Sean Lee woke up on Sunday morning not knowing for sure if he’d play.
The Cowboys trainers had put the aging linebacker, who was nursing pec and thigh injuries, on a plan based wholly on rest and rehab coming out of the team’s 31–24 loss to the Bears two Thursdays ago. He wouldn’t take a single physical rep in practice. He’d get his mental work in. And he and the team would hope that when gameday rolled around, Lee would feel O.K.
“It was gonna be close, but I felt pretty good yesterday,” Lee said Sunday night. “When we warmed up, I realized the plan the trainers had really did work in being able to rest me and giving me the best shot to play today. After I warmed up, I said, ‘O.K., let’s do this.’”
And do this he did—at the most critical time to break Dallas out of a month-long funk.
Late in the second quarter, the Cowboys completed a 14-play, 97-yard drive to take a 21–7 lead, and now it was the Rams’ turn to play with a season on the line. L.A. took possession at its own 25 with 1:57 left in the half. After a holding call and a quick pass to Robert Woods, the Rams faced second-and-15 from the 20 and called a high-low concept designed to pull the linebacker up to tight end Tyler Higbee to free Woods over the deep middle.
A lot of guys in Lee’s position would take the cheese and hustle down on Higbee, giving the Rams what they wanted: Woods free in the open field. But Lee, now 33, isn’t most guys.
“Understanding the situation and the route concepts and what they like to do, I think our coaches had us ready for a lot of these situations and a lot of looks and being able to see and understand it,” Lee said. “You have something in front of you but there’s something behind you, too. A lot of times they set you up by putting something in front of you to get you to bite and if you understand that concept and what’s behind it, you can make plays.
“I ended up being able to get a great break and read the quarterback. That whole picture filled out."
The picture wound up being painted like this: Lee leaping to his right to get in the path of Jared Goff’s throw to Woods, snatching it out of the air—and almost in one motion—sprinting in the other direction, getting it back to the Rams nine. Ezekiel Elliott punched it in three plays later to make the score 28–7 and that, for all intents and purposes, was it.
The Cowboys wouldn’t look back. Lee had a great moment for his season of redemption.
And the NFC East leaders set the stage for even bigger moment next Sunday.
Week 15 is one game away from being done, and while we didn’t have a ton of barnburners, there’s a bunch to get to in this week’s MMQB, including…
• The Bills returning to the playoffs for the second time in three years.
• The Texans showing their resilience in Nashville.
• The Falcons fighting for their coach.
• And a playoff picture clearing up.
We can get to that last thing first. As I write this, eight of the NFL’s 12 playoff spots are spoken for: the Patriots, Bills, Chiefs, Ravens, Seahawks, 49ers, Packers and Saints are in. Two wild cards are taken (AFC East/NFC West runners-up). That leaves two more spots to be won. The Texans took the upper hand on Sunday in the AFC South by beating the Titans. But the two play again in Week 17.
Then there’s the much-maligned NFC East, which is where we’re starting.
Before 21–7 suddenly became 28–7 (which ended as a 44–21 win), no one saw this coming from the Cowboys. In fact, the guys themselves had every reason to be skeptical going into Sunday.
But Lee wasn’t.
“We played pretty bad the last three games but I liked the plan,” he said. “We were getting back to our identity. Coach [Jason] Garrett has been unbelievable all week making sure [we know] when we play up to our identity, we win football games. We went back to basics. How do we win football games? Who are we?We executed in that fashion.”
On offense, that meant saddling up behind the offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott, and boy, did that ever happen. Dallas gave Elliott 17 carries in the first half, and he finished with 117 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries, with rookie Tony Pollard knocking out another 131 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries.
On defense, it meant playing more soundly and more disciplined than those guys had over the last month. And it took the coaches calling out players during the week to get there, which those players will acknowledge now.
“[Defensive coordinator] Rod Marinelli, if you watch our defense over the years, it’s unbelievable hustle from everybody on the defense, and there’s execution,” Lee said. “We don’t have too much defense, but what we do play, we play it right—physically, mentally, and we haven’t done that the last three weeks. They challenged us. They challenged our identity as a team."
Through the early portions of the first half, that challenge very clearly was accepted. Todd Gurley was held to a single yard on six carries. Goff posted a 71.6 passer rating. But the Rams were hanging around, and the Cowboys needed a play to bury them.
Dallas got that from Lee, and from the second it went down, it was obvious that this was more than just a pick. There were the obvious in-game implications, but there was also what the interception represented, both for the player making it and the teammates who revered him.
After Lee ran out of bounds at the nine, the FOX cameras showed injured second-year linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with a smile from ear-to-ear, defensive lineman Al Woods with his arms in the air in celebration and greybeard tight end Jason Witten hustling on the field to celebrate with his longtime teammate. They all knew, after Lee missed stretches of 2017 and ’18, and mulled retiring, what this meant to them.
"I was so frustrated with how 2017 and ’18 had gone physically, the feeling of letting everybody down and letting your teammates down, constantly being out of games,” Lee said. “There was something in me that said, ‘Are we really gonna do this again to your team, to your organization?’ Being able to play in that playoff game last year [against the Rams], even though we lost, being part of it was fun. I still love this game so much, and I love this organization so much.”
So he decided to come back, even though he knew he’d have to find playing time—and a different role—behind the younger stars at his position, Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. His snaps were in the teens in Weeks 1, 2 and 3 but rose steadily in October. And then Vander Esch got hurt, which has put Lee back regularly in the lineup for the past month.
Team-wise, that month didn’t go great, which made Lee’s presence even more important as the Cowboys treaded water alongside the struggling Eagles for the NFC East lead. He kept chipping away with the younger guys, and it sure looked like he broke through this week.
But just as quickly as you’d assume that, he’ll tell you the key now is that “we don’t make big a deal out of this game.” Especially with what looks like a de facto division title game coming next Sunday in Philly.
"When we play right and we play up to our identity, we can play with anybody,” Lee said. “The key is to do that week in and week out. This game can help us if we take it and continue to play this way. If we get in the playoffs and we continue to do this, I think we can play with anybody, no question."
And as for what he’ll take away from this one, that pick (his first since 2017) wasn’t his only big play: He had a sack that ended the Rams’ first second-half possession, too. But the interception had more to it than the other play, mostly because of how those around him reacted. He called the way the defense celebrated and the offense rushed the field “something I’ll remember forever.”
The other guys probably will too.
“I came back because I love this organization and I love my teammates here. They’ve been through a lot of tough times with me and a lot of injuries and missed games,” he said. “My goal was to help anywhere I could, whether that’s playing 10 snaps a game or playing 50, whatever position that was going to be. So, yeah it’s great. I love these guys, and anytime I can help get us wins and be involved, I’m happy, no question.”
So for this week at least the focus in Dallas will shift from head coach Jason Garrett’s job security to an actual game, one that will likely crown the division champ. And as for the other team in that battle….
WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
You know who tight end Zach Ertz is. But you may not know quite as much about the other four skill-position Eagles who broke the huddle with Carson Wentz at the start of Sunday’s game in Landover, Md. against the Redskins. Here’s a rundown:
• RB Miles Sanders and WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside were both picked by Philly in the second round of April’s draft.
• WR Greg Ward is best known for quarterbacking Univ. of Houston’s unbeaten 2015 team. He was promoted from the practice squad on Nov. 23.
•WR Robert Davis, a former Redskins’ sixth-rounder pick out of Georgia State, was promoted from the practice squad last Thursday.
“It’s not what y’all think,” Sanders told me from the locker room postgame. “There’s a lot of confidence in our huddle with everybody stepping up and being in new roles. Next man up mentality, they’re in this league for a reason, and that’s how we take it, being professional. Carson does a hell of a job encouraging guys, trusting the receivers and bringing confidence to the whole offense."
The truth? It doesn’t matter what we think, because Philly’s making it work. The Eagles made it work on that sloppy Monday night against the Giants, coming back from 14 down. And they made it work when it mattered most against the Redskins on Sunday.
The end of Sunday’s far-from-perfect 31–27 win over the hapless Redskins provided a perfect case in point. Wentz drove the offense 75 yards in 11 plays, and on 10 of those occasions, the guy getting the ball wasn’t on the team last Dec. 1. The one exception came on a 20-yard connection between Wentz and second-year tight end Dallas Goedert, with Sanders, Ward and RB Boston Scott, who was picked up from the Saints last December and plucked off the practice squad in October, swallowing up most of the work.
And it was Ward getting the game-winner, high-pointing a Wentz floater over Redskins corner Josh Norman to notch his first NFL touchdown with 26 seconds left. Which, as Sanders saw it, came right back to his original thought.
“That's just confidence,” he said. “G-Ward got active the last couple weeks and he’s taking advantage of his opportunity. That simple.”
Sanders sure has, too. On Sunday, he broke Philly’s rookie record for rushing yards (he currently has 687 on the season, passing LeSean McCoy) and scrimmage yards (he has 1,120 this season, passing DeSean Jackson), and having to seize a chance like this is, most certainly, a spot he’s been in before. His first two years at Penn State, Sanders sat behind a generational talent in Saquon Barkley. He had to make the most of what he got then. It became an attitude for him. Now, he’s seeing it in others.
“Me sitting behind Saquan for those two years just made me grind harder and work my ass off,” he said. “Just preparing me for my opportunities."
And because they all took advantage of their opportunities at the end of the Redskins game, the next one they get—against Dallas, with whom they are tied atop the division at 7–7—is an awfully big one.
“We know what’s in front of us,” Sanders said. “We know the opportunity that we have and the week coming up. I don't even need to say nothing about the week coming up. This is for the division. We want to play in January? This is what we got to do. We got to win these next two games.”
BUFFALO SNAGS WIN No. 10
The last time the Bills won double-digit games, Doug Flutie was the quarterback, Wade Phillips was the coach, they went into the playoffs under a weird circumstance (Rob Johnson unseating Flutie at QB during that week) and they were eliminated under an even weirder circumstance (the Music City Miracle).
Buffalo coach Sean McDermott remembers that, but he can recall the last time the franchise made the postseason a lot more clearly: Two years ago, in his first season as coach, the Bills snuck in at 9–7. For career Bills like Kyle Williams and Eric Wood, the accomplishment itself was significant. It was for a lot of people working for a franchise that hadn’t made it there in 18 years.
Anyway, on Sunday, the Bills hit both those milestones, clinching a playoff spot and notching their 10th win. And thankfully, this one didn’t feel much like 1999 or 2017. It wasn’t a circus, and it wasn’t historic. It was just, at this point, sort of expected. Which almost any football coach would tell you is how it should be.
“I feel like we’re a little bit more established. Clinching with two games to go, I think speaks for itself,” McDermott said, as the team bus made its way to the airport. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it feels a little bit different. That first year was certainly unexpected, just a group of guys that galvanized around a mission—similar to this team. These guys worked extremely hard and everyone’s a part of it, everyone back at One Bills Drive and on the business side and the football side.
“Everybody's got a hand in it, which is the true meaning of team.”
And winning on Sunday took big-game performances from a handful of guys.
There was budding superstar Tre’Davious White’s two interceptions. The first stopped the Steelers’ first drive of the game, the second came at the end of the third quarter. White returned that one 49 yards to the Steelers’ 18, setting up a game-tying field goal.
There was improving quarterback Josh Allen, who found tight end Tyler Kroft on third-and-nine from the Pittsburgh 17 for the go-ahead touchdown with 8:00 left.
Then there were the consecutive Steelers possessions that drove into Bills territory in the back half of the fourth quarter ended by Bills picks, the first by Jordan Poyer, the second by Levi Wallace.
Were the Bills spectacular on Sunday night? No—but they were awfully clutch.
“It’s what we’re trying to establish,” McDermott said. “As [GM] Brandon [Beane] and I continue to try and change the culture, part of that is mindset—the expectation. That was one of the biggest steps we wanted to take this year and, again, we’ve got work to do. But we feel like in the midst of changing the physical part of what’s going on, we’re also changing the mindset. It showed up in spades tonight, man.”
McDermott then brought up the DNA of the guys he and Beane have brought to Buffalo (including higher-profile players like Allen, White, Tremaine Edmunds and Ed Oliver), and how it makes handling these his sort of stage, on a Sunday night, in a place like Pittsburgh, natural. “When you put those types of guys together,” he said, “yeah, they may not be the most well-recognized household names, but they play hard and they do things right.”
Next up: An even bigger one. The Bills are in Foxboro on Saturday and, believe or not, first place in the AFC East will be on the line.
THE BATTLE FOR THE AFC SOUTH
Say what you want about the Texans, but they can roll with the punches. Coming off a momentous 28–22 win over New England in Week 13, Houston got shredded by Drew Lock and the Broncos eight days ago, falling behind 38–3 before losing 38–24. Then on Sunday they blew a 14–0 lead, with Deshaun Watson throwing two red-zone picks to make it feel that much worse.
Yet, there they were in the fourth quarter, with the game on the line going up and down the field, first covering 75 yards in seven plays to retake the lead, at 21–14, on a 10-yard Carlos Hyde touchdown run, then bleeding the clock over 12 plays, traveling 80 yards and kicking a field goal to make it a two-possession game.
This contest in Nashville was the front end of a home-and-home that’ll determine the AFC South champion. And Round 1, went to the Texans—after they got out of their own way and wore the Titans down.
“I think we understand with the quarterback we have and the guys we have at the skill positions, we’re in the game in any point in time,” veteran receiver Kenny Stills said. “I think it’s a blessing and a curse as far as when we turn it on and turn it off. We gotta keep our foot on the gas at all times, and we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers.”
The Texans are fascinating. They have the aforementioned phenom at quarterback. They have great receiver talent. They totally remade their offensive line and running back positions over the last 10 months. Their defense lost its best player, J.J. Watt, to injury, shortly after trading away what many would consider its second-best player, Jadeveon Clowney. Then there was the coaching/scouting drama of the spring.
And yet the team is still standing, when it matters most. That 75-yard drive was the perfect example. Watson made plays with his arm (a 29-yard dime to DeAndre Hopkins) and his legs (a 12-yard scramble to pick up a third-and-eight), and Hyde kept the defense honest, eventually churning out that touchdown.
“Classic case of us executing,” Stills said. “Every other drive that we had I think—I haven’t watched the film yet—we stopped ourselves. We started executing and putting points on the board. When we do our thing and play our game, we’ve got the guys to do whatever we want on offense. That’s every team, obviously, in professional football. Everybody’s got players. But that’s one of the hardest things, being consistent.”
Round 2 comes a week from Sunday, after the Texans take a short-week trip to Tampa.
“It seems the last couple years of my career it’s been that way,” said Stills, who is in his first season with Houston following stops in New Orleans and Miami. “You play a team, you play another team, and then you play that team again. This time it happens to have some significance. It’ll be fun.”
BIG BOARD 1.0
The college football regular season is complete. LSU QB Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy. LSU, Ohio State, Clemson and Oklahoma have been selected for the College Football Playoff. So we’ve got a lot of evidence to dig through now on the 2020 draft class.
With that in mind, I figured the time was right to put together a top 10 big board—both for my own educational purposes and as entertainment for the rest of you who love lists. Here’s a teaser of my top three, and check back Tuesday for the remainder of my board, plus some notes from GMs.
1. Ohio State DE Chase Young: All-Planet. Heisman finalist. Generational prospect. Easy, right?
2. Auburn DT Derrick Brown: Brown would’ve been a top-15 pick last year. He came back and won SEC Defensive Player of the Year. A super-sized, game-wrecking force.
3. Ohio State CB Jeffrey Okudah: Okudah had top-10 overall potential coming into the year, but he needed to be more consistent.
(And don’t worry, there’s plenty to read about Burrow below—and on Tuesday.)
Getting beaten at home by the Falcons wasn’t the result for which the 49ers were looking. But I have to say that I liked what I heard coming out of that locker room postgame—a steady stream of accountability for a loss that was far from a complete disaster. And leading the way on that was rookie Nick Bosa. From “I didn’t play well today,” to “I know I let all of [my teammates] down,” to “I didn’t win my rushes, the likely Defensive Rookie of the Year wasn’t shy about shouldering blame. Nor were his teammates. And I think that’s a pretty good sign.
I like the candor of Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky; he said after the team’s fate-sealing loss in Green Bay that he’d have liked for coaches to move the pocket more with their playcalling to help his linemen. And I like it because I always want these guys to be honest. But I’m not sure the guys who are coaching Trubisky, or calling those plays, enjoyed his comments quite as much as I did.
Tbe Bengals season is over, but it’s clear every week that Joe Mixon should be a big part of whatever comes next. This run is a good example of why. There aren’t five more talented backs in football.
Underrated signing by Bills GM Brandon Beane: Jon Feliciano. The 27-year-old guard has developed into a heart-and-soul type of presence on the team’s offensive line, which needed a lot of work coming into 2019. And he’s signed to a relatively modest contract—making $8 million over this year and next—especially compared to what other free-agent linemen are making. It’s another great example of how Buffalo is building the right way.
The Broncos’ Drew Lock–fueled renaissance was snowed under at Arrowhead. He wasn’t good—but don’t overreact. Just like last week, when he was fantastic against the Texans, it’s one game. And it was under really terrible conditions. The big question for Denver is whether or not they’ll have enough of a sense on whether Lock could be the long-term answer. That’s going to affect their approach to the 2020 offseason.
The Browns’ current state can’t simply be summed up by Jarvis Landry’s exchange with Freddie Kitchens on the sideline (he said in the locker room afterwards that he was calling for the coach to get him the ball), nor can it be defined by the Odell Beckham situation slowly coming undone. But both show why there’s been risk in how GM John Dorsey has put the team together, and how each guy—and everyone else there, including Baker Mayfield—is who they ever were.
The Buccaneers were always going to have a hard time separating from Jameis Winston in 2020, given all they invested into his development. Games like Sunday’s—during which Winston absolutely looked the part of a gunslinging Bruce Arians quarterback, throwing for over 300 yards in the first half and finishing with 458 and four touchdowns—may make it borderline impossible. Paying him will be complicated, though.
If you’d told me three months ago Kliff Kingsbury would have the Cardinals gashing someone for 226 rushing yards in December, and that Kenyan Drake (22 carries, 137 yards) would be the bellcow, I don’t think I’d have believed you.
Since Halloween Chargers QB Philip Rivers has nine TDs and 11 interceptions, and Sunday’s blowout loss to the Vikings was his third three-pick game over that stretch. His future (his deal is up in March) is just one thing that the team’s brass will have to make a tough decision on in a few months. The expectation has been that they will franchise him. We’ll see if things change.
Don’t look now but the Chiefs’ Steve Spagnuolo-led defense has held four consecutive opponents under 20 points. And at the center of it is prized free-agent signing Tyrann Mathieu, who has been a unifying force and a factor in the team’s communication on that side of the ball—and a big-play machine. The ball he ripped from Courtland Sutton’s hands in the end zone Sunday served as a warning to Lock to go after the safety in coverage at his own peril.
The Colts’ future at quarterback suddenly looks like it’s back up in the air—and tonight figures to be one of those nights where a lot of the football-watching public takes stock of Jacoby Brissett’s future. He hasn’t been great since returning from an MCL sprain in mid-November.
Running back Tony Pollard was an absolute find for the Cowboys in the fourth round last April, and he is a perfect complement to their jackhammer, Ezekiel Elliott. Which reminds you, again, that Jerry Jones the GM (with the help of COO Stephen Jones and scouting chief Will McClay) has actually done a good job of roster-building the last few years.
Losing on Sunday the way the Dolphins did had a bit of a wheels-falling-off feeling to it. Miami hasn’t lacked for fight where they have for talent, and so to see a shaky Giants team take it to Brian Flores’ crew like that is a reminder that the group has a long way to go. In that sense, having the Giants pull even with them in the standings actually helps the Dolphins, as does losing (winning?) a tiebreaker to them.
Love how Carson Wentz has come alive for the Eagles. Hate how it is on him to win games for them right now. But thanks to a rash of injuries, and age in some spots, that’s where we are.
Two things I heard on the Falcons’ potential coaching opening: They like Ron Rivera quite a bit, and they may focus on offensive coaches after going the other way forever. (Bobby Petrino is the only offensive-minded HC they’ve hired this decade. He came from college, and he lasted less than a year). I know those two things conflict. Which is kind of the way it works this time of year. Lots of stuff out there.
Salute to Giants QB Eli Manning, who’s handled everything he’s been faced with in the pros as a pro. And especially the awkwardness of this year. Yes, it was Miami. Yes, he threw three picks. But in what’ll probably his last real possession as a starter in East Rutherford, he took the offense 44 yards in five plays to score the Giants’ final points in a 36–20 win and got to hear it from the crowd there one last time.
Good to see the Jaguars haven’t quit; last week, it sure looked like they had. That Doug Marrone has a strong relationship with ownership may give him a better chance at surviving than Tom Coughlin has, though both seem like longshots to stay at this point. Overcoming a 16–3 deficit on the road in that environment—final game in Oakland, cross-country trip, etc.—won’t hurt, either.
Jets QB Sam Darnold’s turnover issue—and he turned it over in critical spots on Thursday night—is still there, and it goes back to his redshirt sophomore year at USC. For one reason or another, that’s one of the tougher things to coach out of a quarterback. But it’s absolutely got to happen if Darnold wants to take the next step.
A three-touchdown loss to a fellow non-playoff team in front of an apathetic home crowd is a pretty standard recipe in the NFL for looming changes. And that’s where the Lions are right now. I can say that different solutions have been mulled. The Ford family has always been patient in the past. But there’s a new Ford, Martha, in charge how, and her lack of any tangible track record makes it really hard to guess what comes next.
The Packers keep chugging along. Aaron Rodgers was just O.K. on Sunday, Aaron Jones too, and that didn’t matter. They just waited for the game to come to them, which it eventually did with an assortment of fourth-down stops and turnovers. I really don’t know how good Green Bay is—but the team is positioned to grab a bye in the NFC.
Maybe it means nothing in the grand scheme of things for an organization on the verge of a reset, but the 2019 Panthers gave everyone a window into their character around 3:30 ET on Sunday afternoon. Down 30–10, Carolina put together 75- and 84-yard drives to cut Seattle’s lead to six, leaving the Panthers one stop away from a shot at beating a playoff-bound team. Ron Rivera’s trying his best not to watch while he’s off. But this one might’ve made him smile a little.
Patriots WR Julian Edelman isn’t right physically, and that’s a problem. He caught just two passes for nine yards on five targets, alarmingly inefficient numbers for a super-efficient player. He’s 33 now, and he’s dealing with shoulder and knee injuries. Losing him would be horrific for a New England offense that very clearly misses Rob Gronkowski (something that’s showed up in how defenses have been able to cover the Patriots’ backs in the passing game). If I’m the Pats, I get Edelman whatever he needs rest-wise ahead of January, even if he fights the idea of it. The goal should be to get him to the finish line.
The Raiders’ next home game will be in Nevada, which is strange to type. Who will be the quarterback then? It’s an open question. I’d expect GM Mike Mayock and coach Jon Gruden to take the same approach to this offseason they did to last offseason: seeing Derek Carr as a good option at the position, with an open mind—and open eyes—to potential upgrades.
The Rams quietly retrofitted their defense in the offseason to incorporate some of the things that gave Sean McVay’s offense trouble in last year’s playoffs. They also tried to get more adaptable on offense to prevent nights like the one they had on Super Bowl Sunday. The latter, I believe, has been a little slower to take.
I wouldn’t underestimate the value the Ravens would get in putting away the No. 1 seed on Sunday against the Browns, and not just because it would mean avenging one of their two losses. Locking up the spot now would allow the staff to manage Lamar Jackson through Week 17 and ensure he’d have fresh legs for the playoff opener. And it would help to get everyone a lot healthier.
It’s an interesting story: The Redskins had ex-Ohio State and Florida coach Urban Meyer in the owner’s box on Sunday. Do I think Meyer would go there? I do not, and it’s not because he doesn’t want to coach QB Dwayne Haskins again. Moreso, I think fit and track record would matter to him, as would the ability to win quickly. Does Washington offer any of that?
We’ll have more on this in a second, but I’m fascinated to see how the Saints hold up against the Indy offensive line tonight. Losing Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport for the year in last week’s loss to the Niners was not optimal.
I’ll raise my hand. I was wrong on Seahawks rookie DK Metcalf. From all that I’d heard about the wide receiver, he had all the markings of the typical workout freak that don’t amount to much in the pros. He wasn’t a great route runner coming out of Ole Miss. But what you can see already is how capable he is as a boundary receiver. It was more than obvious on the 19-yard touchdown Sunday where he absolutely Mossed Carolina CB Donte Jackson.
Mike Tomlin has done a really good job this year, maybe as good as any in his 13 years in PIttsburgh, of keeping the Steelers focused and in the race amid back-breaking injuries and the normal circus-like distractions. And I think it bodes well for the future, with guys like James Washington and Diontae Johnson continuing to get a massive amount of quality reps.
Who’d have thought that 14 games in, the edginess of the Texans offense would run through Carlos Hyde? That’s where we are right now. And he’s earned it. He finished Sunday with 26 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown.
I’d have liked to have seen one more possession from Titans QB Ryan Tannehill against the Texans. He brought the team 75 yards in seven plays to cut Houston’s lead to 24–21 with a shade over two minutes left. Then, we got one of the worst onside kicks I’ve ever seen and that was it. Too bad.
The Vikings are 8–2 in their last 10, and six of those wins have come by double digits. Which is my fancy way of saying that everything I thought they’d be in 2018—as complete a team as there was in the league, and the eventual world champ—they might become over the next few months.
1. Atlanta is still fighting. Weird end to maybe the most exciting game of the day: Atlanta at San Francisco. With eight seconds left, Matt Ryan found Austin Hooper for what was called the game-winning touchdown on the field, only to be overturned after replay showed the ball hit the ground before Hooper secured it (credit to the officials there). On the next play, with five seconds left, Ryan found Julio Jones, and Jones backed into the end zone and was ruled to have come up short. It was reviewed, the crew overturned it—seeing the ball broke the plane—and gave the Falcons a 23–22 lead (it would bulge to 29–22 thanks to a weird touchdown on the ensuing kickoff) and the game.
“It’s definitely the first time in my career that something like that has happened,” Ryan told me postgame. “I think more than anything your mind on the first one is going, ‘O.K., what are we gonna call if this gets overturned?’”
Sure enough as the play was being reviewed, OC Dirk Koetter got in Ryan’s ear, and they wound up calling a play for Russell Gage to get the ball on an option route. The Niners had that covered, so Ryan worked, as he said, “across the board” to find Jones, who willed his way in.
“It was unbelievable,” Ryan said. “Great players have a knack for getting the job done and doing and having an awareness for where they’re at. He’s certainly that way.”
2. And the Falcons aren’t going to quit on Dan Quinn.He may be gone in three weeks, but Atlanta is not going to stop playing for its coach, that much is clear. The Falcons have kept just about every game close.
“Number one, I think the players in the locker room have a ton of respect for him as a head coach,” QB Matt Ryan said. “I appreciate how good he is to the players, how much he cares, how much he’s invested in this. It’s very real and the guys appreciate that. Number two, I think we’ve got a good core group of guys in this locker room that care about winning and being professional, and who know what it takes day in and day out. It’s easy when things are going well. It’s difficult when things are not.”
At the same time, Ryan did concede that it’s impossible to completely block out what people are saying: “You can’t. You hear it and you have to answer the questions and all those things, but at the same time, it’s so hard week-to-week to get the job done. It takes every bit of your focus and your effort to do that.”
3. Patriots/Bengals controversy rolls on. Nice work by FOX’s Jay Glazer in getting the video, which clearly shows the confrontation during which the Patriots official offers to destroy the evidence, and the viewfinder displaying a camera shot of the Bengals’ bench area.
I have two thoughts on this, and I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. I believe the Patriots’ story, that their in-house video people shot this for the Do Your Job series, and that the cameraman didn’t know any better. I also believe the league has to come down on them. New England forfeited the benefit of the doubt in 2007. That’s on them. There’s one piece of equipment that no one in the employ of the Patriots can be caught doing anything nefarious with, and that’s a video camera. And what was on that tape (substitution patterns, coach behavior) is exactly what a coach would want, if he had access to these sorts of things. So the Patriots are right to expect a heavy fine, and maybe the loss of a draft pick or two.
4. Officiating changes being mulled. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has become a pivotal figure in the officiating circus of 2019. He called for a Sky Judge in the spring. And at last week’s owners’ meetings he took a strong position, asking for the league to “change the paradigm” with a focus on trying to come up with a common-sense overhaul of officiating. His belief, as we wrote Thursday, was that the league should do a deep study on the subject ahead of the annual meeting in March, and owners should discuss major changes then. What kinds? Well, Lurie wants to prioritize how the game is presented. So part of that might mean fewer calls away from the ball. It should mean a more efficient, and technologically advanced review system. It may mean Al Riveron being displaced as officiating czar. The nice thing is that it’s pretty clear change is needed, and that change is coming.
5. Cam’s trade value.We’re going to be talking a lot about Newton over the next few months. So what happens if the Panthers decide to deal him? I think the comp would be Alex Smith in 2013. Both Smith and Newton are former No. 1 overall picks. Both guys could be classified as valuable-yet-distressed assets. Both are somewhat system-specific quarterbacks. Smith, you’ll remember, went for a pair of second-round picks.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
Some interesting nuggets about how Joe Burrow, this year’s Heisman winner, got here …
1. Ohio State’s offer for the four-star prospect was by far his most impressive. And he only got bumped from three stars to four after OSU offered him—at the time, Boston College, Iowa State and West Virginia were there with the Buckeyes among his top considerations. Burrow’s dad Jimmy played and coached at Nebraska, and his two older brothers played there too. That was his dream school. The Huskers never offered him.
2. Burrow’s recruitment wasn’t without drama. After Ohio State won the 2014 national title, OC Tom Herman left for the Univ. of Houston. OSU hired Nebraska OC Tim Beck to coach quarterbacks—the same Beck who was a big part of evaluating Burrow for the Huskers, as they decided not to offer him. Burrow wasn’t happy and almost decommitted. Urban Meyer, I’m told, personally managed that issue, finding a way to keep Burrow in his 2015 recruiting class.
3. Burrow’s quarterback battle with Dwayne Haskins in 2017? Most who there say the biggest difference in the two was health. Burrow broke his hand in fall camp in August 2017, tried to come back too early, and wound up missing most of that season. Haskins came in and save the day against rival Michigan that November, and that game experience led to Haskins carry a lead coming out of the spring in ’18, which prompted Burrow to transfer. Otherwise, as I’ve heard it, the two were neck-and-neck. And Haskins wound up being the 15 pick in the ’19 draft.
4. Burrow was good his first year at LSU and, obviously, great in his second year. The biggest difference in the two? Offensive coordinator Joe Brady. And Brady’s hire is actually a result of the close relationship that Sean Payton’s Saints have cultivated with LSU’s football program. In fact, before Brady’s hire, LSU had asked the Saints to have one of their offensive coaches come speak at a camp in 2018. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael couldn’t do it. Neither could quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi. So New Orleans sent Brady, and Brady blew the Tigers away. Ed Orgeron filed that away, and wound up hiring Brady in January, even though Brady was just 29 at the time. Suffice it to say, that worked out.
5. A lot of scouts will tell you that the first thing they’ll pop in to evaluate non-Alabama SEC prospects is the Alabama tape. With that in mind, here’s what Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban had to say about Burrow:
“He understands exactly what they’re doing. Because people are spread out, it makes it a little bit easier to see, the defense has to declare itself so he knows exactly what you’re in, where to go with the ball. He gets rid of it quickly. But where he’s been most effective to me is when plays break down, he’s been able to extend plays and make plays down the field as well as convert critical third-down situations by running, because he’s such a good athlete. So you’ve got to defend all of the above, which is a pretty difficult task.”
That, by the way, was before he went 31-of-39 for 393 yards and three touchdowns at Alabama.
6. That’s how we got to Burrow hoisting the Heisman on Saturday night and going into draft season as the overwhelming favorite to be the first quarterback off the board. But this is also a credit to the kid, who always had the right mindset to be a franchise guy in the NFL. In fact, I can remember one text exchange I had with a scout who had yet to be sold on his physical traits in midseason:
“I’d say his physical traits are average, he’s got an above average arm, but he is very tough, the whole program loves him, and he’s accurate to all part of the field,” the scout wrote. Another responded when I asked, “Gamer. Tough. Competitive. Underrated passer.”
Digesting that, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise how much better he’s gotten with each opportunity that’s come his way. Nor should it be much of a surprise in February and March when, for those very reasons, you start hearing how much NFL teams love him.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
Just amazing. If my math is right, those kids would’ve been fourth- and fifth-graders when the tragedy happened. You don’t have to have any connection to them to be really, really happy for them.
Fast-forward to the end of this to see the crowd reaction, which is pretty cool.
The Jones High-Five Fest never gets old.
Did the kid in the back get inadvertently smacked?
Our guy Mitch always puts it in perspective.
The Tweet King makes the right call and lets the picture do the talking.
Growing a beard like that when you’re … enjoying life? Oldest trick in the book.
Good for Zeke, fun moment for that kid.
Like I said, the easy No. 1.
If Gardner Minshew somehow gets Aflac cash from this, he’ll be my hero. Officially this time.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Each week, we’ll hit a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football (Colts at Saints, 8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) stage to get answers to a few questions. This week, Saints linebacker Demario Davis....
MMQB: Where’s the issue for you guys defensively right now, and what do you have to clean up after giving up 48 points to the Niners last week?
DD: We can do everything better. We’ve got to stop the run better, we’ve got be better against the pass on second and third down, create third-and-longs, win those third downs, be better in the red zone, create more turnovers. We can be better all the way around.
MMQB: Obviously, the game was costly—you lost two defensive linemen, Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins. How does that change things for you guys, and have you talked about it this week?
DD: It doesn’t change anything for us. I mean, this is a league where it’s next man up. That’s just the reality of the business. It’s change, the next guy’s gotta find a way to get the job done.
MMQB: How much is on you as a leader to make sure that gets through, too?
DD: It’s always on me as a leader to make sure we’re consistent on what our goals are and never get too high or get too low, be even-keeled. This is an important game for us, because never want to let one game turn into two. So we’ve just got to come back and be our best.
MMQB: Do you guys think much about playoff seeding—playing for home games in the playoffs, or playing for a week off in the playoffs?
DD: You’ve got to take it one game at a time. There’s a lot of football to be played, there’s a lot that can go on. All we can focus on is ourselves, and we need to be playing our best ball at this time of year, because you wanna be hot going into the playoffs no matter where you’re seeded. It’s about how you’re playing once you get there. And a big part of that is how you roll into it. So these next few weeks going into the playoffs are gonna be crucial for us, playing our best ball. We play our best ball, you let the rest take care of itself.
MMQB: Why is New Orleans been such a good fit for you, and how has it allowed you to take your game to another level?
DD: I just think it’s a good fit all the way around. It’s a championship, competitive atmosphere. They built the team to be like that. We have some of the best players in the league at their positions, and you’re going against them every day in practice. Being in this competitive environment—where you have one of the best quarterbacks, one of the best running backs, one of the best tight ends, the top receiver in the game—going against that offense, you see almost every different look you could see from every different position, every different area of the field. Going against that for all of training camp, and now for two years—and defensively having some of the best players at cornerback, one of the best pass rushers in the game—it just helps you elevate your game from a competitive standpoint. Because you know if you want be seen or recognized in a group like that, your game has to be at a top level. Having that, and then our chemistry, we’re like a bunch of brothers, we play for each other. So having that competitive environment, but also wanting the best for each other, and wanting to do it for each other that helps. And then of course having the opportunity with our coaches, [linebackers coach Mike] Nolan’s done a good job of helping me take my game to the next level, [defensive coordinator Dennis Allen] does a good job with the scheme, putting me in position to be successful. All of that kind of plays a part and has helped me ascend as a player.
MMQB: Having Drew Brees as a teammate actually has had a tangible effect on you as a defensive player?
DD: Oh yeah, when you’re going against Drew—learning how he has so many cadences, how he sets the offensive line—when you go to a quarterback who’s not as good or as experienced as Drew, it’s kind of like it’s down a level. It’s like ankle weights coming off. And then with Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook in space all the time, going to tight ends who are not as experienced or not as capable as those guys, it’s easier. So much of that, I think that’s why I’m more effective in the blitz instances, because going against an experienced offensive line and quarterback, and being able to anticipate what these guys do is huge. And then Sean [Payton] does a good job of giving you every look and scenario. He’s gonna run the hardest plays you’ve ever seen. So much of that is going on mentally, and it’s helped me advance as a player. Going against the talent level of guys that we go against makes the game easier.
MMQB: You’re 30 years old, Drew’s going to be 41, and a lot of guys are in their prime there. Do feel a sense of urgency in that locker room?
DD: We have a good group, man. We have the right pieces. We know we have everything to get the job done. It’s just about us going out and executing and getting the job done. I came here for one reason. Playing with one of the best quarterbacks in the game, my goal was to help him get a Super Bowl. Just understanding that we have it right here in front of us, we gotta do what we gotta do to get it done.
MMQB: I’ve heard a lot of guys say they want to get Drew another ring. Why is it that way?
DD: Because nobody deserves it more than him. You see the résumé that he’s put on, nobody’s been more deserving than him. From afar, I felt like the numbers he’s put up, defensively, if the team was able to get just one or two more stops, then it’d help him win it. So that’s what I came to do, help us find a way to get those one or two more stops.
MMQB: How do you start building momentum?
DD: Playing consistent ball. Executing on your goals. We know what’s important. When we have success, we have success. When we’re stopping the run, when we’re creating third-and-longs, getting off the field on third down, winning in the red zone, defensively, that’s important for us to do in these games going forward, and doing it on a consistent basis.
MMQB: Last year, you and Josh Norman dropped off backpacks and food at toys for families at the border. Why was the border cause so important to you?
DD: It was just something we saw that was going on in our world that was wrong. Anybody can say something’s wrong. It’s not necessarily what you say, it’s what you do. And that was an opportunity for us to show how we felt about the situation and give a helping hand, and encourage other people—you see stuff that’s wrong, don’t just stand on the sidelines or just join in the conversation, you can do something to be a change agent. That’s what we did.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Lamar Jackson is the all-time rushing leader for quarterbacks, and he got there with two weeks left in the season. He’s at 1,103 yards, comfortably ahead of Michael Vick’s old mark of 1,039. And that’s even more incredible when you consider Vick was in Year 6 when he pulled that 1,000-yard season off. Jackson is in Year 2.
So in honor of that accomplishment, five thoughts on it to wrap up the column:
1. Having dealt with him on a semi-regular basis this year, it’s hard not to be happy for the kid. I’ve written this already, but he’s genuinely fantastic teammate. He fully understands how a football team works and his role in it as a quarterback.
2. I reached out to a coach of his on Sunday to get a comment, and the coach wanted to follow Jackson’s lead and not make a big deal of the record. That’s pretty cool.
3. It’s not new to think that Jackson’s longevity will be tied to his health. But so far, he’s taken care of himself. One thing pointed out to me: He’s usually able to avoid contact, rather than having to run through it, which saves some wear and tear on his body.
4. That said, keeping up this pace over a full career will be impossible. As he improves as a passer, you’d think the run-game workload would naturally level off.
5. I hope people appreciate how incredible Vick was. Anyone who saw him play at Virginia Tech and followed him into the pros knows: There really hadn’t been anyone quite like him before, a true 4.2 guy playing quarterback. So if you hear Jackson compared to Vick, just know that it’s actually a pretty high compliment.
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