By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It was just a little over a year ago when Buccaneers head coach — a zero-time Super Bowl champion at that date — Bruce Arians stated unequivocally that Antonio Brown was on a one-strike deal with Tampa Bay.
“He screws up one time,” Arians insisted, “he’s gone.”
It was a no-nonsense stance from a coach who seemed to want very little to do with AB and all of the hubbub that tends to follow him.
Of course, this is the NFL, where principles and standards and zero-tolerance policies have a way of shape-shifting based on current predicaments and scenarios. In the Bucs’ case, Brown was caught using a fake COVID-19 vaccination card, a rather serious offense that put people like the immunocompromised Arians at risk and also resulted in a three-game suspension for Brown.
Certainly, that would count as screwing up.
But the Bucs have a Super Bowl to try to win. And they just lost Chris Godwin for the season.
So, unsurprisingly, Brown was welcomed back to the team facility this week after his suspension officially ended.
And Arians isn’t apologizing.
“I could give a s— what they think,” Arians said this week, when asked about people who will surely point out the disconnect between Brown’s current status and last year’s definitive statement. “The only thing I care about is this football team … and what’s best for us.”
That is, quite obviously, a massive shift in tone from the head coach. But it’s also zero point zero percent surprising.
While Arians showed hesitancy to even bringing Brown aboard last year, he’d end up showing flashes of the talent that made him one of the best receivers on earth for quite some time. He caught 11 passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the regular-season finale, he scored a touchdown in the Bucs’ first playoff win in 18 years, and he caught the touchdown that essentially sealed the Super Bowl win before halftime against the Chiefs. This year, he’s been limited by injuries, but he posted a couple of monster games (121 yards and a touchdown in Week 1, 124 yards and two touchdowns in Week 5), and he caught nine passes for 93 yards and a score in the last game he played.
Even if Godwin hadn’t been injured, the door was always going to remain open for Brown in Tampa. Because winning — not principle — will always be the dominant force in NFL decision-making.
The phrase “bend but don’t break” has long been used to describe NFL defenses. But it also applies to any team’s ethos when wins and losses are at stake.
(Home team in CAPS; Thursday lines)
TENNESSEE (+3) over San Francisco
The 49ers remind me a bit of the Patriots. Rebounded from an awful start (3-5), rattled off a bunch of wins (5-1 since Week 10), climbed into the midst of the playoff hunt, but maaaaybe aren’t as good as the recent record shows. Traveling on a short week when the press clippings are all rosy is a bad combination for San Francisco right now. (I also always put stock into the idea that the Titans players are afraid of Mike Vrabel and his legendary grumpiness after losses, and thus they will be minding their P’s and Q’s in this nationally televised affair.)
GREEN BAY (-7.5) over Cleveland
Not to make excuses here, but how in the world are we supposed to evaluate these teams that are being ravaged by COVID? It’s not ideal.
The Browns did their best to try to overcome their losses on Monday Early Evening Football this week, but there was only so much they can do. Things are improving for them on that front, and they’ll actually have their head coach on the sideline in Green Bay. But having them go to Wisconsin to try to beat the NFL’s best team on a short week — on Christmas Day, no less — with all that’s been going on is a tough ask.
For the record, though, the Packers getting shredded by Tyler Huntley for the entirety of the fourth quarter last week has me on #HighAlert for a Packers faceplant or two between now and February.
Indianapolis (+1) over ARIZONA
On the one hand, you kind of expect the Cardinals to have some pride and put together as good a showing as possible on national TV on Christmas Day one week after losing to THE DETROIT FREAKING LIONS. They have to do something, right?
On the other hand, this is a rough spot for ‘Zona, because this is a tough spot to be carrying one of the worst run defenses in the league into a big game. The Cardinals rank 27th in yards allowed per rushing attempt at 4.56 yards. They’ve been good at keeping running backs out of the end zone, allowing just eight rushing TDs all year. But Jonathan Taylor and the Colts’ rushing attack is sure to be a problem for the home team in this one.
NEW YORK JETS (+1) over Jacksonville
I hadn’t really thought about it until I saw a tweet last week, but the Jags are in line to get the No. 1 overall pick for the second straight year. If that’s not a chess-versus-checkers situation then I’ve never seen one. That Urban Meyer hiring was more brilliant than we all knew.
Los Angeles Chargers (-10) over HOUSTON
Brandon Staley’s decisions last week weren’t the worst calls in sports history or anything. Considering his Chargers were going up against an explosive offense that can score in a hurry, the idea of gunning for touchdowns over field goals is at least defensible and at best quite practical. Just because they failed at converting the plays doesn’t mean the decision-making process was treacherous.
HAVING SAID THAT, Staley’s explanation? Woof City, Population: Brandon.
“The real football people understand that what I’m doing is playing to the strengths of our football team,” Staley said the day after the loss.
Staley is having some success. He’s a head coach in the NFL. That’s something. He doesn’t need advice from me.
But I think in any walk of life, going with the “I’m smart; perhaps you’re not smart enough to get it” route is never a good idea.
CAROLINA (+10) over Tampa Bay
I actually love this line, because the Panthers’ defense is legit, and the Bucs are not going to be at full power. Godwin’s gone, and Mike Evans and Leonard Fournette are dealing with hamstring injuries (the latter being more severe). Le’Veon Bell showed up on the scene this week and basically said he had both feet and his entire head all the way out of football when he got the call to join the Bucs, which should keep expectations rather low for his contributions.
The Bucs won’t get shut out again this week, but scoring points will be a grind.
My only concern, naturally, is that the Panthers’ quarterback situation is just sad. The Cam Newton redemption story has become painful to watch. P.J. Walker is P.J. Walker. Apparently, Matt Rhule is going to throw Sam Darnold out there for some plays on Sunday, too. Sounds like an awesome plan.
Honestly, the Panthers’ offense might end up allowing more Tampa points than the Panthers’ defense. It’s concerning. Still love the line.
(Matt Rhule not understanding that quarterback rotations don’t work in the NFL, or at any level really, is a bit mystifying. If you’re anyone involved with the Panthers organization, you’ve got to be concerned. Then again, the organization rushed to hire him two years ago, so maybe not.)
New York Giants (+10) over PHILADELPHIA
This one is sneaky tough. The Eagles played on Tuesday, so start there. That’s tough.
There’s also the fact that the Giants have lost four of their five games since their bye, and those losses have come by an average of 15.5 points. So the Giants don’t just lose — they lose big!
BUT, that one win came against the Eagles. It was a truly unforgettable 13-7 triumph for Joe Judge’s team. Granted, Daniel Jones was at QB for that one, but the defense did force Jalen Hurts into a three-interception day.
I don’t think the Eagles will blow this one, but the Giants may be in position to respectably keep this loss to single-digits.
NEW ENGLAND (-2) over Buffalo
The Patriots got their much-needed loss out of the way, and they’re going to respond with a disciplined game wherein they once again run the ball 600 times directly over the Bills’ defense.
I’m also not sure how we feel about Sean McDermott in a big spot. Outside of the empty stadium 2020 season, McDermott tends to morph into an unhinged, road rage-addled lunatic when he has to go up against Bill Belichick — forgetting the rules of the NFL, making godawful challenge decisions, screaming into the abyss, wasting timeouts, and so on and so forth. Just being frank, I don’t love him here.
Los Angeles Rams (-3) over MINNESOTA
The Vikings rank 30th in yards allowed and 23rd in points allowed. Even though the Rams are on an extra short week with travel thrown into the mix, it feels like a good week for Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay to cook.
(Speaking of “cook,” I made this pick before Dalvin Cook was placed on the COVID list. Man, the end of this season is rough.)
CINCINNATI (-3) over Baltimore
For years — years — John Harbaugh has been considered one of the best head coaches in the league. If anyone was asked to list the top five coaches, Harbaugh has almost universally been named. It’s become a reflexive response.
I propose a question: Why?
Yes, he won a Super Bowl, with Joe Flacco no less. That’ll earn some cachet, baby!
But after winning that Super Bowl, the Ravens missed the playoffs in four of the following five years. Since winning that Super Bowl, the Ravens are a whopping 2-4 in the playoffs. (They kind of get let off the hook for blowing two separate 14-point leads in Foxboro in the 2014 postseason, a game where Harbaugh essentially got pantsed by Belichick. Why don’t the Ravens get any mockery like the Falcons do for 28-3? It wasn’t as bad … but it was bad.)
Now, the Ravens are 8-6 and are at a real risk of missing the playoffs again, with Harbaugh’s two-point conversion decisions playing huge factors in that status.
Is he still one of the best? Might be time to reevaluate.
Baltimore may win this game, because who knows? Sports are sports. But I wanted to talk about this anyway. So I did.
ATLANTA (-5.5) over Detroit
I nailed the Lions pick last week (BRAG), and I’m tempted to let it ride for another week. But the Falcons are pretty good against bad teams. They lose to good teams (Dallas, Tampa Bay, New England, San Francisco) and they beat bad teams (Jacksonville, Carolina). They should be able to handle the Lions, even though they’re riding high from last week.
SEATTLE (-6.5) over Chicago
Hand up, I didn’t watch the Seahawks game on Tuesday night. The NFL didn’t want to give us a double-header, which was inconsiderate. So I just had to watch the highlights. It’s a short week for writers, too, you know.
Even from watching the highlights — the highlights compiled and posted by NFL.com, no less — it was evident that the Seahawks got absolutely worked by the officials in that loss. The defensive holding penalty was horrific, and the no-call on the PI was equally as bad.
While Pete Carroll may be on his way out (hey, he’s been on those top five lists forever, too), I think he’ll find a way to rally his bad team around the injustice of the super short week and the bad officials.
Oh, also, the Bears stink. Fortunately, we Americans have had the chance to see that on national TV for what feels like 10 straight weeks.
LAS VEGAS (-1.5) over Denver
I don’t trust either team. They’re both … fine?
Pittsburgh (+7.5) over KANSAS CITY
Potentially a stupid pick, as the Steelers are always susceptible to a stink bomb. That team loves stink bombs.
But the Chiefs are having a big COVID problem. I don’t know if Travis Kelce or Tyreek Hill will be available. I don’t know if I love Josh Gordon stepping in and working well in the offense.
I think I like the 7.5 points, though. Feels good.
Washington (+10.5) over DALLAS
The Cowboys beat the Washingtonians two weeks ago, 27-20. The Washingtonites have a much better coach than the Cowboys. I like the Washingtoners’ chances of keeping this one even closer, based on that advantage alone.
Miami (+3) over NEW ORLEANS
Tua in the Superdome? Saints coming off a shutout against Tom Brady? Let’s go. Will watch.
The Dolphins have one of the worst six-game winning streaks of all time. They’ve beaten the Jets twice, they’ve beaten the Texans, they’ve beaten the Panthers, and they’ve beaten the Giants. A win over the Ravens was their most OK of the bunch, but they still have just a .357 strength of victory, which is the lowest among all of the AFC teams with more than three wins. They’re also 2-4 on the road, with one win coming all the way back in Week 1, and the other coming at the Jets (so it doesn’t count).
Now it’s a Monday Night Football spot, in a crazy building, against a defense that is feeling good. Feels like a spot for Miami to crash down to earth.
Alas. COVID. Taysom Hill out. Ian Book in.
Seven straight wins for your Miami Dolphins.
Last week: 9-7