Publish date:

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.

***

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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49ERS SHOW FIGHT

The Niners aren’t going to the playoffs, but I’m not so sure that you should automatically chalk that up to a Lost-the-Super-Bowl hangover—mainly because that would imply that there’s something the team didn’t do this year that got it there the year before.

The truth, coming out of a pretty convincing win over the Cardinals on Saturday, and with just one game left in a season that went the wrong way a while ago, is that Kyle Shanahan’s crew has done pretty much all it can. And that’s why, when the San Francisco coach and I talked a couple of hours after that win, he didn’t mince words in how he feels about a crew that’s been through just about everything imaginable in what’s been a weird year for everyone.

“I love these guys, I mean it,” Shanahan said from the team hotel in Arizona. “I have every year. It’s really fun to be their coach, but I also like them as friends. I don’t want that to sound the wrong way, but we care about each other. And you hold each other accountable, and you’re hard—I’m harder on my friends and loved ones more than anyone in the world—because you have such high expectations for them and you believe in them so much. I feel like that’s how our team is. We believe in each other.

“And that’s why we’re hard on each other, because I feel like we’ve got a good team. And it hurts our record [6–9] doesn’t show that. But we’re going to still go out and show who we are on tape regardless of the result. I think if we keep that attitude, good things will happen eventually, and you can chalk it up to having better luck once we get this year over with.”

Bad luck is putting it lightly. Here’s how the Niners’ season has gone …

• San Francisco lost its best player, Nick Bosa, to a torn ACL in Week 2. Dee Ford was lost the week before that, and center Weston Richburg hasn’t played at all this year.

• The Niners have played large chunks of the season without Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Jaquiski Tartt and Raheem Mostert. Others, like safety Jimmie Ward, have fought through injuries all year.

• As a result, the Niners have used 81 different players in 15 games, and 111 different guys have been on the roster, practice squad or reserve list in 2020.

• A positive COVID-19 test to WR Kendrick Bourne in Week 9 meant the team having to go without Trent Williams, Samuel and Aiyuk on short notice, with the team playing a Thursday game that week.

And that’s before you get to the fact that Santa Clara County essentially kicked the Niners out over Thanksgiving weekend, by banning contact sports locally, which necessitated a move of the entire operation to a hotel in Glendale, Ariz. Since that move, players, coaches and staff have now been away from home for four weeks and counting.

So you might understand why Shanahan feels a sense of pride in what his Niners got done on Saturday—absolutely imposing their will on the home team, rushing for 227 yards (and 7.6 yards per carry) and holding Kyler Murray to a passer rating of 66.0 in a 20–12 win. The defense got a three-and-out, a red-zone pick and a turnover on downs on its last three series. The offense rushed for 74 yards on eight carries in the fourth quarter.

And all that happened after the team dropped three in a row in different ways—the offense played well and the D didn’t against Buffalo; the opposite happened against Washington; and then a slow start proved too much to overcome against Dallas. Throw in that fact that this was a short week, and Christmas week, with everything else, and the Niners checking out on this one wouldn’t have shocked anyone. That, of course, didn’t happen.

“So my biggest worry this week was that our team had given us everything that they had left, and I was afraid we weren’t going to have much left this week,” Shanahan said. “Going into the week, losing a couple more guys, having a couple COVID things come up, we were able to get one practice in this week. And the guys, just like they always do, no one was dogging it at practice. Everyone was going hard. And I was just worried we were going to be running on E. …

“We had a chance to run away with that game, just with the effort our guys made. And they made some big fourth-down conversions that kept them in it, and we missed some field goals which made it a lot tighter. There were just so many guys, too, throughout the game who got banged up. And there were just so many situations where guys who aren’t made of the right stuff would tap out. Guys had every excuse to do it. And we didn’t have one guy tap out. We needed every guy. We needed everybody today. That’s why it’s such a special win.”

That they got it during Christmas week added something too—the Niners, as we detailed a few weeks ago with GM John Lynch, did what they could to try and make sure all their guys had as normal a Christmas as was possible given circumstances that had the team in a different place (in this case a Renaissance between State Farm Stadium and a shopping plaza, and assorted Airbnbs) and under all kinds of COVID-19 rules.

On that front, everyone did their part. In fact, Shanahan’s wife, Mandy, without telling her husband, had Christmas trees set up in all the Niners’ hotel rooms while they were in Dallas last weekend. “I had no idea, but it was cool that she did that, because it meant a lot to people,” Shanahan said. “You don’t realize it, but you’re stuck in a hotel, some people aren’t with their families, and man, they’re excited to have a little tree in there.”

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So that’s how the week started, and now we know how it’s ended. There was, as Shanahan said, plenty of chaos in between. And proud as he might’ve been of how his team showed up, there are certainly realities to bring everyone back to earth in the aftermath. There’s still another week away from home in Arizona, and nothing the team does next week in its “home” game against Seattle will make the season extend past Jan. 3.

Obviously, there are a lot of guys who finished last year in Miami unhappy with that Super Bowl LIV result, and Shanahan acknowledges it: “We were six minutes away from being champions. We brought a lot of the guys back, ran into COVID, and by Week 2, we didn’t have the same team. … We thought that was rock bottom, and it seems like 30 more things happened after that, all the way to being topped off with getting kicked out of your home.”

But what he sees through all this? Based on his team’s response, a bright future, which is exactly what the Niners saw ahead even after that heartbreaking loss to the Chiefs last February. And it’s why Shanahan says he feels as strongly about the group now as he did then.

The reminders aren’t hard to find. Shanahan gave those in a Friday night meeting before the Cardinals win, as he went through the team’s roster and all they’ve lost. In one way, it was depressing. In another, it showed how much the team has had to overcome.

“Every year’s a different year, and you’ve got to work on that stuff,” he said. “But we’ve got a foundation. We talk about it a lot, it took us a while to build our culture here and our standard for how we do things. Even though it takes a long time to build that, you can lose that stuff very fast. And the way that this season went, with us getting sent [to Arizona] and where we’re at, that was a big thing for us. We wanted to make sure we didn’t lose everything that took so long to build. And even though our record doesn’t show it, I don’t feel like we have.

“Our guys are made of the right stuff, they’re doing things the right way and they’re going to give us a lot of tough decisions at the end of the year. I know we can’t bring every single person back, but there’s not one person we don’t want to bring back. So we’re going to try to get as much settled and go into this offseason and figure out every avenue to improve our team, and I can’t wait. Gonna enjoy these last eight days, but I’m also looking forward to getting them over with, so we can all rest, recover and come out swinging next year.”

***

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Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy, before a game in October.

TEN TAKEAWAYS

This is going to be an absolutely bonkers coach/GM hiring cycle. Because GM turnover’s been light the last few years, the explosion of six (and counting) openings coincides with a big backlog of qualified candidates (Our annual future GM list ran on Thursday, with 45 names). And on the coaching side, because there’s been more of a thinning of the pipeline because of the constant turnover in those ranks, teams promise to be creative this year. So here are a few things to chew on as we head into what should be an eventful carousel season …

• The situation in Houston is interesting, in that questions linger over whether Korn Ferry exec Jed Hughes or EVP of football operations Jack Easterby will have more sway as owner Cal McNair works to find a new GM and coach. We mentioned last week that Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy was recommended to Deshaun Watson by Patrick Mahomes, and there’s another connection along those lines too—ex-Chiefs and Browns GM John Dorsey has been tied to Hughes in the past, and it’s expected he’ll get a look. Dorsey and Bieniemy, of course, were together in K.C. (Chiefs director of football operations Mike Borgonzi would be another potential GM pairing for Bieniemy).

• The Saints’ run of four straight NFC South titles could come at a cost—with division rivals looking to poach New Orleans’s talent evaluators. VP/assistant GM of pro personnel Terry Fontenot is in the mix for the Falcons job, and VP/assistant GM of college personnel Jeff Ireland’s name has bubbled up for the Carolina job (Ireland is a Baylor alum, for what it’s worth, and of course Matt Rhule came from the Baylor program). Both have had a major hand in building what many consider the NFL’s best roster.

• We’ve mentioned the Broncos’ holding off on any changes for a few weeks now, and the reason isn’t completely football related. There’s a good chance the ownership situation will be sorted out during 2021, with the trustees’ hope being that the team goes to Brittany Bowlen, Pat’s daughter, who currently serves as VP of strategic development. She’s been groomed to become controlling owner, but there’s been infighting among her siblings, which makes her move into that role more likelihood than lock.

• There are some interesting potential coordinator openings across the NFL, and one question is what San Francisco will do if Robert Saleh lands a head coaching job. I’ve heard ex-Falcons coach Dan Quinn’s name raised for that DC job, should Saleh bolt, and current Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris is another name that can be tied to Kyle Shanahan. The Patriots’ staffing situation is another one to keep an eye on. QB coach Jedd Fisch is gone and OC Josh McDaniels might be too. Jets coach Adam Gase (assuming he’s fired), Browns assistant/ex-Patriots WR coach Chad O’Shea and current tight ends coach Nick Caley are three guys who I think could factor into the new setup. Gase worked for McDaniels in Denver, and O’Shea left Foxboro on good terms two years ago.

• I think Lions owner Sheila Ford was very well-intentioned with the hire of Chris Spielman, and that it was a good step toward unifying an organization that’s long lacked an overarching culture—with the business side located downtown and the football side in the suburbs. But I also can tell you that enough candidates are leery of the setup that I do believe the Lions are going to have to be very clear in explaining Spielman’s role within the organization, and how it’ll intertwine with the other football folks.

• Do I think Urban Meyer is going to coach in the NFL next year? Truthfully, I’ll believe it’s going to happen when it does happen. But I do know Meyer’s done his homework on the NFL in general—through his ex-players—and has been intrigued by the idea of going to the pros in the past. And I think NFL teams that have been a bit broken could use his heavy-handed style of program-building. His health will play into whatever decision he makes, too. So as of now, I’d say he’ll stay where he is, on the Fox TV set. But I can see why the Jacksonville situation (quarterback, picks, cap space and the chance to clean house and build from the ground up) would appeal to anyone, and especially to a former Florida Gators coach.

Alvin Kamara is Offensive Player of the Year. I had Dalvin Cook at midseason. But that was before Drew Brees went down, and before Michael Thomas went down again after healing up, when Kamara proved his value. He’s the centerpiece of Sean Payton’s offense in a way Marshall Faulk once was for the Rams, and as Payton envisioned Reggie Bush being (He never really got all the way there) in his early years in New Orleans. Kamara’s 187 carries are seven away from his career high, and he already has career highs for catches (83) and touchdowns from scrimmage (21) in a single season. And the latter mark was reached after a six-touchdown performance that matched the NFL’s all-time record for rushing touchdowns (Ernie Nevers, 1929) and total touchdowns (Nevers; Dub Jones, 1951; Gale Sayers, 1965) in a game. It came with a little drama—Payton had Taysom Hill score the Saints’ sixth touchdown of Saturday’s 52–33 rout of the Vikings on a designed quarterback run with four minutes left, only getting Kamara the record-tier inside two minutes, after a 41-yard strike from Brees to Adam Trautman just before the two-minute warning set it up. But Kamara got it, and then got high praise from Payton himself. “Obviously, his performance was unbelievable,” the coach said. “I would say most of these players have no idea how good Gale Sayers was. But growing up in Chicago, certainly you were familiar with his ability. It was a big deal. He played fantastic today.” And he’s a big reason why Payton went 8–1 with backup quarterbacks the last two years. Such a big reason, in fact, that when the Saints start looking to shed salary in February and March, I’d guess he’d be prioritized, even at $15 million per year, and maybe even above Thomas, as a guy who they wouldn’t want to part with. Which means something, since the Saints have a history of getting by with much less financially at the skill position spots.

The Panthers really have something in Matt Rhule. Lots of Panther fans were scoreboard watching on Sunday, and I get it. Carolina’s quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, is fine, but has shown pretty clearly this year he’s a bridge to whoever Rhule decides to build around down the line. And where the team is picking until he finds that guy is, justifiably, a very big deal. In that sense, beating Washington on Sunday very well might’ve cost the coach a shot at, say, Justin Fields or Zach Wilson. But, for now, Rhule’s concern isn’t there. “Teams that have historically tried to lose to improve their draft pick, it hasn’t really worked out for many teams,” he said after Carolina’s 20–13 win over Washington. “Winning franchises win. They win at everything. It’s hard for me to even think that way because my mind doesn’t work that way. We’re here to win. We have a locker room of guys that want to win. They’ve won their whole life. And sometimes you guys will ask me, ‘Do you have to learn how to win?’ Well, if you believe that, if you never actually win, then you won’t learn how to win. We’re the Carolina Panthers. We’re a professional football team. … When they line up to play us, to respect us, know they’re going to be in for a dogfight, and that we expect to win. To do anything else does not respect the Panther. And to me, I’m always going to put the Panther first and we have to find ways to win games. And so to go on the road, cold weather, coming off a tough loss last week, this was big for us. This was really big for this team. We have all these young kids. We have an undrafted punter, I mean, how about the job [Joseph] Charlton did today, putting balls inside the 10? So if I tell him, ‘Hey, we don’t want to win this game, punt it through the end zone,’ then is he a good punter next year? To me, for all these guys, you’re trying to teach them what it takes to win. And you go out on the field, you don’t beat yourself, and you’re trying to teach them what it takes to win.” I think the Panthers are making that happen now—despite only having a 5–10 record to show for it—and I can understand where Rhule sees the value in it. Yeah, it would stink to miss out on a young quarterback you really like. But remember, Rhule’s been down this road before at both Temple and Baylor, and fought through really rough first seasons in both places to find a brighter future. So I’d trust that he knows the way, and will find his next quarterback along the way.

Speaking of quarterbacks of the future, the Washington Football Team doesn’t have theirs. And what we saw on Sunday from Dwayne Haskins wasn’t the final straw, so much as it was affirmation on where Ron Rivera and his staff have stood on the 2019 first-round pick. His initial benching wasn’t just about play—it was also about the way he conducted himself after learning he’d thrown for 300 yards for the first time (celebrating on the field and in the locker room) in the midst of a two-touchdown loss to Baltimore. Coaches were turned off by it. Teammates were too. And then he went in the tank and blamed others for a while. Conversely, the reason he got back on the field was more about circumstance than merit, with Kyle Allen out for the year and Alex Smith hobbled. He struggled again, and the benching to follow was for someone with far fewer pelts on the wall. In fact, Taylor Heinicke was finishing his degree at Old Dominion a few weeks ago when he got the call to join his old friend Rivera (who’d coached him in Carolina) and the WFT practice squad. And after all that, Haskins initially avoided addressing the media postgame, which displays a jarring lack of sense and accountability. (This isn’t about filling notebooks. It’s about understanding that, as a quarterback, if you don’t answer for your play, your teammates will have to). It’s pretty clear Haskins still has growing up to do. I thought it’d happened this offseason. Clearly, not enough did. Maybe because Haskins is listening to what he wants to hear, rather than what he needs to hear. Truth is, for the flaws, Haskins is as natural a passer as you’ll see go from college to the pros. It’d be a shame if that all went to waste.

On the other side of the coin, Justin Herbert was quietly outstanding Sunday. One Chargers coach said, simply, via text: “When a play needs to be made, he makes it.” Such a circumstance arose in L.A.’s 19–16 win over Denver with about 1:40 left in the third quarter. The Chargers had the ball at the Bronco 40 and it was fourth-and-eight. Herbert took the shotgun snap, and as he set his feet, Denver’s five-man rush got in the backfield. He scrambled left, then accelerated upfield and right past the Bronco front seven for a 10-yard gain that gave the Chargers a fresh set of downs, and positioned them to kick a field goal they’d wind up needing. And there are plays like that all over Herbert’s tape from the last two months. The Chargers are 6–9. Plenty has gone wrong, which is why this is likely to be it for Anthony Lynn—who was the right coach for the franchise as it made the move from San Diego, but is in the crosshairs now with a team moving into a different phase with a budding star quarterback on a rookie contract. But if they came out of this season with a 15-year answer the season that Philip Rivers walked, then that’s a big win. And this feels like one for the Spanoses and their team.

The MVP race has tightened up considerably. Patrick Mahomes has had two shaky games in three weeks, and Aaron Rodgers is casually tearing through his schedule to the point where what was an easy pick in midseason is now considerably murkier. Here are the numbers, as they stand now:

Rodgers (123): 353-for-502 (70.3%), 4,059 yards, 44 TDs, 5 INTs, 119.4 rating.

Mahomes (141): 390-for-588 (66.3%), 4,740 yards, 38 TDs, 6 INTs, 108.2 rating.

At this point, at the very least, the door is ajar for Rodgers to take home his third MVP, rather than Mahomes winning his second. And Sunday was another one of those nights you’ll remember when Rodgers is gone—throwing for four touchdowns and a 128.1 rating against a struggling defense, an effort punctuated with a couple of perfect strikes to Davante Adams, who went off (11 catches, 142 yards, three TDs) in his own right. The first was a touchdown pass with 10:46 left in the first half. Adams ran it like a fade and Rodgers threw it to him like he was feeding a big man in the post, dropping it right over the corner’s head, and that one gave Green Bay a 19–0 edge. Then, in the fourth quarter, with Green Bay up 33–14 and just under four minutes left, Rodgers whipped one off his back foot low and away from corner Malcolm Butler, where only Adams could get it. That was good for 32 yards, and put the Titans to bed. And so it is that now Mahomes has a real contender to his season-long lead in the MVP race.

The Jaguars have a lot to be excited about. And yeah, I know this is the antithesis of the quote I presented from Rhule above. But it’s true. Getting the first pick in this particular year has freaking immense value, because Trevor Lawrence isn’t just another quarterback prospect. And with the ability to take Lawrence as part of the deal, the Jags should be able to lure a top general manager from the candidate pool, after they presumably find a new coach (I’m told it’s likely they’ll let Doug Marrone go and hire the coach first, anyway). Here’s what all of it will look like for Meyer or whoever else is there:

• Multiple picks in the first, second, fourth, fifth and seventh rounds.
• Just $115 million in 2021 cap commitments, the lowest figure in football.
• A young base of C.J. Henderson, Laviska Shenault, James Robinson, et al.
• Patient ownership.
• A relatively tame media market.
• A once-in-a-decade quarterbacking prospect.

My old buddy from NFL Network, and former NFL scout, Bucky Brooks tweeted on Saturday that the Jags should absolutely not settle for less than five-star GM/coach candidates with all that to offer. I concur.

Miami’s Brian Flores is my Coach of the Year. And I say that with all due respect to Kevin Stefanski, who was facing a pretty impossible situation in Jersey on Sunday (more on that in a minute). It’s just that Flores has Miami at 10 wins less than two years into a rebuilding effort that basically laid out as the equivalent to buying a house on a nice piece of land and taking it down to the studs. The speed at which Flores and GM Chris Grier have built is impressive. And so too is the job Flores is doing as a game day coach who doesn’t turn 40 until February. Nowhere is that more apparent than in his handling of the quarterback situation. For the second time in five weeks, Flores yanked rookie Tua Tagovailoa in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick, an unconventional idea that you rarely see coaches try, out of worry over what it’ll do to a quarterback’s psyche. This time, it worked with Fitzpatrick’s ridiculous 34-yard no-look/getting-facemasked prayer to Mack Hollins setting up a 44-yard game-winning field goal from Jason Sanders. But more than just the result, I think it showed two things to Flores’s team. Number one, it showed a resourcefulness not to give a damn if strategy follows convention or not (pulling a rookie QB). Number two, it showed a willingness to do everything possible to win a game, which resonates with older players who have no guarantee they’ll be around to see Tagovailoa hit his stride in the NFL, presuming that’s coming. And in these ways, Flores, who’s definitely his own dude, is showing his own personal Belichickian side—understanding that NFL games are won on the margins and doing everything he can to own those margins. What’s even better is as part of all this, he and Grier are putting together something that looks sustainable. Going into this weekend, Miami had the third-youngest roster in the NFL, and was starting six rookies, all of whom were playing without so much as the benefit of an offseason program. Tally it up, and I think Flores has accomplished more than any other coach in 2020. So I’d give him the hardware to reflect it.

What happened to the Browns the last few days was bananas. And that goes even for a year in which so many of these circumstances have become commonplace. It started Saturday, early enough that only defensive coaches—no other coaches and no players—were in the building. Word first came that LB B.J. Goodson had tested positive, then via the Kinexon tracing device and interviews with the league office, came a doozy of a list of close contacts. Naturally, there was another linebacker, Jacob Phillips, there. A little less naturally came a cluster of four receivers (Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and KhaDarel Hodge) being pulled off the trip to New Jersey because they were deemed close contacts of Goodson. How did that happen? The five got treatment together this week, and as part of that were together in a hot tub, and that was enough to put those guys on ice for Sunday. Meanwhile, Ryan Switzer and Jedrick Wills went on the list earlier in the week as a result of sharing a barber who got the virus. Switzer would’ve been valuable given all the receiver attrition, but he couldn’t be cleared in time. Wills was, and planned to fly separately, only to come down with an illness that, for obvious reasons, the team had to be careful on—which meant he couldn’t play Sunday either. So with all this going on, around 6 p.m. ET Saturday, the Browns cleared TSA at their facility and climbed on buses to their charter flight to Jersey. And obviously things didn’t go great from there. Which is understandable, given the totality of this whole thing.

I’ve got some quick hitters for you coming out of the weekend too …

• People gave up on Packers second-round pick A.J. Dillon pretty quickly. He wound up with 124 yards on 21 carries Sunday night and now looks like a pretty valuable guy with Aaron Jones approaching free agency. And he can help an aging Rodgers as much any receiver.

• Did you know the Bears are in the top 10 in wins over the last three years? That’s probably one good reason why chatter on the job security of Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy has quieted, at least for now, with the Bears having followed a six-game losing streak with a three-game win streak.

• In a lost Falcons season, Calvin Ridley has established himself as a bona fide star—82 catches, 1,322 yards and nine TDs—and in the process, may have Julio Jones a movable piece for the next GM and coach.

• In a really rough loss, Colts rookie Jonathan Taylor again looked like an A-1 bell cow.

• Tom Brady looked incredible in the first half against the Lions, going 22-of-27 for 348 yards and four touchdowns before getting yanked at the break up 34–0. And I had this thought: I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a veteran pulled that early from a game purely due to the score. Tweet at me (@AlbertBreer) if I’m forgetting one.

• That was a really shaky effort by the Lions. And I say that while acknowledging the COVID-19 issues that left an analytics staffer to call the defense against Tom Brady & Co.

• Lamar Jackson looked like efficient 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson again Sunday. Passer rating: 111.5. TD/INT ratio: 2/0. Rushing yards: 80. Passing yards: 183. Final score: Ravens 27, Giants 3.

• The Bengals’ win was a nice notch in the belt for Zac Taylor’s program, but it also figures to shake up the draft picture a bunch. The Texans’ pick, owned by Miami (from the Laremy Tunsil trade) took Cincy’s spot at three. The Bengals would pick fifth as it stands now, which could cost them Oregon’s mammoth tackle, Penei Sewell.

• The NFL’s got 17 games to go to get to its goal of playing all 256 games in 17 weeks. Which is remarkable.

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jim-harbaugh-michigan-2021

SIX FROM SATURDAY

1) If you want more evidence that Jim Harbaugh plans to stay at Michigan, here’s some: He’s told people as part of his staff reshuffling that he’s planning on being more hands-on with the quarterbacks next year. What will be interesting is to see if he and the school can reach an extension. If there were ever a coach willing to turn down an extension he doesn’t see as right, and instead bet on himself, Harbaugh is that coach. Either way, that he’s actively planning for next year, and the dismissal of defensive coordinator Don Brown is part of that too, would indicate he plans to stay. With the disclaimer that with Harbaugh … you never say never.

2) Hugh Freeze spoiling Coastal Carolina’s perfect season is a perfectly 2020 result.

3) Zach Wilson put on a show the other night, and it sets up a fascinating Friday night for NFL fans with no rooting college interest. Ohio State junior QB Justin Fields has long been considered the leader in the clubhouse to second overall, after Trevor Lawrence. But I’m less certain that’ll happen than I was two months ago, and I can say definitively there are NFL folks who prefer the BYU quarterback to him. That sets up an awesome opportunity for Fields to show his stuff against a Clemson defense that he played well against—before throwing a game-ending pick—last year.

4) QB D’Eriq King’s decision to stay at Miami in 2021, taking advantage of the NCAA giving everyone playing this year an extra season of eligibility, highlights a weird dynamic to this draft year. King is a 2016 high school graduate, so next year will be his sixth as a college player. And lots of others who aren’t top-shelf prospects will have a similar decision to make—whether or not to stay for a fifth or sixth year as a college player, or roll the dice and move on to give the pros a shot. Generally, guys like that would just exhaust their eligibility, then pursue the NFL.

5) Fun bowl matchup to watch this week: the Cotton Bowl on Wednesday. Both Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Florida’s Dan Mullen, I believe, could wind up in the NFL someday. Gator QB Kyle Trask is an intriguing, if flawed, quarterback prospect. And Spencer Rattler has come on of late as the next in line at OU after Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts. And for the first time as Sooners head coach, Riley will get the benefit of returning his starting quarterback for a second year.

6) Rest in Peace, Ty Jordan. Police said they believe the 19-year-old Utah running back was the victim of an accidental self-inflicted gunshot back home in Texas. And I don’t how many more examples we need that our country has a serious gun problem. That’s not a political statement. It’s the truth.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Good message.

Pretty cool.

Taylor Heinicke left Old Dominion—where he’s finishing up his degree—to sign with Washington earlier this month. And the names of these classes he was taking give me a headache.

Congrats to Herbert on breaking Baker Mayfield’s rookie TD record.

Kevin Stefanski’s done a great, Coach of the Year-worthy job this year. But this criticism is fair.

This is great. Work your butt off, and the rest takes care of itself.

Ben Jones’s barefoot tradition is awesome. Rain or shine (or blizzard)!

My guy Matt … this tweet was awesome in the moment. I promise!

Another that was great in the moment!

My buddy Rich is a big Jets fan. Tough one.

Not a bad comparison. And most Jets fans seem to be Mets fans.

Great gesture by the Panthers.

Still incredible.

… Take it from Mahomes.

The Lions-Bucs second half was a tough watch.

I think this will be mulled in the coming months.

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jerry-hughes-buffalo-bills

MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

Each week, we’ll connect with a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football stage to get answers to a few questions. This week, emerging veteran Bills pass-rusher Jerry Hughes.

MMQB: So how significant is winning the division for you?

JH: It means everything. It’s a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, the team’s shoulders. It’s a goal that we’ve talked about ever since I joined this franchise back in 2013. So to be able to be part of a team where we finally went out there and had a season where we got our mission done—and we’re still not done with everything set out to do in this mission, but we were able to check off one milestone. … For everyone to show up week in and week out, play big and come out there ready to win speaks a lot about this coaching staff.

MMQB: You’ve seen the franchise from before Sean McDermott got there. If there’s something that’s really gone right the last four years, what would you say it is?

JH: I think it’s their approach, year in and year out. When Sean first got here, him and [GM] Brandon [Beane] the one thing he talked about was being playoff-caliber and championship-caliber, but first he had to define what that meant to the team—coming in, being willing to work every day, being willing to come in here and do the extra work to be great. And for them to go out there and get the key pieces, the key players, guys who aren’t afraid to work hard, guys who aren’t afraid to show up early and be the last ones to leave the building. The entire team is made up of men who have that same attribute. … It’s night and day, just with the message [McDermott] is delivering to the team, how he’s teaching us, how he’s coaching us, so we can think like him and our coordinators. It’s been great, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s taken me back to my younger years.

MMQB: Have you seen the video of what the receivers did for Chad Hall? [Bills receivers surprised their position coach with a truck for Christmas.]

JH: Yeah.

MMQB: It sort of struck me: That is culture, right?

JH: Absolutely, that’s the culture Sean’s brought here to Buffalo, but that’s also the Bills Mafia. That’s what we talk about, guys being able to come together, love on one other, but still work hard. That just shows you our receivers love on one another but still are able to work hard—that’s our receiver room. They go out and get [Stefon] Diggs, and it’s adding competition to that room, but guys still love that competition and they embrace it. And now they’re having fun with it. Diggsy makes the Pro Bowl, Cole Beasley got cheated, he should’ve been there, he’s having a phenomenal year, we’ve got Gabe [Davis] and John Brown, Andre [Roberts], even [Isaiah McKenzie], all those guys are so talented. But they’re able to still compete, and compete and love each other, and that’s what Sean and Brandon have brought here—men who aren’t afraid to compete amongst one another, but still love one another. And when you love one another, you take care of your boys. That was cool, watching what the wideouts did for Chad, I haven’t seen anything like that in my 11 years in the league.

MMQB: What lesson do you think there is in the path you took—from first-round pick, to being dealt from Indy, to finding a home in Buffalo?

JH: For me, the lesson that I’ve learned in my 11 years is don’t stop, keep going. There’s going to be people that tell you you can’t do things, there are gonna be people that are going to try to set limitations to you. They’re gonna put limits and parameters around you as an individual. Me, as a player, I’ve been playing sports my entire life, so all I gotta do is keep going, keep doing what I’m doing, keep working on my game, working on my craft, and things will always turn around. That’s what us athletes do. Whenever things get tough, we just work harder. I’m happy that I never lost that identity, and that I never lost that belief my entire career, and kept working even when things weren’t going my way. A first-round pick in Indy, not being able to dress my first two weeks, and we play in my hometown my first game, and buying 30 tickets, all that was just fuel. It’s fuel, I remember, I keep it in the memory bank when I’m training, that’s what I’m grinding for.

MMQB: So on your touchdown in Denver, did it feel like you were back in Houston carrying the ball out of the backfield?

JH: Absolutely. Soon as I picked that ball up and I was able to turn back around, I did a quick scan of the field and it felt like I caught a punt. It was like everything happened so naturally, like my body knew what to do when that football was in my hands.

MMQB: It’s funny because I know TCU has that thing where Gary Patterson recruits high school running backs and puts them on defense, so you’re probably not the only one capable?

JH: Yeah, I mean, my years at TCU we had a lot of offensive players on defense—wide receivers-turned-linebackers, quarterbacks-turned-safeties. He had a good knack for finding athletes and plugging them into positions where they could be the most successful.

MMQB: Is there something to it?

JH: Well, yeah, I certainly think understanding both sides of the ball. On the offense side you think a little bit more, versus on the defensive side, defensive play is more read and react. Offense is more programmed, a little more cerebral. That helped me a lot playing on the defensive side, because I’m able to pick up on offensive tendencies, know what to look for as far as presnap reads and things like that. But I think also, you get a lot of the speed and diversity on the defensive side.

MMQB: Do you know where you were in 1999?

JH: 1999 … I was in the fifth grade.

MMQB: Do you know the significance of that year?

JH: No.

MMQB: That was the last time the Bills swept the Patriots.

JH: Wow, O.K.

MMQB: So I know this hasn’t been their best year, but would there be some significance to sweeping them for the first time in 21 years?

JH: Absolutely. We take huge honor and respect in being able to sweep anybody in our division, because we know how it is just to win a game. If you’re gonna win two in the same year, that’s huge. You’re disciplined as a team in how you’re able to learn and grow from the first game that you guys played, and any time we play a division game, we’re excited, because we know it’s gonna be a four-quarter fight. There’s gonna be some fun football played. We know not to look at the Patriots’ record, you don’t want to end up like Seattle. You can get lost in a team’s record. You gotta understand these guys are still pros and they’re coming out here to kick some butt. We know what’s at stake, and we know the Patriots are gonna bring their A game, so we’re excited for it. We’re excited for this matchup.

MMQB: What’s the challenge in facing Cam Newton?

JH: With Cam, you gotta respect his legs. You know he’s a great athlete. He can make plays on any given down. So with us, it’s about stopping that run game and trying to make that team one-dimensional. They got quite the stable back there, and their offensive line has been coming off the ball all year. So up front, that’s one thing we want to do, control that line of scrimmage, and control it early.

MMQB: Have Sean or other ex-Panther coaches there tried to help you on Cam?

JH: Yeah, you can see Sean working with the secondary, and talking to those guys, giving them any tips, any kinds of extra add to help them play faster. For us, up front, we gotta control that line of scrimmage. We know that their offensive line is physical and they come downhill. So for us, it’s just about gap control, but also being able to find ways to get some TFLs and make those guys play behind the sticks

MMQB: I wanted to ask you about the initiative you’ve been a part of to help kids in the inner city get internet service for their remote learning. …

JH: Sean pulled the team together when we first were able to get together once we went through all the COVID protocols this offseason, and a lot of the guys were talking about what we could do to promote positive change in our communities, especially given the circumstances of everything that was going on. So we thought it would be great for us to help the kids in our city. Kids being in COVID and not being able to attend school on a regular basis, having to rely solely on the internet and Zoom and things like that. So we thought it’d be great for all the kids that don’t have internet, or don’t have access to it, we could provide that for them now. That way, they weren’t falling behind on their education. We understand the importance of education in this country, and how education can take you a long way. So we felt like kids in the inner cities who don’t have the means for Spectrum internet, we could provide that for them, so that way they could continue their education through the year.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Monday we get our last weeknight game of the year until September, which is really hard to believe.

Even in a pandemic, the NFL season flies by.