Monday Morning Digest: Bubble Teams Can't Wait Any Longer to Make Playoff Push
Saying the NFL playoff picture is muddled is an insult to muddles everywhere.
There are three great teams (Cowboys, Patriots, Seahawks) and four glorified junior college teams (Bears, Browns, Jaguars, 49ers) in the NFL right now. The other 25 teams are still jockeying and jostling, and if you think you are certain one team is better than the next this week, you are just as certain to change your mind next week.
Find out what it will take for teams like the Redskins, Giants, Colts and Vikings to separate from this year's playoff pack, plus:
- Learn whether quarterbacks like Jared Goff make the Rams bad or the Rams make quarterbacks like Jared Goff bad.
- Discover the awful truth about the Arizona Cardinals.
- Uncover the mystery behind the Great Extra Point Slump of 2016.
- Explore exciting new ways to make watching the Browns tolerable.
And much more. It's all in Monday Morning Digest!
Advice Digest: Your Step-by-Step Guide for Reaching the Playoffs
Attention honors students: You are exempt from this lesson. Patriots, Cowboys, Seahawks and AFC West contenders, there are cupcakes for you down in the cafeteria.
The remedial class is down in the resource room studying How to Maintain Dignity Until Next Year's Draft. Please help poor Blake Bortles find his way; he just tried to shut himself in his own locker.
Everyone else, listen up.
The playoff field is wide open, but many of you are goofing off somewhere between 7-3 and 5-5. If you are not careful, you will squander a golden postseason opportunity. Luckily, the faculty at Monday Morning Digest has some helpful hints for separating yourselves from the pack.
Be Aggressive in the Red Zone
The Giants have won two straight games with the help of fourth-down gambles in the red zone. They scored their go-ahead touchdown against the Bengals on fourth down last week. Their first touchdown in what turned out to be a narrow victory over the Bears on Sunday came after a 15-yard pass to Sterling Shepard (pictured) on 4th-and-2.
The Steelers had trouble with two-point conversions last week, but that did not curb their aggressiveness against the Browns on Sunday. They took four shots at the end zone with under 10 seconds left before halftime (Browns penalties provided extra opportunities), then successfully went for two after finally scoring a touchdown. The extra five points mattered when the Browns narrowed the gap to 17-9 midway through the fourth quarter.
You can't afford to "play not to lose" in this environment. Take risks, be bold and force your opponents to adjust to what you are doing.
Mind Your Special Teams
Fluky extra-point slumps aside (we'll get to those later), special teams win close games. The Vikings got one touchdown on a kickoff return and set up another with a punt return against the Cardinals. The Lions beat the Jaguars with the help of an Andre Roberts punt return touchdown, two Matt Prater field goals and some booming Sam Martin punts.
If you don't believe special teams are critical, ask the Cardinals, Bengals and poor Saints how their seasons are going.
Tiebreakers Are Everything
The Colts swept the season series with the Titans, holding on for a 24-17 win Sunday. It gave them a head-to-head advantage over a feisty divisional foe, improved their division and conference records, and so forth. On the other hand, the injury-riddled Chiefs suffered a 19-17 loss to the Buccaneers, but it won't hurt them much if they take care of business in four upcoming AFC West games.
The Bills and Dolphins must be extra mindful of their upcoming AFC games. After narrow wins Sunday, both teams run the risk of going 9-7, or even 10-6, and getting left behind in the playoff picture by an AFC West or South foe. The Bills need to circle that Raiders game in two weeks. The Dolphins need to sweep the Bills, sweeten their AFC record against the Ravens and Jets, and hope the Patriots have home field locked up in Week 17.
That's all for now, class. Make sure you hold onto your notes. The test is at the end of December.
Several teams suffered losses Sunday that could be devastating blows to their playoff hopes. Here is some sage advice to get these teams back on track:
Baltimore Ravens: (5-5): They used up their gimmie games against the Jaguars and Browns just to get to .500. Sunday's 27-17 loss to the Cowboys doesn't bode well for their ability to step up against better competition. But the Ravens do face what's left of the Bengals twice, so they have a chance as long as they figure out what contaminant in the water supply makes every offensive coordinator they hire abandon the run early in the second quarter.
Philadelphia Eagles (5-5): They need to buy receiver Nelson Agholor (pictured) a one-way plane ticket to San Francisco, pin the boarding pass to his lapel so he doesn't drop it and force Chip Kelly to sign a receipt when he arrives. Agholor has hands like shins and reliably makes at least one soul-crushing error per week. Removing Agholor from the active roster won't solve all of the Eagles' problems, but erasing the existential torment of watching him drop crucial passes will improve morale.
Tennessee Titans (5-6): The Titans are a small-town indie band that sounds great during modern rock night at the local armory, but as soon as anyone talks about heading to New York to make it big, well, suddenly the bassist doesn't want to take time off from his day job and the lead guitarist doesn't want to "sell out." Stop acting as though almost beating the Colts is flying too close to the sun for you, guys.
Green Bay Packers (4-6): It might be best to just pop in some highlight films from five years ago.
Cincinnati Bengals (3-6-1): The Bengals aren't really in the playoff picture or a good team at all anymore. They were just placed here out of habit.
Game Spotlight: Redskins 42, Packers 24
It was a Packers 2016 loss like any other, only more so. The Packers running game was somehow even more anemic than usual, the secondary far more scorched and feeble than ever. Once again, Aaron Rodgers and the passing game were just good enough to mix a few brilliant throws with frustrating stagnation before a futile late-game comeback. Jeff Janis did dumb things. Jared Cook made some brilliant plays, but then he fumbled away the Packers' last chance.
It was also a Redskins 2016 win like any other, only more so. The offensive line was stout for most of the game. Kirk Cousins distributed the ball brilliantly, adding a barrage of (wind- and Packers secondary-assisted) downfield strikes to Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder. The defense played well early before getting lulled into some late errors. It was a convincing victory, yet the Redskins remained stuck in the shadow of other teams: the first-place Dallas Cowboys or their famously flailing Sunday opponent.
What It Means
The Redskins would be running away with the AFC South or North. They would be in first place in the NFC South or North. But they are stuck in the NFC East, where the Cowboys are the talk of the football planet and all four teams are good. That means their flaws are magnified and their mistakes—like the late fourth-quarter defensive lapse against the Lions a few weeks ago—could have a major impact on their playoff hopes.
It was encouraging to see the Redskins play aggressively throughout Sunday night's win, going for two frequently and converting a late-game 4th-and-inches that initially looked like a lame attempt to draw the Packers offsides. When being good might not be good enough, you have to take some risks.
On the other side of the field, insanity is watching the same Packers over and over again and expecting different results.
What Happens Next
The Redskins try to keep the Cowboys from running away with everything on Thanksgiving. No one cares what the Packers will try to do anymore.
Player Spotlight: Jared Goff, Quarterback, Rams
Goff started his first NFL game.
Yep, he sure did. Goff did, in fact, play the position of quarterback in a 14-10 loss to the Dolphins. He even completed 17 of 30 passes for 134 yards. One of the completions even netted more than 20 yards, thanks to some broken tackles by Tavon Austin after a short sideline out-route.
The best that can really be said about Goff's performance was that it was no worse than what Case Keenum has done for over two months.
What It Means
Goff's best passes were a 19-yard quick slant to Kenny Britt off his back foot, a routine rollout pass to tight end Lance Kendricks that netted 20 yards, the throw to Austin and a 10-yard hitch to Pharoh Cooper. Nearly everything else was a dumpoff or a short pass on 3rd-and-long.
Goff's mechanics were inconsistent, and he often looked shaky in the pocket, which is understandable when all that stands between you and Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh is the Rams offensive line. You can spin positives out of Goff's performance if you twist your wrist—the Rams led for much of the game, and Todd Gurley (20-76-1) ran into fewer stacked fronts—but Goff's entire sizzle reel amounted to Dak Prescott's production during a typical third quarter.
On a day when the Rams rarely even tried to throw downfield, it was hard to tell where Goff's unpreparedness began and the general incompetence of the Rams offense began. But there is no reason we must choose: Goff was unprepared because he is coached by the same people responsible for the generally incompetent offense.
What Happens Next
Jeff Fisher spends the week explaining that rookie quarterbacks always leave their teams non-competitive for several weeks/months/years and then orders all televisions in the team facility smashed so no one can see Cowboys highlights.
Game Spotlight: Vikings 30, Cardinals 24
The Vikings returned to their September brand of football, scoring points in every conceivable way except moving the ball on offense effectively. They got a pick-six from Xavier Rhodes (pictured), a 104-yard kickoff-return touchdown from Cordarrelle Patterson, an early touchdown after a long punt return and a third-quarter touchdown fueled mostly by Cardinals penalties.
The Cardinals hung around for the whole game thanks to great play by David Johnson (160 total yards, two touchdowns) and Sam Bradford's insistence on fumbling deep in his own territory late in the game (a near-fumble was ruled an incomplete pass, so he made certain to fumble on the next play). But the Cardinals are learning that there is a difference between "hanging around" and competing, both in a game and a playoff race.
What It Means
These are bad teams. The Vikings are bad in a resilient, injury-riddled sort of way, with just enough defense and special teams to buoy them in a bad division. The Cardinals are bad in the sloppy, disappointing, overrated, lousy-on-special-teams and worried-about-quarterback-suddenly-looking-old way. If this was just a slump, they would have snapped out of it by now.
The Vikings visit the Lions on Thanksgiving and then host the Cowboys after both teams have a long break. Both games are playoff critical, not just for keeping pace in the NFC North but the wild-card race as well. The Vikings have a strange tiebreaker portfolio, with wins against the Cardinals, Giants and Panthers but losses to the Eagles and Redskins. So every conference win helps.
The Cardinals face the Falcons and then the Redskins. We'll start breaking down their playoff chances again as soon as they beat a good team in 2016.
Player Spotlight: Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Colts
What He Did
Luck played a nearly flawless first half, completing 12 of 16 passes for 186 yards and two touchdowns, plus 25 rushing yards and a nifty 49-yard pass to Frank Gore on what could best be described as a Wildcat Give-and-Go: Gore took the snap and pitched to the motioning Luck, who checked back down to Gore lurking in the flat with no defenders around.
In the tradition of AFC South football, everything flipped completely around in the second half. Luck completed just three of 12 passes for 76 yards and an interception on a forced pass into traffic as the Titans worked their way back into the game.
Fortunately for the Colts, the Titans were eager to come up short in the fourth quarter: kicking a field goal on 4th-and-short trailing by seven, not challenging what appeared to be a first-down catch, and so on. One of Luck's three completions converted a 3rd-and-5 to let the Colts kill the clock in the final moments.
What It Means
Luck is brilliant but inconsistent, as usual. He got a little more help from both his supporting cast and his receivers this week, but that may have been an illusion caused by the AFC South self-esteem workshop. The Titans are better than usual this year, but it remains impossible to tell how good the Colts are when facing a divisional foe.
The only question that matters for the Colts is whether Luck is playing well enough to lead the team to the playoffs. The answer at halftime was an emphatic yes. By the fourth quarter we were back to "who knows?"
What Happens Next
A Thanksgiving win over the Steelers would erase the Colts' poor start and silence many of their doubters. But they will have to play all four quarters, in prime time, on short rest. We haven't seen Luck or the Colts do that for a while.
Unsung Hero of the Week: The Extra Point
What Happened: You took the extra point for granted your whole life, even when they moved attempts back to the 15-yard line last year. But after NFL kickers set a modern record with 12 misses Sunday, you will never run to the fridge after a touchdown again.
Missed extra points had a significant impact on the flow and outcome of Bills-Bengals, Jaguars-Lions, Cardinals-Vikings, Bears-Giants and other games. The only reason the misses didn't have a greater impact in the win-loss column is that both teams missed an extra point in several games, balancing matters out.
What It Means: You are going to hear a lot of theories and takes about all the missed extra points this week. Luckily, you are reading a column by someone with a math degree, years of analytics experience and a weird special teams obsession. So here is what happened Sunday:
A) The weather changed: Many kickers faced their first cold weather of the year Sunday. It doesn't take a blizzard to temporarily throw off even a veteran kicker's routine. The first 45-degree afternoon of the year can do the trick.
B) Several bad kickers kicked badly: Kai Forbath and Robbie Gould (pictured) didn't have jobs at the start of the season. There's a reason for that. Other veteran kickers are suffering through rough seasons. Stephen Gostkowski keeps hiding behind Jamie Collins- or Jabaal Sheard-types when he senses that Bill Belichick is in a bad mood, while Mike Nugent's professional survival rests on being the sixth or seventh most disappointing thing about the Bengals this year.
C) This is how probability works: Weird streaks are a common feature of true randomness. Flip a coin 10,000 times, and you are almost guaranteed to get streaks of seven heads or tails in a row now and then. The NFL extra-point rate is around 94 percent. Given many Sundays and hundreds of kicks, a sudden spate of misses (exacerbated by points a and b) is inevitable from time to time.
What Happens Next: Everything goes back to normal as kickers get used to the conditions. Though the Bengals should try to replace Nugent.
Defender of the Week: Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes returned a Carson Palmer interception 100 yards for a touchdown and chased down an errant Palmer bomb for a second pick. Rhodes is in dire need of a nickname during this Pro Bowl-caliber season, and I am pushing for War Machine. You know, the Iron Man character, played by Don Cheadle after replacing Terrence Howard (the Matt Kalil of the Marvel universe)? Oh, so the movies make a zillion dollars, but everyone's too cool for comic book movies when it comes time for a nickname? Never mind.
Offensive Line of the Week: The Cowboys generated 417 yards of offense and allowed just one sack against a tough (if a little overrated) Ravens defense. Let's not overthink things. You know these guys: Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free.
Special Teamer of the Week: Cordarrelle Patterson's 104-yard kickoff-return touchdown after halftime set the tone for the second half of the Vikings win over the Cardinals. Patterson (pictured) now has five career kickoff-return touchdowns. He may never be more than a dangerous tease as a receiver, but Patterson is having a Desmond Howard career on returns.
Mystery Touch of the Week: Mike Mularkey made some mystifying mistakes in the Titans' 24-17 loss to the Colts. But his fake punt early in the third quarter was so daffy that he must have found it in an old file cabinet labeled "DO NOT OPEN" in Jeff Fisher's handwriting.
After Brett Kern motioned out of punt formation to telegraph the play, rookie safety Kevin Byard took the snap and handed off Wildcat-style to backup cornerback Antwon Blake, who was easily stuffed. When it's 4th-and-2 and your team has a great offensive line, two great running backs and a mobile quarterback, it may not be the best idea to put matters in the hands of two backup defensive backs, Coach.
Brainstorm of the Week: The Vikings lined Sam Bradford up at wide receiver for a Wildcat play in the third quarter. Patrick Peterson decided to wallop him, and Bradford drew a roughness penalty on the grounds of protecting the quarterback, even when he was not a quarterback.
It makes you wonder what other quarterbacks would make good "penalty flypaper" when lined up in the Wildcat:
Jay Cutler: Actually, opponents might resist the urge to crush him just to keep him in the game.
Tony Romo: He ain't doing anything else. He can also shout "guess how much I am getting paid to wear a baseball cap" at the cornerback to stir the pot.
Aaron Rodgers: Mike McCarthy would never do this. It's too much like "innovation."
Cam Newton: There would be no flag, but three defenders might injure each other while trying to hit Newton over the head with chairs.
Blake Bortles: Would find a way to accidentally set himself on fire.
Winner: Colin Kaepernick (pictured) has quietly scored at least two passing or rushing touchdowns in each of his last three games. There are some soft defenses (Bears, Jets, Falcons) on the upcoming schedule, and the 49ers are a reliable source of nonsense touchdowns late in blowouts against better opponents. Kaepernick may be lying around on waivers, and you may be worrying how far someone like Carson Palmer or Andy Dalton will get you. Just a thought.
Losers: Giovani Bernard tore an ACL late in the Bengals loss. A.J. Green also suffered a potentially serious hamstring injury for the Bengals. The two losses will send fantasy ripples across the Bengals lineup.
Committee: C.J. Prosise suffered a shoulder injury for the Seahawks after an explosive early touchdown against the Eagles. Thomas Rawls then got the bulk of the carries, but the Seahawks were so thin at running back at the end of the game that backup quarterback Trevone Boykin played a few snaps at the position.
Think about that the next time you consider putting Christine Michael (whom the Seahawks cut and Packers signed this week) in a lineup. In the meantime, watch the Seahawks' waiver moves. And no...Marshawn Lynch is probably not in playing shape.
Leech: Doug Martin is healthy. Mike Evans didn't have injured Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters to worry about. So who scored Tampa Bay's only touchdown? Undrafted rookie fullback Alan Cross, of course.
Fluke: Speaking of the Buccaneers, on a day when every extra point in America was an adventure, with the Buccaneers playing their first cold-weather game of the year in one of the NFL's loudest stadiums, rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo made all four of his field goals.
Granted, the longest was a 41-yarder, but this kid has had panic attacks while lacing up his cleats all year. Maybe he has turned the corner. But see the Unsung Hero slide: Random streaks work both ways.
How to Make Browns Games Fun
The Browns aren't just the worst team in the NFL this year. They are one of the worst teams in NFL history. Yet you may find yourself stuck watching them for various reasons. They host the Giants next week, for example, while Washington plays on Thanksgiving and the Eagles on Monday night. That means the Browns will be inflicted on tens of millions of unsuspecting Americans along the I-95 corridor.
Luckily, there are lots of ways to spice up a Browns game. Why watch them like the Bad News Bears, or a team you ironically "love," when you can add a little sizzle? Here's how:
Take the Under: The Browns lull their opponents into lazy, sloppy games, making the under both a good wager and a source of drama. With the over/under at 42.5 this week, the fourth quarter of the 24-9 Steelers victory was interesting, if not a nail-biter.
Every punt and sack is a reason to cheer when you take the under, and Browns games are full of punts and sacks. Downside: Betting the under every week is a straight path to an anxiety disorder caused by no longer enjoying touchdowns.
Start a Quarterback Survivor Pool: The Browns quarterback who ends a game is rarely the one who starts the game. Have a group of friends fantasy-draft the quarterback they think will throw the final Browns pass of the game each week.
Sample first round: Josh McCown, Kevin Hogan (Wildcat rushes count), Cody Kessler (pictured), Robert Griffin III, Terrelle Pryor, Joe Callahan, Thad Lewis (will probably wind up back on the roster somehow), Tim Tebow. Downside: You are rooting for quarterbacks getting injured, you ghoul.
Play Prospect Pong: Every time a Browns player under age 26 does something impressive, take a drink. Downside: Pryor is 27.
Remind Yourself That It's Better Than Watching the Packers: Lowered expectations are the key to true happiness, folks.