I am writing the first few paragraphs of this on a flight to Chicago, where I will board a plane to fly to Birmingham, where UC will play in the famed Birmingham Bowl against mighty Boston College. The man next to me is wearing a paper "Happy New Year" hat that he desperately wants me to acknowledge, which I'm doing by mentioning it on my blog.
Want an entire talk show worth of thoughts on the end of the Bengals season and what should lay ahead? Listen to Monday's Tony and Mo Football Show. We discuss Joe Burrow's insane performance against Oklahoma, officiating and replay issues that crept up in the Ohio State/Clemson and Seattle/San Francisco games, whether AJ Green quit on his teammates, Joe Mixon's future, and Andy Dalton. It was a fun show, give it a listen..
One of the more miserable things about having a football team that was completely irrelevant this season is that the 100th NFL campaign was excellent. It wasn't without its inanity, of course. The officiating in this league continues to be a problem and the overreaction to last year's NFC title game pass interference non-call fiasco by expanding replay to inclue PI calls went as most of us predicted, but the games themselves were fantastic, and we've entered this awesome era of likable, high-upside quarterbacks that given us a bunch of guys playing the position that are must-watch.
The quality of play issues that have permeated through the NFL over the last few seasons seem to have eased up. There are still too many flags, and the games continue to have too many stoppages, but we've had an infusion of talented players, creative coaches, and forward-thinking front office execs that have combined to give us a pretty damn entertaining league.
There was little entertaining about this Bengals season, and as much as I've enjoyed spending my off time during the holidays daydreaming about what Joe Burrow will do in a Bengals uniform, and for all the warm and fuzzy feelings the season-finale seemed to bring to the surface, this season was really, really difficult.
Yes, because the Bengals had a terrible record, but also because it's felt like almost everyone else is having so much fun.
I am now writing on an airplane carrying me from Birmingham back to Cincinnati. The Bearcats won the, uh TicketSmarter Birmingham Bowl, which is cool. What the victory over Boston College means is entirely up to you. I think it's great that UC posted an 11-win season, I'm glad they closed the year with a victory, and I'm happy for a group of seniors that seemed determined to end their careers on a high note.
I still feel slightly unfulfilled about the way the regular season ended. The two games against Memphis - the regular season finale and the AAC title tilt - were there for the taking, and while it's very fair to wonder how well Cincinnati would've held up against Penn State had the Bearcats been invited to the Cotton Bowl, the experience in Alabama in a terrible stadium hosting a bowl game with no prestige whatsoever leaves me really, really wistful about a good UC team not getting a shot at a better opponent in a game carrying a little more cache.
More than anything though, I'm already pretty stoked for next year. The Bearcats could be quite good next season, although it is fair to wonder how much better than passing game can be if Luke Fickell remains as attached as he is to Desmond Ridder. UC needs to get better on the outside, but I'll spend the offseason hoping there's some semblance of a competition between Ridder and Ben Bryant (assuming Bryant is here), and wondering if a team that will be carrying the weight of major expectations will have the kind of offense needed to take the previous two excellent seasons and build upon them to the extent that the 2020 Cats can do something extra special. The defense should be outstanding next season. The running game should be very potent. If the passing game can improve, then there's a good chance we won't have to be worrying about a return trip to Birmingham a little less than12 months from now.
Here's some football guesses.
Houston (-2.5) over Buffalo. Of the four games this weekend, this is the one I feel the least amount of confidence in, but while it's smart to use discretion, it's no fun to sit out a precious playoff game.
I know it's a little trendy to back Buffalo here, mainly because A) the Bills nearly went to Foxboro in week 16 and beat the Patriots B) some find the Bills lovable because they haven't won in forever.
Also, I don't think anyone trusts Bill O'Brien. Can't say I blame those who don't.
I'm still leaning toward the Texans. They have the better quarterback, they're at home, and they've played the toughest schedule of the six AFC playoff teams (.520). They get JJ Watt back, and while I don't think he'll make a huge impact, the Texans also have a decided punting advantage which seems too uninteresting for me to write about extensively, but do your research and tell me I'm wrong. The Bills have mostly feasted on bad opponents, with just one win against a playoff team, and I while I am likely to tease them up to +8.5 with the Saints down to -1.5, in what should be renamed the Houston Texans Invitational since the Texans always get the early Saturday wild card game, I'm backing the home team and because I think these defenses are a little overvalued, I'll take the over (43.5) as well.
New England (-5) over Tennessee. Even trendier than the Bills are the Titans for two reasons:
A) Folks watched the Titans play a game they (kinda) needed to win against Houston's backups, including AJ McCarron, who played like a quality backup quarterback.
B) People are just dying to stick a fork in the Patriots dynasty.
Because of B, this is the most compelling game of the weekend, a possible send-off to the dynasty that has defined the league for two decades. I've heard a lot of smart, credible people speculate about Tom Brady's future while mentioning the Chargers as a potential destination to believe the single most interesting offseason storyline involves his potential free agency, and all of that kicks into hyperdrive if the Pats lose.
(Brady changing teams would be jarring, but only to a degree once you consider that Montana, P. Manning, Favre, Unitas and others changed teams late in their careers.)
I'm rooting for New England, not because I'm clinging to one more week of Brady/Belichick running the league, but because the most interesting possible playoff storylines involve the old, grizzled, severely-limited, and yes, declining Brady going into Kansas City and then Baltimore to knock off the two hottest properties in the league. I don't think he can. I think he'll get a chance.
Of the Titans' seven wins in this Ryan Tannehill-led dash to the playoffs, one came against an opponent worth taking seriously and that came at home, against Kansas City. The Patriots were awful in a nearly-inexplicable loss to Miami last week, but I'm siding with the coach/QB combo that's New England is an incredible 20-3 at home in the postseason while covering and covering five of the past six home playoff games and against a quarterback making his playoff debut (Tannehill under 248.5 yards passing seems enticing, BTW) versus a coach who's never lost to QBs in their first postseason start.
The dynasty gets at least one more week.
New Orleans (-7.5) over Minnesota. I'm going to be quick with this one, since the flight attendant just took my empty drink cup and folks are starting to stir the way airline passengers start stirring when the "initial descent" announcement in imminent. The Saints can make the Vikings one-dimensional, and I won't believe in Kirk Cousins once they do. No team should be entering the postseason with more pressure than the Saints, and I think they play like a team aware of what happens when it runs out of chances. I'd find something to tease the Saints up with (I like teasing them Buffalo, as mentioned before) if you'e scared by the hook, but I'm comfortable laying 7.5.
Seattle (-1.5) over Philly. It's hard to believe this is Carson Wentz' first playoff game. I just wish he had some guys to throw to. The Eagles' late-season surge with a bunch of dudes most fans haven't heard of has been impressive, but with Zach Ertz now dealing with an injury, there's just no reliable target for Wentz to throw to. Some say home dogs howl. I say road hawks fly.
Sorry, it's almost 1am. I'm very tired. I'd go into futures worth paying attention to, but we just got the initial descent message, and I'm tired of typing. If there's a team you feel strongly about making the Super Bowl, many of the Super Bowl MVP odds are pretty juicy. Good night and Happy New Year. Thank you for reading the longest Blog of Football Guesses since week one.
NFL Mark ATS in 2019: 51-33-3
College Mark ATS in 2019: 46-37-1