Monday Morning Digest: Rams and Jaguars Have Turned the NFL Upside Down
In this week's edition of Monday Morning Digest:
- Nick Foles has Eagles fans breathing a little easier
- The return of Aaron Rodgers doesn't go quite the way the Packers scripted it
- The Patriots find yet another exciting and annoying way to win
...and much more.
We kick off with the Jaguars and Rams, who are coming off blowout victories and headed for the playoffs.
Now, there's a sentence you never thought you would read.
Rams and Jaguars Turning the NFL Upside Down
How crazy has 2017 been?
This crazy: The Jaguars clinched a playoff berth by routing the Texans in the same week that the Rams pounded the stuffing out of the Seahawks in Seattle, yet you probably didn't think there was anything unusual about either result.
Think about it. The Jaguars in the playoffs for the first time since you last updated your MySpace Top Five. The Rams a near lock to reach the postseason for the first time since the first season of Lost. The Rams may soon host the first NFL playoff game in Los Angeles since the Raiders beat the John Elway-quarterbacked Broncos at the end of the 1993 season.
We've had all season to get used to it, yet the new normal of high-quality Rams and Jaguars football still feels disorienting, like we've slid into an alternate universe where reality has been satirically twisted into a funhouse mirror of how things are supposed to be. Which is another all-too-typical 2017 feeling.
If the rise of the Rams and the goings-on in Sacksonville have just been too weird for you to cope with, don't despair: Digest is here with the talking points you need to make sense of the topsy-turvy NFL standings. You're on your own for everything else about 2017.
This changing of the guard is refreshing, particularly in the AFC
The NFL needs some new stars and storylines, and it's not healthy for the league when franchises spend a decade-plus in the cellar. The AFC, in particular, needs the Jaguars' transfusion of fresh blood. The Patriots and Steelers used up their last plot twist at the end of Sunday's game, and without the Jaguars, we'd have to pretend to care about the Ravens and Bills.
The Rams are the NFL's most complete team
They are deep at just about every position, have a wide array of offensive packages, can match their nickel and dime defensive packages with any offense in the league and possess the NFL's best all-around special teams.
All of that depth and diversity allows them to win a variety of different types of games, from shootouts to defense-and-field-position battles. Their 42-7 victory over the Seahawks was a disciplined, all-three-phases victory against an opponent that tries to lull opponents into playground pickup games.
Blake Bortles is pretty good
Bortles' transformation from Goofus to Gallant is partly the result of often getting great field position and playing with a lead—it's easy to hide shaky decision-making and lazy mechanics when you keep getting the ball near midfield and don't have to force any passes. But Bortles' improvement is not purely a situational mirage, as he proved with many sharp throws Sunday.
Think of Bortles as a Jay Cutler who still cares. He will always make some mistakes, but his athleticism and big-play capability make him dangerous on a team that only needs a few big plays on offense to win.
The Rams and Jaguars prove that the NFL needs fresh-faced young decision-makers. And old fogies
The Rams amassed much of their talent under Jeff Fisher, then turned things over to young Sean McVay. The effect was like remodeling the Victorian home where grandpa was hoarding bundles of 1960s newspapers. The Jaguars have been spending money and draft capital on front-line talent for years, but nothing clicked until Tom Coughlin arrived to give the team a little direction and a dose of discipline.
About the only thing the Coughlin administration and McVay's millennial startup have in common from an organizational standpoint is vision. Both the Jaguars and Rams are built to win a certain way: big-play defense for the Jaguars, balance and ball control for the Rams. Top-to-bottom organizational vision is critical to turning a franchise around. The Browns may figure that out sometime this century.
A key figure down the stretch for the Jaguars and Rams is...Jimmy Garoppolo?
Both the Jaguars and Rams face the 49ers and Titans in their final two games. The Titans are a fast-fading wild-card hopeful who haven't beaten a real opponent since the start of autumn (though an early win over the Jaguars gives them a chance to still win the AFC South), but the 49ers are suddenly pesky now that they have a real quarterback.
Both the Rams and Jaguars should win out, but some combination of Garoppolo and what's left of the Titans' pride could spoil the Rams-Jaguars Super Bowl of our dreams by forcing these upstarts to hit the road in the playoffs.
Which may be a good thing, because the world just isn't ready for a Rams-Jaguars Super Bowl.
Everything Wrong with the NFL in One Cowboys-Raiders Game
The Raiders and Cowboys were both still mathematically in the playoff chase entering Sunday night's game. But instead of delivering a high-energy duel full of thrills between two teams with large international fanbases, the Sunday nighter was a sloppy, tedious, referee-dominated game that lingered long into the night.
In fact, the Cowboys' 20-17 victory over the Raiders may have been the perfect encapsulation of the NFL in 2017:
Derek Carr and Dak Prescott were potential MVP candidates in 2016. Doesn't that feel like it was 30 years ago? Prescott threw two interceptions. Carr threw for 171 yards, with only one completion longer than 20 yards.
Important players injured
Left tackles Donald Penn and Tyron Smith were both knocked out of the game, which only made both offenses worse.
Exciting plays that didn't count
The Raiders had a Jared Cook touchdown nullified by offensive pass interference (a penalty now called with zero consistency) and a Cordarrelle Patterson kickoff return touchdown negated by holding (the NFL should just abandon kickoffs altogether if the refs are going to throw a flag on every long return).
Challenges that challenged our patience
A third Raiders touchdown was erased when Sean Smith was ruled down by contact after an interception. The Cowboys later challenged a juggling 28-yard Seth Roberts catch because no one on earth knows what a catch is, so coaches just play the lottery every time they see a bobble.
Game decided by mind-bending technicality
After Jason Witten was stopped one yard short of a first down late in the fourth quarter (after a challenge caused by a bad spot), Prescott surged forward for about 35 inches on a quarterback sneak. Referees stretched the chains, scratched their heads, slipped a folded index card between the nose of the football and the first-down marker like they were jimmying the lock on a screen door and somehow decided that being an index card's thickness shy of a first down was close enough. The Cowboys retained possession and kicked the game-winning field goal.
A freakin' fumble touchback
The Raiders' last-gasp drive (fueled largely by a pass interference penalty) ended when Carr's reach for the pylon resulted in the 2017 season's go-to "gotcha" play: a fumble touchback to give the Cowboys the ball. At least Carr clearly fumbled; the referees didn't slide a paper clip between his palm and the ball and determine that he lost possession or anything.
An unsatisfying result
The Raiders played poorly, but so many weird calls and fluke plays went against them that it felt like the Cowboys were handed an unearned victory. The most memorable moments of the game involved index cards, penalties and controversies, not great plays by players. It was the perfect showcase for 2017-style NFL football.
Now let's fix the rulebook in the offseason so we don't have to endure as many games like this in the future.
Player Spotlight: Nick Foles, QB, Eagles
What he did
Foles completed 24 of 38 passes for 237 yards and four touchdowns, leading the Eagles back from a 20-7 early deficit to secure a 34-29 win that clinched a first-round bye but gave Greater Philly an afternoon-long case of heartburn.
Foles benefited from an interception and a blocked punt to set up a pair of his early touchdowns but also led a trio of impressive second-half scoring drives.
What it means
There were times when the Eagles obviously missed Carson Wentz—particularly on third-and-longs, when Foles threw into tight coverage or double-clutched instead of firing to an open receiver. But Foles was Wentz-like just enough to keep the Eagles' Super Bowl dreams alive.
The diversity of the Eagles offense helped: A four-headed backfield banged out 108 yards, while Foles spread his touchdowns among Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, Nelson Agholor and Trey Burton.
In fact, Foles turned out to be the least of the Eagles' worries on an afternoon when their defense alternated between letting too much happen in front of them, trying too hard for the big play and allowing short passes (or pump fakes) to turn into touchdowns.
The Eagles need to clean up their act to beat playoff-caliber competition with Foles at the helm. But they proved Sunday that it's possible. They also bought themselves a precious one-week postseason reprieve from the hungry and dangerous teams in the NFC wild-card chase.
What happens next
Christmas night with the Raiders in Philly, with Eagles fans hoping that home-field advantage comes down the chimney.
Game Spotlight: Panthers 31, Packers 24
For weeks, we have eagerly waited for the perennial Pro Bowler who is nearly indispensable to his team to return and have a major impact on the NFC playoff race.
On Sunday, it finally happened: Greg Olsen, out or severely limited since Week 3, caught nine passes for 116 yards and one touchdown to spur a Panthers win.
Oh wait, you were expecting Aaron Rodgers? His triumphant return turned out to be a very mixed bag. Rodgers delivered some magic moments, like his pocket-escape touchdown to Randall Cobb before halftime and a late touchdown to Richard Rodgers when the Panthers were slow to line up. But the swarming Panthers defense, a predictably predictable Packers game plan and a noticeable layer of rust resulted in three interceptions, three sacks and an alarming number of passes thrown behind or bounced in front of receivers.
What it means
The Panthers are peaking at the right time. Olsen played in Weeks 12 and 14 but wasn't healthy enough to be a factor. His full-on return diversifies an offense that is finally figuring out how to use Christian McCaffrey (136 scrimmage yards, one TD) and getting big plays by newcomers like Damiere Byrd (two touchdowns on three catches, including a back-of-the-end-zone bobble that may be the first-ever application of the "One Cheek Inbounds" rule). The Panthers front seven is as stout as ever, and the secondary played its best game of the season Sunday.
Rodgers ended up running six times for 43 yards, which is not what the Packers were hoping for when they activated their not-quite-100-percent-healthy quarterback.
The Packers can be eliminated from the playoff race if the Falcons beat the Buccaneers on Monday, but even if they aren't, they may need to reconsider the risks and rewards of exposing Rodgers to further injury.
The Packers host the Vikings, who clinched the NFC North and are now aiming for a first-round bye. The Panthers take a break from beating playoff contenders by 31-24 scores to host the lowly Buccaneers.
Game Spotlight: Patriots 27, Steelers 24
The Steelers took a 24-16 lead into the fourth quarter and were moving the ball well, despite an injury to Antonio Brown. Then madness ensued.
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski did what they so often do in the fourth quarters of critical games, connecting three straight times for 69 (heh-heh, Gronk) yards on a drive to give the Patriots a 27-24 lead. But Dion Lewis' go-ahead touchdown was a little too quick 'n' easy, giving Ben Roethlisberger one last chance to force overtime.
Roethlisberger connected with JuJu Smith-Schuster, who weaved through the Patriots defense for 69 (oh, grow up, Gronk) yards before running out of gas. Jesse James appeared to catch a game-winning touchdown, but the play was overturned when replay reviews found a brief bobble as James hit the ground. Darrius Heyward-Bey was tackled inbounds on the next play, so Roethlisberger hurried the Steelers back to the line, but while Big Ben wanted to clock the ball, Steelers coaches wanted him to surprise the Patriots with a fake-spike play.
The Patriots weren't fooled by the improvisation, and Eric Rowe tipped Roethlisberger's sly pass attempt to Eli Rogers to Duron Harmon for a game-ending interception that looked like an homage to Super Bowl XLIX.
What it means
Don't fault Steelers coaches for wanting to be aggressive on that final play—you don't beat the Patriots by being timid—but it's never a good idea to surprise your quarterback more than you surprise your opponent. The Steelers lost their head-to-head tiebreaker with the Patriots and could lose their chance at a first-round bye if they drop another game and the Jaguars win out.
Meanwhile, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Brown "has a partially torn calf muscle, per source. Unlikely to play next week but expected back for the postseason." The silver lining for the Steelers is that a Texans-Browns end-of-season schedule should keep them in line for the No. 2 slot in the AFC, so they'll likely be in good position when they do get him back.
As for the Patriots: This combination of undeniable brilliance and sheer luck is the exact reason why everyone outside of New England hates them.
What happens next
The Patriots host the Bills, who are somehow very alive in the wild-card race. The Steelers cross their fingers about Brown before traveling to Houston.
Week 15 Quick Hitters
Hot takes on issues big and small from Sunday.
• The Bengals reacted to reports of Marvin Lewis' impending resignation with their most miserable showing of the season, which is a clear sign that Lewis' departure is overdue. Another set of rumors has the Bengals coveting Browns coach Hue Jackson, their offensive coordinator in their best seasons. How Jackson convinces multiple organizations that he's a latter-day Bill Parcells while winning precisely zero games can only be explained by hypnotism. The Bengals need fresh ideas after 15 seasons of Lewis, not organizational retreads. And Hue Jackson needs to win a darn game to prove he deserves to coach anywhere next year.
• Thomas Davis is a great football player and a great individual. The helmet-to-helmet hit he delivered to Davante Adams after an Aaron Rodgers interception was inexcusable, and Davis knew it, judging by his sideline self-flagellation after the play. Davis had no business remaining in the game after that play, but he was not ejected, and there is no telling whether he will receive any discipline when the league office spins its Wheel of Morality. The ejection-suspension system now ranks as the most broken of all the NFL's broken systems.
• Seahawks rookie Delano Hill was kicked out of the game for inciting a donnybrook after the whistle with his team trailing 34-0. After the shenanigans of the last two weeks, the Seahawks really deserve a timeout to think about sportsmanship for the duration of the playoffs and offseason.
• The 49ers were two-point favorites at home against the Titans, despite the fact that the Titans are a likely wild-card team and the 49ers entered the game 3-10. That spread tells you all you need to know about the quality of the Titans and the state of the AFC playoff race. Sure enough, the 49ers won, but it was a push. The Titans need to take a long look at their coaching staff, even if they squeak into the playoffs.
• Jerry Richardson's announcement that he will sell the Panthers in the wake of sexual harassment allegations is a wee bit beyond the score of our little weekly Digest. But it is both remarkable and encouraging to see a sports franchise go from allegations to investigation to something close to a resolution in the span of 48 hours. In a league where even minor scandals linger for years and stonewalling is the default tactic for dealing with allegations, the swiftness with which the Panthers have moved in a positive direction has been refreshing.
Inside the Numbers
This week's Inside the Numbers focuses on some playoff-relevant early games you may have lost track of, because they were lopsided and/or featured the Jets.
Bryce Petty, QB, Jets (19-of-39 for 179 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 2 rushes for 16 yards)
Petty also caught one of his own passes that was batted back in his face, but that play was negated when Petty tried to throw another pass on the same play, which is illegal. Yep, it was that kind of Jets game.
Petty managed to squeeze a touchdown, an interception and his second-longest pass of the day (a 24-yarder to Chad Hansen) into fourth-quarter garbage time, which gives you an idea what a glob of onion dip the Jets offense was for most of the afternoon. Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan was credited with four passes defensed. Petty had a lot of passes spiked straight back at him Sunday.
Folks, has anyone checked to see if Christian Hackenberg even has arms?
Javorius Allen, RB, Ravens (13 carries for 70 yards, 1 catch for 4 yards)
Allen carried just four times for 10 yards in the first half but saw more action in relief of a surprisingly ineffective Alex Collins as the Ravens tried to eat clock for the entire second half against the Browns. Allen had 14-, 16- and 12-yard runs late in the fourth quarter.
There's nothing wrong with Collins. The Ravens just like to troll the few poor souls who turn to them for fantasy production.
Keelan Cole (7 catches for 186 yards and 1 TD) and Jaydon Mickens (4 catches for 61 yards and 2 TDs), WRs, Jaguars
Cole had receptions of 73, 42 and 31 yards. Mickens added a 41-yard catch up the sideline to his two short touchdowns.
Both Cole and Mickens are undrafted rookies playing in place of Marqise Lee (injured early Sunday), Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, which means Blake Bortles should really be bouncing passes off the Gatorade coolers on the sidelines instead of recording the best games of his career. Yet here we are.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans (4 catches on 13 targets for 80 yards and 1 TD)
Hopkins did most of his damage on two catches for 65 yards and a score midway through the third quarter, when the Jaguars already had a commanding lead. He spent most of the game watching T.J. Yates sail passes toward his zip code.
At some point, the Texans are just going to stick a JUGS machine in the pocket, point it at a 45-degree angle and declare it their quarterback. And Hopkins will still catch four passes for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Robbie Gould, K, 49ers (6-of-6 FG, 1-of-1 XP, 19 points)
Gould is 15-of-15 on field goals in the three games Jimmy Garoppolo has started, scoring 48 total points. Garoppolo and the 49ers need to turn some Gould field goals into touchdowns. In the meantime, Gould is going to help some fantasy teams win their Super Bowls.
Defenders of the Week
Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn combined for five sacks for a loss of 53 yards and two forced Russell Wilson fumbles, one of them an insane backward pass where it looked like Wilson was so discombobulated by the pass rush that he forgot which direction was forward.
Offensive Line of the Week
More Rams! Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Jamon Brown and Rob Havenstein helped Todd Gurley and others grind out 244 yards and three touchdowns on the ground against the Seahawks.
Special Teamers of the Week
Derek Barnett blocked an early Giants extra point. Kamu Grugier-Hill blocked a Giants punt. Malcolm Jenkins blocked what would have been a go-ahead Giants field goal. Those three blocks were critical to a narrow Eagles victory.
Fantasy Leech of the Week
Tommy Bohanon rushed two times for two one-yard Jaguars touchdowns against the Texans. Take that, person in your fantasy league who saw that Leonard Fournette was hurt and thought Chris Ivory would have a big day!
Touchdown Celebration of the Week
The Lions Radio City Rockettes kick-line in the end zone was the only true highlight of Saturday night's Lions-Bears insomnia cure.
Worst Touchdown Celebration of the Week
Outside of an Olympic context, competitive speed walking looks like a bunch of toddlers in need of a diaper change racing toward the ice cream truck. Even when great athletes like the Packers receiving corps do it.
Mystery Touch of the Week
Cowboys punter Chris Jones shocked the Raiders with a 24-yard Ezekiel Elliott impersonation on a 4th-and-11 fake punt. The Cowboys then ran a flea-flicker on the very next play. That was Jason Garrett's last spasm of daring and creativity until next season, folks.
Saturday Games Digest
Some quick hitters from Saturday night's scintillating matchups:
Marcus Peters intercepted two passes and forced a fumble one week after earning a team suspension for a variety of not-with-the-program misdemeanors. The moral of this story isn't that coaches need to act like tough guys and suspend anyone who steps out of line, but that they need some sort of consistent assertive management plan.
For too many coaches, player discipline means A) making a bunch of Bill Parcells speeches, B) looking the other way as edgy/flighty/lazy habits fester in the locker room, and then C) suddenly getting fed up and trading, cutting or leaving the player home during a road trip. Check local headlines to see if your team falls into this category. For all of their faults, the Chiefs do not.
Matthew Stafford got dragged into some dumb Internet arguments this week: the usual pocker-passers-rule/scramblers-drool/racial-semiotics-are-cool stuff involving conventional wisdom and Russell Wilson that keep us all busy during the week.
If Stafford is your standard for pocket-passing mediocrity, you need to watch more Lions games. Many of Stafford's running backs look like guys the Madden AI created to fill the bottom of the franchise-mode draft board and his protection comes and goes with whoever is healthy. Stafford's the only reason the Lions are still in the playoff picture. And he has nothing to do with Russell Wilson.
John Fox punted on 4th-and-1 from the Bears' 45-yard line early in the loss to the Lions. Keep in mind that the Bears have a great running game and nothing to play for but pride (and perhaps Fox's job).
Fox is the personification of the NFL coaching old-boy network, so keep his innovative tactical daring in mind the next time you hear regurgitated insider wisdom. Old-boy insider wisdom is very often indistinguishable from arch-conservative idiocy.
Bet that Saturday night road blowout loss at the height of the holiday season did wonders to build a new Chargers fanbase. That's OK: Budding Angelino Chargers fans can catch up with their new favorite team at 10 a.m. Christmas Eve morning against the Jets.
The End of MVPs
Congratulations, Tom Brady! You are the first player in American sports history to earn an MVP award both by default and by having a banner year while being the greatest player of your generation.
All season, we have cast around for MVP candidates not named "Tom Brady," from Alex Smith (giggle) to Carson Wentz and Russell Wilson to Antonio Brown. But all of those candidates either got hurt, slumped or were Alex Smith. So fine, we surrender: You win another piece of glittery hardware, Tom.
But giving Brady the MVP award for just another Brady year just feels wrong. With that in mind, Digest proudly nominates five new dark-horse candidates:
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
Bell's 1,849 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns no longer make him the runner-up MVP of his own team now that Brown is hurt. Bell also would have definitely, totally won Sunday's game for the Steelers if Ben Roethlisberger handed off to him instead of throwing to Eli Rogers. That's right, folks. We're recycling old Marshawn Lynch Super Bowl arguments now.
Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
Gurley has 1,817 scrimmage yards and 17 total touchdowns this season, but we think of Gurley more as a Comeback Player of the Year type, because overcoming Jeff Fisher's coaching is a struggle akin to overcoming a debilitating injury.
Markvin Kamingram, Saints
This Saints running back has accumulated 2,756 scrimmage yards and 23 touchdowns but is not taken seriously as an MVP candidate by the lamestream media because he exists only as an amalgam of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara and a figment of a feverish imagination. It's the same prejudice that will keep Jacksonville's Calanick J. Rambelkoue from winning Defensive Player of the Year.
The Guy Who Put Together the Ravens' Late-Season Schedule
The Ravens should at least give a game ball and a playoff check to whoever scheduled them to end the year with the Browns, Colts and Bengals.
Andrew Luck, Colts
The Colts' 3-11 record is proof of how valuable Luck is: It's impossible for a team to win without him! And with Luck about to start throwing again after his healing pilgrimage to Lourdes or wherever, the Colts will be able to carry on in 2018 as if nothing had happened, as long as they maintain coaching continuity.
(The preceding selection was sponsored by the Committee to Keep Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis, which is chaired and entirely funded by Chuck Pagano.)