Why Do We Think Brock Lesnar and Charlotte Flair Are Not Winning at WrestleMania 35?

And just like that, we are on the road to WrestleMania.

More importantly, we now know the two big matches. We now know the focus of WrestleMania 35 will be over the two biggest titles on Monday Night Raw -- the WWE Universal title and the Raw Women’s title. (If you would like to talk to yourself into Daniel Bryan and his new hemp belt facing Rey Mysterio for the WWE World title being one of the top programs heading into the event, be my guest, but that will not be the case. Should be a fun, irrelevant match, though!) WrestleMania 35 will be about two of the biggest MMA superstars of all-time trying to keep their titles from two of the hottest pro-wrestling characters of the last year.

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Kind of.

As of this writing, the WWE Raw Women’s title match at ‘Mania is a singles match between Becky Lynch and Ronda Rousey, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see Charlotte Flair is getting added to this match. There is a reason the women’s Royal Rumble ended with Charlotte being the last wrestler eliminated by Lynch. There is a reason the opening segment on Smackdown Live this week ended with a stiff shot from Lynch to Charlotte. Flair is still very much a part of this story.

Also, what if her story...is the story?

When Lynch turned on Flair at SummerSlam, the plan was not for Lynch to become The Man and the hottest babyface act in the business. No, it was it to give Flair more juice and sympathy as a character. There is a reason Flair is already a six-time champion and held the Smackdown Live Women’s title for the longest amount of time in the company’s history. There is a reason that Flair was chosen as the wrestler to end Asuka’s undefeated streak at WrestleMania. There is a reason the WrestleMania main event that we spent most of the 2018 talking about was Charlotte Flair versus Ronda Rousey and how this company was going to get there.

Then Lynch caught fire and plans changed.

Or did they?

Has Vince McMahon ever been the type of showrunner to drop his long-term plans for the flavor of the month? Did this guy not put Roman Reigns in the main event of WrestleMania year after year when nobody was clamoring for it? Did this guy not do John Cena versus Randy Orton 930034 times when nobody was clamoring for it? Did this guy not upend the Summer of Punk with Kevin Nash and Triple? Did this guy not upend the Yes Movement with the Wyatt Family?

Why would Vince change who he is now? Why would Vince give Lynch her moment in the sun over two characters he has clearly shown to be much, much higher on in the past? Has that ever sounded like something Vince would do? Give in to an organic rise of a wrestler he never really believed in? Vince spent years building to Reigns finally slaying the Beast at WrestleMania and still didn’t pull the trigger on His Guy.

I just can’t see it.

It feels too NXT-y for WrestleMania 35 to end with Rollins and Lynch winning the belts and Making Raw Great Again in the following months. The idea that Charlotte, Rousey and Lesnar all come out on the losing end of WrestleMania 35 is too much. It’s too much EWR and not enough Vince McMahon Still Runs This Shit, My Guy.

So I like Charlotte to win.

So I like Lesnar to win.

I’m more confident in Charlotte over Lesnar, but I’m confident in both. I’m confident that Vince McMahon doesn’t want to see Lesnar face Chris Jericho in All Elite Wrestling anytime soon, and that means keeping the title on Lesnar for a longer amount of time. If he is not going to allow Lesnar to lose to Reigns clean, do we really think he is going to allow Seth Freaking Rollins to curbstomp Lesnar to close a WrestleMania with no shenanigans?  Are we watching the same company?

Charlotte feels inevitable, as she has seemed and felt her whole existence on the main roster, in this kind of match. Why would you give her the rub against Asuka the year prior, pencil her in for the biggest match of her career against Rousey, only to have her tapout to The Man? It just doesn’t add up. Charlotte is not getting added to this match just to be the fall woman. No, Charlotte is getting added to this match to win. For a seventh time.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Vince will adjust. Maybe Vince will throw the fans a bone and give them, checks notes, what they actually want -- Rollins and Lynch. Or maybe Vince will stay Vince. I’ll bet on Vince staying Vince.

NFL Super Bowl Preview: I Think I Like Chris Hogan for SB MVP

Bill Belichick versus Sean McVay. Tom Brady versus Jared Goff. Stephon Gilmore versus Aqib Talib. Andrew Whitworth versus Trent Brown. There are so many interesting parallels and matchups worth talking about leading up to tomorrow’s big game in Atlanta, but here I am being a weirdo spending the weekend talking myself into Chris Hogan as a realistic candidate to win a mostly meaningless Super Bowl MVP. (If you knew Malcolm Smith and Dexter Jackson were Super Bowl MVPS this decade, more power to you, but we don’t remember this award after the confetti settles, no, we remember the moment.

We remember David Tyree catching a football off his helmet. We remember James Harrison returning a fumble 100 yards for a score. We remember Tracey Porter returning an errant Peyton Manning pass for six. We even remember Devin Hester returning the opening kick for a score.

(Note: We do not remember the Falcons blowing a 28-3 lead. Who could?)

The problem with going down this rabbit hole of previous Super Bowl moments is that none of these guys ended up being awarded Super Bowl MVP. Instead, it was Drew Brees or Manning or Brady or Aaron Rodgers who won the award. The quarterback position is the most important position in football, so it should come as no surprise they typically win this award. Since the 2000 Super Bowl, the winning-team’s QB has won MVP 12 times.

But sometimes they don’t.

Sometimes Von Miller ruins Cam Newton’s life and carries a completely washed Manning to another Super Bowl victory. Sometimes a player like Hines Ward gets an opportunity to go wild on a ballsy reverse call that leads to an Antwaan Randle El bomb to the former UGA wideout to ice a Super Bowl victory against the league’s best offense. Sometimes you win a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer and it’s clear you just have to give MVP to the best defensive player in the game in Ray Lewis.

But sometimes it’s Deion Branch, baby.

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Coming into the 2004 NFL season, the Pats made a commitment to invest in their running game. Sound familiar? Yes, the club signed Corey Dillon and he rushed for a franchise-record 1,635 yards. This season, the Pats invested in the running game by drafting Sony Michel in the first round, while also drafting his former teammate Isaiah Wynn in the first round, too. They even went out and traded for Very Large Human Trent Brown, for good measure. The 2019 Patriot playoff run is eerily similar to that 2004 Patriot playoff run.

Would you like to guess which two teams that 2004 team lost to in the regular season that year? That’s right, folks, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Miami Dolphins. That team even had their own James White in Kevin Faulk. (Two dudes who went to big-name schools but you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t hop on Pro Football Reference.) The eerie similarities between these two teams don’t stop there. No, Mr. Branch was New England’s primary deep threat, or Inverse Troy Brown, if you will, but he missed a lot of time due to injury and had a very forgettable season. Hogan, although he did appear in all 16 games for the Pats, had a very forgettable season -- only one game where he was targeted double-digits by Brady -- and did injure his leg at one point. With Josh Gordon away from the team, Hogan is once again the team’s only real deep threat.

This is Hogan’s moment.

Coming into Sunday, Hogan has been relegated to an afterthought role in an offense that now prides itself on imposing its will at the line of scrimmage along with Brady getting rid of the ball faster than he ever has in his entire career. (You can check PFF’s stats if you don’t believe me, of course.) The Pats aren’t going deep because they haven’t needed to go deep. When the Pats can beat you by just nickel-and-diming you to death with Julian Edelman and White over 30 times a game, why use Hogan as anything other than a decoy?

Thankfully, Nickell Robey-Coleman exists. Bless him. The Rams were already coming into Sunday’s game as underdogs, but the Rams’ cornerback made it worse by, checks notes, talking shit about Tom Brady. Bold strategy, Cotton, indeed. It wasn’t that long ago that Anthony Smith said some things about the GOAT and we know how that played out. We know how it played out for Freddie Mitchell. We know how it is going to play out for Robey-Coleman.

For Brady to really embarrass the corner, he will need to go deep. He will need to release The Hogan. For reference, think of the Nick Foles bomb from mid-December against the Rams in LA. This is what Brady will need to do. It doesn’t hurt that among corners who Brady has targeted 20-plus times in his career, Robey-Coleman has been buried by Brady to the tune of a 130.9 passer rating when targeted, per PFF. Only Ike Taylor and Jabari Greer have fared worse against Tom The Terrific.

Would you like to know what else doesn’t hurt? It doesn’t hurt that Brady has accomplished basically everything there is to accomplish in the NFL -- except tossing a touchdown in the first quarter of the Super Bowl. This is Brady’s ninth Super Bowl, and it still hasn’t happened. But prior to last season’s Super Bowl against the Eagles, the Pats hadn’t even scored in the first quarter of a Super Bowl. Then the second-longest tenured Patriot kicked a field goal to end that streak. Only the touchdown pass remains.

Let’s say it happens. Let’s say Josh McDaniels calls a fleaflicker bomb to Hogan and it goes for six. That’s the moment. But it will take more for Hogan to secure the bag, here. Branch reeled in 11 catches, which tied for the most in Super Bowl history. He had a drive in the third quarter where he reeled in 4 catches for over 70 yards. This is feasible for Hogan, though. McDaniels and Brady haven’t shied away from over-targeting a matchup they like whether it’s with Rob Gronkowski or Edelman or White or whoever, as long as it results in first downs and touchdowns.

I think it can be Hogan. I think we could see Brady break the weird touchdown-blemish with the Hulkster. I think we could see Hogan win Super Bowl 53 MVP. No, I know we could see Hogan win Super Bowl 53 MVP.

Now let's play the game.

We Were Deprived of Dell Demps Having His Billy King Moment

Man, it sucks to be Dell Demps right now.

The atrocious New Orleans Pelicans general manager was just a few, short summer months away from going Full Billy King. With how smart the league has gotten on the general-manager front, it was hard to believe that a team would mortgage their future the way King and the Brooklyn Nets did in the infamous trade with the Boston Celtics. The Nets were desperate to make a splash, desperate to hit the ground running in a new arena under new ownership even if that meant potentially setting your franchise back a decade if it all doesn’t unfold the way you need it to.

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The Pelicans are right there. Sure, the five-man lineup with Elfrid Payton, E’twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis and Julius Randle is one of the league’s best -- check NBA.com/stats if you are not convinced, I wouldn’t be either on first glance -- but that is all this team has. One good lineup and a roster where three of the team’s five best players can’t be on the floor at the same time -- Nikola Mirotic, Randle and Davis. This team is stuck with Holliday's contract, with Solomon Hill’s contract, with Elf masquerading as a Kind-Of Rajon Rondo. Point is, this team sucks and they need to win now.

How exciting!

It seems in today’s NBA every team is too smart for their own good. Like in Major League Baseball, where team’s are actively avoiding signing Manny Machado and Bryce Harper because they’ve all lost their effing minds. Rarely do you see teams do what the Los Angeles Rams did and just decide to go all-in for a few seasons and try and win it all. For the Rams, it worked out. For the Nets, it bombed.

The Pelicans are in that sweet spot, though, when it comes to contending and starting over. Not only are they a middle-of-the-road team in the tougher conference, they employ a top-5 basketball player in his prime. Instead of making the playoffs or making any moves after a slow start to the season, Double D has been silent. The Pelicans have done nothing and Davis officially wants out. Had the Pels been hovering around the eighth spot in mid-January, Davis probably doesn’t pick now to ask for a trade, right? We needed the Pelicans to sneak into that No. 8 seed in the West, Boogie Cousins and Davis to go at it in Round 1, and an offseason where the Pelicans are now faced with the reality that they have one season left to convince The Brow that Mickey Loomis running both the New Orleans Saints and the Pelicans is totally normal and the New Orleans environment is totally fine.

That’s when we get Demps on the phone with the Orlando Magic offering three future first-round picks for Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier. That’s when we get Demps on the phone with the Miami Heat offering two first-round picks, a second-round pick and Mirotic for the Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. That’s when we get Demps, you guessed it, on the phone with the New York Knicks offering two firsts, Mirotic and portions of Bourbon Street to the New York Knicks for Tim Hardaway Jr and Frank Ntilikina. Rarely do we, as NBA fans, find ourselves in a moment in time where a bad, desperate general manager working under a bad, desperate franchise is presented with the opportunity to make the bad, desperate move we all desire.

But Demps blew it.

He didn’t do enough to keep this team a few games over .500 for the first half of the 2018-19 NBA season. He didn’t make a tiny win-now move for somebody like Kent Bazemore to carry this team to a first-round sweep at the hands of the Dubs. I’m sick. Instead, we are saddled with more lame, boring NBA tampering stories. The story, if the Basketball Gods loved us, would have been the Pels have turned Jahlil Okafor into a competent, interesting NBA big *and* they now have just enough wings to qualify for the postseason. How fun!

No.

Instead, the Okafor breakout story is kind of sad because it is colliding head-on with the Anthony Davis Is Done With This Shit story. I want to enjoy Okafor like I enjoy Kenneth Faried thriving as Mike D’Antoni’s latest rim-running five ace. Had Demps traded for Bazemore or Jeremy Lamb or Jeremy Lin or whoever a few weeks ago, we would be able to enjoy this Pelican mediocrity similar to the way we enjoyed last season’s Pelican mediocrity with Cousins and Davis.What gives, Basketball Gods?

I mean, shit. We are less than five years away from every sports franchise being run by Daryl Morey Ajace, so we have to capitalize on these moments when they fortunately come about. We are only three years away, if we’re lucky, from getting to the point where guys like Kyrie Irving spend weeks on the free-agent market when teams start to lose their minds like MLB GMs already have. We all needed to see one last bad general manager make a disastrous, franchise-changing decision just to try to make the Western Conference Semifinals. Did you not know you needed a DeMar DeRozan trade with the Spurs that would one day leave the Pelicans with no picks and a backcourt combination that reminded you of the 2009 Philadelphia 76ers? Now you know.

Damn it, Demps. We were so close to you having your moment in the sun. We were so close to having our phones vibrate with an alert from Woj that informs us you traded four future first-round picks for CJ McCollum. We were close to having a new trade to marvel at for the next decade-plus. We were so close to wondering if this was it for Bad GM Makes Catastrophic Trade moments. Now we know. This was it. I’m not mad, Dell Demps. I’m just disappointed. We’re all disappointed.

This Is Why You Don't Pull The Trigger On Finn Balor

What a month for Finn Balor.

It seems like it was just yesterday the Demon was stuck in mid-card purgatory with Bobby Lashley, Drew McIntyre, Dolph Ziggler and Baron Corbin.

It kind of was.

On a November 5 episode of Monday Night Raw, Balor took on Lashley in a singles match and lost. In a November 12 episode of Raw, Balor took on Ziggler in a singles match and won. On a November 26 episode of Raw, Balor took on both Ziggler and Corbin in a handicap match and lost. Spending a month in the Corbin-Lashley-Ziggler rotation of death and despair is something I’d wish on no professional wrestler. At least for The Revival, there is no question how Vince McMahon views them. With Balor, it is more complicated.

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That is what makes Balor’s sudden and surprising elevation to the WWE Universal title picture so interesting. On one hand, if Vince wasn’t a believer in Balor, would he have really pulled the trigger on him over Seth Rollins at SummerSlam years ago to become the first Universal champion? On the other hand, that was almost three years ago and Balor hasn’t been champion since.

So how does Vince view Balor? We know he views Rollins as a top guy; we know he views AJ Styles as a top guy; we know he views Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns, obviously, as top guys. If Vince were a real believer in Balor, would he really allow Balor to spend months at a time messing around with Jinder Mahal’s and the Baron Corbin’s of the world? When Vince likes a wrestler, you know, because it’s obvious. Do you remember the last time Braun Strowman was pinned on an episode of Raw?

I don’t.

This kind of booking is intentional. Outside of a few chinks in his armor -- the Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar feuds and that ill-timed heel turn -- Strowman has been protected. His issue is simply Vince doesn’t like him *as* much as two other active competitors -- Lesnar and Strowman. For Vince, Strowman has been protected just enough to step into the Lesnar role, if necessary, but as long as he is able to have both, he is going to stick with Lesnar. (As he should, as Lesnar is a better worker, a better draw, and a better decision every day of the week and twice on Sundays.) At least for Strowman, he knows he’s the next man up once Lesnar finally exits the company for good.

The kind of booking for Balor has never been intentional. Balor has found himself in the same zone Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Edge, Christian, Chris Jericho and more all found themselves in before him. It is the “This Is Fine For Now” zone, where Vince is OK with pushing you for a few months as a pseudo, top-of-the-mountain guy, but once he can go back to one of His Guys, Vince McMahon is going back to one of His Guys. There are the Roman Reigns’s, John Cena’s, The Rock’s of the world, and then there are the Balor’s of the world.

That matters.

If you are going to watch Raw and Smackdown Live every week, if you are going to get emotionally invested in the characters on the main roster, you have to keep Vince McMahon’s preferences in the back of your mind. Of course the Summer of Punk was going to end with Kevin Nash and Triple H. Of course Bryan kicked off his insane return to the ring with Big Cass. Of course Roman Reigns was on pace to break Hulk Hogan’s WrestleMania main-event streak. Vince is inconsistent with most characters on his television shows, but Vince is never inconsistent with His Guys.

Balor is not one of His Guys.

So why did so many fans get emotionally invested in Balor vs. Lesnar at the Royal Rumble? Even if Balor had pulled it off, then what? A loss to Strowman a few months later at WrestleMania to cement Strowman is Lesnar’s replacement? A loss to Rollins a few months later at WrestleMania to get us closer to Rollins vs. Reigns at SummerSlam? As cool as it would be to see an Eddie Slays The Beast moment again, would it have been worth it with how well we know Vince McMahon? At best, Balor is a transitional champion in the WWE. Why salivate over a Balor moment when it that is exactly all it will be -- a moment? Balor isn’t going to get the AJ Styles treatment on Raw, especially with Strowman, Rollins, Lesnar and Reigns all still being in the picture, so why make things worse for fans dying to see Balor get his chance to be the Top Guy?

Vince pulling the trigger on Balor would have been cool, and, more importantly, fans would have wanted it. But as we saw on the Monday following the Royal Rumble, Balor is back where Vince thinks he belongs -- mid-card hell with his old friend Bobby Lashley. But hey, I heard All Elite Wrestling is hiring

The Case for John Cena and Randy Orton in 2019

“John Cena as WWE Universal champion.”

“Randy Orton as WWE World champion.”

I can’t shake it. This feels right. How did we get here? In 2019, I’ve thought of countless avenues the WWE could take to get to the two biggest stars of their era back on top. If you would have told 2007 Chase this would be something 2019 Chase would be fascinated by he would have laughed in your face and gone back and listened to the latest Mood Muzik mixtape. No. Way.

Way.

The case for Cena is different than the case for Orton.

Cena, with his crazy hair and all, is a part-timer at this stage in his career. From April to December last year, he competed in five matches for the company. Would you like to guess how many matches the WWE Universal champion Brock Lesnar competed in during that same stretch of time? Five. The part-timers have a lot in common -- they work matches every now and then, non-wrestling fans know who they are, but most of all, they’re one of three part-timers who still move the needle for the company. ( The Rock being that other part-timer, but even calling him a part-timer at this point seems too generous. Also, if you are one of those of pro wrestling fans who does not think Lesnar is still a needle-mover, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. People like seeing Brock Lesnar do Brock Lesnar things.)

The Finn Balor Character Rehabilitation tour has been fun, and people still like screaming “Burn It Down” for Seth Rollins as he works to scrub those nasty remains of that disastrous Dean Ambrose feud off his tights. Mariah Carey would be quite proud, as these two belong together. Everybody likes Balor; everybody likes Rollins. Everybody thinks Rollins should be handed the keys to Raw; everybody thinks Balor should be handed the keys to Raw. With Balor beating Rollins at SummerSlam years ago to become the first WWE Universal champion they became forever linked. Nobody benefits from Lesnar taking down Rollins or Balor. Everybody benefits from Balor wrestling Rollins on the biggest stage.

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Outside of Rollins and Balor, who is else is ready for Lesnar? Kevin Owens is still on the shelf, Elias is three years away from being three years away, and outside of the Demon and the Architect, are there any other over babyfaces on Raw? (If you even thought about Dolph Ziggler or Bray Wyatt here I am not the sportswriter for you, my guy.) To be sure, it is entirely the WWE’s fault for only having three over babyfaces on their flagship program, but that also doesn’t mean you shoehorn somebody who is not ready for this sort of push and create another Roman Reigns-like problem. Your options are Balor, Rollins and Cena. Give me The Beast versus The Prototype.

On Smackdown Live, the Randy Orton For WWE World champion idea is, well, you guessed it, different. The blue brand is already a very good professional wrestling program with a plethora of fun, intriguing options for either Daniel Bryan or AJ Styles -- Rey Mysterio, Andrade, Big E, Samoa Joe, even Mustafa Ali. There are a lot of paths Road Dogg and the fellas can follow, but it comes down to how you perceive the New Daniel Bryan schtick. If you think that it has a short shelf life -- check -- the idea of keeping the world title on him through WrestleMania seems like a dangerous one. If the odds are high fans grow tired of the fickle-shouting on the road to the ‘Mania, you do not have Bryan go over the top babyface at the Royal Rumble on Sunday. You put the title back on Guy Charlotte and reset a bit.

Enter the Viper.

The “o” and “r” in Orton really stand for old reliable. After 36 years on the main roster, Orton has this whole professional-wrestling thing down. He knows who he is. He’s comfortable in his own skin. He is also very entertaining as a psychopathic heel. You could make the argument that the best thing Styles did in 2018 was his feud with another psychopathic heel -- Samoa Joe. With Orton winning the Royal Rumble and Styles knocking off Bryan, you could revisit that feud but on a larger scale. As great as Joe was and still is, it was clear he was not going to win that feud with Styles. With Orton in that spot, you could see it going either way. With Orton going after every child’s favorite babyfaces on Smackdown over the past few months, would the logical conclusion to the Randy Orton Hates Your Hero tour not be setting his sights on the Phenomenal One? In what universe does Orton versus Styles at WrestleMania not sound like a must-see event? Even if you’re not a big fan of Orton once the bell rings -- “there are dozens of us...dozens!” -- you know the lead-in to the match will hit all the right notes. Like some sort of mixture of Lesnar and Orton from a few years ago to Joe and Styles from last fall.  It can be sold even easier than that: who would have even thought this kind of match was possible outside of Universe Mode on WWE 2K before 2017? If you are ever going to pull the trigger on Orton versus Styles this is the only chance to do so.

So then Orton wins.

And then Cena wins.

Then you wait. You wait to give the rub to the right babyface, in Orton’s case, or the right heel, in Cena’s case, at the right time. You use this temporary Cena title reign that gets him to No. 17 to give Adam Cole his Kevin Owens moment on Raw. You use this temporary Orton title reign to give Aleister Black his Undertaker moment by refusing to die as much as Ruthless Randy would prefer him to. It doesn’t matter how many years go by, standing in the ring with Cena or Orton still holds weight. The WWE has a star problem, they have a NXT-to-main-roster problem, and they can kill two birds with one stone by throwing Cena and Orton one last bone to try one last time to create the next iteration of Cena and Orton. This means less movies for Cena, and less Top Golf excursions for Orton, but it is for the best. The year is 2019 and their time is not up, no, their time is now.

The Jaguars Are Inching Closer to Becoming the Broncos

Not having a quarterback sucks.

Just ask Jacksonville fans who just suffered through the Good Team Pays Mostly Bad Quarterback To Stay In Contention season and, well, it did not end particularly well for the Jaguars. The Jags won 5 games, but it felt like they won 3. This was a team that was on the verge winning the AFC a season ago with a quarterback not named Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger. (That never happens in that conference. Seriously.) Instead of getting out of the Blake Bortles business when they could, the front office doubled-down on Double B and it blew up in their faces.

This kind of team-trajectory seems eerily familiar?

Right.

The Denver Broncos.

John Elway’s team won a Super Bowl in 2015 with the corpse of Peyton Manning and I’m still not entirely sure how it happened. (Manning threw 17 picks that season to just nine touchdowns and went 7-2 in the regular season. The Broncos won the Super Bowl with the third-best quarterback of all-time tossing just two TDs in the playoffs. Just amazing.) Then, as a hat-tip to Elway, Peyton went out on top and retired. Brock Osweiler signed an outrageous contract with the Houston Texans, the team drafted Paxton Lynch and Definitely Not Matt Saracen Trevor Siemian did his best for a year-and-a-half, man.

Needless to say, the Broncos have not rebounded well following their Super Bowl run built around the league’s top defense. While the team tried address the quarterback issue, the defense started to slip. In 2015 and 2016, the Broncos were first in defensive DVOA,  but in 2017, that number fell to 10th. Top defenses don’t stay on top for long, but top quarterbacks stay top quarterbacks for seemingly forever.

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Jacksonville found this out the hard way in 2018. Their defense was first in defensive DVOA in 2017, but that number slipped to sixth in 2018. The Minnesota Vikings, like the Jags, found lighting in a bottle with a mid-tier-at-best QB in Case Keenum a year ago, but that top defense slipped and their new mid-tier-at-best QB Kirk Cousins wasn’t able to circumvent a bad offensive line and a slightly worse defense to get the Vikings back to where they were a season ago -- one game away from the Super Bowl. (Creepy how sports works sometimes, right?) The Jags defense wasn’t responsible for the team going 5-11 this season, nor was it Leonard Fournette's body language nor was it Jalen Ramsey’s trash-talking, it was Blake Bortles being really bad at his job. Having an elite defense is nice, but having an elite quarterback is nicer. Unfortunately, there aren’t 32 elite quarterbacks readily available so teams talk themselves into the Andy Dalton's and Kirk Cousins of the world because the rest of the roster is talented and deep enough to make a Super Bowl run. The Jags paid Bortles because the Jags thought they could win despite Bortles. This is bad team-building ideology, and, unsurprisingly, it backfired on Jacksonville in 2018.

You can understand why Tom Coughlin and Dave Caldwell operated in a similar way to Elway in recent years. For Caldwell, Bortles was his quarterback pick, and he bet on his guy still being good enough when he had a clean pocket and a scheme that didn’t ask him to do too much. For Coughlin and Elway, they just want to win. Now. They’ve won Super Bowls and they would like to win more. That means having a veteran quarterback, not an unproven rookie. They know when you miss on a first-round QB, it takes years to recover. (Usually with a new front office and coaching staff.) It also makes it that much more difficult to take another one. What if you draft Paxton Lynch or Blake Bortles 2.0? What if this defense can carry a QB that PFF grades out in the 20s to at least one Super Bowl run?

Teams do this all the time because drafting and developing and waiting on a young quarterback is hard. The Browns failed miserably by taking Johnny Manziel, but that also led to them performing brilliantly by drafting the next superstar quarterback in Baker Mayfield. You don’t get Mayfield without Manziel. Kyrie Irving doesn’t make The Shot without missing a thousand more. The Browns took another swing in the draft while also trading for a mid-tier quarterback in Tyrod Taylor.

What John Dorsey did in Cleveland is what Coughlin and Elway should do in Jacksonville and Denver. Keep taking that bat off your shoulder. Then, instead of Taven Bryan you have Lamar Jackson. Then, instead of Bradley Chubb you have Josh Rosen. With Bryan and Chubb you have depth, with Jackson and Rosen you have hope. Exactly zero football fans are going to be mad their team for drafting more quarterbacks.

But that was the 2018 NFL Draft, a draft loaded with quality quarterback talent. The 2019 NFL Draft, not so much. So it should come as no surprise that the teams run by two guys dying to win now with top-10 defenses are once again going to try and address their atrocious quarterback situation through free agency.

Nick Foles in Jacksonville.

Joe Flacco in Denver.

It already feels inevitable, doesn’t it? John DeFilippo, Foles’ former QB coach in Philadelphia, is running the offense in Jacksonville. Jacoby Jones, the wide receiver who ripped the hearts out of Denver those years ago, is not in the Mile High City, but Elway was in the press box for the Mile High Miracle.

Both of these moves would be fine, but only if it means they’re not done. A Keenum/Flacco quarterback room is nice, but a Keenum/Flacco/Haskins room is nicer. A Foles/DeFillipo duo is good, but a Foles/DeFillipo/Grier trio is better. Signing a mid-tier quarterback is fine, but you cannot stop there. Or you end up like Washington who started a guy named Josh Johnson down the stretch this season. Or you end up like Cincy who started Jeff freaking Driskell in 2018. Or you end up like the Dolphins who make the playoffs if Ryan Tannehill doesn’t miss multiple games again. You can never have too many quarterbacks, which is why smart teams like Chris Ballard’s Indianapolis Colts will only give up Jacoby Brissett for a hefty return. It’s why the Pats drafted Jimmy G when they still had Brady. It’s why the Chiefs traded up for Mahomes when they had Alex Smith. Signing one quarterback is cool, but draft a quarterback is cooler.

But that doesn’t seem to be in either team’s DNA.

Missing on Bortles and Lynch while also building a perfect defense hurts. So, instead of trying again, the Jaguars will sign Foles, and hope they can get rekindle their 2017 glory of almost winning the AFC with the worst quarterback in the playoffs. Instead of trying again, the Broncos will sign Flacco, and hope they can rekindle their 2015 glory of winning the Super Bowl with the worst quarterback in the playoffs. Elway and Coughlin know how to go about this -- invest in the defense, invest in your backfield, and invest in literally every other area besides the quarterback position. We have seen this movie before and we know how it ends -- the Jags and the Broncos right back in this position next year. No more magical runs back to the promise land, just more kicking the can down the road. Denver and Jacksonville, they’re one in the same.

The Braves Will Continue To Be Pseudo Contenders

Things can change.

Things can stay the same.

The Atlanta Braves used to win the NL East every year. From 1991 to 2005, you could count on the sun rising, the sun setting and the Braves winning the NL East. I arrived in this world in 1991 and the Braves’ streak did not end until I was a mere semester away from becoming a Parkview Panther. As a walking sports encyclopedia -- a descriptor I was given years later at a journalism camp from a girl who almost certainly didn’t intend for me to respond positively to the moniker -- a team winning their division fourteen-straight times should have blown my mind.

A decade-and-a-half of playoff baseball -- with no interruptions.

How?

Oh. Right. Money. Why would it not be about the money? Why do the Yankees have so many rings? Why did every playoff team this season fall in the top-15 in spending? Why did Dodgers return to prominence in the last few years? Why do Met fans hate Fred Wilpon with every fiber of their being? Why are Philly fans so enthused about this particular offseason? Why did the Diamondbacks punt on contending after winning 93 games and going for it in 2017?

Money.

Why is it always about the money, man?

It just is.

The Boston Red Sox had the highest opening day payroll in baseball in 2018. The Red Sox won the World Series. Again. Since 2002, the first season of the John Henry era in Boston, the Red Sox have been in the top-5 in spending every single season. Most seasons, you’ll find Boston in the top-spending spot, or the third spot, or even the fourth spot. Never outside of the top five, though. Never. The result? A team that averages a championship every four seasons. Pretty, pretty good.

Not everyone can be the Red Sox, or even the New York Yankees or the Chicago Cubs. Once upon a time, though, the Braves walked among them. In 1998, Atlanta was fourth in spending. In 1999, Atlanta was third. In 2000, Atlanta was, yes, you guessed it, third. The Braves were spending money and winning division titles. In 2007, the Braves were fifteenth. The Braves did not win the NL East in 2007. That difference from spending like Boston and New York to spending like St. Louis and Seattle is obvious. To win in this league, you have to spend money. Often.

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So who are the Braves now? The Braves, when they’re not moonlighting as a gross real-estate asset, have the look and feel to a small-market team. Atlanta is not Tampa Bay but they are not Boston, either. They are somewhere in the middle, which is the worst place to be in MLB. If you’re opening day payroll isn’t an eye-popping number it’s better be the 2015 Houston Astros. The Astros were 30th in spending 2015; the Astros were 11th in spending in 2018. This strategy, ethical issues aside, resulted in a championship. Houston increased spending as the team got better and with the amount of talent on the roster, the Astros will have to keep spending to keep a team that was on track to be greatest of all-time in 2018 before injuries befell them together. The Cubs followed a similar path, as did the Washington Nationals and many more. The plan to slash payroll, draft well, develop well, and then spend a bunch of money to preserve it all is a sound won. It has resulted in World Series rings for lots of clubs.

The Braves do not figure to follow that envious path. Other teams within the division, the Phillies and the Nationals, to be sure, do. The Nationals’ ownership group has shown they will spend at an elite-level, consistently, and even if the team loses Bryce Harper to free agency this offseason, it is hard to envision the club slipping out the top-echelon of spenders anytime soon. The Phillies have an owner that is yearning to spend “stupid money” at a point in time where two future HOFers are available in Harper and Manny Machado. The Phils are just a few years removed from being a team that consistently found themselves in that vital top-spending group year after year. We know the Nats and the Phils are going to spending in the 2020s, do we know the Braves are?

We certainly shouldn’t expect it. The Braves, coming off a division-winning season, have been disturbingly quiet. Atlanta won 90 games a season ago, but they are operating like a team that won 73 and are a few years away from being a few years away. This is some Cleveland Indians-like behavior. Maybe even more Pittsburgh Pirates-like behavior. The Pirates, like the Braves, drafted well for a stretch of time, developed well for a stretch of time, but never dove into the deep end with the other real contenders. No, they were pseudo-contenders, choosing sustainability of five years over a potential championship in two years. It should have come as no surprise to see both the Braves and Pirates linked to Chris Archer before the latter traded for him. He was a bargain. Multiple seasons of team-control, young, and, most importantly, cheap.

The Indians, after coming one game short of a World Series victory, stayed the course. The American League, already dominated by teams with big budgets and big stars, is not for Dave Ramsey apologists. It’s a spend-and-you’re-in league. To match the firepower of the Red Sox and Yankees, you have be in a once-and-a-lifetime spot of having a roster littered with cheap, young superstar talent reaching their potential all at the same time. Not everyone can be the Astros. Most won’t. The Indians, instead, have become Houston Ajace. Stocked with multiple MVP-level players, but still cutting corners wherever possible -- trading Yan Gomes, letting Carlos Santana walk, not paying Michael Brantley, etc. This should be an exciting time to be a fans of the Tribe, but it can’t be, right? Not when you see the team let Andrew Miller walk, let Brantley walk, or just that the team has considered trading both Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer. The Indians won 91 games and are focused on “cheap roster fillers”. The Braves won 90 games and re-signed Adam Duvall.

For Liberty Media, this is probably of no concern. If I was a betting man, I would bet 2018 was exactly the kind of season this ownership group longed for. A team that wins 90 games with the 21st-cheapest payroll? In today’s cold and calculated MLB, what team doesn’t prefer 90-win seasons and small budgets? Why pay Bryce Harper whatever he wants to be your right-fielder for the next 10 years next to another budding superstar when you can platoon Adam Jones and A.J. Pollock for a year and get eliminated in the NLDS again? Why pay really good baseball players to be on your team when you can pseudo-contend without them? Manny Machado? JOHAN CAMARGO! Yan Gomes? KEVIN PAWLECKI! JT Realmuto? BRIAN MCCANN!

Maybe you can have a Kansas City Royal-esque run. You probably won’t. They were an outlier, a blip, and those are inevitable. Per a user on Reddit, “On average, the team with sixth-highest payroll has won the World Series each of the last 25 years.” It’s cute to be the lovable underdog, the team that tries to win a championship with a bunch of cheap, young and budding superstars, but it’s not realistic. For every Mookie Betts you develop, you need a J.D. Martinez to keep it going. For every Ronald Acuna you develop, you need a Bryce Harper to keep it going. The Nats learned this difficult lesson after their disastrous 2018 season, but they responded how you want your contending team to respond. By offering Harper a very lucrative contact, by signing Patrick Corbin, by signing Brian Dozier, by signing Kurt Suzuki, by signing Anibal Sanchez, and they are probably not done yet. If they can find a way to re-sign Harper, would there not be a case to be made that this team could win the pennant in 2019?


There is a sense of urgency in Washington, there is no sense of urgency in Atlanta. The Braves have doubled in value in the last few years. Per an AJC article from 2018, “The $1.625 billion valuation, if accurate, means the Braves are worth more than 3-1/2 times as much as when Liberty Media acquired the franchise in a complicated tax-driven transaction in 2007. That deal valued the Braves at $450 million.” The Braves have been quite the investment for Liberty Media. The company’s CEO, Greg Maffei was quoted in 2016 saying, “The Braves have been a great asset, great for Liberty, and we are happy owners.” We know the team’s revenue is up, the group will one day sell the team for an obscene fortune, and if the Braves win a title before then, well, cool, but have you visited the Battery?

The Timberwolves Are Kind of Getting a Pass, Right?

Not too long ago the Minnesota Timberwolves were the talk of the town. It was not for anything positive, to be sure, but the Wolves were interesting. Here was a team of mostly veteran rotation guys, a superstar, and two -- OK, not really, but I can still hoard a shack on Andrew Wiggins Island, right? -- potential superstars. The mixture of talent both in age and personality is what made this team intriguing and also terrifying. If things went well, Thibs’ Army could make the Western Conference Finals a couple of times; if things went poorly, they could miss the playoffs and basketball fans start to wonder if the Basketball Gods just really do not want nice things for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Ever. Well, 2019 is almost here, Jimmy Butler is doing things in Philadelphia, the Wolves are giving 21 minutes to Definitely Not A NBA2K Create A Player guy in Jared Terrell, and they have lost seven of their last 10 games and sit at 16-19 in a crowded Western Conference where every team not owned by Robert Sarver is good.

Yeesh.

But has anyone noticed? When the San Antonio Spurs traded away a superstar wing in Kawhi Leonard this summer, they received a pseudo-superstar, a solid rotation player and a heavily protected first-round pick. When the Timberwolves traded away a superstar wing in Butler this fall, they received two solid rotation players and no first-round pick. The Spurs obviously did better in their return than the Timberwolves, but Leonard is also a more valuable star than Butler, health and baggage issues and all, so the Spurs should have done better than the Timberwolves. If the playoffs started today, the Spurs would just miss the cut behind the Sacramento Kings -- just like we ALL predicted before the season -- and join the Timberwolves in the Lottery next summer. But the Spurs have won 7 of 10, and the Wolves have lost 7 of 10. Had defensive assassin Dejounte Murray not torn his knee to shreds before the season, the Spurs hovering around the 4 or 5 seed once again would not be all that surprising. If the Spurs miss the playoffs, they have an excuse. If the Timberwolves miss the playoffs, even after adding two solid starters for the price of one, do they have an excuse? How does Thibs spin the Wolves becoming the NBA-version of Ann from Arrested Development -- you always seem to forget she exists. Towns is averaging close to 21/11/3 and posting a PER of 22 and that has not matter for the Wolves in the slightest.

By trading Butler, the Wolves punted on realistically contending in the Western Conference for a painfully long time. Winning in the West is hard, and the Wolves, for a moment, had a top-10 player in his prime, a top-20 player nearing his prime, and a still-kind-of-intriguing top-300 player nearing his prime. If Butler remains happy, if Thibs keeps adding more veterans who can still play around their Big 2 ⅛ and they find that last starter to roll with Towns, Butler, Wiggins, and Jeff Teague in crunch time, things are good. This team, had Butler not gotten injured last winter, was on pace to win 50-plus games and we would be talking about Minnesota the way we talk about Oklahoma City. (Well, in theory, at least, as the Thunder have the best defense in basketball and Thibs’ teams haven’t sniffed that elite-level play on that end since arriving in Minnesota.) We know the Thunder can’t take down the Warriors, or even the 2017-18 Houston Rockets -- never forget! -- but they’re still a very good basketball team with some flawed starpower and a ceiling that a third of the league would still lust over. Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams is a really fun 3-man group -- when those three are on the flour together, they lead the league in PFD at 13.8 -- while Butler, Wiggins and Towns was equally as fun a season ago as those three maintained a +5.4 mark in the 25 minutes they played together every night. If you replace Butler with Robert Covington, which is what the Wolves did in their trade with Philly, the results are still positive, as the team has a positive plus/minus with Covington in that spot instead of Jimmy Buckets, who didn’t replicate last season’s success with Towns and Wiggins as they were a -4.7 on the floor together this season.

So what gives?

A lineup of Teague, Wiggins, Covington, Dario Saric and Karl Anthony-Towns should be enough to make the playoffs, even in the West. That five-man lineup hasn’t played together much this season, though. Instead, you’ve seen a bunch of different lineups because of injuries. Thibs has thrown out the two-point-guard look 12 times this season with Rose and Teague and the team is +13.2 per 100 possessions with that duo on the floor together with Towns, Wiggins and Saric. With Gibson in that starting spot instead of Saric, that unit is still in the positive, even if only slightly. Individually, Saric is +8.3 per 100 possessions in Minnesota. In Philly, Sarcic was a -7.7 per 100 possessions this season. You can parse through lineup after lineup and you’ll come to the same conclusion: If the Wolves could get away with just playing Teague, Tyus Jones, Covington, Wiggins, Gibson and Towns every night -- a utopia that Tom Thibodeau could believe in, except he would still probably have Rose in there instead of Jones -- they would be a playoff team. Unfortunately, they have to play Gorgui Dieng sometimes, Josh Okogie needs some run, Jerryd Bayless exists, and is that James Nunnally, too?!

That falls on Minnesota Timberwolves Czar Tom Thibodeau, though. Trading away Butler for two solid rotation guys would have had better results had he and general manager Scott Layden done a better job filling out the rest of the roster. It’s a long season and depth matters. Not even Anthony Davis putting together another insane, MVP-worthy season is enough to cleanse the sins of Dell Demps and his roster-assembling malfeasance of years past. Demps screwed Davis; Thibs screwed Towns. It is a tale as old as time in the NBA -- small-market team stumbles onto a superstar, gets antsy, doesn’t stick to a plan and 10 years later we’re all wondering how the hell it all happened again.

But that’s where we are in Minnesota. You’re not mad anymore, you’re just sad. We wanted the Butler and Towns and Wiggins experiment to work because they can’t do the KG era all over again, right? Right? Wrong. The team is now limited on the asset-front, Wiggins is going to make a gazillion dollars over the next half decade for Harrison Barnes-like production, and Towns will contend for a title as the second fiddle in 2026. So maybe the Wolves are getting a pass because what else is there to say? Well, other than “Please, please Karl-Anthony Towns don’t go away.”

The Dream Without the Velveteen

There is not a professional wrestler in the WWE with a higher ceiling than the Velveteen Dream. At 23-years-old, Dream is so young compared to his contemporaries on NXT that he is at least 20 years away from being old enough to hold the NXT championship. Aleister Black turns 34-years-old in a few months, Johnny Gargano is 31-years-old, the NXT champion Tommaso Ciampa also turns 34-years-old in a few months, and if you check the birthdates of past NXT champions -- Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Bobby Roode, Shinsuke Nakamura, etc. -- the Dream’s age stands out even more. The Dream, at 23, has put together one of the best WWE feuds in the last five years with Black, headlined an NXT: TakeOver for the prized championship, defeated the biggest babyface in the company, clean, and did I mention this guy is only 23? Twenty-three!

If you were to make the case against Dream, you would mention Adam Cole. The Bay Bay Boy is over, leads the hottest stable in the company, possesses the charisma necessary to be a top guy in the company, and it’s hard to envision a scenario where a city doesn’t scream “Adam Cole Bay Bay” at the top of their lungs whenever hits his pose in the center of the ring. However, Cole turns 30 next year; Cole does not possess the freakish frame of the Dream; Cole can be Shawn Michaels, while the Dream can be Hulk Hogan. Cole will be a star on the main roster for years to come, but Dream will be a superstar for the general public for years to come. Both can be stars with high-upside, but there is a difference between the stardom of Michaels, Cole (tbd), Daniel Bryan, AJ Styles etc. and the superstardom of John Cena, The Rock, Hogan, and The Dream (tbd).

Another key difference between Cole and Dream is the dramatic and terrifying difference between their floors. Eventually, Vince McMahon will get his hands on the creative direction for of these characters. As we’ve seen time and time again -- the hesitance to push Daniel Bryan to the freaking moon being the most glaring example -- Mr. McMahon matters. Mr. McMahon will continue to matter, to an exuberant degree, as to which pro wrestlers become stars and which you wonder whether or not they’re still on Smackdown Live. Yes, Triple H’s vanity project at Full Sail is a delightful escape from the horror most professional wrestling fans subjugate themselves to on Monday nights week after week, but it is important to remember that none of it actually matters. No matter how many five-star matches you put on, no matter how many NXT: TakeOver specials you main-event, no matter how hot you are in that tiny incubator, you will start from scratch on Raw or Smackdown Live.

If McMahon gets his hands on the creative direction of Cole for the next five years, the worst-case scenario is a modern-day Christian situation. What do I mean by that? Well, Captain Charisma had the look, had the respect from pro wrestling fans, but never had the full approval from Vince McMahon. In TNA, Christian was king. In WWE, Christian was a guy. Cole could very well just be a guy if the WWE CEO strips enough interesting things about him from his character, but he would still hold the Intercontinental title 57 times, he would still have a tasty blood feud with another indy darling every now and again, and he would probably still sneak in to the WWE HOF one day.

If McMahon gets his hands on the creative direction of the Dream for the next five years, the worst-case scenario is gone from the company in less than a year. The Dream knows he is very good at his job as a professional wrestler, he knows his character through and through, and he knows, at his age, to be as polished as he is just insane. So he requests his fans hound his bosses to get him called up to the main roster. You could see a scenario where he rubs the locker room the wrong way, not just his bosses, and it starts to feel like an Enzo Amore situation -- yes, this guy is insanely over and one of the few guys we can actually trust on the microphone, but do we really want to hitch our wagon to this guy for the next 10-plus years. Just this week, there are already rumors the Dream has some heat on him for his social-media antics, but the Dream is a 23-year-old pro wrestling phenom who thrives off making people uncomfortable. If you want the Dream to work especially at his age, you have to live with these kind of quirks because you know in 10 years, if handled correctly, this guy could be headlining a 3 Ninjas at High Noon reboot. You know he could be on the TODAY Show, you know he could be attracting all kinds of attention at a Laker game.

But there is a difference between the ceiling of the Dream and the Velveteen Dream. The Velveteen Dream is a midcard-sounding name, like No Way Jose, Mojo Rawley, Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake or even the Honky Tonk Man. There is a staggering difference between Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Triple H. There is even more of a staggering difference between Becky Balboa and The Man. Before the Dream is called up to the main roster, Velveteen must go. It was a fine way to introduce a character, but like Hunter Hearst Helmsley, if you want the Dream to awake from a midcard slumber, the goofy, Prince-y vibes have to remain in Orlando. If not, the chances of the Dream becoming a 2018-version of Orlando Jordan doesn’t seem all that farfetched. The Dream needs McMahon’s protection, his attention, and his approval to become the Next Guy the company is always looking for. Without it, the chances of success are slim to none.

No pressure, though.

WWE Smackdown Live: The Miz as the Middle Man

I wanted to lead this piece with the Smackdown Women’s championship match between Becky Lynch (c.) vs. Charlotte Flair, but what more is there to say about this feud right now? Lynch and Charlotte kicked off this week’s episode with a twenty-minute gauntlet, featured multiple heelish stunts from Lynch, and ended with a brutal spear from Charlotte that pushed both her and her former best friend through the LED wall. It was all well done, it was a very fun match, this feud still has some sizzle, but we’re at the point in this story where a definitive conclusion should take place sooner rather than later. After WWE Evolution, there will be more to say, like, you know, why it was always inevitable that this was ending with Charlotte as 46-time champion.

Instead, I’m leading with The Miz, more specifically, his Miz TV segment that featured the WWE champion AJ Styles and the No. 1 contender Daniel Bryan. This was everything it needed to be, and on a two-hour show where it felt like only two things happened, it shined. Yes, Charlotte taking out Lynch in frustration post-match was cool, but Styles telling Bryan that he isn’t moving was awesome.

After the personal, highly contentious feuds that Styles and Bryan have worked through over the last few months, it was refreshing to have a back-and-forth like the one Bryan and Styles had. Still, as Miz rightly pointed out, there is nothing inherently interesting about Styles and Bryan respecting each other as two of the best professional wrestlers in the world -- except in this case. Sometimes you just want to have a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Sometimes you just want to see two of the best professional wrestlers in the world have a five-star match on a WWE Network special. When you throw the Miz into the mix, which, I guess makes him the chocolate syrup in this never-ending metaphor -- it makes everything sweeter. Daniel Bryan, the astute man that he is, even admitted on commentary that the Miz is better than everybody at talking. Bryan isn’t wrong here, as there may not be anyone better in the company right now at working a microphone than Mr. Professional.

But he still the biggest match of his career against Bryan in embarrassing fashion. A few days removed from the Australian event, that looks to have been the right call by the WWE brass. An embarrassed and enraged Miz is the best version of the Miz. Whenever the Miz finds himself in a situation where he isn’t being taken seriously, that’s when he hits the hardest. There may be no better example than towards the end of this segment the Miz roared at both Bryan and Styles that he’s got next.

***
Here are my two other takeaways from the two-hour program.

  1. What makes this a World Cup? Are we sure Vince McMahon has ever watched the FIFA World Cup? Are we sure if we were to ask him to explain what exactly the WWE’s version of the World Cup was, would Vince be able to piece together a coherent explanation? I have my doubts, as this week’s episode of Smackdown Live featured two more qualifying matches that featured four wrestlers from the United States. After this week’s episode, the four wrestlers who have qualified for the tournament are from the United States. Yes, Rey Mysterio vs. Shinsuke Nakamura is happening next week, but I’m fairly confident the WWE has no idea what the World Cup actually is. (Also, could they really have not given the winner a WWE or Universal title shot on an episode of Raw or Smackdown?)

  2. Speaking of the World Cup qualifying matches, why did Randy Orton not viciously assault the Big Show after his victory? Are we done with Crazy Randy Orton, or was this just a one-week blip for the Viper on his quest to destroy fan-favorites? It just felt...odd. I found myself just waiting to write down “Orton punts the Big Show into retirement” on my Legal Pad, but that moment never came. Instead, Orton hit the fan-favorite RKO, his first use of the finisher since the heel turn, and that was that. I’d also like to mention that the fans chanting “You still got it” at the Big Show was one of the most baffling things I’ve seen in professional wrestling this year. If we are subjected to more Big Show matches in 2018 or 2019, I am blaming the city of Indianapolis.

Lifted from the Legal Pad:

  • Did anyone else laugh at the barrage of chops from Charlotte to Becky? Seemed very cartoony.

  • Becky rolling out immediately after the Natural Selection was just great in-ring psychology.

  • Last time we see Samoa Joe on television in 2018? Maybe he and Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn can start their own YouTube show or something.

  • “How’s the family?” - The Miz

  • “If he goes to you house, he’s going to tend to your garden.” - The Miz, with the line of the night.

  • Shelton Benjamin Is Back Alert. That high knee of the ropes was tremendous. More Shelton, please.

  • Rusev and Aiden should get more time to see this feud through, but I suspect a WWE Network match isn’t in the cards and this feud is done.

  • “Cause you got hacked!” - Rusev, always funny.

WWE Raw: D-Generation X Is Back For The Last Time Ever?

If you smartly elected to enjoy a bit more shuteye Saturday morning and skipped WWE Super Show-Down, skimmed the results later on in the afternoon only to then tune into this week’s episode of Monday Night Raw, you might be under the impression that Triple H and The Undertaker’s “Seriously, this is the last time we’re doing this, we promise” match on the WWE Network special delivered in historic fashion. While it is very easy to pile on the WWE for their decision-making -- still waiting on my pyro or television-show intros to return -- it is also very to praise the company for their video packages. No matter how poorly a feud unfolded or how underwhelming a big-time match turned out, the WWE has always excelled at creating a video package that never fails to give the impression that this particular story they’re pushing is the hottest thing in the professional wrestling world. The video package that aired in the middle of Triple H and Shawn Michaels’ opening promo was all of that and more.

Mission accomplished?

Not quite. Yes, the Chicago crowd was hot for this opening segment, they rejoiced when it became crystal clear that the Heartbreak Kid was coming out of retirement, and, you know, it was just kind of nice to open an episode of Raw that did not include the likes of Baron Corbin, an in-over-his-head Kurt Angle, Michael Cole obnoxiously shouting about the “Big Dog”, and the list goes on and on. Most weeks, it feels like the red brand is dead-set on not giving the paying customers what they want, but, on Monday evening, Vince McMahon threw the rowdy crowd a bone and gave thousands of people the opportunity to scream “Suck it!” at the top of their longs as the member berries the WWE fed each fan on their way into the arena had finally taken effect.

But should Triple H and Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker and Kane be the main program on the biggest show in the promotion in 2018? If the choice is simply: DX or more Roman Reigns’ solo work, you always go with the latter. The fans in attendance and the fans at home still love HBK and the fans at home still love to see the legends they grew up with pop up on their television screens from time to time. However, it seems highly unlikely that those same fans are also pumped about the Crown Jewel co-main event of DX vs. Brothers of Destruction in 2018. After watching that painful match in Australia -- or just the Undertaker’s last two WrestleMania appearances -- why would anyone *really* want to see Kane and the Undertaker wrestle anymore? They were really good and really fun for 67 years, but it is time to turn the page. If you are going to bring Michaels out of retirement, great, but it should be to elevate somebody like Adam Cole or Aleister Black or Seth Rollins or Tommaso Ciampa or even Daniel Bryan.

***

Here are three other takeaways I had from this week’s episode of Monday Night Raw.

  1. According to my calculations, after tonight’s episode of Raw every single member of the Raw roster is now a heel. No, there is still Finn Balor, Seth Rollins, ugh, well, there have to be more, right? But the post-match beatdowns from Bobby Lashley on Kevin Owens and the Bella Twins on Ronda Rousey clicked. If there was ever a night to try turn heel, last night in front of this Chicago crowd was the night to do it. Lashley obviously wasn’t working as a babyface, and if you’re going to pair him with somebody like Lio Rush, who was jawing throughout an awkwardly long Lashley vs. Owens match, you had to turn him heel. Rush, through no fault of his own, has a voice that only works as a heel. The Bellas’ turn, however, was more interesting as Nikki has always seemed more naturally suited as a heel, while Brie will now have to navigate awkward waters with this character development as she is married to the biggest babyface in the company. (Granted, her botched kicks to Liv Morgan on a previous Raw made this heel transformation less awkward and far more realistic.)

  2. Trish Stratus and Alexa Bliss must be protected at all costs. When it first became clear this match was happening at WWE Evolution, it felt more thrown together, less thought out. For as great as Miss Bliss is, she has never felt like this generation’s Trish Stratus. There was always something naturally likable about Trish Stratus, while there is always something naturally hatable -- shoutout to Sasha Banks -- about Alexa Bliss. But maybe that’s why this feud has clicked, as Stratus has been turned out to be a better foil to Bliss than Rousey or even Nia Jax ever were. Now you throw Lita into the mix and this tag-team match -- Mickie James included -- has all the ingredients for an enjoyable match.

  3. So we’re doing this with Dean Ambrose, huh? Are we really doing this? At one point in the main event, the crowd was beside themselves calling for the Lunatic Fringe to get inserted into the match. Outside of Rollins, who was just as universally over, Ambrose was the biggest ticket item in Chicago Monday night. So why is the WWE teasing an Ambrose heel turn or at the very least a split from The Shield? Is it really a good idea to turn one of the few over babyfaces in the company that isn’t 58-years-old? We have seen the Wrestler Gets Fed Up With Losing And Turns movie countless times before, but with Ambrose it seems riskier. There is a difference between Alleged Babyface Bobby Roode turning on Chad Gable after losing to the Ascension every week on Raw for a decade-plus than Ambrose walking out on his brothers and going into the Me-First Business. Sure, it could work out as well as has for Becky Lynch on Smackdown Live -- the two do have a lot in common after all -- but the biggest reason Lynch is better off for her pseudo-turn is the person she walked out on has never clicked as a babyface -- Charlotte Flair -- while an Ambrose vs. Rollins feud, at this point in 2018, won’t have the same effect because people actually like the Burn It Down Guy. Now, if this leads to an Ambrose vs. Reigns feud for the Universal title, that is something that could work because Ambrose would thrive as the anti-hero in that scenario. Really, that’s where this story should go, with Ambrose going after the biggest prize in the company and setting his sights on the guy in the group that isn’t universally beloved by the WWE Universe. Unfortunately, we know this is leading to Ambrose vs. Rollins and that doesn’t do anybody any good.

Lifted from the Legal Pad:

  • Triple H just tossed his water bottle early on in his ramp-walking endeavor to kick off Monday Night Raw.

  • Speaking of Hunter, the man was dead-set on telling the longest mountain-climbing metaphor ever recorded. Mission accomplished.

  • “More of the same,” Corey Graves said, unironically on this episode of Raw.

  • Owens took flight again and got the crowd completely in his corner. His place on this show is an atrocity.

  • Week 93 of me complaining that Elias needs something else to do. ANYTHING.

  • That Liv vs. Brie opener to start the six-woman tag was super smart. It felt genuine and came across super well.

  • Michael Cole saying that Brie’s kick “sent Liv flying” was very strange and just a bold-face lie.

  • Is Natalya the worst best friend of all-time?

  • “You suck” chants for the Bellas after their beatdown of Rousey. This worked.

  • Hard to believe B ‘N B vs. Jinder Mahal and Alicia Fox happened on television, but it did.

  • Are we getting Babyface Drew McIntyre soon?

  • “You’re just not any good.” - Baron Corbin with the line of the night on Heath Slater.

  • I wonder if the WWE thought out this World Cup thing. (I kid, of course they haven’t.)

  • That Kurt Angle moment was delightful and Corbin makes the best faces.

  • Who even are Nia Jax and Ember Moon as a television characters?

  • Shield vs. Evil Guys definitely had a big-fight feel to start the match. This was fun.

  • Roman Reigns flying outside the ring may be the best thing he does.

Atlanta Falcons 17, Pittsburgh Steelers 41: Just How Good Is James Conner?

The Atlanta Falcons won the opening coin toss in Pittsburgh on Sunday and deferred. What followed was a pass completion to Jesse James from Ben Roethlisberger, a James Conner third-down conversion, a Conner big-time reception, a Conner big-time carry, a Conner five-yard scamper up the middle for six, another Conner touchdown in leaping fashion after his first score was overturned. If you didn’t watch a second of excruciating beatdown of the Falcons and just looked at the opening drive for the Steelers you’d know everything you really needed to know about this game: James Conner ended the Atlanta Falcons’ 2018 season today.

Sure, you could dive deeper and see that after the Falcons elected not to send Matt Bryant out for a 56-yard field goal attempt, instead opting to trust a defense that is now relying on the Jordan Richards and Duke Rileys of the world to not be atrocious *all* of the time, which resulted in the Steelers piecing together another drive that ended in six and started at the Steelers’ four-yard line. You knew the Falcons were going to regret not at least trying the field goal in that spot, or even just outright going for it on 4th-and-long because the Falcons no longer have the personnel to get the stops necessary against an above-average offense. It didn’t matter that the Steelers didn’t have LeVeon Bell here, Conner was at 17 carries for 104 yards early in the third quarter. With the kind of drive the Steelers had to open the game, the Falcons had to score points to keep themselves from falling into a inescapable hole early in the first quarter. Instead, the Steelers were up 13-0 faster than the time it takes Tevin Coleman to rush for two yards up the middle before falling to the ground.  

Once it was clear that the Steelers could always pitch it outside to Conner whenever they wanted for another back-breaking run, or utilize Conner in the check-down game, or just run a basic halfback dive up the middle for six yards a pop, you knew this was a recipe for the disaster for the Falcons. With a defense this depleted, their best chance at survival for the rest of this season is to play teams that have no interest or don’t have the bodies to control the clock and keep the Falcons’ wideout group off the field. The best way to ensure Mohammed “Mr. Yards After The Catch” Sanu doesn’t rack up the yards after a catch is to not allow Mr. Yards After The Catch to ever be on the field. Pittsburgh may not have a superstar in Bell at the moment, but what they do have is a do-it-all workhorse in Conner that is perfectly fine and capable of grinding teams to death in excruciatingly effective fashion. It didn’t matter that Big Ben overshot Antonio Brown on multiple passing downs early on this game, or that Pittsburgh committed all kinds of dumb penalties in this game because Mike Tomlin and the Steelers knew all they had to do was utilize their 6.7 YPC Assassin early-and-often and this Atlanta defense would crumble.

No Grady Jarrett? No chance at stopping James Conner and this Pittsburgh running attack.

***

Here are three other major takeaways I had after today’s loss to the Steelers.

  1. Maybe making Austin Hooper a priority in the passing game again isn’t the best thing? Look, I like Hooper, but maybe it was no coincidence that the Falcons’ offense only registered 17 points on the afternoon and Matt Ryan targeted Hooper -- checks notes -- 63 times in this game. Hooper is a quality safety net for Ryan when the offensive line plays as poorly as it did today. Ryan was under pressure early and often and was even gifted with a dirty shot from Jon Bostic at one point in this game. (On another occasion in the second quarter, Ryan was sacked on back-to-back plays and the Falcons had to settle for a 55-yard field goal from Ole Reliable Matt Bryant.) When Julio Jones doesn’t reel in his first reception until the fourth quarter after only registering four targets before then, that’s a problem. I’m not saying there is a direct correlation between a bad day for the Falcons’ offense and a good day for Hooper, but can we rule it out?

  2. Without Sanu, how much uglier would this game have gotten for the Falcons? One of the best things about Sanu whenever it becomes clear that Sark has called his number for a quick screen or short curl route is that you know the play isn’t ending where Sanu first catches the pass -- he’s getting more yards. The highlight of the day was Sanu’s 43-yard slant route that went for six, and it was really the last time you felt the Falcons had a chance of winning a shootout here, as it cut the lead to six and it looked like the Falcons’ superstar trio was just too much for the anemic Steelers’ secondary. (Important to note that Julio had not been targeted at this point in the game. Once he bobbled and almost gave away a Very 2017 Matt Ryan Bullsh*t Interception ball, all that optimism shifted back to panic.)

  3. Well, it was nice to have Devonta Freeman back for a few quarters of action. There were some moments where Freeman did his best James Conner Impersonation where he would bounce off one Pittsburgh defender and maybe up a couple more as he looked poise to have a big day. Just like the Steelers wanted to keep the ball out of Matt Ryan’s hands all day, the Falcons wanted to establish the run with Freeman early on in an admirable attempt to keep Richards and Riley and Foye Oluokon and Robert Alford and Vic Beasley Jr. and everybody else on that Atlanta defense that does not include Takk McKinnley, Damontae Kazee and Desmond Trufant off the field, too. It didn’t work out that way as the Falcons’ offensive line imploded, the team fell behind, Freeman exited the game and Coleman continued his impressive streak of 55-straight carries up the middle for a gain of exactly two yards.

Lifted from the Legal Pad:

  • Is Bostic the Pittsburgh version of Duke Riley? He was atrocious in this game.

  • Speaking of Riley, I don’t know which was worse his 38-yard pass interference penalty that set-up the Steelers’ second touchdown, or the brutal stiff arm he received later on.

  • That Damontae Kazee interception in the end zone was wild, wasn’t it? Still baffled Big Ben chucked that one up at the end of the second quarter.

  • Hooper had eight receptions in the first half and the Falcons had seven points.

  • It was nice of Matt Bosher to have another punt blocked today to add more credence to my “Never Punt” opinion with this team.

  • Danny Smith of the Steelers chews the biggest piece of gum I have ever seen in my life and it was favorite visual of the afternoon. Insane.

  • Poor Isaiah Oliver. Just after an impressive pass breakup when he was matched up with Brown on the outside, Brown would later beat him on a touchdown. Welcome to the NFL, rookie.

  • Ryan really didn’t start force-feeding it to Julio until the fourth quarter. Big Ben was pushing it to Brown early and often. The latter scored 41 points.

  • Seemed like Ryan overthrew a lot of dudes today. Not Jarrett Stidham-level awfulness, but it did seem like a lot.

  • 1-4 sucks, but facing the Giants and the Bucs next definitely does not suck.

NFL Week 5 Picks: Jalen Ramsey Must Be Protected At All Costs

On this week’s Dan Patrick Show, Dan and his Danettes had an interesting conversation about the “talk about” cliche sports reporters are known to send out into the world during post-game press conferences. From Mr. Patrick’s perspective, it’s a lazy crutch that deserves a lazy response. Not that you asked, but I agree with the sports broadcasting legend on this front: it is lazy. Sure, post-game pressers less interesting than the Michigan State offense most Saturdays, but if you’re a reporter and you have the opportunity to mine for some interesting material from a world-famous athlete, you should seize.

Unless you’re talking to Jalen Ramsey.

The Jacksonville Jaguars star cornerback is going to give you gold whether or not you ask him a bullshit question. Ramsey is going to give you something to print even if you ask him to talk about what he had for breakfast that morning. Some people are just wired this way, where every single time they speak you can’t help but turn your attention to what it is that they’re saying, even if it’s ninety-three percent trolling. If you asked Ramsey whether he liked his eggs scrambled or over easy, he would probably find a way to sneak in a shot on Patrick Mahomes as a scrambling quarterback and not a *real* quarterback who spends most of his time standing the pocket like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.

We already know how Ramsey feels about basically every quarterback in the National Football League, but until this week the public was not aware of how Ramsey felt about Kansas City Chiefs’ do-it-all guy Tyreek Hill. The former All-Pro corner referred to Hill as a “return specialist”, which had he stopped there would have been enough for me. Instead, the delightful Ramsey made it a point to refer to him as a “return specialist” on multiple occasions, and wanted to ensure that the media present knew that Sunday’s contest against the undefeated Chiefs was not a wide receiver versus cornerback match-up.

Obviously, this is not true. Obviously, Ramsey knows that Hill still very much qualifies as a wide receiver, that Hill dips his toes in the return game but that his role in the slot for Kansas City is where he makes his money. Obviously, this is the kind of statement that will piss Hill off heading into Sunday. It is just Ramsey being a dick, yes, but it is Ramsey being a delightful dick, which can’t be ignored. Ramsey clearly respects Hill and knows the Jags face their biggest test of the season with Mahomes, Kareem Hunt, Hill, Travis Kelce, and more on the docket.

This kind of trolling would only get old if Jalen Ramsey stopped being at good at football. Jalen Ramsey is 23-years-old, hasn’t even entered his prime yet, and plays on one of the most stacked defensive units in the NFL. If Ramsey started to falter, if AJ Bouyei became the clear no. 1 cornerback in Jacksonville, if the Jaguars imploded from within, then this sort of thing becomes a problem. However, it is October 6, 2018, and Jalen Ramsey is one of the best cornerbacks in football who is just having fun being Jalen Ramsey. It’s not just the fact that Ramsey is saying hyperbolic things to invoke the kind of reaction he craves, it’s that he knows none of this really matters. If Ramsey is dominant on Sundays and quarterbacks continue to not look his way, what he says on random Tuesday morning pressers will continue to be irrelevant.

So talk about whatever you’d like, Jalen Ramsey. I’ll be listening and laughing and appreciating you for being Jalen Ramsey, Guy Who Doesn’t Give A Shit.

Point is, talk about more things, Jalen Ramsey. We’re all better off for it.

***

Alright, let’s get into this week’s picks. (Holy shit, Week 5, already?! Time flies. It feels like just yesterday Ryan Fitzpatrick was strolling up to post-game pressers in Desean Jackson’s wardrobe. Simpler times.)

Broncos vs. Jets (+1)

Case Keenum may not actually be very good. It hurts me to write this, but I can’t shake the feeling that Denver is heading stormier times. The Broncos sit at 2-2 now, but traveling to New York -- Jersey, excuse me -- to face a desperate Jets team just after suffering a back-breaking loss against the Chiefs seems like a recipe for disaster. The Jets get back on track here and beat the Broncos at home.

Packers vs. Lions (+1.5)

Maybe Aaron Rodgers is fine? Maybe Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are all together fine after shutting out a disastrous Buffalo Bills team? This secondary is for real, headlined by rookies Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, and as pissed off as Aaron Rodgers may be about the state of the Green Bay offense, this is still a team trending in the right direction. Packers win and cover here.

Falcons vs. Steelers (-3)

You’re not going to believe this, but Jalen Richards may not have been a better option than Eric Reid for the Falcons next to Damontae Kazee. It’s funny, though, that the “Falcons really suck in the red zone” conversation feels like years ago now. Calvin Ridley is just a firecracker and the Atlanta offense is fine. Now, the defense lost Grady Jarrett, Duke Riley is not embarrassing himself in coverage, and Takk McKinley is Actually Good, but this secondary is a dumpster fire and the Pittsburgh Steelers have the best wideout group not including the Falcons. Damn it.

Ravens vs. Browns (+3)

Ravens are only favored by three points after beating the Steelers on the road in a huge game just a few days prior? Cleveland is back! (Well, they are not back, but they may be good? OK? Decent? I don’t know, but they are not the 2017 Cleveland Browns, that is for sure.) The Ravens are going to win this game and it is because Baker Mayfield is a rookie quarterback going up against the second-best secondary in the NFL with Jimmy Smith now back in the fold. Ravens win and cover.

Jaguars vs. Chiefs (-3)

Jacksonville is not favored in this game and when I first saw this line I was perplexed. If there was ever a team, outside of the Patriots, that should be expected to neutralize an Andy Reid Offensive Juggernaut, it is the Jaguars of Jacksonville. Mahomes should have surrendered his first turnover last week in Denver, are we sure he doesn’t surrender a pair to Ramsey and Bouye this week? Give me the Jags and the points here.

Dolphins vs. Bengals (-6)

Holy overreaction, Batman! The Fighting Adam Gases get trounced in New England and suddenly this team is giving six on the road to a Cincy team that just lost Tyler Eifert for the season. This smells fishy -- I will not apologize for that -- and I still believe this Miami team is playoff-bound. It’s important to remember this Cincinnati defense is not the defense of a few years ago, and the group of Devante Parker, Kenny Stills, Jakeem Grant, and Albert Wilson should be too much too handle for this Bengals’ secondary. Give me Dolphins and the points here.

Giants vs. Panthers (-6)

Are we sure the Panthers shouldn’t be favored by 23 here? The Giants may be the worst team in the NFL, or, at the very least, the most unwatchable when Saquon Barkley does not have the football. The Norv Turner Resurrection is for real, Christian McCaffrey is going to gash this defense and the Panthers are going to score too much to keep this close. Give me the Panthers and the points.

Titans vs. Bills (5.5)

What I am about to do here is not for the faint of heart: the Buffalo Bills are going to ruin somebody else’s Survivor Pool here. The Titans are not as good as their record and the Bills are every bit as Jekyll and Hide as advertised. Josh Allen just a few weeks ago shredded a once vaunted Minnesota defense, fell flat on his face in Green Bay, and will now shred a Currently Vaunted Tennessee Titans defense. Give me the Bills and the points.

Chargers vs. Raiders (+5.5)

This has all the makings of another inexcusable stink bomb for the Los Angeles Chargers. This franchise made their bones on losing games like this, and the Raiders needed “outside” help to beat the Browns last week to avoid an 0-4 hole, a black hole if you will. I am not selling my stock on the Chargers Are Going To Be Fine island, as the talent disparity between the two clubs should be the difference for the Chargers. Give me the Chargers, but the Raiders cover.

Cardinals vs. 49ers (-3.5)

The San Francisco 49ers are favored against the Arizona Cardinals without their starting quarterback, without their starting running back, without really any offensive weapons outside of their tight end, and Kyle Shanahan’s group is favored by 3.5 against the Cardinals. If this isn’t rock bottom for Arizona, I don’t know what is. Still, Josh Rosen posted the best rookie QB debut grade since PFF has been tracking players last week. The Niners win here but I like the Cardinals to cover and keep it close.

Vikings vs. Eagles (-3)

Who knows here? The Eagles choked away a win against the Tennessee Titans last week, and the Vikings are in desperation mode. This Philly offensive line isn’t the same as last year, but Carson Wentz should be able to out duel Kirk Cousins at home, right? The Vikings are 1-2-1, their secondary is getting lit up, and their offensive line is once again a mess. Point is, I’m really worried about my preseason Steelers vs. Vikings Super Bowl pick. Give me the Eagles and the points here.

Rams vs. Seahawks (+7.5)

Can I make this my Lock of the Week? The Seattle Seahawks are not winning a shootout with the Los Angeles Rams. Chris Carson is dinged up, Earl Thomas is out for the season, Brian Schottenheimer is their offensive coordinator, and really everything about this Seattle group stinks. It turns out Jared Goff may not be a system quarterback after all? (Author’s note: I’ve watched that bomb to Cooper Kupp in the back of the endzone at least fifteen times since Thursday Night Football. Going Goff, anyone?!

Cowboys vs. Texans (-3)

I will not be watching this game. The Cowboys defensive line should feast on the Texans’ offensive line, but they probably won’t. The Texans should score 35 on the Cowboys, but they probably won’t. The Cowboys should control the clock and win this game 17-13, but they probably won’t. These two teams are going to be frustrating to watch all year. Give me the Texans and the points.

Redskins vs. Saints (-6)

The Redskins are the best team that casual NFL fans all think suck. I have no data to back this assertion, but I think it’s true. The Redskins have Jim Tomsula coaching one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, Alex Smith just wins regular season games, and Washington is good not great from top to bottom. They’re not real Super Bowl contenders, but they’re also not the New York Giants. Drew Brees won’t have his best day here, and Josh Norman will likely get flustered in this game. Give me the Saints but the ‘Skins cover.

Falcons vs. Bengals: The Tyler Boyd Game

It feels like we’ve been talking about when Tyler Boyd was going to break out for thirteen years now. Without looking it up, I would guess the Bengals drafted him out of Pittsburgh around the same time Dion Lewis was on campus. I’d probably be wrong, no, I am sure of it, but I am also sure that Tyler Boyd has arrived and killed the Falcons in the process. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve loved Theoretical Tyler Boyd ever since he came into the NFL -- another Julian Edelman, Cole Beasley, etc. kind of wideout who just had a knack for crushing teams when their quarterback checks down and finds them just in the right spot for a back-breaking first down.

In Boyd’s case, this did not happen until the second half, when the Bengals lost their superstar tight end to injury once again in brutal fashion. (This is not me trying to tease you to go watch the video. Please do not watch the video. It is *that* bad.) The Bengals lost their unicorn wide-receiver-tight-end-or-whatever-he-is hybrid early in the third, so Boyd decided it was time for the guy who was two years away from being two years away to ensure the Falcons were 1-3 through four weeks of action.

Mission accomplished, asshole.

For the rest of the afternoon, the Bengals’ human safety valve reeled in one huge third-down catch after another to keep the Bengals’ offense on the field. Rarely, if ever, did you hear or see AJ Green’s name on the broadcast. (Yes, the former UGA star nabbed the game-winning touchdown, but outside of that, his impact didn’t feel as demoralizing as the sound of “Dalton finds Boyd for a thirteen-yard reception and another Cincy first down.) While Mohamed Sanu Sr. pulverized the Bengals’ secondary on big third downs, Boyd destroyed the Falcons’ secondary whenever Dalton was getting pressured and needed to find his reliable safety net. Granted, Dalton wasn’t running for his life on every down like Deshaun Watson is accustomed to in Houston -- this is where I mention Takk McKinley in the column because his impact was felt as the former UCLA star added a big-time sack on third down in the 3rd quarter, another sack that almost resulted in a fumble, and, for the most part, made Falcon fans forget about the other edge rusher on the team for the majority of the afternoon -- but when he was and after he lost Eifert, he made damn sure he was going to find Tyler effing Boyd.

This is the new normal for the Atlanta Falcons, though. If they don’t have the ball last, they’re probably going to lose. (Serious question: Did you notice the existence of Jalen Richards in this game? Damontae Kazee had the huge interception, Bryan Poole had the awful targeting play, Robert Alford had a stellar pass breakup in the endzone against Green, and Desmond Trufant looked tired, man, but did you ever see Richards? Outside of Duke Riley’s hit-stick moment late in third quarter, did you notice him? You didn’t notice a lot of guys because you noticed Tyler Boyd and Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert and AJ Green and everybody on that Cincinnati offense lighting Dan Quinn’s defense on fire. This will continue because it has to continue. The Falcons figured out how to score in the red zone again -- 10 for their last 10 at one point in this game -- but they also figured out just how screwed this team is on defense. Andy Dalton is a good quarterback. Andy Dalton is not *this* good of a quarterback. Hello, Nick Bosa!

Lifted from the Legal Pad:

  • That third quarter was wild. After a blazing first half with zero punts, the third had 93 penalties, a blocked punt, a Kazee interception and so much more.

  • Big Takk McKinley game. Beasley Jr. did have a nice strip sack, too. Progress?

  • Ryan hitting Paulsen for that touchdown in the first half was discombobulating.

  • Calvin Ridley really likes posing as close as possible to the on-field videographers on his touchdown-grabs. I’ll allow it.

  • No Joe Mixon, no Eifert, no pass-protection issues, no problem.

  • Another big Julio day.

  • Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith are perfectly fine as a one-two punch. Are we sure the team needs Devonta Freeman?

  • Was that Christian effing Hackenberg on the sidelines for the Bengals?

  • Bill Lazor or Steve Sarkisian for Biggest Surprise OC Work of the year?

  • Bengals were averaging 10.3 yards per play at one point this game. Eric Reid, Eric Schmeid, right? RIGHT?

  • Big what-if on that missed touchdown in the back of the endzone for Hooper. Ryan places that ball better and the game is over.

  • Boyd had two fourth-down conversions on that game-winning drive. Man.

WWE Monday Night Raw: The Crown Jewel Is Revealed

Roman Reigns is still the WWE Universal champion; Ronda Rousey is still the WWE Raw women’s champion; Drew McIntyre and Dolph Ziggler are still the Raw Tag Team champions; Braun Strowman is still a loser; Baron Corbin is still the best general manager on Raw in years; Brock Lesnar is still the crown jewel of the WWE.

So not much has changed on the red brand following Hell In A Cell on Sunday night. Perhaps that’s why this week’s episode of Raw felt like a rerun. One member of the Shield faced one member of the Evil Heels; Elias found himself sparring with Bobby Lashley again; Ronda Rousey was in the building but didn’t have an actual match; Dana Brooke lost a singles match; the show even kicked off with Michael Cole awkwardly welcoming us all to the show followed by the sound of Roman Reigns’ entrance music.

There was Lio Rush, though, which was very different. On a show that dragged, featured a Chad Gable vs. Viktor match, and just didn’t have a lot to offer outside of playing the classic hits, Rush stood out. He was given time, he was comfortable on the mic, he had the best interaction on the show with Elias, and may actually be the best thing that has happened to Lashley since returning to the WWE. The company has something with Rush, but they also have to be careful. As fun as it was to see the 23-year-old phenom navigate traffic in the form of Kevin Owens and Elias, Rush is too talented in the ring and on the mic to fall into the comedy-act zone. As should be the case for all young, talented wrestlers coming up from NXT or 205 Live, there has to be effective quality control to protect these guys long-term.

Outside of the Rush revelation, it was clear what this show was about: promote some more WWE Network specials. Less than 24 hours prior, the WWE put on a co-branded special, but within the first thirty minutes of last night’s episode, the company was already pushing both the Crown Jewel special in Saudi Arabia, headlined by Roman Reigns (c) vs. Braun Strowman vs. Brock Lesnar for the Universal title, along with the Superstar Show-Down special, headlined by Triple H vs. The Undertaker, as the WWE content machine keeps on churning. Lesnar returned in the main event of the previous night’s show, spoiling Strowman’s cash-in, and it just didn’t feel like a big deal because of all the different things going on. (It didn’t help Lesnar didn’t make an appearance, as a Strowman and Lesnar brawl to open this show would have made a lot of sense and served both men well. Paul Heyman is great, sure, but Strowman just ending the opening promo by angrily walking after Heyman with no follow-up was an abject failure.)

***

Here are three other takeaways I had from this week’s episode.

  1. Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler were able to get the fans into another Seth Rollins vs. Dolph Ziggler match in 2018. This was no easy feat, but in ten minutes or so, the two superb wrestlers were able to galvanize a crowd that had fallen asleep after being treated with a Bayley vs. Dana Brooke match and an Authors of Pain squash. Fans really did get out of their chairs for a match that has happened at least 63 times since June 1. At least. To be clear, this is neither of the two’s fault, but the finish was solid, outside of Michael Cole yelling “Stomp!”, and now we can finally, please, for the love of God, move on from Ziggler vs. Rollins singles matches. Actually, what if they were to do a 90-minute Iron Man match at Survivor Series? Just picture it. I’m so sorry.

  2. Why do I care about The Undertaker vs. Triple H in 2018 in a non-WrestleMania capacity? The Undertaker was fine here, his shots at Corporate Hunter were fine, but this felt like watching Undertaker dance with John Cena at WrestleMania 34 for eight minutes. This entire feud, from Taker to Shawn Michaels to Triple H all feels like the creative team stumbled onto some member berries and decided to build a special around it. (Member The Undertaker?) Kind of like Jerry Seinfeld’s “I’m Telling You For The Last Time” special in the late ‘90s, we know this is not the last time fans are going to see Triple H and the Undertaker nothing is permanent and the marketing doesn’t matter. “Last time ever!” Sure.

  3. Well, Ronda Rousey almost competed in a match on Monday Night Raw. Sure, Rousey’s character not understanding the complexities involved in an open-challenge match wasn’t great, but this was still a step in the right direction. Fans want to see Rousey more often. They want to see her sling people over her shoulder and try and snap people’s arms. It’s never not entertaining, and if Rousey is going to be at every episode of Raw, you have to use her more. We may not have gotten to see a full Ruby Riott versus Rousey match, but the spear from the former alone showed this is definitely that should happen sooner rather than later. (Sidebar: It was nice of the Riott Squad to progress from graffiti and paper-tossing to attacking a member of the roster this week.)

Lifted from the Legal Pad:

  • “Went through hell, excuse the pun,” - Michael Cole, Embarrassing Dad.

  • Dean Ambrose going after McIntyre’s leg all match was a nice touch.

  • “How do open challenges work?” - Ronda Rousey.

  • Chad Gable entrance-bombing Bobby Roode is Actually Good.

  • The Ascension’s Viktor was rocking some very baggy tights this week. Somebody get this man a tailor!

  • Not a good start for Dana Brooke’s Post-Titus Worldwide run.

  • “He owns 26 Toyota Camrys.” - Corey Graves on Titus O’Neil.

  • “This is still Monday Night Rollins.” - Seth Rollins, confused quasi-main eventer.

  • Why hasn’t Drake Maverick cut a promo for AOP yet?

  • “I don’t know why you booked yourself in a Universal title match tonight?” asked Braun Strowman.

  • “Whose kid is this?” - Elias.

  • Somebody please save Kevin Owens.

WWE Hell In A Cell Stock Report: The Cash-In Is Near

Has it already been two weeks since the last WWE Network special? No, it’s been a smidge longer than two weeks since the last weekend professional wrestling fans had to spend ten-plus hours consuming the WWE product. Fear not, humans who would rather spend their Sunday evenings not trying to juggle watching Sunday Night Football on NBC and the latest WWE Network special as the next standard special is Survivor Series, which isn’t happening until November 18. Rejoice!

Still, there is a special happening on Sunday evening, one of the three specials the network is putting out over a month-ish span. (The other specials being Evolution and Superstar Show-Down, of course. Serious question: Has there been a special with as cringe-worthy of a name as “Superstar Show-Down” in the WWE? Oh, right, Fastlane. What I’m saying is let’s bring back No Mercy and Unforgiven. Please?) The card is light on the number of matches, but it is heavy on the number of blood-feud matches. Very Much A Heel Braun Strowman challenges Roman Reigns for the WWE Universal championship; Very Much A I Don’t Really Know Becky Lynch challenges Charlotte Flair for the WWE Smackdown Women’s championship; Best Heel Samoa Joe challenges AJ Styles for the WWE championship; Brie Bella also tries to wrestle again. Outside of Strowman vs. Reigns and Ronda Rousey (c) vs. Alexa Bliss, the build-up to the vast majority of these matches have clicked. Mission accomplished?

Now, let’s get into some stock reports ahead of tomorrow night’s show.

***

Trending Up or Down: Braun Strowman

So this is it for Strowman, right? Or, at the very least, the beginning of the end for Strowman as a character who the company could still theoretically build around. It’s not that I don’t like Strowman, per se, but I have never bought into the “Braun Strowman could definitely be The Guy” argument that fans and analysts have been making for the last year or so. He lost his last blood feud with Reigns a summer ago, he lost a title match to Brock Lesnar that ended after the former delivered just one F-5 to Mr. Get These Hands, and spent this past summer in Character Rehabilitation camp, running roughshod through the main-event scene on Monday Night Raw -- Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Finn Balor, etc. -- only for the company to throw it all away by saddling him with the dredded “you people” rhetoric and an uninspiring heel turn. All signs point to a loss to the Big Dog here and a boxing match against Conor McGregor at WrestleMania 35.

Final Verdict: Down.

Trending Up or Down: Becky Lynch

If you’ve been reading the wrestling news this week, you may have seen that there is talk of a double-turn taking place in the Lynch vs. Charlotte Flair Smackdown Women’s championship match at Hell In A Cell -- this would be a very good idea. There will always be something naturally appealing about Lynch, so long as she’s not doing the “Becky Balboa” thing, and there will be always be something naturally about Flair. The latter, as my friend Maxwell Baumbach pointed out on this week’s episode of RBR Wrestling, there is a Triple H-ness to Flair, which maybe shouldn’t come as a surprise considering who her father associated with. Yes, she is a very talented wrestler, but she also feels like an inevitable champion, someone who the fans know will always be in the title picture and who will always be in the company’s good graces -- is that not who Triple H was to a tee? That’s what makes this blood feud over the championship work between these two -- fans know Lynch is just as talented if not more so than Flair, yet has never and may never get her opportunity to carry the brand for reasons out of her control. The underutilized will always have the support of the fans, while the overexposed will never have the support of the fans.

Final Verdict: Up.

Trending Up or Down: Samoa Joe

The Samoan Submission Machine really, really wants to put WWE champion AJ Styles to sleep on Sunday night. Since the non-finish in their WWE championship match at SummerSlam, Joe has unearthed a new passion project: Homewrecking. Joe may never get his own reality show on HGTV, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t shown over the past month that you just can’t look away when the man is doing what he loves, which, remember, is homewrecking. At this point in his feud with Styles, it’s less about the championship and more about ruining the champ’s life. But, he needs to win. Since moving to Smackdown Live, Joe has done more talking than winning. He lost to Reigns in a snoozefest of a main event to close out Backlash, and if he comes up short against Styles again here, he’ll be right where Shinsuke Nakamura was just a year ago -- all the promise and intrigue in the world, but just another guy who lost when it mattered. Did I mention Joe really needs to be Styles? Because he does and I can’t stress that enough. (See: Ciampa, NXT Champion.)

Trending Up or Down: Ronda Rousey

Does it feel like the WWE Raw Women’s Champion is a big part of Monday Night Raw? It doesn’t, right? Sure, she’s around, but does her rematch with Bliss feel like a big deal? It doesn’t, right? This is a problem, as Rousey is too good and too entertaining to head into WWE Network specials with this little momentum. Part of it, of course, is that nobody believes she is dropping the championship to Bliss here, but that’s not everything at play here. Right now, Raw is built around The Shield vs. Generic Heel Faction, which is fine, but the company could easily find ways to build it more around Rousey. If the Baddest Woman On The Planet is not working the Brock Lesnar schedule, why would you not go above-and-beyond in utilizing one of the three actual “superstars” on the roster? (The other two being John Cena and Lesnar. The rest are professional wrestlers, an important distinction.) People really enjoy watching Rousey toss other wrestlers around like ragdolls. Do that more. Let Rousey interact with other members of the Raw roster on-screen besides Natalya. Let Rousey devour Bliss on Sunday, and, for all that is holy, inject her into a compelling program ahead of Evolution.

Final Verdict: Even


Chase Thomas is a sportswriter based out of Atlanta and the host of “The Chase Thomas Podcast”. You can email him at chasethomas0418[at]gmail.com.

WWE Raw: Two #Heels and a Monster

Braun Strowman is mad; Braun Strowman is annoyed; Braun Strowman wants revenge; Braun Strowman wants the WWE Universal title. In the Monster Among Men’s mind, that means finding capable reinforcements to combat the newly reformed Shield with. After his Money in the Bank cash-in moment was thwarted on Monday Night Raw just a few weeks prior by Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins, Strowman turned heel. To explain his head-scratching decision to join forces with McIntyre and Ziggler, Strowman went with the played-out “You People” promo that is as lazy as it is boring. In Strowman’s mind, he had no choice but to enlist the two goons, or goofs if you recall how they fared in that No. 1 contender battle royal for the Raw Tag Team titles a few months back, to quiet the hounds until he, again, claims what’s rightfully his -- the Universal title.

In this opening promo, fans cheered at certain moments during Strowman’s monologue and booed at others. In a way, you could make the case that the story they’re trying to tell with Strowman is similar to the story they’re trying to tell with Becky Lynch on Smackdown Live. The general manager on Smackdown Live didn’t like the champion at the time, Carmella, just like the general manager on Raw didn’t like the champion at the time, Brock Lesnar, and welcomed a change. Lynch went on an unexpected winning streak, she was universally adored by the WWE Universe, and it seemed for much of the summer that the wind was blowing in the direction of a Lynch title run and an opportunity to prove she can be The Girl. Strowman, too, mauled his way through Finn Balor, Kevin Owens, Jinder Mahal and more over the summer and, like Lynch, had the support of the WWE Universe and with a victory at the Money in the Bank WWE Network special, looked primed for a Universal title run and an opportunity to prove he can be The Guy. Of course, Charlotte Flair and the Shield got in the way, so neither got what they wanted and reacted accordingly.

The problem?

Lynch didn’t follow-up her “turn” at SummerSlam by saddling up with whatever is left of Absolution on Smackdown Live. Sure, she did have her “you people” promo because we can’t have nice things, but the feud is still strictly between Lynch and Flair. Had Strowman hadn’t aligned himself with anyone and focused strictly on beating up the supposed-babyface champion Roman Reigns, this could story could still mirror the one on Smackdown Live. When Strowman talks about beating up the Big Dog, eschews his tired catchphrases, or says anything other than lazy heel-speak, the crowd still cheers. Now, the crowd doesn’t what to do because they still care about Strowman but couldn’t care less about McIntyre and Ziggler.

The Shield vs. Strowman alone is compelling, especially when you consider how Strowman has been booked over the summer, that the only way to defeat this gigantic figure is to play the numbers game, which the trio did a few weeks ago on Raw. Strowman is right in his assertion that the reason Reigns is still champion because of outside interference, but Strowman also cashed in his contract prior to enlisting the help of Ziggler and McIntyre, which would have, checks notes, evened the odds if Strowman were to try and cash-in on Reigns after, say, a tag-team match in the main event on an episode of Raw. Instead of Strowman vs. the Shield, we’re getting Three Heels vs. The Shield, which doesn’t work.

It’s not even McIntyre or Ziggler’s fault, as we know both can bring it on the mic and bring it in the ring -- fans just don’t care. Pairing Strowman with them hasn’t elevated Ziggler and McIntyre, it has dragged Strowman down with Ziggler and McIntyre. This episode was strictly about making fans give a shit about McIntyre and Ziggler and doing their best to have you believe there is any chance in -- I’m very sorry about this -- hell that Strowman is beating Reigns at the upcoming WWE Network special. Neither happened. Sure, the trio looked good in the opening promo, the trio emasculating Acting GM Baron Corbin was fine, and their attack on the Revival clicked -- but then they had a competitive, long match with the B-Team. If you want to build this fall’s program on Raw around the Shield and Three Heels, that’s fine, but you can’t also have the Not Ambrose Or Rollins guys have 15-minute matches with two Matt Saracen’s on Raw. If McIntyre and Ziggler had been running roughshod over the Raw tag-team division similar to the way Strowman was running roughshod over the Raw main-event scene for the last few months, this would be a hot feud. Instead, it’s as cold as Alexa Bliss’s words for her hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

***

Here are three other major takeaways I had for this week’s episode of Monday Night Raw.

  1. What is there to say about the Bella Twins return? Obviously, Brie Bella was, well, a tad rusty in the in-ring department. Although, the less athletic Bella always seemed to wrestle like Blake Bortles plays like quarterback -- you just have to hold your breath, cover your eyes, and hope for the best. Thankfully, Nikki Bella was also in this match with the Riott Squad, who hasn’t missed a beat. Nikki picked up the win for the Bella Twins via a Rack Attack 2.0. Later in the night, the Bella Twins were seen backstage offering their services to the still underutilized WWE Raw Women’s champion Ronda Rousey in what came across as very disingenuous and heelish. The highlight of the Bella Twins’ return, though, was in-ring announcer JoJo’s 1,500-word opus on the Bellas before their match with the Riott Squad. Yes, the latter was given the “already in the ring” treatment, but it was for a good cause -- a very long ad read for the Bella Twins.

  2. Is this the best they could come up with for Kevin Owens? On one hand, it’s nice that the WWE has finally figured out what most fans have known for a long time -- Jinder Mahal should always be a comedy jobber and Bobby Lashley is low-key funny. On the other hand, inserting Kevin Owens into this experiment is not a good thing. Last week, we saw Toronto lose their shit for Owens in a fantastic Intercontinental title match with Seth Rollins, only for the former to lose, even after delivering a beautiful stunner, no less, and then just quit. I’ve already written extensively on why it made sense for his character to be this frustrated and to just say “fuck it” and walk away. It doesn’t make sense for Owens to return a week later, attack Lashley and Mahal and that be the end of that. It wasn’t treated as a big deal, and it certainly looks as though Owens is now being used as the latest heel to try and get fans to muster up some feels for Bobby Lashley. The Kevin Owens “I Quit” storyline wasn’t about Kevin Owens at all, it was about Bobby Lashley. Shame.

  3. What even is this Shawn Michaels and Undertaker and Triple H stuff? What year are we in? Why is this happening again? Why are they teasing one more match for the Heartbreak Kid? Sure, this promo between Michaels and Taker was far better than it had any business being, but didn’t we already do this? Didn’t Michaels already stick up for his friend in front of the Deadman? Wasn’t there an end of an era a few years back? Didn’t these three WWE legends dominate WrestleMania storylines for almost half a decade? The WWE trying to juggle the promotion of both the Hell In A Cell special and the Super Show-Down simultaneously was always going to end this way, but they were always going to make a lot of money either way. It’s like the old adage goes, “content over quality.”

Lifted from the Legal Pad:

  • “Pretty Humorous,” from Michael Cole is a new cringe-worthy line from Raw’s play-by-play announcer.

  • “Just look at us” - Drew McIntyre. If only it were that simple, Drew.

  • Liv Morgan doing the “You Can’t See Me” gesture at Nikki was a nice touch. She’s not technically sound, but she’s got something.

  • My final verdict on the Brie Bella Suicide Dive Conundrum: Sarah Logan was late on the first one, but it was all Brie the second time.

  • “Have you seen the night I’ve been having?” - Baron Corbin, Good GM.

  • Why was Finn Balor smiling at Corbin backstage? He should have been pissed at what transpired last week.

  • Are we sure Jason Jordan is ever getting cleared?

  • Release Bobby Roode.

  • Giving promo time before matches is a good thing. The Ascension was better off for it.

  • “Hi, Zombies.” - Alexa Bliss.

  • Would a Bliss and Elias romance angle be the worst thing? Asking for a friend.

  • Rousey should be throwing someone around every single week.

  • Drake Maverick in Authors of Pain gear is wild and I think I’m here for it. Does this make Maverick the Eric Young of AOP?

  • They’re trying to get the “my man” line over for Lashley. Not great, Bob.

  • Dana Brooke and Ember Moon took on Sasha Banks and Bayley.

Nobody Asked Mailbag: Teddy Bridgewater Finally Got Traded

Teddy Bridgewater is once again on the move, and I couldn’t be happier. My adoration for the former Louisville star goes back years now, and I have the receipts to prove it, and it almost feels like we’re still not talking enough about how insane it is that this guy is playing football again after the kind of injury he suffered prior to the 2016 NFL season. He literally tore everything in his knee, and as his doctor, Dan Cooper, pointed out in an ESPN piece, “You’ve torn every single thing in your knee and it’s hanging on by one ligament like a hinge.” In conclusion: shit was bad.

Teddy Bridgewater should probably not be playing football right now. It’s insane that Teddy Bridgewater is playing football right now. It’s even more insane that Teddy Bridgewater is playing football at an above-average level and a team, in 2018, gave up a third-round pick to maybe or possibly or definitely bring him in as their quarterback of the future. The New Orleans Saints’ brass of Sean Payton, Jeff Ireland and Mickey Loomis surrendered a valuable future pick to hitch their wagon to Teddy Bridgewater in 2018. Sometimes, things are good.

So what do I make of the Jets trading Bridgewater and throwing the No. 3 overall pick and youngest starting quarterback to start an NFL game since 1970 into the fire right away? Outside of it being a very bold strategy, Cotton, it felt weirdly inevitable. Since the Jets’ front office brought back Josh McCown, signed Teddy Bridgewater and drafted Sam Darnold this felt like their plan. Play a lot of Bridgewater in the preseason, pray to the Football Gods he looks good and can fetch a good pick, and go into Week 1 with the rookie under-center and the 37-year veteran in his ear. If Darnold turns out to be a franchise quarterback, this was a homerun offseason for the Jets, if not, well, the Jets are still the Jets, I suppose.

But it should be noted they did Bridgewater a solid here. Sure, they didn’t trade him to a team like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he would probably start right away, but they did trade him to a team with a top-5 head coach, a future Hall-Of-Famer in Drew Brees to sit and learn from, and an offensive situation where, if all goes well, he could be lighting up the Superdome with Michael Thomas, Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara and probably Ben Watson because if this guy hasn’t retired yet, are we really sure he’s ever actually going to? I wouldn’t rule out Payton convincing him to play for another 13 years.

As clairvoyant as I like to think I am at times, I don’t know how it is going to work out for Bridgewater in New Orleans. Maybe Brees plays another couple of seasons and Teddy is moved again. Maybe Father Time strikes this season for Brees and we see Bridgewater in action in Week 7 to save the Saints’ season. I don’t know how this is going to unfold, but I do know it’s still one of the best sports stories of the year and, man, we really need stuff like this these days.

***

Now, let’s get into this week’s Nobody Asked Mailbag where, as always, nobody emailed me these questions, I just wrote them myself. If you’d like to email me, though, you can at chasethomaspodcast@gmail.com. Talk soon.

Mailbag Question No. 1: “What do you make of the Suns and Rockets trade?”

CT: Initially, it felt like a steal for the Rockets. For months and months, the conversation surrounding Ryan Anderson and his contract was that it was immovable. Well, nobody factored in taking on Marquese Chriss into the equation. I could say I watched a lot of Phoenix Suns games over the past two seasons, but that would be a lie. ( As the president of the Josh Jackson Could Be A Two-Way Star Fan Club, I did keep up with the former Kansas star down the stretch last season for the hopeless Suns.) Still, could Chriss be that bad that GM Ryan McDonough was willing to take on Anderson’s contract just to have a competent, score-first power forward to play next to DeAndre Ayton for a season or two while the team scores 114 every night but surrenders 162? (Seriously, this team doesn’t have a point guard right now, and, outside of Jackson, it looks as though Anderson, Ayton, and Devin Booker will all play major minutes for the Suns this season. NBA League Pass Must-Watch team? Fuck yeah. A team that has any chance to be better than 29th in defensive efficiency this season? Absolutely not. Strap in, Phoenix fans!)

After losing Trevor Ariza, to the Suns no less, and Luc Richard Mbah Moute in the same offseason, GM Daryl Morey has elected to go back to his throw darts at the dartboard strategy. He has taken a flier on Carmelo Anthony, he signed Michael Carter-Williams in 2018, he signed Bruno Caboclo, and now he has brought in Brandon Knight and Chriss as his latest Who Fucking Knows guys. Chriss and Knight probably won’t work out, but Houston moved Anderson’s contract and that is enough for me to give Houston the nod here as the winners of the deal.

Mailbag Question No. 2: Any thoughts on David West retiring?

CT: Ring-chasing works, folks.

Mailbag Question No. 3: The Yankees acquired Andrew McCutchen -- does this matter?

CT: Hmmm. Do we know if Aaron Judge is going to be 100 percent again this season? If not, then it’s certainly possible he moves the needle a tad. As an insane sports person, my first reaction when I saw this trade was official was, “How will this effect Aaron Hicks’ role on the team?” and I’m not proud of it. Hicks has been huge for the Yankees this season, though, posting a 4.1 WAR and a WRC+ just a few points down from Giancarlo Stanton. My biggest questions is this: can McCutchen play first? Can Brandon Belt transfer to the Yankees for the rest of the season? McCutchen has played in 128 games this season, so, at the very least, the Yankees are getting another guy who has been able to stay healthy this season.

Last point: The Yankees are locked into the AL Wild Card game, right? Is it the best idea to bring on a guy who has lost his last two wild-card games? Who’s to say?

Mailbag Question No. 4: Jeff Janis got cut by the Browns. Pour one out?

CT: Absofuckinglutely. I still remember exactly where I was when Jeff Janis was on the receiving end of two insane Aaron Rodgers Is About To Do This Shit Himself moments in Arizona. I was in my parents’ living room, watching the game with my mom, and remember feeling as though Rodgers could pull off a 4th-and-20 situation late in the fourth quarter from the back of his own end zone. He scrambled, rolled out to the left side, and found Janis near the fifty-yard line to save the Packers’ season. Then, Rodgers found Janis again, this time, in the end zone to send the NFC Playoff game into overtime where the Packers would ultimately win. Jordy Nelson 2.0 Jeff Janis was not. He’ll always have Glendale, though.

Throwback Thursday: 1999 Lakers vs. Rockets Recap

Was this the night where the Kobe and Shaq era really took flight? If you watched game 1 of the 1998-99 NBA season between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets, you might think so. Coming into this game, the Lakers were without Robert Horry, his wife was giving birth, and Rick Fox, who was dealing with bone spurs in his foot, so Kobe Bryant got the start at the small-forward spot next to Eddie Jones with Corie Blount next to Shaquille O’Neal at the power-forward spot. The star power in this game was kind of insane with Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Kobe, Shaq and the rookie sensation Michael Dickerson! Look, if you were watching this game live at the time, listened to the way Hubie Brown and Not Kevin Harlan talk about the first-round pick out of Arizona you would have thought the Rockets had a Big 4 plus Matt Maloney. If you were wondering how Dickerson’s career played out, hop on over to his Basketball-Reference page. (Spoiler alert: He did not become Scottie Pippen 2.0.) Still, this game was highlighted by the surprise Kobe start and how Shaq dropped 31 and it felt like he could have easily dropped 50 if necessary.

One of my favorite moments watching this game was a nugget from Hubie on something Kobe did during the game: “Kobe was yelling for the extra pass Harper just gave him a look.” The sequence that Hubie is referring to is a play where, yes, Kobe was open, but Harper was open in his sweet spot again -- top of the key, behind the three-point line -- and had the audacity to not swing it to the kid making his first start. Kobe was Kobe from the start. It should be noted that Harper was on fire here, posting an offensive rating of 194 per 100 possessions. In a game where three-pointers were few and far between, Derek F’ing Harper was locked in from deep. Still, Kobe wasn’t wrong to be annoyed not to be getting the ball as much as possible in this game as he and Shaq were doing everything to keep Barkley and the Rockets from offensive-rebounding them into submission. Kobe’s usage rating was 27.9 with Shaq’s at 33.4 and the next closest was backup center Elden Campbell at 20.1. Eddie Jones, prior to rolling his ankle in brutal fashion, was a non-factor and it seemed like even he recognized in Game 1 that it was Kobe Time in Los Angeles. It started early, too, as Kobe drained fadeaway long two from the left side and would you like to guess who the announcers immediately compared it to? Prime Eddie Jones? No, they compared him to Michael Jordan. Hubie even knew right away. Kobe posted a double-double, but, you’re not going to believe this, but it was a points-and-rebounds version along with several very mean blocks on Pippen. There were several possessions where Kobe dribbled the ball up, looked around a little bit, realized he was a better scorer than everyone around him not named Shaquille O’Neal and threw up a long two. At one point in this game the Lakers’ starting backcourt was 0-for-10 from the floor -- Derek Fisher and Eddie Jones -- and I think I’ve decided it’s their fault for not destroying Maloney and Dickerson in this game that pushed Kobe to take the same amount of shots as Prime Shaq in a game where the latter posted a quiet 31/14/6 line.

The Kobe and Shaq combination worked. We know what happened after this season, after the coach from Space Jam moved on, after Corie Blount wasn’t starting any more games for the Lakers, after the geometrically-friendly offense was instituted, after Derek Fisher stopped wearing high socks, the Lakers won back-to-back-to-back championships and it was because of Kobe and Shaq. But if you watched this game, and Hakeem doesn’t go scoreless for almost an entire half of basketball, and Pippen doesn’t go 1-for-1000 from the field, and the Rockets win, the story, in a negative sense, is that Kobe took the same amount of shots as the guy went 13-for-21 from the field, drew consistent double-teams, and was doing whatever he wanted inside all night long. Kobe, for his part, went 8-21, which seems like a ration for the rest of his career, but you had to watch all 48 minutes to see why it wasn’t so bad. There was some Your Turn My Turn action, sure, but Kobe had it going for stretches, he needed to get a lot of shots off because he was only getting major minutes because of Fox’s injury, and because he was filling up the stat sheet in other ways like swiping the ball away from Pippen and Friends on multiple occasions, along with getting a block and finding the right time to cut on the weak side when all the attention was on Shaq or, checks notes, Sean Rooks, inside.

This was also not Eddie Jones best game of his career. He couldn’t hit a shot from deep and eight minutes would go by without hearing the announcers call his name. He was on the floor, he played 42 minutes, but you might have missed it if you weren’t paying close attention. I was seven-years-old when this game took place, and I was too young to really have a good feel for who Eddie Jones was as a basketball player, but from this game alone, he was Joe Johnson before Joe Johnson. You could tell he could shoot, you could tell he was at least a b-plus player offensively, but he just didn’t seem to have the fire to be like a Kobe or any other all-time great 2-guard. He blended in far too often, but if he’s your No. 3 or No. 4 guy, that’s OK. The same has been true for Johnson throughout his career. He was overmatched as the No. 1 option in Atlanta, but when the pressure wasn’t on him to be The Guy in Phoenix he thrived. I imagine Laker fans during this time were as annoyed with Jones as Hawks fans were with Johnson or Celtics fans were with Jeff Green. There are so many of these kinds of players, it’s kind of crazy.

 

Did you know Scottie Pippen was no fan of Matt Maloney or Bryce Drew -- yes, that Bryce Drew -- bringing the ball up for Rudy T’s team? If you watched this game you knew. It was fun to watch Pippen working as a point forward, although, in Year 11, and his first game with Houston, he looked less like Bulls Pippen and a lot more like Orlando Magic Hedo Turkoglu. He was still posting up a ton, but his vision was incredible in this game, and he had a feel for how to beat the Lakers and it wasn’t with their backcourt. It was with finding the rookie on some cuts, it was with Hakeem early-and-often, and it was with Barkley late when it was clear the man was on a mission to steal one in Los Angeles. It didn’t work, the Rockets lost by 8, but Pippen still contributed even though he couldn’t shoot for shit all night. He got blocked by Kobe in this game, had him his pick his pocket on multiple occasions, and didn’t let any of that stop him from slinging some dimes to Othella Harrington when necessary.

But the Rockets should have won this game. The Lakers, without Horry, couldn’t handle the combination of Barkley and Hakeem inside, just look at the offensive-rebounding disparity, but they went away from Hakeem for way too much time and tried way too hard to get Dickerson involved in everything they were doing. Still, it was interesting to watch Year 14 Barkley body guys inside similar to the way Julius Randle does it in today’s NBA. He could have had 30 and 10 and it still wouldn’t have been enough because Pippen was insanely off and Hakeem stopped getting the ball after the first quarter where he swished a mid-range jumper from just about every spot around the key. The other team had Kobe and Shaq. You'll get used to it.

WWE Smackdown Live: Tag-Team Wrestling Lives Here

Smackdown Live play-by-play commentator Tom Phillips may not have done the best job explaining what should be the simplistic intricacies of Smackdown Live general manager Paige’s No. 1 contenders tournament for the WWE Smackdown Live Tag Team Championships early on in this week’s episode of the show, but that’s not what was important here. No, what was important was Smackdown Live showcasing the depth in their tag-team division and the ability to utilize the depth in their tag-team division.

To kick things off this week on the blue brand, we were treated with a New Day championship celebration to start things off on a high note. Then, a man very familiar with winning a championship five times, Booker T, returned as King Booker to make the moment even more special. This opening segment had it all, it gave each member of the New Day the opportunity to showcase what makes them unique and genuinely likeable, it threw the hardcore wrestling fans who love the King Booker character a bone, it even had the perfect callback to Big E’s “Three ain’t enough, man, I need five more” character. Yes, Big E is at the point in his career where he shines the most in this trio, and yes, he should be doing more than still headlining the tag-team division. Still, this kind of stuff is still OK, too.

For now.

The New Day are the WWE Smackdown Live Tag Team Champions; the B-Team are the WWE Raw Tag Team Champions. At the moment, the two comedy-focused champions’ biggest rivals are tag-teams who are Very Serious Teams that are on a mission to make things less fun. The difference, of course, is the balance that the New Day has a team versus the B-Team. There is nothing wrong with a comedic identity in professional wrestling, but it’s tricky. If you’re too goofy, things can go south for you fast -- shoutout to No Way Jose, wherever he is. Well, we know where he’s not -- on Monday Night Raw. The B-Team are too goofy, but if they could work like the New Day once it came time to be serious in the ring, it wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, the B-Team can’t do what The New Day and the Bar did on Smackdown Live a few weeks ago. The New Day has found the perfect, rare balance between comedy and in-ring excellence. While the B-Team versus the Revival feels stale, the possibility of another Bar vs. New Day feud over the titles feels nothing of the sort.

It’s not just the New Day and the Bar on Smackdown Live that proves their dominance over the Raw tag-team division. No, it’s the fact that right after that opening segment, the creative team put on a triple threat tag-team match that included the return of the Colons -- with no entrance or anything -- and the match clicked. There was a spinning uppercut from Cesaro, there was some domination from Luke Gallows, there was even a double-backstabber spot that earned a pop from the crowd. This match got time, the right team won, and fans are somehow hyped for another New Day vs. The Bar feud.

***

Here are two other takeaways from this week’s episode of Smackdown Live.

  1. The Jeff Hardy and Randy Orton promo was fascinating. I don’t know the number, but I think if you added up the years that Hardy and Orton have been wrestling the number is high. They both feel like they’ve been around forever, they both feel like they should be part-timers at this point, guys who are there strictly to put the young guys over. Instead, they’re feuding with each other, and it feels genuine. Hardy’s confusion for Orton’s obsession comes across as authentic, while Orton’s contempt for everything Jeff Hardy comes across just as authentic. Orton is just having fun out there, as the kids say, getting back to his roots that made him popular in the first place -- zeroing in on a fan-favorite and making their life a living hell. Whether it was Ric Flair, The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Mick Foley, Stacy Keibler, etc., Orton is at his best when he can just be the character he is most comfortable with -- an asshole who just likes to attack the good guys because he can.

  2. What a showing by Andrade “Cien” Almas against Daniel Bryan. Once it was clear this match was happening, I found myself to be a little nervous. Almas vs. Bryan is something that needs to happen, but it didn’t need to happen here. It may seem lazy and a reboot by building to an Almas vs. Bryan WWE title match at WrestleMania, similar to the Almas vs. Johnny Gargano in NXT a few months ago, but sometimes it can be that simple in wrestling. The slap from Almas alone in this match had me sold on a big-time title match at WrestleMania next year between these two. Thankfully, the Miz and Maryse got involved and saved this match from having a proper ending. There is a lot more meat on this bone, and that is a very good thing.

Lifted from the Legal Pad:

  • Pardon me, my liege.” - Big E.

  • Never go Full Saxon is a very good phrase.

  • The laziness of the “Triple Header” gimmick being used on both shows in the same week on back-to-back nights was embarrassing.

  • The Colons are back! Primo is at least fifty-three.

  • Rusev’s “C’mon” line had me cracking up. The man has comedic timing.

  • There is something there with R-Truth and Tye Dillinger.

  • “This is my life” from Dillinger was both sad and very true for the former NXT fan-favorite. Not great, Bob.

  • Billie Kay vs. Naomi was...not good. The IIconics looked to be a little in over their heads when the crowd erupted with the Raptors’ chant.

  • Almas should not lose a match for at least a year. Zelina Vega’s “he’ll out-wrestle you” line made that clear. He’s just too damn good.

  • Brie Mode music is back!

  • Brie Bella is still an unfathomably bad professional wrestler and seller.

  • I think Charlotte Flair has a Republican senate run in her future based on that backstage promo.

  • AJ Styles needs to wrestle on Smackdown Live more and run around the parking lot less.

  • The WWE creative team *really* loves it when they get the OK from management to use the b-word. It’s like when a parent gives in and lets the kid stay up an extra hour on a school night.

  • “Let’s go Becky!” roaring chants as she blindsides the babyface champion is probably not what the WWE wants, but it’s what they’re going to continue to get. The crowd was literally booing Flair as the credits rolled following her sneak-attack beatdown from Lynch. The crowd is hot for this, which is cool, but man, this is strange.