$.01--The NFL has itself a serious perception problem, one bitterly reinforced by the final few minutes of the marquee late afternoon and heavily hyped matchup between Dallas and New England. And after watching the game and rewatching the critical plays, I cannot defend the league.  

The officials decided who won the game, and they chose to favor the Patriots.

Sure, the Cowboys are complicit. Kicking a field goal in a driving rainstorm while down 7 with 6 minutes to go and depending on your defense to get a stop on Tom Brady, in New England no less, was a reckless choice by Jason Garrett. But Garrett’s bizarre strategy worked; his defense made the plays and they got the ball back to Dak Prescott. 

That’s when referee Scott Novak and his crew went into overdrive to make sure the Patriots still won. An absolutely absurd tripping penalty on center Travis Frederick wiped out a successful 3rd down conversion. Frederick went out of his way to avoid tripping the Patriots defender and quite obviously never touched him with his lower body. It was the second mythical tripping call on the Dallas OL, the other setting up a blocked punt in the first quarter which produced New England’s only touchdown. 

Phantom calls that fundamentally changed the win and loss of a game. And it’s not the first, or the second or even third time this season this has happened. 

Do I think Novak purposely blew the call to give the Patriots the win? No, I do not. I would not accuse any official of deliberately hedging calls to favor one team. But is it hard to ignore how the officiating makes such a decided impact in so many games and always seems to get it wrong, favoring the tradition powers (namely, New England and Green Bay)? No, no, it is not hard to believe that level of unconscious impropriety is going on.  

A controversial catch by Amari Cooper was overturned on the play after the egregious trip. It was called a catch on the field and I would have believed that call correctly stands had that been the ruling. But the review overturned the call and pounded the final nail in the Cowboys coffin. 

Dallas did have chances to overcome, to be fair. Garrett leaning on the passing game in the cold November Rain while facing a Patriots pass D that is historically good is colossally stupid, especially when Ezekiel Elliott is being paid tens of millions to be the best RB in the league. Kicking the late field goal instead of trying for the tie, or God forbid the lead with a 2-pt conversion, was playing not to win. And give some credit to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who went off on Garrett’s coaching during a postgame radio spot. The Cowboys would have lost because of being outcoached even if the officials didn’t give the Patriots a little help.  

The officiating was about the only spice to an otherwise dismal game in dismal weather. Defense dominated, but there was some bad offense, too. As often happens when the NFL media powers that be cram a matchup they wish to spotlight down our throats, the game largely fizzled. But the controversy surrounding the incapable officiating will keep this game prominent on the sports media circuit for days. That’s unfair to the Patriots, it’s unfair to the players like Stephon Gillmore who balled out, it’s unfair to those who (rightly) want Garrett crucified for his coaching misadventures, and it’s unfair to Cowboys fans who will be forced to relive another “Dez caught it” legacy game. That’s today’s NFL, folks...

$.02--Sunday Night Football was also billed with considerable fanfare. The No. 1 seed in the NFC was on the line with the 8-2 Green Bay Packers visiting the 9-1 San Francisco 49ers.  

Not only did the 49ers take the torch of NFC supremacy, they roasted the Packers on a rusty spit over the sizzling flames of their dominant 37-8 triumph. At least we got to see one good team play great. In the process the 49ers burned any chance Green Bay had of claiming conference supremacy.  

If you haven’t seen the 49ers yet, this outcome might have surprised you. It’s time to buy into the fun and the legit contender status of Kyle Shanahan’s team. They are arguably the most balanced team in the league. On this night, it was their passing defense that proved the impetus for victory. They smothered Aaron Rodgers and the Packers passing attack, suffocating any oxygen from the visitors.

Rodgers attempted 33 passes. He netted 104 yards and did not convert a single first down. Between the fearsome front and the smart secondary, San Francisco looked like a team that can beat the best foe.  

The Packers played their worst game of the season. That is something that keeps getting said about 49ers opponents this season. The pressure they put on the opponent to make the correct decisions in split instants is incredible. With playmakers like George Kittle and Deebo Samuel able to spark the offense if the defense sputters a little, these 49ers sure seem like a team that can win a lot of games in January. 

Don’t write off the Packers just because of one bad loss. Sure, they looked awful. And if Bryan Bulaga’s knee doesn’t get better quickly, the offensive line will definitely suffer. They’re still dangerous too. But on this night, the only danger they posed was to the sleep status of their fans who will fret over getting blasted so thoroughly on national television.  

$.03--Thursday night once again brought us compelling football action. This week’s edition of the oft-panned mid-week primetime display saw the Houston Texans seize control of the crowded AFC South race. In the process, Deshaun Watson reminded everyone why he belongs in the MVP conversation, too. 

Watson was fantastic in leading his Texans over the rival Colts, 20-17. The discrepancy between Watson attacking down the field with DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller versus the Colts offense of Jacoby Brissett’s checkdowns and indecision was stunning. Like the difference between a layup and a reverse windmill jam over two defenders. 

In short, slow and steady lost the race.  

Watson took chances, Brissett did not. While some of those chances came up empty, enough hit that it overcame the swings and misses. Getting the speedy Fuller back from injury on the outside afforded Watson and the Texans offense the chance to take those shots. Brissett’s best weapon, noted Texans killer TY Hilton, was limited and ineffective in his return from injury, including a key drop late. Indy’s longest completion spanned just 14 yards. Brissett completed just one pass all night that went 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. 

Sometimes it pays to take chances. You can’t win games against quality opponents without trying to beat them, a lesson Frank Reich and the Colts learned the hard way. 

$.04--Any Given Sunday, Week 12 edition

What the New York Jets did to the Oakland Raiders is not fit for the eyes of the weak. After spotting the Raiders a field goal on the game’s opening possession, the host Jets dominated the Raiders right out of the final AFC Wild Card spot (for now) with a 34-3 shellacking.  

Oakland has 12 possessions after the opening drive. They netted just 7 first downs and zero points. Three of those first downs came on one drive. An ineffective Derek Carr was benched out of mercy for Mike “The Giraffe” Glennon and nobody on the Raiders seemed to mind, not after Carr’s pick-six to Brian Poole on a forced pass into tight coverage some five yards down the field under no pressure. 

Give the surging Jets credit. They’ve scored exactly 34 points three weeks in a row, all in wins. The strength of schedule is not impressive, but the Raiders are easily the best of their three victims and the three points allowed are the fewest by two TDs. The Oakland bubble pops spectacularly after a 3-game win streak of its own. 

New York has a golden opportunity to keep the momentum flowing. Their next two games are against the Bengals and Dolphins, two teams with a combined record of 2-20. It’s a nice step forward for the Adam Gase era after the brutal 1-7 start. 

$.05--The aftermath of the Browns/Steelers brawl from Thursday night in Week 11 finally got resolved just hours before the teams faced their respective foes on Sunday in Week 12. A total of 33 players received fines, including 20 Steelers for entering the area of a fight.  

The biggest fine went to Mason Rudolph, who got $50K lighter in the wallet for being patient zero. He somehow escaped suspension for grabbing Myles Garrett by the helmet and ripping at it (following a clean hit where Garrett purposely brought the Steelers QB down on top of himself to avoid a penalty), clearly kicking Garrett in the man zone, charging at him as Garrett was being led away and attacking Garrett’s man zone again just before getting clubbed over the head with his own helmet. 

Yes, I’m still bitter about Rudolph getting away with only a $50K slap on the wrist. And next Sunday’s rematch in Pittsburgh is going to be a nightmare to officiate. The NFL smartly moved the game out of the late-afternoon window so it won’t receive any greater national focus.

Garrett won’t play in that game, or any other game until at least the 2020 season. The appeal of his indefinite suspension failed, despite him showing up dressed like Archer and showing contrition. Garrett’s allegation that Rudolph used a racial slur to escalate the initial encounter was not validated, and it adds a troubling layer to the NFL’s onion. It appears Garrett played the Jussie Smollett card and interjected the racial card when it shouldn’t have been played, though Garrett doing it in a closed-door meeting is far less insidious than the disgraced actor.

That doesn’t make it less of a disgrace. Already a pariah for his action, now Garrett will also carry the label of a race-baiter with a fair portion of the NFL’s fan base. Hopefully the NFL will release the audio recordings from the play and we can at least attempt to divine what Garrett thought he heard. But it’s hard to fathom Maurkice Pouncey, once a close friend of Aaron Hernandez, taking sides with Rudolph over Garrett if the QB said what Garrett claimed he did. 

$.06--We now have a very good idea what the top of the 2020 NFL Draft in Las Vegas will look like. If you’re a betting man, it might be worth investing a little walking-around money in the following phrase:

"With the first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Cincinnati Bengals select - Joe Burrow, quarterback, LSU." 

The Bengals nearly beat the Steelers, making Pittsburgh sweat enough to yank a terrible Mason Rudolph for Duck Hodges to engineer the 16-10 comeback win for Mike Tomlin’s team. The loss drops the Bengals to 0-11, a terrible record in a season with too many terrible teams. But none are likely to sink as low as Zac Taylor’s Bengals.

That’s because Washington, which firmly held the No. 2 pick with a 1-9 record entering Sunday, managed to beat the rotting shell of the visiting Detroit Lions. Washington played poorly enough to lose to just about anyone, but a Detroit team devastated by injuries and with no discernible game strategy to try and win proved to be even worse. Now Washington has spotted the Bengals a 2-win lead in the race for the first pick.

Spoiler alert: these Bengals are not winning two games, not with Ryan Finley at QB and a bunch of players even the team’s beat writers need to look up on a weekly basis stocking the defense. 

Burrow is a no-brainer pick for the Bengals. He’s from Ohio (Athens), played at Ohio State before transferring to LSU, can sling the ball all over the field and has a marketable smile. It’s like knowing the quinella at, uh, well, are there any horse tracks still open…

The real draft chase now is the pursuit of the No. 2 pick and Ohio State’s Chase Young, who is easily the best overall player in the draft. Right now that belongs to Miami, which lost to Washington on its way to 2-9. Cincinnati and Miami play in Week 16, the same week Washington plays the 2-9 New York Giants. Those games will not be easy to watch, methinks...

$.07--Outside of the SEC, which took a glorified bye weekend facing FCS foes, the college football weekend pulled a few punches that impacted the playoff chase. Other than the SEC’s shameless dodging of quality competition (and some ACC schools are guilty too), we now have a strong idea of what is going to happen in the CFP committee.

Ohio State thumped Penn State 28-17 in a game that could have easily been 42-10. Chase Young returned from suspension and proved he’s the best player in the nation regardless of position. The No. 2 Buckeyes clinched the B1G East over the No. 8 Nittany Lions and cemented a berth in the playoff...unless they lose their remaining two games. Playing at resurgent Michigan next Saturday--a game I’ll be at--would not be a death knell if Ohio State lost, but they cannot lose to the Wolverines and then the winner of the Minnesota/Wisconsin game in the B1G Championship a week later. 

Clemson’s case is very simple. Win and they’re in. If the Tigers lose to either South Carolina next weekend or the winner of the Virginia/Virginia Tech (they’re both 8-3 but unranked) game in the ACC championship, the defending champs are out. They do not have a win this season over any team that will be ranked in the final top 25. 

LSU, like Ohio State, can absorb one loss in its final two games: Texas A&M and then Georgia in the SEC championship. One, not two. The strength of their wins thus far trumps anything any other team except Ohio State can match.  

Let’s presume all three meet the qualifications here, something I believe to be a safe presumption. Who gets the final playoff spot?

Georgia’s path is the cleanest: beat LSU after handling rival Georgia Tech. If that happens, we know our four teams right now. 

Oklahoma will have the next-best resume if the Sooners win out. Baylor and Oklahoma State--both on the road--are better wins than Alabama can claim. Jalen Hurts and his mates will probably need some style points to ensure that, however. 

The PAC-12 is out after Oregon’s loss to Arizona State. Even if Utah wins out, their best win will be making the Ducks a three-loss team. Sorry, Utes fan, that’s not even good enough to win an argument over the AAC champ.

If Minnesota beats Wisconsin and then stuns an unbeaten Ohio State team, P.J. Fleck’s Golden Gophers would be very difficult to keep out.  

Alabama sans Tua must convincingly beat a 3-loss Auburn team whose best win is Oregon. That would represent the only win the Crimson Tide have against a team that will be ranked: a 4-loss rival. It’s conceivable that Alabama will have played just 4 teams (LSU, Auburn, TAMU and Tennessee) who play in bowl games, an absurdly low number for a power-5 team. If Alabama was Minnesota, nobody in their right minds would even consider them for a playoff berth, not without their star QB.

$.08--NFL Quickies

--The Browns have not lost since Kareem Hunt started playing. It’s more correlational than causal, but Hunt has indeed made a big positive impact on the turbulent Browns. He’s making his mark as a receiver more than a rusher, which might seem counter to expectations. But Hunt has been exactly what Baker Mayfield needed as a YAC-worthy outlet who dictates matchups for the rest of the receivers. 

--I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a fan base so angry and disconsolate over a win as I see with Bears fans. They beat the Giants 19-14 but you’d never know it from the Chicago media or the fans, who have had enough of coach Matt Nagy trying to turn struggling QB Mitchell Trubisky into Philip Rivers. 

--Colin Kaepernick update: no teams have approached him with any interest beyond his workout last weekend. As I said in last week’s cents, it’s time for this story to be closed in terms of football. 

--I don’t know if Drew Lock will be the answer to the QB problems in Denver but it’s time for Vic Fangio to find out. Brandon Allen ain’t it, coach. 10-for-25 for 82 yards against a good-not-great Buffalo defense is enough rope.  

--I continue to be mystified by the roller coaster that is the Titans. They annihilated rival Jacksonville 42-20, Tennessee’s fourth win in five games. Ryan Tannehill at QB makes the Titans a much more formidable force, and when the defense can make the opponent one-handed as they did to Nick Foles and the Jaguars, they can look very impressive.  

$.09--College/Draft quickies

--Congrats are in order for Frank Solich, who became the winningest coach in Mid-American Conference history this week. Solich notched win No. 110 at Ohio University, and this proud Bobcats alum is thrilled to call Solich OUr coach. To put what he’s done at Ohio into perspective, he’s got those 110 wins in 15 seasons. In the prior 15 seasons, a collection of coaches won 51 in Athens (10 in my 6 falls at Ohio) and never made a bowl.  

--In the wake of Oregon’s loss to Arizona State, Ducks QB Justin Herbert’s poor play weighs on his alleged NFL Draft stock. Sometimes it’s best not to overthink the analysis when arguably the most respected voice in draft media, NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah, opines this:


That’s not someone you want your NFL team drafting in the first round, folks...

--I vote for just about every award other than the Heisman Trophy. I enjoy the privilege of having a voice and the trust of the award committees. I take the task seriously. But for the love of God can we put a limit on the number of emails voters get from colleges promoting their candidates? I have a folder in my inbox devoted just to those. It currently has 473 messages. I created the folder less than a month ago.  

--As I noted, I am not a Heisman voter (yet). But if I had a ballot my final one would look like this:

1st - Joe Burrow

2nd - Justin Fields

3rd - Chuba Hubbard

4th - Jonathan Taylor

5th - Chase Young

Young is the best player in the country, but he missed two games. That has to matter. Burrow has been the spearhead to the best team in the country at LSU. If you think Ohio State is better, then give that nod to Field with his 33/1 TD/INT ratio. Hubbard and Taylor both are having phenomenal seasons on the ground but get scant recognition. 

--One of the more impressive tight end prospects will not be drafted. Oklahoma’s Grant Calcaterra medically retired from football due to ongoing concussion issues. Calcaterra was generally projected as a middle-round pick with impressive receiving skills and a get-after-it attitude. As a draft analyst it’s disappointing, but bravo to Calcaterra for valuing his health and vitality. 

$.10--Men of a certain age lost a bit of their childhood this week. Fred Cox, the man who invented the Nerf football, died at age 80.

Cox was an NFL player, a longtime kicker and occasional LB for the Minnesota Vikings. In fact, he remains the franchise’s all-time leading scorer 42 years after he retired. But few outside of Owatonna know Cox for that. His gift to football was the foam projectile that brought the game indoors for millions of kids.

I had a Nerf football as a kid. Several of them, in fact. You probably did too, at least some version of it. The densely soft ball was heavy enough to whiz like a normal football but wouldn’t break your youthful fingers--or the TV--when it hit them. They came in official team colors and were inexpensive enough that moms had little issue replacing them when they got wet and crumbled apart, or the dog commandeered them as an optimal chew toy.  

Oh the fun Nerf footballs brought us! Getting them wet and freezing them to attack unsuspecting cousins (sorry, Charles!). Passing off the yellow foam as a delectable homemade muffin (sorry, Steve!). Taunting schoolyard chums by literally shoving the squeezy ball in their faces after scoring recess TDs (sorry, Danny!).  

My kids have had Nerf balls. They’re slightly harder now and more durable, but the underlying principle remains the same. Nerf was a safer way to teach youngsters to catch and throw a football. Thank you for that, Fred Cox. RIP.