Monday Morning Digest: Raiders, Buccaneers Thrill in Scary NFL Thanksgiving Week

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterNovember 28, 2016

Monday Morning Digest: Raiders, Buccaneers Thrill in Scary NFL Thanksgiving Week

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Thanksgiving isn't supposed to be scary. Halloween is supposed to be scary. Thanksgiving, and the Sunday that follows, is all about feasting. 

    But it was a Sunday of terror for teams around the NFL that thought they would be feasting in Week 12. The Patriots survived a near-upset at the hands of the lowly Jets. Raiders fans had lumps in their throats while their team got the jitters and nearly blew a 24-7 halftime lead against the Panthers. Seahawks fans once again recoiled in terror at the sight of their own offensive line, which is the football equivalent of law enforcement during The Purge. The Dolphins, Bills and Titans got rattled in nail-biters against three of the NFL's worst teams.

    Monday Morning Digest cannot be jump-scared into missing any Sunday action, so we have the lowdown on:

    • How the Raiders (including Khalil Mack, pictured) won the West (so far).
    • Why Mike Evans makes the Buccaneers legitimate playoff contenders.
    • Which bad quarterbacks were actually pretty good on Sunday.
    • Just how many consecutive snaps Joe Thomas has played (hint: No one has any clue).
    • The impact of Rob Gronkowski's injury on the Patriots, assuming Gronkowski is injured, because heaven knows the Patriots won't provide any straight answers.

    And much more!

Top Story: Raiders Prove They Are the Best of the AFC West

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    The Raiders lead the NFL in "Yeah, but" victories this year.

    They won a bunch of games on the road early in the year. Yeah, but they were against teams like the Saints, Titans, Ravens and Jaguars. They beat the Texans on Monday Night Football on a sheep pasture of a field at an altitude that makes Mile High Stadium look like base camp. Yeah, but the Texans aren't as good as their record, and the calls were weird. They beat the Broncos decisively. Yeah, but the Chiefs beat both the Broncos AND Raiders, and no one is giving them any love.

    Sunday's win over the Panthers was a "Yeah, but" win, too. The Raiders dominated the first half, then answered the call when the defending NFC champs came back on them, with Derek Carr leading a two-drive comeback despite what looked like a nasty injury to his throwing hand. Yeah, but they nearly coughed up the game in the fourth quarter... 

    Enough. The Raiders are the best team in the AFC West. They belong in the conversation about the NFL's best teams alongside the Cowboys (who gobbled up everything but the wishbone on Thanksgiving), Patriots (who survived a scare against the Jets) and Seahawks (whose offense entered another fugue state in a loss to the Buccaneers).

    All of those "Yeah, buts" start to ring hollow now that the Raiders have racked up nine of them. It turns out that the Saints, Ravens and Titans are pretty good, making those road wins more impressive. Following up an international, high-altitude Monday nighter with a fourth-quarter comeback is an achievement no matter who the opponents are.

    The Raiders have met more than their share of skepticism this year as newcomers to the playoff chase after a 15-year absence and are also stuck in the NFL's toughest division. But as the Chiefs and Broncos traded sacks, safeties and overtime field goals into the night, the AFC West hierarchy became crystal clear.

     

    1. Oakland Raiders

    Strengths: Carr and a deep passing corps. Excellent pass protection. Great kicking and punting. Khalil Mack.

    Weaknesses: They can get gashed for a long touchdown from any spot in the stadium, as Ted Ginn Jr. demonstrated.

    Intangibles: The Raiders have demonstrated an ability to win on the road and in unusual conditions. Those skills can be invaluable in the postseason.

     

    2. Kansas City Chiefs

    Strengths: A brutal pass rush, especially now that Justin Houston is back to full health. Takeaway capability on defense and ball control on offense. A unique gift for successful horizontal Wildcat-reverse-option-misdirection type plays, often involving Tyreek Hill.

    Weaknesses: Forward passing.

    Intangibles: Andy Reid can manufacture 11 wins out of 8-8 talent. That appears to be what he is doing this season, particularly at the skill positions. But their 3-0 division record, with road wins in Oakland and Denver, could eventually pay massive tiebreaker dividends.

     

    3. Denver Broncos

    Strengths: The defense.

    Weaknesses: The offense, except for sudden big-play bursts. Special teams after Sunday's return touchdown and muffed punts.

    Intangibles: It's hard to point to coaching acumen as a major positive after a team allows several uptempo drives to the league's most downtempo offense, then hitches its overtime hopes to a 62-yard field goal.

     

    4. San Diego Chargers

    Strengths: Balanced offense with lots of weapons. Emerging talent on defense.

    Weaknesses: Turnovers. An almost uncanny ability to self-destruct in unpredictable ways.

    Intangibles: See weaknesses.

     

    The Raiders end their season with three road AFC West games in four weeks. The Chiefs and Broncos still have something to say about how the division and playoffs will shake out.

    But every great team must win tough games down the stretch. The Raiders have simply earned that great team status this year. No ifs, ands or "Yeah, buts" about it.

Digestible Nuggets: Bad Quarterbacks Edition

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    Eric Espada/Getty Images

    This week's nuggets are a fresh serving of hot takes on bad quarterbacks, many of whom put up pretty solid numbers on Sunday.

    Colin Kaepernick (pictured) has become a dispensary of fantasy-football goodness: He racked up 296 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and 113 rushing yards in a 31-24 loss to the Dolphins. Whether Kaepernick is actually playing "well" is a matter of how closely you watch and how low your standards are. He has looked just effective enough (often while trailing in the fourth quarter, when defenses are softer) to earn a two-year, eight-figure, "prove it" contract in the offseason from some team with dubious quarterback tastes and low standards. Brace yourselves, Jets fans.

    Jared Goff looked great on the stat sheet (214 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) and OK on the field in a 49-21 Rams loss to the Saints. Goff also lost a fumble on a strip sack and pulled a reverse-Kaepernick by looking far worse when the game got out of hand than when it was close. He took a huge step forward from last week, so the rest of the Rams organization obligingly took a step backward to remain mired in their traditional mediocrity.

    Ryan Fitzpatrick put together a fine game against the Patriots. It wasn't enough to win, but his return to the Jets lineup will make a fine story when Fitzpatrick ends up starting somewhere next year and the television announcer recounts his many NFL travels while an on-screen graphic shows his bearded face sliding across a map of North America. Fitzpatrick's career is short of real accomplishments but loaded with memorable stories. If the NFL were Dungeons and Dragons, he would be a bard.

    Brock Osweiler scored a touchdown on a quarterback sneak that looked like he was attempting a layup and crossed the plane of the goal line by sheer accident. Otherwise, Osweiler gave back whatever gains he made during his semi-impressive Monday night effort in Mexico City by throwing three interceptions (one on a final Hail Mary) in a 21-13 loss to the Chargers and generally looking like a yule log molded from compressed $100 bills.

    Josh McCown successfully started and finished a Browns game without getting injured, providing Browns-like quarterbacking for the duration of the afternoon.

    Matt Barkley threw two red-zone interceptions and was victimized by some of the worst pass-dropping an NFL quarterback can experience without handcuffing Nelson Agholor to Jeff Janis and telling them to run a scissors route combo. Barkley still threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-21 loss and would have beaten the Titans if he could somehow have duct-taped the ball to Josh Bellamy's hands on the final possession. Barkley is the perfect quarterback to keep the Bears' Endless Fourth Preseason Game vibe going through the holidays.

    Blake Bortles threw for 126 yards and two touchdowns, adding 81 rushing yards in a 28-21 loss to the Bills. Bortles may have missed his calling as a slot receiver who sometimes runs Wildcats and trick plays. It's our fault for comparing him to Ben Roethlisberger when we should have been comparing him to Mohamed Sanu.

Game Spotlight: Patriots 22, Jets 17

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    Associated Press

    What Happened

    Rob Gronkowski (pictured) left the game early with what was described as a back injury. That's the major takeaway from a close-but-listless game.

    Gronk had just returned after missing a week with what was initially described as a punctured lung but was later walked back by the Patriots Ministry of Truth to a "chest injury," which is also how they would characterize the hatching in Alien

    Patriots injury news is roughly as reliable and accurate as the stuff your father-in-law posts on Facebook about various political figures being devil-worshiping, shape-shifting drug smugglers from Jupiter, so expect Gronk's health to remain a source of confusion and intrigue until he catches his next touchdown pass.

    In the meantime, the Patriots offense looked sluggish and out of sync without Gronk for three quarters, a problem compounded by yet another missed Stephen Gostkowski field goal.

    Luckily, the Jets offense always looks a little sluggish and out of sync. The Jets held a 17-13 lead before Tom Brady snapped out of his funk and fired off a barrage of short passes to Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and newfound Gronk surrogate Malcolm Mitchell in a 22-17 victory.

     

    What It Means

    Everything rides on the unknowable health status of Schrodinger's Gronk. The Patriots should be able to beat the Rams without him, but their final four games (Ravens-Broncos-Jets-Dolphins) have significant playoff-tiebreaker potential.

    Gostkowski's season-long slump is another source of concern: If the Patriots need long field goals against the Broncos in Denver, they may not be able to get them.

     

    What's Next

    Bill Belichick ranks fourth on the all-time NFL coaching wins list. Jeff Fisher is second on the all-time losses list. It's not hard to figure out what's about to go down.

Player Spotlight: Mike Evans, Wide Receiver, Buccaneers

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    What He Did

    Mike Evans caught eight passes for 104 yards and both Buccaneers touchdowns in a 14-5 upset of the Seahawks. Evans caught three passes on Tampa's opening drive, culminating in a touchdown catch in traffic at the end of a Jameis Winston scramble. Evans elevated over Richard Sherman to haul in a 23-yarder along the sideline for his second touchdown.

    Evans now has had 100-plus receiving yards in three of his last four games and three multi-touchdown games this season. Overall, he's 73-1,020-10 and the undisputed focal point of the Buccaneers offense.

     

    What It Means

    Evans has always been able to outleap defenders along the sidelines for touchdowns, as he did against Sherman. What was more impressive on Sunday was Evans' ability to work to get open. He slipped behind defenders in zones, came back for Winston during scrambles and throttled down in seams to catch tight-window passes. Evans is quickly developing from "big-play guy" into a complete receiver.

    The Buccaneers are 6-5 and very alive in the playoff race. Sunday's upset provided a glimpse of what they will be capable of if the Winston-Evans combo reaches its full potential.

     

    What's Next

    The stretch run features the Chargers next week, the Saints twice, the Panthers in Tampa and the Cowboys in Dallas. Wins in those NFC South games could push the Buccaneers into a wild-card berth. Evans could propel them to victory against a pair of divisional foes with weak secondaries.

Game Spotlight: Falcons 38, Cardinals 19

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    What Happened

    The Falcons reaffirmed their playoff credentials with their best full-team performance of the year. Matt Ryan distributed passes to eight receivers on a day when the Cardinals took Julio Jones (four catches, one bobble that became an interception) out of the game plan. Taylor Gabriel (pictured) scored two touchdowns on wide receiver screens, while Devonta Freeman ran for 60 yards and two touchdowns.

    The Falcons defense recorded just two sacks, but the only times Carson Palmer wasn't throwing with a defender's hand in his face in the second half were when he had a defender's hand on his throwing arm.

    Cornerbacks Robert Alford and Jalen Collins combined with rookie linebacker De'Vondre Campbell for an interception and eight passes defensed as Palmer sprayed passes from a collapsing pocket.

     

    What It Means

    The Falcons continue building a solid playoff resume, adding this victory to impressive efforts against the Broncos and Packers, plus divisional wins against the Panthers and Saints.

    The Falcons are also starting to demonstrate they can do more in the postseason than just show up.

    Sunday's win proves their defense is up to the task of providing a consistent pass rush and replacing injured Desmond Trufant in the secondary. The emergence of Gabriel as a screen-and-reverse threat—and Mohamed Sanu (eight catches, 65 yards) settling in as a possession receiver and Wildcat help—diversifies an offense that cannot expect to win playoff games exclusively with stretch runs and play-action bombs to Jones.

    The Cardinals proved once again they are a sloppy team incapable of protecting their aging and increasingly rickety quarterback. While the Seahawks' loss keeps the Cardinals in the hypothetical playoff race, their only way to look like contenders at this point is to acquire the Doctor Strange Eye of Agamotto and rewind time to last year's December win over the Packers.

     

    What's Next

    The Falcons host the Chiefs in a game with playoff implications for both teams. The Cardinals host the Redskins in a game with playoff implications for one team.

Player Spotlight: Delanie Walker, Tight End, Titans

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    David Banks/Getty Images

    What He Did

    Delanie Walker caught just three passes for 50 yards and one touchdown, but he also provided the open-field block that sprung Derrick Henry for his first-quarter touchdown and added a key block (an uncalled hold, really, but those happen) on a Marcus Mariota 29-yard draw play to set up an important late field goal in Tennessee's 27-21 victory over the Bears.

    Walker leads the Titans with 49 receptions for 657 yards and six touchdowns. He also has a positive Pro Football Focus run-blocking rating.

     

    What It Means

    Walker is the key to the Titans' "exotic smashmouth" offensive approach. They rely on the H-back skills he has honed over 11 seasons with the 49ers and Titans.

    Walker lines up all over the formation as a lead blocker, pass protector, outlet receiver and seam stretcher. He has the speed to beat linebackers down the field and the blocking chops to seal the edge on an outside run.

    He not only creates mismatches but also disguises tendencies. Opponents may think the Titans plan to run right at them from their two- or three-tight end sets, and they probably will, but Walker will punish them if they do not respect the passing threat. The Titans are not particularly deep or talented at wide receiver, but the veteran tight end keeps opponents in base formations, sells play action and occupies safeties.

    It's all part of having some of the best attributes of a tight end, fullback and slot receiver in one package.

     

    What Happens Next

    The Titans spend a bye week hoping the Texans and Colts keep faltering, because the Broncos and Chiefs loom on the immediate horizon.

Unsung Hero of the Week: Joe Thomas, Left Tackle, Browns

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    What Happened

    Joe Thomas may or may not have played his 10,000th consecutive career snap on Sunday. Field Yates of ESPN reported he did; the Browns' PR staff later told Pro Football Talk that Thomas was still in the 9,600 range.

    That has to be the most Browns thing ever: taking a record that no one else has the capability to keep track of away from your best player.

    Pro Football Focus lists Thomas with 10,334 career snaps, with two missed snaps in the last four years that may be clerical errors. By midweek, we may learn that someone in the Browns' PR department forgot to carry a two or something. 

    Anyway, no one can deny that Thomas started his 156th consecutive game, which is an exceptional feat, though not even the record among Browns left tackles. (Doug Dieken started 198 consecutive regular-season and playoff games for the Browns in the 1970s and '80s.)

    Thomas may not be setting any records, but he is demonstrating amazing durability and professionalism, not to mention some great blocking, during an era of unprecedented futility. It must be like showing up every day to work in a furniture store that has been "going out of business" for eight years, except that furniture salesmen don't endure dozens of high-impact collisions per week.

     

    What It Means

    Imagine the Browns without Thomas. They would be the least talented team in the NFL, winless and forced to rotate among multiple quarterbacks due to constant injuries.

    Oh wait, that's the Browns with Thomas. It's impossible to imagine how bad the Browns would be without Thomas.

    He is the face of the Browns, a player whose resilience, dedication and excellence make him a figure for fans to celebrate and relate to, even when (or especially when) he gets exasperated and calls out the organization. He's the veteran Hue Jackson can point to in a locker room full of rookies as an example of the proper path to NFL success.

    When and if the Browns turn things around, Thomas' steady leadership will be a reason...even if he has been traded for a gift basket of draft picks by then.

    Also, "consecutive snap" streaks are silly. If the Browns somehow manage to build a 45-0 fourth-quarter lead some time this season, they should give Thomas a few late-game snaps off instead of risking injury in the name of a statistic no one is accurately tabulating anyway.

     

    What Happens Next

    Thomas will someday make the Hall of Fame as the NFL's answer to Ernie Banks. In the meantime, the Browns have a bye. Thomas has no choice but to take a short break. 

Awards Digest

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Defensive Player of the Week: Justin Houston dominated the first half of the Chiefs-Broncos game with three sacks, including an end-zone strip that turned into a safety.

    Defensive Player of the Week Honorable Mention: Alterraun Verner's interception of Russell Wilson late in the second quarter halted a Seahawks drive that threatened to shift the game's momentum. Verner emotionally fell to the field after the interception; his father had passed away just two days earlier.

    Imagine losing a loved one the day after Thanksgiving, then having to report for work and perform at a high level on Sunday. Verner's commitment was as inspiring as his performance. 

    Offensive Line of the Week: The Bills had almost no passing game with Sammy Watkins limited, Robert Woods injured and Walt Powell knocked out of the game early. But LeSean McCoy rushed for 103 yards and two touchdowns against stacked Jaguars fronts, with Tyrod Taylor adding 38 rushing yards and a touchdown when no one was open. So this award goes to Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, Ryan Groy, John Miller and Jordan Mills.

    Justin Tucker Special Teamer of the Week: Tucker kicked three 50-plus-yard field goals, which is why the award is (periodically) named after him. So let's spread the love to Giants punter Brad Wing, who dropped five of his seven punts inside the 20-yard line on a day when his offense couldn't move the ball.

    Anemic Stat Line of the Week: Ravens punter Sam Koch (pictured) ran backward 23 yards and out of the back of the end zone for a safety (with all of his teammates blatantly holding, knowing that the penalty wouldn't matter) to eat up the clock in the final seconds of a 19-14 Ravens victory against the Bengals. Koch's minus-23 yards count against the Ravens' total rushing yards. So while Kenneth Dixon and Terrance West combined for 97 yards on 26 carries —a respectable 3.7 yards per rush—the Ravens ended up with just 92 rushing yards and 3.1 yards per carry.

    Remember stuff like this the next time someone hits you with team-yardage totals during an argument.

    Mystery Touch of the Week: New England receiver Chris Hogan missed a chance to record the first pass attempt of his Patriots career when a trick-play bomb to Malcolm Mitchell drew pass interference, voiding the play. Hogan is left-handed, which always adds the element of surprise to this type of trickeration. Oh, it's just a lateral screen in the left flat. Nothing to worry about there, because it is physically impossible for a human to...wait, why is he turning his body that way? Everything is backward all of a sudden! Gravity...failing...must...grab...intended...receiver...

Cyber Monday Fantasy Digest

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Looking for some Cyber Monday stocking stuffers to fill out your fantasy roster for the home stretch? Look no further.

    • Malcolm Mitchell is going to be a hot property after his two-touchdown effort for the Pats, and he is worth getting a claim in early for. Mitchell is a smart, sure-handed possession receiver, perfect for both maintaining Tom Brady's trust and getting more red-zone targets while Rob Gronkowski's health is in doubt.
    • Assuming Jay Cutler isn't rushed back, Matt Barkley (three passing touchdowns) faces the 49ers next week and manageable defenses (Detroit, Green Bay, Washington) after that. Even with Bears receivers dropping half of his passes, he can get you a win if you are in a quarterback crunch.
    • Barkley target Marquess Wilson has been on everyone's Breakout Player for Next Year lists for four years and is worth a look after an 8-125-1 performance despite a pair of drops.
    • Justin Hunter (pictured) leads the Bills with four receiving touchdowns on just seven catches. Think of him the way you would a "goal-line specialist" at running back, and keep in mind that the Bills' receiving corps is so thin that Hunter, once a major prospect, is bound to get more opportunities.
    • Tyler Boyd has gone 11-116-1 in two games since A.J. Green has gotten hurt. Boyd also has potential as a Wildcat and trick-play specialist, which could get you a much-needed December touchdown as the Bengals pull out all the stops to stay relevant. 
    • There's a chance your whole league has slept on Rishard Matthews (3-64-1 on Sunday, 48-669-7 overall) because Matthews is an unheralded veteran receiver and nobody watches Titans games. Claim him and you get a reliable weekly producer.
    • With Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon both nicked up, Denard Robinson rushed 13 times for 39 yards for the Jaguars. Now, no one is saying you should claim Robinson, a perennial tease for an awful team with only a vague sense of how to run the football. But you may be desperate for a running back, and if Barkley, Hunter and Wilson all look like viable fantasy fodder, maybe we're on the brink of a Failed Former Buzzy Prospect Extravaganza or something.

Final Thought

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    The Saints faced 4th-and-1 from the Rams' 10-yard line early in the second quarter. Rather than taking the "sure" three points, they went for it. Mark Ingram rumbled 10 yards for a touchdown.

    The Saints got the ball back quickly after a turnover. They faced 4th-and-1 at the goal line. A field goal would have given them a three-point lead. Instead, Drew Brees reached over the line for a touchdown. The two fourth-down touchdowns turned a deficit into the seeds of a blowout. 

    The Bills faced 4th-and-1 at the Jaguars' 13-yard line late in the second quarter. A field goal would cut the Jaguars' lead to 7-3, preventing the Bills from going to halftime scoreless. It was the classic conservative call. The Bills ran rookie Jonathan Williams up the gut for a first down instead. LeSean McCoy punched in a touchdown on the next play.

    The Broncos opted to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Chiefs' 9-yard line in the third quarter instead of cutting their deficit to 9-6. Trevor Siemian sneaked for the first down, then threw a touchdown after a zigzag scramble to give the Broncos the lead.

    Entering Week 12, teams went for it 35 times on fourth down in the red zone, not counting fourth-quarter attempts (which are usually dictated by the score, not the coach's philosophy). That's about three plays per week when a team easily could have kicked a field goal but opted to do something more daring.

    Teams picked up first downs or touchdowns on 19 of those tries, a 54 percent success rate that doesn't exactly scream "obvious analytically correct move." But there's a field-position advantage to going for it in the red zone: If you fail, your opponent is generally pinned deep, increasing your chance of either scoring a defensive touchdown or generating points on your next drive. Going for it on 4th-and-short in the red zone, under many circumstances, is the smart play.

    Going for it in the red zone used to be strictly a Riverboat Ron Rivera tactic. Now, it's spreading to the likes of Ben McAdoo and Rex Ryan. (Sean Payton has never been predictable.) It's one more sign that NFL coaches have figured out the math and realized that settling for a field goal instead of trying to pick up an extra yard or two is the same as settling for a narrow loss.

    Fourth-down "gambles" in the red zone are more fun to watch than field goals, anyway. Especially when they are used to make Jeff Fisher's Rams look a little sillier.

     

    Fourth-down stats compiled from the Football Outsiders internal database.