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Merry Christmas, NFC: The No. 1 Seed Eagles Suddenly Look Very Beatable

Hard to imagine Philadelphia going very far in the postseason after Monday night’s debacle win over the Raiders

SAN FRANCISCO — Four stories, four takes ... on the trouble in Philly, on the fiasco that is instant replay, on the sleepiest Week 17 in memory, and on an MVP race that really isn’t hard to divine despite the recent greatness of Todd Gurley …

On the Eagles

Philadelphia clinched home-field advantage in the NFC last night with some sort of Christmas miracle, the 19-10 high-wire win over Oakland. But it’s hard to think of a win that felt more like a loss for Philadelphia than this game. I haven’t seen the kind of inept offensive play I saw in this game since, well, since the Texans earlier on Monday. Or since the Giants on Sunday. Suffice to say, the Eagles are in big trouble. This is relatively impossible to fathom, but Philadelphia gained 37 yards in the second half and outscored the Raiders by nine points. This is because Oakland, in eight possessions in the last 20 minutes of the game, went interception-fumble-punt-missed field goal-fumble-punt-interception-fumble. I didn’t think it was likely for Jack Del Rio to get fired this winter … until about 11 p.m. Eastern Monday.

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I can imagine all the Eagles in the locker room post-game. A win’s a win. And We clinched home-field in the NFC—there’s 15 other teams that wish they could say that. And We’ve got all the confidence in the world in Nick Foles. They’re deluding themselves. Even with home-field advantage through the playoffs, the Eagles are going to have to make some plays on offense against three very good teams. Can they make enough positive plays on offense to win even one of those games against a team with the defensive talent of New Orleans or Carolina, one of which is the likely divisional-round foe on Jan. 13 or 14; or then in a possible championship match against the Rams or Vikings; or then in the Super Bowl? Hard to imagine.

You don’t want to overstate the importance of one game. But Foles threw far better sideways than any other way Monday, and he piloted one drive of more than 14 yards in his last nine possessions against a team with a porous secondary in a major swoon entering the game. He was inaccurate, continued to have trouble finding top receiver Alshon Jeffery (two targets, zero catches) and inspired zero hope that when the games matter he’ll be able to flip some switch and respond like a playoff quarterback should. Foles now has a five-point win over the moribund Giants and an all-time lucky win over the disorganized (that’s putting it nicely) Raiders. The next game he has that means something is nearly three weeks away. The Eagles’ staff has a lot of work to do to find some way that Foles can perform competently to win a playoff game.

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

On instant replay

Roger Goodell needs to summon NFL officiating czar Al Riveron into his office this week and tell him to stop playing God. That’s all I can think to rationally say in the wake of the incongruous replay reversal in Foxboro on Sunday, and the micromanaging tenor of the officiating department as a whole.

This is a fact: There wasn’t enough incontrovertible video evidence to overturn the Kelvin Benjamin touchdown reception just before halftime in the Bills-Patriots game. Not even close. Is it possible that Benjamin’s left foot left the ground and wasn’t touching anything but air by the time he secured the ball in the end zone? Yes. Possible. Maybe even probable. But not certain. Definitely not certain. I watched that play 10 times via CBS replay while waiting three minutes and 17 seconds for ref Craig Wrolstad to announce the call after consultation with the New York officiating command center. Then, on Monday, I watched twice all the way through on the game telecast—20 more replays, in all—and there is no way you could see whether Benjamin’s foot lost contact with the ground before he gained possession of the ball.

You could say you thought he did, and you could say you’re pretty sure he did. But you can’t say with certainty, because it was not certain. And the league’s hallmark for overturning a call is that there has to be definitive evidence, 100 percent evidence, to prove that the call on the field was wrong.

Jimmy Garoppolo at the Helm of a Late-Season Revivial in San Francisco

What’s happening is that the officiating command center, it seems to me, is re-officiating calls on the field. This was a perfect example. On the field, two officials called it a touchdown. It was a close call. If they’d called it incomplete because Benjamin was out of bounds, there wouldn’t have been enough evidence to overturn it. Similarly, there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn what the officials did call on the field. But Riveron has tried in one season to make officiating perfect. Officiating cannot be perfect. There are some times you simply have to say, Correcting a 50-50 call is not what replay was intended for. That’s why Goodell has to step in, and right now. For the good of the game, he’s got to tell Riveron to correct the obviously wrong calls, not the ones half the fans in a bar in Topeka would call one way and half the other way.

“It is more and more obvious that there isn’t a standard for staying with the call on the field,” tweeted one previous VP for officiating, Mike Pereira.

“We’re being overly technical. The call on the field should have stood,” said another previous VP for officiating, Dean Blandino.

Replay’s a great part of the game when used correctly. It absolutely should not be scrapped. But if the league continues to allow Riveron to make calls like the Benjamin reversal, replay should die. It’ll be doing more harm than good.

On the MVP

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I appreciate the greatness of Todd Gurley and the value of Todd Gurley. But he’s not the Most Valuable of the NFL in 2017. This is a 17-week, 16-game award. Games in October and November mean almost the same as games in December—unless a candidate carries his team to a division title or a playoff berth on his shoulders and is the overarching dominant factor in his team’s rise to power. Gurley, in the past two weeks, has been beyond superb, with 456 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in huge wins at Seattle and Tennessee.

Gurley leads the NFL in scrimmage yards and has a lead of 13 yards over Le’Veon Bell and 14 over Kareem Hunt in the NFL rushing race with a game to play. On his team: the NFL’s fifth-rated quarterback, Jared Goff, and a strong candidate for defensive player of the year, tackle Aaron Donald. So Gurley has had significant help.

In the season’s middle eight games, in the two months beginning Oct. 8, Gurley totaled 906 rushing/receiving yards and four touchdowns, and the Rams went 6-2. Very nice numbers. Not stunning numbers.

The MVP Award Needs Reimagining—and New Name

The MVP would most often be a quarterback anyway, because he touches the ball on every offensive snap and theoretically is every team’s most significant player, for better or worse. I believe other players can and should win it; I voted for Adrian Peterson in 2012.

But this year, with a week to play, the MVP on my ballot is Tom Brady. Playing without his top target (Julian Edelman), playing while his team’s defense was being fixed on the fly, playing while taking a consistent beating, and playing at age 40 (that doesn’t matter, but it’s a part of his story), Brady has struggled some in December (four TDs, five interceptions). But he’s still 3-1 this month. And in the Patriots’ 9-2 start, his TD-to-pick ratio was 26-to-3. I think Gurley has been an eye-opening phenom on the Rams’ recent run to a surprising division title. He’s a great player. Brady’s a more valuable player to his team, and in the league.

The AP asks for 50 voters in the media to vote for one candidate. But if we voted 1-2-3, here’s the way I’d have the field with one week to play:

Brady.
Russell Wilson.
Gurley.

Agree? Disagree? Send me a 75-word argument, pro or con, and I’ll use the best ones in my column Wednesday.

On week 17

I hate boring Week 17s. We haven’t had a truly lousy one in years, since I don’t know when. But this is how uneventful Week 17 is shaping up to be:

• The NFL thought so little of the drama in Week 17 that it canceled the Sunday night football game on NBC. Wise move. A relatively meaningless game on New Year’s Eve, with the chance it could be truly meaningless by the time it kicked off depending on the outcome of the earlier games? No thanks.

• Seven of the eight divisions in the NFL have a champion this morning. The only one that doesn’t, the NFC South, will be won by either New Orleans or Carolina … with the second-place team in the division the fifth seed in the NFC.

• The AFC has the fifth and sixth seeds open. If Baltimore wins over Cincinnati, or the Bills or Titans lose, the Ravens cop the fifth seed. That’s likely. Amazingly, as bad as the Titans have played, they’re the sixth seed with a win over Jacksonville or losses by the Bills and Chargers. The Chargers and Bills are long shots for that sixth seed.

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• The most interest development, to me, is the battle for the third and fourth seeds in the NFC. The Rams have a tough game against the surging Niners on Sunday; Jimmy Garoppolo has won four in a row since taking the starting quarterback job. If I were Sean McVay, I wouldn’t play that game like the seventh game of the World Series. I’d rather be the fourth seed in the NFC than third. A divisional weekend game at likely second seed Minnesota shapes up to be a tougher game than at top seed Philadelphia, based on what we’ve seen in two weeks of Nick Foles in relief of the injured Carson Wentz. It’ll be interesting to see how the Rams play that game.

The Ice Bowl Cometh (Again)

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As we approach the 50-year anniversary of the Ice Bowl, NFL Network runs one of the most interesting shows in its history Friday at 9 p.m. ET: “The Timeline: The Ice Bowl.”

I can say that because I’ve seen the one-hour doc, which is narrated and co-produced by Michael Meredith, a New York-based filmmaker and son of the Cowboys’ quarterback that day, Don Meredith. The family connection is used to perfection, and Michael Meredith, who did this over a four-year period, strikes just the right tone of personal angst over his father’s lifelong regret about losing that game and reporting some of the most interesting things I’ve heard about the game.

To be clear, airtime is 8 p.m. Central in the most passionate areas, Wisconsin and Texas.

The Ice Bowl, played on Dec. 31, 1967, is one of the most memorable games ever, because it was played in minus-15 weather in Green Bay, and because it came down to a legendary play in the final minute. A play I never knew was made up in the huddle, but now I guess we do.

“The winning play in the Ice Bowl was not even in the playbook,” said Packers running back Chuck Mercein. “We didn’t have a quarterback sneak. That was an improvisation.”

So many other cool football points too. Because of the extreme cold, “that game should have been postponed,” Green Bay linebacker Dave Robinson said.

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But I found the most interesting parts those concerning the humanity of Michael Meredith talking about his father. “He died of a broken heart,” Michael Meredith said in an interview, “because he never took his team the whole way. You have to understand. My father is a Texan. He went to high school in Texas, he went to college in Texas, and he played in the NFL in Texas. As a kid, I remember we had an armed guard at our house. If my dad lost a game, people would beat on our door. If we won, it’d be like, Meredith for Governor!

“The people who remember my dad on ‘Monday Night Football’ remember a guy who was celebrated for his TV work. They don’t realize how much he felt he let down his city and his team. That team was desperate to give the city a positive identity after the JFK assassination [in 1963]. But the one thing I feel good about is the Ice Bowl was so close and so hard-fought and such a game of millimeters that the city was proud of the Cowboys, and it was close to being the seed of the birth of Cowboys Nation.”

I highly recommend you watch this documentary if you love a good history story, or if you love football—or, of course, if love either team.

Quotes of the Week

I

“If y’all got the chance to come get me, come get me!”
—Seattle safety Earl Thomas, after the Seahawks’ 21-12 victory over Dallas on Sunday, to Cowboys coach Jason Garrett.

I don’t want to make too much of this, but it was hugely odd. Thomas, a Texas native who played at the University of Texas, ran after Garrett postgame and made sure he got the message that, at 29 next year or soon thereafter, he’d like to play a twilight season or two for Dallas.

How will that go over in the front office of the Seahawks, to have one of the leaders of a proud team chasing after the coach of a non-playoff team telling him to chase him?

II

“Officials up here, they always find a way to get it right for the Patriots. That's not the reason why we lost, but it sure would have helped out in the game.”
—Bills running back LeSean McCoy, after the controversial (to put it mildly) overturned Kelvin Benjamin touchdown marred Buffalo’s loss to New England.

III

“All I can say right now is, I am at a loss for how a play like that can get overturned.”
—Buffalo coach Sean McDermott, on the Benjamin play.

Who isn’t?

IV

“We haven’t asked why. Bad things happen to good people.”
—Vernon Shazier, father of Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who is hospitalized with a spinal injury in Pittsburgh, to Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.

V

“WHAT A NIGHT TO BE A TERRIER!”
—Wofford College basketball play-by-play voice Mark Hauser, after the Terriers went to Chapel Hill and upset the defending national champion North Carolina Tar Heels 79-75 on Wednesday.

The Award Section

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OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver, Houston. I know. Two catches, 41 yards in a dispiriting 34-6 loss to Pittsburgh. But there has not been a more difficult catch in the NFL this season than the 3-yard touchdown catch Hopkins made in the lost cause of a game Monday evening in Houston. It’s hard to describe it, except to say he reached around with one arm and batted the ball so he could catch it one-handedwith the other, all the while fighting off a Steelers defender. Hopkins had just started making beautiful music with Deshaun Watson when Watson went down with a torn ACL in late October. (In their last game together, at Seattle, Hopkins had eight catches for 224 yards.) The reason I’m likely to make Hopkins one of my two All-Pro wide receivers when I submit my Associated PressAll-Pro and season awards ballot six days from now is that, even without Watson, Hopkins has had 748 receiving yards and six touchdowns in eight games, with Tom Savage and T.J. Yates at quarterback. Imagine being on pace for a 1,496-yard season with Savage and Yates as your quarterbacks. 

Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, San Francisco. The 49ers have been seeking a franchise quarterback since concussions forced Steve Young to retire in 2000. For the bargain-basement price of a second-round draft choice (which gets later in the round every week), they’ve almost certainly found him. In a month, Garoppolo—unless he’s a Hollywood matinee idol mirage—has become the long-lost solution. Signs were everywhere in the 44-33 stunner over Jacksonville’s strong defense, led by the 10-play, 79-yard, easy-as-pie drive to open the game. Garoppolo’s six scoring drives out of 10 possessions (not counting the halftime kneeldown), including three late ones when the Jags made it a game, showed his command of an offense that’s still new to him. Think of it: Garoppolo was traded eight weeks ago today, and if you watched on Sunday, you’d have thought he’d been in the Kyle Shanahan offense for four years. It wasn’t the 21-of-30, 242-yard, two-touchdown, one-pick, 102.4-rating performance that was eye-opening, or the 44 points on a top-five defense. It was the command, the grasp of the offense, the confidence.

Todd Gurley, running back, Los Angeles Rams. Catapulting into the MVP discussion in the past two weeks with six touchdowns in two dominant performances, Gurley again led the Rams to an impressive victory—this time to help the team win its first division title since 2003. In the 27-23 win over the Titans in Nashville, Gurley had 35 touches for 276 yards and two touchdowns—118 rushing yards and 158 in the air—and leaped tall defenders in a single bound. Twice. Gurley combines the power that Jeff Fisher cultivated with the athleticism and make-’em-miss ability that Sean McVay has wisely used. I didn’t think any 2017 player could be a better all-around back than Le’Veon Bell, but Gurley has certainly looked like it in this commanding run of greatness.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Cam Jordan, defensive end, New Orleans. Dominant player in the NFC South’s biggest game of the year. In putting the Falcons behind a major 8-ball to make playoffs, Jordan had two sacks of Matt Ryan and two additional knockdowns, and helped on a huge second-half goal-line stand that was the trademark of the Saints’ defensive day.

Marquis Flowers, linebacker, New England. Acquired in what was a fairly invisible trade with the Bengals for a seventh-round pick in late August for linebacker depth, Flowers came up huge in a game against Buffalo that was closer than the score (37-16) indicated. He had a team-high 10 tackles and a career-high 2.5 sacks to help the Patriots expose the weaknesses of Tyrod Taylor’s protection and ability.

SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Byron Jones, defensive back/gunner, Dallas. There has been no better downed punt in the NFL this year than the one by Jones to kill a Cowboy punt at the Seattle 1-yard line. Jones dove, his body parallel to the ground, and with the ball near the goal line flipped it back onto the field of play, where it was downed. Meanwhile, as if he’d been practicing this move since he was 3, Jones somersaulted in the end zone and popped up, barely celebrating The Punt-Downing of the Year in the NFL. Well, I’m celebrating it.

COACH OF THE WEEK

Wade Phillips, defensive coordinator, Los Angeles Rams. The amazing run of an amazing 70-year-old coach continues. With the Rams on the way to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, Phillips now has compiled a ridiculous streak of success. No one hits the ground running like Phillips. In his first season on the staffs of the 1989 Broncos, the 1995 Bills, the 2002 Falcons, the 2004 Chargers, the 2007 Cowboys, the 2011 Texans, the 2015 Broncos and the 2017 Rams, those teams made the playoffs. Even though this Rams defense has bent, it hasn't broken, and the fact that they’re 11-4 and have clinched the division with a week to play … well, Phillips has turned out to be a smart hire (a fairly obvious one, but smart nonetheless) by egoless Rams coach Sean McVay.

GOAT OF THE WEEK

Al Riveron, executive vice president of officiating, NFL. Riveron has a very tough job. He has to be fair to 32 teams, and he has to call ’em the way he sees ’em, now that the NFL has chosen to make replay a centralized process, looping in Riveron and the officiating command center to examine replays with the referee on the field. The Kelvin Benjamin reversal, as I detail above, shows that the process has gone way too far. The NFL first instituted replay use in 1986—there have been several iterations since—to correct obviously wrong calls. The call on the field should be reversed by Riveron and the on-field official only when the evidence to do so is incontrovertible—and there is no way to tell with certainty on the Benjamin reversal that the call is obviously wrong.