Don’t Look Now, But Lamar Jackson and the Ravens Are the NFL’s Top Team

On a day when throwing was nearly impossible, the QB had a 100-yard rushing day in a win over the 49ers that improved Baltimore to 10–2. Plus, The Chiefs defense is catching up to the offense, the Bengals give Zac Taylor his first win, the Bills look like they just might be for real, a look at the NFL coaching carousel and much more.
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This game was different than the last two showdowns—one against the Texans, the other against the 49ers, both of which ended with the Ravens’ point total in the 40s and the other team in single digits. Hell, it was different than the game against the Patriots on Sunday night in Week 9, too, and the game against the Seahawks in Week 7 that was tight deep into the second half.

For the first time in a long time, Baltimore swung at an opponent with its overpowering offense and the opponent swung back with similar force. So when the Ravens got the ball back at their own 35 with 6:28 left in this game against the 10–1 Niners, the Baltimore offense had 86 yards from scrimmage and zero points to show for it in the second half. This was really about as close as any team had come to actually “figuring out” the Ravens’ offense. That left the Baltimore offense 65 yards from the end zone, tied at 17.

“We just believed in each other—This is the play. This is the drive,” veteran tailback Mark Ingram told me from a raucous winning locker room. “And we just said, ‘Let’s go. We believe in each other, we fight for each other and nobody in the huddle doubts each other.’ We all look each other in the eyes, and we have the utmost confidence in each other. We knew that no matter what happened, we were going to be able to make enough plays to be able to win the game. We’re thankful. We’re appreciative. And we’re looking forward.”

That’s easier now, because of what happened next.

In a driving rainstorm, on a day that wasn’t his best, Lamar Jackson took command once again, converting a fourth-and-one on a keeper to pick up the possession’s initial first down, then grinding out the rest. The Ravens took 6:41 off the clock. They covered 34 yards in 12 plays. And from there, Justin Tucker drilled a 49-yarder to win it, 20–17, at the gun.

The last two weeks, in those games against the Texans and Rams, the Ravens have seemed to chase perfection. But as the players see it, there’s a pretty good shot this win will prove to be more valuable in the long run—and mostly because it was far from perfect.

“A tough game, a physical game, against one of the best teams in the league,” Ingram continued. “It makes your team battle-tested. So [there’s] a lot of value, and we will learn from this. … Just a great team victory.”

And one that left the Ravens, on the first of December, officially atop the NFL.

***

Thanksgiving has come and gone, and we’re into the final stretch of the NFL season. We’ve got plenty coming your way in the first December MMQB of 2019…

• The Bengals’ first win, through the eyes of the coach who got them there.

• The Chiefs’ defensive improvement, and where they’re headed as a team.

• The Bills’ rebuild coming to life.

• The early spinning of the coaching carousel.

But we’re starting with the team it seems like we’ve started with almost every week this year.

***

What coordinator Greg Roman has done in building an offense for Jackson is, and always has been, good sound football. It’s not a gimmick. But I figured there might be something there that the Niners threw at Baltimore that might have thrown the hosts off a little. Turns out, there was: really, really good players, playing in a defense as disciplined as it was talented.

“They're just a great team, man,” said Ingram. “They have great players, they’re well-coached, they play hard. They play physical. So it was a dogfight, and we were able to make enough plays to get the victory at the end of the day. And that shows the character and resilience of a championship team. You got to be able to win those tough games like that when it’s not pretty.”

For Baltimore, this one wasn’t, from the start. The Niners drove 74 yards on seven plays on the first possession of the game, setting the aggressive tone with Jimmy Garoppolo finding Deebo Samuel deep for a 33-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-two just three minutes in. San Francisco’s vaunted defense then came up with a stop, and the Ravens’ defense needed an answer.

Chuck Clark gave it to them with a strip-sack of Garoppolo, and Jackson cashed that in with a strike to Mark Andrews for a 23-yard touchdown two plays later. The teams then traded second-quarter touchdowns, but neither would reach the end zone again. The weather worsened. The defenses tightened up. Everything from that point on had to be earned.

It became a test of toughness—and, one more time, no one was tougher than Jackson.

We’ve talked in this space about the Ravens quarterback as a teammate: How getting Seth Roberts a touchdown catch was his proudest moment of the Houston win, because Roberts had done so much as a blocker, but hadn’t scored yet. How he took up for tight end Nick Boyle as a receiver when I called him a blocking tight end.

In those cases, he tried to sacrifice credit. In this one, he sacrificed his body.

Jackson carried the ball 16 times for 101 yards, mostly because the rain and wind at M&T Bank Stadium dictated that, and his team needed him to help control the pace of the game. The effort, which included three carries on the game-winning drive, didn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the Ravens. In fact, as some of them see it, it energized the group.

“Lamar is the best,” Ingram said. “He’s going to do whatever it takes, by any means necessary, to get a win—running or passing, it doesn’t matter. And when you’ve got a quarterback ready to lay himself on the line and sacrifice himself for the team, the whole team will sacrifice themselves for each other. That’s how we are.”

Which showed itself when it mattered most. The Ravens converted that fourth-and-one, then a third-and-one later in the drive to ensure they’d be able to run out the rest of the clock before turning things over to Tucker, whom Ingram referred to as Automa-Tuck.

The kick was as clutch as the rest of the drive: Tucker knocked it right down Main Street, with the 49-yard distance and conditions doing nothing to stop him.

And with that, and the Patriots’ loss to the Texans, the Ravens became one of four 10–2 teams sitting at the head of the NFL table, along with those Patriots, these Niners and Ingram’s former team, the Saints. Whether or not the Ravens are the best of the bunch is debatable. But they’re certainly the hottest right now—and if you listen to them, the toughest too.

Sunday was good evidence of that.

“Our identity as a team is tough, physical—that’s Raven football,” Ingram said. “We play tough, we play physical, we play disciplined football. So are we the toughest team in the league? That remains to be seen. But that’s what we work for. That’s what we grind for. And whoever you say is the toughest team when we line up against them, it’s going to be a physical battle. We're going to hit ’em in the mouth.

“We don't care if it's pretty or if it’s ugly, we’re going to get it done.”

That much was clear Sunday.

***

BENGALS BREAKTHROUGH

No one takes an NFL head coaching job planning to go winless through September, October and November. But that’s where Zac Taylor was heading into Thanksgiving week and the run-up to Sunday’s home date with the Jets.

There’s no sugar-coating that. Being 0–11 sucks. He didn’t want that for the players any more than they wanted it for themselves, and it presented challenges that he may not have fully known were coming. Most of all, continuing to sell your program when those are the results isn’t easy.

“It's hard,” Taylor said over the phone late Sunday. “But it all starts building those relationships in April. If you don’t have those relationships, people aren’t going to listen to what you’re saying. We really felt like we invested in these players throughout the seven, eight months we’ve had them. It pays off when you go through adversity like we have. They know we have their best interest in mind, that we’re going to push them to be the best player, even if it’s not showing up in the win column.

“Someday it’s going to pay off and it’s going to start rolling and we’ll be playing for some great things.”

On Sunday, this was enough: Bengals 22, Jets 6.

Cincinnati’s resilience was probably best reflected in quarterback Andy Dalton, who’d been benched a month earlier in favor of rookie Ryan Finley, a move the team made to better assess what it had at the position with any hope of contention gone. Taylor made clear last week that going back to Dalton was about finding a way to get a win. And in the aftermath, as Taylor saw it, his ability to deliver a victory was a shining example of his character.

Dalton did show some frustration publicly at the time of the benching, saying he wished it’d been done with more time before the trade deadline, so he could be dealt away. But what those on the outside didn’t see how he was handling it inside Paul Brown Stadium. He was a resource for Finley and kept preparing as if he was starting. That he and Taylor were on the same page on a number of third-down conversions reflected that, as the coach saw it.

The key, again, was communication.

“When [Dalton] was frustrated about something, he didn’t [say] it in the locker room, he came to my office and we talked it through,” Taylor said. “He’s a competitor. The trade stuff was him just wanting to play. He wanted to help the team win, and that [desire to leave] quickly passed. He was a great backup for us. He really helped Finley through everything he could without Ryan feeling the pressure of Andy being there behind him. He kept being a leader for us.

“I'll never forget that.”

Dalton finished 22 of 37 for 243 yards and a score, and really made the difference in what the Bengals had been the last two weeks—close losses to the Raiders and Steelers, in which Taylor felt like a breakthrough was coming—turning into what they’d be against the Jets.

“We felt like it was on its way the last couple weeks,” Taylor said. “It’s how we felt as we practiced, prepared and we always feel we have a good plan. Today we were able to jump on them from the start and carry that lead throughout the game. We really haven’t played with a lead this year, first time we got to do that. Our guys really responded the right way.”

At the very least, it’s a good positive step for a group that needed to take one.

***

Allen iced Buffalo’s win over Dallas with a 15-yard TD run in the third quarter.

Allen iced Buffalo’s win over Dallas with a 15-yard TD run in the third quarter.

ARE THE BILLS FOR REAL?

What we saw: An Ed Oliver strip sack setting off a 15-minute run of football—stretching from the end of the second quarter to the end of the third, and turning a tie into a 23-7 edge for Buffalo—stamping the Bills as legit team for a national TV audience that probably hadn’t paid them much attention yet.

What Bills coach Sean McDermott saw: The manifestation of nearly three years of work towards changing the mindset of a franchise that had endured a two-decade downturn.

“I feel like, overall, you could hear the guys talking on the sideline throughout the end of the first half and beginning of the second half,” McDermott said, as he left AT&T Stadium on Thanksgiving night. “The guys were talking on the sidelines, you could hear it, just hear them, the belief—‘Hey, this is how we play.’ Whenever people can kind of finish your prayers, you know you’re on the same page. So that was good to hear.”

Moreover, it was proof of what McDermott and GM Brandon Beane have tried to instill in western New York since they arrived in 2017. It’s pretty simple.

In a nutshell, a 26–15 win over Dallas on a pretty big stage for a team that hasn’t been on one often lately shows that the lingering old feeling of impending doom is gone now. And that one sequence highlighted it. In those 15 minutes…

• Oliver forced that fumble to stop Dallas at midfield.

• The Bills capitalized on it, first with QB Josh Allen collecting a bobbled snap on fourth-and-one and fighting like a maniac through tackles to convert it, then with receiver John Brown helping to cash that in on the next play, throwing a touchdown pass off a reverse to Devin Singletary.

• Buffalo stopped a driving Cowboys’ offense at the end of the half 17 yards short of the end zone, then Star Lotulelei blocked Brett Maher’s 35-yard field goal attempt at the end of the first half.

• The Bills opened the second half with an eight-play, 48-yard drive, with kicker Stephen Hauschka hitting the upright and (in an answer to those prayers) watching the ball slip through from 41 yards out to make it 16–7.

• Buffalo, again, slowed down a Cowboys offense when it counted on Dallas’ first third-quarter possession, forcing a field-goal try from 48 yards that Maher missed.

• The Bills then went 63 yards on seven plays to make it 23–7, a drive that felt a little like Allen’s coming out party. He was 4 of 4 for 41 yards on that march and scored on a 15-yard run to wrap it up.

The result of all that? Good things happening for a team that was no longer waiting for bad things to go down.

“I felt like our first year, you try to get away from the ‘here we go again’ moments in the game when you’re trying to build a foundation,” McDermott said. “And at some point, once you establish that, it’s, ‘O.K., we can win close games and come back from some of those moments.’”

That’s where the Bills see the years of work coming together, and the plan they carried out might provide a blueprint for someone else. Buffalo didn’t tank in Year 1, even when it was clear that the Band-Aid needed to be ripped off. Instead, McDermott spent his first season establishing that foundation, giving the players tangible results for their hard work.

With that groundwork laid, Beane and McDermott yanked the aforementioned Band-Aid in 2018, carrying over $50 million in dead money (committed to players who had been released) that fall, while drafting a class headed by Allen (the seventh overall pick) and middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (16th). Predictably, that team started 2–7. But the belief in McDermott’s program from 2017 remained, and Buffalo went 4–3 down the stretch.

In 2019, with a clean cap in place and a young core growing, the Bills could pull from both the free-agent field (Brown, Cole Beasley, Mitch Morse) and the draft (Oliver, Cody Ford, Singletary)—now with, for the first time, the resources and program in place. Which is what Buffalo was able to show off on the Thanksgiving stage.

“We really had to lay a foundation, and in some ways go backwards before we went forwards,” McDermott said. “It’s been a long process, and we’re not there yet, we still have a lot of runway in front of us. But the guys have worked extremely hard, they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do. I’m just really happy for everyone who’s worked so hard, the players, the staff, and not just the football staff, but the entire organization.”

During our conversation, McDermott cited what his old boss in Carolina, Ron Rivera, used to tell his players: “Be relevant.” The Bills coach then backed off of that just a little with respect to this particular win, saying it was more a part of the team’s natural evolution. But he didn’t have to. The Bills, at 9–3, are definitely relevant.

***

HERE COMES THE D IN K.C.

The Chiefs remain a big unknown going into the final quarter of the 2019 season.

The offense having its full complement of personnel has been a rarity through an injury-riddled fall, and Kansas City finally got there on Sunday. The defense has been in a steady state of transition throughout the year, with big-name departures (DC Bob Sutton, OLBs Justin Houston and Dee Ford, S Eric Berry) and arrivals (DC Steve Spagnuolo, DE Frank Clark, S Tyrann Matheiu).

Sunday brought some signs that the defense is coming together. In their final game before a Week 12 bye, the Chiefs’ defense picked off Chargers QB Philip Rivers four times and held L.A. to 17 points. In their first game coming out of the bye, on Sunday, they kept Jon Gruden’s Raiders out of the end zone into well the fourth quarter of a 40–9 win.

“It’s progression,” Chiefs DT Chris Jones said Sunday night. “I still feel like we can get better. I'm not excited about allowing 122 [yards] on the ground. That’s too much. We’ve definitely got to get better at that. Progression is the biggest thing, and a win. It’s always good to get a win. But we can’t be satisfied. We’ve got to always look for ways to get better and that’s what I'm focused on. How can we get better on something we didn’t do well this game going into next game?”

One way that he, his fellow newcomers and the holdovers have done it is by getting more comfortable in Spagnuolo’s defense.

For guys like Jones on the front end, it’s meant being double-teamed more to free the linebackers. For guys on the back end, it’s meant more variation in coverage. For everyone, it’s been a process.

“Everyone they brought in for this defense, I feel like we knew what kind of guy he was,” Jones said. “You look at the guys we brought in—we brought in Ty[rann] [Matheiu], who’s a veteran in the league, who’s made a name for himself and established who he is and what he stands for. We bring in a guy like Morris Claiborne, who’s a vet in this league, he’s established himself. Bashaud Breeland. You look at those type of leadership guys that we brought in, and you add that to this defense, and you expect the defense to get better.

“I feel like we’ve done that. We brought in Frank Clark, he’s solidified a name for himself. You look at the guys we got, we got veteran guys who made a name for themselves and we put them in the mix with some young guys. You’re talking about the sky is the limit here.”

The last two games represent a nice look at what could be. If the Chiefs can stay healthy on offense, and the defense’s flashes become consistent, look out.

***

Lincoln Riley

COACHING CAROUSEL STARTS SPINNING

We still have a month left until a lot of this becomes real. But that doesn’t mean that coaching dominoes aren’t starting to teeter. Here’s some stuff you need to know:

• It’s fairly well known in coaching circles that the Redskins are doing their background work on potential candidates, some of whom are at the college level. My sense is coaches who are involved have a lot of questions about the structure of the organization—who’s calling the shots, and how football ops will be set up. That will almost certainly impact who’s interested in the job.

• Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley remains a very attractive candidate to NFL people. It’s not going to be easy to pry him from Norman, where he has a gig that is better than a lot of NFL jobs. But he’s from Texas and he’s built a relationship with the Jones family stemming from Oklahoma’s recruitment of Stephen Jones’s son John Stephen (who is now a quarterback at Arkansas). The Joneses have been impressed, in particular, with Riley’s offensive ingenuity. And in an offseason in which they’ll likely commit nine figures guaranteed to their quarterback...

• I’ve heard that if a team like the Cowboys call, ex-Ohio State and Florida coach Urban Meyer will listen. I don’t think he’s in any hurry to coach again; his TV work satisfies his need to be close to the action. But if the right team presented the right situation—one that’s structurally sound and can win quickly—I think he’d consider it. And the Cowboys have a lot going for themselves in that regard.

• It got the attention of many that Jaguars EVP Tom Coughlin chose to address the media publicly last week—mostly, because it seemed to come out of nowhere. But some in NFL circles took it as confirmation what’s been rumored for a while: that no one there is safe heading into December.

• Things have calmed down in Cleveland, and my belief now is that, barring a collapse, Freddie Kitchens will remain the coach in 2020. The question will be whether he’ll be asked to make staff changes, or if there’s some restructuring. That would put the role of offensive coordinator Todd Monken in focus. The question would be whether he’d become the play-caller next year—and whether he’d want to stay if that doesn’t happen. A big reason the Browns elevated Kitchens in January, and had him continue as play-caller, was to try and give Baker Mayfield as much continuity from Year 1 to Year 2 as they could.

• A year after six of eight open coaching spots went to candidates with offensive backgrounds, it’s possible we see a correction in 2019. One reason: If everyone’s been casting off the same pier for a while, there will naturally be less fish in that area. Plus, there are quality defensive coordinators available, including New Orleans’ Dennis Allen, San Francisco’s Robert Saleh, Dallas’ Kris Richard and Indianapolis’ Matt Eberflus.

• Both Detroit and Carolina are in the tough-to-predict category because of the lack of track record from the controlling owner. If the Panthers make a change, I wouldn’t be surprised to see owner David Tepper, who’s got a strong relationship with the Krafts, to try and tap into the Patriot pipeline. In my talks on these things, New England OC Josh McDaniels and scouting czar Nick Caserio have both been linked to Carolina.

• Three coaches who have a ton of coordinating experience in the NFL who I believe deserve a good long look: Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale. All four have called plays for multiple teams, and each has done a nice job developing talent. Two of the four offensive guys have overseen big improvements from second-year quarterbacks (Allen for Daboll, and Jackson for Roman). A third (Schottenheimer) has stewarded over an MVP candidate (Russell Wilson), and the defensive guy has led his unit to dramatic in-season improvement with new players (Marcus Peters, Josh Bynes) joining midstream.

• Baylor’s Matt Rhule is going to get NFL attention, and I expect him to be a candidate with the Falcons, Redskins and Giants (presuming all three make changes). It’s pretty well-known that Rhule has designs on coaching in the NFL. But a couple factors should be pointed out: One, after what he went through with the Jets last year—when he backed out when he found out he wouldn’t be allowed to choose his assistants—fit and organizational stability will be priorities of his. Second, if James Franklin, who’s been linked with Florida State, were to leave Penn State, Rhule’s alma mater, then NFL teams could be competing with the Nittany Lions for his services.

There’s a lot to chew here, of course. And we’re just getting started.

***

THE ALL-32

It’s hard to kill the 49ers for this one: 10 a.m. body clock game, driving rainstorm and even at the end the defense creates enough resistance to make sure Tucker’s kick wouldn’t be an easy one. If there’s one nit to pick, maybe it’s the play call on fourth-and-one with 6:33 left. Instead of giving the ball to Raheem Mostert (19 carries, 146 yards), Kyle Shanahan and Co. dropped Jimmy Garoppolo back. Garoppolo’s pass got batted down, and San Francisco didn’t get the ball back. But overall, the 20–17 defeat was far from a disaster. Like the Niners’ other loss (to Seattle), there was plenty of good to take from this one. Primarily, the experience.

Are the Bears still alive? Yes, they are. And Mitchell Trubisky, for all the slings and arrows, has overcome sluggish starts the last two weeks, and has finished strong in have-to-have-it situations. He was accurate, and good off-schedule, and there are things to build off there. But man, the rest of the schedule is rough. It starts with the Cowboys on Thursday night. After that: at Packers, Chiefs, at Vikings.

I know we already mentioned Dalton, but just talking to people in Cincy, there’s no question that he gave the Bengals a emotional lift. One staffer told me it was a “totally different feel with him at QB”, and that goes for the whole team. Add that to a defense that’s yielded only one touchdown in its last 10 quarters, and Cincinnati could be an interesting spoiler in the weeks to come.

How about the Bills’ rookie class? Oliver had two sacks against the Cowboys, right tackle Cody Ford was solid against Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence, running back Devin Singletary finished with 101 yards from scrimmage, and tight end Dawson Knox had a good two-way game (good in the run game, three catches in the passing game) as the Bills’ pulled away. Add that to a 2018 class led by Allen and Edmunds, and a ’17 class headed by CB Tre’Davious White and LB Matt Milano, and there’s a really nice of young talent here.

I’ll say this: Broncos rookie QB Drew Lock was better than I expected him to be, based on where he was over the summer and what you’d heard about him since the Broncos took him in the second round in April. Carrying out a low-risk plan, Lock completed 18-of-28 for 134 yards, two touchdowns and a pick in a 23–20 win over the Chargers. And he connected with five receivers along the way.

The Browns’ loss on Sunday has more to do with the offensive line’s issues surfacing again against an aggressive Steelers’ front, but it’ll be remembered more for Freddie Kitchens’ “Pittsburgh Started It” t-shirt, and that’s not great. (He wore the shirt referencing last month’s brawl out to the movies on Friday night.) “That’s bulletin-board material,” Steelers guard David DeCastro told reporters. “I don’t know why you’d do that, as a coach. I just don’t get that. Of course, it’s going to motivate us. “

We’re at the point in the Buccaneers’ season where it’s become about who’s going to stick around past this year. And to that end, good on Tampa GM Jason Licht for hanging on to tight end O.J. Howard—teams called about him thinking that, since he’d fallen behind Cam Brate on the depth chart, they might be able to poach him. Licht didn’t get too far down the road on that, mostly because he knew he has him under contract through next year (with an option for 2021) and Howard was too elite a talent to give up on that quickly. And Howard showed that Sunday in a win over the Jags, with five catches for 61 yards.

So the Cardinals season is, for all intents and purposes, over now. The talent deficit finally caught up to Kliff Kingsbury and Co. But there’ll be plenty of good to take from this season, not the least of which is how Kyler Murray has fought through it.

Before Sutton drew a controversial last-minute interference penalty on Hayward, he beat him for a 26-yard TD in the first quarter. 

Before Sutton drew a controversial last-minute interference penalty on Hayward, he beat him for a 26-yard TD in the first quarter. 

Chargers corner Casey Hayward is 30 and in his ninth season, so he needs to know the situation there well enough to know he can’t take any chances with contact. And not finding the ball is on him, too. That said, he was clearly going for the ball, and made his move on it before Broncos WR Courtland Sutton did—and there’s something that’s just plain wrong about that being a 37-yard pass interference penalty that costs a team a game.

Just to reinforce a point here: The Chiefs got a 175-yard effort from Patrick Mahomes and still scored 40 points and won handily. That doesn’t happen in 2018. And it bodes well for January.

The Colts have been held under 20 points in five of their last eight games, and Jacoby Brissett threw a couple bad second-half picks Sunday against the Titans. So some of the issues you’d have expected to see after Andrew Luck’s retirement may be rearing their head now. And honestly, considering the circumstances, it’s hard to get too worked up over it.

More bad news for embattled Cowboys coach Jason Garrett: Four days after owner Jerry Jones called out Garrett and his staff for the team’s special teams mishaps, Dallas missed two field goals, one of which was blocked. And I noticed how the Bills seemed comfortable taking the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs (one instance resulted in a 32-yard return from Andre Roberts at the start of the second half). I’m not sure that winning a mediocre division will be enough for Dallas to survive.

Is the Dolphins’ Brian Flores the NFL’s Coach of the Year? Probably not. But that I’d even contemplate that given what the team has been through is crazy. Flores’s program is demanding. And it’s hard to be demanding when you aren’t giving the players tangible results as a reward for their work. And it’s even harder when they see some of their best teammates shipped out of town, which indicates a) no one’s safe and b) the team isn’t all in for that particular year). Yet, Miami’s been consistently competitive and, now, is starting to win. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to be speaking highly of the Dolphins going into 2020.

The Eagles’ cornerback issue reared its head again on Sunday in Miami, with Ronald Darby and (mostly) Jalen Mills struggling. And some will point to Philly’s failure to land Jalen Ramsey in October as part of the problem. Don’t do that. One, the Eagles did make an effort. And two, and I believe this is the correct approach, they’ve begun to value draft picks differently with Carson Wentz on a top-of-the-market deal. Why? Because if you have your QB on a contract like that, you have to find cheap labor—and you can find that in the draft.

Given the amount of investment—and understanding that the 14th pick in the draft, Chris Lindstrom, has been out most of the year—the Falcons need to be better on the offensive line. Instead, what was a problem last year, and one that led to the team spending two first round picks on linemen (right tackle Kaleb McGary is the other), is still an issue. Matt Ryan was sacked by the Saints nine times and Atlanta averaged 3.4 yards per rush on Thanksgiving night.

So much of Giants coach Pat Shurmur’s case for a third year will have to be based on the progress of Daniel Jones. The rookie QB’s three picks against the Packers, even in a blizzard, won’t help.

With so much uncertain moving forward, it’ll be interesting to see how the Jaguars coaches handle December. The best thing for the franchise is probably to gather more info on what they have in rookie QB Gardner Minshew. But the best thing for the staff’s survival might be to stick with Nick Foles, try to justify that signing and finish strong. We’ll see what happens.

How you can understand the reality of the Jets’ offensive line issue—against the Bengals, the NFL’s worst run defense, they mustered just 62 yards on 17 carries, and that’s before getting to the four sacks of Sam Darnold. GM Joe Douglas figures to be drafting in or on the fringe of the top 10. The draft still a long way off. But it’s a pretty smart bet that Douglas will spend that pick on an offensive linemen.

I’d like to see the current Lions brass get another year in 2020 so we can see what it looks like with a healthier Matthew Stafford at quarterback. It’s hard to say whether or not that will wind up happening, because controlling owner Martha Ford doesn’t have a real track record yet on handling these decisions. But I think before Stafford’s injury there were signs that Matt Patricia’s program was turning the corner, which is easy to forget now.

For all the drama, I hope we all appreciate what we’re watching in Packers QB Aaron Rodgers while he’s still around. The 36-year-old, in the snow, threw for 243 yards and four touchdowns on 21-of-33 passing. Five different receivers had multiple receptions. And it all happened with the run game mustering just 79 yards on 26 carries.

Bad loss for the Panthers. No way around that. And maybe most stunning: the collapse of the run defense. The Redskins ran for 248 yards. (Bright side: Late in the game, they had about as perfectly executed an onside kick as you’ll see, with linebacker Jermaine Carter making an incredible diving catch to recover the ball.)

At some point, the Patriots need to find a way to better incorporate their rookie receivers, N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers, into what they’re doing. You see San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel, Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf, Baltimore’s Hollywood Brown and Pittsburgh’s Diontae Johnson contributing to contenders at the position. And it’s clear the Patriots need a spark on offense, so bending a little (they generally have been too complex for many young guys to contribute) for talent would make sense.

As young as the Raiders are in spots, you wonder if they’ve hit some sort of collective rookie wall. It’s maybe the best explanation I can think of for the baffling two-game swoon they’re enduring (Opponents 74, Raiders 12).

Rams coach Sean McVay has always been able to steady the ship after losses, and winning on the road—regardless of the opponent—six days after taking the shiner his team did last Monday night was more proof of that. And yards from scrimmage told the story in Glendale: Rams 549, Cardinals 198, after a first half during which the Rams held a 390–63 edge in that category.

The group of Ravens that doesn’t get enough credit (aside from the offensive line) would be the tight ends. Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle, again, loomed large for Baltimore against the Niners. Each of them chipped with catches, and were integral to a 178-yard effort on the ground. And all of them together, as run/pass queens on the chessboard, are vital to Greg Roman running the offense according to his plan.

Give ex-Redskins coach Jay Gruden credit. What we saw from second-year back Derrius Guice is what Gruden saw in him all along, and at the cost of his relationship with veteran back Adrian Peterson. Guice was a bull all afternoon against the Panthers, finishing with 129 yards on just 10 carries.

The Saints’ defensive line is a microcosm of how far the roster has come the last four years. That group is deep, talented and capable of taking a game over. And that’s why I’m so bullish on where New Orleans is going forward. They don’t need Drew Brees to carry them anymore. On Thursday, the defensive line registered eight of the team’s nine sacks, and eight of 13 tackles for losses against Atlanta. And mostly, it’s high draft picks like Cam Jordan, Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport delivering on their immense potential.

This quote from Pete Carroll that I found in the Seattle Times, on new Seahawks S Quandre Diggs, caught my attention: “It’s just his presence. I showed his highlights [to the team], of him flying across the field, just like I used to show [Earl Thomas’s] stuff.” That’s high praise. And good on GM John Schneider and the front office for sensing opportunity in a good player who was a misfit for his old home in Detroit. They gave up a five, with a seven coming back with Diggs, and get to keep the hybrid defensive back for 2020 and ’21 for a total of less than $11 million.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has taken a team that’s had a 12-car pileup of a quarterback situation and consistent injuries at the skill positions to a 7–5 record and a tie for the sixth playoff spot in the AFC with the Titans. It’s no mistake, either. This is what Tomlin does well: crisis-manage and adapt.

That Texans offense, more or less, had its way with a Patriots defense through three quarters of a game that felt far more lopsided than the 28–22 score indicated. That’s a credit to Bill O’Brien, who’s retrofitted his old Patriots offense for his quarterback, and to the QB himself, Deshaun Watson, who posted a 140.7 passer rating on New England.

If you’re not paying attention to the Titans—and maybe you aren’t—you’re missing a heck of a reclamation project. QB Ryan Tannehill suddenly can’t be stopped in the scheme OC Arthur Smith built for Marcus Mariota. He’s been in triple digits in passer rating in four of his five starts, and Sunday’s win over the Colts marked the third time he’s broken 120. And he also brings a run element (seven rushes, 40 yards on Sunday) to an offense that needed some juice when he took over in mid-October. The Titans and Texans, by the way, play twice in the season’s final three weeks, in games that will likely decide the division.

Adam Thielen’s health issues have stretched thin the wide receiver position, which the Vikings don’t have a ton of depth at. He’ll be out again on Monday, which means rookie Bisi Johnson will continue to have a larger role. Johnson, for the uninitiated (don’t worry, I didn’t know this either), played at Colorado State with Dolphins rookie receiver Preston Williams.

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TOP FIVE

1. Brady’s frustration persists. The Patriots’ offense sputtered for three quarters on Sunday night, and even when Tom Brady and the rest of the unit started moving the ball in the fourth quarter, they did it at an uncharacteristically slow pace: a 13-play, 63-yard touchdown drive took 6:11 off the clock, at a point where the Patriots faced a three-possession deficit and time was at a premium. By the time they got in the end zone, cutting the the Texans’ lead to 28–15, there were less than four minutes left in the game. And it’s probably a sign of Brady not having the trust he needs to have in his skill group, in conveying what he needs to convey on the fly in hurry-up situations. When things got tight? He leaned back on Julian Edelman and James White, and the two old Patriots wound up on the receiving end of 14 of Brady’s 24 completions. The next month will interesting. This was the time last year when the Patriots found a power-running identity for the ride to Super Bowl LIII.

2. Rutgers hires Schiano. Best to new/old Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, who I believe is, deep down, a good guy and a good football coach. To put a bow on his two-month stint as the Pats’ defensive coordinator in early 2019—I was told all along that his decision to leave the team was completely family-related. The coach has a high school-aged daughter who’s a big-time soccer recruit and didn’t want to uproot his family. Now, his daughter’s closer to graduation and going to Rutgers means going back to his home state. I’m excited to see what he does there.

3. College football pulling down huge ratings, too. Saturday’s Ohio StateMichigan game drew a 7.5 rating, which was second among college football games this fall only to the 9.7 rating that LSU-Alabama drew. How big are these numbers? They’re in the neighborhood of what a World Series or an NBA Finals game would draw. And to me, it’s a great example of how insulated the NFL is from a popularity standpoint. Both college and high school football have massive appeal in this country and, as a result, we’re all conditioned watch the sport every weekend in the fall. There are a bunch of reasons, of course, why the NFL is so careful about doing anything to rock the boat at all in college football. But one is clearly driven by this dynamic. The more football people watch, the better it is for the NFL. And the more college football they watch, the more interested they’ll be in the draft, and the more they’ll identify with players coming into the league.

4. The NFC East’s race to the bottom. The Cowboys and Eagles seem intent on keeping each other alive as each struggles to get out of its own way. 

“I mean, that’s the thing, as crazy as this is, I would say it’s a long shot, but we’re not out of it," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said in his presser following a loss to the Dolphins that dropped his team to 5–7. “We do have four of our division opponents coming up. The guys got to understand that, and it’s my job to make sure they do understand that—that we’re still fighting and coming to work this week and ready to go and try to figure this thing out. But I’ve got to show them exactly where we are and what we need to do with these next four games.” 

Actually, Doug, you really are no long shot. You’re a game behind the Cowboys, and you close the season with them.

5. Flag-waving retribution. Ravens TE Mark Andrews got back at 49ers DE Nick Bosa after a touchdown on Sunday. You may remember Bosa doing a flag-waving celebration during the Niners’ Monday nighter against the Browns earlier in the year. That was in retaliation, of course, for Cleveland QB Baker Mayfield planting a flag at Ohio Stadium in 2017. So Andrews, an Oklahoma teammate of Mayfield’s, mimicked Bosa’s flag-plant dance Sunday, only he did it with teammates joining in.

“It was a little comeback,” Andrews said. “’Bosa, Bosa,’ it was one of those things, just like he said, ‘Baker, Baker.’ It is what it is. Just having fun out there.” Let’s hope these guys get to see each other again.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

This was … brief.

AB tweeted this in the second half of Sunday’s game. And it got better …

There he put himself under the Patriots’ Christmas tree.

This is not nice.

Looks more like a modified sky hook to me.

They are, Kevin. I think.

This was pretty great.

A lip-reading test for you.

A thing of beauty.

Umm.…

This hasn’t gotten old yet (but probably will soon).

Really cool.

Best tweet of the week. (And the older Randy Moss, a former colleague of mine, is a fantastic guy, by the way.)

***

Rhodes will hope to be all smiles after he faces Seattle’s Wilson, who is second in the league in passer rating.

Rhodes will hope to be all smiles after he faces Seattle’s Wilson, who is second in the league in passer rating.

MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

Each week, we’ll hit a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football stage to get answers to a few questions. This week,Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes...

MMQB: So what’s been the biggest difference from being 2–2 in September to being 6–1 since?

XR: We just knew what type of ball we had to play after those four games. We had confidence, but we knew the division wasn’t going to be easy. We just had to make a turnaround to have a shot to make the playoffs, to win our division and go to the Super Bowl. So we got tight on the details of our game, and we got better as the weeks went on.

MMQB: Has the season Dalvin Cook is having made a difference for you guys on defense?

XR: He brings the energy to us as a team. He’s having a big effect on everyone on this team being the guy that he is—hard worker, joyful guy, always has a smile on his face. And he keeps us on our toes on defense when we do go against him in practice with his explosion, his elusiveness, how he gets in and out of his breaks, his cuts. He’s a great football player.

MMQB: You’ve been up and down as a pass defense. Where you do guys have to get better?

XR: Yeah, we have. I mean, we just gotta finish, man. We keep watching film over and over, these guys catching balls on us—we have to do our best to get the ball out. It’s not like we’re in terrible coverage. We’re actually in great coverage, just got to finish at the ball, by any means necessary. We got to adjust when the ball is in the air, whether it’s back shoulder or an adjustment to our leverage and, like I said, make plays on the ball.

MMQB: You’ve come under some criticism. How do you think you’re playing?

XR: I ain’t playing to my level. There’s room for improvement. I have to improve on a lot of things, and especially with the penalties. They’ve been killing me. A lot of them have been questionable, but who am I? I’m the guy that’s always been identified as the aggressive corner, so I have to own up to that and just try to polish my game more and more. 

MMQB: So you feel like you’re close?

XR: Yeah, I’m working at it. As a secondary, we’ve all been trying to work hard and  finish on the ball, rip through their hands and do everything we possibly can to make it tougher for the receiver. And me, I’ve been working on the little details.

MMQB: How’d you spend your bye week?

XR: I was just with family, and working over the little nagging injuries. That was everyone. We had 11 games, no bye weeks, so of course you’re gonna have little nagging injuries—little bruise here and there, little nagging stuff. If you some have time to rest, it’ll probably go away, or at least then you can make it through another five, or eight, games without feeling it again. The bye week was good. Just relaxed, chilled with my family, got a little treatment, worked out a little bit, kept my body moving. I wasn’t lazy.

MMQB: What’s the toughest thing getting ready for Russell Wilson?

XR: He’s accurate on the run, he can make plays with his feet, he’s pretty smart, he doesn’t make too many crazy decisions. You see how many interceptions he has [three]. And he helps out his team, the offense, dropping the ball where it needs to be, and the receivers do a good job of getting open for him. But when they’re not, he’ll throw them open. It’s not only him we have to stop, it’s the whole team.

MMQB: What’s it like playing there?

XR: It’s a great stadium, a loud stadium—the 12th man, that’s what they say, right? The fans are literally on that field.

MMQB: Do you think this has a chance to be the best team you’ve been a part of?

XR: I wouldn’t say we’re quite there yet, but if we keep working at it, doing what we’re doing heading into the playoffs, yeah, I’d say this could be one of the best teams we’ve had. Everyone’s on the same page, knowing what we want at the end of the game. Last game, you could tell, how we came together and came back and won that game [against the Broncos]. That’ll tell you it all as far as how we’re coming together as a team, and as a unit, realizing there’s one goal each and every week. And that’s to win.

****

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Some changes are coming starting this week.

First, my mailbag will be separated from the Game Plan for the first time. (We had a dry run last week, where we published the Mailbag twice.) The mailbag will now run on Wednesday, with Game Plan set to roll out, as usual, on Thursday. The content won’t change much. We’re doing this—full disclosure—to try and get more eyeballs on different things, and to give you an extra day of content during the week.

Also, you may have noticed that my usual Six From Saturday section isn’t here. That will now be posted on its own on Tuesdays, so check back tomorrow for the college players that impressed over the weekend.

As always, if you have suggestions, things you don’t/do like, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at talkback@themmqb.com.

See you guys in a few hours for the Monday afternoon column!

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.