Happy New Year! Hope the changing of the calendar was safe and enjoyable for you and those you love.
$.01--It’s not often that an outcome in the penultimate week of the regular season provides much shock value, but what the Green Bay Packers did to the Minnesota Vikings is a definite exception. The Packers, playing to stay alive in the postseason, absolutely destroyed the NFC North champion Vikings, 41-17.
It wasn’t nearly that close. Green Bay led 41-3 thanks to a kickoff return for a TD, a pick-six, a dominant run game, an equally dominant run defense and ruthlessly efficient play from a very relaxed Aaron Rodgers. Left for dead after falling to 4-8, the Packers now--amazingly--control their own playoff destiny.
In winning their fourth in a row, Matt LaFleur’s Packers finally beat a good team. Well, a team with a good record, anyway. The 12-4 Vikings were exposed once again as a perilous playoff team, getting annihilated when given a chance to climb into the NFC driver’s seat. Somehow, the Vikings have now given up more points on the season than they’ve scored despite the 12-4 record. As is their custom in 2022, the Vikings either win a close game or get blown away.
With the way the rest of the weekend transpired, the Packers are now in the catbird seat. If they beat the 8-8 Lions in Green Bay in Week 18, the Packers earn the final Wild Card spot. That’s quite an impressive resurrection for a team many wrote off a month ago. Rodgers keeps developing more chemistry with his young receiving corps and the offensive line is getting some much-needed stability and health. Their defense, one of the NFL’s very worst through October and November, is also gelling at the right time.
Beating the Lions, who beat them in Green Bay in last season’s final game, will not be easy. You can bet every other NFC playoff team is praying Detroit gets it done, because not a soul wants to face Rodgers and the Packers in the postseason. Especially with the way Green Bay has risen up in the last month.
$.02--The Tampa Bay Buccaneers clinched the NFC South on Sunday a lot later in the season than anyone expected. It took a gutty effort from the Buccaneers and Tom Brady’s best game in a very long time to hold off the resurgent Carolina Panthers.
Brady threw for 432 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Bucs to their third straight postseason after evening up their record at 8-8. It’s the most passing yards for Brady since he also hit 432 in Week 3 of the 2021 season. Mike Evans caught 10 passes for 206 yards, reviving the hope that the Buccaneers could actually do a little damage in the postseason, too. Even rookie punter Jake Carmada got into the act with a heroic effort that might have saved the game.
Carolina made it a game. Interim head coach Steve Wilks did a fine job keeping the Panthers relevant in both the playoff race and this game. Despite the huge game from Brady and Evans, the Panthers still had one last chance to win. With no run game to speak of one week after Carolina rushed for a franchise-record 320, Wilks coaxed a very competitive effort out of Sam Darnold and one of the NFL’s youngest teams. The Panthers went from 2-7 to 6-9 entering this game and showed a lot of internal development.
It’s hard to ignore the potential of the Buccaneers in the postseason, even though Tampa Bay hasn’t beaten another playoff-bound team since a Week 1 win over Dallas. The offense is waking up. Better late than never. They’ll be at home and playing with some growing confidence, provided they take care of the lowly Falcons next week.
$.03--The biggest football news in Las Vegas came early in the week. The Raiders decided to move on from long-time QB Derek Carr with two games remaining in a disappointing season.
Carr was benched by head coach Josh McDaniels in favor of one-time Patriots draft disappointment Jarrett Stidham. It comes on the heels of a brutal performance by Carr in a win-or-die loss to the Steelers, his second major clunker of an effort in three weeks.
That is the crux of the benching. Carr wasn’t getting better the more he played in McDaniels’ system. At 31, he’s an older dog that just wasn’t up to learning new tricks or making progress that could elevate both Carr and the Raiders from the NFL’s middle class.
They didn’t just bench Carr, however. The Raiders exiled him away from the team. That’s a very curious way to handle the emotional, veteran leader of a team that has gone through a franchise relocation, a first-round pick killing someone, a trainwreck of a GM/head coach combo, and a frugal, cash-poor owner. That same owner trusted Carr with a 3-year, $121 million contract extension just before the 2022 NFL draft.
This is some pretty simple math. Carr was valued enough by the team to earn a $40M a year extension, but the new coach brought in after the Raiders failed to advance beyond the Wild Card last year can’t work with him. An upgraded overall roster that reunited Carr with prized free agent and close friend/college teammate Davante Adams got worse. That’s not on Carr. I’d be very curious how McDaniels convinced ownership that Carr was a bigger problem than he is.
It’s not Carr’s problem anymore. He’ll get traded this offseason and some team (Jets, Colts, Texans, Dolphins, Commanders?) will land a motivated veteran of some accomplishment under high but affordable cost control through 2025. The Raiders will try to replace him with some of the assets gained from dealing Carr, no doubt. Given McDaniels’ track record away from Bill Belichick and the Raiders’ unnecessarily messy divorce from a popular, emotional team leader like Carr, the odds of that are very small.
Stidham outperformed expectations in Sunday’s loss to the 49ers. He threw for over 300 yards and three TDs against the NFL’s best defense, though Stidham did also throw the game-losing interception in overtime. Perhaps there is a method to McDaniels’ madness after all…
$.04--Washington head coach Ron Rivera made a very interesting decision to switch back to Carson Wentz at quarterback. Not coincidentally, the Commanders were eliminated from the postseason with Sunday’s loss to the Browns.
Rivera switched back to Wentz after some recent struggles from replacement Taylor Heinicke. There were some red zone issues, and teams were getting savvy to where Heinicke would look under duress.
But Heinicke largely avoided the soul-crushing errors. Those were why Wentz got benched in the first place, and why he got run out of Philadelphia and Indianapolis. The new year didn't change Wentz. He threw three interceptions, two of them of the comedically bad style. The underthrown ball that Grant Delpit picked off is a decision that gets JV quarterbacks benched on winless teams in high school. That I have to clarify which Delpit interception it is makes it all that much worse for Wentz.
Washington was in command of its playoff fates a month ago. The Commanders were 7-5 and riding Heinicke’s plucky hot hand. Now they’re out, going 0-3-1 since. The defense deserves some blame, forcing just two takeaways in that span and also allowing the 5th-most rushing yards of any team over that time. But, as often happens with Wentz, the focus will be on the talented but unreliable quarterback who just can’t put things together anymore. Rivera might’ve cost himself a job by believing in Wentz, and he wouldn’t be the first coach to do so, either.
Proving that the NFL is a flat circle, it was the Browns once again benefitting from Wentz playing for another team. It was Cleveland that traded the draft pick that became Wentz back in 2016 to Philadelphia. One of the picks they acquired in that massive trade became Deshaun Watson (the Browns traded that pick to Houston), who was productively efficient--three TD passes in nine completions. Watson avoided mistakes nicely, something not said of Wentz in a very long time.
$.05--One of the big talking points on the Sunday pregame yakfests was the notion that former Saints coach Sean Payton is poised to make a triumphant return to the NFL coaching ranks.
I understand the hubbub around Payton. He’s a media-savvy coach with a Super Bowl ring to his credit. In 15 seasons with the Saints, Payton posted a 152-89 record and a 9-8 playoff record. That’s a great resume’ for a coach.
But there is some smaller print with Payton. He had Drew Brees, the most prolific passer in NFL history, for all but his final season in New Orleans. Coaching is a heck of a lot easier when you never have to worry about the quarterback for well over a decade. Payton presided over the Bountygate scandal and was involved enough that he was suspended for the 2012 season.
Then there’s the pesky matter that the Saints still control Payton through the end of the 2023 season. Any team wanting his services before then will need to trade for Payton. Based on the rumors, New Orleans is seeking at least one first-round pick and that’s probably just to initiate the conversation.
Let’s use the Denver Broncos as an example of a team that might want to hire Payton. They’re certainly the front-runner if you believe the current talk. A team in desperate need of high-end talent, Denver would have to give up its first-round pick. But the Broncos traded away their own first-rounder (currently No. 3 overall) in the Russell Wilson fleece job by Seattle. Denver does have San Francisco’s first-rounder to work with, but that’s the Broncos’ only draft selection in the first two rounds.
To put that into football terms--Payton would be taking on a team that earned the third-worst record in the league and cannot draft any talent in the first two rounds this year. Denver currently sits in the lower-middle of available cap room this offseason, so breaking the bank in free agency to augment an aging, thin roster is quite unlikely.
That doesn’t seem like a smart fit for either Payton or the Broncos. Indianapolis? The idea of a headstrong Payton working under erratic Jim Irsay would be a wonderful game of chicken to watch play out but probably not what Colts fans want or need. Giving up the No. 5 pick, i.e. Indy’s only real chance of finally getting the QB position right, is an awfully steep sacrifice to lure in a coach who hasn’t done well when not paired with a great QB.
I do believe the rumors and I do think Payton gets hired, somewhere. Fans of his new team will need to beware of the cost to make that happen.
$.06--The New Year’s Eve crazy partying kicked off early on Saturday. The CFP semifinal, also known as the Fiesta Bowl, was drunk from the very start of the game between TCU and Michigan. In fact, if you were playing a drinking game where you imbibed every time someone scored, you’re probably in need of a new liver after this one.
It didn’t look headed that way at the start. Michigan fizzled out on a fourth-and-goal on the opening drive, followed by TCU innocuously going 3-and-out. And then the shots began.
TCU scores on a pick-6 by Bud Clark, a great read to undercut an otherwise good throw and play by Michigan and QB J.J. McCarthy. The Horned Frogs served up another shot with a Max Duggan TD run to go up 14-0. TCU added another touchdown, streaking out to a 21-6 halftime lead.
Before TCU fans could get too drunk on the early success, Michigan poured some points onto the board. A lot of points. The two teams combined for 44 points in the third quarter, emptying the bottles and forcing a quick emergency run to the nearest Specs to restock the well.
Michigan kept coming back, but they never caught the Frogs. Some weird (read: awful) officiating calls, some bad mistakes (notably another McCarthy pick-6) and ponderous clock management kept the Wolverines one shot behind in the drinking contest. The entire game felt like it was in Michigan’s control, both positive and negative. They made too many dumb, costly errors to overcome a well-coached and fast TCU team.
Few gave the Frogs a chance. Perhaps my perception there is skewed by living in Michigan, but fans seemed intoxicated with Michigan’s chances to whip the upstarts from the Big 12. It’s a great credit to first-year coach Sonny Dykes and a well-heeled, prepared TCU team to upend the best Michigan team of the last 25 years. I suspect few will pick them to win the CFP Championship, either. Don’t disrespect Duggan, Quinton Johnston or a deep, hard-hitting defense--Michigan did and paid the price with a hangover that will last until September.
$.07--The Horned Frogs will face Georgia in the national championship game on January 9th. Georgia rang in the new year with a fantastic comeback win over an explosive Ohio State team in the other semifinal.
If you’re like me, you completely missed all the New Year’s Eve festivities and ball-drop broadcasts. Instead, we were glued to the thrilling finish between two of the top programs in college football. Ohio State led almost the entire way thanks to a commanding performance from QB C.J. Stroud. Georgia rallied for a late go-ahead TD, giving Stroud and the Buckeyes one last minute and shot at the victory.
Stroud did what he needed to do, driving the offense into position with a couple of sweet throws and an exceptional run to get into field goal range. Alas, the 50-yard field goal attempt as time expired dropped to the turf well left and short.
The concept of “survive and advance” normally applies to college basketball, but the Bulldogs embodied it beautifully as 2022 changed to 2023. The defending champs were not the better team most of the night, but they were when it really mattered. More importantly, Georgia avoided digging too deep of a hole while they sputtered, something Michigan couldn’t do in the first semifinal.
Georgia won despite its top two players, DT Jalen Carter and CB Christian Ringo, having terrible games. Carter was completely erased by the Ohio State offensive line, while Ringo was the primary toast that Stroud kept buttering all night. That the Bulldogs had the breadth and depth of talent to survive having two first-round talents on defense playing terribly is precisely why Kirby Smart’s Georgia team is the best in the nation.
--One big reason why the Eagles are definite NFC contenders, and it seldom gets attention outside of Philadelphia:
--Seahawks QB Geno Smith led the Seahawks to a win over the New York Jets. By beating the team that drafted him back in 2013, Smith successfully pulled off the one-man revenge tour in 2022. Smith led the Seahawks to wins over the Jets, Giants and Chargers this year. He played for all those other teams.
--From my colleague Nate Atkins, who has seen some things…
I've covered some bad units before -- 2014 Bears defense, 2018 Lions defense -- but none of it matches the ineptitude of this Colts offense.— Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_) January 1, 2023
It's an all-time disaster.
--Dallas took care of the dilapidated Titans on Thursday night to set up a shot at not just winning the NFC East if they can beat Washington in Week 18, but seize the No. 1 overall seed and home-field advantage in the conference postseason. If the Cowboys wins and both San Francisco (vs. ARI) and Philadelphia (vs. NYG) lose, all roads in the NFC lead to Dallas.
--There are three 8-8 teams in the AFC fighting for one Wild Card spot: New England, Miami and Pittsburgh. The Patriots' win over Tua-less Miami gives them a definite leg up, but New England has to play Buffalo in Week 18 and the Bills will have every reason to play hard. Miami has to beat the crashing Jets and hope New England loses. Pittsburgh pulled off a stirring comeback to beat Baltimore on Sunday night, but the Steelers need a lot of help to keep the dream alive.
--Congrats to my alma mater, Ohio! The Bobcats beat Wyoming in the Arizona Bowl, a game sponsored by and exclusively aired on Barstool Sports. I’m generally someone who downplays the whole “there are too many bowls” argument, but a MAC vs. MWC bowl game that isn’t televised is probably a sign there are too many bowls.
--Bryce Young stated his case to be the top QB in the 2023 NFL draft with a great performance in Alabama’s blowout win against a badly overmatched Kansas State team. Young threw five TDs and was in complete control for the Crimson Tide. I still have serious concerns about his size and ability to handle consistent pressure, but there’s no denying Young’s talent.
--One top-shelf player who did not help his draft stock (as noted above) was Georgia DT Jalen Carter. He was erased from the field and made no impact against Ohio State. Carter will be the No. 1 overall player on my final draft board--he’s that good--but the argument against taking an interior lineman in the top five is going to get played heavily against Carter. It’s nearly impossible to get draft bang for the buck in taking a DT so high. In the last 15 years, just two DTs would be worth it--Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald. Factor in a loaded FA class and a pretty strong draft class and I wonder if Carter goes as high as expected. He’s a top-5 overall pick in just about every contemporary mock draft.
--Best bowl game, non-CFP edition: Pittsburgh’s amazing win over UCLA in the Sun Bowl. That was one worth watching.
--An under-the-radar draft prospect I’ve recently fallen for: West Virginia WR Bryce Ford-Wheaton. Great length at 6-3 and 224 muscular pounds, and he’s got soft hands and decent feet. He’s a little one-note in his speed and route capabilities but has potential to grow; I said those very same things about Stefon Diggs once upon a draft and look at him now. Not at all comparing Ford-Wheaton to the Pro Bowler, but if he clicks as a middle-round pick with his coaching and QB, he’s got the traits to be a very good Z in the NFL.
$.10--The change in the calendar often inspires people to try and change their lives in some ways. Whether it’s losing weight, stopping a bad habit, finding a new job, improving a relationship or committing to trying something new, it’s an important personal reset.
My personal resolution this year is to help others achieve the changes they want. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered I draw more enjoyment and satisfaction when I see happiness and accomplishment in those I care about. It was not a conscious change; it just sort of happened. Now it’s the new mission for the new year.
Folks, we’re not in a great place. The world can seem like it’s spiraling out of control. Negative news, divisive rhetoric, increasingly stressful economic and climatological conditions; it’s a difficult time. We’re only going to get through this by helping one another, by putting aside differences and working for the greater good. My resolution for 2023 is to foster that type of collaborative, cohesive action.
Ironically enough, I can’t do that alone. It takes complicity from others to want to be helped. For some, that means swallowing some pride or overlooking philosophical differences. Some people just don’t want that, and it’s incredibly frustrating. This is where I need help. Overcoming recalcitrance is not something I’ve done well, but I will try. And you can too. If you find someone trying to help you, understand that maybe they’re not trying to do anything more than just be nice and helpful. Believe it or not, those sentiments still exist. Try it.
Good luck in your personal resolutions. Be strong and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Some of us just might take you up on it.