Skip to main content

NFL Week 16 Takeaways: Kenny Pickett on the Good and Bad of His Rookie Season

Plus, the Packers are making a final playoff push. Sean McDermott describes his team’s travel adventure, what you need to know about Sunday Ticket and much more.

More MMQB: Cowboys Beat Eagles Thanks to Lessons From Loss to Jaguars | Three Deep: How the Bengals Answered the Bell Against the Patriots | Six From Saturday: Ranking the Six Best 2023 NFL Prospects in the College Football Playoff

I asked Kenny Pickett—after he drove his Steelers, with the season on the line, 76 yards on 10 plays to a game-winning touchdown against the Raiders—whether he thinks he could’ve made that happen in September, when he first became Pittsburgh’s starter.

He wasn’t sure how to answer.

“I can’t answer that, for earlier in the year,” Pickett told me over his cell. “But I think all the snaps, like you said, have definitely helped me grow and mature—seeing things a step faster. So I just want to continue to build off the good, learn from the bad and keep trending in the right direction.”

In a way, that description of his growth could go for the team around him. We probably should’ve known enough to see it coming, too.

Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett and receiver George Pickens celebrate their win over the Raiders in Week 16.

Pickett connected with Pickens on a 14-yard touchdown to lift the Steelers past the Raiders on the night they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

For the first time in a long time, probably going all the way back to a time when Bill Cowher’s job security was in question (believe it or not, that happened), the Steelers had the look of a team that’d be playing out the string at midseason. They went into their bye in Week 9 at 2–6, and they were 3–7 on Thanksgiving. Which most rational people could look at and say, the Steelers, absent Ben Roethlisberger, are finally having something resembling a rebuilding year.

Then the schedule softened a little, the defense stiffened a little (with T.J. Watt back in the fold) and the starting quarterbacks—Mitch Trubisky and Pickett—started playing a more efficient game in leading a young offense.

The result is a team that’s won five of seven, and four of five, to wedge its way right back in the playoff race. And the growth moment for their quarterback Sunday night—in a dramatic 13–10 win over a Raiders team with an identical record coming in (6–8)—is a pretty good indicator of why the Steelers have been as consistent as they’ve been, on a night when the franchise honored one of the men who established that standard half a century ago (it was the 50th anniversary of Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception).

“Coach told us, ‘This is where we’re gonna grow up as a team and as an offense,’” Pickett says. “And it was our job to go out there and get it done, and we did that. So I think we definitely grew up some, and that’s a huge positive. There’s still a lot of things that we’re gonna continue to improve on to get to where we need to get to.”

When the Steelers got the ball at their own 24 with 2:55 left, Pittsburgh had just six points and Pickett was having a relatively forgettable night—19-of-31 for 169 yards and a pick (the defense took care of that one in the third quarter by intercepting Derek Carr on the next play). And then he gave those braving a chilling night on the city’s North Shore something other than the retirement of Harris’s number to remember the night by.

Pickett had a 64.4 passer rating at that point. He’d more than double that number (138.4) on the final drive, connecting on seven of nine throws for 75 yards and a touchdown. Really, the only point of tension along the way came on the only third down of the possession, a third-and-5 on the Raiders’ 19 in which Pat Freiermuth picked up four yards. Pickett got that last yard on a sneak on fourth down and, on his next snap, showed the aforementioned growth with his decisiveness.

With 50 seconds showing, Pickett quickly diagnosed the coverage and cut the split-safety deep coverage in half with a rope to fellow rookie George Pickens for the game-winning, 14-yard touchdown to make it 13–10 with 46 seconds left.

“They showed a two-high zone,” Pickett says. “They were kinda shading over the top of Pat [Freiermuth]’s backside, and they were doubling ’Tae [Diontae Johnson] from, I’d probably say, halfway through the second quarter on, because he was catching a lot of footballs early. So I just wanted to keep my eyes left, hold that safety to the boundary and let George do the work on the route.

“It was perfect execution, just like we practiced so many times, so it’s great to practice something that many times and see it come through in the game.”

And as much as anything, it’s a sign of where this operation—sturdy as they come—might be going next. Of course, that it happened on a night that was such an important one for the franchise, in honoring Harris on the week of his death, is more than just a bonus.

“Absolutely,” says Pickett, who came to the Steelers with the perspective of a guy who just spent five years playing college football at Pitt, which shares a practice facility with the local NFL team. “Obviously, the passing, we wanted to dedicate the game to him and get the win. So that was kinda like the main focus throughout the week, just find a way to win, get it done for Franco and his family. A special night for the city as well.”

But, yeah, it was also hard not to see some parallels, too, in that it was night of the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception—which had been the unofficial coming-out party of the team in the 1970s—that this young group of Steelers seemed to take this sort of step.

Pickett, of course, is just 24. The three guys he threw to on that drive happen to be in their 20s—Freiermuth (24), Najee Harris (24) and Pickens (21). And the guy commanding attention to open things up for them, Johnson, is just 26. So you don’t have to squint really hard to see where a night like this might be a harbinger of bigger things to come.

“I mean, that’s the plan,” Pickett says. “It all sounds great, but we gotta go do it. And I think that we have the right guys and the right mindset to accomplish those things, so I’m excited for the future with these guys. But there’s still a lot of work left to do.”

The first step, though, is showing you’re capable of doing the job. On Saturday night, when it mattered most, Pickett looked like he was capable.

The Packers are also, well, not dead. Same story here—proud franchise, talented core of star players, rough start … and everyone’s pride tested.

The difference for the Packers is they’re on the back end of something, not the front end, so when they started 4–8, it led to a lot of big-picture questions, ones that went well beyond whether Aaron Rodgers could get the 2022 team back on track. But even then, the guys who actually punched the clock with Rodgers thought there was something there in a team that had so suddenly fallen off from three consecutive 13-win seasons.

So when I asked cornerback Rasul Douglas whether—with the Packers now fully off the mat and certifiably frisky—this group looms as a dangerous one should it make the postseason, he scoffed at the idea that anyone would have just started thinking that way.

“I always felt that way,” he says. “I thought that when we were in camp. So, of course.”

And Sunday’s game was indicative of what the vision was for the Packers in training camp—a team with a group of younger receivers around Rodgers, and a team that wouldn’t need him to throw for 300 yards and four touchdowns every week to win.

Indeed, Green Bay’s win in Miami on Christmas Day was way more about a defense that got sliced up early by Tua Tagovailoa (he was 9-of-12 for 229 yards and a touchdown at the half)—only to put its foot in the ground, pick off Tagovailoa on all three of the Dolphins’ fourth-quarter possessions and shut out Miami over the final 30 minutes—than it was about anything Rodgers did. It’s how the Packers scored the final 16 points of a big 26–20 victory.

And yet, it’s the totality of the team and its potential that made these Packers look so dangerous during the summer, and has people, beyond just the guys in the building such as Douglas, thinking they still could be now.

Rodgers, to be sure, had his moments. The rookie receivers the Packers were looking for progress from—Christian Watson (six catches, 49 yards) and Romeo Doubs (three catches, 36 yards)—were first and third in catches and yards. Rodgers also made big throws down the stretch from a 22-yard deep out to Doubs to a 13-yard drag to Robert Tonyan, to lead a deliberate drive that put the pressure on Tagovailoa, making the lead six and giving him only 1:56 to work with when he got the ball back trailing 26–20.

But when Jaelan Phillips got an AJ Dillon shoelace to prevent a game-sealing touchdown and Matt LaFleur called for another Dillon run on third down, then sent Mason Crosby out for the field goal, the message was clear: He didn’t mind putting the game, and, really, at this point, the season in the hands of his defense.

“We were on the sidelines just talking about it—we thought he’d go for it,” Douglas says. “We didn’t care if he did or he didn’t. We know Matt is going to make a great decision, him and 12 [Rodgers]. They’re going to make a great decision together to put the offense in a good situation. But to the defense, we all knew it was going to be on us regardless. So we didn’t really care.”

And it was on them. The Packers’ first pick of the fourth quarter, by Jaire Alexander, set up Crosby’s go-ahead field goal. The second one, by De’Vondre Campbell, short-circuited a Miami drive at the Packers’ 30 and was the precursor to Rodgers’s leading the aforementioned clock-killing march. The third one, by Douglas, ended the game.

The play the Dolphins would run on second-and-7 with 1:34 left was one coordinator Joe Barry had warned his defense to be ready for in a two-minute situation. It was also a concept that, because LaFleur and Miami coach Mike McDaniel came up together and run very similar schemes, the Packers had seen plenty. “We go against [their offense] every day in practice,” Douglas says.

Barry also gave them another heads-up to look for it just before the play.

So when it came, Douglas was locked in and had a plan. He’d feign as if he were covering Tyreek Hill over the middle, then fall off to get in the path between Tagovailoa and tight end Mike Gesicki, where Douglas figured he would be going with the ball.

The educated guess wound up being dead on, and Douglas easily picked off Tagovailoa’s pass.

“I just kinda took what he said and just ran to it and got an interception,” he says.

Three kneel downs later, a happy group was flying back to Wisconsin on Christmas night—and that happiness is something Douglas says has been key to the team’s turning it around. “Honestly, I think it’s just that we’re having more fun,” he says.

Because the Packers are coming from behind now, rather than front-running as they have been in past seasons, there’s been a looseness that’s fueled that approach. And, again, gotten a lot of people like me to think the Packers, now a half game out of the NFC playoff picture, are going to be a dangerous draw for someone. Which, one more time, means we’re just catching up to where the players have been for a while.

“We always thought we had a chance,” Douglas says. “I know the media and everybody else thought that way. But we never thought that way. We always knew we had a chance, and I just think it clicked at the right time. I don’t know what it was, but we just had more fun, did a lot more competing together at practice and stuff like that. And it’s just worked out.”

It’s different, too, than it has been.

Whether that’s better remains to be seen.

Bills coach Sean McDermott

McDermott and the Bills spent the night in Chicago after securing their third consecutive AFC East title.

The Bills have had a season. Sunday night, coach Sean McDermott was walking off the Soldier Field grass with a third consecutive AFC East title in tow—a pretty wild accomplishment for a franchise that won the first of those after a 24-year drought. He said hello to some Bills fans, transplants and those who made the trip, in the stands. As he started to take stock, in his head, of a 35–13 win against the Bears that saw Buffalo trailing 10–6 at the half, he spotted Bills security director Chris Clark.

“Good win. God is good,” he said to Clark. “Now let’s get home.”

“I don’t think that’s happening,” Clark responded.

“You’re kidding, right?” McDermott said.

“Nah, it’s real,” Clark said.

At that point, Clark knew, just a month after one blizzard turned the Bills’ Thanksgiving week upside down, another—one that forced them to come to Chicago a day earlier—would keep them at the downtown JW Marriott for a third night, this one being Christmas Eve. And while that wasn’t ideal—the players and coaches wanted to get home to their families—McDermott’s first thoughts were back to all the people snowbound in Western New York, his own family included.

“It’s great to win and great to win our third straight AFC East title here,” McDermott told me late Saturday night, after polishing off a cheeseburger from the team’s snack room at the hotel. “But there are bigger things when you’re talking about everyone’s safety, number one. [We thought about] us getting home, yes, but also everyone at home, whether it’s our families or people a little bit more north in the airport corridor there that are getting hit pretty hard with that blizzard. And then you got essential workers who are out there.

“The little bit that we’re gonna miss of Christmas is hard, especially when you’ve got family and kids. But in perspective, I think it’s good to recognize that you’ve got people back home who are trying to just make sure they make it through it, number one, and then you’ve got the essential and emergency workers out there working—they’re probably not going to be able to spend Christmas at home with their loved ones. And then you go outside of that … think about all the military. Like at the end of the day, no one needs to feel sorry for us.”

That said, there was a lot of work that needed to be done, and had been done ahead of time, starting with early signs the storm could be bad enough to alter travel mid-week. After the team’s Wednesday walkthrough, GM Brandon Beane and director of football operations Brendan Rowe told McDermott that, in addition to having to head to Chicago early, the team’s return could be impacted. So they worked with Delta Air Lines to get a Saturday window, to try to make sure everyone would be home for Christmas. Or at least have the best chance to get home.

But as the game neared Saturday, the aforementioned window started closing on the Bills. The Buffalo airport would close, too. So Rowe, VP of administration Kevin Meganck and director of team administration Matt Worswick huddled; looped in equipment director Jeffrey Mazurek (who’d already had his job complicated by the Chicago cold); and started looking at alternatives. The nearby Niagara and Rochester airports were options, as were bigger airports in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The bigger issue became closed interstates, which threatened to make flying into those places useless.

So while the game was going on, the call was made to stay the extra night in Chicago and fly to Rochester first thing on Christmas morning.

Once McDermott got word, he got with Worswick to map out the rest of the week—with the team having a Monday-nighter with the Bengals in Week 17, he had the flexibility to give his players and coaches a little more time on the back end. And he did that, giving coaches the balance of Sunday and Monday off, and the players off through Tuesday, to spend time with their families for the holidays.

As the players found out, they made plans, too—Josh Allen pulled some strings at a local restaurant to give the players a place to hang out together on Christmas Eve—and, of course, everyone had calls home to make to family, who figured they’d have gotten home.

“I have a 7-year-old at home and a 12- and 14-year-old,” McDermott said, as we talked Saturday night, “and we gotta kinda work through how we want that to unfold starting tonight and tomorrow morning when I won’t be there.”

As of when we talked, McDermott reported that everyone seemed to be O.K. at home.

Is there a benefit to all this? Well, after last month and this month, if the Bills win a championship, there’ll be some good stuff for the book. To be sure, some bonds were strengthened with the coaches and players going through all of it together, even if, as they’d remind you, there were people in Western New York who had it much tougher than they did.

“We’ve been a close group since the start of the season—that’s one of the goals you try and establish in the spring and in training camp, is that you get to know one another and love one another and, of course, respect one another, because we all come from different backgrounds,” McDermott says. “In this case, these shared experiences that we’ve gone through this year, it’s been unique. I’ve never been through, in 20-plus years in the NFL, some of the things we’ve been through this year, but I guess there’s a first for everything.

“So, yeah, it brings you closer together when you go through these experiences together.”

Sunday Ticket is going to look different next year. That much, I feel confident saying, even if the details of the NFL’s new megadeal with Google to put the package on YouTube TV aren’t completely done yet. And I feel confident saying that because I know—after talking to the NFL’s chief media and business officer, Brian Rolapp, about this last week—that the bidding for it wasn’t just about money (and, obviously, money’s always a major driver for the NFL). It was also a matter of what was going to become of the package.

“Sunday Ticket has been one thing, and it’s been in one place for its entire existence,” Rolapp says. “And it’s the only set of rights we have that are subscription and you pay for it. It’s just different from all the other ones. And the press is always talking about who’s in the lead and what are they going to pay. In all honesty, we spent so long thinking about this and talking to people for that very reason, which is, all these different streaming companies are doing different things. They’re approaching things differently.

“I mean, YouTube is different than Amazon, different than Apple, different than Netflix, different than Peacock. It’s all different. So a ton of the conversation with the interested parties was What are you going to do with it? How is it going to be different? How are we going to innovate? How would you distribute it? And before we even talked about one penny, it was What are you going to do to make this thing great, and how does it work?

“That’s where the bulk of our conversations were for so long.”

Which is to say YouTube’s vision for Sunday Ticket helped it win Sunday Ticket.

If you’ve heard some of the numbers out there, you know the money part worked out, too.

But I know that’s probably not what all of you are most worried about. So here are a few things for you from my conversation on this with Rolapp.

• As was announced, there will be à la carte options where you won’t necessarily have to be a full-on YouTube TV subscriber to get Sunday Ticket (conceptually, YouTube is calling it Channels). What’s less certain is how many à la carte options you’ll have. “There are other ways we want to innovate, which we haven’t figured out,” Rolapp says. “Are there other types of ways to buy Sunday Ticket as opposed to all the games for a certain price? Maybe there’s a product [where] you can get fewer games for a lower price? We’re not sure. But there’s a bunch of innovation to be done there. And then on top of it, where their platform’s all digital, how you integrate highlights, how you integrate stats, how you do all of that. It’s, I think, where their product team is really going to go to work and do some exciting stuff. So that’s all kind of on the come, but that’s one reason why we’re excited about it.”

• The fact that YouTube TV has emerged as a cable replacement for a lot of people and, thus, has experience with a multichannel platform and won’t be doing it for the first time, was another plus for the Google bid. “That was a really big part of it,” Rolapp says. “They were the only digital-only company out there that had both models. If you want a full channel lineup, which we love, we’ve made a commitment to that—CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, you know them all. NFL Network, they’re in that multichannel world. And YouTube was not only in that business and were dedicated to it and wanted to grow it, but they just have a fabulous digital product. … I think most fans—like you and I are fans—you think about our own behavior, we not only want Sunday Ticket but we obviously want NBC, we want ESPN, we want all of it. And YouTube TV’s a really good way to do that. So we actually love that.”

• Rolapp also did think of older fans, and they do believe that YouTube TV’s interface is simple enough for anyone to adapt to. “We’re going to work with them to make it as easy as possible, but I will tell you, it’s amazing to me to see how many people who maybe are not as experienced with that technology [figure it out],” he says. “We’ve seen it with the Amazon game. I had somebody who told me [about] their 90-year-old father who’d figured out how to get Thursday Night Football, for example, with zero help at all. And I know my 81-year-old father-in-law’s a YouTube TV user. I think when they really want to find the NFL, they’ll figure out how to find it.”

• Being in business with Google, to be sure, did matter to the NFL. “It was a big deal,” Rolapp says. “I think if you look at, now that this is the final puzzle piece in our major media rights, where we’re ending up with all of our partners that we’ve had—NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN—we’ve strengthened them because we’ve given them more things to make them successful around streaming and other things. But at the same time, we’ve pulled into the biggest tech companies in the world who are making real investments in the NFL and in football. It’s a fantastic outcome that I think will benefit us in the sport for years to come.”

And, he thinks, all of you out there, too. Starting with the fact—and these are my words, not his—that you won’t have to buy a satellite dish to get what’s a really, really cool product.

Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson

Wilson on his performance against the Rams: “Bottom line is I let us down; it can’t happen.”

The optics of the Christmas game between the Broncos and Rams were awful for just about everyone in Denver. On one side, you had a quarterback who’d been with his team for three weeks, on a roster with a beat-up, beaten-down offensive line and its top two receivers, one the reigning Offensive Player of the Year, out with injuries. On the other, you had a quarterback whose team had built literally everything around him, allowing an entire offseason to help construct, with a new coach, an offense to his specifications, with much invested in talent around him (though it also was missing a top receiver and its left tackle)

• The former, Baker Mayfield, was 24-of-28 for 230 yards, two scores and a 124.7 rating.

• The latter, Russell Wilson, was 15-of-27 for 214 yards, a touchdown, three picks and a 54.2 rating.

That’s before you get to the bizarre scenes from the sideline, where backup QB Brett Rypien took up for Wilson and got into it with the Broncos’ linemen, eventually pushing and shoving a little with Dalton Risner. And Randy Gregory also went looking for trouble on the field postgame, and eventually found it with Rams lineman Oday Aboushi. Also notable, Wilson actually did take accountability for it postgame, something he hasn’t always done.

“Bottom line is I let us down; it can’t happen,” Wilson said. “Nobody wants to put out what we put out there today. That was terrible, that was not us, that was not very good. … I think a lot needs to happen, but number one, I’ve got to play to the standards that I know how to play to, that I’ve been playing to my whole career. We’re at a low moment right now.”

Here’s the reality of the situation: Denver has new owners who neither traded for Wilson, nor hired GM George Paton or coach Nathaniel Hackett. Those owners, the Waltons, are among the U.S.’s wealthiest families, and have more money than any other NFL ownership group. So they can write checks to fix a lot of things.

For example, they can write checks to get rid of Hackett and Paton, and they can write checks to try to make a run at Peyton Manning to run the organization like John Elway once did or have Sean Payton as its coach. But the one thing money can’t really fix is how logistically tied they are to Wilson, after the contract they did with him in September, one that the Waltons (and team CEO Greg Penner, in particular) actually were a part of negotiating.

So whatever the next move is, and I think everything is on the table, my guess is it’ll be done to try to get Wilson back to what he was in Seattle a few years back. Maybe it’s sticking with the status quo and giving Wilson continuity. Maybe it’s letting Paton bring in, say, the Cowboys’ Dan Quinn with another Dallas assistant, Brian Schottenheimer, to run the offense (both have backgrounds with Wilson). Maybe it’s blowing it up and building around a new big-name coach to work with Wilson (I have my doubts Payton would go there).

One way or the other, some hard discussions are coming there, with the new owners facing a pretty significant crossroads less than a year into their time in the NFL.

The Patriots, believe it or not, are another team at a crossroads. After Saturday’s blowout in a close game’s clothes—a pick-six, an untimely fumble and a weird Hail Mary–ish catch, plus some blown opportunities by Cincinnati made it close at the end—New England’s closing Bill Belichick’s 23rd year with some very real questions to answer.

The first, of course, concerns the offensive coaching situation. Mac Jones has very clearly regressed in his second year. The passing game has looked dysfunctional. And Belichick’s decision to put Matt Patricia and Joe Judge in charge of the offense and a young quarterback has come under great scrutiny. I’ve said this all year—the gamble is very much like when Andy Reid tabbed longtime offensive line coach Juan Castillo to be defensive coordinator in Philadelphia. That experiment failed miserably in Castillo’s first year, and you could argue Reid’s decision to bring him back for a second year (Castillo was fired in midseason of 2012) cost Reid his job.

Will Belichick voluntarily go get Bill O’Brien or Chad O’Shea or Kliff Kingsbury should he be out in Arizona? Or will ownership have to push him? My sense is the Krafts will confront Belichick about it if need be. If they deliver an ultimatum, would Belichick walk? I think a lot of things are on the table with this one.

The second thing to watch would be the status of Jerod Mayo, who shares defensive coordinator duties (he runs the meetings during the week) with Steve Belichick (he calls the defense). Mayo could win a head coaching job somewhere in January. He also could leave to go call a defense—I think geography would play into if he does (Philly, if Jonathan Gannon gets a job? Cleveland, if Joe Woods is fired?), with a manageable commute to and from New England a potentially big factor for family reasons.

And third would be, of course, where the team stands with its quarterback. My feeling is the Krafts still like Jones and would love for Belichick to find someone to grow with him the way Josh McDaniels had his rookie year.

So, sure, the Patriots might still make the playoffs. But what happens after that seems like it’ll be a lot more important to the long-term health of the franchise.

Our columnist Mike Rosenberg wrote Saturday that Patrick Mahomes is the NFL’s MVP, and I wholeheartedly agree. His numbers weren’t overly impressive against the Seahawks—he finished with 224 yards and two touchdowns on 16-of-28 passing—but that’s irrelevant to my argument on this, one I came up with when Mahomes was running away with my midseason execs vote on MVP (he got more than half the votes).

And that argument is pretty easy to explain. No one matters more to his team.

The Chiefs could deconstruct and rebuild their offensive line around him, starting two rookies and making a career right tackle their new left tackle two years ago because they trusted Mahomes to manage it. They could trade Tyreek Hill and overhaul their receiver group in March and April because they trusted Mahomes to handle it this year. They can do these things because they know Mahomes can lift those around him in a way few quarterbacks can.

"Yeah, well, how great is that?" Reid said in the postgame news conference after the Chiefs beat the Seahawks 24–10 on Sunday. “The accolades that he receives, he deserves all of them. And then the guys around him working with that and making it happen. It’s a tribute to Pat and the energy that he’s brought to the group, and then the guys rallying around him, obviously.”

The best symbol of it—during Saturday’s win, Mahomes completed passes to seven different and threw to nine guys. Only one, tight end Travis Kelce, was on the Chiefs before 2021. Same goes for the entire starting line, outside of right tackle Andrew Wylie.

And yet, Kansas City’s still 12–3, Mahomes is still putting up otherworldly stats and there’s little doubt that the Chiefs will be a major factor in the playoffs.

Really, to me, that’s why he’s different from almost everyone else right now. And an easy pick for MVP.

That Greg Joseph kick really is up there—to go 61 yards for a game-winner says a lot …

• For the confidence the Vikings’ staff has in its kicker, obviously.

• For the confidence the kicker has in himself.

• For the confidence the staff has in the other players on the field, too.

And that last part is relevant, because a long try like that can create a situation like the Kick Six in the Iron Bowl from a few years ago. And there’s the chance of a block with a longer kick’s low trajectory, too.

But yeah, most of all, this is about Joseph and Kevin O’Connell’s continued belief in him.

“I looked over at Greg and I could just see he had a great look in his eye,” said O’Connell postgame, using a line I’ve heard him use a few times when talking about Joseph this year. “He absolutely hammered that kick. So much credit goes to him, all the preparation he does when no one’s watching for moments like that. Really proud of Greg. And our whole team, you could feel it in the locker room, just how proud everyone was of him.”

There’s plenty of reason for O’Connell to be confident in Joseph—in fact, the kicker just hit a 40-yard walk-off game-winner last week to cap the Vikings’ wild 39–36 comeback win over the Colts. What’s more interesting to me is how O’Connell worked to make sure Joseph had confidence in himself.

Back in early October, in a game against the Saints, Joseph had hit four field goals, but then missed an extra point that left a Minnesota lead at 25–22, which allowed the Saints, and their kicker, Wil Lutz, to tie the game from 60 yards with 1:51 left. After the miss, O’Connell sought Joseph out on the sideline, pulled him aside and said to him, “Greg, you’re gonna make the game-winner.”

Minutes later, Joseph did, from 47 yards. And while he did have his issues shortly thereafter, against the Bears and Cardinals, Joseph now hasn’t missed a field goal since Halloween.

Which, I think, says a lot about the way O’Connell has handled him.

Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady

Brady willed the Bucs back from a 16-6 deficit to win in overtime to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Tom Brady’s going back to the playoffs, so long as he and the Buccaneers can avenge an October loss to the Panthers. And since we’re there again, a few facts about what that would mean historically …

• Brady has been a full-time NFL starter for 21 years—he sat through a de facto redshirt year in 2000 and missed ’08 due to injury. This would be his 20th playoff appearance, which is more than 13 of the NFL’s 32 franchises (including Tampa Bay).

• The division title would be his second with the Bucs. He won 17 of those in New England. Tampa Bay had won three division titles in 44 seasons before Brady arrived. The Patriots have won only four division titles in the 44 seasons that Brady wasn’t their starter.

• In Brady’s 19 playoff appearances, he’s won at least one game 16 times (2009, ’10 and ’19 are the three years he didn’t advance). And if the Bucs win Sunday, their first playoff game will be at home.

So, yeah, no one should be surprised that he was able to slog through an ugly start in Arizona on Christmas night or that he willed the Bucs back from a 16–6 deficit to win 19–16 in overtime. And consider this your reminder to appreciate what you’re watching.

We’ve got quick-hitters for Week 16. And they’re right here for you …

• Next week’s Monday nighter, between Cincinnati and Buffalo, sure looks massive. Here’s Bills coach Sean McDermott on it: “They’re a tough, tough team, man. I mean, they were in the Super Bowl last year, AFC representative, and they’re playing extremely, extremely well, led by Joe Burrow. So it’ll be a big week for us in preparation.”

• And here’s Bengals safety Vonn Bell on the week ahead: “We know it’ll be hard. But we’ll go enjoy this [Cincinnati's 22–18 win over New England] for 24 hours, because it’s hard to win in this league. And then we’re gonna move on to that game. We know the stakes are high, but what an opportunity and I know guys are gonna answer the bell.”

• I know the Eagles didn’t win with him Sunday, but what a good, logical trade it was for Howie Roseman to go get Gardner Minshew (24-of-40, 355 yards, two TDs, two INTs against Dallas) two summers ago. He gave up the 197th pick in last year’s draft for him, and got him for two years at $3.39 million. Just an absolute steal.

• Losing right tackle La’el Collins is a significant blow for the Bengals.

• So weird that the Rams-Broncos game was so important to the Lions and Seahawks, thanks to the Matthew Stafford and Russell Wilson trades. With the Broncos’ loss, Seattle’s 2023 pick stayed at No. 3. With the Rams’ win, the Lions’ pick is now seventh.

• The Saints have surprised me in how they’ve hung in there, and I think winning in really tough elements in Cleveland says something about how the team is still locked in, even after a really rough year. Running for 152 yards, throwing it just 15 times, and coming away with a win on the road isn’t easy.

• I think Deshaun Watson’s going to be fine (Sunday he was 15-of-31 for 135 yards with an INT). But there’s no question the time away from football has had an impact on his play.

Brock Purdy (15-of-22, 234 yards, two TDs, INT against the Commanders) and George Kittle (six catches, 120 yards, two TDs) definitely have a little thing going on in San Francisco. And that 49ers roster remains very impressive.

• I bet Ron Rivera will go to Carson Wentz this week. He won’t say it, but I think the Commanders need a little more information on him to make an informed decision at quarterback after the year. And if that decision is to look elsewhere? Washington actually has a pretty attractive situation to sell to a veteran quarterback.

• The cool thing about the Texans’ 19–14 win against the Titans is that it wasn’t isolated. Houston had fought its butt off in close losses to Dallas (33–27) and Kansas City (30–24), so it really earned what it got in Tennessee. As for the Titans, that’s five consecutive losses, as an AFC South title game in two weeks looms against Trevor Lawrence and a red-hot Jaguars team.

Three for Monday

1) I get the Colts sitting Matt Ryan. There’s a massive injury guarantee in his contract—if he can’t pass a physical in March, Indianapolis would be responsible for another $17.2 million—and there’s no reason, at this point, to roll the dice on having to pay it with two weeks left in a 4-10-1 season. That said, the only reason to go to Nick Foles at this point, if you’re Jeff Saturday, would be if you couldn’t get the locker room to buy into Sam Ehlinger. Which might be where they are with the rookie.

2) This is a massive game for the Chargers—if they win in Indianapolis, they’ll be in the playoffs, leaving a mess of teams to fight over the AFC’s final wild-card spot. It would also give Brandon Staley his first 4–1 stretch since his first five games on the job. And it would buy star left tackle Rashawn Slater and edge rusher Joey Bosa more time to get themselves healthy and in position to be factors in January. So, yeah, this one matters.

3) This is a great shot for everyone to get a good, long look at Justin Herbert, and I have to say it was interesting asking Staley last week about some of the outside criticism that Herbert’s gotten (i.e., “social media quarterback”). Here’s what he told me: “I don’t think that any of us feel like we need to compare Justin to anybody but himself because we think that he’s one of one. And ever since he’s come into the league, there’s not anybody that has more comebacks than him, that’s brought his team back from more fourth-quarter situations than him since I’ve been the head coach. He’s been nothing but a clutch player, nothing but the most fantastic player on the field, and a guy that’s doing something that the league has never seen before. And the facts back that up with every passing game. He’s always played his best in the clutch. And he’s played that way this entire season. He’s had his entire line decimated, and his entire skill-player group decimated this year. And he has his team at 8–6. And there’s just very few players that have ever played who can do that, and we’re not surprised.”

One thing you need to know

A lot of NFL players are really good guys, and, on Christmas weekend, I figured this was a good opportunity to show you one.

Shout-out to Stefon Diggs for being awesome to kids. And happy holidays to everyone out there, we appreciate all of you reading more than you know!