- Also, the Steelers defense in crisis, solving some problems for the Vikings offense, you’re about to be really upset about the Chargers or Chiefs going on the road for a wild-card game, Foles gets to play hero or at least impress some 2019 suitors, the matchup of the day is Colts-Cowboys, and Saluki Facts™. Plus, musical guest: Pearl Jam!
1a. A couple weeks ago, I wrote about how silly it is that most of the football-watching population judges coaches solely on in-game management. It’s because playing Madden is about 90% in-game management decisions, whereas coaching real, live human beings against an opponent comprised of similarly real, live human beings over 16 games—game-planning, motivating players, managing a locker room, etc.—is probably about 10% game-management decisions. For instance, Andy Reid is probably the worst coach of all-time when it comes to clock management, but it doesn’t matter because he’s so good in every other aspect of his job.
But, whoa boy, it’s tough to stomach what Vance Joseph has done in the second half of this season. There was the brutal string of decisions that cost them against Houston in Week 9—attempting a loooonnnng field goal at the end of the first half which then gave the Texans a chance to get three points of their own (which they did), then the ultra-conservative play at the end of the game, settling for yet another loooonnnng field goal that missed, adding up to a 19-17 loss.
What happened on Saturday night was unconscionable. Down four with 4:39 to go, facing a fourth-and-1 at the Cleveland 6, Joseph sent out the field-goal unit. Folks tend to get lost in the numbers, which are little more than loose guidelines as opposed to rock-hard certainties. But Joseph was banking on his defense—which at that point had suffered so many losses in the secondary that it was playing a burlap sack filled with grass clippings with a jersey draped over it at slot corner—giving up no more than one first down on the ensuing drive when playing under 2018 rules. And then Case Keenum and a group of receivers and tight ends consisting of Courtland Sutton and guys who were limited to special teams snaps a month ago were going to have to take the ball back into scoring position with no timeouts left. The same offense Joseph didn’t trust to get a yard to keep the previous drive alive.
The Broncos play hard for Joseph, and this team’s ceiling has been limited by the bottom-of-the-league quarterback play it has gotten since Joseph arrived. I genuinely believe he should get a third year—or, at some point, a year with a serviceable quarterback to lead his offense. But what he did Saturday night, that’s a heck of a way to end your season and with your job on the line.
1b. I don’t know about Gregg Williams, but the Browns have to figure out a way to keep Freddie Kitchens and Baker Mayfield together, right? Like that INXS song? And they could never, ever tear us apart? Or like that other INXS song, So slide over here and give me a moment your moves are so raw I’ve got to let you know you’re one of my kind? But probably more like the first INXS song I mentioned. And if keeping Kitchens means keeping Williams... yeah, do it.
1c. The Generation X in me wants to be a cynical jerk about Baker Mayfield, but he is fun to watch and man is he likable.
2a. Here’s what’s wrong with the Texans: I don’t really know. The offense seems disjointed any time they can’t establish the run, but it shouldn’t be struggling this badly considering Deshaun Watson is so good at creating plays late in the down.
On Saturday against the Jets, at least until the fourth quarter, Watson looked consistently frazzled by the same kind of blitzes that overwhelmed him against the Colts a week ago, either pulling it down and taking a sack or throwing the ball exactly where the Jets wanted it to go. It’s probably partly on Watson, partly on the coaching staff and partly on the fact that Houston’s non-DeAndre Hopkins weapons are pretty lame. Throw in a defense that really can’t truly dominate with that level of cornerback play (Aaron Colvin? Has anyone seen Aaron Colvin?!) and a red-zone offense limited to Hopkins doing something insane, and this has the feel of a second-tier team despite all the headliners on the roster. Watson-to-Hopkins bailing the team out will beat the Jets, but that’s not going to get it done in January.
2b. Sam Darnold is going to be good once he figures out what he’s doing in the pre-snap phase and also in the first three seconds after the snap. (And getting Le’Veon Bell into the lineup next season will help too.)
3a. Do you want to know a great factoid? If you lined up a representative from every mammal on the planet for a 5K race, the winner would not be a cheetah, but the Saluki. The long-legged hounds can not only reach sprinting speeds over 40 mph, but centuries of hunting jackals, foxes and gazelles for the nomadic tribes of the Middle East (and later rabbits in England) led to Salukis developing incredible stamina as runners—not only exceptional aerobic capacity but heavily padded paws that limit wear and tear on their bodies. The fact that Salukis don’t dominate every moment of the Westminster Dog Show is a crime for which someone, someday, will have to answer.
Do you want to know another great factoid? The Steelers and Patriots last faced each other in Week 15 of last season. The Jesse James catch-that-wasn’t-a-catch game was Dec. 17, 2017, so 364 days, less than a year. Six players scored touchdowns in that game. There’s a realistic chance that none of those six players will have a single touch in the rematch on Sunday.
• Only two of the six are still on either roster this year. Rex Burkhead (1-yard TD run in the first quarter) is currently the No. 3 back for New England, and Steelers receiver Eli Rogers (18-yard TD catch in the first quarter), hasn’t made an appearance this year due to suspension and injury (there’s reportedly a chance he’ll be active for the first time this season on Sunday).
• Martavis Bryant (4-yard TD catch with 25 seconds left in the first half) was dealt to Oakland for a third-round pick that became backup QB Mason Rudolph.
• Brandin Cooks (4-yard TD catch in the third quarter) was traded to the Rams for the first-round pick that became OL Isaiah Wynn, who missed his rookie year with a knee injury.
• Le’Veon Bell (3-yard TD run in the third quarter) is sitting out the year rather than be run into the ground on the franchise tag after the Steelers failed to make what any rational person would consider an offer in line with the current market for one of the league’s true difference-makers among offensive weapons.
• Dion Lewis (8-yard, game-winning TD run with 56 seconds left) signed with the Titans on a market-value deal and then played Bill Belichick's head like a bongo for not re-signing him.*
Plus, Chris Boswell hit a 51-yard field goal in that game. Unclear if he’s related to the Chris Boswell who’s shanking kicks for the Steelers this season.
3b. As for the game they’ll play on Sunday, the Steelers desperately need a better day out of free-agent signee safety Morgan Burnett, whose backside was set ablaze by Jared Cook last week in Oakland. If the Steelers have to consistently devote a double to Rob Gronkowski (rising linebacker L.J. Fort plus Burnett or rookie safety Terrell Edmunds?), they’re going to have an awfully tough time matching up with Josh Gordon and James White and Julian Edelman one-on-one. They could also go blitz-heavy rather than playing coverage, which is playing with hot, hot heat when you’re facing Tom Brady. This feels like a game in which that Steelers offense is going to have to hit on all cylinders and put up 35-40 points to win.
* — Not that the Patriots aren’t frustratingly cheap, especially considering that over the past decade Tom Brady has volunteered to play for the equivalent of a Mother’s Day coupon book—not so fast, Jonathan Kraft, this coupon says “one night of helping dry the dishes,” and I’ve got a sink full of plates encrusted with the remnants of avocado Hot Pockets—but the Dion Lewis situation wasn’t really one of those times they were being cheap.
4. Whether it was the John DeFilippo firing earlier this week or the Norv Turner firing two years ago, there’s been one common denominator in the Vikings’ offensive struggles: The offensive line stinks.
The front five is better than it was two years ago, when the Vikings were the worst pass-protecting group in football, rendering Turner’s offense—heavy on downfield throws—incapable of functioning. This group’s performance a year ago (during which they would be generously assessed as “below average”) was something of a fool’s gold season. Because this year, while the O-line is at least capable of offering minimal resistance against the pass rush, they can’t get any kind of push in the run game, and a robust rushing attack was Mike Zimmer’s Christmas wish upon a Christmas star this Christmas season.
Zimmer’s desire for a run-heavy attack to complement his elite defense doesn’t match up with his team’s build on offense or DeFilippo’s strength as a passing game designer. Lord only knows how promoted QBs coach Kevin Stefanski is going to satisfy his boss’s insatiable appetite for running plays. But one thing he can establish (and something I mentioned before the Packers win, as well as something DeFilippo got away from the past two weeks) is play-action.
An outstanding rushing attack helps the play-action passing game, but as I often discuss with podcast partner and eggnog connoisseur Andy Benoit, it’s not a prerequisite. When Kirk Cousins was one of the most effective play-action passers in football, Washington didn’t have an elite rushing attack to set it up (though that was an issue with their crummy running backs as opposed to their O-line). You’re probably not sucking the linebackers up on third-and-18, or when trailing by 10 points with three minutes left. But play-action can still be effective on first down. A year ago, the Vikings led the league in play-action frequency, using it on 30% of their snaps (according to Football Outsiders). So far this season, they rank 26th in play-action frequency (20%). With Cousins at quarterback and two elite receivers on the outside, that’s no good.
Considering the head coach is now doing everything short of skywriting to let the world know he wants to run the ball, play-action on first down and second-and-medium can work for this offense.
5. Imagining the absurdity of the AFC playoffs running through the StubHub Center is fun for everyone—well, everyone except for the Nelson family, who booked the venue for their son Ira’s 10th birthday party. They’ll have a tough time finding another outdoor venue appropriately sized to host a dozen tween boys for an afternoon of laser tag.
Consider, though, this very possible scenario: The runner-up in the AFC West will have to play a wild-card game on the road at Pittsburgh, an opponent who they not only finished ahead of by multiple games, but who they beat head-to-head on the road. I’m not sure how to explain that to my children without the phrase, “ours is not a just God.”
NFL owners seem to be madly in love with the idea of division winners getting to host a playoff game, and it is neat to emphasize rivalries. But perhaps it’s time to put in a condition that, if the wild-card team finished more than a game ahead of the division winner in the standings, the wild-card team is awarded the higher seed.
6a. The Eagles were going to have a tough test in L.A. even with Carson Wentz in the lineup, and now nothing short of Nick Foles recapturing his form from last postseason will salvage the champs’ season.
This is something of a showcase for Foles as far as finding a starting job for 2019. For teams getting ready to roll the dice on one of the high-risk, high-reward QBs of the upcoming draft class (Jacksonville, Miami, Denver, Washington, Tampa), bridge guys like Foles should be in demand. In fact, he could be one of as many as three former Super Bowl MVPs (with Joe Flacco probably, Eli Manning maybe) available this upcoming offseason. Which seems like it means something but I'm not sure what.
6b. The Rams also have a chance to soothe some jangled nerves after shaky performances in Detroit and Chicago. The Eagles have had to go with more split-safety looks because of their injury problems at cornerback and the loss of stud free safety Rodney McLeod, which is exactly the looks the Lions and Bears gave Jared Goff and Co. the past two weeks. Throw in some underwhelming play from a usually very good offensive line and the inability to fill Cooper Kupp’s shoes in the pass game and the run game, and you have a Rams offense in a mini-crisis. The Eagles are pretty good up front, so a heavy dose of Todd Gurley might not cure what ails them. But the Rams have such an edge among passing-game weapons—that, plus the return to L.A., could be what gets them going again.
7. The Colts offense versus the Cowboys defense will be the best matchup of the day, not merely because of Andrew Luck. It’s the league’s fastest-rising offensive line versus the league’s fastest-rising defensive front seven. So watch it while eating one of those frozen pizzas with the fast-rising crust (it rises even faster if you turn your oven up to 700 degrees and light the pizza on fire before you put it in).
8. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Pearl Jam!
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