Gridiron Digest: 6 Players Who Could Decide Who's in or out of the NFL Playoffs

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 23, 2019

Gridiron Digest: 6 Players Who Could Decide Who's in or out of the NFL Playoffs

0 of 10

    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    The Eagles are suddenly in position to win the NFC East. The Seahawks suffered an ugly upset loss to the Cardinals but could still clinch home field throughout the playoffs. Neither the Steelers nor Titans seem to want to win the final AFC playoff berth, opening the door to...the Raiders?

    Don't worry if you cannot figure out just what the heck is going on. This week's Gridiron Digest is here to catch you up on all of this weekend's action and get you ready for Week 17:

    • Find out just how the Eagles claimed first place in the NFL's worst division. (Hint: Jason Garrett's inexplicable decision-making had a lot to do with it);
    • Discover why this year's Seahawks are a lot like last year's Seahawks and why that's a bad thing;
    • Relive the excitement of the four worst teams in the league briefly playing to a 35-35-35-35 four-way tie in their quest for the top pick in next year's draft;
    • Enjoy a simulated Titans-Steelers postseason play-in game in which both teams somehow lose;
    • Learn who won this year's coveted Gridiron Digest annual awards;
    • Play along as the Digest Sportsbook tries to parlay meaningless games into a fun (and lucrative) Sunday

    and much more!

    Let's kick things off with a half-dozen players whose performances next week will make or break their teams' playoff fortunes. 

         

Six Players Whose Week 17 Performances Will Shape the Postseason

1 of 10

    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    After 16 weeks, the NFL playoffs hinge on just a handful of players.

    The Eagles will inexplicably end up in the postseason if they have found an unusual solution for their wide receiver problem. The Seahawks could either enjoy home field throughout the playoffs or end up on the road in the opening round, depending on how they solve their wide receiver problem. And the Cowboys have just decided to create their own unnecessary wide receiver problem from scratch. 

    The Titans can clinch the final AFC playoff berth if they regain their offensive balance. The Steelers could slip past them by beating an opponent with nothing to play for with the help of their elite edge-rusher. And the Raiders still have a one-in-a-zillion chance of slipping past both of them thanks to this season's most surprising superstar.

    Here are six players whose Week 17 performances—good or bad—will shape the playoff picture.

       

    Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver, Cowboys

    Cooper entered Sunday with 71 catches for 1,073 yards and eight touchdowns. But he played so poorly in the loss to the Eagles (four catches for 24 yards on 12 targets) that he wasn't on the field during the Cowboys' critical 4th-and-long attempt when trailing in the fourth quarter. Jason Garrett told reporters after the game that Cooper was simply rotating with Tavon Austin, not benched, an explanation which only makes sense if you assume Garrett is more likely to do a mystifyingly dumb thing like take his best receiver out of the game in a do-or-die situation for tactical reasons than to do something semi-comprehensible like bench an unfocused starter for disciplinary reasons. In other words, it kinda makes sense. 

    The Cowboys need a win and an Eagles loss next week to make the playoffs, save Garrett's job and possibly preserve Cooper's tenure with the team (he's a free agent after the season). Cooper had a habit of disappearing for stretches when he played for the Raiders. The Cowboys can't afford to let that happen again. 

       

    Dallas Goedert, Tight End, Eagles

    As you may know, the Eagles ran fresh out of wide receivers after losing Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Nelson Agholor to injuries during the year and giving up on Jordan Matthews and Mack Hollins. Their solution has been to run two-tight-end sets with Zach Ertz and Goedert and hope opponents forget to cover them. Thanks to the magic of NFC East futility, that tactic has worked. Ertz has had 18 catches for 180 yards and three touchdowns against the Giants, Washington and the Cowboys over the last three weeks. Goedert, acting as a de facto No. 2 receiver after a mistake-plagued early season, has gone 17-187-1.

    The mirrors-and-tight-ends strategy might not work outside of the NFC East, but it doesn't have to: The Eagles clinch the division if they beat the Giants next week. Goedert can provide just enough offensive juice to make that possible. 

       

    Derrick Henry, Running Back, Titans

    You were expecting Ryan Tannehill? The QB played well in the last two Titans losses, but the team needs to be at full strength to secure a playoff berth in its rematch with the Texans. Without Henry on Sunday, it looked like a team without a plan in 3rd-and-short situations, and stalled drives helped the Saints come back from an early 14-0 deficit.

    Henry was a full participant in Friday's practice and will likely be good to go next week. He should be a major factor against a Texans defense that allows 112.8 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry.

      

    DK Metcalf, Wide Receiver, Seahawks

    Metcalf caught six passes for 70 yards in the Seahawks' Week 10 victory over the 49ers, but he was held without a catch and targeted just once in Sunday's loss to the Cardinals, and fellow receiver Tyler Lockett caught just one pass for 12 yards. 

    Look for the 49ers to try to bottle up Lockett with Richard Sherman and their banged-up secondary next week, forcing the Seahawks to try to beat them with the huge, speedy, inexperienced and somewhat one-dimensional Metcalf. The fates of the Seahawks, the 49ers and the teams they will face in the playoffs may ride on Russell Wilson's ability to connect with Metcalf on a deep route or with Metcalf's ability to get open on something besides a deep route.

       

    T.J. Watt, Edge-Rusher, Steelers

    Watt forced his league-high seventh fumble (his 13th in the last two seasons!), but it wasn't enough to help the Steelers get past the Jets. Watt may be facing Robert Griffin III if the top-seeded, banged-up Ravens rest their starters in a meaningless game for them. A turnover or two by Watt and the Steelers defense could give the anemic Steelers offense the help it needs to beat a bunch of backups and slide into the final wild-card slot.

       

    Darren Waller, Tight End, Raiders

    The Raiders can still make the playoffs next week if they beat the Broncos and the Steelers, Titans, Bengals and Jaguars all lose (the last two losses jiggle the tiebreakers to their advantage). Waller has caught 84 passes for 1,038 yards and three touchdowns, 41 more passes and 387 more yards than any of his Raiders teammates. An unlikely playoff appearance would be a fitting end for one of the most unexpected breakout seasons in memory.

Game Spotlight: Eagles 17, Cowboys 9

2 of 10

    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    What happened

    If you were looking for a hard-fought, crisply played showdown for the NFC East that harked back to the days of Super Bowl-caliber teams with great coaches like Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells or Andy Reid, this wasn't the game for you.

    But if you love watching a team with a bajillion dollars invested in its running back and offensive line do everything except run up the middle in short-yardage situations, tight end screens for big gains negated by holding penalties and missed 50-plus-yard field goals, or if you just hate both the Cowboys and Eagles, this was the perfect game for you.

    The Eagles moved the ball well all afternoon, despite fielding an XFL-caliber receiving corps, but ended drives with missed field goals and foolish 4th-and-1 play calls. The Cowboys dropped passes, took playmakers Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott off the field in critical situations and settled for field goals as if doing so was their goal all along. 

    Ultimately. a first-quarter Carson Wentz touchdown pass to Dallas Goedert gave the Eagles a lead they would hold on to for the whole game, and a final Cowboys drive to tie the game stalled at the Eagles' 23-yard line, when Sidney Jones (playing because of an injury to Ronald Darby) broke up a fourth-down Dak Prescott pass to Michael Gallup. 

       

    What it means

    This game was a microcosm of the entire season for the NFC East. On paper, it should have been a Cowboys rout. But Jason Garrett made every tactical mistake a coach can make (an entire column could be written about everything wrong with Garrett calling a pitch play to Tony Pollard on 3rd-and-1 following Eagles All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox's return after briefly being knocked out of the game), and the Cowboys played like a team with no faith in itself. So, the Eagles lingered and mitigated their own shortcomings until they could manufacture yet another victory against a divisional foe.

    The Eagles are now in first place and can clinch the division against the Giants next week. The Cowboys need a win at home against Washington and an Eagles loss to win back a division crown that they should have walked away with around Thanksgiving. The Cowboys ended up stuck on their buses outside Lincoln Financial Field for about hours after the loss because of a mechanical failure on their charter flight home. It doesn't get more metaphorical than that.

       

    What's next

    Two more meaningful NFC East games? Seriously, blast this whole division into the heart of the sun. But don't let Garrett pilot the rocket, or it will just end up idling sadly in a parking lot for three hours.

Upset Spotlight: Cardinals 27, Seahawks 13

3 of 10

    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    What happened

    The Cardinals took a 17-7 halftime lead on the Seahawks with the help of some schoolyard tactics, including a goofy-looking (but effective) end-around throwback screen pass from Pharoh Cooper to Kyler Murray and a weaving drive-and-dish toss to Larry Fitzgerald. (An 80-yard Kenyan Drake touchdown run was also a factor.)

    Murray left the game with a hamstring injury in the third quarter. Time for a Seahawks defensive clampdown and some patented Russell Wilson magic, right? Wrong. Chandler Jones racked up four sacks as Wilson (16-of-31, just 169 yards, 1 TD) found it nearly impossible to connect with his wide receivers. And Brett Hundley made enough plays with his arm and legs in relief of Murray to lead a 78-yard fourth-quarter drive that Drake capped with a three-yard touchdown to seal the victory.

       

    What it means

    The Seahawks can still secure the top seed in the NFC playoffs with a win over the 49ers next week. They could also fall as far as the sixth seed with a loss. They played more like a sixth seed than a top seed Sunday, just as they did against the Rams in Week 14. Their offensive line played terribly, their defense got gouged too easily, and the entire game plan seemed to be built around Wilson coming to the rescue in the fourth quarter. If that sounds familiar, it's because it is a description of the 2016-18 Seahawks, teams that ended the season with winning records but fell flat in the playoffs (when they reached them). 

    Murray and Kliff Kingsbury have been doing weird and wonderful things offensively all season, while Jones has played at a Defensive Player of the Year level. Look for the Cardinals to earn some "next Ravens" billing as they upgrade other parts of their roster in the offseason. They've been a blast to watch, and they have the potential to soon be so much more.

       

    What's next

    49ers at Seahawks: Winner gets a week off!

    Cardinals at Rams: Both teams get several months off. 

Virtual Playoff Game Digest: Steelers vs. Titans

4 of 10

    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    The Steelers lost 16-10 to the Jets and the Titans lost 38-28 to the Saints. But since the Titans and Steelers are fighting for the last AFC wild-card berth, Gridiron Digest edited their two games into one "virtual game" for your enjoyment.

           

    What happened

    The Titans took a 14-0 lead against an opponent that both looked flat after a big Monday night win and appeared to have trouble with the footing on a chewed-up outdoor field. The Steelers fell behind 10-0 due in large part to a pair of Devlin Hodges interceptions.

    Who could the Steelers call upon to save Christmas? Why, Rudolph, of course. Mason Rudolph, that is. Rudolph replaced Hodges and threw a touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson to tie the score 10-10 at halftime. Meanwhile, the Titans appeared to miss injured running back Derrick Henry: five straight drives ended in punts (some of them thanks to 3rd-and-short stops), allowing their opponents to find their footing and take a 24-14 lead.

    But Rudolph got injured in the second half, as did center Maurkice Pouncey, and the Steelers struggled to move the ball as their opponent mounted a 13-10 lead. Opposing coach and tactical sorcerer Adam Gase kept calling draw plays and flat passes on 3rd-and-long while nursing the narrow lead, but former Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell got a measure of revenge by converting one of those third downs and setting up a field goal to make it 16-10 with another. 

    The Titans then nearly forced a safety and scored a quick touchdown on their next possession. But they could not stop Michael Thomas, who finished with 12 catches for 136 yards and one touchdown, taking over the game in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Hodges proved unable to guide the Steelers sleigh toward one final touchdown.

    Both playoff hopefuls ended up losing. But the Titans were the "winners" thanks to tiebreaker scenarios. 

         

    What it means and what happens next

    The Titans clinch a playoff berth next week with a win over the Texans or a Steelers loss to the Ravens. The Steelers need both a win and a Titans loss to reach the playoffs. The Ravens may well rest their starters now that they have clinched the top playoff slot, which could make things easier for the Steelers.

    The Titans are also closing in on their fourth straight 9-7 season, which is certainly an unusual accomplishment.

    Think of the Steelers and Titans as the AFC's answer to the NFC East teams. The Titans, like the Cowboys, are talented, streaky and excel at getting in their own way once the games start to matter. The Steelers, like the Eagles, are an injury-plagued mess who mix inspiring victories with humiliating defeats. Neither team really belongs in the postseason. But the schedule dictates that six teams from each conference must participate every year.

    If the Titans and Steelers both lose next week and the Raiders, Browns and Colts all win, it sets off a tiebreaker chain reaction that results in the Raiders earning the sixth playoff spot. Frankly, the Steelers and Titans deserve to have it happen to them after the way they performed over the last two weeks.

Tankwatch Season Finale Doubleheader!

5 of 10

    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    This year's edition of Tankwatch concludes with a breakdown of a thrilling double-header of showdowns between horrendous teams. 

    What happened

    The battle for the first pick in next year's draft briefly collapsed into a writhing 35-35-35-35 four-way heap before finally sorting itself out. 

    The Dolphins hit the Bengals with some early razzle-dazzle—a fumblin' stumblin' touchdown by defensive tackle/goal-line fullback Christian Wilkins and a flea-flicker to DeVante Parker to set up a second touchdownthen took a 35-12 lead against a team that looked ready to roll over and start planning its draft strategy. 

    Meanwhile, the Giants and Washington slugged it out like a pair of college football mid-majors with losing records that somehow earned bids to a Dec. 22 bowl game and hoped to impress the scouts. Saquon Barkley (remember him?) scored long rushing and receiving touchdowns as the Giants climbed to a 35-21 lead, while Dwayne Haskins left the game in the third quarter with a scary-looking ankle injury.

    But the Bengals scored 23 points in the final 6:11 of regulation with the help of a missed Dolphins field goal and an onside kick recovery. Case Keenum led a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives of his own, including a 99-yarder to tie the game with 29 seconds to play. For a few glorious moments, the four worst teams in the NFL were all knotted with 35 points and headed for overtime.

    Ultimately, a Daniel Jones-to-Kaden Smith touchdown sealed a 41-35 Giants win. The Bengals and Dolphins traded punts until the Dolphins drove for a 37-yard Jason Sanders field goal and a 38-35 win.

       

    What it means and what happens next

    • The Bengals are now guaranteed the first pick in next year's draft. They will either select LSU quarterback Joe Burrow or decide to noodle around with Andy Dalton for six or seven more years. Either is possible when the Bengals are involved.
    • Haskins returned to the sideline after getting carted off the field and was in a walking boot after the game. Haskins has shown steady improvement after some unimpressive performances at the start of his rookie season. His injury situation obviously bears monitoring.
    • The Giants could fall just far enough in the draft order to take them out of contention for Ohio State edge-rusher Chase Young. The good news is that they will still be able to select one of the many great incoming wide receiver prospects. The bad news is that Dave Gettleman will instead select a defensive tackle.
    • The Dolphins, with three first-round picks next year, have cost themselves a chance at Burrow but gained confidence, a culture and an identity in the process.

Player Spotlight: Michael Thomas, Wide Receiver, Saints

6 of 10

    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    What happened

    Thomas caught 12 passes for 136 yards and one touchdown, taking over the second half of the game as the Saints came back from a 14-0 deficit for a 38-28 victory over the Titans. 

    Thomas now has 145 receptions, breaking Marvin Harrison's single-season record of 143 receptions with one game left to play.

       

    What it means

    Between Sunday's performance and the Saints' Monday night win against the Colts, Thomas caught 24 passes for 264 yards and two touchdowns in six days. He's caught 10 or more passes in nine games and eclipsed 100 yards in 10 games. He came up big when Teddy Bridgewater relieved the injured Drew Brees early in the season and has somehow come up bigger as the Saints jockey for seedings atop the ultra-competitive NFC.

    Thomas is the NFL's Most Valuable Non-Quarterback, and it's not close. Until MVNQB becomes an official award, Thomas will have to settle for recognition on Twitter from NBA superstars who recognize elite game when they see it. And a chance to win the Super Bowl, of course.

       

    What's next

    The Saints need to beat the Panthers next week to secure a first-round playoff bye, so Thomas could easily finish the year with 150 receptions. Thomas will then become the most dangerous player in the NFC playoffs, because no defender or scheme has proved capable of stopping him.

Digest Sportsbook Meaningless Football Spectacular!

7 of 10

    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    In an effort to spice up a rather bland slate of Sunday games, Gridiron Digest put action on every game with no playoff expectations, whether we wanted to or not. Let's see how we did: 

       

    Carolina Panthers +6.5 at Indianapolis Colts

    The reasoning: Going against the casual public by betting on a new quarterback (Will Grier) in his first start is one of the oldest tricks in the handicapper's book.

    The result: Colts 38, Panthers 7. Grier threw three interceptions, and that old handicapper's trick was no match for the Panthers' awful run defense and special teams. Loss.

          

    Detroit Lions +255 Money Line at Denver Broncos

    The reasoning: We hated the Broncos as touchdown favorites with rookie quarterback Drew Lock. We hated the Lions with David Blough at quarterback, too, but we banked on a big payout for a Win One for Ol' Coach Patricia effort.

    The result: Broncos 27, Lions 17. No one wanted to Win One for Ol' Coach Patricia. In retrospect, it was silly to think that they did. Loss. 

       

    Jacksonville Jaguars +7.5 at Atlanta Falcons

    The reasoning: The Falcons as touchdown favorites? We'd rather have our toenails removed with a putty knife, thank you very much. 

    The result: Falcons 24, Jaguars 12. The Jaguars drove to the Falcons' 7-yard line with a chance to backdoor cover in the fourth quarter, but Gardner Minshew II ran out of magic and could not punch in a touchdown. That's what Gridiron Digest gets for being Minshew skeptics all season: We're like the intellectual mouse in the old Christmas special who egged Santa Claus and ended up getting thrown off a clock tower by the villagers as punishment.* That's also what Gridiron Digest gets for once again wagering on a freakin' Falcons game. Loss.

       

    New York Giants -1 at Washington

    The reasoning: Washington is 2-5 ATS at home this year, 1-3 ATS in division games and 2-8 coming off a loss. These aren't the types of trends you want to bet a car payment on, but this isn't the sort of game you want to bet a car payment on. 

    The result: Giants 41, Washington 35. This turned out to be the most exciting game of the early Sunday slate. As expected. Win. 

       

    Miami Dolphins straight-up win and Over 45.5 vs. Cincinnati Bengals +270

    The reasoning: The parlay looked like fun, and the payout sounded nice.

    The result: Dolphins 38, Bengals 35. We felt great when the Dolphins led 35-12 (the over was already secured!) Then, Andy Dalton and the Bengals tried to pull a Matt Ryan and the Falcons on us. But we prevailed for a tasty payout! Win. 

       

    Austin Ekeler Over 45.5 receiving yards (-112)

    The reasoning: Raiders-Chargers had the makings of a depressing slog between two teams that betrayed their fanbases, but Ekeler needs 78 receiving yards per game to reach Marshall Faulk's record for receiving yards by a modern running back (1,048), so we put our money where our rooting interest was. (Note: This is a terrible betting strategy.)

    The result: Ekeler cleared the number late in the third quarter and finished with 58 receiving yards on five catches. We honestly don't care what the final score was. Win.

       

    The final tally:

    Gridiron Digest went 3-3 on Sunday, but the Dolphins +270 offset the vig and left us ahead by a few bucks. More importantly, we had fun watching the Falcons and Dolphins, which isn't the sort of thing that happens on a typical Sunday. 

        

    *Editor's note: We are fairly certain that the adorable 1970s holiday classic 'Twas the Night Before Christmas does not end with the ritual sacrifice of a pre-adolescent mouse for the crime of intellectual skepticism. But it was before our time, and those old cartoons really did send some bizarre messages.

End-of-Year Awards Digest

8 of 10

    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Let's get these out of the way a week early so we can focus on the playoffs next week.

    Defender of the year: Per Pro Football Reference, opposing quarterbacks have an efficiency rating of just 34.7 when throwing to receivers covered by New England's Stephon Gilmore. The passer rating if opposing quarterbacks just threw the ball away on every attempt would be 39.0.

    Gilmore recorded six interceptions and two touchdowns while limiting opponents to just 42 receptions and 441 yards through Week 15: that's three catches for 31.5 yards per game, with a 48 percent completion rate. Those are staggering numbers, especially when opponents spent most of the season playing catchup against the Patriots.

       

    Offensive line of the year: The Steelers offensive line of Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, Ramon Foster, Matt Feller, B.J. Finney and Zach Banner overcame injuries and suspensions to keep a team with a quarterback called "Duck" and running backs acquired via crowd-sourcing in the playoff race.

       

    Special teamer of the year: Matthew Slater of the Patriots was the Special Teamer of the Decade, and he finished the 2010s on a high note: He recovered a blocked punt for a touchdown in Week 4 against the Bills, recovered a muffed punt in Week 7 against the Jets, blocked a punt against the Cowboys in Week 12 and forced a muffed punt against the Bengals in Week 15.

       

    Coordinator of the Year: Um, that would be offensive coordinator Greg Roman of the Ravens.

       

    Position Coach of the Year: Niners defensive line coach Kris Kocurek forged a perennial Pro Bowler (DeForest Buckner), a top prospect (Nick Bosa), a big-name free agent (Dee Ford) and some disappointing first-round picks of the past (Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas) into the fiercest pass rush in the NFL. That's not as easy as it sounds. 

    Kocurek was also the Lions defensive line coach during the Ndamukong Suh/Ziggy Ansah heyday. He may be due for a promotion. 

       

    Kicker Fail of the Year: Ryan Succop, Cody Parkey and Cairo Santos combined to go 8-of-18 on field goals for the Titans this year. Greg Joseph, the Titans' fourth kicker of the year, did not attempt a field goal Sunday. Per Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, no team has missed more field goals than they made since the 1987 Vikings, whose strike-breaking kicker Dale Dawson went 1-of-5 on field goals for the Vikings during the replacement games. (Field-goal conversion rates were also lower back then.) Kicker fails, including a blocked field goal against the Texans last week, may have cost the Titans a shot at the playoffs. 

       

    Fantasy Leech of the Year: The best thing about Jeff Wilson Jr.'s five touchdowns as the fourth member of the 49ers' three-man running back committee is that four of those touchdowns came in September. That means Wilson ate a bunch of waiver points to sit on the backs of lots of fantasy benches, while folks counting on the 49ers' many other offensive weapons waited in dread each week for Wilson to siphon off a much-needed touchdown. 

       

    Undrafted Rookie of the Year: Devlin Hodges, Steelers. He may not be the quarterback of the future, but he provided plenty of thrills, fun and hope in the present. 

       

    Mystery Touch of the Year: We couldn't completely ignore Week 16's action in this segment, especially after Bills tackle Dion Dawkins celebrated his goal-line touchdown against the Patriots with an elite (if brief) big man boogie.

Saturday Digest

9 of 10

    Will Vragovic/Getty Images

    News, notes, opinions and fallout from the three Saturday games.

    49ers 34, Rams 31

    Emmanuel Sanders caught a 46-yard bomb on the final 49ers drive to set up a game-winning field goal just two weeks after going 7-157-1 in the thrilling victory over the Saints. Sanders has kept the 49ers offense from becoming over-reliant on George Kittle, making him a huge reason the 49ers remain in the race for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

    Sanders only cost the 49ers third- and fourth-round picks at the trade deadline. Any team that fell out of the playoff race because of an injury crunch at wide receiver needs to self-evaluate to determine why it didn't pursue him. Yes, we're looking at you, Eagles. 

    The Rams were eliminated from the playoffs with this loss. They lack first-round picks in 2020 and 2021 thanks to the Jalen Ramsey trade, and while OverTheCap.com lists them with more than $25 million in cap space next year, that's before they make decisions on important in-house free agents like Michael Brockers, Andrew Whitworth, Dante Fowler Jr. and Greg Zuerlein or put together an extension for Ramsey. 

    It's going to be hard for the Rams to get better next year, and the NFC West is not going to get any easier. 

       

    Patriots 24, Bills 17

    Just Good Enough to Almost Beat Playoff-Caliber Teams: The 2019 Bills Story. 

    Just Good Enough to Barely Beat Teams Preconditioned for 20 Years to Lose to Them: The 2019 Patriots Story.

       

    Texans 23, Buccaneers 20

    The Texans clinched the AFC South with a less-than-glorious win: The Buccaneers spotted them five turnovers and a blocked kick yet still had multiple chances to win the game in the fourth quarter. 

    Bill O'Brien's game plan was dubious (every first-down play seemed to be a handoff for no gain), and his weird late-game clock-mismanagement gave the Bucs one last shot at a Hail Mary or pitches-and-prayers play. But his biggest blunder was a decision to punt on 4th-and-1 from the Texans 49-yard line with 2:27 to play. According to Edj Sports, that punt reduced the Texans' chance of winning by 15 percent. Fortunately for O'Brien, Jameis Winston's interceptions defy probability itself. 

    Winston celebrated Ian Rapoport's NFL.com report that the Bucs will keep him through 2020 with four interceptions and at least two other dropped interceptions, plus the usual smattering of big plays that Jedi mind-trick observers into thinking that maybe opening every game with a turnover isn't that big of a deal.

    The argument for franchise-tagging or extending Winston's contract boils down to this: If he just gets much better at the one terrible thing that he has spent four years getting worse at, maybe he will be awesome. It's up to you to decide if you would take that sort of wacky risk with your own money and reputation.

Point-Counterpoint

10 of 10

    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Tom Coughlin fired after the Jaguars lose an NFLPA grievance over forcing players to receive offseason medical treatment at the team facility.

    Point: Coughlin already has his next job lined up: He'll be playing Scrooge in the Gridiron Digest production of A Christmas Carol. We're not giving him a script. He'll be fine just winging it.

    Counterpoint: Coughlin just wanted to provide medical care to his employees in the most inconvenient, expensive and privacy-invasive way possible. His only crime was forgetting that he ran a football team, not an HMO.

       

    Senior players, coaches and contributors announced as finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 15-member Centennial Class.

    Point: No Louis Wright? How could they snub Louis Wright? He was a member of the 1970s All-Decade Team and also had Pro Bowl seasons in the 1980s. This isn't a joke. Look him up!

    Counterpoint: Now it's up to the Blue Ribbon Committee to select 14 individuals who can form a big circle around Paul Tagliabue so he can sneak into the Hall of Fame without anyone booing. 

        

    Terrell Owens snubbed from the NFL's 100th anniversary team.

    Point: Raymond Berry? "Crazy Legs" Hirsch? It's almost as if the NFL wants to celebrate its 100th season by remembering players from throughout all 100 years, not just guys who helped me win my sophomore dormitory fantasy league.

    Counterpoint: Teammates, coaches, executives and senior writers who dealt with T.O. on a daily basis seem to have a different opinion of him than the one I have formed based on his Pro Football Reference stats and a half-remembered story about sit-ups in a driveway or something. So I am obviously right about him, and the decision to exclude this misunderstood rapscallion from an all-century team wounds me personally. 

      

    The 49ers pay Richard Sherman a $1 million playing time bonus even though he may fall short of the snap-count benchmark.

    Point: Hello, I am Tom Coughlin and I do not approve this decision.

    Counterpoint: Upon hearing that management is feeling generous, the 49ers running backs merge into a Voltron and demand a bonus for rushing for over 200 yards. 

         

    Eagles announce that Darren Sproles will retire after the 2019 season.

    Point: Austin Ekeler now claims the mantle of "Darren Sproles" and has 60 days to legally change his name.

    Counterpoint: He had to get out of Philly before the Eagles scavenged him for parts to fix their wide receivers.

X