$.01–The Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans played A Tale of Two Halves in Nashville on Sunday in the rare instance where the best matchup on paper delivered in the flesh, too.
Cleveland raced out to a 38-7 halftime lead behind nearly flawless play from QB Baker Mayfield executing a brilliant gameplan by rookie head coach Kevin Stefanski. The Titans loaded up to stop the run, and the Browns promptly aired it out with rousing success. Mayfield threw 4 TDs at the half and the Browns scored on all six possessions in the greatest half of football in the long and storied history of the Cleveland Browns.
It wasn’t just the offense. On Tennessee’s first offensive drive, Browns DT Sheldon Richardson clobbered NFL rushing champ Derrick Henry short on 4th-and-1. On the Titans’ next offensive snap, Richardson ripped the ball out of Henry’s arms for the RB’s first fumble in a year. Henry had 15 yards on 7 carries at the half.
The book turned from heroic epic to disaster novel for Cleveland after halftime. Tennessee figured out that the same way to beat Cleveland was to do unto others what was being done to them. Ryan Tannehill found Corey Davis all over the field (11 catches, 182 yards, 1 TD) against a Browns secondary missing its two best players. The Titans cranked out two too-easy TD drives in rapid fashion and suddenly everyone in Cleveland was wondering if this was the bad Die Hard alternate ending where Hans Gruber throws John McClane off the side of the Nakatomi Towers before flying away and sitting on a beach earning 20 percent.
The Browns eventually clamped down. Barely. The Browns held on, 41-35, holding off a valiant comeback. Normally such a near-catastrophe would require some serious scrutiny. We’ll get to that with the Browns later, but in the moment, it’s a glorious triumph, a happy ending to a novel that’s still being written.
Cleveland is 9-3 for the first time since 1994. Only the Chiefs and Steelers have more wins in the AFC. A win over Baltimore next Monday night clinches just the second postseason berth this century for the Browns. This was a much-needed validation by beating a good team on the road. They’re still learning how to win and that’s obvious, but it’s also obvious the Browns are dangerous.
$.02–God bless Gregg Williams, the Patron Saint of the 0-16. Williams is doing his best to be an integral part of an 0-16 team for the second time in four years.
Williams is the New York Jets defensive coordinator. He was also the defensive coordinator for the 2017 Cleveland Browns, who lost every game in part because of Williams’ bizarre fetish of aligning his high safety some 25 yards off the line of scrimmage and never figuring out that teams were killing them with underneath routes.
Williams still hasn’t figured that out either, but it’s another one of his dangerously incompetent football fetishes that helped the Jets seize defeat from the jaws of sure victory on Sunday.
The scene of the cries against football, as committed by Williams…
His Jets are up 28-24 against the Las Vegas Raiders, an aspiring playoff team. With just 13 seconds left, the Raiders have the ball at the Jets’ 46 and no timeouts left. Las Vegas comes out with five eligible receivers, empty backfield.
Most teams will drop into a prevent shell to stop the deep pass and mitigate any chance for a blown coverage or a holding penalty that would extend the game. Not Williams. He brought the house, baby!
Williams dialed up a Cover-0 blitz, leaving his cornerbacks on islands on the outside with no help while everyone else rushes the passer. It created the matchup of Raiders WR Henry Ruggs against Jets CB Lamar Jackson. Ruggs just might be the fastest human in pro sports. Jackson is one of the slowest cornerbacks in the NFL. As you might suspect, as anyone with any rational thought process might suspect, Ruggs flew past Jackson up the left sideline. QB Derek Carr calmly stepped up past the well-blocked rush (give the Raiders OL credit) and hit Ruggs in stride for the game-winning touchdown.
That’s how 0-16 happens, ladies and gentlemen. It takes a special kind of egregious coaching to lose every game. Gregg Williams is well on his way to being an integral force in two of the NFL’s three 0-16 outcomes. And no, he wasn’t trying to lose the game to preserve the Jets’ No. 1 overall pick. He was trying to kill Carr and prove he’s smarter than everyone else. At some point, NFL teams will stop hiring Williams…unless they have a secret fetish of being dominated by average teams and going 0-16. That’s about all Williams, who you might remember as the chief archvillain of the Saints’ Bountygate scandal a decade ago, is good for these days.
$.03–It was technically Week 12, but the Baltimore Ravens finally snuck through enough loopholes to actually play against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers on Wednesday afternoon. A game that was originally scheduled for Thanksgiving night in prime time was instead relegated to competing against Dr. Phil and your local evening news in order to be done in time so NBC could switch coverage to the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
It’s a shame the NFL let the Ravens play, even with the dilapidated roster. After as many as 25 Baltimore players and staffers were sidelined with positive COVID-19 tests, merely playing the game let the team off the hook for failing to follow proper protocols. Nearly all the positive tests traced back to one Ravens staffer who refused to cooperate with the required and carefully detailed protocols. Losing the game while playing a plethora of backups wasn’t punishment enough for the havoc they wreaked upon Pittsburgh’s schedule or the NFL’s credibility at actually giving a damn about the players’ health and welfare.
The Steelers nearly let them off the hook with their worst effort of the season. Sometimes the word “effort” doesn’t get used in its literal context, but Pittsburgh embraced the intended meaning of poor effort. There were dropped passes galore, missed tackles, communication breakdowns and sloppy special teams play. Mike Tomlin’s team was lucky they were facing Robert Griffin III and then Trace McSorley throwing to practice squad guys and not seeing Lamar Jackson on offense or half the starting lineup of the Ravens defense.
The 19-14 win keeps the Steelers unbeaten at 11-0. Pittsburgh will need to play better than this if they’re to keep the unblemished record. Hopefully the awkward schedule accommodation forced upon them by the NFL’s refusal to take the Ravens’ rampant violations seriously doesn’t impact the Steelers too much. About the only upshot is we get a double-header on Monday and then a special Tuesday game between the Ravens and the Cowboys, a game where the loser sees its postseason hopes largely finished.
$.04–Philadelphia has itself a whole host of problems right now. None are bigger than the quarterback problem management has willingly facilitated with some curious decisions. And in the Eagles’ Week 13 loss to the Packers, the QB problem manifested into a monster that will burn all the oxygen in any room Carson Wentz, Jalen Hurts, coach Doug Pederson and GM Howie Roseman step into for the rest of the year.
Wentz was in the midst of yet another clunker when Hurts took over as the actual QB, not just getting a random play here or there. And Hurts operated the Eagles offense demonstrably better than Wentz has in some time. The ball got when and where it needed to be much better, and Hurts showed some pocket poise and awareness where Wentz keeps seeing angry Juggalos chasing him with hatchets, or at least full bottles of Faygo.
The numbers weren’t radically different, but there was a tangible positive energy Hurts brought into the game. Hurts gave the entire team a lift because he believes in himself and inspires that in his teammates. That’s not a quality anyone would say about Wentz right now. He’s not the only problem with the Eagles right now, but Wentz is the most expensive one. With great salary comes greater responsibility and accountability.
Whatever the Eagles think they’re doing with Wentz, it isn’t working. Drafting Jalen Hurts in the second round didn’t motivate Wentz or create a working dynamic. It’s painfully obvious it instead dinged Wentz’s confidence and planted the seeds of discontent from the coaches into his head. Based on what we’ve seen from the struggling QB in 2020, I don’t see how he snaps out of that mental fog in Philadelphia and certainly not with Doug Pederson as head coach. The unintended consequences of myopically drafting Hurts, a great story and person but not necessarily an NFL-ready quarterback, have helped ruin the Eagles.
It’s not the only problem with the Eagles, of course. Wild draft misses at wide receiver and injuries all over the roster have paralyzed progress in Philadelphia. They peaked with a Super Bowl win after the 2017 season. It’s time for Eagles fans to realize that magic is gone. And either Wentz or Pederson, or perhaps both, need to be gone, too.
I’ll leave with some smart words from my good friend Michael Kist, whose blend of self-loathe, excitable passion and sober lucidity make him a must-follow on Twitter: