I couldn’t stop rewinding and replaying the clip of Baker Mayfield’s two-yard touchdown throw to Antonio Callaway, on Sunday morning. And I bet if you take a look, you won’t be able to watch it just once either.
On the clip, with the Browns down 13-10 to Denver and 11:53 left, Mayfield breaks the huddle and sends three receivers right and two left, while looking out at the defense. He sees something he doesn’t like, so he starts barking at his teammates to come back to him. Then the huddle breaks again, this time with a back next to Mayfield, Callaway to his left and three receivers to his right.
He gets the matchup he wanted—the burner, Callaway, isolated on safety Justin Simmons—and the camera shows him smirking. The rest is academic.
Adjust the protection. Gather the shotgun snap. Wait for Callaway to clear the area that safety Darian Stewart was occupying. Fit the ball into Callaway. Take the lead.
The Browns wouldn’t trail again.
When it was all over—another step toward Cleveland’s future with this 23-year-old phenom, I had to ask interim coach Gregg Williams if what I saw was as impressive as it seemed to me. Because it looked like something you might see from a 10-year vet, not some kid barely a year removed (a year and eight days, to be exact) from hoisting the Heisman Trophy.
“That’s what needs to be done,” Williams said. “Coaches on game day, we are all guessing, and we are all putting things out there, but the guys who are playing inside the white lines need to make the decisions. And when he made the checks, made the audible and went to those things like that, that breeds even more confidence in showing it. He knows what he’s doing.”
The interesting thing about Saturday night’s win for Mayfield is that this wasn’t really his best night. He finished 18 of 31 for 188 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. He came out hot in helping Cleveland score on its first possession but slumped a little from there.
Then he did what he does. He brought belief, and willed his team to a win in one of the most difficult environments for visitors to play in anywhere in the NFL.
“He’s not fake, he’s not phony,” Williams said. “He’s just very legitimate in how he goes about doing his job. He knows he has a really good skill level, but he’s not afraid to impose his attitude or his confidence or his feel in every situation in life. And guys gravitate to that—huge offensive linemen listen to him in the huddle, defensive guys, on the other side the ball. Our guys love the way he’ll jabber and talk and swag back and forth with him in the competition period.
“So he gets the confidence level up, in knowing you’re competing against him.”
Of course, he’s just part of a sudden rebirth in Cleveland. But in a certain way, Mayfield embodies everything Williams has tried to get accomplished in his six weeks in charge, which is a pretty powerful thing for a coach in Williams’ position to have.
What a great week of football. And we’ve got a lot to get to. That’ll include:
• A big bounce-back weekend for the Steelers and Eagles, the NFL’s Pennsylvania teams, both of whom were at serious risk of falling out of the playoff picture entering Sunday.
• The revelation of Lamar Jackson, and what I learned in my conversation with him that reminded me of (I’ll explain) Atlanta’s 2011 trade for Julio Jones.
• How the Vikings’ short week with a coordinator change culminated in a 41-point effort against the Dolphins, and bolstered Minnesota’s playoff hopes.
• Chargers receiver Mike Williams details his big night at Arrowhead, with his take on all his touchdowns, plus the game-winning two-point conversion.
• Coaching carousel nuggets.
• 2019 NFL draft nuggets.
• And of course, a whole lot more from Sunday.
What’s crazy is that if you look at the teams above, the Eagles and Steelers were on the ropes, the Ravens were heading for a coaching change a few weeks back and the Vikings have been sideways for most of the year. Coming out of Week 15, all those teams are moving toward Christmas weekend with a playoff shot.
• MORNING HUDDLE:The Most Dangerous Teams Still in the Playoff Hunt
As are, miraculously, the Browns—slim as their shot may be.
The whole thing about competition Williams was talking about? Yes, Mayfield was like that anyway. Lucky for both guys, then, that it played right into what the interim coach wanted to change when he took the reins from Hue Jackson back on Oct. 29.
Williams put a scoreboard on everything. He changed practices too—scheduling competitive periods at the beginning and end of every session, with scout team work in the middle. So in a way Mayfield became Williams’ salesman without even knowing. After all, it’s easy for the team to invest in the philosophy when the guy taking snaps actually lives his life that way.
“We have won/losses in any competition play period—Who won that period? Was it offense or defense?” Williams says. “And it’s always good when you have a very highly competitive quarterback the way Baker is, because he would like to compete in an argument, he would like to compete in a discussion, he’d like to compete in a joke-telling situation.”
And he competes his tail off on the practice field, which helps serve a greater purpose for Williams.
“We’ve had more competition against each other and less worrying about the opponent each and every week,” Williams says. “Not to say that in a disrespectful way, but a young team at this level has to understand about how fast you have to compete and how perfect you have to compete. And sometimes in a more relaxed or less competitive format, when you’re picturing up scout teams and all that kind of stuff, you’ll lose that execution level.
“Our guys have bought into the execution level. They’ve done a very good job with understanding the pace and the speed, and how exact you have to be to compete at this level. And that’s been a good deal for them to understand that.”
In turn, Williams says he and offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens have tried to pare down what they’re doing schematically to get the team to play fast, which has also worked to pretty good effect. And they’ve been repaid with four-quarter efforts—the Browns trailed going into the final 15 minutes of their last two wins, and kept fighting even after falling behind 23-0 in Houston two weeks ago.
From there, you’ve seen the coaches start to show their trust in the players in how they manage the game, and that came up at a few critical junctures on Saturday night.
First, there was the fourth-and-1 from the Denver 10 with 1:53 left and the Browns holding a 17-16 lead. Williams made the call to go for it, and even though Nick Chubb got stacked up for a two-yard loss, the coach has no regrets.
“That gave our team a chance to say, Hey we’re winning this game here,” Williams said. “We came up to do that, and that’s what we all wanted to do, and I won’t second guess that a bit. And then it was great to see the team rally, because the defense says, Hey, we got your back. Now we’ve got to go out and do our job and do it the way it was supposed to be. That’s how you build camaraderie within the whole team.”
Then there was Williams calling consecutive zero blitzes on Denver’s final two offensive snaps. As was the case with the fourth down, there wasn’t any fear—and there wouldn’t be any regret either way. So my next question for Williams was whether or not he sees an intrinsic benefit that the players get from knowing their staff is going all out.
“There’s a very simple answer to that—I believe emphatically yes,” Williams said. “I think that shows them that we have confidence in you. And now, we say this and I’ve said this for almost 30 years at this level, game days are about the players. And you’ve got to help players do everything you can and not restrict them for that. But that comes from a confidence standpoint too.
“We can go into all the analytics behind, do you go or do you not go, and the percentages. You still have some instinct things, and the message to our team was, We believe in you. I believe in you. Let’s go get it done.”
In a way, that explains Mayfield changing the call on the go-ahead touchdown at the line. As it was explained to me, when the quarterback broke the huddle, he could forecast a pressure that was coming, and that would send heat right into a run play that was called for Duke Johnson. So he calmly stepped back and changed the play.
He knew his coaches were cool with it, so it wasn’t a big deal. And it’s pretty clear that the players are similarly cool with the coaches, which led me to ask Williams what everyone wants to know: Do you think you’ve earned the job full-time.
“I don’t ever even stop to think about it. I really haven’t,” he said. “Everything we’re doing right now as a staff is being organized to give our guys a chance to win each and every week. And when the season gets over, we’ll approach that.”
It’s hard, of course, to think he hasn’t given the idea of getting another shot as a head coach a second thought, given the dress rehearsal he’s getting now. But clearly, it’s not getting in the way of what the Browns—and Mayfield—are getting done.
THE STEELERS AND EAGLES TURN IT AROUND
It was a weird week for the Steelers and Eagles. Both were dealing with quarterback injuries, one more serious than the other. Each was trying to pump life into what seemed like a season slipping away. And each had to go on big stages to play elite opponents with top-shelf quarterbacks.
Here’s guessing that Mike Tomlin and Doug Pederson are a little less testy this week.
When I asked Pittsburgh left tackle Alejandro Villanueva over text early Monday morning if the coaches used this week to challenge them as players, he responded, “It wasn’t a challenge between players and coaches. It was a collective effort to find a way to win.”
Each team found its way in an unlikely place.
At Heinz Field, the Patriots dared the Steelers to run the ball at them, and Pittsburgh—which averaged just 51.5 rushing yards per game over the previous four weeks, and was without workhorse James Conner—answered that bell (I swear, that pun was not intentional). When it was over, Pittsburgh had 158 rushing yards on 25 carries (6.3-yard average), a huge factor in protecting a defense that had only held Tom Brady under 20 points once in 13 previous meetings.
That defense responded by yielding just 10 points, seven fewer than the Steelers have ever given up to Brady. With the win, the Steelers preserved their half-game lead in the AFC North, with tough games ahead for them (at the Saints) and the second-place Ravens (at Chargers).
Meanwhile, the Eagles leaned back on old reliable Nick Foles, who was steady, if not spectacular, and got better as the game went on. Yes, Rams corner Aqib Talib got him in the fourth quarter, coming off his man and stepping in front of Zach Ertz for a pick that breathed life into L.A. But outside of that hiccup, Foles was 15 of 16 for 158 yards after the break, clearly outdueling Jared Goff in the process.
And it was just enough to hold off a late rally from the 11-2 Rams, who’d probably like to have some of their fourth-quarter clock management back.
Of course, this doesn’t guarantee anything for either team. The Steelers still have to go to the Superdome on Sunday, with Baltimore breathing down their necks. The Eagles get the Texans in six days, and will need a little outside help to get in.
But all in all, this week was a pretty important step forward for both teams.
LAMAR JACKSON IS PLAYING IT COOL IN THE RAVENS’ PLAYOFF RUN
I remember one of the keys to Atlanta making its aggressive move up to get Julio Jones in the 2011 draft was a single word Alabama coach Nick Saban used to describe his star to the Falcons brass: “unaffected.”
It’s the first thing I thought of after getting off the phone with Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson late Sunday afternoon. We all think it’s a big deal that, after Sunday’s win over Tampa, he’s moved to 4-1, and came close to 5-0, as a starting quarterback. Along the same lines, we all see it as significant that coach John Harbaugh hitched his wagon, fully, to Jackson this week, entrenching him as starter with incumbent (and former Super Bowl MVP) Joe Flacco cleared to return from a hip injury.
But Jackson himself? He doesn’t really seem to think it’s that big a deal. Almost like it was supposed to happen this way. He is, to borrow Saban’s term, unaffected.
“I don’t really look at it like that,” Jackson said, when I asked him if there was pressure to prove Harbaugh’s decision right. “I just look at it like, ‘Man, you gotta go out here Sunday and play football.’ I don’t really worry about what’s going on with coach’s decision. My job is to help my team win, so that’s what I’m gonna do.”
It’s what he has done, in a very different way than Flacco did, which is the fruition of a plan hatched by Harbaugh and assistants Marty Mornhinweg, Greg Roman and James Urban in the offseason, to design an offense that could morph based on the quarterback. They presented the plan to the personnel staff at draft meetings. That gave GM Ozzie Newsome and his heir next season, Eric DeCosta, peace of mind in positioning the team to get the former Heisman winner.
All of which set the stage for the last month.
No quarterback in NFL history had ever rushed for 70-plus yards in five straight games before. Jackson did that in his first five starts, carrying the ball 26, 11, 17, 14 and 18 times in those games. And the effect he’s having is felt everywhere. The Ravens are averaging 4.9 yards per carry over Jackson’s five starts, after averaging 3.6 yards per carry in their first nine games. That’s a mammoth difference.
And here’s the really jarring number: Baltimore has 1,152 yards rushing on 234 carries over the last five weeks. Harbaugh’s dad’s old boss Bo Schembechler is probably smiling from the heavens, and that’s thanks largely to No. 8.
“I feel like our team’s just coming together,” Jackson said. “We’re just doing what we can to win—whether it’s running the ball, passing the ball … It’s been a lot of running lately. But we’re doing a great job keeping our defense off the field as much as we can, putting points on the board. And that’s what it’s all about: winning games.”
So that’s where I wondered if the pounding—which Harbaugh has said the coaches want to limit—is getting to Jackson at all. And again, he was unaffected.
“I feel good,” Jackson said. “Some of those carries were kneeldowns, three of those were kneeldowns [on Sunday]. So it’s 15, and some of those I ran out of bounds, so all good. We just take advantage of what the defense gives us. We watch a lot of film, we see what they’re going to do to us. We run our schemes. Our linemen do a great job at blocking. Running backs do a great job at hitting the holes. It’s working, and you know, you can’t mess with something that’s working. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
It would be hard for any coach to walk away from the cumulative effect that approach had Sunday for the Ravens. Baltimore got the ball with a 20-12 lead and 7:08 left against the Bucs. Nine straight runs (none by Jackson, by the way), four first downs, and then the aforementioned trio of kneeldowns to finish off a win that maintained the Ravens’ playoff position, and pushed a team that was 4-5 when Jackson took over to 8-6.
I’d wager that Jackson knows it can’t be like this forever. But as he said, when you’re rolling like that, change can wait.
CHANGE DID THE VIKINGS A WORLD OF GOOD
I still believe that ex-Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is a really good coach who’ll probably have a chance to call plays again next year, and likely will become an NFL head coach some day. But I can also acknowledge the obvious, which was abundantly clear Sunday: He and Mike Zimmer were not a fit.
Not this week. Not last week. Not in September. Not ever.
And the results against the Dolphins bore all of that out, with well-thought-of young assistant Kevin Stefanski taking the reins as interim coordinator:
• The Vikings scored a season-high 41 points, 17 more than in any of their previous six games. They only came within single-digits of that total once this season (against the Jets).
• Their 418 yards from scrimmage were their third most this year, eclipsed only by their totals in losses to the Rams and Saints.
• Their 220 rushing yards were 133.9 yards clear of their season average. In fact, they’d only gone over 100 yards rushing as a team on three occasions before Sunday.
So how did they do it? Star receiver Adam Thielen explained the change to me like this: The Vikings cut down the volume of plays going into the game plan, with Stefanski taking that smaller number of plays and dressing them up through formationing and motioning. The idea, which you hear a lot about at the college level, was to make it easy for the offense but hard for the defense, by burdening the coaches rather than the players to challenge the opponent.
“It’s one of those things that you feel during the week,” Thielen said. “You feel like you can just go out there and play fast in practice, and then you get to the game and you build on that. You build your confidence on those plays, those first couple series. And when you’re able to move the ball, and things are simple and you’re playing fast, it creates a lot of momentum, and that’s all we’re looking for.”
Sure enough, in the first quarter, the Vikings put together a six-play, 81-yard touchdown drive, then a six-play, 56-yard touchdown drive, then a seven-play, 65-yard touchdown drive, and in the blink of an eye, it was 21-0. And while they couldn’t keep up that pace, there’s plenty to build on.
Said Thielen, “It’s a confidence booster for a lot of our playmakers saying, ‘Hey, if we’re going to win, it’s going to be on you guys to make the plays and I just want you to know that you’re going to know what you have. Now go win.’ Obviously when you have a running back, the offensive line, you have the quarterback that we have, and then the weapons on the outside with tight ends and receivers, you don’t have to get creative. You just have to let your playmakers make plays.”
When I asked Thielen if this felt like a new beginning, he said it does, but he’s learned this year how quickly that sort of momentum can evaporate. The good news? If the Vikings beat the Bears and Lions the next two weeks, despite all the disappointment of the season’s first three weeks, they’re into the tournament.
THE CHARGERS ARE GOING FOR IT ALL
And before we get on with the rest of the column, I figured it was important to give a nod to the Los Angeles Chargers, who somehow roared back from a 28-14 deficit at Arrowhead to knock off the mighty Chiefs and create a plausible path to the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
We’ll explain that in a second, but first it’s important to understand why the way they came back against Kansas City was more about who the Chargers have become (remember, they did basically the same thing to Pittsburgh two weeks ago) than it was just what happened on some random Thursday night.
Really, this is about a team that lived like nomads in 2017, endured a 0-4 start to the Anthony Lynn era, has been playing in a stadium that can feel like the opponents’ home field more than its own, and continues to endure rough injury luck. But Lynn has tried to build a program that removes excuses from every equation. And the scoreboard—20-6 since that 0-4 start—says it’s working.
“We’re just trying to control what we can control,” receiver Mike Williams told me. “That’s the main thing. We can’t control which fans show up at the stadium. We can’t control the move. The only thing we can control is going out there every day in practice and getting better, and playing great games on Sundays. So that’s the main thing, just control what we can control.”
And this year, that’s meant adjusting. The Chargers went six weeks without a home game, a stretch that included a week in Cleveland and a trip to London, which the players turned into a positive. “I feel like that helped bring us closer,” Williams said. “Everybody wants to fight with people they feel like they’re brothers with. And we feel like we are brothers on this team, everyone wants to fight each other.”
They’ve also had to do some of that on the fly, with offseason injuries to Hunter Henry and Jason Verrett, at the beginning of the season when Joey Bosa went down, and more recently with running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler missing time. Which explains why, when star receiver Keenan Allen went down in-game in K.C., Williams knew what he had to do.
“I felt like it was a big opportunity for me, the opportunity I was waiting on,” said the 2017 first-round pick. “With our primary target being down, I feel like it was an opportunity to showcase what I can do. And I felt like I [did that] with the plays I made. And everything worked out.”
It sure did. Williams scored touchdowns in the second and third quarters, then got what seemed to be the equalizer with four seconds left—a back-shoulder catch near the pylon to cut the Chiefs’ lead 27-26. Only, Lynn had other ideas, and his players knew it. Rather than kicking the extra point to send the game into overtime, Lynn sent the offense back out, and Williams was the target on the game-winning two-pointer too.
That, you probably remember, was the easy one.
“I’m not sure what happened, I just know that once I took the release, both [defenders] went with Tyrell, and left me wide open,” Williams said. “So my eyes got big. I just had to make the catch. Make the catch, win the game, and that’s it.”
And so the Chargers are here now, with a shot at making the road to Super Bowl LIII go through a soccer stadium. How? If the Chiefs lose on the road next week to a suddenly desperate Seattle team, the Bolts (who play the Ravens on Saturday night) will control their own destiny.
Episodes 1 through 8 available now: An exclusive True Crime podcast series from SI, re-examining the murder of Titans great Steve McNair. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you download your podcasts. And visit the podcast homepage for additional materials and updates.
… OF THE WEEK
“I know every opportunity I get could be my last one. That’s just the reality of my situation. I just want to leave it all out on the field. I owe this game that much because I love it that much. I mean, I’ve put in this work. I’ve stayed around this game for this long. For me to go out there and not leave it all out on the field, I would be disrespecting it. So, at the end of the day, if I have an opportunity where I know I can make a play, I’m going to go do that.”
— Redskins QB Josh Johnson.
Bashing the quality of backup quarterbacks has become a pastime for some over the last couple years. Johnson’s quote stood out to me because it really does show how much the guys hanging on the fringes of the league at the position have to love it to keep hanging on. Johnson, who played for Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego and had a 43-1 TD-INT differential in his senior year of 2007, has been on the rosters of the Bucs, Niners, Browns, Bengals, Jets, Colts, Bills, Ravens, Giants, Texans, Raiders and, now, Redskins. He also had a stint with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the now-defunct UFL, and was the first overall pick in the new AAFL’s QB draft, to the San Diego Fleet. He’s 32 now. And on Sunday, in his first NFL start since 2011 and only the sixth of his career, he finished 16-of-25 for 151 yards and a touchdown, and with 49 rushing yards on nine carries against the Jaguars. Which is pretty good for a guy who hadn’t even played in an NFL game in five years before last week. So big credit to Johnson for persevering like he has.
You are who your best players are, and right now that’s not a great thing for the Jaguars. After Jacksonville’s loss to Josh Johnson and the Redskins on Sunday, Jalen Ramsey was asked about coach Doug Marrone’s job security. His response, via Florida Times-Union beat Phillip Heilman: “I ain’t worried about nobody but myself.” The above tweet was a response to the reaction to the original response, and this is sort of how the Jaguars find themselves in this spot to begin with. A lot of players on that team became stars very quickly in the wake of the franchise’s 2017 (apparent) breakthrough, and there were signs during the offseason that those guys felt like they’d arrived. To his credit, Marrone saw it. I believe firmly that’s why he suspended Ramsey in August, following Ramsey’s confrontation with a reporter after a fight in practice. It was an attempted warning shot—letting the players know they couldn’t play by their own rules. Maybe it was too late. Because the team looks right now like one full of front-runners who crumbled once a little adversity hit. Ramsey’s postgame reaction is a good example of that.
I could watch this 100 times. I know we already explained it to you. But my goodness—that’s a rookie out there. And since we already covered the play, here’s a bonus video for you, which is about as Patriots as it gets (obviously, Jonathan Jones, Rex Burkhead and Nicholas Grisby all do their part—but check out how smart Matthew Slater is to spread-eagle to avoid touching the ball in the middle of it all).
Make that 5-8-1 for the Packers now. I know I didn’t see the Mayfield-led Browns being better than Aaron Rodgers crew eight days ahead of Christmas. But here we are.
S/O to …
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who took the time on Saturday to fly to Pittsburgh with his son Josh to visit with those affected by the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in October. The start of this story actually came a couple weeks back, when Kraft called the rabbi at Tree of Life to offer his condolences in the wake of the anti-Semitic rampage in which 11 people were killed. Kraft wanted to visit, and the rabbi told him that Tree of Life was still closed but invited him to come to Shabbat services at another synagogue when he was in town. So Kraft flew into Pittsburgh on Saturday morning, visited Tree of Life, then attended services at nearby Rodef Shalom with his son. I’m told he took a seat in the back of the temple, but halfway through, the rabbi alerted the congregation to the presence of their famous guest and asked that Kraft come up to say a few words. Kraft’s message went something like this: “We have our rivalry, but what we’re here for is much bigger than that.” Afterward, Kraft flew back to New England before returning to Pittsburgh on Sunday morning for the game. Anyone who’s been around the Patriots owner knows the place religion holds in his life, and so it’s great to see a story like this one (h/t to my old NFL Network colleague Aditi Kinkhabwala for unearthing it on Sunday morning), where he’s offering his help in others’ time of need.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
Since the college season hit its pre-postseason lull this week, we hit you on Friday with our second 2019 draft Big Board. And I usually have leftovers … I figured I’d give you some of those here. Cool? Cool.
1. While the defensive line class is loaded, and there’s depth there too, I’m getting the feeling the gap between Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and the next best edge rusher is pretty significant. Unless you consider Michigan’s Rashan Gary a pure edge guy, and most scouts don’t, Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell will probably be the next edge rusher off the board. And while he’s got great instincts and had great production as a pass rusher, he’s not in the “freak” category like Bosa. So if your team is picking high and looking for pass rush help, there will be a difference in value in the first few picks.
2. Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins seem to have separated from the pack at quarterback. Because every QB in this class has holes, there’s still room for guys to catch up. But if those two come out—most scouts expect Haskins too, and are more iffy on Herbert—they’ll go into the draft process with a lead.
2019 MOCK DRAFT:Bosa No. 1 in defense-heavy crop
3. The skill position talent isn’t very good. In fact, if not for getting a couple late calls saying I should have Iowa TE Noah Fant—who’s got some red flags and isn’t much of a blocker—on my list, there wouldn’t have been a single running back, tight end or receiver in our Top 20.
4. For the record, I believe the top receiver for most teams would be Ole Miss’ AJ Brown, and the top running back would be Alabama’s Damien Harris.
5. The offensive line class is expected to be good, with a caveat—there isn’t a can’t-miss left tackle atop the group. Alabama’s Jonah Williams is probably the best prospect but may be more of a right tackle or a guard than he is a left tackle (where he’s playing right now) in the pros. Ole Miss’ Greg Little is a left tackle, but his production hasn’t matched his talent. And those two lead the class. But here’s the thing—what the group lacks in star power, it makes up for in depth. Teams believe there will be solid linemen for the taking through Day 2 and into Day 3 this year.
6. We may be talking about LSU linebacker Devin White as the second best player in the draft, when all is said and done.
1. With 7:04 left in a game few people were paying attention to on Sunday, the Cardinals pulled struggling rookie Josh Rosen in favor of veteran journeyman Mike Glennon. At that point the Falcons had outscored the Cardinals 40-7, outgained them 428-148 and outclassed them in every way. And as you might expect, that’ll lead to bigger questions in Arizona over the next two weeks. Here’s what I know: Arizona has looked ahead already to making changes to the offensive staff to try to spark Rosen’s development, in a way that neither coordinator Byron Leftwich nor his predecessor, Mike McCoy, could. Here’s what I think: Based on the churn of the NFL rumor mill, changes might include the head coach, Steve Wilks. Sending a coach packing after a single year is tough. But seven of the Cardinals’ 11 losses have come by double-digits, and a garbage-time touchdown drive engineered by Glennon was the only thing that saved Arizona from suffering its fourth 30-point loss of the year.
2. While we’re on issues of job security, Denver coach Vance Joseph is certainly now on thin ice, just two weeks after seeming to gain better footing as the Broncos hung on in the AFC playoff race. And if he’s gone in two weeks, there’s a sequence from Saturday night’s loss that could help define where it all went wrong. Facing fourth-and-1 from the Browns 6 and down 17-13 with 5:29 left, Joseph chose to take the three points rather than go for the lead. From there, his defense yielded two first downs to the hard running of Nick Chubb, which took more than two minutes off the clock. And then, with the game on the line, the offense had no answer for Gregg Williams’ blitz packages. Now John Elway’s going to have a decision to make, and after an autumn in which I’m told he and his scouting staff studied what’s happening with college offenses—given their explosive influence at the pro level—intently. Certainly, Elway’s thought about what he’d do next. Maybe a college coach? Maybe a run at Baltimore’s John Harbaugh (and at Gary Kubiak to be his OC)? It’s an interesting time in Denver.
3. The Niners had every reason to quit on their season and haven’t, and wins over Denver and Seattle the last two weeks are pretty nice affirmation that they still have a really strong coaching staff on which to keep building their foundation. Nick Mullens, the 2017 college free agent, has completed 40 of 62 throws for 607 yards, three touchdowns and a pick (106.0 rating) in the last two weeks. In Week 14, tight end George Kittle went crazy, piling up 210 receiving yards. This week it was rookie receiver Dante Pettis (five catches, 83 yards) flashing potential. That, by the way, is not to say we didn’t overestimate the Niners in the offseason. They still need to stock the roster in a bunch of places. But with what Kyle Shanahan’s done in building a staff, and in particular with confidants like run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel and QBs coach Rich Scangarello, there’s something to build on there. Especially when Jimmy Garoppolo gets back.
4. They may not admit it, and it probably won’t make going through the looming round of firings any easier, but Saturday night played out pretty well for the Jets. Their draft position wasn’t compromised, and their young guys played their tails off, and played well, in the 29-22 loss to Houston. You know about Sam Darnold, of course. The other to watch was, without question, second-year safety Jamal Adams, who’s become a leader already and finished with four tackles, a sack and all kinds of hell raised. Afterward, I saw Texans safety Tyrann Mathieu tweeting about his fellow LSU Tiger defensive back, so I reached out to the Honey Badger to ask him about a guy who, as it turns out, he’s known since Adams was a high school recruit. “I love his passion,” Mathieu texted. “His energy is on a different level—reminds me of someone I know LOL. He is definitely someone the Jets can build around defensively.” Mathieu’s right. They’re different players. But you can see that the dog in them is much the same.
5. I’ve said this before, and you’ve read him saying as much in this space a couple times, but it’s obvious how much Bill O’Brien loves the team that he and GM Brian Gaine have put together. And that has nothing to do with the talent level—though the Texans have superstars like DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt (who should contend for Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year honors). It’s more about the makeup in the player they want. Watt did a good job of explaining it to me in August: “I think the number one thing they want is guys who love football. That’s probably the biggest thing you can see—they want guys who want to be on the field, they want to play the game, that want to work in practice and get better. That’s how you’re going to win. If you don’t want to be out there, it doesn’t matter how good you are.” And the result is a Texans team that, despite lingering problems on the offensive line and in the secondary, has won 10 of 11 and holds the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
6. This is pretty crazy, and totally flying under the radar: Over the last two weeks, the Titans have rushed for 479 yards and six touchdowns on 77 carries (6.2 yards per carry) as a team, and have only allowed one touchdown, which came in garbage time against the Jaguars. Aggregate score? Titans 47, Jaguars/Giants 9. So after yesterday’s 17-0 shutout victory in New Jersey, first-year coach Mike Vrabel was asked if he’s comfortable winning that way, behind Derrick Henry (50 carries, 408 yards in the last two weeks) and his defense, and he answered like you’d guess he would. “Absolutely,” Vrabel said. “I mean, I played defense, coached defense, never was a running back, but [it’d be great] to be able to shorten these games and play physical, do those things you have to do in December. It was cold, it was wet, looked like the ball was a bowling ball with some grease on it. It was heavy, it was heavy for both teams. But I think that’s what you’re going to have to do in December.” At 8-6, the Titans have a pretty decent change to keep doing it into January.
7. Weird thing that may mean nothing: The Patriots didn’t kick off their media availability for more than a half-hour after their loss in Pittsburgh. I’ve seen this happen other places before. Not sure, in 14 years around that team, I’ve seen it with New England. This loss, for them, was different in certain ways. The run defense was bad. The penalty situation was worse. And the Steelers are a team, good as they’ve been, that the Patriots have owned. I made the analogy last week, in explaining how everything looks hard for the Patriots right now, that they have the appearance of a proud old prizefighter scrapping for everything he can get. I’ve had a few people connected to the team agree with that analogy since.
8. Teams that have played the Bills this year have raved about the fight Sean McDermott’s crew is bringing to the table. It showed up again yesterday, with Buffalo winning despite—and this isn’t a line—running out of running backs at one point. The Bills scraped out a 14-13 win over Detroit. But to me the bigger deal is where they’re going. Give McDermott and GM Brandon Beane a few more drafts, and combine that with Josh Allen improving (the jury’s obviously still out on him), and I bet this is a team to be reckoned with. For now, getting to 5-9 with a rookie quarterback and about a third of your cap tied up in dead money—i.e. players who aren’t actually on the team—is no small feat.
9. I’d think the Packers’ loss to the Bears closes the door on the possibility that interim coach Joe Philbin gets the full-time gig, not that there was a big chance of that happening in the first place.
10. Your quietly emerging star: Bengals RB Joe Mixon. In what’s become a lost season in Cincinnati, the 2017 second-round pick has 866 yards and six touchdowns on 180 carries (4.8 yards per carry), and another 283 yards and a touchdown on 38 catches, all despite having missed two games in September.
We have such an interesting one Monday night—the Saints and Panthers meet in Charlotte for the front end of a home-and-home series played over 13 days. There’s a lot on the line for both sides.
For their part, the Saints can take a big step towards salting away home-field advantage through the playoffs. A win brings their magic number down to one, and it’s no secret the kind of edge they get in January playing in the Superdome.
On the Panthers’ side, there’s a murkiness on the future of the franchise that had lots of people asking questions during last week’s league meeting. There’s a widespread belief that new owner David Tepper wants his organization to be cutting edge, and he did inherit some old-school guys. And while Tepper came in with the intention to be patient, an extended losing streak could test his resolve.
So what happens? I don’t like the Carolina defense’s chances to stop Drew Brees and company consistently. So give me Saints 38, Panthers 31.
Oh, and another season of TNF is in the books. You’ll have to settle for Saturday games (Redskins at Titans, Ravens at Chargers) this week.
Be sure to check out my Monday Afternoon Quarterback column, with more from Week 15, the latest news and a look ahead to Week 16.
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