John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

As evidenced by their 35-6 domination of the Cardinals, no team is playing better football going into the final week than the reigning champion Seahawks. Let’s examine Seattle’s catalyst, what we learned in Week 16, the MVP race and more

By Peter King
December 22, 2014

One year ago today, Arizona, on the outside of the playoffs looking in, went to Seattle and spanked the Seahawks, 17-10. The Seahawks were one of the best teams in the league, but as they walked off CenturyLink Field, a doubt or two had to be creeping in. They were just 3-2 in Weeks 12 through 16, and Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch were playing meh football.

On Sunday night, Arizona, having clinched a playoff spot and now playing for the NFC West title, hosted Seattle. Seahawks 35, Cardinals 6. Seattle is 5-0 over the past five weeks. The Seahawks have outscored teams 114-33 in those five games, and Wilson’s been a maestro and Lynch a battering ram.

The Cardinals, in the span of a month, have lost to Seattle 19-3 and 35-6, and have to be thinking, Where have you gone, Carson Palmer? A Valley turns its lonely eyes to you. Not that Palmer, or some combination of Dan Marino and Steve Young, would matter against the Seahawks right now. This Seattle team is stacked and as healthy as it’s been all season, and, if this weekend taught us anything it’s this: If you want to beat Seattle right now, you’d better bring your A-plus game.

By almost any measure the team that won the Super Bowl by 35 points last season is better this year. There’s almost a bitterness if the defense gives up a play of any yardage. The secondary is a bunch of attack dogs. On offense, Marshawn Lynch runs like he’s trying to hurt somebody on every play. He runs with violent intent. Russell Wilson knows when to take chances, when to live to fight another play. On Sunday night he knew when to throw for 80, when to run for 55. Here’s the thing about Wilson: He’s never going to be a numbers player—or so the impression goes. Well, that depends on the numbers you’re talking about.

Is Tom Brady a numbers player? Peyton Manning? Let’s look at a couple of things. (I promise—we’ll get to the league in a moment.)

  Russell Wilson Tom Brady Peyton Manning
W-L since Wilson entered NFL 39-13 38-13 39-11
2014 yards (passing+rushing) 4,078 4,077 4,124

 

It’s so hard to measure the relative worth of players when they’re all so good. You’d take Clayton Kershaw over every pitcher now, but if you factor in the postseason, how does Madison Bumgarner compare? Where does Felix Hernandez rate, toiling for a mostly bad team? It’s amazing to see a quarterback hit the ground running the way Wilson has. This wasn’t the first player picked in the draft in 2012. He was the 75th. Manning struggled as a rookie. Brady didn’t play as a rookie. Wilson was a playoff quarterback with a 100.0 rating.

Dallas, Seriously
 
 
Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett, Tony Romo—they’ve all come in for scorn in recent years. No longer. It’s time to take the Cowboys seriously. The 2014 Dallas team is put together right and, better yet, has shown a resilience that was absent in the past. Watch out in January
 
FULL STORY
Seattle put up 596 yards on a good defense Sunday night. Lynch and Wilson combined to run for 201 yards. The Seahawks are the best team this morning, but it’s a long six weeks until Super Bowl Sunday, back in Arizona. Maybe one of those AFC quarterbacks, or Aaron Rodgers, will be able to solve Seattle’s suffocating D. Maybe the offense will sputter; Seattle did score in the teens in three of its last five wins. But this season is the 10-year anniversary of the league’s last repeat champion—New England—and no one’s been this close, this good, this late in the season since. (The 2011 Packers went 15-1 in the regular season but were defensively flawed down the stretch, giving up 35 and 41 points in two December games before falling out of the playoffs with a loss to the Giants.) It’s going to be fun to watch over the next six weeks. 

* * *

What we learned about football in Week 16

In the NFC, the drama’s mostly gone. Five of the six playoff spots are certain. The NFC South winner (6-8-1 Carolina at 6-9 Atlanta on Sunday) will be the fourth seed and host a wild-card game against an 11- or 12-win team on the first weekend of 2015. Seattle clinches home-field throughout the playoffs with a win at home against St. Louis (6-9) in the late-afternoon window. The winner of the Detroit-at-Green Bay game, also in the late-afternoon window, will be the second seed. Dallas (11-4, at Washington on Sunday) is the likely three seed barring a Seattle upset loss. Arizona wins the fifth seed—and a wild-card trip to the NFC South champ—with a win at San Francisco and a Seattle win. That would leave the NFC North title-game loser the sixth seed, a pretty grand fall from the two seed and a first-round bye.

The AFC is nearly as locked, but not quite. Four teams have earned spots: New England, Denver, fading Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. Cincinnati (9-4-1) earns a spot with one win in its last two difficult games (versus 11-3 Denver at home tonight, and at 10-5 Pittsburgh on Sunday). Resurgent San Diego (9-6) wins the final spot with a victory at Kansas City on Sunday. If San Diego loses, Baltimore (9-6) takes the final spot with a win over Cleveland. New England’s magic number to clinch home-field throughout is one: A victory over Buffalo at home Sunday, or a loss by Denver either tonight or against Oakland on Sunday, means New England will be the top seed. 

Sometimes, it’s the littlest plays that turn out to be very big in the playoff dance. The Patriots held a 17-16 lead over the Jets with five minutes left at the Meadowlands when Nick Folk lined up for a 52-yard field goal. The kick was up … and Vince Wilfork barely got a piece of it, but it was enough to make the kick fall short—and enough to make the Patriots prohibitive favorites to host two playoff games in Foxboro. It’s crazy to think about, given their offensive-line problems and the at-times sputtering offense, but imagine the Patriots’ two main characters, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, with a legitimate chance at that elusive fourth Super Bowl victory a full decade after winning their third. This morning, no team in the AFC has a better shot.

 

 

* * *

The Cowboys may have emerged as the biggest threat to the Seahawks repeating. It’s not just their previous meeting—Dallas had the ball for 38 minutes in a 30-23 victory on Oct. 12, the only home loss for Seattle this year—it’s also the recent run of play by the Cowboys. They embarrassed the Colts on Sunday, a week after throttling the Eagles. What’s so impressive is Dallas’s ability to win with the passing game, the running game or with Rod Marinelli’s defense that takes mid-round rookies (fourth-round linebacker Anthony Hitchens) and reclamation projects (middle linebacker Rolando McClain) and sloughs off the losses of important players such as Justin Durant. After 33 offensive snaps, they had a 28-0 lead over the Colts, scoring on their first four drives. Though I’m not on board with keeping Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray in games long after they’ve been decided, Jason Garrett has done a terrific job overall of getting his message heard. He’s made sure Romo understands that he’s a great player, and that he can’t worry about the pain of the past. I like Dallas a lot entering the postseason, and a Dallas-at-Green Bay divisional round game (if the Packers beat the Lions next week) would be a fitting redux to the Ice Bowl … 47 years later.

The NFC North title game has some ghosts for Detroit. Lions (11-4) at Packers (11-4) for the division title next Sunday. The last time Detroit won at Green Bay, in December 1991, Mike Tomczak was the Packers’ quarterback. The appointment of Mike Holmgren as coach was a month away, and the trade for Brett Favre was two months away. The Lions have made 20 fruitless trips to Green Bay since, and haven’t won a division title since 1993. 

Detroit’s an indoor team, and coach Jim Caldwell has tried to train them for games like this one at Green Bay, practicing outside when the weather is lousy. It didn’t help much on Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago, a breezy day that felt like 27 degrees. Matthew Stafford threw two first-half red zone interceptions. “You can see,’’ Caldwell told his team in the locker room afterward, “that the only way teams are going to beat us is if we beat ourselves. We say it over and over again.” 

Saying didn’t translate into doing Sunday, because the Lions almost lost to Jimmy Clausen. One note of concern for Detroit: Center Dominic Raiola stomped on the leg of a prone Bear during the game for no apparent reason. Theoretically, the league could suspend Raiola for such a stupid act, and if that happens, the veteran pivot on the line, the most important man to the protection of Stafford, would be lost.

They’re up … The Giants could have a Packers-like offense next year, if they get better on the line. Odell Beckham Jr.’s average game: seven catches, 102 yards, one touchdown … Oakland is 3-2 over the last five weeks, beating three teams that had playoff hopes on the day the Raiders played them. A shame, really, that Tony Sparano won’t get to have a full-season shot with these players. I can understand why Jim Harbaugh would consider the Raiders so strongly, because there are enough defensive pieces, and because Derek Carr’s a tough quarterback with a good-enough arm to win with … The Steelers and Bengals have the Sunday night date, I’m sure, in part because of the lure of the game, the attraction of it being a division title game, the Steelers being a great national draw, and the fact that there can’t be much buzz over a division title game between two teams with losing records in the NFC South.

They’re down … Chip Kelly has got to be tearing his hair out with all the turnovers (35 by the quarterbacks alone in 15 games) and thinking about a totally new depth chart at the position for 2015. A three-game losing streak with the talent on that team, particularly with the good young defensive talent, is hard to fathom. One more offseason priority: cornerbacks. Philly’s stink … Baltimore is 5-6 in AFC games now, heading into the finale with Cleveland on Sunday. The lineup turnover took a toll, particularly the absence of Haloti Ngata in a loss at Houston … How do the New Orleans Saints lose five in a row at home? Oft-times listless and with no defensive playmakers—and with big cap problems—it’s hard to see how the Saints are going to turn it around quickly in 2015. And don’t grouse about the Jimmy Graham replay call at the goal line. To have it declared a touchdown, there would have had to be indisputable visual evidence that the ball crossed the plane of the goal line, and there wasn’t … Couldn’t help but think, watching Colin Kaepernick run for a 90-yard touchdown against San Diego, that the 49ers are 7-8, in part, because Kaepernick has played neutered this year. Running’s part of his game, and he needs to do more of it … Finally, the Bucs need Marcus Mariota. Desperately. But they also need an offensive identity. That was a minor-league showing against Green Bay.

* * *

There is one winner-advances-loser-goes-home game on Sunday

It might not be what America wants to see, but when the Panthers (6-8-1) travel to play the Falcons (6-9) on Sunday, one team will get the gift of winning one of the worst divisions in NFL history and hosting a game on wild-card weekend (likely the first game on the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 3), while the other team goes home.

“This has been the craziest year I’ve ever seen,” Carolina receiver Jerricho Cotchery said from Charlotte on Sunday afternoon, following the Panthers’ 17-13 win over Cleveland.

“Stranger than any year I’ve been a part of,” Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said from New Orleans, after the Falcons’ 30-14 win over New Orleans that knocked the vastly underachieving Saints out of business for the season.

I asked both men about the fairness, or lack thereof, of a team with a losing record making the postseason and hosting a playoff game. “That’s the way the league works,” Cotchery said. “If people don’t like it, well, I guess I’m sorry to hear that.” Ryan said it’s “not for me to say. But we’re not worried about the record right now. We’re trending in the right direction, and the record, right now, doesn’t matter. Winning one game matters.”

So who’s better suited to win this one game?

Carolina got Cam Newton back on Sunday, and he played efficiently while showing no signs of the two broken back bones suffered in his recent car accident; he rushed 12 times for 63 yards. The big factor for Carolina in its three-game winning streak has been Jonathan Stewart resuscitating the running game. He’s rushed for 352 yards over the 3-0 stretch. That’s a huge plus, particularly against a team that’s been inconsistent against the run. (The Falcons, though, stifled the Saints well on Sunday.) For Atlanta, the game will be in Ryan’s hands. The Falcons, with their crippled running game and banged-up receiving corps, have to prevent Carolina from making this a time-of-possession game, because the Panthers will certainly try to play keep away from Ryan by relying heavily on Stewart.

* * *

MVP Watch

Sixteen weeks down, one to go, and the MVP of this league is up for grabs—and I could see any one of four or five men winning it. My top five with a week to go:

1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay. Rodgers beat a very bad Tampa team Sunday and hasn't done anything in the last two weeks to lengthen his lead. It's a horse race now.

2. Tony Romo, QB, Dallas. He's come from off the charts with three straight command performances. After shredding Indy on Sunday, Romo forced his way into the conversation. He's always been criticized for coming up small in the biggest games, but look at his December so far: 3-0, 79 percent completions, 10 touchdowns, no interceptions. Until Sunday, I thought he and DeMarco Murray canceled each other out. And Murray obviously has been terrific this year, a huge difference-maker in so many games, particularly early in the year. Later, Romo's been such a horse. He deserves legitimate consideration for his first MVP.

3. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston. Another sack in Houston's upset of Baltimore on Sunday, giving Watt 17 for the season. There's nothing he's doing wrong, you understand. I just think others at the position that matters most in the game are shining very brightly.

4. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle. Another quarterback making his debut in my top five. He ran and passed the Seahawks over Arizona on Sunday night in his usual Cool Hand Luke way. Now Seattle and New England are neck and neck for the best team in football. Wilson is the biggest reason for the Seahawks' recent rise.

5. Tom Brady, QB, New England. The latest win at the Meadowlands wasn't pretty, but Brady has the Patriots 12-3 and in position again to win the AFC's top seed. He's Old Man River, and just because he'd be a boring choice for MVP, doesn't mean he'd be the wrong choice. I could understand picking any of the five people on this list, and the quarterback on the only 12-3 team in football today is certainly deserving.

The Fine Fifteen

1. Seattle (11-4). I hadn't planned on jumping any team ahead of New England, but then I watched the Seahawks offense rack up 596 yards on a very good Cardinals defense. 

2. New England (12-3). Not sure whether to give the Patriots a mulligan for a truly unimpressive offensive day at the Meadowlands, or to have some concern for what happens when a good defense comes to Foxboro in the playoffs. Leaning toward the latter. Julian Edelman, the Kent State security blanket, had better be healthy in January or teams will devote way too much defensive energy on Rob Gronkowski.

3. Green Bay (11-4). Tampa’s 10 possessions ended in: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, field goal, punt, punt, punt, interception. Now, the Bucs are the NFL’s version of the Toledo Mud Hens, but a 20-3 road win’s a 20-3 road win.

4. Denver (11-3). Not too concerned about the “Peyton Manning—questionable” line on the injury report entering the game. Kind of reminds me of all those “Tom Brady—questionable” weeks when he had a 0.0 percent chance of not playing.

5. Dallas (11-4). Average score in the Cowboys’ three-game win streak: Dallas 40, Foes 20. Most impressive for Dallas on Sunday was the defensive performance, stifling Andrew Luck to the point where the Colts had to pull Luck for his own good.

6. Arizona (11-4). So many concerns about the offense right now, obviously, and they're hitting the road to end the season against a 49er team that will be hungry to send off coach Jim Harbaugh with a win. Arizona will need to force at least four turnovers to win in Santa Clara.

7. Detroit (11-4). Matthew Stafford (pictured at right) was drafted first overall to win games like next Sunday’s, the NFC North championship game and a first-round bye. This hasn’t been his best year. Sunday was not a particularly good day for him in Chicago. But these are the kinds of games that help define a career.

8. Pittsburgh (10-5). The  Steelers had six sacks in the 20-12 win over Kansas City. Lawrence Timmons had 13 tackles. James Harrison took care of Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher (not exactly rare, from the glimpses I’ve had of Fisher this year). The Steelers are getting defensively fit and will be a dangerous January team.

9. Cincinnati (9-4-1). Amazingly, it’s not a given that the Bengals make the playoffs now. Two losses in six days likely knocks them out—and those two games are against Denver and Pittsburgh (combined record: 21-8).

10. Indianapolis (10-5). All I could think of while watching that debacle in Dallas was this: Not Indy’s year. Ryan Grigson needs another good draft.

11. San Diego (9-6). Lost to Miami by 37. Scored 24 points, combined, in Weeks 14 and 15. Playing their 49th-string center in front of Philip Rivers. Who, by the way, probably needs back surgery. But be honest: If you’re Pittsburgh or Cincinnati or Indianapolis, you don’t want to see them on wild-card weekend in 12 or 13 days, do you?

12. Houston (8-7). Thanks for the six-for-six in field goals, Randy Bullock. The Texans are likely homebound for the playoffs, but pretty dangerous, even with Case Keenum playing. What a great halfback-option pass for a touchdown by Arian Foster against the Ravens. Quirky scoring line: 25 points, none provided by the quarterback.

13. Baltimore (9-6). When Joe Flacco is lousy, and Justin Forsett’s rushing line is 10 for 19, it’s going to be a very bad day. And that was a very bad day in Houston.

14. Buffalo (8-7). Kyle Orton’s expiration date: Nov. 30, 2014.

15. Miami (8-7). So much for Harbaugh to the Dolphins.

The Award Section

Offensive Player of the Week

Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle. In the past five weeks this orchestra leader has led 16- and 29-point victories over the first-place team in the division. Sunday night in the desert, in the Cards’ cacophonous home stadium, he totaled 427 rushing/passing yards with one of the best performances of his three-year career: 20 of 31 for 339 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and six rushes for 88 yards. He’s got such a great feel for the game—when to stretch a play out, when to give up on it, how to make defenders miss, how to never take the huge hit. He’ll cost the Seahawks a fortune after the season when it’s time for him to get his second pro contract, but he’ll be worth it. All of it.

Philip Rivers, quarterback, San Diego. I get it—you’re not good with me giving Offensive Player of the Week to a quarterback who beat a second-stringer-filled lineup, who had to go to overtime against a team out of the playoff chase and riddled by all sorts of distractions. Too bad. Rivers dug himself a 28-7 hole Saturday night against the 49ers, much of it due to his two first-half interceptions. In the fourth quarter, down 35-21 with nine minutes left, Rivers led a nine-play drive (all passes; 6-of-9, 90 yards) to bring San Diego to within 35-28 with 5:15 left. Two minutes later Rivers took over at his 20. Here’s why I gave him this back-pat: Rivers, with San Diego’s playoff chances on the line, converted fourth-and-eight and fourth-and-10 passes on the drive, which ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Malcom Floyd. In overtime he led a 40-yard drive to the winning field goal. That is one clutch performance.

Defensive Player of the Week

Anthony Hitchens, linebacker, Dallas. In the Cowboys’ surprisingly easy 42-7 beatdown of the Colts, Hitchens, the team’s fourth-round pick from Iowa, played a dominant game at his starting weakside linebacker slot. He’s been solid as the Cowboys have adjusted to the loss of maybe their most valuable defensive player, Justin Durant, who went on IR in midseason. Hitchens had the only play that mattered in the second half. With the Colts down 28-0, he picked off a tipped Andrew Luck pass on the second play of the half and returned it to the Indy 19. Ten minutes later it was 35-0, and the game was over. The Cowboys’ defense has risen to the occasion all season because of guys like Hitchens, players we didn’t know in August who will be important players in January.

Special Teams Players of the Week

Terrence Fede, defensive end, Miami. The rookie seventh-round pick from that noted football power—Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.—blocked a Jeff Locke punt inside the final minute of the fourth quarter in a 35-35 game, and the ball bounded out of the end zone behind Locke. That, friends, is a safety, and it ensured a 37-35 Miami victory, and means the Dolphins will finish at least .500. Great athletic play by Fede, blocking it with his massive right arm while fending off a Viking blocker. "It feels amazing—one of my first big NFL plays finished a game off," he said. "This is one I'll remember the rest of my life."

Jalen Saunders, wide receiver/kick returner, New Orleans. So the other day we had the annual “Christmas Vacation” viewing at the King house, and cousin Eddie said something apt, when Clark got the year’s subscription to the Jelly of the Month Club. “That’s the gift that keeps on giving throughout the entire year," Eddie says in his sage way. Fast-forward to the opening kick of Falcons-Saints. New Orleans return man Saunders, on his fourth team in seven months, takes the ball at the goal line and runs it back to the Atlanta one-yard line … on the first kick return of his NFL career. I call this the gift that keeps on giving because Jets GM John Idzik made Saunders, the little Oklahoma receiver, the 104th pick in the May draft. New York cut him after four weeks and two muffed punts—a colossal admission of error, cutting a fourth-round pick after four weeks. He went to Arizona’s practice squad for four weeks and Seattle’s practice squad for two, and then the Saints signed him off the Seahawks’ practice squad a month ago.

Coach of the Week

Dirk Koetter, offensive coordinator, Atlanta. Koetter designed, implemented and called one of the coolest and most important plays of the Falcons’ season—the three-yard misdirection shovel pass from Matt Ryan to Eric Weems with three seconds left in the first half. The play put the Falcons up 13-7, a lead Atlanta wouldn’t relinquish in winning a crucial game in the battle for the NFC South. “Brilliant call at a perfect time," Ryan told me afterward.

Goat of the Week

Cody Parkey, kicker, Philadelphia. He missed two field goals in the first 14.5 games of the season. He missed two in the third quarter of a potential playoff-elimination game. The first: Good snap, good hold, 34-yard chippy wide right. Eagles held onto a 14-10 lead. Washington scored to go up 17-14. The second: Good snap, good hold, 46-yarder significantly wide right. Washington scored to go up 24-14. Though the Eagles rebounded to tie the game, missing those two field goals clearly cost Philadelphia the game, and likely a playoff spot. “It falls on me," Parker said. He’s right there. 

 

Quotes of the Week

I

"That's as much fun as you can have in football."

—Seattle coach Pete Carroll, after the stunningly one-sided 35-6 rout of the NFC West's first-place team, Arizona, Sunday night. "Formerly" the first-place team. Seattle and Arizona are tied at 11-4, but the Seahawks claim first because of a season sweep in the series.

II

"I don’t know if he should be mentioned with [the great cornerbacks in the league]. You give up eight touchdowns in a year, it’s hard to be in that discussion. At any point, if I gave up that many touchdowns, I think I would be benched. You can’t give up big plays like that and still play.”

—Richard Sherman, the Seattle cornerback, to Bob Costas on NBC Sunday night, on Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson.

III

"I’ve seen the work that they do, the guys out on the street who put their lives at risk. It was important for me to show my support.”

—Nick Mangold, the Jets’ center, discussing after Sunday’s game why he wore the “NYPD” cap to and from the stadium in New Jersey on Sunday, after the ambush murder of two police officers in Brooklyn on Saturday.

IV

“We’re in the society of instant gratification. Everybody wants it to happen now, and as much as we want that to happen, it is a process. When you build a house you’ve got to build it from the foundation. You’ve got to build the right way and make sure it’s rock solid. We’re in the middle of that. I get people are going to have their opinions and say what they say, but a lot more of that happens when you’ve lost three in a row. I didn’t hear a lot of that when we had just gotten our seventh win."

—Cleveland coach Mike Pettine, after former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar told a local radio station that the culture inside the team was a “recipe for disaster” in the wake of last week’s 30-0 loss to Cincinnati.

V

"What has gone on there that inspires you to think he’s the right man for the job?"

—Former Raiders executive Amy Trask, on Jets GM John Idzik’s tenuous job status, on the CBS morning pregame show Sunday. 

VI

"We’re the team that always gives him his biggest challenge, whether he likes to admit it or not."

—Jets coach Rex Ryan, after the Patriots’ 17-16 survival test at the Meadowlands, on the problems his defense traditionally has presented Tom Brady.

Rex, you did okay. You really did. You beat Brady and Bill Belichick four times in 13 meetings, which is quite good. But 1-7 in the last four years … That’s part of the reason Ryan will be looking for another job in a week.

Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me

With Buffalo's bad loss in Oakland on Sunday, an amazing little factoid continued: The Bills, an original American Football League partner with the Raiders, have not won a football game in Oakland since 1966. The Bills are 0-7 in Oakland since then.

Three points about the last time Buffalo won in Oakland, when Jack Kemp bested Tom Flores 31-10 on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, 1966:

  • Troy Aikman was three days old, born downstate in West Covina.
  • The Beatles had their first recording session for Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that day.
  • Walt Disney died 20 days later.
  • The Super Bowl didn’t exist yet. The first Super Bowl was played 51 days later.

Forty-eight years ago. A lot’s happened since then.

Stat of the Week

"It’s not fun."

That’s Tennessee coach Ken Whisenhunt, on his team’s nine-game losing streak. When we look back on the 2014 season, I’m not sure which will be seen as more unlikely: New Orleans losing four straight at home by an average of 14.5 points, Pittsburgh losing at home to Tampa Bay, or Tennessee beating Kansas City. At Arrowhead. By 16 points.

Let’s go back to Week 7, when the nightmare of a season began, and see just how bad it’s been for Tennessee. This bad: In every one of the nine games, the Tennessee opponent came in having lost the previous game—in most cases, in fact, having been on a multigame losing streak. And the Titans, God bless ’em, broke every one of those streaks. The evidence:

Foe Opponents W-L

Entering Game

Streak

Entering Game

Result
Washington 1-5 Lost 4 Washington, 19-17
Houston 3-4 Lost 3 Houston, 30-16
Baltimore 5-4 Lost 2 Baltimore, 21-7
Pittsburgh 6-4 Lost 1 Pittsburgh, 27-24
Philadelphia 7-3 Lost 1 Philadelphia, 43-24
Houston 5-6 Lost 1 Houston, 45-21
N.Y. Giants 3-9 Lost 7 New York, 36-7
N.Y. Jets 2-11 Lost 3 New York, 16-11
Jacksonville 2-12 Lost 2 Jacksonville, 21-13

 

To sum up:

  • Tennessee lost nine straight to teams with a combined 34-58 record entering those games.
  • Tennessee lost nine straight to teams that had lost 24 consecutive games entering those games.
  • Tennessee lost nine straight by an average of 13.1 points.

So yes, Titans fans. It is worse than you thought. 

Chip Kelly Wisdom of the Week

This column section is being retired, mercifully, after the Eagles, who controlled the NFC East 15 mornings ago, lost their third straight game, committed 13 penalties, and had their 34th and 35th turnovers of the year.

Not saying Kelly has lost his touch, or his football brain. But his team is just too careless. The Eagles have had two fumble-free games all season. They’ve had 197 penalty yards marked off in the two biggest games of the year the last two weeks. 

Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week

I ask (in a quiet act of desperation) the same question I’ve asked several times over the years, in the wake of a jam-packed, 5-hour, 17-minute Delta redeye from Seattle to New York’s JFK Airport on Thursday night: Have airline executives, and I mean the top ones, ever sat in the no-extra-leg-room seats in coach for six hours? With people sleeping on both sides of them, making leg-stretching escape impossible? I didn’t think so. It’s really a bad way to travel.

On this particular flight, I felt awful for the seat neighbor to my right. The seat was empty until just before the flight left, and here came a older lady, limping down the aisle, slowly. She was heavy, and the walk to the seat was arduous, and when she sat, we couldn’t get the arm rest between us all the way down. So for much of six hours, two strangers pretty much pressed the flesh. Unpleasant, yes … but not just for me.

Airlines have to stop packing people so close together.

I’m sure they’ll listen to me. They’re so responsive.

I tweeted about this the other day, and many responses were a version of: Hey, why don’t you fly first-class, Mr. Moneybags, or Sports Illustrated won’t fly you first-class? That’s ridiculous! I fly Delta a lot, and so I am upgraded maybe 50 percent of the time when there are first-class seats available. In this case, Delta doesn’t upgrade coast-to-coast flights unless coach is full. And it would have cost $2,300 to change my ticket to first-class. Not an investment I’m going to make. And SI doesn’t fly its people first-class on domestic trips, and hasn’t in my 25 years working there. Can’t say that I blame them, because some of the first-class airfares are downright outrageous. If you want to do this job, the fact is quite often you’re going to be flying coach, and on the short trips it’s tolerable, and the extra-leg-room seats or bulkhead seats are most often quite good. I only get angry about it on long trips like this one, wedged into coach hell for six hours, when a sardine can would feel like a spa by comparison.

Tweets of the Week

I

 

Marshawn Lynch was held out of Sunday night’s game during the first quarter because of what the Seahawks said was an upset stomach.

II

The Vanderbilt product and current Detroit Tigers pitcher, watching the Thursday night game when Tennessee jumped out to an early lead over Jacksonville. Party at Price’s house! The Titans went on to lose their ninth straight game and stayed in the running for Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston in next year’s draft. 

III

Do you think when the cops took a look at the kid’s drivers license they burst out laughing?

IV

V

 

The Arizona safety went undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2013 but has become a mainstay in the Cardinals secondary.

 

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think this is what I liked about Week 16:

a. Everything about Tony Romo, who is elbowing his way in a muddled MVP race.

b. Tre Mason, showing the Rams they have a starting back for the long term.

c. Weird tiebreakers. Carolina, at 6-8-2, would beat New Orleans at 7-9 … because ties count at half-wins, and Carolina’s division record (the tiebreaker because they split their season series) would be 3-2-1, while the Saints’ record would be 3-3.

d. Orleans Darkwa. Ever hear of him? The Giants running back officially is on this season’s all-name team—and he made a couple big plays, forcing a fumble for the Giants on a Ram kickoff and rushing for a 12-yard touchdown.

e. FOX play-by-play man Kenny Albert’s Christmas card. Albert, his wife and two children re-creating the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover … on the real Abbey Road.

f. Tom Brady, master of the quarterback sneak.

g. Frank Gore, age 31, finishing his 10th season, and not going quietly: 26 carries, 158 yards.

h. Rich Gannon as an analyst. He is often prescient. Early in Saturday’s Philly-Washington game, he said he liked the fast pace of the Eagle offense because of the matchup problems it creates for the defense, particularly with a blitz-happy defensive coordinator Jim Haslett on the other side of the field. “I don’t want Jim Haslett to have time to figure out different blitzes," Gannon said. On the same series, Haslett—either because he didn’t have time to call it or by choice—rushed only three as Mark Sanchez dropped back to pass. Eagles with five, blocking three. But Haslett had the advantage of his best rusher, Ryan Kerrigan, on Eagle right tackle Lane Johnson one-on-one—the only one-on-one match on the line. And Kerrigan beat Johnson to strip-sack Sanchez and force a fumble.

i. The CBS/NFL Network graphic, showing Sanchez with 101 turnovers in 70 games.

j. Rookie free-agent pass-rusher Jackson Jeffcoat of Washington, son of former Cowboy Jim, with a sack past all-world tackle Jason Peters.

k. Darrel Young, channeling his inner Bettis: one quarter, two one-yard touchdown runs.

l. Malcolm Jenkins, showing the kids on special teams how it’s done, with a forced fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half at Washington.

m. Washington punter Tress Way, making Philadelphia drives start at the seven-, 17- and 15-yard line with his three punts.

n. William Gay, with a great open-field stop of Jamaal Charles on a play that could have been a Kansas City touchdown at Pittsburgh.

o. Best individual play of the day: Viking safety Harrison Smith blitzing Ryan Tannehill, batting his pass up in the air, and picking it off as it fell to earth.

p. Son of best individual play of the day: Miami wideout Mike Wallace making a hard catch near the sideline inside the five, tippy-toeing along the sideline, and then diving for the end zone.

q. Best individual play of Saturday: Colin Kaepernick’s nifty and then speedy 90-yard touchdown run against San Diego.

r. The year of Odell Beckham Jr., continuing with a perfect cut and leaving the Ram corner in the dust on his touchdown in St. Louis. The way he makes players miss with his cuts … ridiculous.

s. Luke Willson’s speed. The Seattle tight end caught Russell Wilson’s lofted pass at the Seattle 47, and with safety Rashad Johnson in pursuit for half a football field, never got caught. Very impressive.  

t. Paul Richardson’s maturation, on the fly, for Seattle.

2. I think this is what I didn’t like about Week 16:

a. The Dominic Raiola stomp in Chicago. He should be suspended a game for that.

b. Why’d the Bears start Jimmy Clausen if, on the first series of the game against Detroit, on third-and-nine, they run the ball? Just dumb, no-faith play-calling.

c. Harrison Smith, who dropped the easiest interception of his life. Ryan Tannehill threw it right to him. Doink.

d. Wonder if Matthew Stafford, in Chicago territory, thought: Let’s throw into triple-coverage for Golden Tate, shall we? It was a perfectly thrown pick, his second of the first half.

e. Get your hands off the receiver in the end zone, Xavier Rhodes. Come on.

f. The really stupid commercial we’ve all seen 657 times this fall (and, thankfully, Christmas comes this week so hopefully this awful spot will cycle out) about an extended family of Vikings fans that grew into Minnesota, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Dallas and Pittsburgh fans, and of course, shopped and got a sleigh-full of gifts from the NFL Shop repping all five teams. What families morph from loyal fans of one team to fans of teams wherever they live?

g. Alshon Jeffery, drop. Calvin Johnson, drop (his seventh of the year).

h. Mark Sanchez’s pocket awareness.

i. Quinton Patton’s hands. You cannot fumble in overtime—and of course he knows that. But the most important thing is not the extra yard; it’s possession.

j. There’s little doubt in my mind the Niners would have advanced to kick the winning field goal without the Patton fumble. Which is a real kick in the pants: Jim Harbaugh’s fifth or sixth wideout, costing him a win.

k. My Lord. Look at the San Francisco IR list: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Chris Borland, Jimmie Ward, Ian Williams, Chris Cook, Kassim Osgood, Glenn Dorsey … 20 total on either PUP, non-football injury or injured-reserve.

l. Eric Fisher, with too much leakage against Pittsburgh’s James Harrison, not looking much like a first overall draft pick.

m. Heath Miller’s end-zone drop.

n. An uncharacteristic bad play by precocious Miami freshman Jarvis Landry. With 4:46 left in the fourth quarter, Minnesota having just tied the game at 28 on a touchdown and two-point conversion, Landry took the kickoff and started running—and lost the ball without being hit. Strange, strange play. The Vikings recovered the ridiculous early Christmas gift and scored on the next play.

o. The Ziggy Ansah helmet-to-helmet on Jimmy Clausen.

3. I think I’d like to know where the coaching openings are going to be. In the wake of Miami owner Stephen Ross saying Joe Philbin would return, and the clear likelihood that Tom Coughlin will return to the Giants (even though, as I said on NBC Sunday night, Giants owners John Mara and Steve Tisch still have to meet about this and have yet to do so), that leaves five teams in play. The Raiders, Jets and 49ers are very likely, of course. And Atlanta and Chicago are in the “could be” category. Then there’s the mystery team, the team that would be an upset. What’s that team? New Orleans and Buffalo are the most likely. I don’t see either opening up, but that’s why there’s a mystery team every year. You don’t see it coming.

4. I think I loved that Jay Glazer story about Raiders tackle Menelik Watson giving his game check for the week to the family of a 4-year-old girl with a heart defect hosted by the Raiders during the week. The reason? He wanted her and her family to have a happy holiday. His take-home pay is somewhere around $21,000 per week. Heck of a great gesture by Watson, and good for Glazer in telling the story. 

5. I think the release of Ray McDonald of the 49ers was the right thing to do, even though the new accusation of sexual assault has yet to be adjudicated or fully investigated, or has even resulted in a charge. The reason I say this: The 49ers clearly told McDonald when the first incident—the charge of domestic abuse that was never proven—happened in August that he was on thin ice, and the organization was going to support him, but he had to stay totally clean. (There was at least one major incident that went unreported when it happened that concerned the Niners about McDonald; the August accusation was not his first problem.) “If this was one incident, we would be standing up here talking about due process like we have multiple times in multiple other situations," GM Trent Baalke said. “But this is just a pattern of decision-making that Ray had demonstrated over the period of time that, once again, it’s no longer going to be tolerated.”

6. I think it makes zero sense for the Bears not to look at David Fales at quarterback in the last game of the season Sunday at Minnesota. Fales, the Bears’ 2014 sixth-round pick from San Jose State, was on the Chicago practice squad until New England tried to pilfer him and sign him to its active roster. The Bears responded by activating Fales. If I’m Marc Trestman, I’m giving Jimmy Clausen the first half and Fales the second Sunday in Minneapolis. No reason to not see what you’ve got at a position that could face tumult this offseason. (And should face tumult, by the way. Chicago needs to see if there’s a market out there for the radioactive Jay Cutler.)

7. I think I am dying to know what would compel a man (Marshawn Lynch, in this case) to score one of the great touchdowns of his career, a truly memorable 79-yard touchdown run, physical and athletic, and cap it by fall backward into the end zone and grabbing his crotch on the way down for the world to see. Lynch is a great player. Barring evidence that surfaces to the contrary, he's a knucklehead too. 

8. I think I am glad at least one NFL player and one coach—center Nick Mangold of the Jets and coach Tom Coughlin of the Giants—had a demonstration of support Sunday for the two New York police officers ambushed and executed by a man apparently bent on avenging the deaths of Eric Garner on Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Mangold wore an NYPD cap walking into MetLife Stadium Sunday. The Jets had a moment of silence before the game against New England. Coughlin, determined to do something classy and eloquent, wore a black strip on his left shoulder, and a peace sign over his heart. “The first thing I want to say,” Coughlin said after the Giants’ victory over the Rams, “is that we wore this because the New York Giants wanted to honor and mourn the assassination of the two New York City policemen that took place last night in our city. We also wanted to wear this pin to represent peace. Let’s hope that the voice of reason can prevail. Violence never solves anything. I realize there are issues, but solve them with non-violent means.”

9. I think the two teams that have to call the Bears about Cutler—and soon, after the season—are Buffalo and Tennessee. Doug Marrone and Ken Whisenhunt can handle Cutler. And each franchise is moribund now without a quarterback of the future.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Rest in peace, Wenjian Liu.

b. Rest in peace, Rafael Ramos.

c. Those are the two New York City police officers who were shot execution-style while sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn Saturday afternoon. Tremendous sadness, almost to the point of desperation, about this. Violence solves nothing. Murders solve nothing. America needs a uniting force for good right now.

d. Touching, wonderful gesture by the New York Yankees, who will pay for the education of Ramos’ two sons. The Yankees have done this for years through their Silver Shield Foundation, paying for the education of the children of slain law-enforcement officers in the New York area. It’s one of the great gestures by any team in sports.

e. Pause.

f. Few shows ever live up to the hype of what last shows should be. “The Colbert Report” did.

g. Interested in seeing “Unbroken” this week. That’s the movie coming out on Christmas about Olympian/World War II prisoner of war Louis Zamperini, based on the great book by Laura Hillenbrand.

h. This is one of the best profiles of a person, in any field, I have read in a long time. It’s writer Wil S. Hylton, in the New York Times Magazine. Hylton gets Hillenbrand perfectly—especially about how she writes so incredibly vividly about her subjects despite the fact that she is virtually homebound with chronic fatigue syndrome. I urge you to take 15 minutes to read this great piece.

i. This piece, by our Emily Kaplan on The MMQB last week, is pretty darned good too … on the odd career of first-round-pick-turned-firefighter Danny Watkins.

j. What a win for Illinois State. The Redbirds (finally got the nickname right), a week after beating Eastern Washington in Cheney, Wash., journeyed to Durham, N.H., and defeated top-seeded New Hampshire in the Division I-AA playoffs. Now it’s an all-Missouri Valley Conference final for the championship of I-AA: North Dakota State versus Illinois State … on Jan. 10? Great. Let’s wait three weeks between the semifinals and the final.

k. The Missouri Valley Conference: the most geographically intelligent football league in the nation. All Midwest, all fairly close: Illinois State, Western Illinois, Southern Illinois, Indiana State, Missouri State, Northern Iowa, Youngstown State, North Dakota State, South Dakota State (go Jackrabbits!), South Dakota.

l. Wow: I do not recognize these Padres. That sounds like a heck of an outfield the Pads invented in a week: Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers.

m. Those Braves season-ticket renewals must be on fire.

n. I guess the four times a year I used to have an illegal Cuban Cohiba will now be the four times a year I have a legal Cuban Cohiba.

o. I guess I don’t get Marco Rubio. After 54 years, why can’t we try to make nice with Cuba? Are we consigned to hate them forever and never try to rebuild a bridge with a country 90 miles from our shores?

p. Beernerdness: Did a Maine Beer Company taste test Saturday evening. The contestants: Peeper American Ale and Mo Pale Ale. Liked them both. No, should say I liked the drinkable and hoppy Peeper. The Mo is special. A terrific, floral and hoppy beer, distinctive and memorable. Great job by the Maine Beer folks.

Who I Like Tonight

Denver 27, Cincinnati 24. Interesting times in Denver, where the Broncos have become the kind of team John Fox used to have in Carolina: run first, pass second. (Well, that’s the way it’s been for the past month anyway.) That could change tonight. In the past six games, Cincinnati’s defense has allowed 3.3, 2.9, 3.4, 3.0, 6.2 and 3.1 yards per rush. The Bengals could be in the bizarre position tonight of trying to force the Broncos to go away from the run—and go toward Peyton Manning. We shall see, but I think we’re going to be writing after the game tonight that the reports of the demise of Peyton Manning have been greatly exaggerated.

The Adieu Haiku

Uh, Andy Dalton?

Got two straight prime time games now.

They’re your kryptonite.

 


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