This week’s edition is just eight cents. My duties covering the Sunday Night Football game with the Browns forced the issue. Thanks to my editor for patiently understanding.
$.01--Something happened on Saturday night that has not happened since 1995. The Buffalo Bills clinched their first AFC East title in 25 years by annihilating the Broncos in Denver, 48-19.
It is an amazing accomplishment for the young Bills team and coach Sean McDermott, who have quickly assembled a very energetic, talented and enjoyable team on the shores of Lake Erie. Built around the unique skills of QB Josh Allen, the Bills are now 11-3 and have the feel of a team that is rising up and still has room to climb higher.
This wasn’t much of a contest. Allen was on fire, guiding the Bills offense at will against a witless Broncos defense that never seemed to know what was coming next. With a giveaway-free game where Allen threw for two TDs and ran for two more, it’s another strong checkmark in his MVP candidacy.
The Buffalo fans, the Bills Mafia, should revel in the division title. It’s been a long time coming for the passionate, endearingly eccentric fans. Snapping a 25-year drought, particularly for a franchise that had such incredible sustained success in the early 1990s, is worthy of the chest-thumping and the celebrating.
To put it into some perspective, Allen wasn’t even alive yet. McDermott was a safety at William & Mary. The internet was basically a series of unreliably connected message boards. The Big 12 was still the Big 8. I was in my final year of college at Ohio University, living with two Bengals fans (miss you, Stew & David!) and listening to NFL games on the radio most every Sunday as I drove back to school from working on the weekends. Congrats, Bills fans! This Lions fan from Cleveland knows what you’ve been through and can’t wait to taste the ecstasy that this season has already provided. Enjoy it but don’t forget it’s just one step toward a larger goal, one that appears more attainable by the week.
$.02--There will be no 0-16 teams in 2020. The New York Jets avoided the ignominy by stunning the Los Angeles Rams for their first win of the season. No, that’s not a misprint and no I haven’t been drinking.
The 0-13 Jets really did beat the 9-4, first-place Rams. The favored-by-17.5-point Rams. In Los Angeles. It really happened.
Pop the champagne for the Jets players. Going 0-16 is not something that any player ever wants any part of. Take it from someone who covered both the 2008 Lions and the 2017 Browns, the two 0-16 predecessors: the players don’t give a damn about next year or draft positioning. They play to win, period. Many of them are playing to win to play their way off the disastrous losing roster, and you’d better believe that’s powerful incentive for players who want better options.
Interestingly enough, the two men most responsible for the win on Sunday, endearingly ancient RB Frank Gore and fizzling 2018 No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold, almost certainly won’t be in New York in 2021. That duo had help, of course; the Rams didn’t show up until deep into the second quarter after the Jets blocked a punt (nice job JT Hassell!) and a fantastic INT by Bryce Hall gave the Jets all the early momentum.
Jets fans are aghast at the win. It cost them the pole position in the No. 1 overall pick, thanks to the Jaguars also being terrible (more on them below). That means they’re going to need some help to land Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick. And that seems like a bitter pill to swallow.
Here’s a spoonful of sugar to help that bitter medicine go down, Jets fans. One player, even one as seemingly incredible as Lawrence, does not fix what causes 0-16. It’s a nice start, obviously, but being 0-16 means you’ve got multiple massive holes on the roster. It’s a tangible burden upon the players who remain and the organization as a whole that doesn’t go away. It still hasn’t for the Lions 12 years later and they got the No. 1 overall pick right with Matthew Stafford, too. Translation: Lawrence could be the difference between going 4-12 and getting the No. 4 pick in 2022 or going 6-10 and getting the 12th pick after next season. Unless you want to be completely, unwatchably terrible again in 2021 and get another No. 1 overall pick, a.k.a the Cleveland model, it’s not the end of the world.
$.03--The AFC playoff race stayed complicated, with seven of the top eight teams entering the weekend all winning and the eighth (Pittsburgh) yet to play. As a result, the standings remain the same but the urgency gets even greater.
Kansas City survived a late scare from the Saints in Drew Brees’ return. The Chiefs are 13-1 but they did not make it easy on themselves or their fans’ blood pressures with some weird mental mistakes down the stretch. One more win and they clinch the bye and the top seed.
Tennessee pounded Detroit 46-25 to stay at 10-4 and atop the South. They toyed with the undermanned Lions in the way a cat lets a skink almost taste freedom before biting another leg off. Derrick Henry keeps his name prominent in the MVP race with another big game (147 rushing yards, 1 TD).
The Colts kept pace. Barely. It took a freak fumble near the goal line by Texans WR Keke Coutee just as he was about to score the game-tying TD to ensure the Colts victory. They’re also 10-4 and have the biggest game on the AFC schedule next week with their trip to Pittsburgh to play the 12-2 (I’m going to presume PIT beats CIN on Monday) Steelers.
The Browns maintained their lead in the Wild Card by improving to 10-4 with a thorough, quick 20-6 win over the Giants on Sunday night. Baker Mayfield was phenomenal. The Giants red zone offense (1 FG in 3 possessions) was not. Cleveland has 10 wins for just the second time this century and owns the No. 5 seed by virtue of their win over the Colts. The Browns have to maintain the pace because they lose out in almost every multi-team tiebreak situation. Luckily for them, they play the Jets in Week 16 and it’s hard to see (but certainly possible) all the top teams winning once again.
Miami put the final nail in the Patriots coffin. The Dolphins’ 22-12 win officially eliminated the 6-8 Patriots, ending Bill Belichick’s incredible run of consecutive winning seasons in the process as well. The Dolphins are 9-5 and hold the final Wild Card spot, holding the tie-breaker over the Ravens.
The one team that lost was the Raiders, who blew an overtime game on Thursday night to the Chargers. Las Vegas is 7-7 and needs a great deal of help; they have to win out and have both Miami and Baltimore lose their final two games.
$.04--Remember back in Week 1 when the Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Indianapolis Colts? The upset win raised an inquisitive eyebrow back in September. Now it raises the specter of being the reason why the Jets get the No. 1 overall pick instead of Jacksonville and why the Titans win the AFC South over the Colts.
Jacksonville has not won since that fateful first Sunday. This week’s blowout loss to the resurgent Ravens was over almost before it started. Baltimore sacked Gardner Minshew on his very first dropback for a safety by Matt Judon. The Ravens quickly followed with a short-field TD and the 40-14 rout (the Jaguars scored the final 7) was on.
This Jaguars team is legitimately one of the worst NFL teams of all-time. Yet because the Jets also exist this year, they might not even earn the No. 1 overall pick. Jacksonville does have the tie-breaker right now, but as Sunday proved, anything can happen. If the Jaguars team that played Baltimore shows up in the final two weeks (CHI, at IND), they’re not sniffing another win.
As for the Colts, they’re 10-4 and will make the postseason. But they lose the divisional tiebreaker to the 10-4 Titans because of the divisional record--the Indianapolis loss to the Jaguars being the difference. That is subject to change in the final two weeks, of course, but how crazy would it be if the AFC South is decided by a Gardner Minshew-Keelan Cole comeback win over the Colts in Week 1?
$.05--For a game featuring two teams with 6-7 records, the matchup in Minnesota between the Vikings and the Chicago Bears held unusual playoff implications in the NFC. The NFC North showdown played out with the intensity of a playoff game, too.
The Bears won 33-27 when Kirk Cousins’ Hail Mary went the way of the devil in the form of Bears safety Sherick McManis, who came down with the jump ball. Befitting the year of our Lord 2020, Mitchell Trubisky efficiently carved up the Vikings defense. Yeah, that really happened…
Trubisky had a lot of help from RB David Montgomery, who hit 146 yards and 2 TDs with a lot of grown-ass man runs. He outdueled Minnesota counterpart Dalvin Cook, who was also impressive. Chicago’s defense made more big plays too, notably a 4th-down stuff on Cook and a great play by an unblocked Brent Urban to force Cousins into a de facto throwaway on another fourth down late.
The Bears are still alive at 7-7 and their unholy path to that average record. From 5-1 to 5-6 and now 7-7, the Bears still have some potential to catch the Cardinals for the final NFC Wild Card spot. They’re a game back with two to play, but one of their own games is against the hapless Jaguars and the other will be against a Packers team that could be in rest mode. Arizona draws the dying carcass of the 49ers but also a Rams team that could be playing for postseason seeding.
$.06--The College Football Playoff is set. Alabama and Notre Dame will meet in one semifinal, with Ohio State and Clemson in the other.
It’s almost as if playing the actual games was a formality instead of a requisite. The top three--Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State in order--are effectively givens. At least two of those three schools have been in every single CFP top four since it began in 2015. Taking care of their business meant the status quo from August was easy to carry over.
Texas A&M was the first team out, as expected. The Aggies have an 8-1 record but the one loss was an uncompetitive 28-point drubbing by Alabama. Oklahoma at 8-2 was next, ahead of unbeaten Cincinnati, unbeaten Coastal Carolina, a one-loss (to Coastal Carolina) BYU team, the PAC-12 champion Oregon and runner-up USC, unbeaten San Jose State and a one-loss Indiana team that gave Ohio State everything it could handle. The Sooners, who have been in more playoffs than they haven’t, have the worst loss of any of those teams, too.
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to throw your Dr. Pepper cans at the sham that is the College Football Playoff. This year above all else proves how pointless it is. Unless it’s expanded to at least eight teams, you can pencil in three of the four representatives for next year’s edition next week. Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State are all in already for next year unless they lose at least two games. That’s not going to happen. It’s proven just how pointless it is for teams in the AAC, the MWC, the MAC and the Sun Belt to even play FBS-level football. Either make it inclusive or do away with the charade.
Having said that, I’ve got Clemson beating Nick Saban’s worst Alabama defense of the era in the national championship game.
--Cincinnati stayed unbeaten and captured the AAC title by holding off a good Tulsa team in a freezing, rain-drenched game. The Bearcats looked like a team that hadn’t played in weeks, which was true due to COVID-19 issues. They survived despite two special teams gaffes down the stretch. Great work by coach Luke Fickell, who can land a more prestigious gig if he wants one. Notice I said more prestigious, not necessarily better; the Bearcats are in a good spot as a program right now.
--This is high-level trolling and I love it...
--Florida “tight end” Kyle Pitts announced he’s entering the draft shortly after the Gators fell to Alabama in the SEC Championship. The tight end is in quotes because he isn’t really your traditional NFL tight end. At 6-foot-6 and 240 listed pounds, he’s more like Bucs WR Mike Evans or Seahawks WR DK Metcalf, a supersized athlete. The team that selects Pitts in the top 15--and that’s perhaps lowballing him--needs to put him in the slot or as a motion weapon. Aligning him as an inline TE is like putting diesel fuel in a Maserati.
--Illinois hired Bret Bielema as the coach to replace Lovie Smith. It’s an interesting choice. Bielema thrived early at Wisconsin but didn’t leave in the best of circumstances, and then he was a disaster at Arkansas. The Illini haven’t had a winning season in a decade, though Lovie did have them climbing up a little. Odd timing on the firing with the school dropping the axe just a couple of days before national signing day.
--Congrats to Ball State, your 2020 MAC champs. They scored an upset win over Buffalo in the championship game in Detroit, an unexpected outcome for an unexpectedly good Cardinals team.
--Army went 9-2 and captured the Armed Forces trophy but did not land a bowl berth. With several schools backing out, enough that a few bowls have already canceled, it’s embarrassing that Army isn’t going bowling. Expect that egregious omission to change quickly.
$.08--I don’t normally pay any attention to baseball anymore, but the sport was thrust back upon me this week. Back when I was a passionate baseball fan, I was a Cleveland Indians fan. In the 1990s they were everyone’s favorite team in Northern Ohio. And now the Indians are no more.
Cleveland’s ownership is dropping the nickname of Indians, their moniker for over 100 years. It’s a nod to changing times, something ower Paul Dolan noted in a statement. Even though the team name honored Louis Sockalexis, a Native American player on the team, it’s a historical legacy that no longer fits.
I’m not thrilled about the change, but I understand it. As a student of history--and baseball history--it bothers me that we’re erasing away another historical legacy and learning opportunity. I applauded when the team dumped the smiling Chief Wahoo logo, something that was obviously offensive. The name though. It seemed different. It was honorable and was a source of pride for Native Americans for many years.
Those years are long in the rearview mirror now. I refuse to be offended by someone else taking offense to something, whether I agree or not. That’s not my place. It’s not anyone’s place. So the name has to go.
Cleveland now has an opportunity to nail the rebranding. I’m partial to the Rocks, a nod to my hometown’s status as the birthplace of Rock & Roll. I liked the Rockers as the short-lived WNBA team too, but that doesn’t seem to work as well for baseball. I also like the Spiders, a unique old name that represented Cleveland baseball in the late 1800s. Alas, those Spiders teams were terrible. Not that the Indians have been great with two World Series titles in 105 years, none since before my mom was born. She’s an Indians fan in her 70s.
Another option that I like: the Commodores. As in Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry of "We have met the enemy and they are ours” fame from the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812. It fits well with the Cavaliers in basketball as well as the Lake Erie Monsters of the AHL in tying into the lake culture.
I really hope they settle on something unique, one that no other pro sports team has or a generic animal name. We’ve got enough birds of prey and various dog and cat breeds in the world of sports. I’m keeping my script “I” Indians hat though.