Big Trouble in Big D as the Cowboys’ Playoff Hopes Take Massive Hit With a Loss in Philly

With lack of execution from the players—and some questionable moves from the coaching staff—Dallas dropped a crucial game to the undermanned Eagles, who now control their own destiny in the NFC East race. Plus, it’s business as usual in Baltimore, the Saints keep setting records, and there are two postseason spots still open with one week to play.
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PHILADELPHIA — In a locker room devoid of answers, the 27-year-old captain of the Dallas Cowboys was trying to offer one. DeMarcus Lawrence may have had to reach for it—it wasn’t even an example from this particular Sunday, and it lacked specifics—but it served a purpose in illustrating the issue as he saw it in a way in which he held himself accountable.

“Not last week, but two weeks ago, I lost my gap and there was a big play, and I felt like that [was unlike] me,” Lawrence explained. “It’s all about team defense, team offense and special teams and everybody playing to a high level. I don’t feel like we're owning all three phases. We didn’t get the job done.”

On this Sunday, the Cowboys owned very little at Lincoln Financial Field. And as Lawrence said, they most certainly didn’t get the job done.

It wasn’t just that they lost to their arch-rival Philadelphia Eagles. It was the baffling play-calling. It was the game-turning lapses. It was the strange personnel deployment.

In general, maybe it was just everyone trying to do too much for a team from which much was expected and, now, from which much will likely be lost. The final from Philly was 17–9, but this loss felt way worse than that. The undermanned Eagles controlled the tempo and tenor of the game throughout. They outgained the Cowboys 431–311. They had the ball for more than 36 minutes. They forced four punts on Dallas’ first five possessions.

Mostly, the Eagles put these Cowboys in a hole, knowing full well that the visitors, the ultimate frontrunners, have struggled to dig themselves out of anything resembling one all year. Philadelphia got up 10– 0 and led 10–6 at the break. It was the seventh time this year that Dallas trailed at the half. And this one ended the way the other six did—with a Cowboys loss.

The flip side? When the Cowboys are good, they’re really, really good. Dallas blew out the L.A. Rams last week, 44–21. They took a healthier version of the Eagles team they saw Sunday behind the woodshed for a 37–10 beatdown two months ago. There are those signs of who they can be, which is who so many people thought they would be.

Then there are days like this one, where the game slips away from the team and players and coaches go outside of themselves to try to get it back.

Barring a minor miracle next week, a lot of those guys will be paying for that soon.

***

Week 16 in the NFL is one game from completion, and we have a lot to get to. Including…

• The Ravens wrapping up the No. 1 seed with a quarterback putting the finishing touches on an MVP campaign.

• Saints WR Michael Thomas’ record-breaking afternoon.

• Drew Brees’ record-setting career.

• An NFL trend to track for coaching searches.

• And MORE!

But we’re starting with the playoff hunt, in which 10 of 12 spots are spoken for. The Ravens, Patriots, Chiefs, Texans and Bills are in on the AFC side, and the Saints, Packers, Vikings, 49ers and Seahawks are in on the NFC side. The sixth AFC spot will be decided next Sunday, and will likely be filled by the Titans or Steelers (the Raiders are hanging on by a thread).

That leaves the NFC East. The Eagles and Cowboys both entered Sunday at 7–7. Dallas’s loss means Philadelphia controls its own destiny; beat the Giants next week, and they’re in. But if they lose, and the Cowboys beat the Redskins, then Dallas, incredibly enough, would sneak in, despite everything that happened here Sunday.

Which is kind of funny, because hope was the last feeling surrounding these Cowboys postgame.

***

The players know the score. They know Jason Garrett’s job is on the line. They know a boatload of players, including Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, are in contract years. They know there are vets both old (Sean Lee, Jason Witten) and young (Byron Jones) who might not be around in 2020.

They also know how, despite how sideways the season has gone, they were handed a golden opportunity on Sunday, a chance to pump life back into a season that might have been lost a while ago if they happened to play in another division. So if they look back at it, and this is it for this group, there will be regret.

“For a group that’s been here for 10 years, this was something that we’ve wanted. We’ve had some success, we’ve won divisions, but this was something we really wanted to do as a group,” Lee said, as he was leaving the stadium. “I don’t think right now we go too deep into that. We’ve got a game next week that we need to win, and we still have a shot to get in the playoffs, so I think that’s something that maybe you’re not thinking about right now.

“But it’s definitely a game that was big for us that we wanted to win.”

The reasons why they didn’t can help to define what Lawrence was talking about: When the chips were pushed to the middle of the table, the stakes seemed to get to the Cowboys—and not just the players.

There was the third-and-one at the beginning of the fourth quarter where Dallas, with three of the highest paid linemen in football and the NFL’s highest-paid running back, elected to line Prescott up in the shotgun, and roll him right. He threw to a covered Cooper, Avonte Maddox knocked the ball away, and the Cowboys punted.

There was the shot on third-and-four downfield to Michael Gallup on the next possession that happened without Cooper even on the field—a shot that seemed to disregard the idea of simply moving the chains, and harmlessly fell to the turf. Kai Forbath kicked a 49-yard field goal on the next snap to cut the Eagles’ lead to 17–9.

And there was the fact that the neither Cooper nor Randall Cobb (who had four catches for 69 yards in the fourth quarter alone) were out there on fourth-and-eight from the Philly 23-yard line with 1:21 left and the season all but on the line. The Cowboys again took a shot to the end zone to Gallup, and it didn’t even come close.

Was Cooper frustrated not being out there? “I mean, it’s frustrating you want to be out there and have an opportunity to make a play for the team,” he said.

But he had issues earlier in the game, as did a number of different Cowboys. And really, there was plenty of blame to go around, as there has been all year. In midseason losses to the Saints and Patriots, the offense sputtered. In losses to the Packers, Vikings and Bears, the defense was the problem. Against the Bills and Jets, both units stunk. In a way, this game in Philadelphia became a microcosm of the season.

“We’ve definitely been an inconsistent team,” Cooper said. “One week, we blow a team out. The next week, we lose to a team who most people would say we’re better than. Listen, if I knew the reason why were so inconsistent then I would be able to pinpoint it and tell the team, so we could remedy that. But I can’t really pinpoint anything. All I know is we aren’t a consistent team.”

On this afternoon, consistency was a problem across the board. The defense allowed 120 yards of scoring drives on Philly’s first two possessions, then struggled mightily on the Eagles’ third-quarter touchdown drive (you could drive a truck through the hole on Miles Sanders’s one-yard TD run). The offense didn’t run the ball particularly well but also didn’t stick with it much (Elliott had 13 carries), and the passing game was scattershot.

There was a benching on defense (corner Chidobe Awuzie took a seat), and something resembling that on offense with the weird receiver rotation.

Mostly, when the team need something to lean back on in the fourth quarter, nothing was there. Fifteen games in, and it looked like the Cowboys were still trying to figure that part of the equation out, which isn’t where any team wants to be in December.

So now, barring a Cowboys win and an Eagles loss next week, then an impressive playoff run, it’s over for these guys. And not just the 2019 Cowboys, it’s probably over for Garrett and his staff for good, and a bunch of the players, too, which was the worst part of this for the guys leaving here Sunday night.

No one in that locker room thought talent was an issue. But because of the way things have gone down the last few months, it sure looks like those guys are out of chances to prove it.

“To have that feeling in your gut that guys that believed in you, the guys that brought you here, the guys that helped you become the guy that you are probably won’t be back with you, it can be a little scary for a football team,” Lawrence said. “No matter what the situation is, one thing [defensive coordinator Rod] Marinelli taught me in these types of circumstances, ‘Weather might change, but you don’t.’”

Maybe Lawrence won’t. What’s around him, barring the aforementioned miracle, sure will.

***

Dallas Goedert’s six-yard TD reception put the Eagles up 10–0.

Dallas Goedert’s six-yard TD reception put the Eagles up 10–0.

ONCE AGAIN, PHILLY OVERCOMES

On the other side of the field in Philadelphia you had a proud Eagles team that somehow has dug itself out of a 5–7 hole with another rash of injuries crippling its receiver and defensive back groups. At one point in the fourth quarter, the two wideouts on the field with Carson Wentz were—raise your hand if you’ve heard these names before—Robert Davis and Josh Perkins. Cornerback was, again, a revolving door.

Somehow, the Eagles made it work.

“We respond the way we respond because we’ve been through it now,” safety Malcolm Jenkins told me postgame. “This is the third year in a row we’ve had injuries to key guys. And we just found ways to keep it moving, whether it’s the coaches adjusting the game plan to help those guys do what they do best, or if it’s these young guys who come in and are just prepared and ready for the opportunity.”

Part of it, obviously, is having depth on the roster. But another part, as Jenkins sees it, is making sure the standard doesn’t slip. So whether it was Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Sidney Jones or Maddox at corner on Sunday night, Jenkins’s expectations as the leader weren’t going to change.

“I believe in culture,” he said. “I think that starts with leaders and I think culture survives whether you’re having success or failure and that’s one of the things that’s happened. Even though this year has been up and down, we haven’t deviated from who are as a core. You know what we believe in as a team, how we prepare every week. We haven’t abandoned the plan, and it’s coming back to help us.”

And in the end, a bunch of those guys wound up making the biggest plays. Converted college quarterback Greg Ward, who started the year on the practice squad, came up with an immense 38-yard catch on a wheel route to key the Eagles’ last touchdown drive, at the end of the third quarter. Maddox had the breakup on Cooper. Jones made a play on fourth-and-eight at the end of the game, covering Gallup, to help put the win away.

In the end, it was just enough. But the Eagles would tell you it wasn’t any fluke that it went down like that. And now they’ve got three years of evidence to back that up.

***

RAVENS KEEP ROLLING

We’ve been over this a few times in this space already: Maybe one of the most impressive things about Ravens superstar Lamar Jackson after a win is how he deflects credit, and even does it as he making the kind of history he has all season. One week, when we talked, it was about getting Seth Roberts, who’s blocked well for Jackson at receiver, a touchdown. Another, it was about establishing that Nick Boyle is more than a blocking tight end.

So when Mark Andrews and I talked after the Ravens beat the Browns, 31–15, on Sunday, that was the one thing I was anxious to ask the tight end about, because I think’s an important indicator of who Jackson is, and why his teammates respond to him like they do.

“You’re spot on,” Andrews said. “That’s the MVP of the league. For him to be able to have that humility and to make it about the team, to still remain humble, remain who he is, staying true to who he is—guys in our locker room respect that. We follow him, he’s our leader, and there’s a reason for that.

“Just the way he conducts himself, he’s an incredible teammate, person, leader. I can’t say enough great things about that guy.”

He’s a pretty good football player too. In what might be his last regular season action of 2019—the Ravens now have the AFC’s No. 1 seed locked up—Jackson went 20 of 31 for 238 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for another 103 on 17 carries. Two of the touchdowns went to Andrews, and both showed the impact Jackson is having on each game.

On the first score, Andrews ran a seam route right down Main Street, splitting the safeties in a cover-2. Jackson recognized it right away, saw the opening created in part by his run threat and put the ball where it needed to be for a 39-yard touchdown.

“A perfect play call,” Andrews said. “Lamar threw the ball right away, he knew the coverage, and it was kind of just easy sailing from there. It’s all about Lamar making great reads. He’s probably the best in the league at making quick decisions. That’s where it all starts for us.”

On the second one, Jackson was moving within the pocket to buy time, and Andrews was in the end zone, with one defender in front of him and another to his right. Somehow, without his feet really planted, Jackson flicked his wrist with things collapsing around him, leading Andrews to the open space to his left and away from the defenders.

“He kind of was on his back foot and slings it up right where the ball needs to be, makes it easy on me,” Andrews said. “Again, we’ve worked on this so many times—training camp everything, going through those things, playing street ball like he says. It’s proving to help us out right now.”

Two other things about this one should help the Ravens. First, there’s the obvious: home-field throughout the playoffs. “That’s huge for us,” Andrews said. Second, there’s how this game in Cleveland started.

There have been points during the year in which the Ravens have looked totally unstoppable on offense. This wasn’t one. Baltimore started with a turnover on downs, a fumble and two punts, and hit the two-minute warning with zero points. And yet, they’d wind up with 481 yards and 31 points.

“This team has been through some blowout games, we’ve been through really close games, overtime games and then you see this game where you start slow and have to grind through it,” Andrews said. “I think it’s good for our team to go through all these situations. We’re definitely battle-tested. I think it will prove big for us in the playoffs.”

Fortunately for the Ravens, we’re going to have to wait a little while to see it.

***

A RECORD-SETTING JOURNEY

Saints receiver Michael Thomas was a few hours removed from his record-tying catch No. 143 of the season (a 20-yarder on a hitch from Taysom Hill), his record-breaking 144th catch (a 14-yard touchdown from Drew Brees that was reversed on review and became a 13-yarder called down at the one-yard line) and the 145th (he scored a touchdown two plays later from two yards out).

With Marvin Harrison passed in the books, and a few hours to reflect as he boarded a flight for New Orleans, Thomas kept his eyes forward.

“I'm not done yet,” he said. “I usually take a look at all my accomplishments at the end of the season, once I’ve picked my head up and taken a deep breath. But the No. 1 goal is to play in the championship and picked up where we left off last year. That’s been the race, that’s been the motivation.”

The motivation is working. The Saints won again on Sunday, coming back from a 14–0 deficit to beat the Titans, 38–28. They’re 12–3 now, and in the mix for home field. And Thomas is as good as he’s ever been. So I figured we’d give you things as he sees them today.

On breaking the record and the TD review: “Honestly, it was still a close game. So the only thing going through my mind was scoring points and keeping this drive going and putting points on the board, because we’re going against another team that proved they can score fast. We weren’t trying to give them the ball back without putting points on the board. The record just came within that situation of the game, which is a blessing how it all unfolded.”

On thinking about the record beforehand: “It’s kind of hard to overlook it and not think about it, just because so many people remind me. But you’ve also got to be locked in on the overall goal, and that’s winning football games. That's what I did, and when you do that great things happen.”

On how he gets the ball when everyone knows it’s coming: “Just a will to want to. Accountability. Attention to detail throughout the week, the preparation. A lot of things go into that and just knowing the timing and knowing what my quarterback wants, ultimately. He’s the ultimate decision maker when he puts the ball in there and gives me the opportunity to make plays and I don’t take that for granted whenever my numbers called. I just want to make a play for my teammates.”

Weird that the record-tying catch wasn’t from Brees: “That’s the thing—we're just trying to do our job, all 11 of us. We trust everyone that goes in there behind center. There’s a reason they’re back there and we know there’s a reason why we’re on the field with them. So we just have to execute the play and make them right and keep the chains moving. It’s not really about any individual it’s more about the team.”

On talking to Harrison: “No, I haven’t. I haven’t checked social media or my phone yet. I know his son’s going to Ohio State. I got to meet him last spring at the spring game and catch up with him.”

On the team playing its best ball: “We still have another game left in the regular season, and that will be a great opportunity to improve. That’s what we’re looking forward to. Of course, that’s not our best football if we spot [the Titans] 14 points early. Somewhere we went wrong, because we weren’t expecting to come out and give up 14 points early. And then when they scored, we expected to match them and put points on the board right back, so there’s still things that we want to work on. So we definitely don't feel like we’re playing our best, but the great thing about it is we have another good opportunity next week with a divisional opponent [Carolina] with a lot of at stake. We just have to take that opportunity and do our thing and play to our standard.”

Of course, Thomas wasn’t the only Saint to break records this week….

***

Brees followed up his record-breaking performance with 279 yards in a 38–28 win over Tennessee.

Brees followed up his record-breaking performance with 279 yards in a 38–28 win over Tennessee.

ANOTHER RECORD-SETTING JOURNEY

Since Drew Brees broke the all-time touchdown pass record on Monday night—at 541, he’s now two ahead of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (who pulled even with Manning on Saturday at 539)—we haven’t had a proper chance to recognize the accomplishment in this space. I figured it would be good to go to someone with great perspective on how Brees got here, and there aren’t many better out there than Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.

Schottenheimer was Brees’s position coach in San Diego for four of the quarterback’s five years there and has stayed close with future Hall of Famer and his family since. That gave the son of Brees’s head coach for those years, Marty Schottenheimer, an interesting perspective on the tumultuous time that served as a preamble for everything that’s happened in New Orleans over the 14 years since.

Now, the truth: Schottenheimer actually wasn’t watching when Manning’s record went down. In fact, he wasn’t even aware that this one was coming until his wife texted him, as he was studying the Cardinals and game-planning that afternoon.

“It sounds terrible, right?” Schottenheimer said. “But we’re so used to him breaking records it’s like, ‘Oh, another one.’ [My wife] was keeping me up to date. I just, I love the guy. So I wasn’t able to watch it. But I know he handled it with class and dignity like he always does.”

And as Schottenheimer reflected on it, more and more, for him, it became not about what Brees did, but what he got past to wind up here. To illustrate that, he and I detailed three hurdles he witnessed his old quarterback clearing.

The Benching. In Brees’s third year in the league (his second with Schottenheimer), the Chargers started 0–5. Then, in three games following a Week 6 bye, Brees threw five picks without a touchdown pass, pushing his TD–INT ratio to 10–12. In the last of those three games, a loss to the Bears that pushed San Diego to 1–7, he was replaced by Doug Flutie.

“If you know Marty Schottenheimer, the one thing you can’t do at the quarterback position is turn it over,” Schottenheimer said. “And so when we decided to make the change, [Drew] completely understood. He understood, Hey, I’ve got to protect the football. I’m not doing what I need to do as a quarterback.But it didn’t change the fact that as a competitor, he wanted to be out there and he wanted to send a message to not only the staff, but to his teammates that, Hey, I'm ready. And so he literally never took his helmet off.”

You heard that right: For every snap in every game until he got his job back in mid-December, he had his chin strap snapped. “He was always dialed in, helmet on, ready to go at a moment’s notice,” Schottenheimer said. “I thought that was really, really cool.”

The draft. The following January, the Chargers coached in the Senior Bowl, where they encountered NC State QB Philip Rivers. They were armed with the first pick in the draft. And the day before that draft, on an April Friday, Schottenheimer bumped into Brees in the San Diego weight room.

“We were chatting and he’s like, ‘Hey, who are we gonna draft?’” Schottenheimer said. “I said, ‘Hey, bro, listen, you need to prepare yourself, we’re probably taking a quarterback.’ And Albert, when I tell you, and I’ve had to say some hard things to people before … But when I tell you the serious look, how his eyes went from a real fun, jovial conversation, his eyes kind of just locked in.

“And he looked at me and said, ‘That would be the worst f---ing mistake this organization could ever make. And I’m like, ‘Hey, man, don’t shoot the messenger.’ He goes, ‘Worst mistake ever.’ And he walked off.”

The team traded down the next day and took Rivers fourth overall. Rivers put together a strong spring, but he held out of camp, assuring that Brees would be the opening day starter. After a 1–2 start, Marty Schottenheimer called Brees in and told him Rivers was going to get reps in practice and that he was on a “short leash.” And the next week’s game, against Tennessee, didn’t start great.

“He gets knocked around pretty good,” Schottenheimers says. “We take him back, we think he maybe had a concussion, but he wasn’t coming out. And Marty literally told him, ‘This is your last chance, this is your last drive.’ And he told me to tell Philip to warm up. And the next thing you know, the guy goes out and throws for three touchdown passes in the next 40 minutes of the game, and goes on to become NFL Comeback Player of the Year.”

The injury. The Chargers finished 2004 at 12–4 and were 9–7 in 2005, and Brees held off Rivers throughout—and then his fate was decided for him. In the ’05 finale, Broncos tackle Gerard Warren landed on Brees. The result: dislocated right shoulder, and a very uncertain future—to the point that turning to Rivers became academic for San Diego.

By the time Brees had his surgery, Schottenheimer had gone to the Jets to be Eric Mangini’s new offensive coordinator. But he and his wife didn’t miss the chance to go visit Brees in Birmingham after the surgery.

“We had some hard conversations in terms of what he should do once the Chargers said they weren’t going to bring him back,” Schottenheimer said. “And he’s so about the process. He’s so about routine. He's just, he’s almost what's, the word—I mean, he’s so diligent with things. He just had to go through the process and go to New Orleans and go to Miami. And even the thing in Miami—the door shutting in his face, [the team saying,] ‘we don’t know about the injury, if we can take that [risk].’ Amazing guy, man. “

And so when you look at it, it’s not hard to see why Brees’ record breaking has been celebrated as it was in New Orleans, a city he went to in the immediate aftermath of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina when Brees signed. The idea that he’d even play again wasn’t assured. Having another team build around may have seemed like a longshot. And 14 years later, this is where he is.

(Want some more on Brees’s impact? Go listen to our podcast from last week with Trent Dilfer, the ex-NFL quarterback and Elite 11 head coach. He explains how he’s seen Brees have an indelible impact on the NFL’s quarterbacking pipeline.)

***

ALL-32

The 49ers did a lot of nice things in a 34–31 win against the Rams on Saturday night. The third-and-16 strikes from Jimmy Garoppolo and Kendrick Bourne and Emmanuel Sanders; the continually impressive running game; the timely fourth-quarter stops. But just as strong as any of the on-field play was how Kyle Shanahan and his players handled the tragedy that struck backup quarterback C.J. Beathard. Beathard’s 22-year-old brother Clayton was stabbed to death early Saturday morning.

In a 26–3 loss to the Chiefs, the Bears failed to hit 100 yards in the first half (they had 93) and only crossed midfield once before the break. And even with a better second half folded into the numbers, Mitchell Trubisky finished with a 65.4 passer rating. It’s tough to win that way, no matter how good your defense is.

The Bengals fought their tails off against the Dolphins on Sunday, but their loss clinched the No. 1 draft pick. And now they get to choose between two players with Ohio ties—Ohio State DE Chase Young and LSU QB Joe Burrow, who grew up in Athens, Ohio. Even better, they can go into the finale without having to worry about risking long-term ramifications in trying to hit the offseason on a high note, with a win over the cross-state Browns. (Note: The coaches and players probably don’t see it this same way.)

While the Bills may have felt like they were playing Charlie Brown to the Patriots’ Lucy on Saturday—the football did, indeed, get yanked away again—I thought there were plenty of positives to take from the 24–17 loss. One, oftentimes in the past we’ve seen a younger team take a few early shots to the jaw in Foxboro and fold up its tent. That didn’t happen here. Two, along those lines, Josh Allen kept swinging (even if some of the punches were wayward) in the face of adversity. I still think the Bills, who are locked into the AFC’s No. 5 spot, are on the way. In fact, I might feel stronger about this now than I did 24 hours ago.

Drew Lock and the Broncos didn’t get off to a good start against the Lions, but give the rookie credit—three straight possessions ending in punts were followed by five straight ending in scores. Lock’s now 3–1 as starter, and while no one’s saying he’s the long-term answer yet, he sure looks good enough to keep Denver from having to reach into the veteran market or the draft for another quarterback—assuming there’s not another answer at the position that they really, really like.

Tough sequence to end the first half for the Browns coaching staff. Cleveland was backed up to its own 25, and down 7–6, with 1:18 left. The Ravens were out of timeouts. Three straight incompletions made that irrelevant. Cleveland punted with 1:02 left, the Ravens took possession at their own 25 with 55 seconds left, and seven plays later Jackson hit Andrews for that throw-him-open touchdown to make it 14–6. The Ravens got the ball to open the second half, and marched 69 yards in 13 plays to push that edge to 21–6. Ballgame. Cleveland wouldn’t get within a possession again.

I know Jameis Winston’s picks are driving everyone crazy—and they should—but there’s no question that Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians has been good for the skill players there. Former first-round bust Breshad Perriman is another example. With Chris Godwin and Mike Evans shelved Sunday, he blew up for 102 yards on seven catches. And Winston hit eight different receivers Sunday, at least half of whom I’d bet you’ve never heard of.

There are many things coach Kliff Kingsbury has done well in his first year with the Cardinals. But maybe most impressive is how he’s adapted his run game to the NFL, since many coaches and scouts questioned his ability to do that with an attack that didn’t look pro-ready back at Texas Tech. Arizona is ninth in the NFL in rushing (127.9 yards per game) and is one of only two teams, Baltimore being the other, averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

I know it’s easy to forecast this being the end for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers: He’s thrown 18 picks against just 21 touchdown passes this fall, and his team is 5–10 and in last place in the AFC West. There’s the 90-minute daily commute to work, too, and the fact he wants to coach his son when he gets to high school (just under four years to go). But he said postgame he wants to keep going, and I’m not sure the Chargers are going to have a better immediate move to make at the position than tagging him for 2020.

Points allowed by the Chiefs over the last five weeks: 17, 9, 16, 3, 3. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is doing something right. Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark, too. And Kansas City is slowly becoming the dreaded team no one wants to see in the playoffs.

Colts QB Jacoby Brissett went 14 of 27 for 119 yards without a touchdown pass, and his team still won 38–6. Which is another reminder of how strong the foundation GM Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich laid has been.

I’m gonna go back to the conversation I had with Cowboys COO Stephen Jones recently. He said, “Someone asked me last week before played the Rams, ‘What do you think’s happened to your running game?’ I said the only thing that’s happened to our running game is we don’t stick with it. That says a little bit about our team.” Jones’s point was that, yes, he’d like to see Ezekiel Elliott featured more, but also that he sees his team overcomplicating what doesn’t need to be complicated. And Elliott provided another case in point Sunday, with the Cowboys giving their bellcow just 13 carries.

Is Brian Flores too good for the Dolphins’ plan? His tough, physical and relentless—if undermanned—group is 4–4 since starting the season 0–7. Miami would pick fourth if the draft were tomorrow, holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Giants (having lost to them just last week).

Eagles QB Carson Wentz has unquestionably raised his level, starting with the second half of the Giants game two weeks ago. A final step in quarterback development—one that few take—is the ability to raise the level of those around them when things go wrong. That’s something Wentz has a chance to do this year. And after some early fits and starts, it’s exactly what he’s doing. His top four receivers Sunday: Greg Ward, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Robert Davis and Josh Perkins.

The Falcons started 1–7. They’re now 6–9. It’s a testament to coach Dan Quinn, of course. And here’s a testament to his star player: Julio Jones reached 12,000 yards in his 125th career game, making him the fastest to that mark. Jerry Rice did it in 142 games. As you know, 142 is a lot more than 125. Pretty remarkable feat by Jones.

For at least an afternoon, Giants QB Daniel Jones was efficient (28 of 32, 352 yards, five TDs), and Saquon Barkley (22 carries, 189 yards, TD; four catches, 90 yards) was the superstar we all see him being, and New York’s future on that side of the ball looked really, really positive. Yes, it was against the Redskins. Yes, I’m going to count it anyway.

With Jaguars EVP of football operations Tom Coughlin out, I’d expect to see SVP of football technology and analytics Tony Khan—son of owner Shad Khan—to take a more prominent role in the organization. And that may mean a finer focus on the science of team-building. In that regard, Eagles exec Andrew Berry would be one name to watch as someone who’d make sense to pair with Khan.

Jets WR Robbie Anderson had another jaw-dropper of a catch Sunday against the Steelers, fighting through for a 23-yard touchdown. He’s going to be such an interesting free agent, given his past, his spot with the Jets now and what figures to be a really high ceiling.

On paper, I loved Lions owner Martha Ford’s tactic in announcing the decisions to stick with GM Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia. It lifted the pall over the team and allows the group to lock in for the final two weeks of the season. In practice, Detroit lost to Denver.

The Packers were able to beat the Bears fairly convincingly last Thursday night with Aaron Rodgers throwing for just 203 yards. I can’t imagine they’ll be able to do that against the Vikings. If they can, look out.

Panthers tight end Greg Olsen to the Charlotte media after another blowout loss: “This is about as rock-bottom as it gets.… So many times, guys want to come in here [to the locker room] and lie to everybody and give token cliché talks. That s--- is out the window. We have failed. I failed. Every guy in this locker room has failed. Everyone associated with the product that is put on the field on a weekly and seasonal basis has failed.… Right now, I’m not sure what our plan is.” Carolina hasn’t won since the Sunday after Halloween. The loss in Indy was the third of seven straight to come by 20 or more points. Whoever’s in charge next has plenty to clean up.

The Patriotsperformance on Saturday afternoon finally like one giant uh-oh moment for the rest of the conference. We know the defense is good. The offense hasn’t been, but over the last two weeks, the run game has come alive—New England rushed for 175 yards on 32 carries against Cincinnati, and 143 yards on 35 carries against Buffalo. And in the latter game, Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady brought the play-action game to life against a stout Buffalo defense. Another sign that the Patriots are growing offensively? How they’re spreading it around. Brady hit 10 different receivers and was far less reliant on mainstays James White and Julian Edelman. In losses to Houston and Kansas City, Brady targeted those guys 22 and 19 times, respectively. The last two weeks? Those two had nine targets against Cincinnati and 11 against Buffalo. That’s progress.

Yes, the Raiders are still alive in the playoff race. And yes, the nice things we said about their roster earlier in the year still apply. So how do they get in? They have to beat the Broncos and have the Ravens, Texans and Colts all win. It’s not that hard to envision.

With all the buzz on the future of Rams DC Wade Phillips, I’d point out two things I’ve picked up over the last few weeks on that situation. First, Sean McVay has become way more involved on the defensive side than most people realize—and he’s like Bill Belichick in that way, able to coach any position or either side of the field. Second, the Rams did adjust their defense in 2019. And interestingly enough, they adapted some Patriots-styled concepts after New England made life miserable for McVay’s offense in the Super Bowl.

We’ve talked a lot about the Ravens’ offense this week. So let’s hear it for the defense. The secondary has been dynamite (really since CB Jimmy Smith returned to the lineup and CB Marcus Peters arrived via trade), and linebacker Matthew Judon keeps improving. Cleveland scored 40 on Baltimore in September. The Browns scored 15 this time around.

The way Redskins QB Dwayne Haskins looked early on is why you don’t give up on young quarterbacks so quickly. It’s just that simple. He was 12 of 15 for 133 yards and two touchdowns before hurting his ankle against the Giants.

Maybe the most encouraging thing on Sunday for the Saints was how Alvin Kamara looked against a tough Titans defense. He took 11 carries for 80 yards and had six catches for 30 yards. He was a factor, it felt like, on every offensive snap.

Time for concern with the Seahawks? Since winning a Monday night game against the Vikings, Seattle’s lost two of three, and their win was a somewhat close one against the surrender squad from Charlotte. We’ll have a better idea in six days, with the de facto NFC West title game against the 49ers coming up.

Both Steelers S Minkah Fitzpatrick and LB T.J. Watt are legit defensive player of the year candidates, and their unit has come alive for the first time in nearly a decade. And this just so happens to be the year that Ben Roethlisbeger goes down. If Pittsburgh had so much as a warm body as a backup.…

The Texans are now 4–1 since getting blown out by the Ravens. And it’s not just Deshaun Watson. Carlos Hyde has brought juice toe the run game. Bradley Roby has been ballhawking at corner. And Houston has fought off furious comebacks in consecutive weeks. This team is earning its stripes.

Given all the Titans have been through this year, that they’re right there in the hunt for a playoff spot going into Week 17 isn’t bad. And that they’ve made Ryan Tannehill a viable option at quarterback is nice notch in their belts.

I’m not overlooking the absence of RB Dalvin Cook for the Vikings. Against the Green Bay defense, you shouldn’t either.

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TOP FIVE

New-look playoff field. Pretty cool fact here: The NFL has had 30 straight seasons with at least 30% of the playoff field turning over from the year before. Since 1990, at least four teams have qualified for the playoffs after failing to make it the year before. This year, the number will be five. The Bills, Niners, Vikings and Packers make four, and the last AFC team (either the Raiders, Titans or Steelers) will be the fifth.

The Shanahan system. Last year, the idea that everyone with McVay’s cell phone number would land a head-coaching job interview became the punchline of the hiring cycle. But what if everyone making that joke missed what was actually happening? Go ahead and research the NFL’s most dangerous offenses. The top three in explosive plays going into this weekend were the Titans, Niners and Vikings. The top three in explosive pass plays were the Niners, Vikings and Rams. The top three in yards per pass attempt were the Titans, Vikings and Niners. And among the top five in team passer rating were the Vikings (1), Niners (4) and Titans (5). What do those teams have in common? Mike Shanahan influence. Obviously Kyle Shanahan is in San Francisco. His ex-staffmate Matt LaFleur set up the offense in Tennessee that Arthur Smith is now deftly running. Gary Kubiak is working with Kevin Stefanski in Minnesota. And McVay, of course is with the Rams. So that system? It’s pretty good. And that should make one of its foremost experts, Niners run game coordinator Mike McDaniel, a person of interest the next few weeks.

Oakland’s outside chance. So you have it, the Raiders’ playoff scenario: They need to beat the Broncos, have the Ravens beat the Steelers, have the Texans beat the Titans and have the Colts beat the Jaguars. Every one one of those results? Very plausible. All of them at once? A little tougher to see. But that should be exciting.

More drama in Cleveland. I don’t know how much to make of the Odell Beckham/Freddie Kitchens sideline dust up. But here, so you have it, is how Beckham explained it to the local press: “The refs making calls. Basically, they were warning me that if I had one more personal foul, then I would be out of the game, which I thought was pretty stupid. I got a personal foul for a celebration I’ve done all year. It’s not like a player was in front of me or anybody was. It was very unintentional. It is what it is.”

The end is near. With a bunch of playoff spots locked in, is everyone ready for a week of real-life start ’em/sit ’em arguments?!?

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

No joke, the Cowboys were sitting post-TSA in the Linc parking lot until 10:30 p.m. They were considering bringing in a 747 from JFK, or boarding a smaller plane (they needed to find pilots for it) and splitting the traveling party. I was also told American was trying to open the Admiral’s Club at the Philly airport for them. Thankfully for them, their original plane somehow got fixed, and none of that was necessary.

Good to see Ozzie in the mix still.

A lot going on there, Moose.

Redskins are second in the draft order, and that might be Young’s floor.

Not gonna lie, the year Watt is having snuck up on me.

A lot going on here, too.

That one’s pretty good.

Good thing most of you don’t work today. This would be NSFW.

It was Dion Dawkins on the score, for the record.

But then he bounces back and throws for 400 yards!


This is legit amazing.

That’s commitment to your team.

***

Smith is tied for seventh in the league with 11.5 sacks.

Smith is tied for seventh in the league with 11.5 sacks.

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, Packers linebacker Preston Smith, who signed with the team in the offseason after four seasons with the Redskins….

MMQB: Has Green Bay been everything you thought it’d be?

PS: Yes sir, it’s been everything I’d hoped for, and it’s been everything I thought It’d be. I always had high expectations for Green Bay, having watched them in the past. And when I came here, I had even higher expectations—and it’s lived up to them.

MMQB: Why has it been a good fit?

PS: Guys are playing together. It’s like a brotherhood. I’ve been excelling in this scheme; it’s put a lot of guys in position to make plays, it’s tailored to the abilities of a lot of guys on this defense.

MMQB: So what do like about Mike Pettine’s scheme?

PS: There’s no stagnant playcalling, so you’re gonna move around. You have different looks with different people in different places, wreaking havoc and rushing in different ways. He mixes things up, so an offense can never be like, “O.K., well, if this guy is lined up here, he’s blitzing or he’s dropping.” It’s a lot of different looks. Teams have to play us honest and guess right if they see a certain look we’re in.

MMQB: What kind of difference has first-year head coach Matt LaFleur made?

PS: He brings a lot of energy to this team. He allows the players to police the team. He’s a player’s coach. Guys love him, he brings a lot of energy, he’s always up, and he always brings great energy out there on the field. He makes sure guys are executing, that we have a great focus each and every week, each and every practice, and that we’re going out there and maximizing our opportunities so they can roll over into the game.

MMQB: Should you have made the Pro Bowl?

PS: Ha! I mean, I feel like I’ve had a good year. The fans, they voted for me, I guess they felt like I should’ve made the Pro Bowl. Of course, you go out there to be the best you can be, and aI feel like I put some good stuff on tape to make the Pro Bowl. I didn’t, unfortunately. But it’s cool. There’s always next year for that. I’m aiming for bigger and better things. It would’ve been a great notch to have on my belt, a great accolade to have, but I’m always aiming for bigger and better things.

MMQB: Did [fellow linebacker] Za’Darius Smith get snubbed?

PS: [Laughs.] I feel like we both had a good year. He’s been playing well, he’s been very disruptive in this scheme. He plays hard. He wreaks a lot of havoc out there. Guys are taking notice when he’s on the field, and I feel like he had a Pro Bowl type season, too—or better, in my eyes. We both feel like we played well enough this year to get that accolade, to get the nod. But things didn’t happen as we expected in that area. We’ve still had a good run, and we still have a chance to win our division Monday.

MMQB: Has it helped having someone like Za’Darius come with you as a free agent in a new place?

PS: Yeah, it’s helpful, because me and Za’Darius, we’ve known each since way before we got here, since college. And it’s always great to go to a new place and already know an old face. It makes it a much easier transition, it makes you more comfortable. And going through it with somebody who motivates me—I motivate him, we keep each other going, so if there’s ever a time where there’s something real rough for one of us, we always pick each other up and keep our minds at ease and keep the main thing the main thing. We stay focused on what’s important.

MMQB: Do you guys take pride in the defensive improvement, maybe being the difference-makers?

PS: A lot of people give us the credit for it, but all these guys work hard. Since we got here, these guys have worked hard, these guys have never shied away from the task. It has always been about the team and working together. Guys have always had the right mindset since we got here. We may have taken on a leadership role when we walked in, but these guys, they embraced everything, they embraced us like we’d been here. It was a very exciting thing. We played well with these guys, and they loved us and we loved them back.

MMQB: How different is this Vikings offense versus the one you played really well against earlier in the year?

PS: Earlier in the season, I think they were a good team. They’re even better now. They got the ball rolling, they’ve got more chemistry. It’s later in the season, when a team should be playing its best ball. Those guys are making plays. They have a lot of weapons—good quarterback, good running back that can make plays when called upon.

MMQB: What can you take from the first game into this one?

PS: We kept them from scoring in the red zone, and they’re one of the top red zone teams now. So keeping them from getting momentum and rhythm after they did make big plays like the first time.

MMQB: How does Dalvin Cook being out change things?

PS: Nothing’s gonna change. They still have running backs that play similar to Cook. They still do good things when they get the ball in their hands, they make good decisions, they get downhill, they see gaps, they hit gaps and they make big plays. So I don’t think anything changes. We’re gonna continue to prepare the same way and expect the same things as if Cook was playing.

MMQB: Is playing on Monday night different?

PS: For me? No. It’s a big stage already, a division game against a rival—and if we win, we win our division. So it was already on a big stage. Primetime football, everybody in the world’s gonna be watching Monday night at home. It’s already a big stage, so I guess it being on Monday night makes bigger to most people. For us, we’re gonna treat this like it’s already an important game.

***

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

It’s Christmas week, it’s 5:36 a.m., and I’m out of ideas—Merry, Merry, everyone.

And I’ll see you in a few hours for the MAQB.

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