Kirk Cousins Shines Under the Big, Bright Playoff Lights in a Truly Wild Wild-Card Weekend

Four one-score games, including a pair of overtime thrillers. New Orleans loses on a disputed pass interference call (again). New England's dynasty might be over. Just your typical playoff weekend—and that's not even taking into account the coaching carousel, which is whirring to life.
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During a defensive period on Friday in Eagan, Minn., Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski suggested that quarterback Kirk Cousins and tight end Kyle Rudolph, without a whole lot else to do, retreat to the far end zone, on the opposite side of the practice field. The idea was to work on the fade in close to the goal line, and the purpose was for Rudolph to show Cousins right where he wanted the ball.

Maybe it’d come up again, maybe it wouldn’t. Either way, it was just a few quick reps, and the message from Rudolph about what he wanted from his quarterback was easy: “Let me use my big body and go up and make a catch,” Rudolph recounted late Sunday afternoon. “If you start flirting with the back corner and throw a perfect little rainbow shot, that brings in the sidelines. I told him on Friday, just throw it up and I'll make you right.”

And then, in the most important spot, just two days later, it did come up.

It was third-and-goal from the Saints four-yard line in overtime, after the Vikings were driven back off the goal line by an attacking New Orleans front. If Minnesota fails to score a touchdown, Drew Brees gets the ball and the game is out of the hands of Cousins, Rudolph and the rest of the offensive group. If they succeed, they win. It’s that simple.

Before the snap, Rudolph saw the safety to his side, Vonn Bell, creep towards the line of scrimmage, and linebackers tighten down, signifying a zero blitz that would leave Rudolph isolated on cornerback P.J. Williams to his quarterback’s left. Cousins gave Rudolph a look. Both guys knew what time it was.

Cousins put the ball up, and the Saints’ season went down. Just like he had on Friday, when there was no defender on Rudolph and no blitz coming, Cousins put the ball right where he wanted it—right where Rudolph asked for it—and, as a result, Brees wouldn’t take another snap.

Rudolph reached right over Williams, snatched the ball like it was a rebound, and stamped the final score: Vikings 26, Saints 20.

“Pre-snap, I saw the guys walking to the line of scrimmage and knew the ball was coming,” Rudolph said. “And like I said, he made an unbelievable throw. He gave me a chance.”

Rudolph took it, and the Vikings took plenty of other chances, too. For Cousins, this was a chance to silence the big-game doubts that resurfaced after a Week 16 loss to Green Bay. For head coach Mike Zimmer, it was a chance to make a statement amid rumors about his future in Minnesota. For the whole team, it was a chance at vindication after a horribly disappointing 2019—and a chance to show that the title contender people expected is still there.

The Vikings seized those chances at the Superdome. So now, their season goes on.

***

kyle-rudolph-jason-garrett-deshaun-watson

Wild-card weekend has come and gone, and we’re here to wrap it up for you—plus plenty more from a busy week around the NFL, including…

• Mike Vrabel’s Titans going into Foxboro and leaving with a defining win that may have ended a great NFL dynasty.

• K.J. Wright on the new generation of Seahawks, a group that he now believes can make a very real run.

• Duke Johnson explaining the incomparable Deshaun Watson.

• Ron Rivera on his new life in D.C.

• The Cowboys’ weird handling of the Jason Garrett situation, and more from the coaching carousel.

But we’re starting with Sunday’s barnburner—one of two overtime games, and one of four one-possession games over this wild weekend. So let’s head back to New Orleans.

***

That’s how we’ve won all year—team, right? You hold them to 20 points, gave us a chance at the end. I got three words for you: You like that?

That visitor’s locker room at the New Orleans Superdome is raucous, like any locker room would be after a playoff win. But you can tell what it meant to those guys to get the win for Cousins, a sentiment that surfaced again when I asked Rudolph.

“I can speak for the other 10 guys on offense when I say it may mean more to us to be able to put him in a situation to get that win today,” Rudolph told me. “You can’t win games on your own, no matter what. No matter how much money you make, no matter what position you play, it’s the ultimate team game, and the other 10 guys have to be out there, and they have to execute for him to have success.

“Kirk’s played so good in so many big games this year for us. And quite frankly, we’ve let him down.”

In one of toughest buildings for a road team to win in the NFL, the Vikings didn’t let anyone down on this Sunday. In fact, they stood tallest as the game seemed to be slipping away.

The Saints started the fourth quarter on their own 15 down 20–10, and erased the deficit, with Will Lutz drilling a 49-yard field goal with two seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime. At that point, the momentum was squarely with New Orleans, but the coin toss wasn’t—and as soon as Minnesota won it, the undercurrent among offensive players on the sideline was clear.

One player brought up how back on Aug. 9, on the Vikings’ very first preseason possession, Cousins marched them 76 yards in eight plays against the Saints. His point: They had to do that again. There was no room to leave anything to chance.

“When you’re playing against a team with Hall-of-Fame quarterback and a Hall-of-Fame head coach, you don’t want to give them the ball in overtime,” Rudolph says. “We knew if we went down and scored [a touchdown], the game was over and they wouldn’t get that chance.”

In doing so, they could stem the tide of a shaky end to the regular season (a Monday night loss to Green Bay, and a Week 17 mail-in at Chicago when several players were resting), affirm Zimmer’s place as their leader and, maybe most impactfully, get the big-game monkey off of Cousins’s back. And if it was going to happen, it was going to have to be Cousins steering the ship to get them there.

Three throws made it happen.

The first picked up the Vikings’ initial first down of overtime, on a third-and-one. Cousins took the shotgun snap, and slingshotted a dart into Stefon Diggs’s belly for 10 yards.

The second might have been Cousins’s best throw of the season—a dime that hung in the air for 50 yards or so, and landed softly in the hands of Adam Thielen, running a corner route and hauling the ball in with corner Patrick Robinson draped all over him.

“That’s just two guys making an unbelievable play,” Rudolph says. “It was just four verticals, trying to get a shot down field and get a big chunk—and Kirk making a huge throw, Adam making a big catch.”

That put the Vikings at the Saints two-yard line, and after Dalvin Cook picked up a yard, then lost three, the stage was set for Cousins and Rudolph to make the investment they put in on Friday afternoon a thousand miles away pay off. And thus, a corner was turned.

Now, the hope in Minnesota is that the Vikings can go on the run they expected last year. After Minnesota and New Orleans played in the postseason two years ago, a game that ended with the Minneapolis Miracle, everything went a little sideways. The Eagles blew the Vikings out in the NFC title game, then the Vikings failed live up to hype that accompanied them in 2018. Naturally, that put pressure on Zimmer and Cousins—and everyone else.

Now? Well, now Rudolph and a talented core that’s pushed a year deeper into its prime appreciates this a little more. So they just go play.

“Especially the guys that played in that NFC championship game—and realized that before that the last NFC championship game that Coach Zimmer coached in was in 1994—we all know these opportunities don’t come every year,” Rudolph says. “And I think the sense of urgency was in place because a lot of older guys on this team have conveyed the message that, ‘Guys, look just because you’re a rookie, you’re a second-year guy and we’re in the playoffs, doesn’t mean this is something that can happen next year.’

“A lot of guys play a lot of years in this league and don’t have opportunities to win playoff games.”

The team is happy to give Cousins that moment, and help Zimmer keep his job and all that. But mostly, they’re all happy for each other, that they can keep this going. And on Friday afternoon, three days ago, they showed again how to make that happen.

***

A SWEET WIN FOR VRABEL’S TITANS

The CBS cameras caught Mike Vrabel skipping off the field at Gillette Stadium like a middle schooler, and it would be hard to blame him if he felt like one. He’d just won his first playoff game as a head coach, and he’d done it by knocking his old boss (Bill Belichick) and buddy (Tom Brady) from the AFC bracket, and maybe even putting an end to the vaunted Patriots’ dynasty he helped build.

So it sure looked like there was something more to this particular win for the Titans’ coach. But if there was, he wasn’t spilling on that.

“I run off the field like that every time we win, and I probably run off when we lose, I just don’t [freaking] smile,” Vrabel says from his office around lunchtime on Sunday. “Like, if you watch me, every single week, I’ve done the same thing. But nobody watches. I mean, I’m just trying to be as honest as I can. I’ve done that for two years.”

The reason? He wants to get back inside in time to shake each guy’s hand before they walk through the door.

“I was excited for my guys, I was excited for the team, I try to get back there to the locker room, see each one of them come in, thank them for their effort,” Vrabel says. “Again, I’ve done that for two years.”

Still, in those two years, there hasn’t been a win quite like this one. This was more than just a 20–13 victory to advance to the divisional round. There are the obvious emotional ties. There was also the way the Titans won it.

The team that took the field in Foxboro on Saturday night was what GM Jon Robinson intended to build when he returned to his home state to run the Titans four years ago, and what Vrabel has hammered away at constructing since he joined Robinson there two years ago. Even better, its defining qualities showed up when it mattered most.

The first instance came with just under five minutes to go in the first half. A Brady connection with Rex Burkhead got the Patriots down inside the one. The Patriots were up 10–7 and seemingly on the verge of busting the game open, but the Titans had other ideas. On first-and-goal, Rashaan Evans busted into the backfield and dropped Sony Michel for a one-yard loss. Burkhead got the yard back on second down, then Evans again got in the backfield to corral Michel, bury him for a two-yard loss and force a short field goal.

“They kind of do what they do down there on the goal line, and we felt like we had a good call against it and the players executed it, they had an idea what was coming, created a new line of scrimmage, and guys were able to run through and make some plays,” Vrabel says. “Rashaan, Daquan [Jones] showed up, [Jeffrey] Simmons showed up. That’s a big stop.”

The Titans then turned around and handed the ball to Derrick Henry. A bunch. With 2:16 left, Henry ripped off a 29-yard run, then runs of 11, nine and three yards, then took a screen 22 yards, and punched it in from a yard out from there to take a 14–13 lead into the break. That, as Vrabel saw it, allowed the Titans to “really create what was a huge field-position battle in the second half.”

As such, for the first 29 minutes of the second half, there was no scoring. But there were big plays, and none bigger than the ones the Titans made in the final five minutes. With less than four minutes to go, an illegal formation flag knocked Tennessee off-schedule, and eventually landed them in third-and-eight. Vrabel’s instructions to offensive coordinator Arthur Smith at that point were clear: Go win the game.

And Smith reached into his bag and found a play that had worked with Marcus Mariota, rather than Ryan Tannehill, at quarterback against the Patriots last year: a simple outbreaking route just past the sticks. Last year, the throw was to reserve tight end Anthony Firkser for 11 to convert a third-and-two and set up a touchdown that gave the Titans a 24–10 lead. This year, it went to Firkser for 11 yards with less than three minutes to go.

Then, on the next snap, with all 65,878 in attendance aware that a Henry run was coming, the back ripped off 11 yards to put the capper on a big night for the Titans franchise, a play that was as much about who Tennessee is as it was what they were doing on any one snap.

“I think you always can evaluate your toughness and physicality as a team by how you control the line of scrimmage, how you run it, how you stop the run, how you cover kicks and how you play in short yardage,” Vrabel says. “Those are things that are important. Every week’s different—we’re gonna have to be able to throw it, protect our quarterback. But if you look at the playoffs, if you run the football and stop the run and take care of the ball, get a couple turnovers, your chances for success go way up.”

And as for the idea that this meant a little more to Vrabel, I did eventually get him to concede that before he tempered it five different ways.

“Well, yeah,” he said. “But it’d have been the same thing if we’d won any playoff game. It was never about me having played [for New England] or Dean [Pees] having coached there or Logan [Ryan] having played there or Malcolm [Butler] being there on the sidelines injured.”

Maybe it wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t make it a little sweeter.

***

D.K. METCALF MAKES HISTORY FOR NEW-LOOK SEAHAWKS

The Seahawks never went through a full-on rebuild of the roster, but slowly and over time, GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll deconstructed and reconstructed what they built over their first half-decade on the job. At this point, unless you count Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin (the backs who just returned because of injury circumstances), really, only linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner and QB Russell Wilson remain from Seattle’s championship team six years ago.

Only a few guys on the roster have a real idea of what it looks like on the inside of a title-level team. But Wright is one, and, it turns out, he saw that it in his Seattle team, and his Seattle teammates, of 2019 all the way back in October.

“I was like, ‘This team can go to the Super Bowl,’” Wright says. “Me and [fellow linebacker] Mychael Kendricks were talking about it, we saw some special stuff. We have all the pieces to be successful, and this team is just as fun, just as experienced and has just got the same amount of playmakers. So we can get it done.”

And winning Sunday’s battle of attrition in Philly qualifies as a good start. Both teams were without big-time linemen (Duane Brown for the Seahawks, Lane Johnson for the Eagles). Both were missing key skill guys (Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny for Seattle, DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffrey for Philly). And really, the truth is, the difference on this afternoon was probably that one team lost its starting quarterback and the other didn’t.

That said, and taking Carson Wentz’s injury into account, Seattle’s ability to assimilate new guys into the lineup and make them part of the culture that the Legion of Boomers built was pretty relevant to the 17–9 outcome, too.

Rookie Travis Homer, in light of those injuries, had to be the lead back. Jadeveon Clowney (acquired at the end of the summer) had a sack and two tackles for losses. Quandre Diggs (traded for in midseason) captained the secondary and had four tackles.

“Pete and John did a good job of putting this team together,” Wright says. “They drafted well, they traded for Quandre, traded for Clowney. And so they’re doing everything in their power to make sure that this is a Super Bowl–caliber team. You’ve got all the pieces that we need, and we’ve just got to continue to play well together and keep winning these ball games.”

And then there’s rookie D.K. Metcalf.

Metcalf had 160 yards receiving—the most by a rookie in a playoff game in the Super Bowl era, and the most ever by a Seahawks player in the postseason.

Metcalf had 160 yards receiving—the most by a rookie in a playoff game in the Super Bowl era, and the most ever by a Seahawks player in the postseason.

For the most part, this win was an old-school, defense-carries-the-day kind of affair for Seattle: Wright and Co. forced two turnovers on downs inside their own 30 in the fourth quarter. But when they needed a play on the other side, there really was one guy Seattle went to, and that was the rookie that so many pundits (I’ll raise my hand here) thought had the makings of a bust during the pre-draft process.

Instead, the 6' 4", 230-pounder has been a revelation. On Sunday, there was the deep 24-yard throw down the sideline to set up Seattle’s first score, a field goal. There was the 53-yard touchdown to the post in the third quarter—Metcalf extended for it, stumbled, collected himself and rolled into the end zone. And then there was the 36-yard seam route on third-and-10 to end the game with less than two minutes to go.

“We knew coming in he was big, fast, strong,” Wright says. “But obviously you don’t know how good a guy is until you get him in pads and real game-like situations and he’s proven early in the year that he can ball, that he can be a guy that Russ trusts. That chemistry started building in OTAs. It was fun watching that man grow as a good rookie.”

The Seahawks take all that to Green Bay next Sunday, facing the Packers for the first time in the playoffs since the NFC title game in the Pacific Northwest that went haywire four years ago. That one led to Seattle’s last trip to the Super Bowl.

Wright hopes this one leads to their next trip there.

“It’s just a feeling,” he says. “You just got a feeling as players, like, ‘Man, this feels right and no matter what we say, we can win ball games.’ I haven't felt that every year and this year I felt it. We got it. All the pieces are here, let’s just execute.”

***

WATSON’S PLAY DOES THE TALKING 

Sometimes what happens in the early games of weekends like this feels like ancient history by the time you get to Monday, so consider this a PSA—and don’t forget just how crazy Deshaun Watson was on Saturday afternoon.

His numbers were good against the Bills. Watson finished 20-of-25 for 247 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for 55 yards on 14 carries. But looking at those numbers alone doesn’t begin to tell the story of how he just willed his team from a 16–0 deficit against a really good Buffalo team.

“He’s unbelievable, he doesn’t quit,” running back Duke Johnson says. “He’s the same guy from the first play of the game to the last play of the game. He doesn’t quit, he doesn’t fold. There’s no fear in his heart. When you have a quarterback like that, our fearless leader, it’s easy for you to go with it.”

And go with it they did on drives of nine plays and 75 yards, and eight plays and 74 yards. That gave the Texans a 19–16 lead with five minutes left. But the really crazy stuff was still to come, after Buffalo kicked a field goal to send the game to overtime.

It came, for the most part, on two plays. The first was a third-and-18 from the Texans’ 19 early in the extra period. If Houston doesn’t pick that one up, the Bills get the ball back in good field position and need only a field goal to win. So as Johnson explains it now, O’Brien sends in a call to get the ball downfield, and he’s the checkdown option. At the snap, Watson sees the defender drifting back to defend the stick.

He then locks eyes with Johnson, who’s free in the flat.

“Everybody just cleared out,” Johnson says. “He decided to check the ball down, I tried to take a peek for the sideline to see how far it was. I kinda got an estimate to what I needed to get, and once I figured out what I needed, I tried to lower my pads and get the first.” Johnson tried to split corner Siran Neal and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds as he dove for the marker. He got it, and that only set up a play that was far less believable.

On second-and-six from the Bills 44, Watson dropped and free rushers came from both his left (Neal) and right (Matt Milano). Neal hit him low, first, and Watson bounced off the collision, right into Milano, who was coming higher. Milano blasted him, but somehow Watson kept his feet and broke the pocket to his right. He bought a second, and found Taiwan Jones in the flat, absorbing a big hit from Jordan Phillips as he unloaded the ball.

“That play was awesome,” Johnson says. “Deshaun being Deshaun, making plays and getting the ball down to Taiwan. And I guess Taiwan did the rest. But I mean that’s a play Deshaun makes, so it’s not surprising anymore.”

The game-winning field goal came on the next play, and now with the 22–19 win in the rearview mirror, Houston and Watson are headed for Kansas City. Watson’s draft classmate Patrick Mahomes awaits. But no matter what happens then, the shine of this one should last a little while.

And if you want a fun nugget to hang to from this one, I’ve got you: Through the whole comeback, Watson didn’t say anything different to his teammates. Which, if you been around him, seems pretty normal.

“I think that’s the biggest thing. He didn’t need to say nothing,” Johnson says. “We knew as a team what we needed to do, and we went out there and did it. DeShaun didn’t need to say nothing. We knew.”

***

RON RIVERA’S NEW GIG

Five points from my talk with new Redskins coach Ron Rivera over the weekend …

1. A story about the Kansas City Chiefs struck a chord with Rivera. The new Washington boss made it clear during his press conference that the coach-centric model that owner Dan Snyder laid out was perfect for how he sees building a team. And Rivera told me that Snyder used examples in Seattle, New England and New Orleans to illustrate his vision. But there was a newspaper piece on Andy Reid’s Chiefs that really hit home. “It was a hell of an article,” Rivera said. “It talked about how (CEO Clark) Hunt had looked at things and tried to create that approach. And it seemed to fit very well, because if you look at the success Coach Reid is having right now—it doesn’t surprise me because it’s Coach Reid—but having that type of philosopher attitude bodes very well for them. Reading that article really gave a little bit of direction in terms of thinking that way.” It doesn’t hurt that Rivera worked for Reid in Philly.

2. That doesn’t mean Rivera wants to pick all the players. He was clear on that. “This is not me becoming an omnipotent person, where I have complete and total power,” Rivera emphasized to me. “It was about me being able to control the [46-man roster] on game day, and that everything else we did was going to be a collaborative approach, that all the departments—the college scouting, the pro scouting—we all would get together and talk about things. We’d try to come to an agreement on what’s best, and if we have any issues, then we would ask Mr. Snyder to get involved. But until then, we as a collaborative group, we’re going to put everything together to give the head coach the best opportunity. And then on game day, the head coach would decide on the 46 so that the team had what they believed were the best guys. That I found very appealing.”

3. Rivera will set models for each position with his staff. And obviously, he’ll have to hire out his staff before he can go all the way with that (he’s in the process of making that happen now). But he’s already met with college scouting director Kyle Smith and pro scouting director Alex Santos in an effort to get the ball rolling. “We've talked about making sure we come together with critical factors for position-specific skillsets and critical factors for all of our positions,” Rivera said. “And we've talked about what qualities are we looking for in these guys: what's the physical makeup, what's the mental makeup, what are the skillsets they need? We're trying to make sure we get that, and then once we get the staff together and we talk about our style of offense, our style of defense, our style of special teams, this is how we want to do it with each of these types of positions – These are types of guys we're looking for.” Of course, to fully realize the vision, they’ll need a GM on board with it too, and they’re waiting until after the draft to hire one. I like the idea, too. They’ll be able to cast a wider net for candidates then, and have a better idea of what they’re looking for.

4. Meeting with Joe Gibbs was important. Rivera didn’t mince words on the impact Joe Gibbs had. It was important for Rivera to gather information on his own about Snyder, and the ex-Redskins coach was as good a resource as he could’ve asked for on the subject. Rivera and Gibbs spoke a lot on the phone, then Rivera wound up going to Gibbs’ house to discuss the organization. “I just wanted to hear from somebody who was there,” Rivera said. “And then come to find out they have a friendship, so he’s gotten to know Mr. Snyder over the years. We really talked and it just didn’t seem that what I was getting was the vibe that I had heard, that people were kind of going off of what he was when he first got into the league as opposed to the guy who’s trying to develop and revamp and grow this organization. And I was really impressed with that.… The thing that I got was that the owner wanted to make sure that everybody in that organization was going to work toward one goal, and that was giving the coach what he needed to put the team together and be successful.”

Rivera inherits a roster with several veteran QBs—and Haskins, who was 2–5 as a starter.

Rivera inherits a roster with several veteran QBs—and Haskins, who was 2–5 as a starter.

5. As for the quarterback—Rivera has looked at Dwayne Haskins. He, in fact, looked at four games of tape for the whole team, and he did hone in a little on the quarterbacks. “Once it became evident that Dwayne was going to be their guy going forward, I watched how he played,” Rivera said. “You watch those earlier games when he had to come in and play, those game plans weren’t designed for him. But as they started to design the game plans for him and they started getting more and more comfortable with him and he got more and more comfortable with calls, you saw the success. He managed games well, he made plays when he had to. I like to point to the last two drives he had in the Detroit game [in Week 12] where he had to get points: He moved the ball, he was very confident, made some really good throws. And then you just saw him continue to grow and you saw his confidence step up. So that was exciting, but I also know that there are three pretty good NFL quarterbacks on this roster with experience. I mean, you look at Colt McCoy and you look at Case Keenum, and Alex Smith is working to come back. So we’ve got an interesting set of circumstances going forward, and we’ll see how all that unfolds for us.”

***

THE CAROUSEL IS SPINNING

The Cowboys finally dropped the hammer on Jason Garrett on Sunday afternoon. So where does that leave us in the coach search season? Here are a few things to file away as the week begins.…

• The presence of Paul DePodesta shouldn’t be ignored in Cleveland. I’m told he’s been active—about equal to owner Jimmy Haslam—in asking questions of candidates in the interview room to this point. And whether or not he remains involved after the process is complete could color the hire. If, for example, Josh McDaniels were hired, my guess would be that DePodesta would be on the way out. If, say, it was Kevin Stefanski, I could see DePodesta staying. For now, the situation remains a bit complicated. And it’ll be on Haslam to clear it up for whoever the next coach is.

• The Panthers remain committed to looking at different types of candidates, which is why you have the second-chancers (McDaniels, Mike McCarthy), the college coaches (Matt Rhule) and the young coordinators (Stefanski) in the mix. It wouldn’t surprise me if Carolina takes the longest.

• As for the Cowboys, while it was said that they’d focus on coaches with NFL head-coaching experience, my sense is that they’re just planning to do that first. And with Mike McCarthy and Marvin Lewis already interviewed, that phase in underway. I still wouldn’t rule out Dallas dipping into the college ranks, which they’ll have to be quieter about (so as to respect the recruiting interests of those coaches/schools).

After going 1–11 in 2017, his first season in Waco, Rhule led Baylor to an 11–3 record this year.

After going 1–11 in 2017, his first season in Waco, Rhule led Baylor to an 11–3 record this year.

• Rhule will interview with the Panthers and Giants this week, and it’s my belief that the he remains the leader in the clubhouse for the Giants job. And my understanding is that if some structural issues can be worked through, he’d be of a mind to take it.

• The Vikings’ statement this week on GM Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer was widely viewed by other teams as an indirect message to the Cowboys—with rumblings out there that Dallas would want to talk to its long-time assistant coach (1994–2006) about coming home. And that message would be simple: He’s under contract, so if you want him it won’t be free. That said, with Minnesota winning Sunday, it seems a Zimmer/Vikings divorce is much less likely.

***

ALL-32

The 49ers rose from pretty much zero to the NFC’s top seed in three years. Obviously, coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch deserve a ton of credit. And so do culture-setting vets like Richard Sherman, who hit every one of his contract incentives this year. And lieutenants like DC Robert Saleh, a head coaching candidate who’s now been part of successful defensive rebuilds in Seattle, Jacksonville and San Francisco. Really, the Niners’ renaissance is proof on the power of getting the whole operation synced up correctly, which is what owner Jed York set out to do amid the rubble of a tough run from 2014–16.

The Bears’ cap situation will make this offseason interesting. Chicago has eight players with eight-figure cap hits for 2020, and their total adds up to $109.2 million, which will be well over half the limit. And there are 17 players with cap hits of more than $5 million, accounting for $175.7 million on the ledger, and that’s without factoring in the new four-year, $58 million deal that Eddie Jackson signed this week. That gives the team about $25 million to fit Jackson’s deal and money for 35 other players under the cap. Obviously, some of the numbers will change, and some tough calls will be made. But this is another reason why going forward with Mitch Trubisky, still on his rookie deal, might be their best option.

Did you know the Bengals lost eight one-score games in 2019? Me neither. And that’s not to say they were thisclose to finishing 10–6 instead of 2–14. But it does give hope that a strong offseason with a few difference-makers coming in (like a certain Southern Ohio-bred quarterback from the SEC) could get the franchise back on its feet.

Tough to crush the Bills for Saturday’s loss—and this one’s different than the playoff defeat two years ago in Jacksonville. This time around, the roster is young, the quarterback is in place and the game should serve as a learning experience for an impressive young core led by QB Josh Allen, RB Devin Singletary, TE Dawson Knox, DT Ed Oliver, LB Tremaine Edmunds, CB Tre’Davious White, et al. Next up for GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott will be finding a way to upgrade the offense around Allen.

The Broncos feel like they’ve got something to work with in Drew Lock—and Lock has some progress to build on. Having come from a very simple college scheme at Missouri, he’s grown in his ability to scan the field, and his ability to keep plays alive has translated to the NFL. Add in good decision-making and ball security, and Lock goes into 2020 in a good spot.

Here’s what Browns owner Jimmy Haslam will have to convince whoever he wants to be his next coach: I will let you do your job. If he can’t, he might get a no or two before finding his man. Haslam has grown a reputation of soliciting too many opinions and creating too many fiefdoms within his building in Berea. And that’s why some coaches are leery about going there. And that concern is a fair one.

The Buccaneers enter this offseason with a lot of cap flexibility, but also some business to attend to. There’s obviously the quarterback situation, where putting the non-exclusive franchise tag on Jameis Winston and taking a hard look at the draft class (could Justin Herbert or Tua Tagovailoa fall to the 14th pick?) is seemingly the most sensible course of action. But beyond that, there’s also the matter of taking care of breakout stars LB Shaquil Barrett and WR Chris Godwin. The former is a free agent now, the latter is headed into a contract year.

Good call by Kliff Kingsbury in retaining defensive coordinator Vance Joseph—in the words of the Cardinals coach: “I never wavered on that”—after Joseph’s unit finished 2019 dead last in the NFL. Joseph has been around high-level defenses in Denver, Cincinnati and Houston, and he was a valuable resource to Kingsbury this year, with his own experience as an NFL head coach. And Joseph has a good crew of position coaches on hand working with him, which will be important as the team reworks its personnel and gets younger on D.

There were rumblings in recent weeks that the Chargers could make a head coaching change, and none of those had much to do with football. Instead, they were about the franchise’s struggle to make a dent in the L.A. market, and the prospect of trying to sell the new 70,000-seat stadium in Inglewood. So credit to the organization for not overreacting: GM Tom Telesco said, “I like the foundation that’s been built. I love our head coach.… There’s nobody else that I want to go into battle with.”

As they head into Sunday’s rematch, the Chiefs feel pretty good about where they are now versus where they were when they lost to the Texans in October. On offense, tackle Eric Fisher, guard Andrew Wylie and receiver Sammy Watkins were out, WR Tyreek Hill was in his first game back from his collarbone injury and QB Pat Mahomes was playing on a gimpy ankle. On defense, Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme was still new, DT Chris Jones and LB Anthony Hitchens were out, and DE Frank Clark wasn’t 100 percent. And they still only lost by a touchdown, 31–24.

Credit to Colts GM Chris Ballard for taking full responsibility for what he hopes is a one-year dip in the franchise’s rebuild. And yet, even with the issues this year, the foundation has continued to get stronger. Corner Rock Ya-Sin and linebacker Bobby Okereke flashed potential to be cornerstones in another really strong rookie class. Quarterback remains the question. I’d keep an eye on Frank Reich-connected veterans Philip Rivers (who is also close with OC Nick Sirriani) and Nick Foles, as well as the guys in the draft.

Had the Cowboys decided to retain Jason Garrett, I doubt that Kris Richard would have been back as his top defensive assistant. And with Rod Marinelli’s contract also up, my guess is Garrett’s pitch to keep his job probably included a pretty extensive overhaul on that side of the ball.

So why did the Dolphins move on from Chad O’Shea as offensive coordinator? My understanding is that head coach Brian Flores wanted to get away from the Patriots’ scheme, largely because it’s complexity makes it tough on young guys. While O’Shea’s replacement, Chan Gailey, is 67, he was in the college game relatively recently, runs spread principles and should build something a little more user-friendly, with the Dolphins loaded with draft capital (five first-rounders in 2020 and ’21) over the next couple years.

It’s hard to get on the Eagles much considering the injury situation there. In fact, if there’s one takeaway from how the team finished, it’s that amid the injuries, Carson Wentz showed he could carry a team and single-handedly create margin for error for everyone in the organization, from the guys drafting his teammates to those playing alongside him. Starting with the second half of the Giants game in Week 14, we saw a different Wentz, and it’s one the people inside the building in Philly have been waiting for you.

Not a lot went right for the Falcons in 2019, but the Mohamed Sanu trade doesn’t look bad right now. He had 33 catches for 313 yards and a touchdown through seven games in Atlanta, then was dealt to the Patriots for a second-rounder. That pick now looks like it’ll land in the mid-50s. If they want to replace Sanu? Well, they can do it there. This year’s class is one of the deepest of this era at the receiver spot.

If Rhule lands the Giants job, it’ll be interesting if Sean Ryan comes as his offensive coordinator. That was the OC he was bringing to the Jets last year, before the Jets tried to make him hire Todd Monken. Ryan, now the Lions quarterbacks coach, spent nine years with the Giants in a variety of roles (quarterbacks, receivers, quality control) from 2007–15, so he has plenty of institutional knowledge of the place. And they know him there, too.

One thing that’s interesting about the Jaguars’ decisions on GM Dave Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone: They implicitly drop blame at the feet of ex-EVP Tom Coughlin. The feeling had been that Coughlin effectively destroyed the team’s relationship with stars like DE Yannick Ngakoue, CB Jalen Ramsey and RB Leonard Fournette, putting Marrone in an impossible situation. We’ll see if there’s truth to that.

The Jets have the 11th pick in the draft, and it’s a pretty good bet that an offensive lineman will be in play there; the tackle group atop the class (Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills, USC’s Austin Jackson) is pretty solid and that would give GM Joe Douglas viable options. The team never effectively replaced long-time left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson or center Nick Mangold, both linchpins of the previous era, and I can’t imagine Douglas will wait too long to get working on that.

Good news from the Lions’ facility this week: Matthew Stafford told reporters he’ll be healthy for the start of the team’s offseason program in April. In general, 2019 was a tough, unusual year for Stafford and his family. So the normalcy that should come in the spring will be welcome for him. And for the Lions, too.

This might be the strongest Packers roster that Aaron Rodgers has had around him since the Super Bowl year of 2010. And that’s a credit to GM Brian Gutekunst, who’s hit both in the draft (safety Darnell Savage, CB Jaire Alexander) and free agency (LB Za’Darius Smith, LB Preston Smith), which has taken Green Bay out of the ’90s and well into the 21century. Next week’s game against the Seahawks will be fascinating.

The Panthers’ most interesting step once they hire a coach will be what they do with Cam Newton. But second might by the selection of a new assistant GM, who in NFL circles is expected to be groomed to replace 63-year-old GM Marty Hurney. Owner David Tepper is purposefully waiting on that hire, so the head coach can be involved in it, in an effort to align scouting and coaching within the organization.

The age of some key Patriots: Julian Edelman 33, Devin McCourty 32, Jason McCourty 32, Patrick Chung 32, Marcus Cannon 31, Mohamed Sanu 30, Stephon Gilmore 29, Donta’ Hightower 29, Kyle Van Noy 29, Lawrence Guy 29, Jamie Collins 29, John Simon 29, Rex Burkhead 29. There are nine defensive starters in that group, and four key offensive guys. And, of course, Brady is 42. The team has some pretty big decisions to make.

The new two-year, $14 million deal for Raiders OG Richie Incognito is pretty easy to see as a win-win. Vegas (do we call them that yet, or no?) gets a top-shelf player at roughly half the top of the market for his position. And Incognito, who was out of the league before this season, gets one last payday.

The Rams gave their coaches off last week. So if changes are coming, that they haven’t happened yet isn’t a mistake. There’s been a lot of focus, of course, on defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The three-year deal Phillips signed in 2017 expires this month. He and head coach Sean McVay have a strong relationship, so I’d be pretty surprised if they haven’t already discussed what’s ahead.

Good to see Ravens corner Marlon Humphrey getting some attention—he was named first-team All-Pro. When I polled pro scouts in midseason on a number of different topics, Humphrey’s name came up over and over when I asked which player has flown under the radar. Stephon Gilmore was probably the best corner in football in 2019. Ask enough folks in the league, and you’ll find out that Humphrey might be No. 2.

If the Redskins wind up with Scott Turner as their new offensive coordinator, it’s worth noting that over the last two years his dad, Norv, gave him a lot of coordinator-type duties as the two worked together in Carolina. And obviously, Ron Rivera was there to see all of that, so he has a good idea of what the younger Turner is capable of. So if Rivera entrusts his offense to him, that should carry some weight.

One thing Saints QB Drew Brees has been consistent with when I’ve asked him periodically over the last couple years is this: He believes he can keep playing into his mid-40s, but that doesn’t mean he’ll want to. That’s where his approach differs a bit from Brady’s. Brady has always maintained he wants to go until he’s 45. Brees has been more year-to-year. So I think he’ll take some time now to make up his mind. And the dynamic on the roster could change a little bit, too, with the star-studded 2017 draft class (CB Marshon Lattimore, tackle Ryan Ramczyk, RB Alvin Kamara, safety Marcus Williams, etc.) now eligible for big second contracts.

Lynch’s numbers for the Seahawks on Sunday: six carries, seven yards, TD. Five of those yards came on one run, which means it’s a little harder to come back to play tailback in the NFL in your mid-30s than some may think. Or the loss of tackle Duane Brown was actually a bigger deal than Seattle losing its running backs. Or both.

I’m not sure how much attention is being paid to it, but Steelers GM Kevin Colbert’s contract expires after the draft. And that the 63-year-old could choose to walk away—be it to go help ex-Steelers minority shareholder David Tepper (now the Panthers owner) in some capacity or retire—is a very big deal. Colbert was hired to run the personnel side 20 years ago, and eventually ascended to become the first GM in team history. If the Pittsburgh GM job opens, it obviously would be coveted.

Give Texans coach Bill O’Brien credit. His acquisitions (along with personnel chief Matt Bazirgan) of RB Duke Johnson, RB Carlos Hyde, tackle Laremy Tunsil and WR Kenny Stills all paid dividends in the wild card round, and all happened after the upheaval of June.

The decision by the Titans to elevate tight ends coach Arthur Smith to offensive coordinator last year may have seemed bold at the time. But to those inside the building, it was academic. In fact, some believed he might’ve been the best choice in 2018, when the team paired current Packers coach Matt LaFleur with Mike Vrabel. Under Smith, Tennessee’s got a pretty clear old-school identity with plenty of new-school creativity.

Credit to the Vikings’ front office for fixing the offensive line over the past couple offseasons. It’s not perfect, but getting Garrett Bradbury in at center and developing Brian O’Neill at right tackle has made life a lot easier for Cousins than it was in his first year in Minnesota.

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TOP FIVE

1. Labor talks at a standstill. The NFL and the players union have continued discussions on a new CBA, and the latest hurdle involves language surrounding the revenue split. Sources say that the owners are willing to give the players more than 48% of the total revenue—but only under certain conditions, while the players want it guaranteed. Language in some proposals dictates that the league reach a certain windfall from adding a 17game before the players get a significant financial benefit for that concession. And the players have been adamant about raising the salary floor above 47% of total revenue. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking towards the March NFLPA election, at which the players will usher in a new president to take over for Eric Winston (who is ineligible for re-election because he’s no longer a player). That, of course, could complicate matters. The good news? Things haven’t gotten nasty, and a certain corner of owners is still ultra-motivated to get a deal done, so the league can move on to the broadcast deals and then the future of gambling in the sport. And so these become critical weeks for both sides, with NFLPA executive director De Smith and Winston on one, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Giants owner/CEC chair John Mara on the other.

2. Bengals and Lions set up for an interesting Senior Bowl. The Senior Bowl coaching staffs aren’t routinely a big headline-grabber, but it can be informative in seeing where teams stand, since they can put in requests to have certain players on their rosters. In particular, it’s usually interesting to see where the quarterbacks land. This year, the Lions and Bengals staff will coach in the game. The Bengals, obviously, will want to see any high-end quarterbacks who are there (Utah State’s Jordan Love and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts have committed to play in the game, and officials are waiting for answers from Oregon’s Justin Herbert and LSU’s Joe Burrow). Will the Lions? Stay tuned.

3. And while we’re on the subject of the draft and labor talks, some underclassmen’s decisions this week were interesting. Alabama OT Alex Leatherwood, Ohio State CB Shaun Wade and Michigan WR Nico Collins were among the high-profile prospects to decide to stay in school. All three do so with a chance to up their stock going into an uncertain financial landscape. The institution of the rookie wage scale was a big piece of the last collective bargaining agreement for the owners—and the promise of money going back to middle-class veterans was a carrot for the players. That hasn’t really happened, so negotiations will be interesting. And they will help determine the wisdom in these players’ decisions.

4. A big one is coming Monday. At risk of making all our headlines on this topic, we should mention here that at noon ET today, Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa, with coach Nick Saban, will hold a press conference to announce his NFL decision. While there have been rumblings that he could stay in Tuscaloosa, the prudent call here has to be for Tagovailoa to go. Why? It’s all risk/reward. Barring combine medicals coming back worse than expected, Tagovailoa still has a really good shot to be drafted in the first round. That’ll get him a nice payday, and it’ll also mean a team has to invest in his development to get him. Maybe if he goes back to school, he can improve his stock and make more money. But the downside is so much worse—another major injury would obliterate his stock, cost him a ton of money and would make his road to become an entrenched NFL starter immeasurably more difficult. This, of course, isn’t my decision to make. But if I’m Tagovailoa, the decision here is easy.

5. So it looks like Kwon Alexander is going to pull a J.J. Watt. I’m told the 49ers linebacker has a “legit” shot to play on Saturday against the Vikings (ESPN’s Adam Schefter was first on this yesterday)—which would mean coming back from a torn pec in just over two months, similar to what Watt just pulled off. Alexander was a big difference-maker for the Niners earlier in the season, bringing a lightning-quick presence to the center of a defense defined by its speed. Now? Well, San Francisco has effectively replaced him with rookie Dre Greenlaw, who made the biggest play in the team’s Week 17 division-clinching win over Seattle. So maybe the jump in play won’t be that noticeable. But the players there have seen how Alexander has been grinding over the last month to be in position to play in January, so there does figure to be a little bit of an emotional boost there. And I’m told that Alexander and Greenlaw will be together on the field some, along with middle linebacker Fred Warner, particularly because the Vikings are in base defense so much.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

You won’t find many people in the NFL who don’t speak really, really highly of Josh McCown. And this makes it easy to see why.

And this is from a few minutes before that.

Ex-Eagle Orlando Scandrick, less heartbroken over Philly’s loss. Scandrick had a less-than-ceremonious departure from the team in October.

This would never happen in Buffalo. Have some class, Philly.

That’s been as one-sided as Ohio State–Michigan of late. (Sorry, I can’t help it.)

Technically a pancake, right?

That’s not cool.

Impossible not to like Teddy Bridgewater.

Perfect.

And the comeback to that.

I have a feeling they may be playing this in 20 years in Canton.

One more time.

For a little while, it sure was.

This is sort of how I usually have to do parenting in January, too.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The Tom Brady/Patriots split is not a split yet. I don’t think Brady knows what he’s going to do yet, nor do I think the Patriots have concrete plans going forward.

I do think both are, and have been for a couple years, bracing for a divorce.

But here’s the thing: It’s January, and it’s easy to talk about it now. It’ll be tougher to go through with it in March. And I’m not convinced the two sides are going to have better options than each other when we get there.

That may sound crazy. I promise, it’s not.

Given the complexities of the New England system, if (and this is a big “if”) the Patriots keep their aging defense together in 2020, would they be better off with a Philip Rivers or Andy Dalton coming in, riding with Jarrett Stidham, or rolling it back for one more year with Tom Brady? The answer, I believe, is rolling it back with Tom Brady.

And how many suitors, realistically, will be there be for Brady? Remember, in the case of these hypothetical suitors, either Brady will have to be willing to adapt to a place he doesn’t know, and start over again, or a team will have to blow up a lot of what it does to accommodate a 43-year-old quarterback who may only have a year or two left. The chances that the perfect team for Brady comes along? One better than what he has in Foxboro?

The X-factor, to me, is whether or not the Patriots decide to rip the Band-Aid off (we listed the ages of all those guys in the All-32). Then, all bets are off.

But if much of the roster is back again next year, and New England is back in win-now mode, then it becomes harder for me to see an option out there for either team or player that’s much better than what they’ve already got. No matter what everyone might be saying two months ahead of time.

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