Monday Morning Digest: The Specter Hanging over the NFL Playoffs
This week's jam-packed wild-card edition of Monday Morning Digest features:
• More about Blake Bortles than you ever expected (or wanted) to read in January.
• The secret weapon the Eagles cannot count on to beat the Falcons next week. (No, it's not Nate Sudfeld.)
• Inconvenient facts about that regular-season Jaguars-Steelers upset.
• The only comparison of the Patriots to Czarist Russia you will read all week.
• Keys to a possible Titans upset (gotta dream, right?)
• Straight talk about the Jon Gruden hiring.
...and, as always, much more!
Keeping Concussed Players in the Game Takes Fans out of the Game
Cam Newton was nearly pulverized by Saints defender David Onyemata in the fourth quarter. He staggered to his feet, began trotting to the sideline and fell to one knee.
"Oh no," we thought. "Cam Newton appears to have a concussion."
"Oh no," we also thought. "An NFL team is going to thumb its nose at the concussion protocol again."
Sure enough, Newton's brief visit to the Big Blue Tent of Medical Make-Believe revealed an "eye injury." You know, the kind of eye injury that makes you suddenly lose your balance. The kind that's also known as a head injury.
Whether Newton suffered a concussion or not—he did look like his old self when he returned to the game to lead a failed comeback—is irrelevant. The NFL stated two weeks ago that a player who stumbles and falls without an orthopedic explanation must be taken to the locker room for observation. Newton didn't injure a weight-bearing eye. He was supposed to be taken from the field.
But, you know, it's the playoffs. Win the game and deal with the consequences later. Or in the player's case, maybe when he's 40.
The specter of the nod-and-wink concussion protocol hung over all of this weekend's action. On Saturday, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce took a hit while running after the catch and briefly began listing sideways like the bridegroom at the end of a bachelor party. The Chiefs handled protocol correctly, but no team deserves the benefit of the doubt these days until a player is officially ruled "out."
The Jaguars-Bills game ended with Tyrod Taylor prone on the ground for several perilous seconds after a brutal collision. It was too late in the game for the Bills to face any moral dilemmas about the protocol—backup Nathan Peterman ended the Bills season with an interception a few plays later—but it's easy to imagine a team dusting its quarterback off and tossing him back on the field just because a playoff game is on the line.
And that's a huge problem.
Concerns about teams scoffing at concussion protocols and endangering players should not overshadow playoff games. But the NFL made this mess with the Russell Wilson drive-thru concussion exam and Tom Savage's see-no-evil post-collision spasms in the end zone. Now, even the most exciting games come with a layer of disgust.
If Newton's comeback had succeeded, the Panthers would have won a playoff game by breaking the rules and risking the health of one of the league's biggest stars. But Newton took a few more big hits on his final drive, including a play in which he was slammed to the turf and then flagged for intentional grounding.
Talk about a lose-lose scenario.
The NFL will never solve the concussion problem. But if it would simply follow its own rules, fans could stop bracing for teams to do something cynical and dangerous because they think that's what entertains us.
If the league isn't careful, that ugly "bracing" feeling is going to take the thrill—and the fans—right out of the game.
AFC Divisional Playoff Preview: Titans at Patriots
How we got here
The Titans came back to beat the Chiefs, 22-21, on Saturday by:
• Knocking Travis Kelce out of the game, which stagnated the Chiefs offense.
• Catching breaks when multiple near-fumbles were whistled dead before the ball popped loose.
• Marcus Mariota retrieving his own pass that was rejected Dikembe Mutombo-style into his face and diving for a touchdown. And...
• Being their just-better-than-mediocre selves while the Chiefs turned from the unstoppable September Chiefs into the bumbling November Chiefs at halftime.
Titans ownership announced (via the team's official website) on Sunday that head coach Mike Mularkey would return next year because of the 22-21 win, because NFL owners lack object permanence and forget everything but the result they see in the standings.
The Patriots got here because they live here.
What to expect
The big news out of Foxborough this week was Seth Wickersham's brilliant expose on fissures between Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft featured on ESPN.com. The story was part a meticulously researched unveiling of one of the most compellingly secretive teams in professional sports, part historical novel about the fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Alex Guerrero as Rasputin, Jimmy Garoppolo as Anastasia) re-skinned as Patriots-hater fanfic.
The Patriots don't like their clean laundry publicized, let alone the dirty stuff. So will they take out all of their frustrations on an opponent that advanced in the postseason almost despite themselves?
The Titans do two things well on offense that the Patriots have a hard time stopping: They run between the tackles (the Patriots rank 30th in run defense, according to Football Outsiders), and they throw short over the middle (the Patriots are 30th defending passes over the middle and 27th against short passes, per Football Outsiders).
So look for the Titans to make a game of it by pounding Derrick Henry and floating play-action passes between the numbers to Delanie Walker and their receivers while applying as much pass pressure as possible up the middle in hopes that the rumors of Brady's rapid deterioration are true.
We said "make a game of it," not "pull an upset." Brady may indeed be slipping a little. But he's not lose-to-the-Titans-at-home slipping.
Patriots 31, Titans 21
AFC Divisional Playoff Preview: Jaguars at Steelers
How we got here
The Jaguars beat the Bills on Sunday in a reenactment of the 1938 Orange Bowl.
What to expect
Let's talk about that 30-9 Jaguars "crushing" in Week 5 for a moment.
The Steelers actually led that game, 9-7, midway through the third quarter. Leonard Fournette rushed for just 42 yards on 15 carries before halftime, while Blake Bortles entered the third quarter with 95 passing yards and an interception. The Steelers weren't crisp, but they were playing well enough to win.
Then Ben Roethlisberger went on his interception spree, caused by a combination of terrible throws and great defensive plays. The Jaguars led 23-9 after a pair of pick-sixes, and then the game snowballed. With a late 90-yard Fournette touchdown run gussying up their offensive stats. Bortles finished with 95 yards, having thrown just one pass in the final 30 minutes.
Beating the Steelers was a defining moment in the Jaguars season, and it led directly to where they are now. Defensively, they are still vicious, though they no longer have the element of surprise that probably contributed to Big Ben's sloppiness with the ball. Offensively, well, Bortles may be the only quarterback in playoff history whose screen-pass trajectories are altered by a mild breeze on a sunny afternoon.
The Steelers will balance their offense, be conservative and dare Bortles to beat them in the rematch. It will probably be great for laughs.
The Jaguars beat the Steelers, 31-29, in the 2007 playoffs. Let's go for a similar-looking score here.
Steelers 29, Jaguars 13
NFC Divisional Playoff Preview: Falcons at Eagles
How we got here
The Falcons played exceptional defense, benefited from a pair of Rams kick-return fumbles and sabotaged themselves in the red zone less than usual in a 26-13 upset in Los Angeles on Saturday. It was a rugged, Ravens-style victory by a team which spent much of this season searching for a new personality.
The Eagles steamrolled just about every team in their path this season until Carson Wentz's torn ACL forced Nick Foles into the lineup. It was the equivalent of replacing the turbocharged engine in your sports car by selling the car and having Nick Foles pull you through town in a pedicab.
What to expect
The big story in Philadelphia, besides the complete lack of faith in Foles, has been a brutal cold-weather snap that has everyone in the region feeling like their socks have been stored in a tank of liquid nitrogen.
The Hoth-like conditions hold a possible silver lining for Eagles fans, who remember the Andy Reid-Donovan McNabb team prevailing in a pair of icy playoff games in the 2000s against Falcons teams built for dome conditions, including a championship game without Terrell Owens the Eagles were expected to choke away. (NFC Championship Games were the Eagles' 28-3 moments for most of the early 2000s.)
Unfortunately for the Eagles, early forecasts call for highs in the mid-40s Saturday, veritable T-shirt weather. Single-digit temperatures won't be a 12th Eagles defender in a game that is likely to be defined by defense, as the Eagles try to manufacture offense on the ground while the Falcons stall in the red zone.
But defensive duels often come down to turnovers, fourth-down conversions and field goals. The Eagles were plus-11 in takeaways (while the Falcons were minus-2) and had a huge fourth-down advantage this season (17-of-26 converted, 4-of-18 allowed, per NFL GSIS), while 42-year-old Matt Bryant and rookie Jake Elliott were both money on long kicks and shakier on short ones this season.
The Eagles have plenty of little advantages. They just lack a quarterback.
The Falcons are such trendy upset picks that they are not an upset pick. The early line favors them by 2.5 points, according to OddsShark. Digest rarely advises taking an underdog, but when that underdog is a No. 1 seed eager to prove it can win without Wentz while the opponent is a team everyone just regained confidence in Saturday, we'll make an exception.
Eagles 22, Falcons 19
NFC Divisional Playoff Preview: Saints at Vikings
How we got here
The Saints survived a shootout with the Panthers in which their running game and defense mostly abandoned them, leaving Drew Brees to win the game old-school with 376 passing yards.
What to expect
The Vikings beat the Saints, 29-19, in the season opener. That was so long ago that Bradford was the star of the game (346 yards, three touchdowns) while Adrian Peterson's six carries for 18 measly yards were one of the major postgame takeaways.
The Saints running game improved once Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara divvied up Peterson's workload. But Kamara and Ingram have faded down the stretch, with the Saints averaging just 80 yards per game and 3.3 yards per rush in their past five games (including Sunday's). That could spell trouble against the Vikings, who may field the most disciplined, surest-tackling defense in the NFL.
While the Vikings have the home field, a week of rest instead of a hard-hitting rivalry game and some matchup advantages on defense, the Saints have Brees. Case Keenum had a remarkable season, but so did Jared Goff entering Saturday's loss to the Falcons. The playoffs are different, and successful teams must find a way to win when better opponents take away what they do best.
The Saints did just that Sunday. The Vikings simply lack the pure talent on offense to get it done.
The Saints get a little bit more from their defense than they got in the second half against the Panthers, and it's all they really need.
Saints 24, Vikings 20
Eliminated Teams Digest
Let's take one last look at the teams that were eliminated Sunday to determine what they must do to take the next step in 2018 and beyond.
A .500-caliber team with .500-caliber talent that squeaked into the playoffs on tiebreaker madness, the Bills are loaded with extra draft picks next year (including the Chiefs' first-rounder and the Rams' second-rounder) but face an identity crisis on offense.
The organization almost sabotaged itself in its desire to move on from Tyrod Taylor (who nearly sacrificed himself trying to win a playoff game for it Sunday), but the skill-position talent is abysmal beyond LeSean McCoy and the scheme is warmed-over third-generation covers of old Mike Shanahan tunes. Also, the talent along the defensive front seven is neither as good nor as young as advertised.
The Bills would be best off drafting a quarterback of the future (trading picks if they must move up) and signing receivers from a loaded free-agent class, because they are really still more of a rebuilding team than a playoff team. But they might fool themselves into doing things the other way around.
The Panthers can be Super Bowl contenders again if they provide Cam Newton with a real go-to wide receiver and replace Jonathan Stewart with one of the approximately 5,000 quality power backs in this year's draft so that Christian McCaffrey can be a slot/slash back instead of running off tackle.
Ron Rivera's new contract extension ensures stability despite a pending ownership change. The Panthers should be building for a short-window turnaround before Greg Olsen, Thomas Davis and other veterans enter their steep decline.
Kansas City Chiefs
The smoother the transition to a Patrick Mahomes/Kareem Hunt/Tyreek Hill future, the easier it will be for the Chiefs. That's not a knock on Alex Smith, who played well between dropped passes and play-calling fugue states Saturday. But the Chiefs are tight against the salary cap because of pricey veterans (Smith, Eric Berry, Derrick Johnson, even Justin Houston) unlikely to pull the team out of its one-and-done playoff rut.
Andy Reid may oversee this youth movement without the help of assistants like Matt Nagy and Dave Toub, who are hot commodities on the coaching carousel. That's not a good thing, particularly with Reid's habit of promoting the most loyal assistants from within instead of seeking out the best candidates (see: the 2011 Eagles defensive staff).
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have the roster and coaching staff of a Super Bowl team. But they should look to the Raiders and Cowboys, two teams with young quarterbacks that rose suddenly last year but collapsed this year, to determine what pitfalls they need to avoid.
The Rams have a much better defense and coaching staff than the Cowboys and Raiders, but there are offensive similarities, including the risk of settling for "good enough" in Jared Goff's development or the creativity of the scheme. Sean McVay's play-calling suddenly looked predictable against the Falcons.
The Rams could use an electrifying screen-and-burn speedster at receiver who can also provide Pharoh Cooper some competition on returns. Someone like incumbent Tavon Austin, only affordable and reliable.
Coaching-Carousel and Front-Office-Tilt-a-Whirl Digest
As the head coaching carousel spins merrily about its axis, Digest focuses this week on some of the comings and goings among coordinators, position coaches and executives.
Packers fire or reassign nearly everyone in the organization except head coach Mike McCarthy
You know how Wile E. Coyote saws the ledge off of a cliff, but the whole cliff collapses under him and leaves the ledge hovering in midair instead? Well, Mike McCarthy is the Roadrunner.
Packers promote Brian Gutekunst to GM (per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network)
The perfect Gutekunst recipe: Soak the fish in water mixed with a few teaspoons of lye for three days. Then tie it in cheesecloth, boil it for 10 minutes and serve it to your archenemy. Oh wait, that's lutefisk. Gutekunst moved up through the scouting ranks and won the Packers' internal Battle Royale for Ted Thompson's office. You have to admit they sound alike.
Packers also add Joe Philbin at offensive coordinator
Philbin assisted McCarthy with the great Packers offenses of 2007 to 2011. Unfortunately, his return does not bring back Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley or the younger version of Jordy Nelson.
Browns add former Packers exec Alonzo Highsmith to their front office
Highsmith is well-regarded, but every addition to John Dorsey's or Hue Jackson's staffs this offseason will feel like one of the scenes from Captain America: Civil War where a superhero recruits an ally for the big throw-down at the airport. Which will all be worth it if the next Browns offensive coordinator turns out to be Spider-Man.
They should just post the opening on the bulletin board in the Packers lunchroom.
Broncos fire multiple position coaches
The Titanic is sinking, Vance Joseph is throwing the best deck chairs overboard and John Elway still hasn't figured out that he's the iceberg.
Ravens retain offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg
Compared to the typical Ravens offense, Mornhinweg's unit moved the ball pretty well in the second half of the season. Compared to the typical Ravens offense, plate tectonics are a peppy way to travel the world.
Dolphins hire Dowell Loggains as offensive coordinator
Fresh off a season of calling nonstop handoffs to Jordan Howard, Loggains joins Adam Gase to relive that magical 2015 season when the Bears finished 21st in total offense with Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery, Charles Leno, Kyle Long and others on the roster. On the plus side, the Dolphins aren't keeping Cutler and didn't hire Marty Mornhinweg or bring back Joe Philbin.
Kellen Moore retires, is expected to become the Cowboys quarterbacks coach (per Alex Marvez of Sporting News)
Jason Garrett looks at the eager young Moore and then stares at his reflection in the mirror, mumbles "I cannot let history repeat itself," drives Moore to a deserted stretch of highway, opens the passenger door and shouts "RUN! RUN WHILE YOU STILL HAVE SOME DIGNITY!"
Inside the Numbers
Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars: 12-of-23 for 87 yards and 1 TD; 10 rushes for 88 yards
Let's focus on Bortles' rushing yards, because the world has enough problems without worrying about his passing.
Bortles scrambled twice for 32 yards to set up a field goal before halftime and added 20 more yards on the game's lone touchdown drive. Head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett then figured that read-options might be slightly less ineffective than anything else the Jaguars were doing, so Bortles ran a pair of them for 15 yards.
Finally, Bortles fumbled a snap on 2nd-and-15 in the fourth quarter, picked it up and ran for 26 yards, which only goes to show that he is at his best when even he has no idea what he is doing.
The Steelers won't be as surprised by Bortles' mobility as the Bills somehow were.
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans: 23 rushes for 156 yards, 1 TD; 2 catches for 35 yards
Henry rushed for more yards against the Chiefs than Henry and DeMarco Murray combined for in 13 of the Titans' regular-season games, which says a lot about his contribution as the featured back this year.
If Murray returns next week, a clever coach would Garfunkel him into a role as a third-down change-up. Mike Mularkey will probably give him 18 carries for 59 yards.
Michael Thomas, WR, Saints: 8 catches on 9 targets for 131 yards
Thomas was frequently left wide-open Sunday, and he was stopped just short of a touchdown twice—on a 14-yard catch to the 1-yard line just before halftime and a 46-yarder to the 5-yard line in the fourth quarter to hold off the Panthers rally.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons: 9 catches on 10 targets for 94 yards, 1 TD
Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian must have stayed awake all night crafting that Matt Ryan sky-hook to Jones (who wound behind the offensive line to get open) for a game-clinching touchdown. Let's hope he doesn't call it every single time the Falcons reach the red zone from now on, the way he fixated on the Jones slot screen, a play which always ends with Jones limping off the field for a few snaps after fighting off six defenders.
That Sark is coming up with any good red-zone ideas for Jones at all is a positive sign for the Falcons and a troubling one for the Eagles.
Offensive Line of the Week
This wasn't a great Wild Card Weekend for offensive line play, but the Titans line of Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain, Ben Jones, Josh Kline and Jack Conklin helped Derrick Henry churn out 156 rushing yards with the help of guest lineman Marcus Mariota, who delivered a nasty block to spring Henry for 22 yards on 3rd-and-10 late in the fourth quarter.
So if Mariota must block and catch his own passes...what is Mike Mularkey doing, exactly?
Defenders of the Week
Saints defensive lineman Cameron Jordan recorded a critical sack and two passes defensed, including a rejection of a Derek Anderson 3rd-and-forever pass while Cam Newton was in "concussion protocol."
Let's also honor two stalwart defenders from losing teams this week. Aaron Donald of the Rams notched just one half-sack, but he played like a hungry hammerhead shark for most of the loss against the Falcons. Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander recorded 10 total tackles and a sack for the Bills on a day when nearly nothing else went their way.
Special Teamer of the Week
Falcons gunner Damontae Kazee delivered the hit that forced the Pharoh Cooper fumble on a kickoff return to set up the Falcons' first touchdown against the Rams. An earlier wallop by Kazee shook Cooper up, which may have contributed to the later fumble.
Timey-wimey Sequence of the Week
The three minutes before halftime of the Jaguars-Bills game were downright hallucinogenic. A neutral zone infraction during a short field-goal attempt gave the Bills 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line, but offensive pass interference on an ill-advised fade to Kelvin Benjamin pushed the Bills back, forcing them to settle for three points. Both teams then punted in an ugly nine-play sequence that somehow burnt only 1:09 of game time and one timeout. Blake Bortles scrambled to get the Jaguars into field-goal range, only to nearly let time expire after taking a sack. The Jaguars somehow lined up to spike the ball and tie the game at 3-3.
AFC playoff games like these are the reason why it doesn't matter what Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft think of each other.
Worst Play Call of the Week
Facing 3rd-and-1 with a 21-10 lead in the third quarter, the Chiefs executed a half-hearted Alex Smith veer option that looked like something your high school coach tore out of his playbook and burned in the late 1980s. No one looked comfortable with the call except the Titans defenders who snuffed out the play. Never call an out-of-date play concept against a defense that has faced out-of-date play concepts in practice all year!
Fantasy Leech of the Week
Alvin Kamara and/or Mark Ingram were expensive commodities in playoff fantasy leagues, so naturally Saints fullback Zach Line got the call on a one-yard plunge for his first touchdown since 2015. Kamara at least provided a late touchdown of his own. Let's hope Ingram owners benefited from that Mariota-to-Mariota touchdown.
Last Call: Viva Las Gruden
The Raiders officially announced the hiring of Jon Gruden as their new head coach Saturday evening. Gruden reportedly will sign a 10-year, $100 million contract, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
By now, you have heard the hundreds of opinions and reactions to it. Most of them were understandably skeptical of paying a coach a decade removed from the sidelines (and 15 years from his period of sustained success) like he's the guy who taught Bill Belichick how to wear a hoodie.
The Gruden hiring generated tons of speculation and interest before it was even official. That's one of the reasons the Raiders hired Gruden.
Over the last two years, the Rams and Chargers taught the NFL that teams can't just set up shop in a new city and expect to sell out of 10 years' worth of season tickets in 24 hours. When the Raiders move to Las Vegas in 2019, they will have to market their product to football fans with a well-established relationship to the sport. They need to get fans out of the air-conditioned casinos where they can root for whichever team they wagered on and into the stadium as Raiders fans. The Raiders must also convince regional advertisers that fans will show up for preseason games, listen to radio broadcasts and so on.
A 6-10 team with an assembly-line coach wasn't going to drum up interest in an uncharted market. But a coach who is famous to casual fans and solidifies the Raiders' national "brand" as bad-boy mavericks who make their own rules? That'll do.
Mark Davis emptied the checking account for Gruden because he expects a winner and because the coach and the organization have a long and somewhat complicated history. (Raiders history is always complicated. They like it that way.) But after Jack Del Rio and his staff made what looked like a rising contender in the NFL nearly irrelevant this season, Davis also did it to reinvigorate fan (and media) interest.
From that standpoint, the expensive Gruden gamble is already paying dividends.