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MMQB: NFC East Comes Down to the Wire; Jets Win Again; Steelers Stop the Skid

The Cowboys have hit their stride to keep pressure on Washington, Sam Darnold plays through the noise and the Steelers stage a second-half comeback. Plus, the 49ers never quit, a wild GM/coach hiring cycle, big weeks from Alvin Kamara and Aaron Rodgers, a Jerry Hughes Q&A and more.

Week 17. Sunday Night Football. One of every NFL season’s signature time slots.

And here we are, heading into the final week, having gotten this news late Sunday night: That coveted broadcast window will be filled with the 6–9 Washington Football Team and the 4-10-1 Eagles in a game that will, one way or the other, decide the NFC East. If Ron Rivera’s crew wins, they’re in. If they stumble, then either the Cowboys will win the division outright at 7–9 or Joe Judge will win it in his first year with the Giants at 6–10.

This is not normal. Which is probably exactly the way the 2020 season should end anyway.

“I mean, it’s a little weird—but this is a weird-a-- year,” Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott said over the cell, from the Dallas locker room late Sunday. “Like, if there was a year, this would be the year. So we’re gonna get back to work and get ready to do everything we can to go win next week, so we can have a chance at winning this division.”

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Coming out of Week 16, six division champions have been determined. Eighteen teams remain alive for 14 playoff spots. In the AFC, the Colts and Titans are battling for the South title, and with the Ravens, Browns and Dolphins over three wild-card slots. In the NFC, the Bears, Rams and Cardinals all control their own destiny for the two open wild-card spots.

And then there’s the NFC East, which has been about as wild as it gets. Carson Wentz and Dwayne Haskins have been benched, and the Giants are still alive with a guy at the helm maybe a handful of people in Jersey had heard of at this time last year. Big decisions are coming for all these teams after the year—the kinds of decisions you make when you’re hovering around double-digit losses—but for now there’s a playoff bracket to get into.

Which brings us back to Elliott and the Cowboys.

Everyone was firing their coach back around Halloween, and things didn’t get a whole lot better from there. They were 2–7 on Nov. 8, and 3–9 on Dec. 8. The defense looked listless for two months, the offense ravaged with injuries. The idea of competing for anything meaningful would not have existed in most years.

But it’s 2020 or, as Elliott put, a weird-a-- year. So the Cowboys somehow had until mid-December to find their stride. And now they have.

“I just think it shows the type of locker room we’ve got,” Elliott said. “It shows the type of guys we got in the building, that we were, what were we, 3–9? I mean, a lot of teams, a lot of guys would be like, ‘Oh, we’re out of it. Might as well pack it up.’ But we looked death in the face and we’re playing some good ball right now. And now we got a shot to get in the playoffs. We need a little help, but we got a shot. And that means a lot.”

It says a little something about the group, too. How much? That’s still hard to say.

These are, after all, different times.

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The Week 16 MMQB is here, and we’re closing in on the finish line. In this week’s column, you’ll find …

• A look at the weird spot Sam Darnold has been in.

• The scintillating rise-from-the-dead comeback the Steelers pulled off.

• What the Niners have learned about themselves in the year after the Super Bowl loss.

• Coaching rumors!

And a whole lot more. But we’re starting in Dallas with an off-the-wall Cowboys season hurtling toward a dramatic finish.

***

When you boil it down, maybe there won’t be a ton to take from the Cowboys mounting a serious run at the NFC East crown. After all, this Sunday saw Jalen Hurts starting for the Eagles, someone who was finishing up his college degree a month ago playing quarterback down the stretch for Washington and the Giants getting pushed around by the Ravens in Baltimore.

But here’s what you can say, definitively—a lot of people (myself included) had the radar up for a team quitting on the season after ugly losses to Baltimore and Washington, and that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen at 3–9 and, on Sunday, it didn’t happen when the Eagles game started about as poorly as could be.

“We didn’t blink,” Elliott said.

And that was even after taking a couple of roundhouse blows early. The Eagles opened the game with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. The Cowboys then answered with a field goal, only to have Philly respond on the next play from scrimmage with Jalen Hurts hitting DeSean Jackson downfield and in stride for what became an 81-yard touchdown. Just like that, the hosts were down 14–3.

But, Elliott said, “We knew how the defense has been playing the past months,” and he and the offense could help by better controlling the pace of the game.

Now, a month ago? The offense pulling that off would’ve been out of the question, with Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La’El Collins out of the lineup up front. But over time, Dallas’s new offensive line, one full of backups, has found a level of competence. And it’s around these guys …

LT Brandon Knight: 2019 UDFA
LG Connor Williams: 2018 second-round pick
C Joe Looney: 2016 free-agent signing
RG Connor McGovern: 2019 third-round pick
RT Terence Steele: 2020 UDFA

The 2016 Cowboys, these are not. And lumps, to be sure, were taken.

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“It’s tough in the NFL,” Elliott said. “Guys that play on the D-line are huge, big, fast, strong. And we’re young, we’re young. We played a lot of good defenses early, lot of good D-lines, and then our division has a bunch of great D-lines. So I mean those guys’ jobs are hard enough as it is already, and then just them being a little inexperienced, I think maybe it took them a little bit longer. But we’re finally hitting stride.”

And then, there’s the quarterback who everyone questioned. After Dak Prescott went down, Andy Dalton posted three passer ratings under 70 and two under 40 in his first four games as a Cowboy—prompting plenty to wonder if the end was near.

Since then, he’s been a different player—and the in-an-emergency godsend Dallas signed him to be.

“It makes a big difference, having him,” said Elliott. “He’s a 10-year vet. He started for nine years, so he’s played a lot of football. I think it’s just perfect for us because even though we’re banged up at O-line and we got some young guys in there on the outside, we got a lot of dudes that can make plays. When we give Andy enough time, those guys can get open and they’re dangerous, as you saw today.”

So it has been that it’s come together. Behind that reworked O-line and with those young targets, Dalton piloted drives of 63 yards (10 plays, TD), 75 yards (seven plays, FG), and 75 yards (10 plays, TD), to grab the game back from Philly and take the Eagles by the throat—flipping that 14–3 deficit into a 20–17 lead at the half.

And the defense, by then, was rolling. Mike Nolan’s crew—tour guides to the end zone early in the year—tightened up and didn’t allow more than a single field goal over the last three possessions, forcing three straight punts to start the second half, then generating three takeaways, two of them interceptions of Hurts in the fourth quarter.

Along the way, Dalton went 22-of-30 for 377 yards, three touchdowns and a pick, and Elliott posted just his second 100-yard game of the season, part of a Cowboys ground game that churned out 154 yards on 34 carries. Michael Gallup scored twice in spectacular fashion and CeeDee Lamb lit the Eagles secondary up for a 52-yard touchdown—those two and Amari Cooper all wound up with catches of 50-plus yards.

At least for an afternoon, it felt like this was how the Joneses and Mike McCarthy drew it up when he was hired a year ago.

“We’re just starting to play better, and I think the biggest thing that’s helped is the defense getting all those turnovers,” Elliott said. “That definitely helps us out, swings momentum, puts us in good field position, gives us better chances to score. And then we’re just executing. We’ve just been playing a lot better football.”

The cool thing for the Cowboys is, because of the weird division situation they’re in, this can be more than just a consolation in what normally would be a lost season—it’s neither too little nor too late. And if they get in?

“We can be dangerous if we get in that thing,” Elliott said.

Which may seem weird to say after how they looked even a month ago.

But it’s 2020, so here we are.

***

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DARNOLD WINS … MAYBE TO KEEP HIS JOB?

Speaking of weird years, Sam Darnold’s had one.

As 0–4 became 0–8, and 0–8 became 0–12, the talk in New York on the Jets focused not on the current quarterback, but who people wanted as the next one. And the idea that Darnold could just completely block all that out? Yeah, it doesn’t really work that way.

So yes, he’s heard about Trevor Lawrence, and he’s heard the clamoring for the team to engineer results to get the first pick, because there’s really no way around it.

“For us, as a team, you tune out as much as you can,” Darnold said over the phone on Sunday afternoon. “At the same time, like you said, you can’t necessarily tune it all out. We all have phones, we all have social media, we see it all. But I think for us, it’s just listening to what’s important and understanding that we have a job at hand and that’s to go win football games, and it’s as simple as that.

“Whatever people want to say about the draft or anything like that, it just is what it is. That talk is always gonna be there, so for us we just gotta go out and play good football, consistent football, and continue to play good complementary football as well.”

Darnold’s right—now it really is what it is.

After two consecutive wins to follow an 0–13 start, the Jets are locked into the second pick, which means Darnold’s shot at sticking with the team has gotten an awfully big bump. And the great thing is that, regardless of what Jets GM Joe Douglas decides to do, the 23-year-old quarterback has earned that on the field the last couple of weeks.

He’s been unspectacular but efficient, and that’s helped the offense get more consistent—where it had been petering out after starting fast in games the first three months of the season. Case in point, in the first half against Cleveland, after a five-play, 66-yard touchdown drive, the offense got the ball back after the defense scored a strip sack of Baker Mayfield, and cashed that in four plays later with Darnold hitting Chris Herndon for an 11-yard touchdown.

“I think we’re just doing a lot better job,” Darnold said, “of once we get rolling—because we were rolling on the first drives of the game for I think eight or nine weeks—after that, we just had a tendency to stall out. And for us, we did a really good job of staying consistent and continuing to put pressure on them with the run game, coming out with play-actions and boots and stuff like that. I think just for us, it’s been playing more consistent.”

That held true to the end—with the defense getting the stop the Jets needed in the fourth quarter to put away a Browns team ravaged by COVID-19 protocol absences (we’ll get to that in the takeaways).

And finally, Darnold could put away the Lawrence talk, once and for all. I’ve actually thought a bunch about that for Darnold, and how it’s his job that everyone’s been talking about giving to the Clemson phenom for the last few months, and how strange it must be, but also how he actually had some control over it. In other words, the best way to keep your job? Win and take Lawrence off the table, which is what Darnold’s done the last two weeks.

“It is what it is,” he said. “I feel like I do a pretty good job of tuning everything out when I need to. Obviously, I have people I talk to. I have family, friends, my teammates, coaches that I talk to about that kind of stuff. They’re great people to be able to talk to about it. So I have my outlets, but at the same time it just is what it is. And for me, I’m just gonna continue to do my thing, continue to move the ball and put the ball in the end zone, because ultimately, that’s my job.”

Whether it’ll remain his job in New York is still up in the air.

But Darnold’s belief is if he plays well, the rest will take care of itself.

“By default, it’s putting good tape out there,” he said. “But again, like I said, it’s about moving the ball. No matter how we do it, it’s about moving the ball and getting in the end zone. Again, I feel like our defense is playing really well right now and our special teams as well. So we’re just playing all-around good football and again, for me, I haven’t been turning the ball over. That’s a huge thing for us, and it keeps us going, keeps the defense going and just keeps the morale high.

“I just gotta continue to do a good job of that and looking forward to playing the Pats.”

And that’s the attitude that’s got Darnold, his teammates, and Adam Gase and the staff through about as tough a year on the field as anyone could imagine. Climbing off the mat at 0–13 wasn’t easy.

“We just have a good group, great people in the organization—front office, coaches and players—that come out here every single day and, no matter what the circumstances are, we just go to work,” he said. “We only know one thing, and that’s to go to work. Whether we win or lose, we just work. And that’s, I think, the biggest thing for us.“

The good news for the fans now is they can go ahead and root for the team on Sunday without reservation. Because all of that is over now.

***

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STEELERS STOP THE SKID

The Steelers had lost three straight games, after winning 11 in a row to start the year, and went into the locker room down 21–7 to a hot Colts team Sunday. Pittsburgh had been outgained 217 to 93, outrushed 77 to 4, out-first-downed 13 to six, and more than doubled up in third-down percentage. And had it not been for an illegal block on a 68-yard screen pass to Nyheim Hines at the end of the second quarter, the deficit might’ve been 28–7.

So someone flipped over the Gatorade in the locker room, right? Not exactly.

“What’s crazy is nobody really went in screaming or anything,” Steelers corner Mike Hilton said to me postgame. “Coaches got on the board and made the adjustments, and guys really just sat there and looked at each other. There wasn’t much to be said. Like, ‘Alright, let’s go play ball. Let’s go do what we came to do.’ And, you know, this was a big step for us to our real goal, which is win the Super Bowl.”

The first step to that from here, though, was to stop the bleeding. The Steelers have.

Storming back from what became a 24–7 deficit in the third quarter, Pittsburgh ran off 21 unanswered points to knock out the Colts 28–24, and did it with a certain simplicity in the messaging from the coaches to the players. And on defense, that all came down to a simple ask: stop the Colts on first and second down to keep them out of manageable down-and-distance situations.

After that Colts field goal, set up by a 10-play, 65-yard drive, the Steelers buckled down and started winning on early downs. From there, the Steelers got Indy in second-and-11, second-and-18, second-and-10 and second-and-nine on their next three possessions, limiting the Colts to a single first down over that stretch. That opened up things for the Steelers’ rush, which would help create a turnover on the series after that (Hilton picked off Philip Rivers), Pittsburgh’s second of the game.

“In our three losses, I want to say we maybe had one turnover out of those three games, and we got two today,” Hilton said. “That gives our offense more opportunities, and we know as a defense we thrive on taking the ball away from the offense.”

The offense, for its part, took advantage of a short field on one possession, and two pass interference penalties of 20-plus yards on another in the second half—so it’s not like Ben Roethlisberger & Co. suddenly lit the world on fire.

But it is progress, just as the defense has taken steps forward as the players adjust to having new guys in for fallen stars like Devin Bush and Bud Dupree.

“It just shows what type of resiliency we have,” Hilton said. “We’re a team that’s not gonna quit. We’re a team that’s gonna fight and you’re gonna get our best shot whether we’re in the lead or behind. We know it’s a long game and we just gotta make plays, and we did that.”

And in doing so, the Steelers locked up the AFC North, and got themselves a home game in the playoffs. And now they get one last tune-up, against a Browns team still fighting to get in the playoffs.

But when I talked to Hilton, it was clear he wanted to wait on talking about all that. It took a couple extra weeks to win the division, so he wanted to soak it in.

“Right now, we’re just excited for what we just accomplished,” he said. “Starting tomorrow, we’ll focus on Cleveland.”

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