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This Week in Football – The Cowboys are comedy, the refs are still bad, the 49ers are legit

OUR TOP STORY

The Dallas Cowboys are a guaranteed ratings hit for the NFL. Just like every season, the Cowboys have been on some of the most-watched games of 2019. That was especially true when they took on the other ratings dominator, the New England Patriots, this week in the Fox late afternoon slot. To have the most-watched afternoon game in over two decades is a remarkable accomplishment.

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Maybe most important, it gave the whole country another chance to laugh uncontrollably at the Cowboys’ general and never-ending incompetence.

This is a team that has Super Bowl aspirations every season and yet can’t get out of its own way. Maybe more aptly you could call them delusions of grandeur than real aspirations. Despite spending big on a big names and always being at the forefront of the nation’s attention, Jerry Jones’ team hasn’t won anything significant in decades.

The problems on the field start at the top, and Jason Garrett put on another clinic of how not to coach a football game in Week 12. Even with his Princeton education, he couldn’t grasp basic game theory on a crucial drive in the fourth quarter, electing to kick a field goal late instead of going for the touchdown while trailing 13-6. Because of course, when you get a chance to cut a one-score game in bad weather against a team that’s extremely difficult to beat on their home field down to a one-score game, you just have to do it.

Think about that concept for a second. Ask yourself if it’s the right thing to do. It won’t take you long to figure out you know more about managing a game than Garrett does.

For as bad as Garrett is (which cannot be underscored enough), at some point the players have to actually make plays. It starts with the quarterback, who is an analytics darling this season but continues to make mistakes that would lead you to believe he’s among the bottom tier of NFL quarterbacks instead of the top. For every great game or stretch Dak Prescott has, he seems to have an equally ineffectual one right after.

Prescott finished with 212 yards passing on 33 attempts with no touchdowns and a pick (a bad one at that) against the Patriots this weekend. Regardless of the weather or the opponent, that’s not enough to get it done on the biggest stages, and Sunday’s game was about as big as it gets for the regular season.

He’s a problem, but he’s also good enough that you can’t abandon him. Jones is going to give Prescott a massive contract this offseason and it will keep the Cowboys on this same path for the long term.

Another player who’s going to command huge money, whether in Dallas or elsewhere, is Amari Cooper. The Cowboys’ top receiver was another no-show on Sunday, recording two targets with no catches.

Of course, there’s also the running back who’s making an astronomical amount of money, Ezekiel Elliott, who was also shut down by the Patriots. New England’s defense is among the NFL’s best, but if your team is built around a running back and that player isn’t productive, you’re not going to make a splash in the postseason.

Even with all of their shortcomings, and clearly there are a lot of them, the Cowboys are must-see TV. They’re Teflon for Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN. If Dallas is involved, the world is watching. To a point, it doesn’t make any sense, but at the same time it plays right into the “America’s Team” moniker. Everyone wants to watch the Cowboys, for better or for worse.

Right now, and for the better part of more than two decades, it’s been the latter. And until Jones figures out that he needs to fire his coach and reorganize the roster, it’s going to be more of the same for America’s Team.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

*As bad as officiating in the NFL is, we need to accept that. There’s nothing we can do as fans to fix that miserable issue right now. Every team has to deal with bad calls and over the course of the year the particularly egregious ones even out. However, the NFL keeps making things work when it comes out publicly that they admit a call was blown. This week, Foxborough, Massachusetts is the epicenter of the crisis. Dallas was flagged twice for tripping in a 17-9 loss to New England, and neither call was a good one.

This second one came at a pivotal moment in the second half. Then, on Monday, after the entire world saw the botched rulings, the NFL reportedly admitted the calls were incorrect. So the league that punishes everyone for criticizing its poor officials is also opening itself up to even more criticism when it admits fault after the fact. Nothing can happen at this point. No one feels better, in fact Cowboys fans likely feel worse. These apologies don’t do anyone any good, and in the end they end up making the referees and other officials who continually get it wrong on the field look even worse.

*Games aren’t predetermined, but a call against the Saints almost felt too good to be true this week. Late in Sunday’s win over the Panthers, it looked like an incomplete pass was going to force Carolina to kick a field goal. However, Panthers coach Ron Rivera challenged that there should have been a pass interference call against New Orleans’ C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Amazingly, against all odds, the call that isn’t ever overturned was actually overturned. The Saints couldn’t believe it, and while it didn’t end up changing the final result, it did seem preposterous that the birthplace of the pass interference nonsense the league has dealt with all year is where this call was actually reversed. You could construe this as unfortunate or unlucky for New Orleans, but for a fan base that has complained constantly since last year’s NFC Championship Game, it almost feels like cosmic justice. Don’t be surprised if the Saints are OK with this rule getting tossed out next season.

*It’s time to finally throw out all preconceived notions we had about San Francisco entering the year. First impressions often cloud our judgement, and the 49ers weren’t expected to be legitimate contenders in 2019. If you felt otherwise, congrats, you were in a tiny minority. Those notions were all kinds of wrong. San Francisco doesn’t have a perfect roster, but it showed again this week that it’s as good as anyone not just in the NFC but in the whole NFL. Green Bay is a good team. A flawed team, but a good team. San Francisco wiped the floor with Green Bay for 60 minutes on Sunday Night Football. The defense is the key for the Niners, and it’s as fearsome of a unit as there is in the game right now, but the offense is potent in its own right. As long as Jimmy Garoppolo is careful with possession this team can beat anyone, including the Baltimore (which it will have a chance to do next week).

*Week 12 in the midst of a last-second playoff push isn’t a great time to change quarterbacks. That’s conventional wisdom, anyway. It may not apply to this year’s Pittsburgh Steelers, who are trying to claw their way into the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs with a strong finish to the season. They won’t get there with Mason Rudolph at quarterback, though, which is why Devlin “Duck” Hodges took his spot this week. Rudolph did enough for most of this season to keep the Steelers treading water, but is inability to actually pass the ball well isn’t going to get them to any better position that just barely staying relevant. Hodges probably isn’t a franchise savior, but he clearly provides a spark that Rudolph can’t. That was evident in Sunday’s Steelers win over the Bengals. Mike Tomlin has done as well as he could have given the mess Pittsburgh’s dealt with all season, specifically with regard to injury. If the Steelers sneak into the postseason with Hodges at the helm, it’ll be Tomlin’s best move yet.

VITA VEA DID WHAT THIS WEEK?

Vita Vea became the heaviest player in NFL history to score a touchdown this week.

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Big dudes scoring touchdowns will never get old. The biggest dude scoring a touchdown, though? That’s as memorable of a moment as any. This is a perfect Buccaneers score, too. Jameis Winston, the NFL’s best natural source of physical comedy, throwing a touchdown pass to a defensive lineman to make history. This tops the blowout win over the Los Angeles Rams as the best moments of the year for the Bucs.

STAT OF THE WEEK

The number this week is 15,289. That’s the career rushing total for Frank Gore, who now ranks third in NFL history in rushing yards, only behind Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith.

He’ll never catch Smith, but Payton is just over 1,400 yards away. That seems like a ton for a 36-year-old running back who isn’t even a full-time starter, but Gore is an exception to the rule. His glory days ended when his tenure with the 49ers ended, yet he’s continued to be a legitimate option on the ground ever since. He’s as reliable as it gets at a position that is both heavily dependent on the offensive line and has seen its value diminish rapidly in recent years. There isn’t much flash left in Gore’s game and he’ll never be considered one of the best of the best like Smith, Payton, Barry Sanders and others when he eventually retires. But to play for 15 years and rack up historic numbers is an incredible feat, one that deserves praise now and one that will obviously garner a gold jacket down the road.

FOOTBALL FOLLIES

When you’re willingly watching bad football, sometimes you have to find creative ways to make the experience enjoyable. With Thanksgiving this Thursday, one Bears fan found a seasonal alternative to suffering through Mitchell Trubisky.

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How did he get this in? Not just the pie, but the pie and a cannister of whipped cream. Soldier Field doesn’t have the world’s most terrifying security process, but it’s enough that it should have caught this. You have to respect the man, though, because his only priorities were watching the Bears and eating pie, and he got it all done.

WEEKLY TOP 5: BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS

Over the past few weeks we’ve taken a look at the top candidates for various awards and looked at teams with potential, recognizing the best of the best in the NFL this season. As the playoff picture rounds into shape and teams fall out of contention, it’s time to focus on the teams that have let us down. These five have been especially disappointing this year.

  1. Los Angeles Rams – After yet another grizzly loss on national television, it’s all but over for the Rams. L.A.’s rapid descent from top of the NFC to mediocre snoozefest has been well-documented, but at 6-5 and two games out of the wild card race there aren’t many plausible paths for the Rams to get back to the Super Bowl.
  2. Philadelphia Eagles – Philadelphia came into the 2019 season with the second-best Super Bowl odds in the NFC. Instead of vying for another first-round bye, the Eagles are trying to stay in the hunt for the division title in the weakest division in the league. If they don’t start performing better on both sides of the ball, they won’t be going to the playoffs at all despite going into the year with arguably the deepest roster in the game.
  3. Cleveland Browns – Nobody got more hype and adulation this offseason than the Browns, who have gone on to start the year 5-6. The playoffs are still a possibility and Cleveland is playing better (most important, quarterback Baker Mayfield is playing better), but it was put on a pedestal rarely seen even by NFL offseason standards. It will be an iconic kind of disappointment if the Browns miss the playoffs entirely after all the fanfare early on.
  4. Chicago Bears – We’ve gone over the Bears’ nightmare season plenty of times already. Their season has been effectively over for several weeks already, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still a letdown year. The defense has regressed to just “very good” from “incredible,” which isn’t helped by an offense that has gotten far worse. The era of Chicago’s dominance in the NFC North, which was perpetuated mostly by Bears Twitter, was short-lived.
  5. Los Angeles Chargers – The Chargers had a fantastic season a year ago, up until a brutal loss to the Patriots in the playoffs. This year they were even picked by some to usurp the Chiefs for the AFC West crown. Instead, Philip Rivers’ age is showing, the offensive line is bad, the defense is injured again and L.A. has a 4-7 record to show for all of it.

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