The MMQB team weighs in on the highs and lows of the postseason so far, January’s franchise-altering decisions, unsung players to watch this weekend, and whether the NFL should look to soccer for guidance on how to keep players under control

By Peter King and the MMQB Staff
January 20, 2016
After three knee surgeries, veteran linebacker Thomas Davis still had the hops to leap and recover the onside kick in the Panthers-Seahawks divisonal-round game.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Peter King: Good morning everyone. Let’s get going on this roundtable. First topic: Most interesting image of divisional playoff weekend—what struck you?

Mine came at a game I was not covering. It was the final play of Arizona-Green Bay. For the biggest pass of his professional career, Carson Palmer flipped it left-handed, Favre-like, to Larry Fitzgerald, for the first playoff win of his career. Found that … interesting.

Robert Mays: It was probably a result of my proximity to it, but having such a good view of this new Peyton Manning was jarring. A mostly empty stadium still went nuts when he took the field before the game, and it didn’t take very long for those fans to realize they would never see the old version of him again.

Jenny Vrentas: Thomas Davis recovering the on-side kick to seal the game for Carolina. First of all, a linebacker on the hands team is in itself remarkable. Then to time his leap, and hold onto the ball as he flipped to the ground—it was such a neat representation of what he means to this team. Tears his ACL three times, neither he nor the Panthers are sure if he should be back, and here he is, together with Luke Kuechly the fulcrums of that Panthers defense. They have great players at all three levels of that defense, but even Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett said that their defense starts with the linebacker play (appropriate on a Ron Rivera-coached team). And coming off Davis’s delivering that memorable speech while accepting the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award last February, it’s easy to watch him lead his team to success.

Emily Kaplan: Carolina stuffing the Seahawks on a fourth down attempt in the first half. That pretty much sealed the game, no matter how improbable a comeback Russell Wilson could stage.

Mays: The Thomas Davis play was incredible. I literally said out loud, “Wait, is that Thomas Davis?” He is a superhero.

Robert Klemko: Cam Newton ripping the “12” flag from the stands (by the way, it seemed like it was offered to him) and chucking it to the ground with childlike glee. I think it’s the stuff rivalries are made of, and quite a silly thing to get angry about if you’re a 12. The self-importance of some members of that fan base is starting to get annoying.

King: Just me, maybe, but I’m not a big fan of defacing or stomping on or wrecking other team’s banners or signs. Seems small.

* * *

Next topic: Pick a player we don’t know much about who will be a huge factor in one of the championship games.

Klemko: In Denver, second-year corner Bradley Roby, a guy who has served as a third corner all season but looks to have a large role against the Patriots thanks to Chris Harris’ shoulder injury. Roby has come up big in clutch moments this season and has yet to be exposed by any of the very capable slot receivers on their schedule. Obviously, this is the biggest test of his young career.

Mays: I’m going with Marcus Cannon for New England. The only time the Patriots have looked human in the past couple months is when Tom Brady is spending all day running for his life, and as New England’s right tackle, Cannon figures to be the one who has to deal with Von Miller. He’s still the type of player who can swing games seemingly on his own, and he’ll need to if the Broncos have a shot.

Kaplan: Kawann Short, defensive tackle for Carolina. With the Panthers’ secondary so depleted, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has been dialing up a ton of pressure from his front seven. Short’s a massive guy but somehow finds a way to slip through any gap. He’s deceptively quick. On Sunday he was blowing past Justin Britt and really getting after Russell Wilson.

King: Give me Tre Boston, the up-and-coming safety and special-teams force for Carolina. Sean McDermott’s using him some to blitz, and he nailed Russell Wilson the other day, and with the big emphasis on making Carson Palmer uncomfortable in the pocket, I have a feeling Boston’s going to make a couple of impact plays Sunday.

Vrentas: Keep an eye out for Broncos defensive linemen Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson. Against Tom Brady, it’s not usually the edge rushers who have a chance to pressure him, it’s the guys who line up against the interior linemen and can prevent Brady from stepping up in the pocket by getting push up the middle. That will be the key to the game for Denver’s defense.

* * *

Burfict was suspended three games for his hit on Antonio Brown, the latest in a series of transgressions for the Bengals linebacker in 2015.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

King: Next, let me go back in time, because it’s still filling the Twitterverse. Did the NFL get it right or wrong with Vontaze Burfict’s discipline—a three-game suspension to start next season—and what should be done about teams that fight and act stupid the way the Bengals and Steelers did?

Mays: With matters like this, it always feels like the NFL’s motivation is rooted in not coming away with a black eye. In Burfict’s case, the league justified the punishment by saying it was “repeated” cases of unsafe play, and it feels like that’s what really did it. Burfict has been dinged for this stuff before, and his refusal to knock it off is ultimately what brought the hammer down.

Klemko: If you really want to discourage that kind of game, I think the fines have to hit harder.

King: Answer is simple. Ejections. Eject big players early in games like that, and it’ll stop. The outrage will fester, but the fights will not continue.

Vrentas: Agree with Peter. I’ve always said that fines don’t hit home with players, but suspensions do. They don’t want to be taken off the field. And to be taken off the field in the middle of a game, leaving their team short a man with their season on the line … nothing will get the message across stronger. The outcry is absolutely worth it in the name of player safety.

• PROTECT YOURSELVES, PROTECT THE GAME: Peter King’s open letter to players after the Steelers-Bengals fiasco

King: Agreed. The only effective way to police this is to take guys off the field in huge games.

Kaplan: After the Josh Norman/Beckham meltdown game, and now this, I’ve thought a lot about how refs can control a game. Maybe there can be some sort of warning that is not an ejection. Could the NFL take a page from the NHL and issue a two-minute penalty or sit-out period? I think the case of Norman and Beckham, those guys really could have benefited from cooling off. And if they come out and do it again, eject them.

King: Biggest joke of all is a $10,000 fine for a coach, or for anyone. You think that’s going to discourage men from acting like high-schoolers?

Mays: That’s interesting, Emily. I’m trying to think of what the NFL equivalent of a technical foul would be. I guess it’s just a personal foul, in that 15 yards is likely close to the equivalent of a single free throw. Still, it doesn’t really feel like that’s enough.

King: How about the soccer system? A yellow card for an over-the-top hit, for instance. And a red card for a hit like Burfict on Antonio Brown. Just get him out of the game immediately.

Vrentas: That would be a middle ground I think both sides could agree on. I like it.

Coming soon to an NFL field near you?
Michael Steele/Getty Images

Mays: And just like in soccer, a second yellow gets you tossed. That’s how soccer works, right? (I don’t watch a ton of soccer.)

King: True. I think the system has some merit for the NFL. If Burfict got a yellow card early in the game, would he have been inclined to hit Brown the way he did? Maybe, because he’s an overtly emotional player. But for many players, I think having a yellow card and knowing the next bad play will get them ejected—it might work. Something, though, has to be done. The Beckham and Steelers-Bengals incidents prove that.

Vrentas: The officials, and the rule book, need to help the coaches. They often don’t see, or know, how bad things are getting in the heat of a game.

* * *

Mularkey has work to do to turn around the Titans—and to win over skeptics.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

King: We move on. Give me a coaching hire you liked, and one you didn’t.

I’ll take Hue Jackson for the like. Tough enough to be a sheriff, which that team needs. Smart enough to coach the quarterback, which that team needs. For the don’t like, give me Mike Mularkey. Not that he’s certainly going to do a bad job. But he hasn’t earned another shot, and the Titans were the last team standing—they could have interviewed a slew of candidates from the remaining teams. What’s the rush?

Kaplan: Liked: Chip Kelly in San Francisco. Kelly was close to entering NFL coaching purgatory after his awkward divorce in Philadelphia—the same abyss Doug Marrone finds himself in—but I think the 49ers brass made a smart decision by allowing him to show that he’s learned. Plus, it gives them an opportunity to salvage their investment in Colin Kaepernick. Disliked: Titans. And like Peter, I agree that they should have waited. It’s hard to imagines that Bill Belichick somehow enters next season retaining his offensive and defensive coordinators, both of whom I think will be excellent  head coaches (Matt Patricia may be a few years off, but Josh McDaniel is day one ready).

• INSIDE THE COACHING INTERVIEW: Jenny Vrentas’s behind-the-scenes look at the hiring process

Mays: I actually liked a lot of them. I think Hue Jackson is a great get for Cleveland. But the one I was talking about yesterday is Doug Pederson to the Eagles. What the Chiefs were able to do offensively with such a limited set of talent this year was impressive, and Pederson will have to do a lot of that same stuff in Philadelphia. Again, he’ll probably be working with a quarterback limited by his ability to throw downfield, so he’ll have an offense that has to manufacture points in creative ways.

The one I didn’t like is easy. I just don’t get Mike Mularkey. Retread coaching hires drive me a little crazy. How many chances does Mike Mularkey get? Why not take an Adam Gase-like risk rather than make the safe choice that in reality isn’t that safe! Mularkey got more than half the season, and Tennessee was a mess during that stretch. I’m getting upset just thinking about it. The idea of Marcus Mariota getting mired in the muck of bad coaching for a few more years is frustrating.  

King: Titans owners are out of touch. I really like Jon Robinson, the bright new GM. Have to think this wasn’t his final call, no matter how the team worded it.

Klemko: Loved the Adam Gase hire in Miami. The ideal coach was one who had the best chance of improving the play of Ryan Tannehill, and either Gase or Hue is your guy in that scenario. Hated the McAdoo hire in New York, just because I don’t think that offense was especially diverse or inspiring under McAdoo, and the defense is what really needed attention. Now, if you were sure you were going to lose McAdoo if you didn’t promote him, it makes some sense.

• CHIP KELLY, TAKE TWO: Jenny Vrentas on what the new Niners coach must do differently this time around

Vrentas: What was really interesting to me was having two teams, the Giants and Bucs, move on from their head coach and promoting a coordinator. You don’t see that happen a lot with teams coming off losing seasons. Both teams wanted to make a change, but they also wanted continuity for their quarterbacks, so they went with the compromise. Anyway, back to the question at hand: I think one reason Hue Jackson in Cleveland is a really good pick is he’s a blue-blooded football guy who was needed in their otherwise nontraditional organizational power structure. And, I think he’s the kind of coach who will make players on the team—Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, etc.—excited enough about for the future in Cleveland that they’ll want to stay.

I worry with the Mularkey hire that it’s another team going with the compromise, but the difference is that they’re not coming off a season that promises optimism for what he’ll be able to do with Mariota. I’d hate to see a player who showed so much promise on the opening day of the NFL season get put through the coaching meat-grinder like, say, an Alex Smith.

* * *

King: Pick one team, and give me one move they have to make to make their team better.

I’ll start. Cleveland should hire Ray Horton as defensive coordinator, which could happen very soon. Great guy working with young players, has proven he can take so-so rushers and get to the quarterback. His aggressive philosophy would mesh with Jackson’s.

Kaplan: The Colts need offensive linemen. Draft them, pick them up in free agency, scour YouTube if you need to. (Hopefully Ryan Grigson doesn’t actually resort to this.) But if you’re going to avoid the hellish season they had in 2015, Indianapolis needs to protect Andrew Luck.

• FIRST TAKE ON NEW COACHES: Andrew Brandt sizes up the new hires

Klemko: I’m intrigued by the AFC West after this season. Seems wide open with the decline of Peyton Manning. If you had us pick the division today I’d go with the Chiefs, but part of me thinks the Raiders are one or two defensive upgrades away from winning the division. It’s like Al Davis told Reggie McKenzie recently: Find me two corners. I’d be shocked if they didn’t go heavy on the defensive backfield in the draft and free agency with Woodson retiring.

Vrentas: San Francisco needs to hire coordinators who have a proven track record of relating to players and bringing out the best in them, because after the “emotional intelligence” post-mortem in Philly, Chip Kelly faces an uphill climb to winning over the locker room.

* * *

Osemele should be high on the list for a team looking for O-line help.
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

King: You can sign one free agent or player whose contract is up at the end of the year. Who do you take? For me, it’s Kirk Cousins. He’s a classic case of a guy who got a lot better in the incubator. He sat for a while, and when he finally got the call, he was ready.

Mays: I’ve always been a fan of Kelechi Osemele, the left guard from the Ravens. He’s an absolute beast in the running game, and I think with some of the injury issues he’s had in his first few seasons, there’s a chance he’s available at the right price. A guy like Mike Iupati seriously changed the physicality of the Cardinals’ offense this year, and the pop they got from their ground game allowed their play-action attack to be even more dangerous. I think Osemele could do the same, and the best part is that he’s only 26.

• DENVER’S NEW NORMAL: Robert Mays on the shock of watching Peyton Manning, Game Manager

Klemko: I’ll take safety Eric Weddle, who’s definitely hitting the open market and will come cheaper than if he was coming off a healthy season in San Diego. The man will be especially motivated after hitting 30 and having his ego severely bruised by Chargers management.

Vrentas: Muhammad Wilkerson is coming off the broken leg, but he should, and will, get paid. The Jets could franchise him. But if he hits the market, teams will be lined up for a defensive lineman like him. And you can bet that, even if the Buffalo Bills don’t have the cap room, Rex Ryan will throw his hat into the ring—if for no other reason than to drive up his price, like I’m convinced he did with Darrelle Revis last year.

Kaplan: I’ll take Josh Norman, with the caveat that you don’t overpay à la Byron Maxwell, 2015. Roddy White said Norman isn’t a shutdown corner because of the Panthers’ propensity for playing zone, but I disagree. I think Norman is an invaluable member of a secondary, and he’s a top target if I’m a GM, given the right price. That said, Josh Norman, Jacksonville Jaguar totally has a ring to it…

* * *

The MMQB consensus is a Patriots-Panthers Super Bowl; Luke Kuechly and Tom Brady last met in November 2013, a 24-20 Carolina win.
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

King: Finally, I want everyone’s pick for who’s going to be in the Super Bowl, with a one-sentence explanation. Like this: New England-Carolina. Quarterback matchup for the ages: Today (Brady) versus Tomorrow (Cam).

Mays: Arizona-New England. So many points. All of the points.

Klemko: I think Carolina learned a lesson about taking their foot off the gas versus elite teams last week. I’ll say Panthers-Patriots. And then Belichick takes Ron Rivera and his very talented coordinators to school.

Vrentas: New England-Carolina. I want to see the defensive game plan Ron Rivera and Sean McDermott cook up for Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski.

Kaplan: New England-Carolina. Contrast of attitude, contrast of coaches. It will be a great matchup.

King: You all have been very groovy to participate. Thank you. Have a good playoff weekend!

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