$.01—By far the most important game on the Sunday slate went down in Los Angeles with the Rams hosting the New Orleans Saints in a battle of the No. 3 and No. 4 seed in the NFC entering the late afternoon tilt. Needing a win to maintain lofty expectations after a great start but a bad loss in Minnesota last week, the Rams delivered.
The 26-20 win was more convincing than the final margin. The Rams raced out to a 10-0 lead and it never really felt like the Saints were going to be able to fully come back. Dynamic rookie RB Alvin Kamara tried his best, notably a 74-yard sprint to get New Orleans on the scoreboard, but the Rams defense nicely throttled Drew Brees and the run game the rest of the night.
This was the kind of validating win I wanted to see from the Rams. Forgive me, LA fans, but I remained skeptical of the impressive turnaround. I needed to see Jared Goff play well against a good defense, for the offense to dictate the action. Goff did just that, though the Saints were missing runaway Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore at corner.
Every time the Saints made a move, the Rams had the counter to keep the game in their hands. Even the bad breaks, like Goff’s poor pass to Sammy Watkins which the wideout essentially handed to the Saints for an INT, didn’t cost them. They persevered and proved they are a worthy playoff contender. Given how lifeless they looked last week, that kind of resiliency reflects quite well on the young roster and coach.
On Kamara, the bright spot for the Saints: he is looking like a draft evaluation miss for me already. He was my No. 8 RB and I was scared by how unproductive he was when not making big plays at Tennessee. As I noted in the more formal scouting report I wrote at Browns Wire, the traits for stardom were there but I had little faith they’d materialize. He’s proven he can make the same big plays but also perform well even when he’s not hitting the home run. And man are those home runs spectacular!
$.02—Congrats to the Minnesota Vikings for all but sewing up the NFC North with a fairly convincing 30-23 win over the Lions in Detroit on Thanksgiving. The Vikings capitalized on a(nother) painfully slow start by Detroit and held on for dear life, only coming away with the victory when Darius Slay was flagged for being a half-count early in crossing the line and blocking a field goal which the Lions scooped and took to the house for the would-be tying touchdown.
Minnesota was the better offense all day long. Case Keenum consistently found the proper target and delivered clean strikes, leading the visitors to 28 first downs. Detroit’s one-dimensional offense (15 carries, 53 yards on designed runs) made some things happen in frantic mode, but Matthew Stafford was not sharp. Stafford missed Theo Riddick on a screen on a play where he could have crawled backwards to get the 10 yards and still scored the touchdown. A key early third-down pass was behind Kenny Golladay. When Stafford was on target, Darren Fells dropped two separate would-be TDs, too.
Now Minnesota is 9-3 and the second-place Lions are 6-5, with the season series split and over. That the Vikings are doing this with Keenum, who was optimally their third-string QB, and without dynamic rookie RB Dalvin Cook, is one of the more impressive feats of the 2017 NFL season. Thumping the high-flying Rams and winning in Detroit in four days later should answer any questions about whether these Vikings are legit contenders.
Detroit was exposed for being overly reliant on Stafford being great and the defense making big plays. This was one of Stafford’s worst outings in recent memory, and the Lions are not capable of competing with good teams without him being great. They’re still alive in the NFC Wild Card race but will need a lot of help; they’ve got losses to both Atlanta and Carolina, two of the three teams (Seattle/LA in the West the other) they are chasing and already a loss behind.
$.03—The Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers are each 5-6 but the feeling surrounding the two teams could not be more different. After the Chargers skunked the Cowboys 28-6 at Jerry World in the Thanksgiving afternoon feature game, Chargers fans are thinking playoffs. Cowboys fans are thinking about firing Jason Garrett and wondering if they might need a new quarterback.
Los Angeles annihilated Dallas a lot more severely than the scoreboard showed. The 3-0 halftime tally belied utter domination; the Chargers gained 226 yards on just 3 drives but wound up with just one field goal, while Dallas managed just 70 on 4 drives. Philip Rivers was sharper than the carving knife, slicing up the Dallas defense like a drunken in-law plowing through leftover turkey.
Dallas had no answer for Keenan Allen (11 catches, 172 yards, 1 TD), and the Chargers masterfully kept isolating him in favorable coverage situations. They had no answer for Hunter Henry (5 catches on 5 targets, 76 yards, 1 TD) when they did overload on Allen. The Cowboys defense was continually a step late and in reaction mode, not forcing the Chargers to play the Dallas game.
The same was true on the other side of the ball, and that’s where Garrett is feeling the heat. The offense looks lost without suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott. Getting stalwart left tackle Tyron Smith back didn’t help. Dak Prescott underwhelmed once again without the standout RB to ease pressure. He threw two INTs, one a pick-six to rookie Desmond King when he lost his poise.
Just as the reaction to Prescott’s majestic rookie season was a few bridges too far to the positive, the overcorrection in the other direction is just as reckless. Prescott is struggling, no doubt, but he’s getting little help from a receiving corps that cannot get open (and that includes Dez Bryant) and an offensive line which has regressed. Without Elliott, the big plays in the run game are in absentia. Prescott remains a promising young QB, but this season is proof he cannot lead a middling team around him to greatness. There’s nothing wrong with that.
$.04—The Kansas City Chiefs performance on Sunday brought to mind a concert I recently attended. I’m a big fan of the metal band Periphery, and the scream-along staple “The Way the News Goes” is a perfect lyrical accompaniment for the Chiefs 16-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Wake up, as I stumble into a blinding light…
Deeper breaths enough to kill the highest highs
In the first drive of the second half, a bubble screen to Albert Wilson capped off a 9-play, 85-yard TD drive.
Take one good look and I'm at the lowest low again, down at the bottom
Buffalo then held Alex Smith and the Chiefs to just 17 yards on 11 plays in the next three drives. The Bills own offense wasn’t much better, just four first downs in the second half, but the Chiefs had zero ability to punch back.
It's not your average f**king misery
Kansas City started 5-0 and is now 6-5, the same record as the Bills. Kareem Hunt, the fantasy football MVP of September, ran for 17 yards on 11 carries. To say the Chiefs and Smith aren’t built to come back is an epic understatement. Showing all the aggression of a stoned sloth in a predator-free habitat, the Kansas City offense has bottomed out. With it goes their substantial lead in the NFL’s worst division. The Chargers, who started 0-4, are just a game back and will be favored in every game they have left except the head-to-head in Kansas City in Week 15.
Show them how to fly away when this world is torn
If you feel like dying, lose that forever
You're shining and it shows
If the Chiefs need inspiration they can look to the Bills, now also 6-5. Last week they made a catastrophic QB change and lost to the Chargers by 5 touchdowns. Buffalo moved on from the regrettable Nathan Peterman experience, akin to Periphery letting a drunk fan on the stage to play Misha Mansoor’s blistering guitar solo on The Price is Wrong. Tyrod Taylor wasn’t very good against the Chiefs but he didn’t make the mistakes and kept his team on schedule to win. The Bills enter Monday holding the AFC’s six seed.
$.05— As bad as the Chiefs offense was in the first half against Buffalo, the Chicago Bears said, “hold my beer”. The Bears failed to convert a single first down in the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles. Bears fans would have been wise to drink that beer to help tolerate the astonishing level of incompetence from John Fox’s team.
This was the Chicago possession chart from the first half:
- 3 plays, 5 yards, Punt
- 1 play, Interception
- 3 plays, 7 yards, Punt
- 4 plays, 16 yards, Missed Field Goal
- 3 plays, -3 yards, Punt
- 3 plays, 6 yards, Punt
- 1 play, -1 yard, End of Half
The offensive boomed in the second half, relatively speaking. Mitchell Trubisky led the Bears to 8 first downs and a precious field goal after intermission. He completed 17 of his 33 passes for just 147 yards. The No. 2 overall pick was also Chicago’s leading rusher with 12 yards on four scampers. Jordan Howard managed 6 yards on his 7 efforts.
Obviously, the Eagles defense deserves a tremendous amount of the credit. Philadelphia is 10-1 and proved why they’re the odds-on favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Carson Wentz was efficient in victory and LeGarrette Blount hurdled his way to 97 yards on just 15 carries. But…
…the Bears are a trainwreck. John Fox’s coaching was on blast throughout the game from even the more docile Chicago fans on social media. This is not the first Sunday where that’s the case, either. The team had the look of a group that knows their coach is a dead man walking and they have no prayer for the rest of the season. Professional pride can only carry so far. They’ve lost four in a row to fall to 3-8, and despite home dates upcoming with San Francisco and Cleveland, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them lose out. It’s been that bad the last couple of weeks.
$.06— Any Given Sunday, Week 12 edition went down in Arizona. So did the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Blaine Gabbert revenge game.
On this day, Gabbert bested the man drafted to replace him, Blake Bortles. Gabbert is the third-string option for the injury-ravaged Cardinals, and he authored the 27-24 upset of the 7-3 Jaguars.
Technically, the QB play in the game was largely a wash. Bortles was off as a passer but torched the Cardinals for two long runs and TDs on the ground. Gabbert threw two TDs but, as is his custom, turned it over twice. One of those was a fumble which ex-Cardinal Calais Campbell ran back for a touchdown.
That gave the Jaguars a 17-16 lead and all the momentum. The ensuing drives are where the QB battle got interesting. Gabbert drove the Cardinals 75 yards in 6 plays for the go-ahead TD on a strike to Jaron Brown. That is answering the adversity by the oft-slammed Gabbert.
Bortles answered with a touchdown drive capped with one of his TD runs. Just to remind everyone why few fans have confidence in either QB, both threw INTs and had quick 3-and-outs on their next two possessions. Then Gabbert stepped up.
The Cardinals snuck just to the very edge of viable field goal range. Their kicker is Phil Dawson, all 42 years old of him. Dawson was an original expansion Cleveland Brown, that’s how long he’s been around. Yet he nailed the 57-yard attempt, his career-long.
With the win the Cardinals are now 5-6 and somehow still clinging to playoff life. A week after a resounding loss to AFC South foe Houston, they knocked off the AFC South-leading Jaguars. Well, the Jaguars were leading the division until this loss and Tennessee’s unimpressive close win over Indianapolis put the Titans in front.
$.07— Ohio State beat Michigan. Again. In what is becoming customary, the Buckeyes beat down the rival Wolverines 31-20. The score is closer than most years, in part because Michigan surged to a 14-0 lead while Ohio State tried to remember they were Ohio State despite wearing generic black and grey uniforms more befitting of an underfunded D-II team. Seriously, Buckeyes, those were awful.
The Buckeyes have won 13 of 14 in the series, which stretches the patience of keeping up the intensity in the rivalry. They did this one with a backup quarterback coming in for J.T. Barrett, Dwayne Haskins, who would have instantly been the best quarterback for Michigan since at least Chad Henne. The comparison between the poised, accurate Haskins and John O’Korn in the maize and blue was striking. O’Korn, who was promoted by several Jim Harbaugh sycophants (and they are aplenty here in Michigan) as a future Heisman winner when he transferred tail between legs from Houston, missed several wide open throws and consistently made the wrong decisions.
It is fashionable nationally, and certainly in Ohio, to bash Harbaugh for losing every game he plays against good teams. While that may be true—the Wolverines went 8-4 without beating a team that earned bowl eligibility—pinning this one on the bombastic, peculiar Harbaugh is misplaced. In fact, I would argue this was his best coaching job in his three years in Ann Harbaugh, err, Arbor. His gameplan, for once, was smartly tailored to the specific opponent and the in-game management, often a huge chink in his seemingly impenetrable armor, was quite good. This time around the blame lays more on his players…but that could be an even bigger problem for Harbaugh.
Jim Harbaugh is a masterful program figurehead, and that is precisely what Michigan needed him to be. He has restored the brand to prominence with his goofy enthusiasm and zealous antics. The recruiting classes have become top notch again. And therein lies Harbaugh’s weakest quality as a coach—he’s never been a developer of talent. Stanford fans know. 49ers fans know, too. Harbaugh desperately needs to surround himself with strong teachers and technically proficient coaches to help make those 4-star talents get better. Other than DL coach Greg Mattison and CB coach Michael Zordich, Harbaugh has largely surrounded himself with tactical yes-men who do not excel at teaching the game to young players who need the knowledge more than they need the motivation. The sycophantic deification by much of the Michigan media is part of this problem, too. Being overly defensive of a coach who has not finished above 3rd place in his own conference division (4th this year) is sending the message that it’s an acceptable result. You’re Michigan, being 3rd best at anything should never be okay.
Back to the Buckeyes. There is some hubbub that the 2-loss team somehow belongs in the college football playoff if they knock off unbeaten Wisconsin in the B1G title game next week. Hogwash. Any team that gets waxed the way the Buckeyes did at home by Oklahoma and then gives up 50+ to a bad Iowa offense has no business being one of the four best teams. The wins over Michigan State, Penn State and a hypothetical over Wisconsin do not wash away those terrible stains on the resume. If those losses don’t mean anything, why should Notre Dame’s?
--Presented without comment:
I take no pride in repeating that the #NFL #concussion protocol is a fraud. Fleener should have been pulled immediately after giving the CLASSIC concussion head shake walking off the field after this monster hit. Kept playing, pulled w/a concussion later. Come on! Watch the hit: https://t.co/UEqAdavFNX— Chris Nowinski, Ph.D. (@ChrisNowinski1) November 27, 2017
--Jimmy Garoppolo made his 49ers debut in auspicious circumstances. Down by 3 touchdowns and with under two minutes to play against Seattle, Niners starter C.J. Beathard left with an injury. Instead of accepting defeat, the 49ers let their prized trade acquisition go for it. He led the team to a quick TD drive. Context is important here. The game was deep into garbage time and Seattle’s effort could charitably be described as apathetic. Even so, it’s about damn time San Francisco played with their expensive new toy.
--Cleveland remains winless despite the best performances from rookies DeShone Kizer and Jabrill Peppers. The Bengals beat the Browns 30-16 to drop coach Hue Jackson’s record in Cleveland to 1-26. To (mis)quote Bull Durham, it’s a miracle he’s got the one. This one was far more on his shoulders than the young team he’s coaching.
--Julio Jones got back to proving he’s arguably the best WR in the league. How nice of Atlanta to remember he plays for them. Jones caught 12 passes for 253 (253!!) yards and two TDs. One of those TDs came from fellow wideout Mohammed Sanu in the Falcons’ 34-20 romp over Tampa Bay.
--File this under “recommended reading”: a profile on Eagles long snapper Jon Dorenbos, who discovered he had an aortic aneurism in his trade physical and had major surgery. As a fellow open-heart surgery patient, I was deeply moved by Dorenbos’ story.
--I have no idea what Tennessee is doing with their head coaching position. It appears they don’t either. There is rampant speculation the Volunteers agreed to a lucrative contract with Ohio State Defensive Coordinator Greg Schiano to take over, but thanks to unanimous vitriol from fans, boosters and even former players, reneged on the deal and paid a buyout to make it all go away.
More details will come out, but that’s the working knowledge as of 8:30 p.m. Sunday night. Apparently the administration didn’t do enough homework on Schiano, one of the most universally reviled coaches in a business full of sharks and leeches. Schiano created a blip of a winning program at Rutgers and parlayed that into coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. To call him a vapid asshat would be far kinder than what just about anyone who has ever worked with Schiano would say about the insufferably negative and self-righteous coach.
--Strong win by Auburn over Alabama in the Iron Bowl. I watched about 75% of that game and never once did it seem like Auburn wasn’t the better team. That’s not a shot at Alabama, either. When Jarrett Stidham is dealing like that and the defense wins so many battles on third downs, Auburn is a great college team.
--Miami also lost, the latest high-ranked victim of Pittsburgh. The Panthers beat Clemson last year and now stun the Hurricanes. This was a critical loss for the ACC, which entered the weekend hopeful to get two teams in the playoff. The Hurricanes would have to impressively beat Clemson to make it now, and the loser has no chance of making it anymore.
--Congrats to my Ohio Bobcats for accepting a bid to the Bahamas Bowl. It helps ease the sting of back-to-back losses to Akron and Buffalo. Break out the Speedos, Bobcat nation!
--Draft notebook coming this week, stay tuned!
$.10— The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the semifinalists for the class of 2018. I am not a voter, and with this list of 27 semifinalists I’m not sure I would want to be one, either.
The first-time finalists are headlined by Randy Moss and Ray Lewis. And Brian Urlacher. Those three all belong in Canton, probably quite soon. There is no compelling argument to deny any of those three admission, not for what they did on the field anyway. Steve Hutchinson belongs too as another first-time semifinalist.
That’s the problem. There are too many deserving candidates and the committee only inducts five players every year. While I admire and appreciate the exclusivity, it leaves arguments with no real winning side up for ripe debate.
Take the wide receivers. Moss is an all-time great no matter who you ask. But so is Terrell Owens, even though his personality rubs some the wrong way. They’re both semifinalists, and both belong. Only one—if either—will get in this year. At guard, Hutchinson is as good as anyone who has played in the last 25 years. But so is Alan Faneca, also a semifinalist. Lewis and Urlacher are both legendary modern LBs.
I don’t want to choose which one is better. I’m not in middle school anymore, though I do work in sports radio and spend way too much time on Twitter. Those arguments are pointless when dealing with all-timers. Just as I don’t really care if LeBron is better than Jordan (but he is), does it really matter who was better when both candidates are awesome? Why not appreciate that both are incredible talents who deserve eternal recognition.
Since we don’t live in a culture where one can be elevated without another being subsequently submerged, my choices for the Class of 2018:
And please don’t hold me to accuracy on that. Those are my picks, not who I think will get in.