Monday Morning Digest: Chiefs, Steelers, Packers and the Art of Winning Ugly
Sunday began with news that Jeff Fisher got a contract extension no one outside of Rams headquarters believes he deserves. It ended with Earl Thomas suffering an injury that could mark the end of the Legion of Boom in Seattle.
In between, there was plenty of fun and intrigue, including:
- Frozen tundra in Green Bay.
- Inexplicable Chiefs heroics, featuring an inspiring effort by Eric Berry.
- Ben Roethlisberger unveiling a brand-new offensive weapon.
- A complete team effort by the DeGronkified New England Patriots.
- Colorful cleats that didn't get their wearers fined.
...and much more. Digest has the rundown on all the action, from the playoff races to why Fisher's new contract might be a good thing for society, if not the Los Angeles Rams.
Top Story: Can the Chiefs, Lions and Others Keep Winning 'Pesky'?
Ugly wins are still wins. So are close wins, unlikely wins and inexplicable wins.
The Chiefs found another weird way to win a close game Sunday: allowing a go-ahead touchdown to the Falcons, then running the two-point conversion back to regain the lead. The Lions beat the Saints convincingly, but it was their first convincing win of the year and closer than the 28-13 final score. The Buccaneers extended their winning streak to four games, and you may not have even noticed. The Ravens...scored 38 points? (Checks stat sheet.) Yep. That's really a thing that happened.
Some of these pesky teams will reach the playoffs. But which ones? And do the ones that make it have a chance to be much more than Patriots-Cowboys cannon fodder? Let's break down what we know after Week 13.
Kansas City Chiefs: 9-3, second place in AFC West.
What We Knew They Could Do: Force turnovers. Avoid turnovers. Manufacture offense out of horizontal misdirection plays.
What We Learned Sunday: The Chiefs have been one of the stingiest red-zone and goal-to-go teams in the NFL all season. They hammered the point home by forcing the Falcons to settle for two 22-yard field goals, stopping them on downs at the 10-yard line and intercepting that two-point conversion.
Prognosis: The Chiefs are almost certain to reach the playoffs and could win the AFC West. But as impressive at situational football as they are, they don't look much different than the Chiefs teams that came up short against the top contenders in 2013 and 2015.
Detroit Lions: 8-4, first place by two games in NFC North.
What We Knew They Could Do: Orchestrate unlikely comebacks. Play special teams. Distribute the ball among a dozen different rushers and receivers.
What We Learned Sunday: The Lions defense has not allowed over 20 points since Oct. 16 against the Rams. The defensive improvement looked like it might be a mirage against the Texans, Vikings and Jaguars, but it's hard to argue with three interceptions against Drew Brees.
Prognosis: A two-game division lead should propel the Lions into the playoffs. As ordinary as they are, they do enough little things right to win a playoff game when they arrive.
Baltimore Ravens: 7-5, tied for first in AFC North.
What We Knew They Could Do: Kick field goals. Stuff the run. Lure opponents into hog-wrestling matches.
What We Learned Sunday: The passing game has a pulse, with Breshad Perriman quietly becoming a factor. When the Ravens somehow muster a convincing lead on an opponent, they are likely to hold it.
Prognosis: With the Patriots, Steelers and still-spry Bengals on the upcoming schedule, the Ravens have an uphill battle to reach the postseason. Don't start believing until you see another 30-point offensive explosion.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 7-5, tied for first in NFC South.
What We Knew They Could Do: Nothing. The Buccaneers are the most anonymous team in this year's playoff race.
What We Learned Sunday: Jameis Winston is getting a little better every week as a passer and decision-maker. You've actually heard of most of the players fueling the Bucs' winning streak: Winston, Mike Evans, Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David (a tip-drill pick-six) and Brent Grimes, plus newcomers such as tight end Cameron Brate (6-86-1 against the Chargers).
Prognosis: Losses by the Giants, Redskins and Vikings this week create a wide-open wild-card field for the Bucs, but a homestretch that includes Saints-Cowboys-Saints won't be easy. Whether they fall short of the postseason or lose a field-goal duel to the Lions in the first round, the Bucs are laying a solid 2017 groundwork.
- The Raiders will be hands down the best team in the NFL as soon as they figure out how to stop allowing 55-yard gash plays during the coin toss.
- Ben McAdoo will take a lot of heat for the Giants' 0-of-3 fourth-down performance, even though fourth-down conversions in the red zone helped them win several games this season. Fourth-down gambles aren't the problem. An offensive line that cannot run block or keep good defenses off Eli Manning is the problem.
- Paxton Lynch is what Jared Goff would look like on an organization with a clue. Lynch was barely adequate and can look a little lost at times, but the Broncos defense and a scaled-back system kept him from being exposed. This is the time of year when rookie quarterbacks start to look like rookie quarterbacks, at least on a Sunday when Dak Prescott played on Thursday.
- The Eagles can lose the rest of their games with no consequences, but they cannot afford to lose composure or hinder Carson Wentz's development. Wentz (pictured) backslid with three interceptions and plenty of bad throws and decisions in a 32-14 loss to the Bengals, while the defense committed multiple roughness penalties and constant coverage mistakes. This is the time of year when good coaches salvage the program, even as they cope with injuries and evaluate young players.
- The Bills have no passing game and a mediocre defense. The Dolphins were winning tightrope games against mediocre-to-bad opponents before falling to the Ravens. The glass ceiling between the traditional AFC contenders and the also-rans remains in place; only the Raiders have broken through.
- Chip Kelly's game plan in the snow against the Bears appeared to be: Figure out what would cause the juiciest quarterback controversy, then work backward from there. He probably figured all the college athletic directors interested in him were busy checking out the bowl selections.
- Last year, the Jaguars were a talented, young offense in search of a defense. After holding the Broncos to 206 net yards and two defense-aided touchdowns, they look like a talented, young defense in search of an offense. No team is in greater need of a "developer" as a head coach. Say, Tom Coughlin, who seems bored by retirement...
Game Spotlight: Seahawks 40, Panthers 7
The Panthers benched Cam Newton for the first play of the game for what a team spokesperson stated was a "dress-code violation." Derek Anderson plunked a short pass off Mike Tolbert's hands and into defender Mike Morgan's, and a Seahawks rout was on.
Unfortunately for the Seahawks, safety Earl Thomas suffered what Pete Carroll called a cracked tibia. Thomas tweeted thoughts of retirement from the locker room, followed by wisecracks about Kam Chancellor owing him a steak, worrying and confusing the internet for a few hours.
While the retirement talk may have been premature or in-the-moment, the injury is serious and could have playoff-race repercussions.
What It Means
The Seahawks played their strongest game of the year Sunday night. Even the offensive line played relatively well, helping Thomas Rawls rush for over 100 yards and two touchdowns. It was an impressive bounce-back performance after an embarrassing performance against the Buccaneers, but the Thomas injury cast a pall over the proceedings.
The Seahawks face the Packers next week and could obviously have used the Legion of Boom at full strength against Aaron Rodgers. Later on the schedule: The Rams always give them fits, and the Cardinals proved against Washington on Sunday that they have not given up (and still have a deep skill-position corps).
Steven Terrell, Thomas' replacement, has played well in spot duty in the past two weeks. But much of what the Seahawks do is based on Thomas' versatility and range. Without him, they will probably blitz less, use nickel-dime packages more and find themselves tested down the field far more often. Their offense will have to keep playing like it did Sunday night, but against tougher, healthier defenses.
As for Newton...look, I taught high school for 17 years and can count on one hand the number of times I had to resort to discipline to solve a dress-code problem. And that was with rebellious teenagers, not an adult millionaire with a passion for fashion-forward formalwear.
If this is where Ron Rivera and Newton are in terms of problem-solving and common sense, the Panthers have problems that won't be solved by drafting cornerbacks and tackles.
We wait for an official Thomas timeline and Newton to unveil a high-fashion line of monogrammed ascots.
Players Spotlight: Tom Brady's Supporting Cast
What They Did
It takes a whole lot of people to fill in for Rob Gronkowski. Fortunately, the Patriots have a roster loaded with capable skill-position players.
LeGarrette Blount ripped off a 43-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-1 to get things going. Chris Hogan added a short touchdown reception. Rookie Malcolm Mitchell (pictured; 8-82) continued his emergence as the traditional possession receiver the Patriots haven't been known for since the days of Deion Branch. Dion Lewis had another quietly useful day as a rusher-receiver in his third game back from injury, with James White adding a third head to the backfield. Julian Edelman (8-101) did Edelman stuff.
So even with Martellus Bennett catching just two passes for four yards, the Patriots offense was almost as dynamic and unpredictable as ever. It might have helped that the opposing head coach probably couldn't identify half of the players listed in the last paragraph because he thought Danny Woodhead was still on the roster.
What It Means
Make no mistake: The Patriots missed Gronk. They settled for three second-half field goals when they were clearly trying to pull away by throwing downfield with a lead instead of relying on Blount.
The question is whether Gronk's absence will hurt them over the next four weeks. The Ravens and Broncos both stop the run well, and the Broncos, in particular, are best defeated by sending tight ends over the middle of the field. Danny Amendola's Sunday injury (he left the field in a protective boot) further clouds the Patriots' short-term prognosis.
But Lewis' return and Mitchell's emergence will prevent Brady from reliving his Aaron Dobson-Keshawn Martin nightmares. Gronk's injury pulls the Patriots back toward the pack, but not into it.
Ravens-Patriots games are usually closer and stranger than you expect them to be.
Player Spotlight: Ladarius Green, Tight End, Pittsburgh Steelers
What He Did
Ladarius Green caught six passes for 110 yards and one touchdown in a 24-14 Steelers victory over the Giants.
At times, it looked like the Giants were unprepared for Green, who missed the first half of the season with a variety of injuries. Often operating out of the slot, Green beat star Giants safety Landon Collins for a 20-yard touchdown, slipped behind the coverage during a Ben Roethlisberger scramble for a 37-yard gain and exploited a hole in the Giants' zone defense for a 33-yarder.
What It Means
The Steelers have lacked complementary receiving weapons for much of the year. Sammie Coates started the season strong but has been playing through a hand injury. Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton have shown flashes, but not dependability. Xavier Grimble sounds like a villain from a Christmas movie, and tight end Jesse James is strictly a dump-off target.
Enter Green, the former Antonio Gates protege from San Diego with exactly the mismatch capability the Steelers need when defenses focus on Antonio Brown. Green looked like a lost cause when multiple injuries kept him out of training camp and limited him before his Week 10 return.
A 35-yard catch against the Colts last week hinted at the diversification he could provide to the Steelers attack. Sunday's performance against a much better secondary revealed that Green could be a major factor during the Steelers' stretch run.
What Happens Next
The Steelers embark on a two-game Bills-Bengals road trip. The weather will be cold, the opponents beatable but still dangerous. Green could be just the boost the Steelers need.
Game Spotlight: Packers 21, Texans 13
Sideways-sleet weather came to the shores of Lake Michigan, and if you thought Brock Osweiler looked like some shambling zombie in ideal conditions, you had to see him throwing into a stiff wind to experience Peak Osweiler.
While Osweiler threw paper planes into a desk fan, Lamar Miller rushed for just 22 yards on 14 carries, leaving the Texans with no way to move the ball. All Aaron Rodgers had to do was rediscover Jordy Nelson for a trio of 20-plus-yard passes (including a 32-yard touchdown) and let his run defense and the elements take care of the rest.
What It Means
The Packers offense still consists mostly of Rodgers dropping back, scrambling, directing downfield traffic and hoping someone slips behind the coverage. The running game remains an afterthought, even in tundra conditions. The secondary seems to have improved but hasn't been tested in two weeks thanks to Sunday's wintry mix and the Eagles' receiving corps Monday night. So the Packers aren't surging so much as their recent opponents have been fading.
The Packers remain two games behind the Lions in the NFC North race and face the Seahawks next week. Their two-game winning streak has taken some heat off Mike McCarthy and the organization, but they remain unlikely to make the playoffs, and the franchise still needs to make some sweeping philosophical changes moving forward.
The Texans are a terrible team that may win a terrible division thanks to a series of annoyingly terrible circumstances.
What Happens Next
Lots and lots and lots of "can the Packers run the table?" conversations. The answer is "no."
Unsung Hero of the Week: Stan Kroenke, Owner, Rams
What He Did
Stan Kroenke signed head coach Jeff Fisher to a contract extension through 2018. The news came to light this weekend, months after it happened. Fisher confirmed it to reporters Sunday.
This after Fisher spent the week feuding with Rams legend Eric Dickerson, forgetting who plays running back for the Patriots and finally losing a 26-10 game to the Patriots that wasn't as close as the score.
At one point, Fisher couldn't even find his red challenge flag. He's one blunder away from forgetting where the Rams play and driving to the Staples Center by mistake.
What It Means
In these divisive times, America needs a common enemy, preferably the perfect foe of democracy and capitalism themselves. Call that enemy "arrogant entitlement," "stubborn incompetence" or "unrepentant irrationality" if you like, but it needed a face.
Now that Fisher retains job security that most Americans would beg for, despite years of squandering resources and demonstrating less knowledge of his upcoming opponent than a casual fantasy football owner, that enemy has a face, with a bushy moustache.
Fisher is like a surrogate political figure everyone can love to hate. He's a consensus-maker. Thanks, Kroenke!
Fisher is our nation's real-life Homer Simpson. His reliable, perennial ineptitude not only makes us laugh, but also turns a fun house mirror on our own foibles. When we lock our keys in our car, forget to update fantasy lineups for a month or barely remain employed by talking our way out of bad performance reviews, we all feel a little like Jeff Fisher.
Like Homer, Fisher stopped being truly entertaining about a decade ago, but he still makes us chuckle, and Sundays wouldn't feel right without knowing he would stick around for a few more years. Thanks, Kroenke!
For those of us who write jokes on the internet, a Fisher contract extension is like the flooding of the Nile Valley, ensuring a bountiful harvest for years to come. Praise Pharaoh! Praise Pharoh Cooper! And #ThanksKroenke!
What Happens Next
Fisher is two losses away from losing the most games in NFL history. #ThanksKroenke!
Defensive Player of the Week: Eric Berry (pictured) doesn't need fancy cleats to be inspiring, though he wore them anyway Sunday. He just needs to be Eric Berry. His first interception gave the Chiefs a 20-13 lead following the extra point 37 seconds before halftime. His second, on a two-point conversion attempt, snatched yet another Chiefs victory from the jaws of defeat. After the pick-six, Berry found his mother in the stands and gave her the ball. We love ya, Eric.
Offensive Line of the Week: The only thing that's difficult when playing the Rams is stopping their defensive front four. Well, that and returning punts. And keeping a straight face. Anyway, the Patriots line kept Aaron Donald and Co. from pressuring Tom Brady into mistakes and allowed the Patriots to run the ball when they chose to. Let's hear it for Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon.
Special Teamer of the Week: Albert Wilson looked so fast and explosive on his 55-yard fake-punt touchdown that it makes you wonder how good the Chiefs could be if they could figure out some sort of offensive play where the quarterback throws a forward pass in the general direction of a wide receiver.
Mystery Touch of the Week: Backup Bengals tackle Jake Fisher caught a 12-yard pass as the eligible sixth offensive lineman on a rollout play. Fisher then fumbled. And he was injured on the play. With no hope of the playoffs, the Bengals are using up all the doomed, terrible ideas in blowout victories that they would usually reserve for the fourth quarter of a playoff game.
Anemic Stat Line of the Year: Colin Kaepernick: one completion for four yards on five pass attempts in three full quarters. Kaepernick was also sacked five times. He rushed six times for 20 yards. All in all, he netted negative-one yards in 45 minutes of game action. Blame Chip Kelly. Blame the snow. Blame the supporting cast. Just don't forget to blame Kaepernick, too. This stat line may have been extreme, but it was hardly out of character.
Winner: Jordan Howard (pictured; 32-117-3) can do everything except catch the ball. Seriously: Throwing him a screen pass is like throwing at the wall of a cinderblock shed. But everything else about his game says, "Start." Young running backs on terrible teams can be risky to start in the heat of the fantasy playoffs, but the Bears are playing with pride down the stretch and are likely to keep force-feeding Howard the ball.
Loser: James Starks carried four times for one yard as the Packers decided Christine Michael, Ty Montgomery and not really trying to run the ball were better alternatives than their designated banged-up journeyman. Avoid the Packers' running back situation unless your league still lets you line Montgomery up as a wide receiver or kicker or something.
Committee: Devontae Booker is averaging 2.8 yards per carry in his last five games for Denver. Kapri Bibbs ripped off a 24-yard run before injuring an ankle against the Jaguars, earning Juwan Thompson some late-game change-up carries. Monitor the Bibbs situation carefully; Booker is worth starting if he's getting lots of carries to grind out yardage, but a healthy Bibbs could leave you crossing your fingers for one-yard touchdowns.
Leech: John Kuhn barely crossed the plane of the goal line on a fullback dive for the Saints. Meanwhile, back in Green Bay, Kuhn padawan and surrogate Aaron Ripkowski siphoned a touchdown away from Starks' poor owners.
Todd Gurley Nightmare of the Week: The Rams reached the 1-yard line after a long pass on a meaningless fourth-quarter drive against the Patriots. Jared Goff promptly handed off to...Benny Cunningham, who was stuffed for no gain before Goff found Kenny Britt in the end zone. That's right: JEFF FISHER CANNOT EVEN PROVIDE MEANINGLESS FANTASY TOUCHDOWNS PROPERLY. Maybe he heard that Gurley is on Eric Dickerson's fantasy team or something.
Final Thoughts: The Game's Afoot
The NFL's "My Cause, My Cleats" initiative appears to have been a rousing success. Players were lauded for wearing customized charity-themed cleats (those are Eric Ebron's cleats above, supporting the Michael J. Fox Foundation) instead of getting fined and punished for it like they normally would. Dozens of causes and charities got both a Sunday moment in the spotlight and a week's worth of attention on social networks.
And while members of our nation's crotchety-great-uncle community probably reminded us that "in our day, cleats only came in two colors: black and muddy," Western Civilization survived a few hours of colorful, exuberant, self-expressive footwear.
In an ideal world, players would be able to wear whatever cleats they want each week, assuming the cleats didn't come with poisoned diamond tips or something. But this is not an ideal world: sponsors would horn in on the cleats, some players might make their feet billboards for extreme opinions or trash talk, and Cam Newton might introduce disco-ball cleats capable of blinding both opponents and himself.
But the NFL could benefit from more free-expression, community-outreach, social-network synergy and plain old fun. The league should scatter some other themed-shoe weeks throughout the season:
My Hometown Week: Maybe cleats depict a player's high school colors and logo. Maybe the player grew up in the Conch Fritter Capital of Wyoming and wants to celebrate with a conch fritter on his insole. The event could then be tied to local charities or schools.
My Role Model Week: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. An inspirational teacher. Albert Einstein. Jesus. Players get to celebrate the influence of an important person upon their lives. Again, it's not too hard to tie in a charitable component.
Legends Week: Players honor NFL legends by emblazoning their images or iconography on their cleats. Von Miller wearing Derrick Thomas cleats for a Broncos-Chiefs game might be awkward, or it might be the coolest expression of sportsmanship and solidarity ever. Just make sure the legend wants to be immortalized in cleat form; some (let's say) early-2000s defensive tackle might find a way to get offended.
Music That Moved Me Week: Prince cleats. Metallica cleats. Drake cleats, designed by and possibly already worn by Drake. Learn who your favorite NFL player's favorite musicians or musical buddies are. It's great marketing, and the charitable component can be directed to one good cause: saving America's school music programs.
"Music" week could be expanded to "movie" week (Gandalf cleats!), "television" week and so on. The NFL's pre-approval process might keep us from seeing Walter White in cleat form, but imagine a wide receiver wearing Captain Kirk cleats facing off against a cornerback with Captain Picard cleats.