I knew when I caught the ball, I would be short, below the line. But I knew I had to get my pads down on a couple of their guys. If I could get my pads down, and possibly reach the ball over, and that’s exactly what I did.
* * *
I got a glimpse of the player Antonio Brown strives to be in training camp in August, in Latrobe, Pa. Practice was over one afternoon around 5, and most of the players walked up the hill to the locker room, or stopped to sign some autographs. In the far end zone, away from almost everyone, was wide receiver Antonio Brown, with a ballboy and an assistant. Brown, in the previous two years, either led the league or tied for the league lead in receptions.
A ball was fed into the JUGS machine, and Brown, eight yards away, caught it in gloved hands.
In a different position, Brown caught another ball. And again, and again, and again.
He stayed for a long time, maybe 15 minutes. At other camps, receivers might catch 10 or 15. Brown far exceeded that (“I do 130 a day,” he said later). Then he had the ballboy toss him some high passes, difficult to catch, and the assistant, by rote, on pass after pass, mugged Brown—obviously to get him used to what he’d see in the regular season. The whole extra session lasted about 25 minutes.
I thought of that on Christmas evening, watching the last minute of the Steelers-Ravens game, the game that, as usual, had something gigantic riding on it. The AFC North would be won or lost in the next play or two. Baltimore led 27-24. Pittsburgh had the ball at the Ravens’ four-yard line. No timeouts. Second-and-goal, 13 seconds left.
It was almost cruel, that some team would lose here. Baltimore, the underdog, had led 20-10 with 14 minutes to go. The Steelers had drives of 75 and 90 yards to go up 24-20, but the Ravens inexorably churned down the field 75 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 78 seconds left. Ravens 27, Steelers 24. Baltimore had played so valiantly, but also had left the Steelers, with Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell and Brown, time to grab at least a field goal to make this an overtime classic. The Ravens were so close to such an improbable win. And whoever lost would have that guts-ripped-out feeling.
The Steelers took over at the 25-yard line, and Bell said to Brown: “A.B., you gotta go down there and get the game-winner.” Seven completions, two timeouts, two clock-killing spikes, and here came that chance. Pittsburgh had no timeouts. They could either take two shots into the end zone, or one shot in the field of play knowing they’d have to spike it quickly, or run once and then spike it. Roethlisberger threw an incut to Brown, who caught it at the Baltimore one-and-a-half, nowhere near a sideline.
Brown weighs 186 pounds. Three Ravens, weighing 208 (safety Matt Elam), 200 (safety Eric Weddle) and 232 (linebacker Zach Orr), converged on Brown.
You watched and thought, No way he’s getting in. And why the heck did Roethlisberger throw it so shy of the goal line so Brown won’t be able to get out of bounds? This game could end!!!
“I knew I couldn’t stop my feet,” Brown said from the Steelers’ locker room after the game. “l knew it was going to be close, and I knew I could get in there, somehow. I had to get my pads down and use leverage.”
Elam bounced off Brown. Weddle arm-barred Brown by the neck and appeared to have a hold of Brown’s face mask. Weddle tried to almost rope-tie him backward. Brown’s spindly legs, as he said, got low and pushed and pushed, and here came Orr, ready to blast Brown.
“I got a great trainer,” Brown said. “We always train and prepare for situations like that. I was able to get my shoulders down on those guys.”
Because Weddle had Brown up high, Brown’s arms were free. With two hands, he gripped the ball hard and reached for the goal line. He couldn’t see it, but he knew he was close. “I had no thought I’d be short,” said Brown. “No way. I had to be smart, and strong, and reach, and get the ball over the goal line. I was thinking touchdown.”
Back to the JUGS machine, and the mugging assistant. The hands, the grip, the fight. This was 640 pounds of Raven against 186 pounds of Steeler. The ball pierced the plane of the goal line clearly, and Brown pulled it back in. He never lost control of the ball, and it was never in danger of getting punched away.
“I was just going to find a way …
“MERRY CHRISTMAS!” Brown got interrupted at his locker just then, and there was a cacophony of voices, and he was gone for a minute, and then …
People kept congratulating Brown. Rightfully so. And he was overwhelmed.
“Extremely emotional after a game like this,” he said. “I’m pretty much holding it in right now. But I’m emotional. What a way to win a game. I’m just so happy.”
Glee in Pittsburgh. Third seed in the AFC tournament. Ravens go home for the winter. Down the hall in Heinz Field, one of the toughest locker rooms Ravens observers had seen. “You could hear a pin drop,” one guy in there said. Another: “Most crushed locker room I’ve ever seen.” It makes for great theater but soul-crushing moments.
Pittsburgh, on the right day in January, will be a tough out for the best teams in the league. Baltimore could have been too. That’s Week 16 football. Exciting to watch. Great to win. Horrible to lose.
* * *
Wrapping up the rest of the weekend:
Playoff drama is over, except for a couple of things. The second and fifth AFC seeds (Oakland is two, as of today, and Kansas City is fifth) could flip. The NFC North will come down to game number 256—the Sunday night season finale on New Year’s Night, Green Bay at Detroit. More in a moment.
Derek Carr and the Raiders are heartbroken. Carr got knocked out of the Raiders-Colts game Saturday with a broken right fibula, and he’ll have surgery as early as today at a hospital in Los Angeles. It’s highly probable this legitimate MVP candidate on the stunning 12-3 Raiders is lost for the season, and that the Raiders will now go as far as backup Matt McGloin can take them. More in a bit from Carr in an emotional text message late Sunday night.
Merry Christmas, Cleveland. The Browns not only avoided the chance to go 0-16 with the 20-17 win over San Diego. They also moved closer to securing the top overall draft pick in 2017 by virtue of the 49ers breaking a 13-game losing streak with a win at Los Angeles. I plan to have a piece on the Browns on Wednesday at The MMQB; I just didn’t want to bury a good story with all the other impactful things happening this weekend.
The Super Bowl’s really going to be different this year. For the first time since 2003, neither Super Bowl team from the previous year will be in the playoffs the following year. Carolina and Denver were 27-5 in the regular season in 2015; this year they’re a combined 14-16. Denver’s lost three in a row by a combined 62-23, and Cam Newton’s the most inaccurate passer in football.
* * *
* * *
Here’s What We Know This Morning
The truths about the 12-team playoff field:
• The AFC has nothing to play for but seeding in Week 17. New England and the AFC West winner (Oakland or Kansas City) will get the first-round byes, with the Patriots clinching the top seed with a win or an Oakland loss next Sunday. Pittsburgh will be the third seed and Houston four. The second-place AFC West team is in line to be seeded fifth, while Miami makes its first playoff appearance in eight years. The Dolphins’ reward, likely, is a wild-card game in Pittsburgh. Miami could move into the fifth seed with a home win over the Patriots and a Chiefs loss.
• In the NFC, Dallas has locked up the top seed. A home win for Atlanta against the Saints will make the Falcons the second seed. Protection-challenged Seattle (20 sacks of Russell Wilson in the past five weeks) and the Packers-Lions winner round out the top four seeds. The Giants didn’t score 20 points in any December game and will be on the road on wild-card weekend. The sixth seed is a hodgepodge.
• Your AFC playoff quarterbacks: Tom Brady, Alex Smith, Ben Roethlisberger … and Tom Savage (Houston), Matt McGloin or Connor Cook (Oakland), and Matt Moore or Ryan Tannehill (Miami). If Oakland’s the fifth seed, you could have an NFL playoff game with McGloin and Savage starting at quarterback. Yikes.
• Seeds below two you don’t want to face in January: In the NFC, Green Bay (winners of five straight by an average of 13.2 points); in the AFC, Pittsburgh (only team in the playoffs with a top-five quarterback, running back and wideout).
• Likeliest wild-card matchups: Oakland at Houston and Miami at Pittsburgh in the AFC; Washington at Seattle and the Giants at Green Bay in the NFC.
* * *
Carr Fine For Future, But That’s No Consolation Now
I got this text from Derek Carr, the Raiders’ 25-year-old MVP candidate, Sunday night:
Although this situation is the toughest thing I've ever faced in my football career, it will not stop me from coming back stronger than ever. I left everything I had out there on that field for my God, family, brothers on that team, and Raider nation. I felt so much love in that stadium as I was hopping off the field, and that same love is what my team will feel from me going forward. We still have work to do as a team, and goals to obtain. Although I may not be throwing the ball right now, I will do whatever I have to do to help US win.
Carr got twisted awkwardly by Trent Cole of the Colts with 11 minutes left in Oakland’s 12th win of the season. He knew his leg was broken right away. He will have surgery early this week to repair the broken fibula, and recovery time for such injuries is usually six to eight weeks—but it’s useless to speculate on that until the surgery happens and the full scope of the damage is diagnosed. Six weeks from today is the day after Super Bowl LI. But it’s unlikely the Raiders could win two or three hold-the-fort playoff games and land in the Super Bowl without Carr, and very little chance he’d be able to play by then anyway.
Carr spent Sunday resting with his family on Christmas east of Oakland. His agent, Tim Younger, spent time with Carr on Sunday.
“I feel so much for that kid,” Younger said. “His first year, they started 0-10 and ended the year 3-13, and he really wanted to see this team totally turn it around to 13-3. He feels like he let everybody down.”
Of course he didn’t. But here’s what important now—getting Matt McGloin (probably) or Connor Cook ready to play and win in January. It’s a tough reality of football that in a split second the season can be ruined. That’s what coach Jack Del Rio has to fight against, starting today, as the Raiders prepare to play at Denver with the second seed in the conference on the line. It’s easy to say next man up. It’s harder think of the most important man on your team going down in the fourth quarter of Week 16 when you haven’t even been to the playoffs in forever.
* * *
Browns Can Get Their QB—If There Is One
Emily Kaplan of The MMQBhad a good profile of North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky the other day. If Trubisky decides to eschew his final year of eligibility—lots of scouts think he will—he’d likely be a top-10 pick. Sometimes the market just fits the player, and there’s no telling what the market will be the following year. But this year there’s some desperation to get a quarterback at the top of the draft. With a week to go before the draft order is finalized, the top three current teams all will be in the market for a quarterback, as will the Jets, who will pick somewhere around six.
Now, Trubisky played high school football at Mentor (Ohio) High, 24 miles east of the Browns’ field along the shore of Lake Erie. He’d clearly be a popular pick. And when he plays his bowl game on Friday—the Sun Bowl, against Stanford—you can be sure every team with half an eye on the 2017 quarterback market will be either in El Paso for the game or watching it.
But it’s early in the scouting process. The draft is 17-and-a-half weeks away. If anyone tells you they know whom Team X wants to pick, they’re crazy. They might have a feel; they might “love” a player. But without the full time to research players, there’s no way a team knows its draft order at the end of December—never mind without knowing if a player is even coming out.
The top 10 entering Week 17:
Opponent Win %
2. San Francisco
6. N.Y. Jets
7. San Diego
* Tennessee acquired this pick from Los Angeles via the Rams’ trade-up for Jared Goff.
^ Cleveland acquired this pick from the Eagles when Philadelphia traded up for Carson Wentz.
* * *
Not as Tough as MVP, But Try Picking Top Coach
I wrote about the MVP vote the other day, with Derek Carr, Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott, Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott as my top five after 14 games. Now, with Carr’s injury? I’ll stay the same now, but as I always say, these things change, and you should keep an open mind, and the gap between Carr and Ryan and the Dallas candidates is paper thin, and Brady is a very good candidate too … so we’ll see how it plays out, because it should be a 16-game award.
I see the coach of the year a bit more clearly … but still open. My top three:
1. Bill Belichick, New England. Why this year? New England went 12-4 in the regular season each year between 2012 and 2015. This season was significantly more challenging for the Patriots, and they’re 13-2 with a game to play. With the distraction of the Tom Brady melodrama, then going 3-1 with the second and third quarterbacks playing, then going 10-1 with Brady back, while dumping your two best defensive players (Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins) … I understand putting other coaches/coaches-plus-architects above Belichick, but I think this is one of the best seasons of a top three all-time coach.
2. Jack Del Rio, Oakland. What Del Rio had to do, inheriting a team after 4-12, 4-12 and 3-13 seasons, is fix the mindset and belief that this team couldn’t win. Some of that is nebulous, because you can’t tell how much is the coach and how much is the will of people like Derek Carr. What I know is that these players trust and believe in Del Rio, and they think he’s the man for a rebuilding job, because he trusts his players and lets them err as long as they’re erring with full effort. The Raiders will likely be either the second or fifth seed in the AFC tournament, and Del Rio’s a huge reason why.
3. Jason Garrett, Dallas. Hard to minimize the flat-line emotion that Garrett has provided in the midst of such a huge transition. He’s always had to walk the line between an owner who is very involved and a coaching staff trying to be independent and doing the best thing to win every week. But Garrett had to sign off on Ezekiel Elliott (which he did, gladly) and on Dak Prescott (ditto) in the draft. Then he coached them, and adjusted to life with Tony Romo, and made it all work. He’s an underrated coach for his approach and for, in a Steve Kerr kind of way, getting everyone on the same page when you’ve got a bunch of big egos to soothe.
The rest: 4. Adam Gase, Miami; 5. Dan Quinn, Atlanta; 6. Mike Mularkey, Tennessee; 7. Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay; 8. Mike McCarthy, Green Bay; 9. Jim Caldwell, Detroit; 10. Andy Reid, Kansas City.
* * *
Tom Brady Must Fight History to Win MVP
The Patriots quarterback is having the kind of year he could only have dreamed about when he was sitting out his four-game Deflategate ban in September. At age 39, Brady has the third-highest rating of his career (110.7) and a ridiculous 25-to-2 touchdown-to-interception differential, and the Patriots are 10-1 in games he’s started. Some football observers, like the esteemed Rich Eisen of NFL Network, have already declared the MVP race over, handing it to Brady.
But there might be something gnawing at the 50 voters in the annual NFL awards balloting for the Associated Press. Of the 61 players handed the game’s highest individual honor in the 59-year history of the MVP (there have been two ties for first, in 1997 and 2003), none has ever missed a quarter of his team’s games. The most missed games by an MVP: three, by Joe Montana in 1989. If Brady plays next Sunday against Miami, he will have missed four of his team’s 16 games this year.
In all, nine MVPs have missed at least one game in the year they won the award. The list:
What He Did
Joe Montana, 49ers
Led NFL with 70.2 percent completions, 112.4 rating
Larry Brown, Washington
Led NFL with 1,689 yards from scrimmage
Emmitt Smith, Cowboys
Won rushing title (1,486 yards) on dominant team
Marshall Faulk, Rams
Scored 26 TDs for Greatest Show on Turf
Steve McNair, Titans
His 100.4 passer rating led the league
Y.A. Tittle, Giants
At 37, led league with 36 TD passes, 104.8 rating
Joe Montana, 49ers
Dominant year while compiling 14-1 record
Thurman Thomas, Bills
Led NFL with 2,038 scrimmage yards in great offense
Aaron Rodgers, Packers
Set all-time record with 122.5 passer rating
Brady still could win it, certainly. Some will say he should, for playing so great at an advanced age on the unquestioned best team in the game. But he could be hurt by the Patriots going 3-1 without him (the word “valuable” is in the award, not “outstanding”) and the fact that other quarterbacks (Matt Ryan, Derek Carr, Dak Prescott) are having great years too—and are in position to play all 16 of their team’s games.
* * *
Quite a Few 2017 Schedule Highlights
As the standings begin to get set in stone, so do a few interesting scheduling nuggets for 2017:
• A rematch of a great Super Bowl. In Super Bowl 45 at the new Cowboys’ stadium in Arlington, Aaron Rodgers outlasted Ben Roethlisberger 31-25 in a great game highlighted by some big-time throws. Rodgers was hurt when the two sides played in 2013; Pittsburgh won that one at Lambeau 38-31. In 2017, they’ll meet at Heinz Field. One other note: One of the great games in recent NFL history happened in the only other Rodgers-Roethlisberger meeting at Heinz Field. In 2009, Roethlisberger threw for 503 yards in the Steelers’ 37-36 cliffhanger victory. What a bum Rodgers was that day. He threw for only 383, and three touchdowns.
• One versus two, 2016 edition. Carson Wentz and the Eagles play at Jared Goff and the Rams.
• An Oregon reunion. Marcus Mariota and the Titans will play at Chip Kelly and the Niners—assuming someone doesn’t do something stupid and whack Kelly as San Francisco coach.
• Tom Brady’s going to have some fun QB-vs.-QB games. Among their 10 games out of the division, the Patriots and 40-year-old quarterback Brady (he turns 40 next August) will host Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers in Foxboro next season. The Patriots will play at Oakland and Tampa Bay (second game for Brady against Derek Carr, first against Jameis Winston) and at Pittsburgh and New Orleans (Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees, obviously). Most of those matchups have national TV written all over them.
* * *
One Good Deed You Could Do Today
Last night on “Football Night in America,” when I’m sure no one was watching the fourth quarter of one of the games of the year—the Baltimore-Pittsburgh seesaw—I had a story on the NBC pregame show about Sam Wyche. He’s the former Bengals and Bucs coach who was on the verge of dying before having a heart transplant in September. The video can be seen here:
I hope you’ll watch it. It’s a good Christmas story, and the kind of story that I hope can spur organ donation.
* * *
Quotes of the Week
“He’s really a great cheerleader guy. I don’t know what he does, but I don’t think that he’s a great coach at all.”
—FOX’s Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback, on Mike Tomlin, appearing on FS1’s “Speak For Yourself.”
This is weird. Does Bradshaw know how the Steelers’ coaching works internally? Does he know how Tomlin deals with Todd Haley and Keith Butler, his coordinators? Why say that?
“My wife got me a miter saw at Home Depot. I'm hoping to use that tomorrow and have some fun.”
—Tom Savage, the Texans quarterback, to Stacey Dales of NFL Network after Houston beat the Bengals 12-10 on Christmas Eve. A miter saw is an electric saw used to make fancy cuts on wood.
“I will never play anywhere else.”
—Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald, to reporter Mark McClune of CBS TV in Arizona, via Pro Football Talk.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
—Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford, on why he wasn’t selected to the Pro Bowl, and his feelings about it.
Quarterbacks, especially, have been inventing severe hangnail injuries forever to get out of the Pro Bowl. So good for Stafford for being honest about it.
“I was of course fearful and knew of the danger if the gunman turned toward me. But I advanced a little and photographed the man as he hectored his desperate, captive audience … This is what I was thinking: ‘Even if I get hit and injured, or killed, I’m a journalist. I have to do my work.”
—Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici, who photographed the brazen murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey by a Turkish police officer. Ozbilici’s explanation of what it means to be a journalist in the face of extreme threat to his personal safety was at the same time chilling and brave and, to journalists, heartwarming.
* * *
The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
I could pick about nine quarterbacks here—particularly Matt Ryan or Blake Bortles (what took you so long?)—and I could pick Joe Thomas of the finally victorious Browns, but there are four outstanding offensive guys, in my book:
Jay Ajayi, running back, Miami. What a revelation Ajayi has been. Inactive in Week 1 and unknown until October, Ajayi has had three 200-yard rushing games—two against Buffalo, including his huge game Saturday. His 57-yard run in overtime set up the winning field goal in the 34-31 victory in Orchard Park. Look at his season versus the Bills, who have fallen apart this year against the run:
• Oct. 23, 28 carries, 214 yards, 7.6 ypc, 1 TD
• Dec. 24, 32 carries, 206 yards, 6.4 ypc, 1 TD
David Johnson, running back, Arizona.No back in history has had more than 100 scrimmage yards in every game of a 16-game season, but entering the final game Sunday, Johnson has that shot. The 34-31 upset of Seattle featured another tremendous game from Johnson: 32 touches, 136 total yards, three rushing touchdowns. His amazing 2016 numbers including these through the air: 77 catches, 841 yards. Johnson’s in the top five in rushing and in the top 35 in both catches and receiving yards. That’s one good all-around back. And he blocks.
Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay. Career in crisis? Calf injury? Questionable? Throw it all out the window. Look at his last touchdown of the first half in the rout of Minnesota. Rodgers examined covered receivers, nimbly spun away from career tormentor Everson Griffen, ran toward the goal line, juked starry corner Xavier Rhodes and left him on the ground, and scored on a six-yard TD scramble—and then Lambeau-leapt into the first row of seats. Does an injured guy with no confidence make a play like that, and does a quarterback in crisis throw for three touchdowns and 268 yards in the first half? Against anyone? Rodgers is all the way back, and you do not want to play him in January. Last six games: 14 touchdown passes, zero interceptions.
Adam Thielen, wide receiver, Minnesota.Watch the tape of Thielen’s catches against Green Bay. He made a Cris Carter-quality boundary catch, with two toenails scraping the ground next to the white stripe as he fell to earth out of bounds. He double-moved a Packers corner and made a cake 71-yard TD catch-and-run from Sam Bradford. He made a diving catch on the Lambeau tundra. Facing a second-half sandwich he knew was coming the moment he caught the ball, he twisted his torso to make an unlikely catch. Of all the disappointing things about this awful Vikings stretch, Thielen’s the opposite. For the day, he had 12 catches for 202 yards and two touchdowns. It’s one of the best performances by a receiver in the NFL this year.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Jalen Ramsey, cornerback, Jacksonville. With the Titans down 14 and 5:30 to play and scrambling to rally to save their playoff hopes, backup quarterback Matt Cassel threw a pass to his right that Ramsey made an athletic move and fingertip catch to nab. A great catch, and his 30-yard return for touchdown put the game out of reach. One of Ramsey’s question marks coming into the NFL was his paucity of interceptions in college. But with sneaky picks like that, and with the smooth transformation he’s made to cover corner, Ramsey has answered those questions with strong play.
Khalil Mack, outside linebacker, Oakland. Probably the best sackless game of his three-year career. Pro Football Focushad him with nine quarterback hits or hurries of Andrew Luck in the 33-25 win over Indy. It’s clear now that if the Raiders are going to win in January, they’ll need Mack and his defensive mates to play at this level in playoff games, so the offense doesn’t have to be reliant on the cold Matt McGloin to stand out.
Malcolm Jenkins, safety, Philadelphia. Turned in an All-Pro performance Thursday night in keeping the Giants from clinching a playoff spot. Jenkins picked off Eli Manning and ran it in (his sixth career TD on an interception return) in the first quarter, giving the Eagles a 14-0 lead. Then Jenkins made it two with the Giants driving for the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. He added six tackles and another pass defensed. At 29, Jenkins looks primed for another two or three good years.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Andrew Franks, kicker, Miami.A career-long 55-yard field goal to tie the game with six seconds left in regulation. A 27-yard field goal to win it with 47 seconds left in overtime. Two clutch kicks to help one of the surprise teams in the NFL win its 10th game of the year.
Jamie Meder, defensive lineman, Cleveland. Has there been a more timely blocked kick in recent Browns history? Heretofore winless Cleveland, leading 20-17 with 3:49 to play, lined up to try to block a 32-yard field goal by San Diego’s Josh Lambo. Meder, playing over San Diego snapper Mike Windt, blew past Windt on the snap of the ball, and San Diego right guard Kenny Wiggins failed to get a block on Meder as he slithered through the center-guard gap. As Lambo booted it, Meder stuck his big right paw toward the sky. The ball struck it dead center and died at the Browns’ 22. Huge play by Meder, a free agent from Ashland (Ohio) College by way of the Cleveland suburb of Parma, signed first by the Ravens and now a hard-trying mainstay for the new Browns. I watched a good deal of this game, and Meder chased Philip Rivers at least three times, getting him off his spot and affecting his throws.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Hue Jackson, head coach, Cleveland. As the Browns careened toward a winless season, Jackson pushed the right buttons to avoid going 0-15. Jackson’s a pragmatist; he knew the Browns would have an extremely difficult time winning at Pittsburgh in Week 17. The San Diego game in Week 16, at home, would be the last time this team would be together, and it would be a much more winnable game. Jackson emphasized much of that to his team several times during the week. As the locals have seen all season, the Browns played hard and made a play when it counted at the end—the Jamie Meder blocked field goal—to reinforce what Jackson has been teaching this team.
GOAT OF THE WEEK
Randy Bullock, kicker, Cincinnati. The Texans finally got some return for investment on their fifth-round pick in 2012. They drafted Bullock to be their long-term kicker, but he was just 80.3 percent on field goals for Houston in three-plus years and was cut during the 2015 season. Four teams later, Bullock found himself back in Houston on Saturday night, his new team, Cincinnati, down 12-10, with a 43-yard field-goal chance as time was about to expire. Bullock lined up, stopped-and-started, and drilled the kick wide right. Which handed Houston the AFC South title. “Incredibly disappointing,” Bullock said. Not to all of Houston.
* * *
Right Combination of the Week
Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback, and Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh. What, really, is a good combination? The right combination? It’s two guys who have played together for a while—since 2010, in this case. In the past three years, they’ve become particularly symphonic. Brown has caught 129, 136 and 106 passes, respectively, in the last three seasons, and that total of 371 receptions in three years is the most in the league. “I trust him, and he trusts me,” Brown told me in training camp this summer, and that showed in his nine-catch second half in the division-clinching win over the Ravens. He and Roethlisberger—perfect together. They’re the best quarterback-wideout combination in football today.
* * *
Stat of the Week
Entering the weekend, there’d been 62 games played in the regular season for every team in the league since 2013. That’s going to be the career total for Gus Bradley, most likely. Comparing his 62-game mark with another NFL coach’s record since 2013:
Other than games against the Rams, San Francisco has lost 16 in a row.
* * *
Factoid That May Interest Only Me
Early in my career covering the NFL, I asked Giants coach Bill Parcells why he and GM George Young churned the bottom of the roster so much. Parcells said the guys on the bottom of the roster would either win a game for you at some point of the season or lose a game for you.
Those guys lost one for San Diego on Saturday. And one of the churnees—who has played better than that since the Browns claimed him off waivers from Baltimore—won it for Cleveland.
The involved parties:
• Long-snapper Mike Windt, San Diego. Second NFL team. Undrafted in 2010; waived once.
• Guard Kenny Wiggins, San Diego. Third NFL team. Undrafted in 2011; waived six times.
• Kicker Josh Lambo, San Diego. First NFL team. Undrafted in 2015. Signed by San Diego as free-agent.
• Defensive lineman Jamie Meder, Cleveland. Second NFL team. Undrafted in 2014; waived twice.
Meder broke through the gap between Windt and Wiggins to block Lambo’s kick and preserve Cleveland’s 20-17 lead late in the fourth quarter.
The best roster architects are the ones who never rest about the guys at the bottom of the roster.
When I pick up USA Today, I love to scan the state-by-state news briefs, with items each day from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This was the entry for Maine last Thursday:
Augusta: An ordained Pagan priest has won permission in Maine to wear goat horns in his driver’s license photo. Phelan Moonsong says the horns serve as his spiritual antennae.
* * *
Tweets of the Week
Dontari Poe, the Chiefs’ 346-pound defensive tackle, threw a touchdown on a jump pass Sunday night.
Green Bay at Detroit was flexed into the Sunday Night Football slot, with the winner taking the NFC North crown.
That’s the inimitable Bill James, on the new Noll book, “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work.”
So glad this tremendous book, on the historic NFL figure so relatively unknown until now, is getting the love it deserves.
* * *
From “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts.
This week’s guest: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
• Jones, on Michael Irvin’s early take on Dak Prescott: “When we lost [Tony] Romo, there was huge pressure to immediately make a trade to go get a veteran quarterback. Huge pressure. And we ended up with Mark Sanchez, but that was after the season started. What we wanted to do, though, and this was a very conscious effort, we had seen just enough of [Prescott] on campus, that we wanted to see him take the reins in preseason. So he stepped in as the starting quarterback with our first group, stepped in against the Rams in the L.A. Coliseum, completely sold out, 85,000, 90,000 people. I’ll never forget this. I am sitting with Michael Irvin watching Dak, and he throws a back shoulder to Dez [Bryant], and makes a touchdown his first drive. He takes it right down the field against the Rams. I punch Michael and I say, ‘Did you just see that kid? Look at the way he took that team down and made it.’ He said, ‘Well, I might have missed that.’ And I said, ‘What are you looking at?’ And he said, ‘I’m looking at every one of the players. If they are not out on the field, they are on the white [sideline] and every one of them is hanging on every move he is making. He’s inspired the whole team.’ He said, ‘You know, Jerry, it takes more than one guy to inspire the whole team. This guy is inspirational.’”
• Jones, on Tony Romo’s only public statement since coming back, ceding the job to Prescott: “He didn’t talk to me about it or anybody about it, and he goes out and makes that statement. He doesn’t talk to anybody, calls his own meeting, doesn’t talk to our PR guy about content in any way. He steps up and says what he said from the heart.”
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Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think these are my quick notes of analysis from Week 16:
a. Darren Sproles is a marvel, a career underrated field-tilter.
b. The Steelers’ Christmas Day uniforms—all black but for marigold numbers and names and pant stripes—are the best uniforms in the NFL this year.
c. If you’re a Vikings fan, and you’re bitterly disappointed about being 2-8 since your 5-0 start, and 34-6 and 38-25 losses the last two weeks, you should be. And you should be ticked off about defensive players who think they know more about the scheme than Mike Zimmer.
d. That’s 23 touchdowns in four Tennessee seasons for tight end Delanie Walker. In what has been mostly a bad offense since he arrived in 2013, that’s pretty darned good. For reference, Martellus Bennett has 20 in that same time span.
e. David Johnson, Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott … it’s a golden year for the versatile running back.
f. Le’Veon Bell picks the hole and practices patience better than any other back in years.
g. Great call by Chip Kelly, down one and going for two with 31 seconds left in a game that meant absolutely nothing except for this: showing your players that despite 13 straight losses the coach still has faith they can make a play to win.
h. After watching 2014 Baltimore undrafted free agent Zach Orr make plays week after week all season and become indispensable, hats off to the Ravens’ scouting staff. They know how to find inside ’backers for free (see Bart Scott, Jameel McClain).
i. Steelers kicker Chris Boswell twice kicking the ball out of bounds, handing the Ravens the ball at the 40 two times in a division championship game is … well, about the worst thing a kicker can do.
j. I’ve said it before and will say it again: Tyreek Hill could be the difference in the AFC playoffs, and his 70-yard touchdown sprint in the K.C. win over Denver is just one more example.
2. I think if I’m the Rams, I’m looking into Sean Payton thoroughly. This is the year, I believe, that Payton can be had from the Saints. He needs a new challenge. A coach as good as he is, with a quarterback as good as Drew Brees, should not be 38-40 in the past five regular seasons. And the Rams need a coach who will make it uncomfortable to lose. Payton has some Bill Parcells in him—a lot, in fact—and does not suffer player-fools. And the Rams need someone who knows how to coach a young quarterback. Not saying they should sell out for Payton—just saying the Rams should look into him and see if he’s a good fit.
3. I think, sometimes, things just run their course. Payton’s run his course in New Orleans. Nothing wrong with that; Parcells ran his course in New York, and New England, and then with the Jets. Eleven years in football coaching is an eternity. The Saints might benefit with a new voice. Maybe Dennis Allen, who’s done a good job with a defense that has a lot of holes. Payton has time left on his contract, and so it would require draft-choice compensation … but not a first-rounder. (Which is good, since Los Angeles doesn’t have one, with Tennessee getting it after the trade-up-for-Goff deal.) It’s a deal I’d be interested in from both sides.
4. I think I wasn’t sure about this until quite recently, and I’m not positive it’ll happen. But the Chargers’ coaching job is in play. Mike McCoy is endangered entering the final week of the season.
5. I think if the Chargers move to Los Angeles for the 2017 season—which is increasingly very likely—my money is on them playing at the StubHub Center (formerly Home Depot Center) in the southern L.A. suburb of Carson. Capacity: 27,000. Now that’d be interesting for two years. The Chargers are serious about making that home for two years, in part because they know they’re not going to fill the cavernous Coliseum, in part because they’d like to develop a fandom that would love to see NFL games up close and personal.
6. I think the Chargers are still open to local entreaties to stay in San Diego, but three interesting things about the odds they’d face in getting a new stadium either downtown or by refurbishing Qualcomm Stadium:
• Architects have not studied this with finality, but it could cost as much as $300 million to retrofit Qualcomm to today’s standards to withstand earthquakes.
• The Chargers spent $10 million on ads and promotions before the November vote in San Diego on a new hotel/motel tax that would not cost local citizenry any tax money unless they stayed in local hotels. The opposition to the Chargers’ vote spent $200,000. The Chargers needed 67 percent of the vote for the measure to pass. They got 43 percent. In other words, the organization has zero confidence that it could win any public referendum for a new stadium.
• Let’s say Dean Spanos moves to Los Angeles, and let’s say (as I believe will happen) he struggles mightily to get a fan base there. The Steve Ballmer purchase of the Clippers for $2 billion tells me if an NFL franchise in Los Angeles ever was for sale, the Spanos family would make a killing. I’m not saying Dean Spanos would move to Los Angeles with the intent in his mind it’s going to fail and he’ll sell for $3.5 billion in 2021 … but that’s got to be a nice little safety-net thought in his head when he goes to bed at night.
7. I think it’s always smart to remember at this time of year (a week from today is BLACK MONDAY WITH ALL THE NEWS ABOUT COACH FIRINGS COMING RIGHT UP!!!) that coaches have lives, and with the firing of each coach comes the firing of 18 to 22 other coaches and their families as well. It’s the lives they bought into, and they lives they love—except for times like this. I asked former defensive end Austen Lane, who wrote for The MMQBin 2013 on the experience of being fired by the Jaguars, to tell me his thoughts on Gus Bradley. I find Bradley to be one of the most sincere and earnest and nicest people I’ve met in this business—among coaches, players, team officials, whoever. This comes from Lane:
“The moment I knew Coach Bradley was a man of integrity and high character was the day I found out I was getting released by the Jaguars. Every head coach handles the process of cutting a player differently. Some coaches will give you a generic, We’re going in a different direction, with a handshake and an exit-stage-left, while some coaches won’t even meet with a player or provide an explanation. Coach Bradley walked with me into the general manager’s office and sat in a chair right next to me as it was announced I would be let go. It was almost like he wanted to be there to help absorb the gut shot I received. After meeting with the GM, Dave Caldwell, Coach Bradley invited me to his office to meet with him one-on-one. There wasn’t any generic phrase or rushed handshake to get me out. You could tell he genuinely cared about my well-being and made every effort in reminding me that if I ever needed anything, to give him a call. All this coming from a guy I only knew for three weeks.”
8. I think the 49ers are going to throw someone overboard after the season, and GM Trent Baalke is the most logical choice. Baalke is a good football man, but I’ve heard his job is in grave danger. Going 7-24 post-Jim Harbaugh is not a ringing endorsement for his future. Even if the Niners do make a change, they’d better figure out a way to fix the quarterback. And soon.
9. I think it’s amazing, and a sign of how fast things change in the NFL, that of the four teams in California, three will likely change a coach or GM this offseason—and the only stable team will be Oakland.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. The more I read about Matthew and Kelly Stafford, the more there is to like. (Thanks, Kyle Meinke.)
b. Holiday story of the week: Meet the man we bought our Christmas Tree from for five years, until moving this summer. A sweetheart of a man, that Gilles Berube.
c. Totally bizarre to me that Edwin Encarnacion, who hits 37 homers and knocks in 118 in a bad year, waited until Dec. 22 to get a job. He signed with Cleveland on Thursday. He’s a power-hitting metronome. Silly to say that at $20 million a year he’s a bargain, but in this environment that’s a very good deal for Cleveland.
d. Coffeenerdness: The only thing good about the end of the holiday season, at least for me? Starbucks won’t have all these weird drinks to learn, and the baristas can go back to making lattes and macchiatos the right way. Man, are they messing those drinks up lately.
e. Beernerdness: Great decision for the new year by the Milwaukee Brewers, adding a new craft beer area with all Wisconsin brews. A couple of weeks ago in Green Bay, brewer Bill Tresser of Hinterland described the seasonal Cherry Wheat beer that’s become hugely popular in the Hinterland lineup, with the tart cherries from a farm in northern Wisconsin … and let’s just say there might be a detour to a Brewers game in my 2017 future.
f. Whoa. Wait. How’d I miss the Columbus Blue Jackets being the best team in hockey at the Christmas break?
g. Football Story of the Week: Our Jenny Vrentas with a really good read on the Ravens-Steelers rivalry, which, judging by last night’s game, is a story you simply must read if you have not.
h. Found a couple good books under the tree Sunday: Joe Buck’s Lucky Bastard: My Life, My Dad and the Things I’m Not Allowed To Say on TV and Alexandra Zapruder’s 26 Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film. Looking forward to reading both.
i. RIP, George Michael. What a year for great performers leaving the planet.
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Who I Like Tonight
Dallas 24, Detroit 20. Entering Week 15, I thought I’d pick Detroit to win this game. Why? Desperate teams usually win in the NFL, when all else is close to equal. Detroit’s a good team, and had a desperate game in the Meadowlands last weekend … and came up totally flat, the opposite of what the Lions had been all season. So now I’ve changed—now I think the Packers are going to be able to run the table and win at Ford Field next week and win the NFC North. One other point about this game: It ends one of the biggest Dallas-as-America’s-Team months in their storied history. To explain, look at each one of the Cowboys’ four December games:
NFLN, NBC, Twitter
Each one of the Cowboys’ December games (Weeks 13 through 16) was televised in prime time—with the four on a combination of the three prime-time outlets plus the web outlet, Twitter.
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The Adieu Haiku
NFL. Which means:
Not For Long. Just ask Denver.
Elway loses sleep.
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