It’s Dec. 23. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. But from the sound of Carson Wentz’s voice Sunday night, it might be a lot more wonderful for him than for you or I.
It’s Dec. 23, and Wentz is not in a back brace, or gimping around with a surgically repaired knee. In December two years ago, there was the season-ending, Super Bowl-eliminating knee injury suffered at the Rams. In December last year, there was the season-ending broken bone in his back that took Wentz away from another magical Eagles run to the playoffs. Foles envy. Major Foles envy.
So much about this crazy Eagles run from 5-7 three weeks ago to 8-7 and a firm grip on the NFC East title seems like the football gods paying back Wentz. Think about it: Hurt in December in two straight serendipitous seasons. The Eagles, in a show of faith, extended his deal for four years at $32 million per in July. The early returns were depressing, mostly. Slumping and wholly inconsistent, Wentz loses at home to the Lions, gets humiliated at Dallas, can’t throw worth a darn in losses to New England and Seattle, and starts December with a desultory loss at Miami. The next week, on the one-year anniversary of fracturing a vertebra in his back, Wentz and the Eagles reach the edge of a cliff. They’re down to the Giants 17-3 at the half. “Windy, rainy, ugly, and some new players,” Wentz said. “At halftime, we’re thinking, Time to go. Now or never. This is the season.”
They won that night behind Wentz. They won the next week in Washington behind Wentz. And they upset Dallas on Sunday 17-9 behind Wentz and their best defensive performance of the year, holding the top-ranked offense in the league to three field goals and three-of-14 on third downs. If the Eagles win in the Meadowlands on Sunday, the NFC East is theirs.
Since that rainy/corny halftime revelation in the first Giants game, Wentz is 3-0, has put up 74 points, has completed 71 percent of his passes, with zero turnovers and six TDs. He’s who the Eagles drafted, who the Eagles paid top dollar. We’re entering Week 17, at the pesky Giants, and a win means Wentz will play in his first playoff game at home. His first playoff game, period.
It’s late December, I said to him, and you’re healthy, and you’re playing. What’s that like?
“Ha ha,” he said, sounding like he needed to knock on some nearby wood. “I mean, this is . . . it’s God’s plan. This is what I expect to be doing every year. I haven’t been playing in these games in a while because of injuries. So thankful to be in a playoff-type game, the kind of game I came here to play in. I expect to be playing in December and helping our team get to the playoffs. I’m trying to make the most with what God’s given me.”
Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah week! You can enjoy family, friends and the fireplace this week without having to worry too much about NFL playoff drama. A little lower in the column, after I’ve assigned Joe Burrow to his homestate Bengals, stick around to read how 31 seconds of Burrow emotion is translating to some life-changing philanthropy in one of the poorest parts of the country. Merry Christmas, indeed.
Re football: Ten of the 12 playoff spots are assured exiting Week 16. And as I’m fond of saying, things change so fast in football that what seemed certain three weeks ago—including a crummy first-round playoff exit by a bad NFC East team—might not happen that way now. A Seattle playoff visit to the Linc, should it happen, might be altogether different than Seattle’s 17-9 November win in Philadelphia. Wentz is different, the defense seems different, and some new guys aren’t obstacles anymore. They’re energy. And it started with a 20-0 run after halftime against the Giants, when Boston Scott and Greg Ward and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside started making plays.
“There was an unknown factor to fans, to everybody. Like, ‘Who are these guys and what are they capable of?’“ said Wentz.
The answer is a lot, particularly Ward, who caught the high-arcing TD to beat Washington last week. Wentz: “That Greg, he’s a baller. To be cut, and cut, and put on the practice squad, and cut, and play in the AFL or whatever it was [the Alliance of American Football], his journey is just an inspiration. You want the guy to win, to succeed.
“All teams say this, but for us, it’s been a sense of belief. We all bought in and believed even when we were losing guys. We’re fortunate to be in a division that’s been beating each other up for a while now. Now we can win this last game, be 9-7 and get in the playoffs. One of the things I was proud of today was this was a big win for us, but all I heard in the locker room was, ‘One more. We got one more.’ “ And maybe more than that.
Raiders are legit alive for the playoffs at 7-8
“No one thought we’d be playing for the playoffs in Week 17, let’s be real,” Derek Carr said after the 24-17 home win in Carson, Calif. That’s right. Home win. The Chargers had to resort to a silent snap count at times because this was Oakland’s last game ever in the state of California. (The next time the franchise is in Cali, it’ll be the Las Vegas Raiders.) Five things had to go the Raiders’ way in Week 16 for them to be alive entering Week 17. All five went their way. The Insanity of the Week is this: The Raiders need four things to happen in Week 17 for them to be the sixth seed in the AFC, and likely open with a wild-card game at Kansas City—an Oakland win at Denver, a Tennessee loss at Houston, a Pittsburgh loss at Baltimore, and an Indianapolis win at Jacksonville. And, well, not impossible at all.
But . . . leave it to Raiders radio voice and Vegas gaming impresario Brent Musburger to put the final wrench in the Raider playoff scenario. “So, today was a longshot, such a longshot that there were people in the Raiders organization who didn’t know the team still had a playoff chance,” Musburger said from an LAX runway Sunday night, waiting for his plane to take off for Oakland. “If you put down $20 on this five-team parlay, you’d have won $500. Right now, it’s impossible to negotiate specific odds until we hear from John Harbaugh about how he’s going to play the game next Sunday against Pittsburgh. If he sits Lamar Jackson, the Steelers will be the favorite.”
Harbaugh, on who plays in Week 17 now that Baltimore’s clinched the top AFC seed: “We haven’t yet [made a decision]. I’ll sit down with the leadership council [Monday]. We’ll probably talk about that. I’m going to be really interested in what the players think about that, and the coaches. The thing I want to emphasize is that no matter what we do, the emphasis is going to be on winning the football game. We want that 14th win.”
More Musburger: “The Titans are the early favorites [by 4.5 points] at Houston.” Which means Vegas must think Bill O’Brien, the likely fourth seed in Houston, will rest some guys. “And the Colts have to go into Jacksonville and win, and you don’t know how that’ll go.” And, of course, the Raiders have to go to suddenly hot Denver (3-1 this month) and win there. For the record, the early line from Bet Online has the Colts a 3.5-point pick over Jacksonville, Oakland a four-point underdog at Denver, with no line yet on Pittsburgh-Baltimore.
“Well, it’s pretty crazy,” Musburger said. “It took a five-team parlay this week to get to a four-team parlay next week.”
That’s just perfect, for a team about to be the first NFL franchise in the longtime home of legalized sports betting, in a league that suddenly is embracing gambling.
What a crash in Seattle
The Seahawks, playing at home, not only lost to the cellar-dwellers of the West (with the backup quarterback playing all of crunch time when Kyler Murray tweaked a hammy), and they not only lost by two touchdowns, but they lost two of their 10 most important players: left tackle Duane Brown (knee surgery) and running back Chris Carson (hip), both likely gone for the year. The line already caved in on Wilson in the Cardinals’ 27-13 win, with Chandler Jones running wild in a career-high four-sack day. And the reward for Seattle is to play San Francisco in an NFC West championship game Sunday night in the NFL’s Game 256, the last game of the regular season, with much on the line. The winner of Niners-‘Hawks gets the first or second seed in the NFC, and a first-round playoff bye. The loser? A two or three-time-zone road trip on wild-card weekend.
Seattle will have to beat San Francisco with a sixth-round rookie back from Miami, Travis Homer, making his first NFL start, after the top three backs on the Seattle depth chart all were lost to injury. The new left tackle, second-year man Jamarco Jones, will likely be making his third career start if Pete Carroll chooses him over itinerant utility man George Fant.
“The adversity is temporary,” said Russell Wilson, who is a professional at putting an optimistic face on a disaster. ”There’s so much to figure out. But I don’t think there’s anyone better than us to figure it out.”
There was a time—oh, way back in time, a whole month ago—that Seattle and San Francisco looked like the class of the NFC. They still may be. But each team is 2-2 this month, and each has been outscored this month—Foes 126, Niners 121, and Foes 109, Seahawks 92. They are survivors now. Seattle played Sunday missing 11 starters of recent vintage for some or all of the game. Jadeveon Clowney, Quandre Diggs, Chris Carson, Duane Brown, Shaquille Griffin . . . important players. Who knows who gets a weekend pass from the infirmary for the game of the year?
Game 256 reminds me of the 15th round of Rocky. It’ll be dramatic, and I bet we’ll see players dressed in Niners and Seahawks jerseys throwing haymakers from the ropes in the fourth quarter.
Michael Thomas, the King
Me to Michael Thomas, Sunday afternoon: “What does it feel like to have caught more passes in a season than any player in the 100-year history of the NFL?”
Thomas, sounding fatigued: “Man, I haven’t really like—I don’t think it’s hit yet. I have so much more bigger goals, way more team-oriented goals. It’s a blessing to be in that position, to be in this position and have this opportunity to do something like this. I’m still not finished.”
His teammates will tell you Thomas is the anti-prima donna. He’s a worker bee. He told me in the summer, after he signed his five-year, $19.3-million-a-year deal, that he wanted to make sure no one would ever think he’d arrived—he wanted to keep working as though he hadn’t arrived. And the amazing thing about Thomas, I think, is not just the volume of catches. It’s knowing the defense has worked all week to slow him down, and figure out the rubs and screens and legal picks, and counter his physicality. But no one has been able to do it. This year, he’s caught 145 of the 176 times he’s been targeted by Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill—meaning he’s caught 82.4 percent of balls thrown to to him. Julio Jones has caught 63.9 percent of the throws to him. Tyreek Hill, 63.6 percent. JuJu Smith-Schuster, 62.5 percent. Julian Edelman, 66.4 percent.
Targeted 12 times a game and catching 10, basically, when everyone knows the offense is going to throw at least one pass to you on every series. Surprised? “Not really,” Thomas said. “It’s my accountability and the love for the game, love for my teammates. We’re all in the huddle. We’re all trying to execute our plays to the best of our ability and move the chains. Make our coaches right. When I have the opportunity to make a play, I put 100 percent responsibility on myself and I want to make that play for my teammates.”
He tied Marvin Harrison’s record on a 20-yard out route from Hill. He thought he broke it with a 14-yard touchdown from Brees that was turned into a 13-yard gain to the 1-yard line on further review. Which gave Brees the chance to get him a 145th catch, his ninth TD reception of the year, from two yards out to ice the 38-28 win.
Coming off the field, Brees hugged him and said: “No one deserves it more than you.” His coaches and teammates won’t argue that.
You loved Saturday?
Wait till next year. It could be better.
The NFL is considering Week 15 and 16 Saturday doubleheaders, with the same format as this year. What made this year’s tripleheader so strong is the NFL, last April, chose five Week 16 games as TBD for Saturday or Sunday. Then, six weeks before Week 16, the league chose the strongest three of the five to be played at 1 p.m. ET, 4:30 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.: Texans-Bucs, Bills-Patriots, Rams-Niners. The other two games, Lions-Broncos and Raiders-Chargers, were shuttled to Sunday.
Next year, the NFL could make three or four games in Weeks 15 and 16 TBD till sometime in November . . . then pick two for Dec. 19 and two for Dec. 26. That would give the league a chance to own two late-season weekend days on both Dec. 19 and 20, and Dec. 26 and 27. There’s no guarantee that the drama would come close to this year’s three-point, seven-point and three-point games, all with playoff implications, that made Saturday one of the best days of this regular season. This year certainly could be an outlier. But on weekends with no byes and 16 games, moving two strong games to Saturday doesn’t cripple the Sunday package much, and also gives the NFL a chance to let in-house NFL Network flex its ratings muscles.
Another note: In 2020, the season starts late. The NFL traditionally starts play the Thursday after Labor Day. This year, that was Sept. 5; next year, it’s Sept. 10. Which means the regular season will end on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021 . . . and there will be two weekends of football after Christmas in 2021 instead of one this year.
And in Week 17 . . .
The NFL re-jiggered the Week 17 schedule to make it as competitively fair as possible, given TV constraints. So Green Bay-Detroit and Chicago-Minnesota, start at the same time (noon CT) in case the NFC North comes down to those two games. Washington-Dallas and Philly-Giants start at 4:25 ET, to be sure the Eagles and Cowboys both have to play meaningful football with the NFC East still in some doubt. And with the third seed in the AFC tournament still in doubt, 12-3 New England and 11-4 Kansas City both have 1 p.m. ET starts.
Remember the four-team parlay with the Raiders I discussed earlier? All four games start at 4:25 p.m. ET: Pittsburgh-Baltimore, Oakland-Denver, Indianapolis-Jacksonville and Tennessee-Houston.
It’s semi-official: Burrow’s a Bengal
Fans in greater New York will always know the Giants’ 41-35 overtime win in Washington in Week 16, 2019 was a waste. That game likely cost the Giants the second pick in the draft, and a chance to get a generational pass-rusher in Ohio State’s Chase Young. This is the way the draft stacks up at the top with one week to play:
1. Cincinnati, 1-14. Bengals clinched the Joe Burrow spot with the overtime loss at Miami. Cincinnati will pick number one in every round.
2. Washington, 3-12. Way to lose, Snydermen. Chase Young’s yours.
3. Detroit, 3-11-1. If for some reason Washington passes on Young, Matt Patricia will not.
4. N.Y. Giants, 4-11. “We’re not gonna go out there and try to throw away a game,” said Giants wideout Sterling Shepard. Admirable, and the right thing, I guess. But did Daniel Jones really have to throw five TDs Sunday?
5. Miami, 4-11. Assuming this is how it stands after Miami loses in Foxboro on Sunday, now the race is on to get Tua Tagovailoa somewhere in the top five.
My Christmas story is about ex-Athens (Ohio) High School and current LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, and the ripple effect of a 31-second good deed.
Saturday, Dec. 14. Burrow accepted the Heisman Trophy in New York City. Early in his speech, speaking off the cuff, Burrow spoke for exactly 31 seconds about things you don’t hear, ever, in a nationally televised Heisman speech: poverty and hunger. “Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area. The poverty rate is almost two times the national average. There’s so many people there that don’t have a lot. I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home—not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here too.” In the audience, his parents sat impressively stunned. “I think we were all in awe,” his father, Jimmy, told me. “We never saw that coming.”
Sunday, Dec. 15. When Jimmy Burrow woke up in the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Manhattan, his voice mail was full, which never happens, and his phone was bursting with more than 500 text messages. “How can that even happen?” he said. “People are talking about the speech, and then it’s ‘Congratulations on the Heisman.’ We didn’t pound the table when Joe was growing up. It was just, Be thankful for what you have. Respect everyone.” Jimmy Burrow coached for 14 seasons on Frank Solich’s football staff at Ohio University in Athens, a college town in the middle of the most impoverished county in Ohio. “Joe didn’t pick his friends because of their economic status,” Jimmy Burrow said. “He had a lot of friends from all parts of the area.”
Back in Ohio, an Athens High and Ohio grad, Will Drabold, felt energized by the speech. He logged onto Facebook, created a fundraising page for the all-volunteer Athens County Food Pantry at 11:02 a.m., set a goal of $1,000, and left town that afternoon for Los Angeles on a business trip. Donations blew past that and before Drabold went to bed in California that night, he raised the goal to $50,000.
Monday, Dec. 16. NPR aired a story on the speech and the fundraising, and CNN reached out. By 9 a.m. ET, when Drabold got up, and less than 24 hours into this, the total was more than $80,000. The Athens County Food Pantry’s annual budget is about $80,000. It serves about 430 families and 1,200 people.
Nothing like this had ever happened for an organization that pinched its pennies each month. It was just beginning.
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. (Getty Images)Tuesday, Dec. 17. There’s a wall on the Ohio campus that gets painted by community and university groups. By Tuesday morning, it was painted with a Joe Burrow football figure and the words:
CONGRATS JOE BURROW
THANK YOU FOR FEEDING YOUR ROOTS
By 10 a.m., the total was $350,000.
Wednesday, Dec. 18. Drabold’s Facebook fundraiser passed $400,000 overnight. By the end of the day, he’d raise the goal to $500,000. On the phone that afternoon, I told Kirk Cousins about it. “Wow,” he said. “Wow. That’s powerful. It goes to show the platform of football, playing the quarterback position. That just reinforces what a challenge to all of us playing this position. You can really make a difference in a high school, in a college campus, in a community, in a state like Ohio or nationally, like Joe did. What a great job by Joe.”
In a classroom 10 miles east of Athens, at the Federal Hocking Middle School, Sarah Crabtree prepared to show the Heisman speech to her 12 seventh-graders. “I’d say half of my kids in that class are experiencing some sort of financial hardship in their families,” Crabtree said. “It’s so important for these kids to know there are people who make it from here.” When they finished watching the speech, she said she saw “a lot of bug eyes, like, Wow, he’s talking about us.” They sat down to write letters to Burrow. One of the boys in the class turned this in:
Dear Joe Burrow,
Thank you for showing me and other children that no matter where you’re from or your life story, if you work hard you can achieve greatness. Also, thank you for giving back to your community. You have inspired me to not be embarrassed by my life story and work hard to achieve my goals. Again, thank you very much.
The student signed his name, and under it wrote: “Just a kid from Southeast Ohio.”
I asked Crabtree her reaction when she read the letters.
“I cried a little,” she said. “My kids can see themselves in Joe Burrow.”
Thursday, Dec. 19. Jimmy Burrow on responding to the calls and texts: “I’m down to 396 left. I do 20, then I get 10 to 15 more. We thought it was gonna calm down, but then another round of media hit. It just shows what the power of words from the right person can do.”
The Athens City School District Board of Education voted unanimously to name the high school football venue “Joe Burrow Stadium.” The community was surprised at how quickly the decision was made—just five days after Burrow won the Heisman. School board member Kim Goldsberry told me: “Honestly, I felt that it wasn’t necessarily because of football. It was about Joe the person. While he has excelled in football, the ability to bring awareness to our community, and the hunger need, and social issues, it shows he is the whole package, and we wanted to recognize that. This goes beyond football.”
In LSU’s home, Baton Rouge, something unexpected happened: The Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank was linked by the Athens movement, and to their shock, more than $50,000 poured in. (By the weekend, donations topped $64,000.)
Friday, Dec. 20. In Ohio, Jimmy Burrow did a talk show in rural Nelsonville for one hour. “One hour of people saying thanks,” he said. In Baton Rouge, Joe Burrow, in cap and gown, was awarded his master’s degree in liberal arts. TMZ interviewed him. “I didn’t expect that at all,” he said of the money he helped raise. “I’m starting to realize the impact I can have on the area.”
Saturday, Dec. 21. Donations were slowing now—$474,749 was the total of Drabold’s drive by early evening—giving Drabold (Athens High Class of ’12), time to figure out just what it all meant. He does communications consulting and strategy and lives in Athens.
“This is what happens when social media works right,” he said.
“We’ve been fighting the war on poverty since, when, the sixties?” Drabold said. “But the needle hasn’t moved in Appalachia. We may well have been waiting for inspiration like Joe’s. When Joe says, ‘You guys can be up here,’ he’s talking to a generation of kids in Appalachia. That could change lives. It’s way too early for this, but could Joe do for Appalachian Ohio what LeBron has done for Akron?”
Sunday, Dec. 22. At 11:02 a.m., exactly one week after the Will Drabold page for the Athens Country Food Pantry was posted on Facebook, this was on the front page:
$477,340 raised of $500,000.
“Who would have thought that, in the middle of a speech for a football trophy, that a young man would have kicked off this incredible fundraising, and this incredible dialog across the country?” said Karin Bright, the president of the food pantry’s board. “We’ve had people call from Vermont, New Hampshire, California, Texas, everywhere, just saying thank you and wanting to help. I truly hope this opens a conversation across the country and we finally address the issues of hunger and food insecurity in this country. We’re better than this. People in this great country should not be going to bed hungry. And for Joe Burrow to put such a personal face on it—his classmates at Athens, he knew, were going hungry. And he remembered that at this momentous time in his life.”
Karin Bright sounded emotional over the phone from Ohio. The board hasn’t decided how to spend the money. It’s still unreal. There are 15 more fundraisers going on, local ones, and she has no idea what they’ll bring in, and she has no idea how many people who say they’re sending checks will actually do so. She said this money is a sacred trust, and she wants to be sure they spend it with utmost respect for those who gave it.
“It’s a Christmas miracle,” she said. “Thank God for Joe Burrow.”
Last season, the Minnesota Vikings did what everyone in the league did on offense: played a lot of three and four-receiver sets . . . 69 percent, to be exact, per PFF. This year, the number is startlingly low—just 18 percent. So low, in fact, that the closest team to Minnesota’s 18 percent through 15 weeks was San Francisco, with 43 percent. The Vikings use of your father’s NFL offense is the most use of sets with two receivers or less since 2006.
The result: a 10-4 start, less pressure on Kirk Cousins to carry the offense, and significantly fewer cold stretches for the offense. That’ll be tested tonight against the 11-3 Packers, who come to Minnesota trying to clinch the NFC North.
When the Vikings added traditionalists Gary Kubiak as offensive adviser and Rick Dennison as run-game coordinator, along with Klint Kubiak as quarterbacks coach, it was a clear sign that the team would play lots of fullback snaps, more multiple-back snaps, and some two tight-end sets. And Cousins would throw the ball less. After an 8-7-1 season in which Kirk Cousins threw it 38 times a game, coach Mike Zimmer was all for throwing less and playing more power football, particularly with Dalvin Cook and stout rookie Alexander Mattison in the backfield. And so offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski went to work with the Kubiaks and Dennison on a new style of play that could see the team throw it eight or 10 times a game less.
“When you don’t succeed and don’t get the outcome you desire,” Stefanski said from Minnesota the other day, “you go back to the drawing board. We had an honest Q&A with our coaches. As a staff, we knew with the great run game, the ability to use play-action more and more effectively, and we made a new offense from scratch. What helped was having Zim there to tell us what would stress a defense, because his background obviously is defense.”
When Cousins reported for offseason work, it took awhile for him to realize the sea-change. “I was back under center, which is how we played in Washington my first couple of years in the league,” Cousins told me. “In 2018, I had over 600 attempts , and I was in the shotgun a lot. While I guess it was a lot of opportunities, it really was also more challenging because defenses were able to rush the passer more aggressively. They didn’t have to stop the run as much. I think where this system has been a positive was, I have a role to play but it’s not gonna be me in the shotgun every snap. It’s gonna be running the football. It’s gonna be using other people to move the ball.”
When the offense started going up against the Minnesota defense in spring drills, Cousins said it was a struggle while the offense learned a totally new world. “Coach Kubiak—the quarterback coach—had to talk me off the ledge a few times because I was frustrated with that part of it. It was interesting how when the season arrived, and it was real football and not just practice and OTAs, the system has really been a great answer for me and for us.”
Cousins had two shaky games—at Green Bay and Chicago—in the first month, leading to the same old questions about whether he’d be the long-term answer in Minnesota if he couldn’t win the big games. Since then, he’s 8-2, with 22 touchdowns and three interceptions, with a completion percentage of 72.3.
“The more reps you have, you would like to think it’s gonna help you play at a higher level,” Cousins said. “I’m sure there were some growing pains early in the year. You also have to find how the system first the personnel too and how to use guys. People like Irv Smith, who weren’t on the team last year, and you’re trying to say how does this second-round pick fit into this as our second tight end with Kyle Rudolph? That’s also part of the first four games—figuring out what kind of team you have. Fortunately, it would seem, we’ve found the recipe that has worked.”
That recipe hasn’t just been good for the Vikings. It’s given Cousins a new lease on his football life. We’ll see how it fares tonight, with one big disadvantage: no Cook, who is injured.
Offensive Players of the Week
Michael Thomas, wide receiver, New Orleans. With a typical Michael Thomas day—12 catches, 136 yards, one touchdown—Thomas set the NFL’s single-season mark for receptions with 145 in Nashville in a 38-28 victory the Titans. It didn’t take long for LeBron James, a big Michael Thomas fan, to send kudos to Thomas.
What a future. He’s 26 years old, uncoverable, and humble. Quite a package.
Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Baltimore. I barely care what he did the rest of the game, after seeing his second touchdown pass to tight end Mark Andrews in the last two minutes of the first half. With his body contorted to avoid a sack with 13 seconds left before halftime, Jackson threw the football 28 yards in the air with the most awkward release a passer could have. He threaded a needle with the ball two inches over 5-11 defensive back Demarious Randall in the end zone into the hands of the leaping Andrews. Wow. That’s all I can say. Wow. The Ravens got outplayed and were down 6-0 at the two-minute warning of the first half. Two quick touchdowns later, and they were in control of the top seed in the AFC playoffs. It’s Lamar’s world of highlights, and we’re just living in it.
Daniel Jones, quarterback, New York Giants. The bad news: Jones put a dagger in the Giants’ hopes to draft Chase Young. The good news: Jones is good. In a meaningless meaningful game (it ruined the Giants’ effort to draft Chase Young), Jones completed 28 of 42 throws for 352 yards and five touchdowns—with no interceptions. His three-yard TD pass to tight end Kaden Smith won it in overtime, 41-35. “Pretty nice to have a guy take a screen for 60 yards,” Jones said of Saquon Barkley post-game. Jones, as he’s been all season, is a championship deflector, never crediting himself. I’ll do that for him today.
Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, San Francisco. So you want to know why the 49ers paid Garoppolo the really big bucks a year-and-a-half ago? It’s for nights like Saturday in Santa Clara, for series like the last one against the Rams. Setting the scene: Fourth quarter, two-minute warning, Niners ball, second-and-16 at the San Francisco 19-yard line. After an incompletion, Garoppolo threw one over the middle to Kendrick Bourne. Gain of 18; first down. After a second sack in the series made it third-and-16 again, Garoppolo took advantage of a miscommunication in the L.A. secondary, finding an open Emmanuel Sanders for 46 yards, and putting San Francisco in position for a game-winning field goal by Robbie Gould as the clock hit :00. The more Garoppolo plays, the more he gets a chance to show Niners GM John Lynch he spent wisely.
Tom Brady, quarterback, New England. Brady engineered a division-clinching 24-17 win over Buffalo with his best performance in weeks: 26 of 33, one TD, no picks, 111.1 rating. Another highlight: his effective knockdown block of Tre’Davious White on N’Keal Harry’s 18-yard reverse run in the middle of a nine-minute second-quarter drive leading to a New England field goal. To which Julian Edelman responded: “The man’s 42. It’s nuts.” With the Patriots on the verge of clinching a first-round playoff bye, now Brady can get some rest for that barking elbow—at least we think it’s barking, because he’s been wearing a post-game wrap on it recently.
Defensive Players of the Week
Chandler Jones, outside linebacker, Arizona. With a career-high four-sack performance against the mobile Russell Wilson, and keying a 27-13 upset of the playoff-bound Seahawks, Jones catapulted himself into the race for Defensive Player of the Year. With 19 sacks, Jones is in strong position to lead the NFL in sacks for the second time in three years. (See “The Profile,” below, for more on the under-the-radar Jones.)
Dante Fowler, outside linebacker, L.A. Rams. Nearing the end of his one-year, $12-million deal with the Rams, Fowler picked a good night to have an excellent game for the out-of-contention Rams. His 2.5 sacks gave him a career-high 11.5, and he forced a fumble and added a forced fumble. With the cap slated to rise to nearly $200 million, and with several needy teams having lots of cap space (Miami a projected $97.8 million, New York Giants $69.6 million), the 25-year-old Fowler will be hitting the market at a good time.
Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive end, Tampa Bay. I know the Bucs lost, and I know this game didn’t have a lot of meaning to Tampa Bay. But look at the intense way the Bucs’ D played in the 23-20 loss to Houston, and look at how downcast winning quarterback Deshaun Watson seemed after the game. That will tell you that the third three-sack game of Pierre-Paul’s injury-wracked 136-game NFL career was the kind of powerful game we hadn’t seen Pierre-Paul play since late in the eight Giant seasons. After a May car crash left Pierre-Paul with a neck injury that jeopardized his season, he rehabbed and worked his way back, and his game Saturday was his most impactful in his two-year Bucs career.
Special Teams Player of the Week
Nyheim Hines, running back, Indianapolis. Hines had one of the great days by a return man, ever. He returned three punts—one in the first quarter for 40 yards to set up the first Indy touchdown of the game; the second later in the first quarter for an 84-yard touchdown; and the third in the fourth quarter for a 71-yard touchdown. It’s the first time in seven years that a player had two punt returns for touchdown in an NFL game. Three returns, 195 yards, a 65.0-yard average. Wow.
Coach of the Week
Kliff Kingsbury, head coach, Arizona. The Cardinals might be just 5-9-1, but Kingsbury has rebuilt this team on the fly and, unexpected, built one of the best running games in the league with an okay offensive line and by making a feature back out of a Miami discard, Kenyan Drake, who was brilliant once again in Sunday’s 27-13 stunner in Seattle. Kingsbury told people in the summer that he absolutely, positively would concentrate on the run as much as the pass, even though, with Kyler Murray, everyone looked for Kingsbury to fill the air with footballs. The Arizona rush was perfect in Seattle, 40 carries for 253 yards (6.3 yards per rush), raising the per-carry average for the Cards to an NFC-best 5.1 yards per carry. Arizona beat the Seahawks with Murray leaving after 35 minutes with a bad hamstring. Brett Hundley did Kingsbury’s bidding the rest of the way—and you could see how well-prepared he was. Arizona’s now won back-to-back games by 14 points. I’d be bullish on the Cards in 2020
Goat of the Week
Jameis Winston, quarterback, Tampa Bay. Four more interceptions, and two clear near-picks dropped by the Texans, in a 23-20 Tampa Bay loss that absolutely, certainly should have been a win. Winston is so good when he’s good, but it is absolutely amazing how often he throws interceptable balls . . . not to mention that he’s thrown nine more interceptions than any quarterback in football this year. I still think the Bucs will agree to some deal with him after the season—and should—but I would be cautious about paying him long-term. Winston is too careless.
“It’s very disappointing. We all expected to leave here as NFC East champs. We’re not.”
—Dallas owner Jerry Jones, after a massive egg-laying by the Cowboys in Philadelphia. Eagles 17, Dallas 9.
“He was exactly like any one of us would have been: distraught. Struggling to talk. He barely could talk. And the last thing he said to me when I walked out the door—he stopped me. He said, ‘You make sure you guys go win this game.’ I didn’t want to say anything [before the game] because this game doesn’t mean anything compared to his brother. But you know C.J. He’s got our back. We got his back. I am so thankful you did that for him.”
—San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan, talking to his team after the 34-31 victory over the Rams. He spoke of backup quarterback C.J. Beathard, who left the team Saturday after his brother was stabbed to death outside a Nashville bar early Saturday morning.
“You guys competed your ass off, and that was the difference.”
—Patriots coach Bill Belichick to his team in the locker room, after the Patriots clinched their 11th straight AFC East title Saturday with a victory over Buffalo.
“I trust we’re made of the right stuff. Once we get through next week, I can’t wait to attack the offseason. I think these scars will make us better.”
—Rams coach Sean McVay, after the defending NFC champs were eliminated from playoff contention Saturday night in Santa Clara.
“I don’t think I’m a bad player. I’ve just been playing bad.”
—Benched Steeler quarterback Devlin Hodges, after the Steelers lost to the Jets 16-10 and lost control of the sixth playoff spot in the AFC, per Brooke Pryor of ESPN.com.
Chandler Jones • Arizona linebacker • Photographed in Tempe, Ariz.
Since being acquired from New England before the 2016 draft (for guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick), Chandler Jones leads the NFL in sacks (60.0), is tied with Khalil Mack for the NFL lead with 17 forced fumbles and is second to Aaron Donald with 66 tackles for loss. In 2019, Jones leads the NFL with 19 sacks, a franchise record, and has a 2.5-sack lead over Tampa Bay’s Shaq Barrett entering the final game of the season Sunday. This is his fourth season in Arizona, after four in New England, and he’s only gotten better since leaving Foxboro. Jones remains one of the league’s most underrated players, even among his peers: He was not selected by a vote of players as one of the NFL’s top 100 players this season by NFL Network.
On being so good, and so relatively anonymous:
“Time has flown by. Consistency has been what I’ve aimed for my whole career, and I want to start this conversation by knocking on wood. Durability’s been the key for me. I’ve worked a lot on my core—you have to isolate your core. I do yoga and pilates, which contribute to a strong core and back. Sleep is very important, at least seven and hopefully eight hours a night.
“I really didn’t learn how to rush the passer until my last year in New England. I learned better technique. I learned how to set guys up, instead of just trying to run past guys all the time, and I’ve gotten better at that here. New England was good for me because I was taught to just do your job, ignore the noise. Good players want to be coached. That was the case in New England and here. I love being coached. I love learning from teammates. Terrell Suggs, this year, I was always in his ear . . . How’d you know exactly how to jump that snap count?
“The game has changed a lot since I started. Now, every quarterback gets the ball out in 2.5 seconds. That’s not a lot of time to get to the quarterback. It’s trendy. Started in New England, but now every quarterback’s doing it. So our job’s harder.
“I was just asked recently: Does it bother you that you’re not more well-known? It doesn’t bother me at all. Seriously. It goes back to my foundation: Do your job. To me, there is nothing else. I do not self-promote. I don’t know how much damage I could do on Twitter or social media anyway. That’s just not me. As far as missing the fame . . . I feel like, where I am in my career, I am spoken about enough in my life. I’m not, Me me me, give me attention. No, please. I am fine with being under the radar.
“Being defensive player of the year would be nice. But that is not my MO. The more hype, the more attention I’d get. The more attention I’d get, maybe they’d send more blockers. I’m just fine the way it is. As a pass-rusher, I like the one-on-ones.”
Since 2015, Jameis Winston’s 86 interceptions lead the NFL.
Since 2016, Winston’s 71 interceptions lead the NFL.
Since 2017, Winston’s 53 interceptions lead the NFL.
Since 2018, Winston’s 42 interceptions lead the NFL.
In 2019, Winston’s 28 interceptions lead the NFL.
H/T to Pro Football Reference for the research tool.
In every year since the NFL went from 10 playoff teams to 12 in 1990, the NFL has had at least a 33-percent turnover in the playoff field. That makes this the 30th consecutive NFL season with at least four new playoff teams from the previous year.
Buffalo, Green Bay, Minnesota and San Francisco are in this year after being out last year, and there will be a fifth—Pittsburgh, Tennessee or Oakland—after the games of Week 17.
As we reach the end of the teens, I find myself noodling about two of the best players of the decade—tackle Joe Thomas of the Browns and defensive end J.J. Watt of the Texans—from opinions I had either as a guest on Mike Florio’s “Pro Football Talk Live” show, or as a voter on the NFL’s all-time team. I heard from Twitter followers on both. On the PFT show, Florio, Chris Simms and I had a draft of the best individual seasons of the decade. My first choice was Lamar Jackson, 2019. My second: Joe Thomas, 2015.
John Ellis tweeted: “What the hell did Joe Thomas do in 2015?”
Browns’ offensive snaps: 1,107.
Snaps played by Thomas: 1,107.
Sacks allowed: 2.
QB hits allowed: 1.
So in 662 Browns’ pass drops that season, the rusher Thomas blocked touched the quarterback three times.
In the last eight games of the year, playing 538 offensive snaps, Thomas did not allow his quarterback to be hit or sacked, per PFF . . . Thomas’ PFF pass-blocking grade in 2015, 30.5, is the best in the last five NFL seasons among all tackles. If you value tackle play, Thomas’ season in 2015 might have been the best season for an offensive lineman in the decade—and likely was the best season in a career that makes Thomas a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame.
Regarding Watt: Some people questioned my belief that Watt should have been one of the seven defensive ends voted on the NFL’s team of 100 greatest players. As @erush710 tweeted: “JJ Watt didn’t make the list because he’s the most overrated defensive player in NFL history. Nice little career. Not a HOFer.” @erush710’s sentiments were echoed on my feed. I shake my head.
In the last 40 years, I’d say the three best pass-rushers were Bruce Smith, Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White. Kevin Greene and Julius Peppers get credit for longevity, which matters, but I’d take Smith, Taylor and White. All that Watt is missing to join them is longevity; injuries have limited him to six full seasons and parts of three others. But I still believe what he did in those seven composite seasons is enough to put him in the pantheon of all-time greats.
Comparing Watt’s four best consecutive years with the four best consecutive years of Smith, Taylor and White:
White, 1985-1988: 70.0 sacks, 2 defensive player of the year awards
Watt, 2012-2015: 69.0 sacks, 3 defensive player of the year awards
Taylor, 1986-1989: 63.0 sacks, 3 defensive player of the year awards
Smith, 1987-1990: 55.0 sacks, 2 defensive player of the year awards
White was a great run-defender, Taylor good and Smith average. Watt, in three of those four years, was the league’s top-rated run defender among all 3-4 defensive ends.
The only argument against Watt is whether 112 regular-season games is enough to make the list. It’s a factor, to be sure. Rob Gronkowski’s 115 regular-season games didn’t stand in his way; Gronk made the top 100, and deservedly so. Gronkowski was not more dominant at his position in this decade than Watt was at his. Equal, maybe. Gronk missed 29 games due to injury in his nine-year career. Watt will have missed 32 at the end of this, his ninth season.
So, yes. Of all the snubbed modern players unveiled on the Top 100 team so far, Watt is the one I think we missed.
During pro football’s 100th season, I’ll re-visit important games, plays, players and events from NFL history.
Offseason 2006: The Saints are reborn with three perfect decisions
On Jan. 18, 2006, after being spurned by the Green Bay Packers, Sean Payton signed a contract to coach the woebegone New Orleans Saints. On March 14, after being spurned by the Miami Dolphins and coach Nick Saban because of a wounded shoulder, Drew Brees signed a contract to play quarterback for the Saints. On April 29, 2006, with the second pick in the 2006 draft, passing on college mega-star Vince Young, the Saints drafted running back Reggie Bush. The man who picked Payton, GM Mickey Loomis, teamed with Payton to sign Brees, and teamed with Payton to decide on Bush.
Those three decisions, I would argue, not only led the Saints to being a consistent contender over the past 14 seasons; after being an NFL joke, New Orleans has gone to training camp every year since 2006 with a legitimate playoff chance. But there’s something else. In the runup to the draft in 2006, with the city recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, I remember talking to New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin. He told me he wished the Saints would stay for at least one more season, just so the city could get back on its feet. Without the Saints, he said, the region would be devastated. I was so affected by the weekend, and by what New Orleans was going through, that I bought four Saints season tickets before I left town. Those decisions boosted an entire region.
“I think that time was similar to 1969 with the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Loomis said last week. “Hiring Chuck Noll changed the narrative for that franchise forever. Now we hold the Steelers up as a model for our league. I think it was the same with us and Sean. He changed our narrative. After we hired Sean, he was magnificent with Drew, talking about the vision he had for him as a player and us as a franchise.”
The Saints recruited Brees hard, taking him and wife Brittany to Emeril’s on the recruiting trip. Emeril Lagasse sent a cookbook to the table, signing it with the promise to go to the Brees home and cook a meal for them and whoever if he’d sign. But no. He didn’t sign. Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga sent his plane to New Orleans the next morning to pick up the Breeses and he took his scheduled visit to Miami. “When Drew got on the plane to Miami, the plane sent by Huizenga, I think Sean would tell you we had no chance at that point. South Beach, Miami, the Dolphins . . . Our franchises were just different then.” But, lucky for the Saints, the Miami doctors were skeptical about Brees’ readiness for the 2006 season because of shoulder surgery, and Saban acquiesced, and the Saints landed him.
Let history show that the Brees signing was the earth-mover. But at the time, the city and the all the locals went nuts for Bush . . . even though, in retrospect, Bush was a nice player but never a major star. “Reggie was an earthquake, a religious experience,” said Loomis. Heisman winner. Huge college football star. The city liked Brees, a good quarterback who might be something better in his new home. But Bush moved the needle. When the Saints took him to Emeril’s the night of the draft, two things happened: Everyone in the packed place stood and gave him an ovation. And then, in a chant that could be heard out on Tchoupitoulas Street, the throng inside the restaurant chanted, “REG-gie . . . REG-gie!”
“Reggie thought we staged it,” Loomis said. “Of course we didn’t. But that night, I thought, ‘We’re back.’ “
Loomis, with three great calls in the first four months of the Saints’ revival year, is realistic about what happened in 2006 for the Saints. It’s like the year Ron Wolf hired Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, followed by trading for Brett Favre. “What the hell would I have been doing now if they hadn’t worked out?” Loomis said. “I occasionally think about it. I am just grateful that somebody in Miami said no on Drew. And I’m grateful that Green Bay didn’t hire Sean. At that time, we weren’t everybody’s first choice. We prob weren’t anyone’s first choice. But what’s happened has been great for a city that really deserved it.”
Joe Posnanski, lifelong Browns backer, is one of America’s best sportswriters.
Michael David Smith is the managing editor of Pro Football Talk.
Maske covers the NFL for the Washington Post.
Kay Adams is the host of Good Morning Football on NFL Network.
Mail call. Send all correspondence to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @peter_king.
Good question. From Walter Emerson: “Perhaps you can speak to the rule that was enforced just before halftime of Saturday’s Bills-Pats game. The officials called a touchdown then a review was held (not requested by the Bills or Pats) and the call was changed to down short of a touchdown, so it was Bills’ ball and goal to go. The announcer and officials then stated that by rule there would be a 10-second runoff but because the Bills had a time out left they could use that instead of taking the 10-second penalty. I do not at all understand why a 10-second runoff is done in this case. The officials called for the review.”
This the rule the NFL uses, from Article 4 of Replay Review:
“If a replay review after the two-minute warning of either half results in the on-field ruling being reversed and the correct ruling would not have stopped the game clock, then the officials will run 10 seconds off the game clock before permitting the ball to be put in play on the ready-for-play signal. The defense cannot decline the runoff, but either team can use a remaining timeout to prevent it.”
The theory here, Walter, is that if the ballcarrier—Buffalo tight end Dawson Knox, in this case—was ruled down on the 1-yard line as the review did rule, the clock would have continued to run, and the Bills would have had to use their final timeout to stop it.
Hall of Fame Centennial Class question. From John Howard, of Fort Worth, Texas: “As a big fan of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I’ve been waiting since I saw your column last August explaining the new policy for the HOF Class of 2020. The 38 finalists were announced for the centennial class, and this group will be further trimmed to the final 15 (10 senior players, three contributors, and two coaches) on Jan. 8. Your August column pointed out the unintended consequences of the centennial class. Your arguments were well thought out and detailed. I noted they didn’t take your advice about nominating Paul Tagliabue. My question boils down to this: did the HOF panel get it right (in your opinion), or did they end up with egg on the face as you were afraid might happen? Or perhaps something in between?”
Thanks for the kind words, John. Overall, I thought the committee did very well. In the coach category, with eight finalists for two spots, I was very happy to see Buddy Parker picked. The former Detroit and Pittsburgh coach, with the Lions from 1951 to 1956, beat Paul Brown’s Browns twice for the NFL championship while losing one title game to Cleveland; overall, Detroit was 4-1 against the Browns with Parker as coach. He moved on to have a winning record in Pittsburgh. I like his candidacy.
The contributors will be controversial, because Tagliabue is one of the 10 vying for three spots. I’ve supported Tagliabue, because I think his overall record (including no strikes in his 17 seasons as commissioner, after there were two in Pete Rozelle’s final years) is deserving. But it’s well known that many on the committee think he was too slow to react to the head-trauma issue. Several others—Art McNally, Steve Sabol, Ralph Hay and Bucko Kilroy—are deserving too.
As for the senior players, the older the better. This committee was established with the first idea to address those from the past who cases had been forgotten. Happy to see Bill Belichick’s voice on the committee, because he certainly will have a good handle on the cases of the players from the twenties and thirties. I still feel the committee of 48 voters should vote on the final group, but I’ve made my feelings known on that.
On the concept of openers for football teams. From Forrest, in Portland, Ore.: “I could be wrong on this . . . Many of the turnovers from Jameis Winston occur early in his games. After he settles down, Winston becomes an incredible gunslinger. Bruce Arians has never been one to shy away from the unconventional. Why not use an “opener” to start their games? Let a game-managing QB have a series or two and then turn it over (pun not intended) to Jameis?”
Well, it’s an interesting concept. But first: Winston has thrown 42 interceptions in first halves, then 44 after halftime. So it might seem he throws it away more early, but it’s not the case. I think the baseball use of openers has something (not all, but something) to do with the fact that if you’ve got a hard-throwing reliever who can buzz through two innings and save your starter—and starters are not pitching more than six or seven inning max in most starts—till the third, when he can maybe avoid the top of the order in his first inning on the mound. That’s the ideal scenario for the starter. And in the NFL, if you get 11 series in a game, the quarterback doesn’t tire in drives nine, 10 and 11. So there’s an inherent difference in pitchers rarely finishing games and quarterbacks, who almost always do.
Santa Con must go. From Dave Gil de Rubio: “As for Santa Con, I’m 52 and am in full agreement with you that it has to go. I’m in the East Village every weekend (ground zero for this travesty of an annual event) visiting my girlfriend, who was born and raised in this neighborhood, and I’ve had a front-row seat for this Bacchanalia of booze-soaked entitlement. The SantaConners either forget or don’t care that streets they’re falling all over each other as they go from watering hole to watering hole are neighborhoods where people live. Call me that ‘you kids get off my lawn’ guy but given the amount of loud, self-absorbed behavior that’s usually accompanied by a fair amount of projectile vomiting and public urination, I’ll proudly wear that mantle.”
Thanks Dave. Brilliant.
1. I think I just love this play in Lions-Broncos. Likely you didn’t focus much on Detroit-Denver except to think, Holy crap! The Lions are 1-11 since Week 4! But I saw one of the great play designs of the year in the game, and it won the game for Denver. Detroit was up 17-13 with 13 minutes to go, and Denver had the ball at the Lions’ 3-yard line. Last week, offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello drew up a play he thought would work against the spread Lions front. Drew Lock lined up in the shotgun, with Phillip Lindsay as a sidecar to his left and wideout DaeSean Hamilton in the left slot. At the snap of the ball, Lindsay flowed in front of Lock, and Hamilton took a sharp and definitive jab step to his left.
“This one I’m pretty sure was a Scangarello production,” Lock told me post-game. “In college, I ran a lot of RPOs, and this one reminded me of one I ran at the University of Georgia. Same thing here—read the end, make your decision, get rid of the ball. On this one, we knew this defense played that wide-9 front. We were going to try to get Phillip outside, but if 42 [linebacker Devon Kennard] steps outside or leans outside, then I go inside to DaeSean, and he’s got to beat one man: 32 [safety Tavon Wilson]. That’s how it happened.”
Lock put the ball in Lindsay’s gut and flowed right with him. At the same time, Hamilton came off his jab step and hustled inside, behind the offensive line. When Lock saw Kennard take a step to the outside, Lock knew he’d be taking the ball from Lindsay and shoveling to Hamilton. Under no circumstances, Scangarello rules, would Lock carry the ball himself. Two options: let Lindsay try to get to the right pylon, or shovel to Hamilton and see if he could beat or out-muscle Wilson near the goal line.
“I held it in there a while,” Lock said, “and 42 didn’t immediately crash down. He bounced with us a little. Waited for DaeSean to come into the picture. I shoveled it to him, and he was able to make 32 miss. Once 32 missed, it was a touchdown.”
What was cool was the addition to the simple RPO. While the defense (all but Wilson) flowed and focused on Lock/Lindsay, Hamilton snuck behind the offensive line, took the short shovel and made one man miss. Beautiful concept, excellent execution.
“The NFL’s a different vibe than college,” Lock said. “We ran so many RPOs in college. But I feel like now, with all the freaky athletes coming into the league, we’re going to see more.” I hope so. This was fun.
2. I think we saw the different ways New England could win in January. If you watched New England’s 24-17 win over Buffalo, you saw how it looked and felt just a bit different. It had the air of a playoff game. One desperate team, New England, trying to hold onto what seemed rightfully theirs: the AFC East, which they’d won 10 years in a row. Another desperate team, the physical Bills, trying to dent the Patriots’ armor. “The atmosphere was unreal,” said Pats running back Rex Burkhead. “So much on the line. We knew this was for the division, and it felt just like a playoff game.”
Burkhead is 5-10 and 217 pounds, with shoulders like anvils. He’s from Plano, Texas, and played college football at Nebraska. They grow ‘em tough out there. Trailing by a point with five minutes to play in the game, New England had the ball at the Buffalo 1. Brady took the snap and wheeled and handed to Burkhead, who headed to his right, into heavy traffic. As he weaved right, here came linebacker Lorenzo Alexander through a crease. There was going to be a collision around the 3-yard line. It’s be a great defensive play, or maybe Burkhead would win the joust. BAM! Burkhead’s shoulder rammed into Alexander with a big crunch. Alexander went down. Burkhead ran right and scored. It looks easy, but boy, that collision. “I saw a hole initially,’’ Burkhead said afterward. “Then, I don’t remember what number, but the defensive lineman came through [actually the linebacker] and I just knew I had to get away from him.” Forcefully, he did.
That’s how the Patriots are going to have to score. They’re not going to be an explosive passing team. They have to ride their physicality and smarts, play low-scoring games, and not beat themselves. They can’t score with Kansas City and Baltimore, but they can be as tough. And that’s one of the traits they’ll need to make an unlikely playoff run. Again.
3. I think I just loved what Houston safety Jahleel Addae did to win the game against Tampa Bay. Not only intercepting Jameis Winston in his hometown—the seven-year vet was playing a pro game in Tampa for the first time—but how he did it. “In a big game, with the game on the line, sometimes you’ve got to take risks,” said Addae. On third-and-one with 90 seconds left and the Texans preserving a 23-20 lead, Jameis Winston looked left and Addae figured he’d throw to the sidelines because Tampa needed to stop the clock. Addae jumped the route and picked it off. “It’s playing the game within a game,” said Addae. “I know they were gonna throw it to the sidelines, and when Jameis threw, I just jumped it.” If the receiver had made a double-move, with Addae left in the dark there and not defending the play, he’d have gotten in hot water. But he knew where Winston was going, and it made all the difference in Houston’s win.
4. I think quarterbacks get too much blame when teams play poorly. But Dak Prescott deserves his share for Sunday’s 17-9 loss to Philadelphia, and for a few expended periods in the past month.
5. I think Defensive Player of the Year is going to be a very tough call. With a week to go, I’m very much on the fence. My leaders are Chandler Jones, Aaron Donald, T.J. Watt, Cam Jordan, Danielle Hunter and maybe Stephon Gilmore. But I’ll spend some more time this week doing due diligence while I research my all-pro team. Stay tuned.
6. I think I continue to be so impressed with the sideline-to-sideline playmaking ability of New Orleans linebacker Demario Davis, who was all over the field against Sunday in Nashville (11 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss) against the Titans. He’s headed to his second straight season of being a top-five-rated inside linebacker by PFF. Just imagine the Browns going 1-15 in 2016 and then letting Davis walk. Then imagine the Jets going 5-11 in 2017 and letting him walk. How do you let a player that good walk away? He’s in the middle of a three-year, $24-million deal with New Orleans and is outplaying the contract.
7. I think after watching nine hours of football Saturday, my biggest question is: Could we do something about the excessive plays of the animated Pepsi commercial? Please? Sheesh.
8. I think to reach the Super Bowl, there’s a decent chance that, in the span of 16 days, the Bills would have to beat Deshaun Watson in Houston, and then beat two of the following three quarterbacks: Lamar Jackson in Baltimore, Tom Brady in Foxboro and Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City. That has to be one of the toughest playoff roads laid out for any team in recent history.
9. I think Jacksonville owner Shad Khan did the best thing for the franchise when he fired Tom Coughlin, a very good but inflexible man who helped turn some of the Jaguars players against the organization with his aggressive fine schedule that caused players to rise up. I’m told it’s very possible that Khan will keep coach Doug Marrone and GM Dave Caldwell, even though they’ve been in place as the Jaguars have gone 10-21 since their AFC Championship Game near-miss in Foxboro in January 2018. The reasoning, I’m told, is that Coughlin was such a major presence in the organization that Khan would like see how they’d do without the specter of Coughlin looming over all football decisions. For instance, Coughlin, when hired, instituted the “Coughlin Time” of meetings starting five minutes early. Marrone, I’m told, will start an 8:30 a.m. meeting at 8:30, not 8:25. It isn’t certain that Khan will keep Marrone and Caldwell, but at least they’ve got more of a chance than they probably deserve after crashing each of the past two seasons.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Football Story of the Week: Greg Bishop of Sports Illustrated with a gem on the work of the Hilinski family, two years after son Tyler, the Washington State quarterback, killed himself, while another son, Ryan, the quarterback at South Carolina, has begun his college football career.
b. Writes Bishop, referring to the work of parents Mark and Kym (and keep in mind that Tyler wore number three, and Ryan is wearing three for the Gamecocks):
“They met with 400 staff members and athletes at Ole Miss and spoke to thousands more at Stony Brook, UCLA, Tulane, Texas, USC and California Irvine. Told them that the NCAA doesn’t require that universities employ a certified mental health professional. Reminded them that Washington State had one half-time employee to assist hundreds of athletes with their mental health when Tyler died. The Hilinskis want to put a face on mental illness. There are stigmas to shatter, honest conversations to be had. Evaluations that should take place in the same way that schools approach rehabilitation for physical injuries. They want major college programs to view their approach to mental health as a competitive advantage, the same as the palatial facilities they build, only more important. After the Hilinskis met with the softball team at Ole Miss, its sports performance psychologist, Dr. Josie Nicholson, saw the players huddle together, near home plate. ‘We have to take care of each other,’ one said, which was exactly the point. Sometimes, Kym views the work as valuable; she can see the conversation around mental health changing in college sports. Not long after I met the family in 2018, I began to wear three Hilinski’s Hope bands every day on my right wrist, and I hand them out to anyone who asks what they signify. Those are tiny victories. But there are big ones, too. The foundation started urging crowds at all of Ryan’s games to throw up three fingers at the start of the third quarter of every game. The fans for every away opponent have taken part. For the home game against Alabama, the Hilinskis sat near the Crimson Tide’s bench. There was Nick Saban with three fingers held high, the same as Tyler’s jersey number, acknowledging their efforts.”
c. Chills. Saban, involved.
e. Clark is absolutely right here:
“[Kittle] thinks that football is 90 percent mental and that everyone who makes the league is talented, so the difference between greatness and mediocrity is in a lot of small edges, most of them mental. He spends three hours by himself the night before games. He meditates, he takes a salt bath, and he visualizes—his father, Bruce, said George has been doing that since about fifth grade. Bruce said it’s easier to, say, go into New Orleans in front of a loud crowd and dominate if you’ve already been there in your head.”
f. Explanatory Story of the Week: The New York Times sometimes writes about how their reporters gather information, particularly when the story of that news-gathering is so compelling. Methane, an invisible gas, is warming the planet at an alarming rate without the sort of regulation that would protect the planet. This is how photographer Jonah M. Kessel of the Times was able to document the dangerous presence of methane.
g. Man, Kessel is one smart, and important, media watchdog.
h. Series of the Week: Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas of the Kansas City Star on the broken foster-care system in the Kansas City area. Harrowing, with terrible portent for the future.
i. This, from Bauer and Thomas, says it all:
From the time he was 3 until he turned 14, Dominic Williamson was bounced to 80 different foster homes. When he turned 18, he found himself alone and homeless, and resorting to a life of crime. Now, at 20, he has a home more permanent than any he’s ever known.
The Hutchinson Correctional Facility in Kansas.
“I had plans for the future and I kind of ruined it,” he said from prison, where he’s one year into an eight-year sentence. “But how could I be a good kid with all the horrible things happening?”
j. Eighty foster homes in 12 years.
k. College Football Story of the Week: Ryan Kartje of the Los Angeles Times on USC (USC!!!) having the worst recruiting class in the Pac-12.
l. College Football Factoid of the Week, from Kartje: Bowling Green had a better class than USC. Kartje notes that USC was “left to nip at the heels of Mid-American Conference programs.”
n. I hope Chris Petersen isn’t finished coaching. Seems like a genuinely good person, with a great football mind.
o. Coffeenerdness: The Starbucks Christmas blend is nowhere near as rich and strong as Italian Roast. It’ll do in a pinch, but give me Italian Roast, or give me death.
p. Beernernerdness: Met up with my old friend and brains of The MMQB operation Mark Mravic at a great Brooklyn bar, Bier Wax, in Prospect Heights. (Strongly recommended. The music played in there is all on vinyl. The atmosphere is great, and the local brews plentiful.) I had the Coolship Lager (OEC Brewing, Oxford, Conn.), a European pale lager with a distinct German taste, at least to me. Then I had a stout—forget the name—but it was a nightmare; tasted like wine. Maybe it’s best it stays nameless. Don’t want to rip a beer in Christmas week.
q. Whatever you celebrate, have a great Christmas week, or a great week of Hanukkah. Hope you all find peace and goodness with family. And thanks for making it to the bottom of the column!
Today . . . Minneapolis. Vikes have won three straight against the rival Pack in Minnesota, by three, 13 and seven points. But missing Dalvin Cook will be very big here—unless an undrafted running back from the University of Cincinnati, Mike Boone, comes up big for Viking fans and lucky fantasy football waiver-wire-watchers in the championship weekend for fantasy football.
Wednesday . . . Merry Christmas! And happy 73rd birthday to Larry Csonka and Norm Bulaich. What a coincidence. Two powerful backs, teammates on the 1979 Dolphins, both born on Christmas Day 1946.
Sunday . . . Arlington, Texas. Absurdity of the Week:
• The Eagles are 8-7 and will clinch the NFC East title with a win at the Giants on Sunday or a Dallas loss to Washington. Both games are 1 p.m. ET starts.
• San Francisco (12-3) and Seattle (11-4) meet for the NFC West title Sunday night in Seattle. Because the winner of the game will get a first-round bye and the loser could have to play at the NFC East winner on Wild Card weekend, the Seahawks and Niners will fight like crazy to win the game Sunday.
• If the NFC East champ hosts the loser of the Seattle-San Francisco game, this means an eight or nine-win team will have the privilege of playing at home against an 11 or 12-win team that has had to travel either two or three time zones to get to the game site.
As I’ve written and preached, teams with better records should host playoff games. Simple fix.
Am I just baying at the moon on this issue, or does anyone else out there see how messed-up this all is?
Brutal day for ‘Hawks.
Lose RB1. Lose LT.
And lose to Cards. Yikes.