- Also, the Chiefs end up where they probably should have ended up, the Falcons D catches fire, John Lynch makes the 49ers exactly what the Browns wanted to be, the Raiders’ obsession with the past, and all the overreactions to that Patriots story. Plus, musical guest Neil Young!
1. If you’ve ever read this column or listened to our podcast, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I’m incredibly excited to see the Bills back in the playoffs. And I’m also incredibly stunned to see the Bills back in the playoffs.
Their roster wasn’t very good when training camp started, and then they traded away Sammy Watkins, Ronald Darby and Marcell Dareus. They had a point differential of -57 on the year. It’s really weird to make the playoffs with a point differential of -57. In fact, in the 17 seasons of Buffalo's postseason drought, they had a better point differential in 10 of those seasons (including four years on the plus side). The Bills have had teams good enough to break through, this just happens to be the one to do it.
Though as far as Sunday goes, that’s probably encouraging. The Bills are, rightfully, a heavy underdog in Jacksonville, and there’s no way to look at it from an X’s and O’s standpoint and think they’ll win. But this is also a team that won a lot of games they probably shouldn't have. So at some point you shrug your shoulders, protect the football and just wait for the kind of bounces you've gotten all season long.
I’m a little more nervous about what this season means for long-term expectations in Buffalo—this team could put up the same quality of season-long performance next year and go 6-10. But for now, the Bills are back in the playoffs; let’s all enjoy that.
2. The Panthers only lost five games this season, but two of them were to the Saints in lopsided fashion. And, as the old saying should go, “It’s incredibly easy to beat a team for a third time in a season because you’ve already beaten them twice and, from a statistical standpoint, the team that won the first two games wins the third one 65% of the time. If you were looking at it before the season and saying, if these division rivals meet in the playoffs, it will be tough for one of them to win all three games, that’s more appropriate because that includes a home-and-home. But to say it’s going to be difficult to beat a team for a third time is even worse than a worthless platitude, because it’s illogical and factually inaccurate.” So that’s what the saying should be.
As for Sunday, Cam Newton is going to have to play one of the best games of his life (considering he’s a one-man running game and in the passing game he has no one who can win on the outside against this Saints secondary), and the Panthers’ back seven is going to have to throw a near-perfect game against Drew Brees in New Orleans.
3. I thought things about the Falcons' win over the Rams . . .
a. Being gifted two special teams giveaways certainly helped, but the Falcons have to be feeling pretty good about what their defense has become. (Someone give Marquand Manuel a head-coaching interview.) After all the obits written for the Falcons in 2017, they’re probably going to be giving points in a divisional round game.
b. Speaking of special teams giveaways, what a brutal night for Pharoh Cooper after a really good regular season. On the botched punt, yes, the ball hit Blake Countess’s foot, but that was an awfully late “poison” call by Cooper. After losing the kickoff return fumble, Cooper was a complete non-factor. The Rams have had a big special teams advantage this season. Saturday night was much different.
d. Still no postseason wins for Andrew Whitworth, and that doesn’t seem right.
4. I thought things about the Titans comeback win over the Chiefs . . .
a. Huzzah for Marcus Mariota, especially for that block on the game-sealing run. But it’s still a little disappointing that, three years in, he can’t get anything done outside of a two-minute offense.
b. If Jon Robinson really wants to go get Josh McDaniels, he should go do it regardless of how January plays out. But some kudos are in order for Mike Mularkey, a less-than-inspiring hire three years ago who now has a playoff win under his belt.
c. This was supposed to be a transition year for the Chiefs. The 5-0 start threw expectations out of whack, but ultimately it was a franchise that traded up in the first to get a redshirt QB, fired its GM, cut its only proven starting receiver, then lost its defensive MVP in the opener and its offensive MVP late in the first half on Saturday, when they were leading 21-3. If you knew all that in August, this is pretty much the end you’d expect.
d. If you didn’t already realize that Travis Kelce is the most valuable player on this Chiefs offense, and by a wide margin, you saw exactly why on Saturday.
e. Stop it with the “Fire Andy Reid” bandwagon. The Chiefs just had their next franchise quarterback spend his rookie season learning under Reid. And then there’s the whole thing about five winning seasons and four playoff appearances in five years.
f. A great barroom trivia question in 50 years will be “Who caught Marcus Mariota’s first career postseason touchdown pass?” And the answer will invariably come back: “Sir, can you please leave us alone, we’re trying to enjoy our drinks.”
g. Jeff Triplette’s “forward progress” ruling on the Derrick Johnson strip sack of Mariota led directly to a free three points for Tennessee, and another humiliation for NFL officials everywhere.
5. There’s a desperate struggle in this country to understand the difference between NFL viewership and NFL TV ratings. But both those numbers are surely going to be down, way down, year-over-year for Wild-Card weekend.
6a. I don’t have a whole lot to add on the Patriots’ kinda, sorta drama. Seth Wickersham is exceptional at what he does. I can’t speak to ESPN’s process, but this line was in the story, and it’s what we do around these parts when it’s a story involving sensitive matters: give everyone a chance to tell their side of the story . . .
“The Patriots, in the only statement anyone associated with the team would make on the record for this story, responded to specific questions by saying that there are ‘several inaccuracies and multiple examples given that absolutely did not occur,’ though they declined to go into detail.”
That was your chance! The opportunity was there for the organization to respond and at least attempt to correct and clarify before the piece came out, and the Patriots essentially declined. (“Nah, everything’s wrong” is not a substantive response when you have a long roll call of people within the organization providing information to a well-connected reporter at the industry’s most prominent brand.)
As for the reporting, I’m not defending anything 100% because I don’t know what the specific sourcing was because I don’t work at ESPN. But I will say, when you’re getting information second-hand (which is most reporting), details can get lost in the game of telephone (Brady wanted Garoppolo traded purple monkey dishwasher). And as with any large organization, information trickles to some people while it doesn’t get to others, which is why a lot of the “well my sources . . . ” reporting doesn’t match up.
Reasonable people can put trust in the story for that reason. But also, the crux of the story is perfectly believable. Of course Tom Brady should have felt threatened by Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo wasn’t Rohan Davey/Kliff Kingsbury/Kevin O’Connell, guys filling out the QB depth chart. He was there to be the next starting quarterback, and that became abundantly clear when they refused to trade him last offseason. If Garoppolo stayed and was tagged, and Brady’s play fell off in his early 40s (as it presumably will, probably, maybe), the Patriots might have had a decision. I found the piece to be thoroughly interesting and well-done, but also not particularly damaging to Brady, Belichick, Kraft or the Patriots organization as a whole. And as far as how it affects a (likely) Super Bowl run . . . well, they don’t really seem to be the types to get distracted.
6b. I’m also dying to write the adapted screenplay of that piece, specifically the part with a confused Jimmy Garoppolo banging on the front door and peering through the windows of TB12 after employees shut off the lights and hid under their desks. Then Jimmy has to go across the street to the payphone at 7-11 and call his mom because he needs to get picked up early. And then Jimmy and his mom go to Friendly’s for dinner and ice cream, and Jimmy tries to convince his mom that a fribble is dinner. (But mom's having none of it, of course.)
6c. Brady seems so charmingly human if he indeed was pushed over the edge by Belichick’s decision to award Patriot of the Week to an inanimate carbon rod.
7a. We unveiled our MMQB Awards earlier this week, the perfect opportunity to pile on anyone who doesn’t think exactly the same way that they and everyone in their echo chamber does.
I didn’t feel any particular emotions except for John Lynch as Executive of the Year. It’s a landslide if the award is based on the work an executive did since the league year began (which is what “Executive,” followed soon after by “Year,” sandwiching the term “of the” implies).
A year ago when Lynch was hired, everyone said something along the lines of, “Good thing they gave Lynch a six-year contract because he’s gonna need all of them to rebuild this team wocka wocka wocka!” (in case you forgot, Muppet Babies was very big in early 2017). In less than a calendar year, Lynch added a budding franchise quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo) surrounded by a young, talented nucleus fortified by a quality first draft class (Reuben Foster, Ahkello Witherspoon, Solomon Thomas, George Kittle, Trent Taylor), and a free-agent steal (Marquise Goodwin). And the 49ers are positioned to keep building with plenty of cap space and nine selections—including four in the top 75—in April’s draft. This is everything the Browns were supposed to be before, y'know, they did everything they did.
7b. And just a quick clarification on what I wrote about those very same Browns a week ago. A few people emailed and tweeted and faxed that I’ve been piling blame on the front office all season and then I turn around and point out how good their offensive line is and how many promising young players they have.
But when Sashi Brown arrived, the Browns already had one of football’s best offensive lines. In fact, while J.C. Tretter is solid and Shon Coleman shows signs of becoming a good player, if Cleveland had spent a fraction of their copious amount of cap space on retaining Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz instead, you’d probably be talking about the best offensive line in the AFC.
And every team in football has some promising young players, because everyone gets draft picks. Myles Garrett figures to be good. He was also the No. 1 overall pick. Corey Coleman flashes, but he certainly hasn’t lived up to top-20 pick status so far. Shon Coleman has some tools to work with, but he’s also still a work in progress. Ditto Jabrill Peppers, though it’s tough to say considering he’s been asked to line up with his heels on the back line of the end zone regardless of where the ball is being snapped. Larry Ogunjobi is another good interior D-lineman in a league overflowing with them. There’s lots of draft picks, sure, but if they call the Eagles or Texans and ask to undo the deals that netted those trade partners Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson, respectively, they’d get more laughs than a Sheldon of any age.
The coaching staff deserves a ton of the blame as well, because it takes a village to lose 31 of 32 games and they’ve likely ruined a promising young QB in DeShone Kizer. And Sashi Brown might have deserved more time because it was a long-term plan being put into place, but the first two years of that plan were going quite poorly. Spread the criticism around liberally.
8a. I’m not bothered by Jon Gruden’s reported salary with the Raiders (they all get paid a lot of money!), but I am concerned about the Raiders' unhealthy obsession with the past.
Twelve years ago they turned back to Art Shell, six years after Shell had last coached in any capacity and 12 years after he had last been a head coach (a solid six-year run with the Raiders that included two trips to the Divisional round and an AFC title game appearance). Shell, apparently inspired by Nick at Nite’s upcoming original programming, coaxed bed and breakfast proprietor and small-town mayor Tom Walsh out of retirement to run his offense.
Of course, Walsh, who had been out of the NFL since he was fired along with Shell 12 years prior, installed an offense that looked like it was a decade behind the times (and proclaimed Randy Moss was washed up a few months before Moss caught 23 touchdowns in New England), and Al Davis cleaned house again after the season.
Obviously, Gruden has had his finger on the pulse of the league because of his MNF work, but it’s irrational to expect him to pick up where he left off nine years since his last game (especially since where he left off wasn’t exactly lighting the NFL on fire). And then there’s the matter of the broken offense and young franchise QB in crisis. Once you get past the hype, it’s difficult to maintain optimism about this move.
8b. I had completely forgotten that Jeff George was Gruden’s QB1 when he started his first head-coaching stint, Oakland in 1998. But now I remember. It’s fun to remember!
9. The most underreported story of the 2017 season: Despite the shortened overtime, no ties. The nightmare is over.
10. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Neil Young and Crazy Horse!
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