Sean McDermott knows how his comments about Bill Belichick back on Dec. 6 came off. And as he and I talked after the Bills-Patriots return match on Sunday, with Buffalo’s coach making his way to the busses, he wanted to make sure he was crystal clear in getting his point across this time—after things spiraled a little the last time, with his assertion that New England’s Week 13 win wasn’t about the Patriots’ icon.
He insisted he was never trying to take anything away from Belichick. In fact, it wasn’t hard to tell that these wins over New England mean more to McDermott because it’s Belichick.
“I’ll talk about that quote, first of all,” he explained. “I know what I meant to say, and I have the utmost respect for Bill. And it was more about what I and our team didn’t do. And things sometimes take on a life of their own, I guess. But look, Bill Belichick makes me a better coach. He’s the standard. And so he just … he challenges even the opposite coach to continue to grow. It’s so hard to beat his team.
“And at the end of the day, I’m just very thankful for the opportunity to bring our team here, and I thought our guys played really hard today.”
Bottom line: McDermott knows full well who Belichick is. But all along, he just wanted his Bills to show exactly who they are. And on Sunday, they did that, emphatically.
So who are they? If they keep this up, they’ll be kings of the AFC East. Again.
That’s the upshot of the Bills’ resounding 33–21 win at Gillette Stadium, because if they can be themselves twice more, they’ll beat the Falcons and Jets, and repeat as division champs in the two years right after Tom Brady’s departure from New England. (Brady won the East 17 times in 19 years, for those who don’t know.) And they’ll be making it happen in the weeks following that soul-crushing Monday night loss to these same Patriots.
Which is where this one really did feel significant. For the last half decade, since McDermott and GM Brandon Beane got to Buffalo, they’ve been chasing the Patriots. After sweeping New England last year, this year, for the first time, they were no longer the hunter—and that made the challenge on that Monday, and especially this Sunday, different.
But as the Bills saw it, there was a whole new opportunity there, too.
“There’s a learning piece that goes with that also, for our young football team and our young leadership group,” McDermott continued. “It’s that we just gotta stay humble, and continue to be who we are and put the work in to earn the right to win.”
Roughly translated, McDermott was saying there was plenty for the Bills to take from that Week 13 loss. And that Week 16 showed they got plenty out of it.
Hard to believe, but we’re just two weeks from being in a playoff week, and in the 2022 hiring cycle, and that means in this week’s MMQB there’s a lot to sort through. Among the things we’ll hit on in the column this morning …
• The Colts’ remarkable work through a COVID-19 crisis on Saturday morning.
• Cooper Kupp on why he’s better than ever now, as he approaches the catches record.
• Nick Sirianni’s family quarantine, in the midst of a big Eagles run.
• The other rookie quarterback.
But we’re starting in Foxboro with the suddenly resurgent Bills.
There’s no sugarcoating it: Dec. 6 wasn’t a great night for the Bills. In blustery, cold conditions that the Bills should consider their own, it was the Patriots who seemed at home. And New England’s ability to play the game on their terms—only making their rookie quarterback throw it three times, while running for 222 yards and keeping the Bills from the end zone on three of four red-zone trips—proved it.
Worse, after four years of ascending, there were legitimate questions about whether last year’s run to the AFC title game was just a short spike for the Bills, and if the Patriots’ reign atop the East simply skipped a year as Belichick worked to find his next quarterback.
And, of course, there was the now-ridiculous-sounding idea that the loss had broken the Bills.
Looking at it now, that was probably always ridiculous, given that the Bills have been really good in four of five years under McDermott and Beane, and the one downturn came with Josh Allen as a rookie in 2018, which was also the year the team ripped off financial Band-Aids put on by the previous regime to keep the roster together. With that track record, there’s real proof that these Bills have staying power.
But we’ve seen the Patriots in opponents’ heads before, and that’s why so many assumed old demons had gotten to Allen, McDermott & Co. in early December. It’s probably also why McDermott got so annoyed when people kept asking question that led down that path then—and why he was so insistent that the team just needed to use that game to clean up its own act.
“It’s just continuing to find out about our football team,” McDermott said. “Just continuing to improve in different parts of our football team, and I think the leadership also started to step up some more, and I’m talking about the player leadership in the locker room. And so I don’t think you can just point to one thing, probably, Albert, in fairness to the situation. I just think the guys, they just continue to try and grow every week.”
It started to show up in the second half against the Buccaneers the following week, with the Bills’ battling back from a 24–3 deficit at the break and a 27–10 deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime, and come within a missed interference call or two from completing the comeback on the road against the defending champs. It might’ve been a little tougher to see last week, since the Panthers are 2–10 since September. Still, the Bills rebounded the Tampa disappointment with a fairly resounding win over that Carolina team.
That left this test where, as McDermott said, the Bills needed their best players to step up.
The quarterback ended up being first in line to.
After the defense pushed the Patriots’ offense back six yards on a game-opening three-and-out—a big-time reversal from the way Week 13 went—Allen went to work. He went 6-of-9 for 49 yards on a game-opening 13-play, 61-yard drive. He found Isaiah McKenzie on a crucial third-and-7 to move the chains, then again in the back of the end zone on a fourth-and-2 to cap the march and put Buffalo up 7–0.
Mac Jones and the Patriots would answer with an impressive 13-play, 75-yard drive of their own. But the Bills knew New England would be tough out. And by then, it was clear that Buffalo was playing a different game than it had three weeks ago.
The day wasn’t perfect for the Bills. They got stopped on fourth-and-goal from the Patriots’ 1-yard line in the second quarter, preventing them from taking a 17–10 lead and ultimately keeping them from being up 24–7 at the half. And after the Bills’ first drive of the second half stalled inside the 20—Tyler Bass wound up kicking a 34-yard field goal to cap that one—what could’ve been a commanding 31–7 edge was just 20–7.
So Buffalo left the door open, and the Patriots came through it a couple times, cutting the Bills’ lead down first to 20–14, then down to 26–21. But where those slip-ups might’ve created some nerves, Buffalo saw opportunity.
More than just that, Allen seized on the opportunity during what could wind up being a season-defining 13-play, 75-yard drive, that started at the Buffalo 25 with the lead at five and 7:37 left in the game. Eventually, Allen’s playmaking ability would come into play, but before that, his growth as a quarterback in big moments like these showed up.
“He was doing some of that [playmaking] before,” McDermott said. “I think probably the bigger maturation area is taking some of those checkdowns early in the game like he was, and us getting some RAC off of those checkdown opportunities that we had there after that.”
Case in point, on the third play of the drive, on third-and-10, Allen sat calmly in the pocket and waited for McKenzie to clear coverage, running a drag from the quarterback’s right to his left. Allen dumped the ball off, and McKenzie turned upfield for 17 yards. And on the very next play, Allen got the ball to the sideline to catch a diving McKenzie, running an outbreaking route past the sticks, for another 15 yards.
Just like that, the Bills were in Patriots territory, and Allen then toggled back from executing the routine to pulling off the ridiculous—striking a balance he and OC Brian Daboll have been working since 2019 to find.
The first example came on fourth-and-1 from the Patriots’ 34 with 4:27 to go. The Bills called a bootleg, and New England veteran Jamie Collins had Allen dead to rights in the backfield. That was before the QB threw a stutter step at him then burst right through the New England front for eight yards.
“I mean, it’s him just putting his signature on the play,” said McDermott. “I thought Coach Daboll called a great game. But there were some times where Josh put his own signature on it, and that’s part of why he does what he does.”
Another one of those times came up three plays later, on third-and-10 from the New England 26. Allen dropped back, and the pocket quickly broke down around him. So Allen sprinted toward the line of scrimmage and then, as Kyle Van Noy closed on him, executed what looked like a 12-yard forward option pitch to Stefon Diggs, who easily raced past the sticks and to the New England 7.
Josh being Josh?
“Yup,” McDermott said. “You hit the nail on the head.”
Two plays after that, Allen carried out a nice creative play design from Daboll, coming off a play fake as if he were running an option keeper, only to flip the ball to Dawson Knox for a two-yard touchdown after Matthew Judon and Kyle Dugger started to close on him, and that was that.
And even better than slaying a supposed dragon, the Bills, once again, saw their quarterback handle a big stage carrying big stakes with big poise.
“He had a great week in his approach, both on the field and off the field,” McDermott said. “He carries great influence on our football team, and we saw the result of his approach today, all the way through.”
But Sunday wasn’t just him.
Like a lot of other teams at this time of year, and especially in this particular year, the Bills didn’t carry a full deck with them into Foxboro. Receivers Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis went on the COVID-19 list on Friday, and over the course of the week, starting linemen Jon Feliciano (who was actually hospitalized), Cody Ford and Dion Dawkins landed on it too, leaving Allen with a patchwork line and depleted receiver corps.
And maybe in the aftermath of all that, with backups’ starting at guard, and a rookie’s taking over at left tackle, it was the smallest Buffalo Bill (at 173 pounds) who best typified the guys who came out of nowhere to come up big. McKenzie, who had the aforementioned plays of the game’s pivotal drive, plus the touchdown, led the Bills with 11 catches for 125 yards, playing the role that Beasley normally would.
“He brought a lot of energy to our team,” said McDermott. “And really, for us, it was rolling with the punches. It’s a one-week-at-a-time type of approach. I was very impressed by the way our guys handled it, going like they have the last couple of weeks.”
Which brings us back to implications here. Coming out of Tampa, the Bills were two games out and seemed a long shot to win another division title. Now, all of that’s back in front of them. And just the same, McDermott knows how quickly it could all come undone if the Bills don’t keep their foot on the gas.
That’s probably why when I asked one last time about his intent with the Belichick comment—and my read that he wanted his players to take ownership of it, and their own improvement—he was more than content to keep things moving.
“I think I’ve addressed it enough,” he said. “And really, Albert, I have the utmost respect for Coach Belichick, and I try to watch and learn so much of what he’s done here and how he’s done it. I’ll just leave it at that.”
So yeah, the Bills cleared a hurdle Sunday. And the coach’s hope would be they’ll take as much from this Patriots game as they did the last one.
COLTS FIND WAYS TO WIN
It was only fitting that, for the Colts, a day that started with a host of adjustments would end with a big one. And that big one came on third-and-9 in Arizona on Saturday night, with Indianapolis clinging to a 15–13 lead and the clock ticking, with less than seven minutes to go.
Carson Wentz had raised an idea to Colts coach Frank Reich earlier and, while it made sense on paper, it would require trusting Dezmon Patmon to execute it—the same Patmon who was only in because Zach Pascal landed on the COVID-19 list hours before kickoff, and the same Patmon who last caught a pass in a game on Nov. 4.
Patmon was the last man in Wentz’s progression—and the focal point of the change.
“All week long, we practiced it running a different route and an out-breaking route to that side,” Reich told me late Saturday. “We were gonna run double out-breaking routes and then just take the best-look side. This morning, when Pascal went down, Carson was like, ‘Well hey, listen, I’m gonna work [Michael] Pittman the whole way so there’s no reason to run Dez on that same route that we were gonna run him on. We might as well just run him on an in-cut and if I don’t have Pittman, that way I can progress back to him.’
“And sure enough, it ended up playing out like that.”
Pretty much to a T.
At the snap, Wentz looked left and saw all three of his receivers, Pittman included, manned up. So he moved up in the pocket and—just like Reich and Wentz drew it up in the proverbial sand—as the quarterback bought time, Patmon started working across the end line, moving from the right corner toward the left. And just he cleared safety Jalen Thompson, Wentz reached back against his body and tattooed Patmon with the ball.
That gave the Colts the breathing room they needed in what wound up being a 22–16 win.
It also said a lot about an Indy team that’s looked increasingly dangerous over the last two months. Anyone who’s watching has known for a while how big, fast and physical the Colts really are. This weekend tested them in a different way.
On Saturday morning, Reich woke up at Indy’s hotel in Arizona knowing his team would be without starters Quenton Nelson, Mark Glowinski and Rock Ya-Sin—all three landed on the COVID-19 list last week. And he figured, at least for a little while, that would be it, because the first text Reich got that morning was to tell him that there were no new positive tests in the batch that the team sent off on Friday.
Things would get worse. The next text Reich got was to inform him that three guys who’d returned negative tests Friday had come back in complaining of symptoms. They went to get some rest. Within a couple of hours, the symptoms for each had worsened. All three were administered rapid tests. All three came up COVID-19 positive. So the Colts were sent scrambling to replace Pascal, safety Khari Willis and perennial All-Pro Darius Leonard.
As the news was delivered, Reich was in the hotel lobby with GM Chris Ballard.
“The call sheet’s already printed out, so you have to basically redo the whole call sheet as far as the personnel groups with how we were gonna do it,” Reich said. “So [coordinator] Marcus Brady and the offensive staff basically sat there and reorganized all the calls on offense. And on defense, it was similar as far as, ‘O.K., we’re losing Darius, we’re losing Khar so how are we gonna package our personnel groups and how does that affect the way ‘Flus’ [DC Matt Eberflus] is gonna call the game?
“And then Bubba [Ventrone] on special teams, it was the same thing. I mean, he ends up giving me his depth chart and is basically having to redo the whole thing because of how many guys were out.”
In some cases, it was the team’s depth that showed up and pulled the rope. The best example of that was probably third-year linebacker E.J. Speed, a talented kid the Colts have high hopes for, who’s simply seen his path to the field blocked by Leonard and Bobby Okereke, delivering a team-high nine tackles. “He played fantastic,” said Reich. “E.J.’s an incredibly talented player. I mean, he’s like Darius. He’s very long, he’s fast and he’s really athletic.”
In other cases, it was just all hands on deck. And that was illustrated by who was on the field with Wentz. There was, of course, Patmon out there in Pascal’s spot. Then, there was a line that came in without Nelson, Glowinski and center Ryan Kelly (away from the team dealing with a very difficult family situation), and lost left tackle Eric Fisher in the second quarter. That left this group in front of Wentz for the second half …
• LT Julién Davenport: Sixth-year pro on his third team. Last started Oct. 3.
• LG Chris Reed: Seventh-year pro on his fourth team. Last started Nov. 4.
• C Danny Pinter: 2020 fifth-round pick making his fourth career start.
• RG Matt Pryor: Fourth-year pro. Last started Oct. 24.
• RT Braden Smith: Cornerstone line piece—signed a four-year, $72.4 million deal in July.
And while COVID-19 was only responsible for two of the four absences up front, a message Reich had for his players on Thursday wound up resonating to everyone.
“I said to them, ‘Hey guys, this COVID thing, man, it’s gonna hit. So everyone has to be ready. Everyone standing on this field right now has to be ready to play winning football. Everyone standing on this field with a Colts helmet has to be ready to play winning football, because it’s gonna happen,’” Reich said. “It’s a virus. We’re trying. We’re one of the best teams in the league at following the protocols. We’re doing the best we can do.”
On this particular day, it meant going to work with that depleted line and a patchwork back seven on defense, and the brilliance of the Colts’ effort was that it was hard to see any of that at play in the final analysis. Indy held a 10-minute edge in time of possession, Jonathan Taylor went for 100 yards, the defense came up with crucial fourth-down stops in the second and fourth quarters, and then Wentz, who was up and down all night, came up big when it mattered most—regardless of who blocked for him or to whom he was throwing.
And that left Reich with a win that made him as proud as any his Colts have had over the four years he’s been in charge.
“I can’t imagine there’s one I’d put higher,” he said. “This feels like the most gutsy, great team win that we’ve had, considering the circumstances, since we’ve been here.”
And that win’s positioned the Colts, at 9–6 and with the Raiders and Jaguars left on the schedule, to make more noise in January, even if a few more curveballs come their way.
I’m not sure that Cooper Kupp should be league MVP, but that doesn’t make his season any less remarkable. He had another 10 catches for 109 yards in the Rams’ 30–20 win over the Vikings on Sunday, and through 15 games, he’s at 132 catches, 1,734 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s 17 catches short of Michael Thomas’s record for catches in a season (149). He’s 230 yards short of Calvin Johnson’s record for receiving yards in a season (1,946). Based on his pace, and role in the Rams’ offense, there’s a good shot he’ll get both marks (Randy Moss’s record of 23 TDs, on the other hand, is well out of reach). And it’s wild that this is happening this way because until this year, Kupp was widely seen as a good-not-great receiver. The last two years, he had 94 and 92 catches. He’s only cracked 1,000 yards once (1,161 in 2019). And yet here he is, at 28, making a big statistical leap. Why? How?
“I’m not sure I can put my finger on one specific thing,” he told me, after the Rams locked up a playoff spot Sunday. “I look back at my rookie year, and it’s embarrassing watching the tape of what my rookie year was. And I’d like to think that at the end of every year, as I watched the full season and tried to reflect on what the year was, what kind of things I saw from myself, I’d just try to just improve the things that [were] most important to improve. And I just take that mentality year after year, try to get better and better and better. Never get comfortable being at whatever I’m at. Never believing that I’ve arrived. So I have taken that mentality, but I don’t know if I can put my finger on one specific thing that’s changed as much. I’ve been hanging out with some really good football players and having a few more opportunities to have the ball in my hands, and I think it really just comes down to those things.”
Whatever you want to attribute it to, those things have paid off handsomely for the Rams this year in breaking in Matthew Stafford, and in managing the loss of Robert Woods, among other things. And that’s worked out to where Kupp’s consistency has become a steadying element for the team—he’s gone over 95 yards 10 weeks in a row, a run that encompassed the Rams’ three-game skid and the four-game winning streak they’re riding now that followed it up, a streak Kupp sees happening because the Rams haven’t wavered much.
“That’s a great little example of what football is. You get up to the line of scrimmage, you gotta execute one play, and no matter how pretty or ugly, there is going to be another play right after that,” he said. “And you gotta be able to move on to that next play and execute your job. And the guys have done a great job of that on this run. We actually continue to do a great job of that, and then not get complacent with anything.”
And as for his own pursuits, records-wise? “No,” he said. “I don’t have social media on my phone, so the only time I ever hear about it is when you guys tell me about it.” My guess would be he’ll hear about it a lot the next couple of weeks.
Eagles coach Nick Sirianni is doing a heck of a job. And he had a heck of a week. The Eagles played on Tuesday night, and again Sunday, and in between Sirianni spent some. time sitting in his car in the parking lot of Philly’s practice facility. It wasn’t by choice. On Wednesday morning, symptoms hit the 40-year-old, prompting a COVID-19 test. He came up positive. Through the days since, he stayed first in a hotel, then back at home. He got encouraging news on his levels on Friday. So he drove to work hopeful on Christmas Day that they’d let him back in. He took another test. He went back to his car. He waited for the call. It came, and he was cleared.
“You’re just kind of sitting there and hoping and praying that you’re gonna be ready to go for the game,” he said, on his drive home Sunday night. “So I’m just thankful that I was.” He was, and his Eagles gave him a heck of homecoming present—turning a 3–3 game at the half into a 34–10 rout of the Giants that moved the Eagles over .500 for the first time since Week 1. And there were plenty of things interesting about it (the defense turned the ball over, the run game was effective again and Jalen Hurts was efficient), but maybe more interesting was Sirianni’s work week.
The first-year coach spent Wednesday and Thursday in a hotel and ran meetings over Zoom from there. And over those couple of days, whether he gave it to them, or they to him, the virus spread through his house and hit not just his immediate family, but also those in town for the holidays. Sirianni told me his father-in-law, his brother-in-law, his sister-in-law, his three nieces and all three of his own kids wound up getting it. The upside of that: Sirianni could suddenly afford to go see them, since they were all sequestered in his house’s COVID-19 room (i.e., the basement). His wife and mother-in-law were the only two in the house who didn’t have it, so they got the rest of the place to themselves.
“We’re all just jammed down there in the basement, while the healthy individuals get to sleep upstairs in the beds,” he said. “It’s been wild, it’s been really wild. Like how much it ran through our family, just like that, it was like, everybody’s got it.”
Sirianni still doesn’t know if he got it from one of those family members, or from work or somewhere else. But he can say that it was weird going through it—his coworkers watched him direct the operation on an overhead projector for most of the week, he got to watch more tape than he usually does (because he had more free time than ever before) and, in the end, the Eagles got a win. And along the way, as interesting as his personal situation was, what he liked most was how his team managed it.
“No one feels sorry for us,” he said. “You just handle adversity and try to go through every day, and get better every day, to put yourself in position to win the games. And I think the guys really know that and really believe that, and they work at that. Again, that doesn’t happen unless you’ve got good guys in the building. Good, high-football-character guys. And we definitely have that.” And they’ve got a shot at the playoffs now too, which is almost as unexpected as the messy week the head coach just had was.
Quietly, Davis Mills is putting together a case to be the Texans’ quarterback in 2022. And considering that, I had this thought on Sunday afternoon: If he were the 11th pick in the draft (like Justin Fields), or the 15th pick (like Mac Jones), how would we be looking at him right now? He’s got a better passer rating than Fields and Trevor Lawrence. His number is also close to Mac Jones’s, and it’s hard to argue he’s in close to as good a situation as Jones is. The other intriguing thing? He was a high-end high school recruit (the No. 1 high school QB in the class of 2017) who simply couldn’t stay healthy in college at Stanford, meaning there’s a pretty cut and dried reason why he wasn’t drafted earlier. Which is why I wanted to ask him Sunday, after he led the Texans to a shocking 41–29 upset of the Chargers, if he believes he’d have been right up there with guys like Fields, Jones and Lawrence if his college career had gone according to plan.
“I was pretty much asked the same exact question going into my senior year at Stanford, and I’m going to answer it the same way,” Mills said. “I’ve always been confident in my abilities, and when I look at myself with other guys, I see myself at the top and want to keep improving and kind of prove that I can be in the conversation with all those guys when I play my best.”
On Sunday, it sure looked like he belongs. He went 21-of-27 for 254 yards, two touchdowns and a 130.6 rating. More than just that, though, the coaches are showing increasing trust in him. Mills’s final throw of the afternoon was on a first-and-10 from the Chargers’ 13. On the play, he hit fellow rookie Nico Collins, running a slant, in stride for a touchdown. And it looked simple but it actually wasn’t. There was a run call on for the play—identical to a call two plays earlier. But on the second of the two calls, offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put a tag on it, allowing for Mills to check to the pass. Which is where the touchdown throw came from.
“That’s four-minute mode entirely right there,” he said. “We’re just trying to burn clock, but that play got called in with that backside receiver tag. And within the rules of the offense, if he has a chance to back and win, I trust him completely to go make that play. And we got in the end zone on it. So it worked out. I’m not getting yelled at by coaches for taking an incompletion, but that’s awesome. Good way to get him his first touchdown, and he made a play.”
And it was another good piece of momentum for Mills, who’s had three 90-plus passer rating games since coming back into the lineup. He’s had a different indoctrination into the league than most, of course, in going in for an injured Tyrod Taylor, then coming out for a month, before returning to the lineup at the end of the year. But as Mills sees it, there’s plenty to benefit from there. “When they called my number, I was ready. It felt like the game started to slow down more for me,” he said. “I have a really good feel of what we’re trying to do on offense, and the time just gave me more time to build chemistry week in and week out with my receivers so we’re all on the same page. And I felt like it was good and I feel like I’m playing some good football right now.”
Good enough, it seems, that the Texans at least won’t have to force anything at quarterback after they (presumably) trade Deshaun Watson in the offseason.
I don’t know how many 25-and-under quarterbacks there are whom I’d take over Joe Burrow right now. I’d lean Burrow over Justin Herbert. I think I’d probably take him over Kyler Murray. It’d be hard to take anyone of that age over Allen at this point, so maybe Allen would get the nod over him. And Trevor Lawrence is probably the only other quarterback whom I’d hesitate to take Burrow over at this point. (Or Lamar Jackson if you’re O.K. with tweaking your offense.) For me, it’s Burrow’s command and poise out there, something that’s obvious to see but not always an easy thing to describe. So I asked Bengals coach Zac Taylor where he sees the difference in Burrow after the Bengals’ 41–21 win over the Ravens, and Taylor didn’t hesitate.
“His pocket presence was incredible,” Taylor texted, before raising a specific example of it. That one came on Cincinnati’s third offensive snap of the second half. It was third-and-7. Burrow took the snap, waited, waited and then … Boom! He saw the opening and went, picking up 12 yards to move the sticks. “It would’ve been a three-and-out,” Taylor continued, “Instead that turned into a 20-play drive that ate up the entire third quarter.”
And that’s really the thing, to the Bengals’ people: Burrow just has a sense for the moment, whatever it is and what it requires of him. Against the Ravens? Baltimore worked to slow down Joe Mixon. And Burrow made them pay for that commitment to the run with 525 yards and four touchdowns passes. It sure feels like he’ll do that to a lot of people for a long time to come.
The Buccaneers aren’t trying to fool anyone. This is a one-track-minded operation, and will be as long as Tom Brady is its quarterback. The Bucs are going to ruthlessly pursue titles. And I can actually appreciate the lack of pretense in it. The bottom line is Antonio Brown was important to Brady in the same way that Rob Gronkowski is important to him on the field, and so my feeling is, really, Brown was always staying.
Brown’s role in the Bucs’ 32–6 dismantling of the Panthers shows why. Brown had a team-high 10 catches for a team-high 101 yards in his first game back. He had a four-yard catch on a third-and-2 in the first quarter. He had a 19-yard catch on a third-and-13 in the second quarter. He had a 13-yarder on third-and-7 in the third quarter. And he went for 10 yards on a third-and-4 in the fourth quarter. All of it’s more proof of what other teams saw when the Bucs had their midseason two-game blip: Brady’s leaned on his chemistry with Brown and Gronk more this year than last, and not having it when those two were out really hurt him. And if we’re being honest here, sure, Brown did something pretty dumb, in getting and furnishing the fake vaccine cards. But the Bucs weren’t risking their chance at another title over it.
Right now, the Cowboys’ defense is more consistent than their offense. And that’s a huge credit to the personnel department, which has stocked the roster with playmakers who fit what first-year coordinator Dan Quinn wants to do, and of course to Quinn himself. In Sunday night’s 56–14 demolition of Washington, it was Trevon Diggs’s historic 11th interception. It was DeMarcus Lawrence’s acrobatic pick-six. Maybe it wasn’t Micah Parsons as much as it has been in recent weeks, but it will be again. And the win punctuated the NFC East division title that the Cowboys had clinched with a Raiders win earlier in the day (that was via some weird quality-of-victory tiebreaker that I won’t bore you with, or even try to explain). Afterward, asked by the media about his goals, Lawrence said, “Win every playoff game. Make the Super Bowl. Win the Super Bowl.” If Dallas’s offensive line can hold up over the next seven weeks, it’s not that wild a thought. In fact, I don’t know that there’s a more well-rounded team in the league.
Both the Chiefs and Packers are rolling. And I came into the week intrigued by their matchups, and the wins for both (though Green Bay’s was closer) really didn’t move the needle much. Green Bay was impressive in handling its offensive line absences—and it was cool watching Aaron Rodgers break Brett Favre’s Packers record for touchdown passes. And the Chiefs are basically the NFL’s version of Alabama, having spent a good percentage of the season looking a little vulnerable, before delivering a series of stark reminders about who they are—a team that’s still bigger, faster and stronger than everyone else. Put me on the spot, and I’ll tell you these two will meet in L.A. in February.
I have no idea whether it’ll mean he stays in Green Bay beyond this year, but I can’t help but notice how much Rodgers seems to appreciate being there right now. And it came up again during his interview with Fox’s Erin Andrews, as he discussed the record-breaking throw to Allen Lazard (thrown on, per Rodgers, double-stick, one of the first West Coast concepts he learned in Green Bay). “I’m so fortunate to be able to play here in this stadium, with these fans and for this great organization the last 17 years,” he told Andrews. “This is what it’s all about—Christmas night at Lambeau. Like I said last week, where would you rather be? It’s a special place, and I’m eternally blessed. I don’t lose sight of that. That’s the most important thing, as you get older, having that perspective of living life, counting your blessings, not the things you don’t have. And I have a lot of blessings here in Green Bay. I’m really thankful to be here.”
I’ve said all along that Rodgers was not like Matthew Stafford was last year—his football situation is, and has been, much better than Stafford’s was in Detroit. And I do think it’s possible that being put in a position to seriously look around may have brought Rodgers to realize that the grass isn’t greener. Winning a Super Bowl, of course, wouldn’t hurt chances that he chooses to stay. We’ll know more in a couple of months.
For as big a deal as we made of Bills-Patriots, I think it’s possible the Titans will emerge as the top challenger to the Chiefs in the AFC. And it felt like after Thursday’s convincing, come-from behind win over the Niners, Mike Vrabel was coyly insinuating that. “You’ve got to be willing to take some shots and willing to bleed and be able to taste it and come back swinging,” Vrabel said. “And that’s why it’s an honor to coach this football team. The guys care, do whatever they can do. It’s not always perfect. They took care of the football, played complementary football. I mean, we had the funeral for the Titans. It was yesterday or today. But we’re not dead yet. … This weekend is going to feel really good. I’m happy our players can rest and recover after getting a victory.” The Titans are 10–5. They just got A.J. Brown back, and he was one of the best players on any team in Week 16. Derrick Henry may not be far off. If anyone’s got a shot at going into Arrowhead and winning, this might be the team.
I’ve got 10 more thoughts to wrap up this week’s takeaways.
• Jonathan Allen’s and Daron Payne’s fighting on the bench isn’t the best sign for a Washington team that’s lost three straight.
• An amazing fact I looked up on Sunday: This year is Pete Carroll’s first 10-loss season in any capacity, at any level, in 27 years. The last time it happened was during Carroll’s ill-fated one-year run as Jets head coach in 1994. He got to the Seahawks in 2010.
• Does that mean it’s time for a change in Seattle? Most people I’ve talked to don’t think Carroll is ready to walk away on his own accord. And Seattle owner Jody Allen, from what I can gather, isn’t pleased with where the team’s football operation stands.
• I think Matt Rhule can be a good NFL head coach. The quarterback situation in Carolina, which Rhule holds responsibility for, isn’t good, and I’d love to see what his program looks like with a better player at the position. All that said, Rhule isn’t helping himself by platooning Sam Darold and Cam Newton at the one place where you pick one guy and go.
• Rich Bisaccia has quietly done a nice job. Through all the mess that the Raiders have been through this year, somehow, the franchise made it back to eight wins, and the veteran special teams coach gets points for that.
• While we’re there, the Bears’ dramatic win may have gotten Matt Nagy a stay-of-execution. (For what it’s worth, I think Nagy could be really good on a second chance down the line.)
• The Falcons have been punching above their weight class all year. And oh by the way, Matt Ryan’s been just fine in the year he lost Julio Jones and hasn’t had Calvin Ridley since Week 7.
• The difference in Mac Jones the last two weeks is he’s played from behind and in long yardage much more than he was earlier in the year. And it’s going to look a little rough for a rookie in those circumstances. But I really do like the guy’s fight in at least giving the Patriots a shot at the end of the Colts and Bills games.
• Deebo Samuel’s quietly becoming must-watch TV.
• There really wasn’t much to see in the NFL after the 1 p.m. ET games ended. We got a weak late-afternoon slate, followed by a Sunday night boatracing. We’ll see if the Dolphins and Saints can make up for it Monday night.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1) As is usually the case, the playoff semifinals are stocked with highly-regarded prospects expected to be drafted way up there in April. The difference this year? Lacking the quarterbacking star power of recent playoffs (Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Joe Burrow, etc.), the four combatants are built a little differently from what we’ve gotten used to. With that in mind, we’re going to use most of this space this week to ID the guy likely to be drafted first in 2022 on each of the four teams in the bracket. And that change in trend? It’ll be reflected here.
2) For No. 1 Alabama, it’s almost certainly going to be freakish left tackle Evan Neal—a 370-pound mover who’s still probably a better athlete than he is a football player (and he’s a damn good player in his own right). But Jameson Williams, the Ohio State transfer who lit up Georgia in the SEC title game, could wind up pushing him. He’ll probably run in the 4.3s and is in the running to be the first receiver taken.
3) The answer for No. 2 Michigan is easy. It’s Aidan Hutchinson, a lock to go in the top five, with the potential, barring a quarterback’s getting really hot, to go first overall. But his bookend David Ojabo might not be far behind. Maybe the coaches will be able to talk him into come back for a fourth year, but he’s draft eligible. His measurables and a good workout could push him into the top 20 (he’s probably a late first-rounder now).
4) A couple of months ago, the guy for No. 3 Georgia would’ve been talented pass rusher Adam Anderson, who was trending to go in the upper reaches of the first round and had those who saw him in the Hutchinson/Kayvon Thibodeaux category. But he’s since been charged with rape, and suspended by the team, and obviously that leaves his future uncertain. (His lawyer said Anderson denies the charges and “intends to vigorously defend himself in court.”) So the best bet for the Bulldogs’ highest pick would probably be do-everything linebacker Nakobe Dean, who will likely land in the back half of the first round. Mammoth nose tackle Jordan Davis is in that mix too—he’ll have to prove he can be a three-down player in the pros—and linebacker Quay Walker is another who’s caught the eye of scouts of late and could sneak in the first round.
5) And No. 4 Cincinnati is more talented than you might think, with a bunch of guys who’ll likely land in Rounds 2 to 5 (there are plenty of Power 5 transfers on that roster). The one who might make it into the first round is rangy junior corner Sauce Gardner, who’s probably the Bearcats’ best player and fits the profile of the Seattle type of corner. Quarterback Desmond Ridder is worth watching too. I think it’s unlikely he’ll go in the first round, but he’s in a muddle of about a half dozen quarterbacks vying for position in the top 100 or so picks.
6) As of Sunday night, the Hawai’i Bowl, the Military Bowl and the Fenway Bowl had been canceled, and Texas A&M pulled out of the Gator Bowl, leaving that game’s officials to turn to Rutgers as an opponent for Wake Forest. And look, I like having these games on in the background in my office on a December weekday as much as anyone. But I think how easily these are coming off the calendar tells you all you need to know about how important they are. For coaches, it’s the chance to get three extra weeks of practice to ready for the next season. For the organizers, it’s a cash cow. For television, it’s inventory. All of which is why they keep it moving. My only hope here? That protecting these glorified social gatherings doesn’t prevent changes to the College Football Playoff.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
It’s true—1969 was the year.
Lots of people HATED my James Madison analogy.
Like this idea. Sign me up.
A couple of days after the game, given the chance to cool down, Buddy Ryan told reporters, “Kevin Gibride will be selling insurance in two years.” Imagine if that happened today …
That’s a big dude to pull up into the stands.
Stefon, coming off his own big win, saluting little bro Trevon Diggs for his 11th pick—the most any player has had in a season in 40 years. The last one to get to 11? Ex-Cowboy Everson Walls, who now shares the franchise single-season record with Diggs.
… Plus Trevon was a converted receiver himself.
The most interesting part of Mitch’s research to me: Josh Freeman is second in Bucs’ history with 80 touchdown passes. Brady’s now got 77 with the team, so he could move into second place all-time for the franchise as soon as next week.
He really does live in his own world.
This is describing a bad moment on a bad day for the Steelers.
And another one.
This was a better one.
It really does feel like Burrow’s got that franchise in a different place.
And he takes notes.
I’ve probably watched this 60 times already. Doesn’t get old.
… And now I wish this would’ve happened.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
Every week, we’ll talk to a prominent player about to step on the MNF stage. This week, ahead of Dolphins-Saints, we’ve got the leader of Miami’s pass rush, Emmanuel Ogbah.
MMQB: If I’d told you a couple of months ago, at 1–7, that you guys would get all the way back to 7–7, do you think you’d have believed me?
EO: Yes, I would have. I didn’t doubt this team; I knew the fight we had. I kept on saying to the media, we’re gonna turn this thing around. And we just kept on playing, and the tide finally turned in our favor.
MMQB: You’ve obviously seen the highest highs and some of the lowest lows in your time in the league, so what is it about this group that made you think this was going to turn?
EO: If you watch the games, you know we were in the games most of the time, we just didn’t finish. And one thing I love about this group is just the fight. Nobody looked down. Nobody even had their head down when we losing through that drought. We kept playing together, playing for each other and just kept on fighting. And like I said, it just turned in our favor. We didn’t do nothing different. We just kept on playing.
MMQB: Is there anything you can look at that’s a key difference between losing seven in a row to winning six in a row?
EO: You think about a lot of the stuff we did last year—we went back to our old stuff. We started doing that. But other than that, we took the same approach. Just kept on playing hard, practicing hard, really emphasizing on stopping the run, rushing the passer, batted balls, little stuff to help us win games. That’s where our focus was most of the time.
MMQB: When you say you guys went back to last year, what do you mean?
EO: We blitzed a lot last year—this year, we’d blitz, but then we’d drop back. Now, when we call something, we’ve went with it. We didn’t let the offense dictate what we’re going to do. We dictated what the offense was going to do. That’s what I meant by that.
MMQB: You’ve batten down 10 passes thus far—a career high for you. What’s created that?
EO: I mean, I’ve had eight before in a season, so I’m used to it. But I’d say it’s practice and instincts. If you know you can’t get back there fast enough, the best thing you can do is just put your hands there. Reading the quarterback’s eyes, if there’s an indicator going on, just put your hands up there in those windows and block the pass if you can’t get there in time.
MMQB: So it’s timing then, knowing the quarterback’s triggering, and getting your hands up?
EO: Yeah. Sometimes the offense gives it away when it’s going to be a quick pass—so I know I can’t get back there fast enough. So if it’s going to be a quick pass, best thing I can do is get my hands up. It’s a feel thing for me.
MMQB: Last year was a career year for you. And statistically at least, you’ve been better this year. What is it about Brian Flores’s program, and defense, that fits you?
EO: I’d say that’s one of the reasons I signed with the Dolphins: that defensive mindset, having a defensive-minded coach. Also, they trust me, they put me in the right position to make plays and I just go out there and use my talent and show them what I can do.
MMQB: Is there a difference in how they’re using you, versus what the Browns and Chiefs were doing with you?
EO: They’re different defenses, so yeah, I play different roles in this defense. I can line up inside, outside, sometimes I drop. There’s just different ways they put me in position to make plays.
MMQB: Do you like being moved around, rather than just playing one spot?
EO: Yeah I’ve always viewed myself as a versatile player, so whatever is asked of me, within my power, if I know I can do it, I’m gonna go out and do it. It’s just whatever I have to do to help the team win, really. That’s what my job is.
MMQB: Having six years in the league has to help too …
EO: I definitely have more knowledge on the game, studying the opponent and just working on things that I struggle with, that I notice I had trouble with. I’m a big critic of myself. I watch what I struggle with, what I’m not doing well, and just kind of work on that. Getting better at that helps improve my game.
MMQB: I’ve heard a bunch about your work with Boys & Girls Club of America, and I was wondering if there’s anything that inspired you do it.
EO: I always wanted to do stuff with the youth. The kids are our future. So I’m inspired to work with them. And coming from Houston, Texas, we didn’t have a lot of celebrities that would just come by, and talk to us and tell us to keep it going. As kids, we see you on TV. If we got to meet one person like that, we’d have loved that. Playing football with them, helping them out at the Boys & Girls Club, doing different things with them is great. Showing them, if I can do it, you can do it too.
MMQB: How much do you get out of it?
EO: It just brings me back to where I came from, to see those kids smile. It makes me happy. I feel like I’ve done a great deed, just to see those kids happy to see their favorite player, playing with them, talking football with them—just talking a little football with them makes their day. It can make their whole year.
MMQB: What’s the challenge for you in facing a Sean Payton offense?
EO: Sean Payton’s a great, great coach. It’s a tough environment in New Orleans. I’m excited. I know coach has a game plan, and I’m sure they have a great game plan for us. I’m just excited to go out there and show out on Monday night. Can’t wait.
MMQB: Have you gotten a chance to look at Ian Book? And with the other quarterbacks’ going on the COVID-19 list this week, how do you even handle that, since he really hasn’t played?
EO: I’m not gonna lie to you, I haven’t really looked at his tape—the news just came to me, about the COVID list. We’re prepared for anything. Coach has a good game plan for us, and I gotta go back and watch more of Ian. I’ll have to go back and watch Notre Dame clips of him, to see how he performs.
MMQB: What do you get from watching college tape of a guy like that?
EO: Yeah, it’s more tendencies than plays they’re actually running. I’m sure they’re gonna run some plays he’s comfortable with, so maybe those show up. But I just look for tendencies, how he drops, what he reads, what he sees, stuff like that—there are little things you can pick up watching him.
MMQB: Are you excited to be the bad guy going into an environment like the Superdome?
EO: Oh yeah, for sure. But you gotta know it’s not loud for us. It’s loud for our offense. But yeah, I’m excited—I like going into hostile environments and taking over.
MMQB: Is there anything special for you about playing on Monday night?
EO: It’s Monday night. The whole world is watching y’all. Nobody else’s game is on; everybody is watching y’all. So we gotta go out there and put on a show for the people.
MMQB: I assume it’s been must-win for you guys for a while. Is that something you’ve carried through all this, that urgency?
EO: For me, December games are playoff games. All those games are must-win games for us. And we take every game seriously. So the Saints, we got the Saints coming up, and we gotta go out there and handle business, and keep on rolling.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
By now, you likely already know the window for interviewing head-coaching candidates working for other teams opens on Tuesday. It’s new, and it’s going to be fascinating to see if every team that has assistants requested cooperates, and how aggressive the Jaguars and Raiders are out of the gate (Vegas might be a little quieter while it’s still in the wild-card hunt).
Why do it this way? The NFL wanted to slow down the hiring process, to ensure that more candidates get a legit look—which the league hopes will help in its diversity efforts.
The only potential consequence of it is that teams, seeing a competitive landscape, may pull the plug on their coaches a week or two early. But the truth is, in cases like that, where it’s that obvious a guy’s gotta go, you’re probably doing the guy a favor in giving him a head start in getting back out on the job market.
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• Bengals Already Better Than in Marvin Lewis Era
• How Jakob Johnson Is Helping Define the Post–Tom Brady Patriots