The Sunday after Thanksgiving is always telling in the NFL. This is when the heat intensifies and playoff tickets are punched. With that in mind, we bring you the good, the bad and the ugly from the first Sunday in December, Schein Nine style.
1) Super Bowl LIV preview? Yes, please! Ravens nip Niners in classic bout
I spent much of last week hyping this showdown in Baltimore as the game of the year. It lived up to that billing. I want more. I need more. And the biggest takeaway after watching the Ravens edge past the 49ers, 20-17, is that there is a very realistic chance we are going to get more. You know: In Miami on Feb. 2., for all the marbles.
Lamar Jackson made magic, as per usual, eclipsing 100 yards rushing for the fourth time this year -- a single-season best among quarterbacks during the Super Bowl era. His connection with tight end Mark Andrews -- which produced Baltimore's first touchdown of the day -- is special. Justin Tucker drilled a 49-yarder at the gun to bust a tie, showing once again that he's the best kicker in the game. And the defense held San Francisco to just three points after halftime.
Bottom line: It was business as usual for Baltimore, the most well-rounded team in the entire league. The Ravens' offense, defense, special teams, culture and coaching are uniquely adept. With the Patriots' loss in Houston on Sunday night -- and with Tom Brady continuing to struggle with the forward pass -- the Ravens now hold the No. 1 seed. And this is appropriate: Right now, Baltimore is the best team in the NFL, much less the Super Bowl favorite in the AFC.
San Francisco deserves plaudits for Sunday's effort, as well. The Niners went toe to toe with the Ravens in Baltimore. And San Fran did it with key injuries, in the pouring rain.
2) Don't sleep on these Ryan Tannehill-led Titans
The Titans' trip to Indy felt like a pseudo playoff game in the jumbled AFC South, and I picked Tennessee because of Tannehill. He rocked steady and made big plays once again, with two touchdown passes and just five incompletions, seizing the moment and momentum. The Titans, who prevailed 31-17 in Lucas Oil Stadium, have won five of six since Tannehill took the reins from Marcus Mariota, with the former Dolphins quarterback racking up some gaudy numbers in the process: 71.9 completion percentage, 9.1 yards per attempt, 12:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 117.1 passer rating. And with defenses forced to respect Tennessee's quarterback play, Derrick Henry is running like a freight train, averaging 120.7 yards per game since the change to Tannehill. Henry's become a star. He destroyed the Colts, rushing for 146 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, effectively busting Indy's will.
Mike Vrabel is a heckuva coach. The defense is solid, ranking eighth in points allowed. This team is as tough as nails and fun to watch. Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and the Texans showed again why they are the best team in the AFC South with an inspired win over the Patriots on Sunday night. But the wild card is absolutely within reach for the Titans -- and with Tannehill playing the best football of his career, it's tough to bet against them.
3) Andy Dalton, slump buster
When Dalton was benched back in late October, it made zero sense to me. It wasn't his fault the Bengals were dreadful. He doesn't play defense. And his offensive line was terrible, with first-round pick Jonah Williams having suffered a year-ending injury in June. Meanwhile, A.J. Green has yet to play a down this season, having injured his ankle in the first practice of training camp. And Cincy totally botched it with Green by not shopping him -- and giving teams a window to talk contract with the free agent-to-be -- before the trade deadline. But it's the Bengals. And they opted to make Dalton the fall guy, inserting rookie fourth-rounder Ryan Finley into the starting lineup. While I've dinged Dalton in the past over his shaky play in prime time and the playoffs, he's won a lot of games and put up really good numbers in Cincy during the regular season.
So I wasn't the least bit surprised when Cincinnati's decision to put Dalton back under center produced the team's first win of the season, a 22-6 triumph over the Jets. The awful stigma of 0-16 is no longer in play. Oh, and by the way, Dalton's first-quarter touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd -- a perfectly placed throw up the seam -- gave the Red Rifle 198 career TD strikes, surpassing Ken Anderson for the most in franchise history.
Dalton's probably a goner at the end of the year, as LSU quarterback Joe Burrow should be Cincy's top pick. And that's great. But I felt compelled to give Dalton, who is still a solid NFL starter, some love for giving the Bengals their one shining moment this year. Great stuff.
4) Raiders get absolutely smoked -- again
It's one thing to lose to Patrick Mahomes in Arrowhead. Andy Reid has a career record of 18-3 after bye weeks, so Oakland was definitely fighting an uphill battle in this showdown for first place in the AFC West. But to get blown off the field, 40-9? Well, that shows that the 8-4 Chiefs are just in a different class than these 6-6 Raiders.
Two weeks ago at this time, it seemed like the plucky Raiders would reach double-digit wins and hit the playoffs for just the second time in 17 seasons. But two weeks ago feels like a lifetime ago, with Oakland having dropped consecutive games by 31 points and Derek Carr having crashed back to earth. Now the Raiders are set to host the red-hot Titans on Sunday. Will this send the franchise back below .500, where it has finished in six of the last seven seasons?
5) Browns' disappointing season ends at the hands of Pittsburgh's QB3
My feelings on Freddie Kitchens are well-documented. I didn't understand why he was interviewed for the Browns' head-coaching job, much less hired for the position. His latest face-palmable misstep in a disastrous first (and last?) year at the helm: wearing a T-shirt in public that said "Pittsburgh started it" right before the rematch with the Steelers in Heinz Field. What?? This is leadership? Any mystery as to why this team has been woefully undisciplined all season long? And Kitchens' terrible in-game coaching was lacking again on Sunday: Cleveland took a 10-0 lead in the second quarter, but then allowed Pittsburgh to score 20 unanswered points and get the win.
The Steelers' third-string quarterback, Duck Hodges, finished off the 2019 Browns on Sunday. This year, which started off with such promise and excitement for Cleveland, has been a complete and utter waste. I blame Kitchens -- and the man who inexplicably hired him, Browns general manager John Dorsey.
6) Nick Foles is benched
When Jacksonville signed Foles back in March, it felt like a strong upgrade on both tangibles and intangibles. And of course, he wasn't Blake Bortles. But then, in his second drive as a Jaguar, Foles took a big hit as he delivered a 35-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Chark. The resulting broken collarbone opened the door for something completely unexpected in Duval County: Minshew Mania, which was real and spectacular. Even so, after rookie Gardner Minshew turned the ball over four times in Week 9 against Houston, Doug Marrone decided to go back to his (now-healthy) veteran. The magic has been sorely lacking ever since, as the Jags have lost three straight games by double-digits following their Week 10 bye.
Foles is a postseason legend. He's a Super Bowl MVP, for god's sake! But how many times have we seen him excel over the course of a full season? And after Foles was benched at halftime of the Jags' home loss to Tampa Bay, Minshew again looked more capable running this Jacksonville offense. Unsurprisingly, on Monday, the Jaguars announced that Minshew will start against the Chargers in Week 14. I don't think it's hyperbole to surmise that Foles -- who signed a four-year, $88 million deal less than nine months ago -- will not be the Jaguars' quarterback next year.
7) Pat Shurmur's second head-coaching act going much like his first
Shurmur was dreadful as Browns head coach, going 9-23 in two years at the helm. Is he even worse as the head man in New York? In nearly two full years coaching the Giants, he's 7-21. In 2019, Big Blue is a rudderless, 2-10 mess. It's hard to surmise a plan here -- if there even is one. And on that front, GM Dave Gettleman deserves a ton of blame, as well.
The G-Men lost their eighth straight game on Sunday, falling 31-13 to Green Bay. Rookie QB Daniel Jones continues to turn the ball over at a precipitous rate. Shurmur, who was supposed to foster growth in the No. 6 overall pick, is defunct. And the team, as a whole, is depressing. The Giants need a total cleansing -- again.
8) Eagles waste another opportunity to turn their season around
After the Bills spanked the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, it was all there for the Eagles to regain control of the NFC East with their "easy" schedule down the stretch. The air quotes have never been more applicable. Miami -- MIAMI -- overcame a two-touchdown, third-quarter deficit by scoring 23 straight points and topping the Eagles, 37-31. So much for seizing the opportunity. How bad was Philadelphia's defense? Miami's 37 points were the most the Dolphins had scored since 2015!
With the division title fully up for grabs, Philly has lost three straight games. The Eagles are 0-7 in games where they have trailed at any point in the fourth quarter. It's a mess. It's a waste.
9) Ron Rivera's Panthers continue to crumble in embarrassing fashion
I have to believe this defeat is the death knell for ninth-year coach Ron Rivera. His defense gave up 29 points to the Dwayne Haskins-led 'Skins! It just can't happen. With four straight losses, Carolina now sits at 5-7, on track for a sixth sub-.500 finish under Rivera.