The Daily Briefing Friday, November 9, 2018

AROUND THE NFL 

This record Thursday night:

 

The Steelers and Panthers in the first quarter of Thursday night’s game did something no two teams had done in the Super Bowl era.

 

They combined for three touchdowns in 23 seconds, a record for the shortest span, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

 

The previous record for three touchdowns was 26 seconds by the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders in 2008.

 

The Panthers used 4:31 on their opening possession, scoring on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton to running back Christian McCaffrey at the 10:29 mark.

 

On Pittsburgh’s first play after a touchback on the kickoff, Ben Roethlisberger connected with wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 75-yard touchdown that took 11 seconds.

 

And on Carolina’s next play from scrimmage, Newton was intercepted by linebacker Vince Williams, who returned the pick 17 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-7 with 10:05 left in the first quarter.

– – –

ESPN officiating expert Kevin Seifert looks at the state of the rules at midseason.

 

The NFL entered this season confronting a unique challenge. An inexperienced group of officials — one that included four rookie referees — would navigate the most complex set of rule changes and points of emphasis in recent memory.

 

The result in one word? Intense. During the first half of the season, we saw games dominated by discussion of roughing the passer, ejections and illegal contact. Meanwhile, three of the most anticipated revisions — the catch rule, helmet rule and the reimagined kickoff — largely slipped from the radar.

 

The unprecedented firing of down judge Hugo Cruz demonstrated limited patience despite this season’s unique challenges. Nevertheless, flag totals are at their lowest rate (15.9 per game, including penalties that were declined or offset) since 2013.

 

So while we have a moment, let’s update our preseason rules primer with new details where relevant.

 

Helmet rule

Through the first eight weeks of the season, there were only eight flags thrown for a foul that the league hopes will have far-reaching impact on all levels of the game.

 

That development is unsurprising for those who were paying attention when the rule was implemented last spring, even after an active summer that featured 51 fouls in the first 33 preseason games. The path to that low number, however, was unexpected and unparalleled in recent history.

 

Officials are throwing flags for only the most flagrant instances of players lowering their helmet to initiate contact against an opponent. Instead, most offenders — a total that has exceeded 70 — receive warning letters, complete with video explanation. Some are getting fined. Only one player has received more than one warning letter. Overall, flags have been thrown on roughly 10 percent of violations.

 

This soft rollout is intentional and represents an acceptance of the fundamental change most players must make to avoid using their heads. The NFL doesn’t expect players to change the way they play the game overnight. The flag numbers will rise eventually, but it might not happen until next season.

 

“In the offseason it’s an easy thing to discuss and an easy thing to put tape to,” said Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL competition committee. “But when you actually practice it, it’s a totally different thing. Players are still trying to adjust because it’s not the natural way that they have played the game over the last five years or in college.”

 

Reimagined kickoff

The league hastened significant under-the-hood changes to the kickoff after internal research showed it was five times more likely to produce a concussion than the average football play. The two-man wedge was outlawed, as was the running head start provided to cover men in an effort to reduce the space and speed of ultraviolent contact between blockers and tacklers.

 

The play doesn’t look much different to the naked eye, but the changes have had some notable effects.

 

Special-teams coaches were hoping for more returns and fewer touchbacks under the new arrangement, but the opposite has actually occurred. Internal data provided after seven weeks of the season showed that the return rate was lower (33.4 percent) compared to last season over the same period (40.6). The touchback rate was higher — 64.6 percent, compared to 56.6 percent — as well.

 

Why? Slightly more kickoffs landed in or beyond the end zone, up to 71.6 percent from 68.5 percent. That result could be random, or it could be a function of coaches feeling less confident that their coverage teams can get far enough down the field without the 5-yard head start they once had and kickers purposely taking away the return.

 

Speeds have actually increased, according to the seven-week league data. The average speed of players on returns increased 9 percent, to 14.3 mph. There was an 8 percent increase on touchbacks, to an average of 12.6 miles per hour. That speed might be the result of having smaller players on the field, a potential safety advantage. Without wedges, return teams aren’t using as many defensive linemen. The presence of defensive backs increased, and the average weight of players on the kickoff return team dropped by 7 pounds.

 

The ultimate success of this change will be the extent to which the kickoff is a safer play. There were no concussions on kickoffs during the preseason, but regular-season numbers are not yet available. So it isn’t yet clear whether the environment is safer.

 

This rule change was a provisional, one-year arrangement and must be re-evaluated by owners in the spring.

 

Revised standard for a catch

Receivers are no longer required to “survive the ground” when they fall during the process of a catch. After years of controversial reversals that contradicted the eye test, the NFL appears to have found a reasonable alternative. A catch now requires three elements: control, possession in bounds and a move common to the game (or the ability to make one) such as a third step.

 

That linguistic maneuvering prevents incomplete rulings when a receiver loses control on the way to the ground or after hitting the ground. Those plays are now fumbles, a consequence some league observers were concerned about.

 

Whether or not it is directly related to the catch rule, fumbles are up this season. There have been a total of 297, an increase from 279 during the same period in 2017 and the highest nine-week total since 2012 (307).

 

Body weight into the QB

The hit that broke the collarbone of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has had a cascading effect on the 2018 season. It began with a point of emphasis on a narrow portion of roughing the passer, the prohibition against landing on a quarterback with all or most of a defender’s body weight, and expanded into a further extensions of quarterback-protection rules.

 

Most notably, there were 34 flags thrown for roughing the passer in the first three weeks of the season. Miami Dolphins defensive end William Hayes even attributed his torn ACL to an awkward attempt to avoid landing on top of Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr.

 

The pace slowed considerably after a competition committee clarification encouraged officials to penalize only when they saw the entire hit. There have been 30 such penalties over the ensuing six weeks.

 

Illegal contact emphasis

A 4.9 percent decrease in scoring last season sent a fantasy/entertainment-driven league scrambling for answers. Among them: Officials had all but stopped throwing flags for illegal contact, which prohibits most types of contact by defenders against receivers before the ball is thrown. (Pass interference covers contact after the quarterback releases the ball.)

 

The competition committee ensured a turnaround by making illegal contact a point of emphasis, and through nine weeks, officials have called it more often (42) than they did for the entire 2017 season (38).

 

This season’s total includes 31 in the first five weeks of the season, setting an early tone for how little defenders could get away with. It’s hard to separate the illegal-contact emphasis with the record-setting start of offenses across the league, as offenses are averaging 24.0 points per game, up from 21.7 last season.

 

Ejections by the New York office

Owners approved two new ways for senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron to manage ejections, historically a discipline of last resort in the league. Riveron has the authority to add an ejection for a flagrant foul if a flag already has been thrown. He also reviews every ejection call — a necessary backstop after the approval of the helmet rule — to confirm whether it was appropriate.

 

We have seen one confirmed incident of Riveron ordering an ejection: Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones in Week 5, after Jones threw a punch during an extra-point attempt. There have been no ejections for the helmet rule, but overall the league has extended a 2017 trend of using them far more frequently.

 

Since the start of Week 9 last season, a span of 18 weeks, the league has ejected 23 players, including eight in 2018. There are no official historical records of NFL ejections, but according to the ESPN Stats & Information database, there haven’t been more than 13 ejections in a 17-week season since at least 2001. At the very least, the NFL is ejecting players more often than at any point in the past two decades, a significant development when you consider the short, 16-game season relative to other sports.

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Mike Florio thinks that Jason Garrett is coaching for his job on Sunday night despite what Jerry Jones has said.  He has history on his side. 

 

In November 2010, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he wouldn’t be making a coaching change during the season. After the very next game, an embarrassing 45-7 loss to the Packers on Sunday Night Football, Jones abruptly changed his mind and fired Wade Phillips.

 

“Wade today is a vivid example of accountability,” Jones said at the time.

 

Now, after Jones has declared — eight years to the day — that he wouldn’t be making a coaching change during the season, the question becomes whether an embarrassing loss to the Eagles on Sunday Night Football will cause Jones to abruptly change his mind, again.

 

“I don’t like the way that looks stabilitywise, organizationwise,” Jones said when explaining his change of heart in November 2010. “I think it called for it, and I recognized after the game that we just weren’t playing winning football or our best chance at winning football. I don’t apologize for changing my mind.”

 

Which means Jones won’t apologize for changing his mind about Garrett, if Jones changes his mind about Garrett after Sunday night.

 

So what will it take? Charean Williams, who covered the Cowboys for many years with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and still follows the Cowboys very closely for PFT, explained on Friday’s PFT Live that Jones pays attention to all opinions and criticisms of his team, and that he’s keenly aware of the mounting criticisms and clap-driven caricatures of Garrett. Jones also surely realizes that the Dallas offense lacks the kind of creativity and ingenuity that allows other teams to exploit the tendencies of opponents and exploit mismatches presented by any and every given defense.

 

A very real potential for a very bad outcome this weekend exists. The Eagles, who have the kind of creativity and ingenuity that the Cowboys don’t, will have had two weeks to prepare. The Cowboys will have had six days. The Eagles are hitting their stride. The Cowboys have spun out of control.

 

When the Eagles win against Dallas, the Eagles sometimes win big. 37-9 last year. 27-13 in 2016. 33-10 in 2014. 34-7 and 20-7 in 2011. And who can forget that 44-6 shellacking by the Eagles from the final week of 2008, which put the Eagles into the playoffs and knocked the Cowboys out?

 

Another outcome like one of those outcomes could end up being the final nail for Garrett, and his final act as head coach of the team. While he may still be clapping on the way out the door, Garrett definitely won’t be exiting to a round of applause from Cowboys fans who are currently clamoring for change.

 

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

WR ODELL BECKHAM Jr. on the big goals of the Giants.  Jordan Raanan of ESPN.com:

 

Odell Beckham Jr. is dreaming big. His goal for the New York Giants in the second half of the season is to win out.

 

“Win eight games,” Beckham said Friday. “Get in the playoffs. Giants been there before — 9-7 got to the playoffs — and I think they did pretty good. So that is the goal.

 

“It’s not an easy task, but that is the goal. Win every game and do anything I can to help that.”

 

The Giants (1-7) are coming off their bye week. They play the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night.

 

Beckham knows the Giants must play better. It begins, in his estimation, with performing better in the red zone and scoring more points. They’re 27th in the NFL, averaging 18.8 points per game.

 

But he believes the turnaround can happen.

 

“You heard Kevin Garnett when he won [an NBA championship]: ‘Anything is possible,'” Beckham said. “It’s not impossible to win eight games. It wasn’t impossible to lose seven. So anything can happen. Honestly. But the main focus is just this one game. Treat this game like it’s your last game of the season.

 

The Giants and 49ers met last year on November 12.  In that game, New York to a 1-7 record against the 0-9 49ers.  San Francisco won 31-21.

 

This year, in another Week 10 meeting, it is the 1-7 Giants against the 2-7 49ers.

 

 

PHILADELPHIA

From the way he has handled the ball this year, you would think that QB CARSON WENTZ is recovering from a hand injury, not his knee.

 

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz has thrown an interception on less than one percent of his passes this season, but turnovers have been a problem with him over his six starts this season.

 

Wentz has fumbled at least once in every game — seven times overall — and the Eagles have lost five of them. It’s not a new issue for Wentz as he fumbled 23 times in his first 29 games, but it’s one that he’d like to see come to an end.

 

“It’s part of the game,” Wentz said, via Philly.com. “Every one is kind of its own thing. I never want to say, ‘It’s part of the game, it happens’ — I want to clean it up. But at the same time, each is such an individualized play and case. Overall, just have to be better with that and get the ball out quicker in some of those situations.”

 

Quarterbacks coach Press Taylor agrees that Wentz needs to do a better job of knowing when it is “not a time to hold the ball and extend,” but that has to be balanced with allowing him to make the kind of off-schedule plays that have produced some of his biggest highlights.

 

Actually, the leader in fumbles lost this year is KIRK COUSINS of the Vikings with 6, one more than Wentz.

 

Going back to 2006, no one has lost more than 8 fumbles in a season in that span.

 

 

WASHINGTON

Matthew Berry explains why he thinks that RB ADRIAN PETERSON is not a good Fantasy option this week, even against the rotten Bucs defense:

 

Adrian Peterson at Buccaneers (ESPN projection: 15.1 points): This is for those who think I am only positive about the Redskins. What Peterson has done this season is nothing short of amazing, and his success, after basically being left for dead, is one of the year’s great stories. That said, with LG Shawn Lauvao and RG Brandon Scherff out for the season, LT Trent Williams out with a thumb injury and RT Morgan Moses at less than 100 percent (if he even plays), this is looking ugly, even in a seemingly good matchup. You saw what happened last week when the Falcons — one of the worst run defenses in the NFL this season — held him to 17 yards. I think Tampa puts up points on Washington here, forcing a much more pass-heavy approach (hey, Chris Thompson or Kapri Bibbs). Gimme the under here.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

Anthem-kneeler S ERIC REID was ejected by the NFL for going after Big Ben’s head Thursday night.  Lakisha Jackson of NFL.com:

 

Panthers safety Eric Reid was ejected from Thursday night’s 52-21 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a hit on Ben Roethlisberger.

 

Reid’s shoulder hit the quarterback’s helmet on a slide during the third quarter. There was a short scuffle between both teams after the Steelers’ offensive line went to confront Reid after the hit.

 

“My job is to tackle the person with the ball and that was all I was trying to do,” Reid said after the game. “They ruled that I was targeting, which I disagree with.”

 

Reid apologized to Roethlisberger and shook his hand before he left the field.

 

“I told him, obviously, I wasn’t trying to hurt him,” he stated. “And he said there’s no hard feelings.”

 

Coach Ron Rivera agreed with Reid saying that he didn’t think the ejection was warranted.

 

“I don’t think he hit him hard enough,” he said after the game.

 

 

NEW ORLEANS

This bombshell from NFL.com as we go to press:

 

The New Orleans Saints fear newly signed wide receiver Dez Bryant suffered a torn Achilles tendon in practice Friday, a source informed of the situation told NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport and NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero.

 

Bryant, who was helped off the field after suffering the injury, is undergoing an MRI to confirm the injury, Rapoport and Pelissero report. He will undergo a second opinion on the injury after the MRI, Rapoport added.

 

Bryant signed a one-year deal with the Saints on Wednesday and practice with the team for the first time on Thursday.

 

 

TAMPA BAY

Jenna Laine of ESPN.com assesses the 3-5 Buccaneers:

 

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 3-5 at the halfway point of the season and 1-2 in the NFC South. Here’s a closer look at where they’ve had success, where they’ve struggled and how they can get better. We’ll also examine what the future holds for coach Dirk Koetter and general manager Jason Licht.

 

Offense

 

The decision to load up on offensive weapons in the passing game with Mike Evans, Cameron Brate, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin is really starting to pay off — even if the team lacks stability at quarterback. Heading into Week 10, the Bucs are the No. 2 offense in the NFL in yardage at 446.8 yards per game — just behind the Los Angeles Rams (447.1).

 

The knock on this group the past few years had been that while the Bucs produced a lot of yardage, they weren’t scoring. That has changed dramatically in 2018. Whether it’s a result of increased attention to detail, Todd Monken calling plays or a mixture of both, the results are tangible. The Bucs are averaging 27.75 offensive points per game — sixth most in the league — versus 19.19 from 2017 (20th) and 20.31 (20th) in 2016. Red zone efficiency is at 63.3 percent versus 49.1 percent in 2017 and 51.9 percent in 2016.

 

However, the ground game has struggled. Bucs running backs are averaging 2.3 yards before contact per rush — 22nd in the league. At times, the offensive line has missed assignments, and other times it has been overpowered.

 

Unlike the Bucs’ receiving weapons, who create matchup nightmares for most defenses, they don’t have a home-run hitter at running back (although there’s hope Ronald Jones blossoms into one). Because of this, they could stand to get more creative with their playcalling, finding smarter ways to get Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jones out in space, through pre-snap motion or misdirection.

 

The way Norv Turner has completely revamped the Panthers’ ground game is worth paying attention to. The Bucs don’t have the same personnel, but some of those concepts are workable. He uses jet motions and reverses to dress up screen passes and even inside runs to get linebackers out of position.

 

Defense

 

Koetter likened what the Bucs did against Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel’s play on the double reverse to “Keystone Cops” — defensive tackles Vita Vea and Beau Allen ran into each other, as did cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Carlton Davis. Koetter also called their tackling “horrendous.”

 

Jason Pierre-Paul has managed to get to the quarterback, but he pretty much has been the lone bright spot on that side of the ball. They aren’t playing with a whole lot of anticipation or eye discipline. Tackling has been an issue (their 701 yards after contact for rushing and receiving ranks 23rd in the league). Teams are capitalizing on the fact that they’re down two starters at linebacker (middle linebacker Kwon Alexander and strongside linebacker Kendell Beckwith) quickly attacking them underneath in recent weeks.

 

Has firing defensive coordinator Mike Smith and promoting linebackers coach Mark Duffner produced a discernable change? The Bucs haven’t played an offense the caliber of New Orleans or Atlanta since Duffner took over, so it’s hard to say. But the Panthers game sure felt a lot like Week 4, when the Bucs had zero answers for Matt Nagy’s gadget plays in Chicago.

 

Should Koetter and Light return?

 

Koetter is 17-23 as head coach of the Bucs (.425). His first season in 2016 they did go 9-7, but then were 5-11 in 2017. Still, the Glazers were encouraged that they had 10 games decided by one score or less (they were 3-7 in them) and players continued to fight hard under Koetter.

 

He has produced one of the NFL’s most potent offenses, but it should not have taken him until after Week 6 to fire Mike Smith. It should have happened at the end of last season, instead of simply parting ways with one positional coach (Hayes).

 

Jack Del Rio was out as head coach in Oakland. He should have at least gotten a phone call. Or the team should have taken a page from what folks are doing on the offensive side of the ball — looking to the college ranks — since the league continues to move in that direction.

 

If the Bucs part ways with Koetter, they’d be disrupting what they’ve been building the past four years on offense. Keeping Koetter might not sit well with the fans if this winds up being another losing season, but he is their fourth head coach since Jon Gruden was fired after the 2008 season. Being in a state of constant change has held this organization back, and it might just be easier to bring in a new defensive coordinator.

 

As for Licht — the Glazers have been happy with how the team has been able to not only draft but re-sign players like Evans, Brate and Marpet to long-term contracts.

 

Licht will always have to answer for that Aguayo pick and that underperforming 2016 draft class, and the Bucs have brought in players who don’t necessarily match the scheme — T.J. Ward was an “in-the-box” safety brought in to play in a scheme that favors versatility, and Carlton Davis and Hargreaves were known as press-man corners in college and have been asked to play “off” for the Bucs.

 

Licht will also have to answer for failed free agents Michael Johnson, Anthony Collins, Alterraun Verner and Bruce Carter under former coach Lovie Smith. Winston was drafted on Licht’s watch, too, so his handling of that situation will play a role. And he could have stepped in and forced Koetter to fire Mike Smith.

 

Still, Licht’s crew seems to be better at evaluating talent than predecessor Mark Dominik, who was better known for his creativity with the salary cap and contracts. It’s really just about better marrying the right players with the scheme.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

WR LARRY FITZGERALD is on the verge of setting an NFL record for mortals (and not those named Jerry Rice).  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

When we last saw Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, he was uncharacteristically spiking the football after a touchdown that helped his team win for the second time this season.

 

That came in Week Eight as the Cardinals were on a bye last week and they’ll get back to work against the Chiefs this weekend. Predictions of more success for the Cardinals as a team are hard to come by, but Fitzgerald could wind up with an individual mark worthy of applause.

 

Fitzgerald has 15,902 receiving yards for his career and that leaves him 33 yards away from passing Terrell Owens for No. 2 in league history. The veteran said that it’s not something he’s been thinking about this week.

 

“Honestly, I don’t really look at it,” Fitzgerald said, via the team’s website. “Honestly.”

 

Jerry Rice is nearly 7,000 yards ahead of Owens and Fitzgerald, so the Cardinals icon’s rise up the list is likely to stop at No. 2. That means he can devote his full attention to helping the team’s win total get beyond two.

– – –

Mike Sando of ESPN.com on the task ahead of the struggling Cardinals.

 

Arizona Cardinals (2-6)

Biggest roster holes: The offensive line is the biggest concern, including the left tackle spot.

 

Coaching changes on the way? Stranger things have happened, although the Cardinals have not had a one-and-done head coach since 1952. Steve Wilks’ first season has been rough. He fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and had to deal with a trade request from franchise icon Patrick Peterson. If ownership expected the Cardinals to contend in the NFC West this season, an especially bad finish could imperil him.

 

Who will be the 2019 starting QB? Josh Rosen. The Cardinals will presumably spend the next few seasons figuring out whether they can win with the player they selected 10th overall in 2018.

 

Offseason action plan: Arizona needs to reassess its coaching staff to make sure it has the right components on the offensive side. The Cardinals can then go about overhauling their offensive line, adding speed on the perimeter and finding defensive players who fit Wilks’ scheme.

 

Draft capital: The Cardinals own their own selections in each round. They also could add three compensatory picks over the final two rounds.

 

UFA watch: Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Iupati, Markus Golden and Deone Bucannon are among the bigger names without contracts past this season. Will Fitzgerald retire? Bucannon’s snaps have plummeted in the new defensive scheme.

 

Realistic expectations for 2019: It feels like the Cardinals are heading backward this season while they adjust to new schemes. That could put them back at the starting line next season as a team trying to approach .500.

 

“Arizona is in a tougher spot than some of these teams because they still have some age on that roster and some of their key players are expensive guys on second contracts,” an evaluator said. “They have to fix the offensive line. That comes first.”

 

You can read his thoughts on five other struggling teams here.

 

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

First, the Saints burned CB MARCUS PETERS.  Then, Coach Sean Payton got inside his head.  Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register:

 

NFL playoff trash-talking is underway, in Week 10. The Rams want to see New Orleans again, and cornerback Marcus Peters really wants to greet Saints Coach Sean Payton.

 

“Tell Sean Payton to keep talking that (stuff),” Peters said after Thursday’s practice. “We’re going to see him soon. You feel me? Because I like what he was saying on the sidelines, too. So tell him to keep talking that (expletive), and I hope you see me soon. We’re going to have a nice little bowl of gumbo together.”

 

In an entertaining, showcase game last Sunday, the Saints beat the Rams 45-35 and New Orleans receiver Michael Thomas topped 200 yards, the majority of which came in matchups with Peters. The Saints clinched that game with a 72-yard touchdown, a play on which Thomas beat Peters deep.

 

“They were going to travel Marcus (in coverage) to him, and that was fine by us,” Payton said. “We thought we liked that matchup. A lot.”

 

Payton apparently wasn’t alone. After the game, Thomas told reporters, “I liked the matchup. I was telling Sean all week, ‘This isn’t a matchup I don’t like.’”

 

It seems Peters only heard about Payton’s comments, and didn’t sit particularly well with him, and perhaps other Rams. As Peters issued his boxing-promoter challenge to Payton, teammates and neighboring lockers – who usually ignore others’ interviews – perked up, turned their heads toward Peters and nodded and grinned.

 

So, look out for that Rams-Saints playoff rematch in January, but first the Rams have to finish out the regular season strong. That starts with Sunday’s game against Seattle at the Coliseum, and the Rams will need better defense than they played against the Saints, and that starts with Peters.

 

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who spoke before Thursday’s practice at Cal Lutheran, didn’t criticize Peters and instead pointed to some of his own coverage calls. Indeed, on that 72-yard touchdown, Peters was in 1-on-1 coverage against Thomas, who was having a career day.

 

“That’s why I love him being my coach,” Peters said when told of Phillips’ comments. “We all can be critical of what we can get done. I’m just going to put it on me, regardless, because regardless of what coach called, we’ve got to go out there and make plays. I didn’t execute, really. Just move on to the next play, next week.”

– – –

A mass shooting.  An out-of-control wildfire.  Distractions for the Rams as the rival Seahawks head to town to play on CBS.  Austin Knoblach of NFL.com:

 

The Los Angeles Rams canceled Friday’s practice because of air quality conditions caused by a wildfire near the team’s facility on the campus of Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California.

 

The wind-fueled Woolsey Fire in western Ventura County has damaged or destroyed at least 20 homes and has charred more than 8,000 acres, according to The Los Angeles Times. The fire, which has prompted mandatory and voluntary evacuations for 75,000 homes in the area, closed down Highway 101 overnight, the main traffic artery in the region.

 

Rams coach Sean McVay said the team will have a short practice at the University of Southern California on Saturday and hold team meetings at a hotel.

 

The Rams play host to the Seattle Seahawks at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday.

 

The Rams aren’t the only ones affected by wildfires in the state. The Oakland Raiders is limiting the team’s Friday practice to a walkthrough because of the smoky conditions caused by the fires in Northern California.

 

The Raiders play host to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.

 

AFC WEST

 

KANSAS CITY

The Chiefs have won all 9 coin tosses this season.  It’s 12 wins in a row if you count preseason.  Frank Schwab of YahooSports.com:

 

“It’s one of the most nervous points of the whole game for me right now,” Patrick Mahomes said, according to the Kansas City Star.

 

Mahomes said he was joking, but Kansas City obviously is enjoying this odd turn of events.

 

The streak’s odds are pretty shocking. University of Missouri statistics professor Phil Deming told the Star the odds of winning 12 coin flips in a row is 0.0244 percent. Arrowhead Pride framed it as 512-to-1 to win every coin toss so far this season.

 

“It’s ridiculous there, on how many of those,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, via Dani Welniak of KCTV.

 

The wins have come in all ways. Sometimes the Chiefs have called it and won, other times the opponent has called it and lost. Sometimes that week’s captain in charge of calling it has called heads, other times it has been tails. No matter the variables, to this point in the season, it has always won for Kansas City.

 

“If one goes the other way, then you’ve got to be ready to go. Can’t have like a letdown or something,” Reid said with a laugh.

 

The 2004-05 Lions won 14 coin tosses in a row according to Welniak, and she said that’s the record. The Star noted the 2016-17 Chicago Bears won 14 coin flips in a row counting an overtime game.

– – –

In the history of the Chiefs, only one quarterback one time has ever passed for 30 TDs in a season.  That is about to change.  Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been playing at a historic pace, and he’s about to erase a famous name in Chiefs history.

 

As he prepares to play his 10th game this season, Mahomes is one touchdown short of breaking Len Dawson’s franchise record for touchdown passes in a season (30).

 

It seems that at some point over the next seven weeks, or perhaps a quarter, Mahomes will get that one.

 

“Len has had a ton of success in the NFL and was kind of ahead of his time, throwing all those touchdowns” Mahomes said, via Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star. “The record has stood for a very long time. It would be awesome to pass that, but hopefully we can just keep building and get more wins.”

 

With 2,901 pass yards and 29 TDs, Mahomes is on a pace for 5,157 yards and 57 TD passes.  Peyton Manning set the NFL records in 2013 of 5,457 and 55.

 

After playing his 9th game last night, BEN ROETHLISBERGER is at 2,888 yards this year, just behind Mahomes.  MATT RYAN, in 8 games, is at 2,685 and the future Hall of Famer is on a pace for 5,370.

 

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Not that it is a radical thought by ESPN Fantasy expert loves QB PHILIP RIVERS against the Raiders:

 

Philip Rivers at Raiders (ESPN projection: 20.5 points): Eight straight. Rivers has now thrown multiple TD passes in eight straight games. He is the only QB with multiple TD passes in every game this season. He will have a clean pocket here (Oakland’s pressure rate of 20.4 percent is the lowest in the NFL since 2013) and should be able to keep chucking it deep, as his deep completion percentage is fourth highest and he has the second-most deep touchdown passes. The Raiders, as luck would have it, are among the five most vulnerable in terms of deep touchdowns and deep completion percentage allowed.

 

AFC NORTH

 

PITTSBURGH

Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com on the smoking Steelers:

 

The liveliest party of the year just took place in Heinz Field, where they danced so hard in the end zone that they ran out of touchdown celebrations, and that’s when they weren’t throwing Cam Newton to the turf.

 

The Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t lying when they said they were just getting started.

 

“That team wanted to come in here and embarrass us,” Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. “We just answered the call.”

 

The 52-21 pounding of the Panthers on Thursday tied for the most points allowed in Carolina history and showed that the Steelers look ready to make their own history. Carolina last gave up 52 points on Christmas Eve in 2000 against the Oakland Raiders.

 

If Ben Roethlisberger can continue to deliver masterpieces like this against a good defense, the Steelers — winners of five straight — might have their best chance at a Super Bowl since the early Mike Tomlin years. The entire offense feels the good vibes when Roethlisberger “is heaving it like that,” Foster said.

 

Roethlisberger finished 22-of-25 passing for 328 yards, five touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3, the third such game of his career. He hit every throw, as if tossing into a big net. The Steelers worked the no-huddle offense, Roethlisberger’s specialty, on a short week, and the usually stout Panthers looked uneasy throughout.

 

Roethlisberger didn’t need an exotic explanation for his exotic play.

 

“When you convert third downs and score in the red zone, good things happen,” said Roethlisberger, whose offense converted 8 of 11 third downs and 4 of 4 red zone trips. “It always starts up front. You can say what you want about the skill guys, but we’re nothing without them up front.”

 

Turns out this offense hadn’t unlocked everything it had this season. The Steelers had connected on three deep balls all season but hit two Thursday, a 75-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster and a 53-yard score for Antonio Brown, who made rookie corner Donte Jackson look silly in press coverage.

 

After the Panthers marched 75 yards for the opening score, the Steelers flipped the game in 13 seconds with the Smith-Schuster touchdown on their first play from scrimmage and Vince Williams’ interception for a touchdown off an ill-advised Newton throw out of the end zone. The Smith-Schuster score was the franchise’s longest-ever first play from scrimmage.

 

When Roethlisberger left the game with 14 minutes, 55 seconds in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had scored points on all seven of their drives that didn’t end in a clock runout at halftime.

 

On defense, the Steelers (6-2-1) sacked Newton five times and knocked him down many others. A Christian McCaffrey running game that confused the Steelers on the first drive was quickly put in park. The Steelers respected Newton’s big-play ability outside of the pocket, and “we wanted to keep him in it,” linebacker Jon Bostic said.

 

This was such a thorough whupping that Eric Reid’s helmet shot on Roethlisberger with 1:15 left in the third quarter — which prompted Reid’s ejection — was an attempt to revive a fight that was dead two hours earlier.

 

Some were realistic about the onslaught. Tomlin said that “we are probably not that good” but that explosions like this happen sometimes. Center Maurkice Pouncey added, “This is not normal.”

 

Here’s the new normal: The Steelers’ 177 points over the current five-game winning streak is the biggest output in franchise history over a five-game span, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

 

At times, the Steelers can turn unstoppable with a fast offense thriving with James Conner as the lead back — which will only complicate matters upon Le’Veon Bell’s potential return by the Tuesday deadline to play this season.

 

Either way, Pittsburgh is good. Rookie running back Jaylen Samuels scored. Tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James both scored. Even offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was opening the playbook for fullback screens in the second quarter.

 

Brown and Conner, who each scored Thursday, are the first pair of teammates with 10-plus touchdowns each in their team’s first nine games since Abner Haynes and Chris Burford with the 1962 Chiefs.

 

Roethlisberger, Brown & Co. have shown the ability to hit the throttle in previous seasons. Performances like this aren’t unique for this group, especially in prime-time games.

 

That’s why the team wasn’t too hyped about hanging a half-hundred on a good team.

 

“It’s just a solid win,” Foster said. “Coach T does a good job of keeping us humble.”

 

This is the team that NBC deemed not ready for primetime in Week 11 when they play at Jacksonville.

– – –

If DREW BREES doesn’t win his first MVP award this year, maybe it should be a first MVP for BEN ROETHLISBERGER.

 

He certainly looked the part Thursday night with a 158.3 perfect game. It’s the 72nd in NFL history, the 3rd this year (also Jared Goff and Russell Wilson, Goff also on FOX Thursday night).  For Roethlisberger, it was the 4th perfect game of his career, tying Peyton Manning for the NFL record.

 

That didn’t look possible after he had 3 INTs and 2 fumbles lost in the opener.  But after 9 games, he now has 2,888 pass yards, 21 TD passes, 7 INTs, and a 100.9 passer rating. That is a pace for 5,134 yards and 37 TD passes. 

 

After 8 games, Brees is at 2,336 yards, 18 TDs and 1 INT. 

– – –

Like the rest of us, the agent for RB Le’VEON BELL didn’t understand the franchise tag rules.  Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

 

A former NFL running back has alleged that Adisa Bakari, the agent for Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, didn’t understand until recently that Bell could receive a franchise-tag tender in excess of $25 million in 2019 even if he does not report this season.

 

Multiple news outlets, including the Tribune-Review, have reported since September that the Steelers would have to use the third tender amount – essentially the average of the top 5 quarterback salaries – if they wished to apply the franchise tag on Bell next season.

 

Until recently, however, Bakari apparently thought the Steelers could re-use the second-year tag number of $14.544 million in 2019 if Bell held out the entire 2018 season. That is what former running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who also is represented by Bakari, told host Dave Dameshek on the league-run NFL Podcasts this week.

 

Jones-Drew confirmed what was first reported Tuesday by The Athletic – that Bakari didn’t have a firm grasp of the collective bargaining agreement procedures.

 

“Once that came out, there is now digging and reading and trying to understand the language – there’s a lot of language in the CBA, particularly for this particular instance,” Jones-Drew said. “It’s going back now, to sit down and figure out … because if it’s true, Le’Veon doesn’t have to play and he still gets the transition tag, which makes him a free agent, and he gets to go out and negotiate with anyone he wants and the Steelers have the right to match it.”

 

Because of the $25 million-plus franchise-tag number in 2019, the transition tag would be the more likely scenario for the Steelers if they choose to try to keep Bell. The running back would be free to negotiate with NFL teams, but the Steelers would have the right to match any offer. If the Steelers don’t match the offer, they would receive no compensation.

 

If the Steelers instead choose to allow Bell to leave in free agency, they would receive a third-round draft pick in 2020 as compensation.

 

Bell must report to the Steelers by 4 p.m. Tuesday in order to play for them this season. If the deadline passes and Bell hasn’t reported, he is prohibited by NFL rules from playing until 2019.

 

Bell was spotted at a health club in the North Hills playing pickup basketball earlier in the week. He returned to Pittsburgh from Miami, where he has spent his time while remaining away from the team.

 

Bell has forfeited $7.7 million of his $14.544 million salary because of his stance.

 

The Steelers are expecting Bell to report next week, and although prior to Thursday night they may not have particularly wanted him around since they are on a roll, it could be helpful.  Late in Thursday’s thrashing of the Panthers, RB JAMES CONNER was concussed.

– – –

WR ANTONIO BROWN played Thursday night despite some egregious driving earlier in the day.

 

Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown was cited Thursday morning after he allegedly drove over 100 mph on Pittsburgh streets, according to WPXI.

 

WPXI reports that Brown, who was in a black Porsche, was charged with reckless driving after speeding past an officer.

 

A Steelers spokesman said the team is aware of the situation and gathering information.

 

Brown, who had six catches for 96 yards and a touchdown Thursday night against Carolina, departed the locker room after Pittsburgh’s 52-21 win and declined comment, telling teammates that reporters were trying to catch him but “they can’t catch me.”

 

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a tongue-in-cheek comment about Brown’s 53-yard touchdown catch.

 

“It’s one of those ones where I’m going to throw it out there and let AB make the play. He got around (his defender) and he was moving fast,” Roethlisberger said.

 

This story has an implication that Pittsburgh police are usually indifferent to such rapid driving, but there had recently been a bank robbery.  Will Brinson of CBSSports.com:

 

Oddly enough, it appears Brown was actually pulled over because there was a bank robbery in the area. And according to KDKA, “officers were responding to a bank robbery at McCandless Crossing when they spotted a car traveling at a high rate of speed and pulled it over.”

 

The vehicle in question was Brown’s black Porsche (see it here). Brown was pulled over around 10 a.m. on Thursday.

 

Obviously, Brown is not a suspect in the bank robbery, he just happened to be hauling through a 45 mph zone at a crazy rate of speed at the time that officers were responding.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

JACKSONVILLE

Is this what has been missing from the Jaguars this year?  RB LEONARD FOURNETTE could be returning.  Herbie Teope of NFL.com:

 

Running back Leonard Fournette is closer to a return after missing the past four games with a hamstring injury.

 

Fournette practiced fully the entire week and the Jacksonville Jaguars did not assign a game designation on the final injury report, a good indication he will play Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.

 

Head coach Doug Marrone, however, stopped short of declaring that Fournette is ready to go.

 

“We’ll see on Sunday, but he has done everything that we have asked him to do,” Marrone said, via the Jaguars’ official website. “No setbacks. No nothing. Right now, he’s completely healthy — today, at this time …”

 

Despite Marrone being coy on Fournette’s game status, it would be a surprise to not see the second-year rusher return to action barring a setback between now and kickoff.

 

A week of practice with a full participation designation indicates Fournette absorbed his regular workload in three straight days. Fournette’s looming return is needed, too, as the Jaguars have lost four straight games in his absence and sit on a 3-5 record.

 

Meanwhile, the Jaguars ruled cornerback A.J. Bouye (calf) and rookie cornerback Quenton Meeks (knee) out for Sunday’s game.

 

AFC EAST

 

BUFFALO

Even as QB SAM DARNOLD of the Jets misses Sunday’s game, the Bills may get their first round rookie, QB JOSH ALLEN, back.  Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Bills’ injury report shed no new light on who will start at quarterback Sunday.

 

The team lists Josh Allen as questionable after he was limited in Friday’s practice. Allen also earned a limited designation in Wednesday and Thursday’s practices.

 

Allen has missed the past three weeks.

 

Bills head coach Sean McDermott ruled out Derek Anderson (concussion) on Friday morning but said the team is “still working through” the quarterback decision. Nathan Peterman would start again if Allen can’t go.

 

The Bills also ruled out defensive end Trent Murphy (knee).

 

They list linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (concussion), receiver Andre Holmes (neck) and running back Chris Ivory (shoulder) as questionable.

 

 

NEW ENGLAND

Matthew Berry of ESPN.com thinks WR JOSH GORDON will go off the charts in Nashville:

 

Josh Gordon at Titans (ESPN projection: 12.4 points): Famous last words, but along with Tyler Boyd, this is the projection I feel strongest about a pass-catcher surpassing. Gordon was targeted on a season-high 29 percent of his routes last week, and he ranks 14th in air yards per target since joining the Patriots. Please, Tennessee, I beg you, don’t bench Malcolm Butler just yet! He’s set to be on Gordon most of the time in this one, and when you add his deep threat to the fact that the Titans rank bottom-eight in completion percentage and TDs allowed on deep passes, I’m fired up.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

SUPER BOWL PICKS

ESPN’s panel of “experts” offers these midseason Super Bowl picks:

 

What can we expect in early February at Super Bowl LIII?

 

Mike Clay, NFL writer: Saints 31, Patriots 30. This was my preseason pick, and I’m sticking with it (albeit with a bit more offense). The Saints defeated the Rams on Sunday and now control their destiny on the path to home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The Patriots are a game behind the Chiefs, but already beat Kansas City once this season. The Saints win in a shootout and Drew Brees takes home MVP.

 

Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Chargers 31, Saints 27. The Patriots are the percentage play, but under this scenario, the Chargers get healthier on defense, giving them the pass rush to vault Philip Rivers onto the big stage, where former teammate Brees is waiting for him. Rivers finally gets a ring. Not buying it? Neither is ESPN’s Football Power Index, which gives the Chargers an 8.3 percent chance of reaching the Super Bowl (it’s 24.3 percent for New Orleans).

 

Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Chiefs 38, Saints 37. The long postseason history of Chiefs coach Andy Reid will cloud the judgment of many who would otherwise note that his team remains several steps beyond the NFL curve. They’ll win home-field advantage in the AFC, hold off the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and then win a shootout against the equally talented and innovative Saints.

 

Field Yates, NFL analyst: Saints 34, Chiefs 33. The Saints look to be most balanced team in the NFL, while the Chiefs are an offensive freight train. Each has the inside edge on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, albeit with plenty of football ahead. This would be fun.

 

Here are some current Vegas odds:

 

Super Bowl LIII Odds

TEAM                           UPDATED ODDS

Los Angeles Rams                    5-2               opened at 20-1

New Orleans Saints                 7-2               opened at 16-1

Kansas City Chiefs                  9-2               opened at 30-1

New England Patriots               6-1               opened at 5-1

Pittsburgh Steelers                    8-1               opened at 8-1

Los Angeles Chargers 14-1               opened at 30-1

Minnesota Vikings                   16-1               opened at 10-1

Philadelphia Eagles                 20-1               opened at 10-1

Carolina Panthers                   25-1               opened at 25-1

Houston Texans                      25-1               opened at 20-1

Green Bay Packers               40-1               opened at 10-1

Chicago Bears                       40-1               opened at 100-1

Cincinnati Bengals                 60-1               opened at 100-1

Tennessee Titans                   60-1               opened at 40-1

Washington Redskins            80-1               opened at 60-1

Atlanta Falcons                      80-1               opened at 16-1

Baltimore Ravens                  100-1             opened at 40-1

Jacksonville Jaguars             100-1             opened at 20-1

Indianapolis Colts                   100-1             opened at 40-1

Seattle Seahawks                  200-1             opened at 20-1

Dallas Cowboys                     200-1             opened at 20-1

Miami Dolphins                      200-1             opened at 60-1

 

Hard to believe the Seahawks were as low as 20-1 to open and are now as high as 200-1.

 

We also like the Bears at 40-1.