$.01--Baltimore hosted San Francisco in the marquee matchup of the weekend, and despite cold and soggy weather, the two Super Bowl contenders delivered with a great game befitting the hype.
The teams traded 4th down defensive holds in the 4th quarter before the Ravens squeezed together just enough plays to get Justin Tucker in position for a game-winning field goal attempt. As is custom for the most accurate kicker in NFL history, Tucker nailed it as the clock expired to give the Ravens the 20-17 win.
This is what we want from the NFL. It’s not often enough we get two up-and-coming teams with innovative offensive approaches and hard-hitting, well-coordinated defenses. We got electrifying juke moves from Lamar Jackson, solidifying his MVP candidacy with 105 rushing yards on 16 carries. We got pinpoint passing from Jimmy Garoppolo despite the heavy rain and the 49ers injury issues at WR. Both teams ran for more yards than they gained passing, which kept the pace rolling--it was the first game to go final on Sunday--and the chains moving.
It was even a cleanly-played game; there were just seven accepted penalties, no real controversies, and only one turnover per team. The weather played a damper on the downfield passing game, and Jackson wound up struggling with just 105 net passing yards. But it didn’t feel like that was missing from the game.
Both teams are now 10-2 and cruising towards playoff berths. Neither team will be an easy out for anyone. Normally I loathe the “we could be looking at a Super Bowl rematch” kind of talk at this early juncture, but in this case it very well could come true. And I don’t think most fans would complain, either. I certainly wouldn’t.
$.02--There will be no winless teams in 2019! The Cincinnati Bengals averted the disastrous 0-16 season by pounding the New York Jets, 22-6, behind Andy Dalton, a stout defense and a host of Jets mistakes.
Good for the Bengals. No fan base deserves to go through the hopeless ignominy of a winless season. The players don’t deserve it either, not the stain of being one of the contributing factors to being so historically futile.
Good for rookie coach Zac Taylor for acknowledging the decision to bench Dalton in favor of obviously overmatched rookie Ryan Finley at QB was a failure, and for having enough gumption to put Dalton back in.
Good for Dalton for proving he’s a pro. Many would have whined, or checked out, or lashed out. Dalton didn’t do any of that. He stayed quiet, he helped Finley as best as he could and he stayed ready in case he got the call again. Completing 22-of-37 for 243 yards and a TD isn’t a great line, but it’s competent and capable QB play. Sometimes that’s all an NFL team needs, and Dalton fairly reliably offers that. He did on Sunday and it led to the Bengals avoiding the dreaded “L” forever sewn to their winless jerseys.
Good for the Jets for failing so spectacularly, again. The Jets were also the first team the Dolphins beat back in Week 9, ending their winless drought at 0-7. New York has just one win outside the NFC East this year in falling to 4-8.
$.03--Dallas is descending into chaos, much to the amusement of the rest of the nation but to the distinct bemusement of Cowboys fans around America. Getting blown out on national television by the low-profile Buffalo Bills in the most-watched game of the week in the prime Thanksgiving time slot is enough to make even the most mild-mannered Cowboys fan ready to throw cranberry sauce at coach Jason Garrett.
The Cowboys got their giblets stuffed down their throats by the Bills. The most obvious differences between the two teams were the level of preparation for the opponent and attention to detail of executing the plan. Buffalo won handily on both counts. The Cowboys looked disorganized and lethargic.
Defensive lineman Michael Bennett, who has been with the team less than anyone else, showed the most contempt at losing and the testicular fortitude to say something about it. His postgame tirade was captured on audio from reporters stationed well outside the locker-room door. That a relative newcomer to the team took such commanding charge is a very bad sign for the preexisting leadership on the team. That’s a reflection on Garrett as much as it is the players. That’s culture, and the Cowboys lack a winning one.
Maybe Bennett’s words will help. Dallas is fortunate enough to play in a division where they can realistically only win one more game this year, finish 7-9 and still capture the NFC East title after Philadelphia’s bad loss to Miami. Better late than never? Maybe.
As often happen to Buffalo, the Bills were the secondary character in the story even in a convincing win over a likely playoff team. It’s a “prove-it” win the Bills sorely needed to validate those other 8 wins they’ve racked up against one of the easiest schedules in NFL history. Before beating Dallas, the teams the Bills beat had a winning percentage under 30 percent. No other team entered Week 13 under 40 percent.
Josh Allen played arguably the best game of his career, and the second-year QB picked a good time to show out his game manager ability. The Bills didn’t ask him to win the game by himself, nor did they need him to do more than just keep the trains on time. That’s a task that has been a struggle for Allen, but in Dallas he the master conductor of an impressive, playoff-bound Bills train.
$.04--The Thanksgiving weekend kicked off in Detroit, as it always does. But for the first time in over a decade, Matthew Stafford wasn’t the Lions’ starting quarterback. Stafford is out with broken bones in his back. Backup Jeff Driskel injured his hamstring in Week 12 enough that the tight turnaround was too much. Disconsolate Lions fans, already frustrated with an underwhelming season, openly mocked their team’s chances.
Enter David Blough and the feel-good story.
Blough is an undrafted rookie from Purdue who had never taken a snap in the NFL before. The Lions are his second team after he spent the summer in Cleveland as the Browns fourth-string QB. The Lions saw enough in their preseason game against one another to trade (a swap of 7th-rounders) for Blough.
His first pass attempt skipped well in front of T.J. Hockenson, the rookie TE who would later suffer a nasty leg injury. But Blough’s second career pass attempt hit paydirt, a beautiful pump-and-go to Kenny Golladay that covered 75 yards and gave the Lions an early 7-0 lead. Blough would march the Lions down the field effectively for another quick score. Ford Field was fired up and fans who were wondering no more who this “Blow” fellow was.
(Linguistic tangent. It’s Blough as in “plow”, not “blow”, and the fact those two words don’t even rhyme is why English is such a crazy difficult language to learn)
Blough finished an impressive 22-for-38, netting 280 yards and throwing the 2 TDs vs. one costly INT late. He played quite well considering he got exactly one day of practice--a walkthrough at that--with the starters before seeing his first NFL action against a good Bears defense. He looked like a keeper as Stafford’s backup, a role that has been a black hole of varying levels of incompetence for most of the last 10 years.
Alas, Blough’s commendable performance wasn’t enough. The Lions blew the game late thanks to a passive, vanilla defense. Detroit has held the lead in all 12 games in 2019, but the Lions are now 3-8-1. Don’t blame Blough, and his Thanksgiving is more evidence that sometimes players just need a shot to prove what they can do.
$.05--My friend Chris Burke, who covers the Lions for The Athletic, summed up the Los Angeles Chargers perfectly in a tweet last month.
“Explain the Chargers to me.”
“Well, imagine a Choose Your Own Adventure book but no matter what choice you make you die.”
It’s a perfect line that is so sadly applicable to yet another week of Chargers football. “Chargering” is quickly entering the sports vernacular as a humiliating, inexplicably unusual way to blow a victory, usually to an inferior opponent. They Chargered once again on Sunday in Denver.
Facing a rookie QB making his first-ever appearance in a regular-season game in Drew Lock, the Chargers rallied back from an early 14-0 deficit to make it a game. The Broncos edged back in front, 20-17, with a Brandon McManus field goal with under five minutes to play.
If you’ve watched the Chargers at all, or God forbid cheer for them, you just knew they were poised to do something spectacular to seize, and subsequently lose the game. It was just a matter of how. They did not disappoint.
A 3rd-and-11 became 4th-and-1 with a short Philip Rivers pass to Austin Ekeler. Two straight false starts pushed it back to 4th-and-11. Okay here’s our Chargering moment. But no! Rivers somehow snuck a deep ball to Mike Williams, who made a phenomenal catch over two defenders to secure the conversion. With two minutes to do and trailing by 3, the Chargers then got conservative and effectively played for the 46-yard field goal attempt from Michael Badgley. He had missed a 55-yarder off the left upright on the prior possession, but this is how Chargering happens.
Except Badgley nailed the game-tying kick. With just 18 seconds left, we were headed to overtime. That is, until the Chargers Chargered. A modestly successful kickoff return gave Lock and the Broncos one semi-legit chance to attack. Many, including the Broncos own radio staff, advocated for taking a knee and hitting the extra stanza.
Not Lock. He uncorked a deep throw down the right sideline and drew a letter-of-the-law pass interference call against Chargers CB Casey Hayward. McManus clanked the 53-yard field goal attempt in off the upright...but Chargers coach Anthony Lynn called timeout beforehand. No worries for McManus, who drove the next one dead solid perfect to complete the Chargers’ Chargering fall into last place in the AFC West.
$.06--I spent my Saturday chilling in the Big House with over 110,000 others in the hotly anticipated rivalry game between Ohio State and host Michigan. And after some early trepidation, my hot take coming out of the freezing gusts of Ann Arbor is this:
This is the best Ohio State team of my football lifetime, and my lifetime extends back to Archie Griffin. And this Buckeyes unit just might be one of the greatest college football teams of my lifetime.
Sure, there needs to be some obligatory sand-kicking at Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh. Beyond the first quarter, which was a thrilling back-and-forth, the Wolverines were a whimpering mess of self-inflicted wounds and relative incompetence. Those are legitimate issues, among them Harbaugh’s complete failure once again to finish above 3rd place in the B1G East or be more than a speed bump to his archrival Buckeyes.
On Saturday, Harbaugh’s best Michigan team could have played its best game and still would have lost. Ohio State was that awesome, using that word in the quite literal sense. Their offense is so expertly coordinated and prepared aside from featuring a star in Justin Fields at QB, a fantastic college RB in J.K. Dobbins and a versatile, deep wide receiving corps with as many as four future NFLers.
The atmosphere in the stands was fascinating. In the first quarter, when the game was being played well by both teams, Michigan fans were ebullient and chesty. By halftime, when the mistakes were starting to cost the Wolverines and the Buckeyes were starting to pull away, the home fans were anxious but still holding onto hope. When Dobbins broke off a 40-plus yard run on the first play of the third quarter, I started singing Slipknot to myself.
“All hope is gone”
Most Michigan fans were gone by the time Donovan Peoples-Jones dropped three consecutive passes from Shea Patterson. The call-and-response “O-H-I-O” resonated loudly in Michigan’s home stadium, and the home team was powerless to stop it. That’s how dominant Ohio State is right now and how far away Harbaugh and Michigan are from their goal.
$.07--The final weekend of the college regular season brought quite a bit of clarity to the playoffs and the bowl scenarios. In essence, we know two of the playoff teams for certain and have a very clear way to know all four.
Ohio State and LSU are in, period. Doesn’t matter if either--or both--lose in their respective conference title games. They have enough quality wins and more than pass the eye test to remain.
Clemson is in if they beat Virginia. It’s that simple. If they lose, the Tigers are almost certainly out. They almost certainly aren’t going to lose to Virginia. That’s three.
The fourth spot could be quite simple, or it could be really complex. The simple edition: Georgia beats LSU. Boom. That’s your four.
If LSU wins, Georgia is out and the door is open for Oklahoma or Utah, in that order. Oklahoma would have to beat Baylor in a rematch game, which is never easy. But the Bears are also a top-8 team with just one loss (to Oklahoma) and that would be a huge proving win for Lincoln Riley’s Sooners. Utah needs to emphatically crush Oregon in the PAC-12 title game and hope that being their most impressive win can carry them. You could argue a 1-loss Baylor team probably has a better win than that, but I can’t fathom the committee coming to that conclusion. If Georgia, Oklahoma and Utah all lose--and that could happen--Wisconsin could sneak in if they beat Ohio State. I doubt it, but if the Badgers had a more Crimson Tide hue to their red uniforms you can bet the GDP of Belgium that they’d make it in those circumstances.
Ah yes, Alabama. They lost to Auburn thanks to two pick-6s and a missed chip shot field goal. That’s two losses for the second-place team in the SEC West, a team that beat just 3 bowl-eligible teams. The best of those 3 wins is a 7-5 Texas A&M team that got annihilated by every good team it played. Some people will still argue that Alabama belongs. Those people are idiots unworthy of sharing the precious oxygen supply. Ignore them. Especially if they work for a certain four-letter network with a vested interest in promoting that agenda...
--Don’t look now but the Tennessee Titans are 7-5 after burying the rival Colts. More importantly, Tennessee is 5-1 since benching Marcus Mariota and inserting Ryan Tannehill into the lineup. They play the Texans two times in the next three weeks, games that will decide the AFC South.
--Love this play from the Dolphins:
--I’m not going to be one of the people who starts throwing dirt on Tom Brady’s coffin, but I’ll phrase it more broadly: The Patriots offense is unimaginative and lacks receiving and OL talent, and no longer is Brady fully capable of overcoming those obstacles every week. Not even Brady at his all-time peak is with this current collection...and they’re still going to get a bye in the AFC playoffs.
--I have given Nate Orchard a fair amount of criticism over the years for his play during his Browns era. But it’s never, never personal. I’m always careful to remember there’s a man behind the number and there are many people standing behind that man, too. This is something the tabloid click-seekers don’t want you to see, a proud young man who gives a damn:
Nice win for Washington, which has now beaten the Lions and Panthers on consecutive Sundays to improve to 3-9 and out of the NFC East basement.
--Not gonna lie, I was unaware this game was even being played in real-time:
--The Jaguars have themselves a quarterback problem. Nick Foles is in the first year of a 4-year, $88M contract and he’s not nearly as good as 6th-round rookie Gardner Minshew. Check that. Foles and Minshew, while different stylistically, are playing at about the same level. But the team responds so much better and more spirited to the enthusiastic Minshew. When he entered the game for a dreadful Foles in the Jaguars’ ugly loss to the Buccaneers, you could absolutely see the change in demeanor. Confidence. Inspirational leadership. It’s akin to the difference I saw in Cleveland last year when they moved from veteran Tyrod Taylor to rookie Baker Mayfield.
--Mississippi State beat Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl thanks to an idiotic move by Rebels WR Elijah Moore. Just after scoring a touchdown to close the gap to 21-20 Bulldogs, Moore acted like he was a dog lifting his leg on the Mississippi State logo in the end zone. It (rightly) drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and it was very costly. The kicker missed the conversion, handing the Bulldogs the win and playing a big factor in costing Ole Miss coach Matt Luke his job. Luke was fired Sunday night.
--Minnesota lost badly to Wisconsin in their showdown for the B1G West title, a game which sends Wisconsin to the title game. The two teams technically tied for the division title, something which Golden Gophers coach P.J. Fleck decided to celebrate. They’re division co-champs according to Fleck and he talked about how important it was to win something tangible and honor it. I love Fleck and his relentlessly energetic positive attitude, and I do believe he’s building something at Minnesota that can climb from here. But a divisional co-championship when you get dominated by the “co-champ” is cheesy. At best…
--Boston College surprisingly fired coach Steve Adazzio after seven seasons. The Eagles had to win Saturday to get bowl-eligible, and his record is just 44-44. But he’s a coach’s coach and Adazzio established a culture of smart, tough football players. He’ll get another job soon, and I suspect he’ll do better than his predecessor no matter what school Adazzio winds up at. I’d like to see him replace Charlie Strong, who should not get another chance to prove he cannot coach, at USF.
--I promised someone (an older Wolverines fan) I would bring this last thing up from the Ohio State-Michigan game. Michigan has a tradition of playing some build-up music and then having the fans shout “You SUCK” after the opponent fails on third down. Many of the 100K fans add an expletive at the end. Hey Michigan fans--when you’re losing by 22 in the second half, maybe stop taunting the opponent with a classless, puerile gesture. Show a little respect and self-awareness.
$.10--Writing cent No. 4 above got me thinking about other linguistic complexities of the English language. As my mind often does, it wandered to the related field of grammar and perhaps my greatest pet peeve:
People who use the article “an” before every word that begins with the letter H.
The most egregious violation is with the word history. I have a degree in history but have spent the last 15 years as a writer and editor, so this one hits real close to home.
I was A history major, not AN. The H in history is not silent. Nor is it silent in historical. Tom Brady isn’t having AN historical season any more than he has AN horse. It’s a simple rule: if you pronounce the “H, it’s treated as a consonant. And consonants use A, not AN.
The unctuousness with which supposedly smart people flaunt this violation is a headache. Not AN headache, that would be a (not an) hideous error. You might only be an hourly worker at a hippodrome, but you can correct a (not an) hypocrite, a hippie or a historian when you hear them commit this crime against both common sense and the English language.
Thank you to my uncle Ken, as in Ken Risdon, Ph.D. in English and a freshly retired college English and writing professor, for the very fun argument we had on this subject last summer!