“It is what it is,” Joe Burrow said as the clock struck midnight, not long after Cincinnati edged (is there a better word for an agonizingly close game than “edged”?) Baltimore to set up a divisional playoff date Sunday that just might get a good television rating: Cincinnati at Buffalo.
Emphasis on at Buffalo.
Good for Burrow. Whatever he feels deep down about the Bengals having to go to Buffalo instead of the site of the game being determined by a coin flip, or played at a neutral field, he said all the right things about it to me early this morning, talking after Cincinnati 24, Baltimore 17. The right things, and sincere things, in the wake of Buffalo safety Damar Hamlin nearly dying on the field in Cincinnati 14 days ago.
“When something like that happens,” Burrow said, “you’re not the Bengals and the Bills anymore. You’re NFL players who care about each other and want the best for one another. So that was a tough moment. It’s great that [Hamlin] is back in Buffalo with the team. I think that’ll make the game a lot easier to play.
“That night, yeah, I was proud of the way things were handled. I think it was handled the right way. Both teams showed support to each other. It was a hard moment for everybody. Head coaches handled it with class and the right decision was made at the end to cancel the game. I was proud to be an NFL player in that moment.”
I mean, Joe Burrow is not only a great football player. He’s got this thing in the right perspective.
Burrow, coach Zac Taylor and the rest of the Bengals will be asked this week about the circumstances surrounding Cincinnati traveling to Buffalo for this playoff game. The league did make allowances for Buffalo and Kansas City, should they meet for the AFC title in 13 days, to play at a neutral site because Buffalo, which beat Kansas City in the regular season, didn’t have the chance to tie KC for the best record in the AFC. That’s because the NFL chose to cancel the Bills-Bengals game after Hamlin collapsed at Paycor Stadium Jan. 2. Though the Bengals (12-4 in the regular season) would have had the same record as Buffalo (13-3) had Cincinnati won that night, and though the Bengals would have been the higher seed because of the head-to-head win, the league made the decision to have a prospective Cincinnati-Buffalo playoff game played at the team with the better record and playoff seed regardless of the cancellation. So Buffalo is second-seeded in the AFC and Cincinnati is the third seed.
Though it would have been more egalitarian for the home field to be settled by coin flip this week, it also seems a trivial thing to be upset about considering what happened to Hamlin. I was glad to hear Burrow, when I asked if he had any ill will about having the game in Buffalo Sunday, answer this way:
“It is what it is,” he said. “That’s … that’s where we’re at. It’s our job to figure out how to go in there and get a win.”
I love that. Nothing can be gained by grousing about it now. It’s mental energy wasted. The Bengals beat the AFC’s 1 and 2 seeds, Tennessee and Kansas City, on the road to get to the Super Bowl last year. And now they could have to do precisely the same thing this year—beat the 2 and 1 seeds away from home to get to the Super Bowl a month from now in Arizona.
I’ll get to the play of the weekend later in the column—Baltimore QB Tyler Huntley’s questionable decision to try to break the plane of the goal line with an outstretched reach of the ball, and Sam Hubbard’s 98-yard TD return of the resulting fumble—but one last thing about the Bengals for now. In the last 52 weeks, they’ve played five playoff games. They’re 4-1 in those games, in Burrow’s playoff history. Every game has been a one-score game. Average margin of victory: 3.4 points.
“That’s how playoff football is,” he said. “It’s never easy. I don’t care about the score—as long as we come out with the win, that’s all that matters.”
Eight games left in the 2022 season, starting tonight in Tampa. The lineup for the NFL’s elite eight, starting with the divisional matchups next weekend:
4:30 p.m. ET: Jacksonville (10-8, AFC 4 seed) at Kansas City (14-3, AFC 1 seed), NBC. Does Trevor Lawrence have a second miracle in his arsenal? Jacksonville’s 7-1 since KC beat the Jags 27-17 at Arrowhead nine weeks ago.
8:15 p.m. ET: New York Giants (10-7-1, NFC 6 seed) at Philadelphia (14-3, NFC 1 seed), FOX. These Giants. Remember the last two Giants teams to get hot in January? The 2007 Giants, 10-6, marauded their way to a Super Bowl win. Ditto for the 9-7 Giants in 2011.
3 p.m. ET: Cincinnati (13-4, AFC 3 seed) at Buffalo (14-3, AFC 2 seed), CBS. Crazy to think that these two teams come off shaky Wild Card wins after a season in which they went through dominant stretches. That’s what happens when you play division rivals for the third time in a year. Bengals have won nine in a row, Buffalo eight.
6:30 p.m. ET: Dallas/Tampa Bay winner tonight at San Francisco (14-4, NFC 2 seed), FOX. The prospect of the last pick in the 2022 draft beating Tom Brady twice in six weeks is just downright bizarre, but if Tampa wins tonight, the Niners will be favored in the unbeaten Brock Purdy’s seventh NFL start.
The playoff weekend that seemed meh turned out pretty good, with four of the five games one-score jobs, and the final heave in Cincinnati very nearly nabbed by Ravens wideout James Proche and sent to overtime. What we learned:
Brian Daboll is coach of the year, and I’ll be happy to meet you at sundown tonight to duel if you’ve got a problem with that.
Patrick Mahomes, idle this weekend, will not be idle at NFL Honors Feb. 9. I think he’ll win his second MVP.
Lamar Jackson is in for a very, very newsy offseason.
“The strangest 27 points” a Doug Pederson team has given up was not the end of the world for the Jaguars.
Whither Brandon Staley? Ownership likes him, the GM likes him, but is that enough to survive blowing a 27-0 lead? One thing’s in Staley’s favor: The Chargers don’t have the NFL’s deepest pockets, and they already have to pay Justin Herbert this off-season. Would they have enough to pay jillions for, say, Sean Payton? I have my doubts.
The Bills probably wish they were playing better.
The Bengals, too.
Get a play off, please. I have no idea how the Dolphins were in it till the end at Buffalo. The offense looked like all 11 guys just got the playbook last night.
Brock Purdy should get George Kittle to ghost-write his New York Times best-selling autobiography this off-season. Kittle has got Purdy’s story down perfectly.
Charles Omenihu, you rock.
I don’t think you’ll like my Offensive Rookie of the Year. No matter. I do.
Wow, Daniel Carlson. You are one heck of a bootsman.
Has it ever happened that a winning team never led for one second in a 60-minute game? We all saw it this weekend.
Let’s start with the G-Men, who are really growing on me.
Brian Daboll was smoking a cigar outside U.S. Bank Stadium Sunday evening, and he deserved one. Let’s be real. The brain trust of the 2022 Giants—Joe Schoen the GM and Daboll the coach—inherited a bad combination when they took the jobs last January. The Giants had the worst talent 1 to 53 and the worst cap situation, combined, of any team in the league. Oh, that cap. But the Giants had a quarterback with athleticism and some moxie, Daniel Jones, and they had a running back, Saquon Barkley, burning to show the world he was back, and a defense with some intriguing talent.
So the Giants made the playoffs. Now, winning a playoff game, on the road, against the NFC’s three seed, the 13-4 Vikings … Wouldn’t this be time to breathe a sigh and appreciate the feat of winning a playoff game in what was absolutely a bridge year for what Schoen and Daboll were building?
“No,” Daboll said. “Can’t do it.”
Sort of a Parcellsian answer.
He wasn’t positive yet, but Daboll thought there was a good chance the Giants would be playing top-seeded Philadelphia Saturday night in the divisional round. Not only was this not the time to preen, it was a time to start the short-week homework for Philly.
Daboll got on the bus to the airport. A minute or two later, he said: “You know what I’m doing right now? I’m watching our field-goal rush team against Minnesota’s field-goal protection. I’m watching the tape. No time for that other stuff.”
The Giants beat Minnesota 31-24 in the Wild Card game Sunday. Barkley churned for 109 total yards and two rushing touchdowns. Jones, in his best clutch games as a pro, threw for 301 yards, ran for a game-high 78, outplayed Kirk Cousins, and looked like he’d been playing games like this one forever. No sweat.
But what impressed me is what else the Giants had Sunday. Some teams have cap problems and push the issue into the future. The Giants were in cap hell last spring and it influenced every last decision they made with this team. The fact is, they started four veterans who, on average, were making $960,000 this year. The leader of that pack: wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins. What a story. The Bills drafted Hodgins, a 6-4 target from Oregon State, in the sixth round in 2020, and he’d mostly languished on the Buffalo bench and practice squad. Daboll and Schoen were with that Buffalo team when Hodgins came aboard. Daboll, then the Bills’ offensive coordinator, coached him.
On Nov. 3, the Giants saw Hodgins on the waiver wire. The brain trust thought: He could be our best wideout. The Giants put in a claim for him.
What a strange league. The Giants were the only team to claim Hodgins.
Turns out Buffalo was trying to move Hodgins from the active roster to the practice squad and had to expose him to waivers to do so. The Giants were awarded Hodgins, and he quickly moved into the rotation. He started five games in the regular season and a sixth Sunday in his first playoff game, in Minnesota. At 6-4, he was the kind of big receiver the Giants lacked. “Smart player, dependable guy, kept his head down,” Daboll said. “Caught a lot of contested balls at Oregon State. He worked. He knew what we were trying to do offensively inside and out. Joe [Schoen] brought him up. We thought he’d be a good fit because he knows all the terminology of our offense.”
Price tag for the cap-strapped Giants was good too: Hodgins would make just $705,000 in 2022. He’d be one of the lowest-paid players on the team.
The Giants were the land of opportunity, though, and Daniel Jones took to Hodgins right away. Since Dec. 1, he’s the most-targeted wideout on the team, with 33 targets, and another nine Sunday in Minnesota. His 14-yard TD catch from Jones Sunday gave the Giants a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter. New York never trailed after that.
Turns out Hodgins had the first 100-yard game of his life—eight catches, 105 yards. One of the lowest-paid guys on the field out-performed the likely Offensive Player of the Year, Justin Jefferson. One more catch, one more TD, 48 more receiving yards.
The Giants employed three other starters in Hodgins’ financial neighborhood—wideout Richie James, corner Fabian Moreau, linebacker Jaylon Smith—on short, prove-it deals, the only kind Schoen could offer roster marginalia. He signed others to low-paying Practice Squad jobs, telling those willing to work cheap it’s all the Giants had, and they’d be moved to the active roster on gameday when the opportunity permitted. And Daboll, offensive coordinator Mike Kafka and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale coached them hard.
The result: New York will go to Philadelphia with a bunch of players with boulders, not chips, on their shoulders. The Giants wanted them. No one else did. The Eagles will have more talent, to be sure. But desire could make this a game Saturday night at the Linc.
Did you see Doug Pederson’s halftime interview with Kaylee Hartung on NBC Saturday night during Chargers-Jaguars? Pederson had just watched his team turn it over five times in the first 25 minutes of the game, leading to 20 Chargers points and a 27-7 halftime lead for L.A. Trevor Lawrence threw four picks. It was a tragicomedy of errors. Yet, Pederson had a vibe of don’t-worry-we’ll-be-fine with Hartung. “We just gotta keep chipping,” he said, talking like he was leaving his house and telling his wife, “Be right back. Gotta pick up a few groceries.”
“The demeanor you saw with me and Kaylee was the same demeanor I carried into the locker room with the team,” Pederson told me an hour after the game. “I was internally frustrated, obviously, with how we played. But I went in and told the team, ‘One play at a time. Chip away. Defense, you’re starting the second half—get us a stop. Offense, we gotta score every time we touch the ball.’ I knew we could get back into the football game.”
Isn’t that the way a coach should be when the sky is falling? Guys, the sky is not falling. We handed them 20 points. They didn’t hurt us in the first half—we hurt ourselves. It’s not happy talk. The Chargers’ average drive start on their first seven drives—when they produced all 27 points—was the Jags’ 42-. I mean, what team wouldn’t score a bunch of points when getting the ball in such great field position drive after drive?
“It was the strangest 27 points given up I think I’ve ever been a part of,” Pederson said. “It didn’t feel like we were out of the football game, which is crazy to say. That was just Trevor’s demeanor too, the whole offense. And the team felt that.”
Chip, chip, chip. Two late plays, a dumb foul by Joey Bosa and a nothing half from Justin Herbert (four drives, three points) decided this one. After Bosa got an unsportsmanlike penalty for slamming his helmet to the ground – frustrated with an official not calling a false start on a Jacksonville TD – with 5:25 left in the game, Pederson had the option of taking the 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff, or having the ball put at the Chargers’ one- for a two-point conversion try. It was 30-26. Going for two, if successful, would mean the Jags would need only a field goal to win; failing would mean Jacksonville would need a late TD.
Pederson said he would have kicked the PAT if Bosa didn’t incur the penalty. Going for two from 36 inches away made all the difference.
“Well,” Pederson said, “the thought process was a field goal wins the game. And so that’s what I decided to do. I was putting it in the players’ hands. Players wanted to go for it. They were excited. They felt like we had a great call. I felt that was kind of an easy decision to make.”
Lawrence reached over with the ball palmed in his right hand, and the ball easily crossed the plane of the goal line. Now it was 30-28.
Herbert, with a chance to put the game away, went sack, short completion, short completion, punt. Not good. Jacksonville got the ball at its 21- with 3:09 left and all three timeouts. The Jags got to the L.A. 41- and called time. Fourth-and-two-feet. Season on the line.
“I felt like we were a little too far for the field goal. Our season was coming down to basically 18 inches. We’re going for this and put it into the players’ hands. Phil Rauscher, my offensive line coach, came up with that play. Did a great job of design.”
The formation screamed quarterback sneak. Behind Lawrence, who was under center, was a three-man backfield: from the left, fleet back Travis Etienne, 252-pound tight end Luke Farrell, 260-pound tight end Chris Manhertz. At the snap, Lawrence could push forward and get backhoed forward by 512 pounds of tight end.
“Have you seen us QB-sneak this year?” Pederson said. “We’re not very good. I mean, we’re just not good.”
Rauscher’s idea against a heavy front was to signal sneak but to unleash Etienne around the end. And Lawrence handed it to Etienne and he swept right, and all he had to do was beat first-half hero Asante Samuel Jr., and he did. Etienne for 25. Easy field-goal range for Riley Patterson, and he snuck the 36-yard winner just inside the right upright. Ballgame.
“Last question,” I said to Pederson. “Where does this victory rank in your life?”
I knew what I wanted him to say. We’re a month away from the five-year anniversary of Pederson’s Super Bowl win in Philadelphia. But would this all-timer of a comeback be in the same league?
Pederson didn’t hesitate. “It’s second,” he said. “Right behind the Super Bowl.”
The most impressive part about watching the Niners, who haven’t lost in 12 weeks, is obviously that a third-string quarterback, Brock Purdy, has won seven straight games. (He played all but four minutes of his first game, a win over Miami, after replacing Jimmy Garoppolo, and has won six starts since then.) There’s also the small matter of the 49ers having the best defense in football. But there’s something else that surfaced often in the Wild Card win over Seattle.
On Deebo Samuel’s 74-yard TD catch early in the fourth quarter, fellow wideout Brandon Aiyuk engaged rookie corner Tariq Woolen of the Seahawks down the left side, paving the way for Samuel. Aiyuk blocked Woolen for 5.78 seconds, per my iPhone stopwatch. This is one of the things you hear when you’re around the Niners: Everyone blocks. No one matadors it.
“What I love about this team,” tight end George Kittle said afterward, “is we have so many fantastic football players that are great at YAC [yards after the catch] so when one of our best players gets the ball, every other guy wants to block for him. You can see the effort on film. If you noticed, Aiyuk’s block was smart—no holding, kept his hands inside. That’s how our whole team is built.”
Same with a cutback run by Christian McCaffrey earlier in the game. Look who was in the middle of the fray as McCaffrey, looking to be stopped for a loss of one or two yards running wide left, cut back against the grain to fight for nine. Kittle was in the middle of it, jousting with a Seahawk. It’s hard in today’s football, which doesn’t reward all-around play in headlines or oft-times in contract negotiations, to tell the Aiyuks and Kittles: You block, and you block great, or you don’t play. But that’s a message Kyle Shanahan has gotten across in his tenure, and it showed up against Seattle.
The Niners’ ethos was on display in this game. You know what Victory Monday is in the NFL? The regular off-day for most teams is Tuesday, if they’re playing the following Sunday. After a win, many coaches give the players Victory Monday, or an extra day off, and will tell their players, See you Wednesday morning. The Niners, evidently, have many players who don’t want the extra day off. After the Wild Card win, on the 49ers radio network, veteran fullback Kyle Juszczyk said: “We’ve had a few Victory Mondays now, and I come in on Mondays, and I can’t find a parking spot.”
Now to Purdy. I thought the most amazing play he made in this game was an incompletion on a scramble drill. On a third down from the Seattle 13- with five minutes left in the game, he took a shotgun snap, surveyed the secondary, found no one open, scrambled left, found no one open, sprinted right, waited and waited and, 11.8 seconds after taking the snap, fired to Aiyuk in the right corner of the end zone; he got both hands on it while toe-tapping the end line but couldn’t hold on. A magnificent play. Kittle had the same thought I did: All those games at Iowa State, 48 of them in a Power Five conference, made a very big difference in Purdy the 2022 NFLer.
“I think Brock’s experience in college really helped him today,” Kittle said. “Everything didn’t go well in the first half, but he came out in the second half and was totally confident in the huddle. You could feel it. When he’s confident, we’re confident, and he just makes us play at a higher level. He’s been in a little trouble at halftime before. A lot of times, probably. He’s played from behind before; he’s played from ahead before. He has all the repetitions. Failure is a big part of learning to play quarterback in the NFL, and he had success and failure in college, so nothing here is really new for him.
“Football humbles you a lot. I think when you’ve been humbled in college, you kind of realize how hard football is and you realize what it takes to win. I think Brock has realized that—and he realizes failing is good for you on the road to success.”
I could not have said that better. Losing in Austin at age 18, in Stillwater at age 19, in Norman at age 20, in Iowa City at age 21—but also winning 29 college games in four Big 12 seasons—gave Purdy the kind of pedigree that makes it possible for him to act like he’s been there. “What’s crazy to me is where he was drafted,” safety Jimmie Ward said on the Niners’ post-game radio show. “Was it because he’s a little short? His hand size? You gotta draft people for being players. This guy’s a dog.”
Ward meant that affectionately. As the Niners advance to the NFL’s elite eight, no one’s arguing.
1. Survival game for Buffalo. “All that matters is surviving and advancing,” said Josh Allen. He’s right, but the Bills know they probably wouldn’t have beaten their two biggest competitors for the AFC crown, Cincinnati and Kansas City, with a performance like Sunday’s. Buffalo was up 17-0 midway through the second quarter, but they turned it over three times in the next nine minutes, allowing Miami to creep ahead 24-20 early in the third quarter. “You turn the ball over, and you die, normally, a pretty quick death,” said Bills coach Sean McDermott. Throw in a 50-yard Miami punt return, four fumbles (only one lost) and two picks, and this is not the kind of game the Bills can play in either of the next two weeks if it expects to be in the Super Bowl this year.
2. This was Allen’s sixth game in 17 starts with two or more turnovers. (He had three, including getting stripped for a Miami TD.) He was also sacked seven times, tied for the most in a game in his career. For the season, Allen has a league-high 22 turnovers. You know how players are fond of saying, “We’ve got a lot to clean up”? Allen was well-versed in that lingo Sunday. “I did some bad things today, so there’s stuff to clean up and some things to learn from.” Allen made some terrific throws in this game, so all is not bleak. But oddly, the Bills head into their biggest game of the year Sunday in Orchard Park with some disquieting question marks about consistency and ball security on offense.
3. Some might say, Moral victory for Miami—played Buffalo close on the road with a rookie quarterback thrown to the wolves. Okay. Good for the Dolphins to be in this game late. But the defense made enough plays against a high-powered Buffalo offense to win, while the Skylar Thompson-led offense had one drive of 40 yards or more on 14 possessions. Tough place to win, tough place to play, but Mike McDaniel will watch the tape of this game and find 50 things to correct. At least.
4. No excuse for the amateur-hour execution of the Miami offense, particularly on the last desperate drive of the game. Too many rushed snaps and near-snaps and hurried timeouts/false-starts by the Dolphins. On the final Miami drive, the Dolphins got one delay of game and had to burn their last timeout to void another delay. On four other snaps, they got the ball off with two, two, one and two seconds on the play clock. Just sloppy. Amazing Miami kept it this close.
5. Cincinnati at Buffalo is still the divisional round game of the week. Maybe some of it is the overly familiar thing of teams playing division rivals—Miami being so nettlesome Sunday afternoon in Buffalo, Baltimore driving the Bengals crazy Sunday night in Cincinnati. But makes it difficult to project anything entering Bengals-Bills next weekend.
I submitted my annual vote for the AP awards and all-pro team last Wednesday. No real upsets, though you may not agree. Send your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City. Had to manage an entirely new wideout corps, and they caught 45 percent of his league-leading 5,250 passing yards. KC tied for the league’s best record, 14-3. My full top five:
Brian Daboll, N.Y. Giants. Just an impossible category because so many coaches did great jobs this year. Daboll took over a rock-bottom team, a bottom-five team in the league at the end of last year, and that team had to be denuded because of massive cap issues left by ex-GM Dave Gettleman. Daboll turned that into nine wins and a playoff team. My full top five:
- Brian Daboll, N.Y. Giants.
- Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco.
- Sean McDermott, Buffalo.
- Doug Pederson, Jacksonville.
- Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh.
Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota. He made the catch of the year at Buffalo—no one who saw can believe it still—and had seven games eclipsing 130 yards receiving. Led the league in receptions, yards and yards per game. Top three:
Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco. Led the league with 18.5 sacks and pressured the passer 90 times—including on the game-winning play in Week 17 at Las Vegas. Lots of great defensive-front players, including an Aaron Donald-type season from the number two guy on my list. Top three:
Tyler Allgeier, RB, Atlanta. The 151st pick in last April’s draft buttressed his case by averaging 108 rushing yards a game in the last four weeks, with a 5.5-yards-per-rush effort. Tough, tough runner. Jets receiver Garrett Wilson was in my top till Brock Purdy went wild over the past month. Top three:
- Tyler Allgeier, RB, Atlanta.
- Ken Walker, RB, Seattle.
- Brock Purdy, QB, San Francisco.
Sauce Gardner, CB, N.Y. Jets. PFF’s top corner as a rookie allowed just 45-percent completions. Easy pick.
- Sauce Gardner, CB, N.Y. Jets.
- Aidan Hutchinson, DE, Detroit.
- Tariq Woolen, CB, Seattle.
Nick Gates, C, N.Y. Giants. In week two last year, Gates suffered a grotesque left leg injury, with multiple fractures to his tibia and fibula. He had seven surgeries but recovered to start the last seven games of the season for the playoff Giants.
- Nick Gates, C, N.Y. Giants.
- Saquon Barkley, RB, N.Y. Giants.
- Geno Smith, QB, Seattle.
DeMeco Ryans, defensive coordinator, San Francisco. Fred Warner told me something in midseason that stuck with me. Ryans coached the stingiest defense in league in technique and scheme, but also from personal experience. He’s a former defensive rookie of the year and two-time Pro Bowler. “That means a lot to us,” Warner said.
- DeMeco Ryans, defensive coordinator, San Francisco.
- Lou Anarumo, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati.
- Ben Johnson, offensive coordinator, Detroit.
Executive (Executive is not an AP category, but I chose one anyway.)
Howie Roseman, executive VP/GM, Philadelphia. Taking Jalen Hurts with a low second-round pick in 2020 is a huge key to the Eagles’ success. This year, adding A.J. Brown, Haason Reddick, James Bradberry, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Jordan Davis, among others, rounded out a terrific roster.
- Howie Roseman, executive VP/GM, Philadelphia.
- John Schneider, executive VP/GM, Seattle.
- Brad Holmes, executive VP/GM, Detroit.
Next week: My all-pro first and second teams.
Logan Wilson and Sam Hubbard combined for one of the most remarkable plays of the season, one that completely swung the momentum for the Bengals Sunday night. “A 14-point swing,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews called it, perfectly. With the game tied at 17 and the Ravens four feet from the goal line, on the verge of scoring the go-ahead TD, Baltimore quarterback Tyler Huntley tried a sneak. Wilson went up to meet Huntley’s attempted sneak, swatting the ball loose and into the hands of Hubbard. Hubbard would be flanked by a phalanx of Bengals on the 98-yard touchdown return. The score was the longest go-ahead fourth-quarter TD and the longest fumble-return TD in NFL postseason history. A deeper look at the numbers behind Hubbard’s return, using Next Gen Stats:
Hubbard traveled 123.6 yards on the 98-yard TD run, the most distance traveled by a ball carrier on a TD this season. He also reached a top speed of 17.43 mph, the third-fastest a defensive lineman has gone as a ballcarrier this season. Credit to Andrews, who very nearly ran Hubbard down and who hit the fastest speed of his career (20.72 mph) in that chase. But ultimately Hubbard was too far gone.
Sam Hubbard takes the fumble 98 yards for the TD ‼️
— NFL (@NFL) January 16, 2023
And how impactful was the score, which put Cincinnati up 24-17? It nearly doubled the Bengals’ win probability, from 46 percent before the fumble return TD to 88 percent afterward.
One more point to ponder, per Next Gen Stats: At Huntley’s closest point to the goal line, the ball he attempted to take over the top was six-tenths of a yard from the goal line, or just under two feet. In a game of inches, Huntley wasn’t that close, an indication that even without the athleticism from Wilson and the perfect positioning from Hubbard to grab the ball and get moving, it was still a long way to go for an ill-advised QB sneak. When Next Gen tweeted about the ball being six-tenths of a yard from the goal line, there was a social outcry about how the league should use the chip in footballs to determine things like first-down accuracy. This could be possible one day, but because of the vagaries of where the rest of the body parts are when the chip in the ball notes where the ball is, there’s still work to do to make the chip the final authority in ball placement.
Offensive players of the week
Brock Purdy, quarterback, San Francisco. The final pick in the 2022 draft did something Saturday afternoon in rainy Santa Clara that no rookie in NFL history has ever done: Purdy accounted for four touchdowns—three passing, one rushing—in the Niners’ 41-23 Wild Card win over Seattle. The legend grows.
Daniel Jones, quarterback, New York Giants. What a difference three weeks makes. The Giants didn’t use Jones’ legs in their Week 16 loss at Minnesota; Jones ran just four times for 34 yards. On Sunday, Jones scrambled for four first downs and rushed 17 times for a game-high 78 yards. But in his first playoff game, Jones outpassed Kirk Cousins as well, 302 yards to 273, and led scoring drives of 75, 81, 85, 75 and 75 yards as the Giants rolled up 431 total yards. For all the guff Jones has gotten in his four seasons in New Jersey, all he does is go to work, betray no emotions and lead the NFC’s most surprising team to the final eight of the 2022 season.
Trevor Lawrence, quarterback, Jacksonville. We don’t know yet if Lawrence, just two years into his NFL life, will go down as a great quarterback. But on Saturday night, Lawrence did what great players do—put away the worst half of your football career and overcome a 27-point deficit to win. Lawrence handed picks to the Chargers in the first, fifth, 13th and 24th minutes of the game, and the Chargers turned those four turnovers into 17 points. But in the last 32 minutes of the game, Lawrence was 23 of 29 for 253 yards with four TDs and no turnovers. He celebrated by eating a post-game meal at a Jacksonville Waffle House. Man of the people right there.
Defensive players of the week
Logan Wilson/Sam Hubbard, linebacker and defensive end, Cincinnati. With the Bengals struggling mightily to repel pesky Baltimore Sunday night, the game was tied at 17 early in the fourth quarter. Baltimore QB Tyler Huntley, four feet from the end zone, leapt and reached out to try to pierce the plane of the goal line. Wilson punched the ball out, freakily right into the arms of Hubbard, who returned it 98 yards for the go-ahead TD. “The Cincinnati kid!” Mike Tirico called Hubbard, because he is.
Roy Robertson-Harris, defensive end, Jacksonville. He’s flown under the radar far too long. Robertson-Harris was huge Saturday night, the first defensive player ever to get a starry defensive trifecta of four tackles for loss, two passes broken up, and a sack in the Jags’ comeback win over the Chargers. He also had seven tackles and was buzzing around Justin Herbert all night.
Matt Milano, linebacker, Buffalo. Led his team with 10 tackles and two sacks in the win over Miami. Love the fact that he earned his first AP all-pro nod last week, just prior to starring in this game. Well-deserved. On Sunday, with the Dolphins leading 24-21 in the third quarter, Milano sacked Skylar Thompson for a loss of seven, leading to a Miami punt. Buffalo took the lead for good three minutes later on a Josh Allen touchdown pass.
Dexter Lawrence, defensive lineman, N.Y. Giants. Led the Giants with a season-high eight pressures of Kirk Cousins. Lawrence, who’d always been a good player since being a first-round pick of the Giants in 2019, has exploded onto the star scene this year in Wink Martindale’s defense, and watching the Vikings fail to consistently block him Sunday had to give the Eagles pause in advance of the Giants-Philadelphia divisional game Saturday night.
Charles Omenihu, defensive lineman, San Francisco. With 18 minutes to play, Niners up 23-17, and Seattle driving to take the lead deep in 49er territory, Omenihu made the defensive play of the game. His strip-sack of Geno Smith was recovered by Nick Bosa. “Huge,” Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said later. “That changed the momentum of the whole game. It helped the defense get their mojo back.” Seven minutes later, it was 38-17 Niners, and this one was over. Omenihu added a late sack of Smith, giving him two of San Francisco’s three sacks in a 41-23 victory. The fact that Omenihu was the Niners’ most significant factor in a playoff game is a great sign of the personnel acumen of GM John Lynch, assistant GM Adam Peters and their staff. Football quiz: Omenihu was not drafted by the Niners. How did he get to San Francisco? (Answer in number 6 of Ten Things I Think.)
Special teams player of the week
Ryan Wright, punter, Minnesota. Wright pinned the Giants back on all three of his punts Sunday, averaging 54.7 yards per punt with a net average of 49 yards. Wright made the Giants start at their own 19-, 9- and 24-yard lines. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Daniel Jones drove the Giants to a TD and field goal on two of the three field-reversing boots by Wright.
Coach of the week
Phil Rauscher, offensive line coach, Jacksonville. This 37-year-old O-line coach had a major hand in the Jags’ win over the Chargers Saturday night, as coach Doug Pederson told me. It was Rauscher who came up with the idea for the three backs stationed behind Trevor Lawrence on fourth-and-18-inches from the Chargers’ 41-yard line with 1:27 to play. While the Jags took a timeout and decided to change the call to the Rauscher play, the Chargers undoubtedly wondered if the Jags would simply try to sneak Trevor Lawrence, or have him dive with the ball up in the air, a la Brady, to get forward progress for a first down. The Chargers clearly didn’t count on Travis Etienne’s speed around the edge. He took the ball from Lawrence as the Chargers clogged the line and sprinted around the right end for 25 yards to the L.A. 15-yard line, needing only a field goal to win. Great call by Doug Pederson; great play design by Rauscher.
Goat of the week
Joey Bosa, defensive end, L.A. Chargers. An inexcusable loss of poise led to a huge momentum shift with 5:25 left in the Chargers-Jags game. The Chargers led 30-20, and, with the ball at the Chargers’ nine-yard line, it appeared Jags’ right tackle Jawaan Taylor moved a millisecond before the snap. No flag. Trevor Lawrence threw a TD pass to Christian Kirk to make it 30-26, and Bosa, furious that a false start was not called on the Jags, was a few steps from the sideline and two-hand-slammed his helmet to the ground. He got flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct. That gave the Jags a choice: take half-the-distance on the conversion try and go for two at the one-yard line, or take the yardage on the ensuing kickoff. Doug Pederson chose to go for two from the Chargers’ one-. “It was not really a question I’d do that,” Pederson said. And 6-6 quarterback Trevor Lawrence very simply jumped and leaned into the line, while palming the football and piercing the plane of the goal line for two points. That made it 30-28, and set the stage for the game-winning field goal. Said coach Brandon Staley post-game: “You can’t lose your composure like that … Can’t hurt the team that way.”
TV Person of the Week
Fred Gaudelli, producer, NBC Sports/Amazon Prime Video. In his final game in the truck after 33 years of producing prime-time NFL games, Gaudelli had a gem on NBC Saturday night, the 31-30 Jacksonville comeback over Los Angeles. His preparation, and reading the game, has separated Gaudelli over the years, and that happened in what looked like a Chargers’ blowout at halftime. Gaudelli was discussing second-half topics with Al Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy before they went back on the air at the start of the third quarter. He knew Dungy had coached the Bucs in a Gaudelli-produced Monday night game on ESPN in 2003, when Tampa Bay came back from a 21-point deficit at the half to win. “Fred set it up coming out of halftime,” Dungy said Sunday. “He said, ‘Let’s do it. Talk about that.’” So Dungy did. It would be wrong to say that presaged what was about to happen, but as we see every week in the NFL, weird things are possible in this game, and Gaudelli has seen his share. “He’s so on top of all the details,” Dungy said. “He keeps you focused in the booth and has you anticipate. A great teacher. He reminds me of Chuck Noll.” Gaudelli, 62, will stay in the game as executive producer for NBC and Amazon.
Hidden person of the week
Kenny Golladay, wide receiver, N.Y. Giants. “You see that block?” coach Brian Daboll said about Golladay’s pancake block of Minnesota cornerback Duke Shelley on the winning drive in the fourth quarter. At the Vikings’ 26-, Daniel Jones threw to Saquon Barkley to the right, and the Golladay block allowed Barkley to gain 10 yards. Five plays later, Barkley bulled in for the winning TD. Pretty great for Golladay, considering he’s been a huge disappointment since signing a $72-million contract with the Giants in free-agency in 2021.
The Jason Jenkins Award
The Eagles Social Justice Fund, Philadelphia Eagles. The fund donated $410,350 to nine inner-city Philadelphia agencies for education and “violence interruption” to curb the plague of gun violence in the city. There are 57 city blocks there that have seen 10 or more people get shot since 2015. Said Eagles’ running back Miles Sanders: “This issue hits home for me because I came from a similar type of environment, and I know what it takes to get out of those situations. A lot of these kids look up to guys like us, and it’s our responsibility to provide a source of inspiration for them and show them there is a way out. We can do this by investing in programs and initiatives that address the root causes of poverty and provide opportunities for those who have been trapped in it for far too long.”
Yes, this is a challenging time for him. Yes, his health is of primary importance. But I would be a fool to not embrace him when he’s healthy and ready to go. We’ll all be excited for that.
–Miami coach Mike McDaniel, on the prospect of Tua Tagovailoa playing football in 2023, which he is expected to do after a season with three incidents of head trauma and/or concussions.
It’s the playoffs. You’re three games away. Put a brace on it. Let’s go.
–Former quarterback Mike Vick, on FOX on Saturday, with a message to Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has a sprained posterior collateral ligament in his knee and did not play for the final six weeks of the season.
Anytime you’re up 27-7 at halftime, and you’ve got four takeaways, winning the takeaway margin four-nothing, you know, it’s gonna be a killer.
–Chargers coach Brandon Staley, after his team, up 27-0 with a minute left in the first half, lost to the Jaguars 31-30.
He never flinches. That’s who he is. His aggressiveness, his ability to forget. This was a great performance by our quarterback.
–Jacksonville coach Doug Pederson on quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
It’s a great story for a lot of players, in other sports, if you keep hanging in there and believe in yourself. You don’t let the messaging outside of you affect who you are and what you are. You’ll find your best. And I think Geno’s found his best. He’s ready to come back and go again. I thought he had just an unbelievably great season for us.
–Seattle coach Pete Carroll, who said he hopes Geno Smith, a free agent, returns to the team. Smith said he wants to finish his career in Seattle.
We are in the era of great kickers, but I’m not sure if we realize how great it is. This chart should explain it all.
Justin Tucker, we’d probably agree, is the premier kicker in the NFL. Of the kickers in the NFL in the last third of its existence, it seems likely that two—Adam Vinatieri and Tucker—stand above all, and will have an excellent shot to make the Hall of Fame when they’re eligible. Vinatieri’s last season was 2019; Tucker, 33, just finished his 11th season.
But over the last three years, by field-goal percentage, Tucker is not the most accurate kicker in football. In fact, he’s not close—and that’s no knock on him, because he’s made nine of every 10 field goals he’s tried since opening day 2020. It’s just that others in the sport are catching up.
Compared to Tucker, here are the kickers who have been more accurate—among those who have played three full seasons—since 2020:
One more amazing thing about these kickers. Carlson, as noted, has converted 84 percent of his field-goal tries of 50 yards or longer over the last three years. As a standalone stat, that’s great, obviously. But consider how that 84-percent accuracy compares to the three leading kick-scorers of 20 years ago: Jay Feely (Atlanta), Martin Gramatica (Tampa Bay) and Jason Elam (Denver). In all field-goal attempts in 2002, Feely made 80 percent, Gramatica 82.1 percent and Elam 72.2 percent.
Carlson has been more accurate from 50 yards-plus over the past three years than the top three kickers in the game were on all kicks just 20 years ago. Hard to think where kickers go from here. How can they be better?
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett has an October birthday. On Halloween this year, here will be ages of some notable quarterbacks and their number of full NFL seasons:
In the AFC Wild Card game Saturday night in Jacksonville, won 31-30 by the Jaguars:
- The Chargers led or were tied for 60 minutes, zero seconds.
- The Jaguars led for zero minutes, zero seconds.
The game is never over until the officials signal it so. The Riley Patterson 36-yard field goal to win went through the uprights as time expired, and the two officials underneath the goal post signaled the field goal was good 1.5 seconds after the clock registered :00.
As the Jaguars landed back in Jacksonville from London following their dispiriting 21-17 loss to Denver on Oct. 30, their combined record since opening day 2020 was 6-35.
They’re 8-2 since.
Patriots in final three years of Tom Brady, including playoffs: 41-14, .745.
Patriots in first three years post-Brady, including playoffs: 25-26, .490.
Saturday morning, Brooklyn, Prospect Park … Prospect Park’s the stepchild to Central Park in the New York City park system, and I’ve thought that’s a bit unfair, knowing both parks very well. Central Park is 843 acres, Prospect Park 526. But in the 3.5 years we’ve lived in Brooklyn, I’ve become a devotee of long walks along the byzantine trails of the place. My walk Saturday, with Chuck the dog, was not particularly noteworthy. Four miles, about 32 degrees, very light flurries blowing sideways for part of the walk. My rule on walks is: Go where the fewest people are. So I just trust my sense of direction.
Four miles, a good dog, a placid place, a good pace (74 minutes). That’s a good way, on a brisk, cloudy morning, to get your steps in.
— New York Giants (@Giants) January 16, 2023
The Giants’ Twitter account, remembering the Vikings tweeting “Start spreading the news” following the Vikings’ Christmas Eve win over New York.
That roughing the passer call makes me question why I watch football anymore.
— Sage Rosenfels (@SageRosenfels18) January 16, 2023
The former QB, after Dexter Lawrence mildly sacked Kirk Cousins and got flagged in the closing minutes of the Giants’ win Sunday.
PURDY GOT GAME!!!!!!!!!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 14, 2023
Big football fan LeBron James, after watching the first of six playoff games over the weekend.
If this doesn’t bother you as a player or a fan of football, congrats! You’ve been successfully brainwashed. https://t.co/JiUPvfanCw
— David Bakhtiari (@DavidBakhtiari) January 12, 2023
The Packers’ left tackle, with real talk about the NFL’s “interest” in the best fields for its players.
Cardinals coach search includes Payton, whose team once had a bounty on Kurt Warner, and Flores, who is suing the NFL and the Cardinals. Should be interesting interviews with Bidwill
— Kent Somers (@kentsomers) January 13, 2023
Somers is a sports columnist for the Arizona Republic.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make a 9-year-old put on a winter hat.
— Jason Gay (@jasongay) January 14, 2023
Gay is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal.
Yo @PGE4Me I’ve been without power going on 4 days. A lil help would be appreciated thanks. Just trying to prepare for something this weekend
— George Kittle (@gkittle46) January 13, 2023
The Niners’ tight end on Thursday, trying to do some playoff homework as the deluge continued to batter California.
Just got sent this from Jacksonville.
— Taylor Curet (@TaylorCuret) January 15, 2023
Curet is a TV sports anchor in Hattiesburg, Miss.
— Devin Willock (@DevinWillock) January 14, 2023
Georgia offensive lineman Devin Willock, hours before he and a member of Georgia football’s recruiting staff, Chandler LeCroy, were killed in a car accident in Athens early Sunday morning. RIP.
This was one of my highest-volume email weeks, so I thought I’d pick 10, prune them down to their essences, and give you 10 quick answers.
Can’t go wrong with either, obviously. From Steven Price: “You have the first pick in the draft and can pick either Aaron Donald or J.J. Watt as rookies. Who do you choose?”
Hmmm. Those are the two best defensive players in the NFL this century. I’ll go with Donald. He’s a seven-time first-team all-pro; no defensive tackle in history can top that. Watt made a living playing everywhere on the line and wreaking havoc. But no defensive tackle I have ever seen has consistently beaten extra blockers and played the run and tormented the quarterback with the greatness of Donald.
On the Hall of Fame vote. From Devin McCullen, of Green Brook, N.J.: “I was truly annoyed at today’s column where you talked about the upcoming Hall of Fame voting, specifically when you gave the Seniors/Contributors candidates a 70 percent chance of being chosen. This is nonsense. These candidates are always approved by the Hall of Fame voters … It does no good to deny that fact.”
In 2004, Bob Hayes didn’t get the requisite 80-percent vote as the Senior candidate to get in. Same thing with Claude Humphrey in 2009. You’re right to say the 70-percent figure is probably low. I used it as a best guesstimate, because with four candidates this year (Chuck Howley, Joe Klecko, Ken Riley, Don Coryell), all of whom have battled negative votes over the years, I won’t be surprised if one doesn’t get the requisite 40 of 49 votes from the committee.
John really hates tie games. From John Llamas, of Attleboro, Mass.: “To break ties, how about best-of-five 50-yard field goals from different hash marks, or best-out-of-three two-point conversion attempts? There must be some creative solution here with minimal injury risk. After watching the riveting World Cup final, it is a lost opportunity that American football does not have its own equally riveting nailbiter to decide a winner.”
Penalty kicks have always seemed fluky; in soccer, I’d rather have the second OT period played with fewer than 11 players on each side—maybe seven. In football, I don’t have a big problem with ties. They’re rare, and interesting, and make playoff seedings different when teams with a tie get in.
Query from a fellow Ohio U alum. From Matthew Schwartz: “Regarding one of your questions to Sean McDermott, ‘What has this week done for the United States?’ Although the Hamlin story obviously is heartwarming, do you really think that in the current political climate it will have any long-term effect? I’m an optimist. Unfortunately, due to the partisan divide and anger in this country, I doubt it will change anything.”
That’s my gut feeling too, Matt. But a medical team of people working together saved a man’s life on national TV, and then America fell in love overnight with a man they’d never heard of, and people enriched his charity so it will make a major difference in lives in a hardscrabble Pittsburgh suburb. It may not last, but it is a template for exactly what Sean McDermott said. We can be a better country with teamwork.
Buffalo checks in. From Grant Weber, of Buffalo: “Excellent coverage of the Damar Hamlin situation. In an often-fractured world, this story reminds us that good will always win over evil. As a lifelong Buffalonian, this past year has been very challenging. Damar’s attitude and resolve has given strength not only to this community but to the entire world.”
Agreed. Whatever comes out of this, for a week or so, we were united and did some united things. It was great to see.
I am blushing, Marty. From Marty Nicholson, of Travelers Rest, S.C. “You have written so many great stories and columns … In my opinion, this was your best ever. You struck the right chord with your interviews and got to the essence of why we are all here—humanity. I didn’t think I would be moved more than your column a few years ago about the loss of your beloved dog, but this one was perfect.”
Thanks a lot. Sometimes, Marty, in the fire drill of putting the column together, I don’t think about much other than trying to tell this particular story the best possible way I can. I really struggled last Sunday night in my hotel room in Amherst, N.Y., because there were so many ways to go. Finally, around 11 p.m., I thought: Let the people most involved tell the story—the hero kick-returner, the coach, the best friend from high school, the college mentors, the Buffalo mayor, the eloquent NFL players (Cam Jordan, Mark Ingram, Calais Campbell), the high-school house-decorator. I’m happy it struck a chord with you and others.
Short and very sweet. From Timothy Fowler: “Best FMIA ever. What a great piece of writing!”
Timothy, so nice of you to say. It would have been hard to mess that one up.
Hank disagrees. From Hank Bauer: “Whew, boy, you really laid it on thick this week. The ‘slo-mo and dramatic music’ angle about the Bills guy who almost died. I mean, come on, Pete. Really? I do wonder if the NFL, behind your back, ever rolls their eyes and sneers about the silly stuff you write.”
To each his own, Hank.
On neutral sites for conference title games. From Scott Maeuser: “Do you think this could eventually lead to spinning all conference championship games to non-home team sites? The league could have one game Sunday at 8:15 p.m. [Eastern time] and the other to Monday at 8:15 p.m.”
The one good thing about that idea of yours, Scott, is whether the league goes to neutral sites or not, Sunday and Monday night title games, with a bye week to follow before the Super Bowl, could maximize the viewership for the two conference title games. Interesting thought.
On Sean Payton. From Mike Kendellen, of Washington, D.C.: “Instead of speculating on how much Sean Payton will be paid and what compensation Denver will give New Orleans, shouldn’t the media be asking or be curious about what Black coaches Denver will interview, or is it just assumed Denver will do some token Zoom calls with Black candidates and hire Payton after they promised him the job?”
I don’t believe Denver promised Payton anything except an interview on Tuesday. If you have information otherwise, and it’s true, and they promised Payton the job before interviewing other candidates (of all colors), the first fine the new owners in Denver will receive will be one of the biggest ones in NFL history.
1. I think if I were a Vikings fan, I certainly would not feel I got beat by an inferior team Sunday. But I would spend the off-season asking this question: Why would Kirk Cousins—on fourth-and-eight, with the season on the line, knowing you need eight yards or the season is over—throw the ball three yards beyond the line to T.J. Hockenson with a safety right on top of him? The result, of course, was a three-yard gain, with Xavier McKinney toppling Hockenson practically where he caught the ball. Three-yard gain.
2. I think there are three reasons why Sean McVay—who turns 37 next week— will return to coach the Rams in 2023:
- It’s been well-chronicled, and it’s true, that no TV network has a $15-million-or-so number one analyst job available for him. All those seats are filled. I don’t think that was the only thing about TV that appealed to him, but I don’t think McVay was interested in being Just a Guy on TV. I do think he had some regret over not taking a two- or three-year hiatus last year and taking one of the big TV jobs. Amazon? Maybe FOX? But if he really wanted to jump after winning the Super Bowl, he would have.
- I think he’s going to enjoy re-imagining his coaching staff. I hear he wasn’t crazy about this iteration of the offensive staff, and maybe that’s one of the reasons he told them all they were free to seek jobs elsewhere this postseason. He wants to be challenged, and this staff wasn’t doing it. Offensive coordinator Liam Coen may not have been what McVay wanted in an OC—a coach who would challenge him and bring new ideas to him—and that could be why he’s going back to the University of Kentucky as a coordinator. Most great coaches can be miserable at times. Bill Parcells was. Bill Belichick is. Jimmy Johnson was. When McVay is losing, he can be too—but in the end, those in the organization agree with McVay. Being demanding and tough is a good thing.
- He loves coaching. He was in the pits this year, being 5-12, but he never stopped loving the prospect of winning games. I don’t think he was burned out. He just hated losing and wondered if he was living his demanding life the right way.
One more thing: More than once in recent weeks, McVay was told by Rams people, “Do what makes you happy.” I think what will make him happy is his team lining up against the 49ers this fall with a real chance to win, not just a fluky chance. And that will come with having time to re-think who he wants on his staff. It also might entail having a different mindset when it comes to working with GM Les Snead on the future of the Rams. I believe the franchise will be out of the sell-out-to-win-now-at-all-costs business, and will be more likely to bank draft choices to get a bigger number of young prospects in camp starting this summer.
3. I think, by the way, that the Kevin Burkhardt-Greg Olsen team on FOX is damn good. I enjoy listening to them, and I learn things listening to them. They’re eminently likeable, and Olsen is very good at explaining the game in an easy way. Whenever Tom Brady enters the big booth at FOX, assuming he does one day, he’s going to have some shoes to fill as Olsen’s heir.
4. I think there has never been a more perfect or more apt news item on pregame TV than Peter Schrager reporting that Kliff Kingsbury has bought a one-way ticket to Thailand and isn’t, for now, interested in being an NFL offensive coordinator. Kingsbury, in a hammock, napping between Heinekens, on Michael Bidwill’s dime, is the most perfect image of Fired Coaches 2023.
5. I think the end of the Ravens’ season is the beginning of perhaps the biggest story of the NFL offseason: the fate of Lamar Jackson. Today is day 43 since Jackson sprained his PCL in a game against Denver. It’s an uncommon injury that usually is not repaired by surgery, but rather with aggressive rehab. A few factoids:
- It’s always dangerous to project timelines when a player gets hurt. The timeline when Jackson sprained the ligament Dec. 4 was two to three weeks. Jackson never played nor practiced in the final six weeks.
- I spoke with two athletic trainers about the injury. Both said the player has to feel comfortable with playing with some discomfort in the knee. One said the key to coming back from a PCL sprain is to have a strong quad, and to build up the quad so the leg can feel capable even if there is still some weakness or unsteadiness in the ligament.
- Dallas tight end Dalton Schultz had the same injury in week two this season. He returned two weeks later, played two games, then took another week off to continue to strengthen the area. He averaged 57 snaps and 4.3 catches per game in the last 11 weeks, numbers close to his career average over his time as a Dallas starter.
- I thought it was interesting to hear wideout Sammy Watkins talk about wishing Jackson would play. “You got a chance to do something special,” Watkins said, per Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post. “We all know with Lamar Jackson out there, this team is really freaking good, and special things can happen. He can will this team to a Super Bowl. I don’t think he’s thinking about it that way … But he’s got an opportunity to win a Super Bowl. I hope he hobbles back out there. Put him out for the pass plays, and don’t run him at all. But you never know. That could be wrong. I’m being very selfish right now, just to want him to be out on the field.” Do others in the locker room feel the same way? I don’t know. Jackson’s a popular player in that room.
- As I wrote last week, the Ravens now have to be in a quandary about what to do with Jackson, who is either due a new contract or a franchise tag before the 2023 season. The quandary is over Jackson missing 5.75 games last year and, including Sunday’s playoff loss, 6.75 games this year due to injury. He missed 31.6 percent of the snaps for Baltimore last year, and 34.8 percent this year. He’s missed 12.5 of a combined 35 games in the last two years—a third of the team’s offensive playing time. I think it’s going to be hard for Jackson to get a long-term contract without significant protection for the team. Which means, to me, a significant likelihood that the Ravens may use the non-exclusive franchise tag for Jackson. If he agrees to a contract with another team, the Ravens could match it or be awarded two first-round picks (or a different deal the two teams could negotiate) if the Ravens do not match it.
6. I think, as I wrote in my Award Section, Charles Omenihu gets my nod as the Niners’ defensive player of the game. I quizzed you about him. How did Omenihu get to the Niners? Answer: On the morning of Nov. 2, 2021, with the trading deadline looming at 1 p.m. PT, GM John Lynch sent a 2023 sixth-round pick to Houston for Omenihu, who’d had moderate success (seven sacks) as a part-time player for the Texans in 2.5 seasons. He played 54 percent of the snaps for the Niners as a rotational lineman this year, and showed his value in a big way Saturday.
7. I think one other thing about that Seahawks-Niners game: I love the future of the Seattle franchise. This year’s draft by GM John Schneider yielded six legit valuable pieces for the future, and now the team has the fifth and (approximately) 19th picks in the first round, and the 37th and 50th picks overall, approximately, in round two. Schneider has made his living in the middle and late rounds (the fifth in particular), so imagine what the Seahawks might do with four picks in the top 50. That plus Geno Smith is a logical place-holder at quarterback for the near-term. It’s a good time, and an optimistic time, to be a Seahawks fan.
8. I think Green Bay linebacker Quay Walker should have been suspended for a game for his hard shove of a Lions athletic trainer in the Week 18 game in Green Bay. Walker should have been forced to sit out of the Packers’ opener in 2023.
9. I think there is no other word for the fine system, in this case, than “insane.” On Oct. 30, Lions running back Jamaal Williams scored a touchdown against Miami and celebrated in the end zone by gyrating his hips, then got lifted in the air by center Frank Ragnow. I timed it. Took 4.46 seconds. No flag on the play. That week, Williams got fined $13,261. Contrast that to the infraction by Walker, six days after medics were heroes on the field for saving Damar Hamlin’s life. Walker shoved the athletic trainer to the turf with 7:30 remaining in the game and was ejected. Walker was fined $13,261 and missed one-eighth of the game. To review:
- Williams end-zone-danced for 4.4 seconds. Wasn’t suspended. Fined $13,261.
- Walker shoved a medical official doing his job on the field. Wasn’t suspended. Fined $13,261.
Is there a soul out there who can justify this? I didn’t think so.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Steve Hartman, you’ve done it again.
b. TV Story of the Week: Hartman, On The Road for CBS News, reporting from Hopkins, Minn., from an elementary school where students did one of the nicest things I’ve ever seen.
c. A fifth-grade class taught by Betsy Julien found it unfair that students with physical disabilities at Glen Lake Elementary didn’t have any place to play on the playground—no adaptive playground equipment. They found out it would cost $300,000 to outfit the area with stuff so all could have fun at recess and after school.
d. Reported Hartman:
One day the students asked Julien why they couldn’t just buy the equipment themselves.
“I said, ‘Do you know how much that costs?! It costs a lot of money,'” Julien said. About $300,000, by her estimation.
The students were undeterred. They started collecting spare change, then held a bake sale, printed flyers and went door to door. Then they began cold-calling businesses and even got restaurants to donate a portion of their profits. This went on for months.
e. I lost it when the tears rolled down the teacher’s cheek after the kids met the goal. “My future as an adult is bright knowing that this generation of students, of changemakers, sees something that needs fixing, and they go for it headfirst,” she said.
f. Martin Luther King Jr. Tribute of the Week: On MLK Day, here’s a three-minute story from the invaluable StoryCorps—which archives and catalogs interviews with ordinary and famous Americans at the Library of Congress—on Friday’s edition of NPR’s Morning Edition.
g. Host Dwane Brown has the story of a civil rights leader and former aide to Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Blake, whose family worked at a Louisiana cotton field when he was a young boy.
h. Said Blake:
“I guess I was 11, 12 years old. We were field workers. The adults said, we’re going to protest. They sat down at the end of the row. Well, time passed on, and we saw the owner of the plantation was coming toward us. And next thing I knew, everybody was back in the field.
“I didn’t go back. And he scolded me and said, I’m gonna tell your daddy about you. He’ll straighten you out. I said, well, sir, we said we weren’t going to go back until we told you our grievances, so that’s why I’m sitting now.”
i. Coaching Story of the Week: Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times, on the dilemma facing Sean McVay, from coaches who have faced that same question—to coach or not to coach?
j. Farmer intros the story well:
The season is over for the Rams, but the hand-wringing is heading into overtime.
What will Sean McVay do? Will he continue to coach the team? Will he take a TV job? How about a leave of absence on a beach in St. Somewhere?
k. McVay has decided to return, of course. But the quotes and the situation are universal.
l. Joni Mitchell, you are awesome.
m. Congrats on the first child, Kevin Clark. Welcome to the world, Teddy. It is definitely not a slow news day for the Clarks.
n. I’m late on this, but congrats on good work to Coley Harvey of ESPN and Cameron Wolfe of NFL Network reporting on Damar Hamlin from the Cincinnati hospital that housed him. Long hours, good journalism by both.
o. And congrats to the winners of the annual awards from National Sports Media Association. Great work, Ian Eagle (national sportscaster of the year) and Pete Thamel and Ken Rosenthal (co-winners, national sportswriters of the year). I love seeing excellent, driven, hard-working people recognized. Those three men are fantastic at their jobs, and beacons for young people who strive to make it in the media business.
p. Crazier than Stetson Bennett playing college football at 25 years, three months old: Oregon tight end Cam McCormick has entered the transfer portal. He will be an eighth-year senior in 2023. Follow his Oregon career: Redshirt frosh 2016, played 13 games in 2017, broke his ankle in week one 2018, out injured in 2019, out injured in 2020, tore his Achilles in week two 2021, played a complete “junior” season in 2022. Seven years at Oregon, 18 receptions. Now McCormick wants to play an eighth.
q. I don’t know. I guess we’re all free to do what we want in this country, but it’s damn odd for a person to be on a college football roster for eight years.
r. Football Story of the Week: Don Van Natta Jr. of ESPN.com with a scathing look at the NFL delaying the game in which Damar Hamlin got hurt 14 days ago.
s. As Van Natta reported, it was NFL chief football administrator Dawn Aponte who was the key league official, not NFL executive VP Troy Vincent or anyone in the league office in New York. Wrote Van Natta:
Aponte appeared caught between two teams that didn’t want to play and league officials inside the command center, led by NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, who left open that possibility for nearly an hour, the official said. “Whatever crazy nonsense she was getting,” the official added, “man, she held it. She held it strong.”
While NFL officials insisted that they never intended to restart the Bills-Bengals game, the accounts of coaches, players, union officials and team executives tell another story: Postponing the game was a ground-up decision.
“The league did not cancel the game,” the team official said. “The Bills and the Bengals canceled the game.”
…The team official placed blame for the league’s vacillation squarely on Vincent.
t. Crime Story of the Week: Max Marin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, on a 65-year-old cold case of a murdered boy that Philly police just won’t let go. For years, the murder victim was known simply as “the boy in the box,” because he was found beaten to death in a box 65 years ago.
u. Heartening to see the murder of a 4-year-old boy dating back to 1957 still under investigation. Joseph Augustus Zarelli just got a new headstone on what would have been his 70th birthday.
v. Writes Marin:
The case has haunted Philadelphia since February 1957, when Joseph’s body was discovered inside a cardboard box in a weedy lot in then-rural Fox Chase. His image dominated newspaper front pages as people hoped to identify the boy. The wait would last nearly 66 years.
Detectives served as pallbearers at Joseph’s first burial in 1957, at a Northeast Philadelphia potter’s field, where his first donated headstone read “Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Boy.” Authorities exhumed his remains in 1998 to extract mitochondrial DNA from a tooth, and he was reburied at Ivy Hill. (He was exhumed again in 2019 for more genetic sampling
Police said the hunt to find Joseph’s killer remains ongoing — but they have released few details since releasing the name. Not even the names of Joseph’s biological mother and father have been made public. That lack of information, combined with the unusual Zarelli surname, has led amateur sleuths to fill the gaps with wild speculations about the boy’s fate in what one expert called an episode of “true crime nutballery.”
w. To the scores who have asked … Yes, Joe Biden deserves every bit of the investigation the feds are launching on him. If Biden fashioned himself the president of virtue and intelligence as opposed to Donald Trump, he cannot make the errors he’s making now, with sloppy and illegal possession of classified documents. It’s not just a bad look, it’s bad for the country. It’s scary that a lifetime politician didn’t know better, or didn’t have people around him who knew better.
x. RIP Lisa Marie Presley, the lone child of Elvis Presley, the ex-wife of Michael Jackson. Sad to see her die at 54, the latest of so many in her family to die young. Elvis died at 42, Lisa’s son by suicide at 27, her paternal grandmother at 42, her maternal grandfather at 24 in a plane crash, Michael Jackson at 50. Lisa’s maternal grandmother died last year at 95. Sort of a mysterious life. She always said her dad was caring and loving.
y. Movie of the Week: The Banshees of the Inisherin. I don’t see many movies these days. But my wife and I watched this on HBO Friday night and loved it. One of the strangest movies I’ve seen. But in this case, strange is good. The premise is the relationship between two friends on a small island off the coast of Ireland, and one day one of them tells the other he doesn’t want to be friends with him anymore. Seems the other (Colin Farrell) is a dullard, and the former (Brendan Gleeson) wants to live the rest of his days not being bored. It’s slow in parts, but I can assure you, lots happens after that. Recommended.
z. Plus, you get to find out what “fecking” means.
Tampa Bay 27, Dallas 25. The Cowboys are psycho. The last five weeks prove it. Scramble late at home to beat 1-10-1 Houston, give up 40 points to lose in OT at Jacksonville, need 40 at home to beat the Gardner Minshew-led Eagles, extinguish Tennessee in the midst of the Titans’ season-ending seven-game losing streak, lose by 20 at Washington to close the regular season. Dallas could win by 20 tonight, but there’s no way you can trust this team now. No way.
Let’s focus on one thing that I’d like to clear up, and that’s Dak Prescott’s ball security. Namely, that he has none. I’d dispute that. I engaged George Chahrouri, numbers maven at PFF, to help me here. Prescott threw 15 interceptions, tied for the league lead, in just 12 games. But PFF grades each pick by pinpointing blame for it, and seven of Prescott’s 15 interceptions were on his receivers. The only QB with a higher percentage of picks that weren’t his fault? Joe Burrow of the Bengals. Some 58 percent of Burrow’s picks were the fault of receivers, as opposed to 47 percent for Prescott.
Now, Prescott also threw nine passes that either could have or should have been picked. And his PFF passing grade of 68.6 is the second-lowest of his career. So I don’t write this to put the blame for Prescott’s mediocre season on the rest of the team. It’s been a team project, the plunging of the Prescott passer rating 13 points from last year. Tonight, Dallas must be efficient, and it would help to have a fully effective Tony Pollard ready to go. He’s been slowed by a thigh bruise and gained just 38 yards in the last three Dallas games.
This could be Tom Brady’s last game as a Buc, and he’s not going to choke it away. So the pressure is on Prescott to be productive and mistake-free. Quite an occasion: This is the eve of the 30th anniversary of the last Dallas road playoff victory: Jan 17, 1993, in the muck of Candlestick, a 30-20 win over the Niners in the NFC title game. Mike McCarthy marked the occasion the other day by show his team baby photos of the 10 current Dallas players who were alive then.
Prescott’s mom was 3 months pregnant with him on the day of that last road playoff win.
The Giants and Jags
Are in this year’s elite eight.
All things, possible.