49ers Won a Game of Inches to Clinch the NFC’s No. 1 Seed—and the NFL Playoffs Are Set

The NFC West title came down to the final plays of the game, and a San Francisco rookie came up clutch in securing that victory vs. Seattle. Also, Philadelphia and Tennessee are playoff-bound, and their quarterbacks couldn’t be more pleased, the ramifications of Miami’s upset of New England (Patriots in the—gasp!—wild-card round?!), loads of coaching hiring and firing news and more.
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The 2019 NFL regular season would end, naturally, on a review. But before that, there was a furious, Russell Wilson-led comeback, a costly delay-of-game penalty that prevented us from watching Pete Carroll having to decide on whether to run Marshawn Lynch from the one again and, finally, a little-known 49ers rookie linebacker putting the brakes on the game’s final possession at his own six-inch line.

San Francisco had the second pick in April’s draft. Eight months later, the team finished with the second-best record in football. The Niners are 13–3, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, and it’s all thanks to Dre Greenlaw.

Here’s your setup: Fourth-and-five from the Niners’ six, Seahawks with the ball and trailing 26–21, Russell Wilson in the shotgun, three receivers to left, one to his right, with a back offset to that side, too. At the snap, Greenlaw saw running back Travis Homer flare out into the right flat, so he shuffled that way. But as he read Wilson’s eyes, he saw the quarterback looking in the other direction, so he planted his foot, and started moving back to his right.

“I’m shuffling back where he’s looking, because the more time he takes, the more the slant is gonna be inside,” Greenlaw said from the Niners’ locker room. “I sit back, start shuffling inside, and then I realized basically the guy is running across the field. And I knew it was fourth down, and I knew the game was on the line and I’d just have to empty the tank.”

Greenlaw did, indeed, leave it all out there. Tight end Jacob Hollister, running that slant, caught the ball from Wilson at the two, and turned to the goal line. Greenlaw hurled his body at him. Hollister contorted to stretch for the score. Greenlaw stoned him less than a step short.

How valuable was that step? Consider this: If not for that step, San Francisco would be the No. 5 seed, traveling across the country to Philadelphia this weekend. Then would probably have to make trips to some combination of New Orleans, Seattle and Green Bay over the two weeks to follow if they were to advance through to the conference title game.

Instead, if the Niners play another game away from home this year, it’ll be in Miami for the week of Super Bowl LIV. Which, suffice to say, is a massive difference, and makes the possibilities that third-year coach Kyle Shanahan laid out for his players postgame all the more real.

“Basically the message was, ‘We’re not done yet,’” Greenlaw said. “At the end of the day, we want to be NFC West champs, but at the same time, we still want to play more. We’ve got plenty left in the tank. That was the message. We’re gonna rest up this week and come out next week and be ready to face our opponent. We’ll be ready to go.”

They’ll be rested too, thanks to this rookie’s heroics.

***

The 2019 regular season is complete! Twelve teams remain alive, and 20 are going home—and we’ve got it all covered in this week’s MMQB. Among the things we’re going to cover here …

• Carson Wentz’s next step as a quarterback.

• Ryan Tannehill’s reemergence at the position.

• The Dolphins’ massive upset of the Patriots and what it means.

• All the Black Monday rumors.

But we’re starting with a quick look at how the day shook out, through the lens of the regular season’s final contest.

***

Greenlaw (left) and LB Fred Warner (54) stonewalled Hollister inside the one to preserve San Francisco’s win.

Greenlaw (left) and LB Fred Warner (54) stonewalled Hollister inside the one to preserve San Francisco’s win.

Greenlaw was giddy when we talked, and rightfully so—for a rookie to make that kind of play to finish Year 1 is pretty storybook. But he didn’t hide that this all kind of been a blur. He only became a starter after Kwon Alexander went down in October, and he’s been so focused on keeping up that he hasn’t left much time for reflection, which made it hard for him to really contextualize what he’d just done.

“I’m always looking forward—‘OK we get a bye week this week, we can kinda rest,’” he said. “I’m thinking about who we play next, so I’m very excited and very thankful.”

He then conceded, “I’ll enjoy it for a couple minutes.”

And he should. A look at the playoff picture reiterates just how impactful what he did was. Here are the seeds for both conferences heading into wild-card weekend:

NFC: 1. 49ers, 2. Packers, 3. Saints, 4. Eagles, 5. Seahawks, 6. Vikings

AFC: 1. Ravens, 2. Chiefs, 3. Patriots, 4. Texans, 5. Bills, 6. Titans

We’ve already been over what the Niners avoided with Greenlaw’s stop. Now Seattle has to confront that trip to Philadelphia, plus the reality of having to go to either Santa Clara, Green Bay or New Orleans in the divisional round if they win—and then play another road game for the conference title, should it come to that.

And that’s despite the fact that the SEahawks won 11 games. It’s been a funny year in that way. The Saints won 13 games and the Patriots won 12, and neither team got a bye. The Vikings were 10–5 coming into Week 17 and locked into the NFC’s final seed.

That tells you the field is pretty flat, and the competition should be fairly wide open, making things like weeks off and home-field advantage important—and plays like Greenlaw’s huge.

***

PHILLY’S WENTZ IS CHERISHING THE (POSTSEASON) MOMENT

It really smacked Eagles QB Carson Wentz across the face when he looked up at the MetLife Stadium scoreboard and saw the clock crawling towards zero. He was about to set his date to play into January. And thanks to some bad injury luck, it’s been a long time since he could say that.

“It hit me definitely as the clock was going down there at the end,” Wentz said, over the cell phone from the winning locker room. “Last time I played in January I was in college [at North Dakota State] and we were playing in a national championship game. And I'm just grateful to be healthy at this point. The last few seasons with the injuries and everything I’ve dealt with, watching from the sidelines, I’m just extremely grateful for this opportunity.

“And hopefully we can go do something special now. Hopefully you can hear all that.”

Through the phone, you absolutely could: The Eagles locker room was popping, and for good reason. Philly had just put away the NFC East with a 34–17 win over the Giants, and this victory was like a lot of the rest of them. It didn’t come easy. The players had to grind it out and trade haymakers with the other team deep into the second half before pulling away late.

And they had to do it, again, undermanned. Wideouts Alshon Jeffrey and DeSean Jackson and running backs Corey Clement and Darren Sproles are all on injured reserve. The Eagles got Jordan Howard back this week, but he didn’t carry the ball against New York. Tackle Lane Johnson was still out, and TE Zach Ertz (ribs/back) was a new addition to the inactive list.

As a result, the Eagles’ leading rusher on this day, Boston Scott (19 carries, 54 yards; four catches, 84 yards), started October on the team’s practice squad. Their leading receiver, Greg Ward (six catches, 43 yards), was with Scott on the practice squad in September, months after being on the roster of San Antonio Commanders of the AAF. And two other guys seeing playing time, TE Josh Perkins and WR Robert Davis, were on the practice squad on Thanksgiving.

Mix those guys in with a couple of promising young second-round picks, RB Miles Sanders and TE Dallas Goedert, and it was enough. And it was enough—mostly because Wentz wouldn’t let it go the other way, which he sees as his responsibility.

“It’s the quarterback’s job to try to keep everybody together, keep the train rolling, no matter who’s in there,” Wentz told me. “I would say, at the same time, these guys made it easy on me. They’re willing to learn, willing to do what they’re asked to. And it’s just been fun to see the growth of each guy. I mean, every week, the moment in the spotlight’s not too bright for any of these guys. It’s been pretty fun to see.

“It’s somebody different every week making a big play. That’s pretty special. Not a lot of teams can say that.”

Indeed, a couple of Ward catches midway through the third quarter sparked a nine-play, 62-yard drive that, finally, got the Philly offense untracked and gave the visitors a 17–10 lead. And when Saquon Barkley answered with a scintillating 68-yard touchdown run, the Eagles’ offense, led by Wentz, flashed its resiliency.

Four plays into the next drive, Davis made a 41-yard circus catch to move the Eagles into Giants territory. A holding call negated it. So what did Wentz do next? He rolled right and took another shot, launching a dime to Deontay Burnett, promoted to the active roster off (yup) the practice squad on Friday, for 39 yards. That set up a 50-yard field goal from Jake Elliott to put the Eagles up 20–17. They wouldn’t trail again.

And the key to the whole thing, Wentz says, is the trust he’s gained in the guys around him on the fly. Which means, without a lot of time logged together, he has to believe that they’re taking in and applying what the coaches are telling them.

“It’s just tough when there are opportunities, plays that you’ve never really practiced with certain guys, routes you’ve never thrown, those things in the back of your head,” Wentz said. “For me, it was just like, ‘To heck with it. I believe in these guys, they believe in me and let’s do this thing together.’ It’s been a fun part of the journey, just somebody new every week, and it’s something new every week. We’re finding ways to get it done.”

The Eagles are hopeful they’ll get Jackson and Ertz back, which would certainly help. Every little bit will in what figures to an uphill climb in a loaded NFC field.

But in the long run, Philly’s getting something better—a great learning experience for its franchise quarterback, who’s displaying an ability to lift those up around him. The next opportunity comes this weekend, and after missing the 2017 playoffs with a torn ACL, and the 2018 playoffs with a back injury, Wentz is looking forward to every part of it.

“I mean first steps first: I’m looking forward to next week,” he said. “And at the same time, I’m extremely grateful it’s a home game. I know what our fans are like, and I know the type of energy and passion that they’ll bring next week. Whoever we’re playing, they’re gonna show up. I’m just excited to run out of the tunnel in front of our home fans and go do something special in these playoffs.”

It’ll be the Seahawks on Sunday for Wentz and the Eagles; that was set after we talked. And to be sure, just making it this far is special—not something he’ll be taking for granted.

***

The Titans’ QB was steady as usual, throwing for 198 yards and two TDs on just 20 attempts.

The Titans’ QB was steady as usual, throwing for 198 yards and two TDs on just 20 attempts.

BEHIND TANNEHILL, TENNESSEE’S BALANCED ATTACK KEEPS ON WINNING

Ryan Tannehill is not quite sure how his linemen knew. But as he went into the huddle deep in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Texans, they were all aware of exactly how many yards fourth-year bell cow Derrick Henry needed to pass Cleveland’s Nick Chubb for the league’s rushing title. They also knew that coach Mike Vrabel was only going to give them so many more chances before pulling guys from the lineup with the game in hand.

So when Tannehill brought the team to the line for a second-and-six from the Tennessee 47 with 3:04 left, he’d been apprised that they needed seven yards. What came next has become a common occurrence for the Titans: a defense worn out by the ground game game finally cracks with Henry running free through the secondary. On this one, he took the ball off left tackle, cut all the way back to the right side in the hole, and burst free for a 53-yard touchdown.

“Everyone knows that we want to get Derrick going, get him wearing on the teams we play,” Tannehill said, as he walked to the bus postgame. “And I think his style of running and our style of play just kind of wears on teams as the game goes. If we can just keep him going deep into the fourth quarter—it’s tough to tackle a 250-pound back running full speed, and our offensive line takes pride in that.”

The Titans have ridden that whole idea right into the playoffs. Sunday’s 35–14 win over a Houston team resting some starters (QB Deshaun Watson among them) punched Tennessee’s ticket to the postseason. And first up? The Titans head to Foxboro, where Vrabel will get the chance to knock his old buddy Tom Brady from the AFC bracket on Saturday night.

Whether they can do that is an open question, but there’s no doubt about who this Tennessee team is. All the investment in the line of scrimmage and in tough, physical players was apparent in Sunday’s big-stakes win on the road, and Tannehill has become the unlikely beneficiary of it.

No longer saddled with the expectations that come with being the eighth overall pick, Tannehill is thriving playing sidecar to Henry in the Titans’ offense. On Sunday, his passer rating exceeded 130 for the sixth time in seven weeks, which is staggering efficiency from a quarterback the Dolphins hauled out to the street corner with a “For Sale” sign earlier this year.

“If you can run the football, you’re going to win a lot of games in this league. I think that’s been proven over the years, especially in the playoffs,” Tannehill said. “It’s something that we’ve believed in from day one—everything starts up there, and we’ll build off that with play action dropbacks and get our guys who are really explosive the ball on the outside.”

And the Titans have run it—they went for 245 as a team Sunday, with Henry gobbling up 211 of those yards. But Tannehill, who took over from Marcus Mariota after Tennessee started 2–4, has had to hold up his end of the bargain—and he has.

“Yeah, it’s been wild,” he said. “I didn't really know what was going to happen this year. Obviously, I knew I was coming in, starting off as the backup, and I just wanted to kind of bide my time, do everything I could in that role and be ready if my number was called. And I finally got the opportunity and wanted to take advantage of it. I love playing football, I love competing and once I got the nod, then I wanted to do whatever I could.”

He’s done more than anyone expected, for sure, and so has Henry. Which is a big part of how the Titans got here, and made amends for missing the last year’s playoffs on the final Sunday of the season.

And they’ll need all of it to have a chance on Saturday night, which Tannehill knows well from his days in the AFC East with Miami, and Vrabel knows even better from playing for that team.

***

FISH TANK? THINK AGAIN

Miami players might not have put any stock in the overriding theme that followed them around earlier in the season—They’re tanking!—but they absolutely heard it, and coaches reminded them of it too. And, I can tell you now, the players are direct when the subject comes up.

“The way that we practice, the way that the coaches put the time in, the way that we meet and all the time, the effort, the commitment, the dedication that’s gone into it—all the tank stuff, that’s just BS,” tight end Mike Gesicki told me. “I think that the second half of our season really proved that, nobody was focused on, ‘Oh man, this draft pick, that draft pick.’ We were focused on winning, and we were able to turn it around a little bit.”

Turning it around a little bit was going 4–4 after an 0-7 start. And what happened Sunday was more than that.

Dolphins 27, Patriots 24—and that’s not a misprint.

When the two teams met in September, New England boat-raced the Dolphins, leaving Miami with a 43–0 shiner. When Miami was 0–7, the Patriots were 7–0.

And boy, have things changed since. The Dolphins put up a better record in the last nine games of the season (5–4) than the 10-time reigning AFC East champion Patriots (4–5), which partially explains why Sunday’s game didn’t really feel fluky. Ryan Fitzpatrick was efficient against an aggressive Patriots front. The Dolphins ran the ball O.K., and the defense kept Tom Brady on his heels.

Maybe more importantly, every time the Patriots had an answer, the Dolphins threw a counterpunch. Miami led 10–0, 17–10 and 20–17, then trailed 24–20, before going on 13-play, 75-yard drive to win the game. The Dolphins only had to convert two third downs the whole way, and Fitzpatrick hit Gesicki over the middle on first-and-goal from the five with 29 seconds to go for the game-winner.

“That was a play we’ve really been running all the way back to training camp,” Gesicki said. “And it’s kind of more like a two-point play for us. We gave it a shot and it was a really good look. It’s kind of a read-it, so I can go in or out and their DB was playing outside leverage on me, so I kind of widened him a little bit, saved space inside and Fitz gave me a great ball—and the rest is history.”

If you were worried about draft picks for Miami, maybe this wasn’t a great afternoon. They’ll pick fifth as a result of the win.

But as for the far-reaching impact? Not only did this game have playoff implications for the Patriots—and the team now has to play in the wild-card round for the first time in a decade—but it was big for coach Brian Flores and a number of his staff to go in and win at their old workplace, of course. Moreso, it should serve as a tone-setter for the offseason. That’s proof positive for players that if you listen and adhere to Flores’s demanding program, results will follow.

But that so many guys in Miami have stayed on board, Gesicki thinks, is less about the program itself and more about the type of players being brought into it—the kind who naturally want to buy what Flores is selling.

“I think it speaks volumes to the kind of guys we have in our locker room,” Gesicki said. “Because at the end of the day, the coach can say this or that, but if the players don’t want to be there, then that’s the most important thing. And I think that it’s obviously the standard and the precedent that coach Flo set the first day he got here—he’s here to win football games, and that's really all he cares about.

“We’re gonna get better each and every day. And then everybody in our locker room was able to buy in, and I think that you’ve been able to see that.”

***

BLACK MONDAY NOTES

Some quick hits, before the coach hiring cycle overheats …

Redskins: There’s significant momentum towards Washington making an announcement on Monday afternoon. Ex-Panthers coach Ron Rivera will be in town to meet with team officials. Owner Dan Snyder has worked quietly through the process here, having assembled a small committee of football people who don’t work for the team, which has kept those with the team in the dark throughout. Word since late last week has been that the Redskins are very, very far along.

Panthers: The expectation is that Carolina’s process will be wide open, and the new coach will have a fair amount of power and input on the hire of a new assistant GM (who could be current GM Marty Hurney’s eventual successor). I’d expect at least a half-dozen interviews with candidates coming from different backgrounds. Ex-Packers coach Mike McCarthy has already interviewed. Patriots OC Josh McDaniels and Baylor coach Matt Rhule are two others expected to be in the mix.

Browns: After firing Freddie Kitchens, the newly open job comes with questions—and a big one will be how the front office will be structured. Will GM John Dorsey retain all his power? Will chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta stay with the team? Those things remain up in the air, but some candidates with local ties have started to emerge. One is McDaniels, a Canton native and favorite of Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam. Another is ex-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who could bring the discipline and program-building acumen that’s been in short supply for a while in Berea. And I think would have support in some corners of the team’s current management.

Giants: The team has its exit meetings on Monday. There is press availability at 11 a.m. Word has been that coach Pat Shurmur would be likely gone with GM Dave Gettleman’s status up in the air. [UPDATE: The Giants have fired Pat Shurmur but will retain Dave Gettleman.] Jason Garrett’s name has been mentioned here, as has Rhule’s. Both used to work for the Giants and have ties to the area. I’ve been told those in the organization have gotten feedback that the franchise needs to reset itself a bit, and that too many people working there have been around for 30 years. Hiring Garrett, of course, would be leaning back on the familiar. Hiring Rhule would likely require modernizing some parts of the organization.

Jaguars: The status of GM Dave Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone has floated back-and-forth over the weekend. The belief across the league last week was that the two would likely get another year, in part because EVP Tony Khan, the owner’s son, was set to become more involved in the organization, and he likes them both. But ultimately, the decision will be up to Shad Khan, and he’s been quiet about this one. At some point this week, Khan plans to meet with all his people in football leadership.

Cowboys: It feels like—as much as the Joneses have invested in, and love, Garrett—this is more a matter of when than if. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, Meyer and Rhule will all likely hear from Dallas quick after the trigger is pulled.

Vikings: We mentioned this in our Black Monday primer at the end of last week: Mike Zimmer’s contract runs through 2020. Whenever the Vikings season ends, they’ll have to make a call on whether to extend him. If they choose not to, then things get more interesting. So I wouldn’t rule anything out yet here.

***

ALL-32

The 49ers won the NFC West on Sunday night on the strength of their depth. Raheem Mostert was with six teams before landing with San Francisco in 2016, and he’s mitigated the injuries to a big-ticket signing—Jerick McKinnon—on offense. Dre Greenlaw waited well into the third day of last April’s draft before the Arkansas linebacker heard his name called at pick 148, and he’s helped make up for the loss of a big-ticket signing, Kwon Alexander, on defense. And both were huge in the division-clinching win over the Seahawks. Mostert had both of San Francisco’s two second-half touchdowns, and Greenlaw stonewalled tight end Jacob Hollister at the goal line to end Seattle’s comeback bid.

So a strange Bears season comes to an end with—what else?—a game-winning field goal. Eddy Pineiro, the winner of a wild camp competition who managed to hang on to the kicking job all year, hit a 22-yarder with 10 seconds left to knock off a Vikings team that had nothing to play for and rested a handful of its stars. And that wrapped a 4–2 finish to get Matt Nagy’s crew back to level ground in his second year in charge. “It could have been easy for them to … not be fighters, but they did [fight],” Nagy said to reporters postgame. “That’s the positive.” Pressure will be there next year to bounce back, with that dominant defensive group a year older, and the team tight to the cap.

The Bengals showed more fight in the end than their cross-state rivals, and Zac Taylor’s staff now has knowledge of just how thorough the rebuild will have to be. There are some valuable pieces in place: DT Geno Atkins, wideout AJ Green (if he stays), WR Tyler Boyd, RB Joe Mixon and, they hope, T Jonah Williams, the 2019 first-rounder who missed the entire season. But the roster isn’t what it was five years ago, and so there’s a lot of work ahead, which has been acknowledged internally and will, presumably, begin with Joe Burrow.

I can’t argue with how the Bills handled Week 17, when they rested several starters in a 13–6 loss to the Jets. If you aren’t getting a bye, and are handed a free one (by virtue of being locked into a particular seed), it makes sense to take it. And we’ll get a fun one next: Sean McDermott’s talented young defense locking horns with Deshaun Watson in Houston.

The Broncos may have quietly found an answer at quarterback in Drew Lock, who finished the season 4–1, with the lone loss coming in the snow in Kansas City and representing his only bad afternoon over a month as starter. Is he the long-term solution? I don’t think even Denver knows that. But he’s shown promise and has guys from a couple good draft classes surrounding him on offense—receiver Cortland Sutton, running backs Philip Lindsay and Royce Freeman, tight end Noah Fant, and guard Dalton Risner all stand as building block from the 2018 and ’19 groups. So at the very least, Denver isn’t forced to going looking at the position this offseason.

Picked up this on the Browns the last couple weeks, which you can add to the long cleanup ahead: Defensive coaches I’ve spoken with regarded Nick Chubb as the team’s best offensive player in 2019. And yet, they saw the offense go away from its tailback in key spots in what was seen as an effort to placate receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, which made Cleveland easier to defend. When you’re coaching in fear of your best players checking out on you? Not where you want to be, and a bad precedent to have on the books going forward.

The great thing about Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston’s 30 TD/30 INT season—the first in NFL history—is that if you had to guess which quarterback would accomplish that before the season, Winston would’ve been the first guy on everyone’s list. And yes, I think he’ll be back in Tampa, following his season-ending pick-six against the Falcons. The non-exclusive franchise tag (which should come in around $27 million) probably makes the most sense.

One of my favorite stats of Week 17: Cardinals QB Kyler Murray threw for 325 yards and rushed for… zero. There is, of course, more to the story than that. Murray threw two picks and Arizona lost to the Rams. Still, over the course of this season, yardage numbers like the that illustrate how the marriage between the Cardinals’ new coach and new quarterback has shown early promise.

Chargers QB Philip Rivers: “There’s a lot of questions that have to be answered. It’s not just, ‘Am I back? And we’ll win 12 games’. We’re far from that being, ‘Check that box and we’re good.’ That would be inaccurate. There's a lot of question marks moving forward. As those get answered, and how those get answered along with my personal question, will clear up a lot of things.” And, yes, Rivers’ personal situation is in flux; his contract is up, and the team will have a decision to make on whether to franchise him or not in two months. Were he to leave, the Titans had been the most likely destination. But with Tannehill’s emergence, it’s no sure thing that there will be a QB opening in Nashville. So there are a lot of moving parts as the team prepares to move in with the Rams in Inglewood.

That the Chiefs locked up the second seed and outlasted a proud Chargers team, with Patrick Mahomes throwing for just 174 yards, is a pretty good sign of how well-rounded the team has become. KC won 31–21, rookie Mecole Hardman keyed a strong special teams effort with a 104-yard return for a touchdown, and the 21 points were the most the Chiefs have allowed since Veterans Day.

What the Colts do at quarterback in the draft will be fascinating. Jacoby Brissett’s presence makes it so the position isn’t a pressing need. And yet, if Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert slips to where they’re picking (13th overall), wouldn’t that be tempting? I think it would be.

It’s too little and too late, but that was the Cowboys team we thought we’d see last week. They bludgeoned the Redskins for 223 yards on the ground, with Zeke Elliott as the horse (18 carries, 122 yards, TD). Amari Cooper played a big role (four catches, 92 yards), as Dak Prescott (138.0 passer rating) spread the ball around. The defense held the Skins under 300 yards and under 20 points. And all that would’ve been pretty useful last week.

Yeah, so this was satisfying for the Dolphins staff. Brian Flores’ 15-year history in Foxboro is well-documented. His OC, Chad O’Shea, let his contract with the Patriots run out when he realized they weren’t going to promote him from receivers coach, even if Josh McDaniels had left for Indy as planned in 2008. Defensive pass-game coordinator Josh Boyer and quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski, similarly, had waited for promotions that didn’t come, then decided not to sign extensions. Those guys wound up finding what they were looking for with Flores in Florida, and they got a lot more on Sunday when they beat New England 27–24.

Because so many of the Eagles came out of nowhere, it does feel like Miles Sanders sort of gets thrown in with the rest as some sort of fill-in. He’s definitely not that. Philadelphia’s second-round pick has high-end talent, and it has been on display. He wound up leading all rookies in scrimmage yard (with 1,327) even though he had just 64 through in the first two weeks. The 21-year-old former Saquon Barkley backup has a bright future, and he’s no Cinderella story.

Jones picked off Winston on the first play of overtime and took it 27 yards for a touchdown.

Jones picked off Winston on the first play of overtime and took it 27 yards for a touchdown.

That it was MLB Deion Jones registering the game-winning pick-six was fitting for a Falcons team that needed, and got, a revival from its defense over the second half of the season.

Lost in the Giants’ coaching situation is the continued brilliance of Barkley, whose spectacular 68-yarder is worth watching again (you’ll get a chance later in the column). Here’s hoping somehow he has more help in 2020.

Gardner Minshew may not be the Jaguars’ quarterback in five years. But he brings a lot of value to the table as a guy who is, at least, a very quality depth piece at the most important position. His cash the next three years: $585K, $675K, $765K. Considering Jacksonville’s dicey cap situation, having a guy at that price at that position who is capable of starting is huge.

Did you know the Jets finished 6–2 after a 1–7 start? It’s true! And the two losses? To the NFL’s best (Ravens) and worst (Bengals) teams. At the very least, the defense’s improvement and the presence of Sam Darnold give Adam Gase and his staff a nice foundation going into 2020. Now, Job 1 for GM Joe Douglas will be fortifying what’s still a pretty shaky offensive line.

The upshot of the Lions’ decision to announce they were retaining coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn is that it informed the players who their bosses would be going into 2020 and gave the coaches the best shot to build momentum going into the offseason. Which, by the looks of it, worked against the Packers—even if Detroit didn’t quite get it done against the division champs.

Credit to Packers QB Aaron Rodgers for fighting through a really bad start against the Lions—he was 6 of 18 for 90 yards at halftime, and Green Bay was down 17–3. The impact of his second-half rebound (21 of 37, 233 yards, 2 TDs, INT)? The Packers get a bye, and someone’s going to have to go to Lambeau to play them in mid-January. “We’re going to be a really tough team to deal with in the playoffs,” the quarterback said. You should listen, too. As they demonstrated while going 13–3 in Matt LaFleur’s first year, this Packers team can win a bunch of different ways. And as Sunday showed, they can always still pull the ol’ Rodgers lever.

Whoever the new Panthers coach is has a bit of a mess to clean up. My understanding is Greg Olsen’s rant after the team’s Week 16 loss—the tight end called it “a very collective failure organizationally”—was at least in part directed at ownership and the decision to dismiss Ron Rivera with four weeks left in the season. The Panthers haven’t won since, and three of the four losses have been by 20 or more. Which is not exactly the ideal runup to an offseason of change, or a good environment to have your young guys in.

The Patriots are normally the kings of “middle eight” – the four minutes at the end of first half, and four at the beginning of the second half. So it was pretty eye-opening when Bill Belichick declined to call a timeout on Miami’s offensive final snap of the first half, with 1:51 left, which allowed the Dolphins to bleed it down to 1:05 before punting. Then, New England, with a full complement of timeouts, chose not to make much of an attempt to move the ball—the Patriots called two running plays and let the clock run out from there. After the half? New England went three-and-out right off the bat. It was just bizarre to see, and maybe a window into how disjointed Tom Brady’s offense is right now.

It’s hard to believe that they’re the Las Vegas Raiders now. And they’ll go with a nice base of young talent to work with, thanks to GM Mike Mayock’s stellar first draft class, and solid base of resources for this year’s draft, starting with the No. 12 and No. 19 overall picks.

There’s some uneasiness among Rams staffers right now. But my guess is any big-picture changes would have to wait until Sean McVay sits down with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, whose three-year deal expires next month. I do know that changes at both the coaching and scouting levels have been expected.

The Ravens history-making run game is more than just a handful of players—as special as Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram have been in it. Without either of them on Sunday, against a really good Steelers defense, Baltimore saddled up behind Robert Griffin, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, and came out with 223 yards on 44 carries. Just ridiculous.

One member of the Redskins coaching staff to watch would be offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. He’s very well thought of and is seen as a future head coach, the way McVay was a few years ago. A lingering question on the looming hire of someone like Rivera would be whether O’Connell would be retained. If not, he won’t have a lack of opportunities elsewhere. He could go with Josh McDaniels, if McDaniels gets a shot somewhere (McDaniels coached O’Connell as a player in New England in 2008). Or he could give the college game a shot to get more reps as a playcaller (he’s close with new Boston College coach Jeff Hafley, too).

Last year, towards the end of the year, there were questions on whether Saints QB Drew Brees, nearing 40, was wearing down and showing his age during a spotty September. That’s why I felt like his injury earlier this year, when it happened, might be a blessing in disguise. And it looks like it … might be one. Brees has posted passer ratings exceeding 110 in seven of nine games since returning to the lineup. And his single-game marks have topped the league leader’s passer rating (Tannehill, 116.5) in each of his last four games, two of which were outdoors.

Among the Seahawks, D.K. Metcalf continues to impress (six catches, 81 yards against the Niners), and another rookie—sixth-round pick Travis Homer—looked like a more suitable replacement for Rashaad Penny and/or Chris Carson than Marshawn Lynch did. Or, at least, he did in the small sample size we can take from a single game in which the Seahawks needed to Russell Wilson to take over.

Steelers QB Duck Hodges finished nine of 25 for 95 yards and no scores or picks in another performance that underscored the job that Mike Tomlin has done in holding things together this fall, keeping Pittsburgh in contention into the season’s final weekend. The good news here is that the Steelers should be healthier at the skill spots next year, and the defense had to grow from carrying an arduous load this fall, which should benefit the unit going forward.

DeAndre Carter was the Texans’ leading receiver Sunday against Tennessee. Taiwan Jones was their leading rusher. A.J. McCarron was the quarterback. And that’s all we got on that.

Titans rookie receiver AJ Brown has turned out to be every bit as impressive in Year 1 as Metcalf, his former teammate at Ole Miss. And maybe even more impressive: Brown was the only member of his draft class to register 1,000 receiving yards this fall, was first in touchdown catches with eight and fifth in catches with 52. Amazingly enough, he’s already passed 2017 fifth-overall pick Corey Davis in the Titans’ pecking order.

The Vikings played Sean Mannion at quarterback on Sunday. Which is how far we’re going to go on their meaningless loss to the Bears here.

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TOP FIVE

Why the Falcons stood pat with head coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff. Five years ago, after the Falcons lost a game in London in brutal fashion to fall to 2-6, owner Arthur Blank went public with his displeasure with the team and Mike Smith’s coaching staff. You’re up 21-0,” he said then. “There’s no way you lose that game – just no way. There’s nothing else I can say.” The passionate outburst came from deep down in his gut, but it didn’t help much of anyone else. The rest of the year turned into Smitty Watch, and the environment in and around the facility was horrific. As a result, Blank vowed to not let something like that happen again, which is why he’s been quiet almost to the point of being reclusive on the status of Quinn and Dimitroff this fall. He just let the season play out, his people put some feelers out for potential replacement, and in the end, they decided keeping Dimitroff and Quinn was for the best. From here, the two will be expected to take a hard look at their staffs (neither is expected to overhaul what’s in Atlanta) and work on getting the football operation aligned.

A name that missed my list of future NFL GMs. And I wouldn’t have even thought of this unless someone raised it to me independently—ex-Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome. Yes, his time was up in Baltimore, and Eric DeCosta’s done a good job keeping the train on the tracks. And yes, Ozzie’s older—but at 63 years old, he’s four years younger than Belichick and five years younger than Pete Carroll, and he’d absolutely be capable of building a robust scouting department that could eventually take over him. It’s just a thought, of course, but I think it could be viable if Newsome’s up for it. It can’t hurt to ask.

Labor milestone. Finishing the regular season without a new labor deal makes it likely we’ll get to the Super Bowl without one. And at that juncture, we’ll be a little over a month away from the NFLPA elections, at which point the union will vote in a new president to replace Eric Winston, who’s ineligible to run for reelection. Having a new president, for obvious reasons, will make it more difficult to get a deal done. So at least on that, the clock is ticking, and a number of owners are eager to negotiate. Those guys viewing this as small potatoes compared to the next set of broadcast deals and the work on gambling they’ll do after striking the next CBA. So we’ll see if business picks up.

The brilliance of Antonio Brown’s workout with the Saints. So as you may know by now, it didn’t go great. He looked fine as a player, but New Orleans officials were turned off by the entourage he brought with him, who might’ve as well have worn t-shirts saying “he’s learned nothing” on them. But for the Saints? This isn’t horrible. Either he was gonna show up in a business-like manner, and New Orleans would consider signing him to, at the very least, take him off the market for others. Or something like what actually happened would go down, and he’d be radioactive all over again. Either way, the Saints were effectively working to keep him off any other roster.

What college football can teach us. Look at the national title game coaches—neither Clemson’s Dabo Swinney nor LSU’s Ed Orgeron was a coordinator before he became a head coach, and neither is a play-caller for his program. Those guys set the tone for their programs, they motivate, and they lead. And their success is such a shining example of how different the job of head coach is from the job of an assistant coach. There’s a lesson in there for NFL teams to take.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Fantastic picture from Ravens team photographer Phil Hoffmann.

No starters playing? No visibility? No cover? No problem for this courageous hero.

The celebration once he gets daylight is bananas.

… Another view of it.

This is a weird sort of bowling from Joe Mixon. Not quite as entertaining as Le’Veon Bell’s misadventures with that sport.

This is great sense of the moment, and what the viewer wants from Kevin Harlan.

Love the honesty from Snacks.

… Speaking of honesty and emotion.

Congrats, Jameis.

Felony assault.

Belichick just playing chess again.

And then the drunk guy starts landing shots?

That one’s worth your time.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

College coaches have buyouts in their contracts that pro teams have to pay—and that’s important to know with Riley and Rhule expect to attract attention.

Riley’s buyout is just $4.9 million, Rhule’s is said to be more than that. So why wouldn’t NFL teams just pay the freight to get a guy they really want out?

Silly as it sounds, for some owners, it’s a principle thing. Yeah, I don’t really get that either, since most of these guys are making more than that annually, and teams routinely pay fired staffs. But it’s absolutely worth paying attention to as the hiring cycle begins.

See you guys in a few hours for the MAQB!

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