Now that was a fun weekend. Marcus Mariota, tucking in his cape so we could hardly see it, threw two touchdown passes, caught a touchdown pass, made the block of the weekend and saved his coach’s job, all in three hours. Atlanta’s defense made the best offense in football, the 2017 Rams, look like the 2016 Rams. Jacksonville won a home playoff game for the first time in 18 years against a team playing a playoff game for the first time in 18 years. Drew Brees turns 39 a week from today, and the Saints don’t need him to be The Man anymore, but they needed him to play well to beat Carolina, and he did. “Still The Man,” said Saints running back Mark Ingram. “I’ve been telling you all year—don’t sleep on Drew.”
Now this is going to be a fun weekend coming up. A top-seeded home dog in the (Petrified) City of Brotherly Love on Saturday at dusk. Another promising young contender, Mariota, comes at the king, Tom Brady, on Saturday night. The Roethlisberger Redemption Show trying to overcome a team playing like a bunch of scolded dogs (I will explain) on Sunday afternoon. Three good pieces of drama. Then the best game: the incredibly rebuilt Saints with their forever coach and quarterback against the team that’s so hot it prays the bye week didn’t cool it off. Saints-Vikings, in the last game of the round-of-eight.
This is a season that still doesn’t have an identity, beyond the anthem protests and the President Trump attacks. It’s sort of the changing of the guard, but not really—not with New England and Pittsburgh and Drew Brees and Matt Ryan still contenders for championship weekend. And it’s sort of the rise of the offseason ’dogs. But the Jaguars need Blake Bortles to be competent. Same with the Eagles and Nick Foles. Same with the Titans around Mariota.
What it comes down to in January, I think, isn’t the star power. It’s the games. And this weekend, Saints-Vikings is the best. It should be great.
The NFL could use some megastars. It’s a strange year in the league. In the final eight, the only remotely sure thing to me is New England over Tennessee. But we all can see the wounded top-seeded Eagles finding a way at home, same as we can see Atlanta flying into Philadelphia and winning. We all can see Jacksonville winning in Pittsburgh—and if you say you can’t, you haven’t watched that swarming defense. We all could flip a coin for Saints-Vikings.
This is how Minnesota’s defense ended the season, in the final three games:
Points allowed per game: 5.7
Yards allowed per game: 200.3
Opponents completion rate: 48.6 percent.
Now, the Vikings faced Andy Dalton, Brett Hundley and Mitchell Trubisky down the stretch. This week they’ll face an all-timer. It’s been a strange year for Drew Brees, but a great year for the Saints. New Orleans was coming of three straight 7-9 seasons, and, truth be told, the Saints may have taken a decent trade offer for coach Sean Payton, just to start anew.
But Payton reinvented himself, sort of. He said with some pride that the Saints were going to be more run-reliant and less Brees-reliant; all the great offensive stats weren’t winning any January games, after all. Payton was convinced his team would be better off trying to win with defense and a running game than playing bombs-away. So the Saints drafted a long-term right tackle, Ryan Ramczyk, in the first round, and a three-down back, Alvin Kamara, late in the third, fortifying the secondary with cornerback Marson Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams in between. I am not exaggerating when I say that the trio of GM Mickey Loomis, college scouting director Jeff Ireland (remember him, Dolfans?) and Payton had one of the best drafts in recent history. All four of those players, remarkably, are above-average NFL starters as rookies. In fact, 14 of the 22 starters in Sunday’s wild-card win over Carolina were not active Saints in 2015. Talk about a changing of the guard.
Watching Minnesota in the last two weeks of the season—in the beatdown of Green Bay and the rout of Chicago—was educational. What a confident player Case Keenum is, against all odds. The Vikes’ quarterback should be Sam Bradford, or maybe a healed Teddy Bridgewater, by now. But every time he steps on the field, Keenum shows he belong, and he shows GMs with quarterback holes (John Elway in Denver, John Dorsey in Cleveland, Mike Maccagnan with the Jets) to pay attention if for some reason the Vikings don’t aggressively try to re-sign him after the season. And then there’s the defensive talent, led by instinctive difference-maker Harrison Smith at safety. The Vikings are the NFC Super Bowl favorites, the team with the best chance to make it to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, the team that could end the schneid of no team ever playing a Super Bowl at home.
Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, play-designing … Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, mandating respect in the run game … a better line than the Saints have had since their Super Bowl season … and the Jordan-led young defense. “These young cats, they don’t know what we’ve been through,” Jordan said. “Losing hurts. Most of these guys haven’t seen it. But that’s okay. The biggest difference in our team is how the locker room feels. These guys are so confident. They’re winners.”
What a test Sunday in Minneapolis. Brees against a tremendous front, and against a safety (Smith) with the sideline-to-sideline instincts of the guy he just beat (Luke Kuechly). The NFL, in the round of eight, has saved the best for last.
More in a moment on an eventful week—the retirements of Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians, the Patriots defending their culture, the Raiders finally nabbing Jon Gruden, the continuing mayhem of instant-replay—and the looming divisional round. First, some voices of the wild-card games:
• Titans 22, Chiefs 21: Tennessee running back Derrick Henry (23 carries, 156 yards), on Marcus Mariota … Titans up 22-21, third-and-10, Kansas City 44. Chiefs blitz. Mariota hands to Henry. “It was a zone read play, and there was nothing there. I hit it outside, to the left, and it was gonna be me and [Chiefs linebacker Frank Zombo] behind the line of scrimmage. And there was Marcus. He made the block to take the guy out of the play. Then all I had to do was get the first down and the game is over. That’s how it happened. Marcus, that’s just him being who he is, him being great. He has the kind of attention to detail on plays like that—he’s just one of the guys, trying to make a play for another one of the guys. Everybody was excited.” Seven teammates hopped around Mariota, congratulating the quarterback for one of the plays of the game. A block.
• Falcons 26, Rams 13: Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones (10 tackles, one very big pass defensed), on the play that clinched the game … Atlanta up 26-13, fourth-and-goal from the Atlanta 5-yard line, 2:11 left. Jones on wideout Sammy Watkins. “I was pretty much by myself on the coverage. Watkins used his body to get leverage on me, and in that situation I have to fight through it, or it’s going to be a pretty easy touchdown. Every week on plays like that, it’s a fight. I mean, a physical fight. Like Coach Quinn said before the game, ‘This game’s gonna be a fight, and the defense has to be closers.’ So this is fourth down. The play had to be made.” Jones broke up the pass two yards deep in the end zone. Game over.
• Jaguars 10, Bills 3: Jacksonville defensive lineman Malik Jackson (one sack, one pass defensed), on making a bad franchise competitive ... “It feels like the city’s erupting. I’m just glad we could give Duval [County] the kind of team it deserves. We’re one of eight teams left. That’s why I was brought here from Denver, to win games like this. This game was a dogfight. But that’s all right—we like dogfights. Hard-nosed, old-school football. We play like scolded dogs.” Huh? “Like Jaguars on the hunt, with reckless abandon. Eleven guys, playing all-out. We make everybody feel us. We have that angry northeast-football style of play, taught by our coach [Bronx native Doug Marrone]. I mean, we have some angry guys on this defense. I am going to put you in the dirt. Know what I’m saying? Pittsburgh’s next. We don’t care. Whoever it is, we’ll play. If America favors them, we don’t care.”
• Saints 31, Panthers 26: New Orleans defensive end Cam Jordan (one sack, two passes batted down, one vital intentional-grounding forced), on the great joy in beating Cam Newton and the Panthers for the third time this year ... “We had to remind ’em, the is our year. We knew Cam was gonna try to be a hero. We made him a traditional quarterback for sure. When he gets running, he gets more and more energetic, he’s the real Cam, Superman, the cape, all that. We didn’t want him to run, so we kept him in the pocket. Late in the game we hurt him and he came back. What a competitor he is to come back. But all game, I wanted to make him as uncomfortable as possible. Got a good couple pressures, then got him on the grounding play. Such a huge win. I am going to send Cam a bottle of wine. A Jordan, from Sonoma, to remind him what it’s like to be 0-3 against us.”
A Divisional Round Preview
Atlanta (11-6, NFC 6th seed) at Philadelphia (13-3, NFC 1st seed), Saturday, 4:35 p.m., NBC. The news is fairly stunning. A six seed, a dome team playing in open air in January at one of the toughest places in the league to play, is a 2.5-point favorite over a one seed. No six seed has ever been favored over a one seed since the playoff field expanded to 12 teams in 1990. That’s the predicament the Eagles find themselves. The odds are Foles-centric, obviously. No one trusts Nick Foles to play a competent game this weekend. In his last two games, collectively, he never hit 50 in two fairly significant categories: completion percentage (46.9 percent) and passer rating (48.2). So Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, when putting the game plan together with Doug Pederson, must be mindful of making this a power-running, Giants-of-the-’80s football game. This is the way Philadelphia can win this game. Run LaGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi 40 or 43 times behind a line the Eagles trust far more than their quarterback. Blount and Ajayi, combined, rushed for 4.83 yards per carry as Eagles this year. This won’t work unless Foles can, maybe once a quarter, hit one of his receivers with something beyond an intermediate route. But unless they run effectively, Philadelphia’s not winning this game. One last thing: Bill Parcells used to say, It’s not average per carry I care about. It’s number of carries. In one of the biggest Super Bowl upsets ever, the Giants ran it 39 times and held the ball for 40:33 to beats Buffalo 27 years ago. That’s the blueprint. The Eagles need to eat the clock and keep the ball away from a better offense to win this game.
Tennessee (10-7, AFC 5th seed) at New England (13-3, AFC 1st seed), Saturday, 8:15 p.m., CBS. Distractions will mean nothing in this game. Nothing, maybe, except they will make Tom Brady want to shove it down the throats of those who think he’s a power-hungry warlord controlling his backups. As much as I think it’s silly to think of these Patriots as a two-touchdown favorite against any team in the playoffs, I also think it’s highly unlikely that rested New England can lose to Tennessee. The Titans will try to play smashmouth with Derrick Henry (that’s certainly what I’d do), to be sure, and get Marcus Mariota out on the flank for some run-pass options. I think New England’s Josh McDaniels will call a smarter game than the Chiefs did against Tennessee. In other words, the Patriots will be significantly more balanced. In New England’s last two games, the Pats rushed for 340 yards and passed for 401 net yards … and averaged 33:16 in possession time while winning two games by a combined 41 points. Dion Lewis gives New England a true outside threat in the backfield, along with bigger backs to go inside against Jurrell Casey and Sylvester Williams. (Challenging the Tennessee interior defense rarely goes well for any team.) Mariota gives the Patriots plenty to think about, and lots to game plan for. But the Patriots will be prepared. They’re a vastly improved defense since the first month of the season, and coming off a bye could make them better. Here’s a stat I like: Coming off their in-season bye, New England, in its next four games, allowed 16, 8, 17 and 3 points, respectively.
Jacksonville (11-6, AFC 3rd seed) at Pittsburgh (13-3, AFC 2nd seed), Sunday, 1:05 p.m., CBS. One of the stunning results of this NFL season happened in Week 5 at Heinz Field: Jacksonville 30, Pittsburgh 9. The first five-interception game of Ben Roethlisberger’s career left him saying afterward: “Maybe I don’t have it anymore.” The other day, Roethlisberger confirmed he wanted the Jags in the divisional game: “I’d love to prove that five interceptions wasn’t me in that game.” That’ll be the story all week, to be sure. But Pittsburgh will have other problems in this game—quite a few, in fact. The Steelers got steamrolled for 231 rushing yards by Jacksonville, and Leonard Fournette had 181 of them, including a 90-yard dagger to cap the game in the fourth quarter. It’s clear the Jags have a problem on offense in the passing game. Blake Bortles is the AFC’s Nick Foles, players their teams have to game plan around to win. On Sunday, after the 10-3 win over Buffalo, Doug Marrone tried to be nice, but the reality of the situation couldn’t be avoided: The Jags can’t trust Bortles. “I’d be a fool to sit here and say I’m not concerned,” Marrone said. “If you want to continue to keep playing, you have to do a better job.” Or, the Jags have to pick off Roethlisberger a couple of times, and play a grind-it-out game.
New Orleans (12-5, NFC 4th seed) at Minnesota (13-3, NFC 2nd seed), Sunday, 4:40 p.m., FOX. So the NFL lucked into this: The last game of the weekend shapes up as the best game of the weekend. The Saints, fortunately, get to play last on divisional weekend (can’t the NFL please find a better phrasing for the league’s round-of-eight than Divisional Playoff Weekend?) after a brutally physical game against the division rival Panthers. If you look for clues from the first time these two teams met, you’ll be disappointed. It was one of the two Monday-nighters from Week 1. Vikes won, 29-19. Sam Bradford threw for 346 yards and Dalvin Cook ran for 127, and Adrian Peterson was the Saints’ headliner, and four Saints’ rookies were making their NFL debuts. Now the Saints visit Minneapolis again, and wouldn’t it be startling if New Orleans plays in U.S. Bank Stadium three times in five months? Of course, that would mean the team trying to be the first to play a Super Bowl on its home field would get knocked out … and that’s going to be a tough road for the Saints to travel. I think this game is about the maturation of the Minnesota defense playing some great football down the stretch against some poor offenses—Cincinnati, Green Bay (minus Aaron Rodgers) and Chicago. Drew Brees, with a defined running game and a maturing defense, will be a superb test for the Vikings. The winner here will certainly deserve a spot in the NFC Championship Game.
The weekly replay rant
The final 22 seconds of the first half of the Falcons-Rams game took nine minutes, 22 seconds to play. The replay process continues to be dysfunctional and plodding.
Latest example: First quarter, Saturday night, Falcons at Rams. A Falcons punt falls to earth and—as replays would clearly show—bounces off Rams safety Blake Countess and then Rams returner Pharoh Cooper, and then into a pig-pile, and the Falcons recover. Ref Ed Hochuli signals: Falcons ball. Start the clock.
1:22. The third NBC replay clearly shows the ball first hit Countess’s foot. So then, obviously, the ball is free to be recovered by anyone. This is 82 seconds after Hochuli first made his signal, but there’s no question that the New York NFL officiating center has now seen several replays—and surely the replay that shows the ball hitting Countess’s foot.
2:17. Hochuli walks from sideline to address nation, presumably with a confirmation of the call on the field—Falcons ball.
2:22. Inexplicably, Hochuli gets on his mike for what should have been a confirmation of the call on the field. He says: “We will review the ruling.” FOR WHAT! WE KNOW WHAT HAPPENED!!!!
3:34. The Coliseum PA system begins playing the “Jeopardy” theme song.
4:09. Hochuli confirms the ruling, beginning, “The ball was first touched by the receiving team.” Al Michaels mutters on NBC: “No kidding.”
At the end, in all quarters and in living rooms all over America, there had to be the same disbelief in this broken process as I felt.
“We moan about it every week,” a disgusted Michaels said on NBC. “What are you gonna do?”
“Golden Globes speech,” Cris Collinsworth said.
This process simply must be streamlined. Within 82 seconds of the play happening on the field, we saw a replay confirming that two Rams touched the ball. It is inexcusable to take four minutes and nine seconds from the time a play happens to adjudicate it, when, in half that time, TV replays show exactly what happened.
In the last 22 seconds of the first half, there was a 3-minute, 31-second delay between the ruling of a Todd Gurley catch on the field and the near-running of the next play, and then the eventual overruling of the Gurley catch.
Officiating is hard. The NFL, by making it a science and drawing out the process, is turning off fans and going against the original intent of replay, which is to correct obviously wrong calls quickly. That’s not happening. At all. This has to be a priority for Roger Goodell, the Competition Committee and the Officiating Department in February.
Finally: The time of game was 3:17. The average time of game for a 2017 regular-season game was 3:05.51. You can’t make judgments on how the game is dragging based on one game, to be sure. But you can’t tell me that, with a streamlined replay process that should be significantly better with centralized replay and the tablet being brought to the field to make the referee’s replay-analysis quicker, you couldn’t have shaved at least four minutes off the process in the first half of this game alone.
Ode to Carson Palmer
Carson Palmer, the quarterback, retired Tuesday at 38, after a 14-year NFL career with Cincinnati, Oakland and Arizona. He had his down seasons, and his down moments, and there will be those people in Cincinnati who will forever feel he never delivered the way the first pick in the 2003 draft should. I’d counter by saying Palmer got the long-struggling Bengals to the playoffs in 2005, and got his knee caved in during a playoff game against Pittsburgh 12 years ago today, and came back to be a proficient quarterback for four more seasons—until Bengaldom (that’s Boomer Esiason’s pet word for the frustrations of playing in Cincinnati) got to him, and Palmer said he’d retire unless he could play elsewhere. That elsewhere led to parts of seven more seasons, and to 140 touchdown passes, and, ultimately, to a crushing playoff bummer at Carolina in the NFC title game two years ago.
I’ll remember Palmer for a few reasons. He was unfailingly polite; when he got drafted by Cincinnati he kept calling club owner Mike Brown “Mr. Brown,” and was deferential to a fault. He took his job so seriously; in 2009 I gathered Palmer, Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo for a quarterback roundtable, and Palmer was jonesing about it before and after, loving the stories from the other passers. “That was great,” he told me over a beer afterward. “We ought to do it more often.” I’ll remember his 2015 season, when he took the deep pass to an art form. Pro Football Focusrated Palmer the best quarterback in football that year, in part because he threw the ball downfield as consistently well as it can be done.
And I’ll remember him as a guy who loved his craft and worked exceedingly hard at it. In 2015, I asked Palmer if he would let me do a story on a week in the life of a quarterback. I told him it would be a way for him (and maybe his kids one day) to see what he did for a living, in full color, for all those years before he retired to be a full-time dad, or whatever the future held for him. He liked the idea. Bruce Arians tolerated the idea. But both helped me pull it off into one of my favorite stories (in two parts) in 37 years as a sportswriter. The pieces:
I was lucky to find two men so open to discussing what the job of being a quarterback is really like. Watching Arians divine what would be in his game plan early in the week, I saw this in game plan control at the Cardinals’ offices in Tempe:
There is a section smack dab in the middle of the white board headed HOME RUN. It means exactly how it sounds: big shots, far downfield.
Arians picks out six Home Runs per week. This week, one of the Home Runs stands out above all: Pistol Strong Right Stack Act 6 Y Cross Divide. “I love the play this week,” Arians says.
Pistol means Palmer will take the snap four yards behind center. It’s a short shotgun snap. Strong tells the fullback (backup center A.Q. Shipley, in this case) to line up to the tight-end side of the formation. Right is the side the tight end will line up on, assuming the ball is spotted in the middle of the field or the right hash. Stack tells the two wide receivers on the play to line up in a stack to the opposite side of the formation from the tight end. Act 6 is the protection, telling the two backs which linebacker to block if the ’backers rush; the fullback will seal the tight-end side, while the running back will take the blitzer from the middle or weak side, if there is one. Y Cross Divide comprises the two routes run by the wide receivers. The Y, or slot receiver, will run a deep cross through the formation and hope to take a safety with him, while the split end in the stack will run a divide route; that means the split end, likely Larry Fitzgerald, will run a stutter-and-go, running maybe seven yards downfield, faking toward the sideline, then sprinting downfield. The route is divided into two segments, the first ending in the deke to the right, and then the go.
That’s the kind of stuff Palmer and Arians shared, and there’s much more. I did want to say upon Palmer’s retirement that his contribution to football is not only as a great thrower of the ball, and quarterback of a consistent playoff team in Arizona, but on the educational side too. I’m grateful to him (and Arians) for opening up their lives to show exactly how the position is played, and coached, in a game week.
As the Patriots turn…
My takeaways from the kerfuffle over the ESPN Patriots’ expose about Tom Brady guru Alex Guerrero, and how the Jimmy Garoppolo trade went down, and whether this is the last year of the Kraft/Belichick/Brady team after 18 years together:
• The Patriots haven’t been as angry about anything since the Tom Brady deflated footballs scandal. Apoplectic might be a better word.
• I have never heard Robert Kraft more strident about anything—and that includes Spygate and Deflategate—than he was on the phone with me about the accusation that he mandated that Garoppolo be traded in a meeting with Belichick before the October trade deadline. As I wrote Saturday, Kraft said such an in-season meeting never happened. Garoppolo was dealt to San Francisco for a second-round pick on Oct. 30. Kraft’s voice rose, his ire clear sentence after sentence, as he insisted he did not tell Belichick to make the trade. I have known Kraft since soon after he bought the team in 1994, and the one thing that sets him off is someone questioning his word. That’s why this set him off.
• Bill Belichick drawing a line in the sand, as both the Boston Globeand ESPN reported, about Guerrero has actually been a good thing for the organization. Before, there was a hazy line about Guerrero’s role with the team inside the building and on the sidelines. I can’t think of any coaches who would then restrict the access of the man who is closest to a five-time Super Bowl quarterback and possibly the best quarterback in history. But Belichick did. Now players other than Brady can be treated by Guerrero, but only independently, at the facility adjacent to Gillette Stadium that Guerrero operates.
• I think Belichick coaches the team in 2018. Beyond that? We’re reaching the end of this great era. I just don’t know exactly when it’ll end. Kraft had some adamant words for me when I asked if there’s any way he’d consider trading Belichick. Basically, the answer was no, or maybe NO NO NO.
• I doubt this is the end, as I say. But think of what has transpired over 18 years if it is: five Super Bowl wins (perhaps a sixth in the next month), and a run of greatness that includes a league record 12 regular-season wins or more in each of the past seven seasons. Think about it. Eighteen years. Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr and the publicly owned Packers lasted nine years together. Chuck Noll, Terry Bradshaw and the Rooney family lasted a far rockier 13 together. Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Eddie DeBartolo lasted 10.
And that’s how I’ll leave this. In my time covering the NFL, 34 seasons, the gold standard of an owner-coach-quarterback trio, with much justification, has been San Francisco’s DeBartolo-Walsh-Montana. Ten seasons, seven playoff appearances, six division titles, three Super Bowl wins.
You decide if it’s time to rethink the best triumvirate in modern football history. Kraft, Belichick and Brady, in 18 years together, have 15 playoff appearances, 15 division titles and five Super Bowl wins. What will be will be going forward, but we’re not going to see a run like this again.
Quotes of the Week
“There’s some calls we want back. That’s probably one of them.”
—Buffalo coach Sean McDermott, on the play selection in the first half at Jacksonville, when, in a scoreless game late in the first half, the Bills had first-and-goal at the Jacksonville 1-yard line and chose to pass instead of handing it to LeSean McCoy.
The Bills, after an offensive pass interference call, ended up kicking a field goal to end the drive. That was their best chance at points all afternoon. The Buffalo coaches will be thinking about those play calls for a while.
“I haven’t had any support … So no, I just assumed the worst.”
—Tennessee coach Mike Mularkey, asked after the Titans’ 22-21 win at Kansas City if he’d been told anything by Titans management after rumors swirled earlier Saturday that he could be fired if the Titans didn’t win this game.
A tad ominous … at least until Sunday afternoon. “Mike Mularkey is our head coach and will be our head coach moving forward,” owner Amy Adams Strunk said in a statement.
“It was a special day. It was rocking. We wanted to get it done for the fans. Ultimately we didn’t.”
—Losing quarterback Jared Goff of the Rams, the highest-scoring NFL team in 2017. The Rams scored 13 points on Saturday night.
“It's hard to say, 'Wow, this guy really was outstanding.’ Kirk had his flashes where he was really good. From a consistent standpoint, over the course of 16 games, we're 7-9. He did some great things, threw for over 4,000 yards and  touchdowns. He's a very, very good quarterback without a doubt, but as far as getting us over the hump from 7-9 to winning the division with all the injuries we had, he competed and did some good things."
—Washington coach Jay Gruden, on Kirk Cousins.
The relevant snippet: “As far as getting us over the hump … he competed.” I do not dispute the accuracy of the quote. Cousins, at best, treaded water in a disappointing 7-9 season. But the starkness of those words made me think Washington could very well let Cousins test the free-agent market.
Then what happens? Would he choose the riches of Cleveland or the Jets? Or maybe less money but the faith in the front office in Denver or Arizona? Either way, the end of Cousins in Washington is now a realistic notion.
—Patriots owner Robert Kraft, when I asked him in the wake of the ESPN story claiming discord atop the New England franchise if he believes Bill Belichick will be the coach of the team in 2018.
“I felt like it was the right thing to do. I had absolutely no idea it would pick up steam like this.”
—Bills fan Kevin Forrest, after contributing $30 to the Andy Dalton Foundation, starting a run of generosity that stunned Bills fans and Dalton alike—more than $300,000 has been contributed to the Andy Dalton Foundation after the Cincinnati’s quarterback’s fourth-and-12 touchdown pass in the final minute beat Baltimore and allowed the Bills to make the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
Forrest lives in Grand Island, Neb. Yes, a Nebraskan started this avalanche. Good story by Aaron Besecker in the Buffalo News about it.
Sign of the Week
SEMPER ANNUS ALTER ERIT
—At the downtown Cleveland parade mourning the 0-16 Browns season on Saturday. Translation from Latin: “There’s always next year.”
I could also have used BISHOP OF THE WEEK from the parade. The Associated Pressfound a man dressed in Catholic vestments carrying a sign reading: “Deliver us from Jimmy and Dee.” Haslam, presumably. The Browns owners have presided over a slightly unlucky 2-40 stretch for the franchise.
The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Marcus Mariota, quarterback/receiver/blocker, Tennessee. This was the absolutely perfect game to show why Tennessee drafted Mariota, and preferred Mariota, with the second pick in the 2015 draft. Mariota threw for two touchdowns—one to himself—and had a beautiful, win-sealing block for Derrick Henry in the final minutes to clinch a shocking 22-21 victory over the Chiefs. The first NFL playoff game of Mariota’s life will also be the most memorable one. The highlight: the scramble, throw, bat, catch, dive and touch the pylon with the ball for a 6-yard touchdown, the first quarterback in NFL playoff history to throw a touchdown pass to himself. “It’s hard to explain,” Mariota said. “I really got lucky there. I kind of was in the right place at the right time.”
Michael Thomas, wide receiver, New Orleans. Best receiver on the playoff field this weekend. The second-year ex-Buckeye, in his first NFL playoff game, came up huge: eight catches on nine Drew Brees targets for 131 yards. Two of the catches I don’t know how he gripped; and his 46-yard catch and run gave the Saints a 12-point lead with five minutes left. He slithers through coverage, he doesn’t get blocked off routes, he catches the ball like Beckham. What more do you want in a receiver? Thomas was critical to the Saints’ first playoff win in six years.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Aaron Donald, defensive lineman, L.A. Rams. Pressure player of the weekend number one. Donald swarmed Matt Ryan relentlessly (particularly in the first half), getting half a sack and recording 10 pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
Calais Campbell, defensive end, Jacksonville. Pressure player of the weekend number two. No sacks, but three quarterback hits and four more pressures, according to PFF. Jacksonville has made a few quality defensive signings in free agency in the GM Dave Caldwell regime, but none more impactful than this giant ex-Cardinal.
Cam Jordan, defensive end, New Orleans. Pressure player of the week number three. With a sack of Cam Newton, a huge forced intentional grounding on the final drive of the game, and an uncredited assist to safety Vonn Bell’s game-ending sack, Jordan continued what’s been one of the best seasons by a defensive player in football this year. A huge player, again, in the Saints’ biggest win of the season.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Matt Bryant, kicker, Atlanta. A kicker’s dream, January football in L.A.: 60 degrees, no wind, aggressive Ram defense stunting Falcon drives. For the Falcons to win, Bryant needed to be huge. Indeed, he was. Bryant’s 29- and 51-yard field goals put the Falcons up 6-0 in the first quarter, and his 35- and 54-yard field goals put the Falcons up in the third quarter. Great night for the 42-year-old.
Brad Nortman, punter, Jacksonville.In a field-position game, Nortman’s nine punts made Buffalo start at its 34-, 4-, 14-, 16-, 10-, 8-, 26-, 34- and 37-yard lines. Nine punts, 21 return yards. Not a bad day in the swirling winds for the former Wisconsin Badger.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Todd Wash, defensive coordinator, Jacksonville.The (still) virtually unknown defensive strategist had a good plan to confound Buffalo—don’t worry about what Tyrod Taylor could do with his arm; worry about the legs of Taylor and LeSean McCoy. Those two managed 102 rushing yards, but not any killer runs, and the Jags held Buffalo to 45 percent passing, consistently swarming the quarterback and the ball-carriers. Wash is a Montanan in his 12th year as an NFL assistant, and is finally getting some head-coaching buzz. It could be a year or two early, but I can tell you a couple of GMs who’ve noticed Wash and are asking questions about his vastly improved defense and wondering if he has the stuff to be a head coach.
GOATS OF THE WEEK
Matt Nagy, offensive coordinator, and Andy Reid, head coach, Kansas City. A truly ridiculous loss by the Chiefs, highlighted by a strange abandonment of the running game. They share the goat award here, because they share the play-calling. Reid said wryly afterward: “He called the good ones, I called the bad ones.” The biggest fault I find is this: You’ve got the NFL rushing champion, Kareem Hunt, fully healthy, and he gives you the early lead with a one-yard bull-rush touchdown, and in the last 48 minutes of the games, you hand him the ball five times. Five rushes in the last 48 minutes. “It’s criminal,” Terrell Davis said on NFL Network, speaking of Hunt’s 11 carries for the game. “Criminal … They got out-coached in the second half.”
Kaelin Clay, wide receiver, Carolina.Late in the first quarter of a scoreless game at New Orleans, on third-and-two from the New Orleans’ seven, Cam Newton threw an absolutely perfect pass to Clay, in a sliver of an opening at the left side of the end zone. The ball went right through Clay’s hands. I mean, that was the easiest seven points the Panthers had all season, and it happens when they could have taken a lead in the biggest game of the season. “I don’t think Cam Newton could have walked this ball and handed it off any better than where he placed it,” Troy Aikman said on FOX. “You just have to make that catch in a game like this.” Couldn’t have said it better. Then Graham Gano pushed a 25-yard three-pointer wide right. Half a quarter later, the Saints had a 14-3 lead.
Factoid That May Interest Only Me
The Rams signed free-agent linebacker Kasim Edebali on Dec. 20.
The Rams played at Tennessee on Dec. 24. Edebali was inactive against the Titans, but Los Angeles won the NFC West title that day. Edebali, like all his teammates, got an NFC West championship cap in the locker room after the game.
The Rams cut Edebali on Dec. 27. The Saints signed Edebali on Dec. 28.
The Saints played at Tampa Bay on Dec. 31. Edebali was inactive against the Bucs, but New Orleans won the NFC South title that day. Edebali, like all his teammates, got an NFC South championship cap in the locker room after the game.
Eight days, zero snaps, two hats.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note
I did not travel last week. I was in Antarctica. An early column haiku:
Minus-5 wind chill.
Halftime. Falcs-Rams. Walk dog. AAAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!
Frozen Chuck. Forlorn.
Tweets of the Week
As you might have inferred, 64 is Bills offensive lineman Richie Incognito. I reached out to Incognito for his response to this accusation, but had not heard back by 1 a.m. ET Monday morning. This will be a developing story to watch this week.
This is so incredibly true. If the New York Giants meet with four head-coaching candidates, and you hear a snippet of, “This guy’s got the inside track,” just be careful. These meetings are so long, with so much entailed, and with no motivation from the team officials to explain with total truth who is in the lead, that it can often lead to speculation not based in truth. Thanks to Hatman for pointing this out, after having been on the other side of the curtain.
New section of the column this season, as part of The MMQB’s partnership with State Farm. Each week, I’ll ask an NFL person about his most valuable possession.
Deion Jones, middle linebacker, Atlanta. So I always insist on someone giving me his favorite material possession, but Jones was so fired up about his daughter, and about his tattoo honoring her, that I’m making an exception here.
“It’s my 7-month-old daughter, Kali-Rae Jones. She is the reason why I get up, why I do what I do. I leave it all out there on the field, in practice and games, for her. I got a tattoo for her. I tattooed her name, and put it under some trees. Like: My love, you’re protected. She lights up my days.”
From “The MMQB Podcast With Peter King,” available where you download podcasts.
This week’s conversations: NBC and Bleacher ReportNFL analyst Chris Simms, and Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
• Simms, a third-round pick of Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2003 and son of the former Giants quarterback, on what the Raiders should expect out of their new head coach: “I don't think we had an offense better than 18th. He took over a situation that was a defensive team … They had to trade away two first-round picks to get him, so that hurt the ability for the offense to get more talent right there alone. He's the mad scientist. I never doubted that this day [being hired as a head coach again] would come. I knew he was going to be a head coach one day as soon as the scenario was right and he felt like his off-the-field life was where he wanted it to be. He is a football coach. He wants to be locked in a room and watch film. He wants to draw plays and be the mad scientist, he wants to get up in front of the team and motivate, he wants to get up in front of the offense and teach, and he wants to take it to the field. That's what he is at the end of the day. He likes being the boss too. He likes calling the shots. I'm not shocked at all.
“He's hard on the quarterbacks. You can't quantify that stat of Tom Brady being a d--k, for lack of a better word, for him holding the offense accountable every day at a practice. There is no stat that quantifies that. Trust me, they are all scared of Tom. They were all scared of Peyton Manning in Denver or Indy … They are going to change [quarterback Derek Carr] in a hurry. You need that. Bill Parcells said to my dad once, ‘I don't need a cruise director, I need a battleship commander.’ And that's playing quarterback in the NFL. You've got to be a leader and not afraid to be unpopular in the locker room and say things that need to be said even though guys might not like you.”
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think three things about the Jon Gruden deal with Oakland:
• It’s a good hire. It truly is, and the Raiders (particularly the moribund offense that was awful in 2017) need a cold slap in the face from a nutty—in a good way—guy like Gruden. Derek Carr needs a competent mentor in the passing game to coach him hard, and to teach him how to captain a ship.
• It’s not without risks, to be sure. Gruden, in his last six seasons as an NFL head coach, won 45 and lost 53, and won zero playoff games, and developed no long-term quarterback. Isn’t all of that counter to why Mark Davis is hiring him?
• There’s something about the money that seems—while certainly not unfair—a little bit out of whack with even the NFL’s warped reality. The Raiders are paying Jon Gruden $100 million to coach football for a decade. I’m truly not saying he won’t be worth it. But suppose he burns out in six years, or five. This is an intense human being who’s been out of the fire for nine years. What are the odds he lasts 10 years? Fifteen percent? Twenty? Thirty? Four of the 32 NFL teams are being coached by a man who’s been in the coaching seat there for 10 seasons or longer. Say Gruden lasts six, and gets fired. Imagine the Raiders owing him $40 million, or whatever the structure of the deal mandates he gets paid in the final four years. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have done this if I were Davis. I’m saying the Raiders could end up paying Gruden a sick sum to not work if this doesn’t work out.
2. I think these are my quick thoughts on wild-card weekend:
a. I thought Cam Newton was excellent on many levels Sunday, and if Kaelin Clay catches a perfectly thrown touchdown pass in the first quarter, there’s a good chance it’s Carolina at Minnesota on Sunday.
b. Never thought I’d see Sean Payton dancing in a locker room, or anywhere. That’s what beating one of your archrivals in the playoffs does.
c. New Orleans and Jacksonville have ridiculously punishing defenses.
d. If it’s only about football, Julius Peppers should certainly play next year.
e. Congrats to Brian Gutekunst for stepping into the seat held for the past quarter-century by Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson. I’ve heard nothing but good about Gutekunst; he’s a scout’s scout.
f. How much do you think Marcel Dareus loved bursting through the Bills’ line and dropping LeSean McCoy for a three-yard first-quarter loss?
g. No team reached midfield in the first quarter of Bills-Jags. “Field-position game,” said Tony Romo.
h. Calais Campbell saved the Jags four points with his shoelace tackle of Tyrod Taylor, running for the end zone inside the 5-yard line late in the first half.
i. Not saying it cost the Panthers the game, but as Ron Rivera said post-game, the fourth-down interception by Carolina’s Mike Adams cost the Panthers 20 yards on the biggest drive of the season. Said Rivera: "You wish he would have dropped it or batted it down, just knowing the situation and circumstances."
j. Most important number of the weekend: 74,300. That was the Rams-Falcons attendance at the Los Angeles Coliseum Saturday night. Pretty good.
k. Advice to the equipment managers who have to play at the Coliseum in December and January: Pack the longer cleats for night games.
l. Saved by the win: Eric Decker of the Titans, with a huge drop early at Kansas City, and a huge touchdown catch late.
m. Best example of the weekend of playoff pressure getting to a guy: Rams return man Pharoh Cooper. Every time the ball got near him on a return, it looked like he got nervous. Very nervous.
n. Al Michaels with the line of the first half Saturday night, when a laconic Larry David was shown on-screen: “Curb your enthusiasm, Larry.”
o. I heard that “Curb” theme song, Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff.
p. Robert Alford played a very good game for the Falcons at cornerback. Two huge pass breakups, and only a 39.5 pass rating allowed, per Pro Football Focus.
q. The Rams thought Robert Woods was the hidden gem of their free-agent offseason shopping. And the way he played against Atlanta, particularly catching two seeds from Jared Goff, illustrated how important he’s been to the Ram offense.
r. Deion Jones is just 6'1", and weighs just 223, but he’s the perfect instinctive chaser in the middle of the Atlanta defense.
s. Man, Brian Poole of the Falcons is a heck of a tackler. Ask Todd Gurley.
3. I think this concussion protocol might just require an act of Congress to get right. Last week the NFL said it would mandate a locker-room evaluation for concussion “for all players demonstrating gross or sustained vertical instability (e.g., stumbling or falling to the ground when trying to stand).” On Sunday in New Orleans, Cam Newton got hit hard twice on a Saints’ pass rush, and he appeared to be squinting and wincing, particularly in his right eye, when the FOX cameras zoomed in. After a couple of moments down, Newton headed for the sidelines, but couldn’t make it. He dropped to one knee, and team medics examined him again. He went inside the blue sideline tent and apparently never went to the locker room. Newton missed one play and went back in the game. Now, the Panthers may argue that Newton never demonstrated “gross or sustained” vertical instability. We’ll find out soon enough, as the NFL officially has launched an investigation into how things were handled. Expect much more on this story this week.
4. I think the best way to explain Mike Brown keeping Marvin Lewis—after he couldn’t get Jay Gruden or Hue Jackson—for a 16th season is this: Brown can’t quit Lewis. Brown is a prisoner of familiarity.
5. I think Lewis didn’t seem like a man all-in for the Bengals’ extension the day before it happened. I’m told he was investigating TV jobs to see what was out there.
6. I think the Panthers have it right. If the coach works, keep him—for a long time. And Ron Rivera is working well in Carolina. When you win 12, 7, 15, 6 and 11 games in five straight seasons, and make the playoffs in four of the five seasons, it’s a no-doubter that this is your coach of the future. Smart for GM Marty Hurney to get a two-year extension done before Sunday’s playoff game in New Orleans, leaving no doubt about the faith this suddenly shaky-at-the-top franchise has in the head coach.
7. I think this was an excellent point by retired and insightful quarterback Dan Orlovsky, after the mistake-prone crew of ref Jeff Triplette made multiple errors in Tennessee-Kansas City: “That’s on the NFL. Crews should be younger, in better physical condition, have annual tests for that, and their eyes. Greatest athletes in the world moving incredibly fast. These men aren’t equipped to handle that.” When the NFL studies crews, the league must study the athleticism and reaction times as well.
8. I think, of all the people leaving pro football at the end of this season, we cannot forget Len Dawson, who did his last Chiefs broadcast on the Kansas City radio network pregame show on Saturday afternoon. (Dawson, 82, works home games only.) He thus ends a 60-year affiliation with pro football. His career:
• 1957-1959—Pittsburgh. The fifth pick in the first round couldn’t win the starting job over Bobby Layne and got traded after the ’59 season.
• 1960-1961—Cleveland. He can’t beat out Milt Plum and gets released by ’61.
• 1962-1975—Kansas City. MVP of the AFL in 1962 (when the Chiefs were the Dallas TEx, Super Bowl IV MVP, Pro Football Hall of Famer. Check out this photo. That is Dawson, at halftime of Super Bowl I, in the bowels of the Los Angeles Coliseum 51 years ago, smoking a cigarette and drinking a Fresca. One of the classic old football images. Imagine Tom Brady sucking on a Camel.
• 1977-2001—HBO “Inside the NFL” host.
• 1985-2017—Chiefs radio network analyst, then pregame host.
What a football life he’s had. This is the mark of a good man, and impactful man: I have never met a soul who had a bad thing to say about Len Dawson. Godspeed to him. One of my favorite notes about Dawson is that he’s the seventh son from an Ohio family, and his father was a seventh son.
9. I think I’m going to miss talking to Bruce Arians, about football and other topics. I’ll have more from a recent conversation with Arians soon at The MMQB.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Happy Story of the Week: You know my love of “When Breath Becomes Air,” the book of great life lessons by the late neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi. You may remember my podcast with his widow, Lucy Kalanithi. Now comes news of the new life of Lucy Kalanithi, and it sounds incredibly touching and incredibly happy—from Nora Krug of the Washington Post.
b. Sad Story of the Week: from “The Lives They Lived,” the annual marvelous special issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine about the people of note who died in the previous year, an ode to DeMarlon Thomas, a victim of apparent gang violence in Michigan, by Ruth Padower.
c. Many of you who read this column might not know Robert Siegel. He retired Friday after hosting the last of a 30-year run of “All Things Considered” afternoon news programs on National Public Radio. He is a gem, one of the calmest, straight-down-the-middle newsmen of our lives. I’ll really miss him delivering the news, soberly, at 4 p.m. every weekday, the soundtrack of my late afternoons for decades.
d. From Siegel, on Friday, thinking back 40 years, to when he started at NPR, wondering if what he liked was what the country liked: “We didn't imagine a great distinction between people like us, who reported the news, and people like you, who listened to it. We weren't the only curious people in the country. There had to be millions more Americans out there who would welcome a smart, conversational program about politics, culture, science, the arts and just plain fun.” There were. There are. Thank you, Robert.
e. Man, Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith is a really good football player. He’s got radar for the ball like Luke Kuechly.
f. But … Alabama 20, Georgia 17.
g. Rutgers loses to Stony Brook, Hartford and Purdue by a combined 35, then beats Wisconsin 64-60. College basketball’s a funny game.
h. TV Story of the Week: (I could give it to this man many, many weeks.) Steve Hartman of CBS News, on a fourth-grade teacher in Florida who gave the mom of one of her students an incredible gift.
i. That’s life, UCF.
j. Coffeenerdness: The black-and-white mocha is a keeper, Starbucks.
k. Beernerdness: It wasn’t a week in New York for beer. It hasn’t been a fortnight for beer, really. So can I give you Sparklingwaternerdness? LaCroix Tangerine, in 12-ounce cans, is wonderful.
l. Finished part 10 (the end) of “The Vietnam War,” the superb documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, and I can’t praise it enough. The stuff in the last part about the building of the memorial wall in Washington was touching and emotional.
m. Great touch: The closing song in the doc was “Let It Be,” by the Beatles. A great song anyway, but so perfect here. I have no idea if this had anything to do with it, but “Let It Be” was released in the same May 1970 week that four students were shot dead at Kent State in one of the defining moments of the antiwar movement.
n. Saw The Post, the movie with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. It is fantastic. So real, down to the linotype machines that, 46 years ago, were the machines that printed newspapers. The movie is about the socialite publisher of the Washington Post, Katherine Graham, who inherited the paper after the death of her husband, and soon was confronted with the monumental decision whether to go against the Nixon Administration and a court decree to not publish the Pentagon Papers. Those papers told the true story of how presidential administrations (plural) misled the American public about Vietnam. Meryl Streep plays Graham, and she is phenomenal as an American hero in an age when female heroes were scarce. Tom Hanks plays the paper’s managing editor, Ben Bradlee, who pushed and pushed and pushed Graham toward solid and aggressive journalism. Hanks is phenomenal, with just the right touch of irascibility and realness. And it’s always reassuring to see Steven Spielberg directing, because you know the movie’s going to be as realistic as a filmmaker can make it. Strongly recommended.
o. All the fake-news howlers should see the movie too. We may be constantly at odds. But this movie will explain why so many kids grow up wanting to be reporters, and seekers of the truth. I will forever stand behind this business, and every loyal American should too.
The Adieu Haiku
Do not mourn, Rams fans.
Greatness can come with hiccups.
Take a bow, McVay.
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