The Monday Morning Update: January 9, 2017

The Texans, Steelers, Seahawks, and Packers survive, the Raiders, Dolphins, Lions, and Giants don’t, and I look forward to a long cold winter

 

  1. The Brockening

Well, it finally happened. It took a total of 18 weeks of competitive NFL football, but the Houston Texans’ Brock Osweiler finally paid back a little of the confidence Tim Culverhouse and others had for him throughout the season. Connor Cook, meanwhile, looked every bit like a QB that had never made an NFL start before.

This isn’t to say that Osweiler was good, or even that he had the biggest, or very significant, impact on the outcome of the game. He just did what he needed to do— took care of the ball, scored points where he could get them, and let the NFL’s best defense do what it does so well. I spotlighted Osweiler’s dismal QB rating in last week’s preview, but he was much steadier on Sunday earning a passer rating above 90, throwing for 1 TD and no INT’s along with 168 yards on 14/25 completions. Nothing outstanding but enough get to the job.

It may be simple, but it’s worth more than nothing, so congrats to Osweiler, his coordinators/coaches and the rest of the offense. A win is a win, and a playoff win, even over a team as decimated as the Raiders, is even better than that.

I hope they enjoy it for the time being. Thanks to the Steeler’s rout of the also-injured Miami Dolphins the Texans prize for their victory is a date in Foxboro against the Patriots, the closest thing to a juggernaut the NFL has to offer this season. Osweiler won’t be able to minimize mistakes in order to win there—he’ll have to actually make some big-time plays in a big-time game, and I think Belichick will be more than prepared for whatever the Texans throw his team’s way.

Still, a win is a win.

  1. Steelers reel in the fish mammals

Before we get to the game, let me indulge in a quick linguistics/biology lesson. As clever as your chant headline or tweet about “reeling in/cooking/catching/squishing the fish” may be, it’s still not right—dolphins are mammals, not fish.

Whatever they are, though, it’s fair to say they got squished on Sunday by the Steelers

The Steelers have been the NFL’s Jekyll and Hyde all season, some weeks looking like a team loaded enough, especially on the offensive side of the ball, to compete with the league’s best. They certainly looked as much this week, as Le’Veon Bell made my focus on him look good as he had a dominating day, running for a total of 167 yards on the day, including 83 yards on a drive where he took 10 consecutive handoffs down the field and to the house of a touchdown, without even getting to third down. His playmaking partner on the WR side of the field, Antonio Brown, was almost as impressive, gathering two TD’s on 124 yards through the air. An offense with those two weapons, along with a competent corp of receivers and a big-name QB, can compete with any team in the game, even New England.

The one place the team has struggled is putting consecutive dominant performances like that together. While they did a seven-game streak to finish the year, it came against inconsistent opponents at best, including six games against teams that did not make the playoffs. Winning seven (now eight) in a row is never a bad thing, but it loses some of the shine when the wins come against the Browns (twice!) the Colts, the Bills and the Bungals.

They’ll be asked to something they haven’t done all season next week—win consecutive games over winning opponents (we’ll count the Dolphins in that category, even if they were ravaged by injuries, including to their starting QB.) If the Steelers plan to move on to New England, they’ll need AB and LB to be at their bests once again in Kansas City against the Chiefs.

  1. Seahawks will have to leave the nest

There are some things in life that we can count on to happen time and time again. The sun will rise each morning, at least until it explodes in our sky, the snow will come to Massachusetts each winter, as this weekend proved, and the Seahawks will win playoff games at home.

The team has now won an incredible 10 straight playoff games on their home field. The last time they lost in Seattle during the month of January was back in 2004, when George Bush was still president and the Red Sox were reeling after another crushing defeat to the Yankees in the ALCS, wondering if they’d ever break the Curse of the Bambino.

Saturday’s game was another display of dominance. The team cruised to an easy 26-6 victory, and while the first quarter and some of the second may have come and gone without a score, the outcome was never much in doubt. Seattle scored the game’s first 10 points and never looked back, as the running game looked like it may still feature Marshawn Lynch instead of new stalwart Thomas Rawls. Wilson good if not great, going 23/30 for 224 yards and two TD’s without turning the ball over.

Now, however, they’ll have to leave the nest, and things don’t always go smoothly in those cases for Seattle. While their home record is something to awe, their road record is not quite as impressive, as the team went just 2-5 dating back to 2004.

They’ll start their hopeful journey to Houston against the Atlanta Falcons next week, in what looks to be a classic strength-vs-strength matchup. The Seahawks have made their living stopping teams from scoring, while the Falcons are better offensively than maybe anyone in the league. We’ll take a closer look at the battle of the birds later in the week.

  1. The bigger they are, the harder they fall

Well, the Giants fell pretty hard last night. Whether it had anything to do with the offense’s performance or not (my vote is no, but what do I know), Odell Beckham, Sterling Shepard and the rest of the team’s boat-party-goers will have to answer for their midweek actions after the loss.

And make no mistake, despite the big number Green Bay put on the scoreboard, blame for this loss falls on the Giants offense. They had numerous chances to take control of the game and give the Giants defense a chance to protect a lead. Instead, they watched opportunity after opportunity slip through their fingertips as pass after pass from Eli Manning, who played maybe his best game of the season, bounced off those same fingers.

The defense was far from perfect in this one, and I’m sure members of that unit will have their own mistakes and memories that will haunt them from this playoff loss. But Aaron Rodgers was never going to be held to 10 or 13 points in a playoff game. The Giants defense gave the Giants the opportunity to take over the game early with some touchdowns, but each new drive sputtered as the last one did and ended with a kick, either a punt or a field goal. Not scoring touchdowns when they had the chance to doomed the G-Men all season, and it was their downfall here.

The defense did what it needed to do against the best QB in football, and that gives the offense a chance to win. In fact, they did even more than that, handing the offense their one touchdown on a silver platter after forcing a turnover on downs. Granted, the defense did let the Packers take over the game after the one offensive touchdown, but it’s tough for me to find too much fault in a unit that did all that it did without veteran standout, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

The Packers will have to take their show on the road this week as they face off with the Dallas Cowboys in a matchup that many believe will decide the NFC’s representative in the Super Bowl. I can’t believe I’m saying this about 12 hours after the final whistle, but Go Pack, Go!

  1. The Islanders remove all doubt with a pair of embarrassing losses

 

Sometimes, in hockey, losing in overtime or the shooutout doesn’t feel too bad. When two teams play a close fought and even game, it’s nice to take solace in the fact that a good performance wasn’t wasted and the team could at least pick up a point in the process.

This was not one of those weeks for the New York Islanders. Losing two games in a row, even if both were extended to the coin-flip that is extra hockey, to the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes, the league’s most ardent bottom feeders, is unacceptable, no matter what the circumstances. And to be clear, these were not comforting circumstances: the only goal the Islanders managed in the loss to the ‘Yotes came off a bad play by Louis Domingue.

The Islanders can fire the coach and GM during the season, or they can wait (not making any changes in the offseason would be sheer lunacy). It no longer matters. The team is not making it to the playoffs in 2017, and I think it’s too late to save many of the prospects the coaching staff has gotten their hands on, including Ryan Strome, who has looked inept this season.

Between the play this week of the Islanders and the Giants, it’s going to be a cold hard winter for your favorite blogger.

6. What do my friend that followed the Dead and Grayson Allen have in common? They’re both addicted to tripping.

 

Like the Seahawks chances during the playoffs at home, there are few things as sure in this world as the assumption that Duke will have some hate-able characters on their basketball team. The latest addition to the litany of Blue Devils is Grayson Allen, and he may be the school’s finest villain yet, what with his seemingly uncontrollable need to trip people.

He was up to his old tricks in just his second game back from an “indefinite suspension” (he sure rules with an iron fist, that Coach K), and was seemingly sticking his leg out on a poor defender from the Boston College Eagles, who presumably has enough to worry about as it is.

Duke apparently wanted to test interim head coach Jeff Capel by giving him the job during Coach K’s absence due to back surgery, and they certainly got their wish. Capel will be challenged in having to walk a fine line between protecting is his player (which is in his job description, to be fair) and discipline him for unacceptable actions (also in his job description.)

But something tells me the all-powerful Coach K may be giving the direction while imploring us all not to pay any attention to the man behind the curtain.

  1. Prepare yourselves; the hot takes are coming

 

It’s that time in the sports calendar where the schedule of big-time events gets a little bit thin, so it’s natural for the Baseball Hall of Fame to try and occupy the vacuum by announcing their newest class of inductees.

It’s a good idea, putting the focus on the game in a time when we’d almost surely otherwise be talking about the NFL, MLB or NHL, and allowing those honored some time to shine without the glare of the regular season distracting fans. But good God, does it also seem to bring out the hot-take-artists living in every baseball writer, tweeter, and fan in the game.

If you’re on Twitter and a baseball fan, your TL has been flooded with BBWA ballots, explanations of those ballots, criticism of the ballots, databases with a searchable index of ballots, and calculations of how many more ballots a certain player will need to cross that magic threshold.

That’s largely a good thing—I’m never one to argue for more oversight and secrecy and less open discussion, but I think we passed critical mass about a dozen exits ago. And it’s not going to change any time soon, except it may get worse, as every voter will have to disclose their ballot next year, not just those on Twitter.

At the end of the day, HOF conversations—who should be in, who shouldn’t, why or why not—are some of the most fun parts about being sports fans. Let’s not let all this attention on the conversations ruin that.

8. Starboys, every damn one of them

Similar to HOF debates are the arguments surrounding who should find themselves in any given All-Star game. Veteran stars or young guns? Popularity or stats? Legacy or this season? There are always so many things to determine when voting.

We’ve got a double-dip of All-Star voting happening right now, with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving leading in first fan returns of NBA All-Star Voting 2017, while Carey Price, Sidney Crosby, PK Subban and Connor McDavid being chosen to lead their respective divisions in the 2017 NHL All-Star festivities.

For my money, I like the fan vote, but only if it’s not attached to anything real. It’s an event for fans, so let them choose who they want to see in this exhibition, but let’s stop tying legacies, HOF resumes or even contractual bonuses on All-Star game appearance. It’s hardly fair to hold players to the shifting standards of the electorate.

  1. A mini-Psychic is In: the National Title Game

Don’t worry; this won’t be some 5,000-word revival of last Thursday’s feature on the NFL Wildcard Round—we’ll save that for this Thursday. But with the National Title game looming on tonight’s TV guide, we’ll indulge in a quick round of prognostication as the college football season comes to a close.

Who’s going to win the rematch? I’ve tried and tried and tried, but I can’t find any way to convince myself it’s not the Tide’s title to lose. Alabama is just too big, strong, fast and smart in this one, even in Dabo Swinney’s Clemson team is certainly the most worthy opponent in the country.

It pains me to go on record picking in favor of college football’s Evil Empire, but I just can’t talk myself out of it. Give me Alabama over Clemson by a final score of 27-14.

That’ll do it for this edition—have a great week everyone! For more, follow @MurraySportTalk on Twitter.

 

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