Gridiron Digest: How Far Have Tom Brady and the Patriots Fallen?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 9, 2019

Gridiron Digest: How Far Have Tom Brady and the Patriots Fallen?

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The Patriots suffered their second straight loss Sunday. And you know what that means. (Cue Chicken Little.) The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

    Except that this time it's different. With Tom Brady unable to pull off a comeback in Foxborough and home-field advantage in the playoffs slipping away, maybe this time the sky really is falling for the Patriots.

    Gridiron Digest kicks off this week with our 11th annual "The Patriots are in real trouble and this time we mean it" feature. Stay tuned after that for other NFL action, like:

    • The 49ers and Saints playing the game of the millennium (or at least of the last month or so)

    • The Bills proving that they are just good enough to almost beat Lamar Jackson and the Ravens

    • Increasing intrigue in the AFC South, the division no one seems to want to win

    • The Jets and Dolphins squaring off in a symphony of unwatchable football

    • A Gridiron Digest exclusive investigation on whether your team's kicker will break your heart in the playoffs

    ...and much, much more!

         

Fading Brady Magic Has Turned the Patriots into Just Another Team

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The Patriots lost the type of game Sunday that they have won 44 times in the past.

    The Chiefs led 23-7 at one point, but that meant little. Tom Brady has orchestrated 35 fourth-quarter comebacks in the regular season during his career, nine more in the playoffs. What's a 16-point deficit to a team that once came back from 28-3 to win the Super Bowl?

    Nate Ebner blocked a third-quarter punt to give the Patriots good field position, and a jet sweep cut the Chiefs lead to 10. Ah, that's how the comeback starts: veteran special teamers making plays, Josh McDaniels digging deep into the playbook, the Foxborough crowd rocking, the opponent getting rattled and sloppy.

    And Brady? He's that gray-templed guy at the rec center basketball court with his socks pulled high up his ankles and a brace on his knee. He looks creaky as he limbers up, but you know he's going to start drilling jumpers the moment it really matters.

    So what happened? The Patriots got the ball after a Travis Kelce fumble and cut their deficit to seven with a field goal. The Chiefs made a bunch of offensive mistakes. The Patriots got the ball back again. Time for Brady to nail those jumpers, right? Not quite: Brady could not move the offense.

    No worries. The Chiefs got the ball back but stalled again. The Patriots defense was doing its part. The crowd was doing its part. Facing 4th-and-6, Brady scrambled for 17 yards and got up looking like he was ready to punch a hole in the sun. The GOAT had awakened. The rickety rec center legend was about to school yet another set of youngsters.

    But it didn't happen. The Patriots' final drive ended with a fourth-down stop at the 5-yard line. Brady's 45th fourth-quarter comeback will have to wait. That's a problem, because Brady looks like he's running out of fourth quarters.

    You've read plenty of "Patriots are in big trouble" and "Brady is finished" columns over the years. We've written our share of them. Patriots fans love to roll their eyes at them. If they're rolling their eyes at this one, it's because they're trying extra hard to convince themselves that this is just another overreaction to a Patriots loss.

    But this is different. The Patriots have lost three of their past five games. They've lost to a trio of AFC playoff teams. They've nearly ceded playoff home-field advantage to the Ravens and have placed their first-round bye in jeopardy.

    The Ravens are clearly superior to the Patriots by any meaningful measure. The Chiefs sure looked like the better team Sunday. The Texans looked like the better team eight days ago, which should be worrisome for the Patriots faithful, because the Titans look like a better team than the Texans.

    As for Brady: It's time to move past the point of politely ignoring his declining skills or pretending the problem lies exclusively with his receiving corps or offensive line. 

    Brady's completion percentage over his past five games is 54.5 percent. He's averaging just 5.57 yards per attempt in that span with a 74.2 passer rating. Sacks come a little too easily these days, throwaways a little too quickly, errant throws too frequently. Opponents sometimes blitz heavily and dare Brady to throw under duress into a tight window—something they wouldn't have dared do in key situations two years ago. Brady rarely makes them pay anymore.

    This isn't a slump or a receiver problem. It's the three letter "a" word: A-G-E.

    And now for the reassuring qualifiers about how the Patriots can still reach and win the Super Bowl because of their defense, special teams, execution, home-field advantage, Brady's experience, blah blah blah. 

    Sure, all of that can happen. But all of it happened Sunday, and the Patriots still lost. 

    So the heck with the reassurances. The mystique has faded. The Brady Magic is all but exhausted. The old dude at the rec center has started clanging jumpers off the rim. The Patriots are just another playoff team. And they aren't even one of the best of them.

Game of the Year (Decade? Century?) Spotlight: 49ers 48, Saints 46

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    What happened

    Remember when the 49ers beat the Saints 36-32 in the 2011 playoffs? Remember how the teams scored two touchdowns each in the final 4:02 of the fourth quarter? Remember thinking it was one of the greatest endings to an NFL game you have ever seen?

    This game was like that game after taking super soldier serum.

    The Saints took 20-7 and 27-14 first-half leads. The 49ers surged ahead, 42-33, with 8:49 to play. Drew Brees then threw two touchdown passes in the final 6:06, including an 18-yard catch-and-run by Tre'Quan Smith with 53 seconds left to play. But George Kittle caught a short pass from Jimmy Garoppolo on 4th-and-2 and rumbled 39 yards with three Saints defenders dangling from various body parts (including his facemask), setting up a short Robbie Gould game-winning field goal.

    Also: 

    • Jared Cook nearly got decapitated on a bobbling early-game TD grab but held on to the ball (sort of).

    • Emmanuel Sanders, Raheem Mostert and Deebo Samuel collaborated on a touchdown trick play that made the Philly Special look about as exciting as Jason Garrett punting on 4th-and-inches.

    • A 4th-and-18 Taysom Hill fake punt failed despite blatant contact with the intended receiver because pass interference is apparently legal on fake punts, causing Sean Payton's head to burst into a mushroom cloud.

    • There were various Michael Thomas heroics, lots of strange calls and no-calls, 162 49ers rushing yards and other daily facts of life in the NFL.

         

    What it means

    The 49ers survived their three-game pre-playoff gauntlet of fate with two tiebreaker-relevant conference wins (Packers and Saints) and a narrow loss to the Ravens. They demonstrated all the things that make them so dangerous Sunday, including a defensive front that (despite zero sacks) lived in the Saints backfield and took away plays to the perimeter and creative game-planning that got multiple playmakers involved despite an injury rash at wide receiver. 

    The only thing standing between them and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is that pesky overtime loss to the Seahawks. Even if they end up on the road against one of the NFC East embarrassments, though, they will enter the playoffs as the team to beat in the conference.  

    The Saints got a little too cute with Hill on the fake punt and some short-yardage plays and allowed five plays of 30-plus yards. Otherwise they played well, and they cliched the NFC South despite the loss, thanks to the Falcons victory over the Panthers. So Sunday was no catastrophe. The 49ers are just deeper at the skill positions, faster on defense and (just possibly) a little better coached on offense.

             

    What's next

    The 49ers briefly catch their breath with a visit from the Falcons before facing the Rams and Seahawks to finish the regular season. The Saints host the sagging Colts. With any luck, these teams will meet again for another playoff masterpiece.

Game Spotlight: Ravens 24, Bills 17

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    John Munson/Associated Press

    What happened

    The Bills lured the Ravens into a grungy Bills-style football game on a windy day in Upstate New York. Their defense swarmed Lamar Jackson and limited him as a rusher and passer. Their offense took advantage of 99 yards of Ravens penalties.

    It still wasn't quite enough.

    Jackson threw touchdown passes to Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle. Meanwhile, Josh Allen and the Bills offense couldn't get anything going until the fourth quarter, and their final, penalty-assisted drive to tie the game stalled at the 16-yard line. 

             

    What it means

    The Bills were the Jackson Doubters' last best hope of proving that the Ravens offense is some sort of gimmick that the league will soon "figure out." The Bills pass rush maintained lane discipline when Jackson tried to scramble and took away some of the misdirection plays the Ravens like to run, holding them to just 257 net yards of offense. But Jackson still did enough as a pocket passer and an improviser (his touchdown to Boyle looked like something you'd see at the end of an NBA fast break) to manufacture 24 points on the road. If that's what happens when he's "figured out" by a tough defense, the Ravens are gonna be just fine.

    Allen, on the other hand, spent most of the day proving that he's not Jackson. He consistently overthrew deep receivers, endured six sacks and wasn't all that dangerous as a runner against a defense that has been practicing against a running quarterback since the start of OTAs. 

    The Bills have found their level as a one-and-done playoff team; they fall short every time they try to prove they are something more.

               

    What's next

    The Ravens continue their quest to lock up a favorable playoff seeding with a visit from the Jets. The Bills try to secure their playoff berth against the hungry Steelers in Pittsburgh.

Game Spotlight: Rams 28, Seahawks 12

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    What happened

    The Rams put together their best half of the year, on both sides of the ball, taking a 21-3 halftime lead. They then survived a pair of third-quarter Jared Goff interceptions by Quandre Diggs (one of them a pick-six), maintained their composure and kept Russell Wilson from mounting a serious comeback. 

    The victory kept the Rams very much alive in the NFC wild-card race while helping the 49ers take a one-game lead over the Seahawks, who led the NFC West during the week by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker. So really, the Rams brought balance and logic back to the NFC playoff race.

            

    What it means

    The good version of the Rams we saw in the first half on Sunday night looks a lot like the 2018 NFC Championship team: balanced and explosive on offense and sack-happy on defense. Unfortunately, we've only seen the good version of the Rams occasionally this season, mostly against weak opponents. It was enlightening and encouraging to see so much of them on Sunday night, but the bad version of the Rams (Goff throwing multiple interceptions when under duress) is still lurking, ready to make a sudden reappearance at any time.

    Nine of the Seahawks' 10 victories this season have come by margins of eight points or less. Their last two losses (to the Ravens and Rams) came by a combined margin of 30 points. It would be nice to think that the Seahawks are a great team because they find ways to win close games, despite lopsided losses now and then. But they are just a pretty good team that walked the high wire all season thanks to a few well-timed big plays and breaks. They belong among the Packers, Vikings, Rams and (if we have to include them) Cowboys among the NFC playoff pack, but not atop it with the Saints and 49ers.

           

    What's next

    A two-game road trip to face the Cowboys and 49ers will determine which version of the Rams will define this season for them. The Seahawks have things slightly easier, as they visit the wreckage of the Panthers next week.

AFC South Digest

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    The AFC South may not be the NFL's best division—it's pretty much a mid-major, which still puts it a notch above the Division III NFC East—but it remains the most unpredictable one. Don't worry if you've slept on its teams and their storylines, though: Gridiron Digest is here with your update on the division no one ever seems to want to  win.

    Houston Texans (8-5) lost 38-24 to the Broncos: On defense, the Texans allowed rookie Drew Lock to pick them apart with 309 yards and three touchdown passes. On offense, they lapsed into all of their bad habits: overreliance on DeAndre Hopkins, allowing Deshaun Watson to take too many hits, goofy 4th-and-1 play calls and so forth. It was an alarming backslide for a team that looked ready to make a Super Bowl run after beating the Patriots last week.

    Tennessee Titans (8-5) won 42-21 over the Raiders: The legend of Ryan Tannehill grows. Tannehill shook off an early interception to throw three touchdown passes, helping the Titans pull away in the second half after battling the Raiders to a 21-21 tie at halftime. The Titans racked up 552 yards of total offense, while their defense forced the Raiders into a succession of three-and-outs in the second half. It was another complete team effort for the Titans, who are starting to look more and more like a complete team.

    The Titans and Texans play each other twice in the next three weeks. Those games will decide who wins the AFC South; with the Steelers surging, the loser is not even guaranteed a wild-card berth.

    Indianapolis Colts (6-7) lost 38-35 to the Buccaneers: Jameis Winston had three first-half touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) but threw two interceptions, including an 80-yard pick-six to Darius Leonard. Winston left the game at halftime with a minor hand injury but returned to throw two second-half touchdowns, plus one more interception, making this the most Winston-esque game of Winston's touchdown- and turnover-filled career. ... Also in attendance at this game were the Indianapolis Colts. 

    Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9) lost 45-10 to the Chargers: It turns out that Nick Foles was not the problem and Gardner Minshew II probably isn't the answer.

Tank Watch

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    The 1-12 Bengals are close to locking up the first overall pick in next year's draft. But Tank Watch will keep watching terrible football until the bitter end so you don't have to.

         

    Jets 22, Dolphins 21

    This game was the Beethoven's Fifth Symphony of ugly football. 

    Playing without Le'Veon Bell (who wouldn't have made an impact anyway because Adam Gase doesn't like him), the Jets executed a vintage Gase "let's get to 19 points against a weak opponent and call it a day" game plan. The Dolphins countered by driving to the goal line again and again and acting as though the end zone was lava. Remember that funky fake field goal they executed to score a touchdown against the Eagles last week? All they could do this week was toss incomplete passes to Mike Gesicki and then settle for Jason Sanders field-goal attempts.

    Sanders' seventh conversion gave the Dolphins a 21-19 lead with 1:29 to play, but the Jets benefited from an overturned pass interference no-call on 3rd-and-18 to extend their final drive and set up a Sam Ficken game-winner. 

    Was it really pass interference? Or at least was it really enough pass interference to clear the NFL's mysterious and ever-changing replay standard? Nobody knows or cares! All that matters it that the Jets are now four games "behind" the Bengals with three to play, while the Dolphins are two behind the Bengals.

    And speaking of the Bengals...

             

    Browns 27, Bengals 19

    The Bengals took an early 13-7 lead and then flatlined until midway through the fourth quarter, when Andy Dalton was stuffed on a designed 4th-and-4 run near the goal line, ending a late rally to tie the game.

    If you are wondering how the Bengals are 1-12, "designed Andy Dalton run on 4th-and-4" sums the situation up nicely.

                

    Packers 20, Redskins 15

    If you looked at this game on the schedule and thought, "Hmm, I think the Packers will take a big early lead and then get sloppy and settle for field goals, letting an inferior opponent stay in the game a little too long," you were right. But that doesn't make you Nostradamus, because everyone else thought that, too. 

              

    Upcoming Tank Watch events:

    The 2-10 Giants face the Eagles on Monday night, then the Dolphins and Washington, so they remain in contention for last place.

    The Dolphins host the Bengals in two weeks, so they can still make things interesting (for want of a better word).

         

    (Note: To qualify for Tank Watch, a team must be within two losses of the last-place team, though Gridiron Digest reserves the right to break that rule if we feel like it.) 

Awards Digest

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    Defender of the week: Broncos edge-rusher Jeremiah Attaochu sacked Deshaun Watson twice, but his biggest play came when he scooped a fumble by Texans receiver Keke Coutee, rumbled for a few yards, then turned and handed the ball to teammate Kareem Jackson before being tackled. Jackson raced 70 yards for a touchdown that gave the Broncos a 14-0 lead and seemed to knock the wind out of the Texans for the rest of the game.

    Offensive line of the week: Derrick Henry (playing through an injury) and other Titans combined to rush for 161 yards. The Raiders pass rush did not record a sack. The Titans offense moved through the Raiders defense like a corn chip through bean dip for most of the afternoon. So this award goes to Taylor Lewan, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis and Jack Conklin. 

    Special teamer of the week: Diontae Johnson's 85-yard punt return gave the Steelers a 10-0 lead, allowing rookie quarterback Devlin Hodges and the defense to just play keep-away against the Cardinals for the remainder of the game.

    Johnson also caught a short touchdown pass, while Cardinals running back David Johnson returned from injury/obscurity to catch a 24-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. So it was a big day for D. Johnsons. 

    Mystery touch of the week: Just about the only Jaguars highlight in their lopsided loss to the Chargers was lefty punter Logan Cooke's nine-yard fake-punt toss to rookie Michael Walker. It's a good thing the Chargers didn't know that pass interference was legal on fake punts or Walker might simply have been mauled by his defender the way Tre'Quan Smith was on a failed Saints fake punt. But fear not: Sean Payton is surely blowing up cellphones among the competition committee to get that rule changed as we speak.

    Best actor in a flopping role: Josh Allen's 4th-and-16 bomb was in the process of sailing about 10 yards over Cole Beasley's head when Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey laid a gentle hand on the receiver's body. Beasley either then got his legs tangled up with Humphrey's or (more likely) decided it was time to go full FIFA and hit the deck with his arms flailing comically in the air like he had just been hit in the back by one of those harpoons they use in The Fast and the Furious movies. Either way, Beasley got the flag on what sure looked like a mix of an uncatchable ball, incidental contact and lots of method acting. 

    Best supporting actor in someone else's highlight: Ryan Tannehill is having the best two months of his long and not-so-illustrious career, and he wasn't going to let Raiders lineman Maurice Hurst Jr. spoil it by turning an interception into a pick-six. Tannehill gave chase as Hurst lumbered toward the end zone and delivered a thudding textbook form tackle to the much larger defender. Tannehill could give some members of the Titans secondary tackling pointers. We're looking at you, Adoree' Jackson. 

    Meaningless fantasy touchdowns of the week: After the Broncos took a 38-3 lead on the Texans, Deshaun Watson came through in a big way for fantasy gamers: two rushing touchdowns and a toss to fantasy stack-mate DeAndre Hopkins.

    Fantasy leech and obligatory Falcons mention of the week: The Falcons don't plan to bench their starters down the stretch. That should be good news for fantasy gamers hoping for production from Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and others, except that the Falcons cannot be relied upon for anything. So guess who scored a 93-yard touchdown in the 40-20 win over the Panthers? No, not Julio, nor Ridley (who did have one touchdown before leaving with an ab injury to make way) nor Austin Hooper. Nope, it was Olamide Zaccheaus, making his first career catch. 

Digest Sportsbook

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    Backdoor cover lovers: The Packers -13 against Washington felt like a trap from the moment it was posted. Sure enough, the Packers jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and then slipped into cruise control and let Washington linger about one car-length behind for the rest of the game. A Buckeyes Special (that's what we're calling Dwayne Haskins-to-Terry McLaurin Ohio State alumni touchdowns now; feel free to steal it) with 1:17 to play sealed the cover for Washington, which is 5-2 against the spread in its past seven games. 

    Middle mania: The Browns dipped from 10-point early-week favorites down to the seven-point range before kickoff; according to Patrick Everson of Covers.com, sharps were all over the Bengals, while the public preferred the Browns. The Browns won 27-19, creating a "middle" scenario: the sharps who pounced on the Bengals +10 early in the week were winners, but so were the casual wagerers who benefited from the lower late-week spread. Also, this should probably go without saying, but the Browns should not be 10-point favorites against anyone. 

    Overwatch, Part I: Not only did the 49ers and Saints easily clear the pregame over at 45, but they also blew past the adjusted over of 78.5 that some books were offering at halftime.

    Overwatch, Part II: Gridiron Digest talked our favorite bartender out of playing the Colts-Buccaneers over of 47 despite Jameis Winston's habit of accounting for about 42 combined points for both sides. The game went over on a Colts field goal before halftime. Sobriety is gonna be good for us, health-wise. 

    Undertale: The Cardinals and Steelers nearly crept up on the over of 43.5 late in the game when Kyler Murray found David Johnson (remember him?) for a touchdown to cut the Steelers lead to 20-17. But the Steelers were content to settle for a field goal after munching the clock on a final drive, and Joe Haden alertly hit the deck after a last-minute interception instead of risking a return that could have resulted in a fumble  C'mon, Haden: Some of us had a number to clear!

    Monday Night Action: The Giants are +9.5 at the Eagles. Listen, it's your life and it's your money. If you absolutely must put a little action on an NFC East Monday night matchup instead of, say, Columbia vs. Duquesne in NCAA men's hoops, we're not here to yuck your yum. And if you lick your chops at the thought of the Eagles as heavy favorites when they are 4-8 ATS this season and have lost three straight, just promise you will wager responsibly, OK?

    Eli Manning returns to the lineup Monday night due to Daniel Jones' injury. The Giants are 10-19 straight up and 12-16-1 ATS against the Eagles under Manning, but 9.5 points is the heaviest spread in the series since the 2004 season opener (which Kurt Warner started over the rookie Manning). This spread screams "trap" just as loud as this game screams "watch the Crisis On Infinite Earths crossover on the CW instead."

    Historical betting info via TeamRankings.com and Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. 

Point-Counterpoint

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    49ers broadcaster Tim Ryan suspended for claiming that Lamar Jackson has an advantage when running the option because his "dark skin color with a dark football" makes it hard for opponents to see the ball.

    Point: So Tim Ryan believes that all NFL defenders suffer from severe astigmatism?

    Counterpoint: I'm starting to think that perhaps NFL traditionalists' preference for "pocket passers" over "mobile quarterbacks" has nothing to do with tactics or injury risks at all but is just the manifestation of much deeper prejudices. I know, I know. That's crazy talk.

            

    Jerry Jones rips the hosts during his weekly radio interview after Thursday's Cowboys loss to the Bears, telling them to get their "damn act together" and warning that he didn't "have the patience to jack with you today."    

    Point: Phrasing, Jerrah.

    Counterpoint: Give Jerrah a break. He told the hosts he was tired from a long night of travel. And we all know how exhausting it is to recline in a private charter, silken sleep mask over the eyes, tumbler of Johnnie Walker Blue on the rocks at your side, Jimmie Rodgers' greatest hits playing softly over your Oppo PM-1 headphones, fitfully coming up with new excuses for not firing Jason Garrett. 

             

    NFL fines the Lions, coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn for failing to properly report Matthew Stafford's November injury.

    Point: The NFL can't seem to get anything else right, but at least they are looking out for my DFS stacks.

    Counterpoint: Oh no! Patricia's gonna try to make back the money by fining reporters for dressing too sloppily. 

               

    Antonio Brown posts lengthy apology on Instagram.

    Point (sniffling into handkerchief): That was by far the most sincere apology that Rudy Giuliani has ever written.

    Counterpoint: There's nothing quite like an internet apology for non-specific "behavior" toward everyone who was "offended" and laced with defensive justifications to make you think "gosh, he may not even be the least bit sincere, but at least he has an agent with a shameless public relations staff."

Gridiron Digest Investigation: Will Your Kicker Let You Down in the Playoffs?

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    Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

    Fans of playoff-bound teams have enough to worry about at this time of year. They shouldn't have to wonder if their kicker will, say, doink a 43-yarder off the right upright and the crossbar in the final seconds of the fourth quarter and shatter their Super Bowl dreams...

    The least we can do is make sure they're prepared for it if it happens. So Gridiron Digest is here to answer the question no one dares to ask: Will your kicker let you down in the playoffs?

    Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens: No.

    Mason Crosby, Green Bay Packers: Crosby is 26-of-29 on postseason field goals and a perfect 59-of-59 on postseason extra points. He's among the least of the Packers' concerns. 

    Wil Lutz, New Orleans Saints: Worried about Lutz kicking outdoors? Don't be: He is 41-of-48 (85.4 percent) on outdoor field goals for his career.

    Greg Zuerlein, Los Angeles Rams: Zuerlein went just 2-of-5 on field goals in his one career road game against the Miami Dolphins. This is a big deal because the Super Bowl is in Miami, people! Eh, on second thought, perhaps we should cross that bridge when we get to it. 

    Robbie Gould, San Francisco 49ers: Gould, who is perfect in the postseason on both field goals (8-of-8) and extra points (20-of-20) over his 15-year career, returned to the field on Sunday after missing three weeks with a quad injury. That should calm any nerves the team had over now-released rookie replacement Chase McLaughlin, who you might remember missed a 47-yarder in overtime against the Seahawks because the moment was "too big" for him. (It should be noted, though, that McLaughlin also hit a 47-yarder a few minutes earlier to force overtime. That moment must not have been too big for him. Moments must come in lots of sizes.)

    Chris Boswell, Pittsburgh Steelers: Boswell is a perfect 15-of-15 on career playoff field-goal attempts, though he has missed a pair of extra points. Also, if the Steelers reach the playoffs, some sort of chaos magic is at work, meaning Boswell will acquire the power to drill 75-yarders.

    Stephen Hauschka, Buffalo Bills: Opposing kickers are now 10-of-18 and a remarkable 7-of-15 from beyond 30 yards against the Bills. So the question isn't whether the Bills can rely on Hauschka; it's whether the Bills can rely on opposing kickers to screw up when they need them to.  

    Harrison Butker, Kansas City Chiefs: Butker is just 2-of-5 beyond 50 yards this season, and kicking misadventures (including a botched snap that turned into a blooper-reel throw by holder Dustin Colquitt) played a major part in the loss to the Titans. Butker is good enough to kick his way out of any mini-slump (he had a 48-yarder Sunday) but also just inexperienced and erratic enough to prompt Chiefs fans to reach for the hyperventilation bag. 

    Jason Myers, Seattle Seahawks: He kicked that overtime game-winner against the 49ers a few weeks ago, so he should be fine. Thanks for the reliable young kicker, New York Jets! 

    Ka'imi Fairbairn, Houston Texans: Effective but young and untested. If he does miss a key playoff field goal, Bill O'Brien will trade two high draft picks in the offseason for Matt Prater. 

    Dan Bailey, Minnesota Vikings: Bailey is the fifth-most accurate kicker in NFL history. He's also the Vikings kicker, meaning that he's cursed to stomp on your heart in the playoffs.

    Ryan Succop, Tennessee Titans: He has struggled since coming off IR, but he's your basic veteran kicker when healthy. And if anything goes wrong, the Titans can always turn back to (gulp) Cody Parkey.

    Brett Maher, Dallas Cowboys: Jason Garrett auditioned several kickers after Maher missed one field goal and had a second one blocked on Thanksgiving, but he ultimately decided that he was better off with Maher's safe mediocrity than he would be with a new hire. In other words, Garrett is treating Maher the way Jerry Jones treats Garrett. Maher is reliable inside 30 yards, at least; heaven knows Garrett gives him plenty of practice. 

    Nick Folk, New England Patriots: The Patriots employed just two kickers during a stretch from the days of Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe until Week 4 of this season. They have gone threw three of them since, re-signing Folk this weekend after getting beaten by the Colts to the waiver punch for Chase "The Moment's Too Big" McLaughlin. Scouring free-agent lists and hosting tryouts for kickers is almost certainly making the veins in Bill Belichick's temples throb, and we are here for that.  

    Jake Elliott, Philadelphia Eagles: If the Eagles somehow make the playoffs after this carnival sideshow of a season, only to lose on a missed field goal, that's just the universe correcting itself.

    Austin Seibert, Cleveland Browns: See the Eagles comment.

    Eddy Pineiro, Chicago Bears: LOL.

    Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis Colts: He was out Sunday with a knee injury, and McLaughlin hit a 50-yarder and a 19-yarder in his place, also missing a 47-yarder. Now the Patriots are just waiting for the Colts to release Vinatieri so he can kick nine straight field goals for them in the playoffs and Super Bowl.