$.01--It’s not often a battle of two last-place teams takes center stage in the NFL in December, but not every game features a controversial quarterback returning to the scene of his old crime. Deshaun Watson getting his first start as a member of the Cleveland Browns, with the game against the Texans in Houston, is not your typical game, however. Not even a little.
Watson took to the field for the first time in almost exactly two years to a roar of boos. Well, as much of a roar as a half-filled NRG Stadium can muster anyway--with a fair percentage of those fans decked out in orange and brown too. For all the prominent national attention, Houstonians seemed apathetically nonplussed by the whole Watson situation.
It did not start well for Watson or the Browns as far as playing, either. His first completion was fumbled away. Watson finished with just 96 passing yards and an interception in the first half, and the INT was on him. He finished an unimpressive 12-for-22 for 131 yards, no TDs and the one iNT against a Texans defense playing without its best CB, rookie Derek Stingley Jr. Watson’s rust clearly showed, as everyone should have expected.
Fortunately for Watson’s new team, his old team still hasn’t replaced him. Kyle Allen threw two INTs and fumbled twice. One of those fumbles and one of those interceptions got returned for Browns TDs. Cleveland also added a punt return TD after holding the Texans to 1-for-12 on third down conversion attempts. Watson gets credit for the 27-14 road win even though the opposing QB was more valuable to the Browns on Sunday than he was.
Watson smartly kept quiet about all the allegations, the suspension, the parade of accusers still coming out of Houston massage parlors. He’s lucky he got to face the NFL’s worst-run team with the NFL’s worst roster in his return. It won’t be so easy next Sunday in Cincinnati, nor should it be.
$.02--For the 18th season in a row, there will be no repeat by the defending Super Bowl champions. That sound you might be hearing is Dandy Don Meredith warbling “turn out the lights, the party’s over” for the Los Angeles Rams.
Sure, in this year’s wacky NFC there is still a mathematical possibility. But with their 3-9 record after Sunday’s hard-fought loss to the Seattle Seahawks, Sean McVay’s Rams are all but done in 2022. Only the Chicago Bears have a worse record in the NFC, and that is only because the 3-10 Bears haven’t had their bye yet.
The white flag went up late in the week when the Rams placed QB Matthew Stafford on IR with numbness in his extremities even after clearing the NFL’s concussion protocol. All-Pro WR Cooper Kupp was done a month ago. All-Pro DT Aaron Donald missed Sunday’s loss and could be done for the year, too.
The last-place Rams have five games remaining. It’s perfectly conceivable they lose all five, though never assume wins by Denver, the Chargers or Green Bay in 2022. Their first-round pick (currently No. 4 overall) conveys to Detroit as part of the Stafford trade in 2021. Los Angeles never wins a Super Bowl without going all-in in 2021 and Rams fans should never forget that or apologize for it. They achieved the ultimate dream goal. Alas, paying the piper is going to be painful, and the Rams are already feeling it.
$.03--There is no such Super Bowl hangover in Cincinnati. In fact, the Bengals just might be better now than they were when they unexpectedly won the AFC Championship a year ago.
Cincinnati certainly proved its worthiness Sunday afternoon. Hosting the Kansas City Chiefs in a rematch of the AFC title game last year, the Bengals showed no sign of intimidation or uneasiness. Just as they did in January, the Bengals composure carried them late in a dramatic win over the high-flying Chiefs.
After an 0-2 start, too many folks jumped off the Bengals bandwagon. It’s time to climb back on if you haven’t already. Zac Taylor’s team is now 8-4 with back-to-back wins over the AFC South champion Titans and the AFC West champion Chiefs--the third time in the calendar year they’ve beaten Andy Reid’s Chiefs.
It all starts with unflappable Joe Burrow at QB, of course. But the Bengals are a lot more than their baby-faced leader. The defense under coordinator Lou Anarumo is smart, fast, aggressive and (mostly) disciplined. Germaine Pratt was the hero in this one, stripping the ball from All-Pro TE Travis Kelce as the Chiefs were driving in the fourth quarter. That’s how the Bengals roll, getting key contributions from all over the roster. Having Burrow as a playmaking trump card is great, but they don’t always need to play it.
After the dubious start, the Bengals have now caught the Ravens in the AFC North. Baltimore losing Lamar Jackson to a knee sprain for any amount of time blows that division title door wide open for the Bengals. They proved once again on Sunday they can stride right through and shut that door behind them.
$.04--The Buffalo Bills thumped the New England Patriots on Thursday night. While some of the focus nationally glares at just how good and well-rounded the 9-3 Bills are playing, here in my world, that focus pivots a little.
You see, I’m a Detroit Lions fan. The long-suffering doesn’t even need to be said, but the most recent cause for our pain and anguish happens to be an integral figure in why the Patriots are a last-place team now. That would be former Lions head coach Matt Patricia, who is now the offensive overlord in New England.
It’s simply not going well at all for Patricia in his return to New England. Not that anyone who watched him completely scuttle and then torpedo the Lions in his tenure from 2018-2020 is surprised at all. Patricia came to Detroit trumpeted as a defensive mastermind, a literal rocket scientist who helped keep the Patriots defense near the top for a long time. He often didn’t even watch his own offense during games, which might have been part of why his Lions won so few of them.
Bill Belichick didn’t care. He rewarded his faithful old lieutenant by placing him in charge of the retooled New England offense. The Patriots are scoring a full touchdown less per game than in 2021, the first year with Mac Jones at QB. Their weaponry has upgraded around Jones, but Patricia only knows how to shoot those weapons into New England’s own feet. Jones angrily lashed out on the sidelines of this latest lifeless loss at the predictable, consistently unsuccessful play calls and antiquated strategy from Patricia.
They’re in the bottom 10 in first downs, red zone scoring, third down conversions, yards per carry and points per possession--all of which have declined precipitously under Patricia. It’s going to be very interesting to see what Belichick does with Patricia and the offense this offseason, an offseason that’s going to begin earlier than hoped for precisely because of the ineptitude of a man who habitually wears a pencil over his ear but carries around a dry-erase board.
$.05--Conference championship weekend in college football did not disappoint. Well, it thrilled fans who didn’t have skin in the game for a few schools anyway.
The Pac-12 kicked it off with a stunning upset win from Utah, blowing out USC and hobbled Trojans QB Caleb Williams. Utah ended USC’s playoff dreams by beating them for the second time this season. Kyle Whittingham’s excellent game plan and Utah’s physical, aggressive style of play continue to be anathema for USC’s offense. The Trojans truly awful tackling didn’t help USC\\\'s chances, either. So much for the Pac-12…
The Big 12 brought a much better game on Saturday. TCU and Kansas State played a spirited, fun, back-and-forth gaem befitting a conference championship. Too many dropped passes by the Horned Frogs--both on offense and defense--doomed them from keeping their unblemished record, with the Wildcats winning in overtime, mercifully in just one possession before the rules get really wonky. Fortunately for the Frogs, the loss didn’t prove too costly (more on that in a bit).
Michigan took care of a pesky Purdue team on Saturday night, capturing the Big Ten and staying unbeaten. Give the undermanned Boilermakers credit for making the game interesting, but the game was never really in doubt after the first drive of the second half. The Wolverines dominance in the trenches proved too much for Purdue, as it has for all the other teams Michigan has flattened on its way to the playoff.
Clemson won the anticlimatic ACC title over North Carolina. Clemson was effectively eliminated from the playoffs after getting upset by South Carolina, not to mention their absolute shellacking at the hands of Notre Dame earlier. The most notable thing about this game was a truly awful offensive facemask call against UNC QB Drake Maye that really did impact the rest of the game.
Georgia scored an expected romp over fading LSU in the SEC. It was 35-10 at the half and was about as boring of a 50-30 win as you’ll ever see. That’s what Georgia does; like a python, they just squeeze the life out of opponents.
My Ohio Bobcats unfortunately lost in the MAC Championship, denying my alma mater its first conference football title since 1968. Toledo was the better team, especially with Ohio not having standout QB Kurtis Rourke. Still, a much better season than expected for coach Tim Albin in Athens. Thanks for that, Cats!
Tulane also deserves a special mention for winning its first conference title in the 21st century, beating back UCF in the AAC championship. The Green Wave gets rewarded by playing USC in the Cotton Bowl. The Trojans could have questionable motivation for that game after their disheartening defeat to Utah, and you’d better bet coach Willie Fritz will have Tulane amped up to play on the big stage.
$.06--TCU and USC losing left the door open for outside interlopers into the College Football Playoff. Despite Nick Saban’s shameless disregard for his own Alabama team’s two losses, the playoff committee got it right in the end.
The four best teams entering the final two weeks of the season were Georgia, Michigan, TCU and Ohio State. The four playoff teams are those exact teams seeded 1 through 4. As it should be. As it always should have been, certainly after USC screwed the pooch.
I’ll admit to being more than a little surprised at Alabama’s exclusion. Sure, their resume was balky. Didn’t win their own division. Lost twice. Just one impressive win (Mississippi State in Tuscaloosa) since September. They got their losses out of the way before Ohio State and TCU’s however, and in the past, that has mattered to the committee. So has the wildly excessive gravitational pull of the SEC.
I went to bed Saturday night convinced Alabama was going to get in. It’s just what happens. The age-old mantra is true: if something can be screwed up, the NCAA will find out how. But the CFP operates outside the NCAA’s umbrella of useless ineptitude, and they wound up getting it right. It’s not like Bama is unworthy, but underachieving in the regular season was finally not given a pass to an SEC power. That’s real progress.
$.07--We’ve entered the portion of the year where aspiring NFL players declare for the upcoming draft. Many of them choose to forgo playing in their college’s bowl games, something that tends to really bother fans and alumni.
There are a few of those already. One of the most notable is Penn State CB Joey Porter Jr., who projects as a top-15 overall pick and could very well be the first defensive back selected in April. Porter plays cornerback exactly how you would expect the son of a longtime NFL linebacker to play the position: physical, aggressive and with a high football IQ.
Perhaps the best candidate to unseat Porter as the top CB has also declared for the draft: Mississippi State standout Emmanuel Forbes. That top CB could also be Illinois’ Devon Witherspoon, who plays a whole lot like current Jets rookie Sauce Gardner did at Cincinnati before being drafted. All three will be top-25 overall players on my final big board, barring some weird injury or unexpected development.
Injury potential is precisely why those players who are not participating in the College Football Playoff would be absolute fools to play in their bowl games. The legacy of Jaylon Smith and Jake Butt looms large here--two surefire first-rounders with very high NFL ceilings who lost tens of millions of dollars in a bowl game injury after they had already declared. They’re not the only ones but they are enough to dissuade anyone from playing in an exhibition game. Maybe the new world of NIL changes the math a little and incentivizes more bowl participation. I wouldn’t be upset whatsoever if that happened. But until that day comes, any player who projects in the top 150 in the draft is taking way too big of a risk with their livelihood to play in a game that doesn’t benefit them. Neither Witherspoon nor Forbes has indicated if they’ll play in their schools’ bowl games. Here’s hoping they don’t…
--The Lions won for the fourth time in five games, destroying the Jaguars 40-14. It was the first home game since 1971 where the Lions did not attempt a punt. Dan Campbell has his Lions pointed in the right direction.
--Kudos to Packers WR Christian Watson. After a brutal start to his rookie campaign, the speedy North Dakota State product is off to the races. Watson has caught 7 TDs in his last four games and hasn’t dropped a pass in six weeks. We’ve got to let these rookies play a little…
--I don’t know where the Colts can turn, but they’ve got to turn away from Matt Ryan at QB. Ryan wasn’t alone out there in the fourth quarter, but his inability to process speed on defense is the primary root of how Dallas turned a 21-19 lead with 15 minutes to play into a 54-19 blowout.
--I generally like what coach Arthur Smith is doing in Atlanta with a limited, rebuilding roster. It’s time for Smith to end the Marcus Mariota experiment and see what he’s got in rookie Desmond Ridder. Sounds like Smith knows that too, but this is my plea to Smith to make the move.
--A.J. Brown’s revenge game against the Titans went very well: 8 catches, 119 yards, 2 TDs in an unexpectedly easy Eagles 35-10 romp over Brown’s old Tennessee team. After a couple of uneasy wins and a rough loss, the Eagles sure seem to have righted the ship against the best team left on their schedule entering the weekend. The Cowboys now take over that mantle for a game on Christmas Eve that’s going to dictate the entire NFC playoff picture. Can’t wait!
--Deion Sanders left Jackson State for Colorado’s head coaching vacancy. It’s an obvious move for nearly everyone, climbing from the FCS to the Pac-12. But for Sanders, it’s a curious one too. Sanders made major waves in promoting not just Jackson State, but all HBCU programs and elevating the profile and opportunities they hold. He’s going to what has been one of the worst power-5 programs for more than a few years, a place where it’s difficult to get transfers admitted to the school. Not everyone is happy with Sanders for bailing on the HBCU front and I don’t blame them, but at the same time, when has Deion Sanders ever been about putting anything or anyone above himself? Should have been expected the whole time.
--Penn State offensive tackle Olumuyiwa Fashanu surprised everyone by announcing he’s going back to Happy Valey for another year. Fashanu was a potential top-10 overall pick. Barring injury, he will be in the conversation for the first non-QB drafted in 2024.
--For draft purposes, there is no bigger bowl game than Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud going against Georgia’s defense. The primary (only?) knock on Stroud is how he handles pressure against good defenses. How he performs against the nation’s best defense will be as scrutinized as the nuclear launch codes.
--Army football for the win:
Inspired by the 1st Armored Division, we will honor their fighting spirit and will to win. #GoArmy | #IronSoldiers pic.twitter.com/v9i4TWD8gK— Army Football (@ArmyWP_Football) November 28, 2022
$.10--The year in music
Longtime readers know I’m someone who has music on nearly all the time. I don’t really watch TV outside of sports, I see maybe 2 movies a year, but I’m rocking out at least 6 hours a day.
2022 was a fantastic year in the world of the music I love. It was a glorious enough year that I can do an actual top 10 of songs/albums from the past year. This was influenced by my year-end Spotify wrap, though 2022 was a year where I spent considerable time listening to actual CDs too.
- Porcupine Tree - Closure/Continuation. The first album in a decade from prog-rock mastermind Steven Wilson and his ridiculously talented trio of musicians did not disappoint. As is typical with all PT work, there is an underlying thread loosely tying together songs. This one has more of a gunshot drum feel. There’s enough ethereal sound in songs like Rats Return, enough jazziness in Of the New Day or Herd Culling, probably my favorite track and the most quintessential sounding song.
- Asking Alexandria - See What’s On the Inside. A bit of a hit-and-miss effort from the British rock band, but man the hits are incredible. Three songs from this album made my top 25 listens for the year: Alone Again, Faded Outand Never Gonna Learn. Great riffs and excellent production values abound. Faded Out, the duet with Within Temptation, was an excellent gateway drug for this longtime Within Temptation fan.
- Animals as Leaders - Parrhesia. Instrumental djent performed by three of the most gifted musicians on earth. As with some of their older stuff, songs like Gestatzerfall and Monomyth are perfect background music for writing. I did not listen to this album as much as I should have in 2022.
- Ozzy Osbourne - Patient No. 9. Ozzy’s best all-around album since Ozzmosis, which amazingly was almost 30 years ago. The title track is an instant addition to any essential Ozzy playlist. Full of collaborations with legendary guitarists (Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Zakk Wylde), this one showcases some musical range and impressive vocals for a guy of his iffy health status. The two songs with Black Sabbath cohort Tommy Iommi, Degradation Rules and No Escape From Now, prove they’ve still got some magic together.
- Megadeth - The Sick, The Dead and the Dying. Over the last 20 years, Megadeth albums have typically featured just one or two songs that anyone would want to listen to more than once. Dave Mustaine rose to the challenge of writing a complete album full of great songs. This is guitarist Kiko Loureiro at his best. Mustaine has wisely let age influence his vocals and it works very well with the punchier bass lines. It’s a very socially edgy album with songs like Dogs of Chernobyl and Night Stalkers--a duet with Ice-T, but my favorite track is the album\\\'s closer. A duet with Sammy Hagar, This Planet’s On Fire breaks character from Megadeth expectations with a peppy, chorus-heavy anthem that sounds designed to be the closing song of every future Megadeth concert. You can almost see Mustaine smiling while he snarls his way through it.
- I Prevail - True Power. The Detroit quintet’s most aspirational and musically diverse offering to date. The interplay of dueling vocalists Brian Burkheiser and Eric Vanlerbleghe, both of whom show more range and confidence than ever before, really makes the album work. They explore their hip-hop influences more in this album, which strays away a little from my favorite side of I Prevail. But man, they nailed it with songs like There’s Fear In Letting Go and Deep End, a song that would be at home on an Ed Sheeran record. Bonus points for Brian graciously inviting me and my daughter--a massive fan--to hang out before the show in Grand Rapids.
- Fit For a King - The Hell We Create. A new-to-me band I discovered as the opening act for I Prevail, and their new album hooked me quickly. Metalcore isn’t normally a genre I hit hard, but FFAK does it with enough instrumental prowess and lyrical artistry that I’m in, baby! The incredible live show sold me on songs like Falling From the Sky and Reaching Out. Ryan Kirby is quickly becoming one of my favorite vocalists as I go back through their catalog. Better late than never to find a band that’s been rocking for over a decade.
- Parkway Drive - Darker Still. This is a band that has found a niche with aggressive melodic metal. Older fans of Parkway Drive bristle at the Aussie band’s more commercial direction from their early punk-hardcore roots over the last three albums, but I happen to love it. Songs like Glitch and Soul Bleach were made for working out at the gym. The Greatest Fear will be on my top-10 Spotify listens for years to come, methinks. Singer Winston McCall’s clean-ish vocals are better than expected.
- Coheed and Cambria - Vaxis II: A Window of the Waking Mind. Oh man, the fact this isn’t No. 1 is a bit of a shocker even to me as I write this out. Coheed branched out in the latest incarnation of the multi-album science fiction narrative created by singer/songwriter Claudio Sanchez. The lyrics don’t always make sense, even for those of us who are longtime One Among the Fence. Vaxis II ventures into some synth-pop (Our Love), radio-friendly modern rock (Shoulders--which was my most-listened song on Spotify, Rise Naianasha), prog metal (Window of the Waking Mind) and everything in between. It’s Coheed’s most accessible album to newcomers. Favorite track: Beautiful Losers, the first full track after a truly brilliant intro that ties back to the last album. Don’t let the complicated storylines turn you off--this is a masterpiece anyone can enjoy.
- Ghost - Impera. The first time I heard the latest album from the Swedish melodic metal band, I didn’t know what to think. It’s not a metal album, not at all. It’s more like a Meat Loaf (RIP) record or Electric Light Orchestra with a more aggressive rhythm section and ghoulish costumes. There’s a definite theatrical feel to many of the songs, notably my two favorite tracks - Griftwood and Kaisarion, which earned the nod as my favorite song of 2022. Addictively uplifting modern rock.