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The object of a referee in any sport is to make sure a game is played fairly, safely and within the rules. That's it. 

Sports can exist without referees. Players have been calling their own fouls on the playground for years. But things are different in organized sports. There are stakes—a reason to win other than simple schoolyard pride—and the higher the stakes, the better the chance someone might break the rules in order to win. 

The bigger the stage, the more important the referees become.

A few weeks ago in a recreation soccer game between a bunch of six-year-olds, the referee—a monetarily compensated high school student—didn't call an obvious handball.

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Jacoby Ellsbury never looked right with a beard.

While the rest of the Boston Red Sox were scraggily avoiding razors during their 2013 run to another World Series title, Ellsbury maintained a quaffed goatee, perfectly manicured and trimmed at all times.

Now, after signing for seven years and $153 million, according to Yahoo's Jeff Passan among others, Ellsbury is going to have to break out the blade before his Yankees press conference. 

Maybe the Yankees just really, really hate beards.

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We were all wrong about the NFC East. Well, most of us were. Especially those of us—thankfully not me—who joked that the winner of the NFL's worst division would make the playoffs with a 7-9 record. 

After victories this week, the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles both have seven wins through just 12 games, and with one game between the two left to play in the season's final week, 7-9 is officially off the table. (Note: 7-8-1 is still in play.)

The thing is, Dallas and Philadelphia have not looked like the losers we expected them to be this year. Both teams look like bona fide NFL winners right now, and a lot of that is thanks to two players at quarterback. 

Through 12 games, Tony Romo has thrown for more than 3,140 yards and 24 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, and while his completion percentage of 64.8 is a dip below his career average, he is still ranked seventh in the league in that category. His passer rating is 97.3, which is better than that of Matthew Stafford, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Tom Brady and all but seven quarterbacks who have thrown more than a dozen passes this season.

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NFL football is as much a part of our Thanksgiving tradition as gobbling turkey dinner, pretending to fall asleep while the rest of the family washes all the dishes and remembering to wear elastic pants. 

Since 1920, professional football has been played on Thanksgiving. The Detroit Lions started hosting games on Thanksgiving in 1934.

In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys were added to the Thanksgiving tradition, and the two teams have been hosting the Thursday afternoon contests ever since. Heading into the 2013 iteration of this gridiron tradition, Dallas has played in 44 Thanksgiving games, bested only by the Lions, who have played in a record 72. (Click here for a full list of games and results.)

Since 2006, the ever-expanding NFL schedule has included a third game on Thanksgiving to round out a holiday of more than 10 hours of televised pigskin.

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This is a great time of year to be a sports fan. From professional and college basketball or football to global football to hockey to combat sports to racing to, heck, a group of guys playing high-stakes darts in the back of some dive bar in your old hometown on Thanksgiving night, sports are everywhere you look. 

Sports are as ubiquitous as pre-Thanksgiving holiday decorations, and with the ever-increasing dependence on digital media and mobile devices, we can watch any event at any time, no matter where this holiday season brings us. 

Take this week, for example. From Thanksgiving Eve through the final whistle of Monday Night Football, there are hundreds of different sporting events to watch around the world. Trust me, I counted.

There are 511 events if we just tally NFL, Division I football and basketball, top-flight global football in Europe and North America, NHL, NBA and UFC events. And that is surely omitting several dozen niche sports some network is certainly televising somewhere in America this week.

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There is an old saying in American sports that, "winning isn't everything…it's the only thing." Well, it's not! Not in the NFL, at least. 

There was a tie in the NFL this week. A tie. The Packers and Vikings fought for 75 game minutes—and nearly four real-life hours—in frigid temperatures for what? To kiss their sisters.

There were almost two ties, if not for an accidental touching of the ball on a punt late in overtime of the Broncos-Patriots game that gave the ball back to the Patriots for a game-winning field goal. As strange of an ending as it was in New England, at least there was a proper/real result on the scoreboard. 

Tying is still a potential NFL outcome, and while the recently adopted overtime rules have curtailed teams from winning with a short drive to set up a long field goal, thus ending the contest without giving the other team a chance to even have the ball, at least those games finished the way NFL games are supposed to finish: with a winner and a loser.

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Some countries just have too much talent.

With World Cup qualifying at a close, 32 fortunate countries will start the six-month task of selecting their rosters for Brazil next summer. It's a daunting task for managers and directors where invariably someone worthy of inclusion will be left off the team. 

But what if an entire team worthy of inclusion is left off the squad? What if some participating nations have so much talent, they could field two entire rosters that could qualify for the World Cup?

Maybe FIFA should let them do it.

German Depth

Andre Schurrle got himself in a bit of hot water this week when he told reporters in advance of Germany's friendly with England that "[Wayne] Rooney is a great player, but we have good quality, too, in every position, and maybe twice, so I don’t know if he would play."

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For fans of playoff clarity, Sunday was not your favorite day. For fans of NFL parity, however, Sunday was a gift from the football gods.

With just six weeks left in the regular season, Sunday's results created a whole lot of playoff intrigue. "If the playoffs started today" is a term we in the industry like to use to give readers a sense of order. If the playoffs actually did start today, order would be thrown out the damn window.

 

Little AFC Clarity

The AFC is particularly muddled, especially with the AFC West all but assured of taking up two playoff spots with Denver and Kansas City jockeying for the division title in the season's final six weeks.

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The NFL has a complicated relationship with its fans.

Every issue in the NFL is not just news, but big news. National news. There is no such thing as a small locker room scrape without the 24-hour news cycle grinding it up and exhausting every angle the story has to offer, upside-down and inside-out.

With so much interest in the sport, there is bound to be a difference of opinion. Heck, even issues of racism in the NFL have people taking different sides. The NFL has gotten too big, with a fanbase too diverse and too invested in the product to let anything slip by unnoticed or ignored.

How can the NFL be all things to all people? How can the NFL cater to such an enormous fanbase, while still staying true to its loyal core?

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Can you imagine how incredible a 68-team college football playoff would be? 

Sure, people may balk at the watering down of the product and the regular season becoming marginalized to mean almost nothing, but watching four of the Top Five teams in the country—Kentucky, Michigan State, Duke and Kansas—battle in an early season hardwood classic on Tuesday had to make fans wonder what college football would be like if teams scheduled games like they weren't so damn afraid to lose.

With 11 minutes left in an epic matchup between Kansas and Duke that saw the Jayhawks pull away in the final minutes, ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale put the early season action in perspective.

"This is November 12th. Are you serious? This is November 12th."