Nov. 22, 1997. Ann Arbor. Charles Woodson fields a punt just inside his own 25, makes a cut upfield, bounces to the sideline and suddenly ... he's running right at me.
My dad's Michigan season tickets have since moved inside the stadium, to seats higher up with a better view of the field. They used to be down low in the corner of the end zone, on the visitor's sideline. So when Woodson broke free of Ohio State's coverage unit, somewhere around midfield, I had almost a direct look up the sideline at him sprinting for the end zone.
He made it, of course, a signature moment in his Heisman campaign season—he even tried to replicate Desmond Howard's Heisman pose but was tackled too quickly by his teammates.
I'm positive most sports fans can relate to having those memories that are so vivid, so crystal clear that you can close your eyes and be right back in them. Some are enjoyable, others not so much, but they're meaningful enough to stay with you forever.
That Woodson play, on a cloudy and gray November afternoon—Big Ten weather—is one for me.
Anyone who watched Woodson during his college career, and in particular during his final season at Michigan, knew he was a special player. He was dominant in all phases. Nearly two decades later, as he readies for the retirement he announced this week, he's still pretty damned good.
“He is what I would call a generational player,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said this week. “His leadership, toughness and work ethic are unmatched. He loves football and, like many of the game’s greatest players, he loves to compete.”
It can be easy, almost human nature, to take players of Woodson’s caliber for granted when they are still playing. Just ask Peyton Manning, runner-up to Woodson in the Heisman race and the No. 1 pick in 1998 (Woodson was No. 4). Manning will go down as an all-time great at quarterback, but for the past year or two he’s had to listen to calls for his retirement and criticisms of his abilities.
But we, as football fans, will miss him when he is gone. Same will go for, say, Andre Johnson or Antonio Gates or any other player who managed not just to stick but to excel in the league for a decade or longer. College talent does not always translate to the pros. NFL careers do not often become prolonged experiences, even for phenomenal players.
Woodson was the 1998 Rookie of the Year for Oakland, the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year for Green Bay and now is back in Oakland again, still playing at a high level at age 39. What he has accomplished is nothing short of remarkable.
“He’s always been one of my favorites,” fellow Raider David Amerson told the team website. “He was playing corner and he was one of my favorite corners. People were always hollering about Deion Sanders, but I was always saying, ‘Charles Woodson, Charles Woodson.’ ... He’ll probably go down as one of the best [defensive backs] ever. I think people will just look back and say, ‘What an amazing career.’ You can’t really put it in any other words.”
There are not many players left I can say I grew up watching, to some extent. I feel older just thinking about it.
But time marches on. Careers end. It's life, it happens.
At least we’ll always have that November day.
Here are four players I’ll be keeping a close watch on this week …
1. Malcolm Jenkins, S, Eagles: In the annual tradition of decrying the Pro Bowl selections, Jenkins’s snub was a noticeable one. The Eagles’ defense has been hit or miss (often the latter) this season, but it would be a straight-up nightmare without Jenkins’s versatile presence in the secondary.
He will be busy this week, because both of Washington’s top receivers (DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon) plus outstanding tight end Jordan Reed and emerging rookie Jamison Crowder all can work out of areas that would pit them one-on-one with Jenkins. The veteran defensive back’s workload could grow even more if starting cornerback Byron Maxwell cannot suit up, due to injury.
Keep an eye, too, on the play of safety Ed Reynolds. While he’s only been active since late November, getting him on the field allows Philadelphia to keep Jenkins more heavily involved as a corner, be it outside or in the slot.
2. Jared Abbrederis, WR, Packers: “He needs to be on the field more,” Aaron Rodgers said of the second-year receiver, which should be all the Packers' coaching staff needs to hear. Green Bay is still—still—trying to get its passing game figured out, and Abbrederis could be the X-factor into the postseason.
He caught three passes for 33 yards against Oakland, including a key third-down conversion. That performance gave Abbrederis just eight receptions for the year, off a 2014 lost to an ACL injury. Still, his polished game and reliable hands make it easy to understand Rodgers’s call for more looks.
I might have been higher than anyone on Abbrederis ahead of the 2014 draft—I pushed for his inclusion in our SI64 rankings; he was selected No. 176 overall. I’m on board. Aaron Rodgers is on board. Time to see what Abbrederis can do.
3. Tyler Kroft, TE, Bengals: The Bengals were fortunate to dodge injuries for much of the season. Now that the ailments have piled up, they’re starting to show off the depth they had built up. Kroft and QB A.J. McCarron were among the latest examples last Sunday, in a win at San Francisco.
Drawing the start with Tyler Eifert sidelined by a concussion, Kroft caught all three of his targets for 33 yards and a touchdown. Early indications are that Eifert will be out again Monday, as Cincinnati visits Denver in a crucial AFC clash, so Kroft again could find himself as a passing game focal point.
The Broncos fall in the middle of the pack when it comes to defending opposing TEs—they’ve allowed 72 catches and eight touchdowns to players at that position, per ESPN.com. Two weeks ago, Mychal Rivera and Clive Walford combined for six grabs and 96 yards in Oakland's upset of the AFC West leaders.
4. Damon Harrison, DT, Jets: Muhammed Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams draw most of the headlines along the Jets’ defensive line. Harrison has been just as critical a cog, downright irreplaceable against the run. The 350-pound nose tackle probably could join Jenkins in calling for a Pro Bowl recount.
The thing is, though, that New England almost completely negated him during the first Jets-Patriots matchup of 2015 by bailing on their run game. In a 30-23 win October win over New York, Tom Brady threw 54 passes and handed off just five times. He actually led the Patriots in rushing: four attempts for 15 yards and a TD.
Harrison finished that game without a tackle, one of two times that has happened in 2015 (a win over Indianapolis being the other). Will the Patriots take him out of the mix again this time around?
Breaking It Down
A deeper dive into the Week 15 matchups …
San Diego at Oakland (Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET, NFLN)
This game is on Christmas Eve between two teams eliminated from playoff contention, and I already hit you with a Woodson soliloquy so not sure how much there is to add. It's entirely possible these teams are sharing a home stadium in Carson, Calif., next season.
Interest level: 2. If you& are in the mood to bail on holiday movies (or your family) and want to watch some football, Round 2 of Amari Cooper vs. Jason Verrett should be pretty good. Not Muppets Christmas Carol good. But good.
Washington at Philadelphia (Saturday, 8:25 p.m. ET, NFLN)
Washington takes the division with a win. Philadelphia grabs control headed to Week 17 if it holds serve at home. If they tie, I think Clemson gets the NFC East bid but I'll have to double check the playoff scenarios.
Sam Bradford delivered his only three-touchdown performance of the season back in Week 4 at Washington, but the Eagles still lost because they couldn’t stop a late Kirk Cousins-led charge. The Eagles sacked Cousins just once that afternoon. Can they get to him Sunday? Washington’s starting O-line is TBD because of injuries, which bodes well for Fletcher Cox. If it also leads to good things from Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin, the Eagles will be in business.
Interest level: 10. The NFC East has been ugly this season, but this is a massive game.
San Francisco at Detroit (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Between this game and Saturday's Quick Lane Bowl, which pits a 5–7 Minnesota team against Central Michigan, Ford Field could see some rather objectionable football this weekend. Jim Caldwell can inch closer toward saving his job if Detroit lands win No. 6, and especially if the Lions do so with Matthew Stafford excelling again.
Interest level: 1. Let Jim Tomsula coach the Lions and Jim Caldwell coach the 49ers, just for fun.
Pittsburgh at Baltimore (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
One of the league’s best rivalries is reduced to rubble in Week 16, thanks to Baltimore’s miserable 4–10 season. I guess it’s worth pointing out that the Ravens upset the Steelers in overtime back in Week 4, but Michael Vick was the Steelers’ QB for that game. Also, Joe Flacco was the Ravens’ starter, as opposed to Jimmy Clausen or Ryan Mallett.
Quietly (and in part because teams haven’t needed to throw against them), the Ravens’ pass defense has been better over the second half of the season. Their run defense, on the other hand, has coughed up an average of 124.3 yards during this three-game losing skid. Pittsburgh had little luck establishing DeAngelo Williams vs. Denver, so this should be an opportunity to find him again.
Interest level: 5. It's still Steelers-Ravens, with playoff implications.
Dallas at Buffalo (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Amid all the QB hoopla, seems like the NFL world barely has noticed that Darren McFadden has been a tremendous value for Dallas. He's already up to 1,174 yards from scrimmage this season, and with another 102 on the ground he can top 1K for the first time since 2010. That’s a long way from DeMarco Murray range (well, 2014 DeMarco Murray), but McFadden also is carrying just a $1.15 million cap hit this season and $1.85 million next year.
The matchup between the Cowboys’ defense and Tyrod Taylor will be intriguing, even if the outcome here doesn't matters for the playoff race. Taylor continues to rack up yards with his legs (79 last week, 450 for the season), and he's also developed a strong rapport with a red-hot Sammy Watkins. Dallas kept the Jets’ passing attack mostly in check until the fourth quarter last week.
Interest level: 3.5. Extra half-point for Kellen Moore.
Chicago at Tampa Bay (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Sorry, where are all the good games? The Lovie Smith Bowl pits two teams that should be better next season than they are this season, which doesn’t do a whole lot for the viewers Sunday.
How the Buccaneers utilize Doug Martin over these final two weeks, and how much effort Martin is willing to expend, will be a test case for free agency. Martin has been a Bucs bright spot, in a bounceback year for him personally as he’s rushed for 1,300 yards already. But he’s also set to hit the market because Tampa Bay opted not to pick up his fifth-year contract option prior to the season. Smith said it was a priority to re-sign the 2012 first-rounder, but we’ll see. Getting Charles Sims increased touches in Weeks 16 and 17 would be advisable either way.
Interest level: 2. The Jameis Winston Rookie of the Year push is about all that’s on the table.
Carolina at Atlanta (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Falcons finally stopped their long losing streak, and now they’ll try to halt Carolina's unbeaten season. One problem: Atlanta just took a 38–0 loss at Carolina's hands a mere two weeks ago. Flipping the scoreline would count as a dramatic reversal of fortunes.
Dan Quinn’s team has to do a better job corralling Ted Ginn (two long TDs in Week 14) if it’s to have a chance. Cam Newton’s basic approach was to look for whomever was not being covered by Desmond Trufant—Ginn's 74-yard TD came with Robert Alford in coverage. Should Atlanta make Ginn a priority, Devin Funchess stands to benefit. He has scored a touchdown every other week the past seven Panthers games, so this is another chance to turn in a two-game streak.
Interest level: 8. Hey, 16–0 is within reach. Carolina also still needs to lock up the NFC's No. 1 seed.
Cleveland at Kansas City (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Chiefs already are without Justin Houston. Now Tamba Hali could miss Sunday's game after surgery to insert three pins in a broken thumb. If he plays, expect it to be with the familiar club hand we've seen guys like J.J. Watt and Jason Pierre-Paul sport, a piece of protection that does limit how much a defender can do.
If Hali can’t go (or can't be effective), Frank Zombo likely would be next up to partner with Dee Ford at outside linebacker. Ford finally has shown signs of life the past three weeks, but that duo would have its hands full helping keep Johnny Manziel boxed in. Manziel remains dangerous when he breaks contain.
Interest level: 3. Manziel gets the Seahawks and Chiefs’ defenses back-to-back, on the road? Yikes.
Indianapolis at Miami (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
What the Chargers did to Miami last weekend is a positive omen for this QB-stricken Indianapolis team. San Diego's running backs caught nine passes, six and three touchdowns by Danny Woodhead, and Antonio Gates chipped in six grabs for 88 yards.
Neither Matt Hasselbeck nor Charlie Whitehurst is much of a threat to stretch the field, limiting T.Y. Hilton's potential right now. However, they can keep the sticks moving—and Hasselbeck has—by staying accurate on intermediate throws. In theory, the matchup Sunday sets up well for Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener and Frank Gore.
Interest level: 4. The Colts are alive, only barely, which means that the outcome here is important to the AFC South race.
New England at New York Jets (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Mentioned above how the Patriots handled their earlier matchup with the Jets. Central to the Patriots’ run-stuffing efforts in the Week 7 clash (as well as just about every other week) was linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who finished with a season-high 10 tackles against the Jets. The issue for New England at the moment, though, is Hightower cannot shake a knee injury that forced him from the lineup in Week 13 and Week 14. Should he sit this week, Chris Ivory and Bilil Powell become even bigger focal points for the Jets' offense.
Powell and New England's James White are turning it on at the same time. White caught seven passes for 71 yards and a TD last week, two games removed from a 115-yard showing vs. the Eagles.
Interest level: 10. High stakes between two good teams that hate each other. What more could you want?
Houston at Tennessee (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
A 9–7 record wasn’t enough to get Houston to the playoffs last year. It would be plenty in 2015—two more wins (or a win and Indianapolis loss this week) and the Texans clinch the AFC South. Brandon Weeden, without a win to his credit officially since 2012, will draw closer duties if Brian Hoyer (concussion) cannot go.
Zach Mettenberger starts on the other side. He’ll have to deal with J.J. Watt, but also with Jadeveon Clowney, who totaled 3.0 sacks in Weeks 13 and 14. Mettenberger's go-to target is the same as Marcus Mariota's: TE Delanie Walker. He has created matchup issues crossing the middle of the field all season, and will do so again should the Watt-Clowney tandem not get home with a pass rush.
Interest level: 3. It would be much higher if Mariota was playing. As is, the Texans’ title chances are the story.
Jacksonville at New Orleans (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
Hey, do ya like offense? Well, here you go. Probably. It sort of depends on whether or not Drew Brees plays with an injured foot, because Matt Flynn is on deck. The Jaguars will score, as they usually do: Blake Bortles throwing a TD pass to someone usually named Allen Robinson or Allen Hurns.
Interest level: Let's just go have drinks on Bourbon Street.
Green Bay at Arizona (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
A potential divisional round rematch looms down the line. Green Bay first has to get the NFC North locked up, either this week or in Week 17 vs. Minnesota.
To do so here, the Packers have to slow the Cardinals’ pass rush, which attacks from a variety of spots. Calais Campbell provided four hurries vs. Philadelphia, but Dwight Freeney, Alex Okafor and Markus Golden can cause headaches bending the edge against the Packers’ tackles. This has been a banged up Green Bay line all year, and defenses able to generate pressure without blitzing have made life miserable for Aaron Rodgers—his receivers can't get open one-on-one, let alone when there is extra help deep.
The Cardinals will be playing their first game without injured star Tyrann Mathieu, meaning more of Justin Bethel at cornerback. They need Bethel to hold his own outside whenever Jerraud Powers slides to the nickel spot vacated by Mathieu's absence.
Interest level: 9. Both teams already are in the playoffs, so I knocked it down a point. Should be good, though.
St. Louis at Seattle (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Rams always save their best for the Seahawks (see: St. Louis's Week 1 overtime win). Granted, the Seahawks are light years ahead of where they were back in September, especially on offense with Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin suddenly becoming the next Montana-Rice. Baldwin has 10 touchdown catches over the past four weeks alone.
Elsewhere at receiver, this game gives us two of the league's more explosive weapons: Tavon Austin and Tyler Lockett. It took St. Louis a long time to figure out Austin's usage, but he is excelling this year.
Interest level: 2. The Seahawks are going to win, probably by a lot.
New York Giants at Minnesota (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Last week, The Burke Report promised a Stefon Diggs breakout and he delivered with two touchdown grabs. This week, how about Jarius Wright? He has yet to score a touchdown this season, despite 44 targets and 29 catches, but the Giants have the worst pass defense in football.
The only real reason to watch the Giants is Odell Beckham Jr., so dock this one 50 cool points with his suspension upheld.
Interest level: 5. How Teddy Bridgewater follows up his best game of the year will tell us a lot about Minnesota's chances moving forward.
Cincinnati at Denver (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The Broncos are struggling in second halves, as was on display during a collapse last week in Pittsburgh. Brock Osweiler completed just 7-of-26 attempts after halftime after lighting up the Steelers for two quarters.
Part of the problem is that the run game remains hit or miss, so Denver can become overly reliant on Osweiler. This would be a tough night to have those issues, because the Bengals have a top-10 run defense and also rank seventh in sacks. Falling behind in down-and-distance would spell doom. Of course, the Broncos have more sacks than any team (47), as well as the NFL's top-ranked run defense. A.J. McCarron on third-and-longs would equal a lot of passes to the Bengals’ backs, asking them to make up the difference.
Interest level: 10. OK, I guess we found all the good games. The Broncos still could miss the playoffs if they lose, which is amazing given how they started the season.
Lock of the Week
Pittsburgh (-10) at Baltimore. Two straight misses on locks, which is not how this is supposed to go. This is a huge spread on the road in a rivalry game, but the Steelers should hit the 30-point mark again. How is Baltimore going to threaten that number?
Upset of the Week
Indianapolis (+1.5) at Miami. This is a toss-up game, hence the line. Miami looked last week to be in off-season mode already, so the Colts find a way in a game they must have.
Mock Draft Watch
Using the current order, here’s a quick look at how the top five might go down if the draft were held this weekend:
1. Tennessee: Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss. Same pick as last week. Marcus Mariota's injury only hammered home the need up front.
2. Cleveland: Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State. Another repeat selection. Sorry for not being all that mysterious in the top two, but Bosa fits what the Browns need to help their defense.
3. Baltimore: Jalen Ramsey, S/CB, Florida State. Where Ramsey and Vernon Hargreaves (CB, Florida) wind up will depend a lot on whether teams see Ramsey as a safety or corner. I think he's the former, so the Ravens need him.
4. San Diego: Myles Jack, LB, UCLA. The Chargers could go any number of ways in the top five, including this one. Jack would have to play inside in their 3-4, but he's also the caliber of player that you just draft and worry about slotting in later. He'd be a huge boost to their limited front seven.
5. Dallas: Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame. Jack certainly would be an open here, should he make it to the Cowboys’ spot. Smith would fill a hole on a defense very solid most spots.
Each week, I’ll take to Twitter to take the readers’ pulse on a pressing NFL issue.
Which of these last-place teams is most likely to be a playoff contender in 2016?— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) December 23, 2015
A little surprised to see the love for Miami, considering their shortcomings this season and their uncertainty at head coach. The votes do seem to take into account their talent level, though, which is what had people pegging them as a potential 2015 playoff team.
Tecmo Upset of the Week
We’re simulating the entire 2015 season using updated rosters on the classic Tecmo Super Bowl video game. (Download the game at TecmoBowl.org.) Each week, we will spotlight the most surprising result:
As far as our Tecmo upsets go, this is quite boring. The simulator went with the chalk this week, though, so the Saints (with Drew Brees) getting knocked off is our highlight. New Orleans basically is only favored in the first place because it's at home.