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Portions previously appearing on WTOP.COM (apologies to the late Glen Campbell)-

By the time Kirk gets to Arizona, the Redskins will be mourning the loss of a three-time 4,000-yard passer as well as their most stable quarterback situation since Joe Theismann in the mid-80’s.  Don’t blame Cousins for leaving.  He’s done nothing but do the right thing since being drafted in the fourth round in 2012.  He learned the system and competed without complaining, sitting behind the face of the franchise Robert Griffin III.  He even shined as an understudy in spot situations and was likely going to be trade bait after two or three seasons in Ashburn.  But when the Skins brass realized that RG3 was brittle beyond belief and not as good as Cousins, Kirk received a battlefield promotion from lieutenant to captain.  He’s since responded with back-to-back-to-back 4,000 yard seasons.  Previous 4,000-yard passing seasons in team history?  Only two– Jay Schroeder in 1986 and Brad Johnson in 1999.

By the time Kirk gets to Glendale, the Cardinals will be building with a new coach.  One that will be 100% behind getting a quality quarterback to throw to Larry Fitzergald the final years of the future Hall of Famer’s career.  Even with all of the quarterback issues and coaching uncertainty Arizona had this fall, they went 8-8.  He’ll be going to a team that actually plays defense (ranked sixth in the league in 2017) and was only a competent and healthy quarterback away from competing for a playoff berth.  Arizona’s been to a Super Bowl recently with Kurt Warner, and played in an NFC Championship game with Carson Palmer.  Far from being the Zeppo Marx of the NFC East, these Cardinals have won five playoff games over the last ten years.  The Redskins have appeared in a total of five postseason games since the 2000 season started.

By the time Kirk gets to Tempe, the Redskins will be waking up to the fact that the quarterback situation around the league isn’t necessarily feast-or-famine, it’s surviving-or-starving.  Is Cousins a once-in-a-generation Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers?  No.  Not even close.  But he’s worlds better than Brock Osweiller (193 yards passing plus an interception and a fumble Christmas Eve at FedEx Field) and solar systems better than Blaine Gabbert (16-of-41 passing with an interception and three fumbles the week before).  Cousins over the last three years has the sixth-highest passer rating in the NFL, trailing only Brady, Brees, Ryan, Wilson and Rodgers.  He’s proven to be more than a stop-gap measure in DC, but for some reason has not merited long term foundation money.

By the time Kirk gets to Phoenix Stadium, the Skins will realize that he actually overachieved this past fall.  Think about it- Cousins lost top targets Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson to free agency only to see the offseason signing of Terrelle Pryor underwhelmed from day one.  Pryor’s season ended with injury, as did top option Jordan Reed.  Even the best receiver out of the backfield Chris Thompson didn’t make it into December.  I’m not even going to discuss the running back rotation he’s had to rely on over the years.  After the nonsense and shenanigans he’s had to deal with here, it’s nice to see Kirk find a better place and an organization who will build around and with him-as opposed to building in spite of what he brings to the table.  Hopefully the Cardinals will be adding some linemen (52 sacks allowed was the 2nd most in the league last fall) to keep Kirk upright.  Perhaps from Wichita.

 

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PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

January means more than resolutions, a new calendar and writing the wrong year on your checks (for the record, I’m still writing “2016”).  College basketball transitions from holiday/tropical tournaments, cupcake games and the random worth-watching showdown into conference play (I know, Maryland played two Big Ten games early last month and most everybody else got their first league games in over the final weekend of December)…which can be jarring for some schools that played super-easy non-conference schedules (Georgetown, anybody?).  Can the guy who scored 25 against Gardner-Webb do the same thing against other teams of similar skill level?  For the area schools the two-games-a-week rhythm starts against the usual suspects:  league foes.  The march to March begins in earnest…with more than a few roadblocks for schools in and around the beltway.

 

Maryland (13-4, 2-1 Big Ten)- the Terps played a pair of December conference games (the league is ending its regular season February 25 so they can play the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden the week before the Big East own MSG) and entered January ranked second in the league in rebounding margin.  That might not last as their frontcourt suffered two major setbacks over the last week, losing forwards Justin Jackson (labrum) and Ivan Bender (knee) for the season.  After surviving at home against Penn State, the Terps lost at #1 Michigan State 91-61.  The duo of Kevin Huerter and Anthony Cowan scored 42 points on 13-of-27 shooting while the rest of the team combined to hit 7-of-26 shots.  With Jackson done for the year, the firm of Huerter & Cowan badly need a new associate.

Bully on the Block:  #1 Michigan State.  The Spartans blew away the Terps while notching 30 assists on 32 field goals–it’s no surprise they lead the nation with 21.7 assists per game and their average margin of victory is 26 points.  They also come to College Park Sunday January 28th.

Georgetown (11-3, 1-2 Big East)- the Hoyas began conference play by blowing a 20-point first half lead in an overtime loss to Butler.  Cue critics of their soft non-conference slate (five opponents outside of the top 320 in the RPI).  Naysayers during the 10-1 start also pointed to the Hoyas propensity to turn the ball over.  Cute 25 turnovers in their loss to Marquette.  That Patrick Ewing’s team was able to hold off multiple rallies by DePaul in a 90-81 win at the Blue Demons was a step in the right direction;  and over the next three weeks they’ll play DePaul again and face St. John’s twice.  Jessie Govan’s 25 points and 12 rebounds was a nice turnaround from the first two league games where he shot 9-of-25, turned the ball over 7 times and picked up 5 fouls.  But regardless of the competition and the outcome, the junior still rebounds well.  They’ll need that against Creighton Saturday as the Blue Jays lead the Big East in shooting.

Bully on the Block: #3 Villanova.  The Wildcats are the Hoyas’ nearest neighbor-but the two programs couldn’t be further apart this decade.  Since the new Big East was formed, Nova is 64-10 in conference play while Gtown has had just one season where they’ve lost fewer than 10 league games.  The snappily-dressed Jay Wright brings his team to DC January 17th.

 

#8 Virginia (13-1, 2-0 ACC)– the Cavaliers escaped upset by beating Boston College by one at home before crushing Virginia Tech 78-52 in Blacksburg.  Ty Jerome followed up a career-high 31 points against the Eagles with 13 points and 5 assists against the Hokies.  But the story as it usually is with UVa was stellar defense, one that held the conference’s best-shooting team to 36% from the field and 17% from three-point range.  Even big man enigma Jack Salt had more points than fouls (6 to 4).  There’s little time to celebrate because coach Tony Bennett’s team hosts a #12 North Carolina team that’s smarting from a one-point loss at Florida State.

Virginia Tech (11-4, 0-2 ACC)- the Hokies entered the new year with the highest scoring offense in the league…only to score a season-low 56 points in a loss at Syracuse before being held to another season-low at home against their in-state rivals (note how I don’t refer to the Hokies as the Cavs’ rival, they’re particular about such things in Charlottesville).  Two offensive nightmares to start conference play-and not a lot of time to sort things out with the 9 p.m. tipoff Wednesday and noon start Saturday.  At least both are at home–but after playing last-place Pitt this weekend they’re either on the road or facing a ranked team for the rest of the month.  Who put this schedule together?

Bully on the Block:  #2 Duke.  The Blue Devils may have lost to Boston College, but this winter’s edition features the most highly rated newcomer in Marvin Bagley III and the most hated veteran in Grayson Allen.  Bagley’s playing just well enough to make everybody forget Allen’s tripping history.  The Blue Devils face Virginia Tech twice (February 14th and 26th) while Virginia plays the conference and national favorites just once (January 27th).  Come to think of it, the Cavaliers also play #8 Miami, #12 North Carolina, #24 Florida State and #25 Clemson just once as well.  Seriously, who MAKES this schedule?

Alma Mater Update- as sharp as the Orange (12-3, 1-1) looked in their win over Virginia Tech, things came undone late in their 73-67 loss at Wake Forest.  The Demon Deacons hit 47% of their threes–many of which were open–and SU was also beaten on the boards for the first time all season.  But what’s most important was losing the chance to snare a road victory in the ACC-the inability to win on the road last year (2-8 in true road games) cost the Orange an NCAA Tournament berth.  Trips to #8 Virginia and 24th ranked Florida State loom next week.

 

George Washington (8-7, 1-1 Atlantic 10)- the Colonials missed a chance to start league play 2-0 for the first time since 2015, losing 69-52 at Duquesne Wednesday.  A two-possession game with 13:55 left turned sour as the Dukes held GW to three field goals over the next 11 minutes and went on a 19-5 run to seal the game.  The opportunity missed turns into one tough task at hand:  defending conference champ Rhode Island visits Foggy Bottom Saturday before GW plays four of its next five games on the road.

George Mason (7-8, 1-1 Atlantic 10)- the Patriots rallied to win at UMass in overtime despite blowing a 10-point lead in the second half and going scoreless for the final 1:02 of regulation.  Instead, senior Otis Livingston II scored 9 of his 33 points in the extra session (while notching a pair of steals) in Mason’s 80-72 victory.  Livingston and Jaire Grayer are the two lone upperclassmen in the rotation this year, although freshman Goanar Mar and sophomore Justin Kier have been pleasant surprises.  Sunday Davidson drops by Eagle Bank Arena in the first of three straight games at home the Patriots will play against schools currently with losing records.

VCU (9-6, 1-1 Atlantic 10)- the highest-scoring offense in the conference couldn’t outscore St. Joseph’s, falling in overtime 87-81.  The Rams were haunted by 20-20 vision:  they shot 20.7% from three-point range while also turning the ball over 20 times.  Justin Tillman tallied his fourth consecutive double-double (22 points and 12 rebounds), but his game-winning three that fell at the end of regulation was launched just after time ran out.  The Rams try to recover this weekend at LaSalle, one of ten teams to start 1-1 in A-10 play (there are 14 schools in the league).

Richmond (3-11, 1-1 Atlantic 10)- yes, it does feel like EVERYBODY is 1-1 in league play.  Even a Spiders team that struggled for much of the first two months of the season.  And shocker of all shockers, UR’s game at Fordham went into overtime before they lost 69-65.  Hope is not lost-as the team that ranked second to last or last in the A-10 in points allowed, opponents field goal percentage, defending the three and rebounding margin actually defended and rebounded well against the Rams and Davidson.  Some teams take longer to come together and that might be the case here.

Bully on the Block: Rhode Island.  The Rams’ top four scorers are seniors from last year’s 25-10 team that reached the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.  If they make their way back to the big dance, prepare to be shocked when the URI is “randomly” paired with Arizona State (and coach Dan Hurley’s brother Bobby).

 

American (3-10, 0-2 Patriot League)- the Eagles were within one point of Colgate at 58-57 with 4:47 left, but AU shot 1-for-7 with 6 turnovers to end the game and the Raiders pulled away to win at Bender Arena 72-63.  You think the weather has been rough this week?  It’s been one difficult winter for American- who rank 9th or 10th in the conference in just about every major category (exceptions include 3rd in defending the three-pointer and 8th in points allowed).  Sa’eed Nelson and company try to post a full 40 minutes Friday at Navy.

Navy (10-5, 1-1 Patriot League)- the Midshipmen bounced back from an opening day loss to top Lehigh 78-66 Tuesday.  On a night where leading scorer Shawn Anderson shot 3-for-12, George Kiernan scored a career-high 27 points that included 4-of-7 three-point shots against the Mountain Hawks.  He also grabbed a season-high 7 rebounds, and for a Mids team that leads the conference in rebounding a great effort on the glass can keep you on the floor longer than a shooting streak.  The schedule is set up for a strong start with six of the first nine league games taking place in Annapolis.  American comes to campus Friday.

Bully on the Block:  Bucknell.  The Bison were picked to win the league behind senior Zach Thomas who only came back better (23 points, 9 rebounds and 49% from three-point range).  Despite the home loss to Boston University and sub-500 record, they remain the league standard as they attempt to reach the postseason for the fourth straight season.  They visit Navy January 24th and wrap up the regular season at American February 24th (Bucknell opened league play with an 84-55 thumping of AU last Friday).

 

Howard (3-14, 0-1 MEAC)- the Bison began league play with an 84-76 loss at Florida A&M, a 15-loss team whose previous win this season was against non-Division I school Albany (GA) State.  Somehow I’m feeling I’m not going to be buying into the Bison this winter.  How do you spoil a 30-point effort by freshman phenom RJ Cole?  By coughing up 50 points in the second half to a foe that ranks 346th in the nation in scoring.  That said, the MEAC is a tough league to figure out in early January because most schools play a heavy diet of paycheck games, which results in all 13 schools owning losing records entering league play and nine teams with 10+ losses.  The Friday-Monday schedule has Howard at home this weekend against Bethune-Cookman and Hampton.

Bully on the Block:  Morgan State .  The Bears were picked to win the league and is 5-9 after edging Maryland-Eastern Shore in its conference opener.  They have sophomore Tiwian Kendley who’s 30.3 points per game would lead the nation if he had played enough games to qualify.  Despite being just up the road in Baltimore, Morgan State plays Howard just once this winter- February 5th in the Charm City.

The Redskins began 2017 hoping to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1991-92, needing a win on New Year’s Day over the New York Giants to make the postseason.  Flash-forward 364 days and the Burgundy and Gold wrapped up a second straight non-playoff year by losing to the Giants on New Year’s Eve.  Instead of a 19-10 loss with thoughts of what could have been, it’s an 18-10 defeat with the grim realization of what isn’t.  Momentum in the NFL is a fickle beast…and the Skins have gone from 9-7 to 8-7-1 to 7-9.  While the 24-23-1 mark over the last three seasons is their best since 1999-2001’s 26-22 (the new glory years), one wonders what’s next.  As in another three months of the Kirk Cousins saga sucking all of the energy and optimism out of the room.  Meanwhile, there’s a team with needs that need to be addressed…but we won’t be watching because the dance with #8 will likely be played out as it has been the last two springs.

Here We Go Again- was anyone shocked that the Skins laid an egg against the Giants in week 17?  Last year’s loss is still with many…but 2013 gave us another clunker that set the NFL back 30 years.  Perhaps they should schedule the Cowboys or the Eagles to wrap up the season…

Captain Kirk- the Franchise Tagged One did not save his best for last in 2017, throwing for 158 yards and no touchdowns.  He also threw three interceptions and was sacked three times.  A rough end to a third straight 4,000-yard season, despite losing his top two receivers to free agency and then his top target Jordan Reed to injury mid-season.  His new #1 Terrelle Pryor was as bad a signing as one thought it would be.  There’s been no running game of note to keep defenses honest.  And in some circles the 2017 season will be a referendum on Cousins.  Good luck and godspeed, my boy.  Star Trek Episode Equivalent:  “The Squire of Gothos”, where the crew meet a strange being and we’re marking time until the episode ends.  The original series lasted three seasons- will we get a fourth installment of Captain Kirk commanding the USS Burgundy and Gold?  Or will we be forced to watch Kirk on a different show with Adrian Zmed and Heather Locklear?

Running In Place- the Skins were held to 61 yards rushing…or 14 fewer yards than Orleans Darkwa gained for the Giants on the second play from scrimmage.  Kapri Bibbs had a 16-yard run to highlight his 47-yard outburst.  The absence of a ground game counterpunch once again undercuts a team that plays meaningful games in the northeast where it’s cold.

Receiving Corps- Bibbs led the team in receiving as well with 8 catches for 53 yards…so he reached the century mark in a roundabout way.  Josh Doctson ended his first full season with 4 grabs for 37 yards.  His season totals are comparable to Pierre Garcon, until you realize the veteran missed half of the season.  Jamison Crowder had 3 more receptions to finish atop the team with 66 catches, or one fewer than last year.  If you’re Kirk, do you want to stay and throw to these guys again next fall?

Third and Unlucky- the Skins converted just 1-of-13 money downs.  Cousins completed 4 of 11 passes for 2 conversions while getting sacked once.  Bibbs was stuffed for no gain on a 3rd and 1 in the team’s lone running play on third down.  The top option?  Crowder nets the lone conversion while making two receptions on four targets.  Yardage breakdown:  0-for-1 on third and short, 1-for-3 on third and manageable, 0-for-9 on third and long.  As has been the case for most of the season, the majority of third down plays were needing 7+ yards to convert.  Beyond not ideal.

Zach Attack II- Zach Vigil led the team with 16 tackles…giving the team confidence for 2018.  I’m hoping for a 3-4 defense that features the two Zachs next fall, just to be able to empty all of my “Saved by the Bell” observations (who’s ready to hum a couple of bas of “Friends Forever”?).  Meanwhile, Preston Smith’s interception clinches the best finishing haul by a Preston since my Uncle Chris’ last fishing trip to Colombia.

Flying Flags- only four infractions on the final day, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the officials were swallowing their whistles to get out of the cold in a draft-order game.  Two on the offense (delay of game and a clip) and two on the defense (illegal hands and a trip).  The clip and delay were the two costly ones–turning what would have been a 2nd & 9 form the Giants 42 into a 1st & 30 on the Skins 36.  Not a ton of 1st & 30 plays in the book.

Special Situations- Jamison Crowder’s 29-yard punt return led to the final points of the season for the Skins…unfortunately that spark doesn’t make up for the fumbles this fall.  Dustin Hopkins made a 49-yard field goal while missing from 47 (his only miss inside 50 this season) to finish 14-of-17 in 2017.  Tress Way?  A 47.3 yard average on nine punts…allowing him to finish 13th in gross punting average.  Unfortunately the punt coverage team was less than awesome, so Hopkins ranks 28th in the NFL in net yardage.  Where’s Danny Smith when you need him?

Dissecting the Division- the Eagles despite losing to Dallas have home field advantage in the NFC thanks to boasting a better common opponents mark than #2 seed Minnesota.  Dallas (9-7) takes ninth in the conference after losing NFC record and head-to-head tiebreakers to Detroit and Seattle.  The Redskins (7-9) finish 12th in the conference because Green Bay boasted a better record against common foes.  The Giants (3-13) despite winning lock down the #2 draft pick in 2018.  Lawrence Taylor isn’t available.

Elimination Island- the Ravens’ defeat to Cincinnati blew the purple and black out of the water.  It also allowed Buffalo in the back door for the first time this century.  Despite the Los Angeles Chargers’ win over the Bills in the regular season, Tennessee’s victory over Jacksonville keeps LA from having two playoff teams for the first time since 1985.  Seattle was locked out of the NFC Playoffs when Atlanta beat Carolina.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is an odd one;  it’s almost as though time is suspended because most are off at some point in time during the week.  Does it really matter which day it is?  You could also say the same about the Redskins’ 27-11 rout of Denver.  Does a late December victory over a last place team matter?  Yes it does.  Because .500 remains a possibility…and the players fighting for jobs in 2018 have another game of tape that highlights their upside instead of call out their deficiencies.

Captain Kirk- the Franchise Tagged One threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns while tossing one interception and taking one sack.  Kirk stretched the field with TD strikes of 31 and 48 yards while working with a receiving corps that resembles a smokey big bite from 7-11.  If this was his final home game at FedEx Field, then good luck and godspeed to #8.  Episode Equivalent:  “What are Little Girls Made Of?”- where Nurse Chapel meets an ex, Kirk is replicated into an android but plants the necessary red flag for Spock to be suspicious.

Running its Course- Samaje Perine gained 53 yards on 17 carries…his fourth straight week of 10+ attempts resulting in less than 60 yards.  Whether or not Cousins comes back in 2018, the Redskins need a hammer on the ground.  I have the full confidence they won’t draft or sign one.

Give it up to Grant- I’ve often called Ryan Grant “Mr. August”, due to his ability to shine in the preseason before becoming anonymous.  Well he could be angling for “Mr. December”, as he led the team with 4 catches Sunday.  Grant’s tallied 12 grabs since Thanksgiving and has posted 43 receptions for 550 yards this fall– or more than his combined total from the three previous years.

Third and…hey, it’s the holidays- the Skins converted 5 of 13 money downs with Cousins completing 4 of 10 passes for four conversions while scrambling to the marker for the fifth.  He also fumbled (recovered) on one play.  Samaje Perine wasn’t as lucky, losing his fumble on the lone third down rushing attempt.  Ryan Grant was the top target (thrown to three times for one catch and conversion) while Vernon Davis was the most productive (moved the chains twice on two passes thrown to).  Yardage breakdown:  1-for-1 on short-yardage, 3-for-5 on manageable (4 to 6 yards needed) and 1-for-7 on third and long.

Saved by the Zach II- the defense kept the Broncos out of the endzone for most of the day, while holding the visitors to 5 of 17 on third down.  Zach was huge once again–and I’m referring to Zach Vigil instead of Zach Brown.  Fourteen tackles (he’s averaging over 10 stops per game in December) to lead the team.  In Bell terms, it’s as if Mark-Paul Gosselaar was replaced during the Tori episodes by Zach’s cousin and the scriptwriters were too lazy to rename the character.  Elsewhere, Preston Smith notches two sacks to build off the previous week (interception and a fumble recovery) turning this into the best stretch by a Preston since I boarded the Enchantment of the Seas for a five night cruise in April 2006.

Flying Flags- six penalties for 35 yards.  Three on the offense (two false starts and an unnecessary roughness) plus two on the defense (delay of game and a hold) while the other came on special teams (more unnecessary roughness).  Arie Kouandjio was flagged twice (roughness/false start) while Bashaud Breeland’s hold gives the cornerback a near-lock on most penalized Redskin (8 flags) of 2017.  False starts (18) remain the big infraction, with offensive holding (16) checking in at #2.  Both false starts came on third and long–setting up longer fields and shrinking the playbook.

Dissecting the Division- Philadelphia (13-2) wraps up home field advantage with their underwhelming victory over Oakland.  Dallas (8-7) is out of the playoff hunt after their home loss to Seattle but their sweep over the Redskins mean they have second place secured.  The Skins are in 11th place of the NFC, pretty much where they’ve been all season.  The New York Giants (2-13) broke a team record for losses in a season, and have wrapped up last place in the conference while in line for the second overall pick in the 2018 Draft.

Conference Calls and Division of Depression- with nothing but division games on the slate for week 17, the book is closed.  The NFC won 41 of 64 interconference games this year.  That’s not a victory, nor a mandate.  It’s Reagan over Mondale territory.  The only AFC Division to finish with a composite winning record was the East (31-29), and the best NFC quartet this year was the South (35-25).  The AFC South somehow finished with a worst record at 25-35…and that’s with Cleveland’s 0-15 factored into the AFC North’s final grade.

Elimination Island- the Cowboys weren’t the only team to say goodbye to playoff hopes. Detroit, Miami and Oakland were also bounced from postseason consideration.

They don’t give out banners for finishing 8-8.  And they don’t even have last year’s “first place schedule” to hide behind…although the first ten games were a brutal gauntlet.  And the Redskins are going to finish out of contention for the fourteenth time in eighteen years this century.  But coach Jay Gruden’s team can salvage some dignity by finishing .500- it would give them a non-losing record for a third straight year (longest streak since…1999-2001).  And it would give the team a 25-22-1 mark over his last three seasons.  So even though Sunday’s 20-15 win over Arizona only affected the Cardinals’ playoff hopes, it was necessary for the Skins to end their slide and get in position to be in position to scrape their way back to .500.  With last-place Denver and last-place New York on the horizon, the avenue to 8-8 is there.

Captain Kirk- the Franchise Tagged One completed 18 of 26 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns while getting sacked just once.  A passer rating over 100 for the sixth time this year.  No fumbles were lost…but the offense only had two solid drives on the day.  Thank goodness the Cardinals were even more offensively challenged.  Episode Equivalent:  “Operation Annihilate!”- where flying amoebas attack the landing party and one attaches itself to Spock.

Running in Reverse- one of the reasons why this year pales compared to the last two for Cousins production-wise.  Thirty-one yards on 20 carries…with Samaje Perine (14 carries for 37 yards) being held to under 50 yards for the third straight week despite being the main ball-carrier.  Will this be addressed in the offseason with a band-aid or a big-time prospect?

Chilly Receptions- Jamison Crowder led the way with 5 catches for 55 yards and a touchdown, giving him 59 for 717 on the season.  Great for a #3 option.  Which sadly this year he is not.  The duo of Terrelle Pryor and Josh Doctson have combined for 640 yards on 49 catches–and even though Pryor has been on the shelf for a while this is still not good.

Third Downers- how about 1-for-9?  Cousins completed 3-of-6 passes for the lone conversion (to Crowder his top option with three targets and two catches), while getting sacked once and scrambling short of the marker once. Their lone run came on a 3rd & 8.  Yardage Breakdown:  1-for-5 on third and medium and 0-for-4 on third and long (7+ yards needed.  Meaning yes, they didn’t face a third and short.  One of the many reasons why this team is fighting for 8-8 and not a playoff berth.

Zach Rules- okay, so Zach Brown didn’t play.  But Zach Virgil did the Bayside faithful proud with 8 tackles which tied for the team lead.  More importantly, the defense kept the Cardinals out of the end zone and got off of the field on 15 of 19 third downs.  Preston Smith notched a fumble recovery which set up the Skins’ first TD and an interception in the red zone.  Easily the best Sunday for a Preston since I crushed 20 wings (13 drums and 7 flats) at the Rhino circa 2006.

Kicking Game and Screaming- tough to get past the missed kickoff in the second half.  Not acceptable.  Still Tress Way averaged over 53 yards per punt and Dustin Hopkins made both field goals (long of 32 yards).  So there’s that.

Flying Flags- seven penalties for 82 yards.  Three on offense (two false starts and a hold), three on defense (pair of PI’s and an unsportsmanlike conduct) and a special teams infraction (leveraging).  Holds and false starts (16) are now the most common offensive fouls, while pass interference (7) is the most common defensive whistle.  Most costly?  a while Josh Norman’s PI in the second quarter set up a Cardinals field goal, Kendall Fuller’s PI with under a minute left put the ball on the Washington 21…and gave Arizona another chance to steal a victory in Landover.

Dissecting the Division-  Philadelphia (12-2) has locked up a first round bye and needs just a Vikings loss to wrap up home field in the NFC.  Dallas (8-6) is assured of second place in the division thanks to their win over Oakland and is currently in ninth place of the conference–meaning they need to leapfrog three teams to make the playoffs.  Two wins plus 0-2 finishes from two of the three NFC South contenders (Atlanta-Carolina-New Orleans) plus Detroit and Seattle each losing once will do the trick.   The Redskins (6-8) are assured of third place, meaning that for the first time since 2001-03 they won’t finish in last for three straight seasons.  The New York Giants can still finish out of the NFC cellar by winning two straight and Chicago wrapping up their year with two more defeats.

Conference Call plus the Mouth of the South-  the NFC leads the AFC 36-22 with six games remaining–and it isn’t even that close.  The NFC South owns the best mark at 33-23 while the AFC North brings up the rear at 23-33 (Browns are responsible for 14 of those losses).  The NFC East is 28-28…tied for fifth with the NFC West.

Elimination Island- Green Bay was bounced from contention with their loss to Carolina plus Atlanta’s win on Monday night.  Other hopes terminated along with Arizona’s (thanks to their loss to the Redskins):  Green Bay and Cincinnati.  Tennessee’s loss to San Francisco keeps Miami and Oakland hanging by a thread.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

Is this really the most wonderful time of the year?  Most of us still have our football mindset with the NFL season entering its final few lengths and 40 (!) bowls on the menu.  Forgive us if college basketball is somewhat of an afterthought–like getting to the Barnes & Noble and Bath & Body Works for Christmas presents, I’ll get around to the hoop season.  Promise!  Unfortunately while there have been a few gifts in the pre-conference season (I know Maryland has begun Big Ten play and Duke lost its ACC opener to Boston College, but just work with me here), we’ve also been treated to some refugees from the Island of Misfit Toys.  And for the record, a gun that shoots jelly is pretty cool in the long run.  Here are early impressions of the local schools…who’s getting the Star Wars Death Star™ playset and who receives tube socks and a bathrobe this December?

 

Maryland (10-3, 1-1 Big Ten)– hold on.  They actually trailed Division III Catholic 20-18 in the first half?  Ugh.  What’s Nice:  Anthony Cowan has taken ownership (16 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game) of this team while freshmen Bruno Fernando and Darrell Morsell have emerged as major contributors (not unlike last year’s trio of Cowan, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson).  What’s Naughty:  they lead the nation in turnovers per game and lack of an effective offense against zones is the nightmare that won’t go away.  Instead of a breakout year, Jackson while posting more rebounds and assists has regressed as a shooter (37% from the field and 25% from three after making 44% from both last winter).  Best Win:  December 3rd at Illinois.  The Illini may not be expected to do much in the Big Ten, but the Terps could ill-afford to start conference play 0-2.  A clutch free throw from Cowan with one second left gave the sophomore a career-high 27 points.  Worst Loss: a 63-61 stumble to St. Bonaventure saw 20 turnovers and 5-of-23 three-point shooting.  Yes, the Bonnies play zone.  Game to watch before conference play:  Friday December 29th UMBC comes to College Park.  The 7-5 Retrievers boast former VCU guard Jairus Lyles (20 ppg & 46% from three-point range) and the kid-brother mentality that Catholic brought to Xfinity Center, only they have more staying power.

 

Georgetown (8-0)– with four wins over MEAC foes, the Hoyas may actually be eligible for that league’s postseason tournament should things end early in the Big East.  Actually, the schedule involves three schools that have already lost eight games, 1-10 Howard and 0-11 Coppin State.  They couldn’t at least bring St. Leo to DC?  What’s Nice:  coach Patrick Ewing said a lot would be expected of Jessie Govan this winter, and the junior has delivered in averaging 23 points (on 63% shooting) and a Division I-best 13 rebounds per game.  The offense is tied for 11th in assists per game.  It’s not “Hoya Paranoia” yet, but they rank third in the Big East in scoring defense, second in defensive field goal percentage and first in stopping the three-pointer.  What’s Naughty:  the schedule gives means “Georgetown Cupcake” is now more than just a thriving business on the corner of 33rd and M (not that I’ve ever been there).  They’re last in the Big East in turnover margin…and that’s going against teams with a combined 21-63 record (with nine wins coming against non-Division I schools).  Best Win: an 82-76 win at Richmond (the Hoyas lone road trip before conference play).  Five in double-figures proves this is more than a one-man team.  Game to Watch before conference play:  the Hoyas host Syracuse Saturday at 12:30 p.m.  CBS will be there.  Even in the final days of John Thompson III, Georgetown was still able to beat its hated rival consecutive years.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange are off to an 8-1 start that includes wins over Maryland and UConn that make one think they’re better than the team picked 10th in the ACC preseason poll…with a loss to Kansas reminding the faithful how much they still have to improve before becoming a contender instead of a pretender.  Saturday they play at Georgetown–an occasional win in this series would be nice.

Virginia (8-1)- reports of the Cavaliers’ demise after London Perrantes graduated and multiple players transferred were premature:  coach Tony Bennett has this team in the top 20 and eyeing a double-bye in the ACC Tournament.  What’s Nice:  Kyle Guy got rid of the famed man-bun and came back to campus even more productive-the sophomore is averaging 17 points per game while shooting 45% from outside the arc.  They lead the nation in scoring defense and almost caused basketballs worldwide to explode in their 49-37 water-drip win over Wisconsin.  What’s Naughty:  Jack Salt is back–and the center from New Zealand has only two more points than personal fouls through nine games (25-23).  Better big man production will be needed when the conference slate begins.  Best Win: the 76-67 victory at VCU.  Forget that the Rams have a first-year head coach.  It’s nice to stay the top dog in the Commonwealth.  Lone Loss: a 68-61 defeat at #18 West Virginia.  No shame in coming up short in Morgantown; the Mountaineers are a good team, even if their coach wears a track-suit.  Game to Watch pre-ACC:  Saturday always-dangerous Davidson drops by Charlottesville.

 

Virginia Tech (9-1)- introducing the high-flying Hokies:  #1 in Division I in shooting and scoring while ranking second in three-point shooting.  Forgive us if we’re getting adjusted to a coach Buzz Williams’ sportscar;  we’re accustomed to pickup trucks in Blacksburg (often with a faulty transmission).  What’s Nice:  Freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker is a sparkplug from the perimeter (14 points per game and 47% from three) while Chris Clarke’s recovery from a torn ACL is far enough along that the junior is shooting 60% from the field while averaging 6.8 rebounds per night.  What’s Naughty:  tough to find a smudge on this early season–but the Hokies do allow the fourth-most points per game in the ACC. Best Win: a 103-79 neutral-site victory over a Washington team that has since gone on to upset Kansas.  Nice to get a victory on the Madison Square Garden floor.  Lone Loss:  the night before VT fell to Saint Louis 77-71 after getting outrebounded by ten.  Last year rebounding was an issue…it couldn’t be again when they begin league play, could it?  Game to Watch before ACC play: Saturday the Hokies visit #8 Kentucky.  The tipoff is at 2 p.m–but this will go a long way to determining if they’re ready for prime time.

 

George Washington (5-5)- the Colonials have had quite an ambitious pre-Atlantic 10 slate, visiting the likes of Florida State and Penn State while playing holiday tournaments against #15 Xavier and Kansas State.  Sadly they’re 0-4 against those schools.  What’s Nice: sophomore Jair Bolden has emerged as a do-it-all floor general, leading the team in assists while developing into the team’s best three-point threat.   What’s Naughty:  they’re not the best at taking care of the basketball (12th in the conference in assist-to-turnover margin).  Against the VCU’s and better defensive teams in the league that will be a major issue.  Best Win: December 3rd they beat Temple 71-67.  The Owls used to run the A-10 like their private rec-club, so it’s nice to beat the school that won nine tournament titles over a 26-year span before bolting for the AAC.  Worst Loss: a home loss to Rider from the MAAC.  Not the MAC (Mid-American) or even the (Mid-Eastern Athletic) but the Metro Atlantic Athletic-ugh.  Game to watch before league play tips off:  Saturday they host #6 Miami at noon.  Really, does every good December game involving beltway schools have to be this Saturday?

 

George Mason (5-6)- one year after winning 20 games perhaps a year earlier than expected, coach Dave Paulsen’s team is one of nine Atlantic 10 schools that are within one game of .500.  What’s Nice:  Otis Livingston II came back for his junior year with a three-point shot (46% this season as opposed to 34% as a sophomore) while freshman Goanar Mar has produced since opening night for the Patriots.  What’s Naughty:  you think GW has issues with turnovers?  Mason has the most miscues in the A-10 by a wide margin.  Best Win: a 76-72 grand larceny November 29th at James Madison.  They trailed by four with seven seconds left but an Ian Boyd three began a furious finish.  Worst Loss: Tuesday’s 74-51 loss to Georgia Southern.  The Eagles may be 8-2 but shooting 29% and turning the ball over 21 times at home is no way to go through life.  Best pre-conference game remaining:  Sunday they host Penn State.  Beware the Green Machine.

 

VCU (5-5)- coach Mike Rhoades has a lot to live up to in his debut season:  his predecessor Will Wade won 25 games in his first season at the helm, Shaka Smart’s Rams went 27-9 in his first winter as head coach and Anthony Grant’s first team bounced Duke in the first round of the NCAA’s en route to a 28-7 mark.  So there’s obviously no pressure whatsoever.  What’s Nice:  all five losses are to legit programs, including Smart’s Texas team.  Senior Jonathan Williams leads the A-10 with 6.6 assists per game.  They’re also second best in the league at scoring as well as shooting from three-point range.  What’s Naughty:  something intangible feels like it’s missing this season…and it’s going to take a while for this program to come together under their new head coach.  Best Win: an 83-69 win in Maui against Cal.  Pass the poi.  Worst Loss: a 90-67 defeat at Seton Hall.  They turned the Pirates over just twelve times and allowed 55% shooting.  Game to Watch:  Saturday against Bucknell.  The Bison almost won at Maryland-and aren’t scared of anybody.

 

Richmond (2-8)- the Spiders’ run of ten straight non-losing seasons is in danger of not going to eleven.  Triple-threat TJ Cline took Atlantic 10 MVP honors last winter–and this season you’re seeing how exactly valuable he was.  What’s Nice:  sophomore big man Grant Golden has stepped up from a role player to a primary contributor, netting 15 points and 5.8 rebounds per game this fall.  Freshman Jacob Gilyard has become a force on both ends of the floor, averaging 3.1 assists and 2.4 steals per contest.  What’s Naughty:  they’re the worst free-throw shooting team in the Atlantic 10 and have lost five games by double-digits.  Best Win:  the 74-71 win over James Madison snaps a six game slide…hopefully turning the pre-conference tide.  Worst Loss: an 82-76 home defeat to Georgetown.  You don’t often get the Hoyas on your home floor…and with Patrick Ewing’s rebuild this was a golden opportunity.  Game to Watch:  at Boston College Saturday December 23rd-I’m curious because this BC team beat Duke yet lost to Nebraska.  They could easily slip against the Spiders.

 

Navy (9-3)- this could be the Midshipman team that ends a near-two decade NCAA Tournament drought.  Ed DeChellis directed the program to its first winning conference season since 2009, and this fall they’re off to their best start of any team in the Patriot League.  November and December mean little in one-bid league’s come March, however.  What’s Nice:  the stifling defense allows the fewest points per game in the Patriot League and they’re the best rebounding team in the conference.  Senior Shawn Anderson leads the Mids in scoring, rebounding and assists while passing the 1,000 career points barrier last month.  What’s Naughty:  the Mids rank last in the Patriot League at defending the three…and in a conference of Davids it’s often the slingshot that causes the most damage.  Best Win: opening night against Pitt. Yes, the game was in Annapolis and the Panthers may be a mess under second-year coach Kevin Stallings, but they’re still an ACC opponent.  Worst Loss: falling to 8-4 Penn, 7-4 FGCU and #6 Miami is nothing to be ashamed about.  One cannot help but feel this Midshipmen team is something special.  Last game before league play:   Thursday December 21st against Lipscomb- the Bisons are off to a 6-4 start that includes losses at Alabama, Texas and #24 Tennessee.  Should be a good test.

 

American (3-6)- can the Eagles overcome a slow start to contend in a Patriot League that features not only a Navy program hitting its stride but the usual bully Bucknell that returns four double-digit scorers?  A young roster has turned the first two months of the regular season into a “getting to know you” process for coach Mike Brennan’s team.  What’s Nice: the one-two punch of Larry Motuzis and Sa’eed Nelson (each averages 19 points per game) has provided the bulk of the offense.  What’s Naughty: ninth in the conference in rebounding margin and defending the three, eighth in scoring and scoring defense as well as assist-to-turnover ratio.  Best win: 74-70 at New Hampshire November 21st.  When you play seven of your first eight away from DC, life can be rough on the road.  Sa-eed Nelson netted a season-high 26 points that night.  Worst Loss: a 100-89 loss to St. Francis (PA). Shoot 56% and still come up short?  At least this wasn’t against the 2-7 St. Francis (BKN) Terriers.  Game to see: they host Mt. St. Mary’s from the one-bid Northeast Conference.  Should be a truer test than trips to West Virginia and Marquette.

 

Howard (2-10)-  DO NOT accuse the Bison of stocking their schedule with non-conference W’s.  Just the opposite:  coach Kevin Nickelberry’s team has played 9 of 11 games on the road.  As the song plays, “they’ve been everywhere, man.”  Trouble?  They’ve had their share, man– from a 106-69 thumping at Gonzaga to an 81-67 loss at Georgetown.  Never paid their fair, man?  Well, these are buyout games.  What’s Nice:  freshman guard RJ Cole leads the team with 19 points and 6 assists per game-including 30 in their win over Washington Adventist.  He’s one of five players in the nine-man rotation in their first year with the program.  What’s Naughty:  it’s a shooter’s game and the Bison rank 341st in field goal percentage.  Gotta Watch:  no more home games in 2017–so if you can get a good rate there’s that game against Hawaii December 29th.

So much for “Gotta win five to stay alive”.  So much for going through tiebreakers after week fifteen while hoping Carolina would come back to earth.  The Redskins made December almost meaningless for the sixth time in nine years by losing 38-14 at Dallas.  It wasn’t just a bad loss; it was a defeat that exposed this team and roster.  The 2018 season in theory begins now.

Captain Kirk- the Franchise Tagged one completed 26 of 37 passes for 251 yards and 2 touchdowns while tossing a pair of interceptions (one in the red zone) and losing a fumble.  He was also sacked four times behind an offensive line held together by duct tape and paper clips.  Episode Equivalent:  “Spock’s Brain”- a disaster on the scoreboard despite Kirk’s best efforts.  He didn’t write the script where aliens came on board the Enterprise and hijacked Spock’s brain–only to have Dr. McCoy re-insert said organ later in the hour.

Running Aground- it was bound to happen sooner or later.  The recently resurgent running game managed just 56 yards on 19 carries against the Cowboys-with Samaje Perine being held to 38 yards on 12 tries.  Perine will be the third runningback in four years to lead coach Jay Gruden’s team in rushing.  Meanwhile, the guy who was replaced by the guy who was replaced by the guy Perine replaced as the #1 back fared nicely for the Cowboys.  Alfred Morris ran for 127 yards against his former team.  Ouch.

Ryan the Receiver- it’s something when Ryan Grant is your leading receiver. You cannot make the postseason when Mr. August is your top target in December.

Third Down the Drain- the stat sheet says they converted 6 of 14 third downs…but the offense didn’t move the chains until they were down 17.  Cousins completed 7 of 11 passes for 4 conversions while getting sacked once and scrambling for the marker once.  Ryan Grant was the top target (3 conversions on 3 catches and 4 passes thrown to) while recent pickup Byron Marshall also caught 3 of 4 passes on third down but was short each time.  Marshall also ran for a late first down on 3rd & 1.  Yardage: 3-for-4 on short-yardage, 2-for-4 on 3rd and 4 through 3rd and 6, 1-for-6 on 3rd and long.

Zach Meets Mr. Morris- you don’t mess with Preston’s Perspective’s pop-culture references.  Earlier this year we saw the Vikings come to FedEx Field with former kicker Kai Forbath…and showed no mercy (I’ll let you know when he’s had enough).  This past week we saw Mr. Morris blast through the Redskins defense like it was an ATV race at the Malibu Sands.  Alfred gained 80 of his 127 yards after halftime…and the Cowboys converted 7 of their last 10 third downs (and 4 of 5 in the second half).  Not an ideal day for the defense that now ranks 22nd against the run and allows the third most points in the league.

Kicking and Screaming- NO longer shall we use the term “Special Teams” regarding the kicking game that fumbled a punt and allowed a punt return for a touchdown.  Nick Rose connected on both of his extra points and Tress Way averaged 42.6 yards per punt, so they’ve got that going for them.

Flying Flags- SEVEN penalties for 43 yards.  And if you’re counting that’s 24 over the last three games.  Two infractions were rather costly:  a pass interference on Kendall Fuller turned a 3rd & 1 into a 1st & 10 and the Cowboys would score two plays later…while a pass intereference against Bashaud Breeland (he had another PI declined) set up a 1st and goal at the 1.  Then there was that “12 men on the field” flag where there may have been 14 on the field for the Skins.  Not what you need in the fourth quarter on the road.

Dissecting the Division- Philadelphia’s loss to Seattle means the Eagles won’t clinch the NFC East just yet–but at 10-2 they need only one more victory or a Cowboys loss to wrap up the division.  Philly does slip behind Minnesota into the #2 seed (Vikings have a better common opponents record).  Dallas moves a game ahead of the Skins for second (and owns the head to head tiebreaker) and is in 10th place of the NFC, two games out of the wildcard.  The Burgundy and Gold remain in 11th place thanks to a better conference record than Arizona;  a loss to the Chargers plus victories by Seattle and Carolina make the elimination official.  The NY Giants drop behind San Francisco into dead last of the conference…and are one more loss plus a Redskins win away from securing the NFC East cellar one year after making the playoffs.

Interconference Connection, Dominant Divisions & More- the NFC owns a 28-20 lead, meaning they’d have to go 3-12-1 in order to lose the Conference contest.  Cleveland and Cincinnati are playing five of those remaining 16 games so I’m going to say that might not happen.  The NFC South is a combined 28-20…while the AFC West has withered away to 21-27 over the last month.  The NFC East?  Tied for fifth with 23 wins.

Home for the Holidays- joining previously eliminated Cleveland, San Francisco and the New York Giants this week is Chicago.  The Bears lost 15-14 to the Niners as their former kicker Robbie Gould kicked five field goals before  replacing Dr. Houseman as Chief of Staff and purchasing Kellerman’s where his first act was firing Johnny Castle.  Sweet revenge, indeed.