The Daily Briefing Tuesday, December 5, 2017

AROUND THE NFL

 

If The Season Ended Today in the AFC:

 

                                               Overall        Division       Conference

Pittsburgh Steelers      ACN     10-2               4-0                7-1

New England Patriots  ACN     10-2               3-0                7-1

Tennessee Titans        ACS       8-4               4-1                7-4

Kansas City Chiefs     ACW       6-6               2-1                4-4

Jacksonville Jaguars   WC         8-4              3-1                 8-2

Baltimore Ravens         WC        7-5              2-1                 5-3

Los Angeles Chargers               6-6               2-2                4-5

Buffalo Bills                                6-6              1-2                 4-4

Oakland Raiders                        6-6               2-2                5-5

 

If the Bengals could have held on Monday night, they would be in the pack at 6-6 as well.

 

Now, the Chargers, Bills and Raiders are all rooting for the Steelers to bring the Ravens back to the pack at the playoff line.

 

The Chiefs have the tiebreaker at the moment, although the three teams are paper (Chiefs over Chargers), rock (Chargers over Raiders), scissors (Raiders over Chiefs) in their first meetings of the season.  This week, we have the Oakland at Kansas City re-match of their epic Thursday night first game.

 

More thoughts from Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com, writing before the Steelers won last night.  Full story here, edited below:

 

With a quarter of the season to go, the AFC playoff picture is really four distinct races for six playoff berths. What’s fun is that there’s a race for every flavor of football you might hope to see. Want to see two great modern teams at their peak? You’ve got the Patriots and Steelers competing for the top two spots in the conference. Prefer smashmouth football? The Jags and Titans are waiting in the AFC South. If you’d rather watch total chaos unfurl, the AFC West is a three-team disaster zone with four games to go.

 

The other cool thing is that these races each have one (or more) head-to-head game to go that could end up deciding things on their own. As much as the AFC has felt preordained to come down to Patriots-Steelers for most of this season, there’s still a lot of drama waiting to unfold during this final month of the year.

 

So, as we did when we broke down the NFC playoff picture last month, let’s take a look how the AFC shakes out with four weeks and one Monday Night Football game to go. And this time, let’s begin at the top:

 

Seeds 1 and 2: Patriots vs. Steelers

It’s not really a surprise that the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are huge favorites to come away with first-round byes. They would have been the two teams most onlookers would have chosen before the season began, and as we get within striking distance of the playoffs, ESPN’s Football Power Index suggests there is a 78.4 percent chance of the Patriots and Steelers relaxing at home during wild-card weekend and waiting to see who they’ll play next.

 

The pressing matter is figuring out which of the two will claim the top seed in the conference and, therefore, home-field advantage in a would-be AFC Championship Game. The Patriots are the current favorites with a 60.6 percent chance of finishing atop the conference, if only because they’re a half-game ahead of the Steelers at 10-2. Pittsburgh will join them as the only double-digit winners in the AFC if they beat the Bengals in Cincinnati on Monday night, a win that would put Bengals coach Marvin Lewis’ playoff hopes on life support.

 

 

Assuming the Steelers prevail, both teams will face a tricky matchup in Week 14 in advance of what might be the Game of the Season in Week 15. The Steelers will host the archrival Ravens, and while the idea that divisional games are closer than nondivisional contests isn’t supported by evidence, Baltimore will be desperate to keep its slim division title hopes alive. Bill Belichick’s team will travel to Miami, where they’ve somehow lost three of their past four trips and likely will not have Rob Gronkowski in the lineup because of suspension.

 

If the Steelers can get to Week 15 tied or one game behind the Patriots, they’ll be in good shape. Pittsburgh hosts Tom Brady & Co. on Dec. 17, and that home-field advantage makes them slight favorites to win: FPI gives the Steelers a 50.8 percent shot at prevailing. The Steelers also have about as easy of a slate as you can imagine after that game, as they travel to play a floundering Texans team before hosting the Browns in Week 17. The Patriots, meanwhile, host the Bills and Jets.

 

Week 15 also will be our best look into whether the Patriots’ defense has really emerged as a top-tier unit. After allowing an average of 30.5 points per game over the first four games of the season, the Pats’ D has rounded into shape. Since Week 5, the Patriots are allowing an average of just 11.3 points per game, which is the best figure in football. They held the Bills to three points on Sunday, including an interception and a fourth-and-goal stuff on Buffalo’s two trips to the red zone. Former Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore even came away with a fourth-quarter interception. It felt comprehensive in the way that it feels when the Patriots claim the AFC East for themselves every season.

– – –

Seed 3 (+1) : Jaguars vs. Titans for the AFC South

Barring a truly heartbreaking collapse, both the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans are making it to the postseason. The AFC South rivals are tied atop the division at 8-4, each projected to win 10 games, and have better than a 90 percent shot of playing past Week 17. FPI suggests that the odds of the 2017 playoffs featuring two teams from what had been regarded as football’s weakest division for years are currently at 91.2 percent.

 

The Titans hold the tiebreaker after beating the Jaguars handily in Week 2 and host the rematch in Week 17. And yet FPI indicates that the Jaguars have a 55.7 percent shot of winning the division to Tennessee’s 44.3 percent mark. You would figure the Titans must have a landmine waiting on their schedule, but that isn’t true; they have to play the Rams at home, but the Jags host the Seahawks next week. Both also have a road game to come against the 49ers.

 

What’s the difference between these two teams? Well, only one of them might be any good. While both the Jaguars and Titans are 8-4, Jacksonville has outscored its opposition by a whopping 121 points, which is right in line with how the Patriots have performed. The Jags’ Pythagorean expectation suggests they’re actually playing like a team that should have 9.4 wins by now. Jacksonville is not playing a tough schedule, and it has blown out some truly awful teams, but it ranked eighth in DVOA ahead of Sunday’s 20-point win over the Colts.

 

The Jags are playing better than their record. Mike Mularkey’s Titans, who have been outscored by 16 points this season, are not. They have the Pythagorean expectation of a 5.6-win team instead. Without making this too much like the College Football Playoff, notice how the Jaguars have dominated against their shared opponents with the Titans, while Tennessee has often lost comfortably or held on for a narrow win:

 

The Titans are in this race because they’ve gone 5-1 in one-score games, a streak that would have extended to 6-1 if it weren’t for Derrick Henry’s 75-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter Sunday on a play in which falling down just past the first-down marker would have ended the game.

 

Seed 4: The last survivor of the AFC West

Let’s pretend, just for a minute, that you’re a Kansas City Chiefs fan and you were made a mysterious offer by a smoky figure just before kickoff of the Chiefs-Patriots season opener. Let’s say you had the opportunity to fast-forward the season to the end of Week 13, at which point your favorite team would be in a three-way tie with the Los Angeles Chargers and Oakland Raiders at 6-6 atop the division with the Denver Broncos essentially eliminated. You don’t hear anything else about whether anyone’s healthy or how your season goes, just that you’re 6-6. Would you have taken that offer?

 

FPI says you should have, but it’s also human nature to feel much less excited about that proposal after seeing the Chiefs collapse in recent weeks. Kansas City had a 37.0 percent chance of winning the West before the season started and then peaked at 93.1 percent after its 5-0 start. Now, having lost four straight games to the Cowboys, Giants, Bills, and Jets, Kansas City has ceded significant ground. Andy Reid’s team is still favored to right the ship and win the division, but their odds have fallen to 58.3 percent.

– – –

Seed 6: Ravens vs. The World

A three-game winning streak with victories over Brett Hundley, Tom Savage and a combo of Matthew Stafford and Jake Rudock doesn’t sound very impressive, but it has probably done enough to push the Baltimore Ravens into the postseason. Baltimore was still a 50-50 playoff proposition after a loss to the Titans took John Harbaugh’s team into the break at 4-5, but three straight wins have Baltimore’s playoff probability up to 87.3 percent.

 

The Ravens’ toughest game of the season awaits with a trip to Pittsburgh, but they should be in great shape to finish with at least a 6 seed even if they lose. Their schedule ends with the Browns, Colts and Bengals. The pass defense will naturally suffer without the presence of cornerback Jimmy Smith, who became the latest defensive back to suffer a season-ending Achilles injury on Sunday, but the Ravens at least have a plausible option to insert into the lineup in first-round pick Marlon Humphrey. Baltimore holds a tiebreaker over the Raiders but not over their likely wild-card partners in the AFC South. Having lost to both the Jags and Titans, the Ravens have a 50.3 percent shot of finishing with the sixth seed.

 

If it’s not the Ravens, some team is going to make a memorable run up the table. The only other team with a 7 percent shot of winning a wild-card spot in the AFC is the Buffalo Bills. Sunday’s blowout loss to the Patriots dropped them to .500, but Sean McDermott’s team still has a home-and-home with the Dolphins and a home game against the Colts to go along with a terrifying trip to Foxborough. They don’t have to run the table to make the playoffs, but if they lose to the Patriots and win their three other games, The New York Times model still gives Buffalo only a 45 percent shot at the postseason.

 

Otherwise, it would take a miraculous run from the Cincinnati Bengals (4.8 percent odds heading into the Steelers game) or even the Miami Dolphins (1.1 percent). Some team is going to get hot in December, but unless the Ravens totally collapse without Smith, the wild cards are probably set with Baltimore and the loser of the AFC South race. Are you ready for Blake Bortles vs. Joe Flacco in a playoff game? Hey, somebody’s got to eat a W …

 

NFC NORTH

 

CHICAGO

PK MIKE NUGENT’s career is prolonged.  Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune:

 

The Bears will have their third kicker of the season Sunday as they signed veteran Mike Nugent, who will be facing one of his former teams in the Bengals.

 

Nugent, 35, made 7 of 9 field goals in four games for the Cowboys this season while filling in for the injured Dan Bailey. The 13-year veteran spent seven seasons with the Bengals from 2010 through 2016.

 

Nugent replaces Cairo Santos, who was placed on injured reserve Monday with a groin injury. The Bears signed Santos last month to replace Connor Barth.

 

Nugent has made 80.7 percent of his career field-goal attempts and was 23 of 29 last season in Cincinnati. Since 2012, he is 67 of 73 (91.8 percent) on attempts inside of 40 yards.

 

Santos was injured during warmups before the 15-14 loss to the 49ers on Sunday at Soldier Field. He was healthy enough to make two extra points, but punter Pat O’Donnell handled kickoff duties and Santos would have had a limited range on field goals.

 

“I am a little heartbroken right now for myself and for the team because I did feel healed and strong enough to endure all the kicking and I felt great in practice,” Santos said.

 

“Didn’t miss any periods in practice. Did all of the load. In pregame, sometimes it happens. It’s out of my control. It just flared up on me again.”

 

 

DETROIT

QB MATTHEW STAFFORD has a “sore” hand.  Dave Birkett in the Detroit Free Press:

 

Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Matthew Stafford is dealing with soreness in his throwing hand but that “nothing new has popped up” that would lead him to believe the quarterback has broken any bones.

 

Stafford injured his right hand with about 6 minutes left in Sunday’s 44-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens when linebacker Terrell Suggs stepped on his hand after a fourth-quarter interception.

 

Stafford immediately went to the locker room for X-rays and did not return.

 

He had the pinky, ring and middle fingers on his hand wrapped heavily after the game, and said he felt “some like burning nerve pain in there.”

 

Caldwell said Monday that nothing had changed with Stafford’s diagnosis.

 

“He’s just sore right now,” Caldwell said.

 

Stafford, who has the third longest consecutive start streak among active NFL quarterbacks at 108 games, has played through a pair of sprained ankles this year and has stayed on the field in the past despite injuries to his throwing hand.

 

Last year, the Lions closed the regular season with three consecutive losses after Stafford sprained the middle finger on his right hand in a Week 14 win over the Chicago Bears. Stafford threw five interceptions in 19 quarters with the injury.

 

In 2011, Stafford broke the index finger on his throwing hand in an October win over the Denver Broncos. He threw nine interceptions while playing through the injury the next three weeks.

 

The Lions (6-6) have four games left in the regular season and need to win out — and get some help — in order to make the playoffs.

 

 

MINNESOTA

Our man in Jersey reminds us that the Vikings might become the first team ever to host a Super Bowl.

 

The Vikings are already just the eighth team to win at least 10 games in a season it hosted the Super Bowl.

 

No team has ever played a Super Bowl on its home field or even reached the Conference Championship game that year.

 

The 2016 Texans, 1998 Dolphins and 1994 Dolphins are the only teams to win a playoff game the year they hosted the Super Bowl.

 

So possible history in the making…

 

NFC WEST

 

ARIZONA

 

 

 

SAN FRANCISCO

Only 15 points on the board in his winning debut, but the 49ers players like what they see with QB JIMMY GAROPPOLO.  Shalilse Manza Young of Shutdown Corner:

 

Beating a three-win team by one point to get just your second win of the season isn’t usually cause for a lot of celebration, but it sounds like many San Francisco 49ers players were elated after their 15-14 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday.

 

And it wasn’t because of the win, but their quarterback.

 

Jimmy Garoppolo made his first start for the Niners, a little more than a month after San Francisco acquired him in a trade with the New England Patriots. Rookie C.J. Beathard, who has been starting, was injured, but the Niners in theory also need to see what they have in Garoppolo, as these are the final games of his rookie contract.

 

The 26-year-old, a second-round pick of the Patriots in 2014, had his teammates raving after his 26-for-37, 293 yard, one interception performance, despite the fact San Francisco didn’t score a touchdown.

 

“To me, it’s like he really learned from Tom Brady,” running back Carlos Hyde said. “That’s what he reminded me of: just a young Tom Brady out there. How Brady is late in the game, where you give him like 30 seconds to go, yo, he can still win the game for his team.”

 

San Francisco’s final possession was pretty impressive. The offense took over at its own 8 with 5:27 to play and down two points, and Garoppolo methodically moved the unit into position to score, taking nearly every second off the clock in the process.

 

Garoppolo was 5-of-6 for 54 yards on the drive, completing 3-of-4 third-down chances, including a 33-yard pass to Trent Taylor on third-and-9; the fourth third-down try was a kneeldown to kill clock when the Niners were in a goal-to-go situation.

 

Former Bears kicker Robbie Gould hit the 24-yard game-winner, sweet redemption after the leading scorer in Chicago history was cut on the eve of the 2016 season.

 

“We’ve got a quarterback, huh?,” veteran left tackle Joe Staley said of Garoppolo.

 

“Just look at him,” said receiver Marquise Goodwin, who had a career-high eight receptions. “He’s got it all together. He came in a short time (ago) and is helping us flip this thing around. Some people are just winners, and he’s a winner.”

 

 

LOS ANGELES RAMS

LB ALEC OGLETREE did not finish Sunday’s win over Arizona after returning an INT for a touchdown.  But his elbow injury does not appear to be serious enough to keep him out of the big showdown with the Eagles.  The AP:

 

Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay expects to have linebacker Alec Ogletree available against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday after he left a game against Arizona with a hyperextended left elbow.

 

Ogletree was pulled in the first half of a 32-16 win over the Cardinals. The injury could limit Ogletree, who had a 41-yard interception return for a touchdown before leaving.

 

“I think we all know the type of competitor that Alec is and he’s going to do everything in his power to be ready to go,” McVay said Monday. “He was in good spirits today, and I think he personally bumped up the treatment time for tomorrow morning. It was positive news.”

 

The Rams will need him in a game that could decide which team ends up with a first-round bye in the NFC.

 

After beating NFC South-leading New Orleans in their last home game, the Rams (9-3) can claim another crucial head-to-head tiebreaker with a win against the Eagles (10-2). Los Angeles clinched its first winning season since 2003 against Arizona, while the Eagles lost 24-10 at Seattle to start their two-game West Coast trip.

 

Bryce Hager, a third-year linebacker from Baylor, would be in line to start if Ogletree could not play. Hager had one tackle in relief of Ogletree, which came on the last play of the game. Cory Littleton, in his second season out of Washington, could also be in line for more playing time.

 

Not having Ogletree would be a serious blow against the Eagles’ balanced offense, which has impressed McVay as he has watched them during the season. McVay was even able to see the Eagles-Seahawks game live while on the team’s charter flight back to Los Angeles and was struck by quarterback Carson Wentz.

 

AFC WEST

 

DENVER

The Broncos have decided QB TREVOR SIEMIAN is the best of their bad options in Week 14.  Mike Klis of 9News.

 

If for no other reason than he’s tired of changing quarterbacks, Vance Joseph is sticking with Trevor Siemian.

 

Siemian had one of the rougher games of his career Sunday at Miami, but he will start this Sunday against the New York Jets at eventually-to-be-renamed Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

 

Siemian finished 19 of 41 for 200 yards with a pick six and two other interceptions against the Dolphins.

 

In giving Siemian another chance, Joseph bypassed Brock Osweiler, who will serve as the No. 2 quarterback against the Jets, and Paxton Lynch, who has already been ruled out for a second consecutive week with a high ankle sprain to his right, push-off foot.

 

“I can’t speak to Trevor’s confidence,’’ Joseph said Monday. “I can say he has to play better. We had some missed throws yesterday, we had some missed reads and we had some plays that we missed that we had open. He has to make those plays for us, but I can’t speak to his confidence.

 

Trevor, in my opinion, is a confident guy. He had a good week of work, so I can’t speak to that. Simply has to play better.”

 

AFC NORTH

 

BALTIMORE

Will the Ravens avoid losing CB JIMMY SMITH for four games for his suspension?  Can he just take it (without pay) while he is otherwise out with his bad Achilles?  Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com:

 

Baltimore Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury Sunday, has been suspended four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

 

Smith, the Ravens’ top cornerback, decided to drop his appeal and begin serving his suspension after tearing his Achilles in Sunday’s 44-20 victory over the Detroit Lions, the source told Schefter.

 

The Ravens are expected to place Smith on injured reserve this week. This puts a smudge on what had been Smith’s finest season in the NFL. He made three interceptions and led the Ravens with nine passes broken up.

 

The suspension will cost Smith a total of $182,352. Smith would have lost $2 million if he hadn’t restructured his deal in August.

 

Smith’s season ended in the second quarter Sunday, when he fell to the ground while trying to cover a deep route. He has been dealing with an Achilles injury for most of the season and rested it by practicing only once or twice a week.

 

Injuries have consistently hampered Smith’s career. He has only played two full 16-game seasons in seven years. Smith will have missed a total of 17 games over the past four seasons.

 

Rookie first-round pick Marlon Humphrey will replace Smith in the starting lineup when Baltimore plays at AFC North-leading Pittsburgh this Sunday night.

 

 

PITTSBURGH

Even Jon Gruden, who usually seems to relish the traditional hard-hitting nature of NFL football, seemed taken aback by Monday night’s carnage.  Adam Stites of Bleacher Report sums up the event:

 

The Pittsburgh Steelers came back from a 14-point deficit to beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 23-20, on a last-second field goal by Chris Boswell. However, the game itself was marred by ugly, violent play with multiple cheap shots, which has become a running theme in this heated AFC North rivalry.

 

The Bengals controlled the game for most of the first half and took a 17-3 halftime lead, thanks to two touchdowns by A.J. Green. But the Steelers got touchdowns from their two major offensive stars, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, to tie it up at 20-20 late in the fourth quarter. The Bengals’ offense stagnated and Ben Roethlisberger was able to set up a 38-yard field goal for Boswell, sealing the victory.

 

At the end of the day, the Steelers moved to 10-2 and kept pace with the New England Patriots for the No. 1 overall seed. But the ramifications of this night could be felt for a while.

 

Ryan Shazier injury put a damper on the night

The most important and serious thing about Monday happened within the first minutes of the game. On the Bengals’ opening possession, Ryan Shazier attempted to make a tackle and immediately grabbed at the middle of his back.

 

He was later strapped to a backboard and taken via ambulance to a local hospital with a back injury.

 

Updates on the injury were scarce and the concern about the well-being of the linebacker made it hard to be too excited about any of the action on the field. It’s also possible that energy dump that came with Shazier’s exit contributed to the slow start for the Steelers.

 

The mood only got worse when Bengals running back Joe Mixon suffered a concussion and laid motionless on the turf. Thankfully, Mixon was able to walk off on his own, but he was taken to the locker room and later ruled out for the game.

 

The Steelers struggled to cover A.J. Green

Cincinnati jumped out to 17-0 lead early in the game, largely because Green was unstoppable. He finished the first half with two touchdowns and probably should’ve finished with a third had it not been for a questionable holding penalty.

 

It didn’t matter who tried to cover Green — mostly it was Steelers cornerback Coty Sensabaugh — he ate them all up.

 

Green’s final stat line was seven receptions for 77 yards, topping the production of Antonio Brown, who had five receptions for 52 yards for the Steelers.

 

The officials were in the spotlight for calling so many penalties

ESPN’s Sean McDonough laid into the officials, who were a particularly flag happy crew, after multiple questionable penalties. Among the worst ones were a pair of holding calls that nullified a deep touchdown reception for Green and a kickoff return for a touchdown by Martavis Bryant.

 

Both penalties were about the same on the ‘ticky tack’ scale and each nullified a big touchdown, so it didn’t feel like either team really got screwed. But it just slowed down a game that was already getting ugly and more chippy as things went on.

 

JuJu Smith-Schuster upped the ante on cheap shots

In the fourth quarter, Burfict got laid out by a dangerous blindside hit from Smith-Schuster, who speared him in the helmet and stood over him in an obvious act of taunting. Burfict was carted off the field on a backboard and later diagnosed with a concussion, which is almost a relief after this nasty hit.

 

On the same drive, Antonio Brown caught a touchdown pass and somehow held onto the ball while getting drilled on a helmet-to-helmet shot, which almost seemed like an act of retaliation from the Bengals.

 

There will surely be plenty of fines to come out of this game, and possibly some suspensions, as well. It was by far the nastiest game of the season.

 

Bengals’ playoff hopes fade away

The AFC Wild Card picture is all sorts of muddled right now, so the Bengals had a shot to move to 6-6 and keep themselves alive in the race. However, blowing a 17-3 lead is almost a death knell for Cincy, which falls to 5-7 and now two games behind the Baltimore Ravens (7-5). The Bengals now almost have to win out and get help, which will be easier said than done if Burfict and Mixon miss significant time.

 

In Cincinnati, they will surely not that the Steelers escaped with the routine total of 7 penalties for 66 yards while Walt Anderson and crew flagged the Bengals for 13 penalties for 173 yards.

 

The DB wonders about one play – the vicious block by Smith-Schuster on Burfict.

 

He was called for two penalties, one for his hideous hit, the other for his appalling standing over the prone Burfict in profane triumph.  That would seem to be 30 yards in penalties, but the Steelers were only assessed 15 yards for the crime, 15 yards they would overcome to the tying TD.  Why did one penalty have to be declined?  Why did Schuster actually pay no price for the vicious “block”?  (the official game book says the taunting was the one declined, but we swear we heard Anderson announce differently).  The block would seem to be game action, the taunt post possession.  Instead of 2nd-and-16 which was overcome, shouldn’t the Steelers have faced 2nd-and-31? If the rules were assessed correctly, shouldn’t that be changed?

 

The only thing that it cost Smith-Schuster was a first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty towards disqualification.  Here is the Steelers post-game reaction where the fact that the victim was Burfict is the sub-text:

 

Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will doubtless be fined after a helmet-to-helmet block on Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, which was followed by standing over his prone opponent, taunting. The Bengals retaliated later, with safety George Iloka getting his own helmet-to-helmet shot on Antonio Brown.

 

Via Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.com, as Smith-Schuster talked to reporters, Brown kept talking about “karma,” and said he’d pay any fine his young teammate incurred.

 

Asked if that was related to repeat offender of the league’s safety rules Burfict, Brown replied: “I ain’t talking about nobody. Karma is karma. Karma is in life. You do the wrong things, you get the wrong things out of it.”

 

Burfict was carted off. The Steelers won the game, and the Bengals also lost running back Joe Mixon and cornerback Adam Jones to injuries during the game.

 

Smith-Schuster’s regret was the taunting, since it cost them a penalty.

 

“I was just playing to the whistle,” he said. “I didn’t mean to stand over him. I was trying to get a big block for Le’Veon Bell for him to get upfield. The unsportsmanlike conduct is not me. I shouldn’t have done that. I hope he’s OK and I hope he gets better.”

 

– – –

Shazier’s injury, which happened on a football play, not the result of foul play, was, and is, scary.  Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:

 

Last night’s encouraging update from the Steelers omitted reference to the question of whether linebacker Ryan Shazier has movement or feeling in his legs. Apparently, he’s not yet where he needs to be regarding that critical aspect of his overall recovery.

 

Via Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, Shaizer “has some movement in his lower extremities.” Per Rapoport, “the next 24-48 hours are key for increased improvement.”

 

This implies that there has indeed been some type of spinal-cord injury that has limited full use of his legs, at least for now. Here’s hoping that improvement will continue, and that Shazier will fully and completely recover.

 

Said G.M. Kevin Colbert early Tuesday: “Ryan’s injury will not require surgery at this time, and he continues to improve. He will stay overnight to continue evaluations with the hopes of returning to Pittsburgh on Tuesday.”

– – –

This from Jason Owens of Shutdown Corner collects other reactions:

 

“It’s bad for football,” Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden said on ESPN during postgame coverage. “There’s going to be some fines, there’s going be some stringent discipline. Let’s just hope a lot of these men are able to get up tomorrow morning and move on with life. Some of this stuff got out of hand tonight. It’s very disgusting and disturbing.”

 

Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde was blunt in his assessment of the game while giving credit to the MNF team for their critical coverage of the violence.

 

@YahooForde

This is a bad night for football. Really bad.

 

@YahooForde

It was, however, a good night for ESPN. Sean McDonough minced no words, Lisa Salters asked Roethlisberger good questions in the right order. No sugarcoating what happened.

 

CBS Sports’ Will Brinson noted the postgame interview, in which Lisa Salters jumped straight to the point with Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, whose trite response is drawing attention all over Twitter.

 

@WillBrinson

Ben Roethlisberger was just asked by Lisa Salters how to “explain … the viciousness and brutality” of this football game.

 

“AFC North football.”

 

“That’s it?”

 

“Yup.”

 

Pittsburgh TribLive sports columnist Rob Rossi noted the “terrible things” that happened in the game.

 

@Real_RobRossi

Tonight in Cincinnati a lot of truly terrible things happened. One NFL team scored more than the other, but nobody “won.”#steelers #bengals

 

ESPN studio analyst and former league executive Louis Riddick, who played safety in the NFL from 1991-98, said the game has to change from the time he played and expects the league to come down hard on the violence from Monday.

 

“This is what the league doesn’t want and players can’t want,” Riddick said. “This is not the way the game is played any more. It may have been played that way in the 90s. It may have been played that way in the early 2000s. … But the landscape has changed.”

 

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin gave his perspective from the sideline during his postgame interview.

 

“You’ve got to acknowledge it’s probably difficult for a lot of men to stay focused and play with their brother laid flat,” Tomlin said before touting his team’s ability to rally for the win. “Make no mistake, this is a tough game, a tough business.”

 

Much has been said about the changing landscape of the violent nature of professional football. In light of Shazier’s injury and the multitude of reckless hits between the Steelers and Bengals, Monday night feels like a turning point.

 

AFC SOUTH

 

HOUSTON

Sports Illustrated backs off from Colin Kaepernick (who already has its Muhammad Ali Award) and gives its Sportsperson of the Year Award to two folks, one an NFL player, that everyone should be able to agree on.

 

Thirty years ago, Sports Illustrated’s then-managing editor, Mark Mulvoy, always one for surprises, named eight athletes as the franchise’s collective Sportsperson of the Year. A few of them were reasonably well-known, even mildly famous; others might have strained recognition by the more casual fan. But all of these Athletes Who Care, as the package was billed, were household names to some of the neediest and most vulnerable among us. “Sportsperson should always transcend the mere playing of the game,” Mulvoy says. “I hold that sacred. It was a funny year, 1987. There wasn’t really a performer that jumped out. So we thought, Let’s do something on all these athletes who are doing meaningful things, making the world better.”

 

Mulvoy is inarguably the most ardent, and connected, fan among the nine managing editors that span SI’s 64-year history. But when it came to the franchise’s signature award, off-field sacrifices and charity mattered as much as highlight reels and championship trophies, sometimes even more. “Athletes who care,” says Mulvoy, “is kind of the point of the award in the first place.”

 

We will remember 2017 as much for what athletes strove to achieve off the field as for what they achieved on it. And that was no small bar to clear. New champions were crowned, notably the Houston Astros, who ended the second-longest World Series drought by winning the first in the franchise’s history, while old champions (the Patriots, the Warriors, the Lynx, the Penguins) solidified their places in the pantheon.

 

Even in a year of sublime individual performances—Brady and KD, Deshaun and Fed, all of them considered for this award—athletes spoke loudest in their actions and words off the field. Amid the tribal, black-and-white conversations that polarized the country this year, athletes used their platforms to encourage a search for truth in the gray spaces. Not just Colin Kaepernick, the recipient of the third SI Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, but also Maya Moore, the WNBA star who won her 21st championship while lending her voice and face to the activist movement that swept through the nation’s stadiums and arenas in the late summer and early fall. They, too, demanded—and received—serious consideration for Sportsperson of the Year.

 

Which brings us to the 2017 Sportsperson of the Year honorees, J.J. Watt and José Altuve. By the third week of September, less than a month after Hurricane Harvey had devastated Houston and its surrounding region, Watt had raised more than $37 million in relief aid. The SOTY candidacy of the Texans’ defensive end was unaffected by the gruesome, season-ending leg injury he suffered in Week 5. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year—the best defensive player of his generation, really—could have had the best season of his career, or the worst. His place as a Sportsperson of the Year had already been engraved. “Nothing J.J. Watt has achieved in his career, or might still achieve, will measure up to what he did for Houston,” says MMQB Editor-in-Chief Peter King.

 

The 5′ 6” Altuve had his own contribution to Houston’s post-storm recovery. The personal journey of the Astros second baseman is an inspirational one, a classic tale of an underestimated athlete overcoming the longest of odds. And this fall, Altuve was the joyous catalyst for one of the most unlikely World Series runs in recent memory. Championships don’t save communities, and we should be careful to assign too much weight to their powers of healing. But what other event can bring a million-plus people together and provide a platform, however ephemeral, to cast aside the differences that drive so many of us to sports in the first place? “The city of Houston has treated me really good,” Altuve tells Tom Verducci. “I felt at that time that I owed them something. So when they were having a hard time, I wanted to give something back to them.”

 

The stories of these two athletes who care represent two very different paths, but they led to the same destination: #HoustonStrong. Congratulations to J.J. Watt and José Altuve, our 2017 Sportsperson of the Year honorees.

 

 

TENNESSEE

TE DELANIE WALKER knows he is underappreciated.  Kevin Patra of NFL.com agrees:

 

Despite the Tennessee Titans being on track to finally make the playoffs, Delanie Walker remains among the most underappreciated players in the NFL.

 

Week after week, the tight end powers the Tennessee offense, leading the Titans in receptions (58), targets (82), yards (676) and plays of 20-plus yards (9). Among all TEs, Walker ranks third in the NFL in receptions, yards, and 20-plus-yard plays, yet gets nary the national fanfare of flashier players at his position.

 

“I’m very disrespected in the league,” Walker said after Sunday’s win over the Colts, via ESPN.com‘s Cameron Wolfe. “Commentators, announcers don’t talk about me. I get double and triple coverage. I’m still making plays. Nobody talks about that. That drives me. Don’t talk about me. That makes me hungry. They talk about Gronk, Kelce, but not me. I do it every week. They don’t talk about Delanie Walker.”

 

We can’t argue with anything Walker said. He’s been a consistent performer during his five seasons in Tennessee. He’s on pace for a fourth-straight 800-plus-yard season. And he provides Marcus Mariota with a go-to security blanket in key spots. Walker blocks with the best, can beat man-to-man converge from linebackers, and finds soft spots in zones. Yet he shows up on an eighth of the highlight shows compared to the likes of Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce.

 

For reference, Pro Football Focus ranks Walker their No. 4 overall tight end this season. Walker and Gronkowski are the only TEs to rank in the top 10 in receiving, run blocking, and pass blocking by PFF’s grading.

 

Walker thinks he knows why he doesn’t get the fanfare, like Gronk and Kelce.

 

“Obviously, I don’t get talked about enough around the league. Probably because I play for the Titans, but the Titans are going to get talked about this year,” he said.

 

The Titans (8-4) are in a position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and Walker has played a primary role in helping Tennessee eke out underwhelming wins. Sunday’s win over the Houston Texans was no different.

 

On a pivotal drive to close out the third quarter, Walker dashed by a linebacker, found a soft spot over the middle and ran away from would-be Texans tacklers to give the Titans a 17-10 lead they never relinquished. Walker accounted for 55 of the 80 yards on the TD drive.

 

AFC EAST

 

BUFFALO

The Bills are being criticized in some quarters for keeping their cool after TE ROB GRONKOWSKI whacked CB TRE’DAVIOUS WHITE in the head.  Josh Alper of ProFootballTalk.com points out that while no one directly attacked Gronk, the Bills still ended up being more penalized:

 

The NFL suspended Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski for one game in response to his late hit to the head of Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White in Sunday’s game, but a couple of former Bills believe that the team’s own response did not go far enough.

 

Former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly said on 97 Rock in Buffalo Monday that he was surprised that the team didn’t retaliate and that he would have “ran over and gave him a good shot.” Former safety Aaron Williams, who played with many current Bills before being released in March, wrote on Twitter that you “don’t let your brother get done like that and let the guy just walk freely” and put “#SoftAss” on another tweet.

 

Bills coach Sean McDermott was asked about Kelly’s remarks and defended the way his players responded.

 

“That’s not what I saw,” McDermott said. “I saw something other than that. Those are your words not my words. I know what I saw. I’m going to leave it at that. … I know what I saw. And I’m also proud to a point of the poise that we showed. Thats important as we build this thing. We’re doing things the right way. The referees handle things and we have to play within the rules. We moved on.”

 

Bills safety Micah Hyde was called for unnecessary roughness for tangling with Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola, which meant that the penalty on Gronkowski wasn’t even enforced. The Bills were actually knocked back 15 yards when Jerry Hughes was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct following an interaction with an official, so the net loss was a pretty big one even without the further fouls and discipline they would have received for a response in line with what the former Bills wanted to see.

 

 

THIS AND THAT

 

 

AIKMAN RATINGS

Thru Week 13

 

There was no change in the leaders of the three major Aikman Ratings categories after the action of Week 13.  The ratings, compiled by STATS, measure seven categories of offensive and defensive performance that Troy Aikman believes represent a better combination of what makes a winning offensive or defensive unit than the mere compilation of yards that defines the NFL’s official measurement.

 

Despite their loss at Seattle, the Eagles are atop the Aikman Combined Ratings for the sixth consecutive week.  Most of the NFL’s top teams are lined up behind them with the Jaguars (up from 3rd to 2nd) and Vikings switching places behind them.

 

The Patriots, now 4th in the Aikman Combined, are atop Aikman Offense for the second week after displacing the Eagles who this week slip to 3rd behind the Saints. 

 

The Jaguars continue in the lead in Aikman Defense after stifling the Colts.  It is the seventh straight week that Jacksonville has led Aikman Defense.  The Jaguars also have the top defense in yards allowed.

– – –

New England was as low as 11th in the Aikman Combined after Week 7, but they have surged behind a defense whose vast improvement is recognized by the Aikman Ratings, if not the NFL’s yards only rankings.

 

This year’s Patriots are the best example this year of an “Aikman” team.  They rank 4th in the Aikman Combined but even with the number one yards offense, would be 10th (behind the Broncos!) if you merely added their NFL offensive and defensive ranks.

 

Another “Aikman” team is Baltimore.  The Ravens have risen to 8th in the Aikman Combined, just ahead of their division-rival Steelers.  If you added their NFL ranks, they would be 19th (behind the Browns!)

– – –

Teams with higher Aikman Game Ratings have won 83% of their games this year, compared to 70% wins for teams with more yards.  Among games that were significantly one-sided last week where the team with more yards lost while the team with the higher Aikman Game Rating won were the Ravens’ victory over Detroit, Tennessee’s win over Houston, the Dallas win over Washington and Seattle’s win over Philadelphia.

 

 

Aikman Combined Ratings Through Week 13, 2017

 

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

 Rank  Record   Team             Combined     Off      Def       Off    Def Combined

   1    10-2    Eagles             171.5     91.2     80.3         3      3      6 

   2     8-4    Jaguars            168.9     83.3     85.6        11      1     12 

   3    10-2    Vikings            167.9     88.4     79.5         5      2      7 

   4    10-2    Patriots           166.4     94.4     72.0         1     28     29 

   5     9-3    Saints             161.7     91.5     70.1         2     12     14 

   6     8-4    Seahawks           158.4     82.8     75.6        10      9     19 

   7     9-3    Rams               158.1     85.6     72.5         4     15     19 

   8     7-5    Ravens             157.5     76.3     81.2        30      7     37 

   9    10-2    Steelers           157.0     81.2     75.8         7      4     11 

  10     6-6    Chargers           156.4     80.2     76.2         9     17     26 

  11     7-5    Falcons            155.7     86.0     69.6         8      8     16 

  12     6-6    Cowboys            152.8     84.6     68.2        18.5   21     39.5

  13     8-4    Titans             152.2     80.7     71.5        22     11     33 

  14     8-4    Panthers           151.8     81.7     70.1        18.5    6     24.5

  15     5-7    Jets               149.9     81.5     68.4        17     23     40 

  16     6-6    Raiders            149.2     82.7     66.5        16     22     38 

  17     6-6    Chiefs             148.8     85.6     63.2         6     30     36 

  18     6-6    Packers            147.3     83.0     64.3        25     24     49 

  19     3-9    Bears              146.2     73.0     73.1        32     14     46 

  20     4-8    Texans             146.1     77.7     68.4        14     20     34 

  21     6-6    Lions              145.5     78.6     66.8        15     26     41 

  22     6-6    Bills              144.4     76.7     67.8        26     27     53 

  23     4-8    Buccaneers         144.4     78.4     66.0        13     31     44 

  24     5-7    Redskins           144.3     79.6     64.6        12     19     31 

  25     5-7    Bengals            144.0     73.1     70.9        31     16     47 

  26     5-7    Cardinals          139.6     72.7     66.8        20     13     33 

  27     3-9    Broncos            138.5     68.0     70.4        23      5     28 

  28     3-9    Colts              138.0     71.3     66.7        27     29     56 

  29     2-10   49ers              137.7     73.1     64.7        21     25     46 

  30     2-10   Giants             137.2     71.7     65.5        28     32     60 

  31     5-7    Dolphins           135.5     71.7     63.8        29     18     47 

  32     0-12   Browns             128.0     64.1     63.9        24     10     34 

 

 

Aikman Offense Ratings Through Week 13, 2017

 

  Aik     NFL     Team                 AER

   1       1      Patriots            94.4

   2       2      Saints              91.5

   3       3      Eagles              91.2

   4       5      Vikings             88.4

   5       8      Falcons             86.0

   6       6      Chiefs              85.6

   7       4      Rams                85.6

   8      18.5    Cowboys             84.6

   9      11      Jaguars             83.3

  10      25      Packers             83.0

  11      10      Seahawks            82.8

  12      16      Raiders             82.7

  13      18.5    Panthers            81.7

  14      17      Jets                81.5

  15       7      Steelers            81.2

  16      22      Titans              80.7

  17       9      Chargers            80.2

  18      12      Redskins            79.6

  19      15      Lions               78.6

  20      13      Buccaneers          78.4

  21      14      Texans              77.7

  22      26      Bills               76.7

  23      30      Ravens              76.3

  24      31      Bengals             73.1

  25      21      49ers               73.1

  26      32      Bears               73.0

  27      20      Cardinals           72.7

  28      29      Dolphins            71.7

  29      28      Giants              71.7

  30      27      Colts               71.3

  31      23      Broncos             68.0

  32      24      Browns              64.1

 

NFL Average                           79.7

 

 

Aikman Defense Ratings Through Week 13, 2017

 

  Aik     NFL     Team                 AER

   1       1      Jaguars             85.6

   2       7      Ravens              81.2

   3       3      Eagles              80.3

   4       2      Vikings             79.5

   5      17      Chargers            76.2

   6       4      Steelers            75.8

   7       9      Seahawks            75.6

   8      14      Bears               73.1

   9      15      Rams                72.5

  10      28      Patriots            72.0

  11      11      Titans              71.5

  12      16      Bengals             70.9

  13       5      Broncos             70.4

  14      12      Saints              70.1

  15       6      Panthers            70.1

  16       8      Falcons             69.6

  17      20      Texans              68.4

  18      23      Jets                68.4

  19      21      Cowboys             68.2

  20      27      Bills               67.8

  21      26      Lions               66.8

  22      13      Cardinals           66.8

  23      29      Colts               66.7

  24      22      Raiders             66.5

  25      31      Buccaneers          66.0

  26      32      Giants              65.5

  27      25      49ers               64.7

  28      19      Redskins            64.6

  29      24      Packers             64.3

  30      10      Browns              63.9

  31      18      Dolphins            63.8

  32      30      Chiefs              63.2

 

NFL Average                           70.3

 

 

Ratings Courtesy of STATS