$.01--Two playoff berths were decided on Sunday, one in each conference. Neither had nearly as much drama as the NFL or the broadcast networks hoped.
In the AFC, the Tennessee Titans wrapped up the No. 6 seed by blasting a bunch of random dudes wearing Houston Texans uniforms. Houston was already locked into the No. 4 seed and sat pretty much everyone a casual fan has heard of, a prudent move given the Texans’ treacherous injury situation. It facilitated Derrick Henry and the Titans running away with the final Wild Card spot with little resistance, rendering outcomes in Pittsburgh (who lost) and Oakland (who lost) moot. The Titans could have lost this game and still made the postseason, but that was never really a concern.
Henry seized the rushing title away from Nick Chubb by motoring for 211 yards against primarily backups and practice squad refugees. His reemergence after missing Week 16 helped revitalize a Titans team that lost two in a row, including the first meeting with the Texans in Nashville. They’re dangerous enough to win a game if Henry is healthy and Ryan Tannehill continues his remarkable redemption run at quarterback.
Over in the NFC East, the Eagles had a simple task: win and they’re in. As these Eagles are wont to do, they made beating the Giants significantly more difficult than necessary. The game was tied going into the 4th quarter before Philadelphia finally looked something like a playoff-worthy team in scoring 17 unanswered to prevail, 34-17.
Philly’s win made Dallas’ 47-16 romp over Washington too little, too late. The Cowboys needed to win and have the Eagles fall to salvage their season. Now everyone outside of Jerry Jones is on watch in Dallas, a team with high-end talent and potential but endemic underachievement and pervasive issues that a mere coaching change--if Jerry decided to finally put Jason Garrett out of his misery--can possibly remedy.
The 9-7 Eagles earned the right to host the 11-5 Seahawks (more on them later) next week in the 4/5 matchup. It’s impressive the injury-ravaged Eagles somehow managed to qualify in what might have been the NFL’s worst division of the decade, but it will take a much sharper effort to come even close to beating the Seahawks if Seattle brings even its “B” game.
$.02--Because I spend an inordinate amount of time writing about the Browns and Lions over at USA TODAY’s Wire sites, I tend to avoid discussing them much here. But the Browns losing to the Bengals and subsequently firing Freddie Kitchens before Black Monday merits the prominent inclusion.
I like Freddie Kitchens. I liked the decision to hire him, too. But after watching him be the primary (but certainly not only) reason why a team with such incredible potential finished 6-10, I like the decision to move on. It had to be done.
Kitchens was in way over his head as a first-time head coach, a fact that was painfully obvious from the very first week. Getting annihilated by the Titans and having no real concept of why it happened, the aftermath of that game let everyone around the team know Freddie was doomed. He had numerous chances to prove himself but the problems that were there in September were still there, arguably even worse, in December.
The best example I can give, in part because it’s firsthand experience, comes from his meetings with the press. Back in training camp, we would ask Kitchens questions that a seasoned coach would never answer, but rather redirect or filibuster artfully, or in Tomlin or Belichick’s case just simply ignore. Freddie would answer them honestly. When he would catch himself, he’d say “I won’t talk about that anymore”...and subsequently, candidly answer 3 more questions on the exact topic he just declared taboo. That is something that everyone expected Freddie to learn quickly, but he never did. Just two weeks ago he declared he wasn’t talking about Odell Beckham at all and then spent almost half of the ensuing press conference talking about Odell Beckham.
There is a lot more that goes into being a head coach than any other role in football. Kitchens was under-experienced at play calling, but he chose to do that and try to handle all the other duties. And he failed miserably.
Expect the Browns to value experience and organizational skills in Kitchens’ replacement. Expect Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta (yeah, from Moneyball fame) to have a more prominent voice in choosing the next coach, too. GM John Dorsey did not have himself a good second season in Cleveland either, though it appears he will remain. Dorsey can help himself by rectifying the biggest mistake he made--outside of hiring Kitchens--in 2019: the offensive line. The Browns desperately need two starting tackles and could use a right guard, too.
$.03--The Any Given Sunday, Week 17 edition rocked the AFC playoff picture. The Miami Dolphins stunned the New England Patriots in Foxboro, 26-24.
Perhaps befitting the weird season that 2019 was, Ryan Fitzpatrick emphatically outplaying Tom Brady in New England in a game the Patriots needed to win is in the upper layers of the cake. Brady threw an awful pick-6 to Eric Rowe in the second quarter to put the Dolphins up 10-0. Fitzpatrick engineered a 13-play, game-winning drive capped with a great TD to TE Mike Gesicki. A 16.5-point underdog won straight up on the road for the first time in the 21st century.
A Dolphins team that everyone expected to tank away the season finished 5-11 by knocking the Patriots out of the top two seeds in the AFC. Miami went 5-4 down the stretch led by a 37-year-old journeyman QB who also wound up being their leading rusher, under a defensive-minded rookie head coach in Brian Flores one-upping his sensei, Bill Belichick.
The loss, coupled with Kansas City’s win over the Chargers, dropped New England into the No. 3 seed and gave the Chiefs the bye next week. The Patriots have not played on Wild Card weekend this decade, always earning a bye. Their path to the Super Bowl now includes at least one road game, in either Baltimore or Kansas City. Given how Brady, his receivers and the line in front of him played against the Dolphins, that road looks especially treacherous.
$.04--San Francisco seized the No. 1 seed in the NFC by exactly one inch. That’s how close Seattle was to winning the NFC West and sending the 49ers to the 5th seed in the Sunday night finale. It was one of the few games in Week 17 that had two interested teams playing with fire and alacrity.
The top of the NFC is absurdly successful. San Francisco, Green Bay and New Orleans all finished 13-3. The Saints, as is their custom, get shafted and lose the tiebreakers. They’ll host the 10-6 Vikings (who sat everyone important in a close loss to the Bears) next weekend. Minnesota benefitted from a light schedule, beating just one team all year that finished with more than 7 wins, and dropped the last two. But they remain dangerous for the Saints because of their defensive front and ability to create big plays from the rushing offense.
Seattle is a Wild Card at 11-5, coming up just short. Tight end Jacob Hollister got popped less than a foot from the goal line after catching a quick pass from Russell Wilson. Dre Greenlaw’s crucial stop was reviewed exhaustively and proven correct. An entire season came down to an inch, to Hollister having the ball in one hand and not the other, to Greenlaw thrusting forward instead of hesitating even a split second. It’s such an incredible finish with so much riding on that one inch.
The Packers nearly blew their own shot at the bye. They needed a last-second field goal to knock off a dilapidated Lions team that more resembled an expansion roster. Green Bay never led a 3-12-1 Detroit team until the final buzzer for the second time this season. Aaron Rodgers was consistently off-target, airmailing several throws everyone expects him to hit. The Packers can surely use the bye to rectify some sloppiness that keeps cropping up, but it’s also a testament to their talent that they can be that flawed and still win 13 games.
$.05--Coaching carousel rumors are catnip I don’t particularly wish to frolic in here, but one situation does stand out: the Jaguars.
There are competing reports on the fate of Doug Marrone in Jacksonville. The conflicts are even internal from ESPN, where Dianna Russini declared on Saturday that Marrone was informed he would be fired but that was refuted on the ticker during the various bowl games later that day.
Jaguars owner Shad Khan publicly declared that nothing will happen until after management meets with Marrone and his coaching staff in the middle of the coming week. That’s not exactly a vote of confidence in Marrone, but then again Khan just had to fire his beloved GM, Tom Coughlin, last week because he was so out of bounds the NFLPA was advising players to avoid Jacksonville like it was Mogadishu.
Marrone might not be the best coach, but he’s far from the problem with the Jaguars. The purging of Coughlin, who tried to run the team as a quasi work prison, came too late to salvage this season. It came too late to salvage any hope with Jalen Ramsey, who was traded away (and didn’t play well in L.A., by the way). Leonard Fournette declared himself out for Sunday just hours after the team listed the running back as questionable. Dysfunction everywhere, and Marrone has a hand in that, fair or not.
At least Marrone had his team dialed in for the finale. On a day when other teams of questionable coaching status belly flopped from the high dive, the Jaguars eviscerated the rival Colts, 38-20, behind three TD passes from Gardner Minshew. Whether it’s Marrone or someone else as the coach, the new GM in town needs to prioritize signing EDGE Yannick Ngakoue to a new contract.
$.06--Adam Vinatieri turned 47 on Saturday, a day before his Colts ended their disappointing season. The longtime clutch kicker didn’t play, as he’s been on injured reserve for a few weeks. And it’s unlikely Vinatieri will play again.
As a fellow 47-year-old, it’s truly astonishing to me that someone my age is still competing at a high level. The recovery time from minor injuries takes so much longer now than it did when I was even 40. Vinatieri is doing it against guys half his age and he’s remained among the very best at doing it for 23 years. He kicked his first NFL field goal a week before my wife and I were married, back when the Macarena was fresh and new and there were only 30 NFL teams.
Vinatieri had a rough 2019. He made just 17 of his 25 FG attempts and a couple of those misses cost the Colts potential wins. Missing six extra points is even worse. After a dreadful day back in September, he seemed to threaten to retire on the spot...only to reconsider after sleeping on it.
That’s what us GenXers do, we don’t irrationally overreact. We also appreciate the legacy of our peers and greatness among us, even if it’s not someone playing for a team we actively cheer. Vinatieri is the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history. Congrats on a fantastic 24 seasons!
$.07--College playoff games
I’ll freely admit it: I did not see one snap of the LSU blowout win over Oklahoma. But the final score of 63-28 was not surprising other than how quickly LSU broke the 40-point barrier. LSU’s passing offense was a terrible mismatch for Oklahoma’s perimeter defense, and Joe Burrow proved why he was the most unanimous Heisman winner in history. The Tigers had too much top-end talent at too many positions for anyone to really believe Oklahoma could hang with them unless LSU had a terrible off night. They did not. They don’t have those with Burrow, or with the fantastic Coach Orgeron at the helm.
The second game was a competitive one, a matchup that will be talked about for a long time for a variety of reasons. Clemson held off Ohio State, 29-23, in a game that took many twists and turns.
Ohio State dominated the first 25 minutes, racing out to a 16-0 lead with J.K. Dobbins running wild and the tough Buckeye defense stymying everything Clemson tried to do on offense. But the OSU offense settled for three short field goals instead of cashing in red zone possessions for touchdowns, failures that would cost them dearly.
Clemson rallied to cut it to just two at halftime, and it set up an epic second half of football. It was not necessarily great playing from either team, but the drama and the intensity of the game made it incredibly compelling. And that’s one of the great beauties of college football. These aren’t pros, though almost everyone on the field for both teams will be in the NFL at some point. They do make mistakes, they do miss assignments, they do get emotionally overcharged. It’s why many folks prefer the college game even if the actual football being played isn’t as sharp as what we see on most Sundays.
The Tigers rode the Sunshine that is Trevor Lawrence as his majestic mane flowed from his helmet as he galloped nearly 70 yards up the left sideline in the biggest impact play of the game. The game-winning drive took just four plays to cover almost the entire length of the field and Lawrence executed it almost too perfectly. It was a transcendent clutch performance by the No. 1 pick of the 2021 NFL Draft.
I expect a wildly entertaining national championship game. My early lean is to LSU because they have more defensive playmakers, but Lawrence can nullify that advantage if he plays like he did in the second half on Saturday.
--There are very loud birdies chirping that Marvin Lewis will be the next head coach in Washington. If so, it’s a good hire. Lewis guided a consistent winner in Cincinnati for over a decade. Read that sentence again, slowly. You’d better believe Lewis can coach. I like that he took a break for a year and I like that he’s getting serious run for gigs. After a couple of seasons where several highly-touted rookie head coaches have failed miserably, it’s time for experienced, successful vets like Marvin Lewis to get prime billing as candidates.
--For as much negative attention as he magnetically attracts on a weekly basis, Odell Beckham Jr. still cracked the 1,000-yard barrier for the Browns while playing all season with a sports hernia that will require surgery this week. He never once hung a teammate out to dry either. His season, like the entire Browns 2019, was disappointing. But it wasn’t nearly as awful as critics will have you believe, either.
--Who says luck isn’t genetic? The Carr brothers have not been great, or often even good, NFL QBs, but neither was this bad on his own...
#Raiders Derek Carr lost his 55th game as a starting quarterback. Only QB to lose more in his first 6 seasons was David Carr with 56— Josh Dubow (@JoshDubowAP) December 30, 2019
--My heart aches for Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones and his family. His 6-month-old son, Marlo, died on Saturday. The Lions held a moment of silence during the game against the Packers and there was not a single sound for the entire time.
--This was tweeted in reference to the Ohio State game but it applies well beyond the overturned call in the playoff semifinal:
A catch in football is like the force- I was much more comfortable with how it was defined 40 years ago and now it just keeps getting reinterpreted continually depending on who is in charge.— McNeil (@Reflog_18) December 29, 2019
--I missed attending the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit for the first time since it was the Little Caesar’s Bowl, and I missed a doozy. Pittsburgh held off Eastern Michigan thanks in part to EMU QB Phillip Glass being ejected for punching an official. He was trying to hit a Panthers player and merely grazed the official, but it was a deserved ejection. A nearly packed Ford Field, stocked with hordes of fans from the closest FBS program to the stadium, witnessed a fun game filled with big plays, including a 96-yard catch and run from Pitt WR Maurice Ffrench, whose name my spellchecker really hates.
--Congrats to Michigan State for capping an unsavory season by beating Wake Forest in the Pinstripe Bowl. Most Spartans fans are ready for longtime coach Mark Dantonio to move on, but consider this: Dantonio has more bowl wins (6) in 13 seasons at MSU than Bo Schembechler had (5) in 21 seasons at Michigan. Granted bowls today mean a lot less than they used to…
--Oklahoma WR CeeDee Lamb officially declared for the draft. Lamb is a very skilled player, but I can see him being a prospect fans overestimate in terms of draft stock. You’re likely to see Lamb in the 8-15 overall range in upcoming mock drafts, but I think his lack of a singular standout trait--right or wrong--will drop him further than expected.
--Clemson’s do-it-all defender Isaiah Simmons is another player I can see the NFL not loving as much as the fans or draft community. Simmons is an exceptional athlete and a proven playmaker for the Tigers, but he’s a very odd size for the NFL. At 6-4 and 230, he’s too big for a safety but too lanky for linebacker. His versatility will be viewed by some NFL teams as lacking a defined position. Again, I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but you’d better believe it’s going to happen for at least some teams. Don’t expect him to get taken in the top 10.
$.10--Every year for Week 17 I do a “year in my music” recap. But this year is the end of the 2010s, and that means it’s time for the decade in my music.
Music is a major part of my life. While I have no musical ability whatsoever--I can’t keep the beat to We Will Rock You--I spend between 2 and 10 hours a day listening to music. If I’m writing about football, there’s a very good chance there is music on in the background.
Thanks to the good folks at Spotify, I was able to look back at the bands and songs I listened to the most over the last decade. Technically it only goes back to 2011 for me, but I have a pretty good idea of where my musical listening was before that, too.
I decided to break it down by top artists in terms of Spotify listens, with the top song from each of those bands.
10. Twelve Foot Ninja. One Hand Killing. Perhaps my favorite “accidental” musical find, I discovered the Aussie prog/fusion metal band when I clicked on their video for Coming For You instead of the Megadeth video above it. Being open-minded, I gave it a listen. And then another, and another. The Ninjas keep your ears busy with crushing guitars, random beats and tempo changes, jazz and even calypso influences heavily sprinkled over lead singer Kin Etic (get it?) powerfully belting out lyrics that often belong on inspirational posters.
9. Deep Purple. Smoke on the Water. The only non-contemporary act on the list, though technically they are still active. This one got pumped up early in the decade when my daughter insisted on listening to Smoke on the Wateron her way home from preschool every day. They’re still often great writing background music, particularly Lazy and Highway Star. In related context, I would guess Rainbow would be No. 11 on this list. I might have a thing for Ritchie Blackmore...
8. Turisas. Battle Metal. From 2011-14 I was deep into a Finnish folk metal phase. I still dabble there from time to time, but it waned in part because the best group of that genre, Turisas, hasn’t produced new music since 2013. The triumphant instrumental intro to Venetoi Prasinoi remains my phone ringtone to this day.
7. Metallica. One. Because their full catalog wasn’t on Spotify for some time, I’m inserting the insane amount of times I listened to the And Justice For All CD in the early part of the decade. One is a workout and running staple to this day. The Hardwired album gets representation in the top 10 of every year since its release and does so with three different songs. I love that Metallica is classic rock for my generation.
6. Slash. Rocket Queen. What’s crazy about Slash appearing on this list is that I almost exclusively listened to just two of his solo albums and they’re both live albums. Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators get the sub-billing, and their collaborative songs do stand out on the listing more than all of Slash’s Guns N Roses work with one exception. Rocket Queen was my favorite GNR song and the live version, where Slash often noodles for some 15 minutes sans vocals, is one of the most impressive bits of music I’ve ever witnessed in person.
5. Ghost. Cirice. For a band I didn’t discover until 2015, finishing fifth on the list is a testament to how often they get played. It’s pop metal at its finest and I’m okay with that. The costumes and overt satanism need to be taken tongue-in-cheek, more as a modern KISS...but one that actually produces very good music. I defy anyone to not crank up Cirice or Dance Macabre when the opening notes of either classic fires up!
4. Avenged Sevenfold. Afterlife. A7X pops up on so many different playlists for me. I find them hit-and-miss musically, but damn if their hits aren’t smashes to my ears. The Nightmare and Hail to the King albums from the early part of the decade still get heavy rotation. Yet my favorite tune remains Afterlife from the late 00s, in part because it’s easily the best song they do in concert.
3. Avatar. The Eagle Has Landed. My No. 1 band of 2019, and the Swedish metal quintet closed some serious ground over the last three years. As I’ve gotten older my tastes have gotten a little harder, and the way Avatar injects groove and melody into the darkness is just amazing. This also happens to be my 11-year-old daughter’s favorite song and I hear it at least once every weekday on our trips to and from basketball practice. If I ever have “walk-up” music for an occasion, it will be the beginning of Legend of the King.
2. Dream Theater. The Ministry of Lost Souls. If this were a lifetime list there is no doubt Dream Theater would top the all-time listens. They are the best musicians in the world and craft some incredible songs. The Ministry of Lost Souls captures their range and versatility expertly, but the final verse and John Petrucci’s guitar work on the coda is probably my favorite.
1. Coheed and Cambria. Island. The top song from my top band was released in just 2015 but was my most-listened tune three years in a row, third in another and just missed the top 10 in 2019. It’s fitting Coheed was my top group; I also saw them in concert 12 times in the decade and they never disappointed. Included in that group was my daughter’s first-ever concert, a bonding event we will always cherish. Very proud to be one of many Children of the Fence!