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Sunday’s Head-Scratching Wild-Card Schedule

Why would Steelers-Chiefs get primetime treatment? Also, DeMeco Ryans’s tough task, the Bucs run D, Indy tries to escape Wentz, award winners, and more. Plus, musical guest: Smashing Pumpkins!

I’ll be sharing my lukewarm takeaways for this weekend’s games in the Sunday FreakOut: Wild-Card Edition. The following is the weekly Football Things preview column, coming to you in the wee hours of Sunday morning as God intended…

1. It’s unclear how the least intriguing game of the weekend would end up in the Sunday night spot*, but I’m guessing you’re going to be tuning in anyway since the only viable counterprogramming is reruns of Bones. (I think it’s the episode where they find a bone.)

It’s been the case all season: For the Steelers to stick around against quality opponents they need to get a couple takeaways and/or something like a blocked-punt touchdown. The Chiefs lost a whole heap of weird turnovers early in the season—which caused a collective freak out—so it’s within the realm of possibility. But it's hard to envision how the Steelers keep it close on Sunday night unless Chad Henne has to get involved. And even then...

Here’s what we know about the Steelers: They rush the passer well. (“They” being T.J. Watt, plus Cam Heyward getting in passing lanes.) And that’s about it. Their run defense, consistently among the best in the NFL, allowed the most rushing yards per attempt in the league and in franchise history (4.99). Their offense is largely built around Najee Harris creating something out of nothing; they have the league’s biggest abomination of a passing offense north of Miami.

Considering the majority of the television-watching world has had their fill of the Ben Roethlisberger Farewell Tour, this threatens to be some very unwatchable programming in the crown-jewel spot.

*—I know, I know, Mahomes and the Steelers.

2. Having Nick Bosa leading a really good front four, as well as Fred Warner on the second level, made his life easier, but first-year 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans deserves credit for making it work with a disastrous group of cornerbacks. Josh Norman ended up leading all their CBs in snaps, and lately they’ve been leaning heavily on third-round rookie Ambry Thomas. You can't trust those cornerbacks. And when you can’t trust your cornerbacks, it limits what you can do as a defensive coordinator.

So on Sunday it won’t just be the fact that the 49ers’ biggest weakness will be matched up with one of the Cowboys’ biggest strengths, or the fact that the 49ers can’t simply rely on Nick Bosa and Co. wrecking this game against a very good Dallas offensive line. Ryans will have to come up with something creative to slow down the Cowboys. In Dallas’s last loss, Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph did just that with a heaping amount of simulated pressure looks, consistently throwing Dak Prescott out of rhythm. But I’m not sure someone will get Dallas with that kind of gameplan again this season, and I’m not sure it plays to the 49ers’ strengths anyway.

3. The absence of Lavonte David will loom especially large against an Eagles team that wants to run it many times and would prefer run it well. The Bucs were the best run defense in the league last season, but they slid back this year. And in the five games that David missed with injury, they allowed 4.96 yards per rush attempt.

Throw in the Bucs' shrinking cast of weapons for Tom Brady, and things could be more interesting than you think in Tampa.

4a. There are a few teams who, in a typical year, would be diving headfirst into the quarterback market this offseason. But this year is different; they perused a couple aisles and realized all they have on the shelves are those pre-mixed containers of ketchup and mayonnaise.

Deshaun Watson will be moved, but is not for everyone (for obvious reasons) and also has a no-trade clause. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson are possibilities but not guaranteed to be available. If you don’t land one of those three and you'd like to win now… Kirk Cousins? Jimmy Garoppolo?

The Colts were first to hint they’re open to new possibilities. Indy is a great destination for a quarterback; they are one offensive tackle away from having a great offensive line, the defense is championship-ready, and Frank Reich is as good a head coach as there is. Perhaps there’s a scenario where Russell Wilson forces his way there. But otherwise, without a first-round pick (in an underwhelming QB draft class), they’re unlikely to find a better option than, well, bringing back Carson Wentz. And then they'll just have to hope that a traditional offseason (remember, he missed almost all of last summer with a broken foot) allows the coaching staff to wring more of these disastrous hero plays out of his system.

4b. The Colts, of course, should have just kept and continued to develop Jacoby Brissett rather than cutting bait because he couldn’t make it work with a group of practice-squad receivers during the one stretch when Matt Eberflus’s defense imploded.

5. It’s time for Football Things Honors. In a way these are the only awards that matter, because winners are gifted an Arby’s Five Roast Beef Sandwiches for $5.95 coupon. Not for each winner—the winners need to split the five sandwiches amongst themselves, which is why I need everyone who won an award below to email me with what dates you can make it to an Arby’s to claim your prize, and which Arby’s location you prefer. Here’s how the one-person vote went:

MVP: Tom Brady (runners-up in order of finish: Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert)
Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. Watt (Aaron Donald, Myles Garrett, Darius Leonard, Micah Parsons)
Offensive Player of the Year (aka best non-QB): Trent Williams (Cooper Kupp, Jonathan Taylor, Mark Andrews, Davante Adams)
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ja’Marr Chase (Jaylen Waddle, Mac Jones, Kyle Pitts, Rashawn Slater)
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons (Patrick Surtain II, Christian Barmore, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Odafe Oweh)
Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Burrow (Dak Prescott, Nick Bosa, Jimmy Garoppolo, Carson Wentz)
Coach of the Year: John Harbaugh (Mike Vrabel, Frank Reich, Bill Belichick, Matt LaFleur)

6. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Smashing Pumpkins!

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