$.01--Two dynamic young quarterbacks proved the future of the position can be very bright, and they turned the AFC on its ear in the process.
Joe Burrow of the Bengals and Josh Allen of the Bills each turned in outstanding performances that elevated their teams into control of their own divisional fates with important wins in Week 16. The duo combined for over 900 yards of offense and seven touchdowns on their own.
Allen lit up the New England Patriots for 314 passing yards and 3 TDs and ran for 64 more, continually befuddling Bill Belichick’s defense. The same unit that smothered Allen and the Bills in the terrible weather three short weeks ago was no match for Allen and a supporting cast that all picked a good week to play well at the same time. The Bills’ third-quarter drive to go up 20-7, a patient, 14-play drive that ate a lot of time, is the exact kind of drive the Bills need more consistently from Allen. He made the right read, the right choice and still managed to show some of his playmaking panache in the process. It wasn’t hero ball, it was letting Allen do his thing in the structure of the Buffalo offense. That’s something the Patriots simply couldn’t stop. Not many will, either,
Burrow somehow managed to outshine Allen. Playing against a bunch of random dudes in Ravens uniforms, Burrow set a team record with 525 passing yards and four touchdowns in the Bengals’ way-too-easy 41-21 win. It’s the fourth-highest single-game total in NFL history and Burrow made it look like he was back at LSU playing the sacrificial FCS lamb that SEC schools fluff their schedules with before big games. This was a very big game and Burrow had no problem rising to the occasion and lifting the Bengals to 9-6 and all but wrapping up the AFC North.
It’s great fun to watch a master craftsman at work. We got to witness two different styles of quarterback play at their pinnacles on Sunday. It might not be the matchup the execs in New York want, but a Bills-Bengals playoff game would be must-watch television featuring two of the NFL’s most marketable young quarterbacks. Throw Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs into the mix, and perhaps a surging Tua Tagovailoa if the Dolphins can squeak out their seventh win in a row on Monday night, and the new-look AFC could be a lot of fun in January.
$.02--Things are very tight in the AFC South. The NFL’s seemingly forgotten division saw its top two teams, the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans, take the national stage over the Christmas weekend.
It wasn’t easy for either team, but the Colts and Titans ended the weekend the way they began it. Tennessee squeaked past the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday night, while Indianapolis kept the Arizona Cardinals sliding downward on Christmas night. The matching wins keep the Titans (10-5) with a one-game lead over the surging Colts (9-6) with two games to play.
The Titans own the head-to-head tiebreaker after sweeping the Colts, so one more Tennessee win clinches the division. But don’t think that dooms the Colts, who are better on the road (5-2) than at home (4-4) and whose most impressive wins--including Saturday’s triumph in Arizona--have come in away games. The way the Colts win, with a smart run game featuring the NFL’s leading rusher in Jonathan Taylor, an opportunistic Carson Wentz at QB and a quick-strike defense that tackles well, works anywhere in any weather.
That it worked in Arizona despite missing so many key components on the offensive line and the defense is a testament to the legitimacy of the Colts. It might also say more than a little something about the Cardinals, who have now lost three games in a row. Kyler Murray was once again not sharp, plus he clearly misses top WR DeAndre Hopkins. It’s not a coincidence Murray has produced his three worst games of the season as a passer in the losing streak.
Tennessee had lost three of four, but they seized the much-needed win despite a miserable first half offensively. The Titans had more punts (4) than first downs (3) in netting just 33 yards. Mike Vrabel’s defense kept the Titans in it, with some help from an uneven Jimmy Garoppolo and a predictable 49ers offense. Randy Bullock’s game-winning FG allowed everyone rooting for the Titans to finally exhale and all but taste the playoff air.
$.03--The Los Angeles Rams benefitted from Indianapolis’ win over Arizona. Barely. It came in spite of a terrible day from QB Matthew Stafford, but the Rams are back on top of the NFC West after squeaking past the Minnesota Vikings, 30-23.
For most of the season, the narrative around the Rams is how much Stafford has elevated the offense. But against the Vikings, where Stafford had more than a few clunkers in his Detroit days, the rest of the Rams stepped up and proved capable on their own.
That might be the best thing to happen to the Rams. Winning on a day when the quarterback completed just 21 of 37 passes for 197 yards, one TD and three INTs is a big statement by the rest of Sean McVay’s team. The Los Angeles defense ended one critical early drive with a red-zone INT off Kirk Cousins and allowed just two third-down conversions all day. Brandon Powell scored on his first career punt return for a touchdown to push an early lead to double-digits, and the defense made it stand up despite Stafford’s best efforts to throw it away.
Surviving a bad game from the pseudo-MVP candidate is a nice statement by the rest of the Rams. It is not something the Cardinals have shown they can do for Murray, and that’s why the Rams are back in first place and in control of the NFC destiny.
L.A. fans shouldn’t fret or sweat Stafford’s rough day. He’s proven over the years to be very good at burying a bad performance. Even his poor day wasn’t catastrophic; Cooper Kupp still caught 10 passes for 109 yards, extending his stranglehold on the league’s receptions title and still threatening Calvin Johnson’s single-season NFL records--ones Johnson set with Stafford in Detroit. Sony Michel gashing the Vikings for 137 rushing yards far outweighs Stafford’s bad afternoon in the grand scheme of Rams chances to win, too.
$.04--The other team in Los Angeles wasn’t so fortunate. The Chargers got gobsmacked in the Any Given Sunday, Week 16 edition, getting blown out by the Houston Texans.
You’d never have known that the Texans were double-digit underdogs with a 3-11 record and the Chargers were 8-6 and a playoff contender. Houston was the better team, period.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, Davis Mills was the better quarterback in a game that also featured Justin Herbert. And it wasn’t that Herbert was bad; the Chargers slinger was 27-for-35 for 336 yards, one TD and two INTs, but the second INT was a Tavierre Thomas pick-6 down 11 with two minutes to play. Mills simply played better.
The lightly-regarded Mills, a fourth-round rookie from Stanford, completed 21-for-27 for 254 yards, two TDs and no giveaways. He was aided by Rex Burkhead (?!) running for 149 yards and two TDs against a Chargers defense that displayed all the discipline and toughness of a live audience for The Wiggles. Mills and the Texans offense, missing three regular starters on the line and top WR Brandin Cooks, played well--no doubt--but the Chargers defense was an embarrassment too.
Chargers fans have seen this movie before. Too often. The franchise’s weird propensity to have spectacularly awful games in the midst of good seasons with no rhyme or reason to their level of play dates back to when Marty Schottenheimer coached the team two decades ago. I’d say it’s something in the water, but they already relocated the team; you can take the Chargers out of San Diego but you can’t take “Chargering” out of the Chargers.
Back to the Texans, who deserve something nice said about them. They’ve won two games in a row after one of the most miserable stretches of offensive performances in the modern NFL. Mills has helped energize the attack. Since returning from a benching in favor of veteran Tyrod Taylor, Mills has completed 52 of his 79 passes, racking up 540 yards and tossing just one INT. I don’t know if Mills is the long-term answer, but his growth under the Texans coaching staff (head coach David Culley, QB coach Pep Hamilton, OC Tim Kelley) merits him being prominently involved in the conversation. That’s more than expected after his early-season struggles.
--Baker Mayfield went straight from the COVID-19 list to Green Bay to start at QB for the Browns on Christmas. It did not go well. Mayfield threw four INTs in the 24-22 loss that tottered the Browns’ see-saw to the down position so hard it might not get back up. Mayfield’s determination in playing through a major shoulder injury and trying to inspire his team in returning from COVID is a lot better in theory than in practice.
He’s not getting nearly enough help from his receivers, or from a banged-up offensive line, or some eyebrow-raising play calls from Kevin Stefanski. But Mayfield is the root of the problems. He’s not healthy, he’s not capable of playing at a level he needs to, and the Browns are worse for it. This isn’t about 2022 or beyond, it’s about right now.
--Congrats to the Dallas Cowboys for winning the NFC East. They wrapped it up before taking the field on Sunday night when earlier outcomes not involving any NFC East teams went in their favor for tiebreakers. It didn’t matter. Dallas rampaged out to a quick 28-7 lead and destroyed the dreams of the Washington Football Team to validate the title. The playmaking Cowboys defense is going to be a very dangerous out in the NFC postseason.
--I know it’s just a Lions-Falcons game with maybe 25 percent attendance in Atlanta, but the fans deserved better than FOX’s broadcast of the game. Chris Myers was (for him) acceptable and Robert Smith on color was fine, but good grief the production was awful. Case in point: a LIons player went down with an injury after a play. Myers couldn’t spot who it was, nor could his spotters. Players from both teams knelt in respect and concern. And then we get an ad for Coke. And a casino. And (ironically) a local spot for a sports medicine facility. Three more ads. No replays. It took them three-and-a-half real-time minutes to let us know that the injured player was rookie TE Shane Zylstra.
The quality of FOX broadcasts has been on a steady decline lately, but this weekend was brutal for the network. Fans pilloried the FOX crew--announcers and the truck--in Saturday’s Browns/Packers game too. It’s getting worse by the week.
--Atlanta won that game, 20-16, barely beating a Lions team missing every Week 1 starter on offense outside the OL and half its defensive regulars. Somehow, that Falcons team is still alive for the playoffs and it’s not absurd to think they make it.
--With the Chiefs leading 30-0, Steelers WR Diontae Johnson was guilty of a taunting penalty. Really. The call was weak but not unjustified given the enforcement standards this year. But even coming close to taunting while getting blown out on national television is a terrible reflection on the Steelers.
--There might not be a worse team in the NFL right now than the Carolina Panthers. I know, I know, the Jaguars still exist. But since opening up 3-0, the Panthers have gone 2-10 and look worse by the week. Coach Matt Rhule thought it was prudent to rotate his quarterbacks in Sunday’s 32-6 loss to the Buccaneers. That would make me strongly consider it prudent to end the Rhule experiment after two seasons when the 2021 campaign comes to a close. It’s not working and the players know it. So do the fans, who offered up deafening boos as Rhule’s team slumped deeper into the NFC South basement.
$.06--Bonus cent in memory of a dear old friend
Our family Christmas was a wonderful day, but the evening took an unfortunate turn. I got a note from my mom in Ohio informing me that my childhood best friend had a massive stroke. Cliff Parsons passed away shortly thereafter. He was 49.
We were inseparable in elementary school. Our families went to church together and nearly every Sunday one of the families got a bonus child for the rest of the day. He was the brother I didn’t have growing up.
As happens in life, the dynamic changed. I moved away after sixth grade. In the pre-internet mid-1980s, that meant the effective end of a relationship. We’d occasionally see one another when I’d return to visit my grandparents, but it was different. Even after I moved back to my hometown for my senior year of high school, we were friendly but not really close friends. Our interests in life simply diverged. It’s not right or wrong or sad or intentional. It just is…
I last saw Cliff at an informal gathering around what would have been our 25th high school reunion. That was in 2015. We hung out for a good bit and it was pleasant, talking about our kids, our families, the dumb stuff we used to do. It was awesome to see the devilish twinkle in his eyes, the look he’d give me when we were 10-year-olds about to do something epic but perhaps foolish. I saw his parents over this past summer on a trip back home. I hugged his mom and it brought me warmth. Happiness.
I weep for them now. I have no idea how to console his twin sister, Christy, who has been a good friend for life as well. I can’t fathom what it’s like for his wife, Alicia, a perfect match for the man Cliff became, or their kids who I’ve never even met. We’re not old enough to go through this, and it’s heartbreaking. On Christmas, no less.
I’ll be honest here. I’m stunned by his loss. It’s a shock I didn’t even know I was unprepared to take. I’m writing my way through it. His loved ones don’t get that grace. My heart and prayers go out to the Parsons family. Rest in peace, Cliff.