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.
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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.

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• 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.

***

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.

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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.

***

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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.”

***

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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.

“Much like the Arizona game, that game has gotta drive you harder,” McDermott said. “It’s gotta stick in your mind, and it’s gotta motivate you. Whether it’s this time of year or all the way back in the summer, in the spring, when you’re training and working.”

So that’s where McDermott’s turned his focus. But for so many people in Western New York, the prospect of having a home playoff game for the first time in 24 years with their best team in 30 is pretty exciting—for everyone.

“It’s cool,” said McDermott. “I mean, I think it’s cool for our fans more than anything and hopefully for [owners] Terry and Kim [Pegula]. Right now, we’re in the start of a playoff week here, so I’m more focused on trying to get our football team better. As a coach and as players, we’ll hopefully get to the offseason here at some point and that’s something, when you kick back in the offseason, you have a chance to acknowledge and enjoy.”

Based on how they’re playing, it might be able a while before they get there.

***

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FROM THE AAF TO THE NFL PLAYOFF RACE

Rams backup QB John Wolford’s first NFL pass was picked off by Cardinals linebacker Jordan Hicks. His second NFL series ended in a three-and-out. And somehow, he told me, he still felt good.

Paraphrasing an old football adage about taking your first hit, Wolford joked, “It takes your first pick to wake you up a little bit.”

Did it ever wake him up. Wolford was 21-of-35 for 228 yards the rest of the way. More significant: He was efficient and kept drives rolling, and the Rams wound up taking a winner-gets-in game over their division rivals by an 18–7 count. Afterwards, he and I had a good talk about his mindset going in.

MMQB: When did you find out you were starting?

JW: Jared [Goff] got an X-ray after the Seattle game and then he came up to me and said, ‘Hey, be ready to go.’ And so there was still some tests back when he got back on I think that Monday and Tuesday, but I had a pretty good idea right after the game that I was gonna go. And then knew for sure there on Monday or Tuesday.

MMQB: How did it change the week for you and the team?

JW: I’ve always tried to take the mindset, ‘Hey, prepare like you’re the starter.’ This past week was very similar to my normal prep. The only thing I would say is I tried to front-load some stuff. Sometimes when you’re not getting those practice reps, I feel like I get to a point where I’m ready to play later in the week. It felt like this week, I was ready to play earlier and that’s probably the accumulation of the walk-throughs and the actual practice reps. So I front-loaded it just a little bit, but the same amount of work that I normally put in. Saturday was a lot more chill for me as opposed to a normal week where I’m pushing pretty hard on a Saturday to feel good about the game plan.

MMQB: So you had more time later in the week to fine tune stuff?

JW: Well right, like when you’re calling the plays, I’m always trying to call the plays behind Jared when taking the reps in practice. It’s a different thing doing it actually in the huddle than having the reps at practice. So I just felt better earlier in the week, and that would probably be the main difference.

MMQB: Where was your head after that pick?

JW: Yeah, I was just like, ‘Ah man, I’m an idiot. I shouldn’t have made that throw.’ But I was fine right after it. I’ve played a good amount of football, and in a way it kinda settled me in. I know that’s weird to say, but I felt good right after that pick and throughout the rest of the game.

MMQB: Anything change on the third possession?

JW: Yeah, they played two-man on third down, which is a good opportunity for a quarterback to use his legs. And I saw that, and picked up the first down and then we started rolling. We were moving the ball throughout the day, we gotta convert those red zone opps. I felt good, if I’m being honest, right after that third drive.

MMQB: Did Sean [McVay] or Kevin [O’Connell] do anything to make you comfortable?

JW: Yeah, I mean, they’re always talking to you. Sean came up and said, ‘You’re good buddy.’ Kevin said a similar thing. But I was good, whether they said anything or not. I’m sure from a play-calling standpoint Sean probably got me a few quick completions, and then from there started rolling.

MMQB: Was the game what you expected?

JW: Yeah, they played a lot of the things that we expected them to play from a game plan perspective. For me personally, until you play you don’t really know. So I had an idea of what it was gonna be, but I thought I felt good. It’s a tough question, I would just say once the game started rolling, it felt like I was playing football again. And I kind of anticipated that. I knew there would be some pregame jitters, and then once I settled in, once I completed a pass, it’s gonna feel good.

MMQB: Psychologically, is there any key to handle being thrown into a pseudo playoff game?

JW: Well, I would say one thing that I try and focus on, and this is kind of like a Zen for me, is trying to be in the present moment. I’m at my best when I’m calm, composed and kinda have like a nice Zen to me. And so I just, throughout the week, was trying to do that. I anticipated before the game there was gonna be some jitters, but I was prepared for that. Part of my preparation was, ‘Hey John, just accept the fact that you’re gonna be nervous.’ And when you kinda look at it in the face, it kinda diminishes in a way. So that, kind of my mindset, I think was helpful and then Sean had a great game plan. The guys were rallying all week, we had a good week of practice. All those things kinda build up and give you some confidence, and then I put my head on the pillow every night knowing I did everything I could to prepare. And however the chips fell, I could rest easy. So that was my mindset.

MMQB: Did your AAF experience help?

JW: Absolutely. There is no greater thing for a quarterback than a ton of reps, just seeing things live, seeing how the field disperses, understanding coverage. So I’ve had the luxury of playing those extra games. I started 40 games in college, I played nine in the AAF including the little preseason game, and then I’m going against a great defense every week in practice. So you’re just seeing the field disperse, you’re able to anticipate where the ball should go. All those games are inventory to fall back on to make your decision-making process just a little bit quicker.

***

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BLACK MONDAY IS HERE

Atlanta Falcons: I wouldn’t be surprised if the first move leaguewide is Falcons going in on a GM, and Saints exec Terry Fontenot looms as a prime candidate. As a bonus, hiring Fontenot would kick a leg out from a division rival. Ex-Giants GM Jerry Reese, ex-Texans GM Rick Smith, as well as Chicago’s Champ Kelly and the Rams’ Brad Holmes, are also under consideration. On the coaching side, Titans OC Arthur Smith, one of the hottest names on the market, is one to watch, with Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett a dark horse.

Carolina Panthers: Slips have already gone out to Cleveland’s Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, New England’s Nick Caserio and Buffalo’s Joe Schoen, and I’d expect San Francisco’s Adam Peters and New Orleans’s Jeff Ireland to be in the mix for the GM opening here too. The Panthers have done a lot of homework on Ireland, of the guys from the scouting side. But Adofo-Mensah is worth keeping a careful eye on. Owner David Tepper is intrigued with hiring someone with analytics experience for the job, and wanted Adofo-Mensah’s boss, Andrew Berry, for a job under GM Marty Hurney last year, before Cleveland hired Berry as GM.

Chicago Bears: Before Sunday’s game, word was that Matt Nagy would likely survive, and that GM Ryan Pace might have a little more to worry about. So we could see some change, but likely not the total change that seemed to be in play earlier in the year. (At one point, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was connected to this opening.) And, of course, the Bears have the playoffs to concern themselves with now.

Detroit Lions: The Lions have already interviewed seven scouting types for their GM job (Rick Smith, Louis Riddick, Scott Pioli, Thomas Dimitroff and internal candidates Rob Lohman, Lance Newmark and Kyle O’Brien) and ex-Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis for their coaching job, and are going to move forward aggressively this week on both fronts. Interim coach Darrell Bevell will interview, and Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy and 49ers DC Robert Saleh will be requested this week, as will Fontenot and Holmes. The Lions plan to hire a scouting type on the GM side and a leader-of-men type on the coaching side, with four people—owner Sheila Ford, president Rod Wood, VP Mike Disner, and advisor Chris Spielman—running the interviews.

Houston Texans: This one is relatively wide open, in part because it’s messy. We’ve been over the turf battles here. There’s an EVP of football ops (Jack Easterby), a search firm (Korn Ferry) and an advisory panel (including Tony Dungy, Jimmy Johnson and Andre Johnson) involved, and quarterback Deshaun Watson’s going to have a voice in this process too (we’ve mentioned previously that Watson has advocated for Bieniemy, who was recommended to Watson by Patrick Mahomes). So this could go any which way. One thing I can say is that the search firm has pull, and may lead to some outside-the-box options like Baltimore director of football research Scott Cohen—who’s served as a strong liaison between scouting and coaching with the Ravens, and comes with a strong reference from John Harbaugh.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Doug Marrone said after his team’s 15th straight loss that he’d meet with owner Shad Khan on Monday. The Jaguars’ flirtation with ex-Ohio State and Florida coach Urban Meyer has been going on for weeks now. Will Meyer jump? This is a pretty unique opportunity, given that he’d get a boatload of 2021 picks, cap space and Trevor Lawrence with the job, and it’s in an area geographically that Meyer is familiar with. I think he’ll say no, but I think it will be hard for him to turn it down, and he is taking the idea seriously (I’m told he’s worked on potential staffing). And if he doesn’t take the job? I’ve heard the Jags would hire a coach first, and Bills OC Brian Daboll was one name that’s been linked to the job. Also, for what it’s worth, the Khans really do like Marrone, and the job he did to keep the team engaged through a really tough year. I’ve heard they ruminated on keeping him and giving the next GM a year to evaluate him if they can’t land Meyer. I don’t know if they’d actually go through with that, though.

Los Angeles Chargers: Anthony Lynn will meet with ownership on Monday, and while the Spanos family loves him, and thinks highly of the job he did as the team moved four years ago, his contract complicates things. He signed a one-year extension last year so everyone could avoid the awkwardness of going into a contract year, which made this year critical for everyone. If the Chargers move on, then I’d expect quarterback-centric names like Daboll, New England’s Josh McDaniels and maybe even Carolina’s Joe Brady to be in the mix.

New York Jets: Adam Gase became the fourth coach fired this season, shortly after the Jets returned from New England on Sunday, and I think this one will be pretty wide open. It’s worth mentioning, until Jim Harbaugh actually signs his extension with Michigan, that owner Woody Johnson (who’ll be back from his ambassadorship soon) has long had a thing for the Wolverines coach. Presuming that leads to nothing, I’d expect some conventional names (Arthur Smith) to be interviewed, some college coaches (Iowa State’s Matt Campbell) to be investigated and maybe even some under-the-radar ex-player types (I think the success of Mike Vrabel, who the Jets once did a lot of homework on, resonates here) to be considered.

Philadelphia Eagles: GM Howie Roseman and coach Doug Pederson are likely to remain, but I don’t think anything’s fully determined yet, and there will be change at some level. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is on his way out, going on his own volition with the chance that the Eagles would’ve let him go if he hadn’t. And there’s been an expectation that Pederson will look at hiring an offensive coordinator, after previous shufflings of the offensive staff haven’t worked. Either way, there’s a lot to sort through here.

Washington Football Team: The GM search in Washington will be led by Ron Rivera, who (obviously) has done an outstanding job in Year 1. Hurney could come aboard, either as GM or in a senior role. And ex-Lions GM Martin Mayhew, Titans exec Ryan Cowden and Schoen are among those being considered.

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THE COVID-19 REGULAR SEASON IS COMPLETE

It hasn’t been perfect, and there are still four rounds of playoffs to go, but the NFL’s already done what many figured was impossible: The league’s gotten all 256 scheduled games played in 17 weeks. And while there were bumps, to be sure (Baltimore and Tennessee have stories), that they did that, through a pandemic and without the benefit of a bubble, is pretty noteworthy.

This show, by the way, wasn’t run by one person or party. Team doctors, head athletic trainers and infection control officers have done their part on the ground to fuel a massive undertaking for everyone involved. Meanwhile, at the league level, a small core of people took lead roles in making sure the whole thing ran smoothly.

It goes without saying that the NFL wouldn’t be here without them. And I figured those people, most (all?) of whom you’ve never heard of deserve to have their names out there. So let’s give them their due …

Emily Myers/Jacob Frank: The two managers in different departments—Myers in health and safety, Frank in collectively-bargained programs—have been tasked with managing the league’s testing program with BioReference, which has meant working all hours, and through testing subject to flight delays and false positives. The league’s closing in on a million tests administered, which underscores the effort here.

Dr. Christina Mack: An epidemiologist for IQVIA, Mack is the point person for the NFL, overseeing a team of a couple dozen people at IQVIA who go through contact tracing every day, and compile the data for the league on a daily basis. IQVIA’s done injury data for the league for a decade, so there was a relationship there. But it was ramped way up this year.

John Mellody: He was the Jets’ head athletic trainer for 20 years, until early 2020, when Mellody came over to the work with the league office. He helped manage the Kinexon tracking devices that coaches, players and staff are required to wear, and used his relationships with head athletic trainers across the league to make their jobs, and the league’s, easier in a tough circumstance.

Dr. Navdeep Singh: The former Raiders team doctor is crucial in the NFL’s gameday operation, working to make sure that everyone on the sideline—players and coaches—have been tested and cleared.

Paul Blalock, Molly Delaney, Leah Triola: Blalock and Delaney normally work in labor relations, and Triola works in football operations, and the three of them have run the contact tracing program (with Mack) from the league side. That’s meant working late, and through holidays, as positive results have popped up, and it means going through tracking data, conducting interviews and helping to make difficult decisions day-to-day.

Dawn Aponte: The NFL’s chief football administrative officer was the point person for the football operations side in working with medical officials.

Larry Ferazani/Meghan Carroll: Two veterans of the management council, Ferazani and Carroll helped direct contact tracing effort that Blalock, Delaney and Triola executed.

Dr. Patti Walton: An independent advisor who works as a medical lab director and lab medical expert, and helped the NFL with designing and troubleshooting the testing program.

And all of this said, when the NFL’s chief medical officer, Allen Sills, and I debriefed late Saturday night, he was quick to acknowledge the obvious, too—the most important effort here was made by all the coaches and players who were in it every day, and whose good health would determine the league’s ability to get a full season played.

“We cannot begin to give enough credit to the players and the coaches who have made these sacrifices every day,” said Sills. “I continue to hear stories about people who spent the entire holiday away from their family just so there could be no possible chance of them being exposed. Players who’ve missed funerals of family members they normally would’ve attended. People who’ve had relatives in the hospital that they haven’t been able to visit.

“The degree of daily sacrifices, beyond just the inconvenience of not going out, they’ve been very real and they’ve been very tangible. I think it is an enormous debt of appreciation that we all have for them. But I think what they’ve also showed is something really important—they’ve really showed the country and the world that if you take these measures and you do these things, you can keep yourself safe.”

So now, we look forward to the playoffs and offseason, and even to the 2021 season, with a familiar feeling of uncertainty, not unlike the one everyone felt back at the end of July when the league gave the go-ahead for teams to start modified training camps. And Sills helped us do that too.

On the challenge in the playoffs: “I think medically it’s the same. The virus is still the same. We still have the same risk factors, still have the same risk mitigation strategies. And so we plan to apply the protocols the same way that we’ve been doing all season long, because we know that they work. And so we just have to make sure that everyone has doubled down on their efforts. We want our teams to be as healthy and intact as they possibly can be at all times. So we actually have been doing phone calls with each playoff-bound team. We speak with the owner, the general manager, the head coach, the infection control officer, the athletic trainer and we’re just going over with each of those teams strategies that we’ve seen that have worked, and vulnerabilities we still see looking at some of their own data.”

On the Super Bowl: “As far as people on the field, you’ll just see a lot fewer people on the sidelines, just like you’ve seen in our games all year. Entertainment, halftime, all these other things are going to look very different. But in terms of the procedures and policies on the field or masks on the sidelines, all of those things, they’ll be the same. Again, we feel like we have a formula that’s been working, so we’ll stick with that and not change anything, despite the fact that it may be a playoff game or the Super Bowl. … There will be a lot shorter stay [for teams] than there traditionally has been. That is correct. And, of course you won’t see any of the other activities—in-person parties and meet-and-greet events, things like that. All of those things are going to be revised this year.”

On the combine and pre-draft run-up: “It is on our radar and we have thought about it. A lot of active discussions on those points. I think we have to obviously just work together with all of the partners involved with that and think about what makes the most sense. But all of those conversations are ongoing right now.”

On having fans in stadiums in 2021: “We all have that hope. It’s been very difficult to predict along the way where we’re going to be as the pandemic travels forward. But I think if the vaccine program and vaccinations are able to roll out to the degree that we have expected them to, then I think we have a lot of optimism that many facets of our lives will go back to normal in 2021. So something we’ll obviously have to continue to closely monitor, but I think the medical community in general has a lot of optimism about that.”

And just as the NFL was seeking advice from other leagues before its season, the league is now helping leagues like the NHL and NBA go into a non-bubble environment—Sills said he’s been part of weekly calls with the chief medical officers of all the other major sports leagues since March. His best advice to them, he told me, has been that having cases is inevitable because of community spread, and that the key is to identify them quickly and having a comprehensive mitigation plan ready to roll for when they do pop up.

Therein lies one thing that Sills said he’s particularly proud of. In running close to a million tests, and implementing protocols, the NFL has actually helped the greater medical community understand the virus better. Which, he hopes, will be good for everyone.

“The fact that we’ve been able to follow 32 different communities longitudinally over six months’ time, that’s added a tremendous amount of information about how this virus spreads and the way it shows up and how it’s protected,” Sills said. “We’re already in the process of publishing some of that data. You’re going to see that come out over the next few weeks. And we’ve communicated regularly those findings with the CDC, with the FDA, with the White House Task Force.

“And so it is not an exaggeration to say the NFL’s experience and the learnings that we’ve had will help not only other sports leagues but will help the country. It’ll help health care professionals. When you asked about something I’m really proud of, that’s something I think we should all recognize has been a real accomplishment through this season.”

***

INSIDE ONE COLLEGE PROGRAM'S RESPONSE

While we’re here, back in August we checked in with Boston College coach Jeff Hafley—a former Kyle Shanahan assistant in San Francisco—on his plan to handle COVID-19, and what the NFL could learn from it, with a few teams consulting with him on best practices.

It turns out, given the results, they could have learned a lot, and Hafley was a good person to consult with. Boston College finished the season with just one positive COVID-19 test in its entire program, going all the way back to when players returned to campus in June. That positive was from a scout-team player returning from a trip home for Thanksgiving (the Eagles had him stay home after that to prevent spread), and it’s a pretty astounding accomplishment seeing as what’s transpired in the NFL since.

Enough so that, even though this is an NFL column, I reached back out to him to talk about it the other day.

“I don’t know how they did it. It’s unbelievable,” Hafley said. “Think about this: There were a couple away games where fans were allowed, but our kids literally weren’t allowed to hug their parents after the game. There were barriers set up. These kids had not been home or seen their families since June 28. None of them. Think about that.”

It started back in the summer with the Eagles gathering their leadership council, and allowing guys like LB Max Richardson, RB Travis Levy, DE Marcus Valdez, QB Dennis Grosel and TE Hunter Long to take ownership—with the acknowledgment that Hafley couldn’t sell the idea of quarantining for a greater good the same way a player’s peer, who was going through the same thing, could.

“The first meeting we had, what I did was I stood the key seniors up and I said to the team, These guys want to play,” Hafley said. “And if you don’t and you want to go out, if you want to put yourself in jeopardy, just remember you’re putting these guys in jeopardy. So be a man, tell me right now or come up and talk to me and tell me you don’t want to play. Whoever stays here, it’s not about you, it’s about these guys right here who have one more shot to play, and you need to sacrifice for them.”

And then, it was about everyone staying on top of everyone else.

“We won a game on Halloween, and it was Halloween night,” Hafley said. “You know what college campuses are like on Halloween, we all do. Imagine if someone told you not to go out on Halloween night. I remember texting those guys, like, Guys I really need your help tonight. Please let the guys know, if we want to play next week, we’ve got to stay in. And if you don’t want to play next week, go out. But I got to know so we don’t get this whole thing spread around. So it was guys like that, constant communication. They deserve all the credit.”

In the building, the Eagles took the sorts of precautions you’ve heard of in the NFL—they had team meetings in their field house with garage doors open (Hafley says he strained his voice through those), eschewed larger unit meetings, spaced people in position meetings and tested constantly. BC never got on a plane without everyone clearing a final round of testing first, and having a lab on campus allowed for results to come back fast.

And through all of that, with a first-year coach still getting to know his players, BC managed to go 6–5, and go toe-to-toe with Clemson on the road in midseason. Which put the Eagles in position to go to a mid-level bowl game and take a step forward as a program. But Hafley could also feel the wear and tear of nine weeks without a bye drilling down on his guys, and saw it in a regular season ending loss to Virginia. So he went back to his team leaders.

“I said to them, Are you guys doing alright?” said Hafley. “And they were looking at me like, Yeah, Coach we’ll play. I was like, Yeah, but do you guys really want to play? And they didn’t really answer me. So I said, I want you guys to talk to your position groups and go back and sleep on it, and let’s meet again. Then they came in the next day and we met and it was kind of like the same thing. It was like, Alright, talk to me like I’m not your head coach.

This is what’s going to happen. We can practice for the next 22 days, you guys are going to be in quarantine, the bowl game’s going to be a one-day trip, it’s not going to be a real bowl game, our bowl game might get canceled if the other team gets COVID or if we get COVID, but you guys have got to be willing to do what you just did for another month. And you might miss Christmas. And I painted the picture.”

The response, as Hafley detailed it, was, Coach, our guys want to go home and be with their families. So that was that, Hafley let the players deliver the news that they were going home at the next day’s practice, “and the guys let out a cheer like you wouldn’t believe.”

“I love these kids,” Hafley said. “We have tough kids who bought in and had fun and tried to kill for us. I love this group. I can’t tell you how much fun I had coaching, despite all the [stuff] I had to deal with.”

Anyway, it’s a cool story, and I’ll bet we hear a bunch like it from NFL teams that made it through this like BC did in the coming weeks.

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jonathan-taylor-colts-stiff-arm

TEN TAKEAWAYS

I think Jonathan Taylor is an ex-factor in the AFC playoffs. And yes, I know the trouble with me saying that is that the Colts play the hottest team in football next week. But consider this: Over the last six games of the season, Taylor rolled to 741 yards on 119 carries (6.2 average), capping that run with a 30-carry, 253-yard effort in Sunday’s win over Jacksonville. The former Wisconsin star, who eclipsed 6,000 yards rushing in three seasons in Madison, has all at once taken pressure off Indy’s aging quarterback, highlighted the strength in its offensive line, and been an asset for a talented defense that’s ridden out some bumps. And in helping the Colts to a 28–14 win over the Jags on Sunday, the second-round pick showed you can build an offense around him, which, to be completely honest, I think is where his potential as a back has been all along. To illustrate that, I dug up the piece of the March 2 MMQB I did with him, coming out of the combine, and pulled out the comp I ran on his testing numbers—he matches right up with Saquon Barkley in that realm, and Barkley is routinely regarded as an athletic freak.

Taylor: 5' 10", 226 pounds; 4.39 in the 40; 17 bench reps; 36.0” vertical; 4.24 short shuttle.

Barkley: 6' 0", 233 pounds; 4.40 in the 40; 29 bench reps; 41.0” vertical; 4.24 short shuttle.

Taylor was also more consistent as a runner, if less versatile than Barkley, in college, and is similarly clean off the field. But instead of going in the top five, like Barkley did, Taylor went 41st overall. And now, Taylor has the Colts’ single-game rushing record, the most rushing yards by an Indy rookie since Edgerrin James, and figures to be the focal point of Indy’s plan as it tries to keep up with red-hot Buffalo in the wild-card round. Why? Well, because if Indy’s going to control the pace and tenor of that one, it’ll have to be through Taylor’s presence. The good news is, after Sunday, he looks up for the task.

Derrick Henry needs a seat at the MVP table. Aaron Rodgers would be my MVP right now, and that’s after I had Mahomes as the guy for the most of the year, and though I know Josh Allen’s come on strong. Usually, I’m not an advocate of tossing around a half-dozen names for these awards, either, because I think the more you include the less exclusive the honor becomes. But Derrick Henry’s a machine. And if you define value in what a team might look like if you take a player out of the equation, Henry is to the Titans as a lot of quarterbacks are to their teams. And Henry did it while bucking a long-established trend that shows backs tend to slow down in the year after one in which they log 300 carries. In 2019, Henry nudged past that milestone, carrying the ball 303 times for a league-high 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns. This year, instead of slowing down, Henry carried a significantly heavier load (378 carries) while rushing for nearly 500 more yards (2,027), average 0.3 yards more per carry (5.4) and more touchdowns (17). And while the Titans needed the Texans to leave the middle of the field wide open for A.J. Brown to haul in a beautiful Ryan Tannehill bomb with 10 seconds left, and the goal posts to cooperate for Samuel Sloman’s game-winning 37-yard field goal to doink through, Henry was once again the tone-setter for the team with 250 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries. And again, I’m not suggesting that Henry win the MVP. But I think what he’s doing pretty ridiculous, and it’s pretty dumb that we haven’t already added him to that conversation.

Tom Brady deserves our praise. Coming into this year, the Bucs had a total of seven comebacks from down 17 points or more over their 44-year history, and a total of zero in over a decade. This year alone, they’ve had two. Coming into this year, the Bucs were mired in a 12-year playoff drought. This year, they locked up a spot in the postseason with a week to spare. And going into this year, the Bucs hadn’t won more than 10 games in 15 years. This year, they won 11. There are, of course, a number of reasons for that. But Tom Brady’s the biggest one, and there’s no close second. The belief regardless of circumstance, the overarching consistency and the constant rate of improvement we saw from the Bucs are hallmarks of teams Brady’s played for. So that, really, is part of what the Bucs bought in signing Brady to a two-year, $50 million deal in March. In fact, one Tampa official didn’t even dance around that being what the Bucs wanted in pursuing the QB back in March. “A thousand percent,” said the official. “The standard has just risen. What he brings is going to be, obviously, extremely valuable. But what he leaves behind, whenever that is, hopefully it’s more than two years, is equally as valuable. I think it’ll be … it’s awesome.” This guy then added, “He’s a different breed.” And at 43, Brady’s proven it time and again. This year, he had the second-highest TD pass total of his career (40), the fifth-most yards (4,633) and a passer rating (102.2) better than those in all but one of his six championship seasons. Is he the same as he was in 2014? Probably not. But that it’s even a question at this advanced stage is pretty remarkable. As is the difference he’s clearly made in Tampa.

The Dolphins have to consider a quarterback with the third pick. It might sound ridiculous, given that Miami just sunk the fifth pick into Tua Tagovailoa last year. But I’ve talked to enough evaluators who say they’d be pretty worried if they were the Dolphins right now. “One-thousand percent,” said one who’s gotten a good look at Tagovailoa’s 2020 tape. “If you’re them, you have to look at it; they’re not gonna be picking third again. Now, I’m not sold that BYU [QB Zack Wilson] is much better. [Justin] Fields probably is. But you have to spend damn near the same energy you did on Herbert and Tua. If I’m them, I’m treating this process like I don’t have a QB.” It’ll be interesting to see if the Dolphins do. The main issue, as evaluators I’ve talked to see it, is that Tagovailoa lacks any elite physical trait. It’s possible now that his rehab from hip surgery is in the past, and he’ll have a full offseason, that he’ll make huge developmental jumps in 2021. And if it clicks, then maybe what was elite at Bama—his accuracy, feel for the game and the efficiency with which he played—come clear, like those things did for Drew Brees 15 years ago. But regardless of that hope, I think the Dolphins do have to be very honest with themselves, and at least kick the tires on guys like Fields and Wilson, and compare them against Tagovailoa in where each guy might be three or four years from now. The Dolphins, again, are likely going to be too good under Brian Flores and Chris Grier to be in this position again. Quarterback’s too important. You have to at least take a look.

I wonder if the Ravens are more equipped now than they were last year to advance in the playoffs. Baltimore’s really rolled through the last three games of the year, blasting the Jaguars, Giants and Bengals in succession to get to 11–5. But the first two games of the five-game winning streak that followed their COVID-marred Wednesday Afternoon Football loss to the Steelers were more difficult—they pulled away in the second half to knock off the Cowboys and outlasted the Browns in overtime—and more indicative of the year that they’ve had. Lamar Jackson’s had to play from behind. They passed the baton from Mark Ingram to J.K. Dobbins playing alongside him. The defense has had to carry the team at times. If last year’s team was the neighborhood bully, then this year’s team is the scrappy kid who’s no fun to fight. And I think John Harbaugh affirmed that postgame on Sunday. “I like where we’re at right now,” he said. “I love where this team is right now. I love us going into the playoffs in this scenario at this time. I’m excited about it.”

I think Cam Newton’s going to have to make his own decision on how badly he wants to keep playing. The 11th-year pro was mostly fine in what most expect to be his Patriot swan song—Newton threw for 242 yards and three touchdowns on 21-of-30 passing, and ran for another 79 yards on 11 carries in a 28–14 win. And Bill Belichick, for his part, showed an appreciation for Newton’s effort this year, saying, “Nothing but respect for Cam and the way that he’s approached every day that he’s been here.” The problem, of course, is that while Newton fit right into the Patriots locker room and culture, the football fit was more difficult. He played under center and in heavier sets more, after playing most of his football life in spread-out shotgun looks. He didn’t have much help at all in the way of receivers (bad) or tight ends (worse)—both Patriot ensembles ranked among the worst in football. And he was coming back after about a year-and-a-half away from real, full-speed, competitive pro football, a break necessitated by major foot and shoulder surgeries. Does this totally excuse the way he played? It may explain it, but it doesn’t entitle him to anything more than that explanation. And so my belief is that if Newton is to return to New England it’ll only be alongside major reinforcements. If he’s to play anywhere next year I think he’ll have to, at best, compete for playing time. Which is the thing here—he’s never really been in that position, or at least he hasn’t since backing up Tim Tebow at Florida as an 18-year-old. So whether he’d be willing to do that (he wasn’t last year) to reestablish himself as a football player is an open question.

If there are changes in Seattle this offseason, and someone does lure GM John Schneider out of there, he’d leave that place in good shape. Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that the Lions could make a real run at getting Schneider out of Seattle ahead of the final year of his contract. I think there’s a decent chance it just leads to a raise, and Schneider will remain in place to, eventually, guide the organization into the post-Pete Carroll era. But let’s say he’s serious, and wants a new challenge elsewhere? Where this year’s team is would put him in position to leave feeling like the organization is in a good spot. After an early season mess, the defense rounded into shape, has a nice young foundation, and kept each of its final eight opponents to 23 points or fewer. The offense, meanwhile, has budding young stars like D.K. Metcalf and Will Dissly to surround Russell Wilson with. And the front office has talented guys other teams have considered for GM jobs, like co-directors of player personnel Scott Fitterer and Trent Kirchner, to promote if they see fit. Which isn’t to say, of course, that the whole place is turnkey. But it’s pretty close.

The Packers having home-field advantage matters. Take it from Davante Adams: “It’s a world of difference. People play different, people act different, they talk different, everything [is different] coming through Lambeau. It is what it is. You can come in and try to bark and be barefoot pregame, shirt off and do whatever you want to do, but at the end of the day it’s a beast playing in that snow, it’s a beast playing in that weather and just being in that environment it takes people’s confidence away.” And if Green Bay can just put in workmanlike performances, like what we saw in the 35–16 win over Chicago, where the Packers just keep swinging until it becomes too much for the opponent, they’re going to be tough to beat in Wisconsin. I’m also the one, for what it’s worth, to make the argument that I think the lack of fans could make the edge even more stark, and that’s mostly because I’d think a cold, dark and empty Lambeau would be quite the mind-[bleep] for an opponent coming in and finding it to be way more miserable than expected.

Since we’re this deep in the column and we haven’t yet mentioned the Chiefs, who played the JV on Sunday against the Chargers, I think Brett Veach deserves some consideration for Executive of the Year. The world title, of course, is the backdrop to the whole thing. But if you look at what the Chiefs have done, and how the roster is put together, it’s not hard to figure why he’d belong in the conversation. The Chiefs, at one point last offseason, and this no exaggeration, had $177 in cap space. Not $177,000. One-hundred-and-seventy-seven dollars. Faced with that, Veach helped find a way to do a record-breaking deal with Patrick Mahomes, extended Chris Jones and Travis Kelce, and got Sammy Watkins to accept a pay cut. Meanwhile, he found corner L’Jarius Sneed in the fourth round, Sneed’s now a key nickel, and stole DT Tershawn Wharton as an undrafted free agent. And, of course, the Chiefs finished 14–2, and until Sunday had only lost one game since Veterans Day 2019. There’s a lot to look at it here, obviously, and not enough people have taken a good enough look at the guy Andy Reid wanted in charge of his personnel department. Maybe winning that award, or coming close, will change that.

And I do have some quick-hitters coming out of the week too. Because it was a relatively eventful Week 17 …

• You won’t find a much better toss than the four-yard touchdown throw from Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett that gave the Seahawks a 19–16 lead over the Niners with 2:20 left. Making the sideline throw even better was the drama of it coming on fourth-and-goal.

• It’ll get lost in the shuffle, but Mason Rudolph’s 47-yard bomb to Diontae Johnson, which put the Steelers in position to tie the game with under three minutes left, was another thing of beauty. Pittsburgh scored three plays later to make it 24–22, but couldn’t convert the two-point try.

• I absolutely love watching Nick Chubb run. The Browns will probably have to find a way to extend him after the season. I’d assume that Chubb will push the issue with the team, like he should. Any running back in his situation would be foolish not to.

• Deshaun Watson’s not going to get enough credit for how he’s played for most of this year. But he was tremendous again on Sunday against Tennessee.

• The Raiders sure feel like they should be better than 8–8. There are a lot of good young players there.

• Heck of finish for Justin Herbert, in going 22-of-31 for 302 yards, three touchdowns and a 134.1 rating against Kansas City, even if it was modified Kansas City. I love Justin Jefferson, but I think the easy pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year, Herbert, is the right one.

• Ditto on defense with Chase Young.

• The Mitch Trubisky situation is going to be tricky for the Bears after the playoffs. I can see where they’d want to build on the progress from the end of this year, and his confidence, without question, has been rebuilt. But if Nagy and Pace are back and fighting for their jobs, it’s hard to see where they wouldn’t want reinforcements.

• That said, big credit to those guys for getting to the playoffs after losing six straight, following a 5–1 start. Clearly, they were doing something right.

• Credit to the Niners too. They never laid down, even through a month in Arizona. Which I think bodes well for the team’s ability to get back to championship form in 2021.

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Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) throws the ball against Clemson Tigers in the third quarter during the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl

SIX FROM SATURDAY

1) I don’t think Justin Fields has any shot to get drafted in front of Trevor Lawrence, but he proved on Friday night that, as his throwing coach Quincy Avery said on my podcast a few weeks ago, “He’s no consolation prize.” Physically, he has the profile as a passer and an athlete to go first overall. And in a lot of years, he would. Just not this one. Really, what Fields needed was to be more consistent, which just takes reps. There were a lot of good signs in the Sugar Bowl that he can be.

2) Najee Harris’s decision to return to Alabama was questionable last year because, well, the clock is always ticking on running backs—both to get paid, and to get to their second contracts before the wheels come off. But that’s what Harris did after getting a second-round grade from the draft advisory board last year, and it’s actually working out for him. Harris, a big, freakish athlete, has played his way into first-round consideration, without question.

3) I’m not sure a similar decision has worked out as well for Clemson’s Travis Etienne. He hasn’t done a ton to hurt his stock, but I’m not sure he helped it much either. And, again, the fiscal clock is ticking for him, like it is for Harris.

4) And to circle back to the Tide, at another position, coming back to school paid off big-time for wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who may well win the Heisman Trophy on Tuesday night. There is still concern over Smith’s size, but by returning to school he positioned himself as a potential top-10 pick and could well go in front of LSU’s Ja'Marr Chase—which would’ve been pretty much unthinkable six months ago.

5) This feels like the right place to address it—and maybe it’s not—but Kellen Moore made an interesting decision to pass on the head coaching job at his alma mater Boise State to stay in Dallas as offensive coordinator. As Stanford’s David Shaw and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald would attest, there are advantages to coaching where you played, and a lot of job security to go with it if you do a good job. The flip side? The flip side is Jerry Jones once convinced Jason Garrett to say no to the Ravens in a similar spot, and Garrett wound up getting nine years as Dallas’s head coach as a reward for it. And my sense is Jones sees Moore like he once saw Garrett.

6) Steve Sarkisian’s hire at Texas caught me a little off guard, but it’s another example of Nick Saban’s power in the coaching industry. Sark joins Lane Kiffin (Ole Miss), Mario Cristobal (Oregon), Mike Locksley (Maryland) and Butch Jones (Arkansas State) as coaches who’d been fired as head coaches going to Tuscaloosa and having stock restored on the way to getting very real second chances later on. Major Applewhite, Mike Stoops and Charlie Strong are in that pipeline now, and it’s fair to ask if someone like Adam Gase could look at that track record and decide to go from the NFL to Bama.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Washington president Jason Wright on his head coach.

We’ve seen a lot of tweets like these this year. This one’s particularly wild.

I’m sure this won’t be overreacted to.

Eli!

Some ex-players weren’t pleased with the Eagles’ actions.

Others made light of it.

You don't have to watch the all-22 to know Jason Kelce was still going hard Sunday night.

Jerry’s got a folksy saying for everything.

Eagles/WFT was almost won on an offsides call!

It’s not even fun to make fun Notre Dame in the playoff any more. It’s just kind of sad.

Contemplating how rich he’s about to become.

Yikes.

That’s pretty great.

And that’s cool, too.

Master’s always looking at the upside.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

It’s 5:45 a.m. ET, and I’m going to bed. But thanks to everyone who comes by every week for all the columns. As much of a zombie as writing this particular column makes me, I love the connection we have at the site with our audience. And I’m always open to suggestions on how we can make it better for everyone, so don’t hesitate to reach out.

With that, I’m off to bed. See you guys tomorrow (later today) for the MAQB.