NFL 2021, in Omicronland:
Last Friday, a robotic NFL Films camera in the Indianapolis Colts quarterback room caught the unvarnished real of this NFL season. NFL Films for the first time is doing an in-season “Hard Knocks” show on HBO every Wednesday night, and this debut series is with the Colts. Last Friday, a few hours before the team’s charter left for the Saturday game at Arizona, offensive coordinator Marcus Brady got some unsettling news about one of the most important players on the team and relayed the information to head coach Frank Reich.
Brady: “It is a Covid thing, Frank.”
Reich: “Excuse me?”
Brady: “It is Covid.”
Reich: “Is it? What is it?”
Brady: “Q. Quenton.” [All-pro guard Quenton Nelson.]
Reich: (Long pause) “Okay. (Pause.) We’re good.”
Reich: “Moments like this … I’m not happy about Q testing positive, but I love overcoming those things.”
Full video here, exclusively:
The Colts, in a dogfight for the playoffs, flew to Phoenix around 4 p.m. Friday, busing to the team hotel, the posh Phoenician resort, for an odd football Christmas Eve.
On Christmas morning, three players tested positive for Covid-19. One was the best defensive player on the team, linebacker Darius Leonard, and the other two were starters: safety Khari Willis and receiver Zach Pascal. Leonard, Willis and Pascal were isolated from the team when the results were known by mid-day. They were dispatched back to Indianapolis on owner Jim Irsay’s private plane before the game. Merry Christmas. You’ve got to play the 10-4 Cardinals with most of your boldface names in quarantine or hurt … and that was only about half the drama.
This wasn’t the most dramatic NFL weekend, but it had its moments. The Colts turned out to be a fortuitous pick by NFL Films and HBO for lots of the action in Week 16.
Speaking of boldface names …
• Josh Allen is the boldest. Considering what was at stake, the 33-21 win in Foxboro was the biggest of his NFL life.
• With an assist, a big one, to Isaiah McKenzie.
• Bruce Arians, on the second chance for Antonio Brown, the Bucs’ leading receiver on the day they clinched the NFC South: “I saw him trying to be a better human being.”
• Kansas City can’t lose. It’s not all Patrick Mahomes. Eight in a row, and stunningly in the driver’s seat for home-field in the AFC playoffs.
• Aaron Rodgers breaks the Brett Favre record for touchdowns in Green Bay, the road to the Super Bowl for the NFC will go through Austin Straubel International Airport. (The Packers’ home airport honored the first aviator from the Green Bay area who was killed in World War II.)
• This morning, for the first time in 15 weeks, Arizona does not own or share first place in the NFC West. Thanks, Sony Michel.
• So, what is your New Year’s resolution, Bill Belichick?
• Ben Roethlisberger, with his family in a plush suite at Arrowhead Stadium, had one of the most forgettable games of his NFL career. This is your 2021 reminder that heroes rarely get to go out the way they want.
• Dallas scored 56 points in 46 minutes Sunday night, and maybe Dak Prescott was just tired of everyone asking, “What’s wrong with Dak Prescott?”
• The Giants stink, but I agree with bringing back Joe Judge and Daniel Jones for a prove-it 2022.
On with the game of the week, and the impactful result of the week, from Foxboro.
Sunday, fun day. This was Josh Allen’s 63rd NFL game. Of course, the biggest one was the AFC Championship Game last year, when he and the Bills laid an egg in a 14-point loss at Kansas City. But they weren’t expected to win that game. Kansas City and the great Mahomes were.
The Bills weren’t necessarily expected to win Sunday in the de facto AFC East Championship Game either. But this was winnable. It was also crucial to a few things. One: the psyche of this team, beat down three weeks ago in the freaky Monday night weathery loss to New England in Orchard Park. Two: the psyche of western New York, which loves this team the way parents love their first-born. Three: the mental state of the franchise. New England had its two decades and six Super Bowls, and now, post-Brady, this was the Bills’ turn. Damn it, this was the Bills’ turn, and that 14-10 Patriots win with the 40-mph wind simply could not stand.
This is why I thought this was the most important victory of Allen’s NFL life.
He felt it. He knew it. When Allen met his teammates Sunday morning, he told them he woke up with violence on his mind.
Losing was not an option, in other words. They had to pay whatever price it took to win this game. “Violence” is the word newly minted hero Isaiah McKenzie told me early Sunday evening about Allen’s mindset … and it sounded strange, I must say, coming from a man dressed in a Whitney Houston T-shirt in the bowels of Gillette Stadium. “His point in saying he woke up with violence on his mind was we gotta come out and play every play like it’s the most important play,” McKenzie said. “And we felt that from the first play of the game.”
Think of Allen’s job Sunday. He had to beat the great Bill Belichick in Belichick’s house, and he had to win without two receivers he’d targeted a total of 34 times in the last two weeks. Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis both tested positive for Covid during the week, so Buffalo had to play without them. That meant the elevation of the 5-8, 173-pound McKenzie, who’d never had a big game in his life, never had seven catches in a game, never had 70 yards receiving in a game. He had seven catches all season entering this one, and he’s been deactivated for two games in the last month because of fumbling issues.
“He loses his returner position, had his ups and downs,” Allen said afterward. “He comes out and has an absolutely phenomenal day. I know it means a lot to him. It means a lot to us too.”
Allen went to him on Buffalo’s first series, waiting, waiting, waiting till McKenzie, trolling the back of the end zone, had a foot of space back there, and Allen lasered him one. That was a precursor. Allen trusted McKenzie (12 targets, 11 catches, 125 yards) the same way he trusted all-world Stefon Diggs (13 targets, seven catches, 85 yards). “That’s the great part of this day—Josh trusted me all day,” McKenzie told me.
One more thing about McKenzie. Watching this game was the perfect résumé tape for anyone who wants to know how much football means to this 5-8 kid from Miami who played college ball at Georgia. On the last play of the third quarter, after New England crept to within 20-14, McKenzie sprinted from the right slot to the left side of the field on third-and-two, and Allen hit him for a five-yard gain. Next play, starting the fourth quarter: Allen sent McKenzie up the left side against safety Kyle Dugger and led him perfectly on the sideline. Gain of 28. Five plays later, Buffalo scored to make it 26-14.
But the Patriots came back with another TD, and it was a one-score game again midway through the fourth quarter. Allen kept going to McKenzie, first for a 17-yard throw to the left sideline. Next play: With 6:42 left, on the same right-slot-to-left route, only a bit deeper, Allen laid it out for McKenzie, who stretched with every fiber he had, perfectly parallel to the ground, trying to make this vital catch. BANG! He caught it, slamming to the ground and knocking the wind out of him. The play:
Isaiah McKenzie wasn't even supposed to get so much playing time today but injuries forced him into the role.
He has 11 catches for 125 yards and a score.pic.twitter.com/ZlCQmQGcxc
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 26, 2021
“I was told if it was man-to-man [it was], Josh was coming to me and I had to come up with it, no matter what,” McKenzie said. “I did knock the wind out of myself, but there was no way I was dropping the ball.”
It was everything to Allen, too. He made zero dumb plays all day. In the past, he’d beat himself up for, as he said, “trying to play hero ball.” Not on this day. He took what the Patriots gave him, had a perfect touch on so many of his 47 throws, didn’t get greedy, and was a kingmaker on fourth downs. The magnitude of this game, and think of Allen’s bold efficiency: 12 carries for a team-high 64 yards, 30 of 47 for 314 yards with no interceptions on his 47 attempts, no sacks taken, and no fumbles on his combined 59 dropbacks/rushes. “I thought 17 had an incredible game today,” coach Sean McDermott said.
Oddly, Allen’s greatest play was a nifty yet awkward run on fourth down in the fourth quarter, soon after the tremendous catch that knocked the wind out of McKenzie. Buffalo up 26-21, fourth-and-one at the Patriots’ 34. New England packed the box. Ten men near the line. Allen play-faked, then bootlegged left, with only linebacker Jamie Collins and corner J.C. Jackson (coming off a block from Diggs) to beat.
Allen needed to get to the New England 33. At the 39, just turning the corner, he juked toward the inside, making Collins uncertain for a millisecond, and then Allen barged ahead, holding the ball out like that would make Collins and Jackson confused. He barged through the tiny hole between then, and the two Patriots knocked into each other like they were two of the Three Stooges. (History, kids.) First down. The play:
4th and 1 with the division on the line… the ball in Josh Allen’s hands is the right call. pic.twitter.com/8s5kzUhHOL
— Bradley Gelber (@BradleyGelber) December 26, 2021
Two minutes later, Allen’s Favrian shovel-pass-for-touchdown to Dawson Knox clinched it. When it was over, the cornerstone player, Allen, told the opportunistic player, McKenzie: “I love you! So proud of you!”
“To be honest,” said McKenzie, “when I’m making those catches, I really have no idea what down it is, what the situation is. I’m in the zone, in the moment. All I knew is I had to take advantage of my chance.”
McKenzie and his quarterback both did that Sunday. That’s why the Bills are in control of the division this morning.
Bucs and Antonio Brown
“Any idea Tom Brady would throw 15 balls to Antonio Brown today?” I asked Bruce Arians after the Bucs trounced Carolina 32-6.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Arians said. “That’s who we had today, and if they were going to play single-high coverage, there was never a doubt in my mind.”
Of all the amazing stats in Week 16, Brown, after sitting since Oct. 14, catching 10 balls and being targeted 15 times by Tom Brady would be right up there. But last week, the Bucs lost their top back, Leonard Fournette, for a few weeks with a hamstring injury; wideout Chris Godwin for the season with an ACL tear; and wideout Mike Evans with a hamstring. Brady targeted Godwin, Evans and Fournette a combined 63 times in Weeks 13 and 14. Their replacements this week—running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and receivers Brown and Cyril Grayson—were targeted two times collectively in Weeks 13 and 14.
Godwin’s gone for the year. Evans will be ready to return, at the latest, by the playoffs. Fournette’s hamstring is more severe than Evans’, and Arians is making no promises about his playoff fate.
This left the Bucs in dire straits entering the last three weeks of the season. Luckily for them, they were slated to play Carolina, the Jets and Carolina again to close the season. Sunday’s game was a gimme, relatively. But it left a big question for Arians to answer: After he told the media (including me) 14 months ago that Brown would be gone with one more off-field screwup, Arians and the Bucs relented this year. Instead of making an example of Brown, they let him stay, and Sunday in Charlotte was Brown’s first chance to pay the franchise back for its loyalty.
So Brady’s first, second, third and seventh passes were to Brown. As long as Brown can stay healthy, that trend should continue—even if Tampa will have to answer the same questions over and over about why the franchise kept Brown after he faked his vaccination card to pass the NFL Covid strictures.
“When you and I talked last year,” Arians told me post-game, “we were talking on old experiences with Antonio. When he came back to us, he was a model citizen. There was a new history. I really loved the way he tried to fit in, worked his way in and gave us everything he had to go to the Super Bowl. My whole attitude on him changed. I saw him trying to be a better human being. So I’ve got a totally different relationship than when it was when you and I talked last year.”
I asked Arians is he thinks there’s a lot more out there like Brown who faked the card, but simply haven’t been caught. I wondered how he felt about the NFL’s pursuit of other players using fake cards.
“Yes and no,” he said. “I mean, the NFL’s gonna get their games played. That’s the bottom line.”
So Arians, clearly, hopes that story goes away down the stretch. The Bucs look like they could finish as the second seed if they win out (at Jets, home to Panthers). That means they’d play a wild-card game at home, and if they win, then a divisional game at home. Then Aaron Rogers, perhaps, would await.
“If we get four, five of out injured guys back, I feel great,” Arians said. “We’re gonna play at home. We could end up the two. The only place we have to go is back to Green Bay. I feel real good. And I feel good because we have our quarterback. As long as we have our offensive line and our quarterback, I feel real good.”
If I were Arians, I’d feel a lot better with Evans and Fournette back in the lineup.
Burrow Throws For 525
Most players are different than we are. When I covered Boomer Esiason centuries ago, I used to marvel how he’d think no quarterback was better than he was. Marino, Montana, Elway … nope. None of them. Esiason loved them and respected them, but it was part of the QB ethos: When I take the field, I’m the best guy out there.
That’s how Joe Burrow carries himself. Burrow threw for 525 yards Sunday in the 41-21 beatdown of the Ravens. It’s the fourth-highest total in NFL history, yet Burrow, as is his custom, talked about it like he was talking about a Seinfeld rerun. Cool, seen it before, enjoyed it, but what’s next?
“I’ve done it a bunch of times,” he said. “That’s what I expect to go out and do every week. I expect to play that way every single week. It wasn’t surprising to me, that’s for sure.”
I try to think about that level of confidence. Yeah, I expect to win the Pulitzer every year. When I don’t, I’m surprised.
Of course it helped Burrow that the Ravens were cut to the quick with Covid and injuries. No team in the NFL (a few are close) has had the level of Covid and injury issues that the Ravens have had. The Ravens signed each of the two quarterbacks who dressed for them Sunday in Cincinnati within the past 13 days. Won’t bore you with the rest other than to say the Ravens have plummeted from 8-3 to 8-7 and have the Rams coming to Baltimore this week. No rest for the destroyed.
Now to the Bengals. Burrow’s been a godsend, of course. Imagine throwing for 941 yards in two high school games. Burrow has done it this year (a record for most yards against a team in one NFL regular season) against the Ravens and their highly regarded coordinator Wink Martindale. With all the Baltimore absentees, Burrow didn’t know exactly how the game would go. “We weren’t really sure what they were gonna do on either side of the ball,” he said. “They had so many guys out on defense. They had a quarterback [Josh Johnson] who hadn’t played. We had an idea of what they were gonna do, but we really didn’t know. We came into the game with the expectation to have to adapt to a bunch of different things and I think both sides of the ball did a good job of that.”
The Bengals had an interesting philosophy building their team—and that philosophy might be leading them to a divison title in Burrow’s second year. They were determined to get three franchise receivers around Burrow. Tyler Boyd was there pre-Burrow. Tee Higgins was drafted in Burrow’s year, 2020. And Ja’Marr Chase came in the first round this year instead of Oregon tackle Penei Sewell. Against the undermanned Ravens, those three receivers combined for 404 yards and three touchdowns. Each one, in his own right, looks the part of franchise player at times.
They’ll need to be that, and more, to ensure a division title. Kansas City, winner of eight straight, comes to Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. Burrow has never played Patrick Mahomes, and he didn’t sound too cowed by the prospect when we spoke. “We got a chance to go out and seal the division with that win,” Burrow said. “So we’re excited about that opportunity. Obviously, it’s not gonna be easy. Those guys won our conference the last two years, been to the Super Bowl, great players all around.”
But no one scares Burrow. That’s why this franchise is in such solid shape.
Colts Depth Wins Out
Back to the Colts, and that insightful video scene from NFL Films. Imagine the angst inside the Colts when told three starters were out before an important game with major playoff implications. Even more, by midway through the second quarter against Arizona on Saturday night, four of Indy’s five starting offensive linemen and excellent blocking tight end Jack Doyle were all out with injuries, Covid or personal reasons. And the Colts still outscored the Cardinals 15-10 over the last 35 minutes in a game that, on the surface, the Colts had no business winning. Against a desperate Arizona team that had lost two in a row, Indy triumphed 22-16.
Darius Leonard was replaced by E.J. Speed, making his first career start. Speed led the Colts in tackles with nine.
Safety Khari Willis was replaced by Jahleel Addae, while Andrew Sendejo, out with a concussion, was replaced by George Odum, starting his eighth game in four years. In the fourth quarter, with the Colts nursing a 15-13 lead, Odum tipped a deep ball from the grasp of Cards receiver Christian Kirk, saving a big gain. Odum was second on the Colts with eight tackles.
Receiver Zach Pascal was replaced by several players. One of them, T.Y. Hilton, scored the first touchdown of the game for the Colts. Another, Dezmon Patmon, scored the eventual game-winning TD, the first scoring pass of his NFL career, on a great throw from quarterback Carson Wentz.
WENTZ ➡️ PATMON
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) December 26, 2021
Talking to his team in the locker room post-game, coach Frank Reich said, “We got a roster full of winning football players.” Depth won Saturday night for the Colts. Depth will determine a lot as this suddenly strange season lurches toward a conclusion. That’s a big reason why Coach Reich gave a game ball Saturday night to GM Chris Ballard. “When you have a day like this, and you need everyone on the roster, you thank the man who put it together,” Reich said.
The postscript: “Hard Knocks” (Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET on HBO, or streaming on HBO Max) got either very lucky or very smart. Maybe it was a bit of both. Ballard and Reich don’t mind opening their world to the outside. Ballard has done it consistently with an excellent video department, figuring it’s not going to give away trade secrets, and figuring he wants the Indy fans to see for themselves the kinds of people the franchise has and the way the franchise works. He’s not scared of holding up a mirror (albeit a mirror that has some editing control) to the way the Colts work and operate. We’re the beneficiaries. In a week like this, we see how an NFL team handled and overcame the Omicron variant that’s sweeping the country.
I don’t look for rose-colored lessons. I look for how people like Reich, who I’d call an honest and optimistic realist, handle the things that chop some people down. And in this show, I like what I see.
Fifty years. Amazing. Fifty years have passed since the longest game in NFL history ruined Christmas dinners nationwide. Fifty years since, halfway through the second 15-minute overtime period in the Miami-Kansas City AFC playoff game, Garo Yepremian kicked a 37-yard field goal to send the Dolphins to a 27-24 victory for the ages.
That makes the game sound too form, too regular. Sitting in my living room in Enfield, Conn., magnetized to the black-and-white TV that late-afternoon-into-night, it’s the football game I most remember as a kid. Eighty-two minutes and 40 seconds in the muck of old Memorial Stadium, KC’s last game there before moving to Arrowhead the next season. It was one of the great games in NFL history, featuring one of the great individual performances of all time. A nice back, Ed Podolak, who never had even an 800-yard rushing season in a nine-year professional career, had 350 total yards (rushing, receiving, kickoff, punt), a playoff total that has never been matched to this day.
“Don’t you think I should be proud that it’s standing after 50 years?” Podolak, 74, said by phone on Christmas Eve from his Iowa home. “I’m an old fogey, and I am!”
The mark that this game made on football history is almost incalculable. The first true kicker to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Jan Stenerud, had a field goal blocked in the second quarter, missed a 31-yarder that would have won the game with 35 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and missed another field goal in the first overtime. When a New York Times reporter called Stenerud to talk about the game in 2012, Stenerud told him, “Do you want to talk about my mother’s funeral too?” Then Stenerud hung up. Coach Hank Stram thought this was his best team ever, and the loss left him heartbroken. KC lost the first Super Bowl, won the fourth and Stram was convinced they’d have beaten Baltimore in the AFC title game and then Dallas in the Super Bowl if his team had just gotten by Miami. As it was, that was the first of three straight Super Bowl appearances for Miami, which lost this one and then won the next two. The loss seemed to have staying power for Kansas City, which didn’t make the playoffs for the next 15 years.
“The week of that game,” Podolak recalled, “they figured out different ways to use me. That was smart because Miami basically double-covered Otis Taylor all day. That left me open.”
Podolak had 17 carries for 85 yards, eight catches for 110 yards, three kick returns for 154 yards, and two punt returns for one yard. Thirty touches, 350 yards. His TD catch in the first quarter gave Kansas City a 10-0 lead, and his TD run in the fourth, running through safety Dick Anderson, gave KC a 24-17.
Miami tied it on a late TD pass from Bob Griese to Marv Fleming. With 1:25 left in the game, Podolak took the ensuing kickoff back 78 yards to the Miami 22-yard line. A minute later, here came Stenerud to try to win it from 31 yards out. Wide right. “Jan’s a great, great friend, and he was a great, great player,” Podolak said. “This time of year is very difficult for him, and he doesn’t deserve it.”
In the second overtime, Miami’s Nick Buoniconti tackled Podolak—one of 20 tackles on the day—and Podolak looked at him on the ground and said, “Do you think this game will ever end?”
“We just wanted to keep playing, no matter how we felt,” said Podolak. “But at that point, we were, as Jackson Browne once said, running on empty.”
In the sixth period, seven minutes and 40 seconds in, Yepremian’s kick won it.
As noted author Michael MacCambridge unearthed in his book “America’s Game,” there was one other painful piece of the game for Kansas City. On the second-quarter field-goal block by Miami on the Stenerud kick, holder Len Dawson saw the Dolphins overloaded to one side and called for a fake to the other side, with Stenerud set to receive the direct snap from long-snapper Bobby Bell and run behind two pulling guards. Problem was, Bell thought Stenerud had missed the fake call, and so snapped to Dawson, not Stenerud. In fact, Stenerud had heard the call and wasn’t ready to kick, and by the time he was, the Dolphins smothered it. “[Stenerud] would have gone right in for the touchdown,” Stram told MacCambridge for his book.
Talk about an agonizing way to lose. One other point: Seventeen Hall of Famers in the stadium that day—14 players, two coaches and Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt. And it was Podolak who stole the show from all of them.
Offensive Players of the Week
Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. Only three quarterbacks in the 102 years of professional football have thrown for more yards in a game than Burrow did in the 41-21 win over Baltimore on Sunday. In a conversation after the game, he was as nonchalant about throwing for 525 yards in an NFL game as he might be about going grocery shopping. “I expect to do that,” he said. Surely that flatline ethos helps him do his job, and he did it superbly against a battered Baltimore defense. His 143.2-rating, four-TD, zero-turnover game was the best quarterback performance in Bengals history.
Josh Allen, quarterback, Buffalo. With the AFC East title on the line in one of the most significant games of his young career, Allen painted a masterpiece at Foxboro on Sunday in the Bills’ 33-21 victory. The numbers were in keeping with Allen’s rep (30 of 47, 314 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, 64 rushing), but watching the game, I thought his performance was as much about his presence and control. His late eight-yard end deke-and-sweep on fourth down was huge, as was the presence of mind when pressured to throw a Favre-like shovel pass for a touchdown to Dawson Knox to end it.
Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay. In passing Brett Favre on the all-time Packers touchdown-pass list with a three-TD, no-pick game against Cleveland, Rodgers buttressed his case for a second straight MVP. It’s interesting to note the touchdown-to-interception differentials of the four Green Bay Hall of Fame quarterbacks (yes, I assuming Rodgers may one day wear a gold jacket), and Rodgers’ greatness is pretty evident with these numbers:
Arnie Herber — 1930-40
66 TDs, 90 INTs
Bart Starr — 1956-71
152 TDs, 138 INTs
Brett Favre — 1992-2007
442 TDs, 286 INTs
Aaron Rodgers — 2005-21
445 TDs, 93 INTs
Defensive Players of the Week
Charvarius Ward, cornerback, Kansas City. His pick of bedraggled Ben Roethlisberger late in the first quarter led to KC’s second TD and a 14-0 lead, and Pittsburgh was never in it after that. Suddenly, Kansas City has so many defensive playmakers; it would have been easy to pick several others in this space, but the defense has been such a concerted team effort. Watch out if you’re traveling to Arrowhead this postseason. The home team has allowed 7, 9, 9, 9 and 10 points in the last five home games, all wins.
Rasul Douglas, cornerback, Green Bay. “He’s changed our team. He really has,” Aaron Rodgers said of Douglas after Green Bay 24, Cleveland 22. Douglas’ game-clinching second interception of the day was a gift from the officials, after Douglas’ overt contact with Browns receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones pre-pick. Still, two interceptions are two interceptions, and both proved vital in the Packers’ win. Check out the 2021 journey of Douglas:
April 6: Carolina, Douglas’ 2020 team, shows no interest in resigning the free-agent.
April 19: Las Vegas signs Douglas.
Aug. 25: After being waived by Vegas, Douglas is signed by Houston.
Sept. 3: After being waived by Houston, Douglas is signed to the Arizona practice squad.
Oct. 6: Fighting a spate of cornerback injuries, Green Bay signs Douglas to the active roster. He has had five interceptions in his 10 Green Bay games, including two returned for touchdowns. Who could have predicted such a great run from Douglas?
Special Teams Players of the Week
Braxton Berrios, kick returner, N.Y. Jets. His fleet, lovely 102-yard kick return for touchdown early in the second quarter gave the Jets the lead over Jacksonville—and gave Berrios the right to declare he’s the best return man in football this year. His 30.7-yard kick-return average leads the league, and his 13.4-yard punt-return average would be second if he had more returns.
103-YARD KICKOFF RETURN TD 😳
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 26, 2021
Jack Fox, punter, Detroit. What does a 2-11-1 team have to lose on fourth-and-six at the opponents’ 45-yard line in the second quarter of a close game? Not much. So Fox, who throws a nice spiral, lofted a pretty one to KhaDarel Hodge on the right side. Gain of 21. First down.
Brandon Powell, punt returner, L.A. Rams. With the Rams struggling on offense (especially Matthew Stafford), Powell’s lethal 61-yard touchdown return midway through the third quarter gave the Rams a semi-comfy 20-10 lead.
Coach of the Week
Leslie Frazier, defensive coordinator, Buffalo. Notice something different about Mac Jones on Sunday? He was never comfortable. The Bills’ varied rush had Jones hopping around and out of the pocket consistently, and the Bills’ secondary had answers for Jones and his targets all day. Good game plan by a coach who has formed an excellent bond with coach Sean McDermott and knows what buttons to push at different times of the game.
Goats of the Week
Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Cleveland. Mayfield on Saturday played a red-hot Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau, desperately needing a win at 7-7 in a tightly packed division race. Mayfield came out meeting the moment, driving the Browns 75 yards after the opening kick for a TD. Cleveland’s defense held, and on the first snap of the ensuing series, Mayfield threw an interceptions to Green Bay safety Darnell Savage. Rodgers turned the pick into seven points. Next Cleveland series: Mayfield drove the Browns to the Green Bay 24, and on third-and-19, threw a pass to an open Jarvis Landry three feet too high. Another pick. Another Rodgers TD pass. Next Cleveland series: Another pick by Mayfield, another TD for Rodgers. Three picks, 21 Green Bay points, a disastrous start by a quarterback trying to show he deserves a long-term deal. And a questionable fourth pick—DPI should have been called on it—ruined Cleveland’s last chance. Would you pay Baker Mayfield $35 million a year, or whatever the market would call for, as your long-term QB answer? “I hurt this team,” Mayfield said post-game. “There’s no excuse.”
“You guys is all about drama. This is all about football. We just talk about Carolina, or I don’t want to talk to you guys.”
—Antonio Brown, responding to ESPN’s Jenna Laine asking him after his first game back from an NFL ban for falsifying his vaccine card what it meant for him to have coach Bruce Arians in his corner during the suspension.
“He makes a quarter of a billion dollars. He’s worth every penny.
—Bills tackle Dion Dawkins, asked about Josh Allen’s great game in New England on Sunday.
“I’m doing a story about New Year’s resolutions. I’m wondering if you have any you wanted to share with your fans and our readers.”
—A reporter to New England coach Bill Belichick in the post-game press conference a few minutes after the Patriots lost to the Bills, and probably lost any realistic chance to win the AFC East.
Belichick responded, “No, not right now. Maybe next week.”
“I’m just so let down because the city of Charlotte has been so good to me.”
—Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, after what probably was his last game in Carolina, a 32-6 home loss to Tampa Bay.
“I thought our guys did the best they could under the circumstances. That’s all you can ask for. Outcomes, they’re meaningful and they matter. But it’s not a one-game season.”
—Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, after his Covid- and injury-ravaged team got thrashed by the Bengals 41-21 Sunday.
“If you want to win the game today, stop the run, make Mac Jones beat you.”
—Phil Simms, on the CBS pregame show Sunday, regarding Buffalo-New England.
As you saw, Mac Jones couldn’t.
“That was probably the highlight of my entire life, that touchdown pass.”
It’s interesting to look back at the seven 2018 coaching vacancies, and to try and learn from them. The third coach hired that post-season, Mike Vrabel, was Tennessee’s choice. The eighth, Frank Reich, was chosen by the Colts.
Eighth because the Colts had settled on Josh McDaniels in January 2018, but McDaniels decided after the season to stay in New England. So a week after the Eagles scored 41 points and won the Super Bowl, Indianapolis chose the Eagles’ offensive coordinator, Reich.
Four of the seven are gone: Jon Gruden, who went 22-31 for the Raiders in three-plus seasons … Steve Wilks, 3-13 for the Cardinals in one season … Pat Shurmur, 9-23 in two seasons with the Giants … and Matt Patricia, 13-29-1 in nearly three seasons in Detroit. A fifth, Matt Nagy, 32-32 nearing the end of his fourth season in Chicago, is in danger of not returning for a fifth year with the Bears.
Vrabel is 41-26, with two playoff appearances and likely a third this year. Reich is 38-28, also with two playoff appearances and possibly a third this year.
Look at the wins each has had this season. Vrabel’s team has beaten Kansas City, Buffalo, the Rams, the Colts twice, New Orleans and San Francisco. Reich’s Colts have beaten Buffalo, New England, Arizona and the Niners.
My four points on the lessons coach-seeking teams can learn from Vrabel and Reich:
1. Don’t hurry. In the aftermath of the 2018 regular season, eight teams had coaching vacancies. Every one was filled in a four-day, early-2019 span between Jan. 7 and 11. (That includes informal agreements by the Bengals and Dolphins with Zac Taylor and Brian Flores, waiting till their teams’ season would be over.) I’m sure the Packers (Matt LaFleur) and Bucs (Bruce Arians) are fine with making the quick calls. But do you think the Jets (Adam Gase) and Browns (Freddie Kitchens) are? Why do teams sprint to the finish line when it’s been shown time and again there are coaches like Reich (picked on Feb. 11, 2018), Bill Belichick (Jan. 27, 2000), Mike Tomlin (Jan. 22, 2007), Tony Dungy (Jan. 22, 2002) and Vrabel (Jan. 20, 2018) available with deliberation?
2. Pair the coach with a GM who’s a good partner. In Tennessee, GM Jon Robinson knew all about Vrabel from his days as a scout with New England. He knew they had the same ethos: strong defense, running game, quarterback who will make plays and not lose the game. In Indianapolis, Ballard has often said he was fortunate to get to choose Reich after every team had picked their coaches. Look at their chemistry. They’re close enough to be brothers.
3. Don’t stop till you get the quarterback right. Tennessee didn’t get stuck on Marcus Mariota when he struggled, opting for a trade with Miami to get Ryan Tannehill in early 2019. When Andrew Luck retired unexpectedly in August 2019, Indy went through a few options in ’19 and ’20 before settling on a big deal with Philadelphia to obtain Carson Wentz. Still uncertain if Wentz will be a top quarterback, but he’s a better long-term option than Jacoby Brissett.
4. Let the world, and all your players, know the coach is in for the long haul. Vrabel’s likely to get a rich extension in Tennessee. Reich has gotten one in Indianapolis. They’re steady and smart. Players who go to the Titans and Colts know exactly what to expect from the coach.
Braxton Berrios of the Jets celebrated his 102-yard touchdown against Jacksonville by wearing a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer onesie to his post-game press conference Sunday at the Meadowlands.
The Bills did not punt Sunday, the first time in Bill Belichick’s 474 games as a head coach that the opponent did not punt, per ESPN.
On July 15, 2001, in a Major League Baseball game, San Francisco played at the Texas Rangers. In the sixth inning, Texas reliever Pat Mahomes gave up a single to Calvin Murray of the Giants, scoring J.T. Snow with the go-ahead run.
Father of KC quarterback Patrick Mahomes, uncle of Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray, son of former Rams wide receiver Jack Snow.
H/T, Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports, for the tip on this one. All I did was flesh out a few of the details. Thanks, Eric.
The only logical conclusion we can make is that @tkelce has been holding this offense back. I’d try to get a conditional 6th or 7th round pick for him this offseason and build around @B_Bell10 and Noah Gray
— Mitchell Schwartz (@MitchSchwartz71) December 26, 2021
The retired Chiefs tackle, showing he can laugh too.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) December 26, 2021
Easily the best play of Wilson’s rookie year.
Responsible betting commercials are funny.
— Gotham Chopra (@gothamchopra) December 26, 2021
Chopra is a filmmaker and co-founder of Religion of Sports.
Aaron Rodgers has only thrown 2 interceptions in the last 13 games.
Baker Mayfield has thrown 3 interceptions in his last 13 passes.
— Rich 🎅hrnberger (@ohrnberger) December 25, 2021
Former NFL offensive linemen/current radio host Rich Ohrnberger, in the midst of Browns-Packers.
Really not in the mood for one of those @progressive ads with Baker Mayfield right now. Read the room, people.
— Jamil Smith جميل كريم (@JamilSmith) December 25, 2021
Browns fan and Vox journalist Jamil Smith, in the midst of Mayfield’s three-interception first half at Lambeau Field on Saturday.
Ron Rivera cited a lot of the things his players have dealt with in recent weeks, with the covid outbreak, the fatal car accident involving safety Deshazor Everett, and the multiple injuries to key players.
"This is real-life shit." pic.twitter.com/5LT2YyLMSr
— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) December 27, 2021
Jhabvala covers WFT for the Washington Post.
Media knows no more than fans, says a person mocking me for deriding the fans vote for the Pro Bowl. From @Phafel919 on Twitter: “The genius who said, ‘Hey, let’s let fans vote for guards and tackles and centers for the Pro Bowl! They watch a lot of coaches’ tape!’ is probably the same guy who said, ‘Hey, let’s let media members vote for the Hall of Fame, the most meaningful honor in the sport!’ “
If you’re trying to put the best players in the Pro Bowl, and I’m dubious that this is the goal of 90 percent of fans when they vote, then it’s silly to allow them to vote for positions that the vast majority of fans can’t judge. As for the Hall of Fame, lots of people like you (seemingly) think it’s bad form for the Hall of Fame to allow media to vote for enshrinees. I’m not sure there’s a better way, but if the Hall board of directors comes up with one, it’s their privilege to change the voting standards.
Coaches interviewing for jobs is a distraction. From Brian Sambirsky: “Why the rush to allow teams to interview other team’s employees during the last two weeks of the most competitive playoff season likely in the history of the NFL? Any second a coach spends thinking about his next job is a distraction from his current job. Coaches preach to players to focus on the task at hand. Yet the NFL is permitting coaches to be distracted. The NFL must make teams seeking their next coach to wait until after the Super Bowl to interview coaches employed with other NFL teams.”
You make the perfect argument, Brian. I agree with every word.
The NFL likes FOX’s money. From Tellis Smith: “I’m interested on your take regarding the NFL continuing its partnership with Fox, given toxic, bigoted, dangerous, and at times, racist rhetoric spewed by numerous personalities on Fox News. I can’t understand why the NFL would continue a partnership or affiliation with such a toxic company. I’m sure there are plenty of companies who would love to have the NFL contract currently held by Fox. Do you foresee this issue being addressed?”
I don’t. The NFL is not going to let politics get in the way of rich TV deals, and can’t for at least the next nine seasons. That’s when the current TV contract will be up for discussion and negotiations. If someone bids a dollar more than FOX then that network will get the deal.
The blessing of children. From Joe, of Lodi, Calif.: “I enjoy reading your column throughout the week and have for many years. As a father of 11- and 5-year-old boys, sometimes I get lucky and can read it all the way through, though most of the time it’s a section at a time throughout the week. Tonight was one of those moments where I snuck away to read for a few minutes. While I listened to the fight through the walls of the boys ‘helping’ clean for the holiday and the ensuing screams of whose turn it is to sweep, I was growing more frustrated and concerned for what I was going to walk into. Then I got to the part of your column about your new grandson and it gave me pause and a smile as I realized how blessed I am to have these two despite the noise and turmoil. Thank you for bringing football and humanity together every Monday. Congratulations to your family!”
Wonderful of you to write, Joe. Thanks. Have a joyous holiday season.
Fed up with the Giants. From Joe Bruno, of Pennington, N.J.: “If [Giants owner] John Mara promotes an internal person to GM and Joe Judge stays, he will lose the fans. I like Joe Judge, but you can’t act/talk like Parcells without results. Joe is a good coordinator, not a head coach. Mara will never sell the team. There is no reason not to hire a president of football operations. John is a problem, not part of the solution.”
Joe, you’re one of several who have written in the last couple of weeks anguished and angry about the Giants. I know John Mara, and I think he understands the depths of the issues. I don’t think he will fire Joe Judge, but obviously Mara will replace GM Dave Gettleman, and I will be very surprised if Mara doesn’t go outside the organization to do so. The Giants have a long way to go, which you know, and the only way to start the process is to have zero sacred cows. The cap is a mess, and there are so many needs. It won’t get fixed overnight. They need a man who will value mid-round picks and who has the ability to turn rounds three through six into contributing, consistent players. Aside from getting a quarterback you can win with, that’s how you win today. Oh—and they should not give Daniel Jones a guaranteed deal for 2023. Assuming his neck injury can clear up before next season, Jones should be playing for his Giants’ future in 2022.
Dan Campbell. From Alan K. Rode: “Suggesting or even hinting Lions coach Dan Campbell as Coach of the Year material is ridiculous. CAMPBELL IS 2-11-1!! Do wins matter anymore or do they simply get in the way of a good lede? Or do you need more clicks from Lions fans? A big lump of coal in your figurative stocking.”
I guess this sentence is what enraged you, Alan: “No 2-11 coach will ever contend for coach of the year, but there’s a lot to like in rookie Detroit boss Dan Campbell.” My suggestion this morning is a nice pot of chamomile tea.
1. I think it’s got to be painful for Ben Roethlisberger, in the sunset of a Hall of Fame career, to be noncompetitive against the best teams in the AFC, as the Steelers have been recently. In the last month, Pittsburgh has lost by 31 at Cincinnati and 26 at Kansas City, and in Roethlisberger’s career, the Steelers had never lost to either team by more than 10 points. Imagine how it must feel for Roethlisberger to bring his family to Kansas City for a game, as he did Sunday (that is rare for him), and to have them sit there and watch the Steelers be as pathetic as they were. The end is not kind to most star athletes, and unless Pittsburgh can sweep Cleveland and Baltimore to finish 9-7-1, Roethlisberger—this is expected to be his last year—will play his last five NFL seasons without winning a playoff game.
2. I think there’s a lot that’s troublesome about the Cardinals right now. But to me, three things stand out.
• They haven’t won at home in more that two months. They’re 0-4 in that span in Glendale, and after falling out of first in the NFC West for the first time all season Saturday night, it’s pretty likely they won’t have to worry about that in January.
• The offense looks totally out of sync — three offensive touchdowns in their last two games. In their recent three-game losing streak, the Cards are scoring 17 points a game, Kyler Murray can’t even get the snap from center down, and there’s nothing Arizona can rely on.
• The Cards scare no one. That’s not scientific. It’s just real.
3. I think I would love to see Aaron Rodgers, who was so happy and content and grateful Saturday after the 24-22 win over Cleveland, stay in Green Bay in 2022 and be a lifelong Packer. But more than that, Rodgers has kept his word, from what he told me and others during training camp. He promised to be where his feet are. He said he told his teammates when he reported to camp after his long time away in the offseason to live in the moment—no use in thinking about the future, which is out of everyone’s control. This is a media-crazed league, and it’s clear Rodgers has practiced all season what he preached when he got to camp last summer. He sounds like a man who loves where he is.
4. I think, having said that, I have no idea what Rodgers thinks deep down inside. And if, as it turns out, he decides he wants to leave after this season, this might be a Rodgers idea for a deal after the season:
a. Say Denver loses three of the last four to finish 8-9. Vic Fangio, with his third sub-.500 year in three seasons as coach, could be replaced with Green Bay offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
b. Denver could use a good chunk of its $49 million in 2022 cap space to reach a long-term agreement with free-agent wide receiver Davante Adams of the Packers.
c. Denver could trade first- and fourth-round picks in 2022 and a first-round pick in 2023, plus wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, to Green Bay for Rodgers.
Notes: Deal would leave Denver with no first- or fourth-round picks next year, but two picks in each of the second and third rounds … Deal would leave Denver with Adams, Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick as a legitimate 1-2-3 at wideout … If Rodgers leaves after this season, Green Bay would get significant compensation. If Rodgers stays one more year, he would be an unrestricted free-agent in 2023 and the Packers’ only compensation would be a compensatory third-round pick in 2023 … If Rodgers, as expected, would sign an extension in Denver, his receiver group of Adams, Sutton and Patrick would be with him for three years at least, through the end of the 2024 season—when Rodgers would be 41 years old.
5. I think Kevin Stefanski’s a good head coach. Cleveland’s fortunate to have him. But going pass-pass-pass with a quarterback having a bad day, and having a first-and-10 at midfield with 59 seconds and three timeouts left, and trailing by two, with a running game over 200 yards for the day and averaging 8.8 per rush, is simply coaching negligence.
6. I think there’s one thing about very modern football that bothers me a lot, and that’s impatience. This was a headline in The Athletic (which is great, by the way) on Saturday: “Only Zach Wilson can change the Jets’ narrative, and he’s running out of time.” Sheesh. After 14 games, Wilson is on trial for his life? Zach Wilson got drafted by a wayward 2020 franchise, the 2-14 Jets, and he’s struggling. Big deal! Let me remind you of one thing: The first year the Steelers won the Super Bowl was Terry Bradshaw’s fifth season in the NFL. Coming out of camp that year, Bradshaw was beaten out by Joe Gilliam. He regained the starting job, and later in the season, Chuck Noll yanked Bradshaw for Terry Hanratty. Bradshaw won back the job and was the Super Bowl starter that season, the first of four Super Bowl wins in the next six seasons. There’s a reason why the Jets stay awful. Actually there are several. But one is that the media and fans are impatient, and then a collective unconvinced front office/ownership is impatient. In the end, so often, it results in the waste of a very high top pick. Wake up, people.
7. I think the Bills are lucky the Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis absences didn’t kill their chances in New England. Both are unvaccinated. Not only did Beasley test positive last week—meaning he had to miss a minimum of 10 days before being allowed to test back onto the team—but also he had the gall to blame the NFL for being out. “Just to be clear Covid is not keeping me out of this game,” Beasley wrote on Instagram. “The rules are.” That’s like saying, To be clear, testing positive for a communicable disease is not keeping me out of this game. An NFL rule that I knew all about and risked being able to steer clear of is. Beasley played with fire and got burned, and the Bills had to adjust in New England without a key receiver who caught 158 passes since opening day 2020. Good for the Bills that Isaiah McKenzie played the game of his life replacing Beasley. And hearing Chris Mortensen’s report that Beasley has been fined “in the range of $100,000” this season for Covid violations has to make the Bills wonder why they’re hanging onto an insubordinate player, no matter his football value.
8. I think the NBC NFL rules expert, Terry McAulay, made a perfect point with this tweet during the weird extra Monday game:
Who is doing what to whom here? This should be a no call, not defensive pass interference. pic.twitter.com/H1x1H5BUY1
— Terry McAulay (@SNFRules) December 20, 2021
Watch that play a couple of times. And then tell me you’re sure the interference should have been called on Browns defender M.J. Stewart and not on the receiver, Zay Jones. Or there should have been no call. As it happened, the call was defensive pass interference. Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr, on third-and-five at the Raiders’ 9-yard line, threw it up downfield, and Stewart got flagged for a 46-yard penalty, to the Cleveland 45-yard line.
9. I think I’ve said it for years: Defensive pass-interference should NOT be a spot foul. Give me one reason to justify that call on Stewart being a 46-yard penalty. Impossible. It’s a perversion of the rules of the game. It’s downright irresponsible for the NFL to have the max offensive pass interference foul be 10 yards, while there is no limit for DPI yardage. Plus: A third to a half of the DPI calls are hand-fights between receiver and DB, and Stanford coach David Shaw told me a few years ago that the major beef on eliminating the spot foul on DPI and turning into the 15-yard-max college rule—that beaten corners would tackle receivers with two steps on them—doesn’t happen very often in the college game. It’s an easy fix. DPI should be a 15-yard flag.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Sports Story of the Week: Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on a baseball. That’s it. A baseball.
b. First, I love how Derrick Goold loves baseball. I love how the Post-Dispatch loves baseball. This is a cool story, the story of how the ball from Daniel Descalso’s first major-league hit ended up as a door prize in a Best Western Hotel in small-town Massachusetts a decade after the hit. Wrote Goold:
“I had so many at-bats and big moments, but when you get that first hit, you can kind of breathe a little bit at that level: ‘I can get a hit up here, too,’” Descalso said. “It’s proof to yourself. That is your ‘I’m here’ moment. Even now to look at that ball it brings back all the memories of that night.”
A good play and a bad bounce denied Descalso base hits in his first two at-bats. In the eighth, Descalso batted with two runners on. He still can see [Pittsburgh pitcher Brad] Lincoln’s 2-1 pitch: “Fastball, down and away.” He lashed it to the outfield. Center fielder Alex Presley, newly into the game, dived and the liner slipped past him for the first of Descalso’s 593 big-league hits. Left fielder Brandon Moss picked up the ball before the warning track and threw to shortstop Argenis Diaz. Two runs scored, and Diaz’s errant throw sailed wide of the catcher. Descalso stood at third, grinning.
As if the bat was still in his hand, he can recall everything about that hit.
Except where exactly he put the ball.
c. Am I the only one who has had enough of Christmas by 10 on Christmas morning? I think it has something to do with the fact that the first carols every year begin in mass media around Oct. 31.
d. Good News of the Week: Jack Harris of the Los Angeles Times, on former Dodger Andre Ethier doing his part to fight hunger among the thousands of undocumented Angelenos with the “No Us Without You” charity. Wrote Harris:
Kim Muller, a local chef who was delivering loads of food to families who couldn’t get to the distribution site themselves, looked over at Ethier with wide eyes.
“I saw he was involved in person and was like, ‘Dude!’” she said with a laugh.
And the people receiving food called out from their car windows and waved in delight, thankful not only for the charity helping them get by, but now also the former Dodgers star bolstering its efforts.
“God bless you,” shouted one man in a silver sedan, flashing a toothy smile before driving away near the end of the day. “Gracias!”
e. Could Uber Eats at least find two adult males who look remotely like football players for the ad with Erin Andrews? Lord. What ad agency approved that?
f. I have never seen a number four who weighs 326 pounds till that commercial.
g. Sunk my teeth into “Get Back,” the three-part doc on the Beatles on Disney+. A few things come to mind. It’s tedious, but in a good way. Watching the creative process in 1969 of this now mega-famous group (think Taylor Swift times two) is absolutely fascinating. If you like the Beatles (I can’t get enough of them to this day), the most amazing thing to watch, in real time, is the creation of some of the most famous songs of our lifetimes.
h. You see Paul McCartney farting around with his guitar, thinking of lyrics on the fly for “Two of Us,” and “Get Back,” and other late-term Beatles songs. You see him, after five or six tries of putting a name in the song and thinking of good places for this name to be, and passing on a more political version of the song to protest the British anti-immigrant culture of the late sixties, think of “Jo Jo left his home in Tucson Arizona for some California grass.” That’s the biggest strength of this doc. You see the creative process happening, 52 years after it happened.
i. The other part that’s so interesting is the fragile people the Beatles were. John Lennon’s a dour guy (at least at this point of his life, and maybe due to the fact that it doesn’t seem he really wants to be in the band anymore). McCartney’s an optimist, but realistic about his role in the band. “I’m scared of me being the boss,” he says during one contentious rehearsal. Ringo Starr’s a hey-whatever guy. George Harrison is earnest, somewhat troubled, and clearly ticked off feeling not being treated as an equal. At one point, almost resigned to his fate, Harrison said to McCartney: “Whatever it is that will please you, I will do it.”
j. Beernerdness: Bought Vandelay Wit (Faction Brewing, Oakland, Calif.) for the label, drank it for the nice coriander flavor. A very nice wheat beer. But check out this label. If you don’t understand, you didn’t see the “Seinfeld” episode with George Costanza (pictured) trying to protect his unemployment benefits, and … well, it’s a long story, but it ends with George face-down on the floor, just like on the front of this beer can.
k. Coffeenerdness: Jacob’s Wonderbar at Philz Coffee, the pour-over place in the Bay Area, is a must-drink when I’m West.
l. Remembrance of the Week: Rowan Ricardo Phillips, writing for the New York Times’ annual magazine of excellence “The Lives They Lived,” with an essay on the late MLB pitcher Mudcat Grant. Wrote Phillips:
One Friday night in September 1960, Grant’s Cleveland Indians were hosting the Kansas City Athletics. The stakes could not have been lower: Both teams were lousy, and with only two weeks left in the long season, there was little to play for but pride. Grant, a pitcher, was not in the lineup that night, but he had plenty of pride.
The 25-year-old was shaped by his hometown, Lacoochee, Fla. The Klan rampaged freely there, shooting into the homes of Black families. Grant’s father, James Sr., died of pneumonia when Grant was a baby, so his mother, Viola, had to fend for herself and her six children. She took to hiding the young Grant in a wooden box near the fireplace of their shack — it had no electricity, no hot water, no toilet — when the Klan came through.
As the first notes of the anthem began to play on that September evening in 1960, Grant rose with his teammates. A talented vocalist, he loved singing the national anthem before ballgames. (Later in his career, in fact, he would become the first active player to sing the anthem before a game.) But on this night, he improvised his own ending: Instead of “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” he sang, “This land is not so free, I can’t even go to Mississippi.”
All hell broke loose.
m. A great reminder of what life was like 60 years ago for so many in our country.
n. Stay safe, stay healthy, and be careful as you celebrate the new year. Happy 2022 to everyone.
New Orleans 19, Miami 13. What appears to be setting up as the first start of Ian Book’s NFL career might be a harbinger of doom for the Saints’ season, except for one thing. Sean Payton legitimately likes Book after watching him for the past few months making the kinds of throws Payton needs his quarterback to make. Book’s name has come up three or four times in conversations with Payton since Saints’ rookie camp last May. Each time, Payton’s been bullish on Book’s chance to execute the complicated New Orleans offense. So we’ll see, but I think the Saints D comes into this game on a high, and they know this is a playoff game. In fact, it’s a playoff game for each of these 7-7 teams. “There’s a million excuses out there, and we’re going to use none of them,” said Book.
Fifteen games on Sunday (the most in the season till next week, when every game is scheduled for Sunday), one on Monday—Covid permitting. Nine early Sunday games, five late, one Sunday night.
L.A. Rams at Baltimore, Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX. Huge, huge, huge for the Ravens, whose season has spiraled out of control. I always think in the NFL when the talent is close, the desperate team wins. Baltimore needs this game far more than the Rams for postseason life. Question is, how many legitimate Ravens will be back from injury or Covid to give them a shot.
Kansas City at Cincinnati, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS. First Mahomes-Burrow meeting ever, and if we’re fortunate, it’ll be the first of 20. It’s much more important to Cincinnati, trying for its first AFC North title since 2015. The way KC is playing, it’s hard to imagine any other team winning AFC home-field advantage.
Las Vegas at Indianapolis, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS. Indy’s Christmas night win in Arizona makes this game far more of a must-win for Vegas, particularly with the Colts finishing the season at Jacksonville. A win here makes the Colts 8-3 in the conference, and a virtual lock for the fifth seed in the playoffs barring a Tennessee stumble. Colts could enter the playoffs 10-2 in their last 12.
Minnesota at Green Bay, Sunday, 8:20 p.m., NBC. Does Mike Zimmer of the disappointing 7-8 Vikes need a life preserver like a 2021 sweep of Green Bay would provide to save his job? Hard to see the Packers, with NFC home-field in sight for the second straight year, losing this one, though.
Houston at San Francisco, Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS. Never thought you’d see Houston in a game of the week this year, right? The Texans are not awful; they’re 3-3 since mid-November, they’re getting middle-of-the-pack QB play from Davis Mills, they play hard for David Culley … and they could ruin the Niners’ season. The 8-7 Niners finish at the Rams (who may need the game for playoff seeding), and there’s also the matter of the tenuousness of Jimmy Garoppolo at QB. He was awful at Tennessee on Thursday night, and needs a bounce-back game in a big way.
Pats shudder to think:
“Josh Allen twice a year till