$.01— The Eli Manning era in New York is over. It’s not official yet, as Manning still remains on the Giants roster, but for all intents and purposes, we’ve seen the end of Manning on the field in the team’s blue, white and red. His consecutive start string ended at 210, a streak that started in November of 2004. That’s second-most in NFL history to Brett Favre.

This was a conscious decision by embattled coach Ben McAdoo. He might be “former coach” Ben McAdoo by the time you read this, especially since switching to Geno Smith didn’t help; the Giants lost 24-17 to the Oakland Raiders. Smith wasn’t bad, and he helped polish rookie Evan Engram into a big day (7 catches, 99 yards). But when you bench a franchise icon, you probably should have something better in mind than a retread who flopped in the same stadium. Smith is nothing more than a placeholder, not the long-term successor, and treating Manning like this to swap in Geno Smith is an insult that reflects poorly upon the Giants as an organization.

Sunday morning yakfests hinted that Manning might choose retirement. If he wants to play, he will have suitors. While his play has definitely declined, this was a week where the likes of Trevor Siemian, Brett Hundley, Tom Savage and Blaine Gabbert all started. He’d make a fantastic veteran mentor for a young player in need (hello DeShone Kizer or Paxton Lynch) if he so chooses.

It will be interesting to see where he winds up. It will also be interesting to see where McAdoo and longtime Giants GM Jerry Reese wind up. Neither can remain in New York. If the Giants don’t part ways with both, they’re destined to be nothing more than a leverage partner or laughingstock for any veteran free agent worth his salt. If they do a sacred cow and loyal soldier in Eli Manning like this, why wouldn’t they treat others like disposable heroes? That’s not what NFL players want.

Whomever is making the picks needs to address the QB of the future in New York. The Giants are primed for a top-4 overall pick. This year’s QB class is overhyped but not without considerable top-end potential. The new regime must have a plan and remain devoted to it.

For some recommended reading on why this move is even stranger, check out my friend Joe Marino’s thoughts at FanRag

$.02—The NFC South is the league’s best division, and it was an eventful Sunday in the fiercely competitive division.

New Orleans knocked off Carolina in a battle at the top. The impressive 31-21 victory elevates the Saints to 9-3 and drops the Panthers to 8-4. They did so on the backs of being able to make big plays on offense and limit them on defense. Sounds simplistic, I know, but it’s surprising how few teams execute this strategy properly. Then again, not every offense has Drew Brees handing the ball to Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara or throwing it to Michael Thomas. Ingram cranked off a 72-yard run on New Orleans’ first play of the second quarter to set up a subsequent TD plunge. Kamara was once again electric for the Saints, netting 36 yards on his first three touches before capping the opening drive with a 2-yard TD run. Thomas caught a TD as well as a fantastic downfield sideline catch.

The Panthers just couldn’t keep up. Cam Newton tried, and he got some help from Devin Funchess and Christian McCaffrey too. Funchess turned up a simple route and cashed it in for paydirt, but the bevy of weapons and downfield attack just aren’t there for the Panthers. The Saints run defense did a fine job tackling all afternoon, save one late dash by Newton. It’s not in the Panthers’ DNA to triumph in a shootout with a potent offense.

That is the DNA of the Atlanta Falcons…most weeks. Unfortunately for the Falcons they were playing the Vikings and Minnesota would have nothing to do with a shootout. The Vikings made two Case Keenum TD passes stand up for a 14-9 win in Atlanta. Much like the Saints limiting the Panthers big plays, Minnesota shut down the high-octane Atlanta offense. The Falcons managed just one play of 20 yards or longer. Xavier Rhodes did a fine job on Julio Jones when they were matched up, and the Vikings second-level tackling was outstanding. Now 10-2, the Vikings have established themselves as the a legit threat despite starting what is in effect their third-string QB in Keenum.

This Vikings win really shakes up the NFC playoff race. Minnesota is now the top seed, thanks to Philadelphia’s loss and a better strength of schedule. Atlanta is now 7-5 and is falling back to the pack of 6-6 wolves below them. If they lose Thursday against Carolina, they could be looking up at several teams by the end of next weekend in the Wild Card standings. The defending conference champs would also be hopelessly behind in the NFC South, which is still poised to have two representatives hosting playoff games in January. 

$.03—Thursday night pitted Washington against Dallas in Jerry World in a de facto playoff elimination game. Both teams entered at 5-6 and in need of both a lot of wins and a lot of help. Only the host Cowboys helped themselves.

Because it’s the NFC East and two high-profile guys, the game was all about the quarterbacks. Dak Prescott and Kirk Cousins are two of the bigger NFL media lightning rods. On this night, the football gods threw down their lightning and struck Prescott with the golden arm. Cousins, on the other hand, got thunderstruck in one of his least effective outings.

Prescott shook off a badly bruised thumb and lit up the Washington defense. He was on point with darts to Dez Bryant, who had perhaps his best game of the season. Alfred Morris chugged out tough yards against his old team, too. Cousins didn’t get that sort of help. Jamison Crowder dropped a perfect throw which wound up getting picked off, and just for good measure he fumbled on the next drive too. Cousins took several big shots behind a decimated offensive line and had more near-miss great throws than great throws. When that happens, this edition of the Skins doesn’t really stand a chance.

Dallas is now 6-6 but feeling pretty bullish. This was the best their offensive line has played in weeks, and getting Bryant going is a huge boost for the passing game. They still need help in the playoff race, but the Cowboys get the chance to impact their own luck, too. They have winnable games against Oakland and the Giants before facing one of the teams above them in the Wild Card race, the Seahawks. If they win that Week 16 game at home, the following week’s trip to Philadelphia could mean everything for the Cowboys and nothing for the Eagles, who have wrapped up the NFC East already. 

$.04— I cover the Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans for the online wing of USA Today’s sports media group with the Browns Wire and Texans Wire. Both of those teams had players returning from long suspensions during the week. Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon and Texans linebacker Brian Cushing have decidedly different backgrounds to their suspensions, and the divergence really struck me this week.

Gordon has an exhaustive, extensive history of substance abuse. He revealed more details about his troubled life, from being hooked on intoxicants as early as middle school and dealing drugs while playing at Baylor. He’s been suspended since December of 2014 for repeated violations of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, including a relapse in the 2016 preseason when he left the Browns to enter rehab again. He’s dedicated himself to making it out of the grips of addiction of many substances, not just marijuana as widely believed either. Gordon is coming clean in brutally honest interviews and videos. While it might be embellished and crafted, I don’t doubt his sincerity or his realization this is his last chance at both football and any semblance of a normal, happy life.

I’m on record for being against Gordon getting another chance at football. Eight strikes are more than enough. But the NFL let him back, and rather than pout and whine about it, I want Gordon to succeed. He’s been given a remarkable chance and I hope he makes good on it. Most Browns fans feel the same way, even if (like me) they’re only begrudgingly accepting of his ninth chance. People seem to be rooting for him, and his affable honesty plays no small role in that sentiment.  

Judging from the reaction to Gordon’s pretty impressive return, people do want more Flash Gordon. There was rust but also a couple of great catches and considerable flashes of the physical gifts in the Browns’ 19-10 loss to the Chargers.

Cushing’s 10-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs ended this week. He was back at practice with the Texans, but the team has not activated him yet; Houston has until Tuesday to decide what to do with its first-round pick from 2009. This was the linebacker’s second PED suspension but first since 2010. The fact he’s only been caught twice is something of a snickering point for anyone who has spent even 10 minutes around the Texans in the last 8 years, or who knew Cushing at USC. His maniacal approach to training and keeping his body in supremely muscled condition is legendary, and even coaches have not-so-privately intimated he should back off.

Cushing is from a working-class background in New Jersey. He’s a smart guy, a respected (if someone distant) teammate and on-field general for some very good defenses in Houston. But the long history of juicing has overshadowed his entire career. Unlike Gordon, Cushing has never shown one iota of personal responsibility or admission of guilt. Judging from comment sections and social media, the vast majority of Texans fans want Cushing to go away forever. Even as injury-ravaged as they might be, Texans fans would much rather lose without him than have a lesser chance of losing with him.

I feel the same way. My years living in Houston and visiting training camp, getting to know some of the personnel on and around the franchise, taught me Cushing is not someone who deserves better. I’ve met him just once and had no negative interaction, so perhaps that isn’t fair. But it’s the truth, and in this time and place in America, being true to yourself and honest about life seems to be the only thing we’ve got left.  

$.05— New England beat Buffalo for the 139th straight game. Not really, but it sure seems that way. Tom Brady and the Patriots won in Buffalo for the 13th time in 15 tries as the visitors sealed up the AFC East with a convincing 23-3 thrashing.

This was an expected win and the game was not really competitive, yet it wound up producing some of the best storylines of the NFL weekend. Foremost is Brady’s absolute mastery of the Bills. He’s now 27-3 in his career against Buffalo, the most wins of any QB against any opponent in NFL history (besting Favre vs. the Lions). He has more TD passes in Buffalo than any Bills quarterback since Jim Kelly despite only playing there once a year. It’s a hopeless feeling for Bills fans.

The Patriots improved to 10-2 which marks the 15th straight season with at least 10 wins. By way of comparison, Buffalo has not won at least 10 games in a season this century. Perhaps the latter has something to do with the former, as New England does benefit from playing in what is consistently one of the weakest divisions in football, but that shouldn’t take away from the enormity of the accomplishment.

One play in this game does tarnish the otherwise sterling Patriots day. Rob Gronkowski delivered a nasty cheap shot in the game.

The player he dove on with malicious intent is TreDavious White, who has been diagnosed with a concussion directly stemming from Gronk’s vicious forearm shiver to his defenseless foe. This is just as awful as Danny Trevathan’s cheap shot earlier this year, and Trevathan got suspended for two games (appealed down to one). There is absolutely no excuse for Gronk to not get at least one game for this. He deliberately injured a player with an illegal hit. If that doesn’t equal a suspension, nothing should.

$.06—We now know the college football playoff teams, as the selection committee finalized the foursome on Sunday just before the NFL kicked off. By virtue of their wins on Saturday, everyone knew Oklahoma, Clemson and Georgia were in. On this there is no debate. Nor should there be, as they are conference champs who all pass the eyeball test.

The fourth spot was between Alabama and Ohio State, and the Crimson Tide won out. Their argument was more persuasive, and I agree with the committee here. The crux of the argument is this:

Should Alabama’s lack of impressive wins and 1 loss outweigh a 2-loss Ohio State’s awful loss to Iowa but several more impressive wins?

The stain of that 55-24 loss to a team that did not score 55 total points in the four games around it on the schedule proved huge. As it should. That’s handily the worst loss of any of the viable contenders. Alabama’s sole loss was on the road to an Auburn team which beat Georgia and nearly beat Clemson. Wisconsin only lost once too, though the Big 10 Championship loss to Ohio State effectively eliminated the Badgers.

The Buckeyes tried to lobby on the basis of their big wins. Alabama doesn’t have a win close to as good as Ohio State’s vanquishing of Wisconsin, or Penn State, or even Michigan State. The Buckeyes’ first loss was to Oklahoma, which is acceptable, but at home, which is not. That the Crimson Tide were ranked above Ohio State all season should matter two. Why have those weekly rankings if they’re ignored in the end, right?

I like that the losses mattered in the process. They should, else the regular season wouldn’t mean so much. I just wish a team with no losses – Central Florida – was taken more seriously. I don’t think the Knights deserved to be in over any of the four who made it, but doing what they did should mean more than what Ohio State or even Miami, which lost two in a row and wasn’t close to competitive in the ACC Championship Game.

Consider what the NCAA did here with the controversial decision and the made-for-TV hype of the 4-team playoff. They dominated the social media conversation and led most sports program coverage on an NFL Sunday. Mission accomplished.

$.07— I touched on the Tennessee Volunteer football coaching fiasco last week. Since I wrote that ninth cent last Sunday morning, it’s progressed from confusing to sordid.

Greg Schiano was hired, but before he could officially take over, the offer was rescinded thanks to an outcry from alums, boosters and enough local media to scare the Volunteer athletic department away. Schiano’s time at Penn State under Joe Paterno was used against him even though the current Ohio State defensive coordinator was never implicated in the disgusting scandal at Penn State. His name was tangentially mentioned in testimony, though it was unclear if he was the coach being referenced. He was never asked to testify, never associated with any of the predatory pedophilia of Jerry Sandusky willfully covered up by Paterno. His background was not a problem for Rutgers, or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or Ohio State, all of which hired him after the scandal broke.

It’s a shame the stain of Paterno and Sandusky now makes anyone associated with Penn State at that time toxic. Schiano has never been accused of doing anything inappropriate or wrong, but that didn’t matter to Tennessee. The ripple effects are broad.

Tennessee subsequently fired its athletic director, installing ex-coach Phillip Fulmer in the position. They approached several big-name coaches, including (allegedly) Mike Gundy from Oklahoma State, Dan Mullen from Mississippi State (he went to Florida, great hire for the Gators), Mike Leach of Washington State, Duke’s David Cutcliffe and Jeff Brohm from Purdue. All shot Tennessee down.

Think about that. Good football coaches are turning down Tennessee to stay at Duke and Purdue. And they’re 100 percent correct in doing so. The Volunteers reputation is irrefutably tarnished. They will need to cast their nets in different waters and troll for much smaller fish. Even then, the whole situation still stinks. 

$.08— NFL Quickies

--Seattle clipped the Eagles wings on Sunday night with an impressive home win, proving they still belong as a legit NFC playoff contender. Russell Wilson also thrust himself back prominently into the MVP conversation, particularly when juxtaposed with the relatively ineffective night by Carson Wentz. Seattle’s defense looked great and Philly’s offensive weapons were not getting open to help Wentz. Statement win by Seattle as it improves to 8-4, tied with Carolina for Wild Cards.

--Why gambling sucks: the Houston Texans were well on their way to covering the 7.5-point spread in Tennessee. Even though they were losing, the Texans played well in Nashville and were down just 17-13. Then Derrick Henry busts off a 75-yard TD run with under a minute to go to push the Titans to cover.

--From that Titans/Texans game, Houston TE C.J. Fiedorowicz suffered his third diagnosed concussion since last December. I say this as a fan---please retire. It’s not worth it, C.J.

--My Lions blew a golden opportunity to move up in the NFC playoff rankings thanks to an abysmal effort in Baltimore. The Lions are the lowest-scoring team in the first quarter, a lingering issue for Jim Caldwell’s teams. Detroit couldn’t even count to 10, let alone 11, in this embarrassing 44-20 loss…

That is no less than the fifth time this year the Lions have not had enough defenders on the field, including 3 TDs. I’ve been a Caldwell defender, but I cannot stand for this coaching malpractice any longer.

--Miami 35, Denver 9. The ugly loss is the 8th in a row for Denver, the worst in the Super Bowl era for the franchise. The Broncos have the league’s worst point differential in those eight weeks, too. That’s shocking.

Despite the big win, Miami has some issues of its own…

Parker was the team’s first-round pick in 2015 and has been a disappointment, but that’s on the QBs as much as Parker. 

$.09—College/Draft quickies

--In case you were wondering why so many folks hate Alabama coach Nick Saban. His shameless hypocrisy makes him an exceptional candidate for Congress…

--Congrats to New Mexico State for earning a bowl berth for the first time in 57 years. The Aggies beat South Alabama on Saturday to ensure a 6-6 record and berth in the Arizona Bowl. This was the program’s first non-losing season since 2002, and no full-time FBS program has fewer wins over the last 10 years.

--This is unacceptable from the Big Ten Championship game in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis:

Imagine if one of those players tore a knee, or got optical damage by having those rubber pellets fly into his eye. Smells like a lawsuit, and perhaps an opening for a venue change in the future. Major props to the grounds crew guy who repaired the tear as quickly as possible under intense pressure.

--I do not have a Heisman vote, though it seems most schools think I do based on how much promotional email and snail mail I get lobbying for my vote. If I did, my ballot would have looked like this:

1. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

2. Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State

3. Bryce Love, RB, Stanford

4. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville

5. Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame

--Georgia LB Roquan Smith won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. He deserved it. In fact, Smith won by the biggest margin this century. He’s a phenomenal bundle of instincts, twitchy reaction and solid fundamentals. The NFL almost never values off-ball linebackers high enough. He’s every bit the pro prospect that Luke Kuechly was, and Kuechly has been an impact star for the Panthers. I’d love to see Smith wind up with the Raiders or Cardinals in the middle of the first round. 

$.10-- This was the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” week for players to express themselves with customized cleats which would otherwise draw heavy fines from the uniform police. Players were allowed to have designs with any color scheme and words painted on to represent causes near and dear to their hearts.

It’s a fantastic idea. Many of the cleats were beautifully designed and inspirational, and it was great seeing what causes are important to the players. There were players who dedicated their attention to autism, Down syndrome, various cancers or diseases which had impacted their families, first responders, educational foundations, and much more. The teams themselves did a great job promoting the causes on their own websites and social media, producing videos to reveal the stories behind the choices.

By and large, nobody cared.

For all the public outcry about wanting the players to show what they care about and behave like something other than spoiled, highly-paid athletes, when the players did exactly what those vociferous critics desired, they ignored it. All of us on the team Wire sites promoted the heck out of the causes our players repped. One in particular that moved me was Texans RB Lamar Miller’s cause, the Chauncy Glover Project to help mentor inner-city teenage boys in Detroit. It’s exactly the kind of thing the flag-waving chest-thumpers want, for black players to put their money where their mouths are. Miller did just that, but it falls on deaf ears; that article is the least-read column I’ve written in the last month, and I write between 10 and 15 per days. I checked with some other editors and it was the same story.

That is colossally disappointing to me. I’m sure it is for the players, the NFLPA and the causes being represented. If you were one who pointed an angry finger, likely the middle one, at players who knelt for the national anthem or dog them for not caring, and don’t pay any attention to this, you’re destined for Dante’s eighth circle of hell. Many of the players represented traditionally conservative causes, patriotic and Christian missions. I’m guessing you (the collective you, but if the shoe fits then it’s personal) probably think it’s either fake news or just don’t care. Forgive me if I ignore your bloviating indignation towards these men and their beliefs, in kind.