The Daily Briefing Tuesday, December 26, 2017

AROUND THE NFL 

Before we look at the playoff picture, we want to note that the AFC-NFC season series ended with Philadelphia’s win over the Raiders – and it was a bloodbath for the NFC.

Of the 64 games played between the conferences this year, the NFC won 41 and lost 23.  That’s 64%.

It sort of comes out the blue because the AFC actually won last year’s series 35-29 and the conferences were tied over the course of the last three years.

Since the start of the 64-game series in 2002, it is the best season ever for the NFC.  It is the 2nd-most lopsided series ever, exceeded only by the AFC’s 44-20 win in 2004.

The NFC won all four of the divisional matchups, with the most lopsided being the NFC West’s 12-4 win over the AFC South.  The NFC South beat the AFC East, 10-6, and the NFC North had a 10-6 edge over the AFC North.  The closest completion was the NFC East’s 9-7 edge over the AFC West. 

As a result, the NFC playoff line is likely to be at 10-6 while 9-7 will get at least one team into the AFC postseason.

So with that in mind, let’s check the playoff standings, courtesy of Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com:

The Philadelphia Eagles clinched home-field advantage late on Christmas night, but it should   be the rest of the NFC that’s celebrating. Visions of Super Bowl glory will be dancing throughout the playoff bracket with such a vulnerable No. 1 seed at the top.

The Eagles are capable of playing better than they have in narrow victories over the Giants and Raiders over the last two weeks, but no Wild Card Round victor should fear a January trip to Philadelphia. The Eagles finished with only 216 yards of offense against the Raiders, and quarterback Nick Foles has only one more dress rehearsal as Carson Wentz’s fill-in before stepping way up in class in the playoffs.

1) Philadelphia Eagles (13-2): At least the slumping Eagles defense delivered on Christmas night. While the cornerback group remains vulnerable, the Eagles’ front seven will have to dominate to win any home playoff game. As ugly as the last two weeks have looked, it’s notable that the Eagles have still found a way to win with Nick Foles behind center. (The fourth-quarter comeback against the Rams after Carson Wentz left with his season-ending ACL injury also looms large.)

2) Minnesota Vikings (12-3): Minnesota’s 16-0 victory over the Packers put the team one step closer to a first-round bye and a home Divisional Round game. A win over the Bears on Sunday clinches the bye, although the Vikings can also back into the bye if the Saints win or the Panthers lose or the Rams win. (So it’s happening.)

3) Los Angeles Rams (11-4): The Rams have little to play for this week. They will host a Wild Card Weekend game as the No. 3 or No. 4 seed, with no chance at a bye. That could mean McVay rests some starters against the 49ers, especially MVP candidate running back Todd Gurley. This Rams squad, which finished 7-1 on the road, has the defense and special teams that can travel in the playoffs. I believe the Rams have the best overall team of any NFC squad, and it will be fascinating to see how their young players (and coach) handle this opportunity.

4) New Orleans Saints (11-4): Sunday’s comprehensive takedown of the Falcons kept the Saints in control of the NFC South and clinched a playoff berth. A win over the Bucs on Sunday (or a loss by the Panthers) clinches the division for the Saints. New Orleans can’t earn a playoff bye.

5) Carolina Panthers (11-4): Carolina’s late comeback against the Bucs clinched a playoff berth for the Panthers and sets up a compelling visit to Atlanta in Week 17. The Panthers could climb as high as the No. 2 seed with a win and (unlikely) losses by the Vikings, Saints and Rams. (Don’t ask why the Rams matter in this scenario, but they do.) The Panthers are more likely to be a wild-card team because a Saints win in Tampa clinches the NFC South for New Orleans. The Panthers’ recent formula of “just enough” has resulted in seven wins out of eight tries, but that will likely only get them a road game on Wild Card Weekend.

6) Atlanta Falcons (9-6): How many times do I need to watch the Falcons not have it this season to realize they don’t have it? Atlanta’s desultory loss in New Orleans sets up a simple Week 17 scenario. Beat the Panthers at home and the Falcons are in as the NFC’s six seed. Lose the game and the Falcons still make the playoffs as the No. 6 seed — if the Seahawks stumble against the Cardinals.

7) Seattle Seahawks (9-6): It’s a surprise they still have a chance. After the team’s 42-7 loss to the Rams, the Zombie Seahawks showed some championship fight in Dallas. Seattle needs to beat Arizona in Week 17 and watch the Falcons crumble at home to Carolina, two outcomes that sound too plausible to actually happen in this implausible, upside-down season.

And now the AFC:

Both wild-card spots remain open in the AFC heading into Week 17, with a potential playoff appearance meaning something different for each of the four teams fighting for two slots.

The Ravens have the clearest path and the most reason for confidence, with five wins in six games and a history under this coaching staff for peaking in the playoffs. The Chargers are trying to win fans in a new city and give Philip Rivers only his second playoff appearance this decade. The Bills are trying to end that streak, while the Titans are trying to end the type of late-season slide that often gets a coach fired.

Here’s a look at how the AFC stacks up after Week 16 — and a preview of what’s ahead:

1) New England Patriots (12-3): Before Jimmy Garoppolo tortures greedy, second-guessing Patriots fans for the next decade, he delivered a Christmas Eve gift in the form of a playoff bye. Jacksonville’s loss to Jimmy GQ’s 49ers clinched the Patriots’ eighth straight bye into the Divisional Round. Of all the insane Belichick-Brady era stats, this run of regular-season dominance stands out as the least likely to ever be matched.

A win over Bryce Petty’s Jets this week or a Steelers loss would clinch home-field advantage   for the Patriots, an edge that does not make this team look unbeatable.

2) Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3): Christmas came early for the Steelers when the Jaguars slipped up in Santa Clara. That allowed Pittsburgh to secure a bye in the playoffs with a blowout win over the Texans on Christmas, a performance that should help the organization move past its bitter loss to the Patriots.

Claiming the No. 1 seed remains possible, if unlikely. The Steelers and Patriots both play at 1   p.m. ET in Week 17, so the Steelers should be playing all-out against the winless Browns, just in case the Patriots stumble.

3) Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5): The upstart Jaguars were in no mood to celebrate their AFC South title after an embarrassing performance in Santa Clara. That speaks to the raised expectations for a team that started to see itself — and talk about itself — as a Super Bowl contender over the last month.

Pittsburgh’s win over Houston on Christmas spiked the Jaguars’ chances for a bye, so technically Jacksonville has little to play for in the finale at Tennessee. I’d still be stunned if coach Doug Marrone didn’t go all out to avoid a season sweep to the Titans. Blake Bortles lost his mojo in Santa Clara, the defense lost its air of dominance and the entire team lost its composure. These Jags need to reset before the franchise’s biggest game in a decade.

4) Kansas City Chiefs (9-6): The Chiefs won the AFC West on Sunday, which inspired two reactions. 1) That’s not enough. 2) Can Mahomes play in Week 17?

The Chiefs are locked into the No. 4 seed, having outscored opponents 85-41 over the last three weeks. Their reward could be a difficult Wild Card Weekend opponent. …

5) Baltimore Ravens (9-6): Don’t underestimate what a playoff appearance means to a proud Ravens franchise and coach John Harbaugh’s staff. One more win in Week 17 against the Bengals puts Baltimore back in the tournament for the first time since blowing a two-touchdown lead in Foxborough to the eventual champion Patriots three seasons ago. (The Ravens could also back into the playoffs if the Titans or Bills lose in Week 17.)

6) Tennessee Titans (8-7): The Titans weren’t taken that seriously at 8-4. Now 8-7, they wish the season ended today because it would be the easiest way to save their playoff hopes.

The Titans will make the playoffs with a win over the Jaguars or with Week 17 defeats from the Chargers and Bills.

7) Los Angeles Chargers (8-7): This is where the scenarios get a little complicated. By virtue of their underwhelming win against the Jets, the Chargers are still very much alive in the playoff race, with a home game against Oakland coming on Sunday. But the Chargers need some help.

A win over the Raiders combined with a Titans loss to Jacksonville and a Ravens win over the Bengals would vault the Chargers to the No. 6 seed. The Bolts could also sneak in with a win if the Titans and Bills both lose. In short: A Titans win knocks the Chargers out of the playoffs and the Chargers are in good shape if Tennessee blows it.

8) Buffalo Bills (8-7): Of the four wild-card contenders, the Bills are the longest shot to make the playoffs. But just competing for a postseason nod in Week 17 qualifies as progress for an overachieving team with a first-year head coach.

After Buffalo’s loss in Foxborough on Sunday, the Bills have two clear paths to the playoffs. Coach Sean McDermott’s squad needs to win in Miami this week and hope the Ravens lose or the Bills need to combine a win with losses from the Titans and Chargers. Buffalo does not have the makeup of a team that could be dangerous in the playoffs, but just getting to the tournament would be massive in order to end those endless playoff-drought graphics.

We’re not sure how this all played out contractually, but NBC and the NFL opted not to show the nation something like Jacksonville at Tennessee to end the regular season.  Jim Reineking at USA TODAY:

The NFL has finalized its schedule for Week 17, and in a surprise it will not include a Sunday   night game.

Instead, the Cincinnati Bengals-Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills-Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars-Tennessee Titans games were moved from the 1 p.m. ET time slot to 4:25 p.m. ET. All games still will be broadcast on CBS. The Carolina Panthers-Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints-Tampa Bay Buccaneers games were moved from 1 p.m. ET to 4:25 p.m. ET, and will remain on FOX.

Also surprising is that NBC will not have an NFL game to broadcast in Week 17.

“We felt that both from a competitive standpoint and from a fan perspective, the most fair thing to do is to schedule all Week 17 games in either the 1 p.m. or 4:25 p.m. ET windows,” NFL senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz said in a league release. “This ensures that we do not have a matchup on Sunday Night Football on New Year’s Eve that because of earlier results has no playoff implications for one or both of the competing teams.”

This a break from tradition, as the league has typically placed a game with major playoff implications into the Sunday night prime-time TV slot. Going back to the 2003 season — when the league stopped doing Monday night games during the final regular-season week — every season had concluded with a Sunday night game.

Also, this will be the first time since 1977 that the NFL regular season won’t end with a prime-time TV game. From 1978-2002, the NFL regular season concluded with a Monday Night Football game, and then a Sunday Night Football game from 2003-2016.

The NFC South is the only division title that still has to be decided. A Saints win against the Buccaneers clinches New Orleans its first division title since 2011. A Saints loss and Panthers win earns Carolina — which already has earned a playoff berth — a division crown. The Panthers’ Week 17 opponent, the Falcons, need a win or Seattle Seahawks loss to clinch a playoff berth.

The Bills are trying to end the NFL’s longest playoff drought and make their first postseason appearance since 1999.

In 2006, Week 17 landed on Sunday, Dec. 31. That year, the Chicago Bears hosted the Green Bay Packers for a Sunday night game.

Now, had they held the Titans for Sunday night, Tennessee would have been very, very likely to play a win or in game.  The only was it wouldn’t have been so is if Buffalo, Baltimore and the Chargers – all motivated favorites in Week 17 against unmotivated opponents – had each lost.  So we suspect, the NFL anticipated a horrible rating for a New Year’s Eve game between two teams with the lowest public pulse in the NFL and scratched the deal.  Interestingly, there are not any college bowl games on Sunday night, so New Year’s Eve will be dark for football for the first time in recent memory.

– – –

So 15 teams have a chance to hoist Lombardi, and as Andrew Siciliano has pointed out at least 8 of the 12 teams in the final field will be new.  The Patriots, Steelers and Chiefs in the AFC have survived from last year.  The NFC is all new this year except for Atlanta or Seattle taking the final spot.

Here are some preseason odds from early September from VegasInsider.com.  We have boldfaced the teams that are still in the running, teams with byes in red, likely division champs in blue:

1 – New England Patriots (13/4)

2 – Seattle Seahawks (8/1)

3 – Green Bay Packers (10/1)

     Pittsburgh Steelers (10/1)

5 – Atlanta Falcons (12/1)

     Dallas Cowboys (12/1

7 – New York Giants (12/1

8 – Oakland Raiders (14/1)

9 – Houston Texans (20/1)

10 – Kansas City Chiefs (22/1)

11 – Denver Broncos (25/1)

12 – Arizona Cardinals (28/1)

       Carolina Panthers (28/1)

       Minnesota Vikings (28/1)

15 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (33/1)

       Tennessee Titans (33/1)

17 – New Orleans Saints (40/1)

       Philadelphia Eagles (40/1)

19 – Baltimore Ravens (50/1)

       Cincinnati Bengals (50/1)

       Indianapolis Colts (50/1)

22 – Detroit Lions (66/1)

       Jacksonville Jaguars (66/1)

       Los Angeles Chargers (66/1)

       Miami Dolphins (66/1)

       Washington Redskins (66/1)

27 – Buffalo Bills (100/1)

28 – Los Angeles Rams (150/1)

29 – Chicago Bears (200/1)

30 – Cleveland Browns (250/1)

       New York Jets (250/1)

       San Francisco 49ers (250/1)

 

So no one who is a NFC division winner was less than Minnesota’s 28-1 (could also be Panthers).

The longest preseason odds for a Super Bowl winner since 2001 were the Patriots at 60-1 in that season (the ones that won the Spygate title over the St. Louis Rams).    Second longest were the 2007 Giants at 30-1. 

We found these current SB odds at BoydsBets.com, although since the Cowboys and Lions (now deleted) were on them, we think they predate Week 17:

Team                 Current Odds          

Patriots                  +240                           

Steelers                 +600                           

Vikings                   +700         

Saints                    +900                            

Eagles                   +900                           

Rams                  +1000         

Falcons               +1400         

Jaguars               +1400         

Panthers              +1800         

Chiefs                  +1800         

Ravens                 +3300        

Seahawks            +5000        

Chargers              +6600        

Titans                 +10000        

Bills                     +10000        

NFC EAST

 

DALLAS

It sounds like a vote of confidence for Jason Garrett.  Nick Shook of NFL.com:

Jason Garrett has served as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys for seven seasons. After his team was eliminated Sunday, he’s made the playoffs just twice in that span.

For a franchise accustomed to competing, that might not be enough. Owner Jerry Jones isn’t letting the moment of defeat cloud his judgment, though.

“Just so we’re clear about it, I do understand frustration right after you lose a game that has as much meaningfulness as this ballgame, but I get to look at a lot of different things and have been around a lot of head coaches and coordinators,” Jones said, via ESPN. “I feel good about our head coach.”

Jones has plenty of experience with Garrett, watching his team’s former backup quarterback during its Super Bowl run of the 1990s become its offensive coordinator less than a decade later. After the ousting of Wade Phillips, he assumed the top role, a position he’s held since taking over in the middle of the 2010 season. In that span, he’s posted a 66-53 record including 13-3 and 12-4 seasons, but is suddenly heading toward his fourth 8-8 finish with a Week 17 loss.

This season has not been without challenge. Dallas was forced to play without star running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games due to his suspension, and also showed the effects of a shuffling of starters on the offensive line and a handful of injuries among the position group. Quarterback Dak Prescott has also endured second-year struggles that have made some start to forget about his scintillating rookie campaign. Simply, things have been better in Dallas.

Then again, the Cowboys are nowhere near disaster. Yes, Garrett has made the playoffs just twice, but this team was not without fault, featuring multiple holes that were covered up by the play of Prescott, Elliott and a league-best offensive line in 2016. Those weaknesses — and perhaps a new one in Dallas’ receiving corps — came to light in 2017.

Even then, Dallas reeled off three straight wins and looked much like the team it was in 2016 before Week 16’s loss.

“I’m excited about our future with Dak at quarterback, extremely excited about our future,” Jones said. “There’s no qualms, no issues if you’re talking about anyplace else relative to anything to do with the coaching, within certain boundaries, but specifically at the top. We’ve just got to get it done better.”

There’s also value in having an established head coach who also understands what it’s like to work under Jones — who is far from your typical owner — as part of the Cowboys. If anyone would know that life, it’s Garrett. It’s probably going to take slightly more than another 8-8 season to unseat him as head coach.

PHILADELPHIA

If you stayed awake to the bitter end, you saw a wild ending to the Raiders-Eagles game that decided millions in bets when all seemed decided.  Daniel Rapaport of SI.com explains:

The Eagles-Raiders game gave some bettors a late Christmas gift.

The Eagles entered the game as 10-point favorite at most books, but some people had them at -8.5, some at -9 and surely some had -9.5. Lines constantly shift.

Anyways, a Jake Eliot field goal gave the Eagles a 13-10 lead with :27 seconds left. The Raiders sputtered on their first few plays then tried one of those lateral deals, but they lost the ball and the Eagles returned it for a touchdown.

That set the stage for an absolutely terrible beat for those who took Raiders +10 and sealed an absolutely terrible cover for those who had Raiders +8.5. And if the Eagles simply kick that extra point, the people who had +9.5 take a brutal loss and the +10 bettors have to swallow a push instead of a comfortable cover.

But in a Christmas miracle (for some), Eagles coach Doug Pederson elected to take a knee, so the final score read 19-10. That means those who had the Raiders +10 or +9.5 did, in fact, cover. And if you’re an Eagles fan whose salty about that kneel down, you’re greedy and did not deserve that push at all in the first place.

Additionally, as the vast majority of fantasy leagues had their championships this week, there are certainly more than a few leagues whose finals were flipped by that late touchdown by the Eagles defense.

This isn’t the first time something like this happened this season. In Week 4, the Chiefs took a Redskins lateral play back for a touchdown to cover the spread and bring the game’s point total past the over/under.

This is why you continue to watch football even after a game is decided. That is, if you’re a gambler or fantasy football player.

– – –

The Eagles look to be a very soft top seed in the NFC says Peter King:

Philadelphia clinched home-field advantage in the NFC last night with some sort of Christmas miracle, the 19-10 high-wire win over Oakland. But it’s hard to think of a win that felt more like a loss for Philadelphia than this game. I haven’t seen the kind of inept offensive play I saw in this game since, well, since the Texans earlier on Monday. Or since the Giants on Sunday. Suffice to say, the Eagles are in big trouble. This is relatively impossible to fathom, but Philadelphia gained 37 yards in the second half and outscored the Raiders by nine points. This is because Oakland, in eight possessions in the last 20 minutes of the game, went interception-fumble-punt-missed field goal-fumble-punt-interception-fumble. I didn’t think it was likely for Jack Del Rio to get fired this winter … until about 11 p.m. Eastern Monday.

I can imagine all the Eagles in the locker room post-game. A win’s a win. And We clinched home-field in the NFC—there’s 15 other teams that wish they could say that. And We’ve got all the confidence in the world in Nick Foles. They’re deluding themselves. Even with home-field advantage through the playoffs, the Eagles are going to have to make some plays on offense against three very good teams. Can they make enough positive plays on offense to win even one of those games against a team with the defensive talent of New Orleans or Carolina, one of which is the likely divisional-round foe on Jan. 13 or 14; or then in a possible championship match against the Rams or Vikings; or then in the Super Bowl? Hard to imagine.

You don’t want to overstate the importance of one game. But Foles threw far better sideways than any other way Monday, and he piloted one drive of more than 14 yards in his last nine possessions against a team with a porous secondary in a major swoon entering the game. He was inaccurate, continued to have trouble finding top receiver Alshon Jeffery (two targets, zero catches) and inspired zero hope that when the games matter he’ll be able to flip some switch and respond like a playoff quarterback should. Foles now has a five-point win over the moribund Giants and an all-time lucky win over the disorganized (that’s putting it nicely) Raiders. The next game he has that means something is nearly three weeks away. The Eagles’ staff has a lot of work to do to find some way that Foles can perform competently to win a playoff game.

NFC WEST

SAN FRANCISCO

Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com on the giddy feeling in San Francisco as the 49ers continue to roll up the wins against the AFC South.

In September, 49ers GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, knowing they had a massive rebuild ahead of them, did what they could to keep their young team positive, so they made an effort to applaud the little victories along the way. Less than four months later, after San Francisco’s 25–23 win over Tennessee in Week 15, it was the quarterback who wasn’t there for that, Jimmy Garoppolo, illustrating just how far the team had come—not to mention where he might be capable of taking them.

This was the Niners’ third straight victory after a 1–10 start, and yet Garoppolo was resigned to leave Lynch with this after beating the Titans: “We can be so much better.”

“He’s got that New England in him, and that’s what I noticed when I was in New England for a short time,” says Lynch, polishing off a Bud Light after the Niners took out another contender in the Jaguars on Sunday. “It’s not that they don’t celebrate and appreciate the wins, but they always look at what they could’ve done better. He really has that down. And that’s contagious in my mind, particularly when you play that position.

“It’s made a really young football team, with a bunch of rookies playing, take that perspective.   Kyle [Shanahan] does a great job with that anyway, but you get special in this league, when not only your coaches are doing it, but it’s coming from the players Jimmy really has a great grasp of that. I’m sure tomorrow—Christmas—he’ll be looking at things we could’ve done better against Jacksonville. That’s something you might’ve expected but to see its influence on a team has been special and cool.”

It’s important to remember and emphasize here—the Niners are still 5–10, after a 44–33 win against the Jaguars on Christmas Eve, and with their season ending next week, Lynch and Shanahan still have plenty of work to do when it comes to building the roster up to the level of a potential contender.

But as we wrap up the second-to-last Sunday of the regular season … Man, it’s tough not to get swept away in what the future might hold in San Francisco. The 2017 season has seen quite a bit of change, which we’ll see on display in the playoffs in a couple of weeks. The Rams won their division and have the inside track for the NFC’s No. 3 seed. The Saints are leaning on their defense, to ridiculous results. The Jaguars are winners of the AFC South.

Yet, there are few things out there more intriguing than Tom Brady’s understudy, his 38-year-old head coach and their non-traditional GM somehow, and very suddenly, turning the NFL on its ear in Week 16. Remember, Garoppolo sat for four weeks before becoming the starter. Since then? The Niners are 4–0, and Garoppolo’s passer rating is hovering near 100.

“The verbiage, all of that, it took some time,” Lynch says. “But the poise, the way the guys respond to him, it became obvious. I think the best compliment you can make to a player and to a leader—do you make people around you better? And it was very obvious from Day 1, he makes everybody better. I mean, he makes our crowd better. This place has been juiced ever since he got here. It’s sure fun right now.”

– – –

Both the Niners and Rams (a combined 6–26 last year) boast a 4–1 record since Thanksgiving, and the idea that Garoppolo’s crew could mess with Los Angeles’ seeding and send their rivals into the playoffs on a sour note isn’t exactly far-fetched. That’s mainly because there are these things that keep happening with the Niners that make you forget what a mess they’ve been the last few years.

One of those was Garoppolo’s last touchdown pass Sunday—a five-yarder he flicked sidearm around oncoming Jaguar corner Aaron Colvin, and against his body while rolling left, into the belly of waiting receiver Trent Taylor—to put the game away.

“He’s made a lot of those,” Lynch says. “Even that first game against Seattle, he went to his left and, at first, you’re going, ‘My gosh, is that a smart throw?’ But he’s extremely confident, and he gets it in small windows because he can. It gets it out so quick, and he’s highly accurate even when he’s rolling both to the right and the left. And he’s a really good foot athlete, so he can escape.”

In a larger sense, he’s quite literally breathing life into a Niner franchise that was progressing under Lynch and Shanahan but could use the jolt.

“This place is coming to life again, man,” Lynch continued. “It’s really fun. A couple weeks ago, I’m not a big Twitter guy, but I was tweeting like I never have, because I just want this young team to feel like this is what happens when you play well.”

– – –

Peter King:

The 49ers have been seeking a franchise quarterback since concussions forced Steve Young to retire in 2000. For the bargain-basement price of a second-round draft choice (which gets later in the round every week), they’ve almost certainly found him. In a month, Garoppolo—unless he’s a Hollywood matinee idol mirage—has become the long-lost solution. Signs were everywhere in the 44-33 stunner over Jacksonville’s strong defense, led by the 10-play, 79-yard, easy-as-pie drive to open the game. Garoppolo’s six scoring drives out of 10 possessions (not counting the halftime kneeldown), including three late ones when the Jags made it a game, showed his command of an offense that’s still new to him. Think of it: Garoppolo was traded eight weeks ago today, and if you watched on Sunday, you’d have thought he’d been in the Kyle Shanahan offense for four years. It wasn’t the 21-of-30, 242-yard, two-touchdown, one-pick, 102.4-rating performance that was eye-opening, or the 44 points on a top-five defense. It was the command, the grasp of the offense, the confidence.

We will never know how much of Garoppolo’s command and leadership is innate and how much came from being a sponge around TOM BRADY.  Or in other words, if Garoppolo had been drafted by (pick a team – say Tampa Bay or Miami or a dozen others) where he had to forge his own identity amidst lesser rivals, would we see the same Garoppolo in 2017 that we see now post-Brady.

Brady has noticed the accomplishments of his former fill-in:

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been impressed with his former understudy, Jimmy Garoppolo, who has posted a 4-0 record in his first four starts with the San Francisco 49ers.

“He’s done a great job. You go in there and get the opportunity to play and win games, that’s what we’re all here for,” Brady said in his weekly interview on sports radio WEEI. “It was good to see, and good for them to beat Jacksonville [on Sunday]. That certainly helped us. I’m really happy for Jimmy. He’s worked really hard and it shows up when he goes out there and plays really well.”

The 49ers’ win over the Jaguars helped the Patriots clinch a first-round playoff bye. Brady said he keeps in touch with Garoppolo — “just words of encouragement and so forth” — and that the two will “always have a great relationship.”

Asked how Garoppolo’s success reflects on the Patriots, Brady said: “I think it’s really a credit to him. You do what you can with the opportunities you get. I think it’s great for any player and anyone who has been in the Patriots’ system to watch how the coaches prepare the players. There is obviously a high standard and high expectations for us any time you take the field.

“Any time you’re in a winning environment that definitely helps and I think guys really enjoy that. You take what you can and try to use it in other places if that’s where you go. Like I said, I think what they’re doing is a credit to them. I don’t think anyone should take credit for what those guys have accomplished.”

Brady was then asked a hypothetical question by host John Dennis on if he ever considered the possibility of him being traded to the 49ers instead of Garoppolo.

Brady said he didn’t consider those scenarios, adding, “I’m here with the Patriots and I love playing for this team, and playing for Mr. Kraft and Jonathan and playing for Coach Belichick and all the other coaches and all the great players. I think I’ve had it pretty good.”

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Two weeks ago, Steelers WR ANTONIO BROWN was the hot choice for MVP as opinionmakers looked for a reason not to give the award yet again to TOM BRADY.

 Then Brown got hurt, TODD GURLEY II got hot and now the Rams RB is the It Guy. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

With various MVP candidates getting injured or seeing their performances slip late in the year, one guy is making a strong case for consideration. Other than Tom Brady.

According to the NFL, Rams running back Todd Gurley‘s 276 yards from scrimmage on Sunday in a division-clinching win in Nashville made him only the third player in league history to have at least 100 rushing yards and at least 150 receiving yards in a single game. The others were Ollie Matson in 1954 and Herschel Walker in 1986.

Gurley also becomes the third player in league history to generate 2,000 yards from scrimmage, at least 10 rushing touchdowns, and at least five touchdown receptions in the same season. The others were O.J. Simpson in 1975 and Marshall Faulk, in both 2000 and 2001.

It may not be enough to overcome Brady, especially if the Patriots nail down the No. 1 seed. And Gurley seemed to acknowledge the long-shot nature of his candidacy earlier in the week.

“I guess they talked about me, because Carson [Wentz] got hurt and then [Antonio Brown] got hurt,” Gurley told reporters. “But I don’t really see how you can take a guy out of the MVP like ‘AB.’ Like two games are not going to make a difference. You take Carson out and like what are three games going to do? It’s cool to get the recognition, but it is what it is. Running backs don’t usually win the award unless you mess your leg up and rush for 2,000 yards the next year, you don’t really have a choice but to give it to a beast like [Adrian Peterson in 2012]. So I’m just going to keep playing hard and finish the season strong, honestly.”

Honestly, his strong finish could be all the difference in the world. Even if he doesn’t win it, Gurley has emerged the most viable alternative to #Tommy.

But not to Peter King who huffs and puffs about it being a season-long award:

I appreciate the greatness of Todd Gurley and the value of Todd Gurley. But he’s not the Most Valuable of the NFL in 2017. This is a 17-week, 16-game award. Games in October and November mean almost the same as games in December—unless a candidate carries his team to a division title or a playoff berth on his shoulders and is the overarching dominant factor in his team’s rise to power. Gurley, in the past two weeks, has been beyond superb, with 456 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in huge wins at Seattle and Tennessee.

Gurley leads the NFL in scrimmage yards and has a lead of 13 yards over Le’Veon Bell and 14 over Kareem Hunt in the NFL rushing race with a game to play. On his team: the NFL’s fifth-rated quarterback, Jared Goff, and a strong candidate for defensive player of the year, tackle Aaron Donald. So Gurley has had significant help.

On the season’s middle eight games, in the two months beginning Oct. 8, Gurley totaled 906 rushing/receiving yards and four touchdowns, and the Rams went 6-2. Very nice numbers. Not stunning numbers.

The MVP would most often be a quarterback anyway, because he touches the ball on every offensive snap and theoretically is every team’s most significant player, for better or worse. I believe other players can and should win it; I voted for Adrian Peterson in 2012.

But this year, with a week to play, the MVP on my ballot is Tom Brady. Playing without his top   target (Julian Edelman), playing while his team’s defense was being fixed on the fly, playing while taking a consistent beating, and playing at age 40 (that doesn’t matter, but it’s a part of his story), Brady has struggled some in December (four TDs, five interceptions). But he’s still 3-1 this month. And in the Patriots’ 9-2 start, his TD-to-pick ratio was 26-to-3. I think Gurley has been an eye-opening phenom on the Rams’ recent run to a surprising division title. He’s a great player. Brady’s a more valuable player to his team, and in the league.

The AP asks for 50 voters in the media to vote for one candidate. But if we voted 1-2-3, here’s the way I’d have the field with one week to play:

Brady.

Russell Wilson.

Gurley.

– – –

This from King on his Coach of the Week, Wade Phillips:

The amazing run of an amazing 70-year-old coach continues. With the Rams on the way to the playoffs for the first time since 2004, Phillips now has compiled a ridiculous streak of success. No one hits the ground running like Phillips. In his first season on the staffs of the 1989 Broncos, the 1995 Bills, the 2002 Falcons, the 2004 Chargers, the 2007 Cowboys, the 2011 Texans, the 2015 Broncos and the 2017 Rams, those teams made the playoffs. Even though this Rams defense has bent, it hasn’t broken, and the fact that they’re 11-4 and have clinched the division with a week to play … well, Phillips has turned out to be a smart hire (a fairly obvious one, but smart nonetheless) by egoless Rams coach Sean McVay.

SEATTLE

S EARL THOMAS isn’t talking retirement, but he’s not talking staying in Seattle either.  Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com

Is Earl Thomas eyeing an Emerald City exit?

Following Seattle’s season-saving victory over the Dallas Cowboys, the Seahawks safety attempted to enter the Cowboys locker room and told Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, “If y’all have the chance, come get me.”

Thomas clarified the intentions of his visit to reporters soon after.

“I’ve always been a Cowboys fan growing up. The biggest thing when I said ‘come get me,’ I didn’t literally mean, ‘come get me now,'” Thomas explained to reporters. “I’m still in the prime of my career, I still want to be here. But when Seattle kicks me to the curb, please, the Cowboys, come get me. You know? This is the place where I want to be when they kick me to the curb. So that’s what I meant by. People take me too serious. That’s just who I am.”

Thomas has one year left on a five-year deal in Seattle and is owed around $10.4 million next season. If released, Thomas would cost Seattle only $1.9 million in dead salary-cap money, according to Spotrac.

Thomas added that if Seattle were to offer him a contract extension after the season, that “would be a great Christmas present.” If he doesn’t get an extension? “Then, [Cowboys], please come get me.”

For what it’s worth, Thomas added that he is “happy” in Seattle and loves being there. It should be noted that Thomas is a Texas native and made a BCS title game with the Texas Longhorns.

The safety’s provocative postgame comments are significant, considering his recent spat with Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner. Thomas criticized Wagner after last week’s blowout loss to the Los Angeles Rams for attempting to play on an injured hamstring. Wagner responded with a soon-deleted tweet: “E keep my name out yo mouth. Stop being jealous of other people (sic) success. I still hope you keep balling bro.”

Thomas isn’t the only Legion of Boomer with a critical contract situation. Injured cornerback Richard Sherman’s pact also ends following the 2018 season; he is owed over $13 million. The same goes for injured defensive end Cliff Avril, who’s owed $8 million. Wagner is signed through 2019 and Michael Bennett and Kam Chancellor are under contract through 2020, but according to NFL Network’s Michael Silver, none of the above five players, except Wagner, are expected to be on the team in 2018; Chancellor might be forced to retire due to his neck injury.

This isn’t the first time Thomas has been open and honest about his future in the middle of the season. Following his devastating leg injury last season, he tweeted that he was considering retirement.

Seattle still has an opportunity to make the postseason. A win next week and a Falcons loss would secure the Seahawks the sixth seed in the playoffs. Seattle’s immediate future is not in its control. Thomas feels the same way.

“I don’t want to get too deep into it, but it’s a business,” Thomas concluded, “and we have some great young guys coming in and you never know.”

AFC WEST

DENVER

Look for some QB PAXTON LYNCH this week says Darin Gantt of ProFootballTalk.com:

The Broncos don’t have anything else to play for this week, so they really want to get a look at Paxton Lynch.

He practiced last week as he recovered from a high-ankle sprain, but wasn’t deemed ready to start to they rolled Brock Osweiler out there one more time.

But Broncos coach Vance Joseph made it clear the hope was to see Lynch.

“Our goal is to see him play, so absolutely,” Joseph said, via the team’s official website. “If he’s ready to go next week, he will probably play for us.”

Lynch was still limited in practice last week, and that likely led to the decision to wait. He was a full participant in Friday’s practice.

The 2016 first-round has appeared in four games in his career, and has thrown 97 professional passes. While one more meaningless game against the Chiefs shouldn’t weigh too heavily in their evaluation, they need more tape on Lynch before they embark on an offseason in which will doubtless include a search for a starting quarterback.

KANSAS CITY

Andy Reid’s best move as head coach of the Chiefs in 2017 may have been to fire play-caller Andy Reid.  Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com with the numbers:

Heading into December, the Chiefs’ offense was in a tailspin and coach Andy Reid decided to hand play calling to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. The results have been impressive.

In the four games before Reid gave up play calling, the Chiefs were 1-3 and had averaged 16 points a game and 300 yards a game. In the four games since Reid gave up play calling, the Chiefs are 3-1 and have averaged 29 points a game and 421 yards a game.

Alex Smith has been a major beneficiary of Nagy’s play calling. In the four games before the switch, Smith had a passer rating of 78.7 and there was talk of the Chiefs benching Smith for Patrick Mahomes. Since the switch, Smith has a passer rating of 105.3, and no one is talking about benching him.

And rookie running back Kareem Hunt may have been an even bigger beneficiary of Nagy taking over the offense. After a hot start, Hunt had started to disappear in the middle of the season, with 60 carries for 173 yards, 11 catches for 59 yards, and zero total touchdowns in the four games before Nagy took the reins of the offense. In the four games since Nagy has started calling plays, Hunt has 87 carries for 402 yards and three touchdowns, plus 17 catches for 111 yards and a receiving touchdown.

The Chiefs have now clinched the AFC West and can rest their starters in Week 17 before a home playoff game in the wild card round. They’re in great shape heading into the postseason, thanks in large part to Reid’s wise decision to take a step back.

AFC NORTH

PITTSBURGH

DE JAMES HARRISON found himself unwanted this Christmas.  Jeremy Bergman at NFL.com:

The Pittsburgh Steelers have moved on from James Harrison.

The two-time All-Pro linebacker and franchise sack leader was released on Saturday, making way for tackle Marcus Gilbert. Harrison went unclaimed on waivers and became a free agent on Monday, a source informed of the situation told NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport.

After years of production in the Steel City, Harrison barely saw the field in 2017. The 39-year-old played only 40 snaps in five games, ceding starts and snaps to rookie linebacker T.J. Watt, among others. Harrison last played in Week 14 when he logged 11 snaps in Pittsburgh’s win over Baltimore. Before that, he had not played since Week 7.

Harrison’s role this season was always something of a mystery. In the offseason, Pittsburgh linebackers coach Joey Porter, who played with Harrison, said the veteran would become a “safety net” and a “relief pitcher.” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin intimated in October that Pittsburgh would use Harrison as a closer going forward, coming in at opportune intervals of close games to cause chaos. However, as the season wore on, Harrison’s appearances were fewer and farther between.

Harrison’s foray into free agency could be temporary, or it could signal an end to Harrison’s improbable career, one that might eventually live on in Canton.

If this is the end, Harrison leaves Pittsburgh with 82.5 career sacks, eight interceptions and 570 tackles. Among active players, he is eighth in sacks. His 80.5 sacks in Pittsburgh are a franchise-best. As recently as 2016, Harrison led the Steelers in season sacks (5).

THIS AND THAT

AIKMAN RATINGS

Thru Week 16

Despite their loss to the surging 49ers, the Jaguars remain atop the Aikman Combined Ratings entering the final week of the season.  Jacksonville stayed in 1st thanks to an uninspired performance by the 2nd place Eagles.  The margin is 1.5 points as the Jaguars fell 2.6 points to 169.4 while Philadelphia dropped 0.9 while surviving the Raiders.  The Vikings, still in 3rd, saw their Combined rating rise by 1.1 with their shutout win over the Packers and have closed to within 1.9 points of the top spot.

The shaky performance of the Eagles offense cost them the lead in Aikman Offense after one week on the top.  The Patriots have moved back into 1st with a healthy advantage of 3.5 points as they look for their first Aikman Offense title since 2012.

The Jaguars remain in 1st in Aikman Defense for the 10th straight week, but their lead over the 2nd-place Vikings was slashed from 6.8 points to just 1.1 (82.2 to 81.1) after Minnesota’s shutout of Green Bay was coupled with San Francisco’s 44-point torching of the Jaguars.

– – –

The Aikman Ratings were conceived based on the idea that there is a better way to measure winning and losing characteristics of offensive and defensive units than the mere compilation of yards which the NFL continues to rely on with its rankings. 

That proposition continues to be proven out this year with teams with higher Aikman Game Scores winning 84% of the time while teams that gain more yards triumph at only a 70% rate, numbers that are in line with Aikman Ratings history over 13 seasons.

Week 16 was a particularly dramatic illustration as teams that gained more yards went only 9-7.  Six of the losers fell by more than one score (Jaguars, Cowboys, Vikings, Giants, Falcons and Raiders) despite gaining more yards.  Teams with higher Aikman Games Scores were 15-1, the exception being Carolina’s narrow win over Tampa Bay where the Buccaneers had a 69.9-67.8 edge in Aikman Game Score.

– – –

We also note that after seven seasons of continued increases, the NFL average for Aikman Offense is almost certain to decline in 2017.  The 2016 season finished a record 81.9, but it has dropped off to 79.6 this season.  That is approximately the level of offense found in 2012 which ended at 79.8.

NFL scoring is at 43.7 combined points per game (21.86 points per team per game) which is off from the 45.6 combined points per game of both 2016 and ’15.  The average yards in a game has fallen to 671 from 701.

 

Aikman Combined Ratings Through Week 16, 2017

 

                                 ——— Aikman ——–      ——- NFL ——–

 Rank  Record   Team             Combined     Off      Def       Off    Def Combined

   1    10-5    Jaguars            169.4     87.1     82.2         6      3      9 

   2    13-2    Eagles             167.9     89.7     78.2         4      5      9 

   3    12-3    Vikings            167.5     86.4     81.1        10      1     11 

   4    12-3    Patriots           164.1     93.2     70.9         1     29     30 

   5    11-4    Saints             160.9     88.3     72.6         2     15     17 

   6    11-4    Rams               159.9     87.3     72.5         7     16     23 

   7     9-6    Ravens             158.2     79.8     78.4        26      9     35 

   8    12-3    Steelers           158.1     85.8     72.3         3      4      7 

   9     8-7    Chargers           157.8     80.7     77.1         8     14     22 

  10    11-4    Panthers           155.0     82.7     72.4        17      7     24 

  11     9-6    Falcons            154.8     83.9     70.9         9     10     19 

  12     9-6    Seahawks           154.1     80.3     73.8        16     13     29 

  13     9-6    Chiefs             153.9     86.6     67.3         5     28     33 

  14     8-7    Cowboys            153.3     83.6     69.7        14     11     25 

  15     5-10   Bears              151.4     76.4     74.9        30      8     38 

  16     8-7    Titans             150.5     79.7     70.8        21     17     38 

  17     8-7    Lions              147.3     79.7     67.6        13     27     40 

  18     6-9    Raiders            147.1     78.8     68.4        19.5   19     38.5

  19     8-7    Bills              145.7     77.4     68.2        29     25     54 

  20     5-10   Jets               145.6     77.0     68.6        24     24     48 

  21     7-8    Redskins           145.5     77.0     68.5        15     21     36 

  22     4-11   Buccaneers         144.3     78.1     66.2        11     31     42 

  23     7-8    Packers            143.8     80.4     63.4        25     22     47 

  24     7-8    Cardinals          142.6     70.9     71.7        22      6     28 

  25     5-10   Broncos            142.0     69.0     73.0        19.5    2     21.5

  26     5-10   49ers              141.0     76.9     64.1        12     26     38 

  27     6-9    Bengals            140.8     72.5     68.3        32     20     52 

  28     4-11   Texans             139.4     75.3     64.2        18     23     41 

  29     3-12   Colts              137.8     71.4     66.5        31     30     61 

  30     6-9    Dolphins           136.4     71.5     64.8        27.5   18     45.5

  31     2-13   Giants             134.8     70.6     64.1        23     32     55 

  32     0-15   Browns             128.5     64.8     63.7        27.5   12     39.5

 

 

Aikman Offense Ratings Through Week 16, 2017

 

  Aik     NFL     Team                 AER

   1       1      Patriots            93.2

   2       4      Eagles              89.7

   3       2      Saints              88.3

   4       7      Rams                87.3

   5       6      Jaguars             87.1

   6       5      Chiefs              86.6

   7      10      Vikings             86.4

   8       3      Steelers            85.8

   9       9      Falcons             83.9

  10      14      Cowboys             83.6

  11      17      Panthers            82.7

  12       8      Chargers            80.7

  13      25      Packers             80.4

  14      16      Seahawks            80.3

  15      26      Ravens              79.8

  16      21      Titans              79.7

  17      13      Lions               79.7

  18      19.5    Raiders             78.8

  19      11      Buccaneers          78.1

  20      29      Bills               77.4

  21      15      Redskins            77.0

  22      24      Jets                77.0

  23      12      49ers               76.9

  24      30      Bears               76.4

  25      18      Texans              75.3

  26      32      Bengals             72.5

  27      27.5    Dolphins            71.5

  28      31      Colts               71.4

  29      22      Cardinals           70.9

  30      23      Giants              70.6

  31      19.5    Broncos             69.0

  32      27.5    Browns              64.8

 

NFL Average                           79.6

 

Aikman Defense Ratings Through Week 16, 2017

 

  Aik     NFL     Team                 AER

   1       3      Jaguars             82.2

   2       1      Vikings             81.1

   3       9      Ravens              78.4

   4       5      Eagles              78.2

   5      14      Chargers            77.1

   6       8      Bears               74.9

   7      13      Seahawks            73.8

   8       2      Broncos             73.0

   9      15      Saints              72.6

  10      16      Rams                72.5

  11       7      Panthers            72.4

  12       4      Steelers            72.3

  13       6      Cardinals           71.7

  14      29      Patriots            70.9

  15      10      Falcons             70.9

  16      17      Titans              70.8

  17      11      Cowboys             69.7

  18      24      Jets                68.6

  19      21      Redskins            68.5

  20      19      Raiders             68.4

  21      20      Bengals             68.3

  22      25      Bills               68.2

  23      27      Lions               67.6

  24      28      Chiefs              67.3

  25      30      Colts               66.5

  26      31      Buccaneers          66.2

  27      18      Dolphins            64.8

  28      23      Texans              64.2

  29      32      Giants              64.1

  30      26      49ers               64.1

  31      12      Browns              63.7

  32      22      Packers             63.4

 

NFL Average                           70.4

 

Ratings Courtesy of STATS

ROSEN OUT

UCLA QB JOSH ROSEN is sitting out the Cactus Bowl – reportedly on the orders of UCLA’s doctors.  Bruce Feldman of SI.com:

UCLA star QB Josh Rosen will sit out the Bruins’ Cactus Bowl game against Kansas State Tuesday under doctor’s orders, multiple sources have told SI Saturday afternoon.

According to a UCLA source, Rosen wanted to play but the medical staff doesn’t want him to play in this game because they didn’t want him to risk having another concussion so close to the last one.

The junior quarterback has been in concussion protocol since getting injured late in the season. Rosen sustained a concussion against Washington on Oct. 28 and then sat out the following game. He was also banged up and sat out the second half of the Bruins’ regular-season finale against Cal on Nov. 24.

Rosen threw for 3,756 yards this season and had a 26–10 TD–INT ratio. He is expected to be a top-10 draft pick in the spring.

The news that Rosen is going to sit out of the bowl game was first reported by Bruin Report Online.

A source close to Rosen this weekend said the QB will not decide whether he’s leaving for the NFL draft after this season until after the bowl game.

GMs IN WAITING

Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com lets you know who is in the next wave of NFL GMs.

The Chiefs are in first place, and the Panthers have won 10 games. Both are a good bet to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, and yet the general managers who were hired at the start of that stretch spent much of this calendar year unemployed. And there’s no doubt John Dorsey and Dave Gettleman put good players on those rosters.

So where was the problem? It was the rest of the job.

Dorsey’s issue in Kansas City was co-workers felt he freelanced with some calls (paying Eric   Fisher; drafting Kevin Hogan) and dragged his feet on others (Eric Berry, Justin Houston contracts), which led to festering office politics. Meanwhile, Gettleman’s blunt, hard-nosed manner with long-time Panther employees and in contract talks created friction for his boss, and ran counter to the organization’s well-established culture.

The lesson? Simple. What’s demanded out of the guy occupying the GM’s chair goes well beyond what he can control with the clicker in a dark room.

“It can’t just be the meathead football guy,” said an NFC GM. “That doesn’t fly with ownership, it doesn’t fly with community relations, and that’s not how a lot of the younger scouts think. You have to be able to lead in a different way. … We’re doing our draft meetings now, we have ‘kids’ in there, 26, 27, 28 years old, and they’re all very different in how they think.”

Says an AFC GM of the job: “You’re really touching everything that has to do with the football   team. It’s the field, video, trainers, doctors, the players, coaches; you’re involved in football ops, travel, logistics. And yeah, you have other people who are in charge of that stuff, but they look to you for the final stamp on it. … Why is the footing on the field bad? Stuff like that, being on the road, that you’d never think of.”

This is the ninth installment of my annual future GM list, and every year we try to pluck out a trend to kick things off. This year has been a weird one in that particular job market. Eight GMs (or de facto GMs) have been fired since the last weekend of last season—in San Francisco, Indianapolis, Washington, Buffalo, Kansas City, Carolina, Cleveland and New York. Only one went down at the traditional time of immediately following Week 17.

The others: Jan. 21, March 9, April 30, June 23, July 17, Dec. 3, Dec. 7. In each case, there was some level of dysfunction in the building. In a few, it came despite the fact the team was winning and the roster was stocked. And so hiring teams will be seeking a personnel boss with this question in mind: Can the guy lead and manage people?

“This job, you can’t just watch tape all day,” said another NFC GM. “You have the equipment guy reporting to you, the video guy reporting to you, you’re managing the roster, working with the cap guy, handling the owner. There’s a difference between being a personnel director and being a GM. They’re different jobs. … And I think with Gettleman and Dorsey, it was more, ‘I just wanna watch tape.’”

So in assessing the Giants’ search, and others that pop up—there probably won’t be a ton in this cycle because there’s already been so many changes this year—remember that while picking players is important, running the show is too. Let’s jump in, beginning with the top 10, in alphabetical order…

Patriots VP of player personnel Nick Caserio: The belief is he’d be elevated whenever Bill Belichick retires. But Caserio will have opportunity again this year, and I think he’ll at least listen.

Ravens assistant GM Eric DeCosta: He has long run the draft for Ozzie Newsome and has   contractual incentives to stay. It’d take a lot to pull DeCosta away, and few believe he’d leave.

Eagles VP of player personnel Joe Douglas: Hidden in Baltimore for years, Douglas’ work is no secret anymore. And I’d bet Philly will do something to make it worth his while to stay.

Bills VP of player personnel Brian Gaine: He’s interviewed for a handful of jobs over the past couple of years, and now has his fingerprints on another rising team. And Gaine has always earned the trust of coaches.

Packers director of player personnel Brian Gutekunst: The Niners were impressed with Gutekunst last year, before he pulled his name out, and word has gotten out that he’s ready for the next step.

Seahawks co-director of player personnel Trent Kirchner: A pro-side guy, he’s worked day-to-day in a successful office, and GM John Schneider put him on the road this fall to round out his résumé.

Cowboys assistant director of player personnel Will McClay: He’s another one who is perceived to be staying no matter what—he’s trusted and treated well by the Joneses—but is well worth making a run.

Cardinals VP of player personnel Terry McDonough: He’s got very strong and loyal advocates, helped turn around Arizona, and was a finalist for the Niner job, along with George Paton, last January.

Vikings assistant GM George Paton: Probably the premier name on this year’s list. He’s been interviewed for jobs the past few years, and a well-rounded Viking roster is crushing it on the field.

Packers director of football operations Eliot Wolf: The pedigree is there, and there have even been murmurs he could be packaged with Dave Gettleman as a GM-in-waiting in New York.

ON DECK

Mike Borgonzi, Kansas City; Trey Brown, Philadelphia; Joey Clinkscales, Oakland; Ryan Cowden, Tennessee; Ed Dodds, Indianapolis; Scott Fitterer, Seattle; Brian Gaine, Buffalo; Brian Heimerdinger, Jets; Alonzo Highsmith, Green Bay; Joe Hortiz, Baltimore; Brandon Hunt, Pittsburgh; Dwayne Joseph, Philadelphia; Monti Ossenfort, New England; Matt Russell, Denver; Jamaal Stephenson, Minnesota; Duke Tobin, Cincinnati; Andy Weidl, Philadelphia.

TWO SECOND-CHANCERS

Saints assistant GM Jeff Ireland: New Orleans’ young talent is his resume, as he’s run the draft there, and you won’t find many classes better than the Saints’ current one.

Falcons assistant GM Scott Pioli: Has been a big part of building one of the NFL’s best rosters, and has spent a lot of this fall on the road doing college scouting.

OTHERS WHO MERIT MENTION: Ryan Grigson, Cleveland; Chris Polian, Jacksonville.

ONE WILD CARD

National Invitation Camp president Jeff Foster. This is a good place to wrap up this week’s list. Why? Because someone brought up Foster’s name in my reporting, pointing out that he’s basically been running for years a business that’s centered on player evaluation—having to manage a staff, run logistics and deal with competing agendas. It seems to be the perfect way to prepare someone to be an NFL GM.

RIVERON

The last year has been good to the legacy of Dean Blandino, the only NFL officiating   czar who never officiated a game on the field.

Peter King takes his successor to task:

Roger Goodell needs to summon NFL officiating czar Al Riveron into his office this week and tell him to stop playing God. That’s all I can think to rationally say in the wake of the incongruous replay reversal in Foxboro on Sunday, and the micromanaging tenor of the officiating department as a whole.

This is a fact: There wasn’t enough incontrovertible video evidence to overturn the Kelvin Benjamin touchdown reception just before halftime in the Bills-Patriots game. Not even close. Is it possible that Benjamin’s left foot left the ground and wasn’t touching anything but air by the time he secured the ball in the end zone? Yes. Possible. Maybe even probable. But not certain. Definitely not certain. I watched that play 10 times via CBS replay while waiting three minutes and 17 seconds for ref Craig Wrolstad to announce the call after consultation with the New York officiating command center. Then, on Monday, I watched twice all the way through on the game telecast—20 more replays, in all—and there is no way you could see whether Benjamin’s foot lost contact with the ground before he gained possession of the ball.

You could say you thought he did, and you could say you’re pretty sure he did. But you can’t say with certainty, because it was not certain. And the league’s hallmark for overturning a call is that there has to be definitive evidence, 100 percent evidence, to prove that the call on the field was wrong.

What’s happening is that the officiating command center, it seems to me, is re-officiating calls   on the field. This was a perfect example. On the field, two officials called it a touchdown. It was a close call. If they’d called it incomplete because Benjamin was out of bounds, there wouldn’t have been enough evidence to overturn it. Similarly, there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn what the officials did call on the field. But Riveron has tried in one season to make officiating perfect. Officiating cannot be perfect. There are some times you simply have to say, Correcting a 50-50 call is not what replay was intended for. That’s why Goodell has to step in, and right now. For the good of the game, he’s got to tell Riveron to correct the obviously wrong calls, not the ones half the fans in a bar in Topeka would call one way and half the other way.

“It is more and more obvious that there isn’t a standard for staying with the call on the field,” tweeted one previous VP for officiating, Mike Pereira.

“We’re being overly technical. The call on the field should have stood,” said another previous VP for officiating, Dean Blandino.

Replay’s a great part of the game when used correctly. It absolutely should not be scrapped. But if the league continues to allow Riveron to make calls like the Benjamin reversal, replay should die. It’ll be doing more harm than good.

Elsewhere, King piled on by naming Riverson as his lone “Goat of the Week.”

ESPN.com’s officiating guru Kevin Seifert is of a like mind:

The discussion is over. There is nothing more to debate. Despite its denials, the NFL has unquestionably distorted its replay-review system in a way that is impacting the playoff race and could potentially threaten the direction of an actual postseason game.

The latest and debate-ending evidence is the decision to reverse a touchdown catch by Buffalo Bills wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin just before halftime in Sunday’s matchup with the New England Patriots. The play followed in an excruciating line of touchdown reversals this season, including two by New York Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and another by Chicago Bears tight end Zach Miller that have exposed what can only be described as a shift in an interpretation of the NFL rulebook under new senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron.

As you might have seen, referee Craig Wrolstad’s crew ruled that Benjamin had both feet down in the end zone when he controlled Tyrod Taylor’s scoring pass. All scoring plays are automatically reviewed, and the replay showed Benjamin’s right foot clearly down while his left toes dragged the ground in bounds.

The league rulebook is clear about what should happen next. The call on the field must stand   unless it is “clear and obvious” that a mistake was made. Over the years, we’ve come to understand what that standard meant. It was to aid officials if, say, a foot clearly landed out of bounds or a ball obviously bounced off the ground.

Former NFL coach Mike Holmgren used to call the standard “50 guys in a bar.” In other words, if 50 random people watching the play thought it was the wrong call, it should be changed. Otherwise, if there was any debate, it should remain as called.

But Riveron and new vice president of replay Russell Yurk, both of whom operate from the league’s command center in New York City, have taken a different approach — one that has incurred the wrath of fans and teams along with unusually direct criticism from predecessors and current Fox Sports analysts Mike Pereira and Dean Blandino.

Watching Benjamin’s play frame-by-frame in slow motion on Sunday, it seemed possible that the ball might have still been slightly loose when Benjamin’s left toes dragged. In turn, his left foot could have been off the ground when he finally secured possession. It was really close, however, which by definition is not “clear and obvious.”

The NFL felt differently. Wrolstad told a pool reporter that “it was clear and obvious that [Benjamin] did not have control of the ball until he brought it all the way down into his chest.” In a video posted to Twitter, Riveron explained how he concluded that control did not occur until after Benjamin’s left foot lifted off the ground.

The NFL’s decision to put replay in the hands of its New York office has not worked out the way it was hoped with Riveron and company providing a shifting standard for reversals.