AROUND THE NFL

If The Season Ended Today in the AFC – The Steelers have jumped into the final Wild Card spot, but four teams are within a game.  Losses by Kansas City and Buffalo tightened things up in both the NFC West and Wild Card.

 

                                                        Overall             Div Rk       Conf Rec

1          New England  East                 8-1                   1                 6-1           

2          Baltimore         North               7-2                   1                 5-2

3          Houston           South              6-3                   1                 5-1           

4          Kansas City     West               6-4                   1                 4-3           

5          Buffalo            WC                  6-3                   2                 4-2

6          Pittsburgh       WC                 5-4                   2                 4-2           

7          Oakland                                 5-4                   2                 3-2           

8          Indianapolis                           5-4                   2                 4-4           

9          Tennessee                             5-5                   3                 3-4

9          Jacksonville                           4-5                   4                 4-3

11        LA Chargers                          4-6                   3                 2-5

 

This note from Andrew Siciliano:

 

@AndrewSiciliano

If the @NFL  playoffs started today (hint, they don’t), we’d have 5 new teams. We’ve had at least 4 new teams make it every single season under the current format (1990).

 

In the AFC, Buffalo and Pittsburgh have replaced the Chargers and Colts as Wild Cards with the four division champs the same.

 

In the NFC, San Francisco, Minnesota and Green Bay have replaced the Rams, Bears and Eagles.

 

NFC NORTH

 

DETROIT

Matt Patricia offers details on the process that led to QB MATTHEW STAFFORD not playing on Sunday as the team seeks to advoid the wrath of NFL Justice.  Charean Williams of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Lions coach Matt Patricia gave no real update on Matthew Stafford‘s status Monday.

 

“No updates on him,” Patricia said, via video from the team. “Again it is truly day by day, week by week right now as far as he’s concerned. You know he practiced all last week, so we’ll move ahead with kind of a similar plan as we go forward this week.”

 

Patricia did provide a more thorough answer on what happened with the Lions listing Stafford as questionable on Friday, players saying they knew Saturday that Stafford wouldn’t play and the Lions not changing the quarterback’s status until the day of the game.

 

The NFL recently fined the Steelers and coach Mike Tomlin over failing to properly report Ben Roethlisberger‘s injury early this season.

 

“Basically the way last week worked was, you know, Stafford practiced all week,” Patricia said. “He took a lot of reps during the course of the week. Now we always practice our backup quarterback. We have for the entire season in a certain amount reps during the course of the week. I’d say depending on the previous game, a lot of those reps for the backup quarterback will usually go earlier in the week, maybe later in the week depending on kind of where Matthew feels at the beginning part of the week or if it’s a short week or something along those lines. He felt really good through the course of the week, so that was all positive from that standpoint. We had some additional scanning Friday evening that took place. That scanning really caused us to have some further internal discussions over the weekend. That was really what kind of sparked some of those conversations. The discussions, the details of those I’m going to leave private because they’re medical conversations.

 

“But to be honest with you, Saturday when we came in, before we left, just to prepare the team in our preparation to make sure we were doing our due diligence because of where the rep count was. I told the team, ‘Look, we have to be prepared for all outcomes, and if it’s a situation where our quarterback can’t play, we have to be ready to go.’ We actually extended our Saturday walk-through with that in mind, so we took a double amount of reps just to get everybody ready to go. It’s really no different than some of the other things we do during the course of the week with other positions, whether it’s a specialty player — a punter, a kicker. Obviously, the quarterback is in the same situation, because you have one guy that basically does the majority of that stuff. With that in mind, I wanted to make sure the team was prepared. Knowing Matthew Stafford, he wants to play. He’s extremely tough. He’s extremely competitive. And honestly, we spent most of Saturday trying to figure out a way, if there was a way for him to play safely. That’s really it. He’s very competitive. He’s honestly one of the toughest guys I’ve ever been around. I’ve seen him play through some pain in other games that I don’t even know if some of the toughest guys would have played through. In those situations where it looks like we’re going through the course of the week in previous weeks where he’s been really sore, beat up, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if this guy’s going to make it,’ and he shows up on Sunday. With that in mind, knowing the toughness, knowing how competitive he is, I just wanted to wait as long as possible really from that standpoint because of his situation.”

 

Patricia said a decision was made Saturday night after team meetings that Stafford wouldn’t start. They told Jeff Driskel he would start.

 

But Patricia and Stafford both said Monday that Stafford had until Sunday morning to make a decision about whether he wanted to dress.

 

“Out of respect for him, and everything that he’s done for this organization, I just wanted to leave that option open when we got to Sunday if he wanted to dress,” Patricia said. “I think that’s important. I think that’s important to a player. I’ve been in that situation before where I had to tell a very established, long-time great player in the NFL he was inactive, and it probably broke my heart more than it broke his to tell him that.

 

“I wanted to leave him that option, and then therefore we’d make it official on Sunday morning if he wanted to dress. . . .So we had to meet again on Sunday and go through that again. At that point, we made the decision it wasn’t safe, and we couldn’t figure out a way to do it.”

 

The NFL is reviewing the Lions’ reporting of Stafford’s injury, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, so the team and Patricia will have to convince the league they didn’t violate league rules.

 

It’s funny to the DB that you can’t list someone who is a truly questionable game-time decision as questionable.

 

 

MINNESOTA

Jeffri Chadiha of NFL.com on Minnesota’s double-barreled rushing attack:

 

The Minnesota Vikings just proved something that will be critical to whatever hopes they have of contending for a championship this season. Despite all the firepower they’ve amassed in their passing game, this team is at its best when it is pounding the football on the ground. The Dallas Cowboys learned that much in the Vikes’ 28-24 win on Sunday night. All Minnesota has to do is not lose sight of how essential this identity can be in the long run.

 

The Vikings lost a game in Kansas City a week ago because they decided to show the world how much quarterback Kirk Cousins can do in this offense. They beat the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium because they remembered the importance of getting back to basics. Minnesota relied on the tandem of Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison to do most of the heavy lifting for an offense that gained 153 rushing yards on 36 carries. Cousins then did his part by providing efficient and timely playmaking.

 

The Vikings became so simplistic at one point in the third quarter that they actually ran the ball on 10 consecutive plays, with Cook eventually scoring on a 2-yard run to give them a 28-21 lead (thanks to a successful two-point conversion).

 

“That’s what it looks like right there,” said Cook, who finished with 97 rushing yards, 86 receiving yards and one touchdown on the ground. “That’s the blueprint: Physical football, downhill (and) let’s get the job done. We’ve got some guys up front that can move some people. That’s the moving crew right there. Once they are going, they’re going. You can sense the look in their eyes when they’re ready to get the job done. I could see that look in their eyes tonight.”

 

This probably isn’t the offense the Vikings envisioned when they signed Cousins to a fully guaranteed $84 million deal in 2018 and added him to a passing attack that featured two dynamic receivers in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. However, it is the type of offense that makes the most sense for them this year. Minnesota came into this contest with a running game that ranked third in the NFL (with an average of 153 yards per game). Cook was leading the NFL in rushing while also establishing himself as one of the best all-around backs in football.

 

There’s no question the Vikings had some disturbing moments earlier this season, back when Cousins was struggling and Diggs was pouting about the offense’s lack of punch. Minnesota then found a nice groove in their passing attack — with Cousins going on a four-game stretch that saw him throw 10 touchdowns passes and one interception while averaging 315.5 passing yards — and it felt like the Vikings were hitting their stride. The reality is that everything the Vikes do well revolves around what happens in their run game.

 

“It just breaks your will,” said Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. “That’s the one thing about football — it’s a tough sport and if you allow people to run the football against you, then it really deflates you.”

 

“I haven’t played with a team in the NFL that does this,” said Cousins, who finished with 220 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-32 passing. “I’ve never been able to run the ball that well or been a part of running it that well. It’s new to me. But when you get people on their heels — where they’re a little bit tired or worn down — you can keep going and keep plugging.”

 

What’s apparent about Minnesota’s run game is how much easier it makes life for Cousins. For all the success he enjoyed earlier this season, the Vikings quarterback still can make mystifying decisions and suffer through stretches of confounding performances. Such was the case in the Vikings’ 26-23 loss to Kansas City. Cousins sailed passes over wide-open receivers on a handful of attempts in that game and completed just 50 percent of his throws (although he did throw for three touchdowns).

 

There’s no question Minnesota’s passing attack has been affected by a hamstring injury that has plagued Thielen over the past month. The Vikings aren’t deep at wide receiver and they have to rely on less-proven targets to create plays through the air. That means the running game is even more crucial to what this team wants to do offensively right now. As Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said, “We know we run the football. And this team is going to win football games by running the football.”

 

The Vikings knew they weren’t going to beat the Cowboys on the road by relying heavily on Cousins dropping back time and again. The Dallas pass rush is too strong and the potential for disaster was too high. So Minnesota used the run and a nice mix of screens and short passes to find a rhythm. That approach worked so well that the Vikings held a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, thanks to two 1-yard touchdown passes from Cousins to Rudolph.

 

The Cowboys fought their way back into the contest — and even took a 21-20 lead on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott to Amari Cooper — but the Vikings always found a way to maintain control of the action. Dallas had one opportunity to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, but middle linebacker Eric Kendricks thwarted that effort by knocking down a Prescott pass intended for running back Ezekiel Elliott on a fourth-and-5 play from Minnesota’s 14-yard line. Prescott had a final shot at winning the game in the final seconds. That chance ended with Vikings safety Jayron Kearse intercepting Prescott’s Hail Mary pass as time expired.

 

Following the game, Cousins acknowledged that this victory — which improved the Vikings to 7-3 — was as important as any this team has had all season. “This was a big win,” Cousins said. “I’d like to think it will help spur us on to the next one, but it really doesn’t work that way. You have to take them each in their own isolated challenge. But this was a big win on the road, to beat a good football team, especially after last week’s tough loss. It showed a lot of character, but we have to keep playing well and turn it into something as we go.”

 

The Vikings now find themselves in a pretty advantageous situation. Four of their final six games are at home and they have another game against each NFC North team. For a team that is just one game behind the Green Bay Packers in the race for the division crown, that’s a promising situation. The Vikings will have every opportunity to achieve all the goals they’ve set for themselves.

 

The key is that they keep sticking with the same physical approach that has been so beneficial thus far. It’s not the coolest style of football in today’s wide-open NFL, and the Vikings clearly have several options with the pass, but this is a team that has plenty of elements that can produce postseason success. All the Vikes have to do is keep remembering exactly who they are.

 

NFC EAST

 

NEW YORK GIANTS

After a horrible game, RB SAQUON BARKLEY says he feels “much better” on Monday:

 

Sunday’s frustrating loss to the cross-town rival Jets appeared to also include a potential setback to a franchise cornerstone for the Giants.

 

Monday, however, has surprisingly brought brighter skies for Big Blue.

 

Less than 24 hours after Saquon Barkley posted his worst game as a professional (13 carries, one rushing yard, five catches and 30 receiving yards), the running back returned to Giants headquarters Monday feeling much better.

 

“He’s fine,” Giants coach Pat Shurmur told reporters. “I saw him today and he said he’s feeling a lot better.”

Shurmur said after the game Sunday Barkley was “banged up,” and the running back could be seen entering the X-ray room after New York’s 34-27 loss. Barkley later refused to answer questions pertaining to the X-ray room visit.

 

Sunday’s loss dropped the Giants to 2-8, essentially ensuring another forgotten season in the Big Apple for the rebuilding franchise. Rookie quarterback Daniel Jones had to carry the load in the defeat, completing 26 of 40 passes for 308 yards and four touchdowns. His development and evaluation is now the most important product to be gained from 2019.

 

In that same vein, Shurmur shut down any thought of intentionally sidelining Barkley this season, telling reporters he will “absolutely not” consider keeping the star running back out of action for the remainder of the season. Shurmur instead shifted the focus on his own shoulders, adding that he will not make any coaching changes during New York’s Week 11 bye.

 

“It’s important we coach and play better — period,” Shurmur said.

 

The Giants currently rank in the bottom fourth of the league in yards per game and yards allowed per game. Even with Sunday’s 27-point output, they’re still tied for 22nd in the NFL in scoring per game.

 

Barkley’s involvement can only help improve those numbers and push the Giants closer toward Shurmur’s goal of playing better. We’ll see by January if such a goal has been achieved.

 

 

WASHINGTON

Presumably at the behest of management, Coach Bill Callahan will send QB DWAYNE HASKINS out there for the rest of his interimship.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Dwayne Haskins started at quarterback in Washington’s last game and he’ll start their remaining seven games if all goes according to plan.

 

There was a sense that Haskins would hold onto the job, but interim head coach Bill Callahan resisted naming Haskins the starting quarterback for any future games during Washington’s bye week. He returned to work on Monday with a different message, however.

 

Callahan said at a press conference that Haskins will be the starter for the rest of the regular season. He’ll face the Jets next Sunday to kick off that closing stretch.

 

Case Keenum started seven of the team’s first eight games with Colt McCoy also making one start before the 2019 first-round pick got his shot in Week Nine.

 

Haskins was 15-of-22 for 144 yards in that game. Washington failed to score a touchdown in the 24-9 loss to the Bills and the team has now gone 13 quarters without finding the end zone, so Haskins’s first priority is a pretty obvious one.

 

NFC SOUTH

 

ATLANTA

Coach Dan Quinn has come up with an unusual defensive play-calling dynamic.  Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

The Falcons defense played like there were 13 men on the field at times Sunday.

 

Which makes a bit of sense, since they had more than the normal amount of people calling plays.

 

According to Steve Wyche of NFL Network, assistant head coach Raheem Morris said he was calling third down and two-minute defenses in yesterday’s win over the Saints, while linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich called the signals on first and second down.

 

Wyche also reports that Ulbrich has called plays on early downs since Week Six.

 

That suggests that Quinn realized much earlier this season that changes needed to be made, and relinquished his own control over defensive play-calling.

 

In fact, it appears he realized it right after he said he would not do so, which was the day after they gave up nearly 600 yards and lost to the Texans to fall to 1-4. Via Jeff Schultz of TheAthletic.com, Quinn referenced it in vague terms after losing to the Rams in Week Seven, but didn’t mention any names.

 

Having Morris help seems reasonable, since he came up in the business as a defensive coach, and was only moved out of his role as receivers coach as part of Quinn’s bye week deck-chair rearranging. But it’s also a rather confusing organizational chart.

 

Sunday it worked, as the Falcons kept Drew Brees out of the end zone and sacked him six times, after managing seven sacks in their first eight games.

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

The Bucs committed a pass interference every bit as obvious as the one that invoked the Sean Payton Rule on a critical late-game play.  The system put in place to prevent a repeat, put in place by Al Riveron and over-seen by Al Riveron failed.  Peter King:

 

I think the last play of the Cards-Bucs game should certainly have been flagged for interference, and it’s just another reason why I believe the league will not vote pass-interference challenges into a second season. Kyler Murray threw deep for Pharoh Cooper, and it was not a Hail Mary throw—simply a deep throw down the left sideline. Bucs cornerback Jamel Dean hit Cooper significantly before the ball arrived, the ball fell incomplete, and there was no flag. Not only no flag, but no replay review generated by the league. According to Pro Football Talk, the reason there was no official review of the play is because it was determined the play would not have been overturned on review. That means only one thing: A clear pass-interference foul was missed (or ignored) on the field, the New York review determined the clear interference was not interference, and so clear interference was not called by the attending officials or the league officials led by Al Riveron designed to correct obvious wrongs. Makes perfect sense. Man, this system has to be killed, and the sooner the better.

 

Mike Florio chimes in:

 

The Magic 8 Ball that is replay review of pass interference calls and non-calls continues to confuse and confound.

 

In the same game that replay review properly reversed a non-call of defensive pass interference to set up what became the game-winning touchdown by the Buccaneers, the replay procedure wasn’t even activated for the final play of the game.

 

With time expiring, Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray threw deep to receiver Pharoh Cooper. Tampa Bay cornerback Jamel Dean clearly hit Cooper before the ball arrived. No flag was thrown.

 

The game ended, the teams dispersed, and that was that. (Just like the play from 44 years ago discussed in the attached video, when Drew Pearson got away with clear offensive pass interference.)

 

A penalty would have given Arizona an untimed down, which most likely would have resulted in a field-goal attempt that would have, if successful, forced overtime.

 

Per a league source, the play was considered for a potential replay review, but a decision was made not to officially review it, because it was determined that the play would not have been overturned, if the review had happened.

 

That’s yet another head scratcher regarding the vague and amorphous bar the separates the pass interference calls and non-calls that won’t be overturned via replay review and those that will.

 

Was there clear and obvious evidence of contact? Yes. Did it significantly hinder the receiver? Yes. But was it sufficiently egregious to justify a replay? Apparently not, even though there’s no way to know what it takes to be sufficiently egregious. And even though “sufficiently egregious” isn’t supposed to be part of the process.

 

The league didn’t apply the even more vague and even more amorphous Hail Mary protocol, which would have required a higher bar to constitute pass interference. It was the normal, usual DPI standard — and there still wasn’t enough evidence to even initiate the process for determining whether the play would be reviewed.

 

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

This from Andrew Brandt:

 

@AndrewBrandt

Rams have been in “win now” mode, with top of market contracts for several players and giving up future draft picks.  Problem is when you don’t “win now,” you are left with the team you have for a while.

– – –

A Tweet from “Football Perspective” with some cold hard facts on QB JARED GOFF:

 

Football Perspective

@fbgchase

Jared Goff, last 16 games:

 

362/608 (63.1%)

4,256 yards (7.0 Y/A)

17 TD

16 INT

79.2 passer rating

28 sacks, 219 sack yards lost, **5.75 ANY/A**

3 rushing TDs

16 fumbles

 

He’s basically high volume Mark Sanchez.

– – –

Then there is RB TODD GURLEY, who looked perfectly fine on the few occasions that he was utilized by the Rams on Sunday in Pittsburgh.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com:

 

The Los Angeles Rams’ offense is all out of whack, but more inexplicable than the struggles of the offensive line and the quarterback is Sean McVay’s usage — or lack thereof — of Todd Gurley.

 

Gurley was having his best rushing day in months, gashing a good Steelers defense for 6.1 yards per carry on 12 totes, for 73 yards. The running back’s last touch came with 1:00 remaining in the third quarter.

 

That is not a typo.

 

Todd Gurley, the Rams’ best offensive player Sunday, went the entire fourth quarter without touching the ball.

 

It’s not as if this were some sort of blowout where sitting the gnarly-kneed Gurley would make sense. No. L.A. entered the fourth quarter trailing 14-10 and got an early safety to make it 14-12. The entire period was played within one score, yet Gurley touched the pigskin zero times in the 17-12 loss.

 

“That was just kind of the rotation,” McVay said, when asked why Gurley wasn’t on the field to begin the fourth quarter, via The Athletic. “Sometimes I’m on both sides of the headsets. There’s just a lot of trust for our coaches that have some of the (confidence) to be really able to say, ‘Alright, who’s in?’ Then I will be able to click back on, and then we know what we are going with.”

 

It’s fine for McVay to manage his starter’s snaps, especially given Gurley’s knee history. But it’s not as though the running back was kept out the entire quarter. According to Next Gen Stats, Gurley played 11 of 17 fourth-quarter snaps after taking a breather the first two drives. Yet, not once did McVay and/or Jared Goff call his number. No rushes, no targets.

 

Gurley was effective through three quarters, generating his highest rushing total (73 yards) and yards per carry (6.1) since Week 1. Gurley has now gone eight straight games without 100-plus rushing yards, his longest streak in a season since going the entire 2016 season without any 100-yard games. You’ll remember 2016 as the end of the Jeff Fisher era.

 

The Rams have continually insisted Gurley is healthy — he’s not been on the injury report — and McVay won’t suggest his RB is on any sort of pitch-count, even though his actions suggest otherwise. Gurley has yet to record 20-plus offensive touches in a game this season.

 

The highly paid running back replied, “not really,” when asked if he should have seen the ball his way more late in the tilt, noting he’s “used to it.”

 

With the Rams falling to 5-4 — third in the NFC West by two games, and two games behind the final wild-card spot — McVay might have to take a hard look at his offense and determine if his current rotation that ignores his best offensive weapon for an entire quarter can help dig his team out of its current hole.

 

AFC WEST

 

DENVER

The Broncos are expected to move towards QB DREW LOCK in the near future.  Mike Klis of 9News:

 

Denver Broncos rookie quarterback Drew Lock will practice for the first time on Tuesday since injuring his thumb during the preseason according to Mike Klis of 9News.

 

Once Lock practices, the Broncos have 21 days to add him to their active roster.  With veteran starter Joe Flacco on injured reserve, the Broncos have only two quarterbacks on their active roster-Brandon Allen, a 2016 sixth-round pick, and undrafted rookie free agent Brett Rypien.  Lock, the No.42-overall pick out of Missouri, is coming off a long layoff and GM John Elway has made it clear he wants to bring his rookie QB along slowly.  There is no guarantee the Broncos will activate him but they have to make a decision by Week 14.

 

Allen actually acquitted himself well in his first start in Week 9, completing 12-of-20 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns and leading the Broncos to an upset victory over the Cleveland Browns.  Not bad for a guy who was just claimed off waivers from the Rams on September 1 and had never thrown a regular season pass in the NFL.  Allen will undoubtedly be the starter again in Week 11 against the Minnesota Vikings as there is no way Lock will be ready for game action by Sunday.  What happens next is likely up to Allen.  If he acquits himself well against the tough Vikings defense, he may actually keep the starting gig for the rest of the season.  If he implodes, the Broncos braintrust may decide they want to evaluate Lock on the field before formulating their offseason plans.

 

 

KANSAS CITY

Peter King has doubts about the 2019 edition of the Chiefs:

 

The Chiefs, even with Mahomes, could be in big trouble. They’re just one game ahead of hot Oakland. Look at Week 11: Chiefs-Chargers in Mexico City (bumpy game for K.C.), while rest Oakland hosts winless Cincinnati. Kansas City got gashed on the ground again, giving up 8.7 yards per carry to Derrick Henry and the Titans. If that doesn’t get better, and if the special teams don’t get fixed, I doubt the Chiefs will win the division, even with a healthy Mahomes, who was terrific on a 446-yard performance in Nashville. He deserved a better fate. The Chiefs, today, are the fourth seed in the AFC. Deservedly.

 

 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

A Peter King factoid:

 

Chargers losses this year have been by 3, 7, 7, 7, 3 and 2 points.

 

That’s 29 points for six losses.

 

AFC NORTH

 

BALTIMORE

Dan Graziano of ESPN.com says it is not an over-reaction to thinks QB LAMAR JACKSON is the MVP:

 

Lamar Jackson is the MVP of the league

It was the second time this season that Jackson posted a perfect passer rating. His 99.7 Total QBR in Sunday’s victory over winless Cincinnati was the highest any quarterback has posted this season — surpassing his own 99.4 in Week 1 against Miami. Jackson was 15-for-17 (one of the incompletions was an intentional, clock-stopping spike) for 223 yards and three touchdowns, and he added 65 rushing yards and another touchdown on seven carries.

 

He built a 49-10 lead and then sat out the fourth quarter the way he did when he was at Louisville and the Cardinals were crushing UConn or someone in a noon Saturday game two or three years ago. And if you want to say, “Pfft, it was the Bengals,” you’d technically be right, but the kid beat the Patriots last week, so …

 

The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Look, the reigning MVP returned from injury and threw for 446 yards (albeit in a loss) in Tennessee. Russell Wilson is the front-runner and plays Monday night (8:15 ET on ESPN and the ESPN App). Deshaun Watson had the week off. This is a heck of an MVP race, and if you want to make the case for any of those quarterbacks or Christian McCaffrey or a handful of other guys, you’re totally justified. It’s a race that’s just way too early to call.

 

But when you look at the way Jackson is playing, what he means to his team, the success his team is having with him as its centerpiece … you just can’t have the conversation without him right now. And it’s absolutely possible he’ll be the guy with the trophy when the season is over.

 

 

 

CINCINNATI

Peter King:

 

Since last Dec. 20:

 

• Bengals games: 11.

• Bengals win: 0.

• Bengals rushing touchdowns: 0.

 

 

PITTSBURGH

Peter King on the Steelers battling all the way back to the playoff cutoff line:

 

The 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers are why, in the NFL, it’s never over till it’s over. A month ago today, they were in final prep mode for a game in California against the Chargers. They were 1-4, floundering without the injured Ben Roethlisberger and the departed Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Their starting quarterback, Devlin Hodges, the 2018 Alabama state duck-calling champion, would be making his first NFL appearance.

 

They’re 4-0 since, of course. They just beat the NFC’s 2018 Super Bowl representative.

 

Roethlisberger, on IR with an elbow injury, is trying to make himself useful on the sidelines. Bell is averaging 3.1 yards per carry, a lost (but rich) sheep in New Jersey with the Jets. Brown, a serial miscreant, is probably out for the season after being accused of sexual assault by a Florida woman and later charged with it.

 

But the Steelers, they go on like metronomes. They even trade now; did you hear? They added a long-term and desperately needed middle linebacker in the draft, and Troy Polamalu 2.0 in a rich deal in September. Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick have re-made their defense. “Our defense is playing like the ’85 Bears,” quarterback Mason Rudolph told me Sunday night. Or maybe the ’76 Steelers.

 

If the playoffs started today, Pittsburgh would be the AFC’s sixth seed, a charming wild-card team.

 

Don’t chortle. Pittsburgh’s next six foes are a combined 17-37-1. You think they won’t be in the playoff hunt with Cleveland, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Arizona, Buffalo and the Jets between now and Christmas?

 

It’s a new world in Pittsburgh, a totally unexpected one. The Steelers are 5-4, the same record as the Rams, Eagles, Cowboys and Raiders. One big difference: The Rams, Eagles, Cowboys and Raiders have had their franchise quarterbacks playing all season. Crazy NFL world.

– – –

Pittsburgh has such a deep defense, with two legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Fitzpatrick (five interceptions, two touchdowns) and pass-rusher T.J. Watt (9.5 sacks). Their guys come at you in waves. Goff singled out Joe Haden (five pass breakups, one pick), but he could have mentioned Cam Heyward, Mark Barron, Terrell Edmunds. The Rams’ leading wideout, Cooper Kupp, came into Heinz Field with 58 catches. He left with 58 catches and probably a few welts.

 

This Steelers team is like lots of the old ones: carried by the defense while the offense tries to catch up. It’s a bit like Roethlisberger’s rookie year, 2004, when the defense held 12 of 16 foes to 21 points or less, while seven times they scored less than three touchdowns. “Or like the Cowher days,” said former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, now a Steeler analyst in the local media. “I think until Mason makes that jump, this is the way they’re going to play—relying on their defense. Since they made the trade for Minkah, they’re playing low-scoring games, and I think they’re comfortable with that style. It works for them.”

 

“But will Rudolph make the jump?” I asked Batch.

 

“I think so, but not till they solve their running-back issues,” Batch said. “They’ve got to get healthy at running back.” James Conner (shoulder) missed the Rams game, and it will be a challenge for him to be ready for Thursday night’s game in Cleveland.

 

Rudolph’s been adequate, a 65-percent passer with a 93.0 rating—but only 6.6 yards per attempt. He sounded chagrined when we spoke—perhaps feeling he’s not holding up his end of the deal—and honored to be the quarterback for a place that loves football so much. “Honestly, this all is so new for me,” said Rudolph, a third-round pick from Oklahoma State in 2018. “In the Big 12, we played shootouts every week. Here, it’s a totally different feel. We’re without our Hall of Fame quarterback, and I’m trying to be the best I can be. I think I’m developing every week, and [offensive coordinator] Randy [Fichtner] is doing a good job of correcting my mistakes. Obviously, it’s great to be playing with a defense that produces points every week.”

 

It’s got to be a heavy load, playing quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a place where the team is so interconnected with the psyche of the region. As the late owner Dan Rooney once told me: “You can walk down the street in Pittsburgh on a fall Monday morning and right away be able to tell if we won the game on Sunday. The people’s faces will tell you.” It’s got to be hard, too, when Brown and Bell are gone, and Jaylen Samuels and Diontae Johnson are trying to get up to speed to replace them. Fast.

 

“The standard is the standard,” Rudolph said from Pittsburgh. “The standard of excellence and greatness I understand and I don’t take lightly. I am motivated to uphold that standard. People live and die for the Steelers here. I want to make the legends proud.”

 

Around Pittsburgh, the legends have always been okay with defensive greatness ruling the Steelers. This is the first year in a while that seems destined for the defense to carry the team into important January games.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

INDIANAPOLIS

The next kick PK ADAM VINATIERI misses will give him a season high for his amazing career.  Peter King:

 

Vinatieri has missed 11 kicks in nine games, an outlandish sum. The only other season he missed that many as a pro: 23 years ago, when, as a 24-year-old rookie getting stared down by Patriots coach Bill Parcells, Vinatieri lived in fear for his job for much of the season. As a soon-to-be 47-year-old, he might be living in a similar fear again.

 

 

TENNESSEE

Peter King:

 

Ryan Tannehill, one of the good guys in football, had his best post-Miami moment, throwing the go-ahead TD to Adam Humphries with 23 seconds left, then bowling over a defender for the two-point conversion to give Tennessee a 35-32 lead over the vaunted Chiefs. That was the final score. “I just said to our guys, ‘Let’s go win this thing. We’ve got no other choice,” Tannehill said. If he has a few more moments like this one for the 5-5 and still-contending Titans, Tannehill will play his way into consideration for the 2020 starting job.

 

Presumably King means consideration over an outside import, since Tannehill has already played his way into more than consideration for 2019.

 

AFC EAST

 

MIAMI

Peter King thinks the Dolphins hired the right guy:

 

Miami was given up for dead after dealing away good players in the summer and early fall, losing their first four by an average of 34 points. But in the last four weeks, the Dolphins have led Buffalo on the road in the third quarter, led Pittsburgh on the road in the third quarter, beat the Jets by eight and, Sunday at Indy, beat the Colts by four. There’s a reason Miami brass was camped out in the Patriots Super Bowl hotel at 9 a.m. the morning after the Super Bowl, And that’s because Ross and Co., wanted to be sure they had Flores signed, sealed and delivered. Now, even with smart people wondering if the Dolphins are truly happy to be winning these mid-season games because it hurts their draft position, Flores doesn’t care. He’s on a two-game winning streak, piloting a tough-playing defensive team with an offense that usually doesn’t beat itself.

 

 

NEW ENGLAND

QB TOM BRADY has not forgotten what happened the last time the Patriots met the Eagles:

 

The sting from Super Bowl LII still burns within Tom Brady.

 

Ahead of the Week 11 matchup between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, the quarterback was asked during his weekly radio spot on WEEI about facing Philly after the 41-33 Super Bowl loss.

 

“You assume I’m over it? Come on now,” Brady said. “That’s a lot of mental scar tissue from that year. That was a tough game. In a lot of ways, we learned from that year and we came back stronger the next year. We won the Super Bowl in ’18. I think everything is a matter of perspective and when you play in that game and you play great teams, you’re not going to win them all. This is not the Harlem Globetrotters vs. the Washington Generals. This is all about tough competition against the best teams. They deserved it that year, and now a couple years later we get a chance to play the organization again. We’ve had a lot changes, they’ve had a lot of changes. It’s totally different circumstances. Huge game for us. Big game for them. The better team is going to win.”

 

To Brady’s point, a lot has changed since the Eagles and Patriots gave us that memorable Super Bowl tussle. Rob Gronkowski retired. The Patriots have morphed into a defense-first squad. Nick Foles, author of the game-changing “Philly Special,” is no longer an Eagle. On and on. Such is life in the ever-changing NFL.

 

The Pats sit at 8-1 coming off their first loss of the season and are once again in prime position for a playoff bye. Meanwhile, the Eagles are a 5-4 squad, currently tied record-wise with the Dallas Cowboys atop the NFC East, despite inconsistent play to open the season.

 

With both teams coming off byes, Sunday’s game in Philadelphia is pivotal to each squad. The Eagles need to stack wins to leapfrog the Cowboys in the division. And New England could be in danger of losing its grip on the top seed in the AFC to Baltimore if it falls.

 

The importance is not lost on Brady.

 

“Hopefully everyone got a chance to decompress a little bit mentally, physically and now we’ve got to get ready for a great week of preparation and then get ready to go in there and play our best game of the season on the road, in a really tough environment,” he said. “It should be a great Sunday afternoon for football.”

 

 

NEW YORK JETS

QB SAM DARNOLD took command of the huddle in the win over the Giants.  Rich Cimini of ESPN.com:

 

This is the way it works in the New York Jets’ huddle: Quarterback Sam Darnold handles the important stuff (the playcall), running back Le’Veon Bell provides the entertainment.

 

Bell brings the energy, yapping and dapping. He keeps everybody loose and provides the spark. Every team needs a Bell in the huddle.

 

On Sunday, Bell was muted by Darnold, no longer the quiet man. The second-year quarterback raised his volume, not to mention his game in the Jets’ 34-27 victory against the New York Giants.

 

“He took command of the huddle,” Bell said. “I was kind of in the huddle, kind of quiet today. Sam controlled the huddle. That’s big. That’s huge for us. I’m glad he was able to do that.”

 

Darnold needed this game — badly. After eight interceptions in three games, giving him the NFL’s lowest Total QBR (21.0) over that span, he played his first interception-free game since Week 1. He played a clean game — no turnovers, only two sacks — emerging from the first significant funk of his 19-game career.

 

He opened the game with two touchdown drives (75 and 50 yards), hit a lull in the second and third quarters and regained his mojo in the fourth quarter, completing four of five passes for 76 yards. He didn’t complete a pass on the day that traveled longer than 20 yards in the air, but he operated a sound, conservative game plan that helped him regain his confidence.

 

Again, the big story: No turnovers.

 

“That’s a big deal,” coach Adam Gase said. “It’s been a couple of weeks in a row where he’s walked out of those games where he’s frustrated with what’s happened with the turnovers and the missed opportunities. For him to play a game like that is valuable for his growth.”

 

Darnold actually had some promising moments in last week’s rock-bottom loss to the Miami Dolphins, but the baby steps were overshadowed by his horrendous interception in the red zone, an ill-advised pass under pressure that came out like a wet bar of soap. That, Gase insisted, would never happen again.

 

He was pressured 12 times by the Giants, according to NFL Next Gen Stats data, but he managed to avoid any catastrophic throws. He made a falling-forward throw to wide receiver Robby Anderson that caught some teammates by surprise. He threw a touchdown pass and ran for a score in the first quarter, becoming the first quarterback this season to do both in the opening quarter. His one hiccup: He misfired on a long flea-flicker to wide receiver Vyncint Smith, who had nearly three yards of separation on his man.

 

“I think, for me, I was just really in control out there,” said Darnold, who passed for 230 yards and one touchdown on 19-for-30 efficiency. “I think I did a lot better job of controlling myself, making sure I wasn’t doing too much.”

 

That Darnold was more vocal in the huddle underscored a recent trend. Two weeks ago, after a dismal performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he became more assertive in meetings with Gase, according to the coach. He articulated his likes and dislikes in terms of play selection. Gase was taken aback at first, but he welcomed the new attitude. He always wanted Darnold to take ownership of the offense, to show some bite.

 

Call it part of the maturation process. Remember, he’s 22 years old with only 19 starts.

 

“He understands his role for this franchise, not only the team, but the franchise,” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “We seek and we get energy from him. He’s talking and able to encourage guys. He’s seeing things on the field other guys aren’t seeing, wanting to go back to certain plays, wanting to go back to certain routes. That’s a positive trait.”