$.01--One of the fights we often have in the sports analysis world is the role of momentum in a game. The data/analytical types love to poo-poo the concept of momentum, not believing in the human elements of the game that former athletes and coaches speak about as integral to the game. I would kindly ask those momentum deniers one simple question about Saturday's game between the Colts and Vikings in Minnesota,
“How much do you enjoy being so wrong?”
Momentum doesn’t explain the entirety of the Vikings’ superhuman comeback win. That takes too much away from the performance of Dalvin Cook, K.J. Osborne and the entire Vikings team in the second half. After trailing 33-0 at halftime, the Vikings thoroughly whipped the Colts. The Vikings prevailed 39-36 when Greg Joseph calmly nailed a 40-yard field goal as overtime expired.
The momentum swung both ways. The confidence from the Vikings players was tangible over the airwaves. On the flip side, the tension overpowering the Colts was visible on the players as they walked to the line on every snap on both sides of the ball. Sure, you can probably analytically quantify the Vikings comeback by noting how much better they executed, how their offensive line showed better cohesion, how Kirk Cousins played better, how Cook woke up. On the Colts side, they stopped being aggressive, stopped playing to win, stopped making the little things happen during plays that lead to victory. Those are all true as well. The snarky side of me would also point to that being momentum-related; coaches are not impervious, certainly not coaches who played in the NFL as Jeff Saturday and Kevin O’Connell both did.
As for me, I’m going to side with momentum this season of believing. Maybe I've watched The Polar Express or The Santa Clause a few too many times. I believe because I know the magic of momentum. So does everyone in Minnesota.
$.02--Minnesota’s win wrapped up the NFC North. Two nights earlier, the San Francisco 49ers clinched the NFC West title with a 21-13 win in Seattle.
San Francisco won a dreadful slogfest of a game. Eight of the first nine combined possessions resulted in punts, a stretch where Seattle managed negative net yards. That was enough to put me to sleep on a blustery Thursday night.
Sidenote--there’s something inexplicably incredible about falling asleep on a couch with the TV on. It’s surprisingly restful, restorative sleep. Mine came with a cat nestled into my chest. Best night of football watching in a long time. I almost didn’t want to make the short trip to the bed afterward.
I woke up at 2:20 AM to find the 49ers did indeed carry on to the victory. It wasn’t surprising. San Francisco thrives in the mucky games, matchups where line play and penalties and execution matter. Mr. Irrelevant Brock Purdy might not have Jimmy Garoppolo’s arm, but he’s proving fully capable of keeping Kyle Shanahan’s tightly choreographed trains running pretty much on time.
The Niners are going to be a very tough out in the postseason. They’ll host at least one game, and their conference record (currently 8-2) should give them a lot of confidence. Yet the one reason it’s tough to fully commit to trusting San Francisco is the conference losses: at Chicago and at Atlanta, both when the Niners were very healthy early in the season. They also lost to Denver, the worst offense in the NFL. Teams that are used to playing ugly can challenge them. Beyond that, these Niners are really good.
$.03--Sandwiched between the thriller in Minnesota and an exciting, closely-played nightcap in Buffalo, the Saturday late-afternoon matchup in Cleveland between the Browns and Ravens wasn’t much of a compelling watch. Yet the game was significant on a couple of important levels for each team.
For Cleveland, beating the Ravens 13-3 gave head coach Kevin Stefanski a much-needed win. I’m not someone who believes that Stefanski’s seat is as hot as many fans would like it to be, but with an impetuous owner, there is always risk. Stefanski's offense has generally underachieved all season and often strays from the proven successful path of riding a good OL and the 1-2 punch of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt at RB. This game more closely followed the blueprint. Doing it against the hated Ravens is not insignificant either.
It also marked Deshaun Watson’s home debut. After underwhelming results in a win in Houston and a loss at Cincinnati, the home fans were anxious about their controversial QB. Cleveland finally got to see Watson up close and personal, and No. 4 played his best game of the season. Watson was better than the stats (18/28, 181 yards, 1 TD) would indicate. He looked in control of Stefanski’s offense for the first time and showed more confidence in his receivers. Two bad missed FGs by rookie Cade York kept the scoreboard margin down.
For the Ravens, their offense continues to be completely punchless without Lamar Jackson at QB. Tyler Huntley might be able to run like Jackson, but opposing defenses have zero fear of getting beaten by the Ravens passing attack without Jackson at the controls. Baltimore has scored two touchdowns in three games, and one of those came courtesy of two dumb Broncos penalties at the end of their Week 13 matchup. After the first drive on Saturday against a shaky Browns defense, Baltimore never seriously threatened to score a touchdown ever again.
In the short-term, this game was further evidence these Ravens have no shot in the postseason without Jackson. None. They’ll still make it because their nine wins already is a good enough base, but the inability to do anything on offense sans Lamar is not a fluke.
Looking more long-term, Jackson’s price tag has to be rising with every failed drive in his absence. There was a school of thought that the Ravens were hoping to ascertain just how important Jackson was to the team while he was out. The free agency price tag has now escalated.
$.04--The Buffalo Bills also clinched its way into the postseason on Saturday, notching the Bills’ 11th win on the season by beating the Miami Dolphins. It was the only true back-and-forth competitive game on Saturday, a 32-29 game with two second-half lead changes that was decided on Tyler Bass’ game-winning FG as time expired.
The Bills didn’t technically clinch the AFC East, but the three-game lead over Miami with three to play makes it all but academic. Josh Allen helped his MVP candidacy with a dominant game against the Dolphins defense--304 passing yards, 4 TDs, no interceptions, plus 77 more rushing yards. His falling-out-of-bounds TD strike to RB James Cook was a prime example of Allen at his most indefensible. The dispiriting nature of giving up such a great play while playing legitimately great defense is an extra dimension Allen offers. When he’s not making mistakes--and he’s cut back on those considerably--this Bills offense is very difficult to stop.
Miami’s offense is also pretty darn good, and they kept pace as best they could. Raheem Mostert ran the ball great and Salvon Ahmed provided a speedy spark. The Bills struggled with press concepts and the Dolphins speed made them pay, too. But Buffalo just had too much for Miami to overcome.
The Dolphins are now 8-6, which still qualifies as the No. 7 seed in the AFC thanks to some truly incredible happenstance (more on that shortly). They’ve lost three in a row and it’s been the defense that cannot get stops when needed that is the primary--but far from only--culprit. It’s going to be very interesting to see how a rookie head coach navigates the stretch run with a fading defense and a quarterback still difficult to fully trust. Miami has the talent to remain dangerous, but it’s tenuous.
$.05--It’s not often that a Bill Belichick-coached team makes a massive in-game gaffe that costs the team a win. But that’s exactly what happened on Sunday in the Patriots game against the Raiders.
It has to be seen to be believed. Truly.
To set the table--the score is tied 24-24 and enough time on the clock for one last play. The Patriots have the ball at their own 45-yard line. Las Vegas has two total first downs in the second half and the game is at their place.
Then this happened:
I NEVER SEEN THIS IN MY LIFE. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE.#RAIDERS WIN, WOOOW— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 19, 2022
Former #Patriots Chandler Jones too!pic.twitter.com/TsZBgN8va4
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the mother of all bad decisions. That’s launching a narcissistic NFT scam in the midst of a global recession and virtual currency collapse level of stupidity. And that came from Belichick’s Patriots and their rocket scientist of an offensive guru, Matt Patricia. It’s a loss that drops the Patriots behind the Dolphins (and the Chargers) for the final AFC Wild Card spot with three weeks to play. New England’s final three games: Cincinnati (10-4), Miami (7-7) and at Buffalo (11-3). They don’t own the tiebreaker with Miami and now won’t with the Raiders if Las Vegas (6-8) can catch them either. That one incredible, spectacularly awful play could very well be the reason New England misses the postseason.
$.06--The current NFC South standings after Week 15:
Tampa Bay: 6-8
New Orleans: 5-9
The only reason all four teams didn’t lose in Week 15 is because the Falcons and Saints played one another. New Orleans won that game, a contest that didn’t feature a single highlight on the Sunday night rolls.
Tampa Bay surged out to a 17-0 lead against the Bengals. They lost 34-23 and managed to stay that close only because of a garbage-time TD. The Bucs have lost three of four, and the one win was a 1-point victory over the Saints three weeks ago.
Carolina fell flat at home on Sunday against the worst Steelers team in a generation. The Panthers hold the distinction of being the only NFC South team that has won a game since Thanksgiving to win a game outside the division.
The Buccaneers figure to be the only division team favored to win in Week 16. They play what’s left of the Arizona Cardinals (4-10). There is a very realistic world where Tampa Bay wins next week, loses its final two (CAR, at ATL) and still wins the division at 7-10. And hosts a 13-win Dallas team in the Wild Card round…
$.07--There was a different kind of “football” on Sunday morning. The World Cup held its final match in Qatar between France and Argentina.
I’m not a soccer fan. Check that--I’m not a men’s soccer fan; the women’s game is artistic, athletic, gritty and aggressive. The men? In between the 37 unnecessary passes before just giving the ball to the other team and flops that make Mark Wahlberg look like a great actor, I…just..can’t with the men’s game.
I had tried earlier in the tournament. Really, I did. I watched a handful of games in the first week before the truly awful play and egregious flopping in the Iran/USA match swore me off from it. I have seen people get shot before and react less to the bullet than I saw the agony from a grazing cleat in that game. But in the spirit of being an inclusive sportswriter, I decided to tune into the final.
I’m glad I did. Argentina put on a show early before France answered late with an incredible counterpunch. The passing for both teams had an actual purpose. Players on both teams actually tried to shoot and score, or attack to set up teammates. The ball handling was outstanding. So was the drama. This is why the world is watching!
I don’t know enough about the game to make an educated commentary on the outcome. All I know is that was a great match and a fitting end to the world championship. Congrats to Argentina on the win and to the millions of Messi fans worldwide who saw their hero finally win the title. My daughter is proudly one of them.
--Like I’m not going to write a blurb about the Lions. Detroit won for the sixth time in seven games by beating the Jets in New York. It wasn’t a great game, but it was an interesting one between two teams that are both nouveau good and trying to prove they can stay that way. Dan Campbell’s team is now 7-7 after starting 1-6 and has allowed 72 rushing yards on 39 carries in the last two games.
--We almost had an Any Given Sunday for the ages, but the 11-3 Chiefs managed to claw past the 1-12-1 Texans. Deep into overtime, the Chiefs won thanks to a Frank Clark strip of scrambling Houston QB Davis Mills. Kansas City had over double the total yards and 33 first downs but barely held off the NFL’s worst team--a team that placed two of its three best players (rookie RB Dameon Pierce and rookie CB Derek Stingley Jr.) on IR this week. Two very wobbly weeks in a row for Andy Reid’s team. Not saying, just sayin’...
--I didn’t get a chance to do more than skim over this from ESPN’s Adam Schefter, but the title certainly caught my attention.
Sources: NFL teams spent $800M on fired coaches, execs over past 5 years
--Justin Fields became just the third QB to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He also happened to light up a very good Eagles defense for two passing TDs and single-handedly kept the Bears in the game before eventually succumbing to the suck all around him. Fields is throwing to guys who wouldn’t even be practice squad talents on 25 other teams. His line is not good. If you’re still doubting that Fields is good, consider the context. He’s about the only good thing Chicago has going for it right now.
--Congrats to the Ferris State Bulldogs, who repeated as D-II national champions. Just as they did a year ago, coach Tony Annese’s Bulldogs blew out their foe in the final. They blew up the Colorado School of Mines 41-14 in front of a very big crowd in McKinney, Texas.
D-II doesn’t grab the headlines in most places, but here in Michigan it’s a very big deal. Ferris State is about 30 minutes north of Grand Rapids. Another perennial contender, their bitter rival Grand Valley State, sits about 15 minutes west of GR. Davenport, which also made the playoffs, is in Grand Rapids proper. The GLIAC is the SEC of D-II and several schools in that league successfully recruit against the MAC and FCS-level schools in the midwest. The more I’ve gotten to know the D-II level the more I respect it, and not just in football. There’s a lot of talent in D-II and nobody pulls it together better than Ferris State.
--Rather than bludgeon you over the head with Anthony Richardson praise, I’ll just ask you to kindly read this very good piece from my friend Doug Farrar:
Anthony Richardson's recent progress should have the NFL seeing him differently
Bottom line: if you’re still holding the mindset that Richardson is the lost puppy he was against Kentucky in early September, you’re doing it wrong.
--Illinois CB Devon Witherspoon is one of the latest prospects to announce he won’t play in his team’s bowl game. Good for Witherspoon, who could wind up being my No. 1 cornerback in this class. He’s a little grabby--as are Joey Porter Jr. and Christian Ringo--but his coverage instincts and ability to play both the ball and receiver in the air portend very good things at the NFL level.
--Frank Gore Jr. set the NFL singe-game bowl rushing record with 329 yards in Southern Miss’ win over Rice in the Lending Tree Bowl. Just for good measure, Gore also threw a touchdown pass for the Golden Eagles. His dad just retired after the 2020 season.
--Not football, but congrats to Texas on the NCAA Volleyball championship. The Longhorns beat Louisville in three sets to put a cap on one of the best college volleyball seasons across the country in memory. The skill these young women put on display in the game I love is unreal.
$.10--Celebrating the local sports reporter
This week was a difficult one for the local sports community in Grand Rapids. Longtime high school sports reporter and racing analyst Steve Kaminski passed away at just 54 years old.
I had only recently met Kaminski for the first time, but I long knew of his work. Anyone who had kids in sports anywhere in West Michigan knew of him. We traveled professionally in many of the same circles, and it’s hard to find anyone who didn’t really like or respect Kaminski.
It takes a special kind of person to devote their career to covering local sports. And while Kaminski did venture beyond the 616 with his auto racing coverage, most everyone who knew Steve knows him for his work covering local athletics and high school sporting events. It’s a devotion with an extraordinarily low pay ceiling. Free concession hot dogs and popcorn often fuel several hours of attentive work that will result in little more than a 3-paragraph story in a local paper or an online link that gets maybe 25 clicks from anyone that doesn’t have an immediate family member playing in the game.
This is a grouping of the sports media I’ve really come to admire. They do this for the love of the game and for the sake of the young athletes they’re covering. These are the guys--it’s almost exclusively men--whose fame lives in the scrapbooks of families and school athletic departments. If you’ve got a young athlete who ever did anything noteworthy, you know exactly what I mean. These guys bust their butts providing great coverage of micro-events. They’re at the swim meets, the volleyball quads, the JV softball games where parents trickle in after work with their fresh Starbucks. They sometimes get on the local sports radio (a realm where I do some work) or occasionally do some crossover work on local TV. That’s about as “celebrity” as it gets.
Yet there is such value and purity in what they do! In getting to know some folks who do this for a life’s passion, it’s easy to see they are the root of all journalism. They research, they observe and they report--often in common-denominator language that won’t ever get them on Sportscenter or The Ringer. It’s a fundamentally critical job they perform, and they do it so darn well and without fanfare. When they’re not there, they are missed. That will certainly be true of Steve Kaminski here in West Michigan. Let those folks know you appreciate them. Subscribe to their papers and support real, passionate journalism. Rest in peace, Steve…