Monday Morning Digest: Patriots Face the Ultimate Underdogs in Super Bowl LII

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 22, 2018

Monday Morning Digest: Patriots Face the Ultimate Underdogs in Super Bowl LII

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Super Bowl LII is set: New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles. 

    The most dominant, successful franchise in 21st century American sports faces a team that has gone 57 seasons without a championship.

    Living legend Tom Brady faces much-maligned journeyman Nick Foles. But the stalwart Eagles defense has the edge over the sometimes-shaky Patriots defense. One of the greatest coaching staffs ever assembled faces one last test from the NFL's next great innovation lab.

    The success-gorged champions much of America loves to hate will battle a team that has embraced its "underdog" personality in a way that transcends Philadelphia's often-tiresome Rocky cliches. It's the empire against the plucky rebels, or (if you are a Patriots fan) the preservation of the kingdom against the marauders howling at the gate.

    Digest is here with lots of breakdowns and analysis of the closer-than-you-think Eagles-Patriots matchup, highlights from Sunday's action, some news from around the league and much, much more.

    Let the hype begin!

A First Look at Super Bowl LII

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    Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

    We have two full weeks to hype Super Bowl LII, so this is more of a toe-dip than a plunge into the deep end: quick recaps, introductions to storylines and some analysis of a game that will be much closer on the field than its "Brady vs. Foles" tagline suggests.

           

    How the Eagles got here

    The Eagles overcame a quick Vikings touchdown and a sloppy first series to run away with a 38-7 victory.

    Doug Pederson outcoached Mike Zimmer. Nick Foles outdueled Case Keenum (a sentence you never expected to read in an NFC Championship synopsis until last week). The Eagles defense out-thudded the Vikings. And the Eagles out-prepped a team that still looked a little hungover from the Minneapolis Miracle and unready for both the deafening Eagles crowd and the (relatively mild) outdoor conditions.

           

    How the Patriots got here

    Sunday's come-from-behind 24-20 victory over the Jaguars was testimony to:

    • The transcendent glory of Tom Brady...

    • The strategic brilliance and adaptability of Bill Belichick and a coaching staff that is about to be scattered across the NFL map, and...

    • The difficulty of a winning championship game in the home of a team that has been winning championship games at home since many of your players were in elementary school.

    While Brady and Patriots game plans that evolved throughout the game were keys to the Patriots victory, the Foxborough yips caused everything from ultra-conservative play calls to short punts for the Jaguars.

    As you analyze matchups over the next two weeks, keep in mind that the Super Bowl is another day at the office for the Patriots. They handle everything from scheduling to expectation management better than any other team can, and it works in the background to give them a small-but-distinct advantage against opponents who arrive at Super Bowl week wide-eyed.

           

    Super Bowl XXXIX revisited

    The Patriots' 24-21 victory over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX, best remembered for Terrell Owens' heroic effort weeks after a major knee injury and Donovan McNabb's alleged barf in the waning minutes, did not happen quite the way you probably remember it. The game was tied at 14 entering the fourth quarter, Brady and the Patriots outsmarted the Eagles defense to build a 10-point lead, and McNabb nearly led a late comeback.

    It was a gem of a game, and while Foles is no McNabb and the Eagles lack an Owens, their defense is better than the one they fielded in the 2004 season—and the Patriots offense is weaker.

         

    Not-so-familiar foes

    The Eagles lead the Patriots 7-6 in the all-time season series and won the last matchup between the teams: a wild 35-28 game in 2015 full of uncharacteristic Patriots special-teams blunders (plus a 99-yard Malcolm Jenkins interception return). The Patriots won the previous four matchups, including the Super Bowl, giving Brady a 4-0 record in Eagles games in which the Patriots don't allow blocked punt and punt-return touchdowns.

          

    Familiar foes

    Former Patriots Chris Long and LeGarrette Blount have been key figures in the Eagles' Super Bowl run—Long as a big-play edge-rusher and vocal leader, Blount as a situational battering ram and upbeat locker room presence.

    The Patriots, meanwhile, turned a pair of failed Eagles prospects into valuable performers: running back Dion Lewis (who fumbled his way out of Philly but had zero fumbles all year before coughing one up Sunday) and Eric Rowe (a dime defender the Eagles tried to mold into Richard Sherman).

            

    Political corner

    Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have all at various points been either tacit or outspoken supporters of the current presidential administration. Eagles veterans Long, Malcolm Jenkins and Torrey Smith are among the NFL's most visible political activists. There's a distinct right-versus-left political character to Super Bowl LII, which will come out as the international media distills every possible narrative—meaning it has the potential to bring us all together or tear us further apart.

    But for the rest of this week's Digest, perhaps we should just stick to sports.

Super Bowl Spotlight: Tom Brady and the Patriots Offense

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    An early Super Bowl preview of what to expect from the Patriots offense.

           

    Strengths

    Tom Brady underwent a December "slump" (six touchdowns, five interceptions and a 61.3 percent completion rate in five games) that was nothing more than a great game by Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard, a tough outing in Pittsburgh and some games in which stat-inflating quarterback heroics were unnecessary. But that statistical blip, coupled with the rise of Jimmy Garoppolo, sent the football world spiraling into daydreams about an imminent Fallout-style post-apocalypse in New England. Days of self-conscious hysteria about a minor finger injury only fueled the madness.

    Brady proved Sunday against one of the toughest defenses he has ever faced that predicting his demise based on a few bad throws is as silly now as it has always been. He used his eyes to feint defenders away from his targets, fit short passes into tight slivers in the Jaguars coverage and stood in the pocket to take hit after hit while leading the Patriots back. He wasn't perfect. He was just better than everyone else.

    Even with Rob Gronkowski (head) injured for most of the second half, Brady was able to distribute the ball to Danny Amendola and a deep supporting cast. And while Brady did take some shots, the Patriots pass protection took pretty good care of him late in the game when it mattered most.

            

    Weaknesses

    The Patriots average 118 rushing yards per game but churn out a lot of them by munching clock in the second half. Take care of business on early downs while the game is close, and you can force Brady into 3rd-and-long, which is better than letting him pick you apart on his own terms.

            

    Bottom line

    You had seen this offense long before it came back in Super Bowl LI, let alone Sunday. The Gronk-centric version of it started beating opponents in 2011 and has never stopped.

    The Eagles run defense should force the Patriots to be one-dimensional. But when that dimension is Brady, it still might not be enough.

Super Bowl Spotlight: Nick Foles (Nick Foles!) and the Eagles Offense

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    An early Super Bowl preview of what to expect from the Eagles offense:

              

    Strengths

    Nick Foles isn't a very good quarterback, but he's a misunderstood below-average one. While many veteran backups are risk-averse dink-and-dunkers with so-so arms, Foles is a wannabe mad bomber with a quality fastball.

    The second quarter of Sunday's victory revealed the Foles who reached the Pro Bowl and led the Eagles to the playoffs in 2013: a passer who will take a half-dozen shots down the field in the hopes of finding someone like Alshon Jeffrey wide open for a game-changing touchdown.

    Foles' aggressiveness matches Doug Pederson's boldness on fourth downs and in other high-leverage situations (like the Eagles' field-goal drive in the final 29 seconds before halftime). Pederson balances a vertical passing game (which was only scaled slightly back when Carson Wentz got hurt) with a complex, diverse running game and a run-pass option game that even the best defenses in the NFL find difficult to stop.

    The Eagles can beat you with Jay Ajayi on the ground, Nelson Agholor and tight end Zach Ertz in the slots, Jeffrey on contested downfield passes, LeGarrette Blount at the goal line and even Corey Clement on swing passes. Throw in Pederson's game plans and Foles' daring, and the Eagles are not the offensive paupers we thought they were when Wentz went down.

         

    Weaknesses

    Foles is a poor passer on the move, and the Eagles lack a Gronk-like figure on offense who can take over games. Force them to play behind the sticks and apply pressure up the middle, and the Eagles offense can be contained. Foles also had a habit of bobbling snaps and coughing up fumbles in the past, though he appears to have put those problems behind him.

          

    Bottom line

    The matchup between the Eagles offense and the Patriots defense feels like an undercard for the Brady vs. Eagles defense main event. But this battle of relative weaknesses will provide much of the Super Bowl's intrigue. The Eagles will need about 24 points from their offense to make a game of it. Sunday proved they can make that happen.

Super Bowl Spotlight: The Eagles Defense

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    Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    An early Super Bowl preview of what to expect from the Eagles defense:

             

    Strengths

    The Eagles defense flew under the radar for most of the season. Carson Wentz's emergence stole much of the spotlight for the team's success. Also, the Eagles defense didn't force quite as many turnovers as the Jaguars, wasn't an exciting new story like the Saints (and the Jaguars) and didn't produce huge sack totals like the Steelers (and Jaguars).

    The Eagles defense was just very, very good at everything: run defense, pass defense, short-yardage defense, red-zone defense, and so on.

    It all starts with the best, deepest front four in the NFL: Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan in the middle, waves of Chris Long, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett and Vinny Curry off the edges. The secondary is similarly deep and talented, with Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins at safety and Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson allowing coordinator Jim Schwartz to match up against even the deepest receiving corps in the NFL.

    Throw in an athletic, disciplined linebacker corps and you have a defense that allowed 10 or fewer points in eight regular- and postseason games.

           

    Weaknesses

    Eagles cornerbacks went through a late-season jag when they bit on every single pump fake and double move they saw, resulting in some easy touchdowns for the Rams, Giants and even Raiders. Tom Brady will notice this on film and invent some ways to trick Mills and company into foolish mistakes.

             

    Bottom line

    The Eagles have exactly the kind of defensive front four that gave Brady fits in Super Bowls past. The same could be said of the Jaguars, of course, but the Eagles also have the depth and discipline to do more than produce a few sacks, then wilt in the fourth quarter. Two turnovers turned the NFC Championship Game into a rout. Two turnovers against the Patriots (a tall order, but possible) might be enough to bring the Eagles their first-ever Lombardi Trophy.

Super Bowl Spotlight: Patriots Defense

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    An early Super Bowl preview of what to expect from the Patriots defense:

            

    Strengths

    We used to call defenses of this nature "bend but don't break" defenses—until it became a backhanded compliment (like a "game-manager quarterback").

    The Patriots defense ranked fourth-to-last in the NFL in yards allowed during the regular season, but it was excellent in the red zone (fourth in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders) and solid on third downs (12th, per Football Outsiders). They have an excellent secondary (led by cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Devin McCourty) and just enough mix-and-match players in the front seven for Bill Belichick and coordinator Matt Patricia to play chess with.

    The more predictable you are against the Patriots defense, the more vulnerable you are.

          

    Weaknesses

    As the Jaguars proved for the first three quarters, the Patriots are vulnerable to short passes over the middle and are among the league's weakest defenses on first downs. They don't have outstanding perimeter speed in the front seven (see Corey Grant's first-quarter swing passes for big yardage).

    Since about 2007, the Patriots' best run defense tactic has been to eliminate the opponent's running game by building a three-touchdown lead, though they held their own when the Jaguars became predictable and conservative in the second half on Sunday.

    Mix runs and passes while working the short middle of the field, and it's possible to build a lead against the Patriots defense. But the Jaguars learned that sustaining such a lead is a different story: Belichick and Patricia will adjust in the second half. It's up to you to identify the adjustment and stay creative and aggressive.

          

    Bottom line

    This is the weakest Patriots defense to reach the Super Bowl in the Belichick era. But the fact that there are seven others to compare it to serves as a reminder not to take it too lightly.

Elimnated Teams Digest

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    One last look at what the Jaguars and Eagles must do to play in Super Bowl LIII:

          

    Jaguars

    Blake Bortles played just well enough in the postseason to muddy the team's future quarterback situation. Do the Jaguars hope he gradually develops into an Alex Smith type, aggressively seek an immediate upgrade to a more traditional/reliable passer, add a rookie as a challenger and insurance policy or attempt some combination of any or all of these options?

    The Jaguars can keep Bortles through his $19 million option year and add a veteran, but it will be a tight cap squeeze, and it will prevent them from pursuing in-house free agents like receivers Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee (both of whom may be gone anyway). Bortles' contract may also keep the Jaguars out of the premium Kirk Cousins-level market. A rookie challenger who could push Bortles and supplant him if he backslides would be the smarter, safer option.

    The rest of the Jaguars roster is Super Bowl-caliber—though how some of the personalities on the team handle sudden national adulation will bear watching.

         

    Vikings

    Like the Jaguars, the Vikings have the nucleus of a Super Bowl roster and a big decision at quarterback. They have zero quarterbacks under contract and must choose among former rising star Teddy Bridgewater, super-talented perpetual disappointment Sam Bradford and Case Keenum, who capped a great season by effectively demonstrating his limitations on Sunday.

    The correct answer is Bridgewater, but Keenum will have his supporters in the organization, and something about Bradford's picture-perfect delivery makes coaches forget that he never accomplishes anything. If they choose foolishly, the Vikings run the risk of maxing out as a good team that keeps suffering playoff losses like the one we saw Sunday.

    Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is leaving to become the Giants head coach, per Ian Rapaport of NFL Network. Rumored successors like Mike McCoy and Ben McAdoo will only be modest downgrades; McAdoo is pretty good at stringing together plays when he isn't expected to instill any order in the locker room.

Awards Digest

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    Defender of the week

    Chris Long was instrumental in the two turnovers that turned the NFC title game into a rout. He hit Case Keenum as he threw to send an off-target pass toward Patrick Robinson, and then he pounced on a Keenum fumble jarred loose by Derek Barnett to quell a Vikings scoring opportunity. 

         

    Offensive linemen of the week

    While the Jaguars got plenty of pressure up the middle and caused some pass-rush mischief in the first half, Patriots tackles Nate Solder and Cameron Fleming shut down the Jaguars edge-rushers in the second half.

            

    Special teamer of the week

    Danny Amendola fielded a short Jaguars punt and returned it 20 yards to put the Patriots in scoring range late in the fourth. A few plays later, he caught the game-winning touchdown pass.

       

    Block of the week

    On the Keenum interception to Robinson, Eagles defender Ronald Darby raced downfield as Robinson cut toward the middle of the field. Darby targeted Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon and...was knocked backward by the collision like he was just struck by a conversion van, not a converted college quarterback and third-down back.

    Darby's block wasn't pretty, but it slowed McKinnon just enough to spring Robinson for a touchdown.

            

    Mystery touches of the week

    Amendola's option pass to Dion Lewis was a slick play design, but it ended with a Lewis fumble. That would have been the last trick play of the game for most teams, but Josh McDaniels dialed up a strange variation on the flea-flicker—James White received the handoff and stutter-stepped before pitching back to Brady—for a 31-yard completion to little-used receiver Phillip Dorsett on the next drive.

    The Jaguars ran a strange flea-flicker of their own in the second half, with Blake Bortles scrambling after taking the pitch and finding Allen Hurns for a first-down pass. Then the Jaguars stopped doing anything bold or creative on either side of the ball and tried to wish the fourth quarter away,

    The Eagles then capped the flea-flicking with a Nick Foles touchdown pass to Torrey Smith off a Corey Clement give-and-go, making Sunday the most flea-flicker-tastic day in the history of Championship Sundays. Let's see about a dozen of 'em in the Super Bowl, coaches.

            

    Arch-conservative decision of the week

    The Jaguars called two kneel plays while leading 14-10 before halftime with 55 seconds and two timeouts left. On the one hand, they were playing the Patriots in Foxborough, so why take risks? On the other hand, thinking, "We're playing the Patriots in Foxborough, so we had better not take risks," is basically like thinking, "We are the inferior team and totally out of our depth in this situation."

    The Jaguars coaches called a great game on both sides of the ball before the kneels but did little right in the second half. Contrast that with the Eagles, who ended the first half with a four-play, 60-yard, 29-second field-goal drive that appeared to take the life out of the Vikings.

             

    Celebration of the week

    The Vikings did a little curling in the end zone after Kyle Rudolph's touchdown. It's remarkable that curling hadn't already been done this season. Feels like that should have been a Week 3 celebration.

    At the time, it was impossible to tell that curling would be the lone Vikings highlight.

             

    Bravest fans of the week

    Dozens of Vikings fans performed the Skol chant on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in a surprisingly peaceful protest. That's right: non-Eagles fans. You can wear opposing team colors and participate in pep rallies without being beaten up by Rocky movie extras. As long as you stay in groups. And do so at the art museum, which is eight miles from Lincoln Financial Field. Let's hope they made it out of Philly safely.

            

    Manufactured drama of the week

    The Patriots are like that person in the office who proclaims, "I just don't have time for all this drama" in the most dramatic, attention-seeking way possible. That's why Tom Brady's lacerated and lightly sprained finger—the type of injury you might get from slicing a bagel—became a four-day Wagnerian epic of bright red gloves, coy press conference comments and fake will-he-or-won't-he speculation.

    If you think Brady and the Patriots hate the attention they attract with their oh-so-mysterious Knights Templar routine, there's a movie trailer you need to check out. The Patriots are going to pretend the next two weeks are a root canal, and they will love every second of it.

Coaching Carousel: Offensive Coordinator Recycling Special!

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Six veteran offensive coordinators have been hired by new teams so far during this year's coach-churning cycle.

    Norv Turner (hired by the Panthers) has been a head coach or coordinator for 26 seasons, leading offenses to the top 10 in the NFL in yards eight times and in points 10 times. 

    • Greg Olson (Raiders) has been a coordinator for 10 NFL seasons, with one top-10 finish in yards and one in points.

    • Brian Schottenheimer (Seahawks) has been a coordinator for nine seasons, with zero top-10 finishes in yards and one in points.

    • Joe Philbin (Packers) has been a head coach or coordinator for nine seasons, with five top-10 finishes in yards and five in points.

    • Brian Daboll (Bills) has been a coordinator for four seasons, with zero top-10 finishes in yards or points. Daboll actually has just one top-20 finish in either, leading the 2011 Dolphins to the 20th-ranked offense.

    • Dowell Loggains (Dolphins) has been an offensive coordinator for three seasons with zero top-10 finishes in yards or points.

    That's a total of 61 seasons of head-coaching or offensive-coordinating, with 14 top-10 finishes in yards (22.9 percent) and 17 in points (27.8 percent).

    What's more, these coaches spread their careers over 22 separate offensive-coordinating or head-coaching
    "stops," meaning they average far less than one top-10 finish in yards/points per opportunity to lead an offense.

    And we wonder why offenses flounder and quarterbacks fail to develop.

    If we pencil in offensive coordinators Pat Shurmur and Josh McDaniels as the Giants and Colts head coaches but count them among the "new offensive hires," the numbers go up significantly, thanks mostly to McDaniels: 82 seasons, 23 in the top 10 in yards (28.0 percent), 29 in the top 10 in points (35.3 percent). If by the same logic we add Jon Gruden's five top-10 finishes in yards and four in points in 14 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, the percentages shift to 29.2 and 34.3.

    The new offensive coordinators now have about a 1-in-3 chance of fielding a good offense. All we had to do was add the guy who coached Tom Brady for a decade and a $100 million coaching "legend."

    Top-10 finishes in yards and points are a crude measure of offensive success. There are lots of extenuating circumstances in the records of all of these coaches. There are also lots of years of Brady, Troy Aikman and Aaron Rodgers, though that can become a circular argument (Turner did help develop Aikman, after all, as Philbin did Rodgers).

    It's just hard to look at a group of retread hires whose success rate looks like the batting average of a middle infielder and think, Hang on to your scoreboards, fans.

    The NFL doesn't have a quarterback shortage. It has a coordinator shortage. Kudos to teams like the Bears (who hired Mark Helfrich as offensive coordinator), Chiefs (Eric Bieniemy) and Steelers (Randy Fichtner) for at least giving some new faces a chance. Everyone else appears content to make the same mistakes over and over again until they get lucky.

Inside the Numbers: Offseason Preview Special

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    This week's Inside the Numbers examines some important players whose statistics will shape key offseason storylines:

         

    Kirk Cousins, QB, Redskins

    Cousins' passer ratings by month this season:

    • September: 105.3

    • October: 102.0

    • November: 94.6

    • December: 75.0

    Cousins' completion rate and yards-per-attempt average went down each month, while his interceptions increased as the season wore on. So this is no illusion caused by the rating formula.

    Cousins had a deep skill-position corps and solid offensive line at the beginning of the season. By season's end, the line was injury-ravaged and guys like Kapri Bibbs and Maurice Harris were getting meaningful touches. In other words, Cousins' monthly breakdowns show how the same quarterback looks with great, ordinary and awful supporting casts.

    We can learn from this, or we can just keep giving quarterbacks credit for everything good that happens and blame for everything bad—and both judge and pay them accordingly.

         

    Cam Newton, QB and leading rusher, Panthers

    Newton led the Panthers in rushing in seven games this season, Jonathan Stewart in seven games, Christian McCaffrey in two. Remove Newton's runs, and the Panthers' per-carry rushing average plummets from 4.3 to 3.5, their yards per game from 131.4 to 84.3.

    Nevertheless, the Panthers will probably spend the offseason trying to improve their offense by making Newton more of a pocket passer—the better to complement their rugged rushing offense that averaged 131.4 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry.

    This stuff cannot be made up.

         

    Le'Veon Bell, Disgruntled RB, Steelers

    Bell's 321 carries in 2017 led the NFL by 34 carries (LeSean McCoy was second). His 106 pass targets were second among running backs to pure change-up back Christian McCaffrey. Alvin Kamara (another committee back) was the only other running back with 100 or more targets.

    Bell had 25-plus touches in nine regular-season games and the Steelers' playoff loss. The Steelers designed no real role for backup or change-up rushers, despite that James Conner averaged 4.5 yards per carry on eight or nine touches per month.

    The Steelers appear to be committed to both over-relying on Bell offensively and trying to low-ball him financially, a formula almost guaranteed to result in sudden, catastrophic failure due to injury, holdout, holdout-exacerbated injury, etc.

    New offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner can improve the situation by being less OCD than Todd Haley was about running back usage. More importantly, the Steelers need to reexamine their payroll priorities, because what has worked for decades might need to be adjusted in this case.

            

    Julio Jones, WR, Falcons

    Don't act like you didn't see Julio's red-zone numbers coming! Here they are, via Pro Football Reference:

    • Red Zone (Opponent's 1-to-20): 22 targets, 6 catches, 40 yards, 1 TD.

    • Goal-to-Go-Like Situations (Opponent's 1-to-10): 14 targets, 5 catches, 23 yards, 1 TD.

    The target rates aren't unusual. The success rates, though, are putrid. For comparison's sake: A.J. Green caught seven passes for 72 yards and six touchdowns on 16 red-zone targets for a weaker offense. How Julio was thrown just eight passes from the 11- to 20-yard lines (catching just one non-touchdown) is baffling.

    Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will return next season. Hooray.

Calendar of Important Dates

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    There's not an NFL game for two weeks, people. But there's still plenty of football. Here's a clip 'n' save guide to the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl:

           

    Tuesday, Jan. 23, 8:30 a.m. ET: Senior Bowl weigh-in

    If Baker Mayfield's hand width measures 9  inches, he's guaranteed to be the next Brett Favre. If it's 9  inches, he'll be stacking cabana chairs at the community pool in three years. IT MATTERS THAT MUCH, PEOPLE. Also, the national sports media will get a look at what 6'3", 239-pound humans actually look like.

           

    Thursday, Jan. 25, 7 p.m.: Pro Bowl Skills Showdown

    Players will square off in dodgeball, catch footballs dropped by drones, race through obstacle courses, play a punt-and-kick version of tic-tac-toe, face off in pingpong, compete in an Overwatch tournament, perform magic tricks, take part in a chili cook-off and you have no idea at all when this list switched from actual events to gags, do you?

           

    Saturday, Jan. 27, 2:30 p.m.: Senior Bowl

    Prospects practice all week for the right to attach the coveted phrase looked great during Senior Bowl week to all future scouting reports but then try to avoid serious injury in an All-Star Game no one watches.

            

    Sunday, Jan. 28, 3 p.m.: Pro Bowl

    The least-loved event on the schedule of a sport allegedly on the verge of collapse for political reasons. Dominates television ratings in its time slot and typically draws more viewers than baseball, basketball and hockey playoff games.

              

    Monday, Jan. 29, 8 p.m.: Super Bowl opening night

    Take Coachella, remove all intoxicants, replace the performances with disinterested press conferences and make the crowd 90 percent middle-aged white dudes, and you have the NFL's idea of a brand-extending multimedia spectacle.

           

    Wednesday, Jan. 31: Roger Goodell's annual state-of-the-NFL press conference

    At which we learn each year that the NFL's ratings are fine, CTE and concussions are no biggie, football is more popular internationally than ever, the league's personal conduct policy was handed down to Moses on stone tablets, the airtight Rooney Rule is turning America into a multicultural utopia and one toke of medical marijuana turns upright citizens into drooling sociopaths. Some truth occasionally trickles in, accidentally.

         

    Saturday, Feb. 3: Hall of Fame Class of 2018 announced

    The selection committee must pare down 15 ultra-qualified modern candidates to a five-person class, only to have every choice and "snub" excoriated on Twitter by people who think everyone who played in three Pro Bowls is a surefire first-ballot how-dare-you-argue-otherwise Hall of Famer. Also, Terrell Owens probably isn't getting in, so there's that.

          

    Saturday, Feb. 3, 9 p.m.: NFL Honors

    The People's Choice Awards reimagined for folks who build their social lives around fantasy drafts.

            

    Sunday, Feb. 4, 6:30 p.m.: Super Bowl LII

    Those who don't watch won't know which geographic region of the United States to viciously ridicule for the next calendar year because its professional football team made some mistakes.