We made it! The first year of the 17-game NFL schedule is finally over. It’s been a busy two weeks since the last dosage of cents, so without further ado…
The NFC playoff picture was a little less wide open than the AFC entering Week 18. Don’t mistake that for less dramatic, however.
Green Bay had already sewn up the No. 1 seed and the only bye. The Packers chose to play their starters in the first half in Detroit, getting WR Davante Adams the team record for receiving yards before eventually letting their reserves bow down to the Lions. For the record, I think it’s very smart to play the starters at least a few series before a bye week. Good on Matt LaFleur, who cemented my vote for Coach of the Year a couple of weeks ago.
The only division where the winner wasn’t known entering the weekend was the West. And it proved to be a wild finish out west. Both the Rams and Cardinals lost games they probably should have won, each carrying 24-17 leads in the third quarter of their games. But the Rams choked away their initial 17-0 lead over the 49ers and fell in overtime, while the Cardinals fell victim to bad sacks and terrible special teams in losing to the Seahawks, 38-30. The dueling losses gave the division title and the No. 4 seed to the Rams, who will host the 5-seed Cardinals next week.
San Francisco’s unlikely comeback win put the 49ers into the postseason. They only needed to win and somehow pulled it off, much to the chagrin of New Orleans Saints fans. The Saints needed to win and have the 49ers lose. New Orleans took care of what they could control, flying past the Falcons despite losing QB Taysom Hill to injury. Sean McVay’s coaching collapse with the Rams burned Sean Payton’s Saints, however. The Saints became the only NFC team with a winning record to miss the playoffs.
Then there’s Dallas, which beat Philadelphia on Saturday night and locked up the No. 3 seed. The Eagles were already settled into being either the 6 or 7 seed and rested the regulars, making it an easy one for Dak Prescott and the Cowboys. Prescott preheated for the postseason with five TD passes in the 51-26 scorigami win. The (intentional?) loss by the Eagles dropped them to the seven spot and a date with the Buccaneers, not exactly the most optimal outcome but also not necessarily a bad matchup for the run-heavy Philadelphia offense either. The defending champion Buccaneers shook off a slow start against the putrid Panthers to cruise to the No. 2 seed, meaning they’ll be at home until the championship game at worst.
The Sunday night matchup between the Chargers and Raiders featured the only “win-or-die” matchup between competing teams in Week 18. In a game where the officiating played no small role in the outcome, we got an epic instant classic. Justin Herbert guided the Chargers on one of the ballsiest drives in NFL history to tie the game at 29 on the final play of regulation. It took 19 plays in just over two minutes of game clock, several fourth-down conversions and a few dropped passes along the way, but Herbert engineered one of the most impressive drives in NFL history to keep the Chargers alive.
It wasn’t quite enough. Derek Carr ripped off a gutsy drive of his own in overtime after both teams traded field goals. Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson was true on the game-winner as time expired, ending the pearl-clutching around the football world. Raiders win, 35-32, and seize the No. 5 seed by virtue of winning their last four games--three of them on Carlson kicks as time expired!
Credit Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia for a very proud performance in getting his team to overcome some of the most extreme adversity a team has ever seen. Between Jon Gruden’s necessary but surprising firing and top WR Henry Ruggs going to prison for killing someone in a drunk driving tragedy, it would have been very easy for the Raiders to curl up in a ball and throw away the year. They didn’t do that at all, and Bisaccia--who gets almost no mention for potentially keeping the job on a permanent basis--deserves a lot of credit for that perseverance and resilience.
Tennessee sealed the No. 1 seed and the much-desired bye week by squeaking past a resilient Houston team, 28-25. It wasn’t pretty seeing Texans rookie QB Davis Mills torch the stubborn Titans defense for over 300 yards and 3 TDs, but Tennessee survived and advanced--the whole point of January football.
Kansas City steamrolled its way to the No. 2 seed by ending the Vic Fangio era in Denver on Saturday night. The Chiefs won nine of their last 10 and produced the AFC’s best point differential over that timeframe. Not bad for a team that was 3-4 and being written off once upon a time. Cincinnati sleepwalked through a meaningless loss to the Browns to finish as the No. 4 seed, resting Joe Burrow and a lot of regulars in their quest to snap the NFL’s longest playoff victory drought next weekend. Hard to blame coach Zac Taylor on that strategy after the beating Burrow, who deserves MVP consideration, has taken all year.
Buffalo captured the East for the second year in a row. They weren’t great in holding off the Jets but Josh Allen & Co. did what they needed to secure the 3 seed and a home date against the Patriots next week. New England played one of its worst games of the season in losing to Miami, making Buffalo’s status academic. I worry about the Patriots peaking a little early, but it’s way too presumptuous to think New England cannot rise to the occasion over the inconsistent Bills.
The Indianapolis Colts blew a layup and missed the postseason. Needing only to beat the NFL’s worst team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Colts came out completely unprepared to play and laid the mother of all eggs. Trevor Lawrence looked good, the Colts offense and Carson Wentz did not, and the Jaguars blew open the bottom of the Wild Card race. Two weeks ago the Colts still had a chance to win the South, but bad losses to the Raiders (in Indy) and Jaguars instead cost them a postseason berth. Jonathan Taylor might have won the rushing crown, but the Colts proved it takes more than a good run game to win.
The Pittsburgh Steelers capitalized on the epic Colts choke job, but it wasn’t easy. Nothing in the rivalry between the Steelers and Ravens ever comes without a fierce fight. Unlike most previous editions, this game--and the playoff spot--was decided by the team who sucked less, not the one who played better. And that was Pittsburgh, despite going 3-and-out five times and producing just 2.6 yards per carry and with Ben Roethlisberger looking again like he should have retired before the season. Somehow, someway, the Steelers are still alive.
It’s not going to get talked about much nationally, but quietly the Ravens descended into a bottom-feeding team over the second half of the season. They lost their final six games to fall from the No. 1 seed in the AFC following Week 12 to missing the playoffs entirely. A massive rash of injuries, notably to QB Lamar Jackson but also the secondary, certainly played a major part. But John Harbaugh’s team uncharacteristically played some consistently sloppy football regardless of who was on the field. They allowed a QB Rating over 125.0 in the six-game losing streak, the longest current streak in the AFC to end the season.
Back to the Titans. Seizing the No. 1 seed despite losing at-the-time MVP candidate and NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry is an amazing job by coach Mike Vrabel. Good teams find ways to overcome. Tennessee’s defense stepped up, allowing under 200 passing yards in four of their final seven games. The offense turned the ball over just four times in five games after the bye week--all four coming in their one loss (at Pittsburgh) in the timeframe. Now Henry is poised to come back and gets an extra week to get ready. Keep sleeping on Tennessee at your own peril…
$.03--The NFL’s extension to a 17-game schedule wound up producing a very mixed bag of effort and outcomes in the new bonus game.
Some teams with nothing to play for cranked out great effort and entertaining games. The Detroit Lions, the team I root for, beat the Green Bay Packers in a truly fun and engaging game. Neither team had anything to gain by winning but still played hard, with the NFC’s No. 1 seeded Packers rolling out their starters for a half. The Houston Texans gave the AFC’s No. 1 seed, the Tennessee Titans, a run for their money in a 28-25 Titans win that sure didn’t lack intensity. No game involving Mike Vrabel will ever be guilty of that.
Then there were the teams who checked out or truly didn’t care. Prime example: the New York football Giants. Somehow head coach Joe Judge will keep his job despite his Giants being the worst team in football over the last half of the year. They got there by mailing it in with plays like Judge dialing up QB sneaks on 2nd and 3rd downs to help their punter out. That actually happened, believe it or not (h/t Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire for the great breakdown). The Bears once again played like a team that is hoping for a coaching change in a lifeless loss to the Vikings, who didn’t exactly bring their own A-game either.
Philadelphia sat pretty much everyone a casual fan would have heard of in Saturday’s 51-26 loss to the Cowboys, who played their starters--the ones not sidelined by COVID-19--deep into the win. Cincinnati did the same, minus a cameo from should-be Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja’Marr Chase, in a loss to the Browns that meant nothing in the standings for either team, too.
It’s almost certainly not different than other end-of-season weeks, but the recency bias sure feels like the extra week didn’t add much drama or intrigue. For a few fan bases, it simply prolonged the misery. For others, it wound up being very much worthwhile. Of course, most people will reflexively recall the phenomenal capper between the Chargers and Raiders. And that’s exactly what the NFL wants. We got an amazing climax after a day of somewhat underwhelming foreplay.
$.04--When someone tells you who they are, believe them…
It’s a lesson the Tampa Bay Buccaneers learned the hard way with wide receiver Antonio Brown. His quitting on the team in the middle of their Week 17 matchup against the New York Jets was just the latest in a long line of weird and damning behavior that should have set off every warning flag. Brown is not a stable personality deserving of trust.
There are meaty lists out there of all of Brown’s acts of selfish, concerning behavior that go back a long way. All of them come after Brown suffered a vicious, illegal hit from Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict, one that left viewers wondering if Brown was dead on the field. He only suffered a severe concussion but it’s certainly easy to make the connection that Burfict’s brutal hit permanently damaged Brown’s mental condition.
The Buccaneers were well aware of his cycle of craziness. They couldn’t have not known. But they chose to enable it anyway because Brown could still help them win football games. And that he did; Brown was Tom Brady’s top target when he was in the game, catching 42 passes and scoring four TDs in just seven games. They rode the edge of the knife successfully for almost half a season before Brown slid off and cut them on national television. He’s piled on since in some media appearances, causing even some of his staunchest supporters to reconsider their defensive positions on Brown.
I hope Brown gets help. More to the point, I hope he realizes he needs the help, because if he doesn’t go into that with the right mindset, he cannot be helped. I also hope his NFL career is over and the last we see of him on a football field is trotting off half-naked in the freezing cold despite refusing to play because of a minor ankle injury. Shame on any NFL team who even considers further enabling Brown’s disturbing personal downturn.
$.05--The Jacksonville Jaguars secured the No. 1 overall pick in spite of their “Any Given Sunday” win over the Indianapolis Colts. It will be the second year in a row the Jaguars earned the top pick by having the NFL’s worst record, finishing this year at 3-14.
The last team to pick first overall two years in a row was the Cleveland Browns, who chose first in 2017 (Myles Garrett) and 2018 (Baker Mayfield). It took until the 2020 season before the “tank job” paid dividends and the Browns won a Wild Card game before regressing badly in an injury-ravaged 2021. It might take the woeful Jaguars even longer to climb back to respectability.
Remember, the Browns had three first-rounders in 2017 (Denzel Ward and David Njoku came with Garrett) and an extra first in 2018 (Austin Corbett, a brutal flop in Cleveland now acquitting himself with the Rams) and also landing Nick Chubb. Hitting five out of six top-40 overall picks in two years, it still took those Browns three full seasons to achieve anything close to success--a status the Browns could not maintain either.
There is no consensus choice for No. 1 overall in the 2022 NFL draft class, not like Trevor Lawrence was for the Jaguars last year. They can choose to upgrade his protection with Alabama OT Even Neal or bolster the brutal defense with a pass rusher like Michigan EDGE Aidan Hutchinson or Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux. Who the Jaguars hire as the head coach will help mold the decision. But keeping Trent Baalke as GM hurts the hiring search for Urban Meyer’s replacement. Baalke has an unsavory rep amongst coaches and coaching agents. Jaguars fans might want to keep the clown costumes handy for a little bit…
$.06--One of the most significant storylines of the coming offseason will be what happens with Texans QB Deshaun Watson. More than a few teams outside of Houston are going to be watching with bated breath at the legal proceedings surrounding the wildly talented but currently troubled Watson.
If the civil lawsuits are resolved in a manner that’s palatable to the NFL to allow Watson to play again, he’s instantly the best quarterback option on the market for needy teams. Sure, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson might also be out there (I refuse to believe either leaves their current teams until told otherwise), but Watson is quite a bit younger than those perennial MVP candidates. There’s going to be a significant stink factor that any team will have to overcome to sell Watson on its fans after the very public, graphic allegations of several counts of sexual assault against a cadre of massage therapists have been all we\\\'ve heard about Watson for the last year.
It’s a very big “if”, and it’s not going to be for everyone. I can’t fathom one of the QB-needy teams I cover, the female-owned Detroit Lions, having any interest in Watson even if he’s fully cleared. The PR damage already done to Watson is massive, at least equivalent with Michael Vick or Ray Rice. Watson has some control of his own NFL situation too, with his no-trade clause that he can choose to waive--or not--for certain teams. Houston’s reported asking price at the trade deadline was three first-round picks and a player or two, and that’s going to rule out a lot of potential suitors, too.
For Houston’s part, the weird and uncomfortable waiting game produced a lousy 2021 season under rookie head coach David Culley--who might not be back for a second season. Rookie QB Davis Mills has shown enough to be considered the potential long-term replacement for Watson, but it’s also clear his ceiling is nowhere close to the electrifying guy in the No. 4 jersey.
$.07--This one is a holdover from last week’s aborted cents. Between some massive time constraints/commitments with my kids’ basketball and covering work for a friend in need, I just didn’t have the time to do it right. Here’s what I wrote on Dec. 30th on the passing of John Madden.
The NFL lost a great one this week. Legendary coach, commentator and video game maven John Madden passed away at age 85. The sports world collectively felt the tremors of losing such an influential and universally beloved figure.
I’m old enough to remember (vaguely) Madden coaching the Oakland Raiders into one of the most consistent and fearsome teams of the 1970s. He was one of the all-time greats, going 103-32-7 in a decade of dominance that included a Super Bowl title in 1976. He never had a losing season.
Madden quickly transitioned into being perhaps the best color commentator of all time. His folksy delivery, the embrace of onomatopoeia and ability to explain the complexities of the Xs and Os into understandable tidbits has never been matched. That he did it often on the fly and without the help of the modern graphics or replay views is even more remarkable. Whether he was with Al Michaels, Pat Summerall or Vin Scully, he was always entertaining, sharp and informative without being overbearing.
He brought us the Turducken and the telestrator. He understood the average fan better than anyone in part because he was a fan himself and he never lost sight of that. Out of his quest to help teach fans the game even better, Madden helped create and popularize the single greatest video game series ever. The eponymous NFL football games from Madden did more to explain football plays, concepts and reasons behind the actions than anything else, ever.
One of the things for which I hope folks remember Madden is how he was a player’s coach without being soft on the players. He demanded a lot from his Raiders, but let them know that he demanded it because he knew they were capable of it. He didn’t ask players to play against their type. He enhanced their skills with smart play designs. He respected their input and their humanity, empowering them in the process. That was not something that was common for the era and it fundamentally changed football for the better.
--He wasn’t a particularly popular pick at the time, but Jaylen Waddle proved worthy of the No. 6 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft:
Jaylen Waddle. 103 catches for 1013 yards, 7 TDs. Most catches for a rookie in the history of the sport.— BrianCatNFL (@BrianCatNFL) January 9, 2022
The Dolphins’ solid win over the mistake-prone Patriots (don’t say that very often) gave the Dolphins a 9-8 finish after their 1-7 start. Waddle was a big part of that impressive run. Head coach Brian Flores deserves a lot of credit for maintaining control and capping the season by capping his mentor, Bill Belichick.
--Proof that some statisticians have too much time on their hands:
With the Dolphins victory today they complete the season with the weirdest stat of all time. pic.twitter.com/rb6MSMvZSy— Big Cat (1-0 in GOTY bets) (@BarstoolBigCat) January 10, 2022
--Speaking of great rookie wideouts, Detroit’s Amon-Ra St. Brown joined some lofty company with his furious finish. St. Brown produced at least 90 receiving yards and a TD catch in three straight games to end the season. That’s been done just twice before and you might have heard of the previous rookie WRs to do it: Odell Beckham Jr. and Randy Moss. St. Brown shattered the Lions rookie receiving records. Not bad for a fourth-round pick…
--Denver made the first postseason coaching move, firing head man Vic Fangio after three seasons and a 19-30 record. A brilliant defensive mind, Fangio’s Broncos teams were stymied by bad quarterback play and occasional costly lapses from special teams and defense. Fangio should immediately vault to the top of the available defensive coordinator lists, should the 63-year-old choose to keep grinding without a break.
--One of my favorite active players, Seahawks safety Quandre Diggs, suffered a gruesome lower leg injury in Seattle’s win over Arizona. Diggs dislocated his ankle and broke his fibula. It was bad enough he won’t travel home with the team. The Pro Bowler is going to be an unrestricted free agent who figured to be in heavy demand. Like Michael Gallup of the Cowboys a week earlier, the potential big payday predictions get awfully murky with the severe injury for Diggs.
--Most people outside of Cleveland probably don’t know who Doug Dieken is. Dieken was the starting left tackle for the Browns from 1972-1984 and a pretty good one. After his playing career ended, Dieken settled in as a broadcaster for the team. He’s the older gentleman with the killer moustache in the Baker Mayfield/Progressive ad announcing Mayfield’s every move.
Dieken is hanging up his broadcasting cleats. His delivery wasn’t always clean, but Dieken became a very insightful analyst over the years. His willingness to be critical of Browns players and coaches in the heat of battle was refreshing. They often deserved it. He had a sharp football eye and could laugh at himself, too. Doug was always willing to chat in training camp, remembering me from when he did an autograph signing in the lobby of the hotel where I managed the front desk back in 1996 and me repeatedly filling up his water bottle. Congrats on a great 50-year run with Cleveland, Doug. Your presence will be weirdly missed.
--Congrats to North Dakota State, the FCS national champions. The Bison won the postseason tournament for the 9th time in 11 years. That’s an incredible run. In most of those seasons, NDSU would have at least been highly competitive in the MAC and C-USA, if not winning them outright.
--Things are not going well for Hawaii’s football program. The school’s board of regents had a hearing about coach Todd Graham and it did not paint Graham in a favorable light whatsoever. Over a dozen players have already committed to leaving and pointed the finger squarely at the embattled coach. A very thorough, unflinching but largely unbiased reporting Twitter thread from Keith Demolder of KITV breaks it all down.
--Loads of players are declaring for the draft. One latecomer to the part is Clemson CB Andrew Booth. I haven’t watched enough film to say it definitively, but Booth stands a very good chance of being my top CB in the draft class…and I really like Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner too. Expect both to be top-10 overall prospects on my final big board.
--There seems to be some fire beneath the smoke about Jim Harbaugh looking to leave Michigan for a return to the NFL this offseason. Program insiders who have flatly repudiated any semblance of this kind of talk in past years are notably noncommittal or quiet this year. I know he gets connected to the Chicago Bears a lot, but if I’m Harbaugh I’m zeroing in on the Raiders job.
--I didn’t do an official prediction for Monday night’s national championship game, so here goes…
I think Georgia learned a lot from the shellacking Alabama put on them in the SEC Championship game. The way the Crimson Tide offense attacked them down the field is something they should be able to adjust to and mitigate. Alabama losing WR John Metchie doesn’t hurt those chances for Georgia either.
But I also think Alabama’s defense can slow down and contain Georgia’s offense well enough to allow Bryce Young to outscore Stetson Bennett. Not that the Bulldogs lack weapons, but other than superb freshman TE Brock Bowers, they don’t have the ammo to go toe-to-toe with Bama’s offense unless their defense can force multiple takeaways. Gimme Bama, 24-20.
$.10--The year in music
Frequent readers know well my love of music. I’m not someone who watches TV or movies; I listen to music in one form or another for at least half of my waking hours pretty much every day. And it was a great year in music in 2021 for metal music, my primary genre.
Here are my top 10 listens/releases from the last year. Some are full albums, others are singles from bands that didn’t produce full albums. These are somewhat based off my year-end Spotify stats but also what resonates the most when I look back at the year that was in my music.
- Beartooth - The Past is Dead. This is one of those songs that didn’t grab me by the horns and bull me into listening, but the more often I heard it, the more I liked it. There’s unexpected and subtle complexity to the emo-centric metal, which is where Beartooth is at its best.
- The Pretty Reckless - Death By Rock and Roll (album). Such a good, complete hard rock album from Taylor Momsen and the band. There’s not a song to skip over on the entire CD. My favorite is the single Only Love Can Save Me Now, which rocks hard enough to appease the headbanging crowd but is still radio-friendly.
- Between the Buried and Me - Colors II (album). Creative and edgy, and at times cheeky, but still featuring singer Tommy Rogers using his versatile growl at his best, Colors II is an immersive listen. It’s not one that features obvious singles or the catchiness of their last full studio work--2018’s Automata, which was a death metal/big band swing hybrid. This one just goes off. Favorite song, and I had to look up the title because this is one of those works where I consume it in total: Fix the Error.
- Dream Theater - A View From the Top of the World (album). Dream Theater is still a staple for me after all these years. Their latest album doesn’t really fully embrace either the metal or the progressive roots of the band in total. The result is a fairly anonymous group of songs, but it’s still an album that can engross with the guitar wizardry of John Petrucci and the interplay of bassist John Myung and keyboardist Jordan Rudess. Favorite track: the 20-minute long title track, an intricate listen that gets better every time.
- Trivium - In the Court of the Dragon (album). Trivium is a band that has been on the periphery of my heavy rotation for several years but never really cracked it until 2021. The new album, notably the title track and Feast of Fire, are killer. It’s rare that a band that has been around and relatively successful for so long could make such a bold step, but Trivium did it with this one. Love their heaviness and the ability to make harmonies out of it. My friend Brett and I giddily texted one another upon hearing it for the first time.
- Spiritbox - Eternal Blue (album). Female-fronted metal bands can be tricky to embrace, especially those with singers like Courtney LaPlante who can growl and sing ethereally in the same song. It’s hard for middle-aged dudes like me to even pretend to sing along to that. The heavy undercurrent of sharp riffs and pounding bass help. Really good emerging band that I can’t wait to hear more of in 2022 and beyond.
- Avatar - Going Hunting. Avatar continues to push its boundaries for better and for worse. This was handily the best of the handful of singles the Swedish metal band put out in 2021. They need to use singer Johannes Eckerstrom’s clean voice and superb range more often. Drummer John Alfredsson is phenomenal here in a song that doesn’t feature the rhythm section as prominently as a lot of their recent work.
- Iron Maiden - Senjutsu (album). Maiden has smartly accommodated the songwriting to singer Bruce Dickinson’s more gruff, mature voice. I love the prog-metal elements all over the album; it’s not Dream Theater or Queensryche but you can hear both those bands (esp. 80s-era Ryche) sprinkled in but done in Maiden’s own signature sound. My son and I listened to this album all the way through twice on our drive from Georgia to Michigan after his EYBL Peach Jam and he loved it too. Top track: Lost in a Lost World.
- Twelve Foot Ninja - Start the Fire. The full album from the innovative Aussies wasn’t perfect, but this single is an excellent swan song for lead singer Kin Etic (Nik Baker), who stunned fans in December by announcing he was amicably leaving the band. This single and the pairing with Tatyana from Jinjer are absolute bangers that will remain in heavy rotation for a long time.
- Coheed and Cambria - Shoulders. I’ve been one among the fence for a long time, and it brings me great pleasure to see Coheed get some mainstream music love. Hearing “Shoulders” on our over-the-air rock radio station in Grand Rapids was shockingly awesome. The main chorus from singer/songwriter Claudio Sanchez is something that anyone married for a long time can relate,
You\\\'re going out of your way
Just to keep me down
Maybe we weren\\\'t made for each other
And I\\\'m just the one you can keep around
It’s an insanely catchy, scream-along pop-metal song. They bring it back positively in the end, too. We don’t hear nearly enough of radio-friendly hard rock anymore. Bravo!