Quickly

  • An unbelievable ending to New England-Pittsburgh introduces the term ‘survive the ground’ into NFL culture and gives the Pats a leg up in the AFC home-field race
  • Other sections include: Jerry Richardson’s downfall; the Jags’ playoff clincher; the Bill O’Brien-Rick Smith situation; Week 15 awards, quotes, stats, notes and more
By Peter King
December 18, 2017

PITTSBURGH — “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” was the plaintive wail out of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s mouth, captured by a CBS camera when the Patriots drove their annual stake through this franchise’s heart on Sunday night.

I can just imagine the same kind of emotion, at just about the same time, 450 miles south, in Charlotte. Twenty-eight minutes after the end of Patriots 27, Steelers 24, in a statement that reverberated from the Carolinas to the NFL’s Park Avenue offices, the founder and owner of the Carolina Panthers announced in a blithe statement that he would be selling the team. Probably the best move. Jerry Richardson, a cornerstone of the league since being awarded an expansion team for the Carolinas in 1993, would likely have been forced out in this #MeToo American climate anyway after a damning Sports Illustrated investigation accused him of sordid sexual fetishes and payoffs to employees in the organization who had been the alleged victims of Richardson’s workplace misconduct.

Much more about that later. But one little nugget before we get back to this crazy game, and these crazy plays at the end of the game: It is not certain—at all—that the league will rest and drop the investigation into Richardson. Given the seriousness of the allegations, that’s wise.

There is no logical segue from one of the most powerful men in pro football, in apparent shame, suddenly putting his team on the market to one of the most dramatic games in years. So we’ll just start with a dreary, great, dramatic, heartbreaking, the-fix-was-in, what-is-a-catch, receiver-did-not-survive-the-ground, wonderful, inspirational afternoon at the confluence of the Three Rivers.

“That was quite a football game,” Bill Belichick said.


Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Tom Brady came out of the tunnel a man possessed, waving his arms, pumping his fist, getting the crap booed out of him by the Terrible Towelers. “I knew he was going to have a great game,” backup quarterback Brian Hoyer said. “I saw all week how much he wanted this game.”

You want to know why Tom Brady goes to bed at 8:30 and doesn’t eat sugar and has avocado ice cream and treats his body so reverentially? For days like this. Buttoning his blue checked shirt after the game at his locker, he smiled just thinking about it. “Such a great place to play … football at its best,” Brady told me. “The crowd supports their team so much, which is fantastic, but the other side is, they give us so much too. We feed off it.”

Pittsburgh 11-2, New England 10-3. Winner likely to get home-field in the AFC. But with 10-4 Jacksonville lurking, the loser could end up without a week off to start the playoffs. And there was more. The Steelers had a four-game losing streak against New England, and were just 3-10 against the Pats in the Belichick era. “We’ve got to prove they don’t have our number,” said Steelers fan Phil Gennaro, an insurance adjustor on his third IC Light at Tequila Cowboy, a bar in the shadow of Heinz Field, Saturday night. “This game’s bigger for us than for them.”

This is what football here is like: Gennaro baptized a Giants fan into Steelerness two hours before the game in Gold Lot 1B outside the stadium. Before sprinkling IC Light in ex-Giants fan Carlos Jamison’s hair as if it were holy water, Gennaro read The Steelers Prayer, which began:

Dear Father
Art Rooney in Heaven,
Heinz Field be thy name
Thy Kingdowm come and six Super Bowls won
on Earth right here in Pittsburgh

And so forth. That’s the kind of place this is. That might explain the fervor. Slightly.

NFL
Who Called for the Fake Spike, and Who Knew It Was Coming?

And there was more. Secretly, the Steelers had ferried fallen linebacker Ryan Shazier to the stadium by hospital vehicle just before the game, and positioned him in a private suite. Thirteen days earlier, Shazier suffered a spinal injury at Cincinnati, and after one spinal surgery, his prognosis is uncertain. A few moments before kickoff, the stadium camera panned to Shazier waving to the crowd. Pandemonium ensued. Eight, 10, 15 seconds. It sounded like there were six jet engines inside the stadium.

“Electrifying,” said New England safety Duron Harmon. “We were excited to see him, because it’s letting us know he’s making progress, and that’s what we’ve been praying for.”

And the crowd? Harmon: “It’s the stadium where, as a kid, you dream about playing big games on the road, and having everybody in the stadium against you. That's the kind of game you want to play in and dream to play in.”

The Patriots chased all day. There was this feel in the stadium, with New England so beat up on the offensive line and coming off a Monday night loss in Miami and traveling here, and the Steelers making Brady’s pocket dirty all day, and Pittsburgh up 24-16 late, and Bud Dupree sacking Brady to make it fourth-and-17 with four minutes left and forcing the Patriots to kick the field goal … well, the feeling was this was the end of New England rolling over Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh 24, New England 19. You saw what happened next. On the ensuing drive, on third-and-four, the Patriots stoned JuJu Smith-Schuster four feet away from a first down. Pittsburgh punted. The Patriots drove 77 yards in 70 seconds, capping it with a Dion Lewis eight-yard touchdown run and Brady conversion pass to Rob Gronkowski. Who, by the way, is really good. You may have noticed on this drive a Brady obsession with Gronkowski. Five plays on the drive. Four passes to Gronkowski, three of them complete for a total of 69 yards. And the two-point conversion pass to Gronkowski too. What happened? At first blush, the Steelers, a zone coverage team predominantly, for some reason decided to play man on this entire series. Mostly, it was safety Sean Davis playing Gronkowski man to man. Davis is 6'1", 202. Gronk: 6'6", 265. At one point you could see Davis looking over to the sideline as if to say, Do you have any plan to help me whatsoever? The cavalry never came. 

NFL
Breaking Down the Final Plays of the Crazy Patriots-Steelers Ending

New England 27, Pittsburgh 24. Fifty-two seconds left. Ben Roethlisberger to Smith-Schuster for 69 yards up the left sideline, to the New England 10. Thirty-four seconds left. Ballgame, it seemed.

Roethlisberger, on the next play, found tight end Jesse James at the Patriots two. James caught it, pirouetted, lunged and reached over the goal line. Both officials on either side of the goal line ruled touchdown. The noise. The noise, noise, noise.

End of the schneid. Brady, on the other sideline, forlorn. Steelers rejoicing, on the sideline and in the stands. There is the cursory review, as there is for every touchdown …

“This is gonna stand,” said Tony Romo on CBS.

“There is no doubt it is going to hold up,” said Jim Nantz.

Time went by. Ten, 25, 30 seconds. Replay after replay after replay on CBS. Steelers on the sideline not rejoicing anymore, but wondering why this is taking so long.

“Does he maintain control?” Romo said after the ball appeared to hit the ground and move on the James lunge. “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, this could go either way.” Nantz saw the same thing. Now what would Tony Corrente, turning on his mic to be heard in the suddenly quiet stadium.

“The receiver in the end zone did not survive the ground,” Corrente said, using an inside-officiating phrase. “It’s an incomplete pass.”

How huge a play this was. Did James catch the ball and make a football move and cross the plane of the goal line with the ball? Or, like Dez Bryant, did he fall to the ground with apparent possession and have the ball jostled perceptibly by the ground, thus negating the catch? It is ridiculously close. But by the letter of the law, Corrente probably did the right thing.

“I can’t comment on Dez Bryant,” Corrente told a pool reporter, “I can only tell you that in this case, he went to the ground and had lost control of the ball. The ball hit the ground, and that means at that point it’s an incomplete pass whether he was touched or not.”

Said a glum James, “I thought it was a touchdown for sure.” 

Said Roethlisberger, “The rule is you must possess it all the way through.”

Said Tomlin, “I’m not going to cry over spilled milk.”

NFL
Steelers Have Hearts Shattered Twice in Game of the Year, Russell Wilson Finally Gets Overwhelmed, Rodgers’ Sour Return, Foles Does Just Enough

So no touchdown. Second and goal from the 10. Twenty-eight seconds left. Roethlisberger on a crossing route to Darrius Heyward-Bey—the same route injured megastar Antonio Brown probably would have run, but he was in a nearby hospital getting his lower leg examined after a first-half injury. (It was later reported he had a partially torn calf muscle and would be out until the playoffs.) Gain of three for Heyward-Bey, who could not get out of bounds.

Clock running. No timeouts. :20 … :19 … Roethlisberger hustling to the line, making the “spike it” gesture with his right hand. “We thought they’d spike it,’’ said Harmon. “We were ready for it.”

:18 … :17 … :16 … “I was yelling ‘Clock it!’” Roethlisberger said. “And it came from the sideline: ‘Don’t clock it, don’t clock it.’”

:15 … :14 … :13 … The Steelers lined up, wideout Eli Rogers wide right, set to be Roethlisberger’s target two yards deep in the end zone.

:12 … :11 … :10 … :09 Snap. Roethlisberger faked a clock-it at the line, then began looking for Rogers, trailed by big Patriots cornerback Eric Rowe. The throw was on target. Rowe used all of his 73 inches to lunge over Rogers’ shoulder and bat the ball away … and into teammate Harmon’s hands.

Steelers win, Steelers get overturned, Steelers have a slightly open guy in the end zone for a second win, Roethlisberger throws. Picked. Steelers lose. Patriots win. So fast, so cruel. So impactful.

Thanks to one overturned touchdown and the most vital NFL goal-line interception since Malcolm Butler, the likely AFC playoff scenario went from: 1. Pittsburgh; 2. New England … to 1. New England; 2. Pittsburgh.

Will form hold in the last two weeks? It never does. All anyone in this heartsick city knows this morning is that the Grinch came early this year. And the Steelers still have a Patriots problem.


#MeToo, NFL

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In a week, the NFL went from bystander in America’s sexual-harassment awakening to the front row. Current and former NFL Network employees, three with Super Bowl rings, were accused by a 10-year wardrobe stylist for the network of overt harassment, including a claim that Marshall Faulk exposed his genitals and demanded oral sex. Faulk, Ike Taylor and Heath Evans were suspended by the network, and former NFLN personalities Eric Davis and Donovan McNabb were suspended by ESPN, their current employer. And on Sunday, in a damning Sports Illustrated exposé, Jon Wertheim and Viv Bernstein reported that at least four former employees of the Carolina Panthers received settlement payments because of the workplace conduct of owner Jerry Richardson, including asking women if they would massage his feet and if he could shave their legs.

When Richardson stunned the league seven hours after the SI report by saying he would move to sell the team after the season, the prevailing sentiment in some corners of the NFL was Richardson was trying to beat the posse out of town. If he said he’d sell, the theory went, the league would not sic the investigative dogs on the 81-year-old sports fixture of the Carolinas. Richardson should not assume this, and, in fact, the league needs to make sure it investigates all of its employees and owners equally for this.

NFL
Jerry Richardson’s Tarnished Legacy: Under a Cloud, Selling the Team That Made Him an Icon

Why shouldn’t the league let Richardson walk into a quiet retirement? Simple. If a very rich and powerful man abuses his position of authority and power by taking advantage of the women who work for him, why should he get off scot-free just by choosing the easy path of selling the team a few years before it was to have been sold anyway? If he acted inappropriately while an NFL owner, Richardson should take the punishment an owner would have coming … even if that punishment comes after he sells.

I emphasize the word “if,” because Richardson should have the chance to defend himself. Maybe he’ll choose to do so; maybe he won’t. But when the top echelon of NFL officials meets in New York today to plot the league’s course on Richardson, the message should come back thusly: We have to seek the truth on one of our own. How can players trust the league to investigate players if it drops the ball on serious charges against one of its owners?

A flurry of other tributary issues on the week #MeToo hit the NFL:

• I don’t expect this to lead to the Panthers being candidates to move. Though the team has a short-term lease at Bank of America Stadium and there isn’t one obvious candidate to spend more than $1.5 billion to buy the team, it’s unlikely the business community—led by the gigantic banking concern Bank of America—will let the sporting crown jewel of the region leave town. I spoke to one prominent former Panthers employee who said it’s most likely BoA officials will find a group of people to buy the team and ensure that it stays in Charlotte.

• Richardson likely couldn’t have stayed as owner of the team even if he wanted. The Southern ethos Richardson imbued in his company, and the outwardly gentlemanly and formal way he ran his team, fits with the corporate and civic community in the Carolinas. The former Panthers employee said he wouldn’t have been surprised if Richardson stayed if, for instance, Bank of America would have fought to take its corporate name off the stadium. No corporate community likes scandal, obviously, and particularly no corporate community in the South. Richardson would have a difficult time continuing as the major impact player in the Carolinas sports scene with a whiff of scandal on him.

• Other owners, executives and likely even players will have microscopes on them now. As with the Hollywood scandal that began with Harvey Weinstein and quickly ensnared others, I don’t doubt that if there are some in the shadows in NFL circles who felt victimized, they could come out after seeing the results of the NFL Network and Richardson sagas.

Richardson has been mostly out of sight as an owner since losing a somewhat bitter battle over the NFL’s Los Angeles market. He wanted the Raiders and Chargers to combine forces and build a stadium in suburban Carson and play there; an uprising of other owners won the day and the Chargers joined the Rams’ downtown L.A. project while the Raiders prepared to move to Las Vegas. Formerly, Richardson was one of the most influential owners in the league. His influence and interest simply waned.

NFL
Will Jerry Richardson Avoid the NFL Investigation by Selling the Panthers? Not Quite

His legacy will take time to fathom. Pro football in the Carolinas may have come eventually, but Richardson was overwhelmingly the driver. No owner took more pride in his region, his stadium, his team. That should not be forgotten. He was so proud of his native area that, when building his prize stadium in Charlotte in the ’90s, Richardson directed a horticulturalist to plant flowers and flora on the north of the stadium that were indigenous to North Carolina, while planting similar flora native to South Carolina on the south side of the stadium. Panthers offices were always such a formal place when I visited that I was surprised to read in the SI story about “Jeans Day.” But as with so many of these 2017 stories, there are lots of surprises beneath the surface.


Jacksonville on Verge of First Division Title This Century

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The Jags, with coach Tom Coughlin, won the 1999 AFC Central title (that is not a misprint) and crushed the Dolphins 62-7 in the playoffs in Dan Marino’s last NFL game.

The 2017 Jags, with executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin, are 10-4, have clinched their first playoff spot in 10 years, have a magic number of one to win the AFC South title, and could have the chance to beat two other greats, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, in the AFC playoffs.

What’s most amazing about this Jaguars team is the rise of Blake Bortles. Three months ago, Jags fans were bemoaning the fact that the team exercised its 2018 fifth-year option on the crushingly disappointing quarterback, the third pick of the 2014 draft. Two months ago, before the trading deadline, some fans dreamed of a deal for Eli Manning to push the stagnant passing game to proficiency. This month, Bortles is playing the best football—far and away—of his four-year NFL career. Maybe it’s so good that the Jags won’t look for a quarterback in 2018.

“I think all Blake needed to do was play his game and not put any pressure on himself,” longtime Jacksonville tight end Marcedes Lewis told me after Sunday’s 45-7 rout of the Texans. “He knows the defense is so good he doesn’t have to carry us. He just has to play his game.”

In Jacksonville’s first three games of a bad December last year, the Jags averaged 15 points a game. The Jags are averaging 35 a game in the first three games this December. Bortles hasn’t thrown an interception this month. He looks more decisive and definitely is throwing with more assurance. “He’s just becoming more confident,” coach Doug Marrone said.

The way the playoffs are shaping up, Jacksonville could be the AFC’s three seed and face a divisional/championship gauntlet of Roethlisberger and Brady, in succession, on the road. It sounds absurd to think Jacksonville could hope to survive that. But what about this season is not absurd for Jacksonville? Clinching the division with two weeks left? Sweeping Indy by a combined 57-10, and Houston by 74-14? Who are these guys? They’re good, and the rest of the league is three weeks from finding out how good.


Quotes of the Week

I

I believe that it is time to turn the franchise over to new ownership. Therefore, I will put the team up for sale at the conclusion of this NFL season. We will not begin the sale process, nor will we entertain any inquiries, until the very last game is played. I hope everyone in this organization, both on and off the field, will be firmly focused on just one mission: to play and win the Super Bowl. While I will no longer be the team owner, I will always be the Panthers Number One fan. With respect. Always. Jerry Richardson.”

—Carolina Panthers founder and owner Jerry Richardson, announcing Sunday night that he’d seel the team, after a damning Sports Illustrated investigation by Jon Wertheim and Viv Bernstein about workplace misconduct by the 81-year-old Richardson was published hours earlier.

II

“He’s trash.”

—Houston pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney, on Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles after Bortles put up the biggest passer rating of his career, 143.8, in a 45-7 undressing of the Texans.

Well, that should add some spice to a generally moribund division.

III

“We kind of fell apart, in a sense.”

—Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, after the 30-13 loss in Kansas City that essentially decided the AFC West in the Chiefs’ favor.

In a sense? I would say so.

IV

“Kindness wins. People are good.”

—Jenny Hubbard, the mother of slain Sandy Hook School student Catherine Violet Hubbard, on the five-year anniversary of the mass murder that left 26 victims dead, to WNBC TV in New York. Jenny Hubbard has worked to build an animal sanctuary, complete with vet clinic, shelter and wildlife rehabilitation program, and is looking for donations and pro-bono assistance to help the project.

NFL
Raiders' Latest Heartbreak Exemplified Stalled Progress as a Team


The Award Section

Steve Dykes/Getty Images

OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Blake Bortles, quarterback, Jacksonville. This is simply a different guy from the 2016 Bortles, and the first-half-of-2017 Bortles. He’s accurate (21 of 29 versus Houston, 72.4 percent), he’s become a good downfield passer, and he doesn’t make the dumb throw nearly as much as he once did. Bortles in three games this month: 71.4 completion percentage, 903 yards, seen touchdowns, zero interceptions … Bortles’ game-to-game passer ratings this month: 119.8, 123.7, 143.8. He’s turning into a reason why the Jaguars dominating, not a player the team wins in spite of.

Todd Gurley, running back, Los Angeles Rams. Four touchdowns and 180 total yards in the penultimate fantasy Sunday for most of America means a fair amount. Doing it against the rival Seahawks, on the road, in a blowout victory, to all but clinch the division and a playoff spot means a lot more. Gurley’s great, and so is his team and coach. Overlook these Rams next month at your peril.

Kareem Hunt, running back, Kansas City. No player had more impact on his team’s offensive performance in Week 15 than Hunt. The Toledo Rocket rookie had 31 touches for 206 yards and two touchdowns (rushing: 24 for 155; receiving: seven for 51) in the Chiefs’ 30-13 win over the Chargers. Playing 43 of Kansas City’s 66 offensive snaps, Hunt resumed his late push to earn what seemed like a lock in mid-October: the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. He’s second in the NFL with 1,201 rushing yards through 14 games.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Los Angeles Rams. For the millionth time in this great Seahawks era of football, the offensive line failed to protect Russell Wilson even a little bit. But credit one of the best games of Donald’s starry four-year NFL career. He had three sacks of Wilson, and led the seven-sack dominance of the Seattle offensive front.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Kamu Grugier-Hill, linebacker/punt-rusher, Philadelphia. With the Eagles surprisingly down 20-13 late in the first half against the woeful Giants, and Brad Wing back to punt for New York deep in his own territory, Grugier-Hill burst through the line over right guard and smothered the punt. Eagles ball, Giants’ 18. Three plays later, thanks to a Nick Foles touchdown pass, the Eagles took a 21-20 lead.

COACH OF THE WEEK

Doug Marrone, head coach, Jacksonville. The Jaguars clinched the AFC South title with a 45-7 rout of the formerly good Texans. So much of these Jaguars is simply unrecognizable, and so much of that is Marrone’s doing. Since he came into the job as interim coach last December, he’s been blunt and clear and unmistakable in his direction. “Everything with him is black and white,” veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis told me. “No French pastry. That’s the kind of guy I like to play for.”

GOAT OF THE WEEK

Jay Cutler, quarterback, Miami. Not that this game in Buffalo was a gimme for the Dolphins, but the way Cutler cavalierly threw it away (no pun intended) was notable. After Miami recovered an onside kick with 39 seconds left, down 24-16, Cutler, at his 37-yard line, saw some pressure on first down in the shotgun and it looked like he just threw it up for grabs down the right sideline. It went right into the hands of rookie corner Tre’Davious White. This is what you got for your $10 million relief quarterback on Sunday, Dolfans: no touchdowns, three picks, a 24-16 loss.


Stat of the Week

There is no secret as to why the Chiefs, barring an 0-2 finish and a 2-0 Chargers finish—will win the AFC West for the second straight year, and make the playoffs for the third straight year. They have owned the teams in this division. Since opening day 2015, the division records of the four teams:

Team AFC West W-L Games Back
Chiefs 15-2 --
Broncos 8-9 7
Raiders 8-9 7
Chargers 3-14 12
 

Factoids That May Interest Only Me

I

Exiting Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis is four games over .500 (123-119-3) as Bengals coach.

The Cincinnati founder and Hall of Fame coach, Paul Brown, was four games under .500 (55-59-1) as Bengals coach.

II

In the NBA on Friday night, Oklahoma City-Philadelphia was tied at 6, 8, 10, 12, 94 (at the end of the fourth quarter), 96, 102 (at the end of the first overtime), 104, 109, 111 (at the end of the second overtime), 113, 115 and 117.

Oklahoma City 119, Philadelphia 117, in three overtimes.

The team records after the game: Oklahoma City 14-14, Philadelphia 14-14.

III

Players from the top five teams in the College Football Playoff rankings (Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State) among the 46 men who dressed Sunday for the world champion New England Patriots: 2.

Players from Rutgers who dressed for the Patriots on Sunday: 3.


Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note

The MMQB team (Kalyn Kahler, Conor Orr and I) drove from New York to Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon, arriving just before 7 p.m. Easily the most interesting thing witnessed on the journey was the baptism of a fan into Steeler Nation at a tailgate before Pats-Steelers. (True story: He was baptized by a friend of a friend, Phil Gennaro, aka “Pittsburgh Phil,” who used IC Light beer instead of baptismal water. I shall say no more about this interesting Steeltown phenomenon because it’s part of this instant New England-Pittsburgh podcast, which you can listen to on your way to work today, or at work today, or on your way home. In fact, you can skip work entirely and just revel in the wonder of the instapod I did, with the help of Cadence 13 and my proficient producer, Bob Tabbador.)      

So, about two-thirds of the way to Pittsburgh, we stopped in Tyrone, an I-99 town north of Altoona, to get gas and coffee at a Sheetz. A pleasant little burg, and we were thrilled to see the newspaper, The Daily HeraldA very nice community paper, just 75 cents, with a nice story on page six about the oldest polar bear in the United States celebrating his 37th birthday. The Daily Herald reported the bear, Coldilocks, of the Philadelphia Zoo, had a cake of peanut butter, honey, raisins and fish for her big day.

“Hints from Heloise” and a swell advice column also provided some great car reading on the way to Pittsburgh. Thanks, The Daily Herald.


Tweets of the Week

I

While some language in the picture is questionable, Ben Rothenberg’s humor is spot on

II

III

Youkilis—of course, the former Cincinnati kid and Red Sox slugger and current California brewer—on the NFL team he loves.

IV


New section of the column this fall, as part of The MMQB’s partnership with State Farm. Each week, I’ll ask an NFL person about his most valuable possession.

Kenyan Drake, running back, Miami. “It’s my graduation ring from the University of Alabama. It’s called an ‘A Club’ ring. I had a great career at Alabama, but I’m pretty proud of the fact I got my degree [in communications] in three-and-a-half years. Seeing that ring, it epitomizes the struggle I had in college. At Alabama, you’ve got to work. From the time I walked on campus, ‘student-athlete’ was preached to us every day. To me, and to my parents, I can tell you that ring means more than any touchdown I scored.”


Pod People

A note on this week’s podcast: It is out two days early. I went to Pats-Steelers on Sunday and did an instant podcast, and it will take the place of the regular Wednesday podcast. You can find it at the usual places. Now, for last week...

Last Wednesday I talked to The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas on her tick-tock account of the Eagles’ West Coast trip, Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer on the Eagles without the injured Carson Wentz, and Jacksonville defensive end Calais Campbell, on all things Jags.

• McLane on Wentz’s seamless transition from North Dakota to Philadelphia: “I think the guiding force there is his belief in Christianity. He talks about it a lot with a lot of guys now. He's got four or five close friends that go to church together on Sundays … I think he's going to be a preacher when he is done with football. And he says that keeps him centered, and I think in terms of the big picture, he can look at that and say, ‘This is just a game.’ To him, it's not the ultimate thing. If things are going bad for him, and they certainly are now—the season is over—he can step back and look at things from that perspective. I think that's a big part of how he can approach the game, whether that is in North Dakota, or in Philadelphia, one of the most difficult places to play in pro sports … He kind of brought North Dakota to the Philadelphia area, and he bought a large plot of land where he can hunt and get away from it all in south Jersey. And his brother is there living nearby. That was important for him. I think he needs that as a reprieve from being in Philadelphia ... He can go back to his property and hunt if he wants, hang out with his dog, do the things that he did in North Dakota.”


Ten Things I Think I Think

Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. I think I can understand if the friction between Houston Texans GM Rick Smith and coach Bill O’Brien will lead to a split, with Smith staying and O’Brien leaving; CBS’s Jason LaCanfora reported sources telling him a split is imminent. O’Brien is a strong-willed guy, and I have always believed the Deshaun Watson pick as mostly Smith on an island picking a player he really wanted—and denuding the top two picks in the 2018 Houston draft as a byproduct. But I will just say this, as someone who has been around O’Brien and Watson: They’ve got a very good thing going. Without the injury to Watson, Houston would be in the playoff chase right now, and Smith and O’Brien would live with their issues. Watson really respects O’Brien and I believe would be really disappointed if O’Brien leaves; he’s told people he doesn’t want to play for anyone else. Having said that, I also believe O’Brien would catapult close to the top of a few coaching searches if he gets dismissed at the end of the season. I don’t believe a split is certain, but...

• I doubt sincerely O’Brien would sign an extension with the exact current power structure of the Texans.

• It’s not inconceivable that O’Brien would coach out his final year in 2018 and walk away.

• It’s possible that if O’Brien forces the issue and insists on a revised front-office structure he could be fired.

It’s going to be an interesting few days in Houston after Week 17.

2. I think these are my quick thoughts on Week 15:

a. Dallas is 8-6, with Ezekiel Elliott coming back next week. A win over 8-6 Seattle on Sunday knocks the Seahawks out of the hunt. A win over the Eagles in Week 17 (did you see Philly struggle versus the Giants?) sets up a Dallas-Atlanta battle for the sixth seed. Atlanta has the tiebreaker edge.

b. If the playoffs were today, here’s wild-card weekend: Buffalo-Jacksonville, Tennessee-Kansas City … Atlanta-Rams, Carolina-New Orleans.

c. Speechless over the Brock Osweiler performance Thursday night. He actually looked like an NFL quarterback. Even in a meaningless contest, that was Osweiler’s best game of his Houston-Cleveland-Denver reincarnation.

d. Hey, the bar’s low. But Osweiler was really good in Indy.

e. Excellent game plan by Carolina defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, blitzing Aaron Rodgers—per ESPN—a career-high 31 times. Smart move.

f. Many of you asked why the Pats-Steelers game was not flexed to Sunday night football in place of Raiders-Cowboys. The Sunday networks can protect a limited number of games per year from being flexed, and CBS chose the Pats-Steelers to protect.

g. If Seattle doesn’t completely overhaul its offensive line in the offseason, and perhaps even change respected line coach Tom Cable, it’s irresponsible.

h. What a day for Todd Gurley: four touchdowns, and a continuation of the kind of impact that previous Rams running backs have not made since Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.

i. I cannot envision a scenario where I don’t vote for Sean McVay for coach of the year—and that’s even with the crazy-good job done by Doug Marrone.

k. Ace Washington tight end Jordan Reed to IR. Greg Bishop of SI basically called it earlier this year, writing about the downside of the bigger/stronger/faster craze that escalates in football year after year. Many human bodies, including Reed’s, aren’t made to take the physical demands football asks it to take week after week. 


Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling wrap up the Sunday action each Monday morning on “The MMQB: 10 Things Podcast.” Subscribe on iTunes.

3. I think Thomas Davis is one of the best ambassadors for the game there is, and a former NFL Man of the Year. But the Carolina linebacker deserves a one-week ban for his blindside earhole-ing of Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams. The hit, obviously, has no place in football.

4. I think I missed that crazy end to Dallas-Oakland, with two weird fourth-quarter plays that should be on the league’s educational officiating tape this week. But Conor Orr of The MMQB was on top of it, and he offered this read: 

What a day for NFL senior vice president of officiating Alberto Riveron. After a technically sound call on Jessie James’s would-be game-winning touchdown drew an intense amount of vitriol, he turned to the Raiders-Cowboys game in prime time just hoping for something quick and devoid of controversy. Then came fourth-and-one from the Dallas 39 with 5:09 to play. The Cowboys were driving, the score tied at 17. Dak Prescott bulled up the middle, and the measurement is close. How close? Official Gene Steratore pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and slid it down the poll to see if it touched the football. He called it an affirmation of his original call, but the visual of a referee using an index card to help confirm a critical play was enough to set Twitter ablaze. Steratore and pool reporter Vic Tafur went round and round after the game. If that wasn’t enough, perhaps the most hated rule in football decided the final score (kind of). Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, trailing 20-17 in the fourth quarter, sprinted to the corner pylon and dove into the end zone. However, the ball fell out of his left hand and trickled out of bounds, triggering a touchback. Dallas ball. In fairness to Steratore, the football was coming out of Carr’s hands before he crossed the plane. No matter how rigid or asinine the rule could be, it would not have ended without someone complaining.

5. I think, for all of you who felt the John Dorsey shot at outgoing franchise architect Sashi Brown for the lack of talent on the team was excessive and cheap, I have three words: The truth hurts.

6. I think I harked back to a conversation I had with Chargers coach Anthony Lynn last month when watching the Chargers-Chiefs on Saturday night. “Early this season, we just didn’t know how to win,” Lynn said. “Game after game, we made losing plays.” So, let’s go to the first half Saturday night. Chargers punting to pin the Chiefs back inside their 10-yard line. Drew Kaser launches a high and well-placed punt. Which leads us to the dumb special-teams play of the week: Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, chasing the punt, tries to down it near the goal line, Ekeler had possession at the three-yard line but instead of dropping the ball and having it downed inside the 5, he stepped on the goal line and only then dropped it. What, you don’t know the rules of a touchback? That’s the definition of a losing play. The ball got placed at the 20, and four plays later, Alex Smith aired one out deep downfield for a 64-yard touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill.

7. I think the Jets are either going to have to take a deep breath and see if they can mentally rehab a lost sheep of a player, Muhammad Wilkerson, who was suspended by the team for a game after being late to work one day last week. That’s not the type of suspension you make—banning one of your best players—if it’s a first-time thing, or a second-time thing. The Jets are sick of Wilkerson, who seems like the classic case of a guy who got the big money (five years, $86 million last year) and changed significantly. Now they have to decide if they’re so sick of him that they’d take a $20 million cap hit in 2018 to dump him.

8. I think Mike Florio’s suggestion that the Bengals might try to trade for Cleveland coach Hue Jackson is really interesting. That would give Cleveland GM John Dorsey the chance to pick his own coach—which he’d probably rather do than simply accept the incumbent—and add a draft choice (a third-rounder, maybe?) to an already stocked draft. The Bengals know Jackson and like Jackson, and Andy Dalton and A.J. McCarron would get back the coach who, as offensive coordinator, oversaw their most successful NFL play.

9. I think if you want me to excoriate Andy Benoit for his Russell Wilson-isn’t-that-good take, you’ll be waiting for a long time. When I started The MMQB, I focused on young writers who were good and who didn’t think the way I did. I think Andy’s nuts, rating Matthew Stafford over Wilson, but so what? He can defend his point and feels strongly about it. And if he takes some shrapnel over it, so be it. He gets that if you want to write strong opinions on the big stage, you’re going to get grief.

10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:

a. Football story of the week: from Matt Winklejohn, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, upon the death of the first player in Atlanta Falcons history, linebacker Tommy Nobis, on the AFL-NFL war to sign Nobis in 1966. A hundred scrawny head of cattle were involved, as was a plea from an astronaut orbiting the earth, as the NFL Falcons and AFL Oilers batted to sign the great Texas linebacker.

b. Story of the Week: an intensely personal look at a flawed culinary hero, Mario Batali, by a writer crushed by the news of Batali’s sexual harassment, Helen Rosner of the New Yorker.

c. I’ll never forget taking my Jersey daughter Laura to Pó, then a Batali restaurant, for her 11th birthday. We were big Mario fans. Very big. And Laura was invited to go into the kitchen to take a photo with the master chef.

d. Bummer. So much of what’s sweeping the country’s a bummer—but it’s good to see it being unearthed. It’s about time.

e. “Everyone makes mistakes early in their careers.” The Chicago Sun Times has a funny story on a dog keeping us safe and being very nervous at the same time. The story’s a little messy—I must warn you.

f. Robin Quivers singing “Do You Hear What I Hear,” with sound effects, on the Howard Stern Show was quite a memorable rendition.

g. “Dogs are barking in China, Robin,” Stern said. On the moon too.

h. Had some memorable regular conversations in the ’90s with Mike Francesa. Good luck to him in whatever’s next.

i. Beernerdness: The MMQB Team was lucky to find a new Southern Tier brew pub in the shadow of Heinz Field on Saturday night while working on the podcast this week. What a place—huge TVs, great merchandise, better beer. Conor Orr had the Porter, and Kalyn and I had the coffee pilsner, with just the right hint of rich coffee from Allegheny Coffee and Tea Exchange in Pittsburgh. So many cities have become beer meccas. Pittsburgh grows a little in that way every time I visit. 

j. In honor of tradition, however, I had to start with a 24-ounce IC Light (Iron City, Pittsburgh Brewing Company, Pittsburgh).


Who I Like Tonight

Falcons 30, Buccaneers 16. No way the Tampa Bay defense can be competitive without Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Vernon Hargreaves III, all ruled out for this important NFC South clash. However, take solace, Bucs fans, and know I was at my prognosticating best when I declared a New England walkover against the Dolphins last Monday night. We all saw how that went.


The Adieu Haiku

End of an era.
#MeToo hits the NFL.
Richardson is gone.

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