$.01--In the most-watched storyline of the early Sunday games, Jalen Hurts prevailed in his first start as the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. Hurts and the Eagles knocked off the NFC’s top team entering the weekend, the New Orleans Saints, 24-21. Suffice to say, it won’t be Hurts’ last start for the 4-8-1 Eagles.
The second-round rookie was good-not-great in guiding the Eagles to the upset. The production in the air doesn’t wow--167 passing yards on 17-for-30 attempts--but he was sharp and poised early in the game. He added 106 yards on the ground, too. Until a late fourth-quarter fumble, Hurts was able to avoid the costly turnovers that have plagued the Eagles all season under demoted starter, Carson Wentz.
It was more about how he played than the numbers. Hurts consistently stayed poised and on task under pressure, two things that no one would say about Wentz this year. His composure and confidence rubbed off on his teammates, elevating a team that hasn’t played better than the sum of its parts in some time.
The trick now for the Eagles and Doug Pederson is to figure out if Hurts’ lift is sustainable or if it was simply a team responding favorably to a desired change with a temporary bounce.
The Saints, meanwhile fell out of the No. 1 seed in the conference with the loss and a Green Bay win over Detroit. Taysom Hill was dreadful early before lighting up a dilapidated Eagles secondary to rally New Orleans to a near-comeback. It was 17-0 at the half and the Saints managed just 98 yards and 5 first downs in the first two quarters. They should get Drew Brees back in Week 15. That’s good. While Hill has been better than many, including me, expected him to be at the helm, they’re not beating good teams with Hill at QB. Keep in mind the Saints have played one game against a team that currently sports a winning record since Week 3.
$.02--If you took Carrie Underwood’s warbling “waiting all day for Sunday night” on NBC’s primetime broadcast, you probably didn’t stay awake long unless you had a rooting interest in the Bills-Steelers matchup. The first half was a sluggish combination of good defense, bad offense and missed opportunities.
The first 10 combined possessions of the game ended with eight punts, an interception and a fumble. Another first-half Steelers drive ended with a pick-six for Bills courtesy of Taron Johnson, who appeared to be the intended receiver on Ben Roethlisberger’s gentle pass. The big play perked up the Bills, giving them a 9-7 lead. After that, it became a much more interesting and compelling game of football.
Josh Allen and the Bills methodically picked apart the Steelers secondary. When the pass rush didn’t get home for Pittsburgh, it was easy pickings for Allen and Stefon Diggs. It was pretty clear who the better team was, and it wasn’t the team that came in 11-1. The Bills, clad in all-red uniforms, largely dominated the rest of the game. Allen was outstanding at taking what the Steelers defense gave, which was a lot more than the typical Steelers defense normally acquiesces.
The 26-15 victory lifts the Bills to 10-3 and all but wraps the first AFC East title for Buffalo in the 21st century. This is the way they win: a solid, smart defense that can make plays; Diggs and his NFL-leading 100 receptions coming up big; Allen’s aggressive and increasingly accurate passing; good special teams that consistently outperform the foe. It’s a recipe to keep winning.
Pittsburgh has done none of those things in losing its last two games. The 11-0 start feels so long gone. Now they’re a game up on Buffalo for the No. 2 seed and don’t have the tiebreaker. If the Browns win on Monday night, the AFC North is still up for grabs. Between the injuries all over the roster, the dropped passed (most in the NFL) and Roethlisberger looking increasingly old and soft-armed, this is not the same team that raced out to 11-0. There should be very real worry in the Steel City that the team peaked early.
$.03--Thursday night saw the effective death of the New England Patriots. Sure, the Patriots are still mathematically alive in the AFC playoff race after getting trounced, 24-3, by the Los Angeles Rams. But it’s about the same level of mathemagical probability needed as hitting the progressive jackpot on the slot machine at the casino.
It got so bad, so hopeless, in Los Angeles that Bill Belichick pulled the plug on Cam Newton at quarterback. Newton was off-target and sluggish all night, looking nothing like the one-time MVP and one of the most electrifying leaders of the era. Throwing to guys who wouldn’t be above the practice squad on 30 other rosters doesn’t help, but Belichick correctly divined that Newton wasn’t the solution. In the process, he got further proof that backup Jarrett Stidham is not it, either.
There is a growing theory that Newton is suffering some long-term impact from his COVID-19 infection. Specifically, the “brain fog” that many victims report even months after their initial diagnosis. I won’t even pretend to be an epidemiologist--it’s hard enough to even type it--but it’s at least worth consideration. Whatever the underlying reason, Newton is not playing well enough to lift the underwhelming supporting cast to the postseason. The Superman cape is all but mothballed for 2020.
The Rams, meanwhile, got exactly what they needed. Beating the Patriots and scoring a second consecutive win against a playoff aspirant (they beat Arizona in Week 13) restores the claim to being the best team in the NFC West. After a week where there was still some crowing about discontent between coach Sean McVay and QB Jared Goff. The Rams now have four wins in five weeks against teams that entered the game with non-losing records. There might indeed be some dissonance, but the Rams are still producing some beautiful music lately.
$.04--The Tampa Bay Buccaneers emphatically improved their playoff status in the NFC by beating the Minnesota Vikings. They did so thanks to Tom Brady, some timely defensive plays on their own side of the field, and Vikings kicker Dan Bailey having a nightmare day in the Tampa sun.
Bailey had a brutal afternoon. He missed three field goals and an extra point. All four errant kicks had a good enough snap and hold. Bailey simply yakked on them. At the time Bailey missed the third field goal, his Vikings were behind by 9 points, 23-14. He was personally responsible for Minnesota not having 10 more.
Considering Bailey missed two extra points and a field goal attempt in Minnesota’s overtime win over Jacksonville in Week 13, it’s safe to say his time as the Vikings kicker is in serious peril. It’s a startling collapse for the 6th-most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history, though much of that was built on his early career in Dallas; Bailey has been well below league average in three of the last four seasons.
There was a tangible impact on the Vikings after Bailey’s misses. The offense pressed and tried too hard to be perfect, knowing they needed touchdowns because the field goals weren’t going to happen. That’s not where Kirk Cousins thrives and it showed. Give the Buccaneers defense credit for making some plays, notably superb rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. on a perfect blitz that created a strip-sack to set up Bailey’s final miss. But the Vikings lost this game primarily because of kicker failure. That cannot happen for a team teetering on the playoff bubble.
$.05--Haason Reddick is going to be the NFC Defensive Player of the Week. Doesn’t matter what anyone else did or does, the award is Reddick’s.
The Cardinals EDGE sacked Giants QBs Daniel Jones and Colt McCoy five times in Arizona’s too-easy 26-7 win over New York. Three of those created fumbles. Reddick is the first player to get at least five sacks in a game since 2017 (Adrian Clayborn) and set the Cardinals franchise team record, too.
Arizona desperately needed the win. At 6-6, they had fallen off the playoff pace with a string of four losses in five weeks. And the defense rising up from the ashes was important. The Cardinals had allowed an average of 30 points per game in the string. On Sunday they held the Giants to 159 total yards and 10 first downs. Reddick’s quintet was among eight total sacks from the Arizona D.
It was also a return to form for DeAndre Hopkins (9 catches, 136 yards) and the Cardinals offense, too. A well-conceived attack netted almost 160 yards on the ground and kept the Giants defense from attacking effectively. Shame on those fantasy football “experts” who advised folks to sit Hopkins in his so-called rough matchup against the Giants. The New York defense has been playing well but they’re not the 2000 Ravens.
The Arizona win and the Minnesota loss shifted the bottom of the NFC Wild Card race. The Cardinals are (temporarily) in and the Vikings are out, with three weeks to go. And New York losing, coupled with the Football Team’s win over the 49ers--in Arizona, no less--shook up the top of the East. Washington now leads at 6-7 with a game up on the 5-8 Giants, and that important because the Giants swept the season series with the WFT to hold the tiebreaker.
$.06--This was supposed to be the weekend of Ohio State vs. Michigan. Or more likely, the weekend where the Wolverines football program suffered its last humiliation under Jim Harbaugh at the hands of the Buckeyes.
But that’s not what happened. A rampant outbreak of COVID-19 within the Michigan program--as many as 45 players and coaches was initially reported--forced the game to get canceled on Tuesday. Ohio State has had COVID issues of its own, including the cancelation of a prior game with Illinois and a positive test by head coach Ryan Day.
It was a bitter disappointment that hits those of us in the two battling states quite hard. I’m the son of an Ohio State grad. My wife is the daughter of a Michigan grad. Early in our relationship, we sparred and my side of the family suffered in the John Cooper Buckeyes era. Lately the shoe has been on the other foot and that foot is rammed where the sun doesn’t shine on Harbaugh. My wife’s brother (hi Bob!) and I have gone to the last two games at the Big House together, rooting for different sides but not enough that we don’t enjoy one another’s company.
This year, my wife’s phone wasn’t blowing up early in the day with a chain of “Go Blue” texts. I didn’t have the customary happy postgame chat with my dad. It was likely to be an anticlimactic game anyway, but not playing it was something that really hit our families hard--and the wife and I both went to Ohio U. and not the football megaliths.
Speaking of OUr Ohio Bobcats, our alma mater had its third game of the season and second in a row canceled. Ohio finished 2-1, an effort that hardly seems worthwhile. So many other games were also canceled this weekend, including Washington-Oregon, Purdue-Indiana and Cincinnati-Tulsa, that it really felt like the games that were being played were somehow cheapened. It’s been very hard to get excited about college football when so many games are canceled each week.
$.07--The Big Ten did what nobody really wanted them to do but everyone still expected in arbitrarily deciding the rules made on the fly to play in the pandemic don’t really matter. Ohio State’s lost game to Michigan meant the Buckeyes finish the regular season at 5-0. But the rules dictated that a team needs to play at least six to be eligible for the conference championship.
That rule wound up being about as strong as the paper used to wipe the BS off the noses of the Big Ten authorities. Of course they changed the rule for Ohio State. There’s no compelling reason not to. Integrity? Pfft. A conference that calls itself the Big “Ten” despite expanding to 14 schools lost that a long time ago.
No Ohio State would have meant no CFB Playoff. That means no money, and the member schools are desperate for every single penny after the pandemic has completely uprooted their ability to fund college sports. Northwestern is but a sacrificial lamb that everyone else in the conference will be rooting against so Ohio State can claim a playoff berth and bring in the check with a couple of extra zeroes on it.
It reinforces that the NCAA viewed football as nothing more than a shameless money grab. The desperation of the young men to play was ruthlessly exploited for the gain of administrators who can’t fathom the idea of not having three assistants apiece but also refuse to authorize new towels in the training room for the women’s basketball team in the name of fiscal prudence.
The fact the NCAA allowed each conference to make up their own rules on the fly without any real oversight other than “try not to let anyone die” should be the final nail in the worthless organization’s coffin. They clearly serve no real purpose anymore. The conferences proved it this year by doing their own things with no guidance, no superintendence from the body specifically created to that--and only that. Hopefully the NCAA’s oversight of college football will be one of the last casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nobody will shed a tear for the death of a self-important, functionless bureaucracy like the NCAA.
--If you want to know why Patrick Mahomes gets so much love from the NFL media, check out this amazing stat...
Since the start of 2019, the Chiefs are now 8-1 (.888) with Patrick Mahomes at QB after falling behind by 10+ points.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 13, 2020
The rest of the NFL is 68-356-1 (.160) combined when trailing by 10+ points during that same period.
--Mahomes had an off day (3 INTs) in Kansas City’s win over Miami, but it gave the Chiefs a chance to prove they’re more than just their MVP-caliber quarterback. The Chiefs bagged a safety and returned a punt for a touchdown in turning an early 10-0 deficit into a 30-10 romp before the Dolphins closed the gap near the end, 33-27. The Chiefs are now running away with the AFC’s No. 1 seed and the bye that goes with it. Miami still holds onto the No. 7 seed at 8-5 and should feel good about its chances to stick.
--It turns out firing Gregg Williams didn’t solve the Jets’ issues. The defense got even worse, if such a thing was possible. Seattle cruised over the winless, lifeless Jets, 40-3.
--Andy Dalton won his grudge match return to Cincinnati. The longtime Bengals quarterback led the Cowboys to a 30-7 win over his old team, which appears to have completely given up on young coach Zac Taylor after all the injuries to key players like Joe Burrow and Jonah Williams.
--I haven’t seen anything but one lonely highlight, a spectacular interception in the end zone by Kenny Moore, but the Colts and their 44-27 devastation of the fading Raiders certainly grabbed my attention. The Colts and Titans are both 9-4 in the AFC South and already split their season series. Give the remaining schedule edge to Indianapolis, but this one is going down to the wire.
--Auburn fired Gus Malzahn after the Tigers beat Mississippi State to finish 6-4. It’s an interesting decision by Auburn, which will pay Malzahn a $21.3M buyout to not coach them after posting a 68-35 record in eight seasons. Malzahn wasn’t perfect by any means but he’s done well for himself in the tough side of the SEC bracket. The move is not popular with Auburn players, who loved Malzahn’s family-centric style of building the program. Good luck with that, Auburn. You’re going to need it...
--Arizona State 70, Arizona 7. That epic beatdown was enough to convince Arizona to pull the plug on the Kevin Sumlin coaching era. Not that long ago, Sumlin had his choice of NFL jobs as the hot college coach at Texas A&M. Now he’s fizzled out miserably at another major college program, leaving it in much worse shape than when he arrived. Sumlin’s next stop--if there is one--needs to be in the Sun Belt or an FCS program. Good on Herm Edwards and the Sun Devils for the epic victory, too.
--I watched USC/UCLA if for no other reason than to see both teams wearing their color jerseys. It’s aesthetically beautiful for a rivalry game and I wish other rivalries where the color schemes are so divergent (Oregon/Oregon State, Ohio State/Michigan, Indiana/Purdue) would adopt the tradition.
--Illinois fired Lovie Smith after the Illini lost to Northwestern. I’ve given Lovie a lot of grief over the years dating back to his days running the Chicago Bears, but I don’t think Illinois is going to find anyone better than Smith in this particular offseason.
--Great job by the little team that could, the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. They’re 11-0 and just became the first-ever Sun Belt team to crack the top 10. If they beat a ranked Louisiana team next weekend, Coastal Carolina has a great argument to be in a New Year’s Six bowl.
--This play wound up being nullified by a penalty, but you must watch the ending of the Ball State-Western Michigan game, a game that decided the MAC West title:
Ball State players prematurely rushed the field during the final play vs. Western Michigan— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 12, 2020
Western Michigan made it to the end zone, which would've won the game but the TD didn’t count
Broncos lost 30-27
$.10--This week was one where the NFL highlighted the great things the players themselves do off the field. Much of the time we never get to see it, and many players do it in complete anonymity.
The veil gets peeled away with a couple of great displays. First is the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, of which the nominees from each team were revealed this week. It’s become a very big deal for the players themselves to earn the nomination from their peers and from the teams’ public relations departments. The Walter Payton Award honors the player who does great community service and charitable work.
The list of nominees is an impressive one. Reading what the players did to earn the nominations is even greater. If you’re someone who thinks it’s all for show or partisan political interest, do yourself a favor and peruse what all these players have done. It’s diverse, it’s often done without fanfare and many times it’s focused on issues we can all embrace: helping veterans, supporting teachers, clothing poor kids, funding local rec sports leagues.
The other display began for many teams last week: the My Cause My Cleats campaign. It’s the one chance the players get to promote what they believe in and to wear some amazing artwork on their feet in the process.
Seriously, the detail of the art and design that goes into the shoes is amazing. Many are museum-worthy pieces of art in shoe form. And then there are the causes…
Just from the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, who were gracious enough to send out a detailed press release as well as photos of all the cleats, the following causes are represented:
Cystic Fibrosis foundation
Childhood cancer foundations--several of these
Mental health awareness and resources--several of these too
The Innocence Project
UNICEF For Palestine
Hunting With Soldiers
American Heart Association
The diversity of the passion projects really brings home the fact that there are human beings inside those uniforms, men who care deeply about causes dear to them. Many of their causes are dear to you, too. Remember that when you hear “shut up and play ball” from the ignorant who proudly, disgracefully walk among us.