It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Twenty minutes on Sunday: from 7:20 p.m. Eastern Time to 7:40.
A lot happened that dictated so much about the NFL playoffs and the fate of the defending champs and the draft and the record book and the feelings of two rivals who hate each other’s guts. Stars were born and replays dawdled and nerves—particularly in Baltimore—were jangled to the point that Ravens backup quarterback Robert Griffin III walked up and down the sidelines saying like a mantra, over and over: “You gotta believe, you gotta believe, you gotta believe.”
It happens maybe once a year, intensity like this. If you’re lucky. And if the playoffs are anything like these 20 minutes, well, a good time will be had by all.
Off we go, with all times Eastern.
Seattle, 7:20 p.m. Arizona is 3-12, a lock for the first pick in the draft … or so we thought. Zane Gonzalez, the third kicker for the Cards in this disastrous season, boots a 55-yarder in Seattle to tie the game with 1:49 left. Man, the Cards can’t even lose right.
Minneapolis, 7:22 p.m. Kirk Cousins, down 14, throws incomplete on fourth down. Seventeen seconds left. “This game is over!” Joe Buck hollers on FOX. Vikes out of the playoffs.
Landover, Md., 7:22 p.m. Watching on a TV near the coach’s office in the visiting locker room, the Eagles have a businesslike celebration. “The clock hit zero-zero,” Fletcher Cox says, “and we celebrated a little, but just making the playoffs isn’t what we want.” The Eagles will be the sixth seed in the NFC. The Vikings will mourn lost chances. Crazy what’s happened to the Eagles since the 48-7 November loss to the Saints left them 4-6. Later, I ask Cox what the plane ride how from New Orleans was like. He said: “The biggest thing on that plane ride, man, we thought it was just one of those games. We got our eyeballs beat out. Next day, the [player leadership] committee met, coach met with us, and we were like, ‘Just gotta flush it.’ Since then, guys were all-in, whatever happened. Just have fun. Play together. Team ball. And we’ve been saying, ‘We all we got, we all we need.’ That’s truly how we feel. Forget everything, everybody, on the outside.”
Tampa, 7:23 p.m. First coach firing of the day. Down goes Dirk Koetter in Tampa Bay.
Pittsburgh, 7:24 p.m. Bengals throw incomplete on fourth down. Steelers will win 16-13 and pray for help from Cleveland in Baltimore. A Cleveland win (and the Browns will have one more chance, trailing 26-24) sends Pittsburgh to the playoffs. A Baltimore win kicks the Steelers out of the playoffs.
Seattle, 7:24 p.m. Russell Wilson, deep to Tyler Lockett, 37 yards to the Arizona 25. Field-goal range for the venerable Sebastian Janikowski, if he can survive a slew of timeouts (three of them) in the next four minutes.
Baltimore, 7:26 p.m. End game of Browns-Ravens feels like the end of a playoff basketball game. Endless. Close call inside two minutes on a Breshad Perriman reception on the sideline … replay. Taking forever.
Pittsburgh, 7:28 p.m. The Heinz Field scoreboard starts showing the end of Cleveland-Baltimore. Fans stay.
Seattle, 7:28 p.m. Seabass, 33-yard field goal, :00 on the clock in Seattle. Arizona will pick first in the draft.
Pittsburgh, 7:29 p.m. “LET’S GO BROWNS! LET’S GO BROWNS!”
Baltimore, 7:30 p.m. Browns down 26-24; 95 seconds left. Baker Mayfield throws to a diving Jarvis Landry over the middle at the Baltimore 39, on the edge of field-goal range. Incomplete. But wait. Replay review. An endless, agonizing review.
Pittsburgh, 7:32 p.m. Steelers kneel on the field, JuJu Smith-Schuster, still in full uniform, walks around nervously, watching the big screen.
Baltimore, 7:34 p.m. Jim Nantz says Landry’s got a case. Rookie ref Shawn Smith and Al Riveron back in New York agree. It’s crazy, but the Browns, down two, get the replay reversal, and it’s first down at the Baltimore 39. Browns need nine or 10 yards to have a good shot at a field goal. “I can’t tell you the feeling,’’ said someone who was on the Ravens’ sideline. “We’d lost the playoff spot at home on fourth down on the last play against Cincinnati last year, and now it was starting to feel like that. I’m thinking, This can’t be our legacy.
Baltimore, 7:35 p.m. Tony Romo: “You wanna be the number one defense in the league, Baltimore? It’s time for you guys to stand up right now and close it out.” Mayfield throw incomplete on first and second down.
Los Angeles, 7:36 p.m. Weird outlier: San Francisco tight end George Kittle, on a 43-yard TD in garbage time against the Rams, sets the NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end—1,377.
Baltimore, 7:37 p.m. RG III: “You gotta believe, you gotta believe.” Pacing. Third down, Mayfield, incomplete over the middle to David Njoku.
Baltimore, 7:38 p.m. Fourth and 10. Mayfield, trying to throw over the line to running back Duke Johnson … oh no … Veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley leaps, picks it off, and the roof gets blown off M&T Bank Stadium. Wait—it has no roof. Well, it’s loud. The blitz got to Mayfield. “If we were going down, we were going down swinging,” Baltimore defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said later. “We zero-blitzed on all four downs there.”
Pittsburgh, 7:39 p.m. Mostly in silence, the Steelers file into their locker room. Season over.
Baltimore, 7:40 p.m. Lamar Jackson closes it out with a kneeldown in victory formation. “Game over!” he yells when the clock runs out, and throws the ball 65 yards into the stands.
Four hours later, the Colts would finish the year with a 33-17 win over Tennessee, making Indy an unlikely 12th and final playoff team. Not a bad way to finish the NFL’s 99th regular season.
Indianapolis (AFC 6th seed, 10-6) at Houston (AFC 3rd seed, 11-5), 4:35 p.m. ET, ESPN. I remember a phone call with Frank Reich about 55 weeks ago, one late night last December. He was bummed. He thought his shot to be a head coach was slipping away, maybe forever. And as the musical chairs filled in January, and he was left without a job again, he accepted that maybe he’d never get that shot. Then, of course, Josh McDaniels backed out of the Colt job, Reich played a huge role in Philly’s offensive explosion in the playoffs with a backup quarterback, and Colts GM Chris Ballard noticed. “One of the greatest audibles of all time,” Al Michaels called the pivot to Reich, and of course he’s right. Reich has been the perfect coach for a revived Andrew Luck, and the perfect, patient coach for a young team that started 1-5 and won nine of its last 10 to earn the NFL’s last of 12 playoff spots Sunday night in Nashville. To beat Houston, a line that allowed only 18 sacks of Andrew Luck in 16 games will have to be that good again. Jadeveon Clowney has become as dangerous a defensive force as a healthy J.J. Watt, so the Colts can’t double just one guy anymore. On the other side, Deshaun Watson got sacked a league-high 62 times, and though he had an excellent year (68.3 percent, 103.1 rating), he may have to run more than the Texans want so he can escape the Colts’ improving pressure up front. It’ll be cool to see Luck in the playoffs for the first time since the Deflategate Bowl in Foxboro four years ago. Colts and Texans split their games this year. Composite score: 58-58. Should be fun.
Seattle (NFC 5th seed, 10-6) at Dallas (NFC 5th seed, 10-6), 8:15 p.m. ET, FOX. How strange. Dallas has the league rushing champion, but Seattle had the more productive run game this year. Hmmm. Ezekiel Elliott or Chris Carson. Who’d you rather have? But Seattle, after replacing Tom Cable with Mike Solari as offensive line coach, ran for a steamrolling 2,560 yards (4.8 per rush), compared to Dallas’ 1,963 (4.5 per rush). That could help Seattle take the Dallas crowd out of the game early. Running it so well has helped Russell Wilson have his best season (35 touchdowns, seven picks, 110.9 rating). Dallas’ two young linebackers, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, will be vital against the run and in spying Wilson. Offensively, the Cowboys have developed enough weaponry to win without Elliott dominating, as they showed in the 36-point game at the Giants on Sunday, when Elliott was a healthy scratch. The difference here could be how much the Seattle front seven, led by veteran linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, can dent the Cowboys’ offensive line and pressure Dak Prescott, who was sacked a surprising 56 times this year. Seattle beat Dallas in Week 3, 24-13, in the Earl Thomas middle-finger game. Seems like 12 months ago, not three.
Los Angeles Chargers (AFC 5th seed, 12-4) at Baltimore (AFC 4th seed, 10-6), 1:05 p.m., CBS. The rematch of one of the best games of the NFL season, 15 days and 2,700 miles apart, should be compelling. Even though the Chargers led the game for only one minute, it felt a lot closer than 22-10, Ravens, when they met at the StubHub Center in California Dec. 22, a defensive duel that got broken up in the second half with a Lamar Jackson touchdown bomb and a late Antonio Gates fumble-turned-Ravens-TD. The Chargers are going to have to find a way to stop the flood of the Ravens’ running game. In the seven games quarterbacked by Jackson, Baltimore has rushed for 267, 242, 207, 194, 242, 159 and 296 yards. While the rest of the league is closer to 65-percent passing, the Ravens of the last seven weeks have been 65 percent runs. It’s like old-time football. When I spoke to Jackson on Sunday night, he wanted to be sure I understood he did more than just run. “I mean, we’re throwing the ball out there too,” he said. “I don’t know about back in the day. We are doing by design. We play a complete game.” The run is a weapon Baltimore didn’t have pre-Jackson, and it’s been a revelation to watch it. For the Chargers, playing Baltimore a second time in such a short window has to help the Chargers in recognition. Philip Rivers must play better than he did in the first meeting, when he threw a pick on the first Chargers snap of the game and never had a drive longer than 35 yards. The NFL has become a mega-points league, but I doubt this will be a game with 40 points scored. The Chargers will make Lamar Jackson beat them with his arm (or try to), while the Ravens will try to zero-blitz pocket passer Rivers into mistakes. Not sure how much this comes into play Sunday, but the Chargers are a 7-1 road team this year. No other AFC team has more than five road wins.
Philadelphia (NFC 6th seed, 9-7) at Chicago (NFC 3rd seed, 12-4), 4:40 p.m., NBC. The heart says Nick Foles. The head says Khalil Mack. Watching the Chicago defense swarm around Kirk Cousins all day Sunday (albeit in a climate-controlled stadium in Minneapolis; who knows what the conditions will be Sunday afternoon on the shores of Lake Michigan), I wondered how any quarterback would have the time and space to dice up the Bears D. The presence of Mack allows Akiem Hicks and Leonard Floyd to take their star turns. Foles won’t be cowed by them, or by the noise that will make a silent snap count imperative. But if his ribs or chest affect him, that’s another distraction from playing a tight offensive game. The rise of the Bears has been more of a defensive story, but they’ll need the shifty Tarik Cohen to make plays against an oppressive Philly front that’s been dominant at times but also generous against the run. Three times in the season’s second half the Eagles allowed more than 140 rushing yards to a foe. Clearly that’s how the Bears will want to want to play this game, with an efficient and clock-eating run game. The Eagles are dangerous. They’ve played in bigger games than the Bears have over the past 13 months, and an early deficit won’t rock Philly. I’ve got a feeling this is a tight game late in the fourth quarter.
How the coaching carousel looks on the dawn of Black Monday:
Cleveland: It’s a more wide-open field now. With the Browns showing so much promise in a 5-3 second half, this is a far more attractive job than it was two months ago. Given the success of Freddie Kitchens as offensive coordinator—Baker Mayfield loves him and responds to him—my sense is the Browns feel they don’t have to get the next great offensive brain to work with Mayfield and develop an offensive identity. They might have that guy now. So that could put a defensive presence like Vic Fangio of Chicago in play, or even a special-teams guru like Dave Toub—well known to GM John Dorsey from their days in Kansas City. Gregg Williams will be interviewed for the gig, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be a serious candidate. I still think McDaniels and Lincoln Riley will be vetted by the Browns too.
Green Bay: The Pack is rounding up some different suspects. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is an interesting name; he’s done a lot with less at the strong academic school, which could be appealing to GM Brian Gutekunst because so many marginal players need to play roles for NFL teams to win; roster churn in the NFL is a way of life. I’ll be surprised if the Packers don’t interview Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who I believe will be interested only in the best jobs on the market because he knows he has a bright future in New England. If I were McDaniels, those jobs this year would be Cleveland and Green Bay.
Arizona: No Mike McCarthy? Hmmmm. I said last week McCarthy could be interested in Arizona (for football and family reasons); CBS’ Jason LaCanfora said Sunday that McCarthy would not be a candidate there. This is an interesting job—assuming, today, that Steve Wilks is let go after one season—because Cards have had a talent drain and have not had impact drafts the last couple of years. Even though they have the first pick in the draft, GM Steve Keim could be on thin ice with one more bad season. So a head-coach candidate in Arizona could wonder: Who will my boss be in a year?
Denver: Vance Joseph could never stop the bleeding. Broncos had an eight-game losing streak last year, and Joseph vowed to be better at turning around the bad runs. This year, Denver had a four-game losing streak early, and finished the year losing four in a row. You just never got the feeling he could turn it around. That plus game-management issues (such as kicking the field goal, down four with 4:39 left at the Cleveland 6-yard line, and losing by one to the Browns Dec. 15) doomed Joseph, who will leave with an 11-21 record. The Broncos thought briefly of dumping the offensive coaching staff—John Elway wants to emulate some of the more imaginative offensive schemes in football—and pairing Joseph with a bright young offensive coordinator; I’m told Elway would not have brought Gary Kubiak back to run the offense. But Denver is more likely to blow it up today and start a wide search. Elway is most likely to try to find the best available offensive mind and build a staff around him.
New York Jets: Discipline, or a lack of it, killed Todd Bowles. Three straight seasons of 5-11, 5-11 and 4-12 are the obvious reasons Bowles will get fired. But this one play from Sunday’s desultory end of his reign crystallized how Bowles couldn’t get through to some undisciplined guys. Midway through the second quarter, defensive lineman Henry Anderson of the Jets had the harebrained penalty of the day, shoving Tom Brady after he threw the ball away on third down, giving the Patriots, already up 14-3, a fresh set of downs and, as it turned out, an easy third touchdown of the day. “There’s a reason why the Jets are 4-11,” Ian Eagle said on CBS. Yes there is. Bowles has railed against the lack of discipline, and now someone new will see if they can get through to players committing stupid fouls. I’m told it’s likely GM Mike Maccagnan will get one more coach to hire. If I were him, I’d try to convince Mike McCarthy to be interested. Not sure McCarthy would come—he is widely reported to be considering taking 2019 off—but control over the roster and the specter of coaching Sam Darnold should tempt him.
Atlanta: Beware, coordinators. The bloated Falcons coaching staff will likely be overhauled, with head coach Dan Quinn changing lots at the top. Endangered: offensive coordinagtor Steve Sarkisian, defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and veteran special-teams coordinator Keith Armstrong. Owner Arthur Blank will give GM Thomas Dimitroff and Quinn 2019, and maybe not much longer, to clean up this 7-9 mess.
Baltimore: Strange days in Maryland. As I wrote last week, I’m not sure John Harbaugh will sign an extension; he might, but it’s no sure thing. If he doesn’t sign, and if the Ravens decide not to proceed with a lame-duck head coach, it’ll be interesting to see where Harbaugh would land, because he’d easily be the hottest commodity on the market. First things first, though. The Ravens will be a tough out in the playoffs, and that’s got to be everyone’s first priority now, of course.
Cincinnati: Marvin Lewis out? Does it matter? Jay Glazer had Lewis out on FOX Sunday, and I don’t doubt it. I know Bengals owner Mike Brown, and I know how much he likes regularity, and I also know this would not be a widely sought job. I remember a few years ago discussing the Bengals job with a league executive, who said, “You mean the 33rd franchise?” The Bengals are not progressive, and they are not an attractive franchise, and I can’t imagine a coach who’d have other options wanting to succeed Marvin Lewis.
Tampa Bay: Dirk Koetter couldn’t fix Jameis Winston, and so he’s gone. With GM Jason Licht staying and lording over the coach search, it’s obvious the Bucs are going to give another coach the chance to save Winston’s Tampa career in 2019, year five of Winston’s time with the Bucs. The Bucs job is somewhere far south of Green Bay and Cleveland on the coach-desirability meter and north of Cincinnati. It’ll be interesting to see how much interest Licht can drum up among premier candidates.
Jacksonville: Should Doug Marrone be safe? He is, according to owner Shad Khan, despite another afternoon of player misbehavior that has been shockingly consistent for the most disappointing team in the NFL. “Stability should not be confused with satisfaction,” Khan said after the game in a statement confirming coach Doug Marrone, EVP Tom Coughlin and GM Dave Caldwell would return in 2019. Eleven months after the Jaguars blew a 20-10 lead with 10 minutes left in the AFC title game at New England, they finished 2018 as the NFL’s most disappointing team with a woeful 20-3 loss at Houston. I’m a bit surprised, though clearly Khan is doing this only because he knows disruption to the status quo could do more harm than good. But the leadership trio was also forewarned about 2019 thusly by Khan: “I will not overlook how poorly we accounted for ourselves following a 3-1 start. There were far too many long Sundays over the last three quarters of the season, with today’s loss in Houston being the final example, and that cannot repeat itself in 2019. That’s my message to our football people and players.” Right about the time that statement circulated, Coughlin ripped into de-activated backs Leonard Fournette and T.J. Yeldon for sideline behavior he deemed “disrespectful and selfish.”
Miami: Should Adam Gase be safe? I was surprised, too, to hear the respected Jay Glazer say this about the Miami coach on the FOX pregame show: “If he’s out, he will skyrocket to the top of a lot of lists.” Gase is 23-26 in his three seasons in Miami, with no playoff wins; he was hired to develop Ryan Tannehill into a prime NFL quarterback, and though Tannehill has missed 23 games due to injury during Gase’s tenure, the quarterback play between Tannehill and Jay Cutler has been mediocre at best. In his last 21 starts, Tannehill has not thrown for 300 yards in a game. Not once. The Miami Herald reported that EVP of football operations Mike Tannenbaum is likely to be fired, so that lends credence to Tannenbaum being the sacrificial guy, with Gase and GM Chris Grier staying. But we’ll see. Owner Stephen Ross isn’t happy with consistent irrelevance, so I bet he’ll knock on Jim and John Harbaugh’s doors before Gase can feel secure for 2019.
Carolina: Ron Rivera is safe. Good move, David Tepper.
The Envelope, Please
The awards are always difficult. They could be painful this year, because four incredibly strong candidates—Drew Brees (MVP), Pete Carroll (coach), J.J. Watt (Comeback Player) and Ryan Pace (Executive)—all could fall short though they have excellent cases for the highest honors in their fields.
The Associated Press hands ballots to 50 voters in the football media for the annual awards, which will be announced Feb. 2, in Atlanta, the night before the Super Bowl. The NFL awards are basically all-or-nothing deals: voters are asked to pick one man in each category. I don’t do that all the time; I’ve split my vote on many occasions for certain awards.
A word about the MVP, which is the Holy Grail of the awards. The voting has not been close since 2005, when Shaun Alexander beat Peyton Manning 19 votes to 13. Since then, the winner has had an edge of at least 10 votes each year. I have no idea whether this year will be close or a runaway, but there are certainly two deserving candidates—Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Saints QB Drew Brees.
We’ll start there.
MVP: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City
The late Paul Zimmerman left me with one indelible lesson: “USE YOUR EYES! What did you see!” What I saw watching the game this season was Mahomes, a 23-year-old kid, an electric kid, taking over a division champion when incumbent Alex Smith was traded, playing like he belonged from the first series of the season, outplaying Philip Rivers on the road in Week 1, outplaying Ben Roethlisberger on the road in Week 2, throwing a left-handed desperation pass completion on third-and-five at Denver on the winning late drive in Week 4, going toe-to-toe with Tom Brady and surviving a bad first half in a 43-40 loss in Week 6, hiccupping at the Rams in the bizarre 54-51 November loss, and then willing his team to beat the formidable Ravens in Week 14.
But nothing is easy in this MVP season. In the last four weeks, I had the following leaders: Brees (Week 13), Mahomes (Week 14), Brees/Mahomes tied (Week 15), Mahomes (Week 16). The difference? Paper thin. Brees threw only three touchdown passes in the Saints’ last five games (he sat out the fifth), and New Orleans looked mortal offensively in every Brees game after Thanksgiving, against Dallas, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Pittsburgh. (Teddy Bridgewater played Sunday against Carolina.)
Finally, there’s the matter of touchdown passes. Mahomes 50, Brees 32. That matters. It’s unfortunate that Brees, who turns 40 in two weeks, has never won the MVP, because he’s one of the best quarterbacks of all time. I struggled with this decision Saturday, going over data and simply thinking about it for a while. The leadership of Brees has to be factored, too; there are few more respected players than Brees. Anyone who votes for Brees gets no guff from me, because he’s just had the most accurate passing season ever, and he is the keystone to the team with the best record of the regular season. That matters too. But my eyes saw the explosive and exciting Mahomes as the better player this year, slightly, and he gets my vote.
Next: 2. Drew Brees, 3. Philip Rivers.
Coach: Matt Nagy, Chicago
Some strong contenders here, but I like the impact of Nagy. The Bears in the four years pre-Nagy: 5-11, 6-10, 3-13, 5-11. GM Ryan Pace hired Nagy in January from Kansas City, and he won more games than any first-year coach ever in franchise history (including George Halas with the pre-Bear 10-1-2 Decatur Staleys in 1920). Nagy did a smart thing in hiring a smart coach he didn’t know and empowering him—offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich—to help Mitchell Trubisky grow. We don’t know if Trubisky’s going to be really good, but Nagy did an excellent job of managing Trubisky and hiding his weaknesses.
Two things put me over the top with Nagy. After the devastating opening-night loss in Green Bay, he kept the team together, and the Bears won the next three (by an 88-41 count) to establish that he knew what he was doing. And I loved what he did in a stunning OT loss to the Giants in New Jersey in Week 13: Down seven in the last 10 seconds, he called a double reverse/halfback pass, and Tarik Cohen threw the tying pass to send the game to overtime. Chicago lost, but I love a coach who’s willing to put the game in such a risky scenario because he’s so confident in his players. Doug Pederson did it with Trey Burton and Nick Foles in the Super Bowl; Matt Nagy did it with Tarik Cohen and Anthony Miller with home-field in the playoffs on the line. That’s good coaching.
Next: 2. Anthony Lynn, T-3. Pete Carroll and Frank Reich.
Offensive Player: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City
A phenom. First-year starter. Threw more touchdown passes in a season than Tom Brady, Dan Marino, John Elway and anyone not named Peyton Manning ever did. There will be a 30-for-30 made about this Mahomes season one day.
Next: 2. DeAndre Hopkins, 3. Drew Brees.
Defensive Player: Aaron Donald, L.A. Rams
Hard to imagine a player—without a training camp, with a slew of new defensive mates to get accustomed—having a better year on the fly than Donald. Once he got used to his surroundings, Donald had 16.5 sacks in his last 10 games, and threatened Michael Strahan’s NFL sack record of 22.5. Donald finished with 20.5.
Next: 2. Fletcher Cox, 3. Khalil Mack.
Comeback Player: J.J. Watt, Houston
Watt overcame three years of injuries to be back to dominant form this year. In 2015, he played with a torn groin, a broken hand and a herniated disc. In 2016, he missed most of the year with surgery on the herniated disc. In 2017, he suffered a tibial plateau fracture, necessitating a risky surgery, with no guarantee he’d be able to play at the same level. His 14.5 sacks were impressive enough. The best thing for him and the Texans: He played dominating football for 16 games. The Andrew Luck comeback would win in almost any other year, but after being hurt for three years and returning to form, Watt seems the better pick to me.
Next: 2. Andrew Luck, 3. Marshal Yanda.
Offensive Rookie: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland
If stats alone determined the winner here, Saquon Barkley would be the pick, with his seven 100-yard games and four games with nine receptions or more … and also putting up the third season ever of 2,000 scrimmage yards by a rookie. But this one’s about stats and impact. Mayfield was The Man from the day he got drafted, and he willed the Browns from 0-16 to a stunning 7-8-1 record. He threw more touchdown passes, 27, than any rookie passer in history. And get this: The number one defense in football, Baltimore, gave up 300 yards passing only three times all season. The list: Patrick Mahomes, 377; Baker Mayfield, 376; Baker Mayfield, 342.
This was an incredibly successful season for the Browns. And it was Mayfield, who was a top-five quarterback in the league in passer rating in the second half of the year, at the center of it.
Next: 2. Saquon Barkley, 3. Quenton Nelson.
Defensive Rookie: Derwin James, L.A. Chargers
A thumper from day one, with 16 sacks/hits/hurries (second only to Jamal Adams among NFL safeties), James also held quarterbacks to a rating under 70 when thrown at. When I think of James, I think of two things. He’s precociously aggressive for a rookie. And he reminds me of a more lithe Troy Polamalu. James had to be really good to beat out NFL tackles leader Darius Leonard.
Next: 2. Darius Leonard, 3. Leighton Vander Esch.
Executive: Chris Ballard, Indianapolis
A tougher call for me than MVP. Ryan Pace picked the right coach (Matt Nagy), re-signed the right corner (a dubiously received deal with the underachieving Kyle Fuller), and made the trade of the year (for Khalil Mack). But think of Ballard’s year. He fires Chuck Pagano. He makes a deal with Josh McDaniels to be his coach, trusting McDaniels so much that he agree to hire three McDaniels-approved assistants—and then McDaniels decides to stay in New England after the Super Bowl. The musical chairs are full. No top-prospect coaches left. Ballard settles on a guy who had zero interest from any other teams when the coach carousel was spinning, Frank Reich of the Eagles. Then the draft. Knowing he wanted to build a fortress around Andrew Luck, Ballard picked a long-term guard (Quenton Nelson) in round one and long-term tackle (Braden Smith) in round two. He got two other starters in round two for the D: the leading tackler in the league, linebacker Darius Leonard and defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis. Sixth-round wideout Deon Cain went on IR in the summer or he could have been another star. All in all, this was a great year for Ballard.
Next: 2. Ryan Pace, 3. John Dorsey.
The Best of 201920
Now that the 2019 NFL schedule is official, here are the 10 games in the NFL’s 100th season (time flies when you’re having fun) that catch my eye:
Cleveland at New England. Baker Mayfield, coached by someone, and the tenacious Browns at 42-year-old Tom Brady.
Chicago at Oakland (or London, or San Francisco, or San Antonio, or Sacramento, or Kankakee). Wherever the Raiders lay their heads in 2019, their last pre-Vegas season, this will be the Khalil Mack Bowl.
Washington at Minnesota. The Kirk Cousins Bowl.
Seattle at Pittsburgh. 2019 will be Russell Wilson’s eighth season in the NFL, and his first trip to Heinz Field. Could be his last. If the NFL keeps the same scheduling mechanics, Seattle won’t return to Pittsburgh till 2027. That’s the year Wilson turns 39.
Indianapolis at New Orleans. Like Wilson and Pittsburgh, this will be Luck’s eighth year in the NFL (though he missed one entirely) and this will be his first trip to the Superdome. Love the Luck-Brees matchup.
Kansas City at New England. For the third straight year, the Chiefs play in Foxboro. KC won in 2017, 42-27. New England won in 2018, 43-40. I sense a trend.
New York Giants at New England. Odds are Eli Manning and Brady will be the quarterbacks. They’ve met five times. Eli 3, Tom 2. Margins of victory: 3, 3, 4, 4, 1. Giants won two Super Bowls, narrowly, among those five games. I sense a trend.
Seattle at Cleveland. Two quarterbacks averaging 5-11 5/8 in height meet for the first time.
Green Bay at Kansas City. First Aaron Rodgers-Patrick Mahomes matchup.
Los Angeles Rams at Pittsburgh. Aaron Donald’s a proud Pittsburgher, and played his college games at Heinz Field, and will be supremely motivated to play for the first and perhaps only time on home turf. Ben Roethlisberger might want to have a very quick release in this game.
BONUS GAME: Green Bay at San Francisco. Aaron Rodgers returns to his native land (he grew up in Chico and went to college in Berkeley), to play the team that passed on him for Alex Smith in 2005. Not really a grudge match. But Rodgers vs. Garoppolo is prime-time TV chum if I ever saw it.
What I Learned
Super Bowl linebacker/former broadcaster/former Lions GM Matt Millen, 60, who had a heart transplant one week ago today, about his role on the planet:
“I have not been spared for nothing. I feel like I have more of a purpose now—I just have to find out what it is. I’ve got to figure out what my Holy Grail is for the rest of my life. I can’t waste this opportunity.
“I know I am lucky to be here. When my doctor took out my heart, he saw how much it was damaged. It was awful. He said I must have tremendous reserve from training. That thing was so stiff and hard the doc didn’t know how it was still contracting to pump the blood.
“Amazing. It’s just a few days after surgery. They had to crack [my breastbone] open. And I feel good. I’m not taking any pain medication at all. In the ’83 Super Bowl, the Super Bowl after the ’83 season, I’m with the Raiders and we’re playing Washington. I dove over the pile to hit John Riggins, and their fullback, 39 [Otis Wonsley], a hell of a player with a cinderblock head, hit me so hard in the chest I couldn’t swallow right for two weeks. My wife Pat had to make me these shakes because I couldn’t swallow whole food very well. That was painful. This is more uncomfortable.”
I asked: “Some transplant patients say they are melancholy after the surgery because someone had to die for you to live. Are you?”
“No, not melancholy. More of a feeling that I’ve been given an incredible gift. There is a purpose to it. My heart came from a male, 6-2, 26 years old. Drug overdose. Think of the thought he had to put into this, to be a donor. He took the time to let it be known he wanted his heart to go to someone if he died, so they could live. What a gift. I’m going to figure out what to do about it.”
Three Questions With30
… Buffalo defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who played his last game of a 13-year NFL career Sunday, a victory over Miami before an adoring crowd in western New York. But first, three things you may not know about Williams:
- His first NFL tackle, in Week 1 2006, at Foxboro, was on a quarterback sneak by Tom Brady.
- He sacked Brady six times, more than any other quarterback.
- He once sacked Michael Vick twice in a game.
FMIA: Why now?
Williams: “I’ve got a handful of kids [five], and it’s time for me to get home. The way I figure it, I’d much rather be at T-ball games than watch them on FaceTime when they’re home in Louisiana and I’m up here in Buffalo in OTAs or the off-season program. I’m going to miss it, for sure. Health-wise and performance-wise, I know I could continue to play. The good thing is how good I feel right now.”
FMIA: What’s football taught you?
Williams: “Football has given me so much more than anything you can see or feel. It’s taught me about teamwork, fair play. It’s shaped who I am. Football’s hard. Makes you dig deep. Life’s hard. There is nothing like a team, nothing like a locker room, with the colors, the religions, the different backgrounds. One of my favorite teammates of all time is Marshawn Lynch, a city kid from Oakland, and me, a country kid from Louisiana. He’s just so real. Very very perceptive. He could sniff out the phonies better than any person I’ve met in my life.”
FMIA: What would you want your football epitaph to read?
Williams: “He gave his all every day for his teammates, for his community, for his organization.
He never cheated the game one day in his life.”
Offensive Players of the Week
Nick Foles, quarterback, Philadelphia. Well, he did it again. Last year it was a stunner over the Patriots to win the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl MVP. This year, it’s nothing quite as momumental—yet—but the surprise is nearly as much of a slap in the face. Foles led Philadelphia to three straight wins and a stunning sixth playoff slot in the NFC, finishing it off with 25 straight completions and a 28-of-33 day in the 24-0 shutout of Washington. Wouldn’t be Foles drama without this: He was hit hard in the fourth quarter and had to leave the game with an unspecified chest injury. Just more fodder for the Spielberg movie.
Dak Prescott, quarterback, Dallas. No one quite knew why Prescott was playing without his ace running back and left tackle, held out for a pre-playoff breather, and with nowhere to move in the playoff seeding. But hey, it was great fun while he played. Prescott completed 27 of 44 for four touchdowns and no picks, and his 32-yard TD laser to Cole Beasley in the back of the end zone (great catch, Beasley), followed by his two-point pass to Michael Gallup with 72 seconds left, beat the Giants 36-35.
Cody Latimer, wide receiver, New York Giants. If I’m Pat Shurmur watching Latimer make two one-handed catches while being blanketed by Dallas corners, I’m thinking, This guy is one of my five wideouts (or six) in 2019. Latimer’s first TD of the year, on standout Dallas corner Byron Jones, was a 21-yard one-hander. Then, with his right arm being pinned in the fourth quarter, Latimer made a lunging 31-yard catch, tipping the ball with his left hand and catching it just before hitting the ground. Then, with a minute to go and down 36-35, Latimer returned a kickoff to the Giants’ 48-yard line, putting them in position for winning field goal. Talk about putting some good tape out there for your team or the other 31 … Latimer won himself a job for 2019 on Sunday.
Defensive Players of the Week
C.J. Mosley, linebacker, Baltimore. Made the play of the season in the AFC North, the leaping interception of a Baker Mayfield pass on fourth-and-10 at the Baltimore 39, with the Browns one completion away from trying a field goal that would have broken the hearts of every Raven for the second straight year. The pick saved the 26-24 win for Baltimore and sent the Ravens to the playoffs.
Fletcher Cox, defensive tackle, Philadelphia. In a game with massive playoff implications, Cox, who would be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in an Aaron Donald-less league, sacked Washington quarterback Josh Johnson three times. The Eagles held Washington to eight first downs and 89 yards in Maryland, where there seemed to be more Eagles fans in the stands than Washington fans.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Matt Prater, kicker, Detroit. Usually it’s the holder on a field-goal try who gets to throw the fake field-goal pass. Not the Lions. Midway through the second quarter, the ball at the Green Bay eight on fourth down, Prater took a direct snap, didn’t even bother to get his fingers on the laces, and threw a perfect pass 25 yards in the air to Levine Toilolo in the corner of the end zone. A lovely throw by the 34-year-old Prater in his 171st pro game, the first touchdown pass, and the first completed pass, of his 12-year NFL life.
Cameron Malveaux, defensive end, Arizona. With the Cards down 21-13 late in the third quarter, Malveaux, on the punt-rush team for Arizona, stormed through the line to smother a Michael Dickson punt. The Cards recovered in the end zone, made the two-point conversion, and very nearly upset the Seahawks with that play spurring the drama.
Casey Hayward, cornerback, Los Angeles Chargers. With 10:10 left at Denver and the Chargers nursing a five-point lead, Denver elected to go for two after a touchdown to cut the lead to three. Case Keenum threw for Courtland Sutton near the left pylon, and a yard deep in the end zone, Hayward picked/wrestled it free and began running. One hundred one yards later, Hayward crossed the other goal line for the odd and unusual two-point play. Instead of a 14-11 score, the four-point swing put LA up 16-9.
Coach of the Week
Doug Pederson, coach, Philadelphia. Think of the Eagles’ last seven weeks: 48-7 loss at New Orleans to fall to 4-6, out of any realistic playoff hopes; franchise quarterback Carson Wentz lost for the year (most likely) with a back injury; a painful overtime loss on a tipped pass to Dallas, all but handing the Cowboys the NFC East title; a stunning 30-23 upset of the Rams on the road with the backup mystic playing; a 32-30 squeaker over Houston with the backup mystic playing; and a 24-0 rout of Washington with the backup mystic playing till he got hurt late, and then the third-stringer, Nate Sudfield, mopping up. “Not a lot of people believed in us, but coach never stopped believing in us,” Fletcher Cox told me postgame. Heck of a job by Pederson, piloting his team through some very choppy waters.
Goat of the Week
Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Minnesota. Only one choice today. Cousins came into Minnesota with great fanfare, with a fully guaranteed three-year, $84-million contract, to put the Vikings over the top in their quest for a first Super Bowl title. But he’s always had the can’t-win-the-big-one label, and now it’s more than a label. It’s a ball-and-chain. The Vikings had a win-and-you’re-in game at home Sunday against Chicago—not playing for much, or so it seemed—and Cousins and the Vikings offense was awful in a 24-10 loss. The 10 Vikings drives ended thusly: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, field goal, touchdown, downs, downs, downs. “It never felt like the Vikings offense could compete,’’ Troy Aikman said on FOX. Ouch. It’s going to take a while for Cousins to get over the worst loss of his football life. Not sure the people who pay for tickets will be very forgiving—and I mean, next September.
Quotes of the Week40
“I don’t have a menu in front of me of all the tough losses. I’ll tell you it’s not the first. It won’t be the last. It’s a part of the journey. You play in this league long enough, you’re going to get kicked in the teeth. I have a lot of intestinal fortitude.”
—Kirk Cousins, after a feeble offensive performance in the game that knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs, a 24-10 home loss to Chicago.
“I wish I could do it all over again, but life calls.”
—Retiring Buffalo defensive tackle Kyle Williams, to CBS after his last NFL game.
“Best three-technique I’ve ever seen … He’s the best defensive tackle I’ve ever seen, period.”
—Hall of Fame defensive lineman Howie Long, on Aaron Donald, on FOX’s NFL pregame show Sunday.
“I feel indifference, indifference to the team that was a huge part of my life growing up … I’m not hopeful. I’m not mad. It’s easier to stop caring and move on.”
—Third-generation Washington season-ticket holder Steven Collins, to the Washington Post, on his feelings about the franchise under owner Daniel Snyder.
“I don’t see that [an NFL head-coaching job] as a step up, not in this profession. It’s not a burning desire of mine by any stretch right now. Not even close. It doesn’t compare to my burning desire to win a national championship here.”
—Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, after losing the college semifinal to Alabama, on his thoughts about being interested in an NFL job.
“He’s either going to be a major-league All Star, or a Pro Bowler. Maybe both.”
—Riley, on quarterback Kyler Murray, a first-round MLB draft choice last June and likely to be a high-round NFL choice if he chooses to play football.
If Kyler Murray decides to play in the NFL, these numbers, collectively, will be his best friend: 113.2, 109.4, 108.1. Those are the passer ratings in the second half of the season of the three undersized quarterbacks—in order, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Baker Mayfield—Murray must compare himself. (I used numbers since Nov. 1, the second half of this season, because I think those best mirror the real value of Baker Mayfield. It’s when Freddie Kitchens took over the Cleveland offense from Hue Jackson and Mayfield began to flourish.)
According to Draft Scout, Murray is 5-foot-9 ¾. Using measurements from their NFL Scouting Combine testing, Brees is 6-0 ¼, Wilson 5-10 5/8, and Mayfield 6-0 5/8.
Murray’s height will be an issue, and it probably should be; he is, according to Draft Scout, almost three inches shorter than Mayfield. But it should not damage him the way it damaged past short quarterbacks like Doug Flutie, simply because the NFL now has two top quarterbacks (Brees and Wilson) and potentially a third top QB in Mayfield who are all under 6-1. I would point to the touchdown-to-interception ratios of these three quarterbacks since midseason:
NFL teams are learning to tamp down size as an issue. Brees was the 32nd overall pick in 2001, Wilson 75th overall in 2012 … and Mayfield number one last year.
Interesting relationship between Rams tackle Andrew Whitworth and Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who played his last NFL game Sunday after 13 pro seasons.
They played football at arch-rival high schools, Williams at Ruston and Whitworth at West Monroe, in northern Louisiana. Out of season, Whitworth played on the West Monroe basketball team and Williams and his football mates would heckle Whitworth when their two teams met; Williams played on the Ruston baseball team, and Whitworth would heckle Williams in the field and at bat.
As a redshirt freshman at LSU, Whitworth hosted Williams on his official campus visit. Williams chose LSU. Whitworth and Williams roomed together at LSU and played on the same team for four years. Whitworth was a first-team all-SEC tackle as a senior. Williams was a first-team all-SEC defensive lineman as a senior.
They were NFL draft choices three rounds apart in 2006, Whitworth in the second round (Bengals) and Williams in the fifth round (Bills).
They played on the same pro football team twice in 13 NFL seasons: the AFC team in the 2012 and 2016 Pro Bowls.
Williams made five Pro Bowls. Whitworth has made four.
Williams has five children. Whitworth has four.
Williams lives in a home on a golf course in Ruston. Whitworth lives in a home on the same golf course in Ruston.
Their front doors are about 500 feet apart.
In Daniel Snyder’s 20 seasons as owner in Washington, the team has never won a game beyond the wild-card round of the playoffs.
The Tennessee Titans have become NFL TV darlings over the last two-thirds of the season. If you count nationally televised games alone in a TV window with no competition—that includes Monday, Thursday, and Sunday night games, along with late-season Saturday games, and early-morning games from London—the Titans have had more national games than any team in the league since Oct. 20.
Over the NFL’s final 11 weeks, Tennessee had six standalone national games.
Over the NFL’s final 11 weeks, New England and Pittsburgh and Green Bay, combined, had seven.
King of the Road
I am hopelessly, haplessly behind the times on TV series. I’ve pretty much given up on “Game of Thrones” and “The Americans.” I’m just too far behind, and I’m a bad binger. But on our Delta flight home from Christmas in San Francisco last week, I saw “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on the list of shows available. Why not? It’s only in its second year; I’m not too far behind. So I watched the first five episodes, going west to east, passing the time quite enjoyably.
Terrific premise, real-life Manhattan in the late fifties with a bright housewife who wants to be much more, and a disappointing husband, and some of the most nails-on-the-chalkboard in-laws with their claws in their kids’ lives. Liked all of it, with one exception: After five shows, I started to get the is-that-all-there-is feeling. I’ll finish the first year at some point, but I need the comedic action to speed up a bit. I’ll give it a 92 on Rotten Tomatoes.
One of the reasons I have fun with Pro Football Focus stuff can be illustrated with the esoteric—but meaningful—stuff I can find in conversations with the staff there, and in just poring over their data.
Five things I found over the weekend:
• The retiring Kyle Williams of Buffalo dropped into coverage on 87 snaps in his NFL career—a lot, seemingly, for a pure defensive tackle. On those 87 snaps, opposing quarterbacks had a 39.6 passer rating when throwing at him.
• In his prime—seasons seven, eight and nine of a 12-year career—the retiring Ryan Kalil of Carolina was the second-best center in football over those three seasons combined. Number one: Travis Frederick. Number three: Jason Kelce.
• The top-rated cornerback for PFF ratings, Stephon Gilmore of New England, allowed only 47.0 percent completions. The top-rated safety, Jamal Adams of the Jets, allowed only 48.8 percent completions. In a league that routinely sees quarterbacks complete 70 percent in a game, those numbers are terrific.
• Players in the top five at their positions that you might not expect: wideout Robert Woods (Rams), tackles Ryan Ramczyk (Saints) and Rob Havenstein (Rams), defensive end Myles Garrett (Browns). There are some eyebrow-raisers at tight end, such as San Francisco’s George Kittle routing the field and being the top-rated guy, and Trey Burton having a better year, per PFF, than Rob Gronkowski.
• You could see this coming, particularly late in the year: Jadeveon Clowney was rated higher than Von Miller and Khalil Mack at outside ‘backer.
A PFF Elite subscription gives you access to performance metrics the pros use.
Tweets of the Week
Tweeted when it was 21-0, Alabama, in the first quarter Saturday night.
Sunday night on Twitter, I asked who you’d pick if you had an MVP vote this year. You responded:
A sample of your opinions, emailed to me:
FOR PATRICK MAHOMES
Safety in numbers. From JP: “Numbers speak for themselves: 50-plus TDs and 5,000 yards. He’s fearless, mercurial and (should) lead the Chiefs to at least the Conference Championship game. His clutch plays have been instrumental in securing the Chiefs No. 1 seed, and his bounce-back ability from losses to the Patriots and especially the Rams have accentuated his resilience and nerve.”
Transformative performance. From Erik Q.: “My vote goes to Mahomes because not only did he have the best year statistically, he transformed the game, much like Marino in ‘84. Also, other candidates had some bad stretches that Mahomes did not have. Most consistent, most spectacular.”
It stands for Most Valuable Player, after all. From Ian C.: “The ONLY answer is Patrick Mahomes. Brees can get his lifetime achievement award some other time.”
I did ask for 50 words. From T.J.: “Touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown touchdown.”
FOR DREW BREES
He means business. From Jeffrey M.: “The most valuable player is the CEO that runs the best team in football. When passing yards and touchdowns are needed, he supplies them. When the defense and running game can, he lets them do their job. There is no doubt in my mind that Drew Brees is the MVP.”
Mahomes has more time. From Steve F.: “Drew – the ‘old man’ – has consistently been good and is having a great year. Patrick will have many other years to win.”
No question. From Jacob L.: “After dropping the first game of the season (by no fault of his own), Brees led the Saints to the best record in the league. He completed a whopping 74.4% of his passes, and unlike Mahomes, Brees beat his biggest in-conference competitor (LA Rams) in a shootout.”
FOR PHILIP RIVERS
MVP on and off the field. From Jake C.: “Career year of excellence, 12 wins, no home field advantage, stars on both sides of the ball missing substantial portions of the year, relentless positivity on and off the field, leadership, team in transition (San Diego to LA, not personnel), not a playoff team last year.”
FOR KHALIL MACK
Altering the team’s trajectory. From Benjamin R. in Northern Alberta, Canada: “Khalil Mack changed the trajectory of the Bears’ season, taking us from a middle of the road team to a 12-4 record. His pass rush and run-stopping ability was second to none in the league. Without him, Bears go 8-8 at best.”
FOR AARON DONALD
Target on his back. From Michael M.: “What Aaron Donald has done this season is incredible. Every team knows what he brings and targets him, and he still produces game after game.”
FOR BAKER MAYFIELD
Hope for the future. From Martin M.: “He not only saved a team, he singlehandedly turned around an entire culture of losing and gave a city hope for the future, and he’s only 23!”
FOR ANDREW LUCK
Full throttle. From Josiah C.: “Brees, Mahomes, and Rivers have slowed in the stretch run while Luck has accelerated. He has taken a demoralized team who had some serious concerns about his arm, had hired a coach that didn’t show up, and who started 1-5, on a 9-1 tear to end the season.”
10 Things I Think I Think
1. I think these are my quick-hit thoughts of Week 17 in the NFL:
a. Heck of a game Sunday night by Tennessee linebacker Jayon Brown, the second-year fifth-rounder from UCLA. It was more than just the pick-six off Andrew Luck; Brown is consistently around the ball.
b. Good, honest year for Bruce Arians on TV for CBS, at least the times I heard him. At the Oakland-KC game, seeing Derek Carr throw a pick-six bound for a receiver, Jared Cook, who wasn’t looking, Arians said: “How can Derek Carr throw that ball? I mean, I love Derek Carr, but he makes some decisions that make you go, ‘What the flip?’ He can’t throw it to that guy!”
c. Gorgeous downfield throw from Dak Prescott to Allen Hurns on the Dallas go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
d. The best quarterback playing for his future in the Superdome, by far, was Carolina’s Kyle Allen, not New Orleans’ Teddy Bridgewater.
e. Don’t want to make too much of it, but Bridgewater, starting for the first time in 36 months, didn’t make a great throw all day until his fourth-quarter dime for a touchdown to Tre’quan Smith.
f. Worst early window of games all year. Maybe all decade. That was some bad football, preseason quality football.
g. One of the best late-window weeks of the year, though.
h. The next Tampa Bay coach needs to figure out how to make Jameis Winston not throw a quarter of his passes (or more) two feet over his receivers’ heads.
i. Seabass, at 40, wins another game with a late kick.
j. Vinatieri, at 46, with a perfect 53-yarder … and a more perfect completely white beard.
k. Detroit’s beaten Green Bay four times in a row. That’s the first four-game Detroit streak in the series in 35 years.
l. The quarterback who helped his 2019 stock the most Sunday? Carolina third-stringer Kyle Allen, who played with confidence and a good-looking arm at New Orleans and made a big-league TD throw rolling right to rookie tight end Ian Thomas.
m. Really good analysis by Tony Romo of CBS on the Lamar Jackson touchdown run in the first quarter against Cleveland, pointing out how the Jackson spy on the play, Cleveland’s Damarious Randall, got faked out by Jackson’s play-fake in the backfield, enabling Jackson to run cleanly through the middle for a 25-yard touchdown. So smart.
n. How great is Alshon Jeffery on the sideline catches? He’s like Cris Carter. Just a great sense of where he is, and how many blades of green grass he has to work with on the sideline.
o. Yikes, Kirk Cousins: zero first downs for the Vikings in the first 23 minutes against the Bears.
p. Three players—Jerry Rice (1,549), Tony Gonzalez (1,325), and Larry Fitzgerald (1,302)—now have more than 1,300 NFL receptions. Fitzgerald got there fastest, in 234 games. Loved his one-handed TD catch from Josh Rosen in Seattle, the 116th TD of his career.
q. I can’t imagine the right word for Aaron Rodgers starting 16 games for the Packers, and Green Bay going 6-9-1. Embarrassing? Pathetic? Ridiculous?
r. Would not have predicted this: Adrian Clayborn (healthy scratch the last two games) has been a disappointment for New England. Just 2.5 sacks in 14 games. Might be a one-year stay in Foxboro for him.
s. Good luck in retirement, Pepper Burruss. The longtime Packers’ athletic trainer was in Green Bay for 26 years after being the Jets’ assistant trainer for 16 years. He was a fixture in the Brett Favre years, and spent more hours than anyone could count helping Favre keep his consecutive games streak alive.
2. I think it was a cool move by the Patriots, treating retiring ref Walt Coleman royally with an announcement in-stadium before the game, the awarding of a game ball by Robert Kraft to Coleman after the game, and Tom Brady seeking out Coleman after the game to congratulate him on his long career in officiating. The Patriots have every reason to love Coleman; he was the ref in the infamous Tuck Rule Game in the Patriots’ first Super Bowl season under Kraft-Belichick in 2001. But this wasn’t about that. It was about respect for long and meritorious service. “I told him congratulations on an incredible career,” Brady said Sunday night. “He had a lot of people finding him to congratulate him. A lot of mutual respect from his fellow referees players and coaches. He was a great referee.”
3. I think it’s unlikely the Raiders play their 2019 home schedule in London. Glazer reported there is support among NFL owners for the Raiders to play there next year, but I can tell you who would not support the Raiders playing in Oakland: Jon Gruden. He matters a little more than NFL owners. The logistics of it, even if the Raiders had two four-game homestands and two four-game road trips, would be ludicrous.
Let’s say the Raiders practiced in Oakland and used Oakland as its base for the eight American road games. Oakland plays two Eastern Time games next year and three in Central Time. So those are five trips of an average of, say, 2,000 miles each way. Then there would be two round-trips to London, 10.5 hours each way. That’s 10 domestic flights of between three and five hours each, and four international flights of 10.5 hours each. No team in NFL history has had any travel scenario close to that. And this is what Gruden said before the team’s London trip this year: “I hope I can make it, honestly. I had to fly 14 hours [to see his son at a weightlifting competition in Belarus], and I had to fly home 14 hours. I had vertigo for a month. I’m concerned. I’m more worried about that than our goal-line offense right now.”
4. I think that does not sound like a man who would tell owner Mark Davis: “Sure. Let’s play in London eight times next year!”
5. I think the Texans have scant hope in the playoffs with that offensive line.
6. I think I don’t know how the Dolphins bring back Ryan Tannehill at $26.6 million in 2019. Frankly, I don’t know how you’d bring Tannehill back at $6.6 million. With 23 games missed due to injury in the last 25 months, plus consistent gaffes like the interception thrown right to linebacker Tremaine Edmunds early Sunday at Buffalo, I can’t imagine the Dolphins viewing him as their long-term guy. They’d take a $13.4-million cap hit by releasing him. It’s been seven years. What hope do you have that Tannehill—who has not thrown for 300 yards in any of his last 21 starts—will wake up in 2019 and be a difference-making quarterback?
7. I think the Giants have a couple of major offensive issues entering the offseason: what to do at quarterback, and how to keep Odell Beckham Jr., healthy.
Beckham has missed 4.2 games per year in his five NFL seasons, and he said last week he would change nothing about his offseason training regimen. I see. Beckham has a strange aversion to water. (I am not kidding.) He just missed the last four games of this season with a quad contusion; it is wrong to question a player’s willingness to play through pain, but it is pretty odd to miss a quarter of the season with a quad bruise. The Giants will pay him a cap number of $21 million next year, an 11 percent chunk of their cap. Beckham’s got to be more than a 12-game player for that money.
Re Manning: There seems to be an assumption he’s safe for 2019. I don’t get it. I’m not saying he should be put on the street, but the Giants have continually put off upgrading at the most important position in football. Look around the league. Five-plus years after Joe Flacco was the Super Bowl MVP, the Ravens drafted Lamar Jackson to challenge Flacco, and Jackson has now won the QB job and energized the franchise. The Chiefs won the AFC West two years in a row with Alex Smith, then traded him to Washington and handed the quarterback job to Patrick Mahomes; looks like a genius move. We are one month shy of the seven-year anniversary of the Giants’ last Super Bowl win, which was their last playoff victory. The Giants are 18 games below .500 since. Among the 15 quarterbacks to start at least 80 games since then, per Pro Football Reference, Manning has thrown the most interceptions, and he’s 14th in passing rating (86.1) and 14th in yards-per-attempt (7.01). Forget whose fault it is. The offense is inconsistent, averaging 22 points a game even with Beckham and Saquan Barkley playing together. The Giants, in the last seven post-Super Bowl years, have never brought in serious competition for Manning, who turns 37 Thursday. If I’m a season-ticket holder, I’m demanding to know why.
8. I think I’d go one step further: If Dwayne Haskins is there at number eight in the first round April 25, the Giants have to pick him. I don’t think he’ll be there at eight, and the Giants may need to do something rash to get him. But it’s time.
9. I think the draft is in exactly 114 days. That gives the Arizona Cardinals exactly 114 days to make a great market for the first pick in the draft. They need to trade that pick. Too many needs to pick one player, particularly in a year when there’s not a Myles Garrett or obvious franchise player. They’ve got to hope a Haskins type catches fire in the run-up to the draft.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Robert Klemko! Congrats on the engagement. You and Dana will have a wonderful life together.
b. Football Story of the Week: Liz Clarke, Les Carpenter and Mark Maske of the Washington Post on the dysfunction of the local NFL franchise.
c. So much to unpack. Average FedEx Field crowd for NFL games in 2005: 89,625, first in the NFL. Average in 2018: 60,719 … 28th in the league. That led owner Daniel Snyder, in a Trumpian move last week, to fire his new business czar, Brian Lafemina, after just eight months on the job.
d. Fifteen times in 20 seasons of Snyder’s reign, Washington has finished at .500 or below.
e. Holiday Story of the Week: by Sally Ho of the Associated Press, a warm piece about Larry Naiman, a Washington state social worker, particularly frugal, who saved and saved and saved his entire life, and when he died this year at 63 left $11 million to children’s charities. Friend said he saved to help children “after seeing how unfair life could be for the most vulnerable children,” Ho reported.
f. Wrote Ho: “Many of the organizations benefiting from Naiman’s gifts said they didn’t know him … He left $2.5 million to the Pediatric Interim Care Center, a private organization in Washington state that cares for babies born to mothers who abused drugs and helps the children wean off their dependence. The group used some of what was its largest donation ever to pay off a mortgage and buy a new vehicle to transport the 200 babies it accepts from hospitals each year.” How did Naiman get to know the Interim Care Center? A decade ago, Ho reported, he called about a baby in need, and founder Barbara Drennen came late one night to pick up the baby to give the child the care the baby needed.
g. “I wish very much that I could have met him,” said the overwhelmed Drennen. We all do. What a story, Sally Ho.
h. I’ll be seeing “Vice” on New Year’s Day. Excited about it.
i. Coffeenerdness: Peet’s Vanilla Cardamom Latte (likely out of stock at your local Peet’s) > Peet’s Holiday Spice Latte (nice clove/nutmeg mix, but just too sweet).
j. Beernerdness: While in San Francisco last week, my daughter, who loves the hazy IPAs (AKA New England IPAs), had me try Planet Lovetron (where do they come up with these names?) from Revision Brewing (Sparks, Nev.). It’s about as hoppy as you can get, with a sharp citrus taste. Enjoyable. Not addictive, but interesting and different.
k. Johnny Bench! So good to see you on the Oklahoma sideline. You are aging well.
l. One moral of the college football playoff story, thanks to Notre Dame: It’s not good enough to go unbeaten, when you play a series of meh foes. The committee placing teams in the Final Four of football would be smarter to look at everything, including quality of victory, when considering which teams belong.
m. Notre Dame is not one of the best four teams in college football this year. When you beat Ball State at home by eight, when you beat Vanderbilt at home by five, when you beat a weak USC team on the road by seven, those close wins over mediocre teams should be factored.
n. Georgia, in the best football conference in the country, had 11 wins by 14 or more, lost to Alabama, painfully, by seven, and was the team that almost any measure could have given Alabama or Clemson the best game of any team in the country. But Georgia, instead, will play a game no one cares about tomorrow, the Sugar Bowl, against Texas.
o. I am not in favor of expanding the playoffs, by the way. “Student-athlete” in big-time college football is already the biggest joke in American sports.
p. Why? Let’s say this season had an eight-team playoff, and Clemson made the championship. The current championship is set for next Monday, Jan. 7. Presume the title game in an eight-game playoff would be Jan. 14. That would mean Clemson football players would begin summer practice Aug. 3, start classes Aug. 22, have football all the way through the semester, have exams the week after the conference title game, get a break or a week or so, resume practice for the college football playoffs, play on Dec. 29 and Jan. 7, likely miss the opening of spring classes on Jan. 9, 10, and 11, play the national championship game on Jan. 14, likely miss classes on the 15th, and, perhaps, report for class on Wednesday the 16th after missing the first week of classes. The fall term was already difficult enough. And now the “students” would have to make up a week’s worth of work after a 16-game season. I say: enough.
q. Then there’s Oklahoma. Late in the first quarter, I looked up and it was 21-0 Alabama and 191-0 in yardage, Alabama. Georgia pines. Georgia wonders, Where was our invitation to the party?
r. I get that Jim Harbaugh wants to find a franchise quarterback for his Michigan Wolverines. He’d better find a franchise defense. Michigan allowed 103 points in its last two games.
s. Fun in college basketball:
t. St. Francis (Brooklyn) beat Lafayette by 12.
u. Lafayette beat Fairleigh Dickinson by 4.
v. Fairleigh Dickinson beat Princeton by 11.
w. Princeton beat No. 17 Arizona State by 1.
x. Arizona State beat No. 1 Kansas by 4.
y. Ergo: St. Francis (Brooklyn) would be a 32-point favorite over No. 1 Kansas.
The Adieu Haiku20
Andrew Luck, playoffs.
The league’s better when Luck plays