$.01--Sunday’s late-afternoon feature game pitted the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings in a battle of NFC front-runners. The game didn’t go anything close to expected for the Vikings, the home fans in Minneapolis or the producers at CBS.
Dallas absolutely annihilated Minnesota. It was so thorough, so dominating that CBS pulled the plug on the broadcast midway through the third quarter to find a more competitive game. It was 37-3 at that point, but it felt like 73-3. For the Skol fans still sitting in the stadium, it might as well have been.
The Cowboys seized control early and never stopped squeezing the life out of the team that entered Week 11 as the top seed in the NFC. Dallas did not punt while the broadcast was on, scoring four TDs and three FGs on their first seven drives. The Vikings managed a field goal on their second drive and just eight first downs in their other seven through the end of the third quarter. That barely eclipsed the number of times the Cowboys sacked Kirk Cousins.
This was a message from Dak Prescott, Micah Parsons and the Cowboys that they belong in the top tier of NFC teams. It’s a fantastic rebound from last week’s sloppy loss to the Packers, one that had a lot of fingers pointing in Dallas. Now 7-3 and with a blistering bombardment on the road of 8-2 Minnesota, Mike McCarthy’s Cowboys are right back in the thick of the NFC leaderboard. They had too many superlative performances on this one to list, something that can only build confidence. Getting a blowout win in advance of the short week--Dallas plays a huge game against the Giants on Thanksgiving--should be a very welcome development for the Cowboys.
For the Vikings? Chalk this one up to a very bad day and hope that the fallout stays contained to Week 11. They’ve still got a 4-game lead in the NFC North with seven to play, but now their own Thanksgiving game against New England (more on them below) suddenly carries some extra importance for rookie head coach Kevin McConnell. After masterfully navigating several close wins to race out to 8-1, how can Minnesota recover on a short week from one of the worst beatdowns in franchise history?
$.02--It’s been five excruciatingly long years since the Detroit Lions won three games in a row. They only won three games total in two of those ensuing seasons, including last year. So when the team I root for and cover for a living accomplishes something like that, you’d better believe I’m taking the opportunity to write about it.
The third win in a row was by far the easiest for Dan Campbell’s Lions. They convincingly pounded the Giants in New York, 31-18, behind three rushing touchdowns from Jamaal Williams and three takeaways from the defense. Rookies produced all three takeaways, with No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson bagging his second INT of the season and also pouncing on a fumble. Third-round safety Kerby Joseph also picked off Daniel Jones, who struggled all afternoon behind a makeshift line that couldn’t protect him and a receiving corps that often appeared to not even be trying to get open against what has been statistically the NFL’s worst defense through the first 10 weeks. That defense bottled up Saquon Barkley to the tune of 22 yards on 15 carries.
There are a couple of fun points from this game from a Lions standpoint. First, Joseph’s path to Detroit. He was the No. 97 overall pick in the draft, a compensatory draft pick awarded to the Lions when wideout Kenny Golladay cashed in on a 4-year, $72M deal from the Giants. Joseph’s pick was his third of the season, which at the time matched Golladay for the number of times each has caught the ball in 2022. Golladay did chip in one later reception. So while Golladay destroys the Giants salary cap and gives them more drops than catches, the Lions have a very promising young safety to show for it.
Then there’s something my grandmother called kismet. It’s not a word used very often anymore, but it’s very appropriate for the Lions. The last time Detroit won three games in a row was in Weeks 9-11 in 2017. That streak included wins over the Bears and Packers. Sunday’s win over the Giants followed a Week 9 win over the Packers and a Week 10 win over the Bears. Ladies and gentlemen, kismet!
$.03--Meanwhile in Detroit, the Bills and Browns played a game hastily relocated from Buffalo thanks to a monster snow event at the other end of Lake Erie.
The Bills escaped from New York just in the nick of time. The team didn’t leave for Detroit until late Saturday afternoon, about the same time a carnival was hurriedly removed from inside Ford Field so the two teams could play. Buffalo played like a bewildered, road-weary team too, at least early on.
Cleveland raced out to a 10-3 lead before the Bills remembered they are supposed to be one of the AFC’s best teams. They never really did assert that sort of dominance over the Browns, who dropped to 3-7 after squandering that early lead and blowing several opportunities to make it a bigger one.
Buffalo survived a game where Jacoby Brissett emphatically outplayed Josh Allen and Donovan Peoples-Jones outshone Stefon Diggs. The Bills won because they unexpectedly dominated the ground game. Buffalo more than doubled Cleveland in rushing yards (171 to 80) and completely shut down All-Pro Nick Chubb to the tune of 19 yards on 14 carries. Credit the Bills for finding an unusual path to victory under extremely adverse circumstances. Given their two-game losing streak entering the game, Sean McDermott’s team sorely needed it.
Now Buffalo can pull off the unusual feat of winning two games in a row in five days in a stadium that isn’t its own. The Bills play the Lions on Thanksgiving in a game that is suddenly looking more intriguing after the recent fates of the two teams.
$.04--The Tennessee Titans seldom get mentioned as one of the top NFL teams. Even after earning the AFC’s top seed in 2021 with a 12-5 finish and featuring a legit MVP candidate in Derrick Henry, the Titans are often an afterthought when folks start listing off top contenders.
Perhaps another impressive performance in the national spotlight will help the Titans get more respect. In primetime on Thursday night, Mike Vrabel’s Titans methodically picked apart what’s left of the fading Green Bay Packers, 27-17. This game wasn’t about Henry, however; Tennessee won this one on the arm of Ryan Tannehill, the hands of rookie WR Treylon Burks and a nasty (in a good way) defense that makes life difficult for everyone.
Other than a dreadful performance in a Week 2 blowout loss to the Bills, Tannehill has quietly had a great season. He was outstanding in blustery Green Bay, outshining Aaron Rodgers with an aggressively efficient night: 22-for-27, 333 yards, 2 TDs. Tannehill did have one INT, a small blemish on an otherwise awesome night. Since that Buffalo game, Tannehill has won all six of his starts, throwing eight TDs while completing almost 70 percent of his passes.
The ability to win games without Henry dominating is an important development for the Titans. They’ve now done in two weeks in a row, games where Henry has 140 total yards on 47 carries--two full yards per carry under his average. Now Tennessee has extra time to get ready for the toughest 2-game stretch they face all season, home for Cincinnati and then at Philadelphia. Don’t be surprised if the Titans are the No. 1 seed once again in the AFC. They’re playing like one.
$.05--It’s not often when a game is decided by a walk-off punt return. In fact, it’s never happened before in the documented history of the NFL. While it didn't technically happen Sunday in New England, everyone who saw it knows that’s exactly how the Patriots-Jets game ended.
The Patriots capped off a weird defensive struggle with an improbable 10-3 win thanks to rookie Marcus Jones. The third-round CB from Houston sashayed and scooted past all 11 Jets on the punt team, rambling 84 yards on the punt return with just five seconds left on the clock. It was the game’s only interesting play touchdown.
Neither offense could generate any power all afternoon, befitting a game that was delayed at the start by a power outage at Gillette Stadium. The teams combined for 400 total net yards and 19 first downs. The Jets had just six of those all afternoon, the same amount of 3-and-outs Zach Wilson and the New York offense mustered. New York gained two total yards after halftime. Two!
New England wasn’t much better. The Jets strong defense gave Mac Jones fits and smothered the Patriots ground game. It was a game that was going to be decided by a huge play from one defense or a special teams break. Enter Jones:
The win leveled both teams’ records at 6-4 and lifted New England out of the AFC East basement. It continues a string of crazy dominance over the Jets; the Patriots have won the last 14 meetings, including two in the last four weeks. The Jets are legitimately playing much better, but they still have a way to go to catch the Patriots.
$.06--Twitter is under fire for all sorts of (good) reasons, but Saturday featured the beleaguered social media network at its absolute best. The communal act of sharing in dramatic sporting moments is where Twitter shines, and Saturday was quite a time to be alive for college football fans.
All four of the top-ranked teams in the country were involved in major dogfights in the afternoon. Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan and TCU were all seriously challenged. Both the Wolverines and Horned Frogs won on game-winning field goals in the final seconds. TCU’s incredible hustle conversion to stun Baylor as the clock expired had everyone on Twitter agog with excitement. Michigan’s comeback, capped with Jake Moody’s impressive fourth FG of the afternoon, nipped Illinois a few minutes later and kept the social momentum flowing.
Georgia was never really in peril against Kentucky, but the 16-6 final aptly summarizes the unexpected tension for the top-ranked Bulldogs. Kirby Smart’s team was favored by 22 points but the game wound up with just 22 total points scored. Then came Ohio State nearly blowing an uneasy double-digit lead in the fourth quarter against Maryland. When the Terps blocked an extra point conversion and ran it all the way back, then scored on the ensuing drive to cut the margin to three, once again the world of sports Twitter was thriving. The Buckeyes eventually closed the door on the win, but the struggle was real.
For a day where not much was expected from the college football schedule, we got treated to a spectacular afternoon. Spending it together in the virtual sports commune that Twitter provides made it even better. I’m someone who has scaled back my Twitter time quite a bit lately, and I’m still probably on the giant forum more than I’d like to be. But in situations like Saturday, there’s no place I’d rather be.
$.07--I spent most of the week hunkered down with the worst cold I’ve had in my adult lifetime. In between violent coughs and frantically grasping for yet another tissue for my aching nose, I managed to catch up on dozens of college football games to do quite a bit of NFL draft prep.
One of my focuses was Kentucky QB Will Levis, a study that I carried into Saturday’s matchup with top-ranked Georgia. Levis is consistently projected as a top-10 overall pick. In binge-watching Kentucky’s games against Florida, Northern Illinois, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, I saw why Levis draws that buzz but also why so many push back against it.
Put me in the latter camp. Levis, a Penn State transfer, sure looks like what the NFL wants in a quarterback prospect: size, athleticism, arm strength, confidence. He’s very effective at play-action fakes and quick, designed throws off that action, something he shows consistently in every game I watched. The problem is when Kentucky doesn’t use the play-fake, or the first read isn’t there. In those situations, I’m reminded a whole lot of one of the ghosts of my scouting past, Paxton Lynch.
Lynch was bigger and more athletically awkward as a prospect coming out of Memphis back in the 2016 NFL draft, but the net results were quite similar to what in Levis. Poor decisions beyond his first read on a play. Accuracy that wanes outside the hashes, though in a different way than Lynch; Levis doesn’t have the arc or pinpoint touch, whereas Lynch’s arm strength fell off. He overreacts to pressure too readily, but that too is inconsistent. He had several series in the MSU and Ole Miss games where he drilled fantastic throws with bodies all around him. Levis took a beating against the Bulldogs and didn’t back down.
Lynch had some of those series too, and I bit that apple hard. Much like the Denver Broncos, who quickly realized their errant evaluation after taking Lynch in the first round in 2016, I had to swallow hard and move on from a brutal draft miss.
Not this time. Levis definitely has more upside with his better arm and more consistent footwork and release. But the problems Levis demonstrates aren’t improving. After tacking on the Georgia game on Saturday, which I saw most of in real-time, the problems with reading defenses and throwing from structure against good coverage are very real issues for Levis. He’s consistently too late to recognize pressure, and that’s a very bad trait at the college level. Outside of Josh Allen and maybe Lamar Jackson, that’s an issue that almost never goes away against bigger, better, faster, stronger, more complex defenses. Levis is athletic but he’s nothing close to the kind of dynamic run threat those guys were. Levis has talent but it’s asking a lot for an NFL coaching staff to iron out his very real flaws. He will not be in the first round of my annual “what I would do” mock draft this spring. I still strongly believe some team will take Levis in the top 10, however.
--Congrats to the greatest kick return man in the history of the NFL, Cordarrelle Patterson. The Falcons speedster scored his ninth career kick return touchdown on Sunday, breaking the NFL record. It was the seventh of his career that went more than 100 yards. No other player in NFL history has scored more than three TDs of at least 100 yards.
--The only reason the Steelers aren’t the worst team in the AFC is the existence of the Houston Texans. Pittsburgh fell to 3-7 after falling at home to the rival Bengals, and they did so as classlessly as possible. Rookie WR George Pickens was ejected for spearing Bengals WR Tyler Boyd after Boyd easily fielded and downed a late onside kick.
--Then there’s Houston. The Texans managed to produce negative yardage over the course of their first five drives and five yards at the half in their 23-10 loss to Washington. It wasn’t nearly that close of a game. The Texans are full speed ahead to the No. 1 overall pick. The way QB Davis Mills keeps playing, it will be an easy decision to choose a quarterback for Houston.
--Not to pile on the Vikings any harder than Dallas did, but this is an amazing stat courtesy of the NFL Research department,
“After their 37-point loss to the #Cowboys, the #Vikings have a -2 point differential in 2022, the lowest in NFL history by any team to start a season 8-2 or better through 10 games.
The previous low was by the 1987 Chargers (+6) who missed the playoffs that season.”
--The Raiders beat the Broncos 16-10 in overtime only because Denver tried just a little harder to lose. It’s far from being a full book, but the early chapters on Russell Wilson in Denver are straight horror porn for Broncos fans.
--I’m still stunned at the fatal mass shooting involving several members of the Virginia football team. Three players were murdered and a fourth was seriously injured in the senseless tragedy. The Cavaliers canceled this week’s game. Most teams around the country honored UVA in some fashion, showing respect for Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D'Sean Perry. It’s a terrible reminder of the humanity of the student-athletes we cheer for. Rest in peace, young souls taken from us way too early…
--South Carolina 63, No. 5 Tennessee 38. In a season with some inexplicable outcomes, this one might take the cake. The Gamecocks lost 38-6 one week earlier to a bad (for the Gators) Florida team, then hangs 63 on a team that beat Alabama. The Vols were favored by 22 points.
--In that game, Volunteers QB Hendon Hooker suffered a torn ACL. It ends Hooker’s fantastic final year, one that should still have him in New York as a Heisman finalist. Unfortunately, it’s a massive blow for Hooker’s NFL draft stock. Already 25 years old, Hooker will miss at least half of his rookie season. Tough sell for a guy who was a marginal late-round prospect entering the season.
--Texas Tech EDGE Tyree Wilson is also done with his college career early. Wilson suffered a broken bone in his foot and announced via the Red Raiders' social media that he’s declaring for the draft. Wilson isn't a typical first-round pass rusher at 6-6 and 275 pounds without a great deal of twitch. But the Texas A&M transfer is a very effective strongside DE prospect who can play in either even or odd fronts, a la Trey Flowers. He won’t be for everyone but I like Wilson’s game enough to take him somewhere in the second half of the first round.
--I made my travel plans this week to head to the Senior Bowl. It will be my 13th time in 15 years making the trip to Mobile for what remains the preeminent scouting extravaganza. There are a lot more prospects and attention at the Combine a month later (I’ll be there too for the 12th time), but there is NO place to glean more insider draft info directly from teams than the Senior Bowl. Looking forward to the Sugar Rush burger at Loda Biergarten already, too.
$.10--Thanksgiving comes this Thursday. Yeah, I know; it snuck up on me too, which is why the tenth cent is devoted to a holiday that has become way too complicated.
Thanksgiving began as a celebration of unity and community. We’ve strayed way too far away from that underlying principle, however historically accurate it may or may not be. What happened in the 1620s was 400 years ago. Ancient history--important but not really pertinent to the modern world.
Thanksgiving is supposed to represent a time when Americans show gratitude and grace. It’s a time for those who can spare a dime to give a dollar, unflinchingly and respectfully. It’s an occasion to celebrate family, friends, those who make our lives better just by being who they are. I’m blessed enough to have a family that tolerates Thanksgiving being a hectic workday covering the Lions. I’m blessed (most of the time) to cover the Lions, and Thanksgiving is a great reminder of that privilege. I do not take it for granted, even if doing so means I can afford to spare a dime but only give a quarter instead of a dollar. It’s all about doing what is right and helping, sharing good tidings, great joy and maybe a little turkey and dressing with a smile.
Too many people get mad or offended by Thanksgiving because of things our distant ancestors might have done. Most of those same people probably couldn’t tell you the name of the Native American tribes involved in that first Thanksgiving. Why not help make this Turtle Island we’re all floating upon better for the descendants of both the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims? It doesn’t take indignance. It takes compassion and understanding. Try it. Thanks.