B/R Staff NFL Week 16 Report Card: Steelers' Playoff Hopes Nearly Dashed
The final act of an NFL regular season isn't unlike the setup of a movie. The payoff is coming.
With one week left to play, much has already been decided.
Ten teams clinched postseason berths. The Cincinnati Bengals secured the No. 1 overall draft pick after their latest loss to the Miami Dolphins.
Much more will be decided based on what was already seen during the league's Week 16 action.
- New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas set an NFL record, with his standing in history yet to be determined.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers continue to battle and overcome adversity, but their season hangs in the balance.
- The Philadelphia Eagles are now in the NFC East driver's seat.
- New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones presented a strong late-season push to be named the league's best rookie.
Eventually, these storylines will cease. How satisfactory they are depends on a person's point of view.
In order to decipher the league's latest happenings, Bleacher Report's team of NFL writers received their final orders of the year to grade the NFL's most pressing topics.
These are our gift to you. Happy Holidays.
Michael Thomas' Place in History
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas broke Marvin Harrison's record of 143 receptions in a single season. Thomas finished Sunday's contest against the Tennessee Titans with a total 145 catches.
"To be honest, it doesn't mean anything right now," Thomas told reporters after the game. "We got the victory, and we're trying to play for a championship right now. At the end of the season, we'll look up and see all of the things we've accomplished."
Thomas already set records as the fastest player in league history to 400 receptions as well as the most receptions and most receiving yardage in his first four seasons.
Where does Thomas' latest historical achievement rank in the annals of NFL history?
Mike Freeman: A
It's a good way to acknowledge one of the best talents of his generation. His name sometimes gets lost with others in a constellation of stars like Lamar Jackson and Tom Brady, but he remains one of the more stupendous players in the league.
Mike Tanier: A
Thomas is the best receiver in the NFL right now. He's the league's Most Valuable non-Quarterback. It's hard to measure just how great his impact on the NFC playoff race has been. The reception record just underlines what a remarkable player he has become.
Brent Sobleski: B
The NFL is now a passing league. A 100-reception season used to be something special. Eleven different receivers eclipsed the mark a year ago. This isn't to take away from Thomas' latest accomplishment because it's truly special to enter uncharted territory. At the same time, he's doing so in an era with a different emphasis than the first 80 years of professional football.
Brad Gagnon: C+
To steal a term Saints head coach Sean Payton used regarding Drew Brees' passing yardage record, offensive records are "fluid" these days. Thomas has put together one of the best seasons (and best four-season runs) in NFL history, but I think he'll eventually be known for a lot more than this 145-catch (and counting) season. So while I do think he'll be a Hall of Famer one day, it won't be because of this record in particular.
Gary Davenport: A
I don't know that the most receptions in a season is necessarily one of the more important individual records out there, but there's no way I'm giving Thomas any grade other than "A". He's been absolutely fantastic in 2019.
Steelers' Playoff Odds
Technically, the Pittsburgh Steelers are still in the playoff hunt, but Sunday's 16-10 loss to the New York Jets didn't help matters.
The Tennessee Titans now hold the edge for the sixth and final AFC playoff seed. The Oakland Raiders and Indianapolis Colts aren't entirely out of the mix, either.
What are the odds the Steelers still squeak into the postseason despite their latest setback?
Mike Freeman: C
The odds aren't great, but just the fact Tomlin has gotten this rag-tag group even close to the postseason is a damn miracle.
Mike Tanier: D+
Steelers-Ravens games are supposed to be epic showdowns with everything on the line for both teams. Instead, the Steelers are hoping the Ravens will rest their starters because they clinched the top seed. Any way a team reaches the playoffs is a legitimate way, but this is a sad way for the Steelers to finish out the year when they could have controlled their destiny with a win against the freakin' Jets.
Brent Sobleski: D
This Steelers team doesn't deserve to make the playoffs. The defense is spectacular but Pittsburgh's quarterback play and special teams stink. Tennessee is the superior squad.
Brad Gagnon: C+
The Ravens might still let them off the hook, but the Texans could do the same to the Titans. I think it's tough to get a read on those scenarios this early, but I'd give them about a 50/50 shot.
Gary Davenport: D
It can't be ruled out since the Texans have an outside shot at the No. 3 seed in the AFC, while the Ravens have nothing to play for in Week 17. But given how Pittsburgh looked against a flawed Jets team Sunday, I don't know that Pittsburgh can beat Baltimore's second-string.
For one game, the Miami Dolphins forgot they were supposed to be tanking, while the Cincinnati Bengals needed a reminder they're the league's worst team.
The Dolphins built a 28-6 third-quarter lead before the Bengals came roaring back to tie the game and force overtime.
Ultimately, the Dolphins secured their fourth victory thanks to a 37-yard Jason Sanders field goal during the extra frame. Cincinnati secured the first overall pick in April's NFL draft with the loss.
"There's not been a time this year when we've unfortunately found ourselves in these holes where the thought is ever, 'Let's make it close,'" Bengals head coach Zac Taylor told reporters. " ... If there is an outside chance we can win a game, what is it we have to do? That's the decision we made every single game.
"You see a team that doesn't care [about the No. 1 overall pick]."
How did both teams perform knowing each is positioning itself for the best possible draft pick?
Mike Freeman: Bengals, A; Dolphins, A
If you're gonna suck, might as well excel at it.
Mike Tanier: Bengals, C-; Dolphins, A+
It doesn't matter who the Bengals select with the top pick if they go into next year with all the old 2015 guys still littering the roster. Whereas, discipline and pride mean more than draft position. Just ask the Browns if you can get them to stop blaming each other for 30 seconds.
Brent Sobleski: Bengals, A; Dolphins, B
Cincinnati got exactly what it needed from its players: The team played hard yet still found a way to lose. The Bengals can now land their first franchise quarterback since Carson Palmer in 2003. The Dolphins, meanwhile, haven't tried to tank for quite some time. They're actually playing competitive football.
Brad Gagnon: Bengals, B+; Dolphins, B+
Winning is never good in a situation like this, regardless of what it arguably does to morale. Still, that was damn fun.
Gary Davenport: Bengals, A; Dolphins, B
I can't get too mad at the Dolphins—they tried really hard to let Cincy steal this one after going up 28-6. But when it comes to the will to lose, you aren't out-bungling the Bungles.
Danny Dimes as NFL's Best Rookie QB
The New York Giants' Daniel Jones looks the part of a franchise quarterback, and he reminded everyone Sunday in a 41-35 victory over the Washington Redskins.
Jones shredded the division rival with 352 passing yards and five touchdown passes. He tied Deshaun Watson and Frank Tarkenton as the only rookie signal-callers with three games of four or more touchdown tosses, according to ESPN Stats & Info (h/t ESPN's Jordan Raanan).
"Savage," wide receiver Sterling Shepard told reporters. "That dude is going to be something special."
Jones' performance has had its ups and downs, as is the case with any first-year field general. Ball security remains a significant concern. Even so, has Jones established himself as the NFL's best rookie quarterback?
Mike Freeman: B+
He's shown in different spots all year he has talent. It seems to be coming together. It also doesn't hurt when Saquon Barkley gets going.
Mike Tanier: C-
You misspelled Kyler Murray.
Brent Sobleski: C
Of course, Jones is a top-three rookie quarterback this season. Then again, there's only three first-year signal-callers who started double-digit games. Murray has been the best of the bunch, while Jones' turnovers (21) are still worrisome.
Brad Gagnon: D-
Jones has been fantastic in four specific games this season, but Murray has been more consistently reliable, and Gardner Minshew II has been more magical (and has better numbers overall).
Gary Davenport: C
Jones has had his moments, but he's made quite a few mistakes with the football. Given his 21 turnovers this year, I gotta give the edge where rookie quarterbacks are concerned to Murray.
Eagles' Playoff Hopes Beyond the First Round
The Philadelphia Eagles took control of the NFC East with a 17-9 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
The 8-7 squad should be ecstatic after a crucial victory, but its work is far from done. The Eagles must win next week against the New York Giants or have the Cowboys lose against the Washington Redskins to claim a division crown and the NFC's fourth overall playoff seed.
Aside from a fan sneaking into Doug Pederson's postgame press conference, everything went the Eagles' way.
However, Philadelphia will host the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers or Minnesota Vikings depending on next week's outcome.
What are the odds Pederson's squad is one-and-done in the postseason if/when it wins the NFC East?
Mike Freeman: F
The Eagles' chances of winning a playoff game are slim because every playoff team will be significantly better than they are. They will be outmatched no matter who they play.
Mike Tanier: D-
They only got this far because Jason Garrett couldn't coach a duck to quack. They are not getting past anyone in the first round.
Brent Sobleski: D
Garrett and the Cowboys were basically the NFL's version of a certain character from Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker. They're dead men walking. So, the Eagles' victory didn't exactly send shockwaves throughout the league. While Carson Wentz's and Miles Sanders' play will give them a puncher's chance, they'll be the worst team, by far, in the NFC bracket.
Brad Gagnon: B-
You can never totally rule out the Pederson-coached Eagles. At home on wild-card weekend, they could absolutely beat the Seahawks or Vikings, and possibly even the 49ers or Packers.
Gary Davenport: F
The Eagles have shown a lot of moxie in taking control of the NFC East despite all of the injuries. But I have a really hard time imagining this Eagles team getting past the NFC West runner-up. Just too many holes at receiver and on the back end of the defense.
Kliff Kingsbury's First Season in Arizona
Two significant questions revolved around the Arizona Cardinals based on the organization's offseason decisions.
Could Kliff Kingsbury transition to the NFL ranks after a mediocre collegiate coaching career, and would Kyle Murray succeed/survive as a professional quarterback?
The latter question wasn't nearly as prevalent as the former because a large portion of Murray's success hinged on Kingsbury's performance as head coach/offensive play-caller.
Arizona improved to 5-9-1 after Sunday's 27-13 victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
Obviously, the Cardinals are still in the building stages of their current regime. Even so, how impressive has Kingsbury been in his first year as an NFL head coach?
Mike Freeman: B
The record doesn't show it but Kingsbury had a highly successful first year. The reason why? He worked well with his quarterback, who showed he is someone who can play at a high level in this league, and Kingsbury fashioned an offense around his talents. Both coach and quarterback have bright futures.
Mike Tanier: A
I love what he has done. The offense is as creative as advertised, Murray has shown a lot of promise as a rusher and a passer, and the team was competitive almost every week. Let me be the first to declare them "Next Year's Ravens." (Narrator: About 5,000 other people have already declared them to be "Next Year's Ravens.")
Brent Sobleski: B+
The Cardinals are exactly what you want from a previously bad team with a first-year head coach. They're better today than they were when the season started. That's a sign of good coaching.
Brad Gagnon: B
It's been a work in progress as expected, but Kingsbury's offense hasn't been a major problem. The defense has, but that's probably more on Vance Joseph and the personnel. I'm expecting big things from the Cards in 2020.
Gary Davenport: B
Kingsbury's been better than I expected in Year 1. Murray's improving, the team seems to be taking to his offense, and there's been real progress—especially given where the team is relative to last year's disaster.
Kenyan Drake's Pay-Day Potential
Kenyan Drake has been nearly unstoppable the last two weeks. The Arizona Cardinals running back carried the ball 46 times for 303 yards and six touchdowns against the Cleveland Browns and Seattle Seahawks.
"We predicted as the No. 1 back what he could do," Kingsbury told reporters of Drake. "That's why we made the trade at that point in the season if we didn't think he was going to be the guy. Getting that number of touches, he's stepped up and answered the bell."
But for how long, though?
Drake is a pending free agent. The Cardinals already have a significant investment in David Johnson, whether he's playing or not. The veteran back holds a $14.25 million salary-cap hit in 2020, per Spotrac, and the Cardinals can't save any money by releasing him.
Knowing where the team stands financially and how backs are paid in free agency, will Drake's recent outburst result in a significant offseason contract?
Mike Freeman: B
I thought Drake was good but I didn't think he had this type of skill set. He's perfect in this offense. Hell, he's perfect in any offense. He'll get a nice new deal.
Mike Tanier: D+
He has been fun to watch in the second half, but there are about 50 running backs from Dalvin Cook to Alvin Kamara to Austin Ekeler looking to cash in. Drake's near the back of the line.
Brent Sobleski: B
Fortunately, the Cardinals can absorb Johnson's cap hit for now and still pay Drake. Arizona has a projected $70.5 million in available salary-cap space for the 2020 campaign. Drake will realize he won't be used any better than he is right now. Both sides will want to get something done.
Brad Gagnon: C+
I'd like to believe the league has learned to stop paying up for running backs, especially those who may be flashes in the pan. Still, somebody will pay up for Drake just because the ceiling is so high.
Gary Davenport: D
Drake's been great since joining the Cardinals—he's averaging over 150 rushing yards and three scores over the last two games. But the running back position has been devalued in the NFL, and it's still a relatively small sample size. Franchise tag, maybe?
Philip Rivers' Future with the Chargers
Philip Rivers played what could have been his last "home" game in a Chargers uniform. Los Angeles lost 24-17 to the Oakland Raiders before finishing out the regular season at Kansas City against the Chiefs.
Rivers is scheduled to be a free agent after this season. After a 5-10 campaign, the franchise might view this as the right time to make a significant change at the game's most important position.
"I would like him to be my quarterback again," Chargers running back Austin Ekeler said, per ESPN's Eric D. Williams. "I think he's a great leader and knows the game. He had a rough year this year as far as interceptions, but he's been playing a long time so he knows what he's doing, and he can put that in the past."
The 38-year-old signal-caller wants to play beyond this season, per San Diego XTRA 1360's Marty Caswell. What are the chances Rivers plays a 17th season with the Chargers organization?
Mike Freeman: D
He looks shot, and I'd be stunned if the Chargers brought him back.
Mike Tanier: D
He's cooked like a Christmas goose. But the Chargers may keep him around to mentor his replacement. And won't that be fun? Rivers totally seems like the sort of guy who will have a lot of patience while training someone to take his job.
Brent Sobleski: C
The following path is the best course of action for the Chargers organization: The front office should re-sign Rivers for one more season while doubling down on the quarterback position with a first-round selection to serve as heir apparent.
Brad Gagnon: D-
Time's up. Rivers is clearly in decline, and he's not getting enough out of a strong arsenal of weapons. It isn't worth it for a talented Chargers team to bring him back. They need to move on in the offseason.
Gary Davenport: C-
I can't say with certainty that this is the end of the line for Rivers in Los Angeles—NFL teams have a hard time letting go at the quarterback position. But unless the Bolts want a repeat of this year's disappointment in 2020, it should be.