Lester is kicking off the holiday season by gifting his 10 Thoughts article out the next few weeks. I’m the lucky recipient of the first gift of the season but make sure to check out the special guest next week.
1. The Bears showed some signs of life against the Bengals on Sunday. With a win in two weeks against the Browns, the Bears could complete a clean sweep of the AFC North. With their other two games coming against division rivals in the hunt for a wildcard and home field advantage respectively, they could be looking at a 0-6 NFC North record. Is there a chance for re-alignment in 2018? Really think about that though – there’s a real chance the Bears finish 4-0 against the AFC and 1-11 against the NFC.
2. Sticking with those beloved Bears, did we see a glimpse of the future, finally, with Mitchell Trubisky peppering targets to Adam Shaheen and Jordan Howard taking control in the running game? If you’re an optimist, you need to put that game on replay all offseason because that’s the blueprint for this franchise going forward. Trubisky has shown me enough to be excited for 2018 before this game, so this was just icing on the cake.
3. The Carson Wentz injury absolutely sucks. Wentz plays the position with such a reckless abandon that some kind of injury isn’t particularly surprising, but knocking out an MVP-caliber player this late in the year puts a damper on the playoff race. The timing of this injury is so similar to Derek Carr’s injury last year that it feels easy to write off the Eagles with Nick Foles. While the drop may not be as precipitous as the 2016 Raiders, I don’t see how the Eagles can get past a stacked NFC this season and reach the Super Bowl. Taking a look at some of their advanced numbers you see that their offense relies on Carson Wentz third down magic. If Eagles fans think they can put Nick Foles in those third and long situations and expect the same result, they’re crazy.
4. With the Wentz injury, the Vikings and the Saints are both licking their chops. Both teams lost this week but are in control of their divisions. The Vikings winning the NFC North isn’t that surprising, but the Saints rise to the top of that division – and the way they’ve done it – should be something every team needs to look at. The Saints had a spectacular draft, seemingly hitting on every pick in the first four rounds including the frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara, and the potential Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshawn Lattimore. Their great draft and figuring out how to use these players early has the Saints in a position to lean on defense and a running game…with Drew Brees just in case they need to sling it. A Vikings – Saints playoff game would be very interesting.
5. My preseason pick of the Chargers for AFC West champion is starting to look really smart. Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen are on another level right now with the latter eclipsing 100 yards in each of the last four games. The Chargers have historically been that tantalizingly talented team that finds new and exciting ways to lose games – a rich man’s Detroit Lions, if you will – but maybe new Head Coach Anthony Lynn has figured out a way to harness this team’s energy for good, not evil. It also helps that the Kansas City Chiefs gave everything back after their hot start. Those two teams play this weekend in a game that will likely determine the AFC West champion… and for fantasy football purposes, I really need the Chargers to come through for me.
6. The lowly Cleveland Browns are nearing the end of another miserable season, doing Browns-like things to find a way to lose a game against the Green Bay Packers where they led 21-7 at the start of the 4th quarter. I feel bad for Cleveland fans, but I don’t at all feel bad for Jimmy Haslam, the Browns owner. The merry-go-round inside of that front office and subsequent coaching staff issues is a joke. Parting ways with Sashi Brown, promising to keep Hue Jackson (record 1-28), and hiring John Dorsey before the season has ended shows this organization hasn’t learned anything. The craziest part of all of this? Dorsey looks like he’ll be gifted with two picks in the top 5 in the 2018 draft from Sashi Brown. I’m excited to see how they can mess that up.
7. For weeks, the AFC has looked like a 2 team conference with some interesting teams coming on down the stretch like the aforementioned Chargers. The Steelers were my preseason pick to win the conference and despite the MNF hiccup against the great Jay Cutler, the Patriots are where they always seem to be this time of year. Those two teams play on Sunday in what will almost certainly determine home field advantage for the conference. This is easily the game of the week and both coaches know what is at stake. This is appointment television – clear your schedule.
8. The opposite of appointment television this year has been the AFC South. With Andrew Luck taking a sabbatical, Marcus Mariota’s regression, and DeShaun Watson’s ACL injury combined with JJ Watt’s broken leg, this division has lacked star power. The power vacuum is being filled by the excellent defense of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The problem with the Jags is that no one is going to get behind Blake Bortles having any kind of success in the playoffs. However, this team has arrived ahead of schedule. Just imagine what a legitimate starting quarterback could do on this squad. Tom Coughlin deserves real credit here for helping shape this roster and you have to wonder if Coughlin signs Eli Manning in the offseason.
9. The Jaguars beat the Seattle Seahawks in a game that got downright dirty at the end. First, anyone in the stadium watching a football game that throws something at a player on the field should, at a minimum, spend the night in jail and not be allowed to attend another NFL game. Ridiculous. On the field -–what the heck was Michael Bennett doing? There’s no place for cheap shots at any level, but it is particularly disappointing to see grown men doing this. Suspensions and fines for this kind of behavior need to be to the point where it really hurts. Of course, early indications from the league office are that nothing will be done. Once again, the league office disappoints.
10. Looking back at my preseason picks, my biggest “wins” were picking the Vikings, Eagles, and the Chargers to win their divisions. My biggest misses were picking the Bucs (dang Hard Knocks) and Cardinals (dang All or Nothing) while leaving out the Saints and Rams. The Wentz injury really puts a bug in the NFC playoff picture and as much as I’d like to stick with the Eagles, I really think the Saints and Vikings are the teams to beat in the NFC. Minnesota has an amazing opportunity to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium – and for a team that has lost four of them, it is a particularly interesting storyline. My pick from the AFC is still alive in the Steelers, but I’ll be cheering for the Chargers to disrupt that playoff picture.
A final, non-numbered thought – I want to thank the WCG community for the engagement and conversation in what has been another tough year. I do think that better times are ahead but until then, let’s continue to keep the conversation active and enjoyable. Those are my thoughts – let’s hear yours in the comments.