Monday Morning Digest, Playoff Edition: Conference Championship Tale of the Tape

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 14, 2019

Monday Morning Digest, Playoff Edition: Conference Championship Tale of the Tape

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Welcome to Chalk City, USA! Population: the Chiefs, Patriots, Rams and Saints.

    All the home favorites won this weekend and advanced to their respective conference championships. But just because the teams that were expected to win ended up winning doesn't mean that nothing interesting happened this weekend.

    This edition of Monday Morning Digest is packed with all of this weekend's action and plenty of insights and analysis of next week's championship games, including:

    • The unstoppable Saints weapon who could single-handedly defeat the Rams

    • The little-known Rams defender who holds the key to stopping the Saints

    • Defensive secrets that could lift the Patriots over the Chiefs

    • Hidden advantages that could give the Chiefs the edge in their rematch with the Patriots

    • Fast facts about the NFL's new coaching hires (there's a six-Sean McVay-joke minimum)

    • Even faster facts about new coordinator hires (most of whom were head coaches three weeks ago)

    ...and much, much more!

How the Conference Title Round Breaks Down

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    No more Foles magic. No more feeding Ezekiel Elliott. No more talking about the Chargers as "sleepers" or the Colts "playing with house money." No more "momentum," which in the playoffs means limping into New Orleans, Kansas City or Foxborough after an exhausting stretch of games with nagging injuries and wobbly legs.

    The Chiefs, Patriots, Rams and Saints all advanced to the championship round of the playoffs, just as most of us would have predicted as of Week 13 or so. They're the NFL's four best teams, and they proved it with four convincing wins. (Or three convincing wins and a narrow triumph over Nick Foles the 20th-level Archmage, anyway.)

    There will be plenty of analysis of next Sunday's Patriots-Chiefs and Rams-Saints matchups in the segments to come. But let's start with a quick tale-of-the-tape breakdown of the field:

             

    Best quarterback: Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs

    Tom Brady and Drew Brees have combined to play in 52 playoff games. Mahomes will just be making his 19th career start. Experience is invaluable, but we'll take the guy who all year long has been playing like he unlocked every cheat code in the game.  

          

    Best running back: Todd Gurley, Rams

    The Rams and Patriots (Sony Michel) rely heavily on running backs they drafted recently in the first round, and the Saints also get mileage out of 2011 first-round pick Mark Ingram.

    The Rams are also the team that now "does everything right" (Rams equipment managers will soon get head coaching offers), and the Patriots are of course the one that has done everything right for 20 years.

    So maybe the never draft a running back early rule of modern roster architecture is more of a nuanced guideline than a firm Moneyball commandment. Just something to keep in mind when the draft rolls around. 

            

    Best receiving corps: Chiefs

    Sammy Watkins returned to join Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce against the Colts, making the Chiefs so deep and talented that they didn't bother activating Kelvin Benjamin. OK, bad example. But good luck covering all these guys.

             

    Best offensive line: Four-way tie

    The Rams, Saints and Patriots finished first, second and third in run blocking and sixth, third and first, respectively, in pass protection this season, according to Football Outsiders. The Chiefs finished 16th and fifth, but good luck defending a screen pass when their blockers get out on the perimeter.

    Hmm, maybe your JV coach was right and football games really are won and lost in the trenches.

             

    Best defensive player: Aaron Donald

    Duh.

            

    Best defensive player no one talks as much about: Trey Flowers, Patriots

    Flowers recorded just 7.5 sacks but was a constant source of pressure throughout the season and is one of the best run-defenders off the edge in the league.

            

    Best defense: Saints

    The Rams have big names but are vulnerable to the run and the deep pass to whichever side of the field Marcus Peters lines up on. The Patriots are disciplined and creative but lack depth and blue-chip talent. The Chiefs' best defense is to score 45 points. The Saints commit too many penalties but are stout against the run and can shut down the short passing game. 

             

    Biggest weakness: Chiefs run defense

    They allowed 5.0 yards per rush and 19 rushing touchdowns in the regular season before allowing 6.2 yards per rush to the Colts on Saturday. Luckily for the Chiefs, opponents are usually forced to abandon the run after Mahomes' second across-his-body touchdown pass.

                     

    Second-biggest weakness: Saints' secondary receivers

    Michael Thomas may be the most indispensable non-quarterback left in the playoffs. All of the other Saints receivers and tight ends would have trouble cracking the Jaguars roster. 

               

    Fewest weaknesses: New England Patriots

    Their running game and defense are far better than they were last year. And while their downfield passing attack isn't what it used to be, Brady can poke little holes in a defense until the whole thing collapses.

             

    Most significant newcomer: C.J. Anderson

    Cut by the Panthers and (after one week) the Raiders in the second half of the season, Anderson has rushed for 167, 132 and 123 yards in three games, giving the Rams a hefty counterpunch to Todd Gurley, not to mention a veteran in the locker room with a Super Bowl ring. 

                 

    Best return game: Chiefs

    Tyreek Hill, folks. 

          

    Best punter: Johnny Hekker, Rams

    Hekker has the biggest leg, but it is worth noting the Chiefs allow just 5.7 yards per punt return, one of their little edges that add up when teams are trying to come back against them. 

                

    Most reliable kicker: Will Lutz, Saints

    Lutz was 28-of-30 on field goals this season. 

            

    Most significant number to remember for next week: 17

    That's the expected high temperature (in degrees Fahrenheit) in Kansas City next Sunday, per The Weather Channel; the low by the local early-evening kickoff may be closer to 11 degrees. The Chiefs offense had a hard time gaining traction in icy conditions Saturday, while the Patriots have a long history of winning playoff games in a winter wonderland.

    That's right, folks: If the Patriots can't get home-field advantage in the playoffs, Mother Nature finds a way of letting them bring it with them on the road. 

Final Four Spotlight: New Orleans Saints

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    How they got here

    The Saints appeared ready to succumb to Nick Foles' eldritch powers when Drew Brees threw an interception on the game's first snap and the Eagles jumped out to a 14-0 lead.

    But the Eagles began fading after a second-quarter Foles interception, and Brees embarked on several long scoring drives—including an 18-play, 112-yard (thanks to penalties), 11-plus-minute marathon that Peter Jackson plans to turn into a movie trilogy—to give the Saints a 20-14 lead.

    Foles ran out of miracles in the fourth quarter when Marshon Lattimore recorded his second interception of the game on a deflected pass on the Eagles' final drive.

             

    What the Saints do on offense

    It's all about Brees, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.

    Brees completes nearly three-quarters of his passes: a record 74.4 percent this season to be exact. Thomas and Kamara combine for 49 percent of the Saints' pass targets, 54 percent of the completions and 48.3 percent of the scrimmage yards.

    The rest of the offensive touches are spread among Mark Ingram (mostly handoffs on first downs), Ted Ginn Jr. (deep shots that usually fail), tight ends Josh Hill and Benjamin Watson (typical tight end stuff), lots of interchangeable young receivers, and Taysom Hill (Wildcat wrinkles that started losing their novelty value around midseason).

    Thomas caught 12 passes for 211 yards against the Rams in Week 9, making Marcus Peters look like an undrafted practice squader at times, and he caught 12 passes for 171 yards against the Eagles' undrafted practice squaders on Sunday.

    The Rams will have to grind through tape of the Cowboys against Thomas in Week 13 to see if they can duplicate the success they had (five catches allowed for just 40 yards) against the hardest receiver to cover in the NFL. Limit Thomas and they can shut down the Saints offense. 

                  

    What the Saints do on defense

    The Saints defense this season was a lot like the Saints defense on Sunday: awful early, dominant in the middle and just good enough to get the job done at the end.

    The Saints stop the run well (3.6 yards per rush allowed) and generate plenty of sacks (49 in the regular season) but are vulnerable downfield. Football Outsiders ranks them dead last in the NFL at stopping deep passes, 31st against passes to the right side of the field, 30th against opponents' No. 1 receivers and 31st against No. 2 receivers. 

    Eli Apple is generally considered the weak link in the Saints secondary, but Lattimore has been up and down too, and both safeties (Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams) will give up big plays if isolated in deep coverage.

                

    Hidden keys

    Pass protection up the middle: The Saints offensive line is usually reliable, but it struggled to contain the Eagles pass rush early in the game Sunday. An injury slowed Fletcher Cox in the second quarter, helping the Saints turn the tide. Interior linemen Larry Warford, Max Unger and Andrus Peat were pushed around by Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh in Week 9. They must do everything possible to prevent that in the rematch.

    The interference factor: The Saints were flagged for pass interference 20 times in the regular season, the highest total in the league. Apple committed 10 total pass interference and holding penalties, nickel defender P.J. Williams seven. Obviously, the Saints cannot afford to gift the Rams free yardage and first downs in the rematch.

               

    How the Saints can beat the Rams

    The Rams won't leave Peters isolated against Thomas this time; they'll roll coverage, add heat to the pass rush or do anything else they can to force someone else on the Saints offense to beat them.

    Brees and Sean Payton must get Ginn, Ingram or someone else involved in ways that the Rams aren't anticipating. If they do that, they can compensate for their own weaknesses in the secondary and return to the Super Bowl after a nine-year absence. 

Final Four Spotlight: New England Patriots

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    How they got here

    The Patriots won their 28th playoff game of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era Sunday, jolly-stomping the Chargers 41-28 in a vintage demonstration of efficiency, game-planning, execution and a healthy dose of home-field advantage maximization that wasn't half as close as the final score. 

                        

    What they do on offense

    The Patriots like to mix Sony Michel runs with intricately designed screens and short passes to James White and others on early possessions, setting up calculated downfield shots by Brady after defenders have been suctioned toward the line of scrimmage and taffy-pulled horizontally.

    Those tactics worked to devastating effect against the weary Chargers defense Sunday, with Brady leading four straight long touchdown drives to start the game while barely involving any ball-handlers besides White, Michel and Julian Edelman. 

    A similar strategy helped the Patriots take a 24-9 halftime lead over the Chiefs in what became a 43-40 Patriots win in Week 6. The Patriots ran 17 times while Brady threw just 15 passes (taking one sack) in the first half of that game, with no passing play longer than 17 yards.

    The Patriots finished fifth in the NFL in yards after catch with 2,223, per STATS, Inc. Opponents like the Lions and Titans took away the screen-and-run yardage and had success forcing Brady to throw downfield in unfavorable down-and-distance situations. But offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is a master at mixing up defenses, and Brady still has no peer when it comes to finding open receivers and picking his spots. 

                   

    What they do on defense

    The Patriots defense lacks big names and can still look a step slow in pass coverage against top receivers, but Bill Belichick knows how to take away what an opponent does best and always makes the most of "minor" advantages.

    The Patriots recorded just 30 regular-season sacks but ranked fifth in the NFL this season at generating pressure, per Football Outsiders. Trey Flowers (who had a huge game Sunday) is the closest thing the Patriots have to a premier pass-rusher, but Belichick mixes and matches defensive fronts and deploys role players like Kyle Van Noy to great effect, harrying quarterbacks like Philip Rivers into frustrating afternoons.

    The Patriots are also among the league's surest tacklers. Opponents broke a tackle on just 8.2 percent of plays against them, the third-lowest rate in the NFL, per Football Outsiders). Opponents rarely get to take advantage of fundamental mistakes against the Patriots, on either side of the ball.

            

    Hidden keys

    Marcus Cannon: The reliable right tackle missed part of the last meeting with the Chiefs, and backup LaAdrian Waddle got pushed around in his absence. Brady enjoyed outstanding protection from both Cannon and Trent Brown against the Chargers' big-name pass-rushers Sunday. He'll need a repeat performance next week against Justin Houston and Dee Ford.

    Jason McCourty: The Patriots cornerback, overshadowed by All-Pro bookend cornerback Stephon Gilmore and by his own twin brother—longtime Patriots safety Devin McCourty—had a quietly effective season and contained Tyreek Hill for much of the last Chiefs-Patriots game. (Gilmore is more likely to shadow Sammy Watkins.) No one defender can completely stop Hill, who whizzed through zone coverage for a 75-yard touchdown against the Patriots in the last meeting, but the Patriots have more than one McCourty.

    The Road Factor: The Patriots are 1-4 in road playoff games, not counting Super Bowls, dating back to the 2005 season. They were 3-5 in road games this regular season. As much of a vivisection as Sunday's game was, there's no doubt home-field advantage played a part in the lopsided win (watch the Chargers' muffed punts and delay-of-game penalties if you need more evidence than the fact the entire team looked like it just hobbled off a flight from Australia). The noisy Arrowhead crowd can do just as much to disrupt a high-precision offense as the Foxborough faithful can. 

              

    How they can beat the Chiefs

    Their Week 6 victory over the Chiefs should provide the blueprint for next week: Force some Patrick Mahomes mistakes, stay balanced on offense and rely on experience to provide a situational advantage in red-zone, third-down and two-minute situations. 

    They won that game in a shootout because they did everything they could to avoid one. They want to make next Sunday's game like the Chargers game: more about discipline and execution than some epic quarterback showdown.

Final Four Spotlight: Los Angeles Rams

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    How they got here

    Todd Gurley, C.J. Anderson and the Rams offensive line steamrolled the Cowboys for 273 total rushing yards and three touchdowns while the depleted Cowboys offense managed just 308 net yards in a 30-22 Rams victory, the franchise's first playoff victory since the 2004 season.

                            

    What the Rams do on offense

    The drive train of Sean McVay's offense is just the Mike Shanahan running-and-play-action one the Broncos used to win two Super Bowls in the '90s.

    McVay and his Millennial Genius Dream Academy have added plenty of modern-looking flourishes, of course: lots of pre-snap motion to identify coverage assignments, a persistent end-around threat to confound defenders' run keys, updated ways of communicating plays from the sideline and using tempo to throw defenses off. But the Rams get most of their mileage out of a handful of base personnel groups, formations and play designs. Everything looks the same pre-snap, making it hard for defenses to guess what's coming based on who is on the field and where.

    Anderson has rushed for 422 yards and four touchdowns in three games since his arrival. He and Gurley are more "Thunder and More Thunder" than "Thunder and Lightning," but they allow the Rams to hammer opponents at will up the middle. Let them take a lead on you, and the Rams will control the line of scrimmage and the clock.

    Per Next Gen Stats, Jared Goff averages 2.94 seconds in the pocket per throw, the sixth-longest figure in the NFL. Most of the quarterbacks above him are scramblers who buy time by running around, but Goff gets all of that extra time to scan the field thanks to all of that play-action and the stout Rams offensive line.

             

    What the Rams do on defense

    Aaron Donald is the best defender in the NFL, with 20.5 sacks, 41 quarterback hits and four forced fumbles this season.

    Marcus Peters may be the worst big-name defender in the NFL: Football Outsiders charged him with allowing 9.7 yards per pass to his defenders (85th in the league), and his freelance approach to coverage often leaves other defenders taking blame for his mistakes. As noted in the Saints segment, Peters vs. Mike Thomas is not so much a mismatch as a means of crashing the servers trying to calculate Thomas' fantasy points. 

    Beating the Rams means stopping Donald and attacking Peters and the secondary, just as beating the Rams offense means stopping the run and eliminating easy play-action opportunities. The Saints destroyed Peters and did just enough to contain Donald in the first meeting. They need a command performance, at least.

            

    Hidden keys

    Cory Littleton: The best player no one talks about, Littleton excels in pass coverage—he led the Rams with 13 passes defensed—and blocked a pair of kicks in the regular season. He will be assigned the task of covering Alvin Kamara for much of the game. 

    Aqib Talib: He wasn't available in the last meeting with the Saints but is back (and fired up after beating the Cowboys), giving the Rams more flexibility against Thomas in the secondary. 

    Robert Woods: Woods may be the NFL's best blocking receiver, sealing the edge when the Rams line up in bunch formations and often blocking downfield to extend Gurley and Anderson's long runs. His ability to act like an extra tight end in the running game allows the Rams to keep the same personnel on the field without tipping their tendencies.  

                   

    How the Rams can beat the Saints

    The Rams are the better team on paper, are much deeper on offense and coming off a more convincing victory this weekend. They lost the last game by getting too cute with fake field goals and letting the Saints exploit an obvious mismatch. McVay and his staff just have to be smarter this time. Considering their billing these days, that should be a snap. 

Final Four Spotlight: Kansas City Chiefs

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    David Eulitt/Getty Images

    How they got here

    The Chiefs took an early 17-0 lead on the worn-down, out-of-sync Colts and then survived several blunders (and a scary moment when Patrick Mahomes limped to the sideline after an awkward fall) for a 31-13 victory. It was just their second playoff win since the 1993 season. 

           

    What they do on offense

    Mahomes (who scrambled and dove for a touchdown just minutes after taking that spill) does five or six things per game that make you think you are watching the young Brett Favre: no-look passes, across-the-body throws into coverage that somehow reach their target, sidearm tosses that appear to curve around defenders.

    There's a downside to looking like the young Favre, though: Mahomes takes unnecessary sacks, forces throws and tries too often to do the impossible.

    The Patriots saw both sides of Mahomes in their 43-40 victory in Week 6. Mahomes threw two first-half interceptions to help the Patriots mount a big lead and then rebounded to throw four second-half touchdowns in an almost-comeback.

    The Chiefs offense looks like an uptempo NBA offense at times. Mahomes is the needle-threading, driving-and-dishing point guard. Tyreek Hill is the provider of alley-oop dunks and ankle-breaking drives to the basket. Travis Kelce is the low-post scorer. And the Chiefs offensive line, the best in the league at blocking on the perimeter and down the field, is like a bunch of role players setting deadly picks to create space for the playmakers.

               

    What they do on defense

    To extend the basketball metaphor, the Chiefs run a full-court pressing-and-trapping defense, which allows lots of easy layups but forces opponents into mistakes and turnovers when they try to keep pace with their offense.

    The Chiefs want opponents to fall behind so they can forget about the running game and unleash pass-rushers Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Chris Jones (37.5 combined sacks, 14 forced fumbles). The Patriots ran up the score quickly against the Chiefs in Week 6, but most other opponents have not been up to the task. The Chiefs held the lead for an average of 39 minutes, nine seconds per game this season, per Football Outsiders, the widest margin in the league by over three minutes.

    The Colts fell behind five minutes into Saturday's game and might as well have just warmed up the team bus. The Patriots need another start like in Week 6 (when they turned a Mahomes pick into an early touchdown) or Sunday (multiple time-consuming touchdown marches) to avoid playing into the Chiefs' hands. 

                 

    Hidden keys

    Ware and Berry: Running back Spencer Ware and former Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry practiced last week but were deactivated for the Colts game. Ware's return would provide a counterpunch for Damien Williams, who rushed for 129 yards against the Colts but sometimes eschews easy yardage in search of a big gain. Berry only played sparingly this year in late-season losses to the Chargers and Seahawks, but the Chiefs secondary needs all the help it can get against Tom Brady.

    Special teams: The Chiefs surrendered a blocked punt for a touchdown Saturday, Hill fumbled a punt deep in his own territory (the Chiefs recovered) and a holding penalty negated a long Hill return. The Chiefs special teams are typically among the league's best, so look for coordinator Dave Toub to clean things up. But keep an eye on veteran long snapper James Winchester, whose placement was off on several snaps Saturday. 

    Fourth downs: The Chiefs were 12-of-15 converting fourth downs during the season and 3-of-4 on Saturday. The Patriots must be ready to stop 4th-and-short conversions in their territory. That may mean being more aggressive on 3rd-and-long, so the Chiefs can't gain easy yards in front of the sticks to set up a conversion opportunity.

            

    How they can beat the Patriots

    The Chiefs beat the Patriots 41-14 in their last trip to Arrowhead in September 2014. The Chiefs also beat the Patriots 42-27 in the 2017 season opener; both victories occurred BME (Before the Mahomes Era).

    The Chiefs are one of the few NFL teams that don't have a history of getting awestruck against the Patriots. Victory may be as simple as playing their brand of football and realizing they are facing the 2018 Patriots, not the 2001-2017 Patriots.   

Eliminated Teams Digest

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    What the offseason has in store for the four teams that were eliminated from the playoffs this weekend.

                      

    Los Angeles Chargers

    The core of the team is signed through next year, with enough cap space (about $25 million) to take care of in-house free agents and pursue a modest upgrade or two.

    With Philip Rivers aging weekly (he fast-forwarded about six years in Sunday's second quarter alone), the Chargers need to take an all-in approach before Rivers turns to dust and Joey Bosa hits the 2020 extension market.

    What "all in" means is hard to define for a team with no extra cap assets, few weaknesses and a division foe in the Chiefs that is likely to be looking down at them from above again next season. Whether they pursue a bold trade or twist their budget into a pretzel for an over-the-top player (Antonio Brown? LET'S START A RUMOR), the Chargers must do something to prevent themselves from traveling back and forth across the country for playoff games next year. 

                                

    Indianapolis Colts

    With a young roster, an extra second-round pick in 2019 and $115 million in cap space, the Colts are prime candidates to take the leap from pesky playoff spoiler to true Super Bowl contender.

    Some of that cap dough will go to in-house free agents as the Colts sift through surprise contributors like Margus Hunt and Pierre Desir and quality role players like Dontrelle Inman and Chester Rogers in search of long-term keepers.

    The Colts could use another impact player in the pass rush, in the secondary and in the receiving corps. They have the resources—and the draft-day acumen—to pick up one of each. 

                     

    Dallas Cowboys

    The Cowboys' late-season surge means a contract extension for Jason Garrett and essentially guarantees a massive franchise-quarterback deal for Dak Prescott in the not-too-distant future.

    Both of these developments are very mixed blessings. But Garrett looks like he should be able to retain top defensive assistant Kris Richard for another year, and Prescott made real strides as a passer once Amari Cooper arrived to give him someone to throw to. So the 2019 Cowboys have a chance to be more like the team we saw in the second half of this season than the one we saw for most of late 2017 and early 2018.

    The Cowboys have $55 million in cap space next year, but a new deal for Tank Lawrence and a Prescott extension (Jerry Jones won't want to wait until Prescott gets close to the 2020 market) will eat up huge chunks of it.

                           

    Philadelphia Eagles

    The Eagles will probably void the $20 million option on Nick Foles' contract (or allow Foles to exercise his opt-out clause), letting Foles work his magic in free agency while the team uses that $20 million to crawl back under the salary cap ceiling and keep as much of its veteran core intact for another playoff run under Carson Wentz.

    If you think that's not what the Eagles will or should do, please remember that no one would have been thinking about Foles magic Sunday if Kirk Cousins could win a game that mattered or Cody Parkey could make a field goal that mattered.

    Free agency won't be a realistic option for them, but the Eagles will get several young defensive veterans back from injury in the offseason and look to upgrade their running game and reinforce an aging offensive line through the draft.

    Oh, and Wentz was an MVP candidate two years ago and played well most of this year, so getting him back will be a huge plus. People tend to forget that.

                    

    All cap figures courtesy of OverTheCap.com.

Awards Digest

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Defender of the week: Marshon Lattimore's second-quarter interception of Nick Foles was the first thing the Saints defense did right Sunday. It set up a touchdown drive to cut the Saints' deficit to 14-7. His second interception, on a pass deflected by Alshon Jeffery, iced the game for the Saints and proved once and for all that Foles is mortal.

    Offensive line of the week: Andrew Whitworth, Rodger Saffold, John Sullivan, Austin Blythe and Rob Havenstein utterly dominated a very good Cowboys front seven, helping the Rams rush for 273 yards and 5.7 yards per carry.

    Special teamer of the week: Najee Goode appeared to swing momentum in the Colts' favor when he blocked a Dustin Colquitt punt that Zach Pascal recovered for a touchdown. Unfortunately, the Colts were so dedicated to getting in their own way Saturday that even momentum couldn't help them.

    Special teams goat of the week: It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the Chargers abandoned all semblance of hope, but it may have been when they finally forced a punt while trailing 28-7, only to watch Desmond King muff it and Albert McClellan recover it for the Patriots.

    Special teams era-ender of the week: Adam Vinatieri missed an extra point and bounced a 23-yard field goal off the left upright for the Colts. Vinatieri, now 46, had never missed an extra point in 31 previous postseason games spanning two decades.

    Mystery touch of the week: Taysom Hill's four-yard fake-punt run, moments after Lattimore's first interception, helped the Saints work their way back into a game the Eagles controlled for the entire first quarter. Hill also nearly caught a touchdown bomb Sunday, and he threw a 46-yard touchdown strike to Alvin Kamara that was negated by a holding penalty during the Saints' epic 18-play Lawrence of Arabia drive. It was an eventful day for everyone's favorite gadget specialist, even if it didn't look that way on the stat sheet. 

    Grasp at straws of the week: Dak Prescott was ruled "in the grasp" for a sack Saturday night when referees saw someone's arms wrapped around the Cowboys quarterback. That "someone" turned out to be Prescott's teammate La'el Collins, steadying Prescott after a collision in the pocket. But there's not much an official can do after blowing a premature whistle except defend the call like a sweaty lawyer on 60 Minutes, which is exactly what official John Parry did when interviewed by pool reporter Sam Farmer after the game. Hey, at least Parry didn't flag Collins for holding as well.

    Grind of the week: Colts defensive end Denico Autry got a sack of Patrick Mahomes by...giving a private dance to a referee? Yep, that's the best description of what he did, and instead of getting a rolled-up 20 thrown at him, he drew a 15-yard penalty. As mentioned earlier, even momentum could not stop the Colts from getting in their own way. 

Coaching Carousel Digest

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    You know all the big stories surrounding this year's coaching hires. So this segment of Digest takes you inside some of the smaller stories you may have overlooked.

            

    Buccaneers hire Bruce Arians.

    The Buccaneers hired a search firm called Korn-Ferry to assist with the search, which led to one of the most famous coaches on the market, which is a lot like hiring a travel agent to identify top family vacation destinations and then going to Disney World.

    Next time, the Buccaneers should just save some money and research Sean McVay on Ancestry.com instead.

            

    Broncos hire Vic Fangio.

    It appeared that John Elway would assign his majordomo Gary Kubiak to Fangio as offensive coordinator, but then Elway and Kubiak had some sort of sudden falling out, so Elway tried to go the Next McVay route with 49ers quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello (from the Kyle Shanahan country-cousin branch of the McVay tree). The 49ers refused to let Elway interview Scangarello, though, causing ominous thunder to roll across the Rockies.

    Near the Fall of Rome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, loyal, grizzled generals were often given the title of emperor and tasked with beating back the Visigoths while the aristocrats and archbishops squabbled over their ever-dwindling power and influence.

    What does this have to do with the Broncos, you ask? All hail Emperor Fangio Victorious!

               

    Dolphins expected to hire Brian Flores.

    Flores is proof that inexperienced black coaches can earn the "Next Big Thing" coaching label, too. Approximately 12.5 percent of the time. After all of the white candidates have been sifted through.

    Maybe the Dolphins will allow 3.5 points per game next season and every owner who fires a coach in 2020 will be seeking a young assistant of color who rose through the ranks by coaching special teams and defensive backs...nah, they'll just use Flores as justification for hiring more Baby Belichicks.

             

    Jets hire Adam Gase.

    Per ESPN's Jeff Darlington, Jets owner Christopher Johnson was ultimately swayed by a Gase endorsement phone call from Peyton Manning.

    Johnson is apparently unaware that Manning has stumped for Gase for so long that he now just robocalls a prerecorded message to NFL headquarters asking them to hire Gase and to call a toll-free number about their expired auto warranties.

    At least Johnson didn't hire a headhunter to put him in touch with Manning to get the endorsement.

    Gase will continue to face the Patriots twice per year. You have to admire Manning's commitment to losing to Tom Brady, even after retirement.

                

    Cardinals hire Kliff Kingsbury.

    Kingsbury had to pay USC a $150,000 buyout to get out of the contract he signed to become the Trojans offensive coordinator a few weeks ago. We're one step away from the NCAA demanding cash scholarship refunds from players who leave school for the NFL early.

    The Cardinals are expected to pay Kingsbury's buyout. They'll just borrow the money back from Sam Bradford. With interest.  

                                     

    Browns hire Freddie Kitchens.

    Per Mark Inabinett of Al.com, Kitchens is just the sixth former University of Alabama player to become an NFL head coach. The others: Harry Gilmer (mediocre Lions coach in the 1960s), Bart Starr (Hall of Fame quarterback turned mediocre Packers coach of the 1970s-'80s), Ray Perkins (mediocre Giants and Buccaneers coach of the 1980s), Richard Williamson (Perkins' assistant who took over the Bucs from him, with subpar results) and Mike Riley (less than mediocre Chargers coach from 1999-2001).

    So Kitchens could go 9-7 next season and become the most successful Browns coach in over a decade and the best Alabama-alum head coach ever. 

             

    Packers hire Matt LaFleur.

    Team CEO Mark Murphy called LaFleur "the most prepared candidate. It was obviously he really did his research, knew everything about our roster and everything else."

    It's hard to tell what's more disturbing: top NFL execs who are impressed that coaching candidates know as much about their teams as the average fan who is in a lot of fantasy leagues knows or that some coaching candidates must show up for interviews without such knowledge for execs like Murphy to say things like that.

               

    Bengals expected to hire Zac Taylor.

    Taylor is the Rams quarterbacks coach, and his brother Press Taylor is the Eagles' well-regarded quarterbacks coach. With McVay family-family ties, connections to the Doug Pederson wing of the Andy Reid family tree and a share of the Nick Foles-Carson Wentz credit, Press Taylor will be named Supreme Benevolent Highfather of Earth in 2022.

    Zac Taylor is also the son-in-law of former Packers head coach Mike Sherman, which only goes to show you that the NFL doesn't just need to expand its coaching pool but also its coaches' dating pool.

Point-Counterpoint

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    The NFL and NFLPA issue a joint statement declaring that Eric Reid's drug tests this year were randomly generated.

    Point: "I flipped the coin, and I can assure you it came up 'Good Heads,'" said NFL Vice President of Randomization Harvey Dent.

    Counterpoint: "Why would the NFL purposely go after Reid when all it would do is make the league look bad and leave itself open for litigation?" ask observers who have somehow forgotten that this whole mess started with Colin Kaepernick.

           

    The Washington Post's Mark Maske reports that, per a source, Reid was not tested as many times as he publicly claimed to have been tested. 

    Point: The report appeared within minutes of the NFL-NFLPA statement. What a coincidence. Next time, the NFL should just attach the official statement and the self-serving rumor to the same email for the sake of convenience.

    Counterpoint: Reid must have lumped a mandatory drug test in with several random drug tests, which can be construed as misleading—but when a law-abiding citizen is treated like the new arrival at a halfway house for narcotics offenders, the exact categories of the drug tests tend to all run together.

              

    Tim Tebow gets engaged to former Miss Universe Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters.

    Point: Gossiping about Tebow's love life is soooo early 2010s. Inquiring minds in 2019 want to know: Who is Sean McVay involved with?

    Counterpoint: Oh, Veronika Khomyn. (Shuffles papers awkwardly) Alrighty, then.

                

    Actor Bryan Cranston appears on NFL Network and delivers a message as Walter White from Breaking Bad to Nick Foles.

    Point: Foles responds by wondering why the dad from Malcolm in the Middle is acting so scary.

    Counterpoint: Actor Mark Wahlberg responded by delivering a message to Tom Brady: "I'm there for you, pal. At least until halftime."

    Bonus counter-counterpoint: Oh, you saw Foles and Wahlberg and thought we were going in the Boogie Nights direction? Get your head out of the gutter!

Assistant-Coaching-Carousel, Point-Counterpoint Mashup!

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    That's right, True Believers. The Point-Counterpoint team is pulling double duty to provide bonus coverage of this week's assistant coaching news and gossip.

                

    The Cardinals hire Vance Joseph as defensive coordinator, the Buccaneers hire Todd Bowles as defensive coordinator and the Browns are working to hire Steve Wilks as defensive coordinator.

    Point: We'd wonder why teams aren't seeking innovative young defensive masterminds to keep pace with all of the innovative young offensive masterminds if we weren't afraid it would just lead to the hiring of a half-dozen more inexperienced white dudes.

    Counterpoint: So, what, a black coach can be a no-nonsense, tough-talking sidekick but not the suave, sophisticated hero? It's almost like NFL decision-makers all come from the demographic that watches nothing on television but old movies and police procedurals.

               

    Ravens promote Greg Roman to offensive coordinator.

    Point: "Great hire! Roman designed offenses for Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick. He will do something similar for Lamar Jackson." — Stat heads and tape grinders

    Counterpoint: "Stupid hire! Roman designed offenses for Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick. He will do something similar for Lamar Jackson." — Angry uncles on Facebook and Bills fans

               

    Bears hire Chuck Pagano as defensive coordinator.

    Point: They figured a really unpopular move would take some of the heat off Cody Parkey.

    Counterpoint: Pagano is actually a darn good defensive coordinator, and he will prove it now that he is not saddled with a general manager, Ryan Grigson, who would find some way of undoing the Khalil Mack trade if he were in charge of the Bears.

                                        

    Vikings retain Kevin Stefanski as offensive coordinator.

    Point: It's better to obey your head coach's orders, run up the middle on early downs and lose a must-win game than try something that has a chance to work and get blamed when it fails.

    Counterpoint: But it's best to be Brian Schottenheimer, run up the middle on early downs whether the coach wants you to or not, lose must-win games but have a famous dad.

                     

    Jets expected to hire Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator.

    Point: Williams was forced to take the job after his handwritten head coaching resume arrived at Bengals, Dolphins and Packers headquarters five days late because Pony Express service has been impacted by the government shutdown.

    Counterpoint: Goofy press conferences. A defense that talks a good game but fails at the worst moment. Just what Jets fans were clamoring for: a weak-tea reboot of the Rex Ryan era.

               

    Falcons bring back Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator.

    Point: Look, you can make me lampoon racial disparities in the NFL, make fun of powerful people, even do some edgy political stuff. But you don't pay me nearly half enough to make sense of or pay attention to the Falcons.

    Counterpoint: Same here. I'm out.