$.01--In the nearly 15 seasons of writing this column, the Miami Dolphins have never once been featured in the first cent in a positive light. It takes something so momentous, so incredible to break the unwritten law of not leading with the Dolphins.
We got just that on Sunday.
The final play will no doubt get labeled for eternity with some catchy contrivance of a name, like the Philly Special or the Music City Miracle. I’ve watched it at least 10 times and still cannot believe what I saw.
KENYAN DRAKE. FOR THE WIN. pic.twitter.com/mWcSQQ9GPP— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 9, 2018
Kenyan Drake’s sashaying TD off two laterals on the final play of the game, with the clock at 0:00, lifted the Dolphins over the Patriots, 34-33.
That it happened at all is crazy enough. That it happened against the Patriots makes Miami’s magical moment even more spectacular.
The Patriots were explicitly complicit in their own defeat. Notice who the last player Drake ran past was? That’s right, Rob Gronkowski. The tight end was in the game for some reason, replacing safety Devin McCourty. The irony of Gronk missing a tackle on a 69-yard TD is a joke that writes itself. That wasn’t the only self-inflicted wound by the Patriots.
The end of the first half was as bad of clock management and decision making as you’ll ever see from the symbiotic pair of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. It cost them at least three points, a big deal in a one-point loss. It cost them a chance to clinch the AFC East, too.
Back to Miami. The Dolphins continue to have a bewitching effect on the Patriots. This time it greatly increases their playoff chances. Miami moves to 7-6, one of 4 AFC teams with that record. None are catching the Chargers, who are 10-3 but only a Wild Card because they trail Kansas City. Miami sits pretty in the conference tie-break procedures and has two more eminently winnable games on the schedule with Jacksonville and a Week 17 trip to Buffalo after playing at inconsistent Minnesota next week.
Hey, stranger things have happened...
$.02--The NFC East now belongs to the Dallas Cowboys. Their 29-23 overtime win over the Philadelphia Eagles all but wraps up the NFL’s worst division.
It sure didn’t seem like this would be the outcome even a month ago when these two teams met for the first time. At that point, the Cowboys were a wobbly 3-5 after a lifeless primetime loss to the Titans. The Eagles were 4-5 and poised to bury their lone star nemesis in the friendly confines of Philadelphia.
The Cowboys have not lost since. A combination of tough defense, great running from Ezekiel Elliott and timely contributions from Amari Cooper since trading for him have transformed the middling Cowboys into a team nobody will want to face in the NFC playoffs. When a team gets a win thanks to Cooper catching a pass deflected off a defender for the game-winner, it’s hard to argue against their charmed status.
Cooper was once again the catalyst for the renaissance. Proving more than worthy of the first-round pick they shipped to Oakland to secure his services, the wideout hauled in 10 receptions for 217 yards and 3 TDs. The dilapidated Eagles secondary had no answer for Cooper, even when they got a hand on the ball.
At 8-5 and with the season sweep over the 6-7 Eagles, it’s almost academic Dallas will capture the East. Washington’s downward spiral appears to have no bottom, and the Giants at 5-8 simply have too much ground to make up after spanking the Skins. Give credit to Jerry Jones for aggressively efforting to improve his team and not giving up faith in either Jason Garrett or Dak Prescott, which was not necessarily a popular take six weeks ago.
$.03--For the first time in over five calendar years, the Cleveland Browns won and every other team in the AFC North lost.
The Browns beat the Panthers, 26-20, behind a standout performance by Baker Mayfield. The No. 1 overall pick completed 18 of his 22 passes. The other 4 were all dropped. Cleveland’s defense tightened when it needed and the Browns improved to 3-2 under interim coach Gregg Williams. That’s the only positive from the suddenly tightened division in Week 14.
Baltimore lost in overtime to the Kansas City Chiefs, 27-24, in a game where Robert Griffin finished the game at QB for an injured Lamar Jackson and couldn’t connect on either of his two pass attempts at the end of overtime. The Ravens were close but couldn’t quite dethrone the AFC’s best team.
Cincinnati fell to the Los Angeles Chargers, 26-21 after the Bengals failed on a potential game-tying 2-pt. conversion and the Chargers tacked on an insurance field goal with under a minute to go. Another close-but-no-cigar effort by an AFC North team against a superior AFC West foe.
Pittsburgh somehow lost in Oakland, 24-21 when kicker Chris Boswell slipped on the chopped up playing surface while attempting a game-tying field goal effort. Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined for a good portion of the second half with a rib injury. Consider this the Any Given Sunday outcome for Week 14 and perhaps the entire season.
When was the last time that happened? How about Week 9 of the 2013 season.
Interestingly, that win over the Ravens was the only win for the Browns after Week 5 in the entire 2013 season. The Browns win also elevated them out of last place in the division. The Bengals are now 5-8, a half-game behind the 5-7-1 Browns.
A different version of this cent previously appeared on Browns Wire
$.04--Thursday Night Football wound up being a pleasant surprise...unless you’re a Jaguars fan. The game quickly turned from Jaguars vs. Titans into the Derrick Henry show.
The supersized back took a simple handoff from just inside his own 1-yard line. He tackled several Jaguars along the way to a 99-yard TD run.
Henry’s run--and the Jaguars apathetic defensive effort--comprised the entire ESPN Sportscenter Top 10 the following morning. It was a majestic and vulgar display of power. In the nearly 18 seconds it took Henry to rumble 99 yards, he humiliated several would-be tacklers, notably LBs Leon Jacobs and Myles Jack being (as he often is) late to the party.
Take nothing away from Henry and his spectacular night, the best game by a running back in franchise history and one of the best in NFL history. He was great. The Jaguars pathetic tackling helped him considerably, though.
If you were wondering how the Jaguars have fallen from the precipice of the Super Bowl as the AFC’s second-best team in 2017 to their current status as the AFC’s second-worst team in just 12 games in 11 months, the effort on that Henry run says a lot. Blake Bortles is often the biggest scapegoat, but he’s far from the only massive disappointment in Duval this year. Heck, Bortles didn’t even play in this game. And that’s why there is no easy fix for all that ails the Jaguars. Their window didn’t just close, it got welded shut.
$.05--In the battle of the most disappointing teams in the NFC, Green Bay and Atlanta fought for being the first team to crack the 5-win barrier. The Packers prevailed in a 34-20 finish that wasn’t nearly as close as the score would indicate.
Green Bay raced out to 34 straight points after Atlanta struck first. A pair of garbage-time TDs brought Atlanta closer and covered the “over”, but the game was never in question. And the Packers looked more cohesive and fun than they had in weeks following the rocky start.
If Joe Philbin was hoping to make a strong case for sticking around as the Packers head coach, the interim did little to help himself early. Philbin challenged two separate calls in the first 67 seconds of the game. He lost both challenges.
After that, he smartly let Aaron Rodgers do what Aaron Rodgers does best. That was not something Mike McCarthy did well, or often enough, at the end of his Packers tenure. Imagine the simple concept of letting Rodgers survey the defense and attack the weak spots. Granted those aren’t terribly difficult to find with what’s left of the Falcons defense, but that’s part of why Philbin is the interim coach and McCarthy is looking for work.
$.06--Washington QB Alex Smith suffered a gruesome leg fracture a couple of weeks ago. On the anniversary of Joe Theismann’s nasty break at the hands of Lawrence Taylor, Smith broke the exact same bones in his lower leg.
Smith was put on IR and, as is par for the course, had surgery as soon as pragmatically possible to repair the tib/fib fracture. Normal recovery would have Smith back out there in August as the Skins starter once again.
Alas, Smith is having anything but a normal recovery. Numerous reports indicate there are complications stemming from his leg surgery. The 34-year-old is battling an infection from the surgical procedure and there are real fears his career could be over. He has had additional surgeries but the infection remains. Smith remains hospitalized as doctors try to salvage the wound and perhaps require more operations to reconstruct the lower leg bones.
Too often we take surgery for granted. We hear of a player breaking a forearm or tearing an Achilles and we just assume they’ll be back on the field in the normal recovery window. But it doesn’t always work that way.
Complications can arise. Rehabilitation might not progress as expected. Or sometimes the wound is so great that a normal recovery simply isn’t feasible. It’s something to keep in mind when you see a player carted off with a leg injury and why those guys are often so sullen and emotional. They understand that their return is never guaranteed. Alex Smith might become the new poster boy for that unfortunate circumstance.
$.07--Congrats to Kyler Murray for winning the Heisman Trophy! Murray follows Oklahoma QB predecessor Baker Mayfield in winning college football’s most prestigious honor, comfortably finishing above Tua Tagovailoa and Dwayne Haskins in the voting.
Normally, we get into a debate about the Heisman and its impact on the winner’s NFL draft stock. That will not be a relevant conversation with Murray, for he is a baseball player. The Oakland A’s drafted Murray in the top 10 of June’s MLB draft and he’s already inked for just under $5 million guaranteed. As an outfielder with the same speed and arm that helped propel him to the Heisman, Murray can earn significantly more money--all of it guaranteed--playing a non-contact sport.
At his diminutive (by NFL standards) size, it’s a no-brainer to eschew gridiron aspirations for the baseball diamond. Generously listed by the A’s at 5-11 and 190 pounds, he’s a tough sell as an NFL QB. Mayfield still gets critics (wrongly) claiming he’s too small and he’s 3 inches taller and a good 25 pounds bigger.
It’s a fun conversation for sports talk shows, but it’s as superfluous as Scaramanga’s third nipple. Murray will take his Golden Gun to baseball and we’re all better for it.
--The Sunday Night Football game probably deserves more than just a quickie, so it gets two. First, nothing but love for Bears coach Matt Nagy with the trickeration and understanding how to use the Rams’ aggressive tendencies against them. On a goal-line 4th down, Chicago brought in four defensive linemen to join six offensive linemen and QB Mitchell Trubisky. The QB sold the fake and hit reserve lineman Bradley Sowell with a delayed release pass that Sowell made a great hands catch for the TD. Fantastic play call and execution, as well as trust in Sowell.
--Second from Soldier Field: It’s not surprising the Bears beat the Rams. It was surprising the Bears won 15-6. The two teams threw the ball 74 times and gained a combined total of 290 yards. Chicago will win every game its in when the stat book looks like that.
--It ain’t easy being a cameraman…
🚨🚨 CAMERA MAN DOWN 🚨🚨 pic.twitter.com/7isIOSbmjj— For The Win (@ForTheWin) December 9, 2018
--Not much has gone right for the Detroit Lions, but stealing Damon “Snacks” Harrison from the Giants for a 3rd-round pick has been fantastic. Prior to acquiring Snacks, Detroit was in the bottom 3 in both rushing yards per game allowed and yards per carry allowed. Since he arrived for Week 9, Detroit is in the top 3 in both. That is not a coincidence.
--Buffalo has found a running game in QB Josh Allen. He’s now the team’s leading rusher on the season after his second straight 100-yard rushing effort. Allen is still a quarterback and missed four games, but he’s the best threat Buffalo has running the ball. In fact, Allen broke Michael Vick’s record for rushing yards by a QB over a 3-game period. As for throwing, well…
Josh Allen looks clueless when doing what a QB is actually supposed to do, pass, horrible INTpic.twitter.com/8ey958fKOg— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 9, 2018
--All good things come to an end, and Houston’s 9-game win streak collapsed under its own weight in the loss to Indianapolis. Take nothing away from the Colts, who were the better team on Sunday, but that one got away quickly and the Texans looked like they lacked the spirit to stop it. Nice, necessary bounce-back win for the Colts after their humiliating shutout loss to Jacksonville last week.
It was a quiet week on the college front and I have a draft piece coming later this week, so I’ll make these real quick…
--Central Michigan hiring ex-Florida coach, and noted shark enthusiast, Jim McElwain is an interesting choice. He’s not the typical MAC hire of a young up-and-comer or a grizzled vet on his final shot. If he can recruit to Mt. Pleasant, his system should work. Should.
--Several prominent players are announcing they will sit out their bowl games in preparation for the NFL draft. Good! The only way we end both the ludicrously inadequate playoff system and the patently unfair exploitation of the student-athletes is when the players themselves expose the folly of both. By rendering the bowls less attractive, the bowls make less money. Therefore the conferences make less money and the television networks sell less advertising and lose money on their deals. That’s how you affect change.
$.10--Cleats for a Cause
This was the second weekend where the NFL uniform Gestapo puts away the jackboots and allows players to show a little personality and glimpse into their lives outside of football. The annual “Cleats for a Cause” is a great way for players to spotlight causes and foundations they care about with personalized cleats.
The causes run the gamut from supporting veterans to autism awareness to various cancer foundations, with some more local causes spotlighted as well. Aside from the genuine caring involved, the shoes are often pretty darn cool, too. It’s a great program and the players deserve credit for enthusiastically participating.
In that spirit, my cleats would honor a foundation that has become more familiar and important to me and my family than I hope it ever does for you. My brother-in-law Jim was diagnosed with ALS about 18 months ago. Jim is my wife’s brother and is fighting hard, still smiling and still able to speak some. He’s not yet completely immobilized, but the decline has been swift. We spent Thanksgiving at his Detroit home and it was great to see him.
He’s a good man with a wonderful wife and a rambunctious 4-year-old son who can’t help but make you smile. There is no recovery, no comeback, no long-term positive outcome from ALS. That will not change without support. NFL fans are familiar with the Steve Gleason story. Rock music fans should be familiar with the Jason Becker story. I’ve already lost a cousin, Brian Stuckey, to the disease a couple years ago. ALS touches many with it’s insidious grasp. We cannot win the fight without your help.
So my cause is the ALS Association of Michigan. If you’re looking for a cause to donate to, please consider it. Thanks.