There it is. What we’ve been waiting ten weeks for finally came: exciting football. After a surprisingly good Monday Nighter last week was ultimately overshadowed by some bad refereeing, the NFL still carried that moment forward into a post-election paradise. (Ratings-wise anyways; everything else about the country is TBD.) Sunday had the two best games by far in 2016, with seven lead changes in hard-fought contests between four of the league’s biggest draws: Dallas at Pittsburgh and Seattle at New England.
Was it perfect football? Far from it. The games still featured constant penalties which disrupted the flow of play (14 accepted in Cowboys-Steelers, 15 accepted in Seahawks-Patriots). It got to the point that, late in the game, Cris Collinsworth started to highlight plays on which officials weren’t throwing flags and commended them for it. But at the end of the day, the first truly great afternoon of football made one thing clear: the Super Bowl NFL fans deserve will be some combination of those teams.
Throw out the stats, throw out my theory that rookies can’t make the Super Bowl. These are the four most entertaining teams in the league right now, and the biggest game of the year should rightfully include two of them.
I guess I’m not much of a football purist, since three of these teams lack any sort of capable defense and even the Seahawks great unit has experienced stretches of mediocrity. But having four offenses capable of responding at any given moment makes every game edge-of-your-seat viewing.
No disrespect to teams like Denver or Kansas City, who both won games this weekend in a thrilling fashion of their own, but neither has an offense that inspires confidence if they suddenly fall behind by 10. As for new challengers like Atlanta and Oakland, there’s always a concern that they’ll poop their pants on the big stage like last year’s Panthers.
Of the four star teams from this weekend, three are led by Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks and the fourth has such a dominant ground game, they’ll put up a fight even if their QB gets overwhelmed by the moment. If this year’s Super Bowl was Netflix, these teams are classic episodes of The Office. Sure, if you try something new, it may turn out to be hilarious, but why take the risk? You know watching Michael burn his foot in a George Foreman grill will be awesome; who cares if you’ve seen it before?
The NFL experienced a ratings boom this weekend, and you can point to the lack of elections and a World Series as factors, but as we’ll likely see in the coming weeks, the teams that were playing had a lot to do with it as well. This season, when they’re at their best, no one’s more fun to watch than Seattle and Pittsburgh. New England and Dallas have been consistently good, as well, and no two teams inspire more passionate feelings from fans and non-fans, alike.
Though the Steelers woeful record excludes me from calling this quartet the four best teams in the league, they’re certainly my four favorite watches at the moment. One can only hope they’ll be the four left standing in late January.
There was a lot more good stuff in Week 10 to get too, but like yin and yang, you can’t have all good without some bad. So this week, I’ll also discuss the tanking Browns, cleat colors, and Jay Cutler.
Week 10 In A Nutshell
Shout-out of the Week
Kiko Alonso, LB and the Miami Defense
Early success in the NFL doesn’t always mean lasting success; and for a while, it looked like Alonso was destined to join Robert Griffin III, Steve Slaton, and a host of other flashy rookies in the “whatever happened to them?” pile. After an excellent 2013 campaign with the Buffalo Bills, the linebacker tore his ACL. By the time he recovered, he had been shipped to Philadelphia. An underwhelming and injury-filled season with the Eagles gave way to another trade, this time to Miami, a place where players can safely fade into obscurity.
Sure enough, I had totally forgotten Alonso was there, and judging by the way Philip Rivers threw that ball late, I wasn’t the only one. With a minute and change left in the game, and the Dolphins and Chargers tied at 24, the former Pro Football Weekly Rookie of the Year jumped a Tyrell Williams in-route and ran the ball back 60 yards for the game-winning score. It was the linebacker’s first interception in over a year, and his first defensive touchdown at any level.
He wasn’t the only one deserving of kudos though. The Dolphins entire secondary stiffened up when it mattered most, intercepting Rivers four times in the 4th quarter, including two from corner Tony Lippett. It marked only the second time in his career that Rivers has thrown four picks in a game.
The win was the Dolphins’ fourth-straight, quietly sneaking their record to 5-4. While sitting two games back of New England in the division feels like 10 games, Miami does have a manageable enough schedule down the stretch to think they could be a Wild Card team. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a bunch that, just over seven weeks ago, nearly lost to the Browns, a team actively trying to fail at this point.
The Browns’ tanking is embarrassing, but ultimately necessary.
On another cursed Thursday Nighter, the Browns finally had a national audience to prove how terrible they truly are. They made a compelling case, starting the game with 12 men on the field, then having two players try to field the same punt. Despite their ineptitude, Cleveland held a 7-6 halftime lead. Faced with the prospect of actually winning a game, coach Hue Jackson removed an effective Cody Kessler (11-18, 91 yards, TD), replacing him with Josh McCown.
Jackson said he made the move because he was “looking for a spark.” Well that spark ignited the dumpster fire that is the Browns, as McCown had three turnovers on the way to a 28-7 loss. For anyone foolish enough to still be watching, the QB switch was received as a pretty transparent attempt to throw the game. It’s one thing for a team to be so terrible they can’t win a game, but it’s another thing for that team to intentionally put itself in awful situations in hopes of egging on a winless season.
As brutal as it is to watch Cleveland “try” its way to an 0-16 year, it also might be the only way they can secure the no. 1 overall pick. The 49ers, a dismal 1-8 of their own and currently holding the strength of schedule tiebreaker, are nipping at their heels in the race to the bottom. (The 49ers opponents have combined for 74 wins; Browns opponents have 75).
The Niners played their most complete game of the year on the weekend, and still lost to Arizona. There’s more than a decent chance they don’t win again this season. So if the Browns want their pick of the litter at quarterback this draft (and given the way they treated Kessler on Thursday, it doesn’t appear they have the utmost confidence in him), then a historically awful season may be the only answer.
Look on the bright side, Browns fans: three seasons after their winless campaigns, both the Buccaneers and Lions made the playoffs. So there is light at the end of the tunnel. And since Cleveland supporters have been crawling through this s**t-filled tunnel for twenty years, I can’t blame them for wanting to follow in those 0-16 footsteps.
Other Great Things From Week 10
Titans continue to put “exotic” in their smashmouth.
Before the season, I thought Mike Mularkey and his staff didn’t have the creativity to actually call anything other than a host of runs up the middle. Yet here the Titans are, making their second appearance in the “great things” section after executing another trick play to perfection. Workhorse back DeMarco Murray became the first non-QB to throw a touchdown this season with a beautiful toss to Delanie Walker.
Although, considering how effective their regular offense was in a 47-25 defeat of the Packers, perhaps they should’ve saved that call for another week?
While Marcus Mariota was running over the Packers, the other marquee name from the 2015 QB class flashed his own brilliance this week, as Jameis Winston did his best Mariota impression, leaving defenders looking silly with this incredible third-down scramble. The Bucs pivot evaded Bears pass rushers for 11 seconds before launching a 39-yard strike to Mike Evans down the middle. In what has been an up and down season for Winston, this moment was about as high as Evans’ vertical.
The new extra point rules.
So far, the only storyline from the 2015 change to PATs was how it affected kickers’ psyches and made them worse. The other part of the rule change – that defenses could now return convert attempts for two points of their own – had yet to be a real factor. Before Sunday, only two teams had successfully returned a PAT for two, one of them being the New Orleans Saints. This weekend, the Saints came out on the wrong end of the league’s newest game-changing play.
Having just scored a touchdown with a minute left, the extra point would’ve given New Orleans a lead and likely the win. Yet Justin Simmons leapt the line and blocked the kick, and Will Parks returned it 83 yards for the go-ahead two points. And since it was a convert attempt, the Saints didn’t even get a chance to receive the ball and respond; they had to try an onside kick after that momentum-draining play.
And yet, as awesome an ending as it was, as you can probably see, it came complete with a controversial moment of its own (because we can’t just have nice things this year). Every good game needs to come attached with something like …
Other Bad Things From Week 10
DeAndre Hopkins, Antonio Brown, and Brandon Marshall are just some of the big-name receivers who were fined for wearing cleats that didn’t conform to league rules. But while their lime green, blue, or Kanye-inspired colors may have been illegal, at least their shoes don’t make the officials’ lives harder. No NFL sideline is designed by Yeezy. Every NFL sideline is white. So why they hell are shoes allowed to be the same color as the defining barrier of the field of play?
NFL refs have constantly reminded us this season that they’re not great at what they do. But to hear the excuse that they couldn’t tell if Parks stepped out of bounds on the return (he 100-percent did, by the way) because his shoes were white, illustrates a problem that might go beyond the general incompetence of officiating. I know it’s not the league’s style to enforce a uniform rule that goes beyond the scope of “completely arbitrary,” but this might be a good place to start.
I’m out. I’m done. No longer will you suck me in with your siren songs, Mr. Cutler. Granted I had given up on his future as a Bears QB back in Week 2, but the upset over Minnesota gave me hope that he could raise his trade value over the final stretch of the season. Well, on Sunday, Cutty barred that window shut then burned down the building behind him. He had four turnovers against a hapless Buccaneers defense that made Case Keenum look good!
Now, Cutler’s favorite target to force the ball into double coverage to, Alshon Jeffery, is suspended for PEDs. So I can’t see any reason to keep trotting Cutler back out there. Matt Barkley is not the future, but at least seeing him throw ill-timed interceptions won’t give Bears fans maddening cases of deja vu. Change isn’t always for the better; but for a Chicago team looking towards next year, change can’t possibly be any worse.