AROUND THE NFL

Peter King on the thrilling finish in Seattle:

 

What hit me at 2 this morning, digesting this game:

 

How did Seattle mess up two goal-line snaps with the NFC West on the line? Crazy enough that Russell Wilson hit a player on fourth-and-10 who never caught a pass before (seventh-round rookie John Ursua) to give Seattle first-and-goal from the half-yard line with 30 seconds left. But with San Francisco in scramble mode, Seattle with no timeouts left, and the Seahawks’ best chance to win running a play fast, they had to wait for tackle George Fant to hobble to the line, wasting about eight seconds. Instead of running a real play, Wilson spiked it with 22 seconds left. Then Marshawn Lynch jogged onto the field, the crowd going nuts, thinking, Now Marshawn’s going to get the revenge-chance to run it in from a yard out to win a mega-game for Seattle, to make up for being bypassed in the Super Bowl from the one five years ago. But wait—Seattle couldn’t do this, because if Lynch didn’t make it, they’d be in danger of having to rush to the line to run a final play in panic mode, or spiking it with a few seconds left and run a fourth-down desperation play. Flag. Delay of game. Seattle took too long. Now Lynch, who probably shouldn’t have been on the field to begin with, jogged off, and the ball got moved back to the five-and-a-half-yard line. “Honestly, I was shocked a little bit,” Niners corner Richard Sherman told me after the game. “I’m sure they regret whatever they did.”

 

Pete Carroll. Marshawn Lynch. Crucial game. Final moments. Another controversy. As with ignoring Lynch as the goal line in the Super Bowl, Seattle will live with regrets over this. “We didn’t get the substitution done properly, and we were late, and there wasn’t enough time to get the play off,” Carroll said of the delay call. But that sounds rational. What was bizarre is that the Seahawks weren’t even close to running a play, and there was no good reason for Lynch to be on the field, unless Seattle planned to run play-action with him. Just very, very odd.

 

The non-interference call in the end zone with 15 seconds left. There was excessive contact between Seattle tight end Jacob Hollister and San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner on a Wilson attempt to Hollister. It was either incidental contact or significantly more than that. “Nothing which rises to the level of a foul based on visual evidence,” NFL VP for officiating Al Riveron said post-game. As the ball whizzed past Hollister, he and Warner were seriously jousting. Hard to believe there was nothing there.

 

Cruelty evens out. Two of the 49ers’ last three games came down to five-yard TDs or four-yard gains nudging the goal line by the opposition in the last 10 seconds, with the Niners up five points each time, with a booth review deciding the winner of each game. Two weeks ago, the review ruled Atlanta’s Julio Jones broke the plane of the goal line by inches. Sunday night, the review ruled Seattle’s Jacob Hollister was inches short. “We think we found every way to win a game,” Kyle Shanahan told his team afterward. “Now we found another.”

 

I mean . . . all of that happened in about 24 seconds of game time. Just amazing. As crazy as it all was, I think the best team won.

 

More from King on the 49ers in their section.

 

This from Andrew Siciliano:

 

@AndrewSiciliano

It’s always fun to play the

@NFL

 “What if” game.

 

IF Greg Zuerlein hits a 44-yard FG Week 5 on TNF…

 

THEN

 

Rams and Seahawks finish 10-6…

 

AND

 

Seahawks miss the playoffs and the Rams are heading to Philly.

 

Just thinking out loud.

 

@AndrewSiciliano

 

I’m not making excuses.

All teams can play the “What if” game.

 

We’re sure Packers fans are ruing Al Riverson’s utter failure to spot pass interference in the Week 4 loss to Philadelphia.  A different result there and the Packers have home field throughout and the Cowboys are representing the NFC East at 8-8. 

 

So many others though elsewhere in the league.  It really is so close this year, with the possible exception of Baltimore (that somehow lost at home to Freddie Kitchens and the Browns).

 

For more of this kind of stuff, see the Bill Barnwell column at the bottom of today’s Briefing.

 

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

If you thought Chicago at Minnesota in the holiday season seemed familiar, Peter King has noticed as well:

 

The last six Chicago-at-Minnesota regular-season meetings have been on Dec. 28, Dec. 20, Jan. 1, Dec. 31, Dec. 30 and Dec. 29.

 

Maybe someone in the league office loves the Bears and has family in Minnesota and loves the Christmas season. I don’t know.

 

 

MINNESOTA

Peter King with the conventional wisdom that the Vikings can’t win in New Orleans:

 

Some day, Kirk Cousins is going to have to win one of these Kirk Cousins Referendum Games. He’s 0-9 on Monday Night Football, 0-2 in playoff games, and his reward for his first playoff game as a Vikings quarterback is to play the best team standing on wild-card weekend, in the toughest place to win on wild-card weekend. The good news for Minnesota will be having Dalvin Cook (chest, shoulder pain) back after missing the last two games of the season, which should give the offense a chance because the game won’t be solely in Cousins’ hands. But I just can’t see the Vikings knocking off the Saints. Drew Brees is his classic self in recent weeks, leading the Saints to 36.2 points a game in the last seven weeks, with 22 touchdowns and just one pick. I don’t trust Cousins to get in a shootout with Brees—who would?—and I don’t see the Viking secondary being able to slow the New Orleans attack. The Saints are PFF’s highest-rated team through the regular-season, slightly ahead of Baltimore, and a good part of that is New Orleans’ top-special teams. They can win with kicker Wil Lutz, punter Thomas Morstead and a sudden returner, Deonte Harris. Hard to see many edges in this matchup on the Vikings’ side.

 

NFC EAST

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

After two listless seasons, the Giants have canned coach Pat Shurmur, but they will retain the GM who gave him the roster he could not win with.  Another Pat, Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News:

 

Pat’s all, folks.

 

The Giants fired head coach Pat Shurmur on Black Monday just two years into a five-year contract.

 

“The last three seasons have been extremely disappointing for the organization and our fans. Pat has been a successful and highly-respected NFL coach for 21 years and he is not solely responsible for our record,” Mara said in a statement. “But we came to the conclusion it is best to have a fresh start with the coaching staff.

 

“As owners, we take full responsibility for our recent poor record. It is our goal to consistently deliver high-quality football and we will do everything in our power to see that there is a rapid and substantial turnaround.”

 

But the Giants aren’t making sweeping changes as GM Dave Gettleman is being retained by co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch. Gettleman is expected to meet with the media on Tuesday.

 

 “Dave Gettleman is our general manager in 2020 and hopefully for many years after that,” Mara said. “We believe he is the right person to lead us going forward.”

 

Retaining Gettleman is expected to deter some coaching candidates who value the Giants’ ownership but would prefer to run their own program rather than answer to Gettleman as the final say on football matters. It will bear watching in the coming days who is willing to interview and who balks.

 

Shurmur (9-23) finishes with the second-lowest win percentage (.281) of any full-time Giants head coach ahead of only Bill Arnsparger (7-28, .200, 1974-76).

 

Shurmur’s .292 career NFL win percentage (19-46) ranks him 177th of 183 head coaches in league history.

 

The 2019 Giants (4-12) regressed on Shurmur’s watch to staggering levels of futility.

 

Nine straight losses from Weeks 5 through 14 tied the franchise record originally set in 1976, the inaugural season at Giants Stadium. That streak got Arnsparger fired midseason.

 

Shurmur’s Giants went winless in the months of October and November (0-7) for the first time in the franchise’s 95 seasons. And they had no Pro Bowlers on the roster for the first time since 1996.

 

The only other team with no Pro Bowl bids was the Miami Dolphins, who intentionally tanked and assembled one of the worst rosters of all time.

 

The Giants have missed the playoffs seven of the last eight seasons. The only playoff appearance came in 2016 under GM Jerry Reese and first-year coach Ben McAdoo.

 

Since the infamous Boat Trip prior to that year’s Wild Card playoff loss in Green Bay, though, the Giants have lost the most games (36) of any franchise in the NFL.

 

Reese and McAdoo were on their way to getting fired at the end of their second season in 2017 due to a 2-9 start in which McAdoo lost the respect of the locker room.

 

But then ownership signed off on McAdoo and Reese benching Eli Manning, the entire situation was mishandled, and the Giants fired both the GM and coach with four games to play.

 

Steve Spagnuolo coached the final four games as interim head coach. McAdoo was dismissed with a 13-15 (.464) record and a playoff appearance in two years.

 

The early firings of McAdoo and Shurmur are directly connected to Manning’s presence.

 

McAdoo was canned after starting Geno Smith at Oakland in Week 13 of 2017 when Manning refused to participate in a plan to play only the first half.

 

Gettleman and Shurmur were both hired in part because they were on board with bringing Manning back as the starter in 2018. Their effort to win now in year one, rather than begin a full-scale rebuild, set the franchise back even further.

 

They still brought Manning back for 2019 after a 5-11 season, despite drafting Duke’s Daniel Jones sixth overall to succeed him. But Shurmur benched Manning after an 0-2 start. Manning had expected to receive eight games to prove he still could win, ESPN reported recently.

 

Jones won his first two starts, but he then lost eight straight games. After Jones’ debut road win in Tampa Bay in Week 3, Giants senior VP of player personnel Chris Mara stood at the back of Shurmur’s press conference and watched intently, seemingly monitoring how the coach would handle his early validation.

 

In Week 10, after losing to the Jets, Shurmur took a shot at the Giants’ internal dynamic. He said he didn’t speak to his players post-game because “sometimes in those locker room settings there are a lot of people that I don’t recognize, and I like my message to be for the team.”

 

 

WASHINGTON

As Ron Rivera arrives for a big interview, Bruce Allen is not just out from running Redskins football, he has no role in the organization.  Matthew Paras of the Washington Times:

 

The Washington Redskins fired team president Bruce Allen on Monday, putting an end to a 10-year tenure that featured years of losing, consistent turmoil and an era in which the team’s fans grew increasingly uninterested and apathetic.

 

Allen’s removal happened at the end of another playoff-less season for the Redskins, a once-proud franchise that made the postseason just twice in Allen’s tenure. Washington went 62-97-1 in 10 seasons under Allen, the son of iconic Redskins coach George Allen.

 

Though there had been some rumors about his staying on in a different role than team president, Allen will no longer be with the organization.

 

“Like our passionate fan base, I recognize we have not lived up to the high standards set by great Redskins teams, coaches and players who have come before us,” owner Dan Snyder said in a statement. “As we reevaluate our team leadership, culture and process for winning football games, I am excited for the opportunities that lie ahead to renew our singular focus and purpose of bringing championship football back to Washington D.C.”

 

Over the decade, Allen became the focal point of fans’ frustrations as his critics blamed him for his talent evaluations, his managing of player relationships and a lack of transparency. Fans even launched a “#FireBruceAllen” social media campaign, repeatedly calling for his dismissal.

 

Each year, however, Allen avoided unemployment — and in some cases, wrestled power back from others in the organization.

 

But this season was different. After Allen declared Washington as “close” to contention in the offseason, the Redskins were anything but when the year began. Over the first five weeks, the Redskins went 0-5 with a -78 point differential — leading the team to fire coach Jay Gruden. At a press conference explaining the decision, Allen faced pointed questions about his tenure, defending it by telling reporters: “The culture is actually damn good,” a comment which was highly criticized.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

Peter King has owner Arthur Blank on how Dan Quinn saved his job

 

Atlanta: Dan Quinn saved his job by being flexible. The Falcons, 1-7 in the first half, were 6-2 in the second half. “I think a lot of our early problems were to some extent self-inflicted,” Blank told me. “I think there were some things that the coach to his credit has got tremendous humility and self-awareness. I think he realized that being the defensive coordinator on top of being the head coach was asking too much of himself. And I don’t think he had time to do the job as a head coach that he needs to do. I think the moving around of some of the coaches, position-wise, and who’s calling the defensive signals made a big difference as well. It’s a great credit to the players and a great credit to all the coaches. The changes, and players hanging in, I believe that those things can all carry over to next year.”

 

 

TAMPA BAY

Peter King neatly sums up JAMEIS WINSTON’s 2019:

 

How perfectly fitting. Winston’s 30th interception of the season came on the last play of Tampa Bay’s season and on the first play of overtime. Winston stared down tight end Cameron Brate, fired a pass to him at the Bucs’ 28, and Deion Jones stepped in front of Brate on not a particularly great play, picked it off, and ran it back for a walkoff pick-six. For the year, Winston, angling for a $30-million-a-year contract, became the first quarterback in history to have a 30/30 season: 33 touchdown passes, 30 interceptions and a gaudy 5,109 yards . . . and seven pick-sixes. Tom Brady has one in the last two years. Winston’s 30-interception season is the first in the NFL since 1988.

 

“There’s so much good and so much outright terrible.”

—Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians, on Jameis Winston’s 33-touchdown, 30-interception season.

 

NFC WEST

 

SAN FRANCISCO

Peter King on how the 49ers built the top seed:

 

When this iteration of the 49ers was born two-and-a-half years ago, I spent a weekend inside the team and the draft room for their first draft. I noted how close coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch were, as they embarked on a mission to rebuild a downtrodden franchise. That weekend, Lynch showed what a team guy he was when Shanahan wanted a troubled running back named Joe Williams in the fourth round. Lynch thought it was a reach, a major reach. But he deferred to Shanahan, figuring he knew what he wanted in a running back more than Lynch did. Forget that Williams never turned out to be worth it. The point was Lynch understood that he wasn’t going to strong-arm a coach he respected so much, particularly in the first draft they spent together. Shanahan wouldn’t strong-arm Lynch either.

 

I was reminded of that weekend when I saw video Sunday night of Shanahan seeking out Lynch in the locker room in Seattle post-game, and giving him the kind of long embrace you give someone when you’ve been through a lot and you have a moment of triumph. Like winning the NFC West on the road, in the toughest place in the league to win.

 

The 49ers deserved this victory. Right now, even though they got the benefit of some weirdness down the stretch, they’re better overall on both lines. Russell Wilson is the great (and I mean great) equalizer, and in this case he came within inches—Six? Two?—of winning it on the throw to Hollister at the goal line.

 

“Going into this year,” Sherman said in summation, “we had a great group already. We had a great group of coaches. And our players, we got a little banged up last year but I thought the foundation was here. I knew if we just could stay healthy and put it together, we’d be hard to deal with. And that’s been the case. I think it’s just huge for this team to know what it feels like to win close games and to win meaningful games. I’m happy that we were able to do it.”

 

The reward is great: two home games to get to the Super Bowl rather than three road games. The NFL can be cruel, and opportunistic, that way.

 

AFC WEST

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Peter King thinks Anthony Lynn will lead the Chargers into SoFi Stadium:

 

The Chargers seem—and “seem” is the correct word here—likely to keep Anthony Lynn. With nine of 11 losses by a touchdown or less, management is more likely to give Lynn a mulligan after he went 22-12 in his first two years.

 

This from King:

 

The Patriots will play two games in the new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles next year, visiting both the Chargers and Rams.

 

I wonder who will be quarterbacking the Chargers when the Patriots come to town.

 

Is he thinking it might be TOM BRADY?  If so, who would be quarterbacking the Patriots?

 

AFC NORTH

 

CLEVELAND

Peter King on the firing of the hapless Kitchens:

 

I can tell you that Cleveland owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam hated firing Kitchens because they hate what it says. The Browns are about to employ their ninth coach in 12 years, and nothing good comes from having an organizational circus like that. They know it. But that’s how bad the Kitchens experience was. The Browns were undisciplined, from being third in the NFL with 152 flags thrown against them, to the ugliest on-field incident of the season—the Myles Garrett helmet attack on Mason Rudolph, and then to Kitchens preaching to his team to just treat the rematch against Pittsburgh as a game and then being photographed in public with a PITTSBURGH STARTED IT T-shirt . . . and then doubling down and saying he’d do it again after the game.

 

On the field, Kitchens still had a chance to stay entering the last three weeks of the season. But losing to the previously 3-9-1 Cardinals by 14, then losing to previously 1-14 Cincinnati by 10 Sunday showed Kitchens didn’t have a way to turn this team around. Taking the season as a whole, after adding deep-threat Odell Beckham Jr., the decline in the offense was shocking: 28 fewer offensive yards per game, 1.5 fewer points, and a steep decline in the performance of the man Kitchens was most responsible for improving, Baker Mayfield. From start to finish, Mayfield’s decline was precipitous. His rating was 15 points lower in 2019, his completion rate plummeting from .638 to .594, his TD-to-pick ratio going from plus-13 last year to plus-one this year. Mayfield was petulant, arguing with a stupid fan in the tunnel in Cincinnati on Sunday among other childish things. This is the kind of stuff a smart and prepared coach handles, and Kitchens never did.

 

The Browns now have to figure out if GM John Dorsey, who drafted the reeling Mayfield, traded for the so-so Beckham and committed to Kitchens after half a season as offensive coordinator, is the man to continue the construction of the franchise. Dorsey’s disappearing act the second half of this season, when the sky was falling, couldn’t have given ownership faith that all is well in the GM office. The Browns find themselves in depths entering another new year, and this year hurts more than others. This year, Cleveland was supposed to be good again. Being the same old Browns just makes the pain more acute.

 

More from the scene of the crime with Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  Some good stuff at the end on something the DB had been wondering about, the role or lack of it of OC Todd Monken:

 

Freddie Kitchens won’t get to finish what he started.

 

After failing miserably in the Season of Great Expectations, he became the second head coach in the new Browns era to to be one-and-done, the team announced Sunday night.

 

He was fired after returning home from Sunday’s 33-23 loss to the Bengals with a 6-10 record, joining Rob Chudzinski as the second coach in the past seven seasons to bow out after only one season.

 

“I would like to thank Freddie for his dedication and efforts this past season,” Browns GM John Dorsey, who made Kitchens his first hire, said in a statement. “We’re disappointed in our results and feel a change is necessary. Freddie is a good man and good football coach. We wish he and his family nothing but success.”

 

Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam will be conducting their fifth head coaching search since they took over the team in 2012. Their longest-tenured coach was Hue Jackson, who lasted eight games into his third season. The new man will be the Browns’ 12th head coach since they returned in 1999.

 

“We thank Freddie for his hard work and commitment to this organization but did not see the success or opportunities for improvement to move forward with him as our head coach,” they said in a joint statement. “Our focus is on hiring an exceptional leader for this football team and we will take a comprehensive approach to this process. We are excited about the core players we have to build around and develop and we look forward to bringing in a strong head coach that will put this group of players in the best position to succeed.”

 

After the game, Kitchens sounded like a man who thought he was coming back for a second season, and when reached by phone by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, he was emotional.

 

“He believed he had organizational support,” Rapoport reported. “He did not.”

 

The Browns will begin their coaching search as soon as possible, but the question is, who will make the call this time?

 

It will undoubtedly be a collaborative effort among the powers-that-be, but it remains to be seen if Dorsey will have final say this time, like he did with Kitchens. Some in the organization reportedly preferred the other finalist, Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, but Dorsey won Round 1.

 

With Kitchens failing miserably, Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta could have more say this time around, and it remains to be seen what that means for Dorsey and his top lieutenants Eliot Wolf and Alonzo Highsmith.

 

There’s still a disconnect in the building between DePodesta’s analytics side and Dorsey’s football side, a source told cleveland.com, and it could come to a head as they embark on this search. There’s even talk in league circles that Haslam might want to bring former Vice President of Player Personnel Andrew Berry back to Cleveland.

 

Berry, who’s emerging as a GM candidate this offseason, is currently the Eagles executive vice president under Howie Roseman.

 

Jason LaCanfora reported last week that the Browns will have interest in former Ohio State coach and Ohio native Urban Meyer, and some of the coaches on last year’s list, including Stefanski, could get another chance. A source told cleveland.com that Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels would likely be interested in the job this time around if the Browns come calling again.

 

He took himself out of the running in the search in 2014 after an eight-hour interviews because he wanted to remain with the Patriots.

 

Some possible Browns head coaching candidates

Meanwhile, one league source told cleveland.com that Kitchens’ game-week preparation was the worst they had ever seen in a long career in the football, and that he never had a handle on the offensive process, either during the week or on game day.

 

Still, he talked after the game like a man who thought he was coming back, despite 6-10.

 

“It’s not even remotely good enough,’’ Kitchens said. “We’re not running an operation here to try to be 6-10. We’re trying to win every time we go out. We didn’t get that done this year. But moving forward, we’ve got to do a much job coaching, playing, making plays and when we’re back in those situations, perform better.”

 

He took exception to the notion of getting a second chance.

 

“It’s still the same chance,’’ he said. “I don’t know that anybody thought I’m a finished product. So I’m not lobbying for it, they know I want the job, I took the job last year. But you say second chance, and to me it’s not a second chance, it’s ‘let’s keep building on what we’re doing.’’’

 

He admitted the job was even bigger than he anticipated after breezing through his stint as interim offensive coordinator last season.

 

“Of course, it’s a big challenge, but there were a lot of firsts,’’ he said. “I’m not making any excuses at all, but I think I learned during the course of the year so I can be a better version of myself moving forward. That’s the only you can do. When something arises, you make the best decision that you can and then learn from your mistakes.”

 

Quarterback Baker Mayfield, who got a hug on the sidelines late in the game from Kitchens, reiterated that the decision is above his pay grade.

 

“It’s not my call,’’ he said. “I know how I’m going to handle the offseason with whatever pieces we have come back, and get those guys ready, and attack it. It’s going to be a long ride, but a fun one. I can’t wait to get after it.’’

 

Mayfield, who regressed this season and threw three more interceptions on Sunday for a total of 21 — second-most in the NFL — said he’s up for a new staff and system if it came to that.

 

“I’m up for any challenge, always,’’ he said. “I’ve got to do my job, first and foremost. That’s the main part of being a quarterback for this franchise, taking care of my job, leading these guys, showing up every day and being the same person consistently.’’

 

Rarely has a head coach in the NFL done so little with so much talent, and the Browns had no choice but to cut their losses after an abysmal performance in what was supposed to be a playoff season.

 

Kitchens’ tenure was characterized by a lack of discipline on the part of his players, a woeful passing game, horrible play calling and an ugly brawl between Myles Garrett and Pittsburgh’s Mason Rudolph that cost the Browns their best defensive player for the final six games of the season.

 

Kitchens, 45, became the sixth head coach fired by the Browns since the end of 2010, and the fifth since the Haslams took over the team in 2012.

 

The Browns running backs coach and associate head for the first eight games of last season, Kitchens was in over his head from the start. He was promoted to interim offensive coordinator after Hue Jackson and Todd Haley were fired midseason in 2018, and was supported heavily by his veteran offensive staff.

 

In those final eight games of last season, the Browns averaged 395 yards per game and a league-best 6.86 yards per play. They also scored on their first 12 trips inside the red zone, and surrendered a league-low five sacks in that span. The Browns scored 25 touchdowns in those eight games, tied for sixth in the NFL.

 

What’s more, Mayfield completed 68 of his attempts for 2,254 yards with 19 touchdowns and only eight interceptions, posting a 106.2 rating. But Fun Freddie disappeared not long after taking over as head coach, and problems appeared from the start.

 

Mayfield alluded several times to the fact the Browns didn’t have their offensive act together for OTAs in May.

 

“When it’s OTAs, the voluntary minicamps and stuff like that, it needs to be driven towards stuff that’s actually going to help us in the year,’’ Mayfield said last week. “You don’t need to waste reps and you don’t need to waste your time when we’re here in the spring. That time is valuable to nail down what we’re going to do offensively to where when we come back for training camp, you hit it running.’’

 

Kitchens also gave receiver Odell Beckham Jr. all the time he needed in the spring to wrap his brain around the trade from New York instead of strongly urging him to attend. Beckham’s absence and his lack of chemistry with Mayfield hurt the Browns all season.

 

During joint practices against the Colts in August, the Browns lost their composure and fought with Indianapolis at least five times on the second day. But the Kitchens applauded his players for imposing their will instead of punishing them for senseless and potentially costly scrapes.

 

The Kitchens era began with a 43-13 blowout by the Titans, a game in which the Browns committed 18 penalties and players such as Myles Garrett and Greg Robinson lost their cool, with Robinson getting ejected from the game.

 

By the end of the first half of the season, the Browns were 2-6 and the Season of Great Expectations was effectively over. No team that started 2-6 or worse has made the postseason since the Bengals did in 1970.

 

Two weeks later, Garrett lost his temper at the end of a Thursday night victory over the Steelers, clobbering Rudolph over the head with the QB’s helmet. Garrett was suspended indefinitely, and the defense never recovered.

 

Before the Steelers game two weeks later, Kitchens wore a “Pittsburgh Started It’’ t-shirt out to a movie — after warning his team to remain focused on the rematch and not the fight. After they lost that crucial game in Pittsburgh, he stood at the podium and said he’d wear the shirt all over again.

 

The Browns still had two more chances to win games and keep their playoff hopes alive and lost both of them — in Arizona and at home to the Ravens.

 

“We never quite showed up to those [three] and it’s one of those things where is it two or three plays in a game or is it the game plan or is it something else?’’ said left guard Joel Bitonio. “ It’s something we need to look at as an organization, like what’s the root cause of these issues? There has to be something where you can’t be just like, ‘All right, we’re going to go into next year and do the same thing,’ because it obviously didn’t work. Like, are we just going to play better? So there’s something that needs to be said…We have to make changes of some sort.’’

 

None of the players came out in strong support of Kitchens, including Bitonio and Mayfield.

 

“Whatever they want to do I’m for it as long as we’re moving in the right direction,’’ said Bitonio.

 

“It’s not my decision,’’ said Mayfield. “Whatever happens, happens.’’

 

Kitchens’ reign was also characterized by not being able to get the ball to Beckham in the red zone or the end zone, and him finishing the season with four touchdown catches.

 

Mayfield regressed on Kitchens’ watch, finishing at or near the bottom of the NFL in most key statistical categories.

 

Players such as Jarvis Landry had no qualms about yelling at Kitchens on the sidelines during games, a sign that he didn’t have their respect.

 

His Browns lost to inexperienced quarterbacks such as Denver’s Brandon Allen and Pittsburgh’s Duck Hodges, and led the league in penalties most of the season.

 

The offense, dysfunctional from the start, struggled to get lined up properly for plays, putting Mayfield behind the eight-ball much of the time.

 

Still, Kitchens refused to give offensive coordinator Todd Monken a chance to call plays, despite the fact he ran the No. 1 pass offense in the NFL last season. Monken, who had head coaching interviews last offseason, was unhappy with his role, and it showed every week in his press conferences, which he described as his weekly dentist appointments.

 

The end of the first half of last week’s 31-15 loss to the Ravens was an embarrassment, with Kitchens botching the play calling and allowing Baltimore to score 14 points in the final 1:18.

 

“Disappointing, I think, is the best way of putting it,’’ Monken said last week. “The interesting thing is when we had the ball up 6-0, we had three snaps and then it was 21-6 and right there was really where the game got away from us. That was a tough pill to swallow.”

 

It was one of the final straws in the Browns’ decision to start over yet again. Another was Sunday’s embarrassing double-digit loss to a team that was 1-14 heading into the game.

 

The Browns have asked for permission to talk to the assistant du jour, OC Greg Roman of the Ravens, who does have area ties as a graduate of Cleveland’s John Carroll University.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

TENNESSEE

This is the 4th straight season the Titans have finished 9-7.  It is the second time they have made the playoffs in that stretch.

 

2016 – 9-7           7th in AFC, one game out of playoffs

2017 –  9-7          5th in AFC, along with Bills won 4-way Wild Card tiebreaker

2018 –  9-7          8th in AFC, after losing Week 17 win and in game with Colts

2019 –  9-7          6th in AFC, 2nd Wild Card

 

Name the four teams that have had winning records in each of the last four seasons.

 

Kansas City, New England, Seattle AND Tennessee.

 

AFC EAST

 

MIAMI

Praising his win in New England, Peter King is among those who think the Dolphins should keep QB RYAN FITZPATRICK around in 2020.

 

A few observations: Miami, quite likely, will pick a quarterback in the first round next April, but there’s no way the Dolphins should not have Fitzpatrick back as the bridge quarterback to the future. He’s a reliable player, a great influence on a growing team, and a pretty good player. Miami had little to play for Sunday, and the mighty Patriots had a first-round bye at stake. This is what Fitzpatrick did in a 10-10 game in the second half: drove 83 yards in nine plays for a touchdown; drove 22 yards to a punt; drove 45 yards to a field goal; and then, trailing 24-20 with four minutes left, drove 13 plays for 75 yards and the winning touchdown pass. For the day, 28 of 41 for 320 yards. Not bad.

 

Sunday’s game was Fitzpatrick’s 6th career start in Foxborough, with at least one for each of the three other AFC East teams.  It was his first win.  He was 0-3 with the Bills, 0-2 with the Jets.

– – –

CB XAVIEN HOWARD was upset that his fiancée bought an expensive purse.  Now, his career hangs in the balance after he loses it and commits domestic violence.  Cameron Wolfe of ESPN.com:

 

– Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard was arrested by the Davie Police Department on domestic battery charges Sunday night.

 

Per the arrest report obtained by ESPN, an argument between Howard and his fiancée turned physical when Howard grabbed both her arms and pushed her against the mirrored glass wall in the hall of their bedroom, causing her to fall and land on his medical assistant walking crutch. An officer said he observed scratches and redness on her right wrist/forearm from Howard grabbing her and an abrasion and redness from the fall.

 

Howard, 26, was processed at the Davie Police Department, then transported to a local hospital when he complained of knee pain from a recent surgery. He was then transferred to Broward County Jail.

 

Police said the altercation started over a recent purchase of a purse. Howard and his fiancée live together and share three children.

 

The Dolphins placed Howard on injured reserve with a knee injury in October, and he recently had surgery. He remained at home while the team ended its season Sunday with an upset win over the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

 

 

NEW ENGLAND

He doesn’t come out and say it, but Peter King seems to feel the Patriots won’t do well in their first appearance on the Wild Card Weekend since 2009:

 

The stats don’t love New England here. The Brady/Belichick Patriots have made the Super Bowl nine times, and each time they made it as a 1 or 2 seed in the AFC. In the three years they haven’t had a bye, they’ve lost prior to the Super Bowl. Look at their path here: Tennessee with rushing champ Derrick Henry and resurgent quarterback Ryan Tannehill first, then a potential hellscape of a run to the Super Bowl, potentially at Kansas City and at Baltimore in the span of eight days. First, New England will have to dispatch the power-running Titans and the 247-pound Henry; in four of his last six starts, Henry has battered foes for 149 rushing yards or more, including Sunday’s 211-yard job at Houston. The Patriots also will need a secondary more vulnerable than earlier in the season to clamp down on rookie star A.J. Brown and his gaudy 20.2-yards-per-catch average. Everything’s been a struggle for New England offensively. At this point, the Patriots are probably best-suited to win a power game with Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead trying to control the clock. That’s what it’s come to for the Patriots, who have one receiver or tight end with more than 30 catches. Hard to imagine that in an offense with Tom Brady under center, but that’s the reality of the 2019 Patriots.

– – –

Is King carrying a message from Josh McDaniels:

 

This seems like the year Josh McDaniels should move, if he’s going to ever leave New England. No longer the young wunderkind at 43 (Kyle Shanahan, Matt LaFleur and Sean McVay are three, three and 10 years younger than McDaniels), McDaniels got demerits for backing out of the Indy job two years ago. But people who take time to learn why he did that, and those who will study the performance of his offense during a decline in personnel—winning 11 and 12 games in the past two years, and winning the Super Bowl last year—will see a cutting-edge coach adjusting to new challenges pretty consistently. The other day, one of the most respected position coaches in the league, Dante Scarnecchia, said of McDaniels: “I would never have come back [in 2016 after two years of retirement] if he was not here. He’s very bright, he’s a football guy through and through, he’s a coach’s son, he’s born in the game. Someone is going to be very lucky to have him as a head coach. He’s a good coach, boy.”

 

I could see McDaniels and Daniel Jones having a great relationship, and McDaniels taking every Tom Brady lesson and drilling it into Jones, who has shown he has a chance to be very good for a long time. For the Giants’ sake, I hope if they change coaches they do a long study of McDaniels.

 

 

NEW YORK JETS

WR ROBBY ANDERSON, a pending free agent, sounds like a guy who will follow the money.  Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News:

 

Robby Anderson may be a man of few words, but he’s definitely no dummy.

 

The explosive wide receiver is fully aware that he will have the chance of a lifetime to cash in during free agency this offseason. So, with all due respect to the Jets, he’s not giving his current team any hometown discount.

 

“You got to talk to my agent,” Anderson said after Gang Green’s 13-6 win over the Bills’ backups on Sunday. “I don’t think that makes sense.”

 

Anderson’s surge in the second half of the season should help him become a wealthy man in the not-too-distant future. He expanded his portfolio, prompting praise from Adam Gase recently. (The same Adam Gase who wanted to get rid of him not that long ago.)

 

Asked Sunday whether he was pleased with this season, Anderson took the selfless path.

 

“We didn’t go to the playoffs,” he said.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

BILL BARNWELL’S ALTERNATE REALITY

 

Bill Barnwell plays with the NFL timeline in a long piece.  If you don’t want to read it all, after he makes a bunch of changes, things still end up with the Ravens beating the 49ers in a close SB54, which really might happen.  In his world Dallas, Atlanta, Jets, Pittsburgh and Oakland make the playoffs while the Vikings, Seahawks, Bills, Titans and Chiefs (big Mahomes injury) do not.

 

With the regular season over and the playoffs set to begin, I’m writing about the NFL equivalent of the butterfly effect. I’ve pieced together an alternative timeline for the 2019 season, incorporating as many things as possible that are either true or nearly became true, just with slightly different changes. I’ve assigned players and coaches to some of the places they were attached to before heading elsewhere. I’ve incorporated how a marginally different set of injuries might have fundamentally changed the season.

 

Rewriting a whole season is too much, so in the cases I haven’t mentioned below, assume that the players and teams in question essentially played their 2019 seasons out identically to how they performed in real life. And while we haven’t yet played out the postseason in the real world, I couldn’t help but try to figure out how the postseason in this alternate universe might go. Let’s start by going all the way back to January.

 

HOW THE AFC GETS WEIRD

 

The Jets hire Matt Rhule as coach

After firing Todd Bowles and flirting with trendy offensive coaches to try to follow the Sean McVay model, the Jets make an attempt to rebuild their program by hiring away Rhule from Baylor.

 

The hiring nearly falls apart when the Jets insist on naming Rhule’s offensive coordinator, but when he threatens to walk away from negotiations, the team gives in and lets Rhule make his own hire. He attempts to lure away Ravens offensive line coach Greg Roman, who opts for a promotion in Baltimore, before hiring former Browns coach Rob Chudzinski.

 

The Bills trade for Antonio Brown

Looking to add a No. 1 receiver for second-year quarterback Josh Allen, the Bills make overtures to acquire Pittsburgh’s star wideout. While Brown initially balks at the move, all parties involved eventually come to terms on a trade. The Steelers get third- and fourth-round picks in the deal, with Pittsburgh using the third-rounder on tight end Dawson Knox and the fourth-rounder as part of the package to move up to grab linebacker Devin Bush.

 

The Bills agree to sign Brown to a three-year, $48 million contract extension as part of the deal and install the mercurial wideout as their top receiving threat. The Bills add Cole Beasley, Frank Gore and a whole new offensive line in free agency, but they plan to build their offense around Brown.

 

Things go south when Brown freezes his foot in a cryotherapy clinic, publicly battles the NFL while attempting to use his previous helmet and then gets into a shouting match with general manager Brandon Beane at practice. The Bills cut Brown before the season begins, and after an aborted stay with the Patriots amid allegations of sexual assault, Brown spends the rest of the season out of football.

 

The Raiders trade for Odell Beckham Jr.

With the Giants deciding to move on from Beckham at any cost and Oakland narrowly missing out on Brown, the Raiders make their own move at wide receiver and use some of their draft pick bounty from the Khalil Mack trade to acquire a superstar wideout. The Raiders swap the fourth overall pick for the sixth overall one and send the 27th overall pick along with cornerback Gareon Conley to the Giants, who get themselves in better position to draft desired quarterback Daniel Jones.

 

In need of a splashy addition in advance of their move to Las Vegas, the Raiders get their franchise player in Beckham, with Jon Gruden publicly predicting that he’ll lead the league in receiving yards in his debut season. Beckham doesn’t quite get there, but his season does take an interesting turn.

 

The Browns sign Breshad Perriman to a one-year, $4 million deal

After flashing as a downfield threat in Cleveland during the second half of 2018, Perriman decides to stay put and sign a one-year, $4 million pact. Perriman breaks out during the second half alongside Jarvis Landry, finishing the year with three consecutive 100-yard games in advance of free agency.

 

The Steelers sign John Brown to a three-year, $27 million deal

Needing weapons after trading Antonio Brown and letting Le’Veon Bell leave in free agency, the Steelers add a deep threat by going within the division to sign John Brown away from the Ravens.

 

Brown proceeds to post a career season for the injury-riddled Steelers, while Pittsburgh never consummates what turned out to be a disastrous two-year deal with Donte Moncrief.

 

Anthony Barr doesn’t back out of his deal with the Jets

The Jets make a big splash in free agency by signing Le’Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley, but they still need an edge rusher to supplement their defense. Barr agrees to a five-year, $75 million deal with the Jets and then seems to back out the following morning, only for a call from Rhule to put Barr’s fears at ease.

 

He moves into the Jets’ defense as a full-time pass-rusher and surprises, posting double-digit sacks for the first time since his days at UCLA.

 

The Dolphins sign Teddy Bridgewater and trade Ryan Tannehill to the Panthers

While Bridgewater became a folk hero in New Orleans for his postgame celebrations, the former Vikings standout simply wanted an opportunity to start. Presented with the option of backing up a quarterback in Drew Brees who had missed just one game via injury over the prior decade, Bridgewater instead elects to sign a two-year, $22 million deal with the Dolphins to take over as their starting quarterback.

 

 

Bridgewater struggles behind a dismal offensive line in Miami and is eventually benched for Josh Rosen, with whom he shares the starting job over the remainder of the season. With both the Dolphins and Bengals at 1-14, Bridgewater takes the helm in what becomes popularly known as The Burrow Bowl. The Bengals pull off a 38-35 victory in overtime, and even when the Dolphins upset a Patriots team playing backups in Week 17, Miami finishes with the first overall pick.

 

With no need for Tannehill, the Dolphins find a market for their former starting quarterback. After the Panthers fail to come away with a quarterback in the 2019 draft, they decide to pursue some security for Cam Newton and trade a fourth-round pick to the Dolphins for Tannehill, with Miami eating $4 million of a restructured contract for their deposed starter. I’ll get more into what Tannehill did in the NFC section.

 

The Steelers sign Ryan Fitzpatrick

While the journeyman quarterback has a number of offers to serve in a backup role after an up-and-down 2018 season with the Bucs, Fitzpatrick chooses to wait out his options and wait for an opening to try to win a Super Bowl ring. When second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph goes down with a shoulder injury in training camp, the Steelers sign the former Harvard standout to a one-year deal, seemingly to back up Ben Roethlisberger.

 

When Roethlisberger goes down with a season-ending elbow injury during the Week 2 loss to the Seahawks, however, Pittsburgh is forced to turn to its new quarterback. Fitzpatrick struggles early in the year, but after Pittsburgh’s Week 7 bye, he rounds into form. From Week 8 on, Fitzpatrick throws 17 touchdown passes against just eight picks, ranks as one of Pittsburgh’s leading rushers and posts a Total QBR of 67.9, the fourth-best mark in football.

 

The Steelers run off wins in eight of their next nine games, including a pair of crucial victories on a Fitzpatrick Revenge Game tour, as he beats the Bills and Jets in December. The latter win clinches a playoff berth for the Steelers with one game to go, and Fitzpatrick jerseys — both Minkah’s and Ryan’s — are hot sellers in Pittsburgh.

 

Josh Allen gets mono

After the Bills blow a 16-0 second-half lead against the Jets while losing star inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds to a groin injury, it feels like things can’t get worse. They do. Just days after cutting Brown, coach Sean McDermott comes back to the lectern to announce that his starting quarterback is suffering from mono. Allen misses the next four weeks, with Matt Barkley going just 1-3 against the Giants, Bengals, Patriots and Titans.

 

Allen returns after the bye and the Bills beat the Dolphins, but the second-year quarterback is clearly weakened and struggles with a series of bizarre injuries. Allen loses a toenail, then sprains his thumb, and while a three-game winning streak peaks with an upset victory over the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, Allen completes a league-low 48.4% of his passes and posts a passer rating of 73.9 over the final four weeks of the season. The Bills finish out of playoff contention, and 2020 becomes a make-or-break year for Allen’s time in Buffalo.

 

The Raiders trade for Marcus Peters

With the Rams making a move for Jalen Ramsey and no longer requiring the services of their struggling cornerback, the Raiders try to spring their defense by taking a flier on a former All-Pro cornerback. They beat Baltimore’s offer by sending a fourth-round pick to the Rams for Peters, who was born and raised in Oakland.

 

Peters has only the remainder of 2019 to spend with the Raiders, but he quickly turns around a struggling secondary. A Peters pick-six helps spur a 31-27 upset victory over the Texans in Week 8 and a four-game winning streak for Gruden’s Raiders.

 

The Ravens get an MVP season from Lamar Jackson, but the defense struggles

Baltimore’s defense gets off to a slow start, with Earl Thomas and Brandon Williams having a “heated talk” after the 40-25 loss to the Browns. The Ravens allowed the league’s 19th-best QBR before trading for Peters and its third-best mark after trading for the former Chiefs standout, but with Peters going to the Raiders in this scenario, the Ravens don’t get that veteran boost. Baltimore loses at home to the 49ers and gets swept by the Browns in the December rematch, setting up a Week 17 home game against the Steelers for the division.

 

Needing a win to seal his MVP candidacy, Jackson finally gets some help from his defense. The Steelers sack Jackson four times, but the blitz-happy Ravens force Fitzpatrick to throw three interceptions, with a late pick-six from Jimmy Smith sealing a 20-10 win. The Ravens take the AFC North at 11-5, with the Steelers locked into a wild-card spot at 10-6.

 

The Texans take the AFC South by default

While the Texans sell off future draft picks to add veterans like Laremy Tunsil and Duke Johnson, they end up winning the South through sheer survival. The Jaguars lose Nick Foles during the opening quarter and bench him shortly after he returns in November. Andrew Luck unexpectedly retires in August, and while the Colts get off to a 5-2 start, they fade badly during the second half without the likes of T.Y. Hilton in the lineup.

 

That leaves the Titans, who don’t have Tannehill to fall back on. After starting 2-4, the Titans grow sick of Marcus Mariota and turn things over to their backup, rookie third-round pick Will Grier, who goes to Tennessee in this scenario. Grier’s desire to try to make a big play galvanizes the Titans, who upset the Chargers on a goal-line stand the following week, but his inexperience quickly shows.

 

The Titans lose a squeaker to the Buccaneers, and while they narrowly beat the Chiefs, they’re only 4-6 before their Week 11 bye. Mariota is inserted back into the lineup, but after the Titans get blown out by the Texans twice and the Saints to end their season, a 6-10 campaign leads Tennessee to fire Mike Vrabel and start over.

 

Patrick Mahomes’ knee injury costs him most of 2019

The AFC West race flipped the moment Mahomes grabbed his knee against the Broncos in October. He dislocated his kneecap and damaged the articular cartilage in his knee early in the 30-6 victory, and while there was some hope later in the evening that he might be able to avoid surgery, the Chiefs had no choice but to send him under the knife for season-ending surgery.

 

While Matt Moore was able to lead the Chiefs to a win over the Broncos and a narrow victory over the Vikings two weeks later, a concussion suffered late in the loss to the Titans forced the Chiefs to turn things over to third-stringer Chad Henne. The Chiefs then lose three straight, to the Chargers, Raiders and Patriots, and while the defense carries Henne to wins over the Broncos and Bears, a 9-6 Chiefs team needs a win over the Chargers or a Raiders loss to win the AFC West.

 

No luck. In his likely final game for the Chargers, Philip Rivers throws for 284 yards and two touchdown passes in a 24-21 victory. Amid an uneven debut season with the Raiders, meanwhile, Beckham catches a 20-yard touchdown pass from Derek Carr in the fourth quarter to top 1,000 receiving yards and propel Oakland to a 16-15 victory over the Broncos. On the final day of the season, the Raiders flip-flop with the Chiefs and win the West on a tiebreaker at 9-7. The Raiders get one final home game in the playoffs.

 

The Patriots get back Rob Gronkowski in November … sort of

With the Pats’ offense struggling and Tom Brady’s weaponry looking meager, coach Bill Belichick puts out the call for a future Hall of Fame tight end. Gronk picks up the phone, but as a lapsed football player, the 30-year-old isn’t realistically in game shape.

 

The Patriots compromise by initially using Gronkowski solely within the red zone, and after losses to the Cowboys and Texans, a pair of Gronkowski touchdown catches give the Patriots a 23-16 victory over the Chiefs. The Pats clinch a first-round bye with victories over the Bengals and Bills, and while they lose while resting Gronk in the Week 17 game against the Dolphins, they come away with yet another top seed in the AFC.

 

The Jets finish with the other wild-card spot in the AFC

Rhule’s Jets appear to be struggling by midseason, with one prominent New York paper calling for the Jets to pursue a coach with more NFL experience after a four-game losing streak drops them to 2-4. Once the schedule eases up, the Jets begin to thrive.

 

Sam Darnold & Co. win six of their next seven against some of the worst teams in football, and while they get blown out by the Ravens on Thursday night in Week 15, the Jets hold steady. After winning their final two games over the Steelers and Bills, they finish 10-6 and claim the 5-seed in the conference.

 

Neither the Jets nor Raiders seemed like viable playoff contenders before the season, but they’ll be facing each other in the wild-card round.

 

What happens in the AFC playoffs in this alternate universe

The Raiders hold serve at home, winning their final game in Oakland in a 30-7 blowout of the Jets.

 

The Texans similarly pick apart their former quarterback, as Fitzpatrick’s revenge tour comes to a screeching halt with three interceptions in a 27-7 loss for the Steelers.

 

The home wins serve up a juicy rematch nearly two decades in the making, as the 4-seed Raiders travel to New England for their first playoff game against the Patriots since the Tuck Rule Game during the 2001 postseason. That was Tom Brady’s first playoff game, and amid an uneven season, there’s speculation that a loss at home could be his last playoff game in a Patriots uniform. Alas, it’s not to be; the Patriots hold the Raiders to 202 yards from scrimmage and run for 179 combined yards in a 16-3 victory for Bill Belichick’s team, with Gronkowski taking a jet sweep for a 2-yard score.

 

The other divisional round game delivers a classic, as the Texans go up 21-3 at halftime on the Ravens after a returning J.J. Watt takes a tipped Jackson pass 66 yards to the house. After the break, the MVP-elect takes over. With Houston’s pass rush tiring, Jackson runs for 102 yards and a rushing touchdown before a trick play sees Willie Snead throw Jackson a touchdown pass to tie the game up at 24 with six minutes to go. Deshaun Watson gets the Texans into field goal range, but facing a fourth-and-1 from the Baltimore 35-yard line with 2:37 to go, Houston coach Bill O’Brien sends out Ka’imi Fairbairn, who misses a 53-yard field goal. Jackson quickly hits Mark Andrews for a pair of first downs, and after a Hollywood Brown jet sweep gets the Ravens comfortably in field goal range, a 39-yard kick by Justin Tucker sends the Ravens to Foxborough.

 

There, Tucker is the difference. With both offenses struggling amid frosty conditions in New England, the Ravens have a huge advantage with Tucker versus Nick Folk. The former Jets kicker misses an extra point and a 37-yard field goal in the first half, while three Tucker field goals give the Ravens a 9-6 lead. The Patriots answer with a Brady touchdown pass to N’Keal Harry, but the Ravens respond with a taste of New England’s own medicine.

 

They repeatedly use an unbalanced line on a second-half drive, and Jackson hits backup tackle James Hurst as an eligible receiver for a 9-yard touchdown pass to put the Ravens up 16-13. With left tackle Isaiah Wynn sidelined by a foot injury, star Ravens edge rusher Matt Judon forces a fourth-quarter strip sack of Brady and sets up a Tucker field goal to make it 19-13.

 

The Patriots drive to midfield with 40 seconds to go, but with Gronkowski sidelined by a hamstring injury, there’s nobody left who can beat tight coverage. The Ravens double Julian Edelman, and second-year corner Anthony Averett knocks away a fourth-down pass to Harry to send Baltimore to the Super Bowl.

 

 

MEANWHILE, IN THE NFC …

 

The Cardinals hire Adam Gase

Looking for an offensive mastermind to spur their offense forward, the Cardinals hire Gase after he’s fired by the Dolphins. Gase initially suggests that he wants to stick with second-year quarterback Josh Rosen, only to draft Kyler Murray and then ship Rosen off to his former employers for a second-round pick.

 

Gase’s debut season in the desert is a disaster. He feuds with general manager Steve Keim and wins a power struggle, with Keim fired shortly after the draft. Gase hypes up big seasons for running back David Johnson and wideout Christian Kirk, but Kirk struggles to stay healthy, while Johnson is eventually benched after the Cardinals trade for former Dolphins back Kenyan Drake.

 

With the Cardinals floundering at 3-9-1 in December, Gase is fired before the end of his first season in charge, with offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury promoted to take over as interim coach.

 

The Eagles lose Brandon Graham … but eventually replace him with Jadeveon Clowney

It seemed like the Eagles were going to lose Graham heading into last offseason, but while he signed a three-year, $40 million deal to stay with Philly in the real universe, he heads to join the Colts on a three-year, $45 million pact here. The Eagles still re-sign Vinny Curry and add Malik Jackson, but they’re down an edge rusher after losing both Graham and Chris Long.

 

In August, the Eagles find their solution by trading for Clowney. With the Texans deciding to move on from the former first overall pick, general manager Howie Roseman beats out the Seahawks’ bid by offering the Texans a second-round pick and swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai for Clowney and $7 million. Nobody loves a daring trade more than Roseman.

 

The Saints sign Josh McCown to back up Drew Brees

Sean Payton once signed Luke McCown to serve as his team’s backup quarterback, and he completes the McCown set by signing Josh to replace Teddy Bridgewater. Payton can’t anticipate it at the time, but when Brees goes down with a thumb injury during a September loss to the Rams, McCown steps in as the new starting quarterback for the Saints.

 

Unlike Bridgewater in the real universe, though, the 40-year-old McCown struggles, going 2-3 in his five starts. Brees inherits a team treading water in the NFC South at 3-4.

 

Cam Newton undergoes immediate surgery after suffering a Lisfranc injury in August

With observers already paying close attention to Newton’s health as he recovers from a shoulder injury, the Panthers face an unexpected hurdle when he suffers a Lisfranc injury in a preseason game against the Patriots on Aug. 22.

 

The reeling Panthers immediately send Newton to injured reserve and announce that they hope to reactivate him after about three months. Newton posts an image of the Panthers schedule with the Nov. 24 game against the Saints circled. The Panthers turn their offense over to Tannehill, who takes over as the Week 1 starter.

 

The Cowboys reacquire Dan Bailey after he’s cut by the Vikings

With Bailey struggling in training camp, the Vikings trade a fifth-round pick to the Ravens for specialist Kaare Vedvik. When Vedvik makes 43- and 54-yard field goals in the preseason dress rehearsal against the Cardinals, the Vikings cut Bailey. Vedvik proceeds to lose Minnesota’s faith within weeks, as the Norwegian misses an extra point and a field goal in the opening week win over the Falcons, then misses two more field goals in a 21-16 loss to the Packers. The Vikings cut him and turn things over to former kicker Kai Forbath for the remainder of the campaign.

 

The Cowboys are looking for an upgrade on Brett Maher after the second-year kicker struggles in training camp, and during the cuts at the end of camp, Dallas cuts Maher and brings back Bailey into the fold. Bailey misses a field goal and an extra point during the Week 2 win over Washington, but he quickly settles in and hits 93% of his field goals for the Cowboys, earning Pro Bowl consideration.

 

Bailey’s kicks help spur a run of close victories for the Cowboys, who were expected to decline before the season. Instead, the combination of Bailey and a leap forward from Dak Prescott propels the Cowboys to a hot start. A last-second Bailey field goal gives the Cowboys a 13-12 win over McCown and the Saints, and two weeks later, a 40-yard field goal in the fourth quarter helps launch a Cowboys comeback, which ends with a Prescott touchdown pass with 47 seconds left, sealing a win over the Jets. After a blowout win over the Eagles in Week 7, the Cowboys hit their bye at 6-1.

 

Dan Quinn hands over defensive playcalling duties after Week 3

Something isn’t right with the Falcons. A last-gasp win over the Eagles gets them to 1-1, but when they allow Jacoby Brissett to throw for 310 yards and two touchdowns, Quinn finally recognizes that the Falcons need to change their defensive plans. He decides after the game to hand over defensive playcalling duties to the combination of Jeff Ullrich and Raheem Morris, with Morris eventually earning a promotion to defensive coordinator during Atlanta’s Week 9 bye.

 

The move doesn’t totally fix Atlanta’s defense, but it’s enough to swing a few close games. The Falcons torment poor Marcus Mariota, whom they sack six times in a 24-10 victory. Takkarist McKinley strips David Johnson as the Cardinals try to start a game-winning drive with the game tied at 34 in Week 6, setting up a game-winning field goal from Matt Bryant.

 

The Falcons give up 37 points the following week to the Rams, though, and it’s clear that they’re struggling to take away big plays. It leads to a trade for safety help …

 

The Falcons trade for Quandre Diggs

With the Lions inexplicably growing sick of their starting free safety and deciding to move on, the 3-4 Falcons send fifth- and sixth-round picks to the Lions to acquire a replacement for Keanu Neal.

 

Diggs has an immediate impact, as he intercepts white-hot Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in his debut with the team. The Falcons get out to a 24-0 halftime lead, and while Wilson brings the Seahawks back in the second half, a Chris Carson fumble in the fourth quarter ruins a goal-to-go opportunity. The Falcons win 27-20 and then allow 12 points in two games after the bye against the Saints and Panthers, lifting their record to 7-4 and leaving them in first place amid a crowded NFC.

 

The Rams trade for Jalen Ramsey and nothing really changes (DB – didn’t this happen?)

Looking to make a splash and fix their secondary, the Rams ship out Marcus Peters and send two first-round picks to the Jaguars for Ramsey. They’re nominally better with Ramsey in the lineup, but the difference isn’t worth the enormous amount of draft capital.

 

Wade Phillips’ defense allows opposing quarterbacks a passer rating of 82.9 and a QBR of 44.0 with Ramsey on the field, marks that fall to 91.0 and 48.1 with Ramsey sidelined. His most notable play of the season comes on a third-and-16 against the 49ers in Week 16, when Ramsey combines with Taylor Rapp to badly blow a coverage against Emmanuel Sanders and set up a game-winning field goal for the 49ers.

 

The Seahawks are the most exciting mediocre team in the league

While Russell Wilson delivers an MVP-caliber season on the offensive side of the ball, the Seahawks never make the sort of acquisitions needed to rebuild their defense after losing the likes of Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas in back-to-back offseasons. After trading pass-rusher Frank Clark, the Seahawks elect to move forward with a starting defensive end duo of Ezekiel Ansah and L.J. Collier. Neither end is healthy or particularly effective, and the missing pass rush hurts the Seahawks during an October losing streak.

 

After starting 3-1, the Seahawks go 1-5 over their next six games despite being outscored by a total of only seven points. Last-second losses to the Rams, Browns and 49ers seem to suggest that this just isn’t Seattle’s year. When Wilson eventually cools off during the second half, the Seahawks limp to a 7-9 record, raising questions about 68-year-old Pete Carroll’s future with the franchise.

 

DeSean Jackson gets healthy and propels the Eagles into the playoffs in the second half

Thirty-two-year-olds aren’t supposed to be devastating downfield receivers, but Jackson proceeds to turn back the clock after joining the Eagles and hooking up with Carson Wentz. After catching eight passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns in the season-opening win over Washington, he goes down with an abdomen injury during the Week 2 loss to the Falcons and lands on injured reserve. The Eagles held Jackson out through their Week 10 bye, with inconsistent secondary play and an injury-hit offense leaving Philly behind the first-place Cowboys at 5-4.

 

Jackson returns for the Week 11 game against the Patriots and proceeds to push the Eagles back into the playoff race. With virtually every other weapon sidelined by injuries, Jackson becomes the difference-maker in the second half. He catches a 67-yard touchdown pass from Wentz to tie the Patriots game up at 17-17 in the third quarter, although a late miss from Jake Elliott eventually sets the Pats up for a game-winning field goal from Folk.

 

Back-to-back 100-yard games from Jackson against the hapless Seahawks and Dolphins secondaries get the Eagles to 7-5. He follows that by catching game-winning touchdown passes against two NFC East foes in the Giants and Washington. Frustratingly, in the battle for first place in the division, Jackson goes down with a recurrence of his abdominal injury, but the Eagles still manage to pick up a 17-9 victory before sealing the division up with a win over the Giants in Week 17.

 

The Cowboys seemed set to challenge for the top seed in the conference alongside the 49ers and Packers after beating the Patriots on five Bailey field goals and starting 9-2, but they collapse in dramatic fashion. Losses to the Bills and Bears drop Jason Garrett’s team to 9-4, and after beating the Rams, the Cowboys merely need to beat the Eagles to clinch the East. Instead, an injury-hit Cowboys offense falls apart in a 17-9 loss, while a win over Washington in Week 17 means nothing. Dallas finishes 11-5 and makes the playoffs, but it’s only as a wild card in the top-heavy NFC.

 

Sean McVay isn’t an idiot, but Todd Gurley gets injured

With the Rams struggling to find solutions for opposing defenses copying the Patriots from Super Bowl LIII and stacking the line of scrimmage with 6-1 fronts, McVay makes an early switch to his usual game plan. After Gurley plays just under 71% of the snaps during Los Angeles’ 2-2 start to the regular season, the Rams hand him 93% of the snaps during a crucial prime-time game against the Seahawks.

 

Gurley responds with two touchdowns and a long catch-and-run on the final drive, setting up a game-winning field goal from Greg Zuerlein to give the Rams a 32-30 win. Gurley does little in the loss against the 49ers, but McVay moves to more 12 personnel in victories over the Falcons and Bengals, propelling the Rams to a 5-3 record before their bye.

 

After the bye, Gurley isn’t the same. After playing more than 90% of the snaps in four consecutive games, he suffers a calf injury during the 17-12 loss to the Steelers and misses the next two games, during which the Rams score a total of 23 points. Gurley returns with a solid performance against the Cardinals, but over the final four weeks of the season, he carries the ball 69 times for just 215 yards, an average of just 3.1 yards per carry. The Rams seem set to make a wild-card run at 8-5, but consecutive losses to the Cowboys and 49ers drop them out of the playoff picture.

 

The Saints get hot and the Panthers collapse

The Panthers ride an unexpectedly brilliant half-season from Tannehill to a 5-3 start, as the former Dolphins standout torches opposing defenses off play-action with throws to DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel. Consecutive losses to the Packers and Falcons drop the Panthers to 5-5, and with Newton recovered from surgery, the Panthers follow their starter’s vision and insert Newton back into the lineup for the crucial game against the Saints.

 

While Brees has righted the ship after the Saints’ 3-4 start, a loss to the Falcons also leaves the Saints at 5-5. Newton doesn’t have all of his mobility back in his return, but the former first overall pick goes 23-of-36 for 256 yards with three touchdowns in trading blows with Brees. After a fourth-and-1 stuff by the Panthers’ defense, Carolina drives the ball to the 3-yard line for a first-and-goal opportunity in a tie game with 2:21 to go. The worst-case scenario seems to be that the Panthers would come away with a field goal, but instead, Carolina loses 9 yards before Joey Slye misses a 28-yard field goal.

 

The Panthers allow the Saints to immediately march down the field for the game-winning field goal, which breaks their backs. Newton is in charge for the following week’s game against Washington, but he goes 27-of-46 for just 278 yards while turning the ball over twice against one of the league’s worst defenses. After the game, Newton admits that his foot is continuing to bother him and goes back on injured reserve. Tannehill returns, but the defensive collapse keeps the Panthers from making a late-season run, and they finish 6-10, ending both Newton’s and Ron Rivera’s tenures in Carolina.

 

The Saints, meanwhile, use their comeback win to reestablish themselves as a team nobody wants to play. They win four of their last five games to finish the season at 10-6, including a 26-18 win in their rematch against the Falcons in Atlanta. That is enough to make it into the playoffs, but it isn’t enough to win the NFC South.

 

The Falcons win the NFC South

The Saints lose a 48-46 classic to the 49ers in the Game of the Year, and when the Falcons subsequently beat the 49ers 29-22 in San Francisco the following week, it’s enough to give the 9-5 Falcons a one-game lead in the South with two games to go.

 

The Saints have a shot at winning the division if Atlanta slips, but a pick-six by Deion Jones in overtime clinches the South for Quinn’s Falcons at 11-5.

 

The Packers eliminate the Vikings from the playoff picture in Week 16

The NFC North mostly comes down to a two-team race, with the Bears struggling to build a coherent offense and the Lions brought down by Matthew Stafford’s season-ending injury. While the Vikings still have top-level talent, inconsistent kicking and cornerback play costs Minnesota in an unlikely midseason loss to the Broncos, with the Vikings coming all the way back from a 20-0 deficit before giving up a game-winning touchdown pass from Brandon Allen to Tim Patrick on the final play of the game. The Vikings hit Week 16 at 9-5 and in need of a victory to keep their chances of winning the North alive.

 

What happens in the NFC playoffs in this alternate universe

The wild-card round delivers a pair of divisional rubber matches. On Saturday, the Cowboys travel to Philadelphia for their rubber match with the Eagles and prove that their Week 17 explosion on offense against Washington wasn’t a fluke.

 

Likewise, the Falcons aren’t able to ride home-field advantage. For the second time in six weeks, the Saints travel to Atlanta and come away with a road win over their archrivals. The Falcons score just one touchdown in four red zone tries and eventually fall 30-19.

 

The divisional round then delivers a 49ers-Saints rematch, evoking memories of both the 48-46 classic they played in Week 14 and their back-and-forth 36-32 battle from the 2011 playoffs. With this game in San Francisco and the 49ers healed up on defense, though, it doesn’t deliver the same sort of scoring. The 49ers run all over a depleted Saints defensive line, with Raheem Mostert and Kyle Juszczyk each scoring early touchdowns. Matt Breida seals things with a 74-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, and while Brees makes it interesting with a touchdown pass to Thomas, an instant-classic George Kittle block on third-and-short allows the 49ers to run the clock out in a 24-17 victory.

 

A Packers team that seemed vulnerable during the regular season while simultaneously finishing 12-4 then shows why they never seemed to jell during a postseason loss. The league’s 22nd-ranked rush defense by DVOA can’t keep up with Elliott, who carries the ball 24 times for 147 yards and two touchdowns. The Cowboys hold the ball for 39 minutes and upset the Packers by using Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett as interior pass-rushers, forcing Aaron Rodgers into rushed throws. The drive Packers fans are expecting never comes, and after getting out to a 7-0 lead on the opening possession, the Packers allow 17 consecutive points before a late touchdown makes things close. With the Cowboys facing a third-and-2 and the prospect of handing the ball back to Rodgers down three with 1:41 to go, coordinator Kellen Moore dares to call for a play-action pass, and Prescott finds Jason Witten to seal an upset for the Cowboys.

 

Sadly for Cowboys fans, the dream ends there. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has no answer for San Francisco’s play-action game, and the 49ers batter a Cowboys offensive line missing Smith. The 49ers control the line of scrimmage and go up 17-3 halfway through the second quarter. With Urban Meyer making his way into the owner’s box for the second half, the Niners punch their ticket to the Super Bowl with a 27-10 victory.

 

Super Bowl LIV: The 49ers vs. Ravens rematch

When these two teams last met in the Super Bowl, the Ravens got out to a 28-6 lead before the 49ers clawed their way back into the game. This time around, it’s the 49ers who get out to a hot start. Jimmy Garoppolo has struggled against the blitz this season, but with two weeks to prepare, Kyle Shanahan takes advantage of the league’s most blitz-happy team by hitting both Coleman and Breida for huge gains on screens on each of San Francisco’s opening two drives. The 49ers have to settle for a field goal on the first drive, but a touchdown pass to Kittle gives the 49ers an early 10-0 lead.

 

Meanwhile, a buzzing 49ers defense seems to have the answers for Jackson. The Ravens run the ball 12 times for just 28 yards in the first half, and with the 49ers holding on to the ball for long, methodical drives, the two teams trade field goals to leave the Niners up 13-3 at halftime.

 

As the game wears on, though, the 49ers’ front four begins to slow down, opening up opportunities for Jackson. An injury to influential Niners linebacker Fred Warner leaves the 49ers down their top two linebackers, and the newly elected MVP takes advantage. He jukes Dre Greenlaw out of his boots for a 35-yard gain, then throws over Azeez Al-Shaair to hit Nick Boyle for a touchdown. After a 49ers three-and-out, Jackson takes advantage of a defense desperate to make a play and hits Marquise Brown up the seam on a go route for a 74-yard touchdown. The Ravens suddenly have a 17-13 lead with 18 minutes to go.

 

Garoppolo answers. Expecting the Ravens to blitz and sell out against a possible screen, Shanahan changes a hot route and calls for a middle screen to Kittle, who romps for 58 yards. The 49ers appear to stall out in the red zone and settle for a field goal, only for a Ravens defender to jump offside and give the Niners a new set of downs. Blessed with new life, Garoppolo hits Kendrick Bourne for a 14-yard touchdown to give the 49ers a 20-17 lead in the fourth.

 

When the 49ers come up with a stop and take the ball back with six minutes to go, Shanahan has to face the one criticism of his playcalling going back to the Super Bowl loss against the Patriots: He can’t ice a lead. He was let down by penalties then, and the same thing happens again here. The 49ers pick up one first down, and then a second, but after backup center Ben Garland commits a holding penalty that wipes away a Kittle catch, the Niners have to settle for a 47-yard field goal from Gould to go up 23-17.

 

Jackson takes over with 2:33 to go needing a touchdown to cap off his dream season. You know where this is going. With tired legs against the best athlete on the field, the 49ers are chasing shadows. With defensive coordinator Robert Saleh trying desperately to spy Jackson with Jimmie Ward and backup linebackers, Jackson is too much to handle. A pair of runs before the two-minute warning pushes the ball into San Francisco territory. Two more check-downs to Mark Ingram get the Ravens inside the 20 with 1:04 to go. This is supposed to be the moment when the 49ers stiffen on defense, but it isn’t going to happen. Jackson scrambles for another first down, and with 34 seconds to go, the MVP hits Andrews for the game-winning touchdown. After a Tucker extra point and a stop on San Francisco’s last-gasp drive, the Ravens are champs.