Skip to main content

MMQB: Ron Rivera, Cleveland Browns Punch Playoff Tickets in Week 17

Everything Ron Rivera has overcome, including a strange SNF affair, on his way back to the playoffs. Plus, the Browns(!) are playoff-bound, John Wolford in the spotlight, the Bills are dominant, the NFL gets through the COVID-19 regular season and much more from Week 17.

You may have thought the 2020 regular season ended with discourse on the awkwardness of its 256th game—with one team fighting tooth-and-nail to win a division, and the other hovering somewhere between inconsistent and indifferent—but Washington coach Ron Rivera won’t remember it that way.

Instead, he’ll recall the feeling he got after his Washington Football Team completed a 20–14 win over the already-eliminated Eagles. He’ll recall the emotion, and flood of memories that came back. He’ll think about all the people who helped him, and the obstacles he and those around him surmounted to get to 7–9 and an NFC East crown.

All of it is part of this story.

All of it became a little overwhelming in the moment.

“Honestly, after the game, I just couldn’t wait to get inside the locker room and go into my locker area, and I closed the door for a few minutes, is what I did,” he said driving home, just before 1 a.m. ET. “I just kind of reflected on all the stuff I had gone through, to be honest with you. Just thinking back to all those things, and just how fortunate I am. I think that’s probably the biggest thing I thought of, was just how fortunate I am.”

There’s been so much, you have to make a list to cover it all.

mmqb-week-17-ron-rivera-joel-bitonio-john-wolford

• Rivera switched jobs for the first time in nine years, and then a pandemic struck.

• A few months later, early in his first summer, owner Dan Snyder, under pressure from minority partners, finally acquiesced to those who’d long called for a nickname change.

• Soon thereafter, The Washington Post published a story detailing longstanding patterns of a toxic workplace that included sexual harassment.

• Follow-up stories wound up implicating Snyder more directly.

• In mid-August, Rivera was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer.

And that’s before you get to all the football issues, which included a first-round quarterback being benched, then losing his job altogether, naturally destabilizing the most important position on the field for any team.

So yeah, it’s a lot to process and Rivera wanted his time to do that. A few minutes later, he emerged from his private corner feeling, again, pretty lucky to be where he was, with an NFC East champions hat and T-shirt, and the best story of the 2020 season to tell.

“That’s it—I’ve gone through some tough things,” he continued. “And to come out on the other end so far, to have my health almost back to where it needs to be, I just feel very fortunate. I really do.”

Given where Washington stands now, against where it was, it’s safe to say they feel pretty fortunate to have him.

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

***

Week 17 is in the books, and we’ve got a loaded MMQB for you this week, so we’ll waste no time getting to what you’ll find inside …

• The other side of the coin Sunday night—and how the Giants’ run ended unceremoniously.

• The longest-tenured Brown finally gets himself to the postseason.

• Just how dominant the Bills have been.

• How the Rams’ backup quarterback got his team to next week.

• Coach/GM rumors!

• The college team that (almost) beat COVID-19 completely.

But we’re starting in D.C., and with Rivera’s Washington Football Team.

***

At about 8 p.m. ET, 13 of the NFL’s 14 seeds in the new expanded playoff format were set.

AFC

1) Chiefs (14–2)
2) Bills (13–3)
3) Steelers (12–4)
4) Titans (11–5)
5) Ravens (11–5)
6) Browns (11–5)
7) Colts (11–5)

NFC

1) Packers (13–3)
2) Saints (12–4)
3) Seahawks (12–4)
4) NFC East champ
5) Buccaneers (11–5)
6) Rams (10–6)
7) Bears (8–8)

And as it turned out, that one last open spot, for the winner of a sad-sack division that had keep swinging through a slog of a finale on Sunday night, would wind up being the most meaningful of all of them. Because more than what was accomplished, it was about what was overcome, with reminders of those things everywhere, even ahead of kickoff against the already-eliminated Eagles on Sunday night.

“I think it’s really cool just because of the fact that we’ve gone through so much,” Rivera said. “That’s the biggest thing. With everything that’s going on with COVID stuff and all the renaming, the situation we had with some of the discipline stuff we had to do with some people because of the articles that came out. All that kind of stuff, to get where we are today, in spite of all that stuff, really just speaks well to the guys and how they were able to focus in on football.”

Getting there would require Washington doing that one more time, in a most unusual game. And for Rivera, it started with a piece of self-maintenance that was necessary given where he is in his recovery—and the time of kickoff. Earlier in the season, the coach had a couch put in his office at FedEx Field for these circumstances, and he used one Sunday in Philly at about 5:40 to sneak in a 40-minute nap so fatigue wouldn’t be an issue late in the night.

Evidently, it served him well, because from kickoff, it looked like Rivera’s crew was spoiling to run the Eagles right off the field. Washington started the game with a 15-play, 91-yard drive behind hobbled quarterback Alex Smith, then picked off Jalen Hurts and kicked a field goal to make it 10–0.

But Jalen Hurts bounced back with consecutive touchdown drives to give Philly a 14–10 lead, and Washington responded in a two-minute situation at the end of the half, marching 55 yards in nine plays, with tight end Logan Thomas going full extension to make a spectacular 13-yard touchdown grab, putting WFT back up, 17–14. And that’d be all the scoring Washington would need, with a 42-yard field goal from Dustin Hopkins in the fourth quarter getting the score to the 20–14 final.

ron-rivera-washington-wins-nfc-east

To be sure, things did get weird there for a while, when Doug Pederson went to quarterback Nate Sudfeld in the fourth quarter with the score still 17–14. Sudfeld turned the ball over twice in his first six snaps. And Philly's sticking with him, along with a star-studded list of game day inactives, led to a really strange final 15 minutes and plenty of arched eyebrows about where the Eagles’ true intentions might lie (as in maybe with a player who’s currently in a place like, say, Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge).

“I couldn’t tell you,” said Rivera, when I asked if he knew what Pederson was doing. “I just know that he did what he believes was best for his guys. He did what he thought was best for them. That’s the game.”

And as a result, the game would be Washington’s. After Hopkins’s field goal, one final Washington drive would bleed another three and a half minutes off the clock and essentially drive a stake in an Eagles team that looked, on its final possession, like it had car service to the airport idling outside the stadium.

From there, Rivera retreated for that moment of reflection, and resulting thankfulness. He then came back out to congratulate his players, who were with him every step of the way, as they collectively, amid all this, try to reimagine what the franchise is.

“The bond with them is pretty strong,” Rivera said. “The biggest thing I want them to understand is that they have an opportunity, they have a chance to do something legitimate. They can be successful. And I believe in them. And I’m going to hold everybody accountable, treat everybody the same. I’m going to do what I believe is right for the team, and I try to make sure they know everything I do, no matter what I decide, is right for us.”

Of course, part of how the team did win that division is circumstance, since its record is still 7–9—proof of how far Washington still has to go.

But for Sunday, and for Year 1, and given all they’ve been through together, Rivera, like he said, is grateful. He’s grateful for head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion, whom Rivera brought with him from Carolina, and who is helping guide Rivera’s in-season treatment process. He’s grateful for director of football operations Paul Kelly, too, since Kelly is the guy who follows Rivera around with a water in one hand and Gatorade in another to make sure he stays where he needs to be with his fluids.

Most of all, Rivera’s grateful for having had this year, and his team to go through it with—and with the foundation he’s set, he’s grateful for what’s ahead, too, for his players and coaches.

“This showed them that they can do it, that they can accomplish it,” Rivera said. “They can achieve it. I think the biggest thing they learned is that through hard work, through resilience, through working together and developing into a team, they’ve learned that they can be successful. I think that’s probably the biggest thing.”

Their head coach gave them a hell of an example of it.

***

leonard-williams-sacks-andy-dalton

One of Leonard Williams's three sacks against Andy Dalton on Sunday.

GIANTS LEFT LOOKING FOR HELP

Want the other side of that NFC East situation? In the late afternoon, Giants players dispersed from MetLife Stadium, having beaten the Cowboys, with this message from coach Joe Judge: If it does work out, just be ready to go back to work tomorrow.

So after a three-sack performance in a 23–19 win, veteran defensive lineman Leonard Williams went back to his place, not knowing whether he’d be playing Tampa next week, or if just maybe he’d played his last game as a Giant (he’s a free agent in March). Oh, and because of COVID-19 guidelines, he, and the rest of his teammates, had to watch the night game on their own.

“It’s definitely weird,” Williams told me. “Because we control what we can control, which is winning, but having all that future in someone else’s hands is kind of like a weird thing. The next few hours are going to be pretty anxious. I don’t know. It’s definitely a weird situation. Waiting to see what happens with another team, you know? Like this is going to be possibly my first chance going to the playoffs, so I hope for the best.”

Williams, and the rest of us, all know now that it didn’t work out.

Rather than making the playoffs as a 6–10 NFC East champ, the Giants are just a 6–10 team that’s getting the 11th pick in April’s draft for its troubles. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot to take from beating Dallas in a must-win game for both teams—that still does matter as to how far the Giants have come, and where they’re planning going.

After a 1–7 start, Judge’s crew finished 5–3, giving the franchise its winningest season since the Giants made the playoffs in Ben McAdoo’s first year. It’s modest, sure. But it’s some proof that what Judge is doing is working—and that goes back to all the stories you heard about guys running penalty laps and getting, uh, colorful coaching in the summer.

“The start of camp, people definitely got big eyes coming in and seeing how hard we had to work and seeing how strict and hard Coach Judge can be at times,” Williams continued. “But I think over time, like you said, the buy-in, guys just kind of bought into working hard. Whether we win or lose, ignoring the outside noise, coming to work every day, eventually the tables started turning and going in our favor. It proved to us why we were even buying in in the first place, and why it’s working out for us.

“I think Coach Judge just did a good job making sure guys didn’t listen to anyone outside of the building, whether they were giving us a pat on the back or criticizing us. Just focusing on who we had in the building and just working hard. I think it just shows a lot of grit and toughness this team has.”

And that was apparent at the end of Sunday’s game, for sure.

Inside the final seven minutes, down 23–19, the Cowboys drove from their own 25 to a first-and-goal from the Giants’ seven. A Williams sack backed Dallas up, and Andy Dalton’s unit wound up in third-and-goal from the 17. Williams again made his presence felt, with help from his friends.

“I’m the right three-technique, and [Kyler] Fackrell was the end to my side,” Williams said. “He basically got a call from our linebacker to take the running back to help Blake [Martinez] in coverage. And it kind of brings the running back out in a weird, wide position, so it’s hard for him to rush when he has to get to the running back. So we talked about me hitting it full-speed, high, so that after Fackrell hits the back he can fold underneath me.

“When the quarterback felt Kyler wrap inside, it kind of made the quarterback roll out to my side, and I basically just shut it off the block and I got some pressure on him. It was an exciting, happy feeling to see [Xavier] McKinney get his interception, that they took away from him at the beginning at the game.”

To Williams, even more so than his sacks, it was an example of everyone playing together in a crucial spot, and delivering when it mattered most. The Giants still had to survive a Wayne Gallman fumble (he recovered it!) after that, and then there were the hours of waiting to see what would go down in Philly.

Now, of course, they know. Instead of getting Tampa tape, they’ll be cleaning out their lockers. Instead of getting some extra work in, they’ll be setting tee times.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot to gain for the Giants this year. It looks like they got the coach hire right, which is an important piece, and the base of young talent on the roster is ascending.

“We made a tremendous amount of progress,” Williams said. “We had a new coaching staff come in. We have a really young team. A lot of guys were injured. A bunch of rookies had to step up. Just a bunch of adversity happened this year. We started off 1–7. We were able to come down to this final game and win and possibly going to the playoffs. I mean, a lot has happened this year. And we’ve overcome a lot.

“I think that says a lot about a team to be able to stick together through so much adversity and pull off this last division win like this. I love playing with this team this year, love playing for these coaches, love playing with these teammates. Definitely created a lot of good bonds this year. And I was really just proud of how we finished this game. I think we did really well this year and I think we have a lot to look forward to in the future.”

***

joel-bitonio-talks-cleveland-browns-playoff-berth

THE BROWNS ARE IN

This was the call that put the Browns in the playoffs for the first time since 2002: Maserati.

That’s right, a simple, one-word call signifying a quarterback sweep. As it turns out, Cleveland has had the play in its back pocket. But not only had Kevin Stefanski not called it this year, it actually wasn’t even in any of the Browns’ 15 previous game plans.

“It was for short yardage this week, and we called it,” said guard Joel Bitonio, the longest-tenured Brown, in his seventh season in Cleveland. “I was kinda giving Baker [Mayfield] a little bit of crap earlier in the week about his speed, having him run the ball. It was a good play getting the extra blocker with Kareem [Hunt] leading the way there. I was on the backside so I just kinda cut my guy off. I saw him get the first down and get down in bounds, and I knew we had the game sealed.

Bitonio then laughed and let his PTSD show: “I was a little scarred, though, I think, because I was like, ‘Alright, let’s make sure we kneel this correctly before we celebrate too much.’ But it was special and the crowd was going crazy. It was definitely a cool moment.”

Sure was. The Browns are in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, when Butch Davis was coach and Kelly Holcomb was quarterback. They’re at 11 wins for the first time since 1994, which was Nick Saban’s last year in Cleveland as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator.

So yeah, Cleveland can get excited about its 24–22 win over the rival Steelers. Listen to Bitonio, and you’ll be O.K. forgetting that Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt and Maurkice Pouncey were out—the Browns will see those guys this weekend in the wild-card round—and remember how much pain it took to get here.

And it wasn’t just the overarching pain of all those years of failure, either. It was losing to the lowly Jets last week with a chance to clinch, after COVID-19 contact tracing took Cleveland’s receiver room out the day before the game. It was a broken work week during which the team practiced just twice, with just one of those really being a full practice. It was even the guys sitting in their cars at First Energy Stadium waiting for clearance Sunday morning.

After CB Kevin Johnson turned up a positive test Saturday, Cleveland administered rapid tests to its players Sunday night, and players and coaches again on Sunday morning, with strict instructions not to report to the stadium until a negative result came back.

“I woke up this morning to take my regular test and got a text saying, ‘Hey, you gotta do the other test as well, and it has to come back before you can get into the stadium,’“ Bitonio said. “And so I was like, ‘Well, we’ll see how long this takes.’ I hadn’t gotten a text yet, but J.C. [Tretter] got his text and tested maybe like 20 minutes before me. And so he was clear and I was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna head to the stadium anyway because I kinda want to be as close as possible to my time.’

“And right when I was pulling in, I got my text saying that I was clear. So maybe it was like a five- to 10-minute difference. There were a few guys in the parking lot that were just kinda sitting and waiting to make sure they got the all-green.”

Weird as it was, though, the Browns were ready for it—because last week was a whole lot worse.

“It decimated our whole receiver room, our linebacker core, and kinda threw off our whole Saturday schedule,” Bitonio said. “You think you’re not a routine guy until your routine gets thrown off, and you’re like, ‘Man, this is weird. Like are we playing a game?’ Usually you travel at 2, we’re leaving the airport at 7 instead. You’re getting to the hotel at 9 instead of 5. There’s all these different things and we’re trying to walk through, we’re trying to get the receivers. So last week, you go into that game and obviously we disappointed.

“We felt like we had enough guys to still find a way to win, and we just didn’t execute well enough last week.”

With that experience, things were better this time around, even if they were far from normal, and having to overcome all of it was pretty Brownsian anyway.

And there was some Brownsy stuff in-game too. The Steelers mounted a late comeback behind backup quarterback Mason Rudolph and had a very real shot at recovering the onside kick after Rudolph airmailed his throw on a two-point try to tie it.

From there, the Browns had first-and-10 from the 50 with 1:23 left and the Steelers holding all three of their timeouts. At which point Mayfield entered the huddle and, in essence, said to his teammates, Ten yards to the playoffs. Two Nick Chubb runs set up a third-and-two, which is where Stefanski called Maserati, and Cleveland, finally, pulled into the NFL’s high-rent district.

“We thought we had a couple good play-calls, and it was just a big moment for us,” Bitonio said. “To get that first down, to win it that way, was big. I think it shows our resilience, our character, that we’re never gonna give up in those situations and that’s just something we’re trying to work to.”

And, of course, it’s something some in Cleveland have been working to for a long time.

“We were 7–4 my rookie year, and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s not too hard to win in this league.’ And then we didn’t win a game for like, forever,” he continued. “Three wins, one win, zero wins. And that was a tough stretch, because I almost forgot how it feels to win a game. It was like 600-some days between games where we had won, and it was just so … that was tough. It’s tough. You train, you work, you’re end goal is to win a Super Bowl every year, and we weren’t even close. We couldn’t even win a game.

“That was depressing, but there was never a time where I was like, ‘I need to get out of here.’ I always thought we were kinda on the verge, and getting Baker, I think, re-energized me a little bit. I saw what he could do, and the type of player he was, and I was like, ‘I know this is a quarterback league, and once you have a quarterback that’s pretty good, that gives you a heck of a lot more chances to win games than when you don’t have one.’”

From the start, Bitonio went on, Mayfield has said that he and his teammates should respect the franchise’s past, but not become latched to it.

With that little three-yard run on Maserati, they sure did break free from a lot of stuff.

***

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

THE BILLS KEEP ROLLING

The sort of blah game the Bills played on Sunday—a 56–26 bludgeoning of Miami—normally wouldn’t merit high-up real estate in the column. But while that game was going on, I started crunching some numbers. And I realized, in the process, the level on which Buffalo’s playing right now.

• In the six games since the Hail Murray, the Bills have gone 6–0, winning every game by double digits, and outscoring opponents by a cumulative score of 229–110, which averages out to a 19.8-point margin of victory per game.

• More recently, over their last three games, the Bills have outscored opponents 142–54, which puts the average margin-of-victory at 29.3. The teams they played: the 49ers, Patriots and Dolphins, which aren’t exactly the slums of the league.

• The Bills matched a franchise record for wins, with 13. They joined the 1990 and ‘91 Super Bowl teams as the three 13–3 outfits in team history.

So after figuring all this out, I decided to reach out to fourth-year coach Sean McDermott, who’s normally pretty reserved, to see what he thought of all that.

“I just think they’re committed to the mission, you know?” McDermott said. “Probably the best way to say it, Albert. That’s what pops into my mind first.”

And then, he added that losing on the Hail Mary in Arizona did stick with his guys. The loss to the Cardinals completed a 3–3 stretch that followed a 4–0 start, and during those six weeks even the wins weren’t easy. As luck would have it, the bye happened to fall right after the game in Glendale, which only gave the memory more time to marinate.

“We had a tough feeling after that game,” McDermott said. “We were about to go on the bye week and that was just a tough way to go down. The looks on the faces in the locker room, I could tell we got good guys that it means something to, so I’m sure that they didn’t want to feel that way again.”

Very clearly, they haven’t since. The defense has improved. Josh Allen has looked damn unstoppable. No one has even come close to beating them.

And now, with all this is the books, there’s a new loss to avenge, with the Colts set to come to Orchard Park this weekend—and that’s a heartbreaking loss from last January in Houston, in what was the first playoff experience for most of Buffalo’s burgeoning young stars.