Gregory Shamus/Getty Images; Steven Senne/AP; Charles Krupa/AP
By Gary Gramling
November 28, 2015

1. I think if you look into a crystal ball that shows the NFL future of Johnny Manziel, it looks a lot like the present of Tim Tebow and Vince Young.

I actually think the parallel to Tebow (of all people) is more apt. Both Manziel and Tebow are good enough to be on NFL rosters, but both are blocked by two obstacles that are out of their control. First and most problematic: taking on Manziel immediately ignites a fan-fueled quarterback controversy (just like it does with Tebow). Manziel is not good enough to be a starting NFL quarterback right now, and because of inherent flaws he likely never will be. Yet, even as recently as one month ago, there were renewed calls for Manziel to get the starting job in Cleveland. Why? Because, during a 31-10 loss at Cincinnati, he had one good drive.

And, while this second issue looms much larger with Tebow, anyone carrying Manziel as a back-up does so knowing that they have to drastically alter their offense if Manziel is forced into action. There aren’t any starting quarterbacks like him, and Manziel’s greatest strength—improvisational skills—isn’t something you can really build into an offense.

Manziel is a better quarterback than Tebow, and his cult following is not nearly as strong. But of course, there’s one more issue with Manziel.

The actions that got Manziel benched—not only lying to management, but being foolish enough to tell a lie that could so, so easily be debunked—were those of a spoiled child. Maybe that’s a result of growing up an athletic prodigy in an affluent family, or maybe it was reinforced at Texas A&M, where he was a savior for a program desperate for a winner (a 19-year-old Manziel once allegedly got drunk, picked a fight on the street that involved popping his shirt Dennis Reynolds-style, gave police a fake ID when confronted… and faced virtually no consequences). He’ll be 23 next week, and people can change. But has anything he’s done since entering the public consciousness suggest that Manziel can be a leader of men?

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2. I think, if you can only watch one game today, that’s really weird because there are at least four on no matter where you live. But if you can only watch one game, make it Bills at Chiefs. No game has bigger playoff implications.

You should never assume anything in the NFL, but (out of mostly laziness) let’s assume the Steelers are going to be the AFC’s first Wild-Card team. That leaves Bills, Jets, Chiefs and Texans tied for the second spot, all at 5-5. The Jets are fading fast. The Texans still have to travel to Buffalo and Indianapolis, and host New England. If you were going to handicap that four-team race, you’d have to put Kansas City and Buffalo in the lead. Ergo, today’s game at Arrowhead is a monster.

The Chiefs are unbelievable on defense. They have three superstars in the front seven—Justin Houston, Dontari Poe (nice Fridge impression, by the way) and a rejuvenated Tamba Hali. In their last six, the Chiefs haven’t allowed more than 18 points in a game. The last two weeks they went on the road and destroyed Peyton Manning then Philip Rivers. And, oh yeah, their offensive is efficient and mistake-free (one turnover in the past six games).

Everyone loves a good Rex Ryan storyline, and this is a great one. No one had Bills-Chiefs circled on the calendar back in August. And by the end of the Monday night game in New England (well, with all the officiating delays I believe it was technically Tuesday evening), it looked like the Bills had just played their Super Bowl. They wrecked the Patriots’ front five and, at least for the first 28 minutes, really looked like they could get out of Foxboro with a win. In the end, it got away. And Tyrod Taylor… well, Tyrod Taylor was essentially this guy…

After Sunday, the Chiefs have Oakland twice, Baltimore, San Diego and Cleveland left on the schedule. If the Bills are two games back with five to go, it’s very likely over. The Bills are wrapping up an absurd three-game road trip, one that started with emotionally charged games against two division rivals. Can Rex rally this team to go on the road, on a short week, and get a win against one of the league’s hottest teams? He has to. This is the biggest game of the Bills’ season.

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3a. I think I never thought I’d write, say or think this, but: Enough with replay. I’d rather not have it at all than have the current system.

The delays are interminable and unbearable. But more than that, replay has become a crutch; it’s making good officials bad. Anything close that can be ruled a touchdown or a fumble are ruled as such, since then the review then becomes automatic. (Honestly, how many times have you seen a player clearly taken down short of the goal line awarded a touchdown, or a ball ruled a fumble after the ball carrier had two knees down.) It seems like the whistle blows late on every play (well, with one exception) for fear of blowing a play dead that will potentially be corrected on replay. (Remember Chris Johnson’s 62-yard run against the Ravens? If a linebacker came in and finished him off when he was in Brandon Williams’ grip, it would have been a 15-yard penalty and possibly a hefty fine).

And the indecision is creeping into every aspect of officiating. NFL officials are supposed to be the best in the world (and they’re compensated as such). If you’re that good, there should be a certain degree of trust put into your judgment. Take a quick, 15-second conference if you need it. Then make the call and let everyone move on with their lives.

Maybe, at most, you have a replay official in place (whether on site or in New York) to correct the most egregious of errors. Stuff like, Hey Boger, the offense had 19 players on the field when they snapped it or Blakeman, you have to cross the end line for six points, not the sideline or Dammit Hochuli, you forgot to wear pants again! But this is enough. The current system has failed.

3b. I also never believed making all officials full-time would make any noticeable improvement, but I’m open to the idea now. The Bills-Patriots MNF debacle ended with an official ruling Sammy Watkins was stopped in-bounds due to forward progress, even though no one was within two yards of him before he scooted out of bounds. Ben Volin over at the Globe, who had the full blow-by-blow account of the officials blowing (burn!), talked to a source who floated the theory that the head linesman, a former Pac-12 official, may not have known the difference between NCAA and NFL rules in that regard. If true (and Gene Steratore’s explanation of the gaffe reeked of half-hearted cover-up), the league’s 122 officials need to spend 90 hours a week locked into a room memorizing the rulebook.

Also, Bruce Arians supports full-time officials, and Bruce Arians knows more about football than I do.

3c. None of this will fix officiating. There are still going to be blown calls, and because of all the cameras viewers are going to see more of them than we ever did in the pre-replay days. Even under the current system, with replays and conferences after seemingly every other play, there are blown calls. This is about making the games watchable again.

3d. Maybe later this season we’ll address “What is a catch?” But there’s already steam shooting out of my ears, so not today.

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4. I think I’m not about to hot-take this thing and say the Broncos would have been better with Brock Osweiler all along; their best chance to win Super Bowl 50 is to have a healthy Peyton Manning under center in January. But this Denver team is an especially interesting—and potentially troublesome—opponent for the Patriots.

It starts with the running game. Gary Kubiak can use some of those stretch runs that disappeared with the immobile Manning under center. That is not only what Kubiak wants to do, but it helps cover up some of the flaws in this offensive line, and it plays to the strengths of their No. 1 running back, Ronnie Hillman. The Patriots defense has been great, but they have been run on a few times this year.

One other point on this game: Julian Edelman, and now Danny Amendola. Yes, “next man up.” But you know what you saw from the Packers offense on Thursday night? An offense that had run out of… well, men. On Thursday night, the Bears essentially doubled Randall Cobb and dared Aaron Rodgers to throw it to the other guys (hi Davante Adams!). You saw how that ended for the reigning MVP.

On Sunday night, the Broncos will surely drape two defenders on Rob Gronkowski at all times, just like the Bills did on Monday night. Against Buffalo, Amendola was the one who took advantage of the Gronk-centric gameplan and stepped up. Now Amendola is out. New England has Brandon LaFell and maybe a hobbled Keshawn Martin on the outside (Aaron Dobson is out too), but Brady has always had the greatest amount of comfort with his slot receivers. On Sunday night, that will presumably be undrafted rookie Chris Harper, who has yet to catch a pass in the NFL. Is the LaFell/Harper duo, plus No. 2 tight end Scott Chandler and another understudy, running back James White, good enough to beat one of the league’s best secondaries? And, more importantly, can a patchwork Patriots line, one that was still shuffling on Monday night and looked helpless at times against the Bills, keep Brady clean enough against the NFL’s best pass rush?

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5. I think it’s far too late to be revisiting this, but c’mon Domata Peko.

By all accounts, Peko is a great dude. (I particularly enjoyed his apology to Joe Thomas after an inadvertent late hit a few weeks ago.) And there will never be any 100% definitive proof that he was mimicking the snap count last Sunday night.

But I’ve heard a week’s worth of excuses. It never gets called. Well, that’s because, for 56 minutes every game, the umpire is positioned too far away to hear anything on the line (plus it was pretty quiet in Glendale leading up to that snap). He was saying “get set!” The Cardinals are obviously going to spike the ball, so why would you feel the need to repeatedly bark out that instruction? And while it’s been a shaky year for officials, you have to really suspend disbelief if you think that call is going to be made if the umpire is less than 100% certain.

But most of all, watch Peko’s reaction after the play.

That’s an awfully mild protest for a guy who later claimed he was wrongly accused of a game-clinching personal foul. I guess what I’m saying is: We don’t need Miss Marple to sort this one out.

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6. I think, barring a miraculous turnaround, this is the final time we’ll be checking in with the Chip-O-Meter, scientifically proven by science to be the world’s most accurate way to measure Chip Kelly’s job performance. (Science!)

Look, it’s not working. If the guys Kelly hand-selected to be a part of this thing won’t buy in, then who’s he gonna get to replace them? (And if some of the guys, who were given boatloads of money despite lukewarm markets, have indeed quit on the only man in football willing to pay them an exorbitant salary, then shame on them.)

But, if this is it (and how could it not be), I’ll say this: Chip Kelly made the NFL a lot more interesting, and that’s a good thing. It’s a copycat league, and because of that it’s a cookie-cutter league. Kelly was trying to do something different. Maybe if he had tweaked his management style he could have prolonged his stay; and maybe what he needed was five or so years to make this work. But I hope more coaches like Kelly (or maybe even Kelly himself) get a shot in the NFL. After all, plucking assistants from Bill Belichick’s staff hasn’t exactly been part of a winning recipe.

I know that’s a heavy way to end what is a stupid running gag. But I promise, dear readers, I’ll come up with something stupider to replace it in the next week or two.

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7. I think I got a kick out of our latest Fan Network piece, a breakdown of the overblown impact of officiating on Super Bowl XL, basically making what was a silly controversy about 16% sillier. (My favorite conspiracy theory: The NFL needed the Jerome Bettis storyline to play out, otherwise… people might stop watching Super Bowls?)

I covered that Super Bowl and watched the telecast a few times. It was poorly officiated. (For the record, the Hasselbeck low block was a bad flag but probably not a game-changer, and I thought the Locklear hold was too ticky-tack, but if you’re going to break down every holding call and non-call over the course of a game…)

And, for the most part, that Super Bowl was poorly played. Even the game’s MVP, Hines Ward, said afterward that he left a couple of plays on the field (and he did, including a brutal drop in the end zone). I cast my MVP vote for Antwaan Randle El that night; he was the best player on the field, not only for the TD pass he threw but also for a key catch-and-run on a third-and-six to prolong what would be the final clock-killing drive Pittsburgh needed (even more impressive considering Ben Roethlisberger had completely imploded at that point).

But the better—well, less bad—team won the game that night. And if you’re looking for a goat (and c’mon Seahawks fans, you’ve already gotten a browbeaten apology out of Bill Leavy), I think it’s about time history redirects blame toward Jerramy Stevens. He had three crucial drops in that game. Plus, that’s schadenfreude we can all get behind considering Stevens was the Greg Hardy of his time, only (allegedly) much worse.

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8. I think, while you’re counting down the hours to kickoff, you should spend some time with The MMQB Read of the Week: Steelers cornerback William Gay guest-writes on the NFL’s heavy handed fines for uniform violations, and his choice to wear purple shoes in honor of domestic violence awareness month.

It was a short week at The MMQB, but this one would have stood out any week, especially in light of the league’s ridiculous uniform rollouts on Thursday nights. Domestic violence is particularly close to Gay; his mother was murdered by his stepfather. Gay wore the purple shoes during the same month that the NFL was shoving all things pink down everyone’s throat. He took his fine in stride and, in this piece, offers some reasonable solutions (which hopefully will not be ignored, but almost certainly will).

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Who’s a home win away from first-place in the NFC East? These guys.
Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

9. Twelve-plus things I think about Sunday’s 12 games:

a. The Texans have miraculously scraped their way back into the playoff race, both in the AFC South and the Wild-Card picture, as they host the Rob Ryan-less Saints. Brian Hoyer returns to the lineup, and here’s some statistical food for thought: Over the past three seasons, Hoyer has started 21 of his teams’ 42 games (two seasons with Cleveland, this one with Houston). His teams are 13-8 when he is the starting quarterback, and 3-18 when he is not.

b. There is no such thing as a moral victory when you’re a Super Bowl contender, but I thought last Sunday night, despite it being a loss, was an encouraging game for the Bengals. Glendale is probably one of the three toughest venues to visit in the NFL right now, and the Bengals were right there, including a crucial drive to put points on the board late when they needed it. That’s a January-type of atmosphere, and Cincy’s performance was good enough to beat most good teams. This week, they’ll just have to take care of business against the Rams and the new and improved (or something) Nick Foles.

c. A few weeks ago I claimed that neither the Panthers nor the Falcons were among the NFL’s top-16 teams. I may have underestimated the Panthers. Just a bit. But I definitely overestimated the Falcons.

With all due respect to my colleague Andy Benoit, who has forgotten more about football than I’ll ever know, the Falcons are bad. Really bad. They lost to Blaine Gabbert and Matt Hasselbeck in back-to-back games. They would have lost to the Titans if Marcus Mariota was healthy, and they still barely eked one out when Zach Mettenberger was under center.

It would be an enormous upset if they beat the Vikings at home today.

d. Washington is 4-1 at home this year, and if they get this one against the Giants they are in the driver’s seat in the NFC East. They still have to go on the road three times, but two of them will be against the collapsing Eagles and Matt Cassel-led Cowboys.

e. This Matt Hasselbeck madness can’t go on forever, can it? In Hasselbeck’s three starts (all wins!), the Colts have been outgained by 100-plus yards each time and benefitted from five interceptions. Jameis Winston has thrown only two interceptions over the past six games. Not to mention, Tampa is 3-2 on the road this year.

f. I addressed Bills-Chiefs much higher in the column, but one more note: If Travis Kelce is out, the Chiefs get a whole lot easier to defend.

g. What a difference a couple weeks made for the Raiders, who have gone from Wild-Card contending darlings to also-rans again after a three-game losing streak. They have a great chance to get their first win in 28 days when they visit Tennessee in a matchup of two promising young quarterbacks.

h. The Jaguars are a win over the reeling Chargers away from serious contention in the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad AFC South. And who would have thought they’d be favored by more than a field goal over the Chargers at any point this season.

i. The Jets are this close to joining Miami in Get-em-next-year-ville after back-to-back losses to other Wild-Card contenders. And no Darrelle Revis this week.

j. Two months and two days ago the Cardinals obliterated the Colin Kaepernick in Glendale. Sunday should be much more interesting, both because it’s in Santa Clara and because Blaine Gabbert is now under center for the Niners. Carson Palmer has turned it over five times over the past two games, and that’s exactly the type of thing that makes what should be an easy win all sorts of trouble on the road against a 49ers team that has been playing mistake-free.

k. There was a time when nobody came into CenturyLink and won. This year, the Seahawks have already dropped two games at home, and came a Calvin Johnson goal-line fumble and missed illegal batting call away from losing a third. The other two home wins they have were against teams starting Jimmy Clausen and Blaine Gabbert. That air of invincibility could take another hit with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers coming to the Northwest.

l. One more note to add on the Patriots offense that will take the field in Denver. As I mentioned above, presumably, undrafted rookie Chris Harper will take on a much bigger role with Danny Amendola out. You might remember Harper, who left Cal after his junior year only to go undrafted, from Robert Klemko’s piece “The Reality of a Combine Snub.” That included this quote from Harper, who, amazingly, never asked for his draft grade from the advisory board: “I knew I wasn’t a first- or second-round pick, and I didn’t want to hear them tell me to go back to school.” Anyway, glad to see Harper landed on his feet, and curious to see what he’ll do in Denver. While he has yet to catch a pass in the NFL, he did have one big grab erased by a penalty last Monday night.

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10. I think, at 12:58 p.m. ET, you should turn your volume all the way up and press play…

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