Sports

FMIA Week 14: George Kittle, 49ers Climb Aboard The NFL Roller Coaster Where ‘Every Game’s A Playoff Game’

CINCINNATI — “That was a damn playoff game out there,” said George Kittle, still fired up in his John Lennon yellow-tinted sunglasses, in the tunnel of Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday night, an hour after Niners 26, Bengals 23. Overtime.

“I mean, every game’s a playoff game these days, right?” he said.

We’re in the final month of the NFL’s 102nd season, and it feels like the game has never been closer. Or wackier. Five teams in the AFC: 7-6. Five teams in the NFC: 6-7. Twenty-four of the 32 teams in pro football have at least six wins and are legitimately still in the playoff race.

I came here to see the perfect metaphor for the 2021 NFL season. The Bengals and Niners were hot, then both slipped on banana peels last week, and both came into this game in prime playoff shape. The Bengals, through 12 games, were in the AFC playoffs and the 49ers just out of the NFC playoffs. Exiting this game, through 14 weeks, the Bengals were out and the 49ers in. It’s like the weather here. Howling winds and driving rain at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, clear and breezy by noon.

Too early to say if it’s a trend or if it’s a coincidence, this NFL egalitarianism. But it’s fun to ride the roller coaster with teams that are extremely close in talent and performance and ability.

This is what happened Sunday: The Bengals muffed two punts and a kickoff in the first half and the Niners turned them into 10 points and took a 17-6 halftime lead. It was 20-6 with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the Cincinnati quarterback turned into Machine Gun Burrow. First, a 66-yard drive ending with his favorite throw ever to Ja’Marr Chase trolling the back line of the end zone, maybe one blade of fake green grass between his foot and the boundary. Then, an 87-yard drive ending with a Chase double-move for a 32-yard TD at the right pylon. Tie ballgame. Niners frantically tried for the winning points in the final minute, and Kittle climbed the ladder for one of the great catches of his life, like he was skying for a rebound against LeBron James, and the Niners lined up Robbie Gould for the winning field goal. Wide right. Pffffft. Air out of the Niners balloon.

Overtime: Burrow was scalding hot, and Zac Taylor, once in field-goal range, called two straight Joe Mixon runs (for seven yards total), and then Burrow was sacked and Cincinnati settled for a field goal. “That’s one that’ll keep you up at night,” Taylor said, meaning he wishes he put the ball in Burrow’s hands on at least one of the runs. The Niners, with three more big throws to Kittle (Will someone please cover the guy?), and then a pylon-scraping, replay-reviewed Brandon Aiyuk catch that turned into the walkoff TD.

“Coach!” Deebo Samuel told Kyle Shanahan during the review. “It’s a touchdown! Celebrate!”

“No way,” Shahanan said. “Not celebrating till they call it a touchdown.”

Ref Craig Wrolstad did. The game was won by the scraping of a pylon. So fitting for these teams, in this season.

The Bengals may have won it with one more called Burrow pass in overtime. The Niners could have won it if a Gould kick floated 20 inches to the left. The Bengals would have won it if their returners could catch. Ifs, buts and so on. The Bengals, 7-6, slunk out of the stadium Sunday night. The 49ers, 7-6, levitated out of it.

Four minutes after this game ended, Tom Brady threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman, and Tampa Bay survived Buffalo in overtime. So many of us bequeathed the AFC to Buffalo this year. Speaking of 7-6: The Bills are 7-6. Denver is 7-6. It’s getting late in the NFL, and nobody knows nothin.’


This column will be centered on the game I saw in the Queen City, but the rest of it will be a Whitman’s Sampler on the rest of Week 14, including:

• The 10-man tribute to the late Demaryius Thomas on the first play of Denver’s game was wonderful, as was the class of Dan Campbell in assisting it.

• Mike McCarthy wrote the check. Micah Parsons cashed it.

• Someone, please, check on the Raiders. That paddling the Raiders got in Kansas City looked like Central Connecticut playing a guarantee game at Alabama.

Aaron Rodgers is never going to play a crappy game again. Ever.

• Remember when we were worried about Kansas City? Like, really worried? That was way back in time … 29 days ago. Since then, KC is 4-0 by an average score of 33-10.

• Top of the AFC: New England 9-4, Tennessee 9-4, Kansas City 9-4. Top of the NFC: Arizona 10-2 (hosting the Rams tonight), Tampa Bay 10-3, Green Bay 10-3. I sense a trend.

• The Cardinals’ GM, Steve Keim, is on the kind of hot streak Dustin Hoffman was on in Rain Man. But Keim knows the football reality of his gambles: “If this didn’t work, let’s be honest, I wouldn’t have been hired to coach my middle school son’s flag football team.”

• Is there a word worse than “destitute?” If so, that’s how you define the two franchises in New Jersey. Giants and Jets are 7-19 and look worse.

• The very preliminary gut feeling on Lamar Jackson’s injured ankle is that it is not a serious injury. Good for him and for the franchise. But Baltimore is 2-3 and averaging 16.6 points a game in the last five. Ravens (8-5) have some serious issues, and they’re one game ahead of every other AFC North team in the loss column. Nothing good is guaranteed for Baltimore in the next month.

• If you’re a very good friend of Urban Meyer, today’s the day you need to call/visit/email him with this message: Calm yourself, get through the year, year one of total rebuild absolutely blows, take a few deep breaths, the less you say right now the better. And this afternoon, do yoga. Lots of it.

Yes, it’s been an eventful weekend.

On Saturday, Bengals coach Zac Taylor sat in a new conference room at Paul Brown Stadium. “First time I’ve been in here,” Taylor said, and he appreciated the history lessons that filled the room. On one wall is an image of Bengals founder Paul Brown, the NFL coach Bill Belichick most looks up to. Brown brought the NFL to Cincinnati in 1968, and every coach who guides the franchise feels his influence. As one of them, Sam Wyche, used to say, “Working in Paul Brown’s organization is like living next to a library. I’d be a fool if I didn’t check out the books.”

THE ONLY THING THAT COUNTS IS THE DEDICATION YOU GIVE, one of Brown’s sayings. It defined his ethos.

That’s the kind of ethos Taylor wants his players to have too. He can hear about it all day from Paul Brown’s son, Mike, the current owner and steward of the franchise. Last week, when the coaching staff was down after the loss to the Chargers, Mike Brown said something his dad probably would have said. Taylor recalls: “His point to us was basically, We’ve done a lot of good to put ourselves in this position. Let’s not forget about the good things we’ve done.” Taylor loved it, because it’s true. “As I’ve told the players,” Taylor said, “we’re not counting on anyone else. We’re counting on ourselves. And that’s a good position to be in.”

(NBC Sports)

In this game, Taylor’s excited—but he also has some trepidation, because of the injury to quarterback Joe Burrow’s throwing-hand pinky last week. “He doesn’t give a lot of information,” Taylor said. Even to his coach. That’s how Burrow is. He won’t tell anyone anything about any sort of limitation he’d have. Interestingly, he and Taylor did agree entering this game to eliminate one challenging throw from the game plan—apparently because Burrow wouldn’t be comfortable making the throw. Other than that, Taylor plans to call plays for Burrow the same as always, unless he sees Burrow struggling to throw it.

The Bengals changed when they drafted Joe Burrow. Period. “He’s really, really good,” Kyle Shanahan told me over the weekend. “I was pretty restless after our loss at Seattle last week, so when I got home Sunday night I couldn’t sleep. I threw on the Chargers-Bengals game from that day. That definitely didn’t help me sleep. He’s so good, and those three receivers. Scary.”

People around the league, many of them, view the Bengals as a mysterious, non-progressive franchise sometimes. Hard to trade with, inflexible with their beliefs in merging coaches with the scouting process. But not long after Robert Kraft bought the Patriots, he had dinner one night with Mike Brown and asked him what were the biggest keys to building a winning franchise. The quarterback and the coach, Brown told him.

The Bengals have had their share of good passers. Kenny Anderson, Boomer Esiason, Carson Palmer, plus Andy Dalton had much regular-season success. When they sat with the first overall pick in 2020, there was no question they’d take Burrow. Last week, I asked Brown about the rumors that Miami either offered five first-round picks or would have done so to get Burrow. Brown told me: “It would not have mattered what the price someone offered was. We were sure about him, and we weren’t trading the pick.”

Said Brown: “He has an intense focus. He grasps all the material quickly. He is always poised. He is never scared. No one here—no one—thinks of challenging him when he’s got a conviction. We really like him.”

Sunday was a perfect example of what Burrow means to this franchise. He is the rising tide that lifts all boats. He is the reason the Bengals have more than a puncher’s chance to be a playoff team. Five minutes into the fourth quarter, this game looked lost. There was 9:29 left in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati was down 20-6, and the Bengals had fourth-and-five at the Niners’ 17-yard line. Burrow got some heavy pressure, and he circled back to the right—scramble drill—and while Chase trolled the back of the end zone, running left, Burrow threw it behind him—to the right.

NFL: DEC 12 49ers at Bengals
Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase. (Getty Images)

“While I was still running left, he threw to the right, and I wasn’t sure why he would do that,” Chase said. “But he said it was because of the way the defender would have to turn his hips to get to the ball. I thought, ‘That’s kind of smart.’ “

Burrow said, “He did a great of adjusting to the ball in the air. I know exactly what he was seeing and he knew exactly what I was seeing. He put his foot in the ground and went and got it.”

Chase got another one to tie the game late. Although Burrow was under siege for much of the game—his old friend from Ohio State, Nick Bosa, sacked him twice and pressured him four more times—he hung in and hung in like great quarterbacks do. Burrow will be special, and for a long time. The fourth quarter, over and over, proved that. As Shanahan told me post-game, “We didn’t want Burrow to have the ball at the end of the fourth quarter, or at the end of overtime. He’s just too dangerous.”

“The Bengals,” said Kittle, “are pretty good at football now.”

But the 49ers had a hot quarterback of their own. Who thought San Francisco would be on a 4-1 run this late in the season, and the quarterback leading the Niners to scoring 29 points a game in this hot run would be the embattled Garoppolo? He’s kept young phenom Trey Lance on the bench for 63 days—that’s how long it’s been since Lance threw a pass—and Garoppolo showed why in the overtime period Sunday. He was six for six for 73 yards and the decisive Brandon Aiyuk touchdown.

I’m told the Niners have not made up their minds, at all, about how to handle their quarterback situation in 2022 and beyond. They shouldn’t be. How do you know how Garoppolo will play down the stretch, and into a playoff run if that’s the fate of this season? I’m also told the Niners have been impressed, with Garoppolo’s career on the line, with how he’s handled this weird year, with Lance being the third pick in the draft and with Garoppolo expected to just handle things like a pro. He has.

“Jimmy’s one of my favorite people that I’ve ever coached,” Shanahan said. “He’s a hell of a dude. He’s not trying to hide anything. I also don’t want to downplay it and say this whole situation is just not a big deal. It’s a huge deal. Really hard on him. But he came in with the right mindset all the way back in OTAs. He hasn’t gotten sideways at all through any of it. No matter what he hears, he’s been the exact same guy I’ve known the four years prior, and that’s given us a chance to fight through this year. It’s given us the chance to be at where we’re at right now.”

San Francisco 49ers v Cincinnati Bengals
49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. (Getty Images)

If you do a balance sheet of both teams, they’re pretty close. The Cincinnati special teams killed them Sunday, the way the Niners’ kicking game killed them last week on the fake-punt run for a touchdown in Seattle. The Bengals have a deep defensive front (assuming Trey Hendrickson’s back injury is fleeting, as it seemed Sunday night), but the Niners have the resurgent Bosa on a deep front too. Both secondaries are suspect. Both lines can be penetrated. As for the skill positions, give me Burrow over Garoppolo, give me Joe Mixon over the Niners’ backfield (though I do love Elijah Mitchell, due back next week if his concussion symptoms abate), and give me the Cincinnati receivers—though Deebo Samuel and Aiyuk are legitimate explosive players. The Bengals are just deeper.

Maybe that leaves Kittle over the underrated C.J. Uzomah. Kittle (last two games: 22 catches, 332 yards, three TDs) has a big edge there, as he showed Sunday. One catch that went unnoticed was particularly impressive, I thought. On third-and-five from the Cincinnati 21-yard line late in OT, Kittle and Samuel ran twin incuts designed to get the first down. Garoppolo looked at Kittle instantly, and Kittle got into a defensive, almost-fetal position against the Bengals DB, and Garoppolo hit him for a first down. “Jimmy gave me a perfect ball where I could slide, and avoid the big hit from the safety,” Kittle said.

Then Aiyuk scored and the Niners could breathe. Looking at each team’s fate down the stretch:

  • San Francisco has Atlanta and Houston at home, Tennessee and the Rams on the road. The Niners are very likely in if they go 3-1, and on the edge of a cliff if they go 2-2.
  • Cincinnati has the more challenging slate: at Denver, Baltimore, Kansas City, at Cleveland.

No one knows, which is good for the game. You don’t want to know who’s winning every game when you wake up Sunday morning, do you?

“It’s way more fun,” Kittle said, “when you’re playing playoff games in December. Don’t you love it? The game’s more fun, right?”

I look at the Arizona Cardinals being an NFL-best 10-2 with one month left in the regular season, and I look at six big decisions made by the team that got them here. Rarely do you get on the kind of roll Cardinals GM Steve Keim is on as an NFL decision-maker (along with owner and president Michael Bidwill), as these six calls show:

Decision No. 1: December 2018. Decided to fire head coach Steve Wilks after one year, a 3-13 season in 2018. Fans and media were harshly critical of the decision. “Keim should have been the one to pack up his office, not Wilks,” ESPN’s Josh Weinfuss wrote. Weinfuss’ take was one of the milder ones.

Decision No. 2: January 2019. The Keim-led coaching search resulted in the hire of the man fired with a 35-40 record at Texas Tech, Kliff Kingsbury. “It’s a bold move by the Cardinals,” wrote Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic. “And a bad one.” Somers’ take also was one of the milder ones.

Decision No. 3: April 2019. The Cardinals draft 5-10 quarterback Kyler Murray, a Kingsbury favorite since he began recruiting Murray as a 15-year-old high school quarterback. But wait. Keim picked a quarterback, Josh Rosen, 10th overall in the 2018 draft. What about Rosen?

Decision No. 4: April 2019. Keim, a day after picking Murray, trades Rosen to Miami for a second-rounder. Rosen had all of 14 games to prove himself to the Cardinals.

Decision No. 5: March 2021. After going 13-18-1 in the first years of Kingsbury/Murray, Keim goes all-in on veterans, trading for or signing as free agents center Rodney Hudson, defensive end J.J. Watt, wide receiver A.J. Green, kicker Matt Prater and running back James Conner. (Tight end Zach Ertz came in an October trade.) Those are deals made by a team that thinks it’s close to a Super Bowl.

Decision No. 6: Offseason 2021. By letting team leaders Larry Fitzgerald and Patrick Peterson go unsigned, Keim and Bidwill signal that the team is ready for new, younger leaders.

NFL: OCT 03 Cardinals at Rams
Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray. (Getty Images)

Considering the plethora of decisions he’s made over the past three years, Keim on Friday was brutally pragmatic.

“If this didn’t work,” Keim said, “let’s be honest, I wouldn’t have been hired to coach my middle school son’s flag football team. I mean, if you said, You’re gonna hire a fired college coach and draft a 5-10 quarterback with the first pick in the draft, you’d want to put us in a straitjacket.”

It’s always interesting to look back on decisions and try to figure out why the decisions worked or didn’t. Starting in the 2018 season, Keim didn’t like how the team was playing. It’s certainly not fair that Wilks and Rosen didn’t get time to build and play well. Keim said: “I think philosophically when Michael and I sat down and talked this through … How many times have people said, ‘I made that decision too early?’ The majority of time in life, people say, ‘God I wish I would’ve done it earlier. I waited too long.’ I think it goes back to the business where if you want to listen to the noise and not do what your gut says, you’re gonna get fired. And you’re not gonna be able to look in the mirror and say I did it my way.

“The pressure that was on both Michael and myself to make sure that it was right … every decision along the way.”

The one decision this year that looks golden is the trade with the Raiders for Hudson, the solid center Arizona has lacked. Important for the line, and important for the development of Murray. Hudson hasn’t had a typical year for him—Hudson has fallen from eighth in the league to 18th among starting center performance, per Pro Football Focus—but he’s provided the leadership the line and the quarterback needed.

The Raiders decided to move Hudson, and word surfaced early in free agency that he might be released. Keim called Las Vegas GM Mike Mayock, and caught him in the Atlanta airport getting ready to fly somewhere. Mayock told Keim he had an offer of a mid-round pick for him. “I said, ‘I’ll give you a third. Give me a seventh back.’ And it was done in two seconds. That call didn’t last longer than a minute, I promise you.”

“So impressive how Rodney’s brain works,” left tackle D.J. Humphries said last week. “Every week there’s always a play before the game where he’s like, ‘Hey Hump, you gotta be ready for this. They’re gonna do this.’ And every time it happens in a game, I just look at him and he just nods at me and walks back to the line like nothing happened. He knows it all. That’s been a huge help to me, and I know he’s doing it with Kyler too.”

Murray’s accuracy (72.7 percent) is up 8 points from his rookie year, and 5 points from last year. One way he’s gotten better is looking off defenders with his eyes. Watch the end zone view of this TD pass against the Rams in their first meeting. It’s clear Murray appears to aiming left from the snap, and then, in blanketed single coverage, he throws it up for A.J. Green, who catches it in stride. That’s a throw Murray could have made physically two years ago, but would he have the confidence and the ability to look off the safety while being rushed? Maybe not.

“His ability, this year, to manipulate defenders with his eyes has gone to the next level,” Keim said. “Which, as things slow down for a quarterback, you see it. Your fundamentals just get better with confidence.”

The Cardinals came off their bye last week and went to Chicago on a crummy weather day and put up 33 on the Bears. That’s a good sign for the near future. The Cardinals hold a half-game lead for top seed in the NFC over the Packers, but if they tie, Green Bay would win the tiebreaker … meaning a potential NFL title game would be at Lambeau Field, not cozy Glendale. The Cards close with the Rams tonight, then Detroit, Indy, Dallas and Seattle. Green Bay has Baltimore, Cleveland, Minnesota and Detroit. Comparative schedules? A coin flip. The Cards just have to keep winning. The way their quarterback is playing—scoring in the thirties in seven of his nine starts—I like their chances for the NFC road to go through Glendale.

Demaryius Thomas, 1987-2021

The death of Thomas, 33, due to unknown causes, shocked his friends and acquaintances to the core. Shannon Sharpe broke down about it on TV. Peyton Manning, who helped Thomas win a Super Bowl ring six years ago, was broken up about it too—and more than in a football sense. His twins, Marshall and Mosley, loved Thomas. So much so that when Thomas moved from Denver to Houston in midseason 2018, the twins both wore THOMAS 88 Texans jerseys when Thomas returned to Denver to play a game. Tim Tebow got all emotional about Thomas too—which is very logical.

Tebow and Thomas combined for the greatest play in both players’ NFL careers.

Drafted three slots apart in the first round of the 2010 draft by Denver, they played their first playoff game at the end of their second year together: Jan. 8, 2012, the 8-8 Broncos hosting the fearsome 12-4 Steelers, with coordinator Dick LeBeau and impact defenders Troy Polamalu and James Harrison. Denver was home because it had won the feeble AFC West, but the Broncos limped into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak; Tebow’s time in Denver was coming to an end after his 46.5-percent-accuracy season. The two teams were tied at 23 after four quarters. On the first play of overtime, Thomas, running a deep post from the left side, took a pass in-stride from Tebow at Denver’s 38-yard line. With a step on two Steeler defensive backs, Thomas sprinted home for the 80-yard touchdown. It was the first game in NFL history decided on the first play of overtime.

Thomas caught 777 passes in a storied 10-season NFL career that ended just two years ago. He had a rough childhood in Georgia. Police raided his home one day and arrested his mother and grandmother for crack cocaine distribution. His mom was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Demaryius went to live with an aunt and uncle, who raised him. So much of what Thomas showed as a pro off the field—volunteering for children’s charities, playing with teammates’ kids when they came to practice—seemed an effort to give kids some of the joy he missed out on as a child. After the Broncos won the Super Bowl in early 2016, he wheeled Manning’s son Marshall around the locker room in a laundry cart. The child of teammate Tyler Polumbus sat on Thomas’ lap on the team charter back to Denver. Whenever the Manning kids would see Thomas, they’d run and hug him, even more recently.

Becoming emotional on ESPN on Friday, Tebow said of Thomas: “I think we all know how gifted DT was on the field, but that was not his greatest gift—his greatest gift was the joy he brought to life.” Just a shame to see Thomas die so young.

Andrew Whitworth, the Rams’ left tackle, turned 40 on Sunday. Tonight in Arizona, he’ll become the first left tackle ever to start a game at 40—and only the fifth offensive lineman in the 102-year history of the league to play in his forties. He is not just hanging on. Whitworth’s pass-blocking grade, per Pro Football Focus, is his best since 2016, and it comes less than a year after having reconstructive knee surgery. Among all offensive linemen in the last 15 years, Whitworth’s win share (the football equivalent of baseball’s WAR, wins above replacement) is 3.82; only former Ravens guard Marshal Yanda has a better PFF career win share among linemen.

This is Whitworth’s 16th NFL season in the trenches. The first 11 were in Cincinnati, and the Rams bought him as a free agent in 2017. He’s a little shocked by the endurance. I could tell that in a 20-minute Saturday conversation. “I remember my wife and I going to dinner with [coach] Sean McVay in the bye week in 2017, my first season here,” Whitworth said from California. “My wife said, ‘This is probably it for my husband.’ Sean said, ‘Yeah, right.’ You know, he didn’t believe it. Then, I remember the Rams showing us some pictures of SoFi, this beautiful new stadium getting built with the development all around it. That day, Whitworth said, his wife told Rams officials: “There’s no chance in the world my husband will be playing at SoFi. We’ll enjoy watching the games, but that’s it.”

So what happened?

“I don’t know when exactly it happened, but eventually it became a goal of mine, to play at a good level at 40,” he said. “But it never really felt like it was tangible, possible. As I got closer and closer, I was attacking my work and my craft, and I could still play, and I was enjoying it. Then the injury last year happened, and I’m leaving the field on the cart thinking the chances of playing again were not great. People were like, you don’t come back from that injury and keep playing at 39.

“I’m stubborn. I don’t like being told what to do. I know people felt like it was the end for me, and so then I had to do it. I had to try to play again. It’s just like me and golf. People say you can’t be 6-7 and 330 and play golf well, and I’m like, I’ll show ‘em. I’ll prove ‘em wrong. Being stubborn, I’ve discovered, is a great motivator.

“So I’m not really shocked to be standing where I am. I do think, ‘Wow. This is insane.’ But shocked, no. I do think I’ll have some emotion about it on the field Monday night.”

Detroit Lions v Los Angeles Rams
Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth. (Getty Images)

Whitworth thinks playing at 40 will be more common—not common, but not rare either—as players take better care of themselves and the rules continue to emphasize in-game play safety. “Not saying you’ll see more guys like Tom Brady play till their mid-forties,” he said, “but it is easier to play quarterback today than it was for, like, Troy Aikman, who got the snot beat out of him for so long.” He pointed to the $138-million contract signed by left tackle Trent Williams of the 49ers entering his age-33 season this year. The money’s too good, and more players in self-preservation mode, for them to walk away.

Whitworth’s leaving the door open for 2022, though he says now’s not the time to make that decision, and says the cap-strapped Rams will have a lot to say about it. For now, he’ll appreciate the moment, as he should. The other day, Rams equipment director Brendan Burger came up to Whitworth and told him to be sure he didn’t give away his jersey after the game in Arizona. Swapping jerseys or giving them away after games is a common practice among players today.

“Why?” Whitworth said.

“The Hall of Fame’s gonna want it,” Burger said. “You’re the first guy to start at left tackle at 40, and this is the kind of thing they’ll want.”

On Saturday, Whitworth said, “That made it real. This is a pretty big deal.” Playing at 40 is, yes. Being a very good pass-blocker at 40—that’s even bigger.

I have three causes that I am supporting:

• Red Cross Tornado Relief. There cannot be a more important cause today, after seeing the video and pictures from the Kentucky communities of Mayfield and Dawson Springs, and into Illinois, and after realizing thousands of lives will be impacted for years to come. “This will be, I believe, the deadliest tornado system to ever run through Kentucky,” Gov. Andy Beshear said.

In a season of giving, if you can, please remember the tornado victims.

• Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, me, and beer. New Jersey-based non-profit Write on Sports, a youth-literacy cause I’ve supported for years, is hosting a unique online fundraiser Jan. 11. You can join at two levels in support of this tremendous organization that is helping inner-city kids learn writing and life skills through the lens of sports journalism.The first hour will feature a virtual beer-and-cheese tasting with City Brew Tours. Prior to the event, you’ll receive three craft beers, three gourmet cheeses, artisanal chocolates and some smoked meats to enjoy. If you upgrade to the second hour, you’ll receive an additional beer and cheese pairing, plus an exclusive invitation to join me, my friend Chris “Mad Dog” Russo and another special guest or two on Zoom. We’ll answer your questions and talk about the latest topics around the world of sports.

The online event will take place 11 days into the New Year. What a great holiday gift for that special someone! Tickets are on sale through Dec 27. Both options are fairly limited, so check it out today. You’re helping a great cause with every ticket purchased.

Learn more and buy tickets here.

• Coffee for good. For 25 years, the upstate-New York high school students of Lansing United Methodist Church and All Saints Catholic Church have supported the families of San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala by raising the funds needed to improve housing and living conditions. The students hope to travel to San Lucas this year or next (pending the pandemic) to work hand-in-hand with the families they support. You can support the San Lucas community through the purchase of their Café Juan Ana coffee—produced, roasted, ground, and packaged in San Lucas Tolimán. Through their direct trade model, growers receive above-market rates for their highest quality coffee.

The community and mission will receive $5 from each bag of coffee purchased.

Thanks for your support of any/all of the causes. Much appreciated.

Offensive Players of the Week

Rashaad Penny, running back, Seattle. The Seahawks have been waiting a long time—four seasons, to be exact—for their 2018 first-round pick from San Diego State to have a day like he had Sunday in Houston. He rushed 16 times for a career-best 137 yards and two touchdowns. Seattle’s 5-8, with a whisper of a playoff chance. To make the postseason, the Seahawks will need Penny in this sort of form, particularly with games at the Rams and Cards remaining.

Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay. Another week, another NFL record. With his 31 completions in the thrilling 33-27 overtime win over the Bills, Brady passed Drew Brees to move into first place on the completions list. (Brady now has 7,156 and counting; Brees’ previous mark was 7,142.) Of course, let’s not discount Brady’s 700th career touchdown pass, which came in the most dramatic way possible: the winning toss to Breshad Perriman in OT.

Dalvin Cook, running back, Minnesota. Playing 11 days after tearing his labrum, and outfitted with his shoulder tightly wrapped, Cook had an Emmitt Smith type of gutsy game Thursday night. He carried 27 times for 205 yards, adding 17 more receiving yards for a 222-yard powerhouse of a game in the 36-28 season-saving victory for the Vikings over Pittsburgh. Minnesota (6-7) has a chance entering the last four games of the season (two versus Chicago) because of this gallant performance.

Josh Allen, quarterback, Buffalo. With his team trailing 27-10 with 11 minutes left, Allen put the Bills on his back to rally. Buffalo scored 17 unanswered to force overtime in Tampa before falling victim to Brady’s Bucs. Allen had fourth-quarter touchdown throws to Dawson Knox and Gabriel Davis, and Allen led a 14-play, 70-yard drive that resulted in Tyler Bass‘s game-tying field with 22 seconds left. Allen finished with 308 passing yards and the confidence to know he can lead his team on the road, facing a big deficit, against the G.O.A.T., and not flinch.

Defensive Players of the Week

Micah Parsons, linebacker/havoc-wreaker, Dallas. By halftime, Parsons had decided the game. He tore through the right guard/tackle gap and got a crushing sack of Taylor Heinicke late in the first quarter; the ball bounded away and Dorrance Armstrong returned it 37 yards for a touchdown to up Dallas’ lead to 18-0. With Washington trying to get something, anything going in the second quarter, Parsons rushed over the center and threw down Heinicke the way Pedro Martinez once tossed aside Don Zimmer. The two sacks gave Parsons 12 for the year; he needs three more over the final four weeks to eclipse Javon Kearse’s rookie record of 14.5, set back in 1999. Parsons has all but clinched Defensive Rookie of the Year … and he’s in the running for Defensive Player of the Year too.

Myles Garrett, pass rusher, Cleveland. It was a record-breaking sack and one of the most impressive defensive efforts of the season. The play: Garrett came off the right edge, easily beating the Ravens left tackle, and stripped the ball from Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley. Garrett wasn’t done, however, scooping up the loose ball and running it into the end zone for the touchdown to give Cleveland a 24-3 lead in the second quarter. The sack was Garrett’s 15th of the season, breaking Cleveland’s single-season franchise mark. (Reggie Camp had 14 for the Browns in 1984.) Next record for Garrett: the all-time Cleveland sack mark is 62 (Clay Matthews) and Garrett is only five sacks away.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Ka’imi Fairbairn, kicker, Houston. Set the Texans record with a 61-yard field goal in the second quarter against Seattle (previous francise mark: 57), and he now has not missed a field goal from inside 40 yards since 2017. Did you know, by the way, that his full name is John Christian Ka’iminoeaulloameka’ikeokekumupa’a Fairbairn?

Justin Tucker, kicker, Baltimore. Mostly a lost day for the Ravens, but Tucker doesn’t have lost days. He hit field goals from 50, 42 and 55 yards at Cleveland. Tucker is still perfect (six for six) from 50 and beyond this year.

Jordan Berry, punter, Minnesota. Saved his best punt for last Thursday night against Pittsburgh. With Minnesota on the verge of blowing a 29-0 lead with 20 minutes left in the game, Berry had to put Pittsburgh behind the 8-ball for its last drive of the game. The Steelers trailed 36-28 with 2:26 to play, and Berry lined up to punt. He boomed a 51-yard punt that bounced once and was downed at the Steeler 4-yard line. (It looked like Minnesota got a crummy spot, and it should have been marked around the two-and-a-half, but no matter.) Pittsburgh drove to the Viking 12 for a last-second chance, but the Minnesota defense prevailed.

Coach of the Week

Vic Fangio, head coach, Denver. Kudos to Broncos PR maven Patrick Smyth for coming up with the idea of playing the first snap of Sunday’s Detroit-Denver game with 10 players, as a tribute to the late and missing Demaryius Thomas. Fangio bought it, told Detroit coach Dan Campbell about it, and a plan was hatched: Denver would start the game with 10 men on the offensive side instead of 11, the officials would flag the Broncos for delay of game, Detroit would decline the penalty, the game would go on, and Denver would add an 11th player for the next snap. “It was all for Demaryius,” Fangio said. Not to mention the Broncos routed Detroit 38-10 to move into serious playoff contention.

Goats of the Week

Darius Phillips, returner/cornerback, Cincinnati. Phillips handed the 49ers 10 points that turned the first half into a mess for Cincinnati. He muffed one punt to hand the Niners a short field and a chippy field goal to make it 3-0. Then, inside of two minutes left in the second quarter with the 49ers nursing a 10-6 lead, the Bengals were about to have one last shot to take a lead … and Williams muffed his second of the half, handing San Francisco another short field. This time, a George Kittle TD catch gave the Niners a 17-6 halftime lead. It was a disastrous run of errors for Phillips.

The Raiders. Angered the football gods by prancing on the KC logo before the game and set a pre-game record for gesticulating, then didn’t show up for the second time this year against their supposed arch-rivals. Kansas City went up 35-0 on the way to winning 48-9 in one of the season’s most non-competitive games. (In two games this year, the composite score: Kansas City 89, Las Vegas 23.) It’s getting late early for the Raiders and for the GM who, along with the deposed Jon Gruden, put together this team. “We need to be a playoff team—and beyond,” Mike Mayock told me in training camp. “It’s time to win.” The Raiders have squandered their 3-0 start by going 3-7 since, and they probably have to run the table to have a chance to make Mayock’s wishes come true—and to ensure he has a job with the Raiders in 2022. Starting with a short-week game at Cleveland on Saturday, the playoff chances look bleak.

I

“That’s garbage. If there is a source, then that source is unemployed. I mean, within seconds.”

—Jacksonville coach Urban Meyer, on a series of anti-Meyer leaks that have plagued his team.

II

“WAY TO F—ING TRUST ME!”

—Colts guard Quenton Nelson, per NFL Films, on the HBO “Hard Knocks” show.

Interesting passage in the show. The Bucs, on Nov. 28, were up 31-24 with 10 minutes left, and Nelson went to coach Frank Reich and asked if Reich—who’d been hesitant to call many runs by Jonathan Taylor in the first 50 minutes of the game—would please call “a straight run call.” Not an RPO, Nelson meant.

Reich listened, and he started calling Taylor runs on the next series—gains of 5, 15, 5, 10, 15, 1, 3—finishing with a four-yard TD run. Eight carries, 64 yards, and when Nelson came off after the TD, Reich said to him, “Way to back it up!”

Which led to Nelson’s great line.

III

“Roethlisberger, he doesn’t move all that well.”

—Troy Aikman, on FOX Thursday night.

Noooo!

The top three coaches, in regular-season and postseason games, are in this order on the all-time coaching wins list entering the home stretch of the 2021 season:

1. Don Shula:  347-173-6 (.667)
2. George Halas: 324-151-31 (.682)
3. Bill Belichick: 320-152-0 (.678)

So a few things about Belichick chasing this record:

• He once said you wouldn’t find him coaching in his seventies, but he turns 70 in four months, has turned the post-Brady Patriots back into contenders, and seems healthy. Why leave?

• He’s 28 wins from passing Shula. There are 38 regular-season games and who knows how many playoff games in the next month and two seasons. If he stays, it’s conceivable he could break the record late in 2023. (Say New England plays six playoff games between now and the end of the ’23 season. It’s quite conceivable in that scenario that New England could win 28 games by the end of the ’23 season.)

• The rise of Buffalo and Miami in the AFC East could throw a wrench into any win projections, because it looks like they’ll be formidable over the next few years. Going 5-1, or thereabouts, in the division every year is certainly not a lock. So that could throw a wrench into future win totals.

• Behind Belichick among active coaches, I don’t see a contender to topple his record, at least not now. Andy Reid (246) can’t catch Belichick if Belichick doesn’t retire; Reid coaching Patrick Mahomes for 10 or 12 more years, into Reid’s mid-seventies, seems doubtful. Mike Tomlin (159) has age on his side (he’s 49), but his long-term success—at least in Pittsburgh—is dependent on finding a winning heir to Ben Roethlisberger. And all the young guys coaching now, who knows?

I

The news of the death of DeMaryius Thomas brought to mind one of the more historically interesting passages in an NFL draft: picks 22 through 27 in 2010.

As the latter stages of the round approached, New England had the 22nd pick, Denver 24th, Denver 25th and Dallas 27th.

New England traded the 22nd pick to Denver for the 24th and 113th picks.

New England traded the 24th pick to Dallas for the 27th and 90th picks.

The results:

22. Denver, DeMaryius Thomas, WR, Georgia Tech
24. Dallas, Dez Bryant, WR, Oklahoma State
25. Denver, Tim Tebow, QB, Florida
27. New England, Devin McCourty, DB, Rutgers
113. New England, Aaron Hernandez, TE, Florida

Postscript. With the 42nd pick (acquired in trade with Oakland via Tampa Bay and Chicago), the Patriots selected Rob Gronkowski, tight end, Arizona.

Man, that was one eventful, historic draft.

II

This was really cool, Ron Harper Jr. of run-of-the-mill Rutgers beating top-ranked Purdue with a buzzer-beater Thursday:

How about these results:

Dec. 9: Rutgers Scarlet Knights 70, No. 1 Purdue Boilermakers 68
Nov. 22: Lafayette Leopards 53, Rutgers 51
Dec. 2: Sacred Heart Pioneers 74, Lafayette 67.

Ergo: Sacred Heart (enrollment 5,400), a Catholic university in Fairfield, Conn., would beat Purdue by 11.

Sacred Heart (3-7) has lost to Binghamton, Fairfield, Brown (by 13) and NJIT.

College basketball is wacky and dumb and fun.

III

Tom Brady is 33-3 in his career against Buffalo.

CINCINNATI — It was Nostalgia Weekend for me. Cincinnati is where my wife Ann and I settled out of Ohio University in 1980, in Mount Washington on the east side of town. I was the rookie hire on the sports staff of the Cincinnati Enquirer then. We bought a home on Benneville Street, nine miles due east of downtown, for $39,500 in 1981 (Zillow estimated price today: $166,800), and my father-in-law and brother-in-law drove in from Pittsburgh on five straight summer weekends in 1983 to build a nursery in the attic so Laura Phyllis King would have a comfy place to sleep. I planted a small tree not much bigger than a sapling in the front yard in August 1983 . . . and today both my daughter and the tree are 38.

Very cool to see the place again … and cool also to walk over to see the ballfield behind our house where the late Lonnie Wheeler and I coached a Knothole baseball team for three summers. (Lonnie was my friend at the Cincinnati Enquirer who died too young last year.)

This town has changed in a big way—and very much for the better. Over-The-Rhine, the inner-city neighborhood just north of downtown, was in disrepair when we lived here; now it’s got a Midwest Greenwich Village vibe.

I used to save money/get exercise many days by free-street-parking in Covington, across the river in Kentucky, and walking 15 minutes across the Roebling Suspension Bridge to the Enquirer building. Riverfront Stadium has been replaced, of course, by the new baseball and football stadiums. Downtown was very lively over the weekend, and I walked a lot. Good times.

I

II

Mason covers the Broncos for DNVR Sports.

III

Sikkema covers the NFL for Pro Football Focus. 

That handshake was not a good look for Meyer, who had a tough week. More on Meyer down in 10 Things I Think I Think.

IV

Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed missed KC’s rout of the Raiders on Sunday to be with his family in Louisiana, after his older brother Tqarontarion Harrison was stabbed to death Friday in Minden, La.

V

This wonderful twitter account celebrates old time football. Favorite things about this one: The wings on Philly’s helmets, and the taunting call on Butkus that wasn’t made then but would be now.

VI

The email bag overfloweth this week. I’m at peterkingfmia@gmail.com, or @peter_king on Twitter.

I would dispute Tim here. From Tim Wright, of Toledo: “While Notre Dame has an outstanding record, they were not in contention for the FBS Championship. The final four was likely to have the same four teams so long as Georgia did not shut down and blow out Alabama to go undefeated. Many two-loss teams were stronger candidates than ND due to its weak schedule.”

You’re pretty sure the Irish “were not in contention” for the final four, are you? Notre Dame was the 5 seed in the final standings. Georgia was favored to beat Alabama in the SEC title game, and if Georgia won that game by 10 or 14 points, it would have been very close whether Notre Dame or Alabama would have been the last team in the field—and I’m guessing Notre Dame because the tournament had never included a two-loss team, which ‘Bama would have been. Brian Kelly walked out on a team with a decent (not great, but decent) chance to play in the final four. That’s just wrong.

I overlook Monday Night Football. From Marilyn Paul, of Columbus: “I think you kind of overlook the Monday night games. Have you ever considered changing your column to Tuesdays?”

Only in passing, Marilyn. I have been doing the column on Monday mornings since 1997. Now that I’m where I am in my career—not interested in extending my writing window an extra day (though last week, wow, would it have been tempting)—I would only consider it if NBC made a strong pitch for me to delay the column 24 hours.

He’s mad at John Harbaugh. From Barry Spiegel, of Peoria, Ariz.: “Going for the two at the end of regulation of Ravens-Steelers to try to win was absurd, though it did seem macho. Maybe that warm macho feeling will keep Harbaugh employed, but it won’t put his team any closer to the postseason than taking the easy conversion kick and going to OT would have done. Your opening paragraph absolved Harbaugh from the start.  Are they serving Kool-Aid now at Brooklyn cafes and brewpubs?”

Harbaugh had a good reason to do it, I think: His best cover corner in a depleted secondary, Marlon Humphrey, had been lost for the game (and, as it turns out, for the season). Harbaugh asked himself: What gives me the best chance to win—Lamar Jackson finding a way to make two yards, or risking the game ending because we lose a coin flip and Ben Roethlisberger drives for a TD to win against our bruised D? I can’t fault Harbaugh for that.

Me too. From James, of England: “I read in your column this week about the tragic shooting in Michigan. I think I speak to most people from the UK when I say that the whole culture around gun ownership in the US completely befuddles us. Unfortunately without a countrywide law restricting gun ownership/access I don’t understand how the situation will ever get better and given the power that the NRA seem to yield on politicians I don’t have a lot of confidence that anything will change. I wonder whether this will be a cause that more sports personalities will get behind.”

I wish athletes would consider this, James. Half the country’s afraid of alienating the NRA, and most athletes seem deathly afraid of taking a stance that would alienate them from a large section of their fan base. It’s pathetic, of course, that we have politicians posting Christmas pictures of their families, with young children, holding sophisticated guns and smiling proudly days after four students were gunned down by a troubled 15-year-old whose rights to bring a semi-automatic weapon to school apparently are more important than the rights of children to go to school and learn without fear of being murdered. But that’s the United States. Until our elected officials grow spines, I doubt it’ll change.

Wow. Thank you. From Paul Bolthouse: “I watched the Big 10 title game with all the tributes to the school shootings. I read the recaps of the tributes. I only cried when I read your write-up of it. Thank you for your ability to capture the human story that touches us all.”

Thank you, Paul. Items like that Oxford section of the column write themselves.

An “On the Media” fan checks in. From Alex, of Michigan: “ PBS’ ‘On the Media’ has never been on the media … Having listened to ‘On the Media’ for longer than being one of your readers, your ‘snarky’ comments about it made me extremely upset. Coming from a journalist who I have long thought to eschew ‘hot takes,’ it came as a shock. It was obvious you wrote without knowing what you were writing about. You should allow a journalistic program that has been operating for decades some leeway in its selections of topics.”

(Alex’s email was lengthy, and I tried to pick out the salient points.) My wife and I, most days, read the newspapers while eating breakfast, and we have WNYC in New York on in the kitchen. We’re there 60 to 90 minutes. Every Saturday at 7 a.m., “On the Media” comes on. I’d say we have listened to the majority of the episodes for the last eight or 10 years. So we are familiar with the show. A show called “On the Media” is less than half the time about the media in an era in our history when the media, regularly, is a big story. If the people who run the show want to do other topics, great. Call it something else.

1. I think I would have been downright depressed if I were a Bills fan at halftime in Tampa Bay. The Bills were getting rocked. But what Josh Allen did in the second half was impressive. The Buffalo quarterback picked his team up by the scruff of the neck and carried them into contention late in the game. I didn’t see a lot of the game, but I read a lot, and the Bills were so impressive for just hanging in there.

2. I think the biggest winner of week 14 in the playoff stakes is Tampa Bay. The Bucs have a manageable schedule (Saints, at Carolina, at Jets, Carolina) that is more advantageous than either of the other 10-win teams in the NFC. … Biggest loser: Baltimore. The Ravens are not playing well, and they finish with Green Bay, at Cincinnati, Rams, Pittsburgh, and all three teams chasing them have a chance to catch them. Can the Ravens win two of four down the stretch? They could, but I am dubious.

3. I think this is disheartening news for the Detroit Lions: Mel Kiper doesn’t have a quarterback in the top 15 of his draft ratings as of this month.

4. I think the fact that Denver has 12 players who have tested positive for Covid in the last six weeks—with the team still in contention to make the postseason—tells me the Broncos need to triple their efforts to keep players healthy. Ditto Detroit and Washington.

5. I think the fact that Mac Jones didn’t win the Heisman Trophy and Bryce Young did is not altogether telling, but it does say one thing to me: Exhaust the study on the Bryce Young tape. He’s not eligible till the 2023 draft, and his stock could fall a bit in the ’22 season, but his play in the last five quarters of his life tells me an awful lot about what quarterbacks in the NFL must do to be able to win. He’s played great when the games that count the most are there to be won or lost.

6. I think the fact that Urban Meyer’s “multiple run-ins” with Jaguars staffers and players have reached the public—through the reporting of reliable Tom Pelissero of NFL Network—bothers me about the future of Meyer in Jacksonville. To have word leak that Meyer had words with receiver Marvin Jones is bad. What’s worse is Pelissero reporting that Meyer “delivered a biting message that he’s a winner and his assistant coaches are losers.” Meyer denied the reports in remarks after Jacksonville’s loss to Tennessee on Sunday.

7. I think owner Shad Khan is still very likely to bring back Meyer (2-11 as a rookie NFL coach) for 2022, perhaps without a few coaches on offense. Some of this Meyer-as-Captain-Queeg stuff is bothersome. Some of it is about the state of the NFL in 2021. Think for a minute about the last huge-name college coach who had a disastrous, embarrassing rookie year in the NFL. That was Jimmy Johnson in 1989 in Dallas. After propelling the University of Miami to the top of college football and taking a big contract to revive a moribund NFL franchise, Johnson went 1-15 as a rookie coach. It was so bad that year that the staff kept a pile of playbooks in the corner of a meeting room, to be able to give and get back from the steady flow of players being claimed and then fired so quickly that year. By the end of the year, Johnson was so fed up, so angry, so finished with football, that, after the final game of the season, a home loss to Green Bay, he got on a plane to the Bahamas and couldn’t be found for more than a week. Then he got recharged and started building a damn good team in year two.

Does Meyer have this in him? I don’t know. He does have an owner who wants him to succeed and has not given up on him. That is sincere. Now Meyer has to show why Shad Khan is right. If I’m Meyer, I find a core of people who are with me. I find the players like Michael Irvin, who helped Johnson control the Dallas locker room, and the others in team leadership who can influence the easily influenced. Trevor Lawrence? Brandon Linder? Myles Jack? Who knows. Meyer has to find a few. And he has to find the coaches who have his back, who think he can make it. And then, for this next month, he’s got to be solid as a rock. He’s got to be sure his team is leak-proof. Maybe all of this is not possible. Cannonballs have pierced the hull in Jacksonville. That’s got to stop. In 1989, even in media-crazy Dallas, Johnson could keep a lot of the BS behind the scenes. That’s harder to do today, even in a small market like Jacksonville. The walls have ears. There are more Pelisseros and Schefters, lots more, than there were 32 years ago.

8. I think it’s fantastic that FanDuel just agreed to pay Pat McAfee something like $30 million a year for his radio show. I remember well when McAfee, at 29 in 2016, led the NFL in punting with a 49.3-yard average, and he announced after the season he was retiring. He said he had a plan, and he was going to get into the media. I remember looking up his salary—he’d just finished making $9.2 million over his last three years, and I thought, Dude, you are nuts. Nuts. Play eight more years, earn at the top of the punter market, THEN get into the media. No one could know this crazy explosion about gambling was coming, but it came, and McAfee will make more in one year now than he’d have made in seven lucrative punting years combined. I like guys who lay their guts on the line and it ends up working out.

9. I think it was really cool to see retired sports broadcaster Doc Emrick do an essay for NBC on a long-forgotten piece of fascinating football history. The 1932 NFL Championship Game was played indoors, on a 60-yard field, on dirt, at the old Chicago Stadium—the same dirt just used as the floor for the circus. Bears 9, Portsmouth Spartans 0 … in a game played without the Spartans’ best player, Dutch Clark. He had to leave Ohio to return to his off-season job—coaching the basketball team at Colorado College. A great view into what the game used to be.

10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:

a. To those who had towns erased, to those who lost homes, to those who had jobs obliterated by the incredibly powerful and slow-moving tornado Friday night, I am so sorry. So many Americans are sending prayers, thoughts and good wishes to Mayfield, Ky., and the swath of mid-America stretching to Illinois.

b. This, from a news station in west Texas, is the content you need this morning.

c. Some history: Last month, a bus crash involving the Andrew (Texas) High School band, on the way to a playoff game in west Texas, took the lives of three people, including band director Darin Johns. The next day, the band of the school Andrews played in the football game took Andrews’ place and played for the Andrews team. The deaths happened when a wrong-way driver plowed into the band’s bus on a highway, and many of the students’ instruments were destroyed in the crash.

d. So every year in Andrews (pop.: 13,653), 30 miles east of New Mexico, there is a festive Holiday Parade. The Andrews band is the star of the show. This year, local officials figured Andrews’ Mighty Mustang Band would not want to participate because of the anguish of the crash. But the band wanted to honor the deceased, including the beloved band director. Then something happened. A manager at a music store 112 miles from Andrews took it on himself to start calling band directors in the area to ask if they could band together to help replace the instruments. They said yes. And many responded to the idea of Chris Wheeler, the music store guy, to dress up in their best Christmas stuff, bus over to Andrews on the day of the parade, and give the kids instruments and march with them.

e. More than 1,200 students just showed up to support the Mighty Mustang Band.

f. The huge crowd of high school band members all played “Jingle Bell Rock.” There was even a French Horn player, who came from more than 100 miles away.

g. “Band kids do what band kids do,” Wheeler told NBC.

h. Wrote Cathy Free of the Washington Post:

One student, Olena Garcia, tied some tinsel to her tenor drum and learned “Jingle Bell Rock” at the last minute when the manager of the Dairy Queen where she works agreed to give her the night off.

“I got the music that night, but I caught on pretty quick and I was happy to be there,” said Garcia, a 16-year-old junior at Brownfield High School. “Band has always been my favorite class and I wanted to do my part to help keep spirits high for Andrews High School.”

Justis Ramford, a percussionist from Lamesa High School, said he could barely believe that so many high school musicians — including 50 tuba players — lined up behind the Mighty Mustang Band. “I’ve never seen so many band members in one place before,” said Ramford, 18. “I wondered how we might sound because there was no time for a rehearsal, but it all went smoothly and people really seemed to love it.”

i. I’m in awe of the goodness of these people.

j. Smart Hockey Story of the Week: Hockey writer Mark Lazerus of The Athletic, with a story about what I’ve thought about the hockey hierarchy for a long time: “Welcome to the NHL, where dinosaurs still roam the earth.”

k. Perfect. Lazerus’ point is about the rection to a crazy but fun and imaginative pass from Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras, stationed behind the Buffalo goal with pressure coming from around him, flipping the puck OVER the goal so teammate Sonny Milano could bat the puck out of the air into the goal behind a stunned Sabres goaltender.

l. Fun, fascinating, historic, unprecedented, very cool.

m. But not to ESPN commentator and former NHL coach John Tortorella. Wrote Lazerus:

“Is it good for the game?” Tortorella unironically asked on an ESPN+ broadcast. “I’m not so sure. I’m not trying to be a fool here, but I’m just not so sure it’s great for the game. If you did that back in the late-90s, 2000, you get your head taken off.”

He said that while plays like that might bring in new fans, “You’re losing fans, too.” He lamented that the game has gotten “too showman,” and should instead be “a hard game, an honest game.” Hard? Honest? Does he think what Zegras did was easy? Does he think Milano spread vaccine misinformation to the Sabres as he batted the puck in? What are we even doing here?

Why anyone would care what Tortorella, a man who’s built a career out of playing for overtime and stacking up enough loser points to squeak into the playoffs as the world’s most boring seventh or eighth seed, has to say is beyond me. But the fact is, he’s a prominent voice on the United States’ biggest sports network. Last month, Tortorella said that Connor McDavid, probably the most singularly gifted player in the history of the sport, needs to change his game to succeed in the playoffs, to essentially play an uglier, more conservative style of hockey. Connor McDavid! Instead of fixing the officiating in the postseason to allow the stars of the game to be stars, we should tell the stars to play more like grinders. Good God.

The ESPN deal is supposed to take the NHL into the future. And it’s loaded with great, forward-thinking voices trying to hook fans into the world’s greatest sport. But all this nonsense does is turn back the clock to a time when hockey was less fun, less skilled, and less popular. Tortorella is longing here for the good old days of the late-1990s and early 2000s, when Jaromir Jagr had to fight through a dozen stick fouls every time he made a move to the net, and when every fourth line was populated by knuckle-draggers who could barely skate but could throw a nasty right cross.

The NHL has never been better. It’s never been faster, it’s never been more skilled, it’s never had so many gifted stars. Yet the league’s mindset remains stuck in the past, making “Slap Shot” references about Toe Blake and old-time hockey.

n. That is some great writing with some reasoned points. Congrats, Mark Lazerus.

o. The problem, as I see it, is that there are too many people who want the NHL to be a bare-knuckle sport instead of progressing to a new version of the beautiful game. Barbarism must go. Pro hockey will be a regional game if it doesn’t grow and become more athletic.

p. Travel Story of the Week: Lizette Alvarez, writing in the Washington Post and asking for simple civility on airplanes right now. Wrote Alvarez:

With airplanes frequently short-staffed, some passengers have jumped into the fray to help attendants, even aiding with the duct tape or zip ties — tools that were once reserved for dangerous hijackers, not mask-rejecting boneheads.

And while public announcements from pilots have helped, liquor consumption hasn’t. The pandemic prompted airlines to cut back alcoholic beverage service, but many unruly passengers smuggled in liquor from to-go airport concessions, some in Big Gulp-type cups. It doesn’t bode well that some airlines have resumed serving liquor in coach.

What do the front-line crew members think it will take to make the skies friendly again?

“People going to jail,” said Sara Nelson, president of the International Association of Flight Attendants. “That would help.”

q. I’ve got to say I’ve flown quite a bit this year—maybe two-thirds of my pre-pandemic amount—and I have not seen one incident of people behaving very badly. I certainly hope the good behavior proliferates.

r. Sports Story of the Week: Gabrielle Ducharme and Amna Subhan of Cronkite News at Arizona State University, on the post-pandemic rebounding of high school basketball on the reservations of Arizona.

s. The job of a journalist is to take readers where they cannot go, and to teach readers what they do not know. They have done each with this story. Wrote Ducharme and Subhan:

Roughly 300 miles north of Phoenix, tucked behind the majestic Canyon De Chelly, sits Chinle in the heart of the Navajo Nation. A lone central two-lane highway leads in and out of the town. Surrounded by dirt, mountains and desert, the paved road is rare.

Signs hang along fences, warning against the spread of COVID-19. Aging buildings face east to celebrate the sunrise and rebirth of a new day, much the way the homes of their ancestors did for generations. The Wildcat Den at Chinle High School is arguably the largest one in town, the 7,500-seat arena that is home to Chinle basketball.

It sat idle from March 2020 to November 18 while the city was on lockdown due to COVID-19. The pandemic was hard on the community. In May of 2020, the Navajo Nation, which includes 27,425 square miles of land that extends into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah – had the country’s highest infection rate, surpassing New York. In addition to rapid spread, the numbers were also high because of significant testing, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a release.

As of Thursday, the Navajo Department of Health reports 40,254 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,557 deaths. It has also rebounded faster than other hotspots because of lockdowns and mask mandates, Nez said. It has impacted many, including [Chinle women’s coach Francine] McCurtain and Chinle boys basketball coach Raul Mendoza. McCurtain lost her father, and Mendoza lost his daughter to COVID-19.

t. Man, the Arizona Coyotes seem like a lousy, deadbeat organization.

u. Nice D on Steph Curry, Sixers. So interesting to watch a good chunk of the Golden State-Philly game and see a player I had no idea about, Matisse Thybulle, help hold Curry to 3-of-14 shooting from three-point range.

v. Brian Williams, huge Springsteen fan, checked out of NBC News the other night with this: “My biggest worry is for my country … The darkness on the edge of town has spread to the main roads.”

w. He speaks the truth. 

Arizona 27, L.A. Rams 20. The game is in the desert, and the tide of the series is turning. Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray were 0-4 versus the Rams since entering the league in 2019 … until Oct. 3 at Sofi Stadium, when Arizona creamed the Rams by 17 in a surprise. If the Rams can’t find a way tonight, they’d be three games behind the Cardinals with four to play—and to win the division Arizona would have to go 0-4 and the Rams 4-0 down the stretch. So the Rams, with a loss tonight, likely would face an all-road journey to play the Super Bowl at home in two months. And winning at—for example—Tampa Bay, Green Bay and Arizona in a 16-day January span is not very likely. 

Green Bay at Baltimore, Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX. Aaron Rodgers testing the battle-scarred Baltimore D, with Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters on Davante Adams and the others in the Packer receiver room, would have made for must-see TV. Still should get a big ratings number, but it’s going to be hard for the Ravens to hold down Rodgers in his first trip to the Crabcake since 2013.

New England at Indianapolis, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NFL Network. How strange is it that the Colts and Patriots have met only once in the last five years? One of football’s fun rivalries—first meeting: 1970, in the Boston Patriots’ third game in the NFL, when Johnny Unitas and the Colts beat a bad Pats team that included linebacker Marty Schottenheimer … at Harvard Stadium—now features the first edition of Mac Jones versus Carson Wentz.

Kansas City at L.A. Chargers, Thursday, 8:20 p.m. ET, FOX, NFL Network. The 2021 Los Angeles Chargers: God’s personal message to you to never bet on football.

Washington at Philadelphia, Sunday. WFT’s in the midst of the intensely NFC East-centric end of the season: Dallas, at Philly, at Dallas, Philly, at Giants. No other team finishes with five division games in weeks 14 through 18.

New Orleans at Tampa Bay, Sunday, 8:20 p.m., NBC. Since Tom Brady landed in Tampa last year, the Bucs are 0-3 against the Saints, 20-5 against everyone else. The Saints won by 11 and 35 last year (38-3 at Tampa), then by nine to Trevor Siemian at the Superdome this year. Seems odd. For the Saints, this is it. Last gasp for the 6-7 and badly depleted Louisianans.

Brutal. A gut punch.
DeMaryius, gone. He had
a whole life to live.




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