Monday Morning Digest: Eagles Lose Wentz—but Not Hope
In the Week 14 edition of Monday Morning Digest:
• Get caught up on the AFC West, the television drama no one wants to binge-watch.
• Find out why Aaron Rodgers still matters in 2017.
• Discover which NFL coaching staff is most likely to be interviewed in a supermarket before a snowstorm.
And much more.
But we begin with the Eagles, whose pleasure is forever spiked with pain, and whose biggest victories always come at an incalculable cost.
History Offers Hope for the Eagles Without Wentz ... Sort Of
Eagles fans are forever bracing for disaster. They never thump their chests without first knocking on wood. The Philly Phaithful is full of fatalists who are certain that they are not entitled to have nice things.
So the Eagles' much-maligned, oft-misunderstood, long-suffering fanbase was as emotionally prepared for what happened on Sunday night as any fans could ever be. Because they have seen it all before.
Carson Wentz threw a touchdown pass to take the lead in a wild back-and-forth battle with the Rams. Then he left the game with a knee injury.
Nick Foles and the Eagles defense led them back from a fourth-quarter deficit with turnovers and a pair of field goals, and the Eagles clinched the NFC East and a playoff berth with a 43-35 win while gloomy reports of a possible ACL tear circulated on the Internet.
The Eagles never waltz into the postseason. They limp or stagger in. And the more charmed the season seems to be, the more extreme the pre-playoff peril.
Donovan McNabb broke a leg before throwing four touchdown passes against the Cardinals to lift the Eagles to 7-3 near the end of the 2002 season, so Wentz was in good company when he stayed in the game for one more touchdown after getting injured when diving for a score. McNabb—a rising MVP candidate in 2002, like Wentz this year—was lost for the remainder of the regular season. Backup Koy Detmer went down the following week.
Pro Football Talk described the mood in the Eagles organization as "subdued" as they awaited a return to Philly and a firm Wentz diagnosis on Sunday night. Eagles fans were ready to bust out the black armbands.
But there's no reason to despair just yet. The Eagles may court disaster whenever the Super Bowl appears within reach, but they never quit.
A.J. Feeley led the Eagles to a 4-1 record when McNabb got hurt. Then McNabb returned to lead the Eagles to the NFC Championship game and an extended run as contenders.
So the Eagles have a history of overcoming the loss of irreplaceable players. This version of the team has the tools to do it: a great defense (though it took some lumps on Sunday), a strong running game, even a backup quarterback in Foles who has led the team to the postseason before. Remember: One of the NFL's other top teams is currently quarterbacked by Case Keenum. Anything is possible.
Those old McNabb and T.O. stories don't end in Super Bowl victories. No Eagles story has ever ended in a Super Bowl victory. But they often end with the Eagles persevering through adversity and exceeding expectations. For now, that will have to do.
Enjoy the playoff berth as much as you can, Eagles fans. And don’t give up hope, because the Eagles themselves never do.
Game Spotlight: Jaguars 30, Seahawks 24
It was following the bullet points for a typical Seahawks game until the final two minutes and 39 seconds:
• The Seahawks were ugly on offense in the first half, but they made their opponent look even uglier.
• The Jaguars capitalized on Seahawks mistakes and chaos (penalties, interceptions, missed field goals, glaring defensive lapses) with big plays. The Seahawks capitalized back. As usual, it was more like a series of back-and-forth basketball fast breaks than football drives.
• The Jaguars appeared to be in control when Russell Wilson uncorked a 74-yard fourth-quarter touchdown to Tyler Lockett, then got the ball back trailing by six points after a defensive stop with 2:39 to play.
This is usually the point at which Wilson and the defense conspire for one more miracle to teach the latest upstart contender a lesson.
But this time, the Jaguars defense sacked Wilson and generated a fourth-down stop to get the ball back. Then their offense produced a mini-miracle in the form of a 13-yard Leonard Fournette run on 3rd-and-11.
Then the Seahawks turned the Jaguars' kill-the-clock drive into WWE Smackdown, except with more cheap shots at the knees and shouting matches with fans, and it felt like a typical Seahawks game again.
What it means
The Jaguars are the Seahawks of the AFC. Blake Bortles may not be Russell Wilson (the very comparison should provoke either giggles or nausea), but Fournette gives them a way to win without quarterback magic, and no AFC team can match their ability to win with defensive excellence and a sprinkling of big plays on offense and special teams.
Sunday's win both separates the Jaguars from the AFC pack behind the Patriots and Steelers and demonstrates that they are capable of winning big games against quality opponents. That's a big deal for a team whose last playoff victory predates the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Seahawks are the Seahawks are the Seahawks. Don't count them out of anything until a stake is driven through their heart.
Takeaways from Terrible Games
A total of nine Sunday games featured two teams that entered the day with winning percentages at or below .500. Some of those games are covered elsewhere. The others have their moment to "shine" here:
Cowboys 30, Giants 10
The Cowboys played down to an injury-devastated opponent who just fired everyone but the groundskeeper for three-and-a-half quarters. They won—and remain in the playoff race—because interim Giants coach Steve Spagnuolo likes to punt on 4th-and-short near midfield, and because even after accounting for starting receivers named Darius Powe and admitting the Giants have no better options at quarterback, Eli Manning is pretty much toast.
The Bills won with emergency quarterback Joe Webb in March of the Penguins conditions because Chuck Pagano's Colts staff coached like they wanted to rush to the supermarkets for milk and bread. You can throw downfield in the heavy snow, Coach. The defender is more likely to slip than the receiver (who knows when and where the ball will arrive), as the Bills demonstrated in the plays before halftime and in the overtime that decided the game.
The Bengals played like they were worn out physically and emotionally after that punishing Monday night game. The Bears have been upgraded from "jobbers" to "spoilers"—and both the Lions and the Vikings must be wary of late-season traps.
49ers 26, Texans 16
The 49ers have found a quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo, and it's already creating a ripple effect that makes the team better in other ways (offensive line looks better, field position and time of possession help the defense, etc.). The Tom Savage injury is beyond the scope of this little blurb.
Lions 24, Buccaneers 21
Matthew Stafford had two interceptions late in the second quarter but otherwise looked sharp. The midweek scuttlebutt about his injured hand made it sound like the Lions would make him throw wearing an orthopedic oven mitt rather than entrust the game to Jake Rudock. Instead, they just asked Stafford to do everything, as usual. The Lions will never beat a good team playing like this (the Bucs are just the Giants without expectations or interest), but then again they may not face a good team until the playoffs—unless Aaron Rodgers returns to ring in the New Year in the season finale.
Rodgers is almost certain to return next week, because the Packers won back-to-back overtime games against two of the NFL's worst teams and no one in the NFC can get separation at the top of the playoff picture or is willing to fall off the back. This is either the start of the greatest comeback saga in NFL history or the needless endangerment of one of the NFL's best players because a bunch of fluky stuff happened.
Player Spotlight: Antonio Brown, Steelers, WR, NFL MVP
What he did
Brown caught 11 passes for 213 yards in the utterly ridiculous 39-38 Steelers victory over the Ravens, and even those numbers don't do his performance justice.
Brown delivered five receptions of 20-plus yards, three of them in the fourth quarter, including a weaving 57-yarder through the Ravens defense and a 34-yard over-the-shoulder sideline raindrop with 1:08 to play to set up the game-winning field goal.
He did not score a touchdown, but one early-game reception to the 6-yard line set up a Le'Veon Bell touchdown, and a pass interference flag in the end zone set up a short touchdown by fullback Roosevelt Nix. Everything the Steelers did Sunday night—and the Ravens tried in vain to stop—flowed through Brown.
What it means
Brown now has 39 catches for 627 yards and six touchdowns in his last four games. three of them close games that the Steelers could not have won without him.
He has 1,509 receiving yards this season, on pace for 1,857 yards, which would be the third-highest total in NFL history, behind those of Calvin Johnson in 2012 and Julio Jones in 2015.
With Carson Wentz injured and Russell Wilson coming off a clunker, the MVP race could boil down to Brown, who always gets overlooked because wide receivers get overlooked, versus Tom Brady, who always gets overlooked because no one wants to give him an award he will let his kids use as a paperweight while players on 31 other teams clamor for a little recognition.
Brady's case is always strong, but the Patriots don't play until Monday night this week, and Digest is always on board for trolling Patriots fans. So we're officially endorsing Brown, the NFL's most valuable non-quarterback by a wide margin and an exhilarating-to-watch playmaker in a league where nearly all of the other exhilarating-to-watch playmakers are injured.
Oh good: Brown and the Steelers host the Patriots on Sunday. That should settle this MVP debate. And possibly determine home-field advantage in the playoffs to boot.
Game Spotlight: Panthers 31, Vikings 24
The Vikings have been out-executing opponents all season, but they were uncharacteristically sloppy on Sunday. Case Keenum's receivers dropped several catchable passes, his protection buckled against the excellent Panthers front four, and the usually-stingy Vikings run defense allowed Jonathan Stewart to scamper untouched for 60 yards after bursting through the line on a first-quarter 3rd-and-short.
Meanwhile, Cam Newton made a bunch of plays only Cam Newton could make: a back-shoulder throw under pressure to Devin Funchess to set up a second Stewart touchdown, an escape from a disintegrating pocket to hit a wide-open Funchess in the end zone, and a 62-yard run late in the fourth quarter to set up Stewart for an over-the-top game-winner.
What it means
Raw talent matters in the NFL, particularly in close games between quality opponents late in the year.
Keenum played hard and delivered a few Newton-like Houdini plays of his own, but he was also sacked six times and coughed up three turnovers, and the Vikings lack difference-makers on offense to pick up the slack. They need to execute flawlessly to beat quality opponents on the road, whereas teams with more front-line talent—like the Panthers—have a greater margin for error.
Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff left in the second half and was seen in a walking boot in the locker room after the game. That could finally be one injury too many for the Vikings.
The Panthers remain in the thick of the knotted NFC playoff hunt thanks to Cam, Stewart, their front seven, a playbook full of misdirection wrinkles that sometimes work and a few surprise contributors like Funchess. Every time it looks like they don't have what it takes to hang with the top contenders, Cam runs off tackle and doesn't stop until he's on the other side of the field.
The Vikings get a relative breather as they host the Bengals. The Panthers host the Packers in a game that could provide NFC playoff clarity but will probably just muddle things further.
Oh, and there will be Teddy Bridgewater talk, despite a better-than-the-stat-line game by Keenum. Adjust your noise-cancelling headphones accordingly.
A Guide to Understanding the AFC West
There are no good teams in the AFC West. There are no non-frustrating teams in the AFC West. There will be, however, at least one AFC West representative in the postseason. With that in mind, Digest is here to watch excruciating games between deeply flawed teams to figure out who will host a home playoff game without really deserving it. Here's the rundown:
Kansas City (7-6)
The Chiefs are the most likely team to win the AFC West. They proved in their 26-15 Sunday win over the Raiders that they have rediscovered what made their offense successful (hey, remember Kareem Hunt?) now that coordinator Matt Nagy has taken over play-calling duties from Andy Reid. The team-imposed Marcus Peters suspension may have woken the defense up, though playing a directionless and passionless opponent also helped.
Late-season games against disinterested opponents (Dolphins and Broncos) could propel the Chiefs to the playoffs, regardless of what happens when they host the Chargers next week. Those early Patriots and Eagles wins give the Chiefs lots of common-foe and strength-of-opponent tiebreakers if things get really messy.
Los Angeles (7-6)
The Chargers are the best team in the AFC West, as they demonstrated in Sunday's 30-13 win over Washington. But they spent the first half of the season missing field goals and letting visiting fans use their microbrewery of a home stadium as an Airbnb, leaving them with a weak 4-5 conference record and other tiebreaker disadvantages.
A Chiefs-Jets-Raiders late-season sweep to reach the playoffs is possible for a team with Philip Rivers, Keenan Allen and one of the league's best pass rushes, but the Chargers may have made things a little too hard on themselves. AFC wild-card hopefuls should root for them, because a trip to the little beach-town bungalow is much preferable to a visit to Arrowhead.
The Raiders have the best front-line talent in the AFC West but played without energy, leadership or a discernible game plan in their loss to the Chiefs. Their longest pass play before fourth-quarter garbage time traveled 13 yards—against a porous defense without its best cornerback.
They face the Cowboys next week before visiting the Eagles on Christmas night. If you think the Raiders look ready to play well in the East Coast cold in front of growling Eagles fans in a big game after Sunday's performance, you may have been watching an NFL Films documentary from 1977 instead of the actual game.
The Broncos are eliminated from contention but shut out the Jets on Sunday, a prime example of employees looking extra busy when the boss is in a firing mood.
Inside the Numbers
Bryce Petty, QB, Jets (2-of-9 for 14 yards, 1 rush for 7 yards)
Petty entered the game when Josh McCown suffered a hand injury early in the second quarter and threw one official seven-yard pass (a second completion was nullified by penalty) before McCown returned to throw an interception and absorb further punishment.
Petty returned for good late in the third quarter, completed another seven-yard pass, then went 0-for-the-fourth-quarter as the Jets netted 18 yards and zero first downs on their final four drives of a shutout loss.
Imagine how bad Christian Hackenberg must be.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Bills (32 carries for 156 yards, 1 TD) and Frank Gore, RB, Colts (35 carries for 130 yards)
These stat lines, assembled in the Buffalo Iditarod, look nearly identical until closer inspection. McCoy averaged 4.9 yards per rush and produced both the 21-yard game-winning overtime touchdown and a 25-yarder on the Bills' earlier scoring drive. Gore averaged 3.6 yards per rush, with a long run of 10 yards.
McCoy was playing with a Wildcat quarterback much of the afternoon but benefited from a game plan that took a few risks. Gore was just used as a snowplow for much of the day, even though he sometimes looked like one of the least sure-footed players on the field.
Kendall Wright, WR, Bears (10 catches on 11 targets for 107 yards)
This was the Bears' first 100-yard receiving performance of the year and Wright's first 100-yard game since October 2016. It's also worth noting that Mitchell Trubisky has now graduated from throwing fewer than 11 passes per game to throwing 11 of them to one receiver.
The big takeaway here, though, involves the Bengals' banged-up secondary, which is incapable of defending even basic pass plays. (Simple rollouts baffled them again and again on Sunday.) The Bengals face the Vikings and Lions over the next two weeks; adjust your fantasy lineups accordingly.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals (5 catches for 44 yards)
Fitzgerald moved past Randy Moss into third place on the all-time receiving yardage list in the 12-7 Cardinals victory over the Titans. Fitzgerald now has 15,311 career receiving yards—623 yards behind Terrell Owens and a little more than 7,000 behind the unattainable perfection of Jerry Rice.
While Fitzgerald had some golden seasons with Kurt Warner and Carson Palmer, imagine what his career totals would look like if he wasn't stuck trying to catch passes from Josh McCown, Kevin Kolb, Matt Leinart, Derek Anderson, John Skelton and (now) Blaine Gabbert for so much of his career.
Offensive Line of the Week
The Chargers rushed for 174 yards and 5.0 yards per carry. Philip Rivers was sacked just twice by the Washington defense. And the Chargers are serious playoff contenders! So let's hear it for Russell Okung, rookie Dan Feeney, Spencer Pulley, Kenny Wiggins and Joe Barksdale! C'mon Chargers fans, give it up! Chargers fans? (Taps microphone). Is this thing on?
Defenders of the Week
Jaguars cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye share this week's award for picking off Russell Wilson a total of three times. Bouye's two interceptions and Ramsey's end-zone pick all came on the kinds of deep Wilson heave-ho passes that typically result in big plays that bury opponents.
Special Teamer of the Week
Jaguars return man Jaydon Mickens' 72-yard punt return set up the touchdown that gave the Jaguars a 24-10 lead. Mickens also took a lateral on a kickoff to give the Jaguars a few precious extra yards of field position.
Mystery Touch of the Week
Jameis Winston's touchdown pass to eligible reserve tackle Leonard Wester may have been the most creative idea coach Dirk Koetter ever had in his life. The best part of the play design is the alignment: The tight end on Wester's side is only about six inches behind the line of scrimmage, making Wester look "covered" and therefore ineligible to leak into the flat after blocking. If only Koetter had entire game plans full of such innovation.
Worst Coaching Decision of the Week
Interim Giants coach Steve Spagnuolo punted from the Dallas 37-yard line on 4th-and-3, from the Giants 45-yard line on 4th-and-2, from the Giants 48-yard line on 4th-and-2 and from the Cowboys 48-yard line on 4th-and-8 when trailing in the fourth quarter with nothing to lose. This is the type of strategic daring and risk-reward analysis that explains how coaches like Ben McAdoo get jobs in the first place.
Defining Moment of the Week
Adam Vinatieri has won Super Bowls with clutch field goals, but his physics-defying, blizzard-bent extra point to tie the Bills-Colts game may have been the most impressive kick of his career. Vinatieri's effort appeared doomed to failure when A) the preceding two-point conversion was nullified by offensive pass interference, forcing an extra-long extra point attempt, and B) his teammates' attempt to clear a patch for him to kick from turned into a bunch of guys just kicking snow in all directions. But part of being in your 40s like Vinatieri is sending the kids out to shovel and being disappointed by the results.
From a Monday nighter that made everyone miserable to the latest Browns front-office purge, this was a busy week for NFL news. Digest wraps up the stories and spins them forward so you are ready for a new week:
What's the most important takeaway from the Sashi Brown firing in Cleveland?
Stinking-by-design for two-to-indefinite years looks great on a spreadsheet but not so great when you have to walk into team headquarters every week and look people in the eye who haven't experienced a win in over a year.
But isn't Hue Jackson largely to blame for the Browns' 1-27 record over two years?
Jackson has made a career out of driving away from the 20-car pileups that he helped cause. But the Moneyball extremists howling about the Sashi firing all considered losses (and the high draft picks that come with them) features of the Browns system, not bugs, until there was blame to be assigned. Then suddenly Jackson was holding them back from being the Jets or something.
Does Thursday Night Football cause injuries?
Drew Brees and common sense say yes. Statistical analysis by Football Outsiders says "inconclusive" because injury data can be hard to pin down. The problem now is that fans perceive Thursday night football as an inferior/dangerous product. Thursday's Falcons-Saints game started with the NFL's top rookie getting hurt after four plays and ended with Brees' complaints. And that was one of the good Thursday nighters.
Dave Gettleman is the front-runner for the Giants' general manager vacancy, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Is that a good fit?
Gettleman is a great slow-cooker of a personnel executive. But the Giants should be searching for an influx of new ideas and energy instead of grabbing someone from their extended family who may just reinforce the same ideas that have produced diminishing returns for years.
How can the NFL avoid games like the Monday night Steelers-Bengals free-for-all?
The first step is to stop every Steelers-Bengals game from becoming a free-for-all is to send Troy Vincent, Derrick Brooks, James Thrash and/or other surrogates to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati before the games to lay out expectations to players and coaches during the practice week. Proactive discipline works.
What about fines and suspensions?
Random discipline doesn't work. The NFL is like a bad parent that punishes based on mood swings. When fines and suspensions are perceived as a random "Gotcha," people start doing what they want anyway (see: speed limits).
Is there a double standard between how Tom Brady's sideline behavior and Odell Beckham Jr.'s sideline behavior is perceived? And is there a racial element to that double standard?
Yes, yes, and duh.
Accountability, Concussions and Tom Savage
You've seen the image of Tom Savage suffering a severe blow and twitching on the field for a few moments by now.
You've also heard or expressed outrage at the NFL's sham of a sideline concussion protocol by now. It's a procedure players sometimes breeze through like an E-ZPass lane, one which bruskly declared Savage A-OK to return to the game before recalling the wobbly quarterback for a do-over.
But perhaps you have not heard Bill O'Brien's explanation of why he let a quarterback so dazed that he may have thought he was tasked with stopping Ragnarok—team officials had to restrain him from re-entering the game—back into the game in the first place.
"I don't have anything to do with that," O'Brien said. "All I do is coach."
In other words: I go out of my way to avoid determining if there is anything wrong with my quarterback, therefore I have deniability when I endanger his health.
NFL head coaches claim to know everything that happens on their sidelines until the moment they don't want to know something. They talk about accountability until they don't want to be held accountable. They have eyes and cameras everywhere but somehow miss things that the national audience sees when they choose to.
Teammates claim that Savage was lucid on the sideline, but chances are they weren't asking any probing questions. If Savage had thrown an interception, coaches would pepper him with questions and discussion. Maybe a trip to the concussion tent should be followed by a thorough game-plan quiz. But no: Coach might then hear something he doesn't want to hear.
The NFL's concussion protocols need another round of overhauls. Here's a rule it should add: If a coach sends a concussed player back into the game, that coach gets a one-game suspension. That will force the coaches to be a little more attentive to what the medical staff is doing, a little less likely to go into see-no-evil mode.
Because if the coaches are suddenly worried about their game checks and reputations, player safety will suddenly become a much higher priority.