Monday Morning Digest: Can the Eagles Count on Saint Nick to Deliver Again?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 24, 2018

Monday Morning Digest: Can the Eagles Count on Saint Nick to Deliver Again?

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    In this special Christmas Eve edition of Monday Morning Digest:

    • We rank the Cowboys, Patriots and other teams that have clinched a playoff spot, from most to least valuable

    • In the spirit of the season, we search for meaning in meaningless games

    • We headline our end-of-year awards with an undrafted Broncos rookie, a Saints special teamer and an assistant Cowboys coach

    • An illegal bookie in a state with legal sports gambling tells us how he spends his time these days (the answer may surprise you)

    ...and much more!

    But we start with the Eagles, who got another magical holiday visit from that jolly fellow who brings them lots of toys, goodies and playoff hopes.

         

Nick Foles Once Again Gives the Eagles Playoff Hope...and a QB Controversy

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Saint Nick Foles' winter magic is a powerful force.

    It was more powerful than the Patriots in the Super Bowl. More powerful than the Rams and Texans in back-to-back weeks. It was even more powerful in Sunday's 32-30 win over the Texans than the Eagles' ability to blow two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter, which is a mighty force in its own right.

    Foles threw clutch deep passes to Alshon Jeffrey and Nelson Agholor. He survived an uncalled corkscrew facemask by Jadeveon Clowney and stayed in the game. He left the game after a nasty hit on the final drive but came back after only one play to get the Eagles in position for a game-winning field goal.

    Yes, the Eagles' savior is reborn at Christmastime, and...we'll stop that metaphor before we get angry letters.

    Suffice it to say, Foles helped turned the Eagles' fleeting playoff hopes into a legitimate shot over the past two weeks, just as he turned a likely one-and-done playoff team into Super Bowl champions last season.

    Yet for all of his winter wizardry, Foles remains the second-best quarterback on the Eagles roster. 

    There's a quarterback controversy boiling in Philly, the City of Brotherly Making the Worst of a Good Thing. A vocal contingent of the Philly Phaithful now endorses Foles over Carson Wentz, the starter who struggled at times this season and has a knack for getting hurt in December. 

    As is so often the case, opinions on Foles and Wentz get more extreme the more Foles wins and the longer you listen to talk radio. Foles finds a way to win. Wentz doesn't. Foles should get a new contract and remain the starter. Wentz should be traded for a bag of balls. We haven't reached that last stage yet, but give it until Friday. 

    Wentz, who's currently sidelined by a stress fracture in his back, is the far superior quarterback to anyone with eyes and a passing knowledge of football. Foles' big wins, like a few of Wentz's tough losses, came complete with interceptions, strip-sack fumbles and teamwide late-game meltdowns. Foles' Eagles just lined the good and bad plays up into a more fortuitous order over the last two weeks (and got more big plays from their defense and running game, etc.).

    But common sense has little value in a quarterback controversy.

    The Eagles face the Redskins in Washington next week in a game that could (with a Bears victory over the Vikings) propel them into the postseason.

    If Wentz is 100 percent healthy, he should be the Eagles quarterback in that game. Period. End of conversation.

    But Wentz is unlikely to be 100 percent healthy, so Foles should get the start.

    The real winter magic of Foles is not that he is some undiscovered top-tier quarterback or somehow "gets it done" in big games. It's that he's a capable backup quarterback. Those are rare in an NFL full of Jeff Driskel and Taylor Heinicke types. The Eagles have two quarterbacks capable of playing well in important games in a league where many teams have zero.

    It's a blessing for a team to have a backup quarterback who is almost as good as the starter, so long as no one gets carried away and forgets about the "almost."

    Foles will move on to Denver or Jacksonville as a starter next year. He earns that opportunity a little more each week. Wentz will remain in Philly, and provocateurs will do their best to wring controversy out of that decision or set up some dramatic rivalry. 

    But the Eagles earned the right to hold off discussion about next year for at least one more week. 

    They can thank Saint Nick for that opportunity. But they shouldn't make long-term decisions based on Christmas miracles.  

Ranking the Most Vulnerable Playoff Teams

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Nine teams had clinched playoff berths by the end of Sunday's action. In the spirit of being as pessimistic as possible around the holidays, Digest is here to throw all sorts of shade at the NFL's most successful teams.

    Here's our ranking of the playoff teams so far, from least to most vulnerable:

                  

    1. New Orleans Saints

    We'll break down some of the Saints' weaknesses when we talk about their victory over the Steelers in a later segment of Digest. They are no longer the team that won by 30-plus points in November, but no team in the NFL currently fits that description.

             

    2. Los Angeles Rams

    Blowing out the pitiful Cardinals doesn't prove much, but it halts a two-game losing streak and positions the Rams to clinch a first-round bye with a win over the Niners next week. It's still hard to get excited about a team that has lost to several of its most likely playoff opponents. 

               

    3. Los Angeles Chargers

    It's easy to write off Saturday night's loss as evidence of some uncharacteristic offensive mistakes and the Lamar Jackson novelty factor. But beware a team with no home-field advantage and a massive road disadvantage if it ends up traveling to cold-weather cities and/or the East Coast.

    Chargers fans should also be concerned that Philip Rivers joined the Old Quarterbacks Who Are Sick of Getting Hit Club on Saturday night, heaving up some poor throws while bracing for impact or crumpling a little too quickly in a collapsing pocket. Rivers doesn't have the big-game cred of that club's charter members. Speaking of whom... 

             

    4. New England Patriots

    They beat the Bills by rushing 47 times for 273 yards while their opponent missed field goals, fumbled at the end of long completions, shanked punts and played like an obedient sparring partner that made sure the champ got to practice all of his moves. Tom Brady executed a Josh McCown game plan adequately.

    Everything is just fine for the Patriots so long as they keep facing opponents who surrender as soon as the bus pulls into Foxborough. Fortunately for them, their Week 17 opponent (the Jets) and several likely postseason foes fit that description as well.

            

    5. Chicago Bears

    The Bears survived several unforced errors, including a playground blooper of an option lateral from Mitchell Trubisky to Tarik Cohen, thanks to a tip-drill interception and Nick Mullens attempting a Hail Mary instead of running for a first down late in the fourth quarter of a 14-9 victory.

    The Bears are capable of blowing out their best opponents by two touchdowns or getting blown out by their worst. They have a chance to earn a first-round playoff bye next week in Minnesota against a Vikings team playing for its playoff life. Let's see how they handle it. 

             

    6. Kansas City Chiefs: The NFL's best team early in the season now looks a little too much like the 2012-16 Green Bay Packers. The Chiefs are too reliant on Patrick Mahomes to beat opponents with the highlight stick, just as the Packers got used to waiting around for Aaron Rodgers to do something dazzling. Their run defense has been porous for three weeks, Eric Fisher is getting tossed aside at left tackle, and Kelvin Benjamin remains the NFL's best at nearly catching contested passes.

    Of course, there's nothing new about the Chiefs falling apart as the playoffs approach. They are just tumbling from a higher peak this time.

            

    7. Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks, who clinched a wild-card berth by beating the Chiefs on Sunday night, are the anti-Bears: low ceiling, high floor, minimal self-destructive capability but less of a capacity for overwhelming opponents with sheer talent. They win by rushing effectively, avoiding penalties (just three against the Chiefs after 14 in the loss to the 49ers last week) and being just good enough at everything to hide the fact they aren't great at anything.

    The Seahawks are the kind of team that wins a playoff game, gains "momentum" and then gets beaten by a superior and rested opponent like the Saints because momentum is a silly, imaginary thing. But give the Seahawks credit: a playoff win seemed pretty far-fetched when they were 4-5 and facing a slate of "playoff teams" like the Packers and Panthers.

              

    8. Dallas Cowboys

    The Cowboys are more "ordinary" than "vulnerable." The Buccaneers were a perfect matchup for them—a turnover dispensary with no pass rush or run defense—but the Cowboys still gave them numerous second-half opportunities to climb back into the game before sealing a 27-20 win.

    The Cowboys will lose in the playoffs to the first team that takes a lead on them and forces Dak Prescott to make quick decisions and throw accurate downfield passes. Seeing as the Seahawks are their likely first-round opponent, they may suffer that loss quickly.  

              

    9. Houston Texans

    The Texans backdoor-clinched a playoff berth despite their loss to the Eagles, thanks to the Steelers loss (it's a tangled tiebreaker jumble). They looked like a threat to the AFC powers a few weeks ago, but they revealed themselves in the Colts and Eagles losses to be the same old Texans: J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, Deshaun Watson, 49 randomly generated Madden players and a coaching staff committed to going exactly as far as four big stars can take them.

    The Texans' purpose in the playoffs will either be to lose to some wild-card team (the Steelers would probably beat them by 30 points) or narrowly squeak past an opponent so they can be offered as a sacrifice to the ghosts of Foxborough. 

Game Spotlight: Saints 31, Steelers 28

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    What happened 

    Sloppy play and a downright hallucinatory coaching decision cost the Steelers a win and possibly a playoff spot.

    The Steelers came back from a 24-13 deficit on a pair of touchdowns by Antonio Brown, who picked on Marshon Lattimore and other defenders for 14 catches and 185 yards.

    But after blocking a Saints field goal with a 28-24 lead late in the fourth quarter, the Steelers attempted a fake punt on 4th-and-5 from their own 42-yard line. Roosevelt Nix was stopped a foot short of the sticks, and the Saints capitalized on that blunder. A coverage lapse on a 3rd-and-20 Drew Brees completion to Ted Ginn Jr. and some ticky-tack penalties helped them take the lead on a short Brees touchdown toss to Michael Thomas. 

    A late Steelers rally ended with a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble, which was the second Steelers fumble in Saints territory in the fourth quarter.

    The Saints clinched home-field advantage through the playoffs with the win. The Steelers fell a half-game behind the Ravens and into a crowded wild-card field with a loss.

                

    What it means

    The Saints had no solution for Brown. Lattimore was helpless. Double-teams didn't help much. Safeties in zone coverage were as effective as you would expect. And lest you think Eli Apple might somehow have been the answer, he was busy tripping and falling while trying to jam tight end Vance McDonald.

    Factor in some messy play by the Saints, including a Taysom Hill interception, the blocked field goal and some dropped passes, and the Steelers would have taken control of this game if not for their knack for self-inflicted wounds. 

    The Saints don't look like the same team on offense or defense that they were before they lost to the Cowboys in late November. Teams are taking away the run and forcing Brees to throw more passes to players not named Thomas or Alvin Kamara. (Don't know most of those players' names? Don't worry, no one does.) The secondary looks ripe for the picking by a team with solid receivers. The Hill trickery has lost its sparkle. 

    With that said, the Saints keep winning the games they need to win. That's what separates contenders from teams that fall by the wayside this time of year.

    Yes, Steelers: One week after beating the Patriots, that's the wayside you are falling toward. 

            

    What's next

    Remember how funny it was last week when the Browns were hoping to slip into the playoffs with a Titans-Colts tie in Week 17? Now the Steelers need to beat the Bengals and either get a Browns win over the Ravens (clinching the AFC North for the Steelers) or that Titans-Colts tie (making them the winners of a hilarious tiebreaker traffic jam) to reach the playoffs. It's a sign of just how much has changed, and how far the Steelers have slipped.

    The Saints have nothing to play for against the bedraggled Panthers in Week 17. Expect a heavy dose of Teddy Bridgewater.

(Mostly) Meaningless Games Digest

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Digest's roundup of Sunday's games where the stakes were middling to nonexistent, listed from the least meaningless to most meaningless:

                

    Colts 28, Giants 27

    After nearly falling out of the wild-card chase by spotting the Giants a 14-0 lead with three-and-out drives and defensive lapses, the Colts methodically worked their way back, with Andrew Luck distributing 357 passing yards and two touchdowns among eight different receivers. A Malik Hooker interception ended a Giants last-minute rally.

    The Colts remain alive for the final wild-card berth entering a Week 17 showdown with the Titans. The Giants will probably respond to the narrow loss by declaring Eli Manning their quarterback for the next decade. 

            

    Vikings 27, Lions 9

    Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer's "MOAR RUNNING" mandate in the wake of the team's offensive coordinator change two weeks ago resulted in four total yards and zero first downs on Minnesota's first four drives.

    The run having been duly established (snicker), the Vikings then adopted a more balanced offensive approach against the Lions, who took a mighty 9-0 lead by running outside zone plays on 3rd-and-13 and settling for field goals. Kyle Rudolph led the way with nine catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns, including a pre-halftime Hail Mary, keeping the Vikings in the thick of what has become a two-team NFC chase for the final wild-card spot. 

                

    Jaguars 17, Dolphins 7

    The Dolphins eliminated themselves from the playoffs by driving 78 yards for a touchdown on their first possession, then generating 66 yards on their next eight possessions while the Jaguars perplexed them with a Cody Kessler-Blake Bortles platoon until Telvin Smith could seal the game with a pick-six of Ryan Tannehill.

    The Dolphins have spent a decade creating the most mediocre team imaginable. On Sunday, they achieved their destiny. 

                

    Browns 26, Bengals 18

    The Browns executed a trick play that looked like three different trick plays in one, with Baker Mayfield handing off to Antonio Callaway, who pitched it to southpaw Jarvis Landry, who threw a long pass to Breshad Perriman for a 63-yard gain to set up a short Mayfield touchdown pass. The Bengals promptly downshifted into "look busy" mode after that, although a late blocked punt made the final score look closer than the game actually was.

    The Browns were eliminated from the playoff hunt by the Titans' victory Saturday, but they totally would have made it if Russian hackers hadn't tampered with their early-season coaching decisions. 

                 

    Falcons 24, Panthers 10

    Panthers backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke looked like a Christmas gift for the anti-Cam Newton crowd when he led an early first-quarter touchdown drive, and he then became the Winter Soldier when he re-entered the game with a brace on his non-throwing arm after a nasty sack. But he ended the game as just another mediocre backup playing out the string for an eliminated team. He threw three interceptions in total, two of which killed promising drives in a game that was close until late.

    After two straight convincing-but-meaningless wins, the Falcons are going to look much better in the end-of-year stat tallies than they ever looked on the field this year.

                 

    Packers 44, Jets 38 (OT)

    Aaron Rodgers battled back from a 35-20 deficit against a terrible (but feisty) opponent with the help of a fourth-down touchdown lunge that was nearly a fumble, a two-point conversion after a first attempt was run back for a pick-two (there was a flag) and a pair of pass-interference penalties by the Jets in overtime. In other words, this was essentially a self-parody of a vintage Aaron Rodgers comeback. 

Weird Flex, But OK

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    A look at how next Sunday's schedule has been rearranged—and what it means for the playoff picture, your viewership experience and Digest's chances of getting to sleep before 4 a.m. next Monday morning:

                

    Fit to be tied

    Colts at Titans, the biggest game of the final week (as we all anticipated it would be back in September) has been flexed to the 8:20 p.m. ET slot. The winner either takes the final wild-card berth or, if the Texans lose to the Jaguars, the AFC South.

    A tie...oh, a tie...creates an opportunity for the Steelers if they beat the Bengals; otherwise, the Colts win the tiebreaker over the Titans if there's a tie. That's the most times the word "tie" was used in one sentence since the NHL adopted shootouts.

           

    Wild NFC wild-card shootout

    Eagles at Redskins now joins Vikings at Bears among the 4:25 p.m. kickoffs. The Skins are the only team among the four with nothing to play for, as the Bears still harbor a chance at a first-round bye. But the Vikings have win-and-they're-in status, so nothing the Eagles do to Josh Johnson will matter if they don't get some help.

    If you are a devoted Eagles follower, like Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice, you can imagine a nightmare scenario in which the Rams take a big lead over the 49ers, the Bears decide the bye is unattainable and pull their starters, and Kirk Cousins triumphantly leads the Vikings to the playoffs against a bunch of scrubs (it's the role he was born to play). If you are a devoted Eagles follower, you also probably believe there's a nightmare around every corner, which is why you worry about such things. 

           

    Cravin' Ravens

    Both Browns at Ravens and Bengals at Steelers were flexed to 4:25 p.m., creating exciting simultaneous drama at the expense of making each individual game hard to follow. The Ravens have win-and-they're-in status but have the more difficult matchup; the Browns front seven is well-suited to shut down read-option shenanigans. Scheduling one of the games earlier would have been better for most viewers and have offered a better slate of early games. 

            

    So, what's on early?

    Week 17's 1 p.m. pickins are pretty slim. Jaguars at Texans and Jets at Patriots will settle some first-round byes (the Patriots get one with a win; the Texans would get it with a win and a Patriots loss). Teddy Bridgewater's audition for a future starting gig in a meaningless Panthers-Saints game holds some interest. The Cowboys have nothing to play for and may rest starters against the Giants, which could be fun if Eli Manning throws three touchdowns against backups and the Giants decide they never need to draft another quarterback again. 

    Otherwise, not even the draft order will be decided by the early games. The Raiders face the Chiefs at 1 p.m., but the Cardinals and 49ers face the Seahawks and Rams, respectively, in the late games.

            

    In summary

    Watch the College Football Playoff on Saturday night, sleep late, check in on the early games after halftime and get ready for some late-afternoon fireworks. And if we're lucky, maybe even a tie in the late game.

Inside the Numbers

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Josh Rosen, QB, Cardinals (12-of-23 for 87 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions): The only Cardinals pass longer than 20 yards against the Rams was Larry Fitzgerald's 32-yard trick-play touchdown to David Johnson. Rosen has not thrown a touchdown pass since Week 12 against the Chargers and has thrown for 200 yards only once in his last six games. The Cardinals are expected to fire head coach Steve Dilks after just one season, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Arizona replaced offensive coordinator Mike McCoy with Byron Leftwich weeks ago. Rosen is currently supported by a bottom-five coaching staff, offensive line and supporting cast. This has been a disastrous rookie season for him, the kind that may take more than a year to bounce back from. 

    Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions (18-of-32 for 116 yards with no TDs or INTs): Stafford's longest completion of the day went for 21 yards. He was playing through a back injury, and neither Stafford nor coordinator Jim Bob Cooter had any interest in letting him take hits, so the Lions offense was mostly quick throws and running plays on 3rd-and-long. Matt Cassel celebrated his 47th year as an NFL backup by mopping up the game. Stafford should not have played in a meaningless game, but Matt Patricia is one of those tough-guy coaches who does things for tough-guy reasons. But Patricia has more job security than Wilks because the New Belichick smell hasn't worn off yet. 

    C.J. Anderson, RB, Rams (20 carries for 167 yards and one catch for minus-5 yards): Anderson enjoyed some gaping holes in relief of late scratch Todd Gurley (knee), but he also plowed through some arm tackles on a 27-yard run and raced through the Cardinals secondary for a 46-yarder. Anderson started the season with the Panthers and was playing well before the Panthers decided it was 1955 and Christian McCaffrey was never allowed to leave the field. In Carolina's 24-10 loss to Atlanta on Sunday, McCaffrey rushed 21 times for 101 yards and caught 12 passes for 77 yards as the Cam Newton-less Panthers force-fed him like a Christmas goose. You're in a better place now, C.J.

    Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars (5-of-6 passing for 39 yards, four rushes for 25 yards): Cody Kessler got benched after he suffered five sacks—one of them on 3rd-and-38—and for fumbling by just dropping the ball at a defender's feet on one of them. Bortles ran a little read-option in relief and produced just enough offense to sustain a field-goal drive to give the Jaguars a lead and a chance for their defense to force a final Dolphins surrender. The official position among NFL coaches everywhere is that the read-option is a useless gimmick that cannot help a team, except when it consistently and obviously does.  

    Robby Anderson, WR, Jets (nine catches on 13 targets for 140 yards and a TD): Anderson benefited from busted coverage on a well-designed fake-screen play for a 33-yard touchdown and picked on promising rookie cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson on sideline routes for the rest of his production. He now has 20 catches for 312 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games. Sam Darnold has been playing well over the last few weeks, and Anderson has been his most reliable outside and downfield threat. The Jets have tons of offensive work to do this offseason, but it's encouraging to see Darnold establish chemistry with at least one playmaker so they can scratch something off their agenda. 

    Brian Hill, RB, Falcons (eight carries for 115 yards): The Falcons knew this week was the finals for many fantasy leagues, so they pulled a fourth-string running back off the bench and made sure he ripped off runs of 60, 24 and 21 yards, taking opportunities away from likely fantasy starters, because the Falcons hate us all as much as we hate them. 

A Christmas Card from a Bookie in New Jersey

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    Wayne Parry/Associated Press

    The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the, er, innocent. 

    Digest ran into our old bookie, Uncle Carmine, in a New Jersey bar a few days ago.

    "What are you doing now that sports gambling is legal?" we asked after exchanging pleasantries. "Raising chickens? Hosting a true crime podcast?"

    "Business is better than ever," he replied.

    It turns out that legal gambling has become a boon for illegal gambling, at least in some circles.

    "It's socially acceptable now," Uncle Carmine explained. "And the legal books are doing all my marketing and promotion for me."

    Some long-time wagerers are turned off by the legal betting experience, even with smartphone apps making parlays and props as accessible as the songs on your playlist.

    Many apps are glitchy and have a bad habit of freezing at around 12:50 p.m. (Digest can verify this.) State banking regulations can make connecting a credit card to a legal sportsbook a real hassle. (Again: Digest can verify.) Legal gambling winnings are taxable and leave a paper trail. Not all gamblers wager as responsibly as their spouses would prefer.

    Also, turning legal gambling winnings into cold cash can feel more like moving money around in an IRA than recreation. 

    "I can do PayPal if that's what you want," Uncle Carmine said. "But I can also meet you on Monday with cash."

    It sounds like the Law of Unintended Consequences has taken hold: When everyone at the bar is whipping out their phones and discussing point spreads, no one cares or notices that some are connecting with Uncle Carmine instead of William Hill, DraftKings or FanDuel. 

    That doesn't mean Uncle Carmine anticipates smooth waters forever.

    "In a few years, they may notice that we are eating into tax revenues," he said. "Then they will really crack down."

    In other words, sports gambling was a charming look-the-other-way crime until the government became a competitor.

    Digest hates to think of good ol' Uncle Carmine losing his hustle, but we also try not to think of what sort of person lies three levels up the chain of command from your friendly neighborhood bookie. One of the selling points of legal sports gambling—besides the fact that millions of Americans wager, no matter what the laws say—is that it's supposed to funnel the juice into legitimate channels, not expand the market so that both legitimate and illegitimate boats rise with the tide.

    Washington, D.C., lawmakers voted to legalize sports gambling this week. The district joins eight states with legal sports betting, with bills moving through over 20 other states. There's a good chance that legal sports gambling in some form will be coming to you in 2019. 

    Digest urges you to only wager legally and responsibly. Uncle Carmine may make things more convenient, friendly and fun. But keep in mind what you might be paying for.

Awards Digest End-of-the-Year Awards!

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    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Digest just cannot wait until next week to hand out its annual awards. It's the season for giving, after all!

    Undrafted rookie of the year: Phillip Lindsay wins this one in a runaway. The pint-sized scat back was overlooked in the draft due to his size and high school injury history. He worked his way up a crowded Broncos depth chart and emerged as one of the NFL's leading rushers and one of its most inspirational new arrivals. 

    Rookie class of the year: The Colts win a tight race thanks to candidates for both Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors (guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard, respectively) and other valuable contributors on both sides of the ball (defensive ends Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis, running backs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins). The Browns and Broncos receive honorable mentions.

    Nickelback of the year: Chargers defensive back Desmond King is everything you could ask for in a nickelback: He's part safety, part cornerback and part edge-rusher, with a knack for big interceptions and the ability to play the run when called upon. Honorable mentions go to Bryce Callahan of the Bears, who was having a great year before he got hurt, and Anthony Brown of the Cowboys, who proved against the Saints that he can cover Michael Thomas, sack Drew Brees and blow up screen passes all in one upset win.

    Kick gunner of the year: Justin Hardee doesn't have as many special teams tackles as other gunners, but the Saints don't punt often, either. NFL analyst Brian Baldinger said it best: "Hardee covers punts like he's the first responder to a five-alarm fire." Plus, Hardee lobbies for himself on Twitter, and Digest is susceptible to lobbying. 

    Kick returner of the year: Had Andre Roberts gotten hurt this year, the Jets might have gone two months without a touchdown. 

    Fantasy leech of the year: Ito Smith epitomized fantasy leechcraft this year. He rose from third-string rookie obscurity to goal-line siphon after Devonta Freeman went down with foot and groin injuries, scored four midseason touchdowns to limit the value of players like Julio Jones and Tevin Coleman, and then rushed 21 times for 43 yards and zero touchdowns over a four-game stretch the moment he fooled you into blowing a waiver bid on him.

    Position coach of the year: Another runaway winner. Cowboys secondary coach Kris Richard moved Byron Jones from safety to cornerback, developed rising stars in the secondary like Chidobe Awuzie, and took over defensive play-calling duties early in the year, transforming the Cowboys defense into the swarming unit that stunned the Saints and catapulted the Cowboys into the playoff race. Richard, who will be an NFL head coach someday soon, also saved Jason Garrett's job this year, which is the epitome of a mixed blessing for Cowboys fans

Point-Counterpoint

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    Josie Lepe/Associated Press

    It was a rough week for great quarterbacks, hefty coaches and big-footed quarterbacks:

          

    Josh Norman gets feisty with Taylor Lewan after Lewan mocks Norman's bow-and-arrow celebration gesture.

    Point: Drag him, Taylor! Show him who's boss after the Titans...barely beat a Redskins team led by a fourth-string quarterback from the AAF...thanks to defensive plays you had nothing to do with...after you and your fellow offensive linemen got Marcus Mariota injured. Yeah, um, rub it in Norman's face there, pal!

    Counterpoint: The only way Norman could have looked less menacing against the hulking lineman would have been to try some of his sweet "Nutcracker" moves on him. 

                               

    Richard Sherman misses out on a bonus in his contract by not making the Pro Bowl.

    Point: Oh yeah, Sherman's still in the NFL. We forgot.

    Counterpoint: NFL agents recommend that even established stars avoid tying their bonuses to the fickle fan and player balloting of the Pro Bowl, because reputation only gets you so far if the public thinks you are having a down year. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have no idea what we are talking about.

                     

    Nick Foles wears toe shoes to an Eagles press conference.

    Point: They were size 16. And you know what they say about dudes with big feet: They shouldn't wear toe shoes. 

    Counterpoint: For Foles, anything besides mismatching flip-flops is a step in the right direction.

    Bonus counter-counterpoint: If Foles keeps winning, he can show up for press conference with his bare feet dipped in chocolate like strawberries for all Eagles fans care.

                   

    LeBron James calls NFL owners "old white men" with "a slave mentality" on HBO's The Shop.

    Point: The NFL crafted a formal response that began, "Now wait just a cotton-pickin' minute..."

    Counterpoint: Millions of internet trolls experienced cognitive dissonance when they spent Saturday arguing that LeBron's statements were completely untrue while trying not to admit that they wished they were even more true than they are. 

                       

    The Thursday night rebroadcast of last week's Patriots game draws 928,000 viewers (per John Ourand of SportsBusiness Journal), nearly as many as a live NBA game the same night.

    Point: NFL owners celebrated by drinking mint juleps on the veranda and wondering what the poor leagues do with their time. 

    Counterpoint: Americans would rather watch the Patriots lose than just about anything else. 

             

    Browns offensive line coach Bob Wylie breaks his ankle during a practice.

    Point: Does that make this The Year Without a Santa Claus?

    Counterpoint: There's no truth to the rumor that Wylie fell into one of the booby traps Hue Jackson installed to make himself harder to fire—or that Freddie Kitchens has to reenact the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark just to reach his office every morning. 

A Christmas List for NFL Defenses

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    Billie Weiss/Getty Images

    NFL defenses got back a few shreds of dignity late in the season, but the story of 2018 was still an offensive revolution that resulted in broken records, 54-51 thrillers and a sense that defenders had become little more than CGI bad guys for our offensive heroes to mow down in droves.

    Digest hopes to see a little more offense-defense balance in the playoffs and the years to come. With that in mind, we offer some advice, constructive criticism and questions to ponder—based both on careful observation and the opinions of some players, coaches and experts:

    • Is your base defense your worst defense? In other words, do opponents try to get you into a 3-4 or 4-3 because that's the easiest way to create mismatches and gash you? If so, why is that still considered your "base" defense? Why not rebuild completely around a "base" which actually works in the late 2010s?

    • Who covers Alvin Kamara? Who covers Travis Kelce? If you don't have an answer for those questions, you'd better find one.

    • When the opponent lines up with three receivers to one side of the formation and Michael Thomas or Keenan Allen is the one closest to the offensive line, is your typical defensive response, "Welp, guess the 250-pound linebacker covers him?" If so, how do you sleep at night?

    • How do you evaluate players like Derwin James or Leighton Vander Esch in the draft process? Do you see them as unique athletes who can match up with increasingly athletic and versatile offensive weapons? Or do you think, "Eh, linebackers and safeties are mostly interchangeable. Let's draft the fifth-best receiver on the board instead." Because you'd better start thinking the former.

    • Does a defense that is "strong up the middle" mean "linebackers who can cover, safeties with range and slot defenders who can do a little of everything" or "Lots of run-stuffers who can stack-and-shed and know their fits" to you? If it's the second one, what year do you think this is? 1974?

    • Do you still think holding the offense to a 14-yard gain on 3rd-and-15 is a win? Have you noticed that teams go for it on 4th-and-short more often? Any chance that will get you to adjust your play-calling? Just a little?

    • Are you teaching modern tackling methods in modern ways—emphasizing approach points, practicing proper techniques against moving targets, etc.—or do you try to cram everything into the 90 seconds of live tackling per year now allotted in training camp?

    • Is your strategy for stopping read-options, run-pass options and spread concepts to declare them all fads and hope they all go away on their own? Because many of you sure do coach like that's your strategy.

    • In general, have you noticed that offenses are lining guys up everywhere and doing everything while you are still deciding whether cornerbacks should ever switch sides of the formation and using zone concepts that today's quarterbacks started defeating while sitting on the floor playing Madden 07?