With the festive season upon us, we reflect on reasons for football fans to be thankful as the year draws to an end
Alex Smith was the deserved comeback player of the year before the season even began. His indescribable resolve pulled him through the spiral and compound fracture to his right tibia and fibula in 2018 that led to 17 surgeries after developing necrotizing fasciitis and onto Washington’s roster as their third-string quarterback for 2020. The 36-year-old came within 24 hours of losing his leg after his injury but was determined to eventually take a snap at FedExField. But would we see Smith as he sat behind Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen? Absolutely. Haskins’s underwhelming play meant he was scratched as the starter against the LA Rams and Allen stepped up. But injury struck and Smith was finally back, a mere 693 days since his last appearance under center. The veteran naturally completed his first pass with a quick strike to JD McKissick for six yards. As starter Smith delivered his first victory in 742 days for Washington against Cincinnati. “Just another thing I never thought I’d be doing,” said Smith. So far, so incredible. But the best was yet to come. A short trip to Pittsburgh to face the all-conquering, undefeated Steelers at 11-0 with his own team struggling at 4-7. So much for that. Smith erased Pittsburgh throwing for 296 yards and a crucial touchdown to tie the game in the fourth quarter that Dustin Hopkins converted to a stunning 23-17 win with two late field goals. NFL lore meet Alex Smith.
A shootout for all seasons
If you really want to treat yourself this Christmas watch Baltimore’s 47-42 victory over Cleveland in week 14. The game of the year, bar none. Two AFC North powerhouses (one more recently so) with a historic, bitter rivalry in a classic shootout. What’s not to love? There were comebacks, huge plays on both sides and Lamar Jackson doing his best James Brown impression by leaving the field with cramps only to run back out of the locker room in time for a fourth-down touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Jackson finally looked like the player who claimed the MVP last season, running this way and that through Cleveland – and the accuracy that had eluded him up until his trip to Ohio came back in spades. And Baker Mayfield was hardly outdone despite leaving the field defeated. The Browns quarterback was clutch in the final quarter throwing two scores and running in another (if he plays half as good as he did here, Cleveland will thrash the Jets on Sunday and be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2002). It had absolutely everything, except defense. But it’s Christmas, so be merry and gorge yourselves on touchdowns.
Patrick Mahomes is a supreme quarterback, we know this, but his eye-popping show that knocked down New Orleans 32-29 last week was the perfect example of why he is favourite to be 2020 MVP. One throw in particular demonstrated the 25-year-old’s ludicrous ability to negate anything a defense throws at him. The Chiefs are losing 15-14 halfway through the third quarter. It is second and goal from five yards out and Mahomes begins scrambling to his left. Almost on the sideline he waits, scans the end zone with two Saints defenders about to flatten him and at the last millisecond unleashes an inch-perfect throw to the very back corner into the hands of Mecole Hardman. The human highlight reel’s finest of the season. Honestly, it has to be seen to be believed. And even then you will be left scratching your head. How on Earth did he see that? The timing so flawless that Jim Nantz instantly called it incomplete on commentary as Hardman was running so quickly out of bounds. The great quarterback mystic Tony Romo’s response? Complete confusion.
The New England Patriots’ stifling, stolid NFL dynasty is finally dead
The constant questioning of Justin Herbert’s ability to succeed as an NFL quarterback because he is an introvert was incredibly irritating during the 2020 draft. Cue the sweetest and most apt of middle fingers raised by his spectacular rookie season for the Los Angeles Chargers. The bird is for all of you that saw his low-key nature as a barrier to brilliance. Herbert is sure to be rookie of the year and he deserves the crown. The 22-year-old only needs one more strike in his remaining two games to break Mayfield’s rookie passing touchdown record of 27. The high watermark of Herbert’s season was a 30-27 overtime defeat to New Orleans in October. He led LA to a 17-point lead, which they blew for a second-week running (Anthony Lynn take a bow), but his four touchdowns, including a 64-yard bomb, should have been enough to take care of a team with a brilliant defense. The Chargers have struck gold and appear to have a generational talent at quarterback. Now about that coaching staff …
New England finally miss the playoffs
No Patriots! No Belichick! No Edelman and Kraft! On, Buffalo! On, Allen! On, Diggs and Tre White! To the top of the crop! To the top of them all! Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away … Bills! OK, so it needs a little/lot of work and was the week before Christmas but the festivities came gloriously early this year, for those not of the Patriot persuasion, when it was confirmed New England will take no part in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. And we have Miami to thank even if their chances were rather bleak already. For variety is the spice of life and the AFC East’s landscape has finally shifted. Well, almost: the New York Jets are still terrible. Tom Brady moving to Tampa Bay, eight Covid-19 opt-outs and a quarterback who can’t throw the ball with any accuracy whatsoever never looked like a recipe for success but Bill Belichick gave it his best. Only it was not enough, thankfully. Anyway, enough schadenfreude. The real delight comes in Buffalo confirming preseason predictions of being the division’s best by winning their first title for 25 years after destroying Denver 48-19. Buffalo can make a deep run in January but if they are stopped by, say, Kansas City, then Bills mafia would probably settle for taking over for the next 12 years. Sorry, Miami.