Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Christmas came early for NFL fans treated to the game between the Saints and 49ers. The phrase “instant classic” gets overused, but this matchup between NFC heavyweights definitely fits the billing.

The 49ers prevailed, 46-44, on a Robbie Gould field goal as time expired. Gould’s field goal was set up by one of the most incredible efforts from a tight end as a receiver you’ll ever see. George Kittle’s 4th-and-2 catch and spirited run up the left sideline, dragging three Saints defenders some 20 yards — while being facemasked — is the kind of highlight where legends are made. It’s probably going to wind up being my favorite moment of the 2019 regular season with zero fan interest in the outcome of this game for either team.

There was nonstop action. The teams combined for 53 first downs and 981 total offensive yards. Both teams scored six touchdowns. 49ers wideout Emmanuel Sanders became the first player in franchise history to throw and catch a TD in the same game. Michael Thomas caught 11 passes for 134 yards and proved unguardable. He’s now on pace to set the NFL record for most receptions in a season, and there were times in this game where it appeared he might set it on Sunday.

With the win, the 49ers became the first NFC team to hit 11 victories. The top of the NFC remains tightly bunched, but the 49ers established themselves with a huge conference tiebreaker by beating the NFC South champs. If there is to be a rematch, it figures to be in San Francisco next time. If the next one is anything like this one, the NFC playoffs are going to be epic. 

It’s the time of year where the teams feeling the weight of the disappointing season decide to make changes. The Carolina Panthers pulled the plug on longtime head coach Ron Rivera this week after the Panthers’ 4-2 start devolved into a 5-7 and largely noncompetitive mess. 

Rivera didn’t seem either surprised or upset at being let go, other than the timing. After almost nine seasons, Riverboat Ron looked ready to paddle into another port. He should have little trouble finding one. In eight full seasons, Rivera led the Panthers to the postseason four times. That includes a three-year stretch (2013-15) winning the NFC South at a time when nobody ever repeated in that division. His gutsy calls, adaptive defense and realism of what he asked of his players was a good fit and successful strategy for a long time. 

When Cam Newton went down with various injuries, so did Rivera’s coaching fate. Such is life in the modern NFL. The relationship between coach and quarterback inextricably links the two; it’s rare that one can win without the other these days. Rivera and Newton didn’t always mesh like peas in a pod, but they coaxed greatness out of one another more often than not.

Firing Rivera didn’t help in the short term. Atlanta annihilated interim coach Perry Fewell and his Panthers, 40-20. If Fewell truly wants to make a mark in his remaining three games at the helm, he needs to pull the plug on the Kyle Allen experiment and insert rookie Will Grier at QB. Allen ain’t it, period. 

Another week, another game marred by unacceptable officiating. And here’s the thing: in Week 14, as it is most every Sunday these days, it’s hard to isolate just one game where poor or controversial officiating and review decisions directly impacted the outcome. 

With apologies to Cleveland, where referee Carl Cheffers made a physically impossible ruling and then upheld his own decision, the focus here is on the Chiefs and the Patriots. You know, the marquee late-afternoon game the NFL heavily promoted and hyped up as must-watch TV as two AFC powers squared off. Alas, referee Jerome Boger and his band of zebras made themselves an integral part of the outcome of the game. 

Kansas City won in New England, 23-16, when the Patriots’ last-gasp red zone drive came up short. There probably should have been a pass interference penalty thrown against the Chiefs defense on that final Tom Brady heave under heavy duress, but by that time the Patriot faithful had long since given up on relying on Boger’s crew to get anything correct. 

Earlier, they called this play out of bounds:

The Patriots couldn’t challenge because Bill Belichick had already burned his two red flags questioning other terrible calls from Boger’s crew. This obvious mistake cost them points; New England kicked a field goal instead of getting the touchdown they clearly scored. 

Earlier, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce fumbled and Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore scooped up the ball and raced back a scoop-and-score. However, officials had blown the whistle and ruled Kelce down before the ball came out. Belichick challenged and won, but it only gave them the ball but not Gilmore’s TD. 

It’s hard to have sympathy for the Patriots not getting the benefit of the calls. The penalty discrepancy in the game definitely favored the home team; Kansas City, which won the AFC West with the victory, was assessed double the amount of penalties (10 to 5) with more than five times the amount of penalty yards (136 to 25). But the Patriots legitimately lost two touchdowns because of officiating incompetence in a game they lost by seven points. Hate the Patriots or not, but that cannot keep happening. And yet it does every week under Al Riveron’s reign. Enough already. 

In the NFC East, the Dallas Cowboys had a chance to calm the storming voices surrounding “America’s Team” on Thursday night. Instead, the Cowboys chose the bombogenesis route and escalated their season into a full-blown F3 tornado. 

The Cowboys were a trailer park in the way of the Mitchell Trubisky twister. The Bears blew them out 31-24, a score made much closer by two garbage-time TDs from the Dallas offense; it was 31-14 with under five minutes to play. Dallas scored on its opening drive and then produced exactly 5 first downs and 99 yards in its next 8 drives. Two of those 1st downs came via Chicago penalties. 

The Bears were the much better 6-6 team. Chicago’s defense was sharper and more disciplined. Trubisky was the much better quarterback, outplaying Dak Prescott. To be fair to Prescott, Trubisky got a lot more help from his supporting cast, but don’t take away Trubisky’s excellent play--particularly in the red zone. It’s the kind of game that teases Bears fans at what Trubisky can offer. Alas, it doesn’t come nearly often enough. 

Dallas is now 6-7 but still controls its own playoff destiny in the NFC East. Chicago is 7-6 and remains essentially eliminated in the chase for the NFC Wild Card, let alone an NFC North division with both Green Bay and Minnesota well out of reach barring something amazing happening...like a hurricane on Lake Michigan. It’s patently unfair but occasionally unavoidable. 

I'll still make this claim right now: the Cowboys win the NFC East at 7-9 but win their game against the top Wild Card team by at least two TDs. Look at it this way Bears fans, at least it won’t be your team suffering that indignity...

Any Given Sunday, Week 14 edition

When writing this week’s Football Meteorology, some concerns were aired about the Houston Texans suffering a letdown game. No one expected the degree of ass-whooping the Denver Broncos put upon Bill O’Brien’s Texans team. 

Denver raced out to a 31-3 halftime lead in Houston, flabbergasting a shocked home crowd. Rookie QB Drew Lock led the Broncos to four TDs and a FG in their first five possessions. They were the hot knife and the Texans defense was soft butter. It got to 38-3 before the Texans decided to offer more resistance than Grenada offered the U.S. in the 1983 war. Houston tacked on some serious garbage-time points — invaluable for Deshaun Watson fantasy owners — to close the gap to the final 38-24.

Lock deserves a lot of credit in his second career start. He made smart decisions and exploited the gaps in Houston’s attack masterfully. Denver cleared out the middle of the field and Lock filled the void with 22-for-27 passing and 3 TDs. He did get baited into a red zone pick by Texans safety Tashaun Gipson, but beyond that Lock looked great. 

The Texans did not, a point of massive frustration for the team and the fans. As often happens under Bill O’Brien, Houston simply could not string good games together. Blowing away New England on national television and asserting themselves as viable AFC contenders happened just one week ago. It feels like eons after getting smoked by a 5-8 Denver team whose players have openly questioned the coaching style of rookie head man Vic Fangio. It’s who the Texans are, for better or worse. 

Sometimes it can be a real drag to cover losing teams. I’m used to that by now, covering the Detroit Lions (the team I’ve rooted for since the late 70s) and the Cleveland Browns (my hometown team). So when a ray of sunshine strikes these woebegone franchises this late in yet another lost season, it is cause to celebrate. 

Browns punter Jamie Gillan is that ray of sunshine. He’s an absolutely amazing story, almost a Walter Mitty of modern football. Born in Scotland, he and his family moved to Maryland while Gillan was in high school. He traded in rugby for football and it took. Gillan went to college at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, a historically black college in a region of the United States that is about as far away from Scotland as you can get. With his long blond hair flowing from his helmet, Gillan thrived as both a punter and a kicker, earning the nickname “Scottish Hammer” and a shot at the NFL.

As an undrafted free agent, he was a longshot. The Browns had one of the NFL’s best punters in Britton Colquitt, who was also the holder — something Gillan had never done in his life. But Gillan learned quickly and won the job. He consistently posted exceptional hang times and control on the sidelines. He won AFC Special Teams Player of the Month in his first four NFL games. 

On Sunday, Gillan lived a tremendous thrill. His father, Colin, was the leader of the pregame flyover at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland. Colin is an RAF pilot and his flight career is why the Gillan’s came to America. It’s believed to be the first time an active player has looked up and seen a parent executing the incredible pregame flyover, which is one of the best reasons to soak up a game at a stadium. 

Gillan’s dad got to see his son’s Browns improve to 6-7 by beating the pesky Bengals, 27-19. The Scottish Hammer didn’t have his best day; Gillan punted twice for a 41.5-yard average and none inside the Bengals 20. Fortunately the self-destructive and high-maintenance Browns didn’t need him to drop the hammer to beat the 1-12 Bengals on his special day.

NFL quickies

--Ryan Tannehill has been a godsend for the Tennessee Titans. Now 6-1 with the Dolphins discard at the helm, the Titans are tied for the AFC South lead. Their quarterback joined some rarefied air with another great game, this one a 42-21 trouncing of the Raiders in Oakland:

--Many expected the Cleveland Browns to hire Mike McCarthy instead of Freddie Kitchens. It appears Cleveland and its front office laden with ex-Packers, might get a chance to right that wrong this offseason…

--Carolina gave LB Shaq Thompson a very rich contract extension. Four years and $52M with $28M guaranteed is a big reward for a player who has been a largely average starter for most of his career. Good for Thompson for getting his while the getting is good, but this deal might look terrible in a year or two. 

--Give credit to Washington for not quitting. The team gave Green Bay a serious test before falling 20-15, snapping a 2-game win streak. Rookie wideout Terry McLaurin is a star in the making. It’s not the Ohio State rookie they expected to break out, but Washington should take it. 

--The Jameis Winston roller coaster gave Bucs fans a thrilling 38-35 win over the Colts. Winston would have been just as responsible if the Colts had won, and that’s the vexing world that is Jameis and his 456 yards passing, 4 TDs and 3 INTs, including one of the dumbest pick-sixes you’ll ever see. 

--Give up trying to figure out the Rams. Throw dirt on them, as a couple weeks ago they’d lost two of three and scored one offensive TD in those three games, and they rise up and blow out division rivals Arizona and Seattle in consecutive weeks, scoring 62 points in the process. Now the pendulum swings back the other way, echoing the confidence in their 3-0 start...which subsequently was followed by 3 straight loses where the Rams surrendered over 100 total points. At 8-5 they’re still a full game and a tiebreaker with the Vikings out of an NFC Wild Card spot.

This article first appeared on RealGM and was syndicated with permission.

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