$.01--The NFL week commenced on Christmas, and it was a very merry Christmas for those still in the fantasy football players who own Saints running back Alvin Kamara.
Kamara scored and scored again. And again. And then did it all over again. Appropriately wearing red and green shoes clad against his white, gold and black Saints uniform, Kamara tied the longest-standing NFL in-game record by scoring six touchdowns against the Minnesota Vikings. The Saints RB is just the fourth player in NFL history to score six rushing TDs in a game and the first to do it in the Super Bowl era. Gale Sayers of the Bears last accomplished the feat in 1965.
The win sealed the NFC South title for the Saints and emphatically ended the Vikings’ remote hopes. New Orleans achieved 36 first downs on offense on 73 plays, a testament to both the incredible offensive efficiency and the truly inept Vikings defense. It led Vikings coach--for now, anyway--Mike Zimmer to call it the worst defense he’s ever seen. It’s certainly the worst of his seven years in Minnesota; his Vikings have never finished below 11th in scoring defense prior to 2020, where they now rank 27th.
Kamara’s output came in a game where the Saints played without top WR Michael Thomas or top reserve Tre’Quan Smith. Marquez Callaway was a starting receiver, QB Drew Brees was off all day and Kamara still exploded. That’s a stern warning shot to any other NFC playoff foe, but perhaps also a reason why the Saints are a precarious No. 2 seed.
Sadly, my one fantasy team sporting Kamara was battling for nothing more than 5th place in a 10-team league. As you might expect for having Kamara and Bucs WR Mike Evans (181 yards, 2 TDs), I won...
$.02--Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Steelers on capturing the AFC North. It didn’t look like they were going to make it, but Pittsburgh showed some serious pluck in a comeback win over the hard-luck Colts.
Down 24-7 to the Colts midway through the third quarter, Big Ben Roethlisberger remembered he’s actually a pretty good quarterback. It had been weeks since that was the case, but better late than never for the Steelers moribund offense. Roethlisberger came to life by completing 23-of-29 for 274 yards and three touchdowns in the final 25 minutes, lifting the Steelers to a roaring 28-24 win that rocked the AFC playoff race.
The Steelers desperately needed the lift. Having lost 3 in a row after the 11-0 start, the proverbial fur was already on the launch pad ready to be flung everywhere with another loss. But Roethlisberger’s renaissance and an amazing impact performance from T.J. Watt that should seal up the Defensive Player of the Year award petted it all back down into a happy celebratory coat.
The Colts loss leaves a glut of teams at 10-5. Miami, Baltimore, Indianapolis and Cleveland are all 10-5 but not leading their respective divisions. Three of the four will make the postseason. After Week 16, it’s the Colts who are the odd team out. If all the teams win in Week 17, the Dolphins would be the top Wild Card, followed by Baltimore and then Cleveland. The Colts have to beat the lowly Jaguars and hope that someone above them loses. And that team could be Tennessee, also 10-5 and leading AFC South on a tiebreaker. The Titans blew a chance to clinch by losing to Green Bay on Sunday night.
$.03--Saturday’s early game featured an interim-to-the-interim coach for the Detroit Lions. Wide receivers coach Robert Prince filled in as the interim head coach for interim head coach Darrell Bevell, who was one of several Lions coaches ruled out due to being close contacts of someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
It didn’t need to be that way. This game was originally scheduled for Sunday until it was moved to Saturday less than a month ago. Bevell and the other assistants would be available for Sunday, and sliding a freshly flexed game back a day so the team could have actual coaches doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. But the NFL, which bent over backward to accommodate the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans earlier this season, gave a stern “hell no” when the Lions asked to have the game moved back to Sunday.
The refusal to acquiesce to common sense smacks of favoritism for the Buccaneers. Imagine if it was Tom Brady who couldn’t play until Sunday. Think the NFL would have held fast on not moving the game then? Yeah, me neither…
This is the second time this season the NFL has screwed over a non-contender in favor of a playoff power. Remember when Denver had to play with no quarterbacks against the Saints? That game could easily have been moved back a day or two to allow a fair(er) playing field. The league had no problem rearranging hell and earth to get Baltimore to play on a Wednesday when half their team was diagnosed positive with COVID-19. No Lions coaches tested positive. Only one Broncos player, third-string QB Jeff Driskel, did. Rewarding the Ravens for violating protocols but punishing the Lions and Broncos for significantly lesser violations is a shameful double standard by Roger Goodell and the NFL.
The game went about as you might expect for Detroit. Tampa Bay racked up 400 yards of offense and five TDs before halftime in a 47-7 win. I’ve been a Lions fan since Greg Landry was under center and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the team play worse, not even in the winless 2008 season. That’s not a reflection on Prince and the makeshift coaching staff. It is a validation of why GM Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia were fired last month. It’s also a look into the abyss at just how bad it can be if the next regime decides to immediately move on from Matthew Stafford, who barely played after injuring yet another body part (ankle) in the first quarter and did not return.
$.04--The NFL also showed no favoritism towards the Cleveland Browns in that team’s COVID-19 situation, one which was more akin to the one that caused the league to flex the Tennessee Titans off a Sunday game and move heaven and earth to help the Ravens.
Less than 24 hours before Sunday’s kickoff, the Browns lost their entire WR corps and two starting LBs to the reserve/COVID-19 list. Only LB B.J. Goodson tested positive, but Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins and more were deemed close contacts and ruled out. They were also without rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills, who was on the list during the week but activated on Saturday, only to fall ill on Sunday.
If that doesn’t scream “danger” in the pandemic, I don’t know what to say. While the options were indeed limited, delaying the game until Monday would have at least given the Browns a chance to figure out who could play and if anyone else was to get sick. If the NFL is truly worried about COVID protocols, as they cried repeatedly in Baltimore and Tennessee’s cases earlier this year, it’s the only rational outcome. Instead, we get blatant duplicity. What happens if a Browns player tests positive on Monday and played in the loss to the Jets? The NFL clearly doesn’t care.
The Browns fell lamely to the Jets while missing almost half the regular starters in one form or another. Give the Jets credit for staying inspired despite being 1-13 entering the game. Give the Browns no credit for handling the adversity. Their first half was as bad as the team has played all year and the hole they dug was just too deep to fill for the incredibly undermanned Browns. Throwing the ball 53 times and giving Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt just 18 carries didn’t help either. There’s game script issues factored in there from falling behind early, but going against identity was a bad idea by the Browns.
Give the Jets some credit here too, because they have not quit. Winning two in a row after losing the first 13 is no small feat and it’s a testament to some young players like CB Bless Austin, EDGE Tarell Basham and DT John Franklin-Myers stepping up. Perhaps their defensive cupboard isn’t as bare as most think it is. Then again, the Browns were missing 6 of the 11 players who would normally be on the field in a 3WR set down the stretch...
$.05--There was a game of some importance played on Saturday afternoon between the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers. I’m aware it was played only because of social media. The game was not televised or broadcast in any form where my family, or millions of others, could see it.
It’s the latest attempt by the NFL to move away from the old-school networks and gain more revenue by selling streaming rights. The game was broadcast exclusively on Amazon Prime, something I most certainly will never pay for even if it’s the only place to watch NFL games. Because I also don’t like to break the law with illegal streams, the game went unwatched.
I understand the move from the NFL’s standpoint. It’s broadening horizons and looking to the future when streaming outpaces standard broadcast television. That day is not far in the future, and it’s already come for the generations behind me and my fellow Xers. It’s just incredibly frustrating to not have options beyond the de facto pay-per-view the NFL arranged to help give Jeff Bezos and Amazon more cash. Then again, if the NFL allowed me to pay-per-view live games on its own network, I might’ve flipped $5 to watch. It’s weird that the NFL has an in-house distribution model but chooses to utilize a third party instead. I understand the deal with Amazon props up guaranteed revenue more securely and that’s vital for a league with a hard salary cap based on revenues. It’s just strange they gave everything away in the process.
Of course, Amazon Prime’s broadcast met with near-universal derision on social media. The streams faded out or dropped entirely. The audio was apparently unavailable for some of the game. Many don’t have good enough internet to stream it, and the servers were already overloaded from Boxing Day commerce. The folks taking your money didn’t think of that or plan well enough to do anything about it.
Oh yeah, the game…
Arizona blew a chance to stake its claim to the final NFC playoff berth, surrendering three TD passes to 49ers third-string QB C.J. Beathard and almost 200 rushing yards to 49ers third-string RB Jeff Wilson in a 20-12 San Francisco win in the stadium both teams are calling home in December. Now the Cardinals are behind the Bears for the final Wild Card spot after Chicago blasted Jacksonville.
$.06--The Jaguars, by virtue of their impressively egregious effort in the 41-17 loss to the Bears, sealed up the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. In other words, welcome to Duval, Trevor Lawrence!
There will be some who offer meager pushback against the Jaguars taking a quarterback. Don’t listen to those people. Sure, Gardner Minshew is not the primary reason why the Jaguars stink, but he’s also not going to be the person who makes them not stink in the future. Lawrence can be the transformative force that Jacksonville desperately needs.
The Jaguars aren’t as emphatically empty as some other teams when they get the No. 1 overall pick. They have a capable offensive line, an impressive young RB in James Robinson and two young weapons in D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault. It’s a better situation than Joe Burrow stepped into in Cincinnati or Baker Mayfield in Cleveland in recent seasons. On offense anyway; the Jaguars defense has three players (LB Myles Jack, EDGE Josh Allen and CB C.J. Henderson) who won’t rank in the bottom 10 at their respective positions in 2021.
New York landed the No. 2 pick, and I’m still undecided on what the Jets should--or will--do. There are enough warts on the college QB prospects, Justin Fields from Ohio State and Zach Wilson from BYU, that it’s no guarantee either is better than 2018 No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold. The team has one NFL wide receiver on the roster in Jamison Crowder, who is a No. 3 on a good offense but is No. 1 with a bullet on the Jets. They also desperately need impact talent at all three levels of the defense. While that’s not really an option at No. 2, the Jets could decide to trade back, collect more picks and build up the team for Darnold...or his successor in 2022 if the 23-year-old doesn’t improve with a better supporting cast. That needs to be a consideration for the Jets.
$.07--There is only one division in the NFC that isn’t decided before Week 17. And three different teams still have a crack at winning the East.
The Eagles are the only team eliminated, thanks to the Cowboys 37-17 blowout win over Philadelphia. The Eagles inept defense gave up a near-perfect game to Andy Dalton, with Zeke Elliott topping 100 yards on the ground and 121 apiece to Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper in the air.
Dallas’ win gave the Cowboys a chance. By improving to 6-9, they caught up to the Football Team. Washington had a chance to seize the crown but instead got mauled by the Panthers in a game where Taylor Heinicke in relief of a (deservedly) benched Dwayne Haskins was the far better WFT quarterback. Washington draws the 4-10-1 Eagles, a team they’ve already beaten once. If the Football Team wins, they’re the division champs at 7-9. If not…
The Cowboys would capture the division by beating the Giants, but New York could steal the crown if it’s a 3-way tie at 6-10, and that’s exactly what would happen if Big Blue beats the Cowboys and the Eagles knock off Washington. All for the right to host Tampa Bay, which has all but clinched the No. 5 seed and sits 10-5. Imagine a 6-10 New York team hosting Tom Brady and the 11-5 Buccaneers in a snowstorm.
That’s how change happens. Hopefully this is the last time the NFL holds fast to the arcane rule that a division champ would get precedence over a team with five more wins.
--I’ve been on a few MVP wagons this season. Russell Wilson won my vote for September but has faded away. Myles Garrett lost too much time to COVID and the Browns defense hasn’t helped him after his torrid midseason. Josh Allen has been masterful in leading Buffalo to the AFC East title, but he’s had a few meh performances. T.J. Watt will have to be happy with Defensive Player of the Year.
The two names left that have been on the shortlist all season are Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. Mahomes has more prodigious yardage and flash, but Rodgers is having one of the best seasons for any QB in NFL history. His QB Rating of 118.0 entering Sunday night with a TD/INT ratio of 40/4. The Packers are the No. 1 seed in the NFC but might not be more than a 3-win team without Rodgers. That’s your MVP, folks…
--Jared Goff injured his thumb late in the Rams’ loss to the Seahawks. There’s a chance he’s done for the year. The Rams play the Cardinals next week and could very well be out of the playoffs if they lose. Their backup is John Wolford, excuse me, former AAF star John Wolford. He’s never thrown an NFL pass.
--It’s truly incredible how long Frank Gore has been good. The 37-year-old running back hit another milestone on Sunday:
Frank Gore (16,000) joins HOF Emmitt Smith (18,355) & HOF Walter Payton (16,726) as the only players in NFL history with 16,000+ career rush yards 💪— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 27, 2020
--Sticking with our friends at NFL Research, we have a new record for TE receiving yards in a season. Congrats to Travis Kelce.
Travis Kelce broke the NFL single-season receiving yards record by a tight end...— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 27, 2020
With 98 rec yards today, Kelce now has 1,416 rec yards this season, surpassing George Kittle who held the previous record with 1,377 rec yards in 2018
--Broncos first-round wide receiver Jerry Jeudy had a day to forget in Denver’s 19-16 loss to the Chargers. Jeudy dropped 5 passes in the loss, including a would-be TD. Jeudy, like a lot of other top-15 picks in 2020, has had an uneven go of the rookie year. He’s got 47 catches for over 700 yards and 2 TDs, but a catch rate near 40% percent and 12 drops.
--One of the best freshmen in the PAC-12 unfortunately lost his life on Friday. Utah running back Ty Jordan, the PC-12 Freshman of the Year, was killed in an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound in his home in Texas. It’s a horrible loss for the family, his teammates and college football. RIP Ty Jordan.
--There are four Heisman Trophy finalists this year: Alabama QB Mac Jones, Crimson Tide teammate DeVonta Smith at WR, Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence and Florida QB Kyle Trask. I don’t have a vote for the Heisman but my hypothetical one would go to Trask. His abundant accomplishments were the best individual performance. It’s not a team award and he did more with lesser supporting casts than the Bama duo or Lawrence had to work with.
--I am a fan of the fry shower at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl:
FRY BATH TIME 🍟 pic.twitter.com/lsaS3MBCOB— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) December 23, 2020
--Mac Jones is getting some first-round run as an NFL draft pick. I don’t buy it. Jones is a straight pocket passer and a rhythm guy. He’s got a good-not-great arm but thrives with excellent ball placement and delivering the ball on schedule. He does that very well, better than anyone else in this class except presumptive No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence. He does it much better than Alabama predecessor Tua Tagovailoa, currently benched by the Dolphins as a top-10 pick.
However, Jones benefits from throwing to open targets that emphatically outclass the talent level of the defense. He seldom has to do anything under pressure and when he does his mechanics break down; his feet get too fast and he closes his shoulders, costing him accuracy. Jones doesn’t do off-schedule well and he’s not a threat with the legs. He strikes me right now (I’m through 5 games and still have several to watch) as a Kirk Cousins-type, a nominal mid-level starter who can bump above that some years in a friendly system but won’t be the type who elevates the roster around him. That’s a Day 2 pick for me.
$.10--We’re entering the final days of 2020, a year that cannot end soon enough for just about everyone. It’s been a very difficult year for most of us, no matter where you are or what you do.
The birth of a new year is always time for folks to look ahead, to make resolutions for the coming time. Mine will be simple for 2021, and it’s one I think would make an excellent resolution for everyone.
Appreciate what we’ve got.
In the last year, I lost my wife’s brother to ALS. I lost a treasured high school classmate to cancer, another classmate to a heart attack. I lost a longtime friend to suicide when his restaurant went under. None were over 50. That’s too young to lose someone.
Several close to me lost careers, and I caught collateral damage on that front when our sports radio station in Grand Rapids did away with local programming. No businesses being open means no advertising, after all.
I’m making it a point in 2021 to let those who are important to me know it. Hopefully in person, but even remotely is better than not saying anything at all. I’m going to cherish the 40-minute commutes with my kids ferrying them to AAU basketball practices and volleyball practices, something I’ve weirdly, desperately missed. I’m going to accept those offers to go have lunch with a friend, or golf with a group of four where I only know one. I’ve turned down too many of those over the years.
Life is to be lived, and I aim to live it as best as I can. It will be frustrating at times. It won’t always turn out the way we hope. But I’m making it a point to appreciate the journey and those who take the journey with me. It’s something I hope more people embrace in 2021.