Once the Monday night game is played tonight in New Jersey — Colts at Jets — the league will be at ground zero. Twelve games played for every team. Then 64 games left. A sprint to the finish, starting with what I’d argue is the most important game of the 64 as we sit here this morning: Oakland at Kansas City, Thursday night.
It stinks that the Raiders have to travel 1,500 miles on a short-week turnaround to play the biggest game of their year, and if Al Davis were around, he’d have let loose with a few choice quotes at the league office about how Park Avenue has it in for the Raiders. But it is what is, a wise man once said. Absent the Thursday part of it: How great is this? This 57-year rivalry (last 18 meetings: KC 9, Oakland 9) drips with history. Al Davis-Lamar Hunt. John Madden-Hank Stram. The Ken Stabler Raiders won seven straight in the series in the seventies. The Marty Schottenheimer Chiefs won seven straight in the nineties. On Christmas Eve 1994, the Chiefs won the last game in the history of the Los Angeles Raiders — with Joe Montana at quarterback for Kansas City and Marcus Allen behind him in the backfield.
And now, two California coaches (Andy Reid, Jack Del Rio) and two California quarterbacks (Alex Smith, Derek Carr) face off Thursday night in western Missouri, with more on the line than just the fate of these two teams.
“We are fired up,” Raider Khalil Mack said Sunday night from Oakland. “Huge game. Forget the short week.”
“Can’t do nothing about the schedule,” Chief Eric Berry said from Atlanta. “We’ll be ready.”
The game impacts:
• The AFC West. Oakland is 10-2, Kansas City 9-3, Denver 8-4 in the best division, unquestionably, in football. This game’s almost more important for Oakland than Kansas City, because the Chiefs control so many of the tiebreaker edges and because the Chiefs have the most advantageous schedule of the West contenders down the stretch. With a win, Kansas City sweeps the series from Oakland this year and takes a commanding lead in division tiebreakers at 4-0 in division games; Oakland would be 2-2 and Denver 1-3. It’s certainly not a must-win if Oakland wants to win the division, but the Raiders would need help if they lose Thursday night — and the Raiders have a Week 17 game at Denver in the balance.
• The Patriots. Oakland crept ahead of New England (10-2) in the race for the top seed with a win over Buffalo on Sunday. Because the Raiders and Patriots haven’t played each other, the first tiebreaker is conference record; they’re both 7-1 in AFC games. Then it goes to common games. Oakland 2-0, New England 2-1, with the Pats’ Week 4 loss to Buffalo the stumble. The top seed is very much in play, because New England’s stretch run is tough: resurgent Baltimore at home, then Denver on the road, Jets at home, and Miami on the road in a game the Dolphins might need to make the playoffs. And Miami’s beaten the Pats three straight at home.
• The Broncos. A Kansas City win Thursday and a Denver win Sunday makes the West very tight: KC and Oakland 10-3, Denver 9-4. So the Broncos aren’t out of it. They just have to do something very difficult to have a chance to win the division: beat Tom Brady in Week 15, win in Kansas City on Christmas night, then beat Oakland on New Year’s Day at home. That’s a heck of a closing trifecta. If Trevor Siemian goes 3-0 in those games, the Tony Romo rumors go away for good.
I’m giving playoff spots to Oakland and Kansas City, leaving one wild-card spot open. That’s likely to go to one of three teams: Denver (8-4), Miami (7-5), or the Pittsburgh (7-5)-Baltimore (7-5) loser.
If the ratings are even going to gain ground, this is the week it should happen, by the way. After Raiders-Chiefs, it’s Cowboys-Giants on Sunday night, and Ravens-Patriots on Monday night.
It’s too early to align playoff games yet, but let’s look at the lay of the land, division by division, with four weeks to go.
It’s over. It’s premature to say the Giants are who we thought they were, but Sunday was a bad day for two streaking teams — New York and Miami. The Giants (8-4), three back of 11-1 Dallas with four to play, have to hope for the five seed now, with Dallas and Detroit at home, then ending at Philly and Washington. Tough sledding. Washington, at 6-5-1, is very much alive, with an easier schedule: at Philly, Carolina, at Chicago, Giants. The Eagles (5-7) continued to go out meekly Sunday in Cincinnati.
Stop the presses: Detroit, for the first time all year, didn’t trail in the fourth quarter Sunday. In fact, the Lions were never behind in beating New Orleans. Detroit is 8-4; Vikes and Packers 6-6. No team has a clear schedule edge down the stretch, but the Lions have the toughest single game — at Dallas in Week 16. Minnesota’s lost six of seven, so logically Green Bay (last two games: Pack 48, Foes 26) looks like Detroit’s toughest challenger. Pack at Lions in Week 17, by the way.
Atlanta and Tampa Bay (both 7-5) will battle for the division, and the Falcons can’t afford to look back at one-, two- and three-point losses, one more agonizing than the other. The latest: Eric Berry stealing a Matt Ryan two-point pass and running it back for a two-point defensive conversion; Chiefs 29, Falcons 28. But it’s a weird road for Tampa to finish: Saints, at Cowboys, at Saints, Panthers. The Falcons have the Rams and Niners in the next two weeks. It’s still hard to fathom Atlanta losing this division, but man, the Falcons make too many mistakes and shaky calls to play deep into January. Speaking of teams that won’t play deep into January, I never thought a missing necktie would lead to the worst Carolina loss in more than two years. That team’s going out ugly.
It’s over. Seattle (8-3-1) is going to be the second seed and will need the bye week to get some beat-up players back to health. Bruce Arians goes to bed at night and dreams of kickers and snappers who just do their jobs.
Nothing to see here. Bills and Dolphins went on the road in games they had to have and lost by 46. New England wins the division. Assuming that’s so, since 2003, here’s how often each AFC East team has won the division title: New England 13, Miami 1, Buffalo 0, New York 0.
Now here’s some drama. The Steelers and Ravens are 7-5, meet Christmas in Pittsburgh, and are on mini-streaks. Pittsburgh’s got the schedule edge: at Buffalo, at Cincinnati, Baltimore, Cleveland … Baltimore finishes with three of four on the road at New England, vs. Philadelphia, at Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati. Want a sleeper special to run the table to Super Bowl 51? Pick the winner of this division — whichever team it is.
A Colts win tonight ensures the Trifecta of Mediocrity down the stretch: Houston, Indy and Tennessee would all be 6-6. The Titans look like the best team, but a 1-3 division record and games with the Broncos and Chiefs could doom them.
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With four weeks to play, here are my projected seeds:
AFC: 1. New England, 2. Oakland, 3. Pittsburgh, 4. Houston, 5. Kansas City, 6. Denver.
Should be a fun month. I’ll tell you the game that would be off the charts: Derek Carr at Tom Brady. Carr was 10 years old when the Tuck Game happened, when Adam Vinatieri kicked the Snow Globe field goal and Charles Woodson and Al Davis got on the plane home from New England, bitterly, and when the legend of Tom Brady really took flight. Who knows if it happens, but the bombs-away Raiders in Foxboro in January would be awesome to see.
When it was over, the 29-28 Kansas City win over Atlanta, owner Clark Hunt visited safety Eric Berry, sitting at his locker. Berry looked like he was going to stand, but Hunt said, “You don’t have to get out of your seat. You worked hard today.”
This was one of the strangest, most emotional and most rewarding days of Berry’s life. He scored eight points on two interceptions he returned to the end zone — one for a touchdown, one for a newfangled NFL defensive two-point conversion. The latter won the game.
How incredible it was: In the 82nd game of his NFL career, Berry had his best game, college or pro, and he had it in his hometown. It’s the first time he’d gotten to play as a pro in Atlanta. And he had this game nine miles from the cancer center that cured him of lymphoma when he was diagnosed two years ago this month. “The only time in-season that I’d ever flown into Atlanta was two years ago, when I had to come to get my cancer treated,” he said by cell phone from Atlanta after the game. “Then yesterday, flying in here, that was the second time. So it was pretty emotional, thinking back to that flight two years ago.” He met with immediate family Saturday but wanted to stay in regular game mode. That didn’t stop him from big mood swings Sunday. “I cried before, during and after the game,” he said.
Late in the second quarter, with the Falcons trying to get in position for at least a field goal, Berry said he saw something familiar from tape study; he let a receiver come underneath him, waited a second, and when Ryan threw, Berry ducked in front of the receiver and picked it off. Off to the end zone he went, 27 yards for a touchdown. He ran to the stands to hand the ball to his mother, in the second row. “One to my mom, and the next one to my dad,” he said.
The next one? Not a pick-six like the first one, but a pick-two. Atlanta had gone ahead 28-27 in the fourth quarter and went for two after the touchdown. This year in the NFL, you can return a failed PAT or two-point play to the opposite end zone for two points. Berry picked off the conversion attempt by Ryan, and he was never challenged.
“I can’t repay my parents, ever,” Berry said. “All the nights I cried on their shoulders. They told me, over and over again, that this time would come. So on a day like this, it’s hard not to be emotional. It’s the top. It’s number one. It’s my best day.”
About 500 NFL players in Week 13 (ending tonight with Jets-Colts) put on different shoes for one week only, the NFL dropping its autocratic fine system to allow players to promote charities and causes they love for one week. It’s long overdue. The NFL traditionally — as in the case of raising money to fight breast cancer throughout October — has told players the causes they could support instead of saying, “What causes would you like to support?” It’s been like enforced charity, with the players as pink billboards for a month. Some surely are proponents of money-raising for the breast cancer fight. But there are other causes, and the league allowed every player to wear cleats with designs of their choice for this one week only. Players can take their game-worn cleats and auction them either on their own or through the league, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the cause.
Last year at The MMQB, Steelers cornerback William Gay wrote about being fined $5,787 by the league for wearing purple cleats to draw attention to domestic violence; his mother had been murdered in an abusive relationship. What a ridiculous way for players with a cause to be punished. So this year, the NFL realized the errors of its ways, and decided on a one-week amnesty for players to express themselves.
I thought I’d explain one cause, one of 500, to show how a typical player got involved. I chose New England defensive lineman Chris Long, who is active in raising money to build solar-power wells in the drought-ravaged areas of East Africa (Tanzania mostly). The wells cost $45,000 each, and his goal is to build 32 of them — one representing each NFL franchise. The initiative is called “Waterboys,” and Long has recruited several players from other teams as frontmen for the cause.
“I agree that it’s long overdue,” Long said Sunday after the Patriots’ win over the Rams. “Anytime we can get in front of a new audience, it’s helpful, because you never know how many people will say — or maybe even one wealthy person — ‘I really want to help. That’s a great idea.’ We install solar-powered, energy-efficient wells. We’ve gotten 14 wells put in now, at $35,000 to $45,000 apiece. Each one can provide clean water for up to 5,000 to 7,000 people in an area. Often times in these communities, you’ll find young girls — instead of going to school, they spend hours every day walking to get water. So if we can install wells, they can go to school and begin to live the kind of lives we take for granted. I was over there, and that scale of poverty, we’ve just never seen it before. Our dollars go a super-long way.”
Imagine you’re 41 years old, and playing possibly your last football game ever, and it’s the championship game, the 104th Grey Cup in Toronto. The only chance the huge underdog of your Ottawa Redblacks team has is for you to be great. When you run out on the field for warmups, you think, This is the biggest game of my life. Imagine taking your usual light jog around the field after stretching, and you feel a crunching feeling in your knee, and there’s an audible pop, and the knee buckles, and you’ve got to stop, and it locks up, and you bend down before anyone notices, fake-tying your shoe and gathering your thoughts with a leg that is virtually catatonic. You think, Oh no. This can’t be happening. But of course it is.
You go into the trainers room and tell the medics to do what they have to do — just get me out there … they’re about to play the Canadian National Anthem and toss the coin. The docs inject something in the knee joint and give you an oral painkiller, and in a couple of minutes, you’re feeling like you can move around a little bit. You jog-hobble out to the field, where the game is about to start. “Like Willis Reed with the Knicks,” you say later.
You’re pretty emotional, because you led the league in passing at age 38 in Hamilton, then got released. “Imagine Tom Brady leading the league in passing and getting released,” you say later. Then at 39 you go to this expansion team in Ottawa as the vet stopgap, and the team finishes 2-16 in 2014, and everyone’s pounding on team management to find your replacement. At 40, you lead the league in passing yards and win the league’s Most Outstanding Player and quiet the masses. And this year, at 41, early in the season, you break the pinky on your throwing hand, come back too soon from it, and eventually lose your job to your likely successor, Trevor Harris. And your wife tries to keep your spirits up for the six weeks Harris plays, telling you, “You’ll get another chance. You’ll get back in there. When you do, your body will be fresh, like Peyton Manning’s was last year.” That helps. And so late in the season you replace the ineffective Harris, and though your team finishes just 8-9-1, you win a bad Eastern Conference and get ready to face the dominant (15-2-1) Calgary Stampeders. There’s only a little pressure on you — no Ottawa team has won the Grey Cup in 40 years.
And everything goes right, even with the bum and numb knee. You’re up 27-7 in the third quarter. “Everything, I mean everything, was working, and it wouldn’t have mattered if Lawrence Taylor was on the other side,” you say later. But Calgary rallies, and scores in bunches, and recovers a popup onside kick in the last two minutes and kicks the tying field goal. Overtime, 33-33. Your heart sinks. My last chance, and it’s going down like this? Four touchdowns — two running, two passing — but it won’t matter it you don’t finish the job. On the first series of overtime — each team gets a shot in CFL OT — from the Hamilton 11, you throw a strike to Ernest Jackson, who bobbles it once, twice, three times and secures it as he crosses the goal line and flops on the ground, keeping possession. Calgary fails to score, and you’re standing with teammates after the game-ending incompletion by Calgary, and everyone’s screaming, “We won! We won!” And you’re looking everywhere for a flag before you celebrate. No flag. You’ve won. Five touchdowns in all, and 35 of 46, 461 yards, and the Grey Cup MVP award. At 41.
There is a parade, with 55,000 in Ottawa a couple days later. The crowd chants, “M-V-P! M-V-P!” And then, “One more year! One more year!” And all you can think of and say, over and over again, through the chills, is, Wow. Wow. Wow. You’re on the ice before the NHL Senators game Wednesday, with another ovation. The U.S. Ambassador to Canada invites you (you’re from Oklahoma) and your wife to dinner Thursday. And another dinner awaits this week with Joe Biden, when the U.S. VP visits Ottawa this week. “I feel like Barack Obama,” you say.
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Yes, sometimes Henry Burris wishes his NFL moments in Green Bay (2001) and Chicago (2002 and ’03) went better. But then his son wouldn’t be bi-lingual. Then he wouldn’t know the wonders of the Canadian Rockies or the greatness of the Canadian capital, and he wouldn’t have made a life for himself and his family playing football.
“The opportunity Eli Manning got in the U.S., I got in Canada, and I’m very grateful,” Burris said the other day. “Hopefully the people back home get to see what I’ve become. Canada is such a great country, a wide-open, free country. I’ve had the chance here to further my career and play the game I love. It’s not NFL money, but is that the important part? Not to me. You can make money through the rest of your life. But you’ve got to earn a Grey Cup. They’ll never be able to take this Grey Cup, and this win, away from us.”
There’s something about a football game in Green Bay. Of all the bucket-list things you should do before you stop loving football or you leave this planet, spending a weekend in Green Bay for a game is what I would recommend most.
But if you can’t make it, we’re going to do the next-best thing. The MMQB is going to take you there this week. We’ll show you, day by day, what a game week is like in the smallest city in professional sports (population: 103,000). We’ll take you on tour with a Packer historian (my friend Cliff Christl) and with a former Packer (Ahman Green). We’ll take you on a hunting trip with a Packer on his Tuesday off-day and provide a unique look at life as a Green Bay rookie. We’ll take you to a good old-fashioned Green Bay potluck dinner with a surprise planned. We’ll take you to the Hinterland Brewery for a Tweetup; my understanding is beer may be involved. We’ll take you to meet the keepers of the Tundra. We’ll have a few more surprises for you, in and around the surprisingly different parts of the city. And on Sunday, videographer John DePetro and the director of our project, Kalyn Kahler, will walk you through the most interesting and delicious tailgate festivities in the NFL. Come along with them. You’ll see the food and meet the people who make the Packer experience a blast.
I’ll be there for a cameo, but the real work (fun?) will be done by staffers Emily Kaplan and Robert Klemko, and DePetro and Kahler. Visit The MMQB homepage and social channels during the week for updates and stories and video and Facebook Lives and Twitter experiences.
How’d I get hooked on Green Bay? The games, mostly. Early on, in the late eighties and nineties, it was the gigantic cheddar-cheese wheel that Lee Remmel, the longtime PR man, had for snacks in the back of the press box. Seriously: this thing could have fit on a Mack Truck. If you got hungry during the game, you went to the back of the press box, got some coffee, and cut yourself off a big slab of Wisco cheddar.
And the scenes. In 1990, before a Bears-Packers game, I went to dinner Saturday night with Bears linebacker Ron Rivera and a couple of teammates, walking three blocks to a Mexican restaurant in the nearby town of Appleton — lots of teams stay there because there’s a bigger hotel there than Green Bay has. Rivera talked almost lovingly of the rivalry, and what it felt like to play in Lambeau Field. On the way to the stadium the next morning, I followed the Bears team buses, and midway through the 30-minute ride, on the right-hand side of the road, two children, a boy and a girl, commenced to whacking on a huge stuffed bear hung in effigy from a tree in their year by the side of the road. On the radio, a Packer guard, Bill Ard, was introducing a block of songs on the oldies station in town thusly: “Hi, I’m Bill Ard of the Green Bay Packers. And this is a Bears Still Suck Block Party weekend.”
It’s just not like other places. Join us this week to find out why.
“This game has been so good to me no regrets. A lot is running through my mind including retirement thanks for all the prayers.”
—Seattle safety Earl Thomas, in a tweet he sent after leaving the Sunday night game with a broken leg.
Chalk up the retirement talk to being caught in the emotion of the injury, but believe this: Seattle losing Thomas is as significant as the Patriots losing Rob Gronkowski. Maybe moreso, because the Patriots have shown they can win two-thirds of the time without Gronkowski. The Seahawks just are not used to playing defense very often without its quarterback. A shame to see a player with such verve and passion go down.
“It’s a lot worse than, ‘Oh darn.’”
—Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, asked what was going through his mind when Kansas City safety Eric Berry was running downfield with the winning two-point defensive conversion on an interception.
“Nick, if I hire this kid and it doesn’t work out, I’m going to kill you.”
—New England coach Bill Belichick, to former director of operations Nick Carparelli, when he was trying to determine whether to hire Matt Patricia as a coaching assistant in 2004, as told by Tim Rohan of The MMQB in a profile on Patricia last week. Carparelli was very high on Patricia, and, according to Rohan, said, “Coach, trust me.”
Belichick got good intel. Patricia is one of the rising-star assistants in the league.
“The buses pull out, and they make that turn off of Clark onto Addison, and it was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I’ve never seen so many people in my life. We go down Addison, then get on Lake Shore to head downtown and eventually end up in Grant Park. I’m up on stage talking and out on the horizon there were people. I called it Cubstock 2016. I really thought before I got up there that that’s what Richie Havens saw at Woodstock back in the day. It was wall-to-wall people.”
—Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon on Friday, in his first appearance since winning the World Series a month ago, on the championship parade in downtown Chicago. Maddon appeared with FOX’s Ken Rosenthal at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Upper Montclair, N.J., and answered questions from Rosenthal and fans for more than an hour.
The big question, of course, from Rosenthal was why Maddon brought in closer Aroldis Chapman with a 7-2 lead in the seventh inning of Game 6 — a decision that nearly came back to haunt him when Chapman gave up a game-tying home run in Game 7.
“[Cleveland] had two guys on and I did not like who was coming up to hit. I just wanted to make sure that we got through that with that same kind of lead. If you don’t — if I had brought someone else in and the lead diminished at all, I thought the number of pitches he would have had to throw later in the game would have been even more impactful against him. … And in the bullpen, some of our guys had been hurt at the end of the year … It was a meaty part of their batting order. [Francisco] Lindor hit the ground ball to first base … It was really a bad part of the batting order right there. I didn’t know and trust anybody else. I thought if we could at least hold serve there and move the needle in our favor that I would be more comfortable going with the other guys in the latter part of the game.”
Rosenthal had a great point after all of the questions about strategy had been answered: Baseball’s a complicated game, and you can disagree with the decision a manager has made (I still would never have brought in Chapman two days after throwing 42 pitches in a game in the seventh inning with a five-run lead), but at least it’s interesting to hear Maddon’s reasoning. And you understand him a little more.
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The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Joe Flacco, quarterback, Baltimore. The Ravens have been waiting for a performance like this from their $22 million quarterback: 36-of-47 for 381 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. It’s his first four-TD game in 26 months, and he’d had only 11 touchdown throws in 11 games before Sunday’s 38-6 rout of the Dolphins. For Baltimore to win the AFC North, more days like this from Flacco are vital.
Tom Brady, quarterback, New England. Brady, 39, won the 201st start of his NFL career, breaking the record for quarterback wins (which numerologists hate, but it’s still a thing). Brady was his efficient, workmanlike self — 33-of-46, 269 yards, one touchdown (a beautiful throw to Chris Hogan at the pylon), no interceptions and a 93.5 rating. No picks … that’s much like Brady’s season. For the year, even missing the first four games, he’s had 19 touchdown passes and only one interception in eight games.
Jordan Howard, running back, Chicago. In a game for mudders at Soldier Field, the kind of game George Halas and Mike Ditka would have loved, fifth-round rookie Howard toted it 32 times for 117 yards and three rushing touchdowns in a very unpretty 26-6 win over the Niners.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Eric Berry, safety, Kansas City.In the seven-year safety’s first game as an NFL player in his hometown — and where he underwent treatment in 2014 for life-threatening lymphoma — Berry became the first player in NFL history with a pick-six and a pick-two in the same game. In the 29-28 win over Atlanta, Berry returned a Matt Ryan pass 37 yards near the end of the first half, and after the Falcons took a 28-27 lead in the closing minutes, returned another Ryan pass for a two-point defensive conversion for the win. Amazing game, particularly as it was played 15 minutes from the hospital when Berry was cured of the lymphoma.
Danielle Hunter, defensive end, Minnesota. Wait, you say. Vikings lost. Indeed: Dallas, 17, Minnesota 15. But did you see that defense? Specifically, that defensive front? Dallas had 13 first downs, 264 yards and just 124 net passing yards from the quarterback who’s taken the league by storm. Hunter (two sacks), fifth in the league with 9.5 sacks, has emerged as a threat as consistent and dangerous as teammate Everson Griffen. Hunter’s play caving in the pocket Thursday night tells me that if the Vikings get in the playoffs (which is looking unlikely at 6-6), that defensive front is going to make life miserable for even a good offensive line and quarterback.
Khalil Mack, outside linebacker, Oakland. Mack’s making a December push for the Defensive Player of the Year award in his third NFL season. He wrecked another game Sunday, late in Buffalo-Oakland. With Oakland nursing a 30-24 lead with 11 minutes left, Mack raked Tyrod Taylor’s arm as he threw, forcing an interception leading to a Raider touchdown. With 3:30 left, Mack strip-sacked Taylor and recovered the fumble, leading color man Dan Fouts to exclaim: “The football hat trick! One for the sack, one for the forced fumble, one for the recovery!” Not a bad day. Seven tackles too.
SPECIAL TEAM PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Albert Wilson, wide receiver/punt-team fullback, Kansas City. It happened so fast. Credit Dave Toub, the veteran special-teams maestro, for that. With Kansas City holding on to a 20-16 lead early in the third quarter at Atlanta, the up-back, Wilson, took a direct snap from long-snapper James Winchester (who is one heck of a special-teams player), and Wilson just took off, shocking the defense. No Falcon came close to him. After the 55-yard gallop for a touchdown, you could see the Falcons looking around at each other, like, what just happened?
COACH OF THE WEEK
Keith Butler, defensive coordinator, Pittsburgh. The Steelers defense is on a heck of a run, surrendering in a three-game winning streak 209, 310 and 234 yards, with 9, 7 and 7 points allowed (until Eli Manning threw a garbage touchdown pass with 30 seconds left in a 17-point game Sunday). When Butler replaced Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau at the end of the 2014 season, it was assumed it’d take him awhile to become one with his defenders. But they trust him, they trust his calls, and he’s getting a lot out of ancient James Harrison and instinctive young corner Artie Burns. Very impressive job by Butler.
GOAT OF THE WEEK
Matt Ryan, quarterback, Atlanta. This isn’t for the pick-six thrown to Eric Berry just before halftime. These things happen. But ahead by one, 28-27, with 4:32 left in the game, with the conversion attempt forthcoming, the one thing you can’t do is throw a pick to a fast guy with open field ahead of him. That’s exactly what Ryan did, and Berry returned it for 100 yards, two points and the win.
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Right Combination of the Week
Jameis Winston, quarterback, and Cameron Brate, tight end, Tampa Bay. Midway through the fourth quarter, with the lead in the NFC South on the line, Winston went back and scanned his options … and found an undrafted tight end from Harvard, Brate, who has worked himself into a huge role and is Winston’s No. 2 receiving option. The 12-yard touchdown connection gave the Bucs a 28-21 lead, and the win, and a tie with Atlanta at 7-5 atop the division. The combination is so good because Winston has gained a trust with Brate, the kind of trust he needs with multiple receivers. He’s got that kind of combination right now with both Brate and Mike Evans, and it’s carried the offense to a very unexpected roll to a legitimate playoff shot.
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Stats of the Week
The sky has not fallen in Foxboro. Since New England drafted Rob Gronkowski with the 42nd overall pick in 2010, here’s how the Patriots have fared with and without the best tight end of this era on the field, including postseason games:
Patriots when Gronkowski plays
Patriots when Gronkowski doesn’t play
Assume the Patriots play one playoff game this season; I say that because you can’t assume anything, except that New England is very likely to make the playoffs. That would mean Gronkowski would have missed 28 games (regular-season and postseason in his seven seasons), or exactly 4.0 games per season during his career. That’s significant. That, plus the fact that this is his third back surgery, would convince me not to extend him in 2017, and to tell him frankly that he’ll have to play for his $4.25 million salary next season, and if he’s not willing, as painful as this seems, they’d have to part ways. At the same time, I’d go aggressively after Martellus Bennett in free agency come late February.
Passes completed in the first 22 minutes of play Sunday:
Combined completions Game at 8:00 mark, second quarter
at 8:00 Mark, Second Quarter
New England-Los Angeles
Snow at Soldier Field. But still …
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Factoids That May Interest Only Me
LeGarrette Blount turns 30 today.
Older than I’d have thought.
Jim Plunkett turns 69 today.
Much older than I’d have thought.
Johnny Manziel turns 24 tomorrow.
Much, much older than I’d have thought.
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Dr. Z Unsung Guys of the Week
Each week, in conjunction with Pro Football Focus, I’ll point out three players who played well but were under the radar. Paul Zimmerman would have loved this section. This week’s trio:
1. Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey. It’s not always easy to keep pass-rushers off Ben Roethlisberger due to his propensity to hold onto the ball. Pouncey was up to the task against the Giants and didn’t allow a sack, hit or hurry on 41 pass-blocking snaps. Very good run-blocking game for Pouncey too.
2. Packers guard Lane Taylor. Taylor was the highest-graded Packers’ offensive player in their win against the Texans. He allowed three hurries of Aaron Rodgers but no hits or sacks on his 34 pass-blocking snaps. Taylor was more impressive as a run-blocker, and he was second among all guards in the run game in Week 13.
3. Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. Harris is a long-time favorite of PFF and he continues to make plays for the Broncos. His play in coverage helped ease the burden on the Broncos offense, which was starting rookie Paxton Lynch at quarterback on the road. Harris was thrown at nine times and only allowed three catches. He also intercepted one pass and broke up another. Blake Bortles had a 2.8 passer rating when throwing into Harris’s coverage.
The other night, walking the dog in Manhattan’s Riverside Park on a chilly (maybe 42 degrees) and calm evening around 10 p.m., I heard what sounded like a flute playing maybe a hundred yards ahead of me. As I got closer to the sound, sure enough, there was a guy in a heavy coat and gloves with the fingertips cut out, walking very slowly, playing the flute. Now there’s something you don’t see, or hear, every day.
Recommended by Steve Gleason, former Saint and national ALS cure advocate
Gleason writes: I first read The Brothers K long before I was diagnosed with ALS, and I’ve reread it every couple years since. It’s my favorite book.
This coming of age novel, based in Camas, Wash., not too far from where I grew up in Spokane, is regularly listed as one of the great American baseball novels. But the story of Hugh “Papa” Chance, his wife Laura, and the family of six kids is ultimately a story about an American family growing up in the turbulence of the 1960s. Duncan’s storytelling is filled with spit-laughing hilarity while navigating the unavoidable tragedies that life offers. We initially follow the four Chance brothers as young boys. Their hero-worship of Papa and his tribulations in the minor leagues feels nostalgic, but loss of innocence seems inevitable. Papa’s major-league destiny falls to ruin when his pitching thumb is crushed at the local paper mill, where he works a job to support the family in the off-season.
As the brothers become teenagers, a couple of them reject their mom’s Seventh-Day Adventist fundamentalism, creating a rift that divides the family. The matriarch has an unspeakable past from which religion saved her, so she fiercely defends her beliefs. Instead of accepting the crushed thumb as “God’s will” the boys find a doctor to who suggests replacing Papa’s thumb with his right toe. The craziness works, and baseball continues, but more as background material. As cultural, religious and political events of the sixties unfold, the family spins apart. Everett, the oldest, becomes an atheist and heads to Canada to avoid the war. Peter, the athlete of the family, turns to academics and Buddhism. And Irwin, the happy-go-lucky, church-going charmer, trusts that God will provide as he’s sent to Vietnam. As is often the case in our non-fiction life, the novel’s greatest, knuckleball tragedy provides the opportunity to mend the characters back into a family.
It’s an epic story, eloquently unraveling a decade that helped define the baby boomer generation, and pitting America’s differing religious, political, and cultural views at one family’s dinner table. If you live long enough, tragedy will strike, people will place blame and adhere to their beliefs, but Duncan’s novel reinforces my own belief that our greatest redeeming human quality is the ability to “lose our life for the sake of another.”
This week’s conversations: ESPN information man Adam Schefter and Katie Nolan of FOX Sports.
• Schefter, an NBA junkie, on doing NBA sideline reporting this spring: “ESPN is aware of my interest, so they asked, ‘Any interest in doing any sideline reporting for any NBA games?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes!’ Because as you know, Peter, when you get to do something outside your sphere of work, it really fills you with adrenaline, it is energizing, it is refreshing, it is exciting. So I am just trying to figure out juggling with football, when we can do this, because I do want to stick that microphone into LeBron James’ face and ask him some questions about, ‘What were you thinking on that triple-double?’ ’’
• Nolan on keeping players out of halls of fame if they are incarcerated at the time of voting: “I think it should be considered. I think you have a point when you say it is a slippery slope, which felonies keep you out and which felonies don’t. I would like to think I can trust the judgment of the people in that room enough to know that they can use their discretion of what is a heinous crime. The way I see it is, if you are going to bring your child to the Hall of Fame, which is really what Hall of Fames are for … and show them all the greats of a sport, if there is a criminal in there that was convicted of a crime that makes you very uncomfortable to tell your child about, I think we don’t put that person in the Hall of Fame.”
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Ken Rosenthal of FOX and World Series champion manager Joe Maddon of the Cubs Friday night at an event at the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Upper Montclair, N.J.
Some events are unexpected manna from the sky. I thought going to this would be fun — the museum is run by Dave Kaplan, its founding director and the father of Emily Kaplan of The MMQB — as I’ve been to some cool events at the museum in my former town over the years. This was the best. Rosenthal was a terrific at getting Maddon to talk about all of the controversial managerial decisions of a great World Series, and I was fortunate to have the chance to ask Maddon about his football career and the coaches who’ve influenced him.
Maddon played one year of college football, as the quarterback of the freshman team at Lafayette College in 1972. Then he stopped playing football to concentrate on school and a baseball career.
“Playing football,’’ he said, “there is a toughness you have to have do that — every day going through the routine of practice and playing once a week and you have to go through these meetings and get beaten up during the course of the week and drills. There is a certain toughness that football breeds into you that no other sport I think can. I was playing midget football when I was 10 [in Hazelton, Pa.]. I was a quarterback and I was giving audibles when I was 10. Then you’re running the gauntlet all the time, you’re lining up and doing your drills, you’ve got coaches screaming in your face, grabbing your face mask, stuff that you can’t do now, by any means. I liked when coaches talked to me. I didn’t like when coaches yelled at me so much … I had a great season [as a Lafayette freshman]. My last game against Lehigh, I was 14-17, 13 in a row, four touchdown passes. That was my last game as a football player.
“Professionally right now, I really respect Coach [Bill] Belichick. It’s the systemic component of it. When you build a system that works annually with a bunch of different people being plugged in and out of it, I have a ton of respect for that. I thought we did that a lot with the Tampa Bay Rays. I thought we were able to create a system, a method, with being limited financially, where we could plug people in and out and the system worked. I think we are doing that with the Cubs right now. I think it is different. A lot of it was done before I got here with Theo [Epstein] and Jed [Hoyer] and the minor league system and player development and the scouts, but when you create a system and method of operation that you can plug people into, that’s pretty impressive to me. That is all about culture. And I think the Patriots really stand out to me for that.”
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Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think these are my quick notes of analysis from Week 13:
a. Lather, Rinse, Repeat Dept.: The snow hasn’t fallen yet, there’s four weeks left in the season, the Patriots have a three-game AFC East lead, the rest of the division contains pretenders, and they won’t play a truly meaningful game till divisional weekend, six weeks from now.
b. Just think if you’re a Patriots fan and you’re 23 or younger: This never-ending success is all you’ve ever known. I don’t want to break the news to you, but when Belichick and Brady are gone, say 12 years from now, you’ve got a chance to be 7-9.
c. Eric Dickerson’s being a little thin-skinned, but so is Jeff Fisher, in the Dickerson versus Rams dispute. It reminds me a lot of another big star openly criticizing the team he made famous—Joe Namath versus the Jets.
d. If Dickerson wants to be in the media, he needs to get used to a team being ticked off when he’s critical. And if the Rams want to court their famous and popular alums, the head coach has to let criticism by one of them roll off his back.
e. Regarding the contract extension for Fisher that was widely reported Sunday: If the rest of this season is a debacle, don’t think owner Stan Kroenke is going to bring back his coach after a 4-12 re-debut in L.A. that ends with a seven-game losing streak.
f. Jay Glazer’s right: Chip Kelly’s not going anywhere, except back to work trying to create an offense the Niners can win with.
g. That job got harder Sunday, with the benching of Colin Kaepernick during a ridiculously feeble offensive performance in bad weather at Chicago — though the weather didn’t look so bad for career backup (and southern Californian) Matt Barkley.
h. The Chiefs are a really smart team.
i. I have never seen a player use a penalty flag as a prop—resulting in a penalty — before punter Marquette King did it in the Oakland-Buffalo game, and boy was it weird.
j. Man, I love that two-point defensive conversion play. How exciting it is.
2. I think there’s no reason to go particularly wild over Cam Newton missing the opening of a football game, except … well, it’s hard to imagine a player messing up a team rule that’s common and has been in place for years: Wear a tie on team trips. Yes, the Panthers were on the road on the West Coast all week after playing in Oakland, but that seems like a soft excuse. There’s something strange with this story, and it might be this: Ron Rivera has had Cam Newton’s back ever since they came in together in 2011, Rivera as head coach and Newton as the franchise quarterback. For Rivera to not pull Newton aside is just strange. As I said, I don’t want to make it a mega-event. But the Panthers had zero room for error entering their final five games; they had to run the table. And the centerpiece to everything they do was on the bench for the first series—an interception leading to a Seattle field goal—of Sunday night’s game. It’s unsettling. Something, even something small, is wrong in Carolina.
3. I think football can be a cruel business, and it was Sunday night on the play after Earl Thomas was lost to a leg injury in the second quarter against Carolina. On third-and-17, with Thomas on the sideline trying to put some weight on a wounded leg, Cam Newton went hard after Thomas’ backup Steven Terrell. On Terrell’s first play in relief of Thomas, Newton threw a rainbow bomb over the head of Terrell to Ted Ginn Jr. for a touchdown. In a frustrating season for Newton, this was a highlight—a smart use of a bomb when you have no idea how long a star’s going to be out; but when he is, you want to take advantage. And Carolina did, for seven points.
4. I think it doesn’t take a legal crusader to know the killer of Joe McKnight should be in custody in Louisiana this morning. To think he isn’t feeds into the skepticism of equal justice for all.
5. I think nobody knows anything. I left Lincoln Financial Field in Week 3, after the Eagles’ 34-3 win over Pittsburgh, and was convinced I’d just seen an NFC Championship Game team, with the rookie quarterback who’d be the story of the year. Since that afternoon, Philly’s 2-7, and the 32-14 rout at Cincinnati left the Eagles 0-6 on the road since I saw them. The loss at Cincinnati ended the Eagles’ faint playoff chances, but it shouldn’t make Eagles fans skeptical about the future. For Carson Wentz to go from FCS in the state of North Dakota to beating the best two levels up was totally unrealistic. He’s got the demeanor and the tools to win, and to win big. I would be very bullish on his long-term chances.
6. I think with the spate of PAT misses—Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent missed his fifth in the last five games (how long can the man keep his job?)—I went to the man who is state of the art right now, Baltimore Justin Tucker. He hit a 55-yard field goal in the 38-6 rout of Miami Sunday, and was perfect on five PATs. For the year, he’s the only perfect kicker in the league: 20 of 20 on extra points, 28 of 28 on field goals. A mini-interview on being perfect:
MMQB: What’s been the key to perfection this year?
Tucker: Practice, lots of practice. And quality repetition. I also think having a really good long snapper and really good holder are really important. When you’re got a guy as diligent as [long-snapper] Morgan Cox consistently throwing the ball back at 12 o’clock [the optimal position where the snapper’s hands are], who knows exactly how many rotations the ball’s going to spin on every throw, so it’ll be perfect when it gets to the holder, and when you’ve got the kind of holder Sam Koch is … he knows exactly where to put the ball every time; I swear he can put the ball within a quarter-inch every time of where it’s supposed, those are huge factors in the success of a kicker.
MMQB: You haven’t had this problem, but why are so many kickers struggling at the PAT this year? It’s basically a 33-yard field goal, yet so many are being missed.
Tucker: I honestly couldn’t tell you. I try not to think about it. We just think about every kick like it’s a field goal, so when we think about the extra point, I’m thinking field goal—just worth fewer points.
MMQB: But it’s crazy. It’s like a short field goal, and every week, six or eight or 10 get botched. Makes no sense.
Tucker: I know, but I’m not out to dive too deeply into the psychology of what we do. It’s hard to say, but I don’t really want to think about it. That can’t help me.
7. I think if offensive players are not allowed to aid runners in the field of play to help them get more yardage, why do officials not call it when they clearly do it? Look at the first Denver touchdown of the day, when Devontae Booker was dragged by a lineman the final three yards for the score.
8. I think, with the news that the NFL is going to add an eighth official, I want to stress I’m not against getting more plays right. But my first reaction is this: Just what we need. More flags.
9. I think the Cowboys have been happy all along that they failed to acquire Paxton Lynch on the first day of the NFL draft last April. I was reminded of that again on Thursday night, watching third-round rookie Maliek Collins have his most impactful game to date—one sack and two significant pressures of Sam Bradford. If the Cowboys had made the trade to get Paxton Lynch, it would have taken their second- and third-round picks, meaning no Collins. (And no Jaylon Smith, which may or may not be a huge factor.) Then, of course, the Cowboys fell into Dak Prescott late in the fourth round. Sometimes, the best deals are the ones you don’t make.
10. I think these are my non-NFL thoughts of the week:
a. Take a moment Wednesday, on the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor, to be thankful for what those in uniform do for us. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on our Navy base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and followed with attacks on U.S. outposts elsewhere in the Pacific. In all, 2,403 American troops were killed. The attacks led to our entry into World War II.
b. It had to be: 1. Alabama, 2. Ohio State or Clemson, 3. Clemson or Ohio State, 4. Washington. Right?
c. The Big Ten … what a strange year. Penn State, the winner of the eastern division, beat Ohio State, a playoff lock, in the regular season, then beat the winner of the west, Wisconsin, in the league title game. Everyone in America calls it the toughest conference in the land this season. So Penn State beats the second- or third-best team in the country, and wins the championship of the toughest conference, and won’t make the playoff tournament.
d. Still think it was right call, Ohio State over Penn State. Penn State could survive a 49-10 loss to Michigan. Penn State could not survive a 42-39 loss to Pitt in addition to the Michigan game.
e. And no: Do not make this an eight-team field, and add another week to the college football season … unless you play the first round of the tournament in the last 10 days of December. It’s ridiculous to have football overlap each side of the fall term by at least two weeks at most Division I schools, but then to play football through well into January, eating up a week or two of the next semester, would simply be affirmation that none of this is about academics. We know that the concept of “student-athlete” is long dead. But at least fake it.
f. Look at it this way: The Niners began practice July 30 and will finish Jan. 1. That’s five months and three days … 22 weeks of football. Say Alabama would be in the final two of an eight-team field. This year, Alabama started practice Aug. 3, with the final game of an eight-team tournament projected to be Monday, Jan. 16. That’s 24 weeks of football, with the last week erasing the first school week of the second semester. The university presidents should say enough is enough.
g. Plus, now you’ve got seeds 5 and 6 complaining they didn’t make the tournament. With eight in, seeds 9 and 10 would complain just as bitterly.
h. This got my attention: Louisville coach Rick Pitino called the crowd of 7,493 at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix on Saturday night one of the toughest crowds he’s seen in 40 years of college coaching. “Whether we go to Duke, Kentucky, nothing was as tough as that environment tonight,” Pitino said after Louisville won 79-73. Fairly amazing.
i. Bobcats showed up Friday night. Congrats, Ohio, on putting the big scare into Western Michigan in the Mid-American Conference title game. Congrats to the Broncos on a great year and great win Friday night. Looks like the coach, P.J. Fleck, who seems to like the GoPro cameras, will have his pick of a few good jobs.
j. “We won in a landslide,’’ said Donald Trump.
k. The 74-delegate edge in the Electoral College, okay. There’s a decisive edge.
l. The popular-vote landslide: Clinton 65,260,513 votes, Trump 62,693,993, as of Sunday morning. Trump trails by 2.57-million popular votes.
m. Or, putting it another way, Clinton leads by an average of 51,330 votes per state. That’s some landslide … in reverse.
n. Coffeenerdness: Man, the holiday inconsistency in quality of the Starbucks drinks is noticeable these days. When the lines get long and the baristas sprint through drinks, the product’s just not as good.
o. Beernerdness: For repeat customers … I got lucky and found myself in a place that had Son of a Peach Wheat Ale (R.J. Rockers Brewing Company, Spartanburg, S.C.), and if that’s not the best wheat beer with a vague hint of fruit that I’ve had, I can’t think of a rival. Such a pleasant, tasty, refreshing beer. Thanks for making it, R.J. Rockers. And I repeat: The microbrew scene in the Carolinas is superior to most areas of the country, and that’s something I’d never have thought.
p. Since 2011, and including 2017, Carlos Beltran will have played for the New York Mets, San Francisco, St. Louis, the New York Yankees, Texas and Houston. Six teams in seven seasons—and the Astros are counting on him to be an everyday player, seeing as though they paid him $16 million for the year—is a lot for a guy who will be a Hall of Fame candidate after he retires.
q. My knowledge of the NBA would fit in a thimble. So this opinion you should probably just throw in the trash. But I read Chris Ballard’s incredibly informative and entertaining profile of Sam Hinkie in SI, and I had the opposite view of what most people—I’d imagine—would have. This man was fired after three seasons as Sixers GM; his team won 15.7 games per year, on average, in the three seasons. (Sixers are 4-16 this year.) Hinkie manifestoed his letter of resignation, taking the all-time lead in the Sports Pomposity Standings. He now lives in Silicon Valley, making every millisecond of every day count as he prepares for his second GM shot—which, I suppose, he’s going to get, because so many people in the NBA respect him. But has it occurred to anyone that he just might be the emperor with no clothes? Maybe not, but I’ve got my suspicions. In Ballard’s story, Hinkie talks of setting his Fitbit to vibrate once an hour, so he’ll be reminded to think if he’s just spent the last hour profitably, and he’ll consider how he wants to spend his next hour. At one point he wonders, “Why do we watch basketball games front to back? Why not watch games back to front, or out of order?”
r. I’m going to have to stop about Sam Hinkie. That stuff is too advanced for me.
s. Can you imagine Ozzie Newsome or John Schneider or John Elway or some other widely respected NFL GM thinking about the back-to-front-watching-games thing? Never mind saying it?
t. Song of the Day: “Girl From the North Country,” by Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. If you liked the Joni Mitchell choices a couple of weeks ago, you’ll love this one.
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Who I Like Tonight
Indianapolis 29, New York Jets 25. I’m most interested to see if Andrew Luck can make it through a game without getting whipsawed by a still-good Jets’ front. At some point soon, Todd Bowles is going to have to ponder the future at quarterback, because that future will not include Ryan Fitzpatrick. This game and next week’s—at San Francisco—would be optimal because they employ the softest defenses the Jets see down the stretch. Someone should tell Bowles, These games don’t matter except for draft position, and you’ll be back next year, so let’s start prepping for it.
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The Adieu Haiku
Week 13. Love it.
All teams have played 12.