Monday Morning Digest: Patriots, Eagles Pull Away from Contenders and Pretenders
In this week's edition of Monday Morning Digest:
- Meet the new Broncos quarterback! Oh wait, he's gone already.
- Julio Jones makes his coaches look smart again and the Falcons look like contenders again.
- Sound advice for how to cope with all of the Wentz Deniers in our midst.
- Analysis of a Chiefs-Bills matchup which may have been (heaven help us) a playoff preview.
And much, much more.
Let's kick things off with a look at the Patriots, Eagles and the dozens of lesser teams they will have to wade through to reach the Super Bowl.
The Official Monday Morning Digest Playoff Race Preview
Thanksgiving has come and gone, which means the NFL playoff home stretch is here. And this may be the wildest postseason race in years, with lots of deserving teams vying for spots in the NFC while lots of undeserving teams audition for the right to be Patriots fodder in the AFC.
This handy preview of the stretch run will help you separate pretenders from contenders and fill you in on all the upcoming games, trends and storylines that matter.
Top contenders: Patriots, Eagles
Both teams committed multiple mistakes and turnovers Sunday yet won by a combined 46 points. A Super Bowl XXXIX rematch feels so inevitable right now that Donovan McNabb is already getting queasy. (Kidding!)
Top challengers: Rams, Vikings, Steelers
We'll get to the Rams and their impressive victory over the Saints a little later in this week's Digest.
The Steelers play up or down to their competition, as they proved yet again Sunday night. But Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell make anything possible when it comes to the "playing up" part of the equation. They would be the fifth or sixth seed in the NFC. In the AFC, a first-round bye is almost inevitable, and they could play for home-field advantage when they host the Patriots in three weeks.
The fundamentally excellent Vikings are in the midst of a three-game road trip; if they beat the Falcons and Panthers, it may be time to actually learn some of their names. (Kidding again! We all know Case Keenum, Adam Thielen, Xavier Rhodes and...um, those pass-rushers and...wait, is the Williams Wall still there?)
NFC upper middle class: Saints, Falcons, Panthers
Three-fourths of the NFC South is better than seven-eighths of the AFC. The Panthers have the Saints and Vikings coming up in the next two weeks, the Falcons have the Vikings and Saints, and the Saints (by process of elimination) have the Panthers and Falcons. It was nice of the NFC to schedule a convenient pre-playoff round robin so we would have something to watch while the AFC tries to convince us the Titans are good.
The unready, unwilling and unbelieving: Titans, Jaguars, Lions, Chiefs
The playoffs are much easier to sort out when you realize the Jaguars are the new Ravens (defense-only grunge puppies), the Titans are the new Bengals (regional 1 p.m. champions of the world, guaranteed to melt in the spotlight) and the Lions (waiting for Matthew Stafford to do everything) and Chiefs (smoke, mirrors, screen passes, weird early-season Patriots upsets) are who they always were.
The three AFC teams will eat up two division titles and one wild-card spot, with the Week 17 Jaguars-Titans showdown in Nashville likely to decide the winner of AFC Southlandia. (Toots little New Year's horn with excitement.) The Lions, a game off the wild-card pace, have lots of winnable games down the stretch but no gimmes and zero margin for error. An upcoming Ravens-Bucs road trip might be all it takes to sink them.
Zombie contenders: Seahawks, Bills, Texans, Ravens, Cowboys
The Seahawks don't know how to stay dead. It helps that opponents keep sacrificing C.J. Beathard and Drew Stanton to what's left of their defense. Upcoming home games against the Eagles and Rams could turn into statement games against NFC upstarts, and that NFC South/Vikings round robin could knock someone off the pace, creating an opening.
The Bills' playoff path is paved with a pair of upcoming games against the Dolphins, who never have anything to play for, and the Patriots, who may have nothing to play for in Week 16. That schedule plus no more imbecilic quarterback juggling could equal potential sixth seed playoff goodness.
If the Ravens beat the Texans on Monday night, they can swipe a wild-card berth by hovering near .500 and hoping it's enough (the Ravens Way, in other words). If the Texans win, both teams are still alive because the AFC is 87 percent bean dip.
The Cowboys are all but eliminated—the Eagles clinch the NFC East with a Cowboys loss to the Redskins on Thursday night—and stopped believing in themselves at the first sign of adversity this season. They are included here because a) Tony Romo still believes in them; and b) they would be a first-place team in the AFC West.
Best outlandish playoff spoilers
Teams like the Jets and Cardinals are still mathematically alive, so listing all playoff possibilities would cause madness. But here's one team to keep on your radar: the Chargers face the Browns, the banged-up Redskins in L.A. in Week 14 and the Jets in Week 16, with Raiders and Chiefs games rounding out their schedule. A 9-7 finish could win the division or lock up a wild-card spot.
The Chargers will probably cough up this opportunity with missed field goals and fourth-quarter fumbles. But that's just AFC football for you.
Five Quick Takes
Hot 'n' spicy insights and observations from Sunday's action:
- After the latest Michael Crabtree-Aqib Talib UFC bout and the Week 7 rhubarb with the Chiefs, the Raiders now lead the NFL in shoving matches that escalate into high-holy mayhem. Jack Del Rio needs to take a break from shaking up his coaching staff to address the problem. This is not 1977, and if the Raiders want to reclaim their outlaw biker reputation, they need to do a better job of hitting before the whistle.
- Jimmy Garoppolo threw two passes, including a short touchdown, in some mop-up duty at the end of the 49ers' 24-13 loss to the Seahawks. The Niners face the Bears, Texans and Titans over the next three weeks. That's a manageable dress rehearsal for Garoppolo. The world has seen enough of C.J. Beathard.
- Mark Bullock of the Washington Post noticed last week that Rams coach Sean McVay has worked out a way to help Jared Goff call audibles: The Rams line up quickly, allowing McVay to relay advice before the helmet radio shuts off. This tactic will probably give purists fits because they believe it is more important for quarterbacking to be hard than for games to be entertaining. But it will be interesting to see what happens when other teams begin copying it. Chances are, some coach will call a terrible audible and blame the resulting interception on his quarterback. And that coach's name might not even rhyme with Ken Snackapoo.
- Blaine Gabbert versus Blake Bortles in the Cardinals victory over the Jaguars not only had playoff implications, but it was also one of the best games of the week. What does that say about the fate of mankind, you ask? It says that former first-round picks can play watchable football when coached well and surrounded by decent talent. You don't get edgy takes like that anywhere else, folks.
- Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, perpetrator of the infamous mystery touchback against the Patriots in Week 5, had an apparent go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter called back when officials made their latest on-the-spot outrageous reinterpretation of the catch rule. The Jets settled for a field goal, and the Panthers roared back.
There's a parallel universe where the Jets are a 6-5 playoff contender thanks to a pair of ASJ touchdowns that weren't nullified/converted into Patriots freebies by replay lunacy. Maybe that universe is not a utopia, but this one in which we are still sifting through Chiefs-Bills games for playoff contenders is no prize, either.
Player Spotlight: Paxton Lynch (and the Never-Ending Broncos QB Drama)
Lynch's first completion of the game and season was a dump-off to Jamaal Charles on 3rd-and-long that lost four yards. Things deteriorated from there.
Lynch completed just nine of 14 passes for 41 yards and an end-zone interception—not to mention he took four sacks—before leaving the game with an ankle injury. Trevor Siemian came on to throw for 149 yards and two touchdowns to nearly bring the Broncos back in the fourth quarter, lest you think for a moment that the Raiders defense suddenly stopped stinking.
What it means
Time is a flat circle, and the Broncos quarterback situation is a multiple choice quiz with only one right answer: d) None of the above. (Chad "Fortunate Nephew" Kelly is choice e.)
An arch-conservative game plan and bad offensive line play did Lynch no favors, but Lynch shouldn't need an arch-conservative game plan in the same week that fellow 2016 first-rounders Carson Wentz and Jared Goff were winning huge games and sparking MVP chatter. Lynch got sacked on 3rd-and-long like that was the play the coaches drew up. He threw a one-yard pass on 3rd-and-2. He was a former top prospect running the playbook teams give Thad Lewis when he signs on Wednesday for an emergency start on Sunday.
Lynch's ankle injury is another chicken-versus-egg problem: He can't develop because he is always banged up, but he will keep getting banged up unless he develops enough to not be a pocket punching bag.
The Broncos are right back where they started in late August, with Siemian as the quarterback by default. All they've done over the last three months is expose all the cracks in their defense. They entered the season looking like they were a quarterback away from the Super Bowl. They are starting to look more like the Browns or Jets wearing some old jewelry.
Broncos at Dolphins. The participants don't care. Why should you?
Game Spotlight: Bills 16, Chiefs 10
The Bills reverted to their early-season status quo in the wake of last week's catastrophic Nathan Peterman experiment. Tyrod Taylor made a handful of throws to his no-name receiving corps, Stephen Hauschka kicked three field goals (missing a fourth), and the rest of the Bills' afternoon consisted mostly of defensive stops and crossed fingers.
The Chiefs finally reintroduced the forward pass to their all-screens-and-reverses offense after netting just 57 yards and one first down in the first half. But three fourth-quarter drives to erase a six-point deficit all stalled, including an ugly final series consisting mostly of slow-developing shallow crosses until Tre'Davious White intercepted Alex Smith to ice the game.
What it means
It was encouraging to see the Bills play hard after last week's travesty. Sean McDermott may have lost a game with his grass-is-greener quarterback noodling, but he did not lose the locker room. A bottom-seeded playoff berth is still within reach and would still look good after a 17-year playoff drought.
The Chiefs somehow opened the season with wins against the Patriots and Eagles. Yes, that happened this year, not in 2008 or something, and it was not some mass hallucination. Nothing the Chiefs have done in a month has worked. Yet the Chiefs are still in the playoff picture because the Broncos and Raiders would rather beat each other up and fire coordinators than play football.
Before fans call for Patrick Mahomes, they should learn a lesson from the Bills. Yes, Mahomes is a much better prospect than Peterman. But handing the reins to a rookie quarterback in the playoff chase can be dangerous. Especially for a team with multiple flaws on both sides of the ball. Which is the only type of team that ever considers such a move in the first place.
The Chiefs visit the Jets. The Bills host the Patriots. The bottom of the AFC playoff picture gets weirder and sadder.
Player Spotlight: Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
What he did
Jones caught 12 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns, one of them from fellow receiver Mohamed Sanu on a Wildcat play, in a 34-20 win over the Buccaneers.
Jones also gained 15 yards on a reverse and made the Buccaneers defense look silly on several occasions, causing cornerback Ryan Smith to trip over his own feet with one particularly fiendish double move.
The Falcons needed every bit of Jones' production, because they nearly Falcon'ed yet another game away with a late collapse, allowing the Bucs to erase a 27-6 deficit and get within 18 yards of a game-tying score late in the fourth quarter before coming through with a fourth-down stop.
What it means
Beleaguered offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian finally figured out the secret to effective NFL game planning: GET. BALL. TO. BEST. PLAYER. For maximum effect, insert the hand-clap emoji between each word.
Three straight conference wins (two against possible wild-card challengers Dallas and Seattle) have put the 7-4 Falcons back in the playoffs if the season ended today. The Falcons are also playing their 2016 brand of football again: lots of offense, plenty of Julio, just enough defense, fourth-quarter palpitations subdued just before they become a full-bore coronary.
The Falcons have proved they can beat just about anybody when not beating themselves. Making Jones the focal point of their offense is a great way for them to overcome their worst enemy.
Home games against the Vikings and Saints (and their excellent-when-healthy secondaries) will teach us where the Falcons stand in the crowded NFC playoff field.
Game Spotlight: Rams 26, Saints 20
The Rams bounced back from last week's loss to the Vikings with an all-three-phases victory. First, Jared Goff led the Rams to a 10-0 lead. Then their defense held the Saints to one big play (a 74-yard Alvin Kamara scamper) for the better part of three quarters.
Finally, with Goff and the offense making some dumb late-game mistakes and Drew Brees revving up for his second miraculous comeback in two weeks, Greg Zuerlein delivered three late field goals and Sammy Watkins made up for an earlier blunder (tapping a deep pass to a defender for an interception instead of turning to make a sound play on the ball) by hauling in the final onside kick.
What it means
This was a huge, enlightening win for the young Rams. Wins like these separate one-and-done playoff teams from teams with a legitimate chance to beat more experienced teams (Falcons, Panthers, Zombie Seahawks) in the postseason. The Rams do many things well, from distributing the ball offensively to covering kicks, which put them in position to survive tough challenges like these.
The Saints were playing on the road without top cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley, so their flat defensive performance early in the game was understandable. Still, the Saints have picked up the bad habit of playing from behind every week. That wouldn't matter if they were in the AFC. (Nothing matters in the AFC.) But in the NFC South, that habit will cost them.
The great NFC round robin continues: The Saints face the Panthers and Falcons, while the Rams take on the still-dangerous Cardinals and Eagles.
How to Talk to a Wentz Denier (if You Absolutely Have To)
Carson Wentz's 227-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 31-3 Eagles win over the Bears firmly establishes him as a short-list MVP candidate and the NFL's brightest young star right now.
Yet there are still Wentz Deniers out there, flat-Earthers who insist Wentz is overrated, headed for a collapse or simply undeserving of all the adulation he is currently receiving.
Wentz Deniers come in all shapes and sizes. Here is a field guide to help you identify them. When you do spot one, don't engage in a reasoned conversation about football, however tempting it may be to straighten him or her out. It's the football equivalent of trying to stare down Cthulhu.
Draftnik Hipsters: Wentz Deniers who still insist that their two-year old "scouting reports" based on cut-ups of FCS games are right and objective reality is wrong.
Moneyball Extremists: Wentz Deniers over-invested in proving that the Browns' decision to trade the chance to draft Wentz for a bunch of draft picks, role players and magic beans will someday (like, 2045) be proved to be the correct call.
The Overly Woke: Wentz Deniers who assume that since most tall white quarterbacks are overrated, it means that all tall white quarterbacks must be overrated.
Regression Waveriders: Wentz Deniers who always criticize quarterbacks enjoying hot streaks so they can enjoy the "I told you so" thrill after two or three bad games per year.
Angry Cowboys Fans: Wentz Deniers who just wish it was still 2016.
Philly Fatalists: Wentz Deniers who just assume the Eagles can never have nice things and always brace for the worst. These are the craziest deniers of all. Avoid eye contact at all costs.
Inside the Numbers: All Zero Spectacular!
Counting your calories after Thanksgiving weekend? This edition of Inside the Numbers serves up some diet statistics to keep you fit!
AJ McCarron, QB, Bengals (0 attempts, 0 completions, 0 yards)
McCarron was seen chatting with Browns coach Hue Jackson and owner Jimmy Haslam before the Bengals' 30-16 win. Perhaps they talked about how he might have been the Browns' starting QB on Sunday if not for an email fiasco at the trade deadline. Or maybe they were discussing a future McCarron-to-Browns move that will later be decried as "Too Moneyball" or "Not Moneyball Enough" based on who the Browns fire and who is left to assign blame.
John Ross, WR, Bengals (0 catches, 0 yards)
The first-round pick and all-time combine land-speed record holder was a healthy scratch because Marvin Lewis hates joy. Ross' one touch this season was a fumbled reverse; one of his two targets drew public criticism from Lewis for, basically, making a rookie mistake. Ross' absence partially explains why the most interesting element of the Battle of Ohio was a backup quarterback talking to the other team's owner.
Mike Gillislee, RB, Patriots (0 carries, 0 catches, 0 yards)
The early-season short-yardage fantasy powerhouse was a healthy scratch for the third straight game as Dion Lewis rushed for 112 yards and Rex Burkhead (who fumbled last week against the Raiders) added 53 total yards and two touchdowns. Bill Belichick doesn't put players in the perma-doghouse for mistakes, but he does troll the fantasy world as hard as possible with his running back rotations.
Darrelle Revis, CB, Chiefs (0 tackles, 0 interceptions)
Revis signed with the Chiefs on Wednesday but was not ready to play Sunday. He's playing for the league minimum-plus-incentives for the Chiefs but $6 million in leftover offset money from the Jets. Revis faces the Jets next week and could potentially face Brock Osweiler in Week 17 in the Bad Contract Proration Bowl, sponsored by the Jets and Texans. No one rewrites the economics textbook quite like Revis, who incidentally is no longer any good.
Defender of the Week
NaVorro Bowman didn't make it look easy—he swatted a Paxton Lynch pass in the end zone off the shoulder of teammate Reggie Nelson, then hauled in the ricochet—but the Raiders' first interception of the year killed just about the only momentum the Broncos had all day. Imagine how good the Raiders would be if they faced the Broncos every week or started playing pass defense before Thanksgiving!
Offensive Line of the Week
The Falcons held the Buccaneers sackless (which is not that hard) and helped Tevin Coleman and company rush for 148 yards and two touchdowns while dominating the line of scrimmage in the second half (which is much more impressive). So let's hear it for Jake Matthews, Andy Levitre, Alex Mack, Wes Schweitzer and Ryan Schraeder. It's been a while since they won this award.
Special Teamer of the Week
Nate Ebner rushed 14 yards for a Patriots first down on a fake punt on the fourth play from scrimmage against the Dolphins. Ebner suffered a significant-looking knee injury on the play and was out for the rest of the game. The Dolphins were also out for the rest of the game, but that's typical for them.
Heads-Up Special Teams Play of the Week
When a short Bears punt rolled dangerously through a crowd of Eagles who were blocking for a potential return, Kenjon Barner dragged teammate Jaylen Watkins off the ground and out of the ball's path. The Eagles were sloppy with the football in their blowout victory, but Barner's play prevented a turnover when the game still mattered.
Touchdown Celebrations of the Week
The Eagles celebrated a touchdown with Alshon Jeffery bowling down his 10 offensive teammates with an imaginary ball. Jonathan Stewart celebrated finally getting into the end zone against the Jets (who kept stuffing him on over-the-top goal-line leaps) with a golf putt. Yes, NFL players learned everything they know about touchdown celebrations from playing Wii Sports as kids.
Mystery Touch of the Week
For those of you scoring at home, the end-of-game Jaguars kickoff return pitch play went Paul Posluszny to Keelan Cole to Corey Grant to Jaydon Mickens. It also went straight backward before the Cardinals recovered the ball.
These pitch plays get worse every week. Maybe the field shouldn't be full of 33-year-old linebackers and undrafted rookies. Maybe someone should try breaking a tackle or setting up some blocks or something. We'll just have to wait for the Patriots to run one of these so we can all see how it's done.
Cyber Monday Gift Idea Blowout Extravaganza!
Gift ideas for all 32 teams! Just one per team so the Jets and 49ers don't max our credit cards.
Let's start with the Broncos so they can stop trying to transplant Trevor Siemian's heart and John Elway's mind into Paxton Lynch's body (and they can pay it Brock Osweiler's salary). Then let's stuff the stockings of the draft-hoarder Browns, sputtering-in-neutral Jets and aging-before-our-eyes Cardinals.
Colts, Bengals and Giants fans can't wait to toss their coaches to the curb like dead Christmas trees in January and start fresh. Also, do the Buccaneers even have a head coach? Let's get 'em one, just to be safe.
New tricks for old coaches
The Chiefs and Packers have gotten a little stale and need to spice things up you-know-where. (On the field.) The Bears also need to open up their one-shade-of-gray offense. Discreet shipping is available.
The Cowboys don't need a new coach (Jerry will just hire a Muppet); they need to stop pouting in the corner because a few of their toys are missing and broken. The Dolphins and Titans also need the Grinch XXXL Heart Enlargement Treatment to help them show up for big games (Titans) and any games (Dolphins).
The Seahawks need an offensive line again; let's make sure they don't throw out the instruction manual this time. The Raiders need a secondary, the Bills and 49ers some receivers. Give the Chargers two kickers so they can return the one they don't like.
Pharmacy gift cards
They may not be the most romantic gifts, but the Falcons need some anti-anxiety medication, the Panthers something for their mood swings and the Texans lots of "Get Well Soon" cards and balloons.
The gift of urgency
Did you ever give an in-law or lazy niece/nephew a desk organizer or courier's bag, as if to say "it's time to stop sponging and do something with your life"? Well, it's time for the Redskins, Lions and Ravens to do something besides write checks to quarterbacks and hover around .500.
Building a contender takes time. Give the Eagles, Rams, Jaguars and Vikings the gift of high-but-not-crippling expectations in the weeks and months to come so they can build for both the short and long term.
Home playoff games
Gift these to the Steelers and Saints, and you may well be giving them the Super Bowl.
A jewelry box
The Patriots are your rich uncle who already has everything. Make sure to visit him and bow before his awesomeness, or he just might write you out of the will.