Hope everyone had a safe, fun Halloween and final football weekend in October!

$.01--The Halloween matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints had a few tricks and treats for everyone. The Saints treated the home fans to a huge win in part by tricking Tom Brady into a couple of crucial mistakes and capitalizing on the unexpectedly steady play by backup QB Trevor Siemian. 

New Orleans improved to 5-2 with the entertaining, 36-27 home win over the defending champs. In dropping the Bucs to 6-2, the Saints tightened up the NFC South race by showing they can find ways to win that other recent Sean Payton teams have not been able to discover. The defense made big plays when it had to, despite allowing Brady and the Bucs to get a goody bagful of their own. New Orleans protected the ball, winning the turnover battle 3-0, and avoiding the crippling penalties that plagued the Bucs. It’s not an easy way to come up with a squeaker but it worked for the Saints.

When P.J. Williams took Tom Brady’s second INT all the way back for a game-sealing touchdown, the surprise was real. Brady made the kind of bad throw that Winston is infamous for making. The aggressive Saints closed the game out by refusing to just sit back in a prevent shell on the next drive, icing the game in style. 

For the first seven weeks, the NFC has had a strict stratification. The four division leaders (DAL, GB, ARI, TB) and the one-loss Rams were in a league of their own. The next tier was cloudy with the Saints, Vikings, Falcons, Bears, Panthers and maybe 49ers fluctuating in and out of the conversation. The Saints are the first team to upset the apple cart, and wins over both the Buccaneers and Packers validate their presence in the top tier after eight weeks. 

The game also featured a grisly moment, unfortunately. Siemian was in the game only because of a gruesome knee injury suffered by starter Jameis Winston. Scrambling out of traffic, Winston was horse-collar tackled by (extraordinarily overrated) Bucs LB Devin White and his knee buckled and torqued in a way no human joint should ever do. It was bad enough that Winston was immediately taken to a local hospital for testing. Here’s hoping he’s okay; Winston takes a lot of grief from fans and the media, but the heartfelt reaction from players on both teams tells you how popular and respected he is by his peers. 

$.02--Somewhere on Thursday night, Mercury Morris, Larry Csonka and the surviving remnants of the 1972 Miami Dolphins cracked open the celebratory champagne. They do so every year when the final unbeaten team loses its first game, thereby preserving Don Shula’s legacy as the only team to complete an entire regular season and postseason with an unblemished record. 

If Csonka was watching, he witnessed a great game between the heretofore undefeated Arizona Cardinals and the Green Bay Packers. The Packers hung the first loss on the Cardinals in a game that sure felt like a playoff matchup, prevailing 24-21 when Kyler Murray’s pass to an unaware A.J. Green got picked off in the end zone by Rasul Douglas. Just like that, not only was Arizona’s perfect season gone, but so was their standing atop the NFC.

Green Bay seized the top spot in the conference with its seventh win in a row. Considering the massive, embarrassing egg Aaron Rodgers and the Packers laid in Week 1 in New Orleans, it’s remarkable how consistently well they’ve played since. Humbling the Cardinals without top WR Davante Adams is even more impressive. Rodgers and his Green Bay cohorts simply find a way, week after week. It’s not a popular sentiment to praise Rodgers as a leading MVP candidate, but it’s hard to find anyone else in the NFL who is more integral to a very good team being where they are than No. 12 in green and yellow. 

The top of the NFC is absolutely loaded, which makes the cliche of saying “these two teams could meet again to play for the Super Bowl berth” less accurate. But the cliche does hold water--these are two of the NFL’s three best, most complete teams, led by quarterbacks who belong prominently in the MVP race. If we do get a rematch in January, break out the celebratory popcorn, because it’s bound to be another great game.  

$.03--The NFL trade deadline is Tuesday. And while scribes like me will barrage you with potential buys and sells for all 32 teams, don’t expect much action of any significance on the trade front. 

Part of the lack of activity comes from the salary cap impact of trades in the NFL. A lot of the teams that fans would love to see as buyers (Saints, Raiders, Ravens) don’t have enough functional salary cap room to acquire anyone without first dumping a player of equal importance. Take the inevitable talks that will come surrounding 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo. If the acquiring team doesn’t have $12M in cap room available already, they are financially incapable of acquiring his contract. As of Sunday night per Over The Cap, four teams--JAX, SEA, PHI, DEN--can make that move. The Saints don’t even have enough cap room to pay Jimmy G’s next weekly game check. 

Some contracts are structured with so many bonuses and timed guarantees that it’s less expensive for a bad team to keep a player than to trade them. That’s true of the Lions and injured left tackle Taylor Decker, who no team in its right mind is trading for regardless because he’s hurt and likely to be out for the season. I can’t rule out the crazy ineptitude of NFL decision-makers (thanks Bill O’Brien!), but a team like the Lions at the beginning of a rebuild isn’t costing itself money to spend in free agency and one of the few quality starters on the team for a middle-round draft pick by selling a player at the absolute lowest possible value. 

Then there’s the gap between compensation and bang for the buck. It’s a tough sell for an NFL GM to part with a Day 2 pick for a player for half a season, especially one coming from a different system that might not translate as well as hoped. Unlike the NHL or MLB, the NFL doesn’t have the history of impactful in-season trades that have elevated teams to titles. Making risky trades isn’t baked into the DNA of NFL decision-makers, right or wrong. 

So don’t get your hopes up if you want your team to buy or sell by the deadline. You’ll probably see a handful of minor moves. A backup OL from a low-rung team could move to a contender with a depth problem for a random late Day 3 pick. There is an odd glut of teams with an odd glut of WRs (looks at Denver and Dallas) and a few teams that desperately lack them (looks at New Orleans and Detroit), and something could shake out there. But blockbuster deals? Forget about it. 

$.04--There was an epic struggle in the early Sunday viewing window between the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans to prove which team is the worst in the NFL. No, Houston and Detroit weren’t playing each other. They were taking turns in the lead for “suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked”, to quote Homer Simpson. 

It was quite the race to the bottom. The Lions would surrender another score to the Philadelphia Eagles only to see the Texans quickly match it by allowing the Los Angeles Rams to post another touchdown. The games were tied at 17-0, 24-0, then 31-0 in almost identical real-time play. Detroit’s offense was at least somewhat capable of gaining yards here and there, but the sad song remained the same on the scoreboard until both games progressed into the fourth quarter. 

The Texans proved to be the better team in garbage time. Houston rallied for three late touchdowns to close the final margin to 38-22. My Lions, well…

Even in garbage time the Lions were hopelessly outclassed by the Eagles, 44-6. And the Eagles didn’t exactly have their “A” game either. Which begs the question: will the Lions win a game? 

This was, on paper anyway, their best chance on the schedule. The Lions matched up well with the Eagles in Xs and Os. The Detroit team that hung tough with the Rams in Week 7 absolutely beats the Eagles team that got waxed in Las Vegas last week. But that’s not how it played out whatsoever. I’ve been watching the Lions since the 1970s and this was one of the bottom 3 or 4 games they’ve played in my football cognizance, and that’s saying a lot for the least-successful franchise in pro sports over the last 50 years. 

Detroit has a bye in Week 9, followed by trips to Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Winning one of those cannot be ruled out, based more on the schizophrenic nature of those two (much more talented) teams. The Lions do tend to play up to better competition, too. Thanksgiving at home against Chicago or a Week 14 trip to Denver, which could be on an interim coach by that point, are better bets. But not safe bets. It’s damn hard to go winless in today’s NFL. These Lions just might do it. If they play the way they did on Sunday, there’s not 5 teams in the last 50 years they’d win a game against. 

$.05--Any Given Sunday, Week 8 edition

New York Jets 34, Cincinnati Bengals 31

In Mike White’s first NFL start, the Jets backup quarterback lit up the New York sky, not to mention the Cincinnati defense, for 405 passing yards, 3 touchdowns and 32 first downs. That’s roughly double what the Jets offense managed weekly under first-round rookie Zach Wlson before he was injured last week. 

The Bengals came to New York as the only AFC team without a loss to another AFC team. The 10.5-point line at opening kickoff didn’t seem like enough for the matchup. Cincinnati just blew out the Ravens last week while the Jets lost to the Patriots by six touchdowns. But Mike White happened to Mike Brown’s Bengals. 

Only Cam Newton has ever thrown for more yards in his first career start. White is no rookie, however; the fourth-year pro was a fifth-round pick by the Cowboys out of Western Kentucky in 2018. They opted to roll with Cooper Rush instead. White was accurate and gutsy but not blessed with a big arm or great athleticism as a prospect. All of that was evident in the outstanding debut as a starter. 

White completed 37 of his 45 passes. Michael Carter--the Jets fourth-round rookie RB from North Carolina and not the eponymous Jets fifth-round rookie CB from Duke--caught 9 passes for 95 yards. Carter also ran for 77 yards against a Bengals defense that allowed just 27 rushing yards on 12 carries to Baltimore RBs last week. White earned the confident praise of rookie coach Robert Saleh after the game and the start in Week 9. Good for him and good for the Jets.

There was a highly controversial and critical call in the game, one that Bengals fans are rightly indignant about. This was called a penalty on the defense. 

It’s not the defender’s fault the offensive player also lowered his head. If anything, that should be a foul on RB Ty Johnson from dropping his head to initiate contact. Referee Craig Wrolstad was asked if that possibility was considered in his postgame debriefing and he acknowledged it was not and that “I’m not here to verse you on how to tackle properly.” Bad answer, sir. 

$.06--I thoroughly enjoyed and respected the work from Jay Glazer on FOX’s pregame show. His sit-down with Eagles OT Lane Johnson and the candid discussion they had about Johnson’s struggles with mental health was outstanding. Glazer shared his own battles with depression and anxiety, leading Johnson to reveal that he “throws up every day” due to crippling anxiety and mental anguish. 

Johnson did not hold back. Good for him. It’s also great that Glazer opened up, as did Terry Bradshaw when the segment ended. Bradshaw spoke of years of therapy and the struggling support of his wife. Michael Strahan applauded Glazer for his own struggles, noting that he’s known him for 30 years and had no idea until Glazer told him privately two weeks ago.

Hopefully, Johnson’s openness takes hold around the league. Glazer’s too. The battle with mental health is very real, and being a rich and famous athlete doesn’t change that. It was nice to see Chiefs LB Willie Gay also talk openly about his own struggles. Atlanta wideout Calvin Ridley announced on Sunday he’s taking a break from football to deal with mental health issues. Other players have spoken up as well. 

It’s not a sign of weakness. Take that macho middle-school bull-bleep elsewhere. It’s a sign of strength and compassion, of courage to talk about something that the meatheaded jabronis who are regrettably given too many microphones or bylines are too afraid to acknowledge or understand. 

It was a great, well-done and non-exploitative reminder that there are real humans wearing those helmets. Respecting mental health is something we all can do better. 

$.07--I live in Michigan, which meant that Saturday was more akin to an unmoderated political debate than a relaxing weekend day. That’s because Michigan and Michigan State squared off in a game that (for once) held major national college football ramifications. 

Both teams entered the soggy game in East Lansing unbeaten and ranked in the top 10. The paths to those unblemished records were rocky enough that neither side felt comfortable to trust. And the game played out in such a way that the doubters from both sides of the rivalry were validated, especially those wearing maize and blue. 

Michigan State rallied from a 30-14 third-quarter deficit on the back, err legs of should-be Heisman Trophy front-runner Kenneth Walker. He scored all five Spartans touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with five minutes remaining to produce the 37-33 final score in favor of Michigan State. It was an identity-defining half for Mel Tucker and MSU and an identity-confirming letdown for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines. 

Tucker and the Spartans stuck with the game plan, even though it wasn’t working as well as hoped early on. On the flip side, Harbaugh and the Wolverines got away from what was working and couldn’t get it back once they needed it later on. The trust in the players and the process worked for Tucker. Not trusting in the ability to maintain the favorable start doomed Michigan. 

The Spartans were certainly aided by some favorable officiating calls, no doubt about it. The Wolverine faithful will keep hammering that point with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. The officials didn’t miss all those tackles, they didn’t make J.J. McCarthy fumble, they didn’t deliberately play for a late field goal in a tie game. That was all on Michigan. 

Now the Spartans rise to the top-5. It’s not a cakewalk to the Nov. 20th game against Ohio State, a game that would decide not only the Big Ten East champion but also a likely playoff berth; Purdue is dangerous at home and Maryland can score. It’s a tremendous step for Tucker and the Spartans, who were an absolute mess left behind by the school holding onto predecessor Mark Dantonio at least one full year too long. There is already considerable speculation Tucker will bolt MSU for LSU, but he’s proving already that it’s an easier path to a national title in East Lansing than Baton Rouge. Don’t think Tucker doesn’t know that…

$.08--NFL quickies

--One of my favorite things I read all week came from The Athletic. Jourdan Rodrigue and Chris Burke told the story of Lions rookie LB Derrick Barnes and his sheepish encounter with Rams OT Andrew Whitworth in Week 7. Whitworth used to volunteer time at a Boys Club where Barnes spent ample time as a kid in the Cincinnati area, back when Whitworth was playing for the Bengals. Whitworth has long been one of my favorite NFL players and it’s stories like this that help explain why. 

--The NFL excitedly tweeted out the highlight of a fantastic catch by Jets WR Keelan Cole. It’s an amazing one-handed stab in the end zone and was called a TD on the field. Yet it somehow got overturned by the review. There is no planet in any solar system where there is conclusive evidence that Cole did not catch that legally. None. 

--The kicking situation in Washington is not going well. Washington lost by 7 in Denver and two of the unfortunately named Blewitt came in Sunday’s defeat:

--Special teams not going so well for the Jaguars either:

--Prior to the Sunday night game, home teams in the NFL had a record of 58-62. Road teams went 8-5 through SNF this weekend. Home field advantage doesn’t matter nearly as much as you’ve been led to believe. Talent and execution trump it handily. 

--Very happy for Cowboys backup QB Cooper Rush, who won in his first career start. Rush played well. He also connected with Amari Cooper for the game-winning TD, which led to this:

I’ve known Rush since his days at Central Michigan, interviewing him on the radio twice and in person as well. He’s the kind of Average Joe you want to root for. Big win for the 6-1 Cowboys to push their lead to 3.5 games in the NFC East after eight weeks.  

--Seattle honored longtime coach Mike Holmgren at halftime of their convincing win over the Jaguars on Sunday. Holmgren was inducted into the Seahawks Ring of Honor. Because of the controversially officiated ending of Super Bowl XL, he’ll never get the credit or acclaim of being one of the best coaches of his generation. Seahawks fans know how great he was. 

$.09--College/Draft quickies

--Gary Patterson is out as the head coach after 21 seasons at TCU, apparently by mutual agreement. Patterson was a very good coach for the Horned Frogs, stabilizing an up-and-down program through several conference changes. His odd defensive scheme and ability to recruit players who fit it was the model for a mid-major program to rise and thrive. His offenses were sometimes a struggle to watch, but the man won in a difficult spot in Ft. Worth.  

--Wake Forest has cracked the top 10. The unbeaten Demon Deacons are 10th in the AP poll and 9th in the coach’s poll and are the only ACC team ranked in the top 25 by the AP. That is, of course, why Wake Forest has zero chance of making the playoff. It shouldn’t dampen the enthusiasm for the team or fans, who have watched Sam Hartman become an NFL-caliber QB. It’s the highest ranking in school history and ends Wake’s distinction as the only Power 5 school to never have a Top-10 ranking. 

--On that theme, the Sun Belt and AAC each have more teams ranked than the ACC or PAC-12. Tell me again why the big boys deserve more seats at the table? Obviously the outcomes would probably be different if SMU or Coastal Carolina played in the ACC or PAC-12, but it’s not their fault they don’t get the chance to prove it. I’d rather watch an unbeaten UTSA prove they don’t belong against the winner of the Michigan State/Ohio State game than seeing the Alabama/Georgia loser win by 35 over a 2-loss Oregon team. 

--Then there’s the MAC, which includes my Ohio Bobcats. Only 3 teams have winning records in the entire conference, none of them in the MAC East. Five of the six teams in the MAC West are 2-2 in conference play, with all of them looking up at 4-0 Northern Illinois, a team that lost by 53 points to Michigan. No MAC team has a nonconference win over another FBS-level team that currently has a winning record. 

--Mike Leach is a national treasure. You ask him a question--on any subject--and he provides you with a thoughtful, honest answer. On Halloween candy:

I’m not a candy guy. I don’t really have a sweet tooth. But with all due respect to Leach, the best candy is, was, and always will be the Tootsie Roll long twists. Not the Midgees, the long and skinny ones. Simulated fruit flavors are trash.  

$.10--This week saw the return of travel basketball season for my daughter. After a few months of respite and middle-school volleyball, we’re back to driving to AAU practices twice a week. Tournaments fire up in November until the middle school girls season begins here in Michigan after the first of the year. 

On the surface, driving 40 minutes each way twice a week into a crowded area with terrible roads just to watch a bunch of 13-year-old girls play basketball might not seem all that appealing. But I absolutely love it.  

The commute to MSA Woodland in Grand Rapids has become the highlight of daddy-daughter time over the last three years. Being in the car, just the two of us, it’s legitimately one of the highlights of my week. My daughter gets to pick the music on the way there, her chance to be “DJ Lizzie”. I pick the tunes on the way home, and I generally try to expose her to stuff she probably hasn’t heard before. It’s the soundtrack for the amazing conversations we have.  

I learn more in those drives to and from basketball practice than I ever get at home. She trusts that what gets said in the car stays in the car, and she really appreciates me listening. No phones, no TV, just the two of us talking about life with Coheed and Cambria, Ghost and Volbeat (her favorite bands, in order) playing kinda loudly in the background. We talk about everything from classwork at school to her growing basketball prowess, with anecdotes about relatives and my past experiences mixed in along the way.  

It’s an opportunity to bond that I cherish. I’ll be sad when it ends, as it largely has with my son, who is now 16 and will be able to drive himself to practices once AAU season starts for him after the high school season. The trust my daughter has in me, the fun we have together, the experiences we share on those rides, it’s priceless. The pandemic only made us each appreciate it even more.