Monday Morning Digest: How Amari Cooper Made the Cowboys the NFL's Scariest Team

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 10, 2018

Monday Morning Digest: How Amari Cooper Made the Cowboys the NFL's Scariest Team

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    In the action-packed Week 14 edition of Monday Morning Digest:

    • The Patriots suffer an upset on a freak last-second play

    • The Steelers suffer an upset despite a freak last-second play

    • The Chiefs avoid an upset thanks to some freak Patrick Mahomes throws

    • George Kittle has a freak afternoon for the 49ers

    • Things get freakin' ugly for several playoff hangers-on

    ...and much more, including a freak accident for a cameraman.

    But we start out with Amari Cooper. If you freaked out when the Cowboys traded for him, it may be time to revise your opinion.  

         

The Trade That Upset the NFC's Balance of Power

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Amari Cooper beat the Eagles almost singlehandedly on Sunday, ripping their depleted secondary to shreds with 10 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns, including the overtime game-winner in a 29-23 victory.

    The Cowboys were 3-4 before trading next year's first-round pick to the Raiders for Cooper in a much-maligned deal. They are 5-1 since, with five straight wins now that Cooper is fully integrated into their offense. 

    Cooper caught eight passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the Thanksgiving win over Washington. He caught eight passes for 76 yards in the Thursday night upset of the Saints two weeks ago.

    Cooper has given the Cowboys firm control over the NFC East. Thanks to that win over the Saints, he has even made a first-round bye possible. With most of the NFC wild-card hopefuls scuffling, Cooper has transformed the Cowboys from an also-ran with a popgun offense into a team likely to win at least one playoff game. He has saved Jason Garrett's job and made Dak Prescott look like a franchise quarterback again.

    So what do you think of the trade now?

    It would be reductive and dishonest to attribute the Cowboys' turnaround entirely to Cooper. Their defense has improved gradually and is now one of the league's best. Facing Colt McCoy on Thanksgiving and the Eagles' injury-ravaged secondary twice made seizing control of a down-and-out division relatively easy.

    But minimizing Cooper's impact on the turnaround would also be dishonest. Cooper has kept Ezekiel Elliott from facing eight-man, run-stuffing boxes snap after snap. He has allowed Michael Gallup and Cole Beasley to operate as second and slot receivers—their natural positions. Even rookie tight end Dalton Schultz has become more of a receiving threat now that opponents must take the Cowboys passing game seriously. 

    Prescott was erratic and error-prone on Sunday. The Garrett-Scott Linehan game plan made things too easy for the Eagles. Cooper's 75-yard go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter only occurred because Cooper and Prescott changed the play from a stop route to a deep route, as Cooper told R.J. Ochoa of Blogging the Boys after the game.

    That's right: Cooper is now adjusting plays. If not for him, there's little chance we would be talking about the Cowboys today.

    Yes, the Raiders will get that first-round pick and use it to build a contender in 2026 or whatever. But what are the chances the player they get with the Cowboys' pick (a late one) will ever be as good as Cooper's been for the Cowboys?

    The Cowboys face cap questions after this season, with Prescott soon to command Kirk Cousins money and DeMarcus Lawrence leading a battalion of defenders seeking paydays. If the Cowboys keep Cooper beyond this year, they will probably lose a valuable piece elsewhere.

    But who cares about next year when you are 8-5 and making playoff plans?

    This season matters to Garrett and Prescott, whose careers were listing sideways two months ago. And it matters to Cowboys fans, who are celebrating big wins each week and looking forward to a postseason in which anything appears to be possible.

    The Cooper trade was a turning point for both the Cowboys and the NFL this season. Worry about what the Raiders and Cowboys do tomorrow when tomorrow comes. For today, the rest of the NFL should worry about what Cooper and Cowboys can do in the postseason.

Upset Special: Dolphins 34, Patriots 33

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    Mark Brown/Getty Images

    What happened

    The Patriots lost a game to one of their AFC East minions in which:

    • They blocked two Dolphins punts.

    • Tom Brady threw three first-half touchdowns.

    • Ryan Tannehill was briefly knocked out of the game in favor of Brock Osweiler and played the second half on a gimpy leg. And...

    • The Dolphins played most of the game like they were trying to keep things close but not win, doing things like sliding to avoid hits after 2nd-and-long completions (hello, Kenny Stills) and trying to cover Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski with linebackers over and over again.

    So how on Earth did the Patriots lose to lowly subjects who were playing poorly?

    Blame the Stills-to-DeVante Parker-to-Kenyan Drake playground pitch play that gave the Dolphins their game-winning touchdown if you like, but the Dolphins wouldn't have even been in the game at that point against the Patriots of old. Use the familiar "Patriots always look a little flat in Miami" excuse, but that doesn't really explain anything.

    The Patriots defense kept getting gashed for easy yardage. Their ground game never got going (2.6 yards per rush). And some unforced errors—a missed field goal and extra point by Stephen Gostkowski, plus Brady taking a sack before halftime that took away a field-goal opportunity—gave the Dolphins a chance to win on a fluke play.

    The Dolphins appeared to be as shocked as anyone else that they made the most of it.

                  

    What it means

    The Patriots failed to clinch the division and are no longer cruising toward an easy first-round playoff bye. The Dolphins, despite themselves, are still alive in the teeming rugby scrum known as the AFC wild-card chase.

    Patriots fans who scoffed at Digest's observation a few weeks ago that Brady's arm is ready to snap like the timing belt on a 1994 Corolla can point to his 27-of-43, 358-yard, three-touchdown stat line and assure themselves that all is well. But the short passes and I-formation-heavy game plans the Patriots have resorted to in recent weeks—and a second half in which they could neither put the Dolphins away nor control the clock efficiently—prove that the Patriots know their offense no longer turbocharged the way it used to be. 

    New England needs strong defensive and special teams performances to beat even Dolphins-caliber teams. Sometimes they get them (like against the Vikings last week). Sometimes they don't. But if you are pretending these are the still the Patriots of old, you are either watching while wearing a faded Kevin Faulk jersey or not watching at all.

            

    What's next

    Patriots at Steelers: Something's gotta give.

    Dolphins at Vikings: Relevant for the first time since Super Bowl VIII. 

Upset Special, Part II: Raiders 24, Steelers 21

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    What happened?

    In just one week, the Steelers deteriorated from being too sloppy to beat teams like the Broncos and Chargers to being too sloppy to beat a team with a 2-10 record that committed 13 penalties for 130 yards against them.

    The Steelers couldn't generate a running game with James Conner unavailable. Chris Boswell missed an early-game chipshot. Josh Dobbs, filling in briefly while Ben Roethlisberger waited for his mutant healing factor to kick in after a mid-game rib injury, couldn't convert a 4th-and-1 and threw a batted-pass interception.

    Meanwhile, the Steelers doubled down on the coverage tactic they used against the Chargers, asking linebacker L.J. Fort and defenders with uniform numbers in the 90s to drop into coverage against the likes of Jared Cook, giving Derek Carr just enough easy reads and throws to allow the Raiders to take a three-point lead on a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes.

    JuJu Smith-Schuster scooted out of bounds in field-goal range after taking a pitch from James Washington on a hook-and-lateral with 15 seconds left. But Boswell slipped while attempting a game-tying field goal, resulting in the Steelers' third straight loss.

                   

    What it means

    Pittsburgh got away with plenty of mistakes during its midseason six-game winning streak because the Jaguars tried to sit on the ball for the entire fourth quarter, the Bengals allowed a late comeback, the Falcons and Panthers were primed to embark on free falls and the Ravens still thought that no offense was preferable to an exciting option offense which might challenge their preconceptions somehow. Over the last three weeks, all the sloppy errors have just bunched up at just the wrong times, turning narrow wins into narrow losses.

    The Steelers are now behind the Texans, Patriots and Chiefs in the playoff seedings and are just a half-game ahead of the Ravens for the NFC North. A first-round playoff bye suddenly seems less likely than all sorts of scary scenarios. They could instead hosting the Chargers as the fourth playoff seed, head to Foxborough in the first round as a wild-card team on the skids, or even missing the playoffs entirely.

    The Steelers have to turn things around immediately. It starts with playing smart, disciplined football, and not asking Fort to cover players who are much more athletic than him every single week. 

                 

    What's next

    The Patriots come to town, and they are in a mood.

    The Raiders travel to Cincy to face what's left of the Bengals. Can they win two straight? With the way they've been accumulating first-round picks in next year's draft, do they want to win two straight? 

What We Learned on Sunday Night

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Sunday night's Bears victory, 15-6 over the Rams, was a weird one: An offensive lineman scored the only touchdown, the two quarterbacks combined for seven interceptions and the game's most dramatic moment involved an official getting knocked over during a mass substitution.

             

    Cold comfort for change

    Jared Goff appeared to be affected by the cold weather in Chicago. OK, that's an understatement: Goff played like he just got fished out of an icy river somewhere in the Yukon, throwing four interceptions and bouncing several passes onto frozen patches of ground nowhere near their intended targets. Goff also played poorly on a frigid afternoon in Denver in mid-October, so this is officially a thing.

    There are no cold-weather games on the remaining schedule for the Rams, and every other likely NFC playoff team either plays in a dome or a warm-weather city (or both) except the Bears. (Seattle can be chilly and drizzly, but tiebreakers make it impossible for the Seahawks to host the Rams). Goff and the Rams are lucky that the Eagles and Packers fell off so badly this season. And that they don't play in the AFC.

    Mitchell Trubisky also appeared to get thrown off by the cold temperatures, which could be a real problem, because the Bears are trying to play themselves into home playoff games, which are supposed to be good things.

              

    Reckless abandonment

    Todd Gurley rushed just 11 times for 28 yards. He was stuffed a few times, but Sean McVay abandoned the run too quickly in a close game on a cold night with his quarterback playing poorly. Yes, McVay can make mistakes just like any other play-caller, even though he could name all the players on the Bears defense, which is such an amazing feat that it went viral midweek! (Note: Most coaches can name the starters they will face that week, what with knowing about football being their job and whatnot.)

               

    Big uglies everywhere

    The Bears' trick-play touchdown, with offensive lineman Bradley Sowell catching a play-action pass at the goal line after Akiem Hicks (who scored a touchdown last week) and two other defensive tackles motioned around as running and blocking backs, was more than just a work of experimental theater. It was the kind of key-breaking skull-scrambler that sets up future goal-line touchdowns by making defenders wary of everything.

    More teams need to use Bears-level creativity when designing one-yard plays for touchdowns and fourth downs. If the Bears keep beating good opponents, more teams will.

            

    Monsters of the new way 

    The Bears defense ranked first in the NFL entering Sunday, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA, and they aren't going to lose that title after what they did to the Rams. Not only is the unit lead by Khalil Mack, Hicks, Roquan Smith, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson peaking at the right time, but it's perfectly suited to 2018 football. Big, rugged stops against the run are great, but if you want to beat teams like the Rams, sacks and turnovers are the key. The Bears are great at creating both.

                  

    Start the playoffs already

    The Saints now have the inside track to the No. 1 NFC seed thanks to their head-to-head win over the Rams, and each team now has an upset at the hands of the other two division leaders (Bears and Cowboys).

    The Rams' upcoming schedule is soft (Eagles-Cardinals-Niners), the Saints thornier (home-and-home against the Panthers with the Steelers in between), and their two-game edge over the Cowboys and Bears make it hard to imagine a shakeup that forces either the Rams or Saints to play in the first round. 

    It's even harder to imagine some team emerging from the NFC's 6-7 slop, no matter what happens on Monday night between the Seahawks and Vikings. In fact, Digest is ready to slam the door on some of these last-gasp hopefuls right now. 

Requiem for a Playoff Contender

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Digest bids a fond farewell to teams who appeared likely to reach the postseason just a few weeks ago but now have a slim-to-zero chance of playing in January:

    Carolina Panthers (lost 26-20 to the Browns for their fifth straight loss)

    Cam Newton's injured shoulder turns every deep throw into a misadventure, Greg Olsen's latest injury has turned someone named Ian Thomas into a go-to target, red-zone failures have become a weekly problem and the defense is not nearly as stout as it looked earlier in the year. A pair of upcoming meetings with the Saints were supposed to have major playoff implications. Instead, the Saints will just be jockeying for playoff seeding.

    Denver Broncos (lost 20-14 to the 49ers to fall to 6-7): The Broncos are technically still alive for a wild-card berth, but although an easy slate of games gave them an apparent edge over the rest of the throng, injuries to Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Harris and others have rendered them unable to beat even the NFL's feeblest teams. The Broncos should use their impressive 2018 rookie class as a springboard for the rebuilding program they have been putting off since Peyton Manning retired, but John Elway will probably just order a random assortment of coaches fired and try to win with Case Keenum again next year instead. 

    Philadelphia Eagles (lost 29-23 to the Cowboys to fall to 6-7): The Eagles might have battled their way through their defensive back injury apocalypse had they not blown late leads in early-season losses to the Titans and Panthers. Offensive sloppiness and dubious play-calling (plus lapses in the secondary) left them without a cushion after those losses, and lapses in the secondary (plus offensive sloppiness and dubious play-calling) doomed their late-season bid to run the table. The Eagles are still mathematically alive but need to focus as much on evaluating which players and coaches are worth retaining for 2019 as on winning three straight games and hoping the stars align.

    Washington Redskins (lost 40-16 to the Giants for their fourth straight loss to fall to 6-7): Voluntarily forfeited the playoffs for political reasons.

Game Spotlight: Chiefs 27, Ravens 24 (OT)

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    Peter Aiken/Getty Images

    What happened

    The Ravens lured the Chiefs into playing a Ravens-style game by slowing the tempo, generating some defensive stops and a turnover, winning the special teams battle and getting yet another eye-opening all-purpose performance from Lamar Jackson (71 rushing yards, two passing touchdowns), and they had a 24-17 lead with 4:04 to play in the fourth quarter as a result.

    The Chiefs then tied the game thanks to conversions on 4th-and-9 (a breathtaking Patrick Mahomes pass to Tyreek Hill) and 4th-and-3 (a short touchdown pass to Damien Williams).

    Harrison Butker missed his second field goal of the afternoon after a Jackson fumble, forcing overtime. Butker then hit a 35-yarder after Terrell Suggs couldn't quite scoop up a Mahomes strip-sack fumble. A pair of holding penalties killed the final Ravens drive, ending their three-game winning streak and temporarily slowing down the Jackson bandwagon.

                    

    What it means

    There is not much new to report about the Chiefs, who clinched a playoff berth with the win. With the Patriots and Steelers suffering upsets at the hands of the Dolphins and Raiders, the Chiefs have reclaimed the title of team to beat in the AFC.

    The departure of Kareem Hunt and Sammy Watkins' injury have barely slowed the Chiefs offense, and Mahomes built upon an already strong case for the MVP award on Sunday by making a handful of throws no other current quarterback—not even Aaron Rodgers—would even try to make.

    Joe Flacco practiced for the Ravens this week but was inactive on Sunday. There is no good reason for him to replace Jackson at this point. Jackson still one-hops some easy passes to receivers in the flat, but his accuracy and decision making get a little better each week, and the multidimensional Jackson-led offense is both harder to defend and better at sustaining drives (thereby making things easier on the defense) than the old protect-the-statue-in-the-pocket system. 

               

    What's next

    Must-See Thursday Night TV: Chargers at Chiefs, with the AFC West and first-round playoff byes hanging in the balance.

    The Ravens remain in a complicated cluster-pile for a wild card berth (Colts, Titans and Dolphins wins turned the playoff scenarios into differential calculus) and host the highly beatable Buccaneers next Sunday.

Awards Digest

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Defender of the week: Darius Slay returned from an early-game leg injury to step in front of a Josh Rosen pass to someone named Trent Sherfield and take an interception back 67 yards for a touchdown to give the Lions a 10-0 lead over the Cardinals. Taylor Decker scored the Lions' only touchdown against the Rams last week, so the Lions were in danger of going two full games in which their only touchdowns came from a cornerback and a left tackle until Zach Zenner finally poked in a 1 yarder in the fourth quarter to seal a 17-3 Lions win. 

    Offensive line of the week: With no truly dominant offensive line performances this week, let's throw a bone to the much-maligned Giants unit of Nate Solder, Will Hernandez, Spencer Pulley, Jamon Brown and Chad Wheeler. They helped Saquon Barkley and others rip off 227 rushing yards against the demoralized Washington defense. And while Eli Manning was sacked twice, he scrambled backwards and curled into the fetal position in the red zone on one of the sacks, so it shouldn't count against the offensive line.

    Special Teamer of the week: Albert McClellan of the Patriots blocked one punt and partially blocked another. The Dolphins became so skittish after the blocks that Matt Haack began rugby punting, taking several running steps before pooching the ball toward the sideline.

    Taysom Hill moment of the week: Hill blocked a punt on Sunday to help spark a Saints comeback after a flat start. Hill now has thrown a pass, caught a pass, run the ball, returned a kick, returned a punt and blocked a punt this year. If they have nothing to play for in Week 17, the Saints absolutely must let Hill punt and attempt a field goal, making him the first person to do all of those things in one year since...we don't know...probably Knute Rockne or someone. 

    Philly Special imitator of the week: The Bills ran their own chilly, silly version of the Philly special in the second quarter against the Jets when fullback Marcus Murphy took a handoff and pitched to Zay Jones, who then heaved a pass to quarterback Josh Allen in the back of the end zone. The play failed, denying the world the spectacle of Allen scoring rushing and receiving touchdowns in one game while not throwing any passing touchdowns.

    Challenges of the week: Interim Packers coach Joe Philbin wasted little time trying out his new challenge flag-throwing authority. He challenged an admittedly dubious-looking Julio Jones catch—the ball popped out as Jones roled to the ground—on the first Falcons drive but lost. Two plays later, Jones scraped both feet inbounds after a sideline catch—this one was pretty clear—but Philbin challenged and lost again, burning both challenges and two timeouts before some fans even sat down. Luckily for Philbin, the Packers quickly seized control of the game, so Aaron Rodgers didn't demand that he be fired at halftime. 

    Mystery fullback of the week: While he didn't get a touch, Jets offensive lineman Dakota Dozier lined up at fullback a few times, delivering a big block at the goal line on Elijah McGuire's 1 yard touchdown plunge. And who says the Jets front office hasn't surrounded Sam Darnold with enough offensive weapons? 

    Clump of the Week: Playing surfaces all over the league were miserable this week—the Ravens-Chiefs game was marred by much slipping and stumbling—but the field in Miami was particularly bad. At one point, groundskeepers pulled up a clump of sod so big that it looked like there was a tunnel underneath it that led all the way back to Andy's prison cell from The Shawshank Redemption.  

    Occupational hazard of the week: At first, it looked as if a cameraman suffered a serious injury or suffered heat stroke after Dolphins running back Brandon Bolden's touchdown. Announcers spoke in hushed whispers as trainers tended to the motionless figure on the field. Then the cameraman sprang to his feet, and a replay from another angle showed him tripping and tumbling while racing onto the field to get his shot. Tragedy turned into high comedy pretty quickly. But hey: Those mounted cameras look awkward and heavy, so let's not roast the poor guy too...(erupts in uncontrollable laughter watching the video for the 3,000th time)...never mind. 

    Occupational Hazard of the Week, Part II: The Bears hoped to trick the Rams on 4th-and-short in the second quarter by suddenly running their offense onto the field to replace their punt team before the Rams could make their own substitutions. But lineman Bobby Massie knocked over one of the officials while charging onto the field, forcing a stoppage that took away the element of surprise. Bears coach Jim Nagy fumed after the play; he apparently warned the official that a sudden substitution was coming. So...that means the official was supposed to get out of the way of someone coming up from behind him? Rule one of driver's ed, coach: If you rear end somebody, it's always your fault.

Inside the Numbers

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Mark Sanchez, Redskins (6-of-14 for 38 yards with two interceptions—one of them a pick-six)

    LOL. Imagine being the person in the bar trying to argue that Washington decided to bring in Sanchez instead of Colin Kaepernick for non-political reasons. ROTFL. 

            

    Josh Johnson, Redskins (11-of-16 for 195 yards for one touchdown, one interception, plus seven rushes for 45 yards and a touchdown)

    Johnson, the 32-year-old journeyman scrambler the Quitskins plucked off the roster of the AAF's San Diego Fleet this week, did all of his damage against a soft defense after the Giants built a 40-0 lead.

    So take the numbers with a mountain of salt. But as every casual observer of the NFL knows, even a mediocre scrambler is more of a threat to a defense than a third-rate, third-string pocket passer, and Johnson proved this by running options and creating some big plays after just a few days on the roster.

    Those anti-Colin Kaepernick arguments keep looking sillier and sillier, don't they? And yet teams keep on making them, and losing. 

                   

    Jeffery Wilson, 49ers (23 carries for 90 yards, plus one catch for six yards)

    Wilson is the undrafted rookie running back from North Texas who was thrust into a featured rule due to an injury to Matt Breida, who was thrust into a featured role early in the season due to Jerick McKinnon's injury. (Poor Alfred Morris can't get thrust into anything nowadays.)

    Wilson's longest run was just 11 yards, but he rushed 12 times for 53 yards in the first half, providing enough five- to seven-yard runs to keep the Broncos defense honest and create opportunities for George Kittle.

    There have been folks in the Bay Area calling for Kyle Shanahan's head for weeks. There's no offensive coach on the market with a better chance of winning with Nick Mullens and Jeffery Wilson in the backfield than Shanahan, folks.

           

    Jarvis Landry, Browns (three catches for 57 yards and one TD, plus two rushes for 54 yards and another touchdown, and 0-for-1 passing)

    Lanrdy rushed for 51 yards and scored a three-yard touchdown on similar double jet sweep plays: Baker Mayfield faked handoffs to one receiver running an apparent sweep, then gave the ball to Landry sweeping in the same direction.

    Landry also caught a 5.1-yard touchdown pass. Wait...sorry, force of habit to assume that Landry's completions are measured in single-digit decimals. He caught a 51-yard bomb. The crafty lefty also came close to scoring rushing, passing and receiving touchdowns but couldn't quite connect on a deep option pass to Nick Chubb.

    In summary, the Browns found a way for Landry to do something besides produce 10-catches-for-61-yard stat lines. It involved lots and lots of trick plays. 

                       

    George Kittle, 49ers (seven catches on nine targets for 210 yards and a TD)

    Kittle made all seven of his catches in the first half, with four for 93 yards in the first quarter alone.

    He turned around safeties Darian Stewart and Justin Simmons in the open field on a sweet move in the second quarter, leaving Kittle wide open for an 85-yard touchdown. Kittle is a heckuva player, but it was hardly an Antonio Brown-level juke, and Kittle's big day tells us a lot about him but even more about how far the mighty Broncos defense has fallen. 

    T.Y. Hilton, Colts (nine catches on 12 targets for 199 yards)

    Hilton failed to score a touchdown but helped the Colts spoil the Texans' big chance to gain a game on the Patriots and Steelers with a 60-yard catch to set up one touchdown, a 34-yarder to set up a second and a 29-yarder to flip field position when the Colts protected a narrow fourth-quarter lead.

    Hilton now has 30 catches for 618 yards and three touchdowns in his last five games against the Texans. But Hilton's big game on Sunday was overshadowed by Amari Cooper's big game; gaining 199 yards to keep your team in the playoffs just isn't as remarkable as it used to be.

Digest Sportsbook: Mostly-Divisional-Duels Edition

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Were you hoping the less-than-scintillating divisional matchups would get interesting on Sunday? So was Digest Sportsbook! Here's how we fared:

            

    From the department of well-known trends

    Even casual wagerers know the Patriots often look flat against the Dolphins in Miami. They entered Sunday 1-5 against the spread there since 2012. Digest usually hates to bet on AFC East teams to put up a fight against their mighty overlords but got lured into the Dolphins +7.5/under-48 parlay with a +235 payout. 

    The result: Loss, thanks to the 67-point total in the Dolphins upset. Digest needs to lay off the parlay hunches.

             

    From the department of lesser-known trends

    The Buccaneers covered at home in five of their last seven meetings with the Saints. Factor in their Week 1 upset at the Superdome and the fact that their offense hasn't been spotting the opponent three takeaways per week lately, and Digest said, "Yes Please!" to the Buccaneers +9.5 (some books went as high as +10.5) on a soggy day in Tampa.

    The result: Loss, though the Buccaneers made things interesting with a 14-3 lead before the Saints remembered they were good. 

                 

    From the department of somewhat-surprising trends

    The Colts entered Sunday 4-0-1 against the spread at Houston since 2013, even though they are 4-6-1 at Jacksonville and Tennessee during the same span. Statistical noise? Almost certainly, but the Texans felt a little overvalued on the heels of their nine-game winning streak, so Digest took a strong Colts team and, smelling a straight-up upset, opted for a +180 moneyline instead of the 4.5 points.

    The result: Win, with a payout that compensated (a little) for the previous losses.  

                  

    Line on the move: From the department of conflicting trends

    Washington went from opening as a one-point favorite to a three- to four-point dog the moment the Mark Sanchez Era began Monday night.

    Digest was curious as to whether Washington would surrender under the command of the best politically-comfortable-to-ownership quarterback available or enjoy the one-game bump some teams get from a quarterback switch (see: Nick Mullens). But we weren't about to pony up any cash to find out.

    The result: No play meant no need to do anything but point and laugh at the Washington surrender, then focus on better games. There's no trend to account for "team that forfeits a chance at the playoffs for political reasons." 

            

    From the weather desk

    Digest wasn't going to speculate on the Jets-Bills dog show until we saw two enticing numbers: temperatures in the 20s and an over-under of 38. The public tends to overreact to both cold weather (not every icy game is a 3-0 freeze out) and bad teams in December (a pick-six fest or a shootout to save face is about as likely as a snoozefest).

    The result: Over with room to spare, thanks to a cross between an interception-fest and a shootout to save face. It felt good to not have to really care about the result of this game after the third quarter. 

              

    Final tally: Digest came out slightly ahead thanks to the Colts moneyline and could have had a big week if we could just...stay...away...from the parlay hunches.    

               

    Monday Night action: Vikings (+3) at Seahawks

    Kirk Cousins is 0-6 straight-up as a starter on Monday nights. While many of his losses look pretty good statistically, Cousins is starting to build a legacy out of big-game losses that look pretty good statistically.

    On the flip side, the Vikings are 21-8 against the spread coming off losses during the Mike Zimmer era. Balanced, well-coached teams bounce back after tough losses, and the Vikings are too superior on paper to be three-point dogs to a plucky team on a hot seat, 12th Man advantage or not. Digest leans Vikings, but sympathizes if the thought of counting on Cousins makes you squeamish. 

Point-Counterpoint

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    Your weekly dose of off-the-field and not-even-the-same-league issues:

          

    The NFL is accepting crowdsourced suggestions on how to improve punt plays.

    Point: "MOAR PUNTINGGG" was the leading suggestion by far until the league successfully blocked all of Jeff Fisher's old burner accounts.

    Counterpoint: Digest suggests that before each punt, the gunners line up no more than three yards from the numbers, no defender can stand in a six-foot box starting at the head of the long snapper, and the NFL stops insulting everyone's intelligence and admits to collusion in the Colin Kaepernick case.

                    

    The XFL announces the eight franchise locations for its 2020 launch.

    Point: Markets include New York, where the fanbase is saturated with minor league football from the city's two NFL teams; Los Angeles, where the fanbase hasn't yet warmed to the two winning teams; Dallas, where the fanbase would rather drive hybrids and go vegan than sway their loyalty from the one legendary team; and Washington D.C., where the plan is to just relegate Washington to the XFL soccer-style and see if anyone notices. 

    Counterpoint: Those wild wrasslin' folk are carefully workshopping new rules over a year in advance to make the game faster and safer. Don't those simpletons know that real leagues invent sweeping rule changes during committee cocktail hour, watch a disaster unfold in the preseason, then pretend the rule doesn't exist (while keeping it on the books for officials to trip over at some point in the playoffs)?

            

    Ricky Williams announces that he has joined Mike Alstott, Terrell Owens and Simeon Rice to co-found the Freedom Football League.

    Point: Tune in next week when Weird Al Yankovic, Pauly Shore and Gilbert Gottfried announce the arrival of the French Fry Football League.

    Counterpoint: Two old Buccaneers and two of the NFL's most notorious free spirits...sounds like a Saw-like trap to lure in Jon Gruden then drive him insane.  

                 

    Mike McCarthy returns to address the Packers post-firing.

    Point: You know things have gotten awkward for the Packers when Aaron Rodgers is voluntarily spending time with his parents.

    Counterpoint: A dignified, respectful exit by a head coach? Who wants that? Where are the interviews subtly blaming the organization for all McCarthy's mistakes? How are we going to write future columns and fill days' worth of television talk shows if there's no chance of some awkward future "hug-snub" between McCarthy and Rodgers? Why, McCarthy hasn't even weaseled his way into another organization yet? What kind of leadership is that? That's not what teams like the Bengals should be looking for in their next head coach. (The preceding message was furnished by Hue Jackson's many, many media buddies).