$.01--The most important game of the weekend was played in Nashville. With the AFC South lead on the line, the Titans and Texans faced off in a game where momentum was everything.
The first big momentum swing wound up being the most important one. Tennessee picked off Deshaun Watson in the end zone to thwart the opening drive. As the Titans efficiently marched down the field on their own opening drive, it looked like the home team--winners in six of the last seven weeks--was ready to seize the game right away. But the Texans blocked Ryan Succop’s field goal and sucked the air out of the stadium.
Houston completely seized the momentum after the teams traded empty drives, just when it felt like the Titans were taking it back. Texans safety Justin Reid popped TE Anthony Firkser near the goal line and the ball flew right to LB Whitney Mercilus. He rumbled down the right sideline 88 yards to set up the Texans offense. Watson hit Kenny Stills with a perfect throw on the next play. A quick Tennessee 3-and-out led to another TD for Houston and it was 14-0 for the visitors.
Tennessee grabbed the momentum bull back by the horns with consecutive scoring drives to open the second half, sandwiched around a bad Watson INT. It looked like the swing would propel the hot Titans to another huge win. But the Texans regained the fickle momentum and the game with two straight scoring drives enveloping a bad Titans possession.
The Texans winning on the road does wonders for their playoff chances. Not only do they lead the Titans in the division, the conference win dramatically helps their Wild Card chances if they lose the rematch in Houston in Week 17 and need a tiebreaker. Houston nicely shook off a terrible Week 14 loss to Denver and reminded everyone why the Texans can beat anyone, anywhere when they’re on their game.
$.02--Just give Lamar Jackson the MVP already. After Thursday night’s record-setting performance in Baltimore’s 42-21 evisceration of the New York Jets, about the only conceivable way the Ravens QB doesn’t win the most valuable player honor this year is if he admits he’s a Juggalo or something crazy like that.
Jackson broke the NFL record for rushing yards by a QB in a season in the blowout win. He passed Michael Vick midway through the 14th game, meaning he’s still got two more weeks to fluff the total well beyond the video game numbers (1103 yards and counting) Jackson has already posted. But he’s going to be the MVP because he also leads the NFL in passing TDs. His 33 TD tosses were seven more than anyone else entering Sunday’s games.
It’s the blend that makes Jackson so dangerous. The Jets focused on stopping the run, so Jackson skewered them with five TD passes. It brings up the question: how do you beat the Ravens?
The last team to beat them was Cleveland in Week 4, and they did it with Nick Chubb gashing them for 165 yards and three TDs on the ground and seizing an early lead to take away the control of the game script. Baltimore’s defense does have vulnerability in the middle of the field, and making Jackson play catchup might--might--take away the option runs on offense. It will take a team outscoring them rather than limiting them, and doing that to the Ravens will not be easy for anyone.
$.03--The NFC playoff picture simultaneously became clearer but also more complicated with the series of outcomes on Sunday. We now have a very good idea of which 6 teams will make it, but the order in which they wind up being seeded has been thrown into disarray.
Okay, not complete disarray. The winner of the Dallas/Philadelphia game next week will win the NFC East and have the No. 4 seed. The Cowboys’ 44-21 dehorning of the Rams set up that showdown and also roasted the Rams’ realistic chances at a Wild Card. At 8-6, Los Angeles is two games behind the Vikings with two weeks to play. Minnesota fried the Chargers 39-10 to all but cement a playoff berth by improving to 10-4.
Green Bay ended the surging Bears’ chances with a 21-13 win, a victory that clinched a postseason berth for the 11-3 Packers. Their lofty record now temporarily elevates Aaron Jones & Co. into the two seed but tied record-wise with Seattle. The Seahawks had some issues in beating the Panthers but got the job done. The same cannot be said for their rivals for the West and the No. 1 seed, San Francisco.
In what definitely qualifies as this week’s Any Given Sunday, the 49ers fell to the Falcons on the final play of the game. Julio Jones was initially ruled to not quite break the plane of the goal line, but a review ruled the Atlanta wideout did indeed score the game-winner. The tough loss to the lowly 5-9 Falcons dropped the 49ers from the No. 1 seed to No. 5. That’s the difference between homefield advantage throughout and a bye to a trip to Dallas or Philadelphia in the Wild Card round.
Got all that? Good. Now wait until next week when the Vikings host the Packers. But first, the 10-3 Saints end Week 15 on Monday Night Football hosting the fading Colts. New Orleans then visits a desperate Tennessee team in Week 16. There is a frightening possibility of having five NFC teams that are 11-4 after next week’s games.
$.04--The games at the bottom of the spectrum matter very much too, and none more than the meeting between the Dolphins and Giants. The No. 2--and perhaps No. 1--overall pick was very much on the line.
New York botched the chance to cement the No. 2 pick by blowing out Miami, 36-20. But the fans didn’t mind one bit. This will be remembered as the Eli Manning farewell game. And what a fond farewell it was for the longtime quarterback.
Fans serenaded Manning with cheers after the game, which figures to be his final home game as a Giant. When he was pulled from the game, a classy gesture by coach Pat Shurmur, the New York crowd showed tremendous appreciation for Eli:
💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙💙— New York Giants (@Giants) December 15, 2019
💙💙💙💙 1️⃣0️⃣ 💙💙💙
Manning thanked the fans in a postgame interview from the sideline, and the crowd erupted once again when he was finished. He was clearly moved and humbled. After winning a game in the most Eli fashion possible---283 yards passing, 2 TDs, 3 INTs--it’s a great way for the era to unofficially end. Good for the fans and good for the Giants for sending him out with the respect that his career deserves.
Manning’s Giants still cling to the No. 2 pick but only because Washington also lost to make it a three-way tie with all teams at 3-11. Detroit lingers close behind at 3-10-1 and playing worse than any other team over the last eight weeks.
$.05--This week the NFL held its scheduled owners’ meetings. It didn’t get much media coverage, as the in-season developments tend to run low on drama and sound bites. But one important piece of news came out of the meetings.
The NFL revealed the 2020 salary cap is going to increase about five percent over the 2019 figure, to a range between $196M-$201M. That’s a very important development, and not just for teams allocating their football budgets for the upcoming offseason.
In short, it shows the tremendous growth continuing for the NFL despite the heavy influence of President Donald Trump actively trying to rally followers to turn off the NFL, a league that has rebuffed his efforts to purchase a team on multiple occasions. Ratings are up between four and six percent across the board, according to Sport TV Ratings. The late-afternoon (4:00 ET) game broadcasts are up over eight percent from last year. A full 46 of the top 50 most-watched television programs are NFL games, a figure which extends far beyond the primetime offerings.
The players are seeing more for the fruits of their labor. With the new range, the total salary cap value has increased some 40 percent since 2014. Players are going to see their contract spike upward once again...and that could be a very dangerous development for the NFLPA in the upcoming--and ongoing--CBA negotiations. There is peril the bump in contracts scratches the money itch just enough that the players relent on their demands just a bit.
The growing popularity of the NFL shows the sport is still healthy and thriving, and that’s a good thing for everyone involved. As much as we complain about the problems with so many things, the league remains healthy and vibrant.
$.06--One thing that did not emerge from the owner’s meetings is any definitive progress in resolving the officiating crisis. The problem continues to mar the NFL’s product unnecessarily with too many rules, too many obviously wrong rulings and poor explanations of the decisions. It’s bad enough that it’s hard to refute conspiracy theories about games being fixed because it’s hard to conceive of an organization so mighty and powerful allowing such gross incompetence in such an important facet of the business.
Late last week, I spoke with someone very familiar with one of the concepts that is widely expected to get implemented, the so-called “eye in the sky”. After watching another Sunday of officiating gaffes, this MUST happen.
Take the Browns-Cardinals game. In the third quarter with Arizona up 21-17, Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury challenged a play in the end zone that was not called pass interference on the field. It was an iffy reversal, particularly given how many more egregious fouls have not been overturned this year on smarter challenges than this. On the very next play, two different Cardinals were guilty of false starts. The side judge even reached into his pants for his flag and began to run in to stop the play, but he stopped and let it play out. Touchdown Kenyan Drake, one of the guilty parties on a play that effectively ended the Browns chances.
The Browns defenders were apoplectic, and rightly so. These are the calls an off-field official can easily make from afar or adjudicate. Why can’t the Browns challenge that obvious blown call? It’s embarrassing for the NFL that the technology is there, the system is already in place...and they don’t use it. That’s negligence and it needs to be fixed.
Another point from someone familiar with the NFL’s process here: don’t expect current VP of Officiating Al Riveron to return in his current role. He might not be canned, but if he does return, expect him to have to share the role with at least one other person, who would also be a former NFL official. That latter point is very important to the NFL.
$.07--Congratulations are in order for Joe Burrow. The LSU quarterback is the runaway winner of the 2019 Heisman Trophy.
Burrow finished with the highest margin of victory in Heisman history, surpassing O.J. Simpson of all people. Chase Young wound up with the second-most first-place votes at just 20. I’m curious how much higher he could have climbed without the ridiculous 2-game suspension midseason, but even then Young was not a legit competitor for Burrow. It was Burrow’s landslide and a deserved one.
Of major interest in that Heisman voting is the fact that the top three finishers are all QBs who transferred from their original schools. Burrow became the third transfer QB in a row to win the Heisman, joining Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma via Texas Tech) and Kyler Murray (Oklahoma via Texas A&M). Hurts kept up the strong Sooners transfer results by finishing second.
It’s also notable that third through sixth place are all occupied by players in the Big 10. Three of them are Ohio State Buckeyes, and that’s also where Burrow began his career. Think about that: Ohio State can claim at least partial credit for four of the top six Heisman Trophy finishers. That’s amazing, especially considering the general consensus that the best high school talent resides in Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, California and Florida. I went to high school in Columbus (go Northland Vikings!) and while there is some pretty strong talent in Ohio too, getting them all to attend Ohio State over other schools is not easy.
Seven of the top 10 finishers are in the upcoming playoff, with at least one representative from all four teams. Jonathan Taylor and Chuba Hubbard, who were quite handily the best two college RBs in 2019,
--There are bad betting beats and then there’s what happened at the end of the Washington/Philadelphia game. The Eagles, favored by 5.5, had the game won by 4 points after a brilliant pass from Carson Wentz to Greg Ward with under 30 seconds to play. Washington’s last gasp turned catastrophic for QB Dwayne Haskins and Skins bettors alike. Haskins fumbled, the ball got scooped up by LB Nigel Bradham and the Eagles scored another TD. An easy cover for Washington turned into a very bad, 37-27 beat.
--The 2019 Draft class at wide receiver was generally not regarded as a great one. The early returns show otherwise. Several rookies are off to fantastic starts:
Rookie receiving leaders (through the 4:00pm games)— Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17) December 16, 2019
1. AJ Brown: 47 receptions - 893 yards - 7 TD’s
2. Terry McLaurin: 51 - 833 - 7 TD’s
3. DK Metcalf: 52 - 819 - 6 TD’s
4. Darius Slayton: 44 - 690 - 8 TD’s
5. Deebo Samuel: 48 - 669 - 3 TD’s (98 rushing yards, 1 TD)
--Chiefs TE Travis Kelce became the first tight end in NFL history to top 1,000 receiving yards in four straight seasons. That’s about the only notable outcome from Kansas City’s snowy romp over Denver.
--The Raiders managed to lose the final game ever in Oakland, blowing a 16-3 halftime lead over a flatlined Jaguars team. I suspect Derek Carr won’t mind the move to Las Vegas after he left the Black Hole one last time to a cacophony of profane boos. Going 0-for-3 on red zone drives will do that to a fan base saying goodbye...again.
--Jameis Winston torched the Lions for 458 passing yards and 4 TDs, the second week in a row he’s thrown for at least 400 yards and 4 TDs. He’s the only QB to have multiple games of 400/4 or more in 2019 and the first to do it in consecutive weeks since Billy Volek in 2004. You could’ve given me 50 guesses as to who the last to accomplish that feat was before I got to Billy Volek.
--All sorts of consternation came out of Chase Young’s appearance at the Heisman Trophy bonanza. The presumptive No. 2 overall pick got tripped up by TMZ and said he was planning on returning to Ohio State. That was quickly resolved but not before sending shudders down the spine of fans in New York, Washington, Miami and Detroit--all teams whose primary need is exactly what Young brings to the table, an impact pass rusher.
--Arizona State WR Branon Aiyuk is one of the latest in the growing trend of players who will sit out their team’s bowl game to prepare for the draft and avoid injury. It’s a smart move. Aiyuk is a personal favorite in this draft class. He reminds me a great deal of Golden Tate.
--The tight end class appears fairly barren of prospects that belong in the top 100. Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins is the exception. He’s got readily translatable receiving skills that will help him catch passes in the NFL right away.
--This isn’t college football, and I normally am not a fan of what Barstool Sports churns out, but this needs to be seen:
On the 7th anniversary of Sandy Hook, Newtown wins the Connecticut State title on the last play of the game. Chills. pic.twitter.com/TBOP5a53DH— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) December 14, 2019
$.10--I am blessed to live in West Michigan, a region centered around Grand Rapids. For beer drinkers, there is no better place on earth to be. Beer City USA is a special place for craft beer and breweries.
Right now (I’m writing this particular cent Saturday night) I’m drinking what might be the greatest beverage I’ve ever put in my mouth. Founders Brewing produces a barrel-aged series every year, and the pinnacle came in 2018 when they released Curmudgeon’s Better Half. Oh my!
From the bottle: Old ale brewed with molasses and aged in maple syrup bourbon barrels.
That doesn’t do it justice. And it’s amazing brews like this that have made me a defiant craft beer snob.
I don’t even consider “macro” brews anymore. I haven’t had any of the most identifiable beer brands (Bud, Miller, Coors) in years and I would politely refuse it if you offered me one. The fantastic flavors and distinct tones of the smaller, local breweries have ruined it for me. And they need to ruin it for you, too.
Don’t be afraid to try the craft beers from microbreweries. You might be surprised to learn that most of them aren’t IPAs that taste like you’re drinking your Christmas tree water. I don’t really care for IPAs either. Just about every small, hometown brewery produces a lager or a pilsner that casual beer drinkers would instantly recognize as “Budweiser-like” or of that ilk. Here in West MI we have Short’s Brewery and their Local’s Light, which tastes like Coors Light if Coors cared more about flavor. My personal favorite casual beer to drink is Perrin Gold, a crisp ale that anyone who likes to drink a cold brew around a pool or a campfire would love.
Then there are the more advanced tastes. The one I currently have my lips around is a 12.7% alcohol content that would probably kill me if I tried to slam it. It’s something you sip and savor. There are plenty of those, and aged in all sorts of different liquor or flavor barrels. Stouts of that ilk make a nice gateway into craft beers for folks coming from the liquor spectrum.
Next time you’re at the store and looking to pick up some beers, go ahead and try the local varieties. If bigger craft breweries like Bell’s or Shiner (their Christmas brew is incredible) or Great Lakes is available, give it a go. It’s worth the try. Happy drinking!