AROUND THE NFL

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

Was Chiefs QB PATRICK MAHOMES reminding the Bears what could have been?  Kalyn Kahler of SI.com is among those doing the math:

 

half hour before the start of Sunday’s game between the Bears and the visiting Chiefs, a woman wearing a Chiefs winter pom-pom hat brandished a homemade cardboard sign over the railing along the visitor’s sideline.  (It said “Could’ve had Mahomes”)

 

It’s unclear whether Mitchell Trubisky saw the sign from the sideline, but we know that it was impossible for the Bears’ quarterback to avoid the weight and significance of the game (even though he’s trying to avoid TV these days). Trubisky, the first quarterback picked in the 2017 NFL draft, has not yet developed into what the Bears brass expected him to be, and now faces an uncertain future. On the opposite side of the field, Patrick Mahomes, the second quarterback picked that year at No. 10 overall, was named league MVP in his first season as starter and has quarterbacked the Chiefs to another division title this season.

 

This contest, pitting the two young quarterbacks against each other for the first time and making the stark contrast between them all the more obvious, played out just the way you would expect. Mahomes completed 23 of 33 attempts for 251 yards and two touchdowns, while Trubisky completed 18 of 34 attempts for 157 yards and no touchdowns. Thriving quarterback: 26, Regressing quarterback: 3.

 

After Mahomes threw his first touchdown pass to tight end Travis Kelce at the end of the second quarter (he ran 12 yards for the Chiefs first touchdown), he celebrated in an unusual fashion. As he ran to the sideline alone, Mahomes held out one finger, and then began counting on both hands, all the way up to ten. He continued running with both palms outstretched at his side.

 

Ten fingers, tenth pick?

 

NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth offered his interpretation of Mahomes’s gesture on the Sunday Night Football Broadcast. “Let me see, how many people were drafted before me?” said Collinsworth, getting inside the mind of Mahomes. “6, 7, 8, 9, 10. The tenth player picked, right, right. The Bears had a chance to get me. He’s not mean-spirited about anything but he’s competitive and he knows the Chicago Bears could have had him.”

 

In his post-game press conference, Mahomes down-played the significance of his finger-counting celebration, and said he didn’t plan it in advance. “Honestly, I was just out there having fun,” he said. “We had a big score before the half and I was just trying to enjoy it. … I don’t know if there was necessarily a meaning.”

 

But this is the first time he’s done this celebration, or at least the first time he’s been caught, and the timing of it taking place in Chicago is peculiar. When asked why he counted to 10 against the Bears at Soldier Field, of all games and places he could do it, Mahomes said, “I don’t know why a lot of things come out when I do celebrations, but I just try to go out there and enjoy it. And I know I can’t dance or anything like that, so I leave that to the receivers. I just do what I can do.”

 

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

Charles Robinson of YahooSports.com says the departure of Jason Garrett will not fix the Cowboys.

 

More often than not, there’s a stubborn reality that defines the month of December for NFL teams: After months of stitching or disguising one problem after the next, the final weeks become an unrelenting practice in nakedness.

 

Players are never as healthy as they could be. A large portion of the offensive playbook has been aired out. Defensive liabilities have been exposed. The coaching staff is ragged from adjustments. The personnel department is frustrated with some lack of development. And over the shoulder of the entire operation, someone in ownership is cataloguing all the defining questions for the rank and file.

 

In the winter of the NFL, the opportunity to hide what you are and the willingness of others to be fooled by the ruse often shrinks to nothing.

 

Teams reveal who they are.

 

The Dallas Cowboys did exactly that Sunday in a 17-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. And perhaps not surprisingly, the problems appear to be running deeper than head coach Jason Garrett.

 

I’m sure some people have suspected this for a while now. A head coach alone can’t take what appeared to be a Super Bowl-worthy roster in September and reduce it to a middling 7-8 team after 15 games. Most Cowboys fans probably don’t want to hear that, but it’s the truth. Garrett wasn’t the only factor that caused Dallas to fold in such weird ways Sunday night on the road against an Eagles team that had the same motivations to win, but significantly less talent on the field.

 

This isn’t a call to acquit Garrett, mind you. Sunday’s embarrassing loss (yes, Jerry Jones, it was embarrassing) unfolded against a club that is running on fumes and held together with duct tape. And that was just entering the day, not even accounting for the multitude of injuries that occurred during the game itself, leaving Philadelphia floating into Monday morning with a character-defining victory.

 

No, Garrett takes the responsibility for this one, as he should. He’s at the top of the most-fireable part of the organizational chart. And it shouldn’t take showing team highlight reels every week to remind the players of what they can be or should be. Building that kind of confidence is a culture thing. The foundation is supposed to be built from February to July and then improved upon inside the season. I’ve heard Garrett remind people of this often, usually when he talks about the percentage of offseason participation or the leaders who regularly show up for “optional” portions of the spring and early summer months.

 

The Cowboys’ culture in 2019? It’s 7-8 and mediocre.

 

It’s 0-8 when trailing at halftime this season.

 

It’s three road wins against the three worst teams in the NFC — the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions.

 

It’s losing to the Eagles with Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb on the sideline in vital moments.

 

It’s punting on fourth-and-short when the Cowboys needed to go for it, kicking field goals when touchdowns make the difference, and reaching the end zone zero times.

 

Most of all, the 2019 culture of the Cowboys has given us this moment that I suspect will be most defining: Jerry Jones leaving his seat late in the fourth quarter with time still on the clock, then doing something that should have the coaching staff terrified — speaking very briefly with the media, either because he has no more answers, or simply no more hopes to sell with only the faintest chances of backing into the postseason.

 

We don’t need Jerry’s answers. The questions are revelations in themselves. And they speak some truths about Dallas that are unsettling. And they also serve to dial up what is likely coming next, specifically a lot of change and a lot of deliberation on a roster that is talented but flawed.

 

Garrett may actually be the easiest call at this point. He has had a decade and produced little for the patience. He is less a part of game-planning than ever before in his Dallas tenure. His philosophies, speeches and motivational tactics are dog-eared and falling flat with the fan base. It’s how it always goes with head coaches who are granted long periods of opportunity but never deliver the requisite February victory or even appearance that makes the patience worthwhile.

 

So, yeah. That’s Garrett in a nutshell. He hasn’t gotten it done. You can micromanage the hell out of that statement with granular details, but those five words are all that matter after 10 years.

 

Now come the other questions. And these are the ones that should be tying Dallas fans in knots. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore? He’s been a revelation in the passing game and with quarterback Dak Prescott’s development. But he has shifted the balance of the scheme so far away from Ezekiel Elliott that the Cowboys’ offensive identity is unclear. There are times when the Cowboys can seem to fast-break it with anyone throwing the football. There are also times when dominating the tempo with Elliott and wearing out an already-thin opponent (see: the Eagles on Sunday) is a necessary and familiar downshift. Frankly, I’m not sure if Moore has figured out when to move from one gear to the next. He might be learning as he goes, necessitating a few more seasons of ironing out his balance. Or he might be a one-trick pony who bloats passing numbers but falls flat when Dallas has to suck the life out of a defense with a relentless and pounding drive.

 

The defense? The line is talented but saw important pieces fade down the stretch. The linebackers were fast but bullied at times. The secondary looks like a disjointed mess where some players are doing things inside the scheme that don’t suit their skills. Play-caller Kris Richard is fiery, but maybe to a detriment at times. If you know his history in Seattle, some players and coaches follow his lead while others chafe under his criticism. It’s tenable when the locker room is stacked with alpha personalities like DeMarcus Lawrence. But when it doesn’t, it causes divisions. And that can’t be ignored.

 

Special teams? Well, making the right call on a kicker too late rather than too early can cost a team at least one or two wins and maybe even a playoff spot. This is why the elite kickers get paid, while everyone else is left white-knuckling from week to week and hoping it doesn’t alter an entire season. Someone in Dallas screwed this one up and then didn’t fix it fast enough.

 

That’s a lot of reality to absorb. And it won’t go away if and when Garrett is fired. Nor will the decision on Amari Cooper, who can’t possibly be an $18 million to $20 million per-year wideout, and also be a player that rotates out of games in huge moments.

 

Then you have Prescott, who is unquestionably better, but is either hurt or missing important passes in vital moments, leaving Dallas to measure again how much he’s worth in the coming offseason.

 

Elliott? Dallas paid him, so it’ll have to figure out how to make him worth the money inside whatever scheme is settled on. Jason Witten? He looks like he’s ready to move into the coaching ranks.

 

Those are some massive calculations lying in wait. And Garrett’s future really doesn’t change any of them.

 

So into Week 17 the Dallas Cowboys go. Needing to beat the Redskins at home and have the Eagles lose to the Giants on the road. A scenario that would grant a largely underserved playoff spot, prolonging this mess of decisions rather than solving any of them. Firing Garrett? It’s step one in a long offseason road.

 

But this is the foundation that Dallas has built. It’s naked as ever and riddled with problems. And that won’t end next week, no matter what happens.

 

For all of the pre-amble about it being culture, a lot of the things Robinson cited seemed to be coaching.

 

 

PHILADELPHIA

The big win over the Cowboys came with a cost.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Eagles are waiting to hear about tight end Zach Ertz‘s outlook for Week 17 after he injured a rib in Sunday’s win over the Cowboys, but they are already preparing to play without cornerback Ronald Darby.

 

Head coach Doug Pederson said at his Monday press conference that Darby is expected to miss at least next Sunday’s game against the Giants because of a hip injury. Darby was limited to 11 snaps in the win over Dallas.

 

Rasul Douglas will start in Darby’s place with Sidney Jones also likely to see an uptick in playing time as long as Darby is out of the picture.

 

Darby is set for free agency after the season. Depending on the extent of his injury and how things play out for the Eagles, he may have played his final game in Philadelphia.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

CAROLINA

TE GREG OLSEN with the kind of commentary an on-air analyst might make.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

If Greg Olsen decides to hang up the cleats and head to the TV booth after this season, he’s already got practice giving an honest assessment of the team he’s covering.

 

Following the Carolina Panthers 38-6 blowout loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the team’s seventh straight defeat, Olsen laid into the entire operation.

 

“Right now I’m not sure what our plan is. I think we want to win now, but we want to build for the future,” Olsen said, via the Charlotte Observer. “It’s just a really tough way to operate right now.”

 

Olsen wasn’t done.

 

“Players are underperforming, I think it’s right now a very collective failure, organizational failure. Fans deserve better,” he said. “A lot of guys in this locker room deserve better. Coaches that have been around here deserve better. It’s just been an overall failure, I think is the best way to put it.”

 

If this is the end for Olsen in Carolina after nine seasons, he’s going out in a blaze of glory. The 34-year-old could walk right into a TV booth after the season, continue his career elsewhere, or be brought back by a new coaching staff at an $11.8 million cap hit (or take a pay cut).

 

The Panthers fired coach Ron Rivera three weeks ago. Interim coach Perry Fewell took over, and the embarrassing losses have mounted.

 

Sunday’s blowout defeat came with rookie Will Grier under center behind an offensive line that couldn’t block traffic with a bulldozer. The third-round pick threw three interceptions, and outside of short passes to Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers’ offense was abysmal.

 

“(Grier) was thrown into an impossible situation,” Olsen said, defending the young quarterback. “Two games left in a season where there’s been countless issues and now, throw him out there, play incompetent football around him — it’s impossible to get any sort of judgment based on his performance today.”

 

Olsen’s criticism wasn’t of the young players that have struggled in the recent weeks, but of the organization’s issues from the top down.

 

“There were failures all around (Grier). Failures leading up to it,” Olsen said. “I hope no one passes any judgment on Will’s abilities as a player, in the future going forward. There were a lot of things at play he had to suffer the consequences of.”

 

No one expected the Panthers to go on a run after Rivera was fired, but the epic collapse is an indictment of everyone left.

 

With the NFL needing a professional effort this Sunday to keep the Saints from moving higher in the NFC seeding – the Panthers will again start Grier in the finale.

 

 

NEW ORLEANS

We’re trying to figure out why WR MICHAEL THOMAS is usually in the second handful of WRs you would name as current greats (DB included) – at least up until late this year.  He’s piling up records left and right.  Peter King:

 

Me to Michael Thomas, Sunday afternoon: “What does it feel like to have caught more passes in a season than any player in the 100-year history of the NFL?”

 

Thomas, sounding fatigued: “Man, I haven’t really like—I don’t think it’s hit yet. I have so much more bigger goals, way more team-oriented goals. It’s a blessing to be in that position, to be in this position and have this opportunity to do something like this. I’m still not finished.”

 

His teammates will tell you Thomas is the anti-prima donna. He’s a worker bee. He told me in the summer, after he signed his five-year, $19.3-million-a-year deal, that he wanted to make sure no one would ever think he’d arrived—he wanted to keep working as though he hadn’t arrived. And the amazing thing about Thomas, I think, is not just the volume of catches. It’s knowing the defense has worked all week to slow him down, and figure out the rubs and screens and legal picks, and counter his physicality. But no one has been able to do it. This year, he’s caught 145 of the 176 times he’s been targeted by Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill—meaning he’s caught 82.4 percent of balls thrown to to him. Julio Jones has caught 63.9 percent of the throws to him. Tyreek Hill, 63.6 percent. JuJu Smith-Schuster, 62.5 percent. Julian Edelman, 66.4 percent.

 

Targeted 12 times a game and catching 10, basically, when everyone knows the offense is going to throw at least one pass to you on every series. Surprised? “Not really,” Thomas said. “It’s my accountability and the love for the game, love for my teammates. We’re all in the huddle. We’re all trying to execute our plays to the best of our ability and move the chains. Make our coaches right. When I have the opportunity to make a play, I put 100 percent responsibility on myself and I want to make that play for my teammates.”

 

He tied Marvin Harrison’s record on a 20-yard out route from Hill. He thought he broke it with a 14-yard touchdown from Brees that was turned into a 13-yard gain to the 1-yard line on further review. Which gave Brees the chance to get him a 145th catch, his ninth TD reception of the year, from two yards out to ice the 38-28 win.

 

Coming off the field, Brees hugged him and said: “No one deserves it more than you.” His coaches and teammates won’t argue that.

 

More on Thomas from Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

On the same day Saints receiver Michael Thomas became the single-season reception leader with 145, he set another more specific all-time mark.

 

With 136 receiving yards in a 38-28 win over the Titans, Thomas now has 1,688 for the season, and 5,475 for his four-year career. That’s the most that any player has generated in his first four year, breaking the record set from 1998 through 2001 by Hall of Famer Randy Moss, with 5,396.

 

Thomas undoubtedly will push the record past 5,500 on Sunday against the Panthers, possibly past 5,600. In the same game, he’ll also be extending the single-season catch record beyond 145.

 

And while Thomas has a long way to go to approach the upper reaches of the all-time list, his production through four seasons and his ongoing partnership with coach Sean Payton lays the foundation for an eventual assault on the all-time catch and yardage records.

 

Not bad for a second-round pick.

 

If Thomas were to make 16 catches on Sunday against the reeling Panthers, he would set the NFL record for most catches in the first 5 years of a career – by the end of his 4th season.

 

Jarvis Landry           2014-2018          481     

Michael Thomas      2016-2019          466     

Larry Fitzgerald       2004-2008           426     

 

 

TAMPA BAY

On some plays, he looks like a GOAT.  On others, QB JAMEIS WINSTON does things that make him Peter King’s Goat of the Week:

 

Goat of the Week

Jameis Winston, quarterback, Tampa Bay. Four more interceptions, and two clear near-picks dropped by the Texans, in a 23-20 Tampa Bay loss that absolutely, certainly should have been a win. Winston is so good when he’s good, but it is absolutely amazing how often he throws interceptable balls . . . not to mention that he’s thrown nine more interceptions than any quarterback in football this year. I still think the Bucs will agree to some deal with him after the season—and should—but I would be cautious about paying him long-term. Winston is too careless.

 

Even with both of his top receivers sidelined, he still passed for 335 yards against the Texans.  He is up to 4,908 yards on the season and needs just 92 in the finale to have the 12th 5,000-yard season in NFL history.

 

None of the other 11 such seasons (5 by DREW BREES, 6 by other QBs one time only) included more than 19 INTs.  Winston is at 28 INTs.

 

With two more picks against the Falcons, he would the 11th quarterback to throw 30 INTs in a season (George Blanda did it twice, so that’s 12 times).  The last QB to throw 30 INTs in a season?  Another Buccaneer QB, Vinny Testaverde who threw 35 in 1988 in his 2nd season.

 

Winston’s 28 picks are the most since Brett Favre threw 29 in 2005.

 

With those two anticipated picks, Winston would be the first member of the 30 TD/30 INT club.

 

Winston, at the moment, is the 5th member of the 30 TD/25 INT club (Drew Bledsoe, Jay Cutler, both Mannings). 

 

He would be the only member of the 5,000-yard/30 TD/25 INT club.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

If LB CHANDLER JONES can do to QB JARED GOFF what he did to QB RUSSELL WILSON, he will have the NFL sack record:

 

Chandler Jones is making a last-ditch effort to swipe the Defensive Player of the Year Award with a monster finish to an already game-wrecking season.

 

Sunday he almost single-handedly destroyed the Seattle Seahawks’ offense. Jones set up shop in the backfield, destroying Russell Wilson time after time. He gobbled up four sacks on the day. Even when asked to drop into coverage, what happened? Oh, not much, just a forced fumble by Jones downfield on a receiver that the Cardinals recovered.

 

Jones’ stat line makes the word outrageous seem tame: Four sacks, six tackles, six QB hits, two tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.

 

If Jones were on a team with a better record than 5-9-1, he’d likely be leading the DPOY discussion. Don’t discount the pass rusher because his team is still a work in progress. If T.J. Watt is in the debate with his team is teetering on missing the playoffs, so should Jones.

 

Jones’ four-sack afternoon marked the second time he’s gobbled up a quartet of QB takedowns. He’s just the third player since sacks started being tracked in 1982 with multiple games of four-plus sacks in the same season. Others: HOF Reggie White 1986, DEN Karl Mecklenburg 1985.

 

Jones now has 19 sacks on the season and a whopping eight forced fumbles, both leading the NFL. If Jones has a third four-sack performance in Week 17, the Cardinals pass rusher would blast past Michael Strahan’s 22.5 sacks for most all-time in a single season.

 

“I had no idea until I think Larry (Fitzgerald) was telling me, ‘Hey, you’re a few sacks away,'” Jones said, via the Arizona Republic. “I try not to think about the numbers. I just play.”

 

Jones noted it would be “remarkable” to pass Strahan.

 

“Not just for me, but for my team, my family,” he said. “A lot of guys have gotten close, so we’ll see what happens.”

 

Jared Allen came up half a sack short of Strahan’s record in 2011, as did Justin Houston in 2014. Aaron Donald gobbled up 20.5 last year, and J.J. Watt also got to 20.5 twice (2012, 2014).

 

Jones would need to take down Jared Goff four times against the Rams in Week 17 to create a new record.

 

He’s already set a franchise record with 19 sacks, besting his own mark of 17 set in 2017.

 

Perhaps Stephon Gilmore is the frontrunner for the DPOY award as a game-changing defensive back on the best secondary in the NFL. But Jones deserves attention despite his team’s record.

 

Jones sits at 19 sacks, he needs one more for the 13th 20-sack season in NFL history:

 

Michael Strahan*      2001                 22.5                                                    

Jared Allen               2011                  22.0                                                     

Mark Gastineau        1984                 22.0                                                     

Justin Houston          2014                  22.0                                                    

Chris Doleman*        1989                  21.0                                                    

Reggie White*          1987                  21.0                                                     

Aaron Donald           2018                  20.5                                                     

Lawrence Taylor*      1986                 20.5                                                    

J.J. Watt                    2012                 20.5                                                     

J.J. Watt                    2014                  20.5                                                    

Derrick Thomas*       1990                 20.0                                                    

DeMarcus Ware        2008                 20.0    

 

J.J. Watt is the only to hit 20 twice, so Jones would be the 12th individual to do it.

 

Can’t recall any other record where the top contenders are so tightly bunched.                  

 

Peter King has Jones on his DPOY radar:

 

I think Defensive Player of the Year is going to be a very tough call. With a week to go, I’m very much on the fence. My leaders are Chandler Jones, Aaron Donald, T.J. Watt, Cam Jordan, Danielle Hunter and maybe Stephon Gilmore. But I’ll spend some more time this week doing due diligence while I research my all-pro team. Stay tuned.

 

– – –

Peter King makes Kliff Kingsbury his Coach of the Week:

 

The Cardinals might be just 5-9-1, but Kingsbury has rebuilt this team on the fly and, unexpected, built one of the best running games in the league with an okay offensive line and by making a feature back out of a Miami discard, Kenyan Drake, who was brilliant once again in Sunday’s 27-13 stunner in Seattle. Kingsbury told people in the summer that he absolutely, positively would concentrate on the run as much as the pass, even though, with Kyler Murray, everyone looked for Kingsbury to fill the air with footballs. The Arizona rush was perfect in Seattle, 40 carries for 253 yards (6.3 yards per rush), raising the per-carry average for the Cards to an NFC-best 5.1 yards per carry. Arizona beat the Seahawks with Murray leaving after 35 minutes with a bad hamstring. Brett Hundley did Kingsbury’s bidding the rest of the way—and you could see how well-prepared he was. Arizona’s now won back-to-back games by 14 points. I’d be bullish on the Cards in 2020                

 

SAN FRANCISCO

Kevin Clark of The Ringer with a look at George Kittle. 

 

 

Kittle decided to be a badass one day and never stopped. It happened in the summer of 2017 when his tight ends coach, Jon Embree, told him to stop getting tackled. Everyone agreed this was ludicrous, including 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. “He’d say, ‘You can’t go out of bounds there, they can’t tackle you.’ And I’d say, ‘OK, Jon, we get it, but this is kind of ridiculous. You’re going to lose him if you keep saying that when it’s impossible.’”

 

Embree did not relent. Kittle was, at best, skeptical. “One of the first things he said was never run out of bounds. ‘Turn upfield. They will get out of your way. If they don’t get out of your way, run them over,’” Kittle said. “So I said to him, ‘Well”—he paused—“they are going to tackle me?” But Embree persisted. Again, everyone was quite confused.

 

“Jon never wavered, because he was doing it to the right guy,” Shanahan said. “George, at some point, thought, ‘You’re right, they can’t tackle me.’”

 

That “some point” has an exact date: August 19, 2017, in a preseason game against the Denver Broncos. “I turn upfield, and there’s a guy standing there. I said, ‘Screw it, I’m just gonna run,’ and the guy just kind of fell over,” Kittle said. “I ended up in the end zone, and I probably should have been pushed out of bounds. So I thought, ‘Wow, I get it. If you just run at people they just kinda tend to get out of your way.’”

 

The NFL is one of the most competitive places in human history. Each of its teams is worth a billion dollars. Coaches spend hundreds of hours each week looking for an edge. No sport is as scrutinized or overanalyzed. And sometimes, the league changes when a fifth-round draft pick from Iowa says, “Screw it, I’m just gonna run.”

 

The guy standing in Kittle’s way in that Broncos game was cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris, whom Kittle trucked right before brushing off a shove from safety Orion Stewart. The names and numbers of the players keep changing, but the play is usually the same: Kittle charging straight ahead and a defender failing to reckon with this fact. I explain that this moment in August 2017 sounds a bit like a superhero origin story. “Learning how it all works,” Kittle said. “Like Spider-Man jumping off a building.”

 

“Yeah. It does,” Kittle continues as he nods. “And it clicked even more my second year. They do get out of your way. It’s pretty fun.”

 

It’s outrageous to think that Kittle decided to start breaking tackles and then became the best at it. It’s as if Steph Curry had decided to start launching 3-pointers only a few years ago because a coach told him he might be good at it. Kittle is not only good at avoiding tackles—he is the absolute best in the NFL.

 

Kittle plays with a frantic energy that has made him the league’s best tight end. Last season, he set an NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end. He blends athleticism and destruction so seamlessly that he’s earned comparisons to Rob Gronkowski, including from the man himself. This year, Kittle is a major part of the offensive engine of the 11-3 Niners, one of the best teams in the league. It is a triumph of self-belief and also a triumph of being 250 pounds, 6-foot-4, and running over 20 mph.

 

“George, at some point, thought, ‘You’re right, they can’t tackle me.’” —Kyle Shanahan

“I just had the sense that people were going to struggle to tackle him,” Embree said. “There is something in him that makes people not want to tackle him.” Well, he was right: According to Pro Football Focus, Kittle had more yards after the catch last season than any wide receiver or tight end the site has ever tracked. In the past two seasons, Kittle has averaged 8.8 yards after the catch per reception. This is not only the most—it’s 1.6 yards per play more than anyone else. Since Kittle entered the league in 2017, no player has more yards after the catch above expectation, according to Next Gen Stats.

 

“His mind-set is not, ‘I’m going to score,’ or, ‘I want to get as many yards as possible.’ It is, ‘I want to destroy whoever is in front of me,’” receiver Dante Pettis said. “That’s why he stiff-arms and runs people over. He wants to destroy whoever is in the path.”

 

Niners tackle Mike McGlinchey can speak for everyone: “I have never seen anything like it.”

 

Kittle can make defenders look like they’ve never attempted a tackle before. When they miss, they sometimes react as if it is the most frustrating thing in the world—perhaps because it is. The last decade of football has featured smaller defensive players, adjusting to faster, spread offenses. Strict limits on tackling in practice, and practice time, has led to, at least anecdotally, worse tackling. Kittle has taken these trends and run them over. He said he wants to run in a way that forces defensive backs into “creative angles.” This is code for an angle in which Kittle will destroy them.

– – –

“There are times when a receiver flinches before he’s about to be hit. George never does that,” said tight end Garrett Celek. “He never flinches. He’s never afraid to put himself in a vulnerable position to make a play. George is a savage.”

 

Bruce Kittle, a former assistant at Oklahoma, told me he did not see his son progressing this quickly. “He’s almost a completely different guy from OTAs in 2017 until now. No one saw this coming.” I heard George’s mom, Jan, through the phone, so Bruce corrected his previous statement that no one saw this coming. “Except his mom,” Bruce said.

 

You’ll often hear about Kittle’s relentless positivity. It’s mostly true, except I did see him get upset once in our limited time together, when a 49ers employee brought up Game of Thrones, a show he adores. “I completely ignore Season 8 ever happened—worst season in the history of television. That was awful,” Kittle said. He said he was pissed off just talking about it.

 

Kittle has a lot of takes. “I’m a Lord of the Rings junkie. Sam and Frodo are the two best, their whole journey, everything they go through. Love Aragorn. I just like the mystical part of it—the huge battles,” said Kittle, whose father read him the books at least three times. “I’m a diehard Harry Potter guy. Not really the movies. The books are the best.”

 

Kittle’s wife, Claire, loves Madam Secretary, but he doesn’t. After a back-and-forth about popular television shows, we get to Homeland. “Oh, Homeland,” Kittle said, exasperated. He brings up the show’s main character, a CIA agent named Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes. “Everytime I watch an episode I say, ‘OK, she should be fired. I can’t get through it.’”

 

Given Kittle’s strong opinions about television, it should not be much of a surprise that Garoppolo said Kittle often says things that have nothing to do with football on the sideline. “There are times I say, ‘What the hell?’” Garoppolo said with a smile. Fellow tight end Ross Dwelley said Kittle could not stop speaking in a faux-Canadian accent on the sideline for a time because of his love of a viral YouTube video from Pardon My Take. “He does it a lot. He really thinks he’s Canadian,” Dwelley said.

– – –

Shanahan was looking for a pass-catching tight end in 2017 when he saw Kittle on tape. “He didn’t do that a lot in college, but he looked good when he did,” Shanahan said. “We couldn’t believe how good of a run blocker he was. Then we realized that everyone was calling him a run blocker because he didn’t have the passing stats. We were impressed with how all-around he was.”

 

Kittle, Shanahan said, “allows us to do stuff in the run game we haven’t done before because of how much he can handle on his own, whether it’s gap schemes or outside zone schemes.”

 

Having a huge person running very fast on the field is not an accident for the Niners. They have exploited a trend: As the league has gotten smaller, they’ve emphasized size.

 

“Defenses are always trying to compensate for the offenses, which means smaller, faster linebackers. There are three-receiver sets; teams are spreading the ball out. We put two running backs out there a ton, 22 personnel, two tight ends. Those linebackers have to match up with us in smaller spaces, and we feel like that gives us an advantage to push us around,” the team’s fullback, Juszczyk, said. “As the game progresses, I think it wears teams down. With George, it’s basically pick your poison. Guys good at the run game and blocking like that usually can’t run routes like that.” The Niners proved their commitment to size when they signed Juszczyk to the biggest-ever deal for a fullback in March 2017.

 

This dovetails nicely with the Kittle family’s size and offensive line background. Bruce said he was influenced, in part, by his former Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz’s mentor, longtime offensive line coach Joe Moore. Bruce cites Moore’s famous quote: “There is no greater joy in life than moving a man from point A to point B against his will.”

 

This, of course, has shown up in George. I asked him the best he’s ever felt on a football field. “My senior year against Nebraska,” Kittle said. (He tells me that he has “choice words” for Nebraska football in general, but did not expand.) “We were winning 33-10, all the seniors on the field. We ran eight plays, ran [two tight ends, two running backs] and we ran 23 breeze—which is an inside run zone—toward me eight plays in a row, down the field, at 8 yards a pop, through their face. And on play nine, we ran power load, and I pancaked two guys on the play. That was one of the most satisfying moments for me. We completely physically broke them the entire game. One of my favorite parts was that their defensive end had a big curly mustache, because he thought he was really cool, and I put him on his back like three times. So that was very fun for me.

 

“I enjoy football,” he said. He talked a bit about the lessons his dad taught him about enjoying the game. Bruce, George said, taught him that “football is its own living, breathing organism. You don’t cut corners and you don’t cheat football, because it will always come and get you. Football is the ultimate truth.”

 

We know that George does not cut corners to get where he is going. He runs directly through people.

 

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com with some conventional wisdom on the Rams:

 

@MichaelDavSmith

The Rams missing the playoffs is a huge black mark on Les Snead and Sean McVay. This is a team built to win now: Trading two firsts for Ramsey, big contracts for Goff, Donald, Cooks and Gurley, 38-year-old starting left tackle. Easy to see that team getting worse next year.

 

 

SEATTLE

Desperate times call of desperate measures.  This tweet from Ian Rapoport:

 

@RapSheet

Marshawn Lynch and the #Seahawks are open to a reunion, and Lynch has told people he plans to travel to Seattle today to discuss it, sources tell me, @MikeGarafolo and @TomPelissero. #BeastMode could be back in Seattle.

 

Nick Shook of NFL.com on what precipitated such an urgent move:

 

Marshawn Lynch is headed back to Seattle for a visit with old friends.

 

According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Mike Garafolo and Tom Pelissero, the former star Seahawks running back is taking a trip back to his old Pacific Northwest stomping grounds for a meeting with the franchise that once employed him through two runs to the Super Bowl. Sure, the Seahawks didn’t hand it to him on the one-yard line with Super Bowl XLIX on the line, and they helped him out by trading him for a homecoming to the Oakland Raiders, but that’s all in the past now.

 

The reason: The Seahawks need a power back.

 

Seattle’s Chris Carson quietly rolled up 1,230 yards rushing this season and served as the constant ground force the Seahawks have lacked since the departure of — you guessed it — Lynch. Carson’s contributions helped the Seahawks return to the class of the NFC, going 11-4 with a pivotal game coming in Week 17 against the San Francisco 49ers.

 

But they won’t play that game with Carson, who was likely lost for the season Sunday with a hip injury. They’ll also be without C.J. Prosise, who suffered a broken arm in Seattle’s Week 16 loss to Arizona, and tackle Duane Brown, who has a knee issue that requires surgery. Brown’s surgery might not keep him out for significant time, Rapoport added.

 

Even with the All-Pro level of play from quarterback Russell Wilson, these Seahawks still need a reliable running game. They’re at least kicking the tires on their trusty old workhorse, a wise move before proceeding to scan the waiver wire, especially with the playoffs starting a week early thanks to their rematch with San Francisco arriving Sunday night. There’s no time to rest.

 

Garafolo adds former Seahawks running back Robert Turbin is expected to meet with the team in the near future.

 

More from Peter King on the sudden plight of the Seahawks:

 

The Seahawks, playing at home, not only lost to the cellar-dwellers of the West (with the backup quarterback playing all of crunch time when Kyler Murray tweaked a hammy), and they not only lost by two touchdowns, but they lost two of their 10 most important players: left tackle Duane Brown (knee surgery) and running back Chris Carson (hip), both likely gone for the year. The line already caved in on Wilson in the Cardinals’ 27-13 win, with Chandler Jones running wild in a career-high four-sack day. And the reward for Seattle is to play San Francisco in an NFC West championship game Sunday night in the NFL’s Game 256, the last game of the regular season, with much on the line. The winner of Niners-‘Hawks gets the first or second seed in the NFC, and a first-round playoff bye. The loser? A two or three-time-zone road trip on wild-card weekend.

 

Seattle will have to beat San Francisco with a sixth-round rookie back from Miami, Travis Homer, making his first NFL start, after the top three backs on the Seattle depth chart all were lost to injury. The new left tackle, second-year man Jamarco Jones, will likely be making his third career start if Pete Carroll chooses him over itinerant utility man George Fant.

 

“The adversity is temporary,” said Russell Wilson, who is a professional at putting an optimistic face on a disaster. ”There’s so much to figure out. But I don’t think there’s anyone better than us to figure it out.”

 

There was a time—oh, way back in time, a whole month ago—that Seattle and San Francisco looked like the class of the NFC. They still may be. But each team is 2-2 this month, and each has been outscored this month—Foes 126, Niners 121, and Foes 109, Seahawks 92. They are survivors now. Seattle played Sunday missing 11 starters of recent vintage for some or all of the game. Jadeveon Clowney, Quandre Diggs, Chris Carson, Duane Brown, Shaquille Griffin . . . important players. Who knows who gets a weekend pass from the infirmary for the game of the year?

 

Game 256 reminds me of the 15th round of Rocky. It’ll be dramatic, and I bet we’ll see players dressed in Niners and Seahawks jerseys throwing haymakers from the ropes in the fourth quarter.

 

AFC WEST

 

THE RAIDERS

Nine or ten specific game results (depending on who is doing the charting) needed to happen in the final two weeks for the Raiders to make the playoffs.  Five of them were on Week 16, and they all did.  Peter King:

 

“No one thought we’d be playing for the playoffs in Week 17, let’s be real,” Derek Carr said after the 24-17 home win in Carson, Calif. That’s right. Home win. The Chargers had to resort to a silent snap count at times because this was Oakland’s last game ever in the state of California. (The next time the franchise is in Cali, it’ll be the Las Vegas Raiders.) Five things had to go the Raiders’ way in Week 16 for them to be alive entering Week 17. All five went their way. The Insanity of the Week is this: The Raiders need four things to happen in Week 17 for them to be the sixth seed in the AFC, and likely open with a wild-card game at Kansas City—an Oakland win at Denver, a Tennessee loss at Houston, a Pittsburgh loss at Baltimore, and an Indianapolis win at Jacksonville. And, well, not impossible at all.

 

But . . . leave it to Raiders radio voice and Vegas gaming impresario Brent Musburger to put the final wrench in the Raider playoff scenario. “So, today was a longshot, such a longshot that there were people in the Raiders organization who didn’t know the team still had a playoff chance,” Musburger said from an LAX runway Sunday night, waiting for his plane to take off for Oakland. “If you put down $20 on this five-team parlay, you’d have won $500. Right now, it’s impossible to negotiate specific odds until we hear from John Harbaugh about how he’s going to play the game next Sunday against Pittsburgh. If he sits Lamar Jackson, the Steelers will be the favorite.”

 

Harbaugh, on who plays in Week 17 now that Baltimore’s clinched the top AFC seed: “We haven’t yet [made a decision]. I’ll sit down with the leadership council [Monday]. We’ll probably talk about that. I’m going to be really interested in what the players think about that, and the coaches. The thing I want to emphasize is that no matter what we do, the emphasis is going to be on winning the football game. We want that 14th win.”

 

More Musburger: “The Titans are the early favorites [by 4.5 points] at Houston.” Which means Vegas must think Bill O’Brien, the likely fourth seed in Houston, will rest some guys. “And the Colts have to go into Jacksonville and win, and you don’t know how that’ll go.” And, of course, the Raiders have to go to suddenly hot Denver (3-1 this month) and win there. For the record, the early line from Bet Online has the Colts a 3.5-point pick over Jacksonville, Oakland a four-point underdog at Denver, with no line yet on Pittsburgh-Baltimore.

 

“Well, it’s pretty crazy,” Musburger said. “It took a five-team parlay this week to get to a four-team parlay next week.”

 

That’s just perfect, for a team about to be the first NFL franchise in the longtime home of legalized sports betting, in a league that suddenly is embracing gambling.

 

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

QB PHILIP RIVERS seems to sense his time with the Chargers is coming to an end, but not his career.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

Philip Rivers turned 38 earlier this month, is in the final year of his contract and struggling through one of the worst stretches of his career.

 

Following the latest loss to the Oakland Raiders, 24-17, Rivers said despite the situation he’s not ready to walk away from the NFL.

 

“I’m capable enough physically and mentally, there’s no question,” Rivers said, via Eric D. Williams of ESPN. “Yes, I do want to play football. I do, and that’s how I feel deep down as I stand here.”

 

Rivers has been visiting the Strugglesville Home for the Elderly a lot this season, generating five games of two-plus interceptions and four games with three or more turnovers. With one game left, he’s thrown just 21 TD passes, and barring a five -TD Week 17 explosion, will compile his lowest touchdown figure since his second full season as the starter in 2007.

 

Rivers cited a “lot of factors” going into this future decision, including his family.

 

“But I know I can still do it, and I know I can still do it at a high enough level for us to win,” he said. “I have not done it well enough this year, but I still do love to play, and love to lead these guys and this team. It’s been an array of things that have compounded, to keep us from winning enough games to advance into the tournament.”

 

Rivers’ arm-strength and accuracy aren’t what we’re accustomed to seeing from one of the best anticipatory throwers in the league. Far too often, he’s chucked and prayed this season. Perhaps part of that is a faulty offensive line, or perhaps his aging arm is beginning to disintegrate.

 

The 16-year pro doesn’t think his play has fallen off that far.

 

“It’s probably human nature when you’re 38 and you throw some interceptions in games and they don’t go the way you want them to, that it can become, and that’s what people say: ‘You can’t make the throw you used to make’ or ‘You can’t do this’ — arm strength and all of that,” Rivers said. “And just none of that is true. I’ve made some throws this year that have been as good as throws that I’ve made in any years of my career, but I’m not here to sell that. So physically and what I’m able to do is just what I was able to do last year when we were rolling and having one of our best years. Even in some of these games the last few weeks, we’ve had some really good plays offensively.

 

“But that doesn’t mean that that’s good enough for someone to want you to keep playing, because you have to maintain that consistency throughout games and do enough to win football games, which we haven’t done, and I haven’t done well enough this year.”

 

The Chargers have a decision to make on whether to bring Rivers back for another season as they move into a new stadium in L.A., or move on to a younger option. The veteran quarterback, likewise, might have to decide whether he wants to relocate to continue his career.

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

In Atlanta, they are playing their hearts out to save the job of Dan Quinn.

 

Then there is Cleveland.  Nick Shook of NFL.com:

 

There’s one game left for these Browns, who guaranteed their fans a 12th straight losing season with their home finale defeat Sunday.

 

That’s far from gracing the cover of leading sports magazines and television shows as the darling pick to make the playoffs. That dream is dead in 2019.

 

One has to wonder if such failure will cost the team’s head coach his job. Quarterback Baker Mayfield was asked about it after the Browns’ 31-15 loss to the Ravens.

 

“That’s not my decision to make, so whatever happens, happens moving forward,” Mayfield said. “I know how I’m going to handle it: Getting whatever receiving corps and tight ends we have together in the offseason and making sure we’re on the same page so we hit the ground running in the spring — kind of like I hit on earlier in the week — to where there’s no room to be made up come training camp.”

 

This Browns offense, which was supposed to be incendiary, never really heated up past lukewarm this season. The Browns’ best performance of the season came at the end of the season’s first month, back when the division rival Ravens last lost. Their rematch Sunday looked almost nothing like that first meeting and illustrated just how deeply into the ground this wagon’s wheels have become entrenched.

 

We’ve since learned Odell Beckham hasn’t been fully healthy for this entire season, an issue Mayfield said earlier this month should have been handled during camp. That same camp was spent attempting to get on the same page offensively, which never quite happened.

 

As someone who watched every Browns camp practice intently, I can confirm that this offense never quite got on track. It was almost always just a little off, whether it was Mayfield’s accuracy or a route not run quite as sharp as necessary, a target dropping an open pass or a blocker not doing his job. It was only a surprise the offense didn’t turn around on the field because of how talented the group was on paper.

 

Mayfield’s acknowledgement of this is crucial. The Browns have now burned a year of Mayfield’s career with a lack of preparation and execution. There will be three years left with him on his rookie deal, meaning time is now of the essence. Springs will need to be spent sharpening, not relaxing or shooting commercials.

 

“It leaves us a lot of room to work and improve,” Mayfield said. “That’s just the bottom line. There’s a lot of room for improvement and progress to be made, so that’s how we have to handle it.”

 

The Browns have too often looked disorganized, rushed, frazzled and sometimes outright lost. Fans have griped about play-calling all season, as fans will always do when the wins aren’t piling up, but there’s at least some validity in their claims about specific key situations. In short, little of 2019 went as planned.

 

The silver lining exists in the stinging smack of reality hitting the collective face of these Browns, who won’t spend an offseason talking about grand visions of Lombardi Trophies when they’ll first need to find a way to just post a winning season for the first time since before the inception of the Obama Administration. Yes, it’s been that long in Cleveland.

 

“In the big-picture mindset, it’s a process to turn around what this once was to where we want to go and where we should be at right now,” Mayfield said.

 

We’ll see who sticks around long enough to see that process through.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

HOUSTON

WR WILL FULLER is hurt again.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

The Houston Texans won’t have Will Fuller in Week 17 against the Tennessee Titans, and possibly longer.

 

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday morning that the speedy wideout’s groin injury suffered in the Week 16 win over Tampa Bay will keep him off the field in the season finale, and is likely a three-week injury, per sources informed of the situation.

 

Fuller suffered the groin injury just 18 snaps into Saturday’s win and catching two targets for 11 yards.

 

Following tests, Fuller has an outside chance to play in the Texans’ first-round playoff game, and will likely be available if Houston advances, Rapoport added.

 

While the division is already won, the Texans still have something to play for in Week 17. Houston currently sits as the No. 4 seed but could leap into the No. 3 spot — and thus avoid the Buffalo Bills in Round 1 — with a win and a Kansas City loss next week.

 

Fuller’s groin issue is the latest injury to derail the receiver’s season. The wideout missed four games this year while dealing with a hamstring injury.

 

The wideout makes the Texans’ offense worlds more explosive when he’s on the field. Sans Fuller, the Houston offense is too often a compressed amalgam. When Fuller is available, a firework show has the potential to breakout.

 

For all of his importance, the receiver’s injury history continues to plague, in his fourth season, Fuller has yet to play in more than 14 games in a season. Missing Week 17 will mark his 20th missed regular-season bout in the past three years.

 

The Texans will hope that the key wideout can recover quickly and be ready for January football.

 

 

JACKSONVILLE

Tom Coughlin is giving cover for Shad Khan to keep David Caldwell and Doug Marrone around.  Or so, Peter King hears:

 

I think Jacksonville owner Shad Khan did the best thing for the franchise when he fired Tom Coughlin, a very good but inflexible man who helped turn some of the Jaguars players against the organization with his aggressive fine schedule that caused players to rise up. I’m told it’s very possible that Khan will keep coach Doug Marrone and GM Dave Caldwell, even though they’ve been in place as the Jaguars have gone 10-21 since their AFC Championship Game near-miss in Foxboro in January 2018. The reasoning, I’m told, is that Coughlin was such a major presence in the organization that Khan would like see how they’d do without the specter of Coughlin looming over all football decisions. For instance, Coughlin, when hired, instituted the “Coughlin Time” of meetings starting five minutes early. Marrone, I’m told, will start an 8:30 a.m. meeting at 8:30, not 8:25. It isn’t certain that Khan will keep Marrone and Caldwell, but at least they’ve got more of a chance than they probably deserve after crashing each of the past two seasons.

 

AFC EAST

 

NEW ENGLAND

Peter King on QB TOM BRADY gearing up for another playoff run:

 

Brady engineered a division-clinching 24-17 win over Buffalo with his best performance in weeks: 26 of 33, one TD, no picks, 111.1 rating. Another highlight: his effective knockdown block of Tre’Davious White on N’Keal Harry’s 18-yard reverse run in the middle of a nine-minute second-quarter drive leading to a New England field goal. To which Julian Edelman responded: “The man’s 42. It’s nuts.” With the Patriots on the verge of clinching a first-round playoff bye, now Brady can get some rest for that barking elbow—at least we think it’s barking, because he’s been wearing a post-game wrap on it recently.

 

And this, also from King:

 

I think we saw the different way New England will have to use to win in January. If you watched New England’s 24-17 win over Buffalo, you saw how it looked and felt just a bit different. It had the air of a playoff game. One desperate team, New England, trying to hold onto what seemed rightfully theirs: the AFC East, which they’d won 10 years in a row. Another desperate team, the physical Bills, trying to dent the Patriots’ armor. “The atmosphere was unreal,” said Pats running back Rex Burkhead. “So much on the line. We knew this was for the division, and it felt just like a playoff game.”

 

Burkhead is 5-10 and 217 pounds, with shoulders like anvils. He’s from Plano, Texas, and played college football at Nebraska. They grow ‘em tough out there. Trailing by a point with five minutes to play in the game, New England had the ball at the Buffalo 1. Brady took the snap and wheeled and handed to Burkhead, who headed to his right, into heavy traffic. As he weaved right, here came linebacker Lorenzo Alexander through a crease. There was going to be a collision around the 3-yard line. It’s be a great defensive play, or maybe Burkhead would win the joust. BAM! Burkhead’s shoulder rammed into Alexander with a big crunch. Alexander went down. Burkhead ran right and scored. It looks easy, but boy, that collision. “I saw a hole initially,’’ Burkhead said afterward. “Then, I don’t remember what number, but the defensive lineman came through [actually the linebacker] and I just knew I had to get away from him.” Forcefully, he did.

 

That’s how the Patriots are going to have to score. They’re not going to be an explosive passing team. They have to ride their physicality and smarts, play low-scoring games, and not beat themselves. They can’t score with Kansas City and Baltimore, but they can be as tough. And that’s one of the traits they’ll need to make an unlikely playoff run. Again.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

AN ALL-DECADE TEAM

From Frank Schwab of YahooSports.com:

 

When this decade started, Lamar Jackson was 12, not even in high school yet. On the first NFL Sunday of the 2010s, Brett Favre threw for 316 yards and four touchdowns.

 

A lot can change in a decade. Yet, there are some constants. As the 2010s began, Drew Brees and Sean Payton were leading the New Orleans Saints to the top record in the NFC. They’d win a Super Bowl championship a few weeks later. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were putting the finishing touches on another AFC East title with the New England Patriots. The Patriots were the team of the decade in the 2000s, and the same can be said for the 2010s.

 

OFFENSE

 

QB Tom Brady: Drew Brees had a good argument, statistically, as did Aaron Rodgers. But once you factor in postseason success, Brady became an easy call.

 

RB Adrian Peterson: LeSean McCoy had more yards in the 2010s, Marshawn Lynch had iconic moments for a great Seahawks team, but if you have your choice of any running back you’d pick the 2012 NFL MVP.

 

WR Antonio Brown: Put all the drama aside. This was one of the easiest picks of the entire team.

 

WR Calvin Johnson: It was hard to leave Larry Fitzgerald off the list. But Johnson was a marvel, even if he retired too soon.

 

WR Julio Jones: Has the most receiving yards per game in NFL history and it’s not all that close.

 

TE Rob Gronkowski: The most obvious pick of the all-decade team.

 

C Maurkice Pouncey: Jason Kelce also was in the mix, but Pouncey barely edged him out.

 

G Zack Martin: He has made the Pro Bowl in each season of his career.

 

G Marshal Yanda: From 2011-18 Yanda made the Pro Bowl in each season except 2017, when he missed all but two games due to injury.

 

OT Joe Thomas: He was a consistent machine for a bad Browns team, an ironman who was a master technician at left tackle.

 

OT Tyron Smith: Hasn’t missed a Pro Bowl since 2012 and is the anchor of the best offensive line of the decade.

 

DEFENSE

 

DE J.J. Watt: Tied Lawrence Taylor’s record with three Defensive Player of the Year awards and should have won NFL MVP in 2014.

 

DT Aaron Donald: Won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards and in 2018 set a single-season record for a defensive tackle with 20.5 sacks.

 

DE Calais Campbell: Was a dominant force all decade. He is the only player who had more than 400 solo tackles and 80 sacks this decade. He’s a great two-way end and is finally getting his due after being overlooked for years.

 

LB Von Miller: The first player to reach 100 sacks in the 2010s. He also had perhaps the best individual defensive performance in championship game history, taking home MVP honors from Super Bowl 50.

 

LB Luke Kuechly: Has been a tackling and big-play machine for the Panthers, and was the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. He’s the prototype inside linebacker in the modern NFL.

 

LB Bobby Wagner: Has played eight seasons and posted 100 tackles every year. He made four All-Pro teams over the past five seasons and won a Super Bowl with a legendary Seattle defense.

 

EDGE Khalil Mack: Made history by being named All-Pro at defensive end and outside linebacker at the end of the 2015 season. The next year, he won Defensive Player of the Year.

 

CB Richard Sherman: In addition to being a lockdown cornerback, Sherman became one of the most prominent voices in the NFL. He clinched his spot on the team with a great 2019 season with the 49ers.

 

CB Patrick Peterson: There have been plenty of great cornerbacks this decade who could have made the team, but Peterson’s consistency in shadowing the opponent’s best receiver gave him the nod.

 

S Earl Thomas: The “Legion of Boom” had many stars, and Thomas was the most valuable of them all. His incredible range in the deep middle of the field allowed that Seahawks defense to play the aggressive style that made it a Super Bowl champion.

 

S Eric Weddle: Kam Chancellor, Harrison Smith and Eric Berry had good arguments, but Weddle’s consistency through the decade as a six-time Pro Bowler gave him the edge.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

 

K Justin Tucker: The most accurate kicker in NFL history, with incredible range and plenty of clutch kicks. He also has a ring, from the 2012 Ravens.

 

P Johnny Hekker: Through the 2018 season Hekker had four Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pro nods, twice as many as any other punter this decade.

 

KR Cordarrelle Patterson: Only one player has more than four kickoff return touchdowns this decade. Patterson has seven.

 

PR Devin Hester: He was the best punt returner in the 2000s, and the 2010s too. His seven punt return touchdowns this decade were two more than anyone else. His 12.1-yard average was tops among anyone with more than 30 returns.

 

COACH

Bill Belichick: He is the standard for NFL coaching, leading the Patriots to an unprecedented streak of a success in a league set up for parity.

 

 

BROADCAST NEWS

Peter King on two weekends of Saturday football coming in 2020 as the schedule slides a week later as it does every six years or so.

 

You loved Saturday?

 

Wait till next year. It could be better.

 

The NFL is considering Week 15 and 16 Saturday doubleheaders, with the same format as this year. What made this year’s tripleheader so strong is the NFL, last April, chose five Week 16 games as TBD for Saturday or Sunday. Then, six weeks before Week 16, the league chose the strongest three of the five to be played at 1 p.m. ET, 4:30 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.: Texans-Bucs, Bills-Patriots, Rams-Niners. The other two games, Lions-Broncos and Raiders-Chargers, were shuttled to Sunday.

 

Next year, the NFL could make three or four games in Weeks 15 and 16 TBD till sometime in November . . . then pick two for Dec. 19 and two for Dec. 26. That would give the league a chance to own two late-season weekend days on both Dec. 19 and 20, and Dec. 26 and 27. There’s no guarantee that the drama would come close to this year’s three-point, seven-point and three-point games, all with playoff implications, that made Saturday one of the best days of this regular season. This year certainly could be an outlier. But on weekends with no byes and 16 games, moving two strong games to Saturday doesn’t cripple the Sunday package much, and also gives the NFL a chance to let in-house NFL Network flex its ratings muscles.

 

Another note: In 2020, the season starts late. The NFL traditionally starts play the Thursday after Labor Day. This year, that was Sept. 5; next year, it’s Sept. 10. Which means the regular season will end on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021 . . . and there will be two weekends of football after Christmas in 2021 instead of one this year.

 

The first thought of NFL road warriors on hearing this news?  One less week to achieve airline status in 2020.