With the clock at Allegiant Stadium ticking down, there was so much on the line.
For the Raiders, it was no less than how their franchise might look a month from now, with rumors rampant on a looming run at Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh crossing over with a locker room fighting to help its interim coach, Rich Bisaccia, get a shot at keeping the job full-time. For the Chargers, it was the shot to take a high-ceiling roster to the playoffs with the highest-ceiling quarterback still on his rookie deal. And don’t forget that the career of 18th-year Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was hanging in the balance, too
Tick … tick … tick …
The NFL’s first Week 18 in 20 years started with the unlikely scenario playing out before us just barely on the table. We knew coming in it would take the Colts, 16.5-point favorites in Jacksonville, face-planting against the lowly Jaguars first. And if that happened, then, a tie between the Raiders and Chargers would deliver the two AFC West rivals to the tournament and keep those Steelers out. That required four quarters of deadlocked football to begin with.
Somehow, we got all of it, and we got the Chargers and Raiders trading field goals to start overtime and, well, the wildest of the wild scenarios was right there in front of a national television audience, in the 272nd and final game of the NFL regular season. Would Bisaccia and first-year Chargers coach Brandon Staley play for the tie?
Tick … tick … tick ….
The clock went under a minute. Staley called a timeout with 38 seconds left, and the Raiders in third-and-4. Las Vegas came out and ran on the next play, with Josh Jacobs taking it 10 yards, from the Chargers’ 39 to the 29, and well into kicker Daniel Carlson’s range. Derek Carr, standing next to the official, signaled for the timeout with two seconds left. Carlson drilled a 47-yarder thereafter.
Raiders 35, Chargers 32. Raiders in. Steelers in. Chargers out. And right afterward, NBC’s Michele Tafoya asked Derek Carr if Staley’s timeout played into Vegas’s decision to eschew the easy tie and push to get Carlson in position to win the game.
“Yeah, it definitely did. Obviously,” Carr said on the broadcast. “We knew, no matter what, we definitely didn’t want to tie. We wanted to win the football game. Obviously, you tie, you’re in, all those things. But all day, I was even texting with Aaron Rodgers this morning, my mindset was to make sure we were the only team moving on after this.”
The Raiders will be, of course. But if you dive a little deeper into this one, you’ll see that, really, the timeout wasn’t as big a deal as most made it out to be in the moment. And that as much as anything, this was probably more about the will of a team that’s been through a lot.
The final MMQB column of the regular season is here, and we’re going to give you plenty to chew on this week. Inside the column, you’ll find …
• Insight into an emotional afternoon for 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo.
• Why next-man-up isn’t a cliché in Nashville.
• How T.J. Watt believes he should’ve broken, not matched, the sack record Sunday.
• Where Trevor Lawrence stands after Year 1.
• The area in which the Bills have grown up this year.
But we’re starting with an epic Sunday night game, and the fallout from it.
So really, the story of the final sequence begins at the two-minute warning, with the game tied at 32. On first down, Linval Joseph stacked up Jacobs in the backfield for a one-yard loss. Carr then let the clock run down to 1:20, and the play clock bleed to six seconds, before snapping it again, with another handoff going to Jacobs for seven yards to set up the third-and-4 in question. The Raiders again bled the play clock. Then, Staley saw something.
As he explained to me via text postgame, he saw the Raiders had a personnel edge on the field that was going to be a problem when they broke the huddle with 12 seconds left on the play clock and 47 showing on the game clock.
“We were trying to keep them out of field goal range,” Staley texted. “We were trying to get in our best one-back run defense. So we took a snapshot of the formation [before the timeout]—they were in a shotgun run-oriented back set, and we got our best grouping in there.”
As you know now, it didn’t work out.
Jacobs took the handoff, shuffled to his left, found a seam and burst right through it for the 10 yards that effectively ended the Chargers’ season. That part, of course, is what it is—the Raiders beat the Chargers on the play. They got it blocked and Jacobs fought through contact, turning what should’ve been a five-yard run into a 10-yard run.
But that, of course, won’t be the story Monday. The story Monday is going to be the decision Staley and the Chargers made in calling the timeout, and Bisaccia’s apparent contentment to play for the tie had they not stopped the game there.
And that sounds nice. But looking closer shows something else. The Raiders were in shotgun on third-and-4 before the timeout, indicating they were always running a play, rather than kneeling on the ball; and kneeling wouldn’t have made sense anyway, since the Chargers had two timeouts, so the Raiders could not just take it all the way down to zeros.
Then, there’s this: There were just five seconds left on the play clock anyway. So had Staley not called a timeout, the Raiders might’ve snapped the ball four second later, which wouldn’t really have changed anything materially. And if the Chargers were in as bad a look for what was coming as Staley thought, it’s possible that Carlson could’ve wound up kicking the game-winner from even closer.
All of this should help us move, then, to what the game actually was. That, in the moment, felt like the very best the NFL has to offer from an entertainment standpoint.
Between the stakes and the drama, and the star power on display, the game had it all.
We went through this last week with the Raiders, and it 100% holds true this week, too: The players and coaches there have been through a lot more than anyone would’ve bargained for this year. The team president departed in the summer, and that led to a near-complete shakeup of the business side of the building. Jon Gruden’s email scandal erupted in October. And then Henry Ruggs III crashed his car while under the influence in December, killing another motorist, while he and his girlfriend sustained serious injuries.
These are real-life things, of course, that are more serious than football.
That said, the players and coaches were charged with managing all that was going on, and finding a way to perform on Sundays despite all of that. Which is where Bisaccia, Gruden’s interim replacement, stepped in.
“I think Bisaccia’s done an amazing job with the camaraderie of the team, and making us believe, and giving us the opportunity to go out there and win games,” slot receiver Hunter Renfrow told me last week. “He’s big on just putting one foot in front of the other. And things don’t always go well, but as long as you keep moving forward and keeping putting that foot in front of the other, you’ll have success.
“And so I think what Coach Bisaccia has … he might not have been what we chose to begin the season with, but he’s exactly what we needed.”
Because of that, the group that entered Allegiant Stadium for Sunday’s win-and-in showdown with its AFC West rival wasn’t ever going to go quietly.
They took at 10–0 lead. The Chargers raced back to make 14–10. They ran off 19 straight to make it 29–14. L.A. returned fire again. Herbert converted a fourth-and-6, and threw a 23-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-21 to key a 14-play, 75-yard drive to get the score back to 29–22 with 4:28 left. He then converted three more fourth downs to set up a game-tying 12-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams at the buzzer.
Which is to say, beating the Chargers took about everything the Raiders had.
And that went right down to the very end, when a run game that had doubled up the Chargers in yardage on the ground churned out, behind Jacobs, its final 10 yards on a 34–carry, 174-yard day for the team. That wasn’t by accident, and the truth is that a timeout wasn’t what created it.
The Raiders did, and it was enough to top all those fourth-down heroics from Herbert, and everything else the Chargers threw at Vegas.
Bottom line, on Monday morning, people might make this about one decision (and there were calls from Staley, to be clear, that could be questioned—going for it on fourth down from his own 18 in the third quarter being one). But really, there was more to what the Raiders have become than just that, which is in large part a product of, as Renfrow explained, what they went through to get to this point.
“I’ll probably have a lot of emotion later,” Carr told Tafoya, clearly fighting some back as he spoke. “There’s been a lot of heartache, a lot of hard times. A lot of fight. A lot of grit. But the job’s not done. There’s something sick in me that just feels like, this is awesome, this is cool, this is what we do it for, but the job’s not done.”
Indeed, they’re headed to Cincinnati next week—and suddenly, they’ve got a whole lot more to play for.
THE REST OF THE AFC PICTURE
The AFC picture was in flux until the very end of the NFL’s final Sunday, and really into the wee hours of Monday on the East Coast, and what we’re left with is a picture different from what most people would’ve expected coming into the year.
1) Titans 12–5
2) Chiefs 12–5
3) Bills 11–6
4) Bengals 10–7
5) Raiders 10–7
6) Patriots 10–7
7) Steelers 9-7-1
Wild-card weekend games: Raiders at Bengals (Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET); Bills at Patriots (Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET); Steelers at Chiefs (Sunday, 8:15 p.m. ET).
And while it’s not a big upset that the Titans are sitting there at the top—they’ve been in the playoffs the last two years, and were in the AFC title game two Januarys ago—it is that they got there without Derrick Henry for the team’s last nine games.
Now, maybe that’s not the Packers without Aaron Rodgers or the Buccaneers without Tom Brady. But given what Henry’s meant to the team, and the role his overpowering style has played in building the team’s identity, it really shouldn’t be that far off.
Yet, here the Titans are, standing alone atop the AFC, with the bye and home-field advantage throughout in their back pocket, having gotten there without their best player.
“I think it’s just understanding what it takes to win games,” veteran guard Rodger Saffold told me postgame. “And we knew what it takes to win games was us running the ball, being efficient with our passing game, investing in some completions. It’s not throwing the ball 50 times a game. We’ll do that if we need that to win the game. But all in all, it’s all about running the ball, managing the clock and putting ourselves in a situation to win.”
And when Saffold says “ourselves,” he really does mean everyone.
The Titans played an NFL-record 91 different players this year. Part of that outsized number is, yes, the effects of COVID-19. But there’s also the rash of injuries that hit Henry and the receiver corps, and was all over the defense at points of the season.
Saffold echoed what Ryan Tannehill told me last week—that there’s a next-man-up mentality that drives the Titans’ ability to deal with all of that. Of course, everyone says “next man up” when injuries hit. Tennessee has a way of living it, that the players there believe goes way beyond some cliché. It is, as Saffold explains, an expectation that the standard won’t waver when someone new has to play, something he saw come to life when he went down in December.
“I already had confidence that Aaron Brewer would be able to handle the job,” he said. “I knew that he already had the experience, and then it just comes down to just when I’m watching film and what I’m looking for out of these defensive linemen, just being able to help him see anything that I can see to try to make things as easy as humanly possible for him in the game. We constantly talk. I mean, we are very, very tight in the offensive line room, and it’s very helpful.”
In turn, as Titans coach Mike Vrabel views it, that allows him to cede ownership of the team to the locker room, something he sees as powerful based on his own experience playing.
“I think we have that,” Vrabel told me after getting back to Nashville. “I mean, again, my job is to make sure that everybody is held accountable. And if it’s not getting to me, then great. I’d rather it not get to me. I’d rather that the players took care of things, and I think we have a good balance. I think that there’s things that I trust them to be able to do, and we’ve gotten great leadership from a lot of people.
“That’s when you have a chance, when players are holding each other accountable.”
And that accountability was on display in Houston again, with the Titans looking to wrap up the conference’s top seed. The Texans weren’t going away easy. After a nip-and-tuck first quarter, Tennessee raced to a 21–0 lead, only to have Houston close to within 21–18 early in the fourth quarter.
Now, as Saffold said, the Titans’ offense is never going to be the ’99 Rams. But in this particular spot, Tennessee did needs plays from Tannehill—and the Titans got them in dramatic fashion.
The first came on a third-and-5, with the QB taking a shot as he delivered a strike down the sideline to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for 36 yards, to get Tennessee to the Texans’ 34. Then it was a dime up the seam to TE Anthony Firkser for 24 yards on third-and-6 from the Texans’ 30. And finally, there was the capper: a three-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones to push the lead back to 28–18.
“Obviously his toughness stands out,” said Vrabel. “He was really good today, and that’s good to see as we enter into the playoffs. He got us into the right place, he had command of the offense, took care of football, stood in there, made a huge play. We were leaking oil, and he came up with that huge play extension, was able to find Westbrook-Ikhine and that was huge. And so he was really good in the red zone, he was decisive, and I think that also the other thing is he’s been really good for us in four-minute.
“When we have the lead and are managing the clock, getting it down, trying to take every second we can, reminding the guys in the huddle of what the situation is. He played that situation perfectly today.”
The handling of that situation allowed the Titans, after the Texans closed back in again, at 28–25, to run the final 4:04 off the clock and lock up the No. 1 seed.
In the aftermath, Vrabel wanted to hold off on saying too much about Henry’s return—“He hasn’t run a snap with our starting offense yet, so we’ll see where that goes this week”—but there’s no question it’s given the players something to look ahead to. And now, with the extra week to prepare secured, they trust they’ll be getting a pretty good version of Henry back on the field in two weeks.
“This is the longest season [ever], so this bye week is more important than any bye weeks of the past,” said Saffold, a 12-year vet. “That’s how I look at it. And absolutely, we knew what was at stake and what we wanted to do. Give Derrick another chance, take another week to start to get better. It gives us time to get healthy, and it puts us in that elite eight, which is what we want.”
Against the odds, they’re getting what they want—and that should make for an even better team when the Titans take the field again at the end of the month.
49ERS GRAB FINAL NFC SPOT
1) Packers 13–4
2) Buccaneers 13–4
3) Cowboys 12–5
4) Rams 12–5
5) Cardinals 11–6
6) 49ers 10–7
7) Eagles 9–8
Wild-card weekend games: Eagles at Buccaneers (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET); 49ers at Cowboys (Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET); Cardinals at Rams (Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET).
Things didn’t look good for the Niners, down 17–0 early on. Nor did they look great when Jimmy Garoppolo threw at Jalen Ramsey midway through the fourth quarter, the game tied at 17, got picked (the interception was spectacular) and the Rams turned around and drove 92 yards in nine plays to take the lead back at 24–17.
So I don’t know how many Niners fans who’ve been through the last year with the quarterback who got them to a Super Bowl two seasons ago—through the trade up to draft Trey Lance, the training camp drama at the position and a couple more injuries and ups-and-downs in the fall—trusted he’d deliver for them in this spot, heavily taped throwing thumb and all.
But there he was, with this potentially being the last time for him and the Niners, getting the ball with 1:27 on the clock, no timeouts and 89 yards to go to tie the game and force overtime.
“There wasn’t anything special said, but I can remember before the game, Kyle Juszczyk, our fullback, came up to me. And we hugged, and he was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to get emotional or anything, but this is our last regular-season game together,’” Garoppolo told me postgame. “It was a pretty cool moment, and from that point on, I really was like, ‘This could be it.’ I don’t know, just toward the end there, there were some surreal moments just on third down and in the red zone.
“Some guys made some plays that you’ve never seen before. So it was a hell of a day.”
It was for the Niners, it was for Garoppolo, and it was what happened in that final 1:27 and overtime that would define the day for both—and put San Francisco on the list above.
Garoppolo started with a crosser to Brandon Aiyuk that went for 21 yards, then a short completion to Jauan Jennings for five yards, before he struck downfield with a hole shot, right between the safety and corner for 43 yards (after Deebo Samuel was done running).
“They were in a cloud coverage on that side with Ramsey, and we had a high-low with George [Kittle] and Deebo,” Garoppolo said. “I knew if I could just move Ramsey a little bit, I could fit it in there. Gave him a little shoulder shimmy and, yeah, Deebo made the rest happen with his feet.”
And just like that, Garoppolo was rushing the offense to the line to spike the ball at the Rams’ 19 with 36 seconds left. Two plays later, with 31 seconds showing, Garoppolo found Jennings again for a 14-yard touchdown.
“Jauan was on the backside,” Garoppolo said. “He had been playing great the whole game. I wouldn’t say he was the first read on it, but I knew he was in the back somewhere. And the first option wasn’t there, snap back and Jauan was wide open. Walked it right in. He made a lot of big plays for us today.”
Jennings would make one more, too, when it mattered most. As part of the Niners’ 12-play, 69-yard drive for a go-ahead field goal in overtime, they needed just one third down converted, and Jennings wound up getting that one—running an out cut into the flat on third-and-6 from San Francisco’s 42, easily catching Garoppolo’s ball and turning upfield for 34 yards, to get the Niners into range.
“We had them guessing, honestly,” Garoppolo said. “They were playing a lot of man on third down, and Jauan ran a couple in cuts, couple choice routes, and we hadn’t hit any out routes yet. When Kyle [Shanahan] called it, I kinda knew what was coming, and we had Jauan one-on-one and just hit it. Couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Robbie Gould gave the 49ers the lead minutes later, drilling a 24-yard field goal, and rookie corner Ambry Thomas iced the win with a pick on the Rams’ next possession.
So, in the end, this won’t wind up being Garoppolo’s final chapter in San Francisco. It should be noted, also, that he wrote the latest one with a taped-up, messed-up throwing thumb (“I mean, it held up, some help from the trainers and everything with that, and the tape job and, yeah, it was fine.”), and without his starting tackles.
Which makes even more impressive that in another one of these moments for a quarterback, the kind that can define one, Garoppolo delivered in this way.
“They should be judged like that, I think,” Garoppolo said. “It’s those big moments that you live for as a quarterback. You want to be the guy with the ball at the end. When you get that opportunity, just, I don’t know ….
Garoppolo paused for a second.
“You bring up the emotional stuff, man,” he continued. “It’s tough. It really is. I love these guys. I love these players. We’ve been through a lot together, and there’s just some guys in that huddle that you look into their eyes and it means a lot to them, it means a lot to me, and just the whole team together, it’s a great group and I just don’t want this to end anytime soon.”
If Garoppolo plays like he did down the stretch over the next few weeks, maybe it won’t.
T.J. Watt believes the sack record should be his. He and I talked as he boarded the plane home for Pittsburgh. I’d missed the sack he recorded in the first quarter that wound up not counting, but he filled me in on the details. “It was empty [backfield] and there was a bad snap. [Tyler Huntley] fell on it, but then he got up. And when he got back up on his two feet, I tackled him and got the ball out,” Watt told me. “So, I mean, he very well could have still thrown the ball. My understanding was that it was a sack, but apparently it wasn’t, at least according to the statisticians.” And it should’ve been? “Yeah,” Watt affirmed, “because he still could’ve thrown the ball.” Which is to say that an otherwise sublime Sunday for Watt and the Steelers—in what could’ve been, but wasn’t, Ben Roethlisberger’s NFL swan song—finished with one loose end. Watt hopes the league will take care of it (if they do, he’ll have the single-season sack record to himself, at 23.5).
Otherwise, the Steelers tied up everything they could with their third win in four games, beating the archrivals Ravens 16–13 in overtime, to finish an improbable run that’ll extend Roethlisberger’s career into one final postseason. And sack or not, that play, which ended with DL Henry Mondreaux pouncing on the fumble Watt generated, was a big part of the final result, thwarting a Ravens possession, their first, in Steelers territory, and producing a 3–0 Pittsburgh lead on the back end. Even bigger was how Roethlisberger, who’s clearly not what he once was, gutted out the finish. Down 10–6 halfway through the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger connected with Ray-Ray McCloud for 20 yards on third-and-9, Pat Freiermuth for 11 yards on third-and-6 and then Chase Claypool for a six-yard touchdown on second-and-goal to cap a 10-play, 50-yard slog to make it 13–10 with 2:54 left. And then a 14-yard catch-and-run connection with Freiermuth on third-and-7, an 11-yarder to Diontae Johnson on third-and-9 and, of course, the ball he seemed to will to McCloud on fourth-and-8 in overtime, all of which worked to set up Chris Boswell’s 36-yard game-winner.
“I’m always super confident when 7 has the ball in his hands toward the end of the games, and a lot of young guys stepped up,” said Watt, who watched all of it from the sideline. “Pat Freiermuth had a hell of a game, and Chase Claypool had a great game and so did Ray-Ray as well, with that big catch. And I was very ecstatic once that play happened and felt very confident that Bos was gonna make the kick.”
When Watt and I talked, he was coy on whether or not he’d watch Chargers-Raiders (“We’ll have to see what time we get back on this flight”), to see the Steelers officially punch their ticket. Oh, and yes, Watt wound up getting that sack to match Michael Strahan at 22.5 sacks in a season, taking down Huntley at the end of the first half, taking advantage of the Ravens’ trying to chip him with a back: “Was able to come up underneath the chip and come up underneath the tackle’s arms, and come around and make the sack. Happy to be able to make a play in the red zone.” So for now, he’ll settle for tying the mark. Maybe in a day or two, he’ll find out he broke it. “It’s definitely special,” Watt said. “It just happened so fast. This whole year has gone by so fast. I’ve been healthy, I’ve been not healthy. I’ve played in games, I haven’t played in games. I haven’t had time to really take it all in, and I’m sure in a couple days, sometime this offseason for sure, I’ll be able to stop and take it all in and realize how special it is. But I just want to continue to use this momentum and hopefully go to the playoffs here, all things go the right way tonight, and keep going.” And if one more thing goes right for him this week, all the better.
The Bills’ back-to-back AFC East titles mean something. You can rest assured: The Bills haven’t forgotten. They all remember what was being said after they lost a weird Monday-nighter to the Patriots on Dec. 6—how New England was the bully on the AFC East block again after throwing the ball just three (!) times in a 14–10 win—and how after losing the next week, to fall to 7–6, their season was effectively circling the drain.
“A lot of our games were lost by one score, and if we could’ve found a way to win those, we’d be sitting pretty right now. But it is what it is. I wouldn’t change this season for the world, just because it was [good] adversity,” safety Micah Hyde told me. “We learned a lot from the losses. With the media, it was kind of a battle, especially after that Patriots game and kinda the way me and Po [Jordan Poyer] kinda had our little issue. You could just tell there was a lot of frustration, and we turned it into a positive thing. And I can remember from that press conference just saying, ‘Hey, O.K., I’ll remember that.’ And obviously, the season’s not over with, but we do remember that. We remember the way we were treated, and the questions that were being asked and how everyone wrote us off. And I think that like I said, we turned it into a positive thing.”
The Bills haven’t lost since their Week 13 game in Tampa, avenged the loss to New England along the way, and wound up winning a division that seemed borderline unwinnable for them a month ago. And in a certain way, the regular season finale against the Jets played out just as the season has. The Bills made it look easy at first—going on a pair of 70-plus-yard drives to put the Jets in the rearview, 10–0, less than 13 minutes in—only to suddenly stall on offense thereafter, give up a big play on defense (Zach Wilson hit Keelan Cole for a 40-yard touchdown in the second quarter) and find themselves in a dogfight into the fourth quarter (it was 13–10 after three), before pulling away with a show of strength late (the Bills outgained the Jets 107 to minus-13 in the fourth quarter).
And it was indicative, too, of one area where they’ve had to grow this year, and that’s learning to be the hunted, rather than the hunter. As was the case a lot this year, playing the Bills gave another team trying to climb a chance to validate itself on this Sunday. “With us going to the AFC championship game last year, we knew coming into this year everyone was gonna give us their best shot,” Hyde said, “especially having a very good defense and Josh Allen and [Stefon] Diggs, those other guys on offense, obviously. Teams are gonna prepare to give us their best shot, and so we definitely sensed that throughout the year. But I just think that Sean [McDermott] throughout the years has really preached a process.”
That process got them out of their rut a month ago, and through a midgame rut against the Jets, so now the Bills head back to the postseason, for the fourth time in five years, with all their preseason goals intact. And like Hyde said, that makes this year’s division title mean a little more. “We had our ups and downs, felt like we couldn’t consistently win ballgames even though every game was close—we just couldn’t, for a while there, win the close one,” he said. “It’s been a long five years. This is back-to-back for us, and it means everything in the world to get another AFC East championship. But we’re gonna hang on tonight and tomorrow, then we’re gonna get back in the lab and figure out what we can do to keep winning in the playoffs.”
It’s a tougher group headed there, for sure, than even last year. And as if they asked to slay the dragon one more time, it’s New England they’ll see again next weekend.
Trevor Lawrence’s performance on Sunday shouldn’t be ignored. The Colts’ collapse merits attention, too, and we’re going to get there. But we’ve spent some time the last couple of weeks dissecting Lawrence’s development, so now is a good time to look at the positive—and there was a lot of it in Sunday’s 26–11 shocker over Indy. Lawrence finished 23-of-32 for 223 yards, two touchdowns and a 111.8 rating. And in doing so, he put on display the sort of resilience Troy Aikman showed through his 1–15 rookie year and Peyton Manning flashed when breaking the interception record as a rookie in 1998. True to form, he credited the guys around him with lifting him up.
“A lot of guys talked with each other all week, but really it started with Coach Bev [Darrell Bevell] and a mindset of when we come in Wednesday, that we got five days left to finish the way we want to,” Lawrence told me. “It’s been a tough year, a lot of ups and downs. We can’t ever go back and change anything, but it’s been a tough year. And we have a chance to finish the way we want to. So taking advantage of every day, you got five days to give it everything you got to make sure we come out with a win. And then after that, you have a lot of time. So I think everybody’s minds were in the right spot, and that’s cool to see. And guys playing for the team, playing for themselves, just for pride. Hasn’t been a great year—to finish that way, it was cool.”
And this one played out that way from the jump. Lawrence led three drives of 70-plus yards, and threw for 208 of those 223 yards before the break, staking Jacksonville to a 13–3 lead. The Jags really kept the Colts at an arm’s length from there, with Lawrence delivering the kill shot in the third quarter. Up 16–3, it was third-and-goal from the Colts’ 3, and another field goal by Jacksonville would have kepts the Colts within two possessions. A bad snap seemed to ensure that—before Lawrence showed, again, why he was the first pick in the draft in the first place.
“That was a play we had dialed up for the red zone, and it was man-coverage beater,” he said. “And Marv [Marvin Jones Jr.] was really my first progression, but the snap, there was pressure from the right side and the snap went high, so I had to like kinda hit it to myself and then the back couldn’t get over there to get the guy because he just timed it up perfect. So I knew I was hot, and I had to scramble. And then really it helped that my first read happened to be open when I got my eyes up. Obviously, Marvin did the rest. Put him in a good spot, and I just got a lot of confidence in him to go up and make the play.”
He did, and that throw was a nice capper to a relatively forgettable rookie year—between his own uneven play and the firing of Urban Meyer, Lawrence definitely took his lumps. But like Aikman and Manning once did, his plan is to take everything he can from that. “It’s more difficult when things don’t go as well as you think they should,” he told me. “Just to start off that way is challenging, so I’d say knowing how long a season is, and you play 17 games and each week is a new week. And just being able to move on quickly is something that I think I struggled with a little bit early on, because when things aren’t going well like in college—things went well a lot for me and for our team—you learn how to move on quick and to not lose confidence. Sunday, you don’t play well, that’s fine. Watch the tape Monday, learn what you can from it and by the time you come back Wednesday, you gotta be ready to go and get ready for the next opponent. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at that finishing the year up, especially the back half, and I’m kind of proud of what I’ve learned. It’s been cool to do, but obviously you don’t want to have to go through that every year. But I definitely learned a lot.” And the Jags, and whoever their coach is in 2021, stand to benefit from it.
It’s hard not to look at the Colts and think of how Andrew Luck’s retirement has hovered over the franchise for three full seasons now, from Jacoby Brissett giving way to Philip Rivers and now Carson Wentz. Indy’s final price for Wentz is going to end up being the 84th pick in last year’s draft and the 16th pick in this year draft, and based on that, you need more on a Sunday like this one. Wentz finished 17-of-29 for 185 yards, a touchdown, a pick and a fumble. And that, really, was after racking up some meaningless yards down the stretch of a blowout loss at the hands of the Jaguars. Wentz’s contract is such that moving on from him next year is close to a non-starter—he’s guaranteed $15 million of his $27 million base for 2022 already—given the cap ramifications if you try to trade him ($24.6 million in dead money would hit your cap). And it’s not like trading him would be easy after this year, either. So it looks, on the surface at least, like this reclamation project will get one more run. And if it doesn’t work? Well, then the Colts will lose a good year with their impressive young core, and that’d be a tough pill to swallow.
Nick Bolton’s big play on Saturday was a good sign of where the Chiefs have really grown. Yes, there was luck involved in that game-changing snap—one that basically flipped the game from the Broncos leading 21–20 and threatening in the waning moments to the Chiefs being back in command at 28–21—and, no, that can’t be discounted. It happened on a second-and-2 from the Chiefs’ 9 with less than eight minutes left. Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo called a zero blitz to try to generate a negative play for the offense. Melvin Ingram came hard off the edge, and took advantage of a tight end mixed up on his assignment because Daniel Sorenson was crowding the line. Ingram met Melvin Gordon in the backfield, the ball popped up in the air and Bolton was basically Johnny on the Spot, collecting it at the 14 and racing the remaining 86 to put the Chiefs back up.
So yeah, as we said, there’s good fortune at play there. But there’s this too: The Chiefs really love Bolton, and how instinctive he is, and that’s part of what allowed him to roll to the paydirt on that play, easily collecting the ball and just going. And those instincts and smarts are a big reason why Bolton’s playing as much as he is (the last three months, he’s emerged as a three-down linebacker), and sort of highlight what the Chiefs have gotten from their rookie class in general. See, even after trading away their top pick for left tackle Orlando Brown, Kansas City’s already at three true, full-time starters in the class, with Bolton, center Creed Humphrey and guard Trey Smith. And the smarts and demeanor of Bolton have shown up in Humphrey and Smith—guys who conducted themselves like pros before they ever got to the NFL. We’ll see where those guys’ careers go, but landing cornerstones like that in the draft is going to be huge for the Chiefs over the next few years, as they look to manage their cap around Patrick Mahomes’s contract.
The Broncos did what they had to do in firing Vic Fangio. We’ve seen these arranged marriages extend to a second year before—the Lions’ making the playoffs in 2016 got Jim Caldwell an extra year working for GM Bob Quinn in Detroit in ’17, and the Titans’ going 9–7 that season did the same for Mike Mularkey with new GM Jon Robinson in Tennessee—and the truth is that usually that just delays GMs from doing what they wanted to do in the first place, and get their own guy. So did Fangio do an objectively bad job this year? No, he didn’t. But it’s understandable that George Paton wanted to go get his own guy, and going with it sooner than later 100% makes sense, especially when you consider the Broncos’ recent history.
• They’ve missed the playoffs six straight years for the first time in 45 years.
• They’ve had losing records in five straight years for the first time in 50 years.
• They’ve had four 10-loss seasons in five years, after only having three in the previous 49.
And that, really, is why the team undertook a GM search last year, and rather than finding someone to work with John Elway, offered full control to candidates—a way of making sure the Broncos were able to pry the most sought-after executives in the league for that role. That’s how they landed Paton, and giving Paton the reins for the coaching search is another way of investing in his vision. It worked with Robinson in Tennessee (Mike Vrabel), and didn’t with Quinn in Detroit (Matt Patricia). But either way, this should create a singular vision for a team that’s got a relatively talented roster that needs to be augmented, not overhauled, and could be attractive to veteran quarterbacks out there set to hit the market.
And as we told you on Friday in the GamePlan, Cowboys DC Dan Quinn and Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett are names to watch there. Quinn and Paton worked together with the Dolphins years ago, and my sense is Quinn would’ve championed Paton’s case, if he’d ever had to be part of a GM search in his Falcons years. As for Fangio? He’ll be red-hot as a coordinator candidate, and would be perfect to pair with a younger head coach candidate like Kellen Moore (à la Sean McVay and Wade Phillips in 2017).
I went back and forth on whether to bring up Hub Arkush’s admission that he’d vote against Aaron Rodgers for MVP, based on his personal feelings for the Packers’ QB. And I decided to do it here to explain how I think people should vote for these awards (I don’t have an AP vote, to be clear). My belief is that a prerequisite for a vote should be an ability to get to coaches and scouts in the NFL and vet every last one of your votes—I’ve never believed a media person should just shoot from the hip on these (which is why I often run polls like this one). Why? Guys’ legacies are tied to them. Hall of Fame votes are often based on them. And contract incentives ride on them. It’s important to get them right, and for more reasons than just it being something you put your name on. So as you might imagine, I think arbitrarily not liking a guy should absolutely, positively never play into decision-making on these things. How would I vote? We’ll do awards later this week at the site, but here are my early leanings …
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers. Tom Brady, Joe Burrow and Jonathan Taylor deserve consideration, but Rodgers has been great down the stretch and is the steadying force that’s helped Green Bay ride out a mountain of injuries.
Offensive Player of the Year: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Colts. Rams WR Cooper Kupp is close for me here. But Taylor’s been consistently the best player on the field for Indy, and the Colts’ most important player most weeks (when he doesn’t get going, neither do they).
Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. Watt, OLB, Steelers. He got the sack record and has been an annual contender for this award—so it’s time to give him his due. Give Cowboys rookie Micah Parsons honorable mention here.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Bengals. Tough one, but ultimately, I’m going with a player who is already top 10 in the league at his position. Mac Jones had a heck of year. But you’d really have to be grading quarterbacks on a curve to give it to him.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons, Cowboys. This is the easiest one, of course. Parsons is by himself. In a normal year, Patrick Surtain II and Odafe Oweh would be good candidates. Parsons made sure this wasn’t a normal year.
Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Titans. Based on everything we laid out above, I think Vrabel has to be the choice. Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur and Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor have cases.
Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, QB, Bengals. When you’re coming off a torn ACL, and you’re only in Year 2, and you lost a lot of your first real offseason, and you end up in the MVP conversation in January, you win this award (unless there’s an Alex Smith story out there). This one goes to Joe Burrow.
The situations of Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson, the bookend picks of the 2018 first round, will be a story to start the offseason. Let’s start here: Generally, young former first-round quarterbacks don’t get to the point that these two just reached. Both guys have played out the four years on their rookie contracts. Each is going into his fifth-year option. The current rookie salary system went into place in ’11, and Mayfield and Jackson’s class will be the eighth to get through four years, where the fifth-year option comes into play. Of the 20 quarterbacks drafted from ’11 to ’17, just two played on their options. One was Jameis Winston in Tampa, the other was Marcus Mariota in Tennessee, and obviously neither remained with their teams past that. So why is it so uncommon? Usually, by that point, teams have made calls on their quarterbacks, and either paid them or let them go. And yet, here are the Browns and Ravens, if in very different situations from one another.
• The Ravens haven’t shown any lack of faith in Jackson over the last four years, but there’s been patience from both sides in the negotiation—and with the 2019 MVP’s having lost the season’s last four games to injury, it’ll be interesting to see the team’s approach from here. Jackson’s been phenomenal over four years, the heart and soul of the team. That said, if there’s one reason to hesitate on a contract, it’s whether he’ll hold up physically, while shouldering a historic workload for a quarterback. Will Jackson’s ’21 injuries lead to such hesitation? Or protections in a contract? Stay tuned.
• NFL Network reported over the weekend that the Browns and Mayfield were on the same page, and plan for the 26-year-old to play out his option as the team’s starter in the fall. And if an upgrade isn’t available to Cleveland, that makes sense. If Deshaun Watson or Aaron Rodgers somehow becomes doable? I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Browns throw their hat in the ring. Absent that kind of Goff-for-Stafford move, if the Browns feel comfortable they can avoid contract-year drama, after coming out of their exit meetings with Mayfield, then taking another swing with him does make some sense.
So with both guys, the waters are, if not uncharted, rarely waded in. We’ll see how they swim out of them.
It’s Black Monday—and we covered a lot of what we know in Friday’s GamePlan. But just to add on: Here, for me, are five big questions that we should soon have answered.
• Is Joe Judge still safe? Going into the weekend, all indications were that Judge would be paired with a new GM, and that the Giants still liked Judge and really didn’t want to dismiss a third straight head coach after just two years. But another bad loss has made the drumbeat louder in New York. Monday’s meetings will be interesting.
• Does the Raiders’ inclusion in the playoffs lead to a Harbaugh extension at Michigan? It was pointed out to me by two people Sunday that Harbaugh has been in no rush to fill openings on his U of M staff (Ryan Day, conversely, has already hired two big-money assistants at Ohio State) this month, which is a sure sign he really is mulling his options. Can he wait out a Vegas playoff run? We’ll see.
• Is Miami content to stand pat? Over the last two weeks, in making calls, I was surprised to hear the Dolphins come up as much as they did. Now, I don’t think, as of right now, they’ll detonate the place. But is it possible they’d augment, and maybe make some changes in scouting? It’s an idea that’s worth paying attention to.
• How does Russell Wilson play into the future of the Seahawks? We mentioned this Friday: Jody Allen really has no track record for the rest of us to go off of. All I know is that she’s not pleased with the current state of affairs. And if she decides that she wants to do all she can to hold onto Wilson, who’s got two years left on his contract? That’s where things would get awfully interesting. I don’t see Pete Carroll retiring. So … would she?
• How badly do the Cowboys want to hang on to Dan Quinn? From what I can gather, the Joneses love their first-year defensive coordinator. And with teams sure to want to talk to him about their head coach openings the next few weeks, it’ll be interesting to see if Dallas gets aggressive in trying to find a way to keep Quinn around.
We’ve got quick hits for you, one last time for the 2021 regular season. No need to waste any more time …
• John Harbaugh did a heck of a job this year, in having the Ravens alive in Week 18, given all their injuries. And while Tyler Huntley threw a couple of picks on Sunday, I think he made himself a lot of money the last month. He should be a backup in the NFL for a long time to come, which isn’t a bad gig if you can get it.
• Saints coach Sean Payton is still a top-five guy. Getting to 9–8 with that quarterback situation, not to mention the skill-position situation around the quarterback without Michael Thomas there, was borderline miraculous.
• H/t to Kyle Pitts for one of the great rookie seasons ever from a tight end. He had the most yards in a season (1,026) from a guy at the position in 60 years, going back to Mike Ditka’s rookie year, and his 68 receptions were the most by a rookie tight end since Jeremy Shockey collected 74 for the Giants in 2001. Pitts is pretty special.
• While we’re there, good as Chase has been, Dolphins rookie Jaylen Waddle deserves his due too. He finished his rookie year with 104 catches, which broken Anquan Boldin’s 18-year-old record for a rookie. And those receptions resulted in 1,015 yards and six touchdowns.
• The Patriots’ recent plague of mental hiccups continued Sunday, and cost the team in Miami. Mac Jones had a pick-six and a bad fumble, an illegal formation call on New England’s punt return team extended a Miami possession and Tua Tagovailoa got loose to convert a couple of big third downs on scrambles. Those are uncharacteristic brain farts from the Pats.
• The arrow’s pointing up on the Lions, and I don’t think Dan Campbell’s work will be unnoticed when teams are looking at former players like Jerod Mayo and DeMeco Ryans in this year’s hiring cycle. (Obviously Vrabel’s in that category too.)
• The Cardinals haven’t won consecutive games in well over a month.
• Justin Jefferson’s a great football player whom not enough people talk about. He makes big catches seemingly every week, and he somehow topped his gaudy rookie year numbers this year with 108 catches for 1,616 yards and 10 touchdowns.
• Deebo Samuel may be even better.
• My favorite story line for the playoffs: returning stars like Henry in Tennessee; and Jaire Alexander, Za’Darius Smith and David Bakhtiari in Green Bay making high seeds even better. It should be fun to see the boost those teams get from those cornerstones.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
As we do every year ahead of the national title game, we’re dedicating this space this to ranking the top six NFL prospects who’ll take the field Monday night. Let’s go …
1) Will Anderson, OLB, Alabama: He’s one of three guys on this list who aren’t draft eligible until 2023—and I don’t think you’d find many people questioning his place atop it. The 20-year-old has 17.5 sacks on the season, and that’s just the starting point in explaining how dominant he’s been. There’s some Von Miller to his game (Anderson’s stronger than Miller was coming out of school, but doesn’t have quite his ridiculous flexibility), and that this is such an easy pick is indicative of where the NFL already is on him. Per one AFC exec, “Yeah, he’s No. 1, no doubt.” And on top of everything else, people in the Tide program have raved to scouts about the kind of kid he is.
2) Jalen Carter, DT, Georgia: This is a bit of a projection. But I’ve had enough people say to me, when looking at Georgia’s vaunted front seven, “and wait until you see this sophomore who doesn’t even start” to make me pay attention. Carter’s a freak show—a 6' 3", 310-pound athlete who’s played some out of position at nose, and is likely to be a three-technique DT at the next level. He’s set up for a monster year in 2022, and a spot in the draft’s top 10 (somewhere after Anderson) in ’23.
3) Evan Neal, OT, Alabama: A 6' 7", 351-pounder who started at left guard as a true freshman, right tackle as a sophomore and left tackle this year, and has silly athleticism and flexibility for man his size, capable of pulling off things like this. He’s still seen as a better athlete than a football player, but that doesn’t mean he’s not really good. He heads into this draft cycle as the clubhouse leader to be the first lineman taken, which would probably place him inside the top 10.
4) Bryce Young, QB, Alabama: Young would probably be the first quarterback taken were he eligible for this year’s draft—despite his obvious size deficiency. And he’s got a chance to be the best quarterbacking prospect to come out of Alabama over Nick Saban’s decade and a half run there, which is saying something given that his two immediate predecessors (Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa) went in the first half of the first round. One NFC scouting director called Young a “mature player who doesn’t force the ball, seems to take what the defense gives him. He’s good in-rhythm and shows the ability to make plays off-script. Accuracy and arm strength are very good. He can anticipate. Also, Mac and Tua had more talent around them. Bryce has carried the offense at times.” Long story short, there’s a lot to be excited about, from an NFL perspective, for the Heisman winner.
5) Nakobe Dean, LB, Georgia: Maybe he won’t go in the top 10 picks, because off-ball linebackers usually don’t go that high, and because Dean’s a tad undersized. But it sure feels like he’ll be one of the safer picks in this year’s class—a great kid who’s a heat-seeking missile and tackling machine in the middle of the Bulldogs’ smothering defense. He’s been the heart and soul of that unit, and it’s not difficult to envision his becoming that for an NFL defense for the next decade or so. Gotta think he lands somewhere in the top 20 picks.
6) Jameson Williams, WR, Alabama: In the Tyreek Hill era, everyone’s looking for their own stick-of-dynamite receiver. That’s Williams. He transferred to Bama last year after a sitdown with his receivers coach at Ohio State, Brian Hartline, who told him they were going to play this rising sophomore out of the slot, and that Williams would be in a rotation with first-round prospects Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave on the outside. That slot receiver was Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who you might’ve seen in Pasadena last weekend. Suffice it to say, things worked out for everyone. Williams became a star at Alabama, and his 4.3 speed and dynamic ability with the ball in his hands gives him every opportunity to battle with his ex-teammates Wilson and Olave (among others) to be the first receiver taken in April.
And one last note here: While this list is Bama heavy, it’s absolutely worth noting that the strength of the Bulldogs is the balance of their talent. I’ve had a few evaluators agree that every starter in their front seven (and this would’ve included suspended pass-rusher Adam Anderson, who would’ve ranked third or so on this list) will likely be drafted in the top 100 picks. Which is bananas. So yeah, there’ll be a lot of talent on display Monday night.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
This one needs to go up on my office wall.
Really is unbelievable, and why all this was going down in Jacksonville …
… Among other things …
… Like this.
I can’t imagine you’d be rooting for your old team, right? (Maybe individual players, but not the team.)
That’s the one that got stolen from him!
Nice tribute from Stefon Diggs. RIP Betty White.
Little did we know how wild it would get.
Was not good.
Pretty cool that T.J. could also join J.J. as a DPOY winner.
Mitch is on top of this one—big octopus day in the NFL.
Little did my Steeler fan buddy ‘Shek know …
Austrian World Cup team has since fallen on hard times, unfortunately. #karma
It’s definitely how he appears out of nowhere. What a boss.
Good to hear they worked it out.
McVay made it … ALL THE WAY TO THE END ZONE!
Love this—Brady’s already second all-time in touchdown passes in Bucs history.
Campbell is so likable.
Eh, they deserve this one.
Never gets old.
So many emotions on Sunday night.
MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT
With no NFL game this week, and next week’s big MNF finale looming, I figured we’d use this space to try to get more draft insight on the game that will be played between Bama and Georgia. So I enlisted my buddy Todd McShay, ESPN’s draft guru, to help us give you a pro football fan’s what-to-watch-for guide (we shortened a little for space, and talked to Todd after doing the Six From Saturday list, so one is independent from the other).
MMQB: is there anything collectively that sticks out about the two teams?
TM: The defenses, that’s first thing that comes to mind, because they’re both defensive coaches. Defensively, just the level of talent they have and obviously how well they’re coached. Every year, we go through this and I hear people say it’s not about NFL talent. And I get it; it’s not always necessarily the two teams that have the most NFL talent. But in a lot of years, it is. And if it’s not the two rosters most stacked with NFL talent, it’s teams that are in the top four or five. This year, Georgia and Alabama have the most talent, and it’s not even close.
MMQB: Is there a way to contextualize that?
TM: There are 17 players I have draftable grades on for Georgia, which is outrageous, 14 for Alabama. In my top 100 overall, there are nine for Georgia and eight guys for Alabama. It just tells you how loaded they are, and obviously they reload every year. But defensively, that’s the commonality. Georgia’s got a unique group—in 22 years of doing this, I went back and looked, I have never had 11 players that are draftable from one unit in a single class. Georgia’s the first one, on the defensive side, in 22 years. Now, granted, Adam Anderson, the defensive end is currently off my board because of the severity of allegations, facing the felony rape charge. [Anderson’s lawyer said he denies the charges and “intends to vigorously defend himself in court.”] So he’s not playing in the game, and who knows what’s going to happen with him. But to start the year, Anderson was in the mix to be a first-rounder. Nakobe Dean, at linebacker, he’s been sensational. He’s the best player on the defense—I’ve thought that since October. Travon Walker is probably the most underrated player on the defense; I think he’s gonna be a first-rounder. Jordan Davis is another one. Their front seven is loaded.
MMQB: And Alabama?
TM: They’ve got a little more offensive balance, offensive firepower. Losing [John] Metchie really hurts—he had 28 more catches than anyone else, including Jameson Williams, after the first 13 games. They miss him doing the dirty work and freeing up Jameson to be the big-play guy. But you still have Evan Neal, who’s the third overall prospect on my board, Jameson Williams at wide receiver, the sixth overall player. But again, going back to the defense, after the first three players, with Neal, Williams and Metchie, it’s back to defense with Alabama with Jordan Battle, the safety, [Phidarian] Mathis, the defensive tackle, Christian Harris, the inside linebacker. And then the fact that they’re coached so well.
MMQB: How rare are the numbers you gave me on the number of top prospects in the game?
TM: In the last five years, Alabama’s averaged 10 players drafted. I think the most they’ve had the last five years was 12. But they’re averaging 10 a year, and four first-round picks a year, which is just ridiculous. Last year, they had 10 guys drafted, six were in the first round and eight were in the first two rounds—Christian Barmore was the last one, 38th overall. The scary part for me, and it’s gotta be the frightening part for every other coach in the country, especially in the SEC, they’re averaging 10 guys a year, going back to 2017, so O.K., 2017, you lose Marlon Humphrey, Jonathan Allen, O.J. Howard, Reuben Foster, Cam Robinson, Ryan Anderson, Dalvin Tomlinson, and they come back and compete for a national title; and then we’ll send Minkah Fitzpatrick, Daron Payne and Rashaan Evans, Calvin Ridley; and then the next year, it’s Quinnen Williams and Jonah Williams and Josh Jacobs and Irv Smith and Damien Harris; then it’s Tua and Jed Wills and [Henry] Ruggs and [Jerry] Jeudy and Xavier McKinney and Travon Diggs, who has 11 interceptions this year. It’s really remarkable to see.
MMQB: So the last few years we’ve had these big quarterback battles—Justin Fields vs. Mac Jones, Joe Burrow vs. Trevor Lawrence, and Lawrence vs. Tua Tagovailoa. How different is this year with the quarterbacks, one not draft eligible, the other a walk-on?
TM: Obviously, the quarterback edge is heavily on the side of Alabama. We did a Q&A the other day, me and [Mel] Kiper, and they asked, regardless of eligibility, who would be your top prospect, and I said honestly, it’d be a coin flip between Will Anderson and Bryce Young. And if they were both in this class, I’d have them as one and two in the class. It’s remarkable, Alabama could have the first and second overall pick—and these guys aren’t even eligible. And then the second part is I’m talking about a quarterback that’s ahead of the five guys you’d have mid- to late-first round, through the top 50 picks: [Kenny] Pickett and [Matt] Corral and [Malik] Willis, and [Sam] Howell and [Desmond] Ridder, I would have Young ahead of all of them. Jacksonville wouldn’t take him first overall, but the first team that needs a quarterback, or the first one willing to move up for one, that’s where Bryce Young would go. So in addition to all the numbers I gave you, 14 draftable guys, eight in the top 100, that’s without the two best players on their team.
MMQB: So let’s start with Young: What’s special about him?
TM: I think I’ve watched eight games now, and I have to keep reminding myself this is a first-year starter. I mean, he’s playing truly like a senior. You look at Pickett from Pitt, he doesn’t have the mobility, he has a solid arm, not a great arm. But the reason we’re talking about him as the first quarterback off the board is how fast he processes and how good he is with his pocket presence, his feel inside the pocket and his accuracy as a passer. Well, I see the same things out of Young in his eighth start, his 10th start, his 12th start. He’s capable of, and he loves to, beat you with his mind inside the pocket. He recognizes things presnap, and gives no clues as to where he wants to go with the ball. But a lot of guys can do that, what really impresses me is that two-second span from when the snap happens and the ball is in his hands, and the defense goes from showing a Tampa 2 to inverting a safety and now they’re in Cover 3 or a three-deep zone, and how quickly he goes from read one to two to three. … Yes, he’s got a good arm, it’s not elite, but he’s got a good arm, got mobility in the pocket, but it’s his presence inside the pocket, feeling where the pressure’s coming from, knowing how to elude it, and then his quick decision-making and fast processing.
MMQB: So you see Anderson over Kayvon Thibodeaux and Aidan Hutchinson?
TM: Yes. He has all the physical things you look for—explosive first step, violent hands, swift change-of-direction skills for that outside-in move, working one direction to the other. You got the torso flexibility, when you’re trying to bend the edge or engage with an offensive tackle. … And then the burst he has to and through the quarterback. Seventy-four pressures, 17.5 sacks this year—both led the FBS. But the thing that stands out to me, he plays every snap like the game of football is about to be taken away from him. And I love that about him. You can take Thibodeaux, longer, maybe has more upside, all that; I don’t see the same urgency and dire need to make a play from Thibodeaux I see from Anderson.
MMQB: So it’s like Hutchinson’s motor and Thibodeaux’s ceiling?
TM: He’s a combination of the two. I’m not saying it’s perfect, like he’s got all the physical of one and personality of the other. But if you take some of the best qualities from Thibodeaux and some of the best qualities from Hutchinson, and morph them together, it’s pretty damn close to what you’re getting with Will Anderson.
MMQB: Is there someone you like more than others do in this game?
TM: I mentioned him before, but Travon Walker. I’ve seen other people talking about him … I was surprised how much higher I was on Walker than most people, it seems like. He only had five sacks; I get it. But he’s so explosive, he just generates power from the ground up, he can play more of an NFL game. The vast majority of the guys who are getting sacks on Sunday, they have the quickness, and you have to have the speed and quickness, but also power, or they’re going to overcompensate. … And then the other guy I love is James Cook. Keep it in perspective: I have him as the fourth-ranked running back in a class that’s not great. But it’s Kenneth Walker, Isaiah Spiller, and Breece Hall and then him. He’s a back that came into the year, and Zamir White was supposed to be their stud. He was their more traditional SEC, 225-pound, downhill back. And Cook’s never gonna be a high-workload back, but when he comes in the game, it’s a different speed, the lateral agility, he’s got really good vision and patience as a runner; and he’s a legitimate slot receiver.
MMQB: Watching the first game between these two teams, is there anything you see as a determining factor Monday night?
TM: Georgia’s defense made a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes, and it boiled down to two things when I studied it. They allowed themselves to get locked in on a lot of receivers matched up on their safeties. That led to several big plays. It was Metchie who was matched up on safeties more often than Williams, or any other receivers. Metchie, the majority of his catches the first half of that game, came against safeties. What are we doing? One of the leading receivers in the country, and we’re matching up with safeties? It didn’t make sense to me. And then the other part was miscommunication in zone. Almost every one of Alabama’s big plays on offense came when Georgia had a breakdown in zone, and/or a safety matched up on their receivers. So in my opinion, Georgia blitzed Alabama more than they did any other opponent, and while they didn’t get the sack production, they did get pressure on Young. The problem was there was some kind of coverage breakdown, whether it was a safety matched up on a receiver or some miscommunication between a safety and corner. So I think the biggest thing for Georgia, they need to continue to blitz and get pressure on Bryce Young, but they’ve gotta do it with more man-to-man coverage.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
It’s 6:03 a.m. ET, and my editor Mitch Goldich is my hero for putting up with these late nights all year (give him a follow on Twitter: @mitchgoldich!). He’s the best, and deserves more recognition than I’m giving him here—but this is what I can do for him right now.
See you all in a few hours for the MAQB.