$.01--The Cleveland Browns are going to be one of the dominating sports stories over the next week. Deshaun Watson returns to action next weekend after the quarterback’s suspension for sexual impropriety. That’s going to be a massive story that permeates beyond the sports section of the news. The Browns knew that when they orchestrated the deal to bring Watson and all his baggage to Cleveland, so don’t shed a single tear for the team.

Watson’s return means the end of the Jacoby Brissett era at quarterback in Cleveland. It’s been an uneven 11 games for Brissett and the Browns, but it ended on a very high note. Brissett helped lead the Browns to an unexpected upset win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the rainy shores of Lake Erie on Sunday.

Brissett guided the Browns to an overtime win, one greatly enhanced by some truly baffling coaching choices by Tampa Bay’s Todd Bowles and a spectacular performance by Myles Garrett. A fantastic catch by David Njoku off a strong throw from Brissett forced overtime. A perfect throw to a wide-open Amari Cooper, who had dropped one earlier in the game, set up the game-winning Nick Chubb TD plunge.

The Brissett experience ends after 11 games with a 4-7 record. It’s not the record the team wanted, the fans wanted or Brissett himself aspired to attain. Don’t blame the backup; Brissett played admirably in a nearly impossible situation with little help from an underachieving, poorly coordinated defense and frustrating playcalling from coach Kevin Stefanski. The veteran wasn’t outstanding but shouldn’t have been required to be an All-Pro for Cleveland to win, either.

Brissett won’t be back in Cleveland next year. For a team looking for a positive leader to bridge to a new starter or a veteran backup who can capably start for a few weeks, there won’t be a better option. Now it’s Watson’s turn to prove the Browns didn’t trash their reputation for naught. Good luck to my beloved hometown of Cleveland; you’re going to need it…

$.02--It wouldn’t be an NFL weekend without an officiating controversy. The league got a huge one out of the way early in Week 12 in a game everyone was watching.

The Minnesota Vikings defeated the New England Patriots on Thursday night thanks to a gross misapplication of a confusing rule. The rule, commonly known as “surviving the ground”, is designed to allow receivers who have clear control of the ball with two hands to be credited with a catch even if the ball touches the ground--so long as the receiver maintains control after hitting the ground.

That’s exactly what Patriots TE Hunter Henry did against Minnesota. One hand was under the ball even as the action went to the turf; the ball never clearly touched the ground in the end zone, where far lesser control for far lesser time has been ruled a touchdown than this one. But the officiating review waved off the score.

This is “Dez caught it” amplified because the ball quite clearly never touched the ground. There was zero conclusive evidence that Henry’s hand was not under the ball, or that he sacrificed any modicum of control as he went to the ground. It’s plainly obvious to everyone it’s a touchdown. Everyone, that is, except the folks who made the rule that declares it should be a touchdown.

Sure, the Vikings still had to go down the field and score to win the game. Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota offense did that successfully just as they had done several other times in a game played in front of a massive national audience. Sure, the Patriots had other chances to make plays to win. But the one play they did make that should have mattered greatly in the final outcome was incorrectly, illogically overruled by the officials not knowing the rules they’re supposed to enforce. That’s a very bad look for the NFL.

$.03--Thanksgiving kicked off with a competitive, entertaining game in Detroit. The Buffalo Bills returned to the site of their Week 11 win over Cleveland and won once again, beating the Lions 28-25.

The win was an important one for Buffalo, making them the second AFC team to hit the 8-win mark. It wasn’t easy, certainly not as convincing as the 9.5-point spread. After the Lions tied the game with just 23 seconds to play, Josh Allen drove the Bills into field goal range. He didn’t even need all those seconds to set up Tyler Bass for the game-winning FG.

The fact the Bills needed a last-minute field goal to finally vanquish the Lions says more about Detroit than Buffalo. Dan Campbell’s team is quickly improving despite myriad injuries and lackluster quarterback play. As several Bills noted after the game, Detroit is not an easy or fun team to play against. Not anymore.

The next step for Campbell and the Lions is to start consistently winning these types of games. Detroit brought a 3-game win streak into the matchup and had chances to make it four, against one of the NFL’s best teams. It’s nice to see the Lions progress from moral victories to being visibly upset by the close loss. Campbell is still a work in progress in terms of situational play-calling; the final 3rd-down call is a great example. The arrow is definitely pointing up in Detroit and they proved it in the one national television appearance for the Lions all season. They just need a few more arrows in the quiver to catch teams like the Bills.

$.04--The bingo card for just how badly Daniel Snyder can continue to make his Washington football team an embarrassment has progressed to “cover all” status. Snyder continues to do everything he can to devalue and disparage his football team, both locally and nationally.

The latest incident is one the local Commanders fans are taking very personally. So are former players. It’s pretty hard to botch a memorial to a legendary player like the late Sean Taylor, but Snyder’s team managed to do just that.

Taylor is one of the most beloved figures in Washington’s football history, no matter what the team’s nickname might be. The All-Pro safety was tragically killed 15 years ago Sunday. The Commanders organization promised to honor Taylor with a special ceremony and lasting tribute, one fans could be proud of.

Instead, they erected a mismatched wire mannequin.

If you look closely at it, you’ll note it’s a Nike jersey, Reebok pants and Adidas soccer cleats on a wire rack taken straight out of the local Dick’s Sporting Goods, right next to the clearance rack and horribly overpriced underwear.

Sean Taylor deserves so much better than that. So do Commanders fans who continue to put up with the colossal embarrassment that the owner of that franchise keeps proving to be. It’s difficult to conceive of any more ways Snyder can humiliate and devalue the Commanders franchise after all he’s done, but this latest gaffe proves Snyder remains hellbent on trying to keep lowering that bar.

$.05--There weren’t many games that had the feel of a playoff matchup on Sunday in Week 12. The most notable exception was in Nashville, where the Bengals and Titans renewed hostilities that date back to last year’s postseason.

The Bengals pulled off the upset in that postseason game, knocking off the No. 1 seed in a game decided on an Evan McPherson field goal as time expired. Just as the game last January played out, the Bengals won a hard-hitting game with McPherson on the field for the deciding play.

This time around, the game ended on a Titans penalty that negated a McPherson field goal. Cincinnati led 20-16 with two minutes to go when McPherson nailed his attempt. That would have given Ryan Tannehill and the Titans offense time for a potential game-tying scoring drive, but a letter-of-the-law penalty on Titans DT Kevin Strong gave the Bengals a first down and allowed Joe Burrow to end the game in victory formation instead.

The penalty was certainly a valid call. Strong bowled over the long snapper, a well-known no-no. But at that juncture of a critical game in the AFC postseason hunt, it’s a little surprising it was called. Refreshing, actually; for all the consternation about officials deciding games with questionable judgment calls, it was nice to see them not swallow the whistle to help a home team in a dramatic situation.

$.06--Rivalry weekend in college football did not disappoint. Not every game went the way that was expected, but that made it quite a memorable one on the college gridiron.

The biggest game was the one I focused on: Ohio State vs. Michigan. Coming from an Ohio State family and marrying into a Michigan family, of course it’s a big deal. With the winner locking up a CFP berth and the loser almost certainly out, the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

Michigan rose to the challenge, winning in Columbus for the first time in over 20 years. And the Wolverines did so convincingly, outsourcing Ryan Day’s Buckeyes 28-3 after halftime. They were the better team on both offense and defense, though Michigan's offensive line had a lot to do with how bad Ohio State’s defense looked. There is no better way to demoralize and devastate an opponent than generating big plays in the run game, and Michigan did that even with top RB Blake Corum injured.

Three major upsets happened, as is often the case in rivalry games. South Carolina stunned Clemson, 31-30, a win sealed when Clemson fumbled away a late punt return. The Gamecocks lost to a bad Florida team 38-6 two weeks ago. Since then, they blew out Tennessee and then did this to Clemson. Both foes were very much in the playoff mix before Spencer Rattler and South Carolina took them down.

Oregon State beating Oregon wasn’t a huge upset, per se. Both the Ducks and Beavers were ranked, after all. But Oregon led 31-10 in the second half and appeared well on its way to raising the victory flag in the Civil War. As Lee Corso would say, not so fast my friend. The Beavers defense held strong on two fourth downs and made the Ducks pay for choosing to kick a 24-yard field goal instead. It’s the first win for OSU over a ranked opponent since they successfully hunted the Ducks down back in 2020.

Then there’s Texas A&M shocking LSU. No, it’s not really a big rivalry, not yet anyway. But Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies washed away a whole lot of underachieving disappointment by ruining LSU’s season. Texas A&M isn’t even bowl eligible after the win, but they will keep LSU from making the playoff even if the Tigers somehow upset Georgia next week in the SEC Championship game.

That’s why they play the games, ladies and gentlemen…

$.07--It’s coaching carousel season in college football. Or to quote the great 90s song “Closing Time” by Semisonic,

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end

Luke Fickell is beginning his Big Ten coaching career with the Wisconsin Badgers, leaving Cincinnati after building the Bearcat program about as high as it could possibly go. It’s not an easy job for Fickell, but it is one with a clearer path to playoff glory. Wisconsin should be the best program in the Big Ten West if the Badgers solve their QB issues. The stiffest competition might come from former Wisconsin headman Bret Bielema, now at Illinois. Fickell had rebuffed other big programs recently, which tells you he sees the potential in Madison too.

The new beginning ended for David Shaw at Stanford. The veteran coach walks away on his own terms after a frustrating season for the Cardinal. Stanford is just 10-26 in its last three full seasons (the 2020 COVID year omitted) after Shaw won at least 10 games in five of his first six years. He’s a very well-respected coach and shouldn’t have trouble finding a new gig--if he wants one. His parting statement was the classic sign of coaching burnout. That’s not an easy job for whoever takes it; Stanford will be lucky to find anyone close to as successful as Shaw was over the last 12 years.

$.08--NFL quickies

--Bravo to Doug Pederson for going for the win. The Jaguars coach went for two to win at home after a late TD against the Ravens. Trevor Lawrence hit Zay Jones for a beauty of a game-winner. Lawrence continues to play really well lately after too many folks wrote him off after some early inconsistency.

--The Texans benched Davis Mills at QB for Kyle Allen. In Houston’s misleading 30-15 loss to Miami, Allen quickly proved that maybe Mills wasn’t so bad after all. Miami led that game 30-0 at the half, a period where the Texans had just three first downs, two giveaways and 62 total yards in seven drives. I don’t know who the best team in the league is right now, but I have zero doubt that Houston is the worst.

--Jalen Hurts running for 125 yards and also throwing for 125 yards by halftime in Philadelphia’s 40-33 win over Green Bay is mighty impressive. The Eagles ran for 363 in the win, a game made closer by the Packers capitalizing on two early Philly mistakes.

In the game, Aaron Rodgers left with a rib injury. The Packers QB is already playing with a broken thumb on his throwing hand. Jordan Love came in and didn’t look overwhelmed, which leads to the obvious question--is it time for Rodgers to be done in Green Bay? At 4-8, it probably should be. The Packers have to learn what they have in Love. They clearly know now Rodgers is not part of any realistic prosperous future.

--The scene between a clearly frustrated Mike Purcell and Russell Wilson on the Broncos sidelines was as clear of a sign as you’ll ever see of a team giving up on a star player. We may someday look back at Denver’s decision--something nearly everyone praised at the time--to bet the farm on Wilson as one of the most dubious decisions in pro sports history. It’s right there with drafting Darko Milicic instead of Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade.

--Give it up for Mike White. The Jets replacement QB proved a vast upgrade over benched Zach Wilson in New York’s easy 31-10 win over Chicago.

--San Francisco blanked New Orleans 13-0 in a game where the two teams combined to run the ball 51 times for just 159 yards. The Saints leading rusher? Andy Dalton. Yeah, that Andy Dalton…

$.09--College/draft quickies

--The Ohio State-Michigan game was the most-watched college football game ever. Remember that when the talking heads start chirping about the salaries paid to coaches. The two schools made more money off that one game than the GDP of Guatemala.

--Congrats to my alma mater, Ohio University. The Bobcats captured the MAC East title by beating Bowling Green. Backup QB CJ Harris didn’t do a lot of passing. Fortunately Bowling Green did, throwing three interceptions that all turned into Bobcats points. Ohio plays Toledo in the MAC Championship game with a chance for the Bobcats’ first conference title in my lifetime. I’m 50.

--Tulane is also gunning for its first-ever conference championship game victory after beating Cincinnati. The Green Wave have been one of the pleasant stories of the season. This is just the third time this century Tulane has posted a winning record within its conference schedule.

$.10--The Pro Football Hall of Fame revealed the 28 semifinalists for the players who will make up the induction class of 2023. Now comes the hard part--figuring out who among those players are the most deserving of being honored with enshrinement in Canton.

I am not a Hall of Fame voter. If I were, these would be the semifinalist candidates I would enshrine:

Joe Thomas--easy choice for a first-ballot candidate. The best offensive lineman of the 21st century, period. Thomas remains the highest-graded draft prospect I’ve ever evaluated and was instantly awesome despite playing on some truly awful Browns teams.

Patrick Willis--Like Thomas, Willis quickly went from 2007 first-round pick to perennial All-Pro. His pinnacle (2009-2011) is the greatest three years any off-ball LB has ever strung together. Also like Thomas, his career ended too soon due to injury.

Darrelle Revis--Revis Island was a paradise for the Jets and the third member of the first round draft class of 2007 to earn a spot here. There hasn’t been a better CB in coverage this century, not for as long as Revis did it. His 31 PDs in 2009 alone are more than most DBs get in a career.

Dwight Freeney--Freeney was a pure pass rusher with consistently outstanding results. He bagged 107.5 sacks in 11 years in Indianapolis. Freeney played about two years too many but that shouldn’t diminish his incredible impact on some great Colts teams in the early 2000s.

Anquan Boldin--He exploded onto the scene with the Cardinals by setting the NFL record for first-game production and never really looked back. Boldin is 9th all-time in receptions and 14th in receiving yardage. Remarkably consistent performer through his finale in 2016 in Detroit, and Boldin was also one of the best blockers of his era. He and Larry Fitzgerald together in Arizona is perhaps my favorite all-time WR duo.

Zach Thomas--He was undersized but might be the pound-for-pound best tackler of the Super Bowl era. Thomas was the ideal inside linebacker during his time with Miami from 1996-2006. Nobody had more tackles in that time period, and he often made them count. He didn’t create a lot of turnovers and that probably gets held against Thomas too much; he’s the player here that I think is the least likely to make it to Canton in 2023.

The semifinalists get whittled down to 15 finalists later this winter.