Monday Morning Digest: Packers, Patriots Stay Hot on a Cold-Hearted NFL Sunday

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 19, 2016

Monday Morning Digest: Packers, Patriots Stay Hot on a Cold-Hearted NFL Sunday

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    Baby, it was cold outside around the NFL on Sunday. 

    The Patriots like it cold, so they clinched the playoffs with temperatures in the teens in Denver. The Packers know a thing or two about tundra, so most of them didn't need sleeves to beat the Bears in single-digit conditions in Chicago. Negative wind chills made it so cold that Andy Reid's ability to make late-game decisions froze solid.

    OK, Reid could make bad late-game decisions on a spring day in San Diego. But still, it was cold out there. And even indoor and warm-weather teams felt a noticeable chill:

    • The Texans looked at the cold, hard facts and benched Brock Osweiler.
    • The Colts gave Adrian Peterson the cold shoulder in his return to the Vikings lineup.
    • The Lions' fourth-quarter comeback magic was put on ice by the Giants.
    • The Jaguars fired Gus Bradley. He had it coming, but still: that's cold.

    So listen to that fireplace roar, have some coffee or cocoa (put some music on while we pour) and let Digest warm you up for the NFL stretch run!

Top Story: Dak Prescott and the Cowboys Are Back in the Saddle

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    If and when the Cowboys face the Patriots in the Super Bowl, Tony Romo probably gives them a better chance to win than Dak Prescott.

    But by then, it will be a moot point.

    One week after the ridiculous Sunday Night Romoquake, when a sizable portion of the world howled for Prescott to get benched after a bad game against the Giants, Prescott led the sloppy Cowboys to a 26-20 victory over the pesky Buccaneers.

    It was a game the Cowboys tried hard to lose several times. But Prescott was having none of it. He completed 32 of 36 passes for 279 yards, rushing for 20 yards and a touchdown.

    It was a night when the Cowboys defense gave up chunks of third-quarter yardage, when Dan Bailey missed a pair of field goals, when even Jason Witten coughed up a fumble. It was a night when the Cowboys dominated the first half but let the Buccaneers come back and take a 20-17 fourth-quarter lead.

    So Prescott took over, leading a series of efficient field-goal drives. Yes, he relied on Ezekiel Elliott. Yes, the Cowboys stalled short of the end zone. But Prescott delivered sharp throws, particularly when the Cowboys were pinned in their own territory and needed a long drive to preserve their lead.

    The Cowboys are succeeding with a particular brand of football. They run, run and run some more. Their defense bends but doesn't break.

    They could use a few more sacks and turnovers from their defense. Sometimes, the offense is a little station-to-station while waiting for Elliott to hurdle the entire defense. But that's the system that has worked all year.

    It's a system that has the Cowboys in the playoffs. It's not a system worth adding unpredictable variables to—like, say, a rusty veteran quarterback with a reputation as a little bit of a risk-taker.

    After Sunday night's win, everyone understands that.

    Prescott is the best quarterback to get the Cowboys home-field advantage. He's the most likely one to complete short passes, rush a bit and play within the system no matter what the Cowboys face: the fading embers of the Legion of Boom, the dangerous (and similar to the Cowboys) Falcons, Aaron Rodgers on some vision quest, even...uh-oh...Round 3 against the Giants.

    Then, perhaps by the Super Bowl, the threat of Bill Belichick spending two weeks scheming to befuddle a rookie might make Tony Romo an appealing, if unlikely, best option.

    Until then, let's table all of that silly "bench Prescott" nonsense and let the Cowboys keep doing what they do best.

Digestible Nuggets

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    Whip-around coverage of what playoff hopefuls around the NFL (who are not covered in other slides) must do to stay in the race:

    Falcons: Winning two games without Julio Jones by a combined 83-27 score silenced most of your doubters. Now get Jones back and brace for some tougher, spoiler-minded NFC South competition.

    Ravens: Never get sacked out of field-goal range. The 27-26 victory over the Eagles was too close for comfort, in part because Joe Flacco took a third-quarter sack that prevented Justin Tucker (who nailed 53- and 47-yarders in the wind) from doing his thing. 

    Bills: Don't try to figure out your playoff odds or memorize the combination of Bills wins and Dolphins-Broncos-Ravens-AFC South losses you need to reach the postseason. That could take days, and you need to figure out how to beat a decent opponent since the Patriots threw their injured third-string rookie quarterback at you in Week 4.

    Packers: That Aaron Rodgers-to-Jordy Nelson thing? Keep doing that.

    Colts: Keep facing confused and disheartened opponents who are even less likely to play sound fundamental football than you are. (The official strategy of all AFC South champions!) But with the Raiders up next and the Texans and Titans finding ways to stay ahead in the standings, the Colts are probably cooked.

    Chiefs: The guy who gained 68 yards on his first carry should probably be given a second carry sometime in the game. Maybe Tyreek Hill (pictured) would have been more worthy of a late-game rush (jet sweep, quick pitch, anything) when the Chiefs needed one first down to win the game than Charcandrick West or Alex Smith.

    Raiders: Congratulations on clinching the playoffs for the first time since televisions were low-def! Now: Stop. Allowing. Easy. Long. Touchdowns.

    Steelers: Settling for six field goals when your opponent has run out of surprises and is practically waiting for you to come back is the least Steelers thing the Steelers have done this year. Don't let it happen again, fellas.

    Titans: After spending the whole season establishing an identity as the NFL's most dedicated and diverse rushing team, don't spread the field and throw when you need a two-point conversion to take a late fourth-quarter lead. Andy Reid won't always be on the other sideline waiting to give you one more late opportunity.

Game Spotlight: Patriots 16, Broncos 3

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    What Happened

    The Patriots clobbered their former rivals for conference dominance with the huge, heavy hammer of reality.

    After some promising early drives, the Broncos offense settled into its depressing habit of going three-and-out in its own territory, usually with Trevor Siemian getting sacked or harassed on 3rd-and-long.

    The Patriots offense had troubles of its own against the Broncos defense and the frigid conditions. But a Logan Ryan interception and runback set up a touchdown drive that allowed the Patriots to play for field position and field goals in the second half.

    The end result was hardly a breathtaking Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning duel of yesteryear. It was more like Brady vs. just another AFC team.

           

    What It Means

    The Patriots defense has now played a string of excellent games after some wobbly moments in the middle of the season. As is often the case in New England, a new crop of contributors has performed well after previous defenders were shipped away.

    Trey Flowers (two sacks Sunday), Shea McClellin, Malcom Brown and others are making the midseason Jamie Collins controversy a distant memory. The defense is also making it easier for the Patriots to take control of games without needing to go into invincibility mode on offense. 

    The Broncos' playoff hopes got a boost from the Chiefs' last-second loss but suffered a blow when the Raiders won and the Dolphins kept wild-card pace with their Saturday night win.

    Each week, the Broncos look more like a one-and-done playoff team at best.

            

    What's Next

    The Patriots continue their quest for home-field advantage by slapping the Jets around on Christmas Eve. The Broncos' gauntlet of nightmares continues with a trip to Kansas City.

Player Spotlight: Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage, Quarterbacks, Texans

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    What Happened

    You know how sometimes you spend a ton of money on a family vacation only to discover that the hotel isn't up to snuff and the amusement park is too crowded and wild for your kids? You spend a few days desperately insisting that everyone have fun, enduring the stink-eye from your spouse as you march your terrified children onto roller coasters. Then you realize that everyone will be happier if you just declare the trip a lost cause, forget about the wasted money, head home and take everyone to the pool and movies for the rest of your time off.

    Well, the Texans benched human-money-macerator Brock Osweiler after two interceptions against the Jaguars. Into the game came Tom Savage (pictured), the former buzzy size-arm project who has now spent three seasons absorbing Bill O'Brien's wisdom.

    Savage differs from Osweiler in that Osweiler misses wide-open receivers by a mile, while Savage throws accurate passes to receivers who are blanketed by defenders. Savage led a bunch of late drives while completing 23 of 36 passes for 260 yards, engineering a comeback.

    The 21-20 victory keeps the Texans in the playoff picture, just as driving home and ordering pizza kept your family from killing each other.

           

    What It Means

    A win is a win, and a shot at the playoffs is better than none.

    That said, giving up on Osweiler—no matter what is said or done this week, benching a quarterback against a last-place team in the heat of the playoff race is the definition of giving up on him—sets the Texans' quarterback situation back two or three years. They officially have no faith in him, but they are financially obligated to keep him around for at least one more season.

    Maybe Savage is the answer. If so, then a) the answer was sitting under the organization's nose when it dropped its money safe on Osweiler, and b) the answer looks an awful lot like a third-year vet who just throws to his first read and, in order to win, needs a last-place opponent to commit special teams safeties and go three-and-out for an entire half.

           

    What's Next

    The Bengals spent Sunday going three-and-out for the entire second half, patiently waiting for the Steelers to get their act together and come back. Sounds like the perfect Texans opponent, whomever they start at quarterback.

Game Spotlight: Giants 17, Lions 6

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    What Happened

    The Lions have adopted a NASCAR-like strategy this season of lagging behind their opponent on purpose for three quarters of the game, as if to conserve fuel before making a late move.

    So Matthew Stafford spent much of Sunday bouncing around the pocket and scrambling like he was auditioning for the off-Broadway production of Russell Wilson: The Musical. Zach Zenner even fumbled a would-be touchdown into the end zone for a touchback, lest the Lions take an early lead and be forced to cope with all of that wind drag.

    The Giants offense remains a scattered collection of big plays separated by lots of punts, so they led just 10-6 entering the Lions' fourth-quarter witching hour. But Odell Beckham Jr. capped a late drive with a short touchdown, allowing the Giants secondary to take over. Stafford's late attempt at a miracle was thwarted by a Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie interception in the end zone.

           

    What It Means

    The Giants defense is really good. The front four is stout despite Jason Pierre-Paul's absence, but the secondary of DRC, Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins (who suffered a back injury before halftime), Eli Apple, Andrew Adams and Leon Hall is even better.

    The Giants can win matchups with opponents down to their fourth or fifth receiving options, which is why Stafford and Dak Prescott suddenly looked like they had no idea what to do with the football over the last two weeks.

    The Lions are in danger of becoming comic foils in the folktale of how the Packers once again conquered the NFC North. They are a good overall team—but not a very good or great one—whose luck may be turning.

           

    What's Next

    The Giants face the feisty-but-futile Eagles on Thursday night. The Lions head to Dallas nervously clutching their rabbit's feet.

Player Spotlight: Adrian Peterson, Running Back, Vikings

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    What He Did

    Adrian Peterson performed another remarkable comeback from an injury that would sideline most 31-year-old running backs forever. Because let's face it: Most 31-year-old running backs are already sidelined forever.

    Peterson rushed six times for 22 yards, caught one pass for one yard and fumbled while fighting for extra yards in the red zone.

    His comeback was part of a 34-6 reminder at the hands of the Colts that the Vikings have problems an aging Hall of Fame running back cannot solve.

            

    What It Means

    Peterson looked quick and sharp, so it's not like he is washed up or returned too soon from injury. But there was something sadly predictable about the Vikings' attempts to force their offense through him in the first quarter. The Colts shut down those early, Peterson-heavy drives, building a lead that quickly forced him out of the game plan.

    The Vikings played like they expected Peterson to return and revitalize their offense. When it didn't happen, they were flat and listless on both sides of the ball. As an organization, they need to ween themselves off Peterson, reshape their offensive identity and fix their offensive line.

    After so many injuries this year, one more James-Brown-sheds-the-robe-and-grabs-the-microphone comeback from Peterson did not hurt the Vikings. But it didn't help, either.

             

    What's Next

    Peterson can help spoil the Packers' playoff bid as long as the Vikings stop expecting him to do it all by himself.

Special Report: Jaguars Fire Gus Bradley

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    What Happened

    The inevitable and long-in-coming.

          

    What It Means

    Here's a good litmus test when determining whether it's time to change coaches. It's a better way to gauge a coach's performance than counting missed challenges or ranting about that wasted timeout in Week 4:

    Has the talent on the roster developed the way it should?

    Some coaches, like Hue Jackson, get little talent to work with, so they deserve some benefit of the doubt. Others, like Jack Del Rio two years ago, get talent that develops slowly, but you can see positive developments even when the team isn't winning. Some coaches deserve an extra year based on prior success.

    But Gus Bradley was given lots of talent to work with. We know it is real talent, not just a collection of big-name draft busts, because we have seen Allen Robinson, Telvin Smith, Allen Hurns and even Blake Bortles, among other young players, achieve some measure of NFL success. Free agents like Malik Jackson and Prince Amukamara have also arrived and performed roughly as advertised. The Jaguars entered 2016 with .500-caliber on-paper talent and an easy schedule.

    But under Bradley and his staff, young Jaguars players reached a certain level, then either stopped progressing or began backsliding. Bortles and the receivers are the obvious examples. The Jaguars organization must salvage them while making sure the same fate doesn't befall Jalen Ramsey and the promising youngsters on the defense.

    Bradley was well-liked in the locker room and is respected around the league. He was a by-the-book coach who always appeared to be doing the right things, even when nothing worked. But if you aren't moving forward in the NFL, especially when the draft classes look pretty good, you will soon be moving out.

            

    What Happens Next

    Tom Coughlin starts making "dry run" drives to Jaguars headquarters just to make sure he remembers the route when it comes time to interview. 

Fantasy Digest

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    Winner: If you stuck by Brandin Cooks during his four-week, 19-catch, zero-touchdown drought, he rewarded you Sunday with 7-186-2. Next week's rematch with the Buccaneers should give you pause (the Buccaneers defense shut the Saints down last week), but if you are playing in Week 17, Cooks will get opportunities during a Saints-Falcons shootout.

    Losers: The Rams are defending the run well down the stretch; neither the Falcons nor the Seahawks could accomplish anything on the ground against Aaron Donald and Co. on the defensive front. Keep that in mind as you decide what to do with Carlos Hyde and David Johnson down the stretch.

    Hyde went 23-88-2 against the Rams in the season opener, but surrender bugs are buzzing all over the 49ers locker room as they prep for the Rams in Week 16. If you're stacked at RB, you might consider holding out Johnson against L.A. if you are playing in Week 17. If you start either, brace yourself for watching your running back get a dozen carries in the fourth quarter of a meaningless game—and only netting you about 20 yards.

    Committee: Monitor the Jets carefully to decide what to do with Bilal Powell (pictured). If Bryce Petty returns after getting crushed in a panini press late in the Dolphins game Saturday night, he will likely resume his dozen-target-per-game quota of safe screens and checkdowns to Powell, allowing you to rack up total yards and points-per-reception opportunities. If Ryan Fitzpatrick returns to eternal mop-up duty, Powell will return to ordinary journeyman production, which won't help you much against the Patriots defense next week. Matt Forte is also a factor, because the Jets aren't above playing a 31-year-old running back in meaningless games. As an added bonus, monitoring the Jets carefully is usually good for a couple of laughs.

    Leech: Christine Michael scored a 42-yard touchdown for the Packers, taking a little of the sizzle out of Ty Montgomery's 16-162-2 day. As proof that he only walks this earth to cause fantasy conundrums, Michael gained just three yards on his other three carries.

    Fluke: Kerwynn Williams took a direct snap for a 49-yard Cardinals touchdown (losing one shoe about 20 yards from the end zone) early in the game against the Saints. Williams has spent three seasons popping off the Cardinals bench, generating a random big play or two, then disappearing. He's no threat to Johnson's production, though if the Cardinals keep tinkering with the Wildcat, he might become a threat to Carson Palmer's production. 

Awards Digest

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    Defender of the Week: Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin (pictured) share this week's honors. Irvin recorded a pair of sacks, forced a fumble and rushed Philip Rivers into throwing an interception to Reggie Nelson late in the fourth quarter. Mack was typical Mack, harassing Rivers with five hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, and creating general havoc. 

    Offensive Line of the Week: The Falcons amassed 550 total yards and 248 rushing yards against the 49ers—astronomical totals even when the opponent is in full "December give up on Chip Kelly" mode. So let's hear it for repeat winners Jake Matthews, Andy Levitre, Alex Mack, Chris Chester and Ryan Schraeder.

    Special Teamer of the Week: Chris Boswell kept the Steelers in the game—and kept them ahead of the Ravens in the divisional race—by nailing six field goals on an icy afternoon when the Steelers offense kept stalling around the 30-yard line.

    Unidentified Flying Object of the Week: The NFL needs to amend the rule allowing the act of leaping over the long snapper once and for all so 320-plus-pound giants like Linval Joseph don't attempt it. Joseph tried to leap the Colts line to block a field goal but was brought crashing to Earth by the combined forces of common sense and gravity, committing a penalty that set up a Colts touchdown while looking like the giant foot that squashes everyone at the beginning of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

    Penalty of the Week: The Jaguars gave up a safety—and the momentum that eventually spurred a Texans comeback—by holding in the end zone during a punt. Last week, the Jaguars committed a delay of game penalty on a kickoff. Unfortunately, it's time to turn in your Gus Bradley bingo cards, so we will not be able to see other unlikely fouls such as:

    • Offensive pass interference on a running play.

    • Twelve men on the field during a coin toss.

    • Excessive celebration during an opponent's touchdown.

    • Illegal forward pass when the NFL finally watches Blake Bortles throw and decides, "This must be some sort of crime."

Sleeveless Final Thoughts

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    It was 11 degrees with a wind chill of negative-4 at kickoff of the Packers-Bears game at Soldier Field, so naturally, long sleeves were a topic of controversy and debate heading into the game.

    John Fox advised his players not to be "macho" and to apply "common sense" by wearing sleeves beneath their jerseys. Because Fox is the antithesis of the kind of latte-sippin', cultural-podcasting East Coast wimpellectual who worries about non-masculine pursuits like avoiding deadly frostbite, and because Fox is also an NFL head coach, you would think his players would heed his suggestion.

    But Pernell McPhee said he doesn't wear sleeves because "I'm at war. I'm [in] combat. I ain't got time to think about sleeves." (He also doesn't have time to think about the Battle of Valley Forge, the Battle of Stalingrad, the fact that all military uniforms are long-sleeved, etc.)

    Anyway, not only did many Bears and Packers players go sleeveless throughout the game, but at least one player wore shorts during warm-ups, according to Kevin Fishbain of Pro Football Weekly.

    As it turns out, the Packers and Bears played a relatively crisp, high-scoring game despite the conditions, with the Packers winning 30-27 on a late field goal. The combination of heating elements along the sidelines and modern thermal clothing on the torso kept anyone from turning into the Alpine Iceman.

    But in honor of a minor brouhaha that sounds like an argument my wife has with my teenager every winter morning, Digest concludes with an all-time top five of sleeves:

    • John Mayer's Sleeve Tattoo: Sleeve tattoos were edgy and dangerous right up until the moment boringly sensitive guitar troubadour Mayer made them synonymous with trying way too hard to look "complicated."
    • Allen Iverson's Shooter's Sleeve: Iverson started the trend of NBA players wearing sleeves on their shooting elbows when he was dealing with bursitis back in his glory days. Under Armour commissioned an "elderly lady" to hand-stitch the sleeves for AI. Today, NBA shooter's sleeves are stitched together by legions of delightful, singing forest creatures as part of the recent Disney-Under Armour joint-services merger.
    • The Great Gildersleeve: A popular radio and film character played by comedian Harold Peary in the 1940s, making this the most obscure and dated reference in the history of Bleacher Report.
    • Sam Bradford's Floppy Sleeves: Sammy Sleeves likes his jersey sleeves long because he likes to "feel uninhibited." And you thought John Mayer was edgy and complicated.
    • "Greensleeves": A 16th-century folk song better known as the Christmas carol "What Child Is This?" Lovely and catchy enough to still be popular after 400-plus years but ruined forever by your Great Aunt Eunice, who turns the radio up and hums along to it every time it comes on the all-Christmas music station she starts listening to on Labor Day. "Greensleeves" is also a rejected Eagles nickname for Sam Bradford.

    Tune in next week when Digest asks: If Ron Rivera told the Panthers to wear sleeves, and Cam Newton went sleeveless, and the Panthers lost, would Western Civilization crumble?