$.01--Week 15 kicked off with a fantastic game, an AFC West showdown between the Chargers and Chiefs. Arguably the two best teams in the conference, they played a thrilling game won by the Chargers on the final play.

Los Angeles coach Anthony Lynn made the bold decision to go for the win after Philip Rivers engineered a great TD drive to bring the Chargers to within one. Instead of kicking the extra point and going to overtime, Lynn left Rivers and the offense on the field. He was rewarded, thanks in part to some defensive confusion by a Chiefs defense prone to bouts of that very malady all night (and season) long. Mike Williams secured the win when three Chiefs stayed inside and left him uncovered in the right side of the end zone for an easy pitch-and-catch from Rivers.

Both teams are now 11-3 and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone outside of the home cities of other AFC teams to find anyone who doesn’t believe the Chiefs and Chargers are the two best teams in the conference. Kansas City still holds the tiebreaker edge, but don’t overlook Los Angeles. Rivers deserves loads of credit for keeping the ship tight with injuries to Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler and outscoring the mighty Chiefs offense. 

$.02--As entertaining as the Thursday night game was, it could have been a lot more enjoyable. That’s a prevailing theme this entire NFL season thanks to what seems like overzealous officiating. 

One drive in the Chargers-Chiefs game was particularly brutal. Four separate penalties were enforced, with another play negated by offsetting fouls. Some of the defensive holding calls were specious, and yet the officials somehow missed a(nother) obvious helmet-to-helmet hit that is supposed to be a major point of emphasis.

Too often we as fans of the game can justifiably complain about some truly terrible officiating. So I turned to someone in a position to do something about it...

I was fortunate enough to chat with former NFL VP of Officiating and current FOX rules analyst Dean Blandino as part of the Detroit Lions Podcast on Friday. My co-host Chris and I asked Blandino, who has appeared with us a few times now, about the flag-fest.

Blandino is no corporate shill and has always been a straight shooter, so his answers do carry weight with me. They should with you, too.

After acknowledging “the best officiated games are the ones where nobody knows they were there,” Blandino put some of the impetus behind the flagfest on the teams.

“In officiating we like to think the two teams” decide the volume of flags, Blandino said. But he quickly pointed out the inconsistent application of the rules and enforcement from drive to drive. He’s frustrated by it, and he’s also angered by the trouble with the rushed emphasis on helmet-to-helmet hits, “unable to find the right balance” between proper enforcement and discontinuity between crews.

One good point he made later: when I asked about possibly decriminalizing defensive holding from being an automatic first down for the offense. Blandino resoundly defended the deterrent factor of the severity of the penalty, and he did so without being a jerk. Thanks, Dean! 

$.03--Six teams were officially eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday.

Of those, the most unforeseen from the summer is the Green Bay Packers. The team continues to circle the drain even after firing longtime coach Mike McCarthy. Sunday’s loss to the Bears clinched the NFC North for Chicago and dropped the Packers to 5-8-1. They’re only spared the indignity of last place because my Lions also lost in humiliating fashion, 14-13 to Buffalo to also get eliminated at 5-9. 

Chicago’s ascension from worst to first is one of the NFL’s best stories in 2018. It comes at the expense of the precipitous fall of the Packers. It turns out Green Bay’s issues extended deeper than McCarthy’s scalp. This one showed some serious cracks in the Aaron Rodgers armor, and if those cracks fissure any further, Green Bay is in serious trouble.

Make no mistake: Aaron Rodgers is perhaps the least of Green Bay’s problems. But he’s not as capable of solving all the ones around him as he has shown throughout his career. He missed open targets versus Chicago. His remarkable string of passes without an interception ended, though it was not his fault Jimmy Graham couldn’t catch a ball that hit him in both hands. Rodgers did not throw a touchdown, did not do well on third downs and did not seem to think he was getting much help, judging from his dour demeanor and reaction to several missed opportunities. 

It makes the Packers a fascinating job opening for a prospective head coach. At 35, Rodgers still has good years left but isn’t likely to ever resurrect his 2010-13 self. The roster around him features few players in their prime years, though those who are (Davante Adams, David Bakhtiari, Kenny Clark) are better than widely advertised. Rodgers’ quirky (to be diplomatic) personality will not mesh with everyone, either. Stay tuned, it’s going to be an interesting few months in the land of the Cheesehead.

$.04--I’m not surprised the Colts beat the Cowboys. I did forecast it, after all. But the Indy defense pitching a shutout is indeed a surprising outcome.

It’s not that the Colts defense lacks talent or ability. Darius Leonard is going to lead the NFL in tackles as a rookie. Denico Autry has blossomed as an impact pass rusher and the combination of Pierre Desir, Kenny Moore, Clayton Geathers and Malik Hooker is coming together nicely in the secondary. They sure looked great against Dallas, smothering Dak Prescott and the Cowboys, 23-0.

The Colts blocked a field goal on Dallas’ first drive. Two fourth down stops stymied late Dallas incursions into Indy terrritory. Indy’s defense held tough, wtih a little help from an Ezekiel Elliott fumble and a couple of missed opportunities in the passing game.

Just as impressive as blanking the Dallas offense was how well the Colts offense managed against the stout Cowboys defense. Andrew Luck guided several scoring drives, including seizing the bull by the horns and going up-tempo after the blocked FG. It was a masterful game by a team on the rise...which leads to the question: how high can the Colts rise this year?

The team that blanked the Cowboys and crushed the Texans to snuff their win streak can play with anyone. The team that got shutout by the Jaguars and struggled mightily at home against a Miami team that’s dreadful on the road isn’t going to climb into the playoffs. They still are on the outside looking in, despite the hot streak. They need to win out to have a chance, as their finale in Tennessee (also 8-6) is a de facto playoff game...and only if the Ravens lose another game. 

$.05--Red alert! The New England Patriots have lost consecutive games in December. Do we have a Distant Early Warning of the demise of the Patriots?

Sunday’s 17-10 loss to the Steelers will send many to Rush to judgment. Tom Brady threw a truly dreadful interception, blindly lobbing a ball in the general vicinity of one receiver and two defenders in the red zone. On the next shot, he wildly missed three passes before his last gasp on 4th down got swatted away like a bad opening act.

But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you

It’s not like Pittsburgh struck all the right notes in the victory. They turned the ball over twice and played some lousy special teams. But the Patriots were even more dissonant, looking like a Rush tribute band instead of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neil Peart on the stage. The costumes were the same, the instruments looked identical but the playing just can’t capture the magic of the expectations. 

It’s way too early to write off the Patriots. Even Rush had a rough patch (Power Windows, anyone?) before rebounding with their characteristic quirky awesomeness. It can’t last forever. Are we seeing the inevitable farewell tour in the near future? It will be a Farewell to Kings, and those kings will not go quietly into the NFL night.

$.06--Saturday night exposed the broader NFL audience to Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns. It was their first primetime game since the team has transformed into a winner following the long overdue firing of Hue Jackson. The Browns held on for the 17-16 win in Denver, their fourth win in five games, thanks to Jabrill Peppers’ great game and a couple of timely plays from Nick Chubb and T.J. Carrie.

I get to watch Cleveland every week with my duties as managing editor of USA TODAY’s Browns Wire. But I don’t get to hear the national broadcast calling games very often. I’m glad I got to hear the NFL Network team of Mike Tirico and Kurt Warner. 

Tirico has always been on the Al Michaels level of consummate pro as a play-by-play guy. He crisply calls the action, doesn’t get overly excited and expertly sets up his partner. Warner is new to me as a color analyst and he was fantastic. Poised, sharp, informed and informative...exactly what I want. He provided personal insight from his Hall of Fame QB perspective that was digestible without being simple. 

Compared to what we’re exposed to most of the time, this broadcast was refreshingly fantastic. They augmented the game action instead of hyperbolizing or overanalyzing. There was a natural rapport and flow, professional and engagingly entertaining at the same time. More, please...

$.07--San Francisco’s improbable two-game win streak has lifted the 49ers all but out of the race for the No. 1 overall pick. The overtime stunner to shock the Seahawks in a driving rainstorm in Santa Clara elevated the 49ers to 4-10, one game better than both Oakland and Arizona.

A lot of times fans would be discouraged by “blowing” the chance at the top pick. 49ers fans should run as far away in the other direction as possible from that sentiment. There is a lot of young talent in San Francisco, though much of it is currently injured. The second wave of players is now gaining experience and proving they can provide quality depth when the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo, Jerick McKinnon and others get back. The emergence of DeForest Buckner as a defensive force up front is something to build around, and guys like Ronald Blair and Arik Armstead have proven they can contribute. 

Building momentum for next year and learning how to win and trust in one another is far more important than 2-3 spots in the draft order. Then again, that was true last year when the team rocketed from 0-9 to 6-10. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again...

$.08--NFL quickies

--Tennessee blanked the New York Giants, 17-0. I didn’t see one play, not even a highlight. But this is a great reminder that the players are more than just soulless meat puppets running around just for your amusement:

--Happy for Jeff Driskel in authoring his first NFL win in the Bengals 30-16 win over Oakland that was closer than the score would indicate. Driskell had a rotten day (14-of-33, 130 yards, 1 TD 1 INT) but kept Cincinnati on the rails, riding Joe Mixon’s big day (127 rushing yards, 2 TDs) to snap a 5-game losing streak. I liked Driskell as a prospect coming out of Louisiana Tech more than most draftniks, and while he did not play well he still earns the victory next to his name. 

--Placekicking on the whole is down this year, but nowhere has it fallen more than in Pittsburgh. When Chris Boswell yakked yet another FG attempt against the Patriots, the Steelers fell below the 60 percent conversion mark. No team has been that poor on field goals in the 21st century. 

--This one isn’t NFL related, but it’s a story any sports fan will want to read. Trust me on this one…

--It will be a crying shame if Baker Mayfield doesn’t win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. The No. 1 pick has won the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week 5 times since Week 3 and could get it again in Week 15. Meanwhile, his closest competition stumbled; Saquon Barkley managed just 31 yards on 14 carries in a shutout loss. 

$.09--College/Draft quickies 

I posted Mock Draft v1.0 on Friday. To publicly answer some of the questions or points raised about the decisions, here are a few expanded thoughts:

--I am not a fan of the QB class beyond Haskins and maybe Herbert, who I need to study closer if he does declare. As it stands now, I would have a real hard time drafting any other QB before the 4th round and I definitely would not want them running my team as a rookie. The NFL will see it differently, of course. That doesn’t make them right…

--I do not see any first-round RBs and I suspect most mock drafts will reflect that. Part of the reason is the impressive success of so many recent high RB picks. The demand just isn’t that high. Iowa State’s David Montgomery would be my current guess as the first RB taken. I’m nowhere near in-depth enough in the evaluation process to have my own order formulated yet.

--Several folks asked about the omission of two pass rushers: Florida State’s Brian Burns and Florida’s Jachai Polite. With Burns, a lack of bulk (he’s 6’5” and 230 pounds) is going to deter teams, methinks. He plays like he’s lacking bulk, too. For Polite, he’s undoubtedly an explosive athlete who can turn the corner and flatten to the QB impressively. But when he doesn’t win with his initial step, he doesn’t win as a rusher despite consistent effort. His potential will merit a long look by teams picking as high as the top 10-12 and he might wind up being that high in the next edition. 

--The fanbases that seem to like its projection the most:

Green Bay - D.K. Metcalf

Cincinnati - Devin White

Seattle - Noah Fant

--The fans who want me to die in a blender accident:

Oakland - Dwayne Haskins

Indianapolis - Kelvin Harmon

Detroit - Deandre Baker

$.10--When I’m not writing about football, which seems to be about two waking hours per day this time of year, most of my time is spent as a basketball dad for my 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. I love it and I’m blessed to have two kids who both love the game and are pretty good at it relative to their peers. And it’s the reaction of those peers that really encourages me about our future and reminds me that sometimes letting the kids just be kids is great. 

This generation doesn’t want participation ribbons, at least not those on my kids’ teams or those they compete against. The parents don’t want them either. They are competitive and passionate. The last kids on the bench don’t mind one bit that they’re watching the best players on the team finish the close games. They know the meritocracy without needing to be told. 

Yet the sportsmanship between the kids is excellent in spite of the competitiveness. It’s a lot better between the youngsters themselves than it is the parents in the stands. I watch opponents help one another up after a foul. I watched my son graciously show respect to a kid who blocked his shot. At the high school level, I watched girls bury their immediate frustration at a foe hitting a buzzer-beater to send a game to overtime and give fist bumps and “good jobs” as they retook the floor.

None of that was forced upon them by coaches. While a lot of us as parents try to impart those values, it’s not easy to see if they process it or care. When they do, it’s truly beautiful. It is possible to be fiercely competitive and still respectful to both the opponent and the game. Try and spread that around. I’ll consider it your Christmas gift to me.