$.01--Sunday Night Football brought us a matchup of the AFC’s two best teams entering the weekend. New England vs. Baltimore. Tom Brady vs. Lamar Jackson. Bill Belichick vs. John Harbaugh. nbsp;

Baltimore raced out to a quick 17-0 lead in the first quarter and America could not get out of its way to anoint Jackson as MVP and the Patriots dead in the water. The budding new face of the modern NFL was putting it to the old guard. 

A Patriots rally, unexpected only if you regularly drink from a bidet, quickly silenced all that talk. A muffed punt here, a missed tackle there, and New England was right back within four at the half. The pearl-clutching then radically shifted. Oh no, the Ravens let up. Here comes yet another epic win for Belichick and the unbeaten Patriots.  

Except that did not happen. The Ravens withstood the rally and went on a run of their own. Baltimore won the second half 20-7 and captured the game with a convincing 37-20 victory.  

Jackson was once again in command, better than his relatively meager passing stats (17-of-23, 163 yards, 1 TD) would indicate. He ran for 61 and helped Mark Ingram gash the Patriots for 115 by consistently changing the calculus of the offense vs. the defense.  

No team had scored more than 14 against the Patriots in the first eight weeks. Baltimore nearly tripled that, though a defensive TD from Marlon Humphrey inflates that a bit. Three red zone TDs cracked the Patriots’ historically awesome defense within its own 20. That’s the Jackson effect. Great win for the Ravens to assert themselves as the primary challenger for AFC supremacy for the still-great Patriots.  

$.02--The San Francisco 49ers' performance on Halloween should scare the bejeezus out of the rest of the NFL. The 49ers held off a tough challenge from a game Cardinals team to remain unbeaten at 8-0. 

Why should the rest of the league be worried about a close win over a last-place (though probably the best last-place) team? Because Jimmy Garoppolo won the game for the 49ers. 

Jimmy G hasn’t had to do much this season except turn and hand the ball off while looking devastatingly handsome. The Niners vaunted run game wasn’t clicking, save one 31-yard scamper from Matt Breida. Arizona wanted to make Garoppolo prove he could beat them. Mission accomplished.  

Garoppolo was very impressive, looking poised and accurate to all levels of the field. He completed 28-of-37 for 317 yards and 4 TDs. The numbers don’t do his performance justice. This was evidence of why the Niners gave Garoppolo the massive contract on little more than the promise of potential future greatness. 

Now San Francisco has proven it can win with the passing offense. We already knew they could prevail with the dominant ground attack and the NFC’s most complete defense. Arizona played them well, getting an electric debut from new RB Kenyan Drake and a solid game from a steadily improving Kyler Murray. They’re good. San Francisco is just better, and they keep proving it week after week.  

$.03--Washington left tackle Trent Williams has been holding out all season, refusing to play under the franchise tag. The Skins stubbornly refused to even consider trade offers for the perennial Pro Bowler until the hours before Tuesday’s deadline.

Then GM Bruce Allen, playing his typical role of amiable sock puppet to owner Daniel Snyder, changed course and demanded an absurd ransom from suitors like the Cleveland Browns. John Dorsey wisely refused to overpay for an 8-game rental of a 31-year-old with bad knees who has not even practiced in a year. It turns out there was even more reason to be skeptical of Williams’ condition.

He has cancer. 

Williams was diagnosed with dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (DFSP), a rare type of cancer found in layers of skin. His came in a malignant growth on his head. It’s something Williams alleges he and the team have known about since a diagnosis within the last year. Now Williams claims Washington management mistreated his disease and that was part of his holdout. 

It’s a very complicated set of fingers to point here. Williams pointed his squarely at his only NFL employer, as told by Sports Illustrated,

As retold by Williams, Redskins medical staff downplayed the condition as “something minor” and just a “cyst.” His comments also suggest that the team’s medical staff declined to order tests that would have revealed the seriousness of the condition. Williams went on to explain that team medical personnel eventually had the excess skin removed. When the skin was examined, the team learned that the cyst had a cancerous growth. The Redskins then sent Williams to see a specialist. By that point, the growth was “far more advanced.”

The Skins, an even more ironically awful moniker now, claim otherwise. To quote the great Andrew Brandt, there will be lawyers. The linked SI article does a thorough job of breaking down the legal moves for both parties, if you want a deeper dive. 

As for Williams in 2019, he ended his holdout and reported for duty...and subsequently couldn’t get his helmet on because of the aftermath of his cancerous growth removal. He will not play in Week 9, and it’s hard to envision him suiting up for a team he emphatically states he can no longer trust. 

Normally the Skins foibles just stick to football, both on-field and management decisions. Now it appears the medical staff could be another branch of the most dysfunctional franchise in the NFL and perhaps all of pro sports. And that’s saying something in a league where the Bengals, Browns and Jets all exist... 

$.04--The Andy Dalton era in Cincinnati appears done. Hours before Tuesday’s trade deadline, the Bengals announced they were benching the longtime starting QB. On his 32nd birthday, no less. It turns out to be a merciful birthday gift to Dalton from the woeful franchise.

Cincinnati is on its bye week, the only reason they did not lose in Week 9. When the winless Bengals return to the field, it will be Ryan Finley under center. Finley is a fourth-round rookie from North Carolina State (and Boise State before that) who essentially has no chance to succeed behind a terrible offensive line and the NFL’s worst run game (32nd in both yards per game and yards per carry). Sacrificing him to the football gods isn’t fair to Finley, but very little is fair around the Bengals these days. 

Back to Dalton. There was immediate chatter he could get traded to the Chicago Bears. It did not happen this week, but keep an eye out for Dalton to Chicago after the season. After Mitchell Trubisky’s latest attempt to redefine “suck”, it makes sense. 

The Bears are an average QB away from being a playoff team. Dalton has made a lengthy career of being a perfectly average QB. Sure, he’ll fluctuate to slightly below-average for a few weeks, but that’s still miles better than what the woebegone Bears are getting from Trubisky. Dalton is a very good candidate to get cut; he carries a $17.5M contract in 2020 but none of it is guaranteed and there’s no dead money for the Bengals to eat.  

$.05--One alleged trade deadline deal that would have been absolutely delicious: the Pittsburgh Steelers reportedly made serious inquiries with the New York Jets about running back Le’Veon Bell. While it did not happen in the end, the thought of Bell returning to Pittsburgh so quickly after forcing his way out with the mother of all acrimonious holdouts is a special kind of crazy.

That the Jets even pondered giving up their prized free agent from the offseason is a sure sign things are as unhealthy with New York as a whale blubber, fudge and moonshine smoothie. Before the deadline they sent DT Leonard Williams across the hall to the Giants for dimes on the dollar if Williams wakes up from his 2019 slumber and remembers he’s capable of being great. The Jets badly mishandled the Kelechi Osemele injury, cutting him when he had surgery the team refused to acknowledge he needed. Oh, and they shopped their best player, safety Jamal Adams, after privately assuring him he’s untouchable. 

The Jets' clown car drove into Miami and crashed into a Dolphins team actively trying to lose every game...and promptly got spanked by their hosts, 26-18. The tanking Dolphins played hard and spirited football. The Jets, well... 

Plays like this are the difference between having a bad roster and having bad effort and execution:

Pittsburgh smartly avoided the panicked egg all over its face and eschewed trading for Bell, who refused to play for the team for a year after they ran as much tread off his tires as they could with 406 (!?!) touches in 2017. The Steelers edged the Colts despite not having their top two RBs for the game when Adam Vinatieri was victimized by a bad hold from Rigoberto Sanchez and yanked his potential game-winning FG about 30 yards off the mark. The Steelers are a good franchise clawing their way back to respectability in a trying season. Nobody will say that about the Jets anytime soon.  

$.06--Josh Gordon is now a Seattle Seahawk. Amazingly enough, another team has gone out of its way to give the talented but troubled wideout yet another chance. This time the Seahawks are taking the big chance, claiming Gordon off waivers from the New England Patriots. 

New England released him from the injured reserve list, where he’s been for a couple of weeks with bone bruises in his knees. The Patriots moved on, trading for Mohamed Sanu and not waiting for Gordon to eventually get healthy. 

It’s hard to blame them. Gordon’s past puts everyone on eggshells all the time. I saw it firsthand in two separate training camps with the Cleveland Browns. Teammates and coaches were happy to have him around, but there was a tangible sense of dread. To Gordon’s credit, he handled it well. However, it was easy to sense his own unease. 

In the second Browns training camp I saw him, in 2018, his already muscular physique had added quite a bit more bulk. It did not help his game. The top-end of his burst was gone, and he was noticeably clunkier coming out of breaks. That’s relatively speaking, of course; Gordon was still pretty impressive, but it was another potential headache with his finely tuned body more designed for weightlifting mags than playing football. 

Gordon wound up in New England after the Browns could no longer dance on the eggshells after he missed a practice and “wasn’t acting himself”, to use GM John Dorsey’s words. He played well but was no longer a special talent. That carried over into 2019. He was still good enough to catch 20 passes and represent a viable threat, but he was no longer the vertical dynamo would could sizzle even the best DBs. When the minor injury came up, Bill Belichick and the Patriots threw out the eggshells.  

Now the Seahawks and coach Pete Carroll will get a chance to make something out of the wideout. He remains on double-double-secret probation with the NFL, which in its infinite wisdom decided that 10 second chances was the right amount for the habitual drug abuser (sidenote: Gordon himself has admitted to heavy abuse of far more illicit and illegal substances than marijuana dating back to 7th grade). Seattle already has a supersized wideout in rookie D.K. Metcalf, who has played well. It’s a gamble they feel is worth taking, one I’m not sure I would take. Few other teams would, either. Life on eggshells is not an easy path for a team trying to win. Best of luck to Gordon and the Seahawks, who had no need for any WR help in hanging 40 on the Buccaneers on Sunday.  

$.07--Now that every team except Dallas (on MNF) has played eight games, I feel comfortable doing a midseason power poll. 

I do these more in tiers than rote ranking. It’s based on the entire season to date, with a slight emphasis on the last 2-4 weeks and current injury status of important players. I’m very strident in the tiers. The ordination within each group is open for debate and I wouldn’t argue (much) with anyone who would reorder the same tier of teams.  

Top tier

1. New England Patriots

2. San Francisco 49ers

3. Green Bay Packers

4. New Orleans Saints

Second tier, legit contenders to win multiple playoff games

5. Minnesota Vikings

6. Baltimore Ravens

7. Seattle Seahawks

Good but hard to trust

8. Houston Texans

9. Kansas City Chiefs

10. Carolina Panthers

11. Dallas Cowboys

12. Buffalo Bills

13. Los Angeles Rams

14. Indianapolis Colts

15. Los Angeles Chargers

Not good but still capable of things

16. Philadelphia Eagles

17. Jacksonville Jaguars

18. Pittsburgh Steelers

19. Arizona Cardinals

Woefully flawed but too good to be lower

20. Oakland Raiders

21. Tennessee Titans

22. Detroit Lions

23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Penultimate tier

24. Chicago Bears

25. Denver Broncos

26. Cleveland Browns

27. New York Giants 

Bottom tier, and none of these teams are getting out of this group anytime this season:

28. Washington

29. Miami Dolphins

30. Atlanta Falcons

31. New York Jets

32. Cincinnati Bengals

$.08--NFL Quickies

--The NFL has taken the player safety issue too far. No way is this a penalty, and no way should (poor) judgment calls like this not be subject to review:

--Houston’s blowout win in London over Jacksonville shows the importance of turnovers. The teams had almost equal yardage, 1st down, penalties and plays run. The Texans won 26-3 largely because they were plus-3 in takeaways. Good win for Deshaun Watson without standout LT Laremy Tunsil and WR Will Fuller on a day where the Jaguars focused on shutting down DeAndre Hopkins.  

--The entire NFC North lost on Sunday. None was more painful than Detroit absolutely botching a final shot at a touchdown. After Oakland (stupidly) called time out with the Lions racing the clock on 4th-and-goal, Detroit sent out a formation with three tight ends and went play action. Kenny Golladay, one of the five best red zone threats in the league, was on the sideline. So was Marvin Jones, their best playmaking wideout. Matthew Stafford’s rollout (by design) heave to Logan Thomas (by design) had little chance. Life gave Lions coach Matt Patricia lemonade and he turned it into cat piss. 

--I really believed the Cleveland Browns had too much talent to not win at least nine games this year. I knew the rookie coach and the shaky offensive line would be issues, but I had no idea they’d be such a burden. Losing in Denver dropped the Browns to 2-6. I supported the decision to hire Freddie Kitchens. I support any decision to fire him anytime now, too. 

--Words of wisdom: always blitz the Hail Mary. Always. 

$.09 College/Draft quickies

--I know a lot of folks still really like Oregon QB Justin Herbert as a potential first-round prospect. After catching most of the Ducks solid win over USC, it reaffirmed thoughts I had from earlier games:  

I’m not in on Herbert as a first-rounder. 

I know it sounds strange to get validation of being down on a guy after he posted impressive numbers in a convincing win, and he made some great throws later in the game once he got settled in behind the best OL in the nation. But that’s part of why Herbert is so iffy to me. I just don’t believe he can handle pressure or quick decision-making required at the NFL level well enough. The arm strength isn’t as good as he believes it to be, either. Add in durability issues and I see a guy you draft in the middle rounds and hope it clicks--and it could. He’s not nearly as low as Christian Hackenberg or Christian Ponder, but he’s not likely to be any franchise’s messiah at QB either. 

--Sticking with QBs out west, Washington’s Jacob Eason made way too many bad throws and poor decisions in the Huskies loss to a very solid Utah team that deserves more love. The pick-6 he threw to Jaylon Johnson (playing his way up draft boards) was a terrible decision made worse by awful mechanics. There’s too much “hero ball” to Eason. That can be coached to some extent and it’s also something he needs to be for Washington to win, so I understand why that criticism will bother some evaluators. I do like him better than Herbert, for what it’s worth. 

--The AAF has risen up this season with a trio of worthily ranked teams. Two of them, SMU and Memphis, played an exciting game Saturday night after hosting the traveling ESPN College Gameday (the best sports show in the business) roadshow. Memphis pulled away late to make the score look worse in knocking off the previously unbeaten Mustangs. 

The other ranked team, Cincinnati, survived an upset bid in East Carolina when the Bearcats made a last-second field goal to win 46-43. Cincinnati’s only blemish is a 42-0 blanking by Ohio State, the best team in the country. 

I’m confident in saying any of those top three AAC teams would be the second-best team in the ACC. Navy might be too. The Midshipmen are part of a second tier that also includes 7-2 UCF, a Tulane program on a quick rise and a solid Temple team. The depth of quality teams in the AAC deserves respect.

--Speaking of bad ACC teams, Florida State pulled the plug on Willie Taggart after losing to Miami in the latest anticlimactic renewal of the faded rivalry. Taggart was not a good fit for the Seminoles but he’s not the root of the problems in Tallahassee, either. 

--Last year Central Michigan was the worst team in the nation. They did not win a game against FBS foes and the Chippewas sported the 128th-ranked scoring offense as they rotated through bad QB after bad QB. This season the Chips are fired up, 6-4 and bowl eligible after pasting Northern Illinois on Saturday. Kudos to new coach Jim McElwain for reviving the program in shark-free Mt. Pleasant.  

$.10--I walked into a store on Friday morning and was instantly aghast. At 8:22 a.m. on November 1st, a major store was already cranking Christmas music. 

The ghost of Halloween didn’t even have time to go to bed before two full months of being beaten over the head with Christmas began. I’ve already heard Mariah Carey’s insipid carol twice, once in that store and another time as I pumped gas. It made me want to either insert the gas nozzle down my throat or break out a match and burn it all down. 

Let me be clear: I love Christmas. I love the embracing of “Christ” in Christmas even though I’m not a practicing Christian (it’s complicated). I appreciate retailers trying to extract every last dollar they can while the getting is still good and the house of cards that is an economy built on massive debt and the benevolence of the super-rich crashes and burns. 

Just stop with the damn music until Christmas is the next holiday on the calendar. I realize there aren’t many Veteran’s Day songs or Thanksgiving tunes. That’s okay. Not everything needs special, customized, celebratory theme music. 

I can’t fathom the living hell that is being a retail worker in a store that is already pumping up the Christmas cheer and music. Nearly eight more weeks of this madness? Bah humbug.