Tuesday Morning Digest: The Hate-Watchers' Guide to NFL Week 17
In this week's Tuesday edition of Monday Morning Digest:
- Where to look for meaningful football in Week 17.
- The NFC South goes down to the wire (at least something did).
- Todd Gurley hurdles into the MVP spotlight.
- Digest's under-the-radar end-of-season awards: like the NFL Honors, but with no formalwear and lots of Austin Ekeler.
And much more.
Let's start with the Week 17 storylines to watch (we did find a few).
There's Plenty to Love (and Hate) in Week 17
Welcome to the anticlimax of a limp and generally unsatisfying 2017 NFL season!
The Week 17 schedule is so lame that the NFL opted not to flex a game into prime time on Sunday. It's like Ryan Seacrest starting the countdown at 7 p.m. so he can get to bed early.
The NFL's decision to call the scheduling equivalent of a draw play on 3rd-and-20 was universally hailed by fans, which may be the ultimate expression of the state of the NFL in 2017.
As for the playoffs: There will be no Aaron Rodgers, Ezekiel Elliott, Matthew Stafford or even any fun Jay Cutler-shaming. Half of the quarterbacks playing in the postseason are guys you would not have bothered tuning in to watch on Thursday Night Football in September.
So yes, the 2017 NFL season is going out with a whimper. But Digest is all-in for the Week 17 games that decide either this year's Wild Card Round punching bags or first-round AFC playoff matchups that sound like they were spat out by some randomizer (Bills-Jaguars or Ravens-Chiefs, anyone?).
We'll preview next week's least meaningless games later in Digest. Right now, here are some observations guaranteed to rekindle your enthusiasm for New Year's Eve football.
1. The Patriots' home-field advantage is on the line.
There's no grand conspiracy to ensure every questionable call goes the Patriots' way, kids. If the NFL were capable of manipulating outcomes, they would have finagled at least one good matchup for next week. (Though...the refs did throw an awful lot of flags against the Seahawks in their game against Dallas, which could have set up an important Eagles-Cowboys game if Seattle hadn't won anyway. Hmmm.)
The Patriots' ability to consistently get Michael Jordan calls makes them the ultimate mustache-twirling heels. They may be more like the First Order than the Evil Empire at this point (Tom Brady fitness guru Alex Guerrero sounds like the sort of toady whom Kylo Ren keeps on retainer to tick Snoke off), but they are the perfect bad guys to make this year's bland good guys look more heroic.
The Patriots can secure home-field advantage if they beat the Jets on Sunday, but a loss and a Steelers win over the Browns drops them to the No. 2 seed in the AFC. It's not likely, but it could make Sunday's early games a little more interesting.
2. The NFC's most dangerous team needs one more win.
The Saints are exceptionally balanced: They run well, pass well, stop the pass well and are OK at run defense and special teams. They are also exceptionally consistent: Their defeats are close calls against solid teams, and they never lose to a bad opponent. Also: Drew Brees. Quarterback experience means a lot in the postseason.
The fact that the Saints need to take care of one last bit of business against the Buccaneers to clinch their division speaks volumes about the quality difference between the NFC and AFC this year.
3. Bears at Vikings could knock over some dominoes.
The NFL moved the most playoff-relevant matchups to late afternoon on Sunday, making most of the early games tolerable only to Patriots haters and rubberneckers wondering if the Browns will go 0-16.
But don't sleep on the Bears-Vikings game.
The Bears threw an early-season scare into the Vikings in Week 5 and have beaten decent opponents like the Panthers and Ravens. A Vikings loss could set off a chain reaction (along with a Panthers win and Seahawks loss) that results in the Panthers getting a first-round bye, which would change the entire complexion of the NFC playoff picture.
Throw in a Seahawks victory over the Cardinals, and the poor Vikings could go from sitting pretty with a first-round bye to hosting the Seahawks in a rematch of their memorable 2015 playoff.
4. Real fans root for the Chargers
Real Bills and Titans fans root for the Bills and Titans, obviously. But those two teams worked extra hard to make their own wild-card bids as difficult as possible. The Bills served the Chargers a head-to-head playoff tiebreaker in a silver goblet thanks to the Nathan Peterman fiasco. The Titans...heck, the 49ers look much more like a playoff team than the Titans right now.
So if you need a Week 17 rooting interest, adopt the orphaned Chargers. It will add needed zest to their game against the Raiders, as well as the Jaguars-Titans and Bills-Dolphins matchups—if the Titans and Bills lose, and the Chargers win, they're in.
That's right: If you want to see Philip Rivers, Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and Keenan Allen in the playoffs, you need to become a Dolphins fan for a day.
Week 17 football isn't great, but it does make some strange bedfellows.
Player Spotlight: Todd Gurley
Some quick thoughts about the NFL's latest MVP contender and one of the most exciting individuals in the playoff field.
Todd Gurley is an MVP candidate because he leads the NFL in scrimmage yards (2,093) while averaging 4.7 yards per rush and a remarkable 12.3 yards per reception.
Gurley has rushed for 366 yards, caught 16 passes for 225 yards and scored eight touchdowns in the last three Rams games. His 276-yard scrimmage performance carried the otherwise sloppy Rams in a tight victory over the Titans on Sunday.
Gurley is late to the MVP conversation because he went through a five-week stretch of ordinary games (75 rushing yards or less) in November and early December, when Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson and Antonio Brown dominated the MVP discussion. So Gurley was not really overlooked. He just got hot when everyone else was slumping or injured.
Gurley is having an MVP-caliber year because the Rams offense emphasizes what he's best at: using his dynamic combination of size, speed, lateral quickness and an extraordinary hurdling move to break big plays on the perimeter and in the open field. Sean McVay's offense includes some of the league's best screen and sweep designs.
Gurley did not get the ball in space or the passing game much in the past because, oh c'mon, folks, Jeff Fisher is going to have a pretty rough Digest this week. Let's not dwell on the past.
Gurley will be one of the most important players in the NFC playoffs because the Eagles entered the weekend with the fourth-ranked run defense in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. The Vikings rank fifth, the Panthers seventh and the Seahawks 12th. The Saints and Falcons, meanwhile, rank 26th and 30th.
Gurley can be a difference-maker against the weaker defenses, and strong recent performances against the Eagles and Seahawks suggest that he can do far more than keep the Rams offense balanced against the stronger ones.
Gurley is better than the Saints' running back tandem or the Eagles' backfield committee because, well, Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara are pretty awesome, and the Eagles have a back for every occasion, but Gurley's status as a three-down back keeps the Rams offense unpredictable. The Saints and Eagles rotations have tendencies: Kamara is going to attack the edge, LeGarrette Blount won't be running many pass routes, etc. Opponents must be ready for anything with Gurley in the huddle.
Gurley deserves MVP consideration over Tom Brady because no one wants to give the Patriots any awards right now, and we secretly love watching Patriots fans act personally wounded when Brady's excluded.
Week 17 Preview: Most. Important. Jaguars-Titans. Game. Ever.
What's at stake on New Year's Eve
The Jaguars have claimed the AFC South title—which for once is more prestigious than winning the Famous South Dakota Parsnip Bowl—and are now locked into either the third or fourth seed in the AFC. The Titans either need a win or a sampler platter of losses by other 8-7 teams to secure a Wild Card berth.
How we got here
The Jaguars ran into the combination of Joe Montana, Alexander the Great, Luke Skywalker and a buzzsaw known as Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 16, whose 49ers handed them just their second loss since mid-October.
The Titans are on a three-game losing streak, caused by the fact that they are kinda terrible. But their 37-16 Week 2 win over the Jaguars—a result that made perfect sense at the time—is one of the reasons they hold tiebreaker advantages over the Bills and Chargers.
What to watch for
The Jaguars are a young team still figuring out how the playoff race works, so cross-country road losses like the one they suffered on Christmas Eve come with the territory. They've demonstrated bounce-back resilience this season, though. Upsetting the Steelers after losing to the Jets in the Meadowlands, and winning three straight home games after a road loss to the Cardinals were great signs. Don't look for them to go in the bag after getting Garoppolo'd.
There's no room in the bag, anyway. It's filled with the Titans.
Like so many teams that successfully integrated option principles into their offenses, the Titans distanced themselves from those principles long before the league figured their scheme out. It's as if one early-season option lost two yards and they said, "That's enough of this kid stuff, let's get serious and throw three-yard shallow crosses for the rest of the season."
The Titans offense is predictable. Marcus Mariota looks uncomfortable running it, and his throws lack the velocity to fit in the tight windows caused by running multiple pass patterns short and between the numbers. And the Titans have played like the stage is too big for them in so many important games since September that pointing it out has become a cliche.
The most important Titans-Jaguars game ever was really when Jack Del Rio's Jaguars beat Jeff Fisher's Titans 40-13 in the 2005 playoffs. Matt Mauck started that game for the Titans. (Mauck is now a dentist, proving conclusively that Fisher is actually the angry elf foreman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer).
If the Jaguars are the dangerous postseason noisemaker they appear to be, this coming Sunday's game may be a similar blowout.
Team Spotlight: The Steelers Without Antonio Brown
The Steelers may get Antonio Brown back from his calf injury by the time they play their first playoff game. But there are no guarantees, and there is still some work to be done: A Week 17 win over the Browns and an unlikely Patriots stumble against the Jets would give the Steelers home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts on JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant and the Steelers' other, lesser receiving weapons.
The Steelers are better off without Antonio Brown than with him because wait...what????
Well, they did record their most convincing victory of the year without him on Christmas Day, winning 34-6 over the Texans. And "better off without their star" is a hot-take tradition, right? It's edgy and confrontational!
But, dude, it's ridiculous. The Steelers beat a Texans team with T.J. Yates and Taylor Heinicke at quarterback.
The Steelers survived without Brown because Bryant (three catches for 60 yards) delivered a big early reception, Smith-Schuster (6-75-1) delivered a knockout blow with two deep catches on the same fourth-quarter drive, and Brown's absence forced the Steelers to give other receivers some meaningful opportunities. Tight end Vance McDonald (4-52-0) was a big part of the early game plan, for example.
So even if Brown stays out, there is nothing to worry about because...dude, stop that!
The Steelers punctuated a conservative game plan with a few deep shots because they took an early 10-point lead against a team they knew could not come back. They even gave Landry Jones a late cameo at quarterback.
So Monday's win taught us nothing about what would happen if the Steelers needed McDonald, Eli Rogers and Justin Hunter to see significant targets against a competitive opponent.
But that's OK because clinching a first-round bye was the top priority. The Steelers won't have to face some first-round opponent like the Ravens or *scans wild-card field for a team that might threaten the Steelers* the Chargers without Brown. And the game plan they used against the Texans can be safely photocopied to beat the Browns next week, unless the Patriots take a 21-0 lead in the first quarter of their Jets game and the Steelers box all their starters in packing peanuts.
And while the Steelers really need Brown, we did not miss him on Monday because DeAndre Hopkins delivered the only highlight we really needed.
Week 17 Preview: Will Panthers Capitalize on Falcons' Failings?
What's at stake on New Year's Eve
The Panthers can clinch the NFC South and a home playoff game with a win and a Saints loss to the Buccaneers. The Falcons can clinch the sixth seed with a win, thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker advantage with the Seahawks.
How we got here
The Panthers were outplayed by the feisty Buccaneers for much of Saturday's game, prevailing 22-19 thanks to Bucs fumbles, Bucs special teams mistakes and a kickoff return touchdown by emerging Carolina folk hero Damiere Byrd.
The Falcons proved once again that they are the low hurdle in the NFC playoff race, losing 23-13 to the Saints in a game that was not as close as the score.
What to watch for
The Falcons are one of the most frustrating red-zone and goal-to-go teams in the NFL, as demonstrated on Saturday (a fumble at the 1-yard line, a fourth-quarter turnover on downs inside the 10-yard line).
The Panthers possess a stout red-zone defense and an offense that can score even if the center bounce-passes the ball to Cam Newton.
So the Falcons are better than the Panthers at driving the length of the field, but their habit of forgetting Julio Jones and goofing around with Dontari Poe at fullback could leave them trading two field-goal drives for one Panthers touchdown drive and still trailing.
Also, the Panthers are good at closing out close games, which is definitely not the Falcons' thing.
There would be something merciful about swiftly ending an Atlanta season of 28-3 catcalls without adding a playoff letdown to the coda. Look for a close game similar to Carolina's 20-17 win in November, and look for the Panthers be a very pesky playoff road dog—or a very tough host if the Saints somehow falter.
Jeff Fisher's Guide to Explaining the Universe
Like a deadbeat dad who shows up at graduation and claims that his refusal to pay child support is what motivated his son to become valedictorian, Jeff Fisher tried to take credit for the Rams' success this week, telling The Midday 180 radio show (h/t ESPN.com) that he left the team "in pretty good shape" for this season's surge.
Fisher's self-serving remarks got Digest wondering what other late-season stories Archduke Jeffrey of VII-IX would spin in his favor...
1. Vikings, Eagles and Rams all clinch their divisions with quarterbacks who were on the 2017 Rams roster.
Fishersplain it: "I left the NFL in pretty good shape with playoff-caliber quarterbacks like Case Keenum, Nick Foles and Jared Goff. I'm like Johnny Appleseed. Or Socrates."
Reality Check: Great systems make ordinary quarterbacks look capable. Bad ones (like Fisher's) make ordinary quarterbacks look terrible.
Also, Keenum has been slowly fading for three weeks and looked like he desperately wanted a blanket and some cocoa on Saturday night against the Packers. Luckily, the last two Vikings opponents barely showed up for kickoff.
2. Adam Schefter reports that Josh Rosen will consider staying at UCLA rather than risk being drafted by the Browns.
Fishersplain It: "As coach/GM of the Browns, with the first overall pick, I would broker a Robert Griffin-style trade with a team that wants Rosen and build a powerhouse, just like I did with the 2017 Rams!
"As coach/GM of the Giants, with the second overall pick, I would broker a Jared Goff-style trade to move up to draft Rosen and build a powerhouse...just like my 2017 Rams!"
Reality Check: A franchise's reputation works in the background of everything from free-agent negotiations to front-office hires. The Browns' reputation has never been good. This story illustrates how bad it has become.
3. Ravens are a near playoff lock after an ugly mudder against the Colts.
Fishersplain It: "This validates my style of football. Match a quarterback from the mid-1970s with an offensive coordinator from the mid-1990s, play pretty good defense, kick a million field goals, then sit back and wait for the occasional wild-card appearances to roll in!"
Reality Check: The Ravens are in the playoffs because the AFC is horrendous and they beat quarterbacks like EJ Manuel, Matt Moore, Brett Hundley, Tom Savage, DeShone Kizer and now Jacoby Brissett.
Also, Playoff Flacco isn't coming, Linus. The entire Ravens passing game consists of checkdown passes to Benjamin Watson or Danny Woodhead over the middle against bad defenses.
4. Chargers stay alive for a wild-card berth with a road win over the Jets.
Fishersplain it: "As America's reigning expert on relocating a sports franchise and a born-and-bred Angelino, I could have guaranteed the Chargers a playoff berth by helping the players find good places to live, giving them accurate maps and providing traffic reports. Let's see some Millennial boy-wonder find information like that on a smartphone!
Reality Check: The Chargers are 4-3 at home and 4-4 on the road, so their home-field disadvantage was less of a problem than constant trips to the East Coast to face the Patriots-Jaguars-Giants-Jets. Look for them to take care of business—and perhaps clinch a playoff berth—against the Raiders at their cozy bistro next week.
Almost-End-of-Season News Roundup
1. Eagles clinch home field throughout NFC playoffs with sloppy Christmas night win.
The good news: Eagles fans probably won't see Nick Foles for three weeks. The bad news: After his ugly 19-of-38, 163-yard performance on Monday night, they don't want to see Nick Foles for three weeks.
2. Some owners want to force the Packers to release Aaron Rodgers because of a technical violation of the injured-reserve rules. (Adam Schefter, ESPN)
NFL owners think of themselves as stewards of an American tradition but are really the guys in your fantasy league who want the champion to forfeit his winnings because he accidentally bid one too many waiver points on a bye-week kicker no one else wanted anyway.
3. Earl Thomas lobbies Jason Garrett to someday sign him with the Cowboys after the Seahawks eliminate them from the playoffs.
Thomas wants to find a team willing to sign him to a contract they will regret in five years, so naturally, he thought of the Cowboys.
4. Eli Manning plays out the string in a shutout loss, despite the Giants' need to give rookie Davis Webb a look.
It took less than one month to go from outrage over Eli getting benched to outrage over Eli not getting benched. We're the angry Springfield mob from The Simpsons, folks.
5. Ravens front office blames poor attendance on anthem protests.
Mommy, who did we blame everything bad in the world on before there was a Colin Kaepernick?
Inside the Numbers
Brett Hundley, QB, Packers: 17-of-40, 130 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT
Hundley will finish the season with zero touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 55.6 percent completion rate at home, but he has eight touchdowns, three interceptions and a 67.7 percent rate with one road game to go. Hundley passed Bears legend Bob Avellini on Saturday for the most pass attempts thrown at home in a season without a touchdown.
The split is an interesting statistical artifact, but the takeaway from Hundley's 2017 season is that he is not a good quarterback.
He's a slow pocket-processor with scattershot deep accuracy. His good-on-the-road reputation is largely the result of three long touchdowns against busted coverages and a bad screen pickup by the Steelers. His hapless-at-home rep is magnified by Saturday's game, when the Packers discovered that they somehow employ receivers who don't play well in cold weather.
The Packers need a better Aaron Rodgers heir apparent/contingency plan, and they need him for next season.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys: 24 carries for 97 yards; 4 catches for 21 yards
Zeke's longest play from scrimmage was nine yards, and he was the theoretical target of the sailing Dak Prescott pass that became a Justin Coleman pick-six.
Zeke rushed 15 times for 65 yards on first downs, including eight first-down rushes in the first quarter alone.
Jason Garrett must have been thrilled to return to the one tactic he feels comfortable with: Run Elliott for big first-down gain, something something, achieve victory. Unfortunately, Elliott must average more than 4.3 yards per first down to make the rest of the Cowboys offense look good. That's a problem with the rest of the offense, not Elliott.
Jordan Howard, RB, Bears: 22 carries for 44 yards, 2 TD
Howard rushed six times for nine yards in the first half as the Bears and Browns played punt patty-cake in an effort to punish their paying customers for showing up. After a 16-yard third-quarter touchdown, Howard rushed 10 times for 18 yards in the fourth quarter as the Bears played keep-away in a meaningless 20-3 win.
Human highlight reel Tarik Cohen received just four offensive touches, inexplicably.
Remember this game when someone suggests an 18-game NFL season.
Seattle Seahawks: 11 penalties for 142 yards; 136 net scrimmage yards
The Seahawks became the first team since the 1966 Eagles to win a game with more penalty yards lost than net yards gained. The Seahawks now have 1,242 penalty yards this season, the highest total in the NFL.
Incidentally, the 1966 Eagles accomplished the feat by gaining just 80 scrimmage yards against the Cowboys (with 89 penalty yards) but returning two kicks and a punt for a touchdown. It was the last decent year for an Eagles team about to fall into a funk that lasted over a decade. Nothing to worry about, Seahawks fans.
Sam Ficken, K, Rams: 0-for-1 FG, 3-of-4 XP; 5,000,000 jokes about his name
Did you notice that "Ficken" sounds like an edited-for-basic-cable version of a cuss word that someone might utter when a kicker misses a 38-yard field goal in an important game? Well, the entire internet did.
In addition to the placekicking misadventures in his Rams debut, some of Ficken's forkin' kickoffs were short.
End-of-Season Awards Digest
Anyone can list MVP and Rookie of the Year awards. Digest digs deeper to start wrapping the 2017 season up right.
Undrafted Rookie of the Year: Austin Ekeler, RB, Chargers
Ekeler, who played his college ball at D-II Western State in Colorado, adopted the old Danny Woodhead role in the Chargers offense, averaging 5.5 yards per rush and 10.3 yards per reception while scoring five touchdowns and 15 solo tackles on special teams. Runner Up: Keelan Cole, WR, Jaguars
Assistant Coach of the Year: John DeFilippo, QB Coach, Eagles
The Eagles blocked him from becoming the Jets offensive coordinator in the offseason so he could develop Carson Wentz into an MVP candidate. There will be no holding Coach Flip back from the fast track this year. Runner Up: Aaron Glenn, Secondary Coach, Saints
Special-Teams Stalwart of the Year: Jeff Heath, Cowboys
Heath led Cowboys coverage units that allowed just 4.3 yards per punt return, recording eight solo tackles and two forced fumbles on special teams. But he iced this award by kicking off five times when Dan Bailey got injured against the 49ers, averaging a credible 61.6 yards per kickoff with a pair of touchbacks. Runner Up: Kamu Grugier-Hill, Eagles
Draft Class of the Year: New Orleans Saints
Cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back Alvin Kamara are the odds-on Defensive and Offensive Rookies of the Year. (Both would be runaways if not for injuries.) Ryan Ramczyk has been one of the NFL's best rookie offensive linemen. Defensive lineman Trey Hendrickson has flashed potential, as did linebacker Alex Anzalone before a shoulder injury. Runner Up: the much-criticized-on-draft-day Chicago Bears
Special Teamer/Emergency QB of the Year Award: Joe Webb, Bills
Webb climbed off the Bills' kick-coverage units to play some Wildcat when Tyrod Taylor was injured, and then he replaced Nathan Peterman in the Week 14 Snowbowl to throw his first passes since an emergency start for the Vikings in the 2012 playoffs. Runner Up: Neither Saints third-string QB and kick gunner Taysom Hill nor Broncos all-purpose backup Jordan "Sunshine" Taylor took quarterback snaps this year. But it would have been cool if they had.
Fantasy Leech of the Year: Josh McCown, Jets
McCown rushed for five touchdowns this year, as many as Bilal Powell and Matt Forte combined, making sure that anyone hoping to milk the Jets for fantasy value would be disappointed. Unless they started McCown. Which would indeed be a desperate move. Runners Up: Rex Burkhead, Patriots; Buck Allen, Ravens; Corey Clement, Eagles
The Gift of Hope: Bad Teams Poised for a Turnaround
Digest has the perfect belated holiday gift for fans who have had little to cheer for this year: inclusion on our Top Five Bad Teams Poised for a Turnaround!
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Never has a team looked more like it was being coached by the Madden AI. The Buccaneers have the talent to climb back over .500 just by trying something, like getting the ball to their best players or maybe rushing the passer once in a while.
4. Houston Texans
Combine Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins with returning DeShaun Watson, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, and the Texans have the front-line talent of a Super Bowl contender. The only things that could screw this up are injuries, coach-versus-front-office squabbling and quarterback mismanagement, which...come to think of it, maybe the Texans don't belong on this Turnaround list.
3. Chicago Bears
Two great running backs, a viable quarterback of the future, a structurally sound offensive line and some talent sprinkled around the defense should be enough to upgrade the Bears from "pesky" to "competitive" once they add some pieces in the offseason.
John Fox's ultra-conservatism could hold the Bears back if he is retained, but at least this team is designed to win with nothing but off-tackle runs.
2. Indianapolis Colts
Likely beneficiaries of the Jeff Fisher Slingshot Effect, in which the switch from Chuck Pagano to competent coaching suddenly turns players' careers around and flings the Colts into orbit.
And that's before Andrew Luck returns from his healing journey to the monastery at Nanda Parbat. (Note to the Colts: The Jeff Fisher Slingshot Effect is not an endorsement of Fisher as a head-coaching candidate. Just warning you in case he prints this out and brings it to the interview.)
1. San Francisco 49ers
Acquiring a good young quarterback instead of noodling around with custodians and thirsty midround rookies can instantly breathe life into a franchise. Who knew? (Besides everyone.)
John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan have plenty of work to do, but they did the hardest part when they traded for Jimmy Garoppolo.
But what about the Cleveland Browns?
Two years of building with a zillion draft picks and cap bucks boil down to Myles Garrett, the resurrected Josh Gordon, a few solid-but-overrated prospects (David Njoku is not Rob Gronkowski, folks) and a Frankenstein power structure that already sounds like it's going to skip the infighting and go straight to the back-stabbing.
The Browns have problems that won't be solved by throwing more draft picks and cap bucks at them.