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Chiefs' Defense Starting to Show Life, Sean McVay's Rams Back in Playoff Mix

Plus, the inconsistent officiating during the Bengals-Browns game, why the Panthers should give rookie QB Will Grier a chance, how Weston Richburg's injury impacts the Niners' offensive line and more NFL notes.

Three weeks to go …

• There was another piece of officiating craziness I missed yesterday that incensed, to put it lightly, the Cincinnati staff. And really, this boiled down to consistency. With five minutes left, Bengals safety Jessie Bates intercepted Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield off a deflection–Cincinnati cornerback William Jackson popped the ball free from Odell Beckham’s grasp to create that. The Browns challenged that there was pass interference on the play. Replays showed very limited contact between Beckham and Jackson before the ball arrived. The refs overturned it anyway, giving Cleveland the ball back with a first down. Six plays later, a screen to Jarvis Landry on third-and-10 went for 34 yards. Bengals coach Zac Taylor challenged it, and it was clear that linemen were blocking downfield before the ball got there. And the call stood. The score at the time was 24-16. The play got Cleveland in field goal range, and an Austin Seibert kick thereafter essentially put the game away. So in one fell swoop, the Bengals were denied a turnover and a stop, while the Browns were set up to put the game away. All they needed was one of the two calls. If the officials were being consistent, they’d have gotten that.

• Speaking of incensed Bengals, it’s understandable why they were taken aback when Patriots videographers set up a tripod right in front of their scouts in the Cleveland press box on Sunday. The videographers were there, per a source, to shoot a pro scout at work for their in-house “Do Your Job” series–and the crew was cleared and credentialed by the Browns. The problem was neither the Bengals nor the league were informed, and so now this is in the hands of NFL Security. The league has the tape, which will be key here. The truth is there. If there’s 20 minutes of signals and substitution patterns, that’s a problem. If it’s generic scene stuff, then we’re all moving on soon.

• The Chiefs' defense has come alive of late–holding its last three opponents under 20 points and holding late in Sunday’s win over the Patriots, with Bashaud Breeland knocking away the Patriots’ last gasp to Julian Edelman on a fourth-and-3 from Kansas City's 5-yard line. So what’s the difference been? Having a healthy Chris Jones has been one. Getting settled in Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme has been another. But don’t overlook the impact that Tyrann Mathieu has had as a leader and communicator in the Back 7. As one staffer explained it, “Badger is the glue that keeps them working on the back end.” Which is a big reason why the Chiefs feel just fine about their $14-million-per investment in the 27-year-old.

• Panthers interim coach Perry Fewell said on Monday that the team was going to go forward with Kyle Allen as its starter, which leads to the obvious question: Why not use the next three games to get a look at third-round pick Will Grier? The reality is that while the staff loves his accuracy, his arm and his moxie, he came into the league very, very raw, having played in Dana Holgorsen’s iteration of the Air Raid at West Virginia. And so really going back to camp, the idea has been to give him a real redshirt year, and for his own good. Maybe that changes in Weeks 16 or 17. But I wouldn’t count on it if they still feel sitting is what’s best for him developmentally.

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• Rams coach Sean McVay took some hits for the first time in his three years in L.A. a few weeks back, and his team has answered with three wins in four games (in the one loss, to be fair, they got torched by the Ravens) to creep back into the playoff race. One staffer said the key has been sticking to the script that McVay has written the last three years–and that the head coach’s consistency through the issues led to the more recent breakthroughs. And that was apparent in the team’s steadiness on Sunday night. After a strong first half, things went haywire at the start of the third quarter, with the Rams’ first three possessions ending in a pair of picks and a blocked field goal. Against most teams, Seattle would jump all over that. But McVay’s crew mitigated damage on defense, and came back with a seven-play, 95-yard drive bridging the third and fourth quarters that, for all intents in purposes, put the game away. And kept the Rams squarely in what sure looks like a three-team race (Green Bay, Minnesota and the Rams) for two playoff spots, with one of the two going to the North champ.

• Pay attention to the Niners’ loss of center Weston Richburg–it’s a big one. Kyle Shanahan’s offense has always valued the center (how he took Alex Mack from Cleveland to Atlanta with him is one example of it; how the Niners paid Richburg is another), because they put protection calls and checks on him, to take some of the mental load off the quarterback. The good news is that San Francisco’s got an experienced backup in Ben Garland, who started seven games the last two years in Atlanta, on hand. But this still bears watching.

• We reviewed the Bill Belichick/Nick Saban “Art of Coaching” doc in the MMQB, and I got one more leftover from that here for you. I’ll let Belichick take it away: “I tell our players all the time–good players can’t overcome bad coaching. And with bad coaching like we had last year in the Miami game, where we couldn’t play defense for seven seconds, I don’t care how good the players are, bad coaching, they can’t overcome it. That’s a bad feeling. You never want to let your team down by after the game feeling like I didn’t do a good enough job.” Belichick was, of course, referencing the Miami Miracle. Saban, in turn, offered up his own disaster: the kick-six loss to Auburn in 2013. “It was a terrible way to lose a game. Terrible way to lose a game,” he said. “There was a timeout where we could go over this: ‘Look guys, it’s a long field goal, they’re gonna put somebody back, as soon as the ball’s kicked, you have to cover.’ Well, what happens when we kick the ball? Everybody’s standing there watching the ball, to see if we’re gonna make it, and then when we don’t make it, they all start covering. Well, we were outflanked. Ultimately, I don’t ever like to walk in a room and feel like we didn’t give our guys the best chance to be successful.” Again, the doc is on HBO on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET. Great work by Kenny Rodgers and NFL Films folks.

• Mike Vrabel’s Titans are 8-5, and I feel like he should be sneaking into the coach of the year conversation (one that’s pretty crowded now) as the season winds down. That team has a rugged identity, has maximized a backup quarterback when it faced the tough decision to detach from the anointed franchise guy, and has been incredibly strong towards the end of games. I understand why Shanahan and Sean Payton and Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh might be in front of him. But I think he’s up there, considering the body of work.

• Speaking of Payton, there’s no question how good he’s been about pushing buttons with his players. And so it was interesting to hear what he said on Monday about a specific spot: “You're playing down safety defense. We have to be able to stay on top. We have to, quite honestly, play better at the deep safety position.” The guy at that spot? Third-year man Marcus Williams, who was on the business end of George Kittle’s vicious stiff-arm as the Niners turned a simple fourth-and-2 conversion into a 39-yard gain to set up the game-winning field goal on Sunday. Kittle rode Williams for about 20 yards, drawing a facemask penalty that tacked 15 more at the end of the play. Which was a bad sequence to finish a bad afternoon for the promising young DB.

• Finally, because I promised this on Monday morning, ex-Panther coach Ron Rivera’s score from the golf course on Sunday: 89. Rivera reported he picked up eight pars, but three double bogies screwed up his round. And how about this: His wife Stephanie, a 6 handicap, shot a 72. Not bad for a nice little distraction from all the action on Sunday for those two.

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