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MMQB: T.J. Watt Explains How the Steelers Did Just Enough to Beat the Ravens

Pittsburgh remains alive in the playoff race, because its defensive leader kept himself ready virtually and stepped up when he was needed against a heated rival. Plus, Russell Wilson on stopping a skid, Dan Quinn as interim coach, Jared Goff on a Lions win(!) and much more from Week 13.

Everyone in Pittsburgh knows the intensity of the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. But few have real insight into how a player might get himself ready to go into the game itself. And so a few neighbors of Pittsburgh’s Defensive Player of the Year candidate, T.J. Watt, can consider themselves the lucky ones coming out of last week.

For the balance of that time, Watt had no idea whether he’d actually be able to strap it up at Heinz Field on Sunday. He’d tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday, and the way it’s played out this year, most players who do test positive wind up missing at least one game, with many going through the full 10 days of testing before being cleared. But Watt held out hope that he’d be different and went through the week preparing as if he was in the facility.

“It wasn’t that bad, just because, so we’re used to doing Zoom from last season,” Watt told me over the phone, early Sunday night. “So I was able to participate in all the meetings, and watch as much film as I possibly could from home and then just did a stationary bike. And my neighbors probably thought I was a little weird running around in the backyard with my cleats on for a little bit, but I was just trying to do anything to stay in shape so I wasn’t completely gassed once I came out here today.”

Whatever he did, it wound up working for the Steelers.

Watt returned a negative test on Friday, then another on Saturday, which cleared him from the protocol to join his teammates again Sunday—and bury Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. And while his overall numbers reflect that, and we’ll get to those, it’s what he did in the game’s most critical moment that he’ll remember most.

So about Watt’s having his wind after missing a week of practice? He ended up getting the ultimate test of that early Sunday night. Baltimore had just driven 60 yards in eight plays, with Lamar Jackson’s hitting on six of seven attempts to move the Ravens down the field and draw the visitors within a point. After some discussion, John Harbaugh made the call to go for two, down 20–19. There were 12 seconds on the clock. This was the ballgame.

Good thing Watt didn’t care what the neighbors thought earlier in the week.

At the snap, showing burst like it was his first play of the game, and not his last, Watt made his way to Jackson with it all on the line—and did so with a game plan.

“Just came off the edge, unblocked, so I knew I couldn’t rush full speed ’cause a guy like that can pump-fake you,” Watt said. “So I was just trying to keep my feet on the ground as best as I could. I started to see his arm pull back like he was going to throw it. And so I tried to get my hands up to affect the angle as best as I possibly could.”

Mission accomplished. Watt came screaming off the edge to Jackson’s right, broke down as he closed in, then stayed outside of Jackson. Jackson then sidestepped back inside, and Watt threw his arms up to his right, which redirected Jackson’s throw. Mark Andrews was wide open in the flat behind Watt. It didn’t matter. Watt had done just enough to force the throw wide to the right of the Ravens’ Pro Bowl tight end.

And that didn’t just preserve the Steelers’ 20–19 win. It may have preserved their season.


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Week 13 was a weird one—not a lot of marquee matchups. And outside of a couple of great finishes, not the most compelling Sunday of NFL action. But there’s a still a lot going on and a lot for us to get to in this week’s MMQB. In the column, you’ll find …

• Some depth on Russell Wilson’s mindset with his team’s struggling.

• How Dan Quinn led the Cowboys to a win as interim coach.

• Jared Goff, Dan Campbell and the no-longer-winless Lions.

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But we’ll start with one of the NFL’s best rivalries—and how it brought out the best in one of the league’s best players.


Mike Tomlin was jokingly asked postgame if, after the way he played Sunday, Watt should ever practice again.

“Yes,” the Steelers coach deadpanned. “And there won’t be any music either.”

The second part of the coach’s comment was a dig at young receiver Chase Claypool—who’d asked for music at practice earlier in the week. The first part? That was actually fine with Watt too, because being away from the team going into the biggest game of the year really wasn’t where he’d ever want to be.

Watt made the circumstance work as best he could, though. And on top of the Peloton rides and backyard conditioning sessions, he knew doing the best he could by his team would mean more than being individually prepared—it’d also mean taking on a leadership role for a group still smarting from a 41–10 beatdown that the Bengals administered the week before.

So he wasn’t physically with his teammates. But his presence was felt at the facility.

“We were talking, we were texting and nobody was happy with the way that we were playing,” Watt said. “It wasn’t like it was something that was a well-kept secret, that we weren’t playing well. We knew that we weren’t playing as good as we were able to, and it was just a matter of being able to put together a great game plan and then having a great week of practice and then going out and executing.”

Fair to say, Watt wound up executing.

The 27-year-old finished the game with 3.5 sacks, six quarterback hits and 12 quarterback pressures, which tied the league-wide single-game high for the year as kept by NextGen Stats (Tennessee’s Harold Landry notched 12 earlier in the year). He’s now got 16 sacks through 12 games, which puts him two up on Myles Garrett atop the NFL leaderboard. And as you might imagine, the plays he made had their impact, too.

It was his pressure that generated a Minkah Fitzpatrick interception to end the Ravens’ first offensive possession, which covered 75 yards in 11 plays and got down to the Steelers’ 10-yard line. It was a Watt sack and pressure on consecutive plays in the last minute of the third quarter that kept the deficit at 10–3 going into the fourth. And another Watt sack with 7:14 left put the Ravens in third-and-15, and ultimately forced a punt that set the Steelers up for the go-ahead score.

From there, down 13–12, Ben Roethlisberger took Pittsburgh 69 yards in 11 plays, with a five-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson and two-point throw to monstrous rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth giving the hosts the 20–13 edge they needed to survive the high-wire ending that Watt wound up sealing.

That ending was one the Steelers really needed too.


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This is Watt’s fifth year as a Steeler, so he’s steeped in a rivalry that’s as violent and fierce on the field as it has been impactful in the standings. And so the other thing he did this week was try to help pass down what it means to his teammates.

“Any divisional game is huge, but this game has a lot of history,” Watt said. “I think Coach Tomlin does a good job of explaining the history of this matchup to a lot of the younger guys. And this is my fifth year now so I obviously have a little bit of my own history in this matchup. And we know that no matter what the records are between the two teams, anytime we play them in the division, the AFC North, they’re huge games.”

But then, without missing a beat, Watt added, “To get a win like this at Heinz Field in front of the fans is a momentum builder, but it means nothing if we don’t build on it.”

And he repeated that sentiment a few times over the course of our conversations, maybe because that’s just where the Steelers are right now.

The team’s erratic season started to reveal itself right after the Steelers went into Buffalo and upset the Bills on opening day. That big win was followed by three losses. Then came four straight wins and, seemingly, a path out of the woods. Only after that, Pittsburgh could muster just a tie against the 0–8 Lions, and let that bleed into consecutive losses that dropped the team to 5–5–1 with the Ravens’ coming to town.

In a way, that’s why you could see the final minute against the Ravens being so significant—getting through it required a steadiness that’s been fleeting this year for the Steelers. That Watt looked out in the huddle and saw a calm group before the decisive two-point play, even after Jackson has sliced through the defense to get to the end zone in the first place, was a good sign.

They’d been coached to expect a gamble like this from Harbaugh. They were ready for it when it came.

“They go for it on fourth down quite a bit, where you know they want to take chances, and they went for the win and it’s something that we were well-prepared for,” Watt said. “And we always practice two-point plays, so we felt confident in what we were able to call up. … [In the huddle], it’s just one of those things that you see they’re going for two, Alright, this is something we prepare for, what’s the call? Get lined up.”

From there, Watt handled the rest—and now the Steelers seem to have a new lease on life in the AFC playoff picture, sitting a half game behind the Bengals and Chargers for the final playoff spot, and just a game and a half back of the Ravens in the North. And maybe, just maybe, this one win can be a launching pad for things to come.

“I don’t know, too soon to say,” said Watt to that idea. “We just need to keep progressing, keep putting ourselves in positions to win games.”

And by the looks of it, they need to keep leaning on their star defender, too.

At least this week, he gave them everything they could ask for.


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SEAHAWKS STOP THE SKID

This hasn’t been a banner year for Russell Wilson. The Seahawks came into Sunday at 3–8. Wilson missed three games earlier in the year after dislocating and rupturing a tendon in a finger on his throwing hand and undergoing surgery in the aftermath. And playing since then hasn’t been easy, as the finger continues to heal.

All of that is why Wilson needed another voice in his life.

And so stepped in a Hall of Fame coach (Wilson declined to name the coach) last week, to give the 33-year-old the little extra he was looking for, as he worked to start digging the Seahawks out of the hole they’ve created for themselves.

“He said to me, ‘You know, Russ, you have experience, you’re gonna probably be a Hall of Famer,’” Wilson told me. “And what you need to do this week, is despite everybody talking, and what they’re saying, this and that, you’re making some great throws, just keep believing in it, he said to me, ‘Have a Hall of Fame demeanor this week, have a Hall of Fame week, have a Hall of Fame Day. Have a Hall of Fame breakfast.’

“So that meant a lot to me this week.”

Wilson then expounded on his interpretation of a Hall of Fame demeanor.

“With everything going on, in the midst of everything, ups and downs and all the stuff, that people are saying you can’t do it, I know what I’m capable of,” he said. “And I know, coming back from a severe injury and all that. But what I do know is that I’m getting better every day, and I think more than anything else is, just staying the course. Staying neutral. Not being too high, not being too low, and just believing. Just being consistent in my approach.

“I know what my approach is, I know how to prepare, I know how to help us prepare too, and we can do it together and win this game.”

And win that game they did—stunning the surging Niners, 30-23, and, without question, leveraging Wilson’s zen approach at key points of the game.

The Niners, really for the entire first half, looked poised to pull away. Only untimely penalties prevented it from happening early in the second quarter, when consecutive flags pushed San Francisco back into a second-and-25 and wound up leading to a 50-yard field goal for Robbie Gould to put the Niners up 17–7. Later in the period, a 48-yard, tight-rope act on a catch-and-run up the sideline from George Kittle made it 23–14.

All along, though, Wilson implored his guys to stay level, and eventually good things started to happen. First, it was an eight-play, 65-yard drive that finished with a seven-yard Wilson touchdown pass to rookie D’Wayne Eskridge to cut the deficit to 23–21 at the break. Then, on the Niners’ first possession of the second half, Carlos Dunlap yanked Jimmy Garoppolo down by the shirt in the end zone for a safety to tie it at 23.

And then, a Quandre Diggs interception set the stage for Wilson to play the hero, taking possession at the 49ers’ 28. Five plays later, he delivered a perfect touch throw on third-and-6 from the 12 into the corner of the end zone to Tyler Lockett for what would be the game’s final points.

“Tyler Lockett, one-on-one matchup, you give him a chance, see if he makes it,” Wilson said. “I didn’t get pressure there, because I think it was [Nick] Bosa on the right side. So I put it up high, the back pylon before he makes it, and unbelievable catch. He does a tremendous job catching the football, and it was a huge play in the game when he had that one.”

That made it 30–23, and Seattle would have to survive one more calamity from there.

That came with 4:15 left. The Seahawks were in third-and-goal at the 2, still up 30–23. Worst case, it seemed, Seattle would kick a field goal and more or less put the game away. Or so the Seahawks thought, as they called a shovel pass to Gerald Everett that 49ers linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair read perfectly, arriving at Everett as Everett arrived at the ball and punching it right out to give the Niners new life, and possession at their own 2.

“That was tough,” Wilson said. “That was a huge play, because that was a walk-in touchdown. But we focused, we stayed focused together, and I know how great he is, he’s such a tremendous football player, so we have all the faith in the world in Gerald Everett and what he can do.”

From there, though, there was nothing more Wilson and the offense really could do. So they had to watch as Jimmy Garoppolo drove the Niners 95 yards to a game-deciding fourth-and-goal from the 3. And it was there that Dunlap came up huge again, getting pressure on Garoppolo and effectively ending the game.

It gave the Seahawks their first win in over a month and the Niners their first loss in nearly that long, and kept Seattle’s slim playoff hopes alive. It leaves Seattle with five games to go, and needing to win all of them to avoid the franchise’s first losing season in a decade.

How that goes, of course, could also affect whether these are the last five games Wilson plays as a Seahawk. But when I asked him about the idea of that—and whether he’s thought about it, he wasn’t biting.

“No, I stay focused on today, and I love the game, and nothing else,” Wilson said. “But I stay focused on today. I feel like I always am, and never waver off that.”

And that much showed when the TV cameras caught him after the defense’s fourth-down stop. There wasn’t much emotion, it was just Wilson in an iso shot, looking to find his way off the field and on to whatever was coming next.

“I always say I’m being neutral, neutral thinking,” he said, explaining that particular demeanor. “And so for me, I’ll always believe in who we are and what we can do and what I can do. We got a lot more games we have to go, a lot of games to win. So we’re supposed to go out there and play a good game, and we were fortunate to be able to do it, so that’s why I’m neutral. All the craziness in that game allows me not to get too emotional.

“You can play with great emotion, but not be emotional. I think that’s probably what you saw.”

And now, with Wilson’s nearing 100%, we’ll get to see where that approach takes him.


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HOW DAN QUINN STEPPED IN

Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn met and met and met ahead of Thursday’s Cowboys-Saints game, to make sure they had the plan down pat. And for the most part, it all worked in Dallas’s 27–17 win in New Orleans, three days after a positive COVID-19 test sidelined the Cowboys’ head coach and propelled Quinn into the lead role.

But there did come a point where Quinn had to put the hat that he wore for five-plus years in Atlanta back on and make a call as he saw fit. That point arrived in the fourth quarter. Before the game, McCarthy laid out the Cowboys’ fourth-down allotment for the game to Quinn, telling him that on fourth-and-1-to-3, Dallas should go for it against the Saints. And Quinn decided to buck that talking to offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, up 20–10, with 4:33 left and Dallas facing a third-and-4.

“I remember saying to Kellen, like, Hey, man, in this scenario, if we’re ahead 2010, the only way we’re going on fourth-and-1 here is if it’s inches. Otherwise, we’re gonna punt and play field position,” Quinn said on Friday afternoon. “You know this: There’s situations, and then there’s that game. How do we go win this game? That was the one that you can’t prepare for with Mike, because you gotta see how the game plays out.

“Now, if the game had been 34–31, and it’s going back and forth, hey, we’re going. Those are ones where you see how the game unfolds, and you have discussions in the game to where we’re going. That’s how I tried to do it with [Moore], and with Bones [John Fassel] on the special-teams side.”

It’s been almost 14 months since the Falcons fired Quinn, and because of the circumstances presented by COVID-19, he got a rare sort of dry run at the job he used to have. And in the aftermath, Quinn was nice enough to take us through the day or so leading up to kickoff, to give all of you a shot to see what happens in a spot like this. So here, we’ll present some of what I picked up from the 51-year-old the day after he and the Cowboys scored their seventh win.

McCarthy and Quinn met virtually three times in the day before the game. The first one was after Wednesday’s walkthrough practice, the second was later Wednesday night and the third was after the team meeting at its New Orleans hotel on Thursday. And it was in those meetings that Quinn, purposefully, got the aforementioned guidelines.

“I wanted to make sure I could call it in the fashion he wanted—so hey let’s talk about some guidelines on fourth down, let’s talk about two-point conversions,” Quinn said. “I went through, with questions, as many things as I could pepper him with. Honestly, Albert, the only thing I was nervous about was I was like, Man, I want to deliver for the guy. Gives me the keys to the car, I wanna make sure it goes good.

“I wanted to make sure I followed the guidelines that he set.”

McCarthy’s presence was felt, as was Dak Prescott’s. Quinn said McCarthy popped into a team meeting at the hotel over Zoom with a casual, “What’s up, guys?” And then he addressed the team on the staff’s points of emphasis for the week.

“It was complementary football, and he talked about protecting the ball and going after it,” Quinn said. “So he referenced that. Tough place to play. What the crowd’s like, where they’re at. And then he hit the opportunity that’s now here in front of us, and to go take it.”

Before the Cowboys did, they’d get to hear the message again, and from a familiar voice. Just prior to kickoff, Quinn addressed the team, and what followed him, the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator said, was remarkable. Unprompted, Prescott took the floor to drive home the message McCarthy had given the players earlier.

“And then he included other people in it,” Quinn said. “He’d say, We gotta do this, this and this. What do you think about that, Albert? [Here Quinn is just using my name as an example.] And he must’ve hit the other guy up, because the other guy was like, We gotta do this, this and this. And then he’d hit the next point, O.K., we gotta hit this and this, what you think about DQ? You got anything to say about that? And that person would say something.

“It was like, holy s---, this dude’s got it. … He’s got such command and a connection with the entire team. Sometimes quarterbacks might have a really good connection with the offense but they might not with the entire team. This guy, coaches, team, I was blown away. I mean, I’ve been blown away by him my whole time here. It’s been fun not just talking football with him, but life in general. He’s got a pretty remarkable way that he leads.”

From there, the emphasis for Quinn and the staff was on communication. And for Quinn that meant making triple-sure he was crystal clear on everything and getting feedback constantly from Moore and Fassel. “It was, Dan, is this what we want? And, Yes, this is what we’re going to do,” said Quinn. “And they were excellent about it.”

And to Quinn, doing that part of the job again—in coming down from the booth, where he’s spent gamedays this season, to the field—really did feel like climbing back on an old bike.

“It definitely felt good, it felt natural,” Quinn said. “I just kept telling myself, Hey, man, do a good job of communicating with the people—with the players, with the coaches, so when it came to decisions that affected the game, I didn’t want any grey area or missteps along the way, so everyone could be prepared for how it was going down. I was calling the defense, so I wasn’t listening to the offense every step of the way.

“I’d get done with the defense, Hey, you guys good? These are the corrections. Alright, I’m gonna kick over, come get me if you need me. That part felt natural and good. I loved the energy.”


So that begs an obvious question: Did Thursday night make Quinn want to seek out a second swing at being a head coach? He’s still relatively young, has been to a Super Bowl and has done a great job not just calling the defense but developing young guys like Trevon Diggs and Micah Parsons. And yet, the truth is, he’s pretty happy where he is.

“That’s why I started doing it, to be involved with the guys and have some leadership with them, hopefully develop guys and see where we can take them to,” Quinn said. “I’m excited about this group, about where we can take them to. That’s kind of where I’m at. I’m not in any hurry. I think when you haven’t been a head coach, that’s out there, but maybe I’m in a different time in my life, where if that didn’t happen it’s not the end of the world for me. …

“There’s definitely days like [Thursday] where it’s like, Yeah, I’d like to do that. Then there’s other days where I’m seeing Mike do administrative stuff and schedules and other things and I’m like, Alright, I’m gonna go talk about the defense. There’s pros and cons to it. But I definitely didn’t come here to think about what my next job would be. I came here to see what it could turn into and have fun doing it. I’m trying hard, and doing a good job of it, to not look past where I’m at.”

He also said if head coaching opportunities arise, he’d be “selective” and that it’d have to be “somewhere that was really cool and really set up well, because that’s a big part of it.”

All that said, Thursday was a pretty good way of showing that he can do the job again, even if that doesn’t mean he necessarily will.


TEN TAKEAWAYS

It was hard not to be happy for the Lions on Sunday. And maybe the coolest part, in talking to Jared Goff afterward, was how months of situational work that had gone sparsely-used through 11 games got pulled out at the wire in Game 12. Part and parcel to that, too, was the trust Goff had in his teammates, as he piloted a 14-play, 75-yard drive, down four with less than two minutes showing and no timeouts, even though they really hadn’t been in that situation together before. “We had some guys step up and step in, but for the most part, our guys have been around the league for four or five years and know how it goes. So to be able to execute it like that kind of in our first, ‘Hey guys, we got a minute to go win the game,’ it’s pretty cool,” Goff said. And the result was a 29–27 win, with one hell of a dramatic ending.

Really, the whole thing came down to a single snap, the Lions with the ball at the Minnesota 11 with four seconds remaining. First-year coach Dan Campbell dialed up a play the Lions had for this exact situation. At the snap, three receivers were to Goff’s left—tight end T.J. Hockenson, slot Kalif Raymond and outside receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. Hockenson would run a “sit” route, moving toward the middle of the field to take defenders that way, and Raymond would run straight at the slot corner to clear him out, with St. Brown’s running a slant into the space vacated by that corner. Goff’s read was predicated on what that slot corner, Mackensie Alexander, did. If Alexander went with Raymond, that was his cue to throw it to the vacated space for Brown. If not, he’d progress. Alexander went with Raymond. Goff threw it. St. Brown caught it before the Vikings could close on him. And Detroit got its first win.

“It’s a play we’ve repped a lot since training camp,” Goff told me. “And it’s where that exact situation, the last play of the game, you kind of clear a guy out underneath, and he kind of wraps right in there and yeah—so he was No. 1 and as soon as we got the look presnap, I was like, ‘Oh boy, we might actually have it here.’ And sure enough, we did and St. Brown made a great catch.”

So the play was great, but the feeling was even better. Remember, as positive as Campbell’s been, he’s coming from a place, in New Orleans, that won a lot. Goff, too. So the last three months, no matter how brave a face anyone put on it, weren’t easy. And yeah, that did feel good for the Lions. “Very cathartic,” Goff said. “It’s like you put in so much work and so much effort, and you come up short, repeatedly, for different reasons every week, it seems like. It’s like, Oh, one week’s this, one week’s that. We’re nowhere near where we want to be, record-wise, but getting on the board with one is huge. It’s just huge for confidence for everyone and especially for these young guys who haven’t experienced that. For them to know what it feels like and know what it looks like and know that it can be done even when you do make mistakes. And I do throw a pick late in the game, and, Oh, that’s alright, we can still win the game. More than anything, it’s just a feeling of like release,”

And from there, while Goff was pretty quick to give Campbell credit for keeping the train on the tracks, he was clear in saying it took a lot of pros to handle what the Lions have. “He’s kind of like the figurehead of it all,” said Goff of Campbell. “But I think the whole staff, it trickles down from him to the staff and the leaders of the team, as far as hoping guys like myself, Michael Brockers, Alex Anzalone, T.J. Hockenson, [Taylor] Decker, Jamaal [Williams], all those guys that really are our veteran leaders of the team, keeping guys accountable during practice and not giving into that, Oh well screw it, we’re 0–10 and whatever. Every week’s a new week and I think them just giving us that mindset and trickling it down throughout the whole team, it’s important.” We’ll have more on Goff himself in the MAQB later on Monday. And more on Campbell’s heartfelt tribute to those affected by the tragedy in Oxford, Mich. later in the column.

The Chargers’ highs and lows over the season showed up in the context of a single game. Brandon Staley’s crew has tantalizing potential—but you can see some of the fits and starts a lot of coaches go through in Year 1 of a program, in trying to find consistency, rather than just glimpses, in a team trying to realize it’s potential. The Chargers won Sunday, beating a really solid Bengals team 41–22 on the road. But really, this one felt like three separate games. There was the one where Justin Herbert and his receivers won jump ball and after jump ball to race out to a 24–0 lead. Then, the one where Joe Burrow shook off a nasty-looking injury to the pinkie on his throwing hand and came within a missed two-point conversion of a tie game, with the scored left at 24–22. Then, there was the Chargers’ defense taking over with turnovers late to finish the hosts off. And really, the Chargers were able to do that by tightening coverage on the back end and amping up the pressure on the front end by sending extra rushers at the banged-up Burrow.

“On defense, we just said everybody tighten up, make them work for everything,” veteran corner Chris Harris Jr. told me postgame. “We know they got talented receivers, a talented offense, they just put up 41 points on the Steelers—so we know what type of team that we was facing, and we just knew if we could get to Burrow, make it tough on him in tight coverage, it would be a long day.”

In the end, it wound up really just being a long fourth quarter for the Bengals. That started with Joe Mixon’s bobbling, then dropping a handoff, with under 14 minutes left, and the score 24–22. Tevaughn Campbell scooped it up and easily raced 61 yards for the score. The Chargers then forced a three-and-out, got the ball back and went 53 yards in four plays for another touchdown to make it 38–22. Harris wound up picking Burrow off in the red zone minutes later, with 8:07 to go (he told me he was defending the goal line, and “if my dude ran the over route, I could pass him off to be able to fall off and read the quarterback. And I was able to fall off, have vision on the quarterback, and go make a play”), and that was that.

And Harris, who won a Super Bowl with the Broncos, left the field with a message for his teammates: December is when real football starts. “We got great potential, the potential is off the charts, so it’s just playing consistent every week and playing together, playing connected on both sides of the football,” he said. “When our offense is rolling, they can’t be stopped. When we play solid defense, we make it tough on the opponents. So it’s really on us, on us guys to be consistent as players and like I said, to take that accountability, and that’s what we’ve been doing. So we know, we gotta string these games together and start stacking them up.”

I don’t think the Chiefs’ defense should be ignored anymore. Would you believe that, statistically at least, Kansas City’s 22–9 home win against the Browns in primetime was the team’s worst defensive performance in nearly two months? It’s true—the 404 yards the Chiefs’ defense yielded was its highest total allowed since the early October loss to Buffalo. In fact, before Sunday night, the Chiefs had allowed 301 yards or fewer in four straight games. So this wasn’t quite that sort of dominance. And yet, in the end, the defense had scored almost as many points (seven) as the offense it was charged with stopping (nine), and while Denver moved the ball between the 20s, the Chiefs had a way of stopping any bleeding it needed to.

• Denver’s monster, 20-play, 83-yard, 11-minute second-quarter drive was stymied when Willie Gay and Melvin Ingram converged on Javonte Williams and dropped the Bronco rookie for a one-yard loss with 1:12 left in the first half, preserving a 10–3 lead for K.C.

• With 2:17 left in the third and Denver, again, moving the ball, and down just 13–3, Juan Thornhill stepped in front of Jerry Jeudy to pick off Teddy Bridgewater at the Chiefs’ 35.

• And on Denver’s next possession, after the Broncos drove it 48 yards to the Chiefs’ 27, blitzing linebacker Ben Niemann got his hand on a Bridgewater fourth-and-2 throw, deflecting a pass into the arms of maligned safety Daniel Sorensen, who collected the ball, and ran it back 75 yards for the touchdown that iced the 22–9 win.

And you’ll notice that among those mentioned there aren’t Frank Clark, Chris Jones or Tyrann Mathieu, each of whom has played really well of late. Add it up, and you have a defense playing complete ball right now. I know I’ve said this before, but if the offense wakes up, look out. Few teams will be able to run with these guys.

Getting Gardner Minshew was a phenomenal piece of roster management by the Eagles. Philadelphia has had six sixth-round picks the last two years: Marlon Tuipulotu, Tarron Jackson, JaCoby Stevens, Shaun Bradley, Quez Watkins and Prince Tega Wanogho. Only two of those guys have played more than 30 snaps on offense or defense for Philly this year, with Watkins being the potential gem. And you know what else a sixth-round pick got the Eagles this year? Minshew. In his first start as an Eagle, Minshew went 20-of-25 for 242 yards, two touchdowns and a 133.7 rating. Now, I know some will argue how this was gamed up for Minshew, and that he wasn’t exactly faced with the ‘85 Bears, or even the ‘21 Bears here. But the bottom line is he was poised and in control, and that’s because this happened to be his 21st NFL start. Meanwhile, here’s his cost this year and next to the Eagles:

2020: $850,000
2021: $965,000

And if you juxtapose that against what experienced stopgap vets are making in other places—Teddy Bridgewater’s at 11.5 million per year, while Ryan Fitzpatrick and Andy Dalton are at $10 million—it’s easy to see where you could say that having Minshew allows for the Eagles to keep maybe two quality guys on the roster they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Past this year? Maybe Minshew gets them a pick in a trade. Maybe they just get the benefit of having him on their roster for another year. Either way, there’s almost no downside. Which shows the NFL screwed up letting the Eagles get Minshew at the price they did. And even better, the Eagles already got the sixth-rounder they lost back, by trading Joe Flacco to the Jets just before Halloween. That trade, of course, happened because Minshew gave them a surplus at the position.

Rob Gronkowski’s making a significant difference in Tampa Bay. The 31-year-old finished with four catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns, and each one illustrated perfectly how Gronkowski’s become an integral part of what the Bucs do—and why his absence was a part of the speed bump Tampa hit in November.

• His first catch, a 27-yard touchdown, came on a third-and-4.

• His second catch, an 11-yard touchdown, came on a third-and-4.

• His third (14 yards) and fourth (six yards) catches came in the fourth quarter.

Here’s the thing: Last year, both Gronkowski and Antonio Brown were sort of luxury items for a high-flying Bucs offense, like a fancy hood ornament on a Ferrari, because they’d jumped on a moving train, and the realities of the COVID-19 season made it easier for the team to build up Brady’s relationships with guys already ingratiated in Bruce Arians’s system. This year’s difference was those two were there from the start, Brady had built-in trust with them, and naturally they became more important. “It’s a lot of hard work put in,” Gronkowski told reporters after the game. “A lot of dedication, a lot of effort, energy, no doubt about that. But we keep each other going. When I’m not feeling it, sometimes he boosts me up. The one time he’s not really feeling it, I can boost him up, but it’s a connection. We go way back. We’re just glad that we still got it and we can help out the team.” The flip side, of course, is that Gronkowski’s absence was felt, as was Brown’s over the last two months (Gronkowski played in just one game between the Rams game on Sept. 26 and the Giants game on Nov. 22; Brown’s been out since Oct. 14). And so having Gronk back out there has been a godsend for the quarterback. This dynamic should also make the coming Brown decision a very interesting one.

My guess is Brady would be upset if Brown gets released. And that makes a call that’ll have to come a complicated one for the Bucs, who could get Brown (and safety Mike Edwards) back for their Dec. 26 game in Carolina. Remember, when Arians brought Brown in, he publicly declared that the embattled receiver was in Tampa on a zero-tolerance basis. Now, that was last year, and obviously Brown’s banked some sweat equity with Arians and his staff since. Still, what Brown did was more than screw up. He was busted amid allegations that he and two teammates (Edwards and the since-jettisoned John Franklin III) had fake vaccination cards from remote Citrus County, around an hour and a half away. That is a federal offense and a staggering breach of trust (taking the Bucs at their word, that they didn’t know) with a coaching staff that’s one of the NFL’s oldest, and has members who’ve had health issues. All of which puts Arians and GM Jason Licht in a tough spot. Either they draw their line in the sand here and risk Brady’s ire. Or they just grit their teeth and manage Brown through the end of the year and playoffs, in the name of chasing a championship, which has basically been their mandate since No. 12 got there.

The Panthers’ decision to can Joe Brady wasn’t completely out of left field. And if it’d happened after the season, or Carolina gently nudged him out the door by encouraging him to find a college job before then, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised. But Matt Rhule did this with five games left on the schedule and the Panthers still very much in the playoff race, and with a quarterback situation that’s been in flux since Rhule arrived in Charlotte in January 2020. Here, then, are some relevant numbers …

• The Panthers were 21st in total offense last year. They’re 28th thus far this year.

• They were 24th in points scored last year. They’re 24th in points scored this year.

• They were 23rd in team passer rating last year (87.5). They’re 32nd this year (69.7).

And sure, there are extenuating circumstances here. Brady had four different starting quarterbacks in 28 games—Bridgewater (15 starts), Sam Darnold (nine), P.J. Walker (two) and Cam Newton (two)—and none distinguished themselves. There have been injuries too, with Christian McCaffrey’s being the most prominent (and trying). The line’s still got issues. But the fact of the matter here remains that Brady’s offensive build lagged behind what Phil Snow’s done with the Carolina defense, and the outsized expectations he arrived with (that may not have been entirely fair) weren’t realized. And if there’s a lesson on that, it might be that experience does count. Brady was a quality-control coach in New Orleans in 2018, and while he helped to lead perhaps the greatest college offense of all-time, that LSU group had NFL-level talent everywhere (Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, Clyde Edwards-Helaire), and Brady only coordinated and called the passing game there. That’s not to say he didn’t do a good job. He did. But the idea that it’d translate right over to the pros might’ve been a stretch to begin with. And it’s too bad for Brady, too. He interviewed very well with teams last January, to the point where a couple execs I’d talked to expected he’d get a head-coaching job in the league in 2022. Obviously that ship’s sailed now. But that doesn’t change the fact that Brady’s a smart young coach, who’ll have plenty of time to rebound from this—the question really now becomes whether he’ll stay in the NFL to do it. As for the Panthers, the change shouldn’t be too disruptive, with senior offensive assistant Jeff Nixon, Rhule’s OC at Baylor, in position to grab the reins.

The Cardinals passed a pretty big test on Sunday. No, it wasn’t what this sideways version of the Bears was serving up. It was everything else. It was playing in ugly conditions—the rain, wind and cold of Chicago in December. It was going west to east for a 1 p.m. ET start. It was coming off a bye and trying to sustain momentum built before it. It was reintegrating guys into the lineup and wearing a target as someone else’s big game, this being the opportunity for another struggling team to post a marquee win. Well, check, check, check, check and check. “We knew it would be grimy, windy, wet, cold,” Kliff Kingsbury told reporters postgame. “But I thought our defense played tremendous in creating those takeaways and giving us short fields on offense—and we were able to capitalize a few times.” Indeed, this was a different kind of game. And the Cardinals responded by picking off Andy Dalton four times, rushing for 137 yards and, like Kingsbury said, winning grimily. Why does it matter? Because even as the NFL’s best team, at 10–2, there’s a chance Arizona could slip up somewhere and have to go to Lambeau, or some other place less temperate than the desert, in January. Now, they’ve shown they can handle it and win in a different way than what’s most comfortable to them, and that’s a big piece of making it happen in the NFL.

It’s hard not to take notice of what’s happening with Tua Tagovailoa. Sunday’s was the fourth straight game in which he threw for a passer rating over 100. You’re starting to see glimpses of the instinctive, fast-playing quarterback we watched for four years at Alabama, and it’s happening through George Godsey and Eric Studesville’s putting renewed emphasis on the run-pass option game that Tagovailoa thrived with in Tuscaloosa (it requires a quarterback to have fast hands, and an ability to process quickly). It’s also helped the Dolphins shorten the learning curve for sixth pick Jaylen Waddle, who’s exploded for 26 catches and 292 yards in his last three games riding the same sort of familiarity with the RPO game Tagovailoa has, having come with him from Bama. Is it sustainable? We’ll see. For now, a more efficient Tagovailoa’s complementing a fast-improving defense, and Miami’s won five straight, becoming just the fourth team in NFL history to go from 1–7 to 6–7. The Dolphins get their bye next week, then close with division home games against the Jets and Patriots sandwiching trips to New Orleans and Tennessee. And in a year when 9–8 might get you in the playoffs …

It’s time, again, for our quick hitters. So let’s jump in on those …

• Is Deebo Samuel suddenly the Niners’ MVP? Without him Sunday, a run game that had been rolling was stymied, held to just 71 yards on 25 carries in the game against the Seahawks.

• Brian Johnson signed with Washington on Tuesday. The Football Team is his third NFL employer of this calendar year. The last one, the Saints, canned him after he missed two extra points in a single game for them. And yet, Ron Rivera was willing to roll Johnson out and let him try a 48-yarder to win a crucial game. It paid off. Washington 17, Las Vegas 15.

• Another player Washington’s coaches have confidence in: Taylor Heinicke. OC Scott Turner let him let it rip on WFT’s final possession, and Heinicke’s management of the situation (the clock, the kicker’s range, everything) was outstanding.

• Cooper Kupp in a nutshell: It took him two plays to turn Rams-Jags into the kind of blowout most expected coming in. The first came on second-and-3 with 13:19 left in the third quarter, on a designed throwback, with Matthew Stafford’s rolling left, then bombing it down the right sideline to Kupp for 48 yards. The second came two plays later, with Kupp’s beating his man clean on a slant and taking it 29 yards for a touchdown, to push the lead to 23–7. Oh, and by the way, he’s already over 100 catches.

• This might be the first Sunday where you could say both the rebuilding Jaguars and the rebuilding Texans looked lifeless. The fight didn’t seem the same from either, and one byproduct of the expanded schedule is that teams like that have to stay engaged for another week into January than they normally would. There could be some ugly results when we get there.

• Jonathan Taylor—a week after questions were asked about whether the Colts highlighted him enough in their loss to Tampa—got 32 carries and went for 143 yards and two touchdowns. Which helped calm some protection issues around Carson Wentz and set the tone for the 31–0 win over Houston.

• The injury issues across the NFL seem worse than usual, and some coaches are pointing to the lack of work players got in the spring and summer as a cause. As it stands right now, the Ravens and Packers have continually lost foundational pieces (most recently the former lost Marlon Humphrey, the latter lost Elgton Jenkins). The Chiefs are just getting healthy. The Bills lost their best defensive player. There’s more and not much of it is great.

• Mike Zimmer’s made the playoffs every other year since Minnesota hired him in 2014, and he may have to continue that trend to keep his job, at this point.

• Hunter Renfrow’s a baller.

• The Jets got Zach Wilson’s best day as a pro, and we’ll have more on it in Best Of below.


SIX FROM SATURDAY

1) If you were sick of the Alabama/Clemson/Ohio State/Oklahoma cabal atop the college football world, this was your year. Four brand new Power 5 conference champs and four that are hardly established powerhouses. Pitt won its first ACC title and first conference title of any kind in 11 years. Utah won its first Pac-12 title and first conference title of any kind in 13 years. Michigan won its first Big 10 title in 17 years. Baylor won its first Big 12 title in seven years. And then, well, there’s Bama.

2) Brent Venables’s hire at Oklahoma is a fascinating one—and one that indicates the formula may change in Norman, maybe back to one Venables’s old boss Bob Stoops employed early in his time as Sooners coach. Also, there’s what’s left behind at Clemson, where he was the defensive coordinator. Over a 30-year period, from 1986 to 2014, the Tigers produced eight first-round picks on defense. Over the last seven years alone, they’ve matched that number, averaging one per year while consistently fielding one of the most difficult to prepare for defenses in the country. Clemson, by the way, is also losing its athletic director, and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott is a candidate for a couple of ACC jobs. But, to me, Venables is the big one. We’ll see how Dabo Swinney adapts.

3) We went over the macro effect the Lincoln Riley/Brian Kelly business from last week had on the NFL in Friday’s GamePlan. There’s a micro effect too, and that’s in player development for the draft. Riley produced a robust quarterback/receiver pipeline from Oklahoma to the NFL over the last five years, and now, at USC, he should have access to even more talent. Meanwhile, Kelly leaves behind what had been one of the NFL’s best assembly lines for offensive linemen, and it’ll be interesting to see if that carries on at Notre Dame, and whether it carries over to LSU, which had pretty significant offensive line problems in 2021.

4) Between the 97-yard drive to win the Iron Bowl and Saturday’s 421-yard effort against a previously impenetrable Georgia defense, it feels like Alabama QB Bryce Young is on the precipice of the Heisman Trophy. And he’ll be a fascinating NFL evaluation when that time comes. He’s small, but he looks explosive and instinctive in how he plays. And he has come up very, very big in big moments this year for a Tide team that’s been far from as perfect as last year’s version was.

5) I said on Twitter on Saturday that I believe Nick Saban is the John Wooden of college football. It’s the winning that made me say that, of course: That win over Georgia gave him an eighth SEC title in Tuscaloosa and a shot at his seventh national title as Tide coach (and eighth overall). It’s also the way they have, over and over and over again, churned through talent. Alabama lost eight of the top 38 picks in April’s draft, and seven months later looks like a machine again.

6) I’d be remiss if I didn’t say something about Luke Fickell in this space. The Cincinnati coach was the target of criticism at times over 15 seasons as an assistant, and one as interim coach at Ohio State, his alma mater. But if you talk to the guys who played for him, or those who worked with him, you’ll hear about a guy who’s as loyal and hard-working as they come. It’ll be easy to root for the Bearcats on New Year’s Eve.


BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Guy was at Wisconsin-Whitewater last year.

All due respect to Brady, playing left tackle at 40 might be more impressive than playing quarterback at 44.

This is what Bill Belichick would call “football character” in a scouting report.

Ain’t that the truth.

Amazing longevity from Harbaugh and Tomlin, and I love that rivalry.

I also enjoyed Harbaugh sending Chuck Clark offsides intentionally to game the clock. Great situational coaching.

These two will have some stories to tell when they’re done playing.

Yup. Signing Adrian Peterson shows you mean business.

Jets and Giants fans are gonna want to read up on Kayvon Thibodeaux, Aidan Hutchinson, Derek Stingley Jr., Evan Neal, Devin Lloyd and …. On and on.

I didn’t think so but what do I know?

Proof that some of the issue’s gotta be systemic—which is what Urban Meyer was hired to address.

Hard not to love this.

Michele’s not messing around.

Lincoln Financial Field = the Danger Zone.

Now, this is good trolling.

It sounds like they’ve worked things out mechanically, which is good, since that’s why they brought John Beck in.

Love it.

Played more than a half with this injury.

Just a total badass.

Me too.

Someone has to find this guy by end of business Monday.

Very possible the NFL’s killing machine reemerges like college football’s did on Saturday.

Aaiden Diggs rules.

Words to live by.


devin-singletary-buffalo-bills-running-back

MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

Every week, we’ll talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Bills-Patriots, we’re bringing you Buffalo tailback Devin Singletary.

MMQB: Have you gotten that big-game feel this week, given the opponent and the stakes?

DS: Yeah, of course. It’s a division game. It’s a must-win for us. So yeah, I’ve definitely got that feeling.

MMQB: For you guys coming out of the 23 stretch, did it feel like the Saints game on Thanksgiving might be a turning point, with the way you guys played?

DS: Yeah, man, it was just us getting back to being us, for one. And then definitely hunkering down on our details. That was the biggest thing—just getting back to being us and staying on the details. I think we did a great job of that, and if we continue to build off that, we’ll be fine.

MMQB: When you say “being us,” what do you mean?

DS: Just playing Bills football—flying around, having fun, making plays and finding ways to win games.

MMQB: So if you got back to flying around last week, were guys playing tight at all before, with all the expectations you had coming into the year?

DS: I wouldn’t say that. It could’ve just been us not being on our details. And the other thing—this is the NFL. The record doesn’t matter. These guys get paid as well. So you gotta be on your A game every week. That’s what I feel like it came down to.

MMQB: Against the Saints, you guys did run the ball more—was that done with some intention, just looking to be a little more balanced?

DS: No, that was just how the game played out. We thought that was what we needed to do to win, and that’s what we were doing. It’s what we stuck with, and it’s worked out for us.

MMQB: What has Matt Breida brought to the running back room over the last few weeks?

DS: He’s brought some juice for sure. He’s very fast, and every time he gets in, he’s making a play—juicing everyone up, juicing the offense up. And this is his fifth season, so he’s a little bit more of a veteran than me and Zack [Moss], so we can always go to him if we need pointers or whatever it may be.

MMQB: Is there anything in particular you’ve taken from him then?

DS: It could be any little thing—picking his brain about certain runs, certain pass plays, or just seeing how he sees things. And now it’s piggybacking off each other, running ideas past each other, that’s how it’s been.

MMQB: In Year 3, where do you think you’re a better player than you have been?

DS: I feel like I’ve gotten better all around. But mainly just being mentally ready. I think that’s where I’ve taken the biggest step.

MMQB: So how does that show up? And does it just take time to get there?

DS: Like you said, I’ve played two years already, this is my third year, so just getting that experience, and just continuing to learn, and continuing to chase improvement. That’s what I would say.

MMQB: Your opponent this week—their run defense is really good with the exception of last week, Matthew Judon’s up there in sacks, J.C. Jackson in picks; when you look at the Patriots’ tape, what do you see?

DS: Man, they’re a disciplined group. They’re gonna fly around, and they’re gonna play hard for all four quarters. That’s what you’re going to get out of them.

MMQB: And pretty tough to run on?

DS: Definitely—you’re playing against a disciplined team, so you gotta be on your A game. You gotta be on your details all the way.

MMQB: Coming in after sweeping them and winning the division last year, does this game have a different feel than when you were trying to knock them off the mountain?

DS: Nah, I feel like it’s always a big game whenever we’re playing the Patriots—or any other team in the division, for sure. There’s a little more added to it, because it’s a division game. That plays a big part in it.

MMQB: So do you see the division as now going through Buffalo, the same way it used to always go through Foxboro?

DS: I wouldn’t say that. I mean, shoot, those guys have been playing good ball, they’re on a six-game winning streak. And you look at it, they’re the big dogs right now—they’re leading the division. So no, I wouldn’t say that.

MMQB: Biggest challenge for you personally preparing for them?

DS: I would say it all! I gotta be on everything—pass [protection]; when I do get the ball, I gotta be ready to make the right reads; and when the ball is thrown to me, I have to catch it.

MMQB: So I notice you went to American Heritage near Fort Lauderdale?

DS: Yeah, and I also went to Delray.

MMQB: I know a lot of NFL players went to American Heritage. Who was the best player on your high school team?

DS: The best player I played with in high school, God rest his soul, was Greg Bryant. Man, he could do it all—defense, offense, running back, whatever you needed him to do, he was able to do it. And he was doing that game-in and game-out. Definitely the best player I ever played with in high school.

MMQB: So being a little older, before he went to Notre Dame, was he a mentor to you?

DS: In a way, definitely. I came in, my freshman year was his senior year. That was my big brother, man.

MMQB: Having seen a friend like that die at 21, had to have had a big impact on you …

DS: Definitely. Definitely, man. I know if he was still alive, he’d be right here in the league with me. It definitely motivates me.

MMQB: Is there anything special to you about playing on Monday night?

DS: Definitely. I just remember staying up late, it always being a school night, growing up watching Monday Night Football. And now I get the opportunity to play on Monday night. It’s awesome.

MMQB: And I’d think the expectation is it’s gonna be wild out there Monday in Orchard Park?

DS: Oh yeah, it’s gonna be a crazy atmosphere, man. I’m ready for it. I know the Patriots are ready for it. It’s gonna be fun.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

I hope everyone’s seen this by now. If not, give it a look.

I love that Campbell did this, so I figured I’d reach out to him Sunday night to find out where he got the idea to honor those affected by the atrocities in Oxford, Mich.

Campbell responded, via text, that “I wanted to do it because so much has been said on Tate Myre the football player, who is a hero, but it shouldn’t overshadow the others who died or were wounded, and the impact on their families and friends.”

So here, to wrap up the column, are the names Campbell read:

• Madisyn Baldwin
• Hana St. Juliana
• Justin Shilling
• Tate Myre
• Phoebe Arthur
• John Asciutto
• Riley Franz
• Elijah Mueller
• Kylie Ossege
• Aiden Watson
• Molly Darnell

Our prayers are with their families.

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