$.01-- The New York Giants are in tank mode. If we were talking about their basketball brethren Knicks or hockey Rangers, this would not be a big deal. It’s almost expected when big-ticket franchises in those other major sports have no hope for the present; they sell off any assets they can and go for the highest draft slot and ignominy possible. 

But the Giants doing it in the NFL is significant. Extraordinary even. 

The tanking officially began Tuesday in the aftermath of their sloppy, poorly managed close loss to Atlanta on Monday Night Football. GM Dave Gettleman sent cornerback Eli Apple packing to New Orleans. New York’s first-round pick in 2016 brought back just a 2019 4th-round pick and a 7th in 2020 even though he’s shown capable of being a quality No. 3 CB and flashed enough to be a decent starter at times. He’s not been reliable off the field and that played a big part in why Apple was dispatched. The Giants could have justified the take they were still not tanking after dealing Apple.

Then they dumped Snacks.

“Snacks” is Damon Harrison, the NFL’s preeminent run stuffer on the defensive front. Harrison has been the top-graded DT against the run in each of the last five years by Pro Football Focus. He’d slumped to 4th this year. The Giants parted with Snacks for the low price of a 5th round pick from Detroit. It’s even a conditional pick. Lions fans (I am one) are ecstatic. Harrison fills the biggest need on the roster for the low price of a 5th round pick, of which Detroit had an extra one just laying around. 

Now there is no hiding what the Giants are doing. The only reason they haven’t dumped the other Eli on the roster is that no other team would want him (Manning also has a no-trade clause). They already dumped 2015 first-rounder Ereck Flowers when nobody (rightly) wanted the brutal bust. They can’t deal Odell Beckham due to his ginormous salary, though I suspect they’ll make some calls. Instead, they’ll just keep losing and chase Manning’s replacement in what looks like a terrible draft class for QBs. Janoris Jenkins, Sterling Shepard, and maybe Olivier Vernon could be the lucky rats sent scurrying off the sinking ship. 

At least the on-field product held serve in the race to the bottom. Washington beat New York 20-13 to stay atop the NFC East at 5-2 and submerge the bottom-feeding Giants to 1-7.

$.02-- FOX got what it wanted in the marquee late afternoon time slot. The matchup between the LA Rams and Green Bay Packers was a fantastic, entertaining, well-executed battle befitting a late January date. The Rams prevailed, 29-27, in one of those rare games where the two sides greet one another with respectful handshakes and game-well-played nods after the final whistle.

The Packers were definitely game to hang the first loss of the season on the Rams. Aaron Rodgers was fantastic, hooking up with Davante Adams for 133 yards in the air and effectively spreading the ball around to 8 different receivers. Rodgers did everything he could to lead the Packers to a win. 

The problem was, he didn’t get the chance in the end. After the Rams drove down for a go-ahead field goal just inside the 2-minute warning, return man Ty Montgomery fumbled away the ensuing kick. Todd Gurley picked up a first down and the great game ended anticlimactically.

And so the undefeated Rams train rolls on. This was their third victory in the last four by a field goal or less, so they’re not dominating the way some would have you believe. Now Jared Goff (once again thoroughly impressive with his precision ball placement and timing) and LA get challenges with a trip to New Orleans next week and then dangerous foes in Seattle and Kansas City at home before their bye week. I can’t imagine them managing to stay unblemished through all those, but make no mistake: the Rams are the NFL’s best team through the first half of the season. We’ll see if that means anything come January...

$.03-- In the emotional aftermath of Saturday’s tragic synagogue shooting just miles from Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers showed respect to the community with a convincing 33-18 domination of the visiting Cleveland Browns.

The home team provided some needed relief and uplifting after the senseless and indefensible actions in nearby Squirrel Hill. It took the Steelers a quarter to get into gear, but once James Conner & Co. got rolling they did not stop. 

Conner gained more yards from scrimmage by himself (212) than the Browns did up to the final garbage-time TD drive (162). The Browns had a string of six drives in the 3rd and 4th quarter where they netted 10 total yards on 18 snaps, including a 15-yard penalty. One of those drives ended in a safety when rookie LT Desmond Harrison was guilty of his second blatant holding infraction, this one in the end zone. Pittsburgh’s defense continually got free rushers at No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, giving the rookie no time to look down the field or even take a step in any direction after receiving the snap in some cases. 

Conner’s huge game came on a week where many expected Le’Veon Bell back. But Bell continues to holdout, unwilling to sign his franchise tag and report. Bell has now sacrificed more money in lost wages than any other RB will earn in 2018, but that has not dissuaded his strident holdout stance. As well as Conner -- a beloved local with an inspirational backstory of overcoming cancer while a student-athlete at Pitt -- has played, the Steelers have very little incentive to want Bell to report anymore. 

Back to the tragic mass shooting. This hit very close to home for a couple of dear friends, including my one-time college roommate (love you, Tommy!). Creating political talking points on the blood of victims is something I wish we as a nation would eschew. Instead, we flock to it like seagulls on a garbage dump. Don’t be seagulls, folks...

$.04--Something unprecedented happened this week in the NFL. The league finally held an official accountable for poor job performance and gross ineptitude, firing someone midseason. 

The fired official is Hugo Cruz, the down judge on referee Brad Allen’s crew in the Week 6 matchup between the Chargers and Browns. It was Cruz who ignored the blatant false start by Chargers LT Russell Okung on a play where Los Angeles wound up scoring a touchdown. Okung moved a full two steps before anyone else. The left guard next to him stopped playing, thinking it would be whistled dead. It was obvious even from the coach’s tape camera which is apparently shot from the International Space Station. 

This was not Cruz’s first foul-up. The NFL dare not fire anyone over just one gaffe. But this one was so blatantly missed it demanded recourse.

Let’s hope this is the beginning of a trend to hold officials more accountable for their mistakes. Having watched every Browns game this year, I can say without reservation the officials have directly stolen one victory (Oakland) and played a significant factor in another loss (Tampa Bay). If the Browns get those wins, Hue Jackson and his coaching staff might have a better shot of surviving the season, perhaps even staying employed into 2019. If it costs one unfortunate bad official his job to prevent the loss of scores of coaches who are directly impacted by his substandard performance, so be it. 

$.05--Nothing says Houston Texans football quite like an impressive victory overshadowed by a critical injury. It’s the same story week after week dating back at least a couple of seasons.

Thursday night was Houston’s most impressive win of the 2018 campaign, a 42-23 blowout of the Dolphins which lifted the formerly 0-3 Texans to their fifth win a row and continued Miami’s tumble from 3-0 to 4-4. Deshaun Watson was masterful, throwing more TDs (5) than incompletions (4) as he picked apart the Dolphins defense. Lamar Miller did on the ground, too. Miller hit the 100-yard mark for the second week in a row, racking up a 133-yard total greatly augmented by one of the slowest 58-yard cutback runs you’ll ever see.

The Texans defense played well too. They didn’t dominate former teammate/nemesis Brock Osweiler, but they effectively got off the field without breaking often enough. Even the Texans special teams, for years a bugaboo, looked sharp. Great team win for the hot Texans.

But it comes at a cost. Speedy wideout Will Fuller tore his ACL in the win. Fuller, the team’s first-round pick in 2016, will miss the rest of the season. He’s no stranger to the injury list, one which is seemingly overloaded once again in Houston. It’s amazing the Texans have climbed up so high despite the myriad injuries and critical players coming back from them, too. It makes it even harder to believe they can sustain the successful run into January.

$.06-- The quarterback drama in Tampa Bay took another turn on Sunday in the Buccaneers’ 37-34 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Jameis Winston was putrid, completing just 18-of-35 and throwing four interceptions. The last two of those INTs came on consecutive 3rd quarter drives after the Bucs had narrowed the Bengals lead to 27-16. Jeremy Bates took one of those to the house to give the Bengals what sure seemed like a commanding lead.

Coach Dirk Koetter found lightning in a bottle once again with veteran backup Ryan Fitzpatrick. He had the Fitzmagic working, rallying his team back to tie up the game with three impressive scoring drives. The energy from the offensive players around Fitzpatrick was palpably more positive even watching the game in a corner of the NFL Game Mix channel.

The Bengals ultimately prevailed thanks to an impressive 1-minute drive orchestrated by Andy Dalton and a clutch game-winning FG as time expired by Randy Bullock. Give the Bengals credit for hanging onto dear life and improving to 5-3, but the story here is what happens next with the Bucs and their QB quandary.

Winston and Fitzpatrick are both sporadically brilliant but unreliably awful just as often, with no rhyme nor reason for predicting either extreme. Koetter is damned if he tries to ride the weekly hot hand. It’s untenable to even try. The larger lesson is, the Bucs cannot believe in Winston as their long-term solution. He’s still just 24 and has the talent to make the risk pay off, but Winston has given no indication he’s capable of trusting either on or off the field. Right now, Fitzpatrick is the more likely option to lead the Bucs to a win, but the playoffs are a pipe dream and he’s a dead end long-term. Good luck with that, coach...

$.07-- Instead of the typical weekend flow, this was Any Given Saturday on the college landscape. Eight ranked teams lost to unranked opponents, creating one of the biggest shakeups in the top 25 poll in years.

A quick look at who got beat from the top down…

No. 6 Texas lost to Oklahoma State, 38-35

No. 15 Washington fell at Cal, 12-10

No. 16 Texas A&M got waxed by Mississippi State, 28-13

No. 19 Oregon got firebombed by Arizona, 44-15

No. 20 Wisconsin, missing QB Alex Hornibrook, fell at Northwestern, 31-17

No. 21 USF got pasted at Houston, 57-36

No. 22 NC State lost at Syracuse, 51-41

No. 25 Appalachian State lost on Thursday at Georgia Southern, 34-14

All the upsets only further stratified the teams at the top from those trying to climb the ladder. Georgia and Oklahoma nudged back into the playoff picture with huge wins, particularly Georgia convincingly beating rival Florida. Alabama, LSU and Michigan all avoided pratfalls by being idle. Notre Dame impressively dusted Navy and Clemson embarrassed Florida State by 49. Ladies and gentlemen, your four playoff teams are coming from those five teams or Oklahoma, or perhaps Georgia if they beat the winner of the LSU/Alabama game in the SEC title game. Nobody else has a chance unless we get another rash of upsets from the unranked over top 10 teams.

$.08-- NFL Quickies

--Russell Wilson was perfect in Seattle’s 28-14 resounding pounding of the Lions in Detroit. Wilson notched a perfect QB Rating of 158.3 as the Seahawks looked great coming out of the bye. The Lions had won 3 of 4 -- all over teams with winning records -- but looked flat on offense and slow on defense in the loss.

--From that game, the best TD celebration I saw this weekend:

--Pretty cool unofficial (and premature IMO) passing of the generational RB torch here from AD to Saquon:

--Didn’t see any of the game other than the highlight package, but Carolina hanging 36 points on Baltimore and soundly beating the Ravens is mighty impressive. 

--Per some mathematical contrivances, the San Francisco 49ers are now the favorites to pick No. 1 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. Losing to Arizona in the battle of 1-win teams will do that. They don’t need a QB as long as they believe Jimmy Garoppolo can stay healthy long-term. For that matter, the Cards don’t need one either with 1st round rookie Josh Rosen rallying for the win in this one. The Giants might not have much competition for the top QB in the draft. Buffalo and Cleveland have 1st round rookies, the Colts have Andrew Luck and the Raiders still have highly-paid Derek Carr. Those are 7 teams that all appear guaranteed to be picking in the top 8-10 overall. 

$.09-- College/Draft quickies

In sticking with the draft theme above, a quick top-10 mock draft based on my projection of the final order: 

Giants - Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon. I know he’s come back to earth lately and there are some who believe strongly he’ll stay in school. I also know he’s the only QB who should even get a sniff in the top 10, and that forces up the demand. If the Giants don’t go QB they might as well not even play next season

Cardinals - Nick Bosa, Edge, Ohio State. Not their biggest need but the most impactful talent at any position in the draft...provided he’s healthy. 

Raiders - Clelin Ferrell, Edge, Clemson. The first crack at replacing Khalil Mack, Ferrell brings a combination of great pass rush moves and football IQ.

49ers - D.K. Metcalf, WR, Ole Miss. Provided his neck injury checks out, the physical Metcalf stands a good chance to be the first wideout taken. The Niners need to add weapons around Jimmy G. Remember how many high 1st round picks they’ve used lately on the DL, can’t see them doing it yet again.

Bills - Ed Oliver, DL, Houston. It seems crazy someone with his supreme athletic gifts falls to No. 5, but weird things happen in the draft. I suspect the Bills would race to the podium to land a guy I compare to a quicker Gerald McCoy.

Browns - David Edwards, OT, Wisconsin. A year late, but the Browns tab Joe Thomas’ replacement by dipping into his alma mater. Edwards is still ironing out the transition from tight end, but the movement skills and twitchy instincts serve him well.

Colts - Josh Allen, Edge, Kentucky. No, not that Josh Allen. This one is also an impressive athlete, but he likes to hit QBs instead of impersonating one. Has some bust potential but can also bring the boom to an improving young defense. 

Broncos - Greedy Williams, CB, LSU. Chris Harris gets his much-needed running mate in Denver in a pass-happy division. Lots of potential directions for the Broncos here but I suspect Williams would be the consensus highest remaining player.

Titans - Brian Burns, Edge, Florida State. Get to know Burns’ name now before he hits the Big Draft radar. He’s got exceptional bend around the edge and flattens his tack to the QB like the greats do. Strikes me as an all-or-nothing player and Burns got nothing vs. Clemson and Mitch Hyatt, but he’s bested other future NFL tackles regularly.

Falcons - Quinnen Williams, DT, Alabama. Violent interior attack dog with quickness and power, and Williams is learning how to get off blocks better. The Falcons need reinforcements up front and Williams has high potential to be a lot more than just a reinforcement. 

$.10--The World Series is apparently going on right now. I only know because the news of an 18-inning marathon game on Friday night made the end of the A-block on the Saturday AM sports shows.

Prior to that I genuinely did not know what two teams were in the series. I saw that the team I rooted for most of my life, the Cleveland Indians, lost in an early round and any curiosity I had was completely extinguished.

Baseball has been largely extinguished for a growing segment of American sports fans. I’m a middle-aged, middle-class sports junkie with a family that loves to attend games and events and I didn’t see one full inning of baseball this year. Worse, I didn’t miss it. Some of that is my own choice. I live 2.5 hours from the nearest big league team and those two teams (Tigers and White Sox) are awful and uninteresting. I’m a big tennis fan, especially once the NBA Finals are done. The window between that and the kickoff of preseason football doesn’t allow for much in-depth sports watching and it’s the doldrums of the MLB season, too. Baseball will survive without me. But my kids’ generation is another story.

In my childhood, every boy played Little League through at least 4th grade. Even the kids who were terrible, like the one who sat behind 2nd base with his mitt over his face crying because he hated it, they played every year. It’s what we did in the 1970s and 80s. Not anymore.

My son played one week of tee ball camp when he was four. My daughter gutted through one season of tee ball. Neither had any interest in playing ever again. Neither owns a glove or a bat. They are the majority in their peer groups, too.

My 7th grade son has several friends who are big-time into baseball. But they are forced to specialize in it well before middle school. Teams are so desperate for kids with enough talent to merit playing and enough funding to play in the bi-weekly conventions at expensive sports parks that they steal away all the free time and ability to play other sports. That’s self-defeating. You simply cannot be a casual baseball player as a kid anymore, at least not anywhere I’ve lived in the last 20 years.

It’s sad to see. Some of my favorite memories of being a “tween” involved throwing the baseball or playing stickball or wiffleball with friends. It was a big part of how I made friends as a new kid in 7th grade. Now those moments, those simple fun games, are nonexistent. Sigh.