It was an amazing week for the NFL in so many ways. Sunday turned out to be one of the best days of action in a long time, even with a giant elephant sitting in front of the television.

$.01— The only game pitting undefeated teams lived up to its billing in Detroit. The Lions and Falcons played a thoroughly entertaining contest befitting two of the best teams in the NFC. It’s a shame the game the way it ended.

I’m not talking about the final score, though the Lions fan in me does cringe at losing 30-26. The game ended on an officiating technicality which came about only because the officials on the field initially got a play wrong. If you missed it…

Golden Tate caught a quick slant from Matthew Stafford just inside the Atlanta 1 with 11 seconds left. Tate appeared to lunge the ball over the goal line and the play was ruled on the field as a touchdown. Ford Field erupted as the Lions capped off another thrilling comeback.

Except Tate didn’t score. The official review determined—I believe correctly—that Tate was touched down before the ball crossed the goal line. Normally that would be fine, but because the officials on the field got the initial call wrong it spurred a technicality which unfortunately ended the game. Because the clock stopped when the officials ruled it a touchdown, the rule states there must be a 10-second runoff. Somehow the clock bled down to 8 seconds even though the clock showing 11 seconds at the time where Tate caught the ball is clearly visible on replays. The officials clearly did not review that part of the equation.

For a game where two very good teams went at it for over 59 minutes, that it ended because of a poorly conceived rule and an officiating error is a damn shame. The Lions could have avoided that by Stafford throwing to Tate in the actual end zone, but I digress.

For the Lions, this game was a validation that the 2-0 start was not an aberration. The defense remains opportunistic and aggressive at taking the ball away, a concerted focus to help erase last year’s sins. Stafford once again played well and protected the ball. His good friend Matt Ryan was more uneven, throwing two TDs (one a fantastic run-after-catch by Taylor Gabriel) but also 3 INTs including a Glover Quin pick-six.

Quin’s big play is part of why this Lions team isn’t going away despite the tough loss. Stafford’s stats were pedestrian for him standards: 25-of-45, 264 yards, 1 TD. The Lions ran 19 times for 71 yards. In recent Lions years, that would have led to a blowout loss. This is the most balanced Detroit team in a very long time, where the offense, defense and special teams are all capable of making the positive difference.

Atlanta is like that too, and they have superior talent where it matters. That’s why they are the best team in the NFL in my book. Of course there’s still 13 more chapters to write…

$.02— Any Given Sunday, London edition

Sunday’s orgiastic day of football kicked off the covers in London, with the Jacksonville Jaguars “hosting” the Baltimore Ravens at Wembley Stadium. The Jaguars proved quite rude as hosts, denying the previously unbeaten Ravens tea, crumpets, and any other English colloquialism you can think of.

Baltimore arrived in London 2-0 and having allowed just 10 points. The Jaguars matched that in the first quarter and didn’t stop. Their 44-7 rampage over Joe Flacco and the ravaged Ravens will represent one of the biggest blowouts all season. Not bad for a team that entered the game as a 3-point underdog.

Flacco and the Ravens offense were completely dominated from the very first snap. They managed just 20 net yards in the first half and converted but 1 first down. Baltimore yanked Flacco for his own safety after he completed 8 or 18 for just 28 yards and two INTs. Ryan Mallett mopped up and led them to their landfill-time score. Meanwhile Blake Bortles had perhaps the best game of his career. The Jaguars scored on five of their first six possessions in the first half. Just for good measure they tacked on three more touchdowns in the second half. There is no mercy in Jacksonville’s London dojo.

This marks two times in three weeks where the Jaguars defense has overwhelmed the opponent. Calais Campbell continues to look like the best free-agent acquisition of 2017, notching another sack and generally disrespecting the manly vigor of anyone who tries to stop him. The linebacking corps of Paul Poszluzny, Telvin Smith and Myles Jack get sideline to sideline as well as any, and they seem to blend well together. When the offense does its part, and they certainly did in London, the Jaguars are finally a formidable franchise. 

$.03— According to an examination of his brain, former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was suffering from a fairly severe form of C.T.E. when he killed himself at age 27. The results of the posthumous study of Hernandez became public this week. Boston University researchers determined Hernandez has Stage III C.T.E. brain damage.

His family has announced they are suing the Patriots and the NFL for causing the brain damage. While his time in the NFL almost certainly played a role in Hernandez’s degenerative brain condition, nearly every legal expert interviewed on the matter has stated the lawsuit will certainly fail. Placing the burden of evidence strictly on the convicted murderer’s three years in the NFL as the only culpable root cause of the brain trauma will be extraordinarily difficult. He played more games in college at Florida (40) than in the NFL (38), among other major flaws in the case.

Some have attempted to extrapolate his brain damage as the reason for his murderous criminal activity. That too is impossible to prove, though verified stories of his long history of violence and sociopathic nature predate even his college football days. Those trying to blame football for his abhorrent criminal activity are misguided. It might not have helped his decision-making process and clouded his judgment, but CTE did not make Hernandez pull the trigger.

The most relevant takeaway here is that such a staggering level of brain trauma can come at such a young age. Hernandez was done playing football by the time he was 24. Without knowing what might have happened in prison, it sure seems like football as a whole is the primary cause. That’s not good for the NFL, college football or even youth programs who are already facing increasingly skeptical parents worried about concussions and quality of life for their children when their football playing days are done, be it after 8th grade or eight years in the NFL.

$.04 – Some winless teams broke into the victory column on Sunday. Indianapolis held off a late rally from Cleveland to win at home and keep the Browns in the defeated column. The more impressive and important debut victors came from New Orleans and Chicago.

The Saints lit up the previously unbeaten Panthers, trouncing Carolina 34-13. It wasn’t a big surprise to see the Saints offense look both efficient and explosive, not even against what was the NFL’s top scoring defense entering the weekend. What was a surprise, and what’s a much more significant takeaway, is how bad the Panthers offense looked once again. Carolina managed just 13 points against a truly dreadful Saints defense and got almost nothing in the receiving game from anyone other than rookie RB Christian McCaffrey. Cam Newton still doesn’t look right after his offseason surgery, and he’s not getting enough help from the supporting cast. When the Panthers had to throw to come from behind, even the porous Saints were way too much for Newton, especially with dynamic TE Greg Olsen on IR. Those issues are not going to go away easy for Carolina.

Chicago beating Pittsburgh probably shouldn’t have been such a surprise. The Bears defense held up well at home against high-flying Atlanta in Week 1, and they do have an intriguing 1-2 RB punch in Jordan Howard and mighty mite rookie Tarik Cohen. Pittsburgh has been shaky in its two wins, unable to get all the key players singing in the same key at the same time. They couldn’t hit any good notes in Chicago and were quite lucky a boneheaded play by Chicago’s Marcus Cooper kept this one from being a blowout win for Chicago.

I’ve learned over the years to not get too worried about Ben Roethlisberger when he has a bad game, but other than about the first half the Week 2 win in Minnesota Big Ben has not looked good. His merely good play would be better if the Steelers were getting what is expected from RB Le’Veon Bell, but he’s also been merely good. Antonio Brown can only do so much, and it wasn’t enough to beat Chicago and Mike Glennon, who inflicted death by paper cuts while Howard and Cohen combined for over 200 yards rushing. This is exactly how Chicago can win games, and the Bears defensive improvement is not a fluke with Danny Trevathan back at LB.

$.05—Thursday night football has taken on an almost comedic undertone with most fans. The matchups tend to be unsavory and the actual play even worse.

So when San Francisco 49ers QB Brian Hoyer threw the first pass of Thursday night’s game directly to a Los Angeles Rams defender, it was easy to write the game off as yet another dreadful display. The atrociously bright color rush uniforms didn’t help entice most fans to stick around watching either. Los Angeles looked like jars of mustard while the Niners wore dark red numbers on black jerseys which made identifying the players a complete mystery.

If you turned it off—and I did—you missed a hell of a football game (I watched in Friday AM). The Rams prevailed 41-39 in the highest-scoring game in Thursday Night Football history. It is the highest-scoring game of the 2017 season so far, and could very well end the season still on top. Jared Goff was nearly perfect in dissecting the 49ers defense, with both Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins (former Buffalo Bills) both netting over 100 receiving yards. Hoyer wound up being very effective between the tragic first play and the last, but those bookend plays matter. On the final play, Hoyer turtled on a pressure from Aaron Donald instead of getting rid of the ball, taking a game-ending sack.

That’s the epitome of Brian Hoyer’s NFL life. He’s good enough to get his teams close, but when the game is on the line he’s going to be the reason his team loses a lot more often than he is the reason they win. An egregious offensive pass interference call from perennially incompetent referee Jeff Triplette and his crew played a big role in the 49ers failed final drive too. In a game which featured 51 combined first downs and almost 850 total yards of offense, it’s a shame the game was decided on a combination of bad officiating and bad QB play.

Back to the Rams for a second. Precocious rookie coach Sean McVay, all of 31 years old, has made a staggering difference to the L.A. offense. Goff looks more confident in his second year, but everyone around him looks much improved. Guys like right tackle Rob Havenstein, running back Todd Gurley (over 100 yards and 2 rushing TDs) and newcomers Andrew Whitworth and Watkins all look invigorated and well-coordinated on the offense. If they can keep this up, the Rams are not going to be easy to stop. Coaching matters.

$.06— The big story of the NFL weekend is one I loathe discussing. But the lines between sports and politics got horribly and intentionally blurred and it’s dishonest for this former 7th grade civics and government teacher to ignore it.

You know about Donald Trump’s comments Friday night in Alabama. You know about the players kneeling in protest, starting with Colin Kaepernick but growing exponentially on Sunday as a response to our President’s unofficial decree that NFL owners should fire any players who don’t stand for the flag or the national anthem.

The civics teacher and B.A. in American History in me cringes. At everyone. The responses from players, coaches, even owners were all over the tonal spectrum but almost unanimously struck back against the President’s statement. Trump’s crass use of derogatory profanity and choice to use napalm when a lighter would suffice beget those strong reactions. I found the statement from Texans owner Bob McNair especially well done. He pointed out how much good the players did for the Houston community out of the goodness of their hearts and their selfless desire to help fellow Americans who needed their help.

I don’t think those who support the President’s position here pay enough attention to what others might believe or think. I know Trump himself cares not. That’s part of his charm to the tens of millions of enthusiastic supporters he mobilizes. I think the President is wrong here to bring the flamethrower when a fire extinguisher is what’s needed in America. It does bother me very much when players choose not to stand, in part because I think it opens them to being portrayed as something the overwhelming majority are not, as ungrateful and unpatriotic. Those are not how I know NFL players to be, and I’ve met and interviewed hundreds of them over the past few years.

My teaching experience exposed me in depth to those who proudly support, and in many cases, participate in the protests. I got to know many of those young people at Peabody Middle School in Petersburg, Virginia pretty well. They were exclusively African-American, almost entirely all quite liberal and a fair percentage came from families who weren’t all that pleased to have a young white Northerner teaching their children. I learned from them as I taught them, and one of the overriding lessons was that those young people were proud to be Americans and wanted their chance to make it a better place. Many of them have done just that, including quite a few who proudly serve and actively defend our country AND still support the protesters.

Many players are staunch conservatives themselves, as are many owners. Yet somehow they manage to coexist, and in many cases thrive, working arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder with those who do not share their values or backgrounds. That’s part of why so many of us love football so much. It’s the ultimate in coming together as a team and making it work for the greater good instead of harping on all the divisions and emphasizing the differences. That’s where President Trump erred, and his deliberately divisive tone and inflammatory language show his ignorance and disrespect to hundreds of men who normally, proudly support him. It’s also interesting how many so-called conservatives are so enthusiastic about the government telling a business who it can and cannot hire, an issue on which I’m typically far to the right of mainstream. Compromising principles for one issue but not another is hypocrisy at its finest, and there is nothing in the world I despise more than blatant hypocrisy.

This began as the first cent, but I opted to move it down myself because I am cognizant and quite appreciative that almost everyone who reads this came here for football. Back to your regularly scheduled programming…

$.07—The dream is over, Jets fans. Your beloved J-E-T-S soared to a commanding 20-6 win over Miami, thus ruining New York’s quest for a winless season and running away with the No. 1 overall draft pick. New York dominated a lifeless Miami squad which clearly didn’t expect to have to put up any sort of fight to secure the win.

Miami didn’t pick up more than one first down on a single drive before the fourth quarter. By that point the Jets already had a 20-0 lead. A listless Jay Cutler and a lifeless run game managed just 49 first-half yards. The Jets defense played its role, for sure, but Miami was flatter than the month-old opened Pepsi sitting in the trunk of your car. The Dolphins committed four pre-snap penalties by the midway point of the first quarter. That’s all on effective coaching and being prepared professionals, and Miami showed neither.

Now the Jets not only aren’t the worst team in the NFL, they might not even be the worst team in their own division. Miami is 1-1, and the win came only when Chargers rookie kicker Younghoe Koo missed the game-winning field goal last week. Those Chargers remain winless, which doesn’t exactly help Miami’s strength of schedule perception. New York didn’t play particularly well but Josh McCown & Co. avoided the dumb mistakes and the defense didn’t crack.

The Jets still have a shot at earning that No. 1 overall pick. Given their paucity of offensive talent, they might not win again. Hopefully this dispels the ridiculous notion of tanking in the NFL. Even as poor as they look on paper, NFL teams have pride and hate to lose. That’s how the players make it that far. Miami’s staff would do well to remind the Dolphins about that… 

$.08— NFL Quickies

It’s hard to be a Bengals fan. It’s real hard when the team blows a big lead and wastes a rare Aaron Rodgers pick-six in losing to Green Bay in overtime. It didn’t have to be that way…

I long to be this chill in a crisis…

This probably deserves much more bandwith, but I really don’t like the NFLPA’s decision to unanimously reappoint director DeMaurice Smith. I understand the explanation but the optics here scream that the players are okay with Smith acquiescing to Roger Goodell the power to be judge, jury and executioner. This might be the most significant development of the week in the long run.

--Didn’t see one snap of the game yet but Buffalo beating Denver is a stunner to me. Be careful making rash judgments on early-season performances, as so many did last week when the Broncos squashed the Cowboys on national TV. I’m guilty too.

$.09—College/Draft quickies

--Watched Florida State and NC State on the early slate. Seminoles safety Derwin James is a premium prospect but did not have his best day against the Wolfpack. James showed great play recognition skills and range in the open field. He made a spectacular tip-drill INT too, though it was wiped out by a (bad) pass interference call.

But he also badly missed a tackle and took a couple of poor angles in pursuit and over-the-top coverage. One thing I noticed that carries over from last year with James: he doesn’t consistently drop his shoulder when he hits but rather gets erect and loses leverage, particularly in the open field. He’s still an outstanding player and prospect but does have some visible warts.

--I attended Notre Dame at Michigan State on Saturday night in East Lansing. It was not a good night for the home team Spartans, but it did afford me the chance to watch a trio of Fighting Irish offensive prospects.

I came primarily to watch left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey, but the guy who stole my scouting eye was wideout Equanimeous St. Brown. He only caught 4 passes for 61 yards but showed a great deal of translatable NFL skills. Many taller wideouts struggle with footwork on short routes and on breaks, but No. 6 has improved his foot frequency and balance from when I saw him last year. He’s filled out his frame in his lower body and it’s good weight. Just a redshirt sophomore, there are fairly strong whispers he’s going to declare early.

Nelson did not disappoint. He’s touted as the top guard prospect in the nation and without studying many of his competitors yet, I have a hard time imagining anyone better. He’s a bit slower off the snap than advertised but not slow. What makes him special is something he demonstrated time and again versus the Spartans—his power while engaged. Even when defenders got the initial leverage advantage, Nelson is consistently able to seize it back with a fantastic upward thrust from his arms and shoulders. He’s reminiscent of Mike Iupati as a prospect but might have better feet in the open space.

McGlinchey didn’t have much to do but did it fairly well. He did show nice movement skills and balance on the move to engage targets in space.

I evaluated two Spartans as well, center Brian Allen and running back L.J. Scott. Allen is a short-armed center with very good hands and a natural bend to his knees that helps him generate more power. I was a huge fan of his older brother Jack, who was a better all-around blocker but has struggled to stick in the NFL. Brian Allen is likely one of those pretty good college players who might stick for a year on a practice squad and nothing more.

Scott is a physical runner with good leg churn and decent vision. His fatal flaw is ball security and he lost a bad fumble in this one. He’s got another year of eligibility and would be wise to use it.

--My son is an ardent TCU fan, and he got quite a treat with his Horned Frogs stunning Oklahoma State. On the scouting front, TCU’s smart defensive scheme revealed the questions scouts carry about Cowboys QB Mason Rudolph. TCU did a great job of crowding the receivers and taking away the easy and obvious throws. That’s exactly what NFL defenses will do. Rudolph had some decent throws and displayed the requisite footwork and arm strength, but he’s got to be better when throwing to receivers who are covered.

$.10—This particular cent makes me proud to be a Detroit Lions fan, because a fellow One Pride member did a very good thing. That he’s a personal friend, someone I’ve attended games and training camp with and exchanged hundreds of texts and tweets over the years makes it even better.

My friend Andy Morse, better known as Sandman to Lions fans on social media, turned an ugly situation involving an ugly racist incident into something good for underprivileged kids. A very good account of the full story from ESPN’s Lions writer Mike Rothstein lays out the background, but here’s the abridged version:

The Lions yanked the season tickets from a fan who posted a racist Snapchat from the game. Morse, a longtime season ticket holder who has been consulted with by the team for improvements to the season ticket and fan experiences, stepped up and offered to buy the revoked tickets. He’s not using them for himself, however. Morse offered to donate them to charity. He attracted the team’s attention on social media and the Lions listened.

The Lions agreed to let “Sandman” buy the tickets, and this is where the story gets even better. Not only is he going to donate them to charity, Morse created a contract list of stipulations for usage which ensures the recipients will be underprivileged kids who would not be able to even consider attending a Lions game otherwise. Here is a successful entrepreneur giving back to his community and trying to shine some light for kids who don’t get much sunshine in their lives.

Now that he’s purchased the tickets, Morse is looking for a little help to provide parking, concessions and souvenirs for the lucky kids. He set up a GoFundMe account for those who want to help him make the game completely gratis for the kids. He’s already darn close to the goal, and any extra money will go to the charities for additional help. You can trust that will happen.

It’s situations like this which need to be publicized. The unfortunate incident which launched this whole thing made national news. Sandman’s noble and selfless act barely made a ripple in the local news and on social media. Good job, Andy, very proud to call you my friend!