Happy holidays to you and yours! For this weekend, I opted to roll with just five cents and spend more time with the family instead of making Christmas a 16-hour workday like most Sundays are during football season.
$.01--Nearing the end of a long season, we’re seeing a lot more separation of the wheat from the chaff down the stretch. Figuring out which is which in the middle of the NFC standings got really difficult in Week 16.
There are five teams in the middle class of the NFC, all fighting for two Wild Card spots. Four of those teams lost on Saturday in Week 16: Washington, Seattle, Detroit and the Giants.
Of the Saturday losers, the Giants wound up in the best shape. They entered the weekend at 8-5-1 with a chance to cement a Wild Card. They lost in agonizing fashion at Minnesota when Vikings kicker Greg Joseph nailed a 61-yard field goal as time expired. The loss prevented them from clinching when the other teams lost, but the practical application of holding serve worked well for Brian Daboll’s Giants. At 8-6-1, they only have to win one more game to clinch a spot.
Washington dropped to 7-7-1 with a 37-20 loss at San Francisco. The 49ers outscored the Commanders 30-13 after halftime to pull away and leave Washington in peril. The Giants hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Commanders, so falling a game behind with two to play was a critical blow. Washington still controls its own destiny provided it can beat Cleveland and Dallas in the final two weeks. Easier said than done, though the 6-9 Browns being eliminated in the AFC on Saturday makes that game look easier.
Seattle continued its downward spiral, falling 24-10 at Kansas City. It was the Seahawks’ fifth loss in six games, dropping them below .500 for the first time all year at 7-8. Seattle hasn’t played like a playoff-worthy team--not even in the expanded field--since beating the Giants in Week 8. They have the Jets and Rams left on the schedule and need to win both to have a realistic shot.
Then there are my Lions. The feel-good story of the second half of the season, Detroit went to Carolina having won six of seven. They left Charlotte with a humiliating 37-23 loss where the Panthers ran wild. Literally. Carolina set a team record with 320 rushing yards. Detroit’s leading rusher was QB Jared Goff, not noted for his running, with 15 yards on the ground. The youthful Lions got everything they needed to seize control of their own playoff destiny with the other teams losing, but they couldn’t handle their own business. Now 7-8, Detroit has to win against Chicago and at Green Bay and hope that leaves them with one more victory than two of New York, Washington and Seattle to make it. The Panthers seized control of their own playoff destiny by improving to 6-9. If they win their last two games at Tampa Bay and at New Orleans, they win the NFC South.
The only team in the group of aspirants to win was the Green Bay Packers. Their victory on Sunday afternoon over Miami felt a whole lot more like the Dolphins blowing it than anything great from Green Bay itself, too. Give the Packers, now 7-8, credit for their third win in a row. The Green Bay defense made the freakishly inconsistent Tua Tagovailoa pay for a terrible second half. Miami had four second-half possessions. Tua threw three INTs and the Dolphins also had a Jason Sanders missed field goal in Green Bay’s 26-20 win. The Packers settled for two short field goals, but that was enough to hold back a Miami offense that managed just 45 plays in the game.
The Packers play their final two at home against the NFC North champion Vikings and then the Lions. Green Bay, like Detroit, needs two wins of its own and two losses from at least two of New York, Washington and Seattle. That final game against the Lions could very well be a win-and-you’re-in situation. Nobody in either city would have expected that even two weeks ago, but that’s how crazy the middle of the NFC is this year.
$.02--Week 16 kicked off with the Jacksonville Jaguars seizing first place in the AFC South. Doug Pederson’s Jaguars won their third game in a row, all against teams with non-losing records, by downing the New York Jets 19-3.
It’s a game that is far more nationally renowned for the losing team and its quarterback travails, and that’s unfortunate. The Jaguars and their own quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, showed out on national television in a must-win game between teams that envision themselves as rising stars in the AFC. Even though both teams are 7-8, it was abundantly clear in this one that one team is ahead of the other.
Quarterbacking matters so much. While Lawrence, the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, continues to grow and improve at pretty much everything, the man taken one pick later is a decidedly different story. Thursday night may very well have been the last time anyone sees Zach Wilson in a Jets uniform. It’s going that poorly for the No. 2 pick in just his second season.
Wilson’s struggles were all anyone could talk about after the game. After going 9-of-18 for 92 yards, one interception and one of the worst throws humanly possible to an open receiver, Wilson was benched for the second time this year. CFL refugee Chris Streveler came in and earned raucous praise from the frustrated Jets fans when he completed a pass that resulted in a first down. Even though the Jaguars quickly figured out the Streveler gimmick, the emotional and practical lift he provided to the Jets was tangible to everyone.
I don’t see a way the Jets can salvage Wilson even if they wanted to--and it’s unclear if GM Joe Douglas or head coach Robert Saleh have any desire to try. New York will likely pick in the high teens, not exactly fertile ground for a quarterback ready to lead an otherwise playoff-ready franchise. They have some cap room (17th-most available per Over the Cap), but it’s not plentiful enough to potentially bring in a vet like (hypothetically) Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady or even round two with Geno Smith, without sacrificing upgrades elsewhere.
The Jaguars have no such problem. Lawrence continued his run of very strong play over the last two months. He’s thrown 17 TDs to 1 INT in the Jaguars' last seven games, winning five of those. The team around Lawrence is solid enough to beat a good (other than at QB) Jets team with Lawrence having a humdrum 229 passing yards and no TDs.
The juxtaposition of fates of the two franchises and their second-year quarterbacks couldn’t be starker. The team that got the quarterback choice right has real hope to win a playoff game in 2022. The team that didn’t progresses forward with the resigned knowledge that their window has to reset once again because they got their pick wrong.
$.03--We might have an actual race for the No. 1 overall pick after all. What has been the exclusive domain of the Houston Texans since mid-October suddenly has a viable challenger in the Chicago Bears.
The Texans relinquished their death grip on the worst record by stunning the badly fading Tennessee Titans. It was Houston’s first win since Week 5. Love Smith’s Texans prevailed despite accruing less than 200 yards of offense in the first three quarters. Their most successful play was awkward QB Davis Mills fumbling the ball into the end zone so Rex Burkhead could fall on it for a touchdown.
Mills did make a legit great throw late in the game, feathering a ball into Brandin Cooks for the go-ahead touchdown. It stood up thanks to two interceptions of wildly overmatched Titans rookie QB Malik Willis in the final two minutes. The second one, a Hail Mary unanswered, was not Willis’ fault. The first one legitimately appeared as if Willis thought he was playing for the Texans, and unfortunately that was often the case for the greenhorn replacement for injured Ryan Tannehill.
Since throttling the Packers in Week 11, the Titans have not won. This loss was the first of those five defeats at the hands of a poor team, however. Every other AFC team has won at least once since that time, even Denver and now Houston. The Titans are a prime example that having arguably the NFL’s best RB weapon in Derrick Henry means very little if the quarterback stinks. See last year’s Colts and Johnathan Taylor, too.
The Bears lost 35-13 to the Bills in a game where the only real surprise was that the Bears actually led 10-6 at the half. Buffalo deftly avoided ignominy and pulled away, cementing the game by picking off a one-time symbol of Bills ignominy, Nathan Peterman. Buffalo did what good teams do--they stomped a bad team.
The weird thing at the top of the draft is that the Bears and Texans have very different needs. Chicago has its quarterback in Justin Fields but desperately needs at least one offensive tackle, at least two wide receivers and also every position in the defensive front six. Nothing against Davis Mills, but the Texans’ biggest need is a quarterback. They’re good at OT and have some young promise at pass rush (not the alpha, however). The divergent needs mean it won’t much matter which team gets No. 1 or No. 2 unless they intend on trading that pick.
$.04--Two of the most disappointing teams this season squared off in the isolated late Sunday viewing window. The Rams and Broncos both had projected win totals in double-digits to start the year but entered this game with matching 4-10 records.
Injuries have been a massive story for both teams all season. No team has more players on IR (25) than Denver. Meanwhile, the Rams are playing without Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp and more offensive linemen than can be listed. The dichotomy in how the teams handled their unhealthy fates couldn’t be more different, however.
The defending champion Rams played like a prideful team. In fact, they played their best game of the season in thumping the hapless Broncos, 51-14. Baker Mayfield, playing on his third team since August, was almost perfect for the Rams. Russell Wilson, still delusionally riding out the worst year of his career, had another terrible, no-good, rotten game for the Broncos.
Everything about the Broncos screams the football version of a dead man walking. Head coach Nathaniel Hackett proved beyond any reasonable doubt he isn’t ready for that level of responsibility. His offense, Hackett’s calling card, has been miserable. Wilson’s dramatic cliff dive of a performance has not helped, but the worst thing you can say about an offense is that it looks uncoordinated. That’s Denver. The defense has now given up, something eminently evident on Christmas.
With nothing to play for but pride, the Rams demonstrated a lot of it. The Broncos looked like a team perfectly willing to give their beleaguered fans horse manure for Christmas. It might not seem like much now, but when free agents are looking for places where they think they might be able to win in 2023 and beyond, they’ll remember. Their agents, some of whom probably have strong connections to both teams, will remind them if those agents are doing their jobs and not just collecting commission checks. That’s one big reason why tanking doesn’t work.
Not that Denver could get anything out of tanking. The Broncos sent their first and second-round picks to Seattle to acquire Wilson so they could give him a salary cap-crippling contract. They’re just bad for the sake of being a truly awful team, one with very little hope of improving anytime soon unless Wilson somehow rediscovers his manly vigor.
$.05--Franco Harris passed away this week. For those of us of a certain age, a part of our childhood love of football passed with the legendary Steelers running back.
Harris became a star on Christmas Eve of 1972 with the Immaculate Reception, a play that launched the Steelers dynasty that predominated the formative years of Gen X football fans. I don’t remember the Immaculate Reception; I was three months old. But it’s arguably one of the most important plays in NFL history, a turning point for a Steelers franchise that theretofore had been a laughingstock. Pittsburgh hadn’t made the playoffs in 25 years before that game. Since then, the Steelers franchise has never gone more than four seasons without a postseason berth.
Harris was one of the first sports celebrities I remember. Even though I grew up in Cleveland, Harris was a very popular figure with the youthful set. He had an engaging personality and a hard-charging style and played on the premier team in the AFC. Franco was on commercials. He was a guest on competition shows and sports broadcasts. It was really hard not to like that guy a lot.
Time and usage caught up with him, and it was then that Harris taught the lesson of playing too long. I do remember Harris in a Seahawks uniform and it forever impacted me; watching former greats trying to coax one too many seasons, often in a weird new uniform, is something that still very much bothers me to this day. The law of unintended legacy, perhaps.
Harris was an all-time great on the field and a cultural touchstone off it. He had his Italian army of fans and his multiracial background made him an accessible hero to a lot of kids that didn't have many heroes that looked like them. I didn’t understand that as a white kid but it’s something I’ve grown to really admire and respect. He was a role model before his time and before many of us knew someone like Harris was even needed.
It’s tragic that he passed just before the 50th anniversary of his legendary play. The Steelers had planned a ceremony to celebrate Harris and the Immaculate Reception already, but he sadly didn’t make it to Accenture Field to see his No. 32 jersey retired. It’s too bad, because the fans never once forgot Franco and showered him with love across the years.
Rest in peace, Franco. You were one of the truly great ones.