“Fifty years. I just can’t believe it. And I’m still around to enjoy it.”
–Franco Harris, on Tuesday afternoon, hours before his shocking death, to Steelers defensive star Cam Heyward on Heyward’s “Not Just Football” podcast.
The Steelers got nothing done offensively all game. Two field goals against the impenetrable Raiders in the first 59 minutes—that’s all—with a piddling passing game. Six points on a frigid winterscape at the confluence of the three rivers, with dozens of frustrated Santa Clauses in the stands. The Steelers, desperate in the final seconds to steal a win they probably did not deserve.
Wait. Are we talking Christmas weekend 1972 or Christmas weekend 2022?
And the Raiders went home both times, on Dec. 23, 1972 and then 50 years and one night later, with a brutally frustrating loss that had Franco Harris’ fingerprints all over it.
It’s eerie. That’s what it is. The Steelers beat the Raiders 13-7 a half-century ago on a TD pass to rookie Harris in the final minute. The Steelers beat the Raiders 13-10 Saturday night on a TD pass to rookie George Pickens in the final minutes.
The first game was the Immaculate Reception game, when Harris picked the ball out of the air and ran it for a shocking 60-yard touchdown to beat Oakland. The second game, three days after Harris died, was a tribute to a hero. Heyward and his teammates wore Harris’ black number 32 jersey to Acrisure Stadium for Saturday night’s game against the Raiders, a game that celebrated Harris’ legacy as he became the third Steeler to have his number retired.
“Everyone in the organization felt Franco tonight,” Heyward told me an hour after the game ended, wearing the black Harris jersey. “It’s one thing to wear the jersey. It’s another thing to embody what he was about, what the Steelers are about. I feel that’s what we did tonight.”
The Leads of Week 16
News from a holiday weekend:
Dak Prescott got tired of throwing pick-sixes, and he told me memories of getting whipped by his brothers toughened his hide so the Cowboys could delay Philly’s clinching party Saturday in Texas.
No way Miami’s not worried about Tua. In the Dolphins’ four-game losing streak, Tua Tagovailoa’s a 52.7-percent passer, and his inaccuracy was shocking on his three fourth-quarter interceptions to lose to Green Bay Sunday. How will he recover if he blows a playoff spot that seemed such a lock when Miami was 8-3 a month ago?
Tennessee, the AFC’s top seed last year, is 10th in the AFC this morning. Every bit of 10th, actually. And the Titans, on a five-game losing streak for the first time in Mike Vrabel’s tenure, will likely have to win at Jacksonville to make the playoffs this year.
The Vikings can’t play a game that’s a rout. They’re 12-3, and their last 11 wins have been one-score games, including the 27-24 win over the spunky G-Men that required a 61-yard field goal at the gun.
New England is kaput, and the Pats are 24-25 since Tom Brady flew south.
Justin Jefferson’s average game: 8.2 catches, 117.1 yards. Jerry Rice never averaged 117.1 yards a game in his life.
Justin Herbert makes the playoffs for the first time with a win at Indianapolis tonight. How cool would Justin Herbert at Joe Burrow in the Wild Card round be?
Justin Tucker, again, outscored the Baltimore offense. Amazing the Bengals still feel the hot breath of the Ravens on their necks. It’s because Tucker is not bad at his job.
I have no more Justin nuggets. Sorry. Three’s my limit.
Josh Jacobs of the 6-9 Raiders leads the NFL rushing race by 110 yards over Derrick Henry of the 7-8 Titans with two games left. Jacobs didn’t sound happy about much as he parka-ed up in Pittsburgh Saturday night. “It’s bull—-,” he said of another Raider loss, and then repeated it in case those of us in the back didn’t hear.
“We’re not sexy,” Carolina coach Steve Wilks tells me. I’ll tell you what the Panthers are: two wins from hosting a playoff game in three weeks.
Much admiration for the Texans, who lost one-score games to Dallas and Kansas City and then went to Nashville and held the paper-tiger Titans to 14 points.
Niners-Bengals Super Bowl? They’re each on at least a seven-game win streak; the Niners’ eight is the best in the league. Factoid That Will Make Sean McVay Vomit: On Oct. 17, the Rams and Niners both woke up with 3-3 records. Since that day, San Francisco is 8-1, the Rams 1-7.
Man, those poor Bills. Buffalo’s reward for winning its sixth straight: spending Christmas Eve in a Chicago hotel, unable to get home because the Buffalo airport’s closed till Monday morning.
When Patrick Mahomes scraped the pylon with his diving rushing TD against Seattle, it was the latest example of The Talented Mr. Gumby showing us why he deserves his second MVP.
R-E-L-A-X. So Aaron Rodgers said there was a chance. There was, and is. After the upset of the Dolphins Sunday, Green Bay makes the playoffs by beating the Vikes and Lions at home, and Washington losing to either Cleveland or Dallas. Rodgers at the Vikings on Wild Card Weekend, getting comfier with his rookie receivers by the week, is a prospect the Purple World would dread.
Russell, Russell, Russell. Found myself thinking of this after Russell Wilson’s second pick put the Broncos in a 17-0 hole at SoFi Sunday: If the Broncos cut him after the season, they’d incur a $107-million cap charge. I jest, I jest. I think. By the way, the Broncos being down to this cut-to-the-quick version of the Rams 31-6 at the half might be the biggest and most damning indictment of the Hackett/Wilson regime, and that is saying something.
More now from Pittsburgh, a team that won’t soon forget the night the franchise retired the third Steelers number ever.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Steelers president Art Rooney II told a doleful crowd at the halftime jersey retirement for Harris.
No, but life goes on, and this team handled it the way a championship team should—even if this edition of the Steelers, at 7-8, is quite unlikely to win one this year. The NFL’s black-and-gold franchise is the gold standard in class and doing things right. When Cam Heyward led the team onto the field with a huge black 32 flag before the game, when quarterback Kenny Pickett used “FRANCO! FRANCO!” as a dummy audible call, when Frenchy Fuqua waved the Terrible Towel to get the crowd pumped (not necessary, by the way), when Harris’ widow leaned on Rooney at halftime for support at an emotional moment, and when the Steelers found a way to handle the family business the right way by winning in the final minute … I mean, what did you expect? This is what the Steelers do. They do the right thing.
It’s like what Harris told Heyward in a warm conversation, a half-day before he died. “What an honor—the third jersey to be retired here in 90 years,” Harris said on the podcast. “And the first offensive player.”
Harris, 50 years ago, caught a desperate caromed pass in the final minute and scored the winning touchdown to beat the Raiders. On this night, Pickett threw the game-winner to Pickens. “For Franco,” Pickens said.
“I wasn’t going to air the interview we did,” Heyward told me around midnight Saturday night. “But I talked to Franco’s wife, and she told me to share it. ‘Just share his joy.’ So I did. Franco is loved by so many people in this organization and so many players. He cared so much about everybody who came into that locker room. You interacted with Franco, no matter who you were, you were the most important person in the room.
“He understood the magnitude of what was about to happen, retiring his jersey. Franco was a big part of kick-starting the dynasty. We tried to honor him tonight. Winning this game is who we are as a franchise. It’s the grit of the Steelers.
“Sometimes I hear, ‘Why is there a statue of Franco at the airport here in Pittsburgh?’ It’s not just the Immaculate Reception. It’s everything—how he treated people, how he gave back, how he welcomed the new Steelers every year, how he was an ambassador to the franchise and to the city.”
The Steelers did Harris right, and did his grieving family right, on this night. We need more of that in sports, and in life.
Games of the Weekend
1. No good team needed a huge win more than Dallas. The Cowboys were down 10-0 early, tied it at 17-17 before halftime, then got down 27-17 in the third quarter, tied it at 27-27 to start the fourth quarter, then scored 13 points in the last six minutes. So: Dallas 40, Philadelphia 34. Most impressive to me was Dak Prescott throwing a pick-six on his second straight drive (closing the loss at Jacksonville last week, and on the opening Dallas drive in this game), then coming back in the last 54 minutes to complete 78 percent of his throws with three touchdowns and no picks while getting beat up pretty consistently. Loved Prescott hanging in there. After the game, I asked him about his mental state after throwing the 42-yard pick-six to Josh Sweat that put the Cowboys in a 10-0 hole.
“Thinking about that,” he told me, “I’m thinking about the way I was raised. Being the little brother, there’s a lotta times I got my ass kicked and things didn’t go my way. The only chance I had against them was to forget about what just happened, come back, respond, and beat ‘em. Sometimes I’d find my mother, I’d be crying, and she said, ‘If you can’t play with the big dogs, stay on the porch.’ So in a situation like today, early in the game, it’s about staying focused, understanding what’s happened is done. So I made a bad throw. What can I do about it? Respond. And I know I will.”
Coming off of two unimpressive performances — outscored 63-61 across the narrow win over the Texans and loss to the Jags — the Cowboys needed some offensive explosiveness. To advance in the NFC, they need to do what they’ve done recently: four times in their last eight games, Dallas has scored 40 or more. Though Jalen Hurts didn’t play for the Eagles Saturday, Gardner Minshew was spunky and productive if not as safe as Hurts. And Dallas put up 40 against a D that had allowed more than 22 points only three times all season.
“It’s how we won that I think will help us,” Prescott said. “Down 10 in the first half, down 10 in the second half. Coming back both times. You think that doesn’t mean something big to us? We fought, we trusted, we gained confidence against the best team in the league by fighting back over and over.”
2. Running can be sexy, to some. The Panthers rushed 43 times for 320 yards, a 7.4-yard average, and the result was predictable: Carolina 37, Detroit 23. Talk about bursting the bubble of all the good feels for the Lions, who came in on a 6-1 roll. It’s the 6-9 Panthers who exited this game looking like much more of a playoff threat than the Lions. And, of course, Carolina can win the NFC South by sweeping games at the Bucs and Saints. Pretty crazy, after starting 2-7.
“We’re not sexy,” interim coach Steve Wilks (5-5, stunningly) told me post-game. “We’re not the classic NFL team that’s going to throw it all over the place. But like I’ve told [offensive coordinator] Ben McAdoo, there’s nothing more demoralizing to a defense than not being able to stop the run.” The Panthers, lately, have added some misdirection and more motion to the run game because, as Wilks said, “You look around the league, and you see window-dressing and misdirection causes problems for the defense in the run game.”
Rushing for 320 yards is pretty damn demoralizing. And what Wilks has done with his team is to prioritize what they do well – run – behind a strong line and a renewed sense of pride in his 11 weeks as coach. “I’ve told our guys, ‘Act like a champion every day,’ and I think they’ve responded well to that. That’s how they’re acting.”
So, whatever happens in the last two games, Wilks has restored the pride in the franchise. I asked him if that should be enough to be seriously considered for the full-time job. “Straight honestly,” he said, “I don’t look at it that way. I’ve done this job before [in Arizona, for one season], and even though it was only for a year, I understand what’s important. Stay in the moment. Win today. Try to beat Tampa. That’s all that matters.”
3. The Bengals won fairly ugly, but in this stretch, who really cares? Cincinnati bolted to a 22-0 lead at Foxboro and hung on, thanks to one of my Goats of the Week, Rhamondre Stevenson, getting the ball punched out by safety Vonn Bell inside the Bengals’ 10-yard line to clinch the game late. Cincinnati 22, New England 18.
Think of what the Bengals have done in their seven-game winning streak. Every one of those wins except Cleveland at home has come against a team currently fighting for the playoffs, or a team that’s qualified for the playoffs. Amazingly, the Bengals might have the toughest last two games: Buffalo and Baltimore, both at home. The Bengals, 11-4, are a game up on 10-5 Baltimore, but the Ravens own the tiebreaker after a week five win over the Bengals.
When I asked Zac Taylor about it Saturday night, he said, “We keep winning, we’ve won seven in a row, and you look where we are and what’s ahead of us … it may not be enough,” he said.
Seems likely the Bengals will be either the three or five seed. If they lose the division and are fifth, a Wild Card game at Tennessee or Jacksonville awaits. As the three seed, they’d host some team from the seven-team moshpit of AFC teams with eight or seven wins currently. “We qualified for the playoffs Thursday night,” Taylor said, “and the thing I noticed with our team is no one really had any emotion about it. Making the playoffs isn’t good enough for us. And now, going into the playoffs, we can’t afford to lose any games.”
A Giant Anniversary20
Fifteen years ago this week, on Dec. 29, 2007, the 15-0 New England Patriots traveled to New Jersey to try to finish an undefeated season against the New York Giants, who, in a playoff sense, had nothing to play for. They were locked in as the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs, due to play at Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs, win or lose in Week 17.
It’s one of the best regular-season games I’ve covered as a football writer, which is paradoxical. Why was a game with two teams locked into their playoff positions so good? The Patriots had clinched home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs entering that night, yet played like it was a playoff game because of the potential for an undefeated season. The Giants, after beating Buffalo the previous weekend, also had nothing to play for.
Tom Coughlin doesn’t play meaningless games, however. I’m glad to see the Giants’ coach that day has written a book now, A Giant Win (written with Greg Hanlon, Grand Central Publishing) to commemorate that championship season for the franchise—with special attention paid to the Saturday night game on the final weekend of that regular season.
Coughlin on the game, and on his decision to play his full team against the Patriots:
“As soon as we won the previous week, you know how this goes because it’s scripted somewhere for the writers. ‘OK, coach, you gonna play your starters against New England?’ It started right away. I listened to that a little bit. I thought to myself, ‘We are the New York Giants. We are the flagship team of the National Football League. We are red, white and blue. I am not going to allow that future historians would look back upon this game, where the Giants would play the Patriots, the Patriots having a chance to have an undefeated season, and the New York Giants do not put their best foot forward. We are going to play our starters. We are going to play to win.’
“When I told our team that on Monday, they rallied. They wanted to play against the 15-0 New England Patriots. If you remember, we’re leading in the fourth quarter. We got the lead. It’s one of those games where, they beat us, but when we walked off, we knew we could play with them.”
In the eyes of many, it was a 35-38 Giants’ victory over New England. Coaches hate moral victories, but this was one for the Giants. It was also memorable for New England, of course, finishing a perfect 16-0 regular season by beating back a gallant bid for a big upset by a heavy underdog. I remember Tom Brady and Randy Moss in the New England locker room post-game. They couldn’t stop smiling. Brady was downright giddy.
He wouldn’t be giddy five weeks later, but that’s another story. When I spoke to Coughlin recently about the game, it was a pre-dawn memory the next day that stood out.
“I gotta tell you one more story because this is what will be most meaningful,” he said. “It was a great performance. I’m really proud of my team. That’s a team that’s 16-0, we know we can play with them. All that stuff. Next morning at 5 o’clock I come into my office and I see the red light’s on the phone. A voicemail. I pick up the phone and it’s John Madden. He’s saying, ‘Tom, I just wanted to call. Because I want you to know that is the greatest thing that’s happened to the NFL in the last 10 years.’ He said, ‘This is the National Football League—we don’t not play our players. We owe a responsibility to our fans to perform every day. That’s what you did. I’m just so proud to be a part of that. I’m so proud of what you’ve accomplished and what your team has accomplished.’ He said, ‘I’m very emotional right now. But I want you to know how I felt.’ I played it for my team in our next team meeting. It was moving. Very moving.”
The two teams met in the Super Bowl. The Giants beat the previously 18-0 Patriots, 17-14.
The Award Section
Offensive players of the week
Chuba Hubbard and D’Onta Foreman, running backs, Carolina. They would have shared the award had this been a 30-minute game. The Panthers outrushed the red-hot Lions 240-21 in the first half alone, with the job-share Panther backfield-mates each gaining 109 yards. That’s a ridiculous thing to think about, two backs with 100-yard games by halftime. Hubbard and Foreman are making it very possible for Panthers at Bucs next Sunday to be a huge playoff factor.
Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. Speaking of ridiculous first-half performances, Burrow had the most damaging half a Bill Belichick defense in New England ever allowed. In building a 22-0 halftime lead in Foxboro against the team that used to be the Patriots, Burrow was 28 of 36 for 284 yards, with two TDs and one pick. Without the pick, deep in Pats’ territory, the boos would have been louder in New England.
Defensive players of the week
Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco. Despite injuries just about everywhere, including at quarterback, the 49ers have won eight straight, are 11-4, and have the NFC West locked up with two games to go. Bosa had two sacks in Saturday’s win against Washington, bringing his total to an NFL-best 17.5. Bosa also brought down Carson Wentz on a Commanders two-point conversion attempt in the fourth that would have made it a one-score game; it won’t count towards his stat line, but it certainly impacted the game. “That’s a dream,” Bosa told reporters about potentially winning Defensive Player of the Year. “I’ve played this game since I was 7 and played D-line the entire way through and I’ve watched guys throughout the years and wanted to be in that position. I finally feel I’m living out that dream.” The dream is two games away.
Roy Robertson-Harris, defensive lineman, Jacksonville. There are vital moments of a game when a player takes control, and that time Thursday night at the rainy Meadowlands happened with three minutes left in the first half and the Jaguars up 13-3. The Jets had to get something going with a dormant offense before halftime. First down: Robertson-Harris stormed through the line for a sack of Zach Wilson. Second-and-18: Robertson-Harris batted down a Wilson pass. The Jets never seriously threatened after that. Robertson-Harris, even when he wasn’t getting stats, was pushing the pile back into the QB’s face much of the night.
Special teams players of the week
Greg Joseph, kicker, Minnesota. Kick a game-winning 61-yard field goal at the gun to beat the Giants 27-24 and get your team to 12-3, win Special Teams Player of the Week. Hitting all 19 of your field goals inside the 50- for the season is a nice consolation prize too.
Sam Martin, punter, Buffalo. For one punt, really: Late in the second quarter in Antarctica (aka Soldier Field) in minus-6 wind chill, with a 20-mph crosswind in front of him, Martin lined up with his feet in the back of his end zone, ball on the Buffalo four-yard line. He boomed a 46-yard punt to midfield. What a display. He averaged 53.7 yards on three boots—long of 62.
Cameron Johnston, punter, Houston. Needing to pin Tennessee back with 75 seconds left and nursing a 19-14 lead in Nashville, Johnston, the ex-Eagle, placed the ball at the Tennessee four-yard line with a 34-yard nine-iron shot. That was crucial, particularly with the struggling Malik Willis unable to move the Titans. The perfect punt was key in Houston breaking its nine-game losing streak.
Coach of the week
Doug Pederson, head coach, Jacksonville. When a coach gets fired 35 months after leading his franchise to its first-ever Super Bowl win, that coach is going to have a stain on him. How bad did this coach let it get in three years for him to be fired? Luckily, Jags GM Trent Baalke didn’t let that overly influence his search. Baalke (plus Shad and Tony Khan) saw a coach who is a teacher, who is a leader, who is very good for a young team that had just been battered by the failed Urban Meyer experiment, and who would be great for Trevor Lawrence. His leadership helped when the Jags were 2-6 and flying home from London in what looked like a lost season. They’re 5-2 since, with wins over Vegas, Baltimore, Tennessee, Dallas and the defensively stout Jets in a monsoon. “We’ve got a smart coach and coaching staff,’’ safety Rayshawn Jenkins said. “We lose in London, we’re 2-6, but there was no panic—just the attitude of, ‘We’re a good team, and we’re going to fix it.’ And at this time of year, he (Pederson) is playing it smart as far as the schedule. He gets us off our feet, he takes care of us, and he makes sure our mental is right. He’s been a player. He knows.” Who would have ever thought we’d be saying 15 games into Pederson’s tenure: You do not want to be playing the Jaguars in January. Pederson and his staff, and Baalke’s personnel decisions, have made that happen.
Goats of the week
Tua Tagovailoa, quarterback, Miami. Tagovailoa’s shocking regression continued in a game the Dolphins needed badly, a 26-20 loss to Green Bay. With the score tied 20-20 early in the fourth quarter, Tagovailoa threw interceptions on Miami’s last three drives of the game—and every one of them was an awful throw, way off target. Green Bay converted the first two picks into field goals, resulting in the last six points of the game.
Russell Wilson, quarterback, Denver. Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, the roof falls in. Wilson threw three picks in the first 35 minutes of a battle of 4-10 titans in Los Angeles, and the Rams turned the three picks into 17 points. Wilson has had the most disastrous season of any prime-time player in 2022, and it’s not close for second place.
Rhamondre Stevenson, running back, New England. The Patriots had first-and-goal at the Cincinnati five-yard line with 1:05 left in the fourth quarter, down 22-18. Crowd was back in the game after being down 22-0. Here came Stevenson, trying to make up for his lateral that started the nightmarish Chandler Jones miracle runback to cook New England last week in Vegas. He took a handoff from Mac Jones, got smothered, and got the ball popped out by Bengals safety Vonn Bell. Bengals ball. The Patriots got the ball back, though, with 41 seconds left … and on third-and-10, Stevenson dropped a pass that might have given the Patriots a fresh set of downs. Right now, Stevenson’s just not a trustworthy player. The Patriots are 7-8 and will need help—and wins over Miami and Buffalo—to make the playoffs.
Zach Wilson, quarterback, N.Y. Jets. At this point, it’s almost pitiable to watch Wilson try to be competent. In Wilson’s 40 minutes of football Thursday night, he led the Jets to 44 net yards in 28 plays. Embarrassing. Chris Streveler drove the offense 73 yards in his first possession as a Jet. The Jets can’t play Wilson again this year. They’ve got to get him to the offseason and try, try, try to work on his accuracy and confidence. I don’t see it working, but it’s hard to whack the guy you drafted second overall 20 months ago.
Quotes of the Week30
You hear [from players], ‘Man, I hate losing.’ I hate losing, too, so maybe we should love preparing and love focusing before the game and doing as much as we possibly can so that we don’t make mistakes in critical times or mental errors. It’s just, how much are we doing outside of the time that we’re at the facility?
–Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel, whose Titans are on a five-game losing streak and are in danger of losing the AFC South to Jacksonville.
It’s hard to be away from your family. You don’t get that time back with your kids, Christmas morning with your kids. But there is a silver lining in there somewhere, and we’ll find it.
–Buffalo coach Sean McDermott, on the Bills being forced to stay in Chicago on Christmas Eve because the Buffalo airport was closed due to the blizzard. The Bills flew to Rochester Sunday and bused back to Buffalo.
His career here is done.
–Amazon Prime Video analyst and former Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on the struggling (to put it mildly) Zach Wilson, at MetLife Stadium Thursday night.
From one quarterback about another, that’s an amazing statement. But I appreciate Fitzpatrick’s honesty.
A couple of nights before the draft, I had a dream that Pittsburgh drafted me. I called my agent and told him, ‘I had a dream. Can you please call Pittsburgh and tell them not to draft me?’ He didn’t do it. Well, I’ll be doggone. The morning of the draft, I got a call: ‘Congratulations, you’ve been drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers.’ How lucky was I that the football gods didn’t listen to me when I said I didn’t want to come to Pittsburgh? Talk about coming to the right place at the right time.
—Franco Harris, in a recent interview with Ron Cook on 93.7 the Fan in Pittsburgh.
We really don’t know what we’re going to do until we know who we have week to week. I wish I was joking.
—Sean McVay, about the travails of this year’s battered and lost-at-sea Rams.
There’s a reason why Joe Greene and Art Rooney (the late owner) said the Steelers started winning the moment Franco Harris arrived in the first round of the 1972 draft.
Per Gene Collier of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Steelers in the 100 games before Harris arrived: 26-71-3.
Steelers in the first 100 games with Harris as a Steeler: 74-25-1.
Rust of the Week:
In his four games back as quarterback of the Browns, after 100 weeks away from live football, Deshaun Watson has led three touchdown drives on 43 offensive possessions.
Two passing, one rushing. Average offensive yards per game for the Browns with Watson: 295.
Weather conditions at kickoff for NFL outdoor games Saturday:
New Orleans at Cleveland, 1 p.m. ET: 6 degrees, 26-mph winds, minus-16 windchill.
Buffalo at Chicago, noon CT: 9 degrees, 26-mph winds, minus-12 windchill.
Las Vegas at Pittsburgh, 8:15 p.m. ET: 8 degrees, 16-mph winds, minus-10 windchill.
Seattle at Kansas City, noon CT: 12 degrees, 15-mph winds, minus-4 windchill.
Atlanta at Baltimore, 1 p.m. ET: 17 degrees, 16-mph winds, 2 degrees windchill.
Cincinnati at New England, 1 p.m. ET: 17 degrees, 12-mph winds, 4 degrees windchill.
Houston at Tennessee, 1:02 p.m. CT: 20 degrees, 10-mph winds, 6 degrees windchill.
Detroit at Carolina, 1 p.m. ET: 20 degrees, 10-mph winds, 9 degrees windchill.
Washington at San Francisco, 1:05 p.m. PT: 62 degrees, 1-mph winds, 61 degrees windchill.
Philadelphia-Dallas and Giants-Minnesota had closed roofs.
Tweets of the Week
I'm not sure which Wilson is worse, Russell or Zach.
— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) December 25, 2022
Michael David Smith, managing editor of Pro Football Talk, after Russell Wilson threw his second interception of the first quarter in Broncos-Rams Sunday, leading to an early 17-0 L.A. lead.
Paying homage to Franco. pic.twitter.com/RyxWnESFkS
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 24, 2022
Now, this is an arrival.
— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoNBCS) December 24, 2022
Matt Maiocco covers the Niners for NBC Sports Bay Area.
Saleh we ain’t buying it
— Charles Woodson (@CharlesWoodson) December 23, 2022
The Hall of Fame DB, questioning Jets coach Robert Saleh saying he benched Zach Wilson for a fourth quarterback Thursday night because Chris Streveler could spark the running game.
No one is, Charles.
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) December 21, 2022
Classy of the Raiders.
Yesterday on the longest night of 2022, more than 60 of the world's most famous locations turned off their lights in solidarity with Ukraine ❤️
Bless you 🙏🙏🙏 pic.twitter.com/PazDWAVDcX
— Iuliia Mendel (@IuliiaMendel) December 23, 2022
Mendel is the former spokesperson for Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky.
Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @peter_king.
On Franco. From Rich Simmons: “His death got me thinking about the last time I saw him play—Oct. 28, 1979, Dallas at Pittsburgh. It was not a great game as I recall but Franco had both Steelers scores in a 14-3 win. I have the SI cover on that game framed in my office and got to wondering about how many Hall of Famers were on the field that day. By my count:
Steelers—Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Franco, Jack Lambert, Donnie Shell, John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster.
Cowboys—Cliff Harris, Drew Pearson, Jackie Smith, Mel Renfro, Randy White, Rayfield Wright, Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett.
Plus both coaches, Chuck Noll and Tom Landry, and Art Rooney and Tex Schramm. Didn’t realize I was witness to so much talent!”
Fantastic note Rich. And you forgot Dan Rooney, Gil Brandt and Bill Nunn. Amazing, really, that 25 Hall of Famers were in Three Rivers Stadium that afternoon in 1979.
Tom was at the Immaculate Reception game. From Tom Black, of Kinnelon, N.J.: “Things I remember from the game: Cold, dreary day sitting in the upper deck. Sideline seats. In the pre-game a guy walks up the steps about three sections over from us carrying a platter on which rested a steaming roasted whole pig. (Think we could get that through security today?) The catch: I say, to this day, if anyone says they saw Franco catch that ball they were either watching on TV and/or lying. Safe to say that everyone at the game pretty much looked away when the ball went flying from the Jack Tatum hit. I know I did. Fun being at the game, but glad it ended in regulation. We were cold.”
The steaming pig. Tom, that’s something I will not forget. Email of the month! Thanks a lot.
Angry about my Matt Ryan comparisons in blowing a 25-point lead (in the Super Bowl) and a 33-point lead (last week). From Jim Osterman: “This whole load of (expletive deleted) about Matt Ryan bearing major responsibility for failing in two of the greatest collapses in NFL history is lazy journalism. In neither case did Ryan call the defenses, design the defenses, or play defense. His team’s defense – from the coordinator down to the players – surrendered all those yards and points. Matt Ryan was the quarterback on two TEAMS that suffered epic collapses. He is not the cause of both.”
I didn’t say he was. A reader suggested he wouldn’t make the Hall now, and I said it’s something I thought about, and it’s something that will be part of his Hall of Fame case. I got 20 or so emails with similar sentiments saying it’s outrageous to blame Ryan for the losses. Great guy, great teammate, has had a very good career. But there are facts that cannot be ignored about these two games. Ryan, in 12 series in the Super Bowl loss and the loss to the Vikings, accounted for three points, averaged 4.7 plays and 13.6 yards per drive, and ate up just 2:01 of clock time per drive. That matters. It shouldn’t be everything about his Hall case, and it won’t be. But it does matter.
Jefferson for MVP. From Jeff Johannsen: “If Justin Jefferson finishes with 2,090 yards (breaking 2,000 and Calvin Johnson’s per game average), is Jefferson the MVP?”
I doubt it, Jeff. Not impossible, but MVP is not an award for the player who has the most outstanding season. I know it frustrates some people that what might be the best statistical season a receiver has ever had (if indeed that’s what happens with Jefferson) doesn’t get rewarded with the biggest individual award of the year. The word “valuable” makes it hard for a quarterback not to win it because the position is so vital in the game.
Mark doesn’t like part of my MVP reasoning. From Mark T., of Shaolin, N.Y.: “It just boggles my mind how you keep insisting there can never be two MVP candidates on the same team. Just to be preposterous, what if you had a 60-TD quarterback, a 3,000-yard receiver and a 35-sack rusher, and everyone else in the league is solid, but not exceptional. By your own reasoning, two of those players should be excluded from your top-five ballot. If every voter was like yourself, there’s a decent chance those three individuals would all receive some first-place votes and the other two not on the ballot, opening the door ever so slightly for an underserving player.”
Three thoughts, Mark.
One: I am one voter out of 50. The other 49 have the option to vote however they wish, and every one could vote for two or three from the same team.
Two: Under your scenario, I would certainly vote for more than one of those players, because they would have had the three greatest seasons in NFL history and the other candidates (per your scenario) would not have done anything outstanding and perhaps not valuable either.
Three: Because the vote is weighted, and a first-place vote is worth 10 points and second-place five, the quarterback who threw for 60 touchdown passes on (presumably) the best team in football would have to get fewer than 25 first-place votes to win, and one of the players who is “solid, but not exceptional” would have to get 25 or more first-place votes. Do you think that’s realistic? Probably not.
Basically, Mark, it’s just hard for me to imagine many years when the second-most valuable player on one team is one of the five most valuable players in football—but as I say, I am one voter, and the other 49 may feel differently.
10 Things I Think I Think
1. I think there are a few things to keep in mind about the impact of the NFL moving its “Sunday Ticket” package to YouTube TV for at least the next seven years beginning in 2023. For those not familiar with the streaming world, YouTube TV gets all the major channels and charges homes about $64 per month for most of what can be purchased on cable TV … and there’s no hardware involved. There will be an additional charge to get Sunday Ticket; the price point has not been determined, but one TV person estimated it would be in the neighborhood of $300 for the season. Other points:
- The NFL had no choice but to move away from DirecTV. The league has wanted out of the DirecTV partnership for a couple of years at least. Putting a big dish on the side or roof of a home is pretty yesterday, and the numbers reflect that. DirecTV had 25.4 million subscribers in 2015; just seven years later, per Fitch Ratings, the company has 13.3 million subscribers. Conversely, anyone with a smart phone, computer/tablet/laptop or smart TV can get YouTube TV.
- Look what’s happened to the connected-TV world. Ten years ago, almost 100 million Americans had cable or satellite TV. That is forecast to be cut in half by 2025. To get YouTube TV, all you need is internet access and a device. It’s just far easier as a user experience.
- The moolah. The NFL will make at least $2 billion a year, on average, from the deal. That’s up at least $500 million per year from DirecTV’s rights fee. There will be escalators for the NFL over the deal’s seven years, much of that related to how many streamers YouTube can attract. One thing about rights fees. Keep in mind that most media rights deals escalate over the years. So the league could get significantly less than $2 billion in early years, and significantly more in year seven. But the average of all the TV deals will pay the league about $13.2 billion per year. That means each team would be due an average of $412 million per year in TV fees. That’s up from $250 million per team per year under the old TV deals.
- The salary cap. Players get 48.5 percent of most team revenue, including TV. So in the average season from 2023 to 2029, the TV rights deals will raise the salary cap $78 million per team.
- International broadcast rights. Forgot those. They’ll be going up. All are short-term deals. Particularly in countries with football fever like Germany, it’s not a pittance—though that German TV contract does last through the 2025 season.
- Seven years. Every one of these TV/media deals either expires or the NFL can opt out of after seven years—after the 2029 season. By design by the NFL.
- YouTube TV is likely to innovate. Expect better graphics, with analytics and new ways to see the game—though nothing’s been finalized yet.
- FOX and CBS, the Sunday afternoon homes of NFL games, have to be nervous. If a viewer pays for the new YouTube package, that will supply every game in the 6.5-hour window on either smart TVs or phones or computers. So it’s another pull away from needing cable to be able to see NFL games. (NBC, ESPN/ABC and Amazon Prime Video are not affected because their games are not on Sunday Ticket.)
- One option YouTube TV should strongly consider: the single-team option. It’s common sense: Would a Browns fan but marginal full-NFL fan in Salem, Ore., pay $250 or so to get every NFL game? Why not offer a Browns fan all 13 or 14 of Cleveland’s games not on Sunday Ticket for, say, $75? I know the NFL has thought of this in the past, and it’s time the league and YouTube TV agreed to implement it.
2. I think my MVP Watch top 10 stands like this through 16 weeks:
One through five: 1) Patrick Mahomes, 2) Jalen Hurts, 3) Josh Allen, 4) Joe Burrow, 5) Justin Jefferson. Mahomes and Hurts are still jockeying for position in my eyes. It’s really close. The last two weeks will matter.
Six through 10: 6) Nick Bosa, 7) Justin Herbert, 8) Trevor Lawrence, 9) Micah Parsons, 10) Saquon Barkley. Bosa is one dominant dude right now. I expect him to be the heavy favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.
3. I think I owe a few people at NBC thanks for their help with this Christmas gift story I did for Football Night in America last night … Matt Casey for the idea, Vinny Costello for the production, producer/idea person Annie Koeblitz for being with me in Denver and Oregon to talk to Peyton Manning and Dan Fouts. You may want to see it if you missed it last night:
4. I think the suspension of Jets receivers coach Miles Austin for a year is absurd. It’s beyond absurd. Per Mike Florio, Austin was suspended for betting $50, occasionally, on basketball games—nothing on NFL games. Why would we care if Miles Austin bet 50 bucks on the Warriors to beat the Suns? How possibly does that impugn the dignity of professional football? But no—coaches can’t bet on anything, while players can bet on sports other than football. Senseless. Just senseless. And we’ll see 600 commercials this week begging fans to bet on football games, during the football games themselves. Does anyone in the NFL office say to Roger Goodell: Taking tens of millions from gambling companies, then suspending an assistant coach for betting on a non-football game defies logic, and we shouldn’t do that? Someone with a conscience should.
5. I think this passage from veteran Patriots scribe Karen Guregian interested me the other day. It’s about the dynamic between New England owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick, involving the de facto offensive capos, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. Guregian wrote: “It just seems incredibly obvious that Belichick can’t keep his pals in their current posts. He can’t have Patricia and Judge anywhere near the offense next year. Kraft has to make it clear that Belichick needs to come up with real solutions, as opposed to getting his friends on the cheap with their former teams still paying them. Even though all the evidence hasn’t been gathered, it still has to be obvious to Kraft that Belichick needs to bring in a legitimate offensive coordinator. Not some coaching experiment with fired head coaches. And changes might also have to extend to the coaching staff beyond the offense, but getting [Mac] Jones experienced offensive coaches has to be the priority and first order of business. If Belichick isn’t willing to budge, then Kraft has to decide whether it’s worth it to keep the status quo, or move on from his sure-fire Hall of Fame head coach and clean house.”
6. I think that was prescient of Guregian to write. I don’t know if it’s going to play out that way, but Kraft is not a bystander as an owner. I’ll be curious how he reacts to this season.
7. I think I made a big deal about the Packers’ addition of Rich Bisaccia as special-teams coordinator before the season. They paid him a reported $2-million-a-year, the highest salary ever paid to a special-teams coach, in the wake of their poor play in the kicking game last year, including the blocked punt returned for a touchdown in the narrow playoff loss to San Francisco. So let’s see Bisaccia’s impact though 15 weeks compared to last year’s group through the full season.
- Kick returns. Much improved, from 30th last year (17.7 per return) to 10th this year, six yards per return better.
- Punt returns. One yard better this year, from 8.0 to 9.0 yards per return.
- Opponents’ kick returns. Two yards worse this year, at 23.5 yards per runback.
- Opponents’ punt returns. Slightly worse: 9.5 yards per return last year, 10.0 this year.
- Net punt: 41.9 yards last year, 39.6 this year. Not great, but there is a plus: Pat O’Donnell has just one touchback, versus 23 placed inside the 20-yard line. The Pack, however, did not have a punt blocked in the regular season last year, and O’Donnell had one blocked this year. Deflected actually, against Baltimore. And he has faced consistent pressure to avoid others.
Conclusion: Where’s the great impact of Rich Bisaccia? Overall, the Pack is slightly better in the kicking game this year, but it hasn’t been the overhaul the franchise had hoped for.
8. I think you won’t read about the Pro Bowl in this column for a couple of reasons. I’m a Pro Bowl curmudgeon; it’s been a meaningless event for years, and at least the league recognizes that such a phony game should no longer be played, and they’re transitioning into some sort of flag-football event. But also, the voting doesn’t necessarily honor the best players, for a variety of reasons. Anyway, in case you wondered why I wasn’t outraged about Pro Bowl snubs or the like, the basic reason is there has been nothing concerning the Pro Bowl that is worth a scintilla of outrage, other than the fact that it actually had been played every year until now.
9. I think this was my favorite Franco Harris story of the Week—Dave Bennett of the Los Angeles Times on the meaning of Franco Harris to Pittsburgh. The photos are classic. And Bennett on what happened late in Harris’ rookie year is just great:
A little more than a week before the Immaculate Reception, the Steelers were practicing in Palm Springs to prepare for their final regular-season game, against the Chargers in San Diego. At a restaurant one night, some Steelers officials noticed that one of their fellow diners was perhaps the most famous Italian American of them all, Frank Sinatra.
Legendary Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope — later the creator of the Steelers’ Terrible Towel — was enlisted to slip a note to Sinatra. In the note, Cope explained Franco’s Italian Army and invited the singer to the Steelers’ practice the next day. Sinatra went to the practice, met Harris, was inducted into the army with the rank of general and received one of the group’s helmets.
“Not only did I get to meet Frank Sinatra,” Harris said, “but after the Immaculate Reception game, he sent me a telegram to congratulate me. How cool was that?”
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Happy Boxing Day!
b. I got introduced to Boxing Day on one holiday trip to England (my brother Ken married an English gal), and it’s celebrated in countries of the British Commonwealth—originally to give gifts to the less fortunate but more recently as a shopping holiday. It’s also a bank holiday in many countries.
c. Human Factoid That Should be Bigger Than it is Story of the Week: Yuki Noguchi of National Public Radio on the life expectancy in the United States being down more than two years over the past two years—to the lowest average age in almost 20 years.
d. Reported Noguchi:
Deaths from COVID-19 and drug overdoses, most notably synthetic opioids like fentanyl, were the primary drivers of the drop in life expectancy.
“It’s not a good year for the data, let’s put it that way,” says CDC statistician Kenneth Kochanek.
It’s rare to see such big changes in life span year to year, but the pandemic claimed nearly 417,000 lives last year — more than even the year before — making COVID-19 the third leading cause of death for the second consecutive year.
e. Man, 106,000 drug-overdose deaths. Wish I could say that’s unbelievable.
f. This might be the funniest pot-calling-the-kettle-black comment in sports history. It’s from Yanks owner Hal Steinbrenner, on Mets owner Steve Cohen’s spending spree and whether baseball should look into having a harder salary cap: “I think it’s something to be looked at. Nobody should have to go into spring training thinking their team has no chance of making the playoffs.”
g. I mean.
h. Someone with a good baseball salary database could tell you that the Yankees outspent the Orioles by 10 kazillion dollars in the last 10 years.
i. Of course it’s absurd that the Mets will have a salary commitment plus luxury tax of $495 million—at least—in 2023. But that’s the fault of the owners in Major League Baseball, for allowing this luxury tax loophole that tells Richie-rich guys like Steve Cohen that if they’re willing to pay an $111-million fee (or more), they can pay players whatever they want.
j. Speaking of Yankee hubris … Here’s club president Randy Levine rebuffing any talk of the Yankees not being the gold standard of MLB:
k. “There’s no doubt the Yankees have been, are today, and will continue in the future as the flagship of Major League Baseball.”
l. Said the president of a team that has won one of the last 22 World Series. Thirteen straight years without a title.
m. Cool Lifestyle Story of the Week: Alex Vadukul of The New York Times on teens who don’t want smartphones.
n. Alex Vadukul, you’re a great and observant reporter. This story shines because Vadukul immersed himself into the lives of young people who eschew smartphones, and he illuminates why, and it makes total sense.
o. Vadukul writes:
On a brisk recent Sunday, a band of teenagers met on the steps of Central Library on Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn to start the weekly meeting of the Luddite Club, a high school group that promotes a lifestyle of self-liberation from social media and technology. As the dozen teens headed into Prospect Park, they hid away their iPhones — or, in the case of the most devout members, their flip phones, which some had decorated with stickers and nail polish.
They marched up a hill toward their usual spot, a dirt mound located far from the park’s crowds. Among them was Odille Zexter-Kaiser, a senior at Edward R. Murrow High School in Midwood, who trudged through leaves in Doc Martens and mismatched wool socks.
“It’s a little frowned on if someone doesn’t show up,” Odille said. “We’re here every Sunday, rain or shine, even snow. We don’t keep in touch with each other, so you have to show up.”
After the club members gathered logs to form a circle, they sat and withdrew into a bubble of serenity.
Some drew in sketchbooks. Others painted with a watercolor kit. One of them closed their eyes to listen to the wind. Many read intently — the books in their satchels included Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Art Spiegelman’s “Maus II” and “The Consolation of Philosophy” by Boethius. The club members cite libertine writers like Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac as heroes, and they have a fondness for works condemning technology, like “Player Piano” by Kurt Vonnegut.
Arthur, the bespectacled PBS aardvark, is their mascot.
p. Now that is one incredible detail, Arthur as a high school club’s mascot in 2022.
q. The club’s founder, Logan Lane, has a flip phone. No internet access. “I still long to have no phone at all.”
r. RIP Tom Browning, author of a 1988 perfect game for the Reds.
s. The Reds have been playing baseball for 153 years, and it’s their only perfect game. Let that marinate for a while.
t. Browning actually pitched it after a two-hour rain delay, and it took just 1 hour, 51 minutes. Struck out seven, including Kirk Gibson twice.
u. Journalism Project of the Week: “The Lives They Lived,” The New York Times Magazine’s annual look at notable deaths of the previous year. This year, the magazine profiles 12 children who were victims of gun violence in America in 2022.
v. “Since 2020, gun violence has surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death for American children,” the magazine reported.
w. Here’s a link to a podcast the writers of these stories did. Powerful.
x. What a lovely Celebration of Life for the late Grant Wahl last Tuesday in Manhattan. Multiple speakers—from his professional, personal and collegiate lives—spoke lovingly of Wahl in a two-hour service. I was blown away by the eloquence, composure and love of his brother, Eric Wahl, and also by the grace of his widow, Dr. Celine Gounder.
y. After the initial shock, I have never seen anyone handle the death of a beloved husband and family member and friend better than the family and close friends of Grant Wahl, led by Dr. Gounder. A masterclass in love and grief, if there can be such a thing.
z. RIP, Vicki Czarnecki. The wife of one of my best friends, former sportswriter and FOX editorial consultant John Czarnecki, died in Riverside, Calif., last week after being ill for some time. Vicki and Czar have been such great friends to our family, and as I told Czar after she passed, Vicki had such a great gift for conversation. We could talk about anything for long periods of an evening or several evenings. Such a good and genuine person she was. My sincere condolences to Czar, his three girls and their families.
L.A. Chargers 30, Indianapolis 15. The Chargers, facing teams with a combined record of 12-29-1 entering the weekend, will be a road Wild Card team—barring a Chargers-type run of bad fortune. If Mike Williams and Keenan Allen play all three games, they won’t be losing more than one against the Colts, Rams, Broncos.
Games of Week 17
Miami at New England, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS. Somewhere along Route 1 between Boston and Providence, at one of the well-worn pubs, the Eagles will be warbling “Desperado” as game time approaches. The Patriots are on the verge of their fourth straight season without a playoff win, which I don’t believe ownership will receive kindly. This game, essentially, is a playoff game for both teams, with Miami struggling mightily too.
Pittsburgh at Baltimore, Sunday, 8:20 p.m., NBC. This game got flexed to Sunday night, replacing Rams-Chargers (as it should have) and beating out Dolphins-Patriots as the sub game. The Steelers’ recent play, going 4-1 to get in the playoff neighborhood at 7-8, made this game attractive. As did the rivalry, which is basically this: Happy New Year, and now I’m going to sock you right in the jaw. The one NFL constant is Steelers-Ravens as the league’s most physical game. Last time they played, both quarterbacks got concussed. The Ravens need Lamar Jackson to come back, and soon.
Buffalo at Cincinnati, Monday, 8:15 p.m., ESPN. Nice Monday-night closer for ESPN. It’s the best Monday matchup this year, with the 12-3 Bills at the 11-4 Bengals. If the Bills want to avoid a late January game in Kansas City—and really, how amazing would it be for Buffalo to play at Arrowhead on Jan. 24, 2021, Jan. 23, 2022 and Jan. 29, 2023, which is on the line next Monday?—they probably need to win this game.
The Adieu Haiku30
Russ asked for one thing
this Christmastime: his skill back.
That too much to ask?