coaching losses. The Rams might as well keep him for another year because that’s a terrible team saddled with Jared Goff, who gets worse by the quarter, and no first-round pick to help build around him. Rams fans will long for the glory days of a 7-9 Fisher finish.
--If you wonder why this Lions fan is smiling…
Stafford broke the fingertip on his right middle finger and apparently suffered some ligament damage as well. He wore a series of gloves to try and help, though this was his worst passing outing of the season. As long as he’s not terribly impacted, the Lions are in great shape to win their first-ever NFC North title. They’ve won 8 of 9 for the first time since 1962 after squeaking past the feisty Bears, who are easily the best of the NFL’s “bad” teams.
--The Saints lost to Tampa Bay in a must-win game, and for the second week in a row the New Orleans offense was smothered by a team above them in the NFC pecking order. This development has not gone unnoticed by the Big Easy media, and rightly so:
So that's what the #saints get from a $9M per year coach; a team utterly incapable of showing up in the most crucial games.— Lyons Yellin WWL-TV (@LyonsYellin) December 12, 2016
There was talk of Payton moving on a couple of offseasons ago. His offense has grown stale and predictable. Maybe it’s time for a change…
--Some context is necessary for this so-called bomb from Adam Schefter…
First, no team has finalized grades at this point. The scouting department probably has an on-field grade finalized, but the coaching staff hasn’t even looked at college players yet. Many NFL coaches haven’t seen a single snap of college football to this point. Even in an analytical front office like Cleveland, the coaches’ input still matters. The medical and character portions of the grades aren’t even close to being done yet, either.
Do the Browns scouts love Garrett? There should be little doubt to Schefter’s report. Just understand that’s but one component of the final grade. That same team had a low scouting grade on one Johnny Manziel but took him in the first round anyway.
--Pittsburgh RB James Conner declared for the draft. His on-field game echoes of Jerome Bettis, a bigger man with light, quick feet and exceptional balance. His inspirational story as a cancer survivor makes him someone everyone can root for. He’ll be the most popular fourth-round pick in 2017.
--On Friday night I settled in to watch Sam Houston State and James Madison in the FCS playoffs. These are two of the more entertaining and stacked programs at that level, and it sure promised to be a worthy watch. It didn’t turn out that way. James Madison led 28-0 by the end of the first quarter, when I bailed to watch Bad Santa. I missed nothing as the Dukes won 65-7 to advance to the FCS semifinals.
--The Senior Bowl pulled a major surprise by inviting Tiffin QB Antonio Pipkin. The D-II sleeper wasn’t even the best QB in the GLIAC conference, finishing no better than third in any stat metric and dead last in yards per attempt, which tends to be more important in projecting lower-level QBs to the NFL than completion percentage or TD/INT ratio. I’ve only seen two custom-cut highlight videos and my initial impression is he’s a great athlete who needs a great deal of work as a quarterback. Even so, I applaud Phil Savage and the Senior Bowl for giving the small-school kid a shot. Hopefully they’ll go back to the GLIAC next year for Bart Williams of Grand Valley State, whom I absolutely believe has an NFL future.
$.10--John Glenn passed away on Thursday, and with his departure goes one of my life heroes.
Growing up in Ohio we learned a great deal about John Glenn. He was a Senator from our state for almost three decades, after all. That’s how I first knew of him, as a Senator. Yet I quickly learned he was so much more.
War hero in both WWII and Korea. Test pilot. Astronaut. Senator. Those are how we know him.
I studied Glenn when I was a teenager, reading anything and everything I could get my hands on about the American icon. What stood out in my impressionable mind was how he wasn’t afraid to stand up for what he believed even if it wasn’t the popular or partisan thing to do. He was a man of great personal faith but also tremendous scientific curiosity and wonder, a position neither side of that coin will allow anymore.
He was also quippy, and if you’ve read my work at all over the last few years you know that’s a quality I envy a little too much. His “Gold Star Mothers” speech to upend the Ohio Democratic party, his goody-goody responses to loaded questions, his open-eyed realism, he mastered the art of insightful deflection.
This is a personal favorite:
"As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind - every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder." RIP. pic.twitter.com/Ek1pCKpOY7— Ben Domenech (@bdomenech) December 8, 2016
That picture was in a book I read in 6th grade and that was how I always wanted to be, a man relaxed and proud of who he is. The movie The Right Stuff remains an all-time favorite, ironic because when my parents dragged me to the Sandusky Mall to see it as a 10-year-old I wanted nothing to do with it.
I never got to meet Glenn. I used to drive by the NASA Glenn facility at the Cleveland Airport almost daily and I never forgot who it was named for or what he stood for. He was someone who did his job faithfully even in the face of great challenge and controversy. He did it happy he was privileged enough to earn the challenge. John Glenn wasn’t exactly shy about his pride in his life accomplishments, he carried himself with a benevolence and approachable dignity. You don’t find that much anymore.
RIP John Glenn.