FMIA Week 16: NFL Playoff Scenarios, Picks and Millen’s Holiday Prayer

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First, a Christmas Eve bulletin: Matt Millen, the Super Bowl winner and former Lions GM and longtime TV voice, was wheeled into surgery early this morning in New Jersey to undergo a heart transplant. After waiting three months for a match in Newark Beth Israel Hospital, Millen, 60, who has a rare disease that attacks the lining of the heart, was told Sunday afternoon that a match had been found.

The text he sent me:

I called, and Millen said he was scheduled to undergo the transplant at 1 a.m. Monday. The surgery would take, if a normal one, between four and six hours. Quite a Christmas Eve gift for Millen, his wife Pat and their family.

Peter King: Matt Millen, Patient

I spoke to Millen late Sunday afternoon, and told him he had a lot of people out in the football world rooting for him.

“Tell ‘em to pray,” he said cheerfully. “I’ll need it.”

In this season of giving, give your prayers to a man who needs them.

Update, 8:11 a.m.: Millen is out of surgery. He’ll be in recovery until late this afternoon. In a text from the hospital, Millen’s wife Pat said: “Doctors said the heart was a perfect match and he is doing well. The surgery went smoothly.”

I’ll be passing on any further updates as I get them.

Playoff Scenarios, Picks

Man, what a game Sunday night. I wonder if Kyler Murray was watching two baseball players duel to the end in Seattle, Russell Wilson (Seahawks) beating Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) 38-31 in an instant classic. “Mahomes, beautiful throws, and Russell, more beautiful throws,” Seattle’s Doug Baldwin, perfectly, told me early this morning. The only shame of it? We won’t see Wilson-Mahomes again till 2022 because of the whims of the NFL schedule. Thank the Lord it was a Sunday-nighter.

Lots on the line next Sunday in Week 17. Nothing monumental, but there’s one win-and-you’re-in scenario and at least 22 teams have something to play for, as improbable as some of the scenarios are. The key games next Sunday as the league’s 99th regular season ends:

• For the sixth seed in the AFC: Indianapolis at Tennessee, 8:20 p.m. ET on SNF. The winner is in the playoffs (and likely the sixth seed). The loser is eliminated. Two hot teams: Indy’s 7-1 in its last eight, Tennessee 6-2. A bit of irony: When Colts GM Chris Ballard was choosing his next coach, he was down to Mike Vrabel and Josh McDaniels in mid-January. I thought he was leaning Vrabel. But he chose the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, and Vrabel went to Tennessee, and Ballard got jilted by McDaniels, and Ballard chose Frank Reich as his head coach. And now Reich has the Colts, stunningly, one win from the playoffs after a 4-12 season. (Watch it on NBC or the NBC Sports app)

• For the AFC North title: Cleveland at Baltimore, and Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, both 1:05 p.m. The Steelers, as crushed as they must be after the weird and slightly unjust loss at New Orleans, will beat the woebegone Bengals. Since only one team from the North can make the playoffs that means the if Ravens beat Cleveland, they win the division. They’re running at a pace we haven’t seen in more that 50 years. But here comes Baker Mayfield, who doesn’t give a crap about anything but playing great and winning. The Browns are 5-2 since whacking Hue Jackson for Gregg Williams/Freddie Kitchens, and I think they have a chance to pull off a crazy win.

Now … about the Ravens running game. This is the craziest factoid of a crazy season—and it certainly is crazy when the Cleveland Browns are 7-7-1 with a game to play: Since Lamar Jackson has taken over the quarterback job in Week 11, the Ravens are 5-1, and they have run the ball 63.6 percent of the offensive plays. The 1964 Browns, with steamrolling MVP Jim Brown dominating the ground game, ran it 53.9 percent of the offensive snaps. The 1966 Packers, the first team to win the Super Bowl, ran 57.6 percent of the time. It’s Lamar Jackson’s world, and we’re just living in it.

Zach Ertz. (Getty Images)

• For the final two NFC seeds: Arizona at Seattle, Philadelphia at Washington, Chicago at Minnesota, 4:25 p.m. Seattle clinched a playoff spot Sunday night, and now has to beat the worst team in football, the Cardinals, at home, to clinch the fifth seed. The Vikings (8-6-1) and Eagles (8-7) will battle for one spot. If Minnesota beats the Bears, the Vikings make the playoffs; if they lose and Philadelphia beats Washington, the Eagles are in.

Will the Bears play all-out to win, with only a whisper of a chance to pass the Rams for the second seed? Good question. “We need some help,” Zach Ertz told me after the dramatic Philly win over Houston, “but we’ve had the kind of year where you just don’t know anything.”

The Eagles have had the strangest of seasons; they’ve gone 4-1 since being embarrassed 48-7 by the Saints last month. I asked Ertz what he’s learned in 2018 after the Eagles stormed to a Super Bowl win last year. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “The NFL is really hard. It’s really had to win football games, any game. I cannot believe the Miami Dolphins went undefeated all the way through the Super Bowl. I cannot believe the Patriots went undefeated [in the 2007 regular season]. That sounds a little simplistic, but it’s what I think.”

• For AFC seeding: The Chiefs host Oakland (4:25 p.m. ET), and if the Chiefs beat the 3-11 Raiders, they win first seed and will play at home throughout the playoffs … The Patriots host the Jets (1:05 p.m.), and if the Pats beat New York, they win second seed in the playoffs … Houston has a nightmare scenario: losing to Jacksonville (1:05 p.m.) and falling to the number six seed, with the Colts-Titans winner advancing to first place in AFC South. The 11-4 Chargers are locked at five, unless Oakland beats KC and LA wins at Denver (4:25 p.m.)

• For NFC seeding: New Orleans (13-2) has clinched the top seed … The 12-3 Rams must beat the Niners (4:25 p.m.) to clinch the other first-round bye and will be heavily favored to do so … The 11-4 Bears are likely locked into the three seed; they can only move up with a win over Minnesota and loss by the Rams to San Francisco … Dallas (9-6) is locked in at the four seed, with a Seattle-at-Dallas rematch likely in wild-card weekend. Very attractive TV matchup there.

So … my very imprecise crystal ball shows:

The AFC
1. Kansas City
2. New England
3. Houston
4. Baltimore
5. Chargers
6. Indianapolis

The NFC
1. New Orleans
2. Rams
3. Chicago
4. Dallas
5. Seattle
6. Minnesota

Under that scenario, all four wild-card games would be rematches of 2018 regular-season games, with three played at the same site, and all four games played in Eastern or Central time.

The Harbaugh Domino

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It fell Friday night, with a 31-word statement that confirmed John Harbaugh would coach the team in 2019—the last year of his existing contract—but nothing else.

John Harbaugh. (Getty Images)

A few things I know about the state of coaching changes:

• There’s a real chance that Harbaugh, 56, will not sign an extension, but rather coach his final season and take his chance on the market in 2020—or sign back with the Ravens. It could be a lot like the Joe Flacco situation in 2012, when he wouldn’t sign long-term with Baltimore and gambled that he’d win big in the last year of his contract. He did. The Ravens won the Super Bowl, and Flacco earned a $20-million-a-year contract. Why should Harbaugh sign now? Since that Super Bowl win, the Ravens are 50-47, with only one playoff win. He’s won a Super Bowl, but since then, the Ravens haven’t won anything. I believe he wants to stay in Baltimore but wouldn’t be heartbroken if he had to move on. He’s probably worth more elsewhere, so I think it’s legitimately possible he coaches out his contract in Baltimore in 2019. And I don’t think it would bother him very much to do so.

• Eight NFL coaches (Bill Belichick, Jon Gruden, Pete Carroll, Sean Payton, Andy Reid, Mike McCarthy, Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh) are reportedly in the $8-million-and-higher bracket in 2019. (McCarthy will either make that money by sitting out in 2019 or coaching somewhere else.) Because so many teams pay coaches so much money, I won’t be surprised to see someone throw ridiculous money ($12 million a year? $15 million a year?) at Nick Saban, who will likely say no. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley will get phone calls, and we’ll see what happens.

• As far as NFL openings, let’s run through them. Green Bay and Cleveland, open. The Jets, Broncos, Bucs and Cardinals, likely open. That’s six. Miami (Adam Gase) and Cincinnati (Marvin Lewis), 50-50. Carolina and Jacksonville, less likely but possible. And there’s always an unexpected change. So it’s likely we’ll see between six and 10 teams change.

• The Mike McCarthy stuff out there is interesting. I hear he likes Arizona and would be interested in exploring the job. I heard the Cardinals have interest as well, so we’ll see, assuming Steve Wilks is one-and-done there.

• There’s concern among some coaches’ agents about the structure with the Jets. Would Mike Maccagnan stay as GM, and will he get to hire another coach when/if Todd Bowles is let go? I hear he will. Could that be an impediment to a big-time coach like McCarthy? Unclear.

• As for the worry that there aren’t enough good candidates out there, I leave you with five names: Chuck Noll, Pittsburgh, 1969; Bill Belichick, New England, 2000; Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh, 2007; John Harbaugh, Baltimore, 2008; Sean McVay, L.A. Rams, 2017. There are good coaches out there. Funny how coaches get more attractive when they have good quarterbacks on the roster. Terry Bradshaw, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Jared Goff. They help.

More On Week 16

• The officiating is a major concern. Some of the calls in Pittsburgh-New Orleans were just ghost calls. The early Joe Haden pass interference, a big call in a one-score game, was a phantom call, as so many are. So I was sitting here in a San Francisco hotel writing early this morning when a prominent NFL club official sent me a text. This source is unemotional, even-tempered and a total, absolute league guy. In part, he wrote:

“Something has to give on the officiating in our league. The random nature of things week to week, the volume of penalties that breaks up the game. I hear Joe Buck and Troy [Aikman] on FOX and Cris [Collinsworth] and Al [Michaels] on Sunday night confused. Everyone is at a loss. There is no consistency. The game is choppy. It’s obvious that something is broke. Teams, coaches, GMs are at a loss for what will be emphasized week to week. At the same time, officials feel like they have been betrayed by the league and no one has their back. I’ve been around this league for over 25 years. This is as bad as I have seen it.”

There is no question, with four good referees being replaced this year (there are 17 refs in all), that the league doesn’t have the same quality of officiating overall. The NFL will have to decide after the season, with more refs on the verge of retirement, how to handle the turnover so it doesn’t affect the overall quality. As it is, the league seems afraid to give the newbies and more inexperienced guys the big games. And there’s a total inequity in some calls from crew to crew. There’s an outcry about officiating every year. I don’t know if it’s worse than ever, but it seems like more and more games hinge on precarious calls.

• Merry Fitzmas. In Arizona on Sunday, on the big screens in the stadium, the Cardinals played this during two straight play breaks against the Rams:

“I couldn’t even bear to look, honestly,” Fitzgerald said.

After the second break, with the crowd chanting for Fitzgerald, a play got called that Fitzgerald has been waiting for. He took a backward-lateral pass from quarterback Josh Rosen, then stopped and threw a 32-yard touchdown pass, the first TD pass of his 15-year Cardinals career. More chants. More “LAR-ree, LAR-ree …”

“It a little uncomfortable, to be honest with you,” Fitzgerald said. “I play a team sport. I’m not Michael Phelps or Tiger Woods, who do individual things. So it’s a little uncomfortable being singled out.”

In the midst of a dingy Arizona season, it’s nice that the last good memory fans are likely to have is a Larry Fitzgerald first, at a memorable time.

• Zach Ertz beats his hero. When Ertz was growing up, east of Oakland, he watched on TV the NFL guy he wanted to be like, Jason Witten of the Cowboys. And Sunday, he officially entered Witten’s league. Witten’s record for catches for a tight end, 110, got broken in the second half of the Eagles’ win over Houston; Ertz finished with 12 catches for 110 yards, and now stands at 113 with a game left to play. The man who scored the decisive touchdown in the Eagles’ Super Bowl win over New England was pretty excited when we spoke post-game. “I always set my goals as one day to be in same breath as Jason and Gronk and [Antonio] Gates and Tony [Gonzalez],” he said, “but I had so much help getting here. It took a village for me to become the player I am. Jason is the guy I emulate. He is the one I learned from watching his game growing up in California. I’d watch how he would attack people. Jason Witten has a part in this record, for sure, because of everything I learned from him.”

60 Years Ago This Week

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You’ll hear quite a bit this week, probably, about the 60th anniversary of the NFL Championship Game that Sports Illustrated called “the best football game ever played,” between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, 1958. The NFL gamely tried to capitalize on the anniversary by scheduling the Colts and Giants to play Sunday, near the anniversary, but the Giants aren’t at Yankee Stadium anymore, and they play in New Jersey, and the Colts moved west to Indianapolis, and Sunday’s game was in a dome in Indiana. But I’m writing today to try to put in perspective exactly what the game meant to football, and the significance it has to today’s game.

I think pro football would very likely have grown to the biggest sport in America. That game was in the NFL’s 39th season, so there would have been plenty of time for the game to explode, and it would have.

But I believe there are three things about Colts 23, Giants 17, in overtime, that should be everlasting. They might not be in the order you’d think.

First, about the game, one of the first seen by a national TV audience and played before about 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium: The Colts blew a 14-3 halftime lead and were down 17-14 when they took the ball at their 14-yard line with 1:56 left. Johnny Unitas drove the Colts to the Giants 13, where Steve Myrha kicked the tying field goal with seven seconds left. Now the first overtime game in NFL history was set.

In overtime, Unitas drove them the length of the field in the gathering Bronx darkness, in the (at the time) cathedral of American sport, and running back Alan Ameche rushed the final yard through a huge hole for the six-point victory.

Huge Colts fan Ernie Accorsi—later the GM for both teams—has a photo in his Manhattan apartment today of a slump-shoulder Unitas, always emotionless on the field, walking with his back to the end zone off the field. Just another day at the office for him. But those two drives cemented his legacy as one of the greats.

It played a huge role in the immediate growth of the game. In 1958, there were 10 pro football teams. In 1960, there were 21, with the birth of the American Football League, and by 1968, there were 26. In a decade, pro football experienced 160 percent growth. As Michael MacCambridge would write later in the book America’s Game, Lamar Hunt, the son a billionaire Texas oilman, was searching for a sports team to buy in 1958. When he watched that championship game in a Houston hotel, that clinched it. The college game, with an ethos on physical running games, was king at the time, but the drama of an overtime game coupled with Unitas’ passing mastery and a more wide-open offense in pro football sold Hunt. As he told MacCambridge: “But clearly the ’58 Colts-Giants game, sort of in my mind, made me say, ‘Well, that’s it. This sport really has everything. And it televises well.’ “ He was a key to formation of the AFL and became a driving force behind so many key pro football things: revenue-sharing of TV money, renaming the title game the “Super Bowl,” and growing the game internationally. The AFL was vital because it was a maverick league in a restive time in America, the sixties. Joe Namath became a look-at-me American icon; Al Davis got his start in the pro game in Oakland. Those people, and the game itself, were huge growth engines.

America loved stars, and this game had them, in a Hollywood setting. As Accorsi said: “The setting—you just can’t contrive it. Yankee Stadium was the cathedral. When the Giants walked into the stadium, their status went up about five levels. That day, the aura of the twilight of that scene, with the famous Yankee Stadium background, people all over the country seeing it, was huge. The Giants’ quarterback, Charley Conerly, was the Marlboro Man on ads everywhere, Frank Gifford and Pat Summerall of the Giants were on the radio in New York, Johnny Unitas was about to be a star.” Seventeen Hall of Famers were on the field that day. It was Vince Lombardi’s last game as a Giants defensive coach. After the game, for the first time, the top-rated TV show in America, The Ed Sullivan Show, had a football player on the stage live in New York—Ameche, who scored the winning touchdown. “At the time, the big games in football were Army-Navy and Notre Dame-Southern Cal,” Accorsi said. “The ’58 Championship Game changed that.”

Nationally, the game felt like the first pro football game to have buzz. President Dwight Eisenhower watched from Camp David. Vice president Richard Nixon watched from Arizona—and wrote Gifford a letter after the game empathizing with him on the tough loss. There are varying estimates about the TV audience nationwide, but it appears that at least 24 million Americans in a country of 175 million were watching at least some of the game on the Sunday afternoon between Christmas and New Year’s, with no sporting competition on TV that day. It was a good advertisement for the product. At the game, an emotional commissioner Bert Bell said he never thought he’d see a day when his sport was as big in the country.

Today, most of those things—the stars, the TV, the public love of the game—are taken for granted. They trace back to a gloomy afternoon in the Bronx 60 years ago this week.

The Award Section

Offensive Players of the Week

Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle. “Russell Wilson is the best deep-thrower in football,” Cris Collinsworth said after the high-arcing bomb to Tyler Lockett down the right sideline on the insurance drive of the game. I cannot imagine, considering all the pressure involved in the playoff race this year in the NFC, that Wilson has played a better regular-season game in his life. He made three game-on-the-line deep throws, two to Doug Baldwin and one to Lockett, that was pristine and beautiful and as on target as they could be. The numbers—18 of 29 for 271 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions and a 127.2 rating—were not the best of his life. Can’t imagine he’s played better than he did in the 38-28 win over the best team in the AFC Sunday night.

Nick Foles, quarterback, Philadelphia. “This is a thing of beauty!” Dan Fouts yelled on CBS, as Foles dropped a 57-yard spiral into the arms of Nelson Agholor, with Houston’s Tyrann Mathieu in perfect coverage, the ball missing Mathieu’s hand by three inches. The 83-yard touchdown gave the Eagles a 23-16 lead in a great football game. Foles had 22 completions by halftime, and finished with the greatest passing day in Eagles history: 471 yards, 35 of 49, four touchdowns, one pick, 120.4 rating.

Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh. In an excruciating loss in New Orleans, Brown had his game of the year, catching 14 balls for 185 yards, two touchdowns, and a miracle sideline catch in crunch time, when no one could fathom how he caught it and got both feet in. Imagine if the craziest catch of all counted—the one-hander in the corner of the end zone that didn’t count because he had the toes of one foot on the white stripe.

Christian McCaffrey, running back, Carolina. I guess you’d have to call Todd Gurley the most versatile and explosive running back in football, even though he hasn’t been himself due to injury for the past month. And then there’s Alvin Kamara, who does something great every week. But this McCaffrey is something else. In a loss to the Falcons, he rushed 21 times for 101 yards and caught 12 balls for 77 yards.

Defensive Players of the Week

Patrick Onwuasor, linebacker, Baltimore. The third-year undrafted free-agent continued to make an impact on the Ravens—and on the AFC playoff race—with a great game at the Chargers on Saturday night. His two sacks were a key part of the front-seven onslaught against Philip Rivers, and he was everywhere with a game-high nine tackles. But it was his crunching punchout of the ball on all-time tight end Antonio Gates with 2:50 left in the game, with the Chargers trailing 16-10 and driving for the win, that clinched the game for the Ravens. Safety Tavon Young scooped it up and ran 62 yards for a touchdown. The final: Ravens, 22-10.

Calais Campbell, defensive end, Jacksonville. The ageless one (how can it be he’s only 32?) led a defensive effort that smothered the Dolphins for most of Sunday. For the last 54 minutes of a 17-7 win in Miami, Jacksonville allowed 100 yards and zero points. Campbell contributed a sack, three hits on Ryan Tannehill, a forced fumble and a recovered fumble. I’ve got so much admiration for Campbell. Meaningless game or not, he’s playing every snap hard. I know players should do that, and many do, but certainly not all.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Michael Dickson, punter/kicker, Seattle. First, credit to the NBC crew for the foreshadowing of Dickson appearing either as a field-goal kicker or a kickoff guy with a dropkick. After Sebastian Janikowski went down with some sort of leg injury, NBC started warning us, through video and Collinsworth/Michaels, that Dickson, an Aussie who is used to drop-kicking from years of rugby training, was drop-kicking in warmups and he could do it during the game. And then … He drop-kicked a kickoff 62 yards to the Kansas City 3-yard line, and the Chiefs returned it only to their 17-yard line, and so it actually was beneficial that Dickson was called in to do it. 

Andre Roberts, kick returner, New York Jets. Larry Fitzgerald’s best friend was named to the first Pro Bowl in his career on Tuesday and justified it Sunday. After the Packers scored to draw within 14-7 in the second quarter in New Jersey, Roberts widened the lead to 14 with a 99-yard sprint through the Packer kickoff team for a touchdown. For the year, Roberts has returns of 79 yards (punt) and 86 and 99 (kickoff), and has been the best return man in football—averaging 14.7 yards per punt return, 29.3 yards per kick return.

Matt Bosher, punter/kicker, Atlanta. In the midst of a 10-10 game, Bosher kicked off to Kenjon Barner of the Panthers. Barner took it past the 30, and looked to be heading for a long return. Then splat! Bosher stopped Barner at the 36 and threw him to the ground as if Barner weighed 96 pounds. His teammates went nuts … and responded. For the rest of the game, Atlanta outscored Carolina 14-0.

Coach of the Week

Bill Belichick, head coach, New England. It wasn’t the best week for Belichick, who saw his gamble on Josh Gordon go up in smoke. But Belichick ended it with a win over Buffalo, and he’s now the first coach in history to win 10 division titles in a row. Belichick doesn’t get a lot of credit, particularly in a year like this one, when the Patriots have sprung leaks all over the place. But they’re 10-5, in position to have a playoff bye again, and the man at the top deserves a hand for the long-term greatness that adds another record here.

Goats of the Week

Stevan Ridley, running back, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver, Pittsburgh. Pretty simple:

Ridley, with 10:21 left in the game and Pittsburgh up 28-24, had a golden chance to kill the clock on a third-and-two up the gut. He fumbled in the big scrum up the middle, and the Saints recovered to keep the Steelers at 28. Pittsburgh wouldn’t score again.

Smith-Schuster, with 41 seconds left and Pittsburgh down 31-28, took a pass from Ben Roethlisberger and got to the Saints’ 34, which put them on the edge of field-goal range for Chris Boswell for a chance to tie. And Sheldon Rankins of the Saints popped the ball out, with New Orleans recovering. End of game. Too many mistakes made by the Steelers (even with a couple of highly questionable officiating calls), and the mistakes likely will cost them a playoff berth.

Quotes of the Week

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I

“NICK FOLES DOES IT AGAIN!”

—A shout from the New England Patriots locker room as the Philly quarterback drove for a late game-winning field goal to beat Houston, as relayed by Ben Volin of the Boston Globe. The Houston loss allowed the Patriots to re-claim the second slot in the AFC playoff race, meaning they’ll have a first-round bye with a win over the Jets in Foxboro next week.

II

“I thought we were playing two teams—the Packers and the striped shirts.”

—Jets coach Todd Bowles, after New York was penalized 16 times for 172 yards, including two costly pass-interference flags on the game-winning drive by Green Bay. Packers won, 44-38, in overtime.

III

“They need to stop going down to the Salvation Army to get their wide receivers. They need to get some real-deal wide receivers.”

—Former NFL receiver Steve Smith, on NFL Network’s pre-game show Sunday, on the New England Patriots.

IV

“John Harbaugh will continue as our head coach for the 2019 season, and he and we are working on an extension to his existing contract, which expires after the 2019 season.”

—Statement by the Baltimore Ravens at 7 p.m. Friday.

V

“Ultimately, the state of play in 2018 boils down to a simple metaphor: A coach no longer has to dig deep within himself to create something new or cutting edge, like some reclusive ‘70s singer-songwriter. The best football schemers now are more like electronic house musicians, judged on their ability to creatively sample from what’s already out there.”

—Conor Orr of The MMQB, in the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year issue, in an excellent piece on the rise of creativity in the NFL.

As Orr writes, it was impossible until the last couple of years for coaches to sift through tens of thousands of plays to find the kinds of plays that would work against specific defenses or specific players. Pro Football Focus, reports Orr, allows teams to filter plays by more than 200 different factors. It’s a fascinating age we’re living through. This kind of play-mining is what led the Eagles’ staff to discover the factors and invent the play—the Nick Foles-to-Zach Ertz touchdown pass—that ensured their Super Bowl victory over New England.  

What I Learned

Last Monday, Saints linebacker Demario Davis gave the Christmas Gift of the Year. As documented by Juliana Mazza of WDSU-TV in New Orleans, Davis worked with Superior Vans and Mobility of Louisiana to give Sam Martin, a young man shot in the head and paralyzed 10 at Mardi Gras months ago, a lifeline he desperately needed.

Demario Davis, on his Christmas gift to Sam Martin:

“I heard about the story, a young kid, a high school football player, at Mardi Gras with friends, and someone started shooting, and everyone just ran. A bullet hit in him the head, paralyzed him. His favorite players were Alvin Kamara and me. So his aunt got in touch. ‘Would you come visit him?’ Alvin and I, one day in March, went by the hospital and visited him. He was down a little bit. He had some infections. We just tried to uplift him. I told him, ‘Be strong. You gotta fight. You gotta fight this every day. Don’t give in.’ I told him, ‘I’m gonna put #TeamSam on the towel I have with me every game. You will play every game with me.’ He got a big smile on his face.

“We starting forming a relationship. They were getting ready to get out of the hospital. They were able to move into an apartment on the bottom floor, more accessible for him. This reporter here, Juliana [Mazza], she talked about how me and Alvin visited, and they started a fundraising drive for him. She said he needed a van, and they could get them a van for a certain price. So about $8,000 was raised. My wife and I said we would do $10,000. We asked the Saints if they would match that $10,000, and they did. Superior gave us a great deal on the van. So we went over to meet Sam and his aunt where they lived and, well, it was an emotional thing.

“We surprised them. For a family without many resources, getting something like this, it can change their lives. The van was there, and they came out, and she started crying, and at that moment, you learn, This is what life is all about. Christmas is not about all the things we can get for ourselves, or the gifts we receive. It’s about giving.There is just no better feeling.

“It’s one of the best Christmases I ever had, seeing the joy it brought to them.

“I learned how important everyone is to a cause. This was the ultimate team effort—those who reached out to support, $5, $10, whatever, to a GoFundMe, our family giving, the Saints matching it, Juliana coordinating it behind the scenes. It’s the best example of community—everyone coming together to help one person, one family.

“At the end, now, what have I learned? Blessed are those who dwell in unity. In true community, you have unity. At this time of year, it’s about giving. Everyone can do it. Give time. Give money. Give your talent. We can change things.”

Numbers Game

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We talk about what a great time it is to be a quarterback or wideout in the NFL, because of the explosion of the passing game. And it is. But the versatile backs that have entered the league in the last four drafts have been huge impact players too.

We’re seeing an explosion of versatile backs, and they’re all kids. Among active players, each of the NFL’s top active running backs in yards from scrimmage since the start of the 2017 season are 25 or younger, and four haven’t turned 24 yet. Using the marvelous tools of Pro Football Reference, ranking the yards-per-scrimmage leaders among backs over the past two seasons in order, ranked by average yards per touch (age in parentheses):

  1. Alvin Kamara, Saints (23): 6.61 yards per touch, 3,041 yards
  2. Todd Gurley, Rams (24): 5.96 yards per touch, 3,924 yards
  3. Christian McCaffrey, Panthers (22): 5.81 yards per touch, 3,011 yards
  4. Melvin Gordon, Chargers (25): 5.22 yards per touch, 2,890 yards
  5. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys (23): 5.01 yards per touch, 3,253 yards

That’s not including the banished Kareem Hunt, 23, who would slot right beneath McCaffrey on this list.

One more note about the list I find significant: Gurley, McCaffrey, Gordon and Elliott were drafted in the first half of their first round of their drafts (10th, 8th, 15th and 4th overall, respectively). The top guy on the list, Kamara, was a third-round pick, 67th overall, by the smart-shopping Saints, by GM Mickey Loomis, coach Sean Payton and personnel czar Jeff Ireland.

Factoidness

I

Seemed fashionable Sunday on the pre-game shows to declare the Patriots dead and buried. They have some issues, to be sure. But the 24-12 win over Buffalo left New England 10-5 with, as usual, the AFC East clinched entering Week 17. For the 10th year in a row, the AFC East is clinched before Week 17. The Patriots have either won the AFC or finished the regular season tied for first place in the AFC East for 18 years in a row. (Twice, in 2002 and 2008, they lost the division title by tiebreaker.)

The Patriots have won the AFC East, since 2009, by 2, 3, 5, 5, 4, 3, 2, 4 and 4 games. They enter Week 17 with a three-game lead over Miami in the division.

II

That factoid begat this one.

Vince Lombardi coached Green Bay for nine seasons. His Packers won their division six times.

Bill Belichick has coached the Patriots for 19 seasons. His Patriots have won their division 16 times.

III

If this is the end of a career for Frank Gore, who, at 35, will be sidelined for the last two games of his 14th NFL season with a foot injury, I bring you these niblets of information about one of the underappreciated players of this era:

• Gore has rushed for more yards than all but three backs in NFL history. He is 521 yards shy of Barry Sanders for third place all-time.

• Gore has rushed for 2,436 more yards than Jim Brown.

Frank Gore. (Getty Images)

• Gore played the last 13 years of his NFL career after having both knees and both shoulders reconstructed.

• Since having the last of those four surgeries, Gore played 195 NFL games.

(Take a moment. That is insane.)

• Out of high school in Miami, Gore committed to Ole Miss. At the last minute, he de-committed and went to Miami. Had he gone to Oxford, Gore would have taken handoffs from Eli Manning.

• Five backs, including someone named Eric Shelton, were picked before the Niners drafted Gore 65th overall in 2005.

• “Frank Gore is my favorite player of all-time that I’ve coached,” said Jim Harbaugh, who had Gore for the last four years of his Niners career.

• When it looked like it was over for Gore last year, after his played his third year for Indianapolis, Gore told me: “If this is it, if this is my last year, I want everyone in the NFL to say, ‘He was a football player. Period.’ “

Oh, they’ll say that, and more.

Intelligent Football

50

The Chargers’ offensive line was in shambles Saturday night, and the Pro Football Focus numbers proved it: 20 quarterback hurries. Twenty! By man:

Left tackle Russell Okung: four hurries.
Left guard Dan Feeney: two hurries.
Center Mike Pouncey: four hurries.
Right guard Michael Schofield: two hurries.
Right tackle Sam Tevi: eight hurries.

Eight!

A PFF Elite subscription gives you access to performance metrics the pros use.

King of the Road

In San Francisco for Christmas. Sunday, 9 a.m. soccer “practice” for 23-month-old Freddy King, the grandson. My wife and I are on the sidelines, watching, with daughter Laura and Freddy on the field. All of a sudden Freddy gets whiny and starts uttering something that sounds like “pezzl,” but I can’t tell what it is. He is really concerned. Finally, Laura comes over. “He wants a pretzel,” she says. We fish one out. He is happy, and reports back for duty.

Tweets of the Week

40

I

II

The Washington Wizard is from Sheboygan. Big Packers fan. Amateur comedian.

III

IV

V

Man, Damien’s a good guy. I hope he can tape his head back together in time to enjoy Christmas.

VI

VII

Well, Merry Christmas!

Newman!

Last week, after my daughter Laura reported her shock at the prospect of paying $40 in a San Francisco-area mall so her two children could sit with Santa Claus (this was the minimum fee for a photo package; without this package, kids couldn’t sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas), I asked for your reaction. I got more than 300 responses. A few:

From Brian L.: “As I got older (and heavier) I invested in my own Santa suit for my four daughters. I’m on my third suit. My golf buddies asked me to be Santa the last few years as well. Beats paying some guy $40 to take a bad picture. Ho ho ho.”

From Richard S., of Fairbanks, Alaska: “The adjacent town to Fairbanks is North Pole, Alaska. Of course, North Pole has the Santa Claus House with Santa himself available to all. We took the kids last Friday to sit on his lap and talk naughty or nice with him and Mrs. Claus. We took our pictures as usual and it’s free. Some have other things on their minds besides the gift of giving during this time of year.”

From John M., of Fergus Falls, Minn.: “The ‘Cash for Claus’ thing has been going on for some time. I remember seeing it before we had kids, so at least a decade or more. In our small town, at least, there are plenty of opportunities to see a pretty good Santa for free, where Mom and Dad can snap their own photo. In our little town of Fergus Falls, Minnesota (pop. 13,000), there were at least five different times where Santa was available free to the public—one time Mrs. Claus made the trip as well. My guess is the mall is just in in it—GASP—for the money.”

From Tom Kuhn of Pittsburgh:“The Santa pic stuff has gotten out of hand. This year in Pittsburgh, one well-known local photographer Dave DiCello had promised to take free pictures with Santa during an all-day event at his store downtown. He was fed up with the overpriced nonsense, too. It was an incredible, well-run event and Dave and his team deserve tons of kudos. The event raised a bunch of money for Children’s Hospital and it was easily the best Santa pic with my girls we’ve ever had.”

From Drew A., of Northville, Mich.:“We have a setup in our town square with a Christmas tree and gingerbread house. They have a Santa that comes every Saturday and Sunday from 12-5 for the children to visit with. All with no charges or expectations. He even has his elf, Buddy, that will use your phone to take pictures for you. Haven’t been back to the mall Santa since.”

From Todd A.: “From my experience as a shopping center marketer for the past 23 years, the majority of malls that do Santa photos during the Christmas season do not charge for a visit to see Santa, only for purchasing the photo packages. It is far more common to ban personal photography on the Santa set, as the operation is usually a joint venture between the mall and an outside company. The profits from the photo sales help the mall offset the cost of installing the set and advertising. The outside company is in essence a store selling a product like any other store. As such, they set their own rules on package pricing, etc.”

From Bill P.: “Santa needs money to combat climate change at the North Pole.”

From Matthew, of Peoria, Ariz.: “One of the local breweries here brings in Santa for a Saturday to take photos. If you donate a new toy, you get a photo, conversation, and a chance to relax and have a beer. I’ve noticed more and more breweries are doing this lately—maybe to escape the mall madness.”

From B.J., of Taylor, Texas: “On Friday night, my family had many options: one being to take our son to see Santa at the Bass Pro Fishing shop, the other was hitting Main Street in our small town (rumors were Santa would be there too). We drove five minutes into our downtown and pulled into a parking spot right in front of where Santa and his wife sat on Main Street, in a Santa shack provided by the city. It was free. We took our own pictures. And when my son said he wanted a Plants vs. Zombies game for Christmas, my son experienced his very own Christmas moment: ‘I don’t know about that…’ Santa said, looking doubtful. On July Fourth, there are free hot dogs on the court house lawn. In October, downtown streets are closed for the Spooktacular. I appreciate living in a small town so much, and I hope there are ‘small town’ pockets in big cities where a parent can take little guys and gals to meet the Big Man. Maybe, for every dark gloom spiral, there is a joy spiral as well.”

MVP Watch

30

One week to go, and here’s my MVP ballot in this too-close-to-call horserace:

1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City. Last week: 1 (tied). Played great in a non-essential game for the Chiefs. Russell Wilson was a little better in the battle of excellent baseball prospects who chose football. Still left it too close to call in his duel with Drew Brees for the MVP.

2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans. Last week: 1 (tied). Brees’ team is two wins better. Mahomes is 17 touchdown passes and 1,150 yards better. But Mahomes’ lead is slight. Give me another week to decide in this two-horse race.

3. Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers. Last week: 3. Saturday night put him out of the running for the MVP, but remember: Rivers is the leader of an 11-4 team, with road wins over the Titans (in London), Seattle, Pittsburgh and Kansas City. A great season.

4. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle. Last week: Not ranked. The go-ahead touchdown pass to Doug Baldwin late in the third quarter Sunday night. Pretty wow. Having the Seahawks 9-6, with wins over Dallas, Minnesota and Kansas City … ditto.

5. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis. Last week: Not ranked. With 85, 74, and 53-yard touchdown drives in the last 25 minutes, Luck did what he’s done consistently in Indy’s 8-1 run down the stretch. He’s kept the Colts in every game.

10 Things I Think I Think

1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 16:

a. I missed the NFL rule that mandates referee Bill Vinovich works every Sunday night game. When was that passed?

b. Sunday night was Vinovich’s sixth Sunday night game this year. I bet his peers really appreciate that.

c. Dion Jordan, the third pick in the draft in 2013, washed out in Miami because of off-field issues. He almost washed out of football. Seattle’s glad he didn’t. It was Jordan’s forced fumble in a 10-7 game midway through the second quarter against Kansas City that led to a go-ahead touchdown.

d. In the huge fourth-quarter pass-interference call against Joe Haden inside the two-minute warning at New Orleans, why oh why was the tipped ball not a factor in the call? Why was it not reviewed?

e. Don’t fire Ron Rivera, David Tepper. It’d be a mistake.

f. The San Francisco 49ers are 10-21 under Kyle Shanahan, and have been out of any serious contention by early November in each of his two seasons. But that team plays hard. Very hard, every game. Ask the Bears.

g. Baker Mayfield’s Browns, 7-7-1, are better this year than Aaron Rodgers’ Packers, Matt Ryan’s Falcons, Eli Manning’s Giants, Cam Newton’s Panthers, Case Keenum’s Broncos and Matthew Stafford’s Lions. Among others.

h. By the way, Baker, you won. You won. You don’t have to stare down Hue Jackson with a crap-eating smile.

i. What a weapon Jarvis Landry is. His lovely TD pass against the Bengals spiraled 57 yards in the air. Beautiful.

j. Speaking of lovely spirals, the first touchdown pass of Larry Fitzgerald’s 15-year career was just that: a 32-yard TD to David Johnson.

k. Latest examples of backup running backs stepping in without their offenses missing a beat: C.J. Anderson, plucked off the street by the Rams, rushing for 167 yards against Arizona; and Damien Williams, plucked from anonymity in Kansas City, totaling for 140 yards and a touchdown in Seattle.

l. Oh. And Brian Hill (eight rushes, 115 yards) started the year on Atlanta’s practice squad, and there he was, with some huge runs in Charlotte.

m. Moral of the story: You can find running backs.

n. Kyle Rudolph had a day, including a Hail Mary TD at the end of the first half in Minnesota’s win over Detroit. Next year, I bet the Vikings use him a lot more. He’s been fairly invisible much of this season.

o. Deshaun Watson was marvelous Sunday. Watch his TD pass under pressure, thrown perfectly to the Limestone College’s gift to the NFL, Vyncint Smith, to give Houston the 30-29 lead it ended up blowing.

p. Jadeveon Clowney, wrecking crew. Working against marginal left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai of the Eagles, Clowney had a strip-sack of Nick Foles that led to a touchdown run by Houston on the next play; drew a holding call on Vaitai at the Houston one that pushed the Eagles back 10 yards; and had tackles for zero and minus-one yards … all in the first half alone.

q. Every week DeAndre Hopkins shows why he’s the best receiver in football. In Philly, with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, Hopkins made what would be for most men the catch of the year—diving, while having his jersey held in an uncalled foul, pulled in a pass about eight inches off the turf with one hand, securing it with the other as he hit the ground. For him, it’s in the top 10. That’s how good he’s been.

r. The more Avonte Maddox plays, the more the rookie fourth-round cornerback for the Eagles shows he belongs. He was competitive and feisty in coverage Sunday.

s. Strange in a game where Justin Tucker went three-for-five in field goals that you’d say Tucker was a key to victory, but he was for Baltimore. Tucker drilled a 56-yarder to put Baltimore up over the Chargers 16-10 with 20 minutes left. His misses were from 65 and 53.

t. Joe Flacco’s a placid dude, but you’ve got to wonder how he’s coping with bench duty for the first time in 11 NFL seasons. My guess is not good.

u. The Chargers may not be able to overcome that offensive line if they have to win three road games in the playoffs.

v. Great camera work by NBC, showing how much of a craftsman Michael Dickson is in directional punting, particularly when it came to keeping the ball away from Tyreek Hill on Sunday night.

w. Fantastic job compiling Patrick Mahomes’ home-movie highlights as a very young athlete. Very cool.

2. I think—after hearing Adam Schefter say Mike McCarthy will consider his options but may take the 2019 season off to refresh himself—I might strongly consider the Jets’ job if I were him. I saw quite a bit of the Jets’ 44-38 overtime loss to the Packers on Sunday, and Sam Darnold was more than good. He was uber-confident, played well under middling pressure from the Packer front, and went toe to toe with Aaron Rodgers for 69 minutes. A lot to build on there. McCarthy should look at that and think he just might have the third great passer (Brett Favre, Rodgers, Darnold) of his career to tutor. I realize up top I said McCarthy could be in play in Arizona. In lifestyle, Arizona might be a better job. In reality, with the Patriots headed for decline sometime soon, the Jets in the AFC East with a quarterback is actually a better job.

3. I think Aaron Donald clinched the Defensive Player of the Year award Sunday with a three-sack day in Arizona. He’s got 19.5, and should win the sack title with room to spare. On Sunday, he set the record for most sacks in a season by a defensive tackle. Now, against the Niners and inexperienced quarterback Nick Mullens in the regular-season finale, Donald will need 3.5 sacks to break Michael Strahan’s record of 22.5.

4. I think it sure seems like the end of an era in Dallas, with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch active in the middle for Dallas on Sunday, Sean Lee a healthy scratch, and Smith and Vander Esch combined for 25 tackles and, of course, Smith had the 69-yard fumble return for touchdown in a seven-point win that clinched the NFC East for the Cowboys.

5. I think I was surprised watching Carolina-New Orleans last week on ESPN when Booger McFarland said he hopes the Panthers will get an offensive playmaker, an Amari Cooper type, for Cam Newton in the near future. Surprised because I think McFarland is a good analyst, and because the Panthers have done nothing but acquire offensive playmakers for Newton in the last five years. You can fault the guys they picked, but in the last five drafts, Carolina has had seven choices in the first 45 picks of the draft. Five of those seven picks have been offensive playmakers—supposedly potentially explosive offensive playmakers:

2014: First round, 28th pick. Kelvin Benjamin.
2015: Second round, 41st pick, Devin Funchess.
2017: First round, 8th pick, Christian McCaffrey.
2017: Second round: 40th pick, Curtis Samuel.
2018: First round, 24th pick, D.J. Moore.

Newton has enough talent around him. At some point, you’ve got to address the rest of your team. Now Newton has a Le’Veon Bell-type impact player in McCaffrey. The problem for Newton this year, and why he should not be judged harshly on his late-season performance, is his shoulder. He needs to get that right before he’s judged with this crop around him.

6. I think you may have your holiday shopping done, but if not, and if you’re around a bookstore today, look for “Collision of Wills,” a book by Jack Gilden on the rocky relationship between Don Shula and John Unitas in the sixties. But it’s about more than that—it’s about football in the sixties too. I had Gilden on my podcast recently, and he read a passage from his book about Vince Lombardi and his nonchalant approach to concussions (according to former Packer center Bill Curry), that really slapped me in the face:

In his second year Curry played in a preseason game against the Steelers. He was kicked in the head with a blow so violent, he dropped to the grass as if gunshot. In fact, he had just suffered another severe concussion. He attempted to regain his senses and continue playing, but when the quarterback signaled for the ball, Bill failed to snap it two times in a row.

After the game he wasn’t even capable of dressing himself. His wife had to be called to the locker room to put his clothes on for him. Later that night, at a team dinner, Lombardi checked on Curry’s heath by asking a series of questions.

“Curry, do you know where we are?”

“No, sir,” Currey answered.

“Do you remember how you got here?”

“No, sir. I sure don’t.”

“Curry, who won the game?”

“We did, Coach.”

“Good!” Lombardi screamed, and everyone erupted in laughter at the sight of an intelligent young man reduced to the state of an advanced geriatric patient by a serious brain injury.

Two days later Curry still had a “splitting headache.” He was sitting in the locker room holding his head when Lombardi walked in and ordered an assistant coach to take the young player out on the field in full pads. Ray Nitschke, one of the most feared men in football, was already outside waiting for him. The two were instructed to smash each other at full speed, over and over.

7. I think that gives me second thoughts on the legacy of Lombardi. To be clear, this is the remembrance of one man, Curry, and the other man, Lombardi, is not here to address this story. And if Curry was concussed at the time, it’s certainly possible that his memory of the events has been affected. Also, head trauma was not treated with the gravity it should have been then; we know that now. But man, that is a tough thing to read about Lombardi. No matter how you feel about him, he did have a great run coaching the Packers, and that story is disturbing.

8. I think Kansas City defensive lineman Chris Jones not making the Pro Bowl in a year in which he’s one of the best five defensive players in football is the best 2018 example why I could give two flips about the game and the selections. The picks and the “injury” replacements and the game are altogether unimportant and every year I see people freaking out on Twitter with who didn’t make it and who did. It’s like freaking out if your DVR messes up and doesn’t record a “Seinfeld” rerun.

9. I think we all hope Josh Gordon gets well, and lives a long life, and rids himself of the scourge of addiction, which plagues this country terribly right now. By every account, he is a likeable person and hard worker. But (and you knew there’d be a but), in an era of explosive offenses league-wide, I fault the Patriots for not signing Brandin Cooks in the offseason, and I fault them for not getting a receiving weapon for Tom Brady when Cooks was traded to the Rams in the spring. Trading for Gordon in Week 3 was nothing but a Hail Mary. This is a person who was suspended twice by Art Briles at Baylor, and was either suspended or self-reported and left the Browns five times for substance or mental issues. Now with the Pats, Gordon has been suspended again by the NFL (almost certainly for at least a year) for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse program. Bill Belichick risked the Patriots’ offense, with a lesser Rob Gronkowski, with Julian Edelman aging and gone for the first four games, on the 41-year-old Tom Brady, and on the risky Gordon. Yes, the Patriots are 10-5, and they have won the AFC East for the 93rd straight year. But it’s hard to envision them going on a Patriots-like January run. The team should have done more to weaponize the offense when it had a chance last spring.

10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:

a. Merry, merry, merry Christmas.

b. I hope, if you celebrate, that your Christmas is as wonderful as mine growing up in Enfield, Conn., raising our family in Cincinnati and Lincoln Park, N.J., and Bloomfield, N.J., and Montclair, N.J., and now living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and, occasionally, spent on the West Coast with family.

c. RIP, Terry Hutchens, 60, the five-time Indiana Sportswriter of the Year who died Friday after being injured in a car wreck in Fishers, Ind. Always giving, always friendly, and a true worker bee. So sad for his family. Tweeted Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star: “I remember I was a college freshman when I emailed a dozen sportswriters in town, begging them for a job shadow. Hutch was the only one who responded. Picked me up and let me cover an IU game with him.”

d. Sports Story of the Week: from Robert Andrew Powell of The Athletic, on Mike Piazza’s ill-fated foray in Italian soccer ownership.

e. That’s an incredible story, the story of Mike and Alicia Piazza owning a team in Italy.

f. “It’s a tragedy,” Mike Piazza told Powell. ”Like an opera.”

g. “It was f—ing hell,” Alicia Piazza said.

h. Football Story of the Week: by Kevin Clark of The Ringer, on the rise of analytics in the NFL. Still so much we don’t know, but Clark’s point is a good one: If you don’t get on the train soon, you’re going to get steamrolled by the teams using modern tech.

i. Football Feature of the Week: by Jenny Vrentas of The MMQB, a great story for the Christmas season, about Chargers cornerback Desmond King and the care he has shown his younger brother Devon, who for years was non-verbal, communicating solely by drawing. All kids should have a big brother like Desmond King.

j. News Story of the Week: by Sarah Mervosh of the New York Times, on the rate of gun deaths in 2017 being highest in at least 50 years. Of the 40,000 deaths by gun, two-thirds were suicides.

k. Shrug.

l. So a restaurant in New York closed over the weekend, a very good restaurant called The Red Cat in the Chelsea neighborhood. I loved it. Quirky (bowls of radishes, of all things, on the bar), great food, wonderful service. The Red Cat didn’t close because of a bad lease or anything nefarious. It closed because the owner, Jimmy Bradley, got tired of the rat race after 20 years and is going home to Rhode Island. The New York Times wrote and did some lovely photos on the closing of the place. You may remember me writing a bit about The Red Cat last February. I introduced you to my Turd of the Week. My note:

For Valentine’s Day dinner, my wife and I went to a restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, The Red Cat. We had a reservation for 6:15 and arrived about 6:10. In front of us when we entered the place: two men, 40ish, one of whom was asking if a table was available. We’re full, the fellow at the front said. One of the guys saw six or eight in the restaurant that were unoccupied and asked if they could take any one of those. “Sir,” The Red Cat guy said, “it’s Valentine’s Day. We’re totally booked.” On and on the 40ish guy went. He would not take no for an answer. Couples gathered in the doorway. Finally, The Red Cat relented. “We’ll seat you,” he said.

To which the Turd of the Week turned to his acquaintance and said so that anyone within 20 feet could hear, “Can you believe that? I had to f—ing beg for a f—ing table!”

Turd Guy was seated, and then it was our turn. The poor Red Cat guy. Totally embarrassed, as he turned to us and was all professional and polite. But shaken. I thought, I’m glad I’m not on the front line of the restaurant business in New York City.

The guy at the front counter: Jimmy Bradley. Maybe stories like those made him think he wanted some time to get his sanity back.

m. Coffeenerdness: I might get drunk on Peet’s Vanilla Cardamom Lattes before I leave San Francisco. Whoever figured out that combo of spices and flavors and espresso absolutely must go to the Espresso Hall of Fame.

n. If you have a chance for a meal in Providence, I’d recommend Trattoria Zooma. We had a holiday family dinner there on Tuesday, in the heart of Federal Hill. Ask for Armando. He knows his wine (there’s a superb Chianti there), and if you’re really nice, he’ll give you some of the peasant bread dish that’s directly from the old country.

o. Guesses: Bryce Harper to the Dodgers, Manny Machado to the Yanks.

p. How did that Yasiel Puig trade help the Reds get in position to win a title, or even a division? Trading one great and one good prospect and taking on salary-dump vets is not a way for a small-market team to win.

q. Andrew Miller to the Cardinals is not a good signing. It is a great one.

r. Daniel Murphy to the Rockies is not a good signing. It is a great one.

s. If Murphy plays 155 games, he will be in the top five for N.L. MVP next year.

t. Finally, congratulations to Associated Press sportswriter Bob Baum on his splendid 43-year career—including his final Cardinals game Sunday. Larry Fitzgerald presented him with a framed “43” Cardinals jersey at the post-game press conference. Cool event.

Monday, Monday

20

Oakland 26, Denver 21. Is this really how it ends? Does football in Oakland end with a meaningless game on Christmas Eve after 59 seasons? I truly hope not. Football in Oakland is a gift, a wonderful example of what pro football can do to a community, a great example of bringing people from disparate backgrounds together, comfort and bells and whistles be damned. When I visited last year in September, I walked through the parking lot and found this:

Cigars. Filets. Andouille sausage. Burgers. Cheap dogs. Raider-themed Bud Light cans. Dancing people. Tito’s Handmade Vodka. Rap. Sinatra. Gangsta Rap. Freakazoids. An 89-year-old woman with a Raiders jacket, a Raiders watch, Raiders rings. A ton of “Stabler 12” jerseys. More “Lynch 24” jerseys. Chips. Salsa. Guac. Skittles. Boomboxes. Crappy old radios. Gigantic boomboxes. Modelos. Lots of Modelos. Blacks. Whites. Hispanics. Asians. More African-Americans than I’ve seen at an NFL game—maybe ever. Insurance salesmen. Dudes in Raider Halloween costumes. Moms cooking sausages. Kids playing cornhole. The melting pot that is the United States. It’s right here, in a parking lot in northern California. An atmosphere like this one—scary to some, real to others—is disappearing around the corporate NFL. “It just sucks to see it go, because this is how you want to bring your kids up,’’ said a fan I met, Gabriel Nevarez of Newark, Calif. “Loving a team. When I was younger, people always said about this place, ‘Oh, don’t go there, don’t go there. It’s rowdy.’ I was bringing my kid when he was two years old. We’ve never had any issues.”

Have a fairly idle Christmas Eve? In the Bay Area? Go to the Coliseum. Scalp a ticket. Walk through the tailgates. This is what the NFL should be embracing, not abandoning.

The Week Ahead

Tuesday … in America. Christmas Day birthdays in the NFL, and we have a few notables down memory lane:

Norm Bulaich, Colts, 72
Austin Carr, Saints, 25
Larry Csonka, Dolphins, 72
Hanford Dixon, Browns, 60
Jeff Rohrer, Cowboys, 60
Ken Stabler, Raiders, 73
Demaryius Thomas, Texans, 31
Howard Twilley, Dolphins, 75

The Adieu Haiku

10

Game 256:
Colts at Titans. Win and in.
Andrew Luck’s biggie.

24 responses to “FMIA Week 16: NFL Playoff Scenarios, Picks and Millen’s Holiday Prayer

  1. In a league whose last decade has been marred by litigation, rules changes no one understands, relocations and too many off-field issues, I give you Larry Fitzgerald. The HOF just doesn’t seem to be enough of a reward for this man.

  2. The best way to fix the officiating problem is to finally make any penalty reviewable. If a coach wants to use a challenge on one, let them him.

  3. Peter, I’m not sure how you can put JuJu in as a goat of the week when you look at that play. He was tackled in a very awkward way, unable to get down with a 300 pound lineman yanking on the ball in the opposite direction of where he needed to roll. I’m an avid Steeler fan for almost 50 years now (since Franco’s rookie season) and as disappointed as any fan that a team with this much talent is most likely not going to make the playoffs. If you want to Goat someone in addition to Ridley it should be Tomlin, not JuJu. In the last 10 years I have not felt once that we have had a strategic advantage because Tomlin is our coach and that has shown itself over and over again. I have not seen any improvement in his skills as a coach over the last few years and strongly feel it’s time to turn the page. I think Mike Munchak would be perfect and deserves a second shot at HC and he is clearly highly respected by the entire Steelers team for his work with the offensive line. I don’t want to lose him to another team.

  4. The technology exists for the NFL to have refs in-studio to correct on-field calls and non-calls in real-time, without slowing-down the games. Why isn’t the NFL moving more quickly towards that? It’s completely disheartening for fans to see some bogus call determine the outcome of a game.

  5. jersey73 says:
    December 24, 2018 at 7:46 am
    The best way to fix the officiating problem is to finally make any penalty reviewable. If a coach wants to use a challenge on one, let them him.
    =========================
    I used to think this was the proper solution. However, I now think: (1) the referee’s union would never permit that, and (2) the video review team would decide to back the referees’ judgement to the extreme (this has already started with Al Riveron). It’s one thing to review a fumble or if the ball crossed a goal line, it’s another when you start to review subjective calls which may in some way expose their integrity, competency, or bias. No way the union allows that.

    The problem with football is that it’s too complex and has too many broadly written rules so anything can be called on any given play. The philosophy of refereeing in football is often to “catch” these infractions as opposed to letting the players play. This is most egregious during the latter stages of the game, when referees sustain or kill game-determining drives with marginal ticky-tack penalty calls. In hockey, the refs swallow the whistle in the final period so the players decide the outcome. In football, the refs seem to want to determine the result.

  6. 1) the officiating is terrible, bordering on suspiciousm, too many result affecting calls
    2) spare me the pity for Pittsburgh, they didn’t seem upset when they got a TD vs New England last week on a phantom PI call
    3) Larry Fitzgerald just a class act
    4) Pat Mahomes has yet to win a “big” game matchup, until then it’s Drew Brees MVP award

  7. In hockey, the refs swallow the whistle in the final period

    Back when I used to watch, I really enjoyed that. They knew how to do it. Fighting all but disappeared in the playoffs, but intensity on ice was great.

  8. Great observation regarding hockey. The NHL realizes the reason the fans watch the game is to watch the players perform. The NFL officials feel it is their job to inject themselves into the game as much as possible. It is the worst officiated sport on the planet and it’s not even close. Too many rules, too subjective and entirely too inconsistent. I very rarely enjoy a great play in “real time” because I’m relatively sure there will be some penalty called and additionally it will be of a dubious nature. Officiating has made the sport virtually unwatchable. Get out of the way and let the players play. In my opinion that has more to do with game day attendance being down. As a live event they have made it tedious, slow, dull and arbitrary. I see exact same plays called differently in the same game…….(holding, pass interference, unnecessary roughness, etc.). Fix it NFL !!!! You’re killing a great game for all of us.

  9. The NFL Isn’t serious about solving its officiating problem. They continue to trot Walt Coleman, Walt Anderson, and a number of other dinosaurs out there every week. This is the “highest level” of football in the world, right? At the highest level of international soccer, referees are forced to retire at 45 years of age, as they can’t keep up with the game. There are officials out there every week who make Chris Farley look like David Spade. The game is too fast and too nuanced to have geezers out there with whistles. Have you ever seen a fat NHL red or linesman? Exactly.
    Until that’s fixed, 16 teams each and every week will have a gripe about getting jobbed on PI, Holdkng, or Roughing the Passer.
    It’s pretty hard to watch and explain to your kid why clear examples of holding are allowed, and phantom Pi is enforced.
    $.02

  10. Peter – I enjoyed your column as usual, but didn’t understand the relevance of the Lombardi story. Its not a surprise to anyone that the 1960’s were oblivious to concussions and their long term effects. Are we to think Lombardi was the only coach to have this attitude? I played youth football in the 70’s and 80’s and the phrases “bell rung” and “rub some dirt on it” were the norm. No one knew better. If you suddenly have issues with these coaching techniques, please look at more recent history within the media itself. The ESPN “jacked up” highlights are from the recent past and actually promote this type of mentality. Missed officiating calls on “head to head” penalties are routinely occurring. There is no need to go back 50+ years and besmirch a HOFer from an uneducated point in time. Rings hollow on Christmas eve. Merry Christmas!

    Todd

  11. Hi Peter King,
    In the event no one else has mentioned it to you, your pre-season prediction about the success the Seattle Seahawks team is having this year was spot on. I’m not a Seahawk fan, but I do appreciate the experience and analysis you bring with every word you write. As for the Football New York Giants, would you put a good word for Eli Manning? He’s not done. Have a happy and safe holiday season. Bill

  12. Peter, changing one of the norms of officiating would help out a lot. On the mysterious pass interference call Sunday the official on the sideline of the end zone had a perfect view, he HAD to have seen there wasn’t a push in the back. If they had conferred, the flag could have been picked up. Officials need to talk and if someone is definitly wrong they should be over-ruled.

  13. Great column, Peter King, one of your best.

    I’ll just echo what you and other have said about NFL officiating. It’s gotten so when a game starts, bad calls are expected. When a touchdown is scored, the joy (or alarm) is lessened because you have to wait… and wait.

    I don’t know the fix, but take the phantom PI call on Steelers’ Joe Haden in the game against the Saints. If that penalty HADN’T been called, would ANYONE have clamored that it should have been? Not a chance.

    Somewhere in there lay the standard.

  14. again plus you also had the uneccsarry roughness call picked up on the saints with the offical saying there is no flag because the play was not completed or something, when pouncey went you can’t do that because the play was over or how about them also in the chiefs seahawks game picking up a late hit and vinonivech going there was no late hit out of bounds when the ball carrier was still in bounds when he was hit, when the replay showed the guy was out of bounds and the whistle blew, and it was a bs call and oh of course them missing the blow to the head on mahomes when it was obvious, and had mahomes been a star qb, the flag would’ve been out a second after the pass was released

  15. Juju Smith Schewster played a fantastic game. It is unfortunate that he had a fumble. To call him a goat is irresponsible journalism. Look around the league. There were many players who played lot worse.

  16. Didn’t this same “emotion” happen when the Raiders went to LA? It definitely sucks to lose your homegrown football team, but for it to happen twice with the same franchise is something the folks in Oakland will need to revisit again and again. Should’ve built a stadium. Yeah, taxes suck to, but less than losing your team.

  17. Joe Flacco is the new Drew Bledsoe. At the time, Drew had a great quote “…I look forward to the opportunity to compete for my job.” I bet that is how Flacco feels…

  18. Vince Lombardi was the offensive coach in 1958. The defensive coach was a nobody named Tom Landry. Jim Lee Howell knew how to pick a staff.

  19. I’ve watched the NFL since the sixties. It just might be me but prior to all of the data available now, it seems the officiating is just under far more scrutiny. Back in the ’70’s, there was never a question of catch no catch. The biggest issue is pass interference. It should not be a spot foul. 15yds from scrimmage and a first down. That single change would be a game changer, for the good.

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