AROUND THE NFL
Even though they have clinched nothing, the 49ers leap from 5th to 1st this week in If The Season Ended Today in the NFC:
1 San Francisco West 11-2 1 8-1
2 Green Bay North 10-3 1 7-2
3 pd -New Orleans South 10-3 1 8-3
4 Dallas East 6-7 1 5-4
5 Seattle WC 10-3 2 7-2
6 Minnesota WC 9-4 2 7-3
7 LA Rams 8-5 3 6-3
8 Chicago 7-6 3 6-4
9 Philadelphia 6-7 2 4-5
10 Tampa Bay 6-7 2 4-6
Things to remember about the Rams – they have a head-to-head win over the Bears and a much better strength of victory equation.
– – –
Per FootballOutsiders.com, here are the chances of certain things happening, with the Ravens now thought to be nearly a 40% chance to win the Super Bowl.
Team Conf App Conf Win SB Win
BAL 83.9% 60.4% 38.5%
NO 62.0% 34.3% 16.0%
SF 54.1% 32.3% 14.6%
NE 57.1% 20.9% 10.7%
KC 33.5% 11.6% 5.8%
SEA 31.5% 14.6% 5.4%
MIN 15.7% 6.4% 2.3%
GB 19.4% 6.6% 1.8%
TEN 10.8% 3.5% 1.5%
DAL 10.6% 3.8% 1.3%
BUF 8.0% 2.2% 0.8%
PHI 3.8% 1.2% 0.4%
PIT 3.3% 0.8% 0.3%
LAR 2.4% 0.8% 0.2%
HOU 3.0% 0.5% 0.2%
Why are the Titans given a so much higher chance to advance than the Texans?
The Eagles suffered a bunch of injuries Monday night, but the Redskins also have more than their share. JP Finlay of NBCSports.com:
Ryan Kerrigan is out for Redskins vs Eagles. He didn’t miss a game from 2011 to December 2019, now missing at least two games this season. Could be more.
And RB DARRIUS GUICE is hurt again. John Keim of ESPN.com:
Washington Redskins running back Derrius Guice was ruled out of Sunday’s 20-15 loss to the Green Bay Packers because of yet another knee injury. He will undergo an MRI Monday to determine the extent of his injury.
Guice was hurt at the end of a 23-yard run in the second quarter, in which safety Darnell Savage hit him in the legs as Guice fell to the ground.
Guice was coming off his best game as a pro, rushing for 129 yards and two touchdowns at Carolina. Sunday, he gained 42 yards on five carries — including 41 on his last four.
WR CALVIN RIDLEY is out for the final three games, per Calvin Ridley. Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:
The Falcons won a game, but lost a pair of starters yesterday.
Via Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com, Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley said on his social media that he was out for the season after suffering an abdominal injury in yesterday’s win over the Panthers.
Ridley joined cornerback Desmond Trufant on that list, after Trufant broke his arm.
Ridley had five catches for 76 yards and a touchdown before he was carted off the field with scant explanation. He caught 63 passes for 866 yards and seven touchdowns for the year, comparable numbers to the 2018 first-rounder’s rookie season.
In case you were wondering – it was the only 48-46 game in NFL history.
SF 48 – 46 NO
That’s Scorigami!! It’s the 1053rd unique final score in NFL history.
We thought sure that if the final field goal had missed it would still be the only 46-45 game in NFL history – but no.
The New York Titans beat the Denver Broncos, 46-45, on 11/22/62. Of course, that is the AFL, but the AFL is considered part of NFL history.
– – –
The 49ers win came with a cost. Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com:
The San Francisco 49ers’ wild win against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday came with a hefty price.
Starting center Weston Richburg suffered a torn right patellar tendon early in the third quarter of the Niners’ 48-46 win in New Orleans, coach Kyle Shanahan announced Monday afternoon.
The injury ends a strong season for Richburg, who will miss the final three games and postseason and have to undergo surgery and the accompanying rehab. Richburg’s injury was the most serious but the Niners also had a pair of shorter-term injuries to key players as cornerback Richard Sherman and defensive end Dee Ford are expected to miss some time with hamstring injuries.
Shanahan said Sherman would likely miss “a couple of weeks” with his right hamstring strain and Ford, who aggravated a previous right hamstring injury, would be expected to miss “at least” three weeks. Nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams is in concussion protocol and defensive tackle D.J. Jones is dealing with a sprained ankle.
“It’s tough,” Shanahan said. “It was a huge win and we enjoyed that a ton obviously but some mixed feelings today with some of these injuries, which is tough, especially losing Richburg for the year. The other guys got some serious ones, too, hopefully we can keep playing well so we can give them a chance to come back and help us if we can make our season longer than three games.”
Emmanuel Moseley figures to step in for Sherman opposite Ahkello Witherspoon while the Niners have already been using Ford in limited snaps because of hamstring, knee and quadriceps injuries. Shanahan said he anticipates some roster movement coming, although any moves have yet to be decided.
Richburg’s injury happened on third-and-1 when running back Tevin Coleman was stopped for a 3-yard loss. On the play, Richburg was driven back at the same time as guard Mike Person, with Person’s left leg crashing into the back of Richburg’s right leg.
Almost immediately, Richburg crumpled to the ground and grabbed for the injured leg. In the Superdome press box, the injury was announced as ankle and knee issues, and Richburg left the locker room on crutches as his teammates lamented losing one of their most important and underrated offensive players.
“Losing Weston is big,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “He’s the center position on our offensive line. He’s one of the captains for our group and you don’t want to see him go down at all.”
C BEN GARLAND will move into Richburg’s spot.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Frank Schwab of YahooSports.com says it wasn’t just that the Patriots lost on Sunday:
For about 24 hours — or however much time had passed before the new SpyGate controversy started Monday — we heard all about the New England Patriots losing Sunday night’s game. How their offense wasn’t very good, that Tom Brady is slipping, the officiating fiascos and how their chances to get the No. 1 seed were all finished.
Not mentioned very often in that that hubbub was that the Kansas City Chiefs won.
Sunday’s result was not all about the Patriots. The Chiefs came into this season as a hot pick to win a Super Bowl, then they started a little slow and fell off the radar a bit. They need to be back on the short list of contenders.
The Chiefs still have a remarkable offense. The defense played well Sunday. Lamar Jackson is clearly the MVP this season but it’s also fair to call Patrick Mahomes the best player in the NFL. And only one team has defeated the Patriots and Baltimore Ravens this season.
The best team in the AFC this season is the Ravens. It’s really hard to deny that, or find any reason they won’t win two games in January. Except that the best team often doesn’t win in the playoffs.
The Chiefs are one of the teams capable of winning a couple games on the road in the playoffs (assuming the Patriots end up getting the No. 2 seed, and perhaps we shouldn’t assume that yet). Last season everything was set up for the Chiefs to make a Super Bowl for the first time since the 1969 season, and they couldn’t do it. Kansas City’s playoff history is heartbreaking. But maybe they weren’t quite ready last season, when the Patriots bested them in overtime of the AFC title game. Sometimes those losses can lead to better days. Ask the Peyton Manning Colts, for example.
The Chiefs are on a three-game winning streak, and the offense hasn’t really been the driving force. The Chiefs are averaging 305 yards per game over the last three, which isn’t much for them. But the defense has allowed 17, 9 and 16 points against the Chargers, Raiders and Patriots. That’s a nice streak. And you have to assume the offense will come alive again. It did pretty well against a very tough Patriots defense.
Assuming Mahomes feels good — he has been banged up all season — then Kansas City feels like the type of team nobody would want to play. All Andy Reid jokes aside, the Chiefs are one of the best-coached teams in the NFL. The offense can still outscore anyone when it’s right. Mahomes has the ability to absolutely carry his team through the playoffs. And Kansas City has a few more weeks to gain momentum.
The Chiefs were in a great spot to finally make a Super Bowl last season, and broke the hearts of their fans again. But don’t sleep on them this postseason. Maybe they just needed to go through one more ridiculous loss before getting over the hump.
Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com with more on the pleading by WR ODELL BECKHAM, Jr. to be freed from the Browns:
Remember the vague possibility that the Browns could have traded receiver Odell Beckham Jr. before the October 29 deadline? Beckham apparently wanted it to be more than a vague possibility.
Sunday’s report from Jay Glazer of FOX indicating that Beckham has told other players and coaches to “come get me” didn’t specify time frames or teams. Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports reports that Beckham made those comments to opposing players during “at least” one game in October.
In October, the Browns played the 49ers, Seahawks, and Patriots. San Francisco tried to trade for Beckham last year, and Beckham has spoken publicly about his admiration for the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady, going over the top in his press conference during the week before facing New England. Both traded for receivers before the 2019 deadline.
Still, the question posed here a month ago tomorrow still stands — and if anything it’s more pressing: Where will Beckham play in 2020?
Increasingly, it feels like he won’t be playing in Cleveland.
Frank Schwab of YahooSports.com sees changes afoot in Jacksonville:
The Jaguars have a strange offseason coming up. It could end up being a complete sweep of the organization. Doug Marrone hasn’t really done enough to return as head coach. VP of football operations Tom Coughlin has made numerous missteps. Then what would a new regime think about a roster that does have a few good players, but desperately needs some big changes to compete?
Mike Herndon with a Tweet on Tennessee’s crazy good offense as of late:
There have been 11,878 NFL games played (both playoffs and regular season) since the merger in 1970. The #Titans have 2 of the top 30 games in terms of yards per offensive play in modern NFL history in the past 3 weeks. This is extraordinarily rare territory.
If they didn’t already have a history of such stuff, the Patriots probably would be suspected of trying to secretly film the Bengals signals in Cleveland last Sunday.
Adam Schefter on how some Patriots employees were doing their job.
The New England Patriots acknowledged that their production crew inappropriately filmed the field and sideline during Sunday’s game between the Bengals and Browns in Cleveland and accepted full responsibility in a statement released Monday night.
The crew was credentialed by the Browns to shoot video for a Patriots web series called “Do Your Job,” but the Patriots did not inform the Bengals or the NFL, which they called “an unintended oversight.”
“The sole purpose of the filming was to provide an illustration of an advance scout at work on the road,” the Patriots statement read. “There was no intention of using footage for any other purpose.”
The Patriots also said the production crew, which included independent contractors who shot the video, is not part of New England’s football operation.
The NFL has not yet issued a comment, but a source told ESPN’s Dan Graziano that the league has a copy of the video and is investigating the incident.
News of the incident first broke when, at Bengals coach Zac Taylor’s news conference Monday, longtime Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham asked the coach about rumors that the Patriots had a videographer in the press box who was taping the sideline. Taylor said he was aware of the incident and that the league was investigating.
Sources told ESPN’s Dianna Russini that a Bengals employee flagged media relations and Bengals security staff after observing a videographer shooting the sidelines.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick told WEEI earlier Monday that the team’s football operations has nothing to do with the production side and that their scouts know the rules about what you can’t film at games.
“They 100% know. All of our scouts, all of our video people and everything, they know what that is,” Belichick said. “Again, I have nothing to do with the TV production shows and stuff like that. I have no idea what they do. Or what their projects are and everything else.
“As I understand it, they were videotaping him, trying to show kind of what an advance scout does, or something Iike that, I don’t know. You’ll have to wait to see the show I guess and see how it’s presented.”
In 2007, the Patriots were punished by the NFL for videotaping the New York Jets’ defensive playcalls on the sideline during a 2007 game at Giants Stadium, won by New England 38-14. The Patriots were forced to forfeit their first-round draft pick in 2008, and coach Bill Belichick was fined the maximum amount of $500,000. The Patriots also were ordered to pay $250,000 for the scandal, which was dubbed “Spygate” by the media.
The Patriots (10-3) visit the Bengals (1-12) on Sunday.
Here is the Patriots statement:
For the past year, the New England Patriots content team has produced a series of behind-the scenes features on various departments within the organization. The seven previous “Do Your Job” episodes are archived on patriots.com. On Sunday, Dec. 8, the content team sent a three-person video crew to the Bengals-Browns game at FirstEnergy Stadium in order to capture one part of a longer feature on the Patriots scouting department, in this case a Patriots pro personnel scout while he was working in the press box.
While we sought and were granted credentialed access from the Cleveland Browns for the video crew, our failure to inform the Bengals and the League was an unintended oversight. In addition to filming the scout, the production crew – without specific knowledge of League rules – inappropriately filmed the field from the press box. The sole purpose of the filming was to provide an illustration of an advance scout at work on the road. There was no intention of using the footage for any other purpose. We understand and acknowledge that our video crew, which included independent contractors who shot the video, unknowingly violated a league policy by filming the field and sideline from the press box. When questioned, the crew immediately turned over all footage to the league and cooperated fully.
The production crew is independent of our football operation. While aware that one of the scouts was being profiled for a “Do Your Job” episode, our football staff had no other involvement whatsoever in the planning, filming or creative decisions made during the production of these features.
We accept full responsibility for the actions of our production crew at the Browns-Bengals game.
The fact that it was the Bengals as the opponent would seem to work in favor of believing the Patriots statement.
THIS AND THAT
Mike McCarthy sends out a “position wanted” ad through Tom Pelissaro of NFL.com:
Mike McCarthy’s right thumb bounces back and forth on the remote as he sits in his outsized mancave, controlling the video that plays on a TV in the corner while debate ensues around him about how to cover one NFL team after another’s version of the deep cross.
When a clip comes up of Aaron Rodgers and the 2019 Packers, McCarthy’s expression doesn’t change, though he admits later it can be emotional watching his old team at times. Right now, McCarthy’s watching like a coach. Studying. Analyzing. Comparing what the Packers are doing now to how he did things the previous 13 years in Green Bay, before an unceremonious in-season dismissal last December.
“If you truly want to learn about yourself, you probably need to look at your last opportunity and keep an eye on it, because you have to be transparent,” McCarthy told me. “You have to be honest about, how can you do things better? And it’s all part of this process. Once you get past the emotion — the negative emotion of it all — it’s a great opportunity to shine a bright light on it and grow.”
Yes, McCarthy fully intends to be an NFL head coach again in 2020. And by any objective measure, his resume alone should make him a top candidate in any search. He won over 61% of his games with the Packers, who reached the playoffs nine times (including eight in a row) in 13 seasons, with four NFC title game appearances and a triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. He has an excellent reputation within the league for his work with quarterbacks, including two Packers legends. Practically the entire history of the West Coast offense lives in tapes and binders at Packers Hall of Fame Inc. (a donation McCarthy made years ago), as well as his garage and the upstairs office of the barn behind his house outside Green Bay, where he chose to spend the first year out of football in his adult life with the family that has never lived anyplace else.
Someday, McCarthy sees himself retiring here. But at age 56, he’s not looking for a cushy gig or one last payday. The theme of his year away has been self-improvement, in every area, and thus was born The McCarthy Project — a collaboration with fellow coaches Jim Haslett, Frank Cignetti Jr. and Scott McCurley that McCarthy says has made him “definitely a better coach” than ever before. Together, they’ve spent months preparing as if they’re the NFL’s 33rd coaching staff, from studying league trends and rebuilding playbooks to deep dives on analytics and mapping out a calendar for practices and meetings all the way through training camp. McCarthy also did a deep dive on himself, going through boxes dating to his early days as an assistant at the University of Pittsburgh and with the Kansas City Chiefs to study how his philosophies have evolved over the past 30 years and where he needs to go from here.
During a wide-ranging recent interview, McCarthy touched on numerous topics, including the bitter moments after his Packers firing, his relationship with Rodgers, the deeply personal meaning to his family of returning to the sidelines and how he intends to go about building another perennial contender.
“To do it right and to be in position to win it every year, that’s what I’m looking for,” McCarthy said. “So that’s the opportunity, that’s who I want to be paired with. And I’m not trying to just go win one, I’m trying to win them all. And I’ve always taken that approach. That’s always been my outlook. And every decision that’s ever been made towards the football team, it was A, number one, what’s best for the locker room? And it’s about moving that locker room forward, ’cause nothing ever stays the same. You’re either getting better or you’re going the other way. And that’s in life and in football.”
Better, not bitter
To understand how a coach who won more games with the Packers than Vince Lombardi (and everyone else except Curly Lambeau) could have his tenure end the way McCarthy’s did, you have to go back to Green Bay’s last playoff season in 2016 — the year Rodgers famously said an injury-depleted team could “run the table” to make the playoffs after starting 4-6, setting the stage for an eight-game winning streak.
“I thought that was clearly the best coaching job that I was part of, in maybe my whole career,” McCarthy says, steering his truck through the dark on the way home from an early-morning coffee run. “The players were tremendous. We just couldn’t stay healthy. That first half of the season was one of the worst stretches that we had, and the team just gutted it out. We got to the NFC Championship Game (a 44-21 loss at Atlanta). That was a very difficult year. And then ’17, we were getting hurt up there in Minnesota, and so it kind of spilled into that year.”
After a 4-1 start in 2017, Rodgers broke his collarbone on a hit by Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, sending the team spiraling to a 7-9 finish and its first non-playoff season since Rodgers’ first year as the starter in 2008. Longtime general manager Ted Thompson — who for years had almost entirely dismissed free agency and trades in favor of a strict draft-and-develop approach, lumping pressure on Rodgers to cover up the Packers’ weaknesses and coaches to play young players — had been in declining health and stepped down after the season. Then Rodgers suffered a significant knee injury in Week 1 last season, requiring him to wear a brace for weeks and changing the way the Packers could play offense for much of the year. They were 4-7-1 at the time of McCarthy’s dismissal.
The red-faced coach captured so many times by TV cameras yelling at officials in frustration the past few years looked like a different person than who McCarthy had been throughout his tenure.
“I agree with you,” McCarthy said. “There was a lot more going on within our organization that I didn’t experience the first 10 years. And I think that’s a product of being successful. It’s part of that challenge. Failure comes more in that arena than any other. (But) we’re all fighters. You don’t make it in this business if you don’t have that part of your DNA.”
McCarthy doesn’t believe the Packers needed a culture change, but they probably needed a climate change — a break from all the speculation about their coach’s future that surely crept into the locker room via social media, along with relentless criticism from fans and media about Rodgers’ prime slipping away without a second title, which McCarthy understood. (“You get up past eight, nine, 10 years, you can’t just say, ‘Hey, let’s get back to the playoffs again,’ ” McCarthy said, chuckling. “I can’t even say it with a straight face.”)
There also were persistent hints and reports of friction between McCarthy and Rodgers, who defended McCarthy after a controversial Bleacher Report article in April took aim at both men, saying in a radio interview with ESPN Wisconsin: “I love Mike McCarthy. Mike has been a huge part of my success in my career, and I’ve had some amazing moments on and off the field with Mike. We have had issues, no doubt. Any long relationship has issues, but the way that we dealt with those issues, Mike and I, was face to face.”
Back in McCarthy’s office, a baby-faced Rodgers is smiling on the TV screen, taking a snap in his first videotaped session in McCarthy’s renowned “Quarterback School” in 2006. Scrubbing around the video, which is intercut with shots of Joe Montana and others as part of his updated QB training tape, McCarthy smiles back, praising the future two-time NFL MVP’s natural talent and the way he progressed in other clips from 2010 and 2017.
“When you take a step back and you think about how long a relationship that is, and what you were able to accomplish — in the meeting rooms, on the practice field …” McCarthy said. “It’s the long conversations (with Rodgers), particularly in the early years — you miss those things. The Thursday meetings where you knew it was going to be an hour or it could be three hours, and it was supposed to be a first-15-play meeting, but it always turned into a life experience meeting.”
McCarthy empowered Rodgers more and more to take ownership in the offense as the years went on. And the Packers were constantly evolving in other areas, whether McCarthy was shuffling the roles of his assistant coaches (and occasionally regretting it, such as when he handed over offensive play-calling to Tom Clements in 2015, only to take it back by season’s end) or overhauling their weekly practice schedule to take care of players’ bodies.
At this point, McCarthy says, he has to be past his emotions toward the Packers organization and president and CEO Mark Murphy, who curtly informed McCarthy shortly after a home loss to the Arizona Cardinals last Dec. 2 that he was making a change. McCarthy still takes prides in the development of the Packers’ young players when he sees them on tape. And McCarthy has praise for new coach Matt LaFleur and his team, saying: “I’ve enjoyed their balance. I think they’ve done an excellent job.” Still settling into a new offense, the Packers’ scoring is up just slightly this season (23.8 points per game vs. 23.5 in 2018) and Rodgers’ numbers are similar, too, but they lead the NFC North at 10-3, buoyed by new GM Brian Gutekunst’s big-ticket free-agent additions of Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith to a defense coordinated by Mike Pettine, whom McCarthy hired before last season.
“My focus was always to be better, not bitter. And obviously, there was bitter moments, frankly, early in that transition,” McCarthy said. “I think that’s natural. And I think anybody goes through it, that those are natural feelings. At the end of the day, I’m thinking more about beginnings. And I’ve had time to think about the whole 13 years and there’s been a tremendous amount of positive reflection with that. This has been an extremely healthy time for me, personally.”
It’s impossible to live in the Green Bay area and never drive by Lambeau Field. McCarthy’s sons go to high school a short drive down Ridge Road. He underwent knee surgery at a clinic across the street from the stadium, and laughs at one of countless awkward moments over the past year: speaking with a maintenance worker there on a ladder, who said he was really sorry once he noticed McCarthy could see Lambeau’s video boards playing highlights from last season behind him. (Replied McCarthy: “Hell, don’t be sorry. I called that damn play.”)
McCarthy did some traveling the past year with his wife, Jessica, and their kids. They visited scenic Door County during the normal dog days of training camp in July and August and saw his oldest daughter, Alex, an actress and producer in Los Angeles. He spent time on his boat. He attended his stepson Jack’s football games on Friday nights. (Jack plays middle linebacker; another stepson, George, a quarterback, missed the season because of an injury.) He picked up his youngest daughters, Gabrielle, 11, and Isabella, 8, from school and developed a strategy for getting the closest parking spot. He underwent an overdue knee surgery and got into a regular workout routine with help from a personal trainer. He gave up his skinny vanilla lattes (no foam) on his early-morning Starbucks runs in favor of blonde roasts with steamed almond milk.
“There’s days where I thought, ‘I could do this. Do I want to go back to the grind of coaching?’ ” McCarthy said. “And after about the first month, I think my kids were just kind of like, ‘So Dad, you need to go to work.’ “
Cignetti — a fellow graduate assistant with McCarthy on Paul Hackett’s staff at Pitt in 1989 who later joined him on Haslett’s Saints in the early 2000s and spent last season as the Packers’ QBs coach — recalls McCarthy telling him in early January he planned to coach again. McCarthy just wasn’t sure it’d be in 2019. He received inquiries from several teams last winter and took one interview with the New York Jets, though he knew after that meeting it wasn’t the right fit.
The idea for The McCarthy Project sprung from a mutual desire to watch tape and stay on top of trends in the NFL and college football in anticipation of a return in 2020, and it quickly expanded into a full-fledged operation. Haslett had connections to obtain “All-22” coaches tape, often faster than even NFL teams get it. The group traveled to Cincinnati for a six-hour meeting at Pro Football Focus, which collaborated on some ideas and provided resources that expedited the process of filtering tape and creating cutups. Justin Rudd, a former DV Sport software executive, pulled together the technology.
Most mornings, Haslett (who lives in Cincinnati) and Cignetti (New Jersey) get on the phone together and talk through tape all day. McCarthy does the same in person with McCurley, a longtime Packers defensive assistant. Then for one week each month, Haslett and Cignetti travel to Green Bay and stay in the upstairs living quarters of the barn, which is outfitted with a bed, sofa and kitchenette. Downstairs, there’s a full-sized gymnasium, golf simulator and exercise room. A few steps away is the mancave, its pinball machines and pool table covered up by whiteboards and laptops, with the furniture rearranged around tables to face the TV like an NFL meeting room.
“I’ve watched more tape this year than I’ve ever, ever watched in the offseason,” said Haslett, a pro and college coach for over 30 years who had planned to sit out 2019 after undergoing ankle fusion surgery. “We started doing cutups. We started doing games. We started saying, ‘What do you want to run? Let’s look at the pass concepts.’ “
How has Andy Reid successfully incorporated college concepts to flood the wide side of the field into his version of the West Coast offense? How do the Cowboys get Dak Prescott in rhythm on the deep cross? How are other teams borrowing the “Fish” concept on deep shots that McCarthy made a staple of his Packers offense? It’s all been part of one long conversation throughout the season, and the Xs and Os are just a piece of it. What worked before? What needs to be done better?
“It’s nice to have time to think about it, to watch, discuss, and you’re not (saying), ‘Hey, we gotta make this decision by end of March ’cause OTAs start in April,’ ” McCarthy said. “The whole 360 (degree) view, whether it’s watching the games, watching the officiating, game management, scheme, technology, analytics …”
The plan for all of it is laid out on two whiteboards, covered with notes on every scheme project they’ve completed and every aspect of the football operation they intend to build.
No matter where he ends up, McCarthy doesn’t envision a total teardown. (“I’m not a believer in [that],” he said. “I think every one of these opportunities that will be available, there’s resources in there that you have to make sure you’re aware of and try to utilize.”) He wants to better use technology and analytics. (“We were definitely on the average side at best in my time in Green Bay there. I’ve looked at every team in the league and their commitment to analytics, and football technology and video. Because everybody has analytics, but it has to be part of your everyday operation to show up on Sundays.”) At the forefront of the program will be player wellness, including dedicated resources for mental health. (“You have to develop the locker room from every possible angle. It can’t be a subcontractor. It needs to be part of your everyday operation.”)
Said Cignetti: “Mike had a vision. Once we had the video and we had each other, the sky’s the limit.”
‘We need football right now’
McCarthy says the biggest regret of his time in Green Bay was not having his family prepared for defeat — his firing, the suddenness of it and the unique conversations it created with his children, such as one of his young daughters asking before a school pride day whether she can still cheer for the Packers.
He became emotional in our interview when I asked, why does he need to do this? Why move the family across the country to get back on the sideline?
“It’s a very selfish profession,” McCarthy said, his voice cracking. “Coaching in the NFL, I think that’s a given. But what I’ve found through this transition is … our family needs this. … We need to do this … just ’cause of everything that’s happened, and this will be a great opportunity for us.”
Why does he say, “We need to do this?”
“I just think it’s how you handle things in your life,” McCarthy said. “Coaching in this league’s a way of life. And then you think it’s a way of life for a coach, but it’s for your whole family. We need football right now. We won’t need it forever, but we need it right now.
“… Jessica’s born and raised here. We love it here. But in the same breath, this is not just an opportunity for me to grow as a coach, it’s an opportunity for our family to really grow. And there’s more out there. And Jessica and I want to give these kids that experience. So, that’s what I mean when I say we need football. I’m not talking about the games. I’m talking about the challenges that it gives you as a family.”
They’re challenges McCarthy needs, too.
“And there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll put another Super Bowl trophy in his case,” Cignetti said. “Because I know the type of person he is and I know the type of coach he is. I’ve got total belief in Mike McCarthy.”
BARNWELL BREAKS DOWN THE AFC
Here is Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com on the AFC race:
With seven teams competing for six playoff spots, the AFC is down to two serious battles. Sunday’s results all but locked Baltimore into the top seed in the AFC, with the victorious Ravens taking a one-game lead over the Patriots with both the head-to-head tiebreaker and three games left to play. Lamar Jackson & Co. have a 95.6% chance of finishing atop the conference and staying home in Baltimore throughout the postseason, according to the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI). As I’ll get to later on, that’s going to be a scary reality for the rest of the AFC to face.
Let’s start on the other end of the playoff divide. The race for the final wild-card spot is down to two teams that have combined to start five different quarterbacks this season. Did anybody count on a playoff race coming down to whether Ryan Tannehill or Devlin Hodges would be able to sustain their level of play? The No. 6 seed in the AFC might be a battle of which unexpected starting quarterback blinks first.
The battle for the 6-seed
11. Denver Broncos (5-8)
Chance to make the playoffs: 0.1%
10. Oakland Raiders (6-7)
Chance to make the playoffs: 1.2%
9. Indianapolis Colts (6-7)
Chance to make the playoffs: 2.6%
8. Cleveland Browns (6-7)
Chance to make the playoffs: 3.6%
I’m really just including these teams for posterity’s sake, given that each has an extremely slim chance of making it to the postseason. The Browns have the best odds of the bunch, relatively, and for them to make it to the playoffs, they would need to win out and get help. They’d need the Jets to beat the Steelers and Bills, and the Steelers would need to beat the Bills, who also would lose to the Patriots. Finally, the Saints would need to beat the Titans in Week 16. If the Browns piece together that eight-game parlay, Cleveland should open up the free beer fridges again.
7. Tennessee Titans (8-5)
Chance to make the playoffs: 50.6%
Projected playoff matchup: Out of playoffs
Tannehill’s incredible run as Titans starter continues. I wrote about the former Dolphins first-round pick in my all-underrated team column two weeks ago, but the pending free agent continues to make his case to lock up a long-term deal with the Titans. Since taking over as the starter in Week 7, he is averaging a league-best 10.5 adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A). The only quarterback with a better passer rating or record than Tannehill over that time frame is Lamar Jackson.
Sunday’s 42-21 win both knocked the Raiders out of meaningful playoff contention and furthered the Tannehill legend. In a game in which his average drive started 16 yards short of the opposing Raiders’ drives, he was nearly perfect short a tipped interception on the opening drive. Watch the highlight reel from Sunday’s win and you see a quarterback who looks to be in absolute command of the offense.
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At this point, he has been one of the best quarterbacks in football for nearly half a season. I would understand if you want to discount his numbers, but writing him off altogether as the guy who was just good enough to push the Dolphins to 8-8 seems naive. This model is working, and it has propelled the Titans back into the playoff picture.
One reasonable criticism might be that the Titans haven’t really faced many difficult defenses. I wouldn’t be too hard on a team whose reputation for years revolved around unexpectedly winning games against elite teams before subsequently losing to teams far below their station, but the Titans have faced just one top-10 defense by DVOA during this seven-game stretch with Tannehill as starter, the ninth-placed Buccaneers.
While their remaining schedule is difficult, the Titans have far more to be worried about on the defensive side of the ball with their remaining three games. They have a home-and-home with the Texans and their defense, which ranked 25th in DVOA before being sliced up by Drew Lock and the Broncos on Sunday. Their other game comes at home against the Saints, who will drop from seventh in DVOA after their instant classic against the 49ers Sunday. The Titans will undoubtedly take heart from what the 49ers and their play-action heavy scheme did against Dennis Allen’s defense, with Jimmy Garoppolo going 11-of-14 for 191 yards with two touchdowns and a perfect passer rating on play-action Sunday afternoon in New Orleans.
The one thing that would concern me is that the Titans have been conjuring up moments of sheer magic during this winning streak to win close games.
Every team needs an opportunistic fourth-down stop or big special-teams play here or there, but the Titans have been thriving by the skin of their teeth during this winning run. With Tannehill playing about as well as any quarterback in the league and not having much more room to get better, the defense needs to come up with stops before the last possible moment, especially given the offenses to come.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5)
Chance to make the playoffs: 59.7%
Projected playoff matchup: at Chiefs
The Steelers sit narrowly ahead of the Titans by virtue of their conference record; Pittsburgh is 6-3 within the AFC, while the Titans are at 6-4. While Tennessee’s schedule includes three surefire playoff teams, Pittsburgh’s should be easier. Mike Tomlin’s team gets a tough matchup in its home finale against the Bills next week, but they’ll have a quick road trip to face the Jets after that.
Their final game of the year comes against the Ravens in Week 17, but there’s a decent chance that Baltimore will have clinched home-field advantage, which would likely mean limited snaps from MVP favorite Lamar Jackson. The last time John Harbaugh had a chance to sit his stars in Week 17 was in 2012, when he left the likes of Ray Lewis, Marshal Yanda and Anquan Boldin inactive and sat down Joe Flacco and Ed Reed by the end of the first quarter. That season ended with a Super Bowl victory, so I would expect Harbaugh to be similarly conservative if he has the chance in 2019, even if it pushes the Ravens’ archrivals into the postseason.
Of course, the Steelers are favorites to make it into the postseason for more than some well-timed largesse. When I suggested that they were the most likely 0-2 team to make it to the postseason, my argument was that the defense was too talented to perform as poorly as it had against the Patriots and Seahawks, and that James Conner could make up for a likely below-average Mason Rudolph.
That turned out to be mostly right. The defense, obviously, continues to play at a high level, although its turnovers are unsurprisingly down. After averaging more than 3.4 takeaways per game over a seven-contest stretch before midseason, the Steelers are down to 1.8 takeaways per game over their past four. That includes three interceptions of Kyler Murray in Sunday’s win over the Cardinals, including one in the end zone on a truly puzzling decision from the talented rookie. The Steelers also haven’t scored on a fumble or interception return after producing three scores over that seven-game span, each in wins decided by seven points or fewer.
The defense has improved greatly beyond the takeaways. After allowing 33, 28 and 24 points in the first three games of the season, the only team to top 24 points on offense over the ensuing nine games against the Steelers is the Ravens, who got to 26 in an overtime victory. Since that ugly start, Pittsburgh ranks second in the NFL in points allowed per drive (1.26) and percentage of drives ending in touchdowns (13.8%).
Of course, Rudolph is no longer in the lineup, with the Steelers benching him for Devlin Hodges one week after Rudolph’s fateful fight with Myles Garrett. Hodges has simply been the more productive quarterback.
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With Conner out, Pittsburgh’s leading ball carrier was rookie fourth-rounder Benny Snell. Bears practice-squad addition Kerrith Whyte mixed in with six touches. Hodges’ longest completion of the day went to Deon Cain, who was signed off the Colts’ practice squad. Smart teams typically help their young quarterbacks develop by loading up on free-agent talent and adding weapons. The Steelers didn’t know they would be relying on an inexperienced quarterback this year, but they’ve gotten by with Hodges throwing to rookies and practice-squad guys.
What the Steelers have accomplished with their third-string quarterback and a bunch of last-ditch weapons is a testament to their offensive line, coaching staff and defense. None of those strengths are going away, and with Conner and Smith-Schuster likely coming back sometime in December, it’s not crazy to imagine the offense getting better as Hodges gets more top-level experience. I wouldn’t be thrilled about Hodges in the divisional round against the Ravens or Patriots defenses, but for the Steelers to be favorites to make it to the postseason after being left for dead at 0-3 is remarkable.
5. Buffalo Bills (9-4)
Chance to make the playoffs: 95.9%
Projected playoff matchup: at Texans
While FPI projects the Bills to wind up as the 5-seed nearly 69% of the time in its simulations, the Bills could still move up, down or out of the playoff picture. They still have a 1.3% chance of winning the AFC East, although it would take a victory over the Patriots in Foxborough, two more wins over the Steelers and Jets, and an upset by either the Bengals or Dolphins over the Patriots. If Ryan Fitzpatrick pulls out a victory over the Pats and nets the Bills their first postseason home game since 1996, the Bills should build a statue of their former starting quarterback.
The battle for byes
4. Houston Texans (8-5)
Chance to make the playoffs: 86.3%
Projected playoff matchup: vs. Bills
It took about 20 minutes of game action Sunday for the Texans to forget about everything they had accomplished when manhandling the Patriots last weekend. By the 10-minute mark of the second quarter, Houston was down 21-0 at home to a Broncos team led by rookie Drew Lock, who was barely a functional passer during the preseason. The Texans trailed 38-3 after the first drive of the third quarter and needed some garbage-time scoring from Deshaun Watson to make the final score look closer than the game really was at 38-24.
I realize that this is going to be a weird thing to say, so just hear me out: The Texans’ defensive showing against the Patriots was an aberration against one of the league’s most ineffective offenses, and it took Lock and the Broncos’ offense to bring them back to reality. This just isn’t a good defense. Houston ranked 25th in both defensive DVOA and pass defense DVOA heading into the Broncos game and will likely fall after allowing Lock to average an even 12.0 AY/A.
Romeo Crennel’s defense badly misses J.J. Watt.
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The Texans don’t yet have the AFC South locked up, in part because they still have two games to go against the Titans. Bill O’Brien’s team will win the South if they sweep the Titans and lose it if they get swept. If they split, The Upshot’s model gives the Texans a 77% chance of winning the division. They would either need to beat the Buccaneers or have the Saints beat the Titans. The Colts also could win the division if their two rivals split the home-and-home, both the Buccaneers and Saints prevail in Week 16, and the Colts win out against the Saints, Panthers and Jaguars.
The Texans would likely be in line for a wild-card spot if they miss out on the division. They have virtually no hope of earning a first-round bye, with FPI pegging their chances at 0.2%. They could move up from the 4-seed to the 3-seed if they win out and the Chiefs slip up, but FPI thinks there’s a 61% chance they finish as the No. 4 seed.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (9-4)
Chance to make the playoffs: Clinched
Projected playoff matchup: vs. Steelers
The Chiefs should be both encouraged and discouraged by Sunday’s victory over the Patriots. The win pushed them into the third spot in the AFC, where they’ll control their destiny by staying ahead of the 8-5 Texans. The win also would give Kansas City a potential tiebreaker if the Pats slip, with FPI giving Andy Reid’s team a 17.5% chance of finishing with a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs.
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You can see the difference in terms of the magic Mahomes had been able to create while scrambling and extending plays. Before the knee injury and when he wasn’t being impacted by the ankle injury, he would routinely look downfield as he took a lengthy drop backward, then spin or run around before firing a dart to an open receiver. Now, he’s typically taking that lengthy drop backward and lofting a pass up off of his back foot.
When Mahomes takes four or more seconds with the ball in his hands before throwing since missing time with his knee injury, he has gone 5-of-18 for 83 yards with a passer rating of 46.3. Before the injury, in that same scenario, Mahomes was 17-of-26 for 331 yards with three touchdowns and a passer rating of 147.1. In 2018, Mahomes was 47-of-95 for 1,101 yards, 10 touchdowns, four picks and a passer rating of 109.1 on those delayed pass attempts. It’s a small sample, but it’s also borne out by watching Mahomes over the past few weeks.
Even an injured Mahomes is still better than the vast majority of quarterbacks in the AFC pool, of course, and he’s still talented enough to win the Chiefs games. We also know Mahomes’ ceiling is as the best player in football, and since returning from his injury, he hasn’t been hitting that ceiling. Defenses are going to ask questions of him in the weeks to come, and the AFC is full of excellent pass rushes and pass defenses. Thankfully for the Chiefs, they may be one of them.
2. New England Patriots (10-3)
Chance to make the playoffs: 99.9%
Projected playoff matchup: First-round bye
Even given that the Patriots have lost to the three other division leaders in the AFC, they’re still in good shape to come away with a first-round bye, though not the top overall seed. They control their destiny and have a relatively easy schedule to come, as two of their three remaining games are against the Bengals and Dolphins. The Bills arguably outplayed the Patriots when the two teams played in Week 4, but this game will be in Foxborough, where the Pats had won 21 straight games before Sunday’s loss to Kansas City.
I wrote about the Patriots’ offense at length in my Tom Brady article last Monday, so I don’t feel the need to rehash my thoughts here. We did see the Patriots try to mix things up early in the game Sunday, going with two tight ends on 20 of their first 23 snaps. The 20th play in that grouping was the Brady interception, though, and afterward, they went with two tight ends just seven times.
It must have been disheartening for Patriots fans to see the running game fail to do much against a perennially dismal Chiefs run defense; Pats halfbacks finished the game with 19 carries for just 66 yards, although Brady had a sneak for a first down and a 17-yard run to convert a fourth-and-6 on the final drive. I thought Brady generally played fine, with the fourth-down throw he missed to Julian Edelman in the second quarter as a notable misstep. We continued to see the players around him make mental mistakes.
My concern with the Patriots as a Super Bowl contender is that they need something on offense to win. Even if this defense rates out as something close to the 2000 Ravens or 2002 Buccaneers, the Ravens had a viable running game and didn’t turn the ball over much during the playoffs, while the Bucs had a competent passing attack.
The Patriots have Edelman right now, and when the Chiefs doubled him throughout this game, Brady didn’t have a Plan B. On his non-Edelman targets, Brady was 11-of-24 for 74 yards. You can throw in 63 yards of pass interference penalties on three incompletions, but even that’s still a shade over 5.0 yards per pass attempt. That’s barely functional. (I will refer all penalty discussion from Sunday’s game to last year’s article on Patriots myths.)
The Patriots have a month to figure this out if you include the likely bye week during the wild-card round. They get two games against two of the worst defenses in football to build up some confidence. History tells us they’ll figure out this offense by then. Two and a half months of mounting evidence suggests there are reasons to be concerned.
1. Baltimore Ravens (11-2)
Chance to make the playoffs: Clinched
Projected playoff matchup: First-round bye
The Ravens are all but in as the top seed in the AFC. They’re one game ahead of the Patriots and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. If the Bills wrangle control of the AFC East, the Ravens also hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Sean McDermott’s team after Sunday’s victory. The Ravens can clinch the top seed in the AFC with two wins in their final three games, which include home games against the Jets and Steelers and a road trip to face the Browns.
Here’s why that’s scary for opposing teams. Regular-season data suggests that the Ravens enjoy an enormous home-field advantage. Since John Harbaugh took over in 2008, the Ravens have outscored their opponents by an average of 7.9 points per game at home. Only the Patriots and Packers have outscored opposing teams by a larger average margin on their home field.
The Ravens have been good on the road too, but they outscore their opponents by only 0.4 points per game there. The resulting estimate is that home-field advantage has been worth about 3.7 points per game to the Ravens during the Harbaugh era, which is the third-largest advantage in football over that time frame behind the Packers and Seahawks.
At the same time, the Ravens admittedly have not done all that well at home in the postseason. They are just 3-3 at home in the playoffs, including a 23-17 loss to the Chargers last season in which they were down for virtually the entire contest. They’ve actually done better on the road, going 10-6, although I chalk most of this up to a small sample. Harbaugh has been on the road for 12 of his 15 AFC playoff games as a coach. There’s a decent chance he’ll get two more to add to his résumé come winter.
An updated draft order from Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:
The Giants are keeping the pressure on.
But so far, the Bengals have found one lead they’re able to hang onto.
If the season ended today, the Bengals (1-12) would still hold the top spot in next year’s selection order. Also, a lot of people would be saying: “Why did the NFL season end the Tuesday after Week 14?”
The Giants have lost nine in a row to stay solidly in the second spot at 2-11, followed by Washington (3-10) and Miami (3-10).
The Lions moved up to the fifth spot this week and the Cardinals to the sixth, with both of them carrying a six-game losing streak and a 3-9-1 record.
The Jaguars aren’t far behind, seventh in the order at 4-9 with a five-game losing streak.
The top 10 is rounded out by the Falcons (4-9), Jets (5-8), and Chargers (5-8), with those three feeling good about their one-game win streaks.
It’s worth noting that the Eagles would pick 13th in the hypothetical order based on current standings. They’re also tied for the NFC East lead.