As the Season Comes Down to the Wire, the Saints Rise to the Top: NFL Week 16

As the Season Comes Down to the Wire, the Saints Rise to the Top: NFL Week 16

With a gutsy comeback win against Pittsburgh, Drew Brees and company solidify their standing as the Super Bowl favorite. Plus, the Colts, Titans, Eagles and Vikings jockey for the playoffs, the latest coaching carousel buzz and more as the regular season hits its climax
December 24, 2018

Back on Sept. 23, Saints receiver Michael Thomas described coming to New Orleans in 2016 as a sort of calling, and he told me its purpose was to right the wrong of an all-time great quarterback having just one Super Bowl ring. As Thomas explained that night, “I was brought here to send him out the right way.”

Three months later that mission is on track, with the finish line in sight.

And again, it was a critical play from the best receiver Drew Brees has ever played with that inched the Saints closer to that destination. This one came on second-and-goal with 1:28 left, New Orleans down 28-24 and the ball at the Steelers 2-yard line. Brees took the shotgun snap and sprinted right. Thomas, split right, was isolated on Steelers corner Joe Haden. What happened next is what’s become predictable.

Thomas shook his shoulders at the line, broke outside towards the corner, then back at the pylon. Even in the close quarters of the red zone, the 6’3”, 212-pounder was able to create enough separation for Brees to get the ball to him. The only question? Whether Thomas, as he came back to it, overran the goal line and left the end zone before putting the ball away. Initially, th officials (and we’ll get to them a little later on) ruled that he did.

“I definitely knew my feet were in but the ref was playing me right there [on the line],” Thomas said over the phone from the Saints locker room last night. “He didn’t put his hands up right away. So that kind of threw me off a little bit. But once it went to review, I knew it was a touchdown.”

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So did everyone else. And as a result, the 2018 Saints won’t play another game outdoors—their foray into the NFC playoffs will be held exclusively at the Superdome and, should they get there, Super Bowl LIII is set for Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium—and enter the postseason as the prohibitive favorite to win it all.

There’s still plenty of work to do, but what Thomas sees now is a lot of that promise of September turning into production, on both a personal and a team level. Which only has him, and the Saints, redoubling their efforts to give their QB what they believe he so richly deserves.

PLAYOFF PICTURE: Who’s In, Who’s Out, Who’s Still in Contention

“One hundred percent,” Thomas said. “That’s why I show up every week. That’s why I’ve been here. When he shows up at quarterback and he’s out there, I’m showing up with him, no matter how my body feels no matter, what I’m going through, it doesn’t matter. I got to be out there with my guy. I got to be that safety blanket for him. Ted [Ginn] was down, younger players had to step, and I had to respond.

“I got his back 100 percent. He’s committed. I’m committed right along with him.”

That commitment got tested the last few weeks. But the Saints believe they’re coming out the other side of that “slump” better for having gone through it.


Another wild Sunday of football to recap, and a lot more to look forward to. Here’s what we’ve got for you to make sense of it all:

Nick Foles’ flair for the dramatic, and Doug Pederson’s stomach for fourth-down, has Philly rallying like it’s 2017. We talk with Fletcher Cox and Zach Ertz on whether it’ll be enough.

• The team standing in the Eagles’ way for the only remaining playoff spot in the NFC just so happens to be the one they played for the conference title last year, and the Vikings have rescued their season by reinventing themselvs on the fly in December. We’ll explain how it’s happened (with a nod to Pat Shurmur).

• Speaking of Shurmur, his Giants played their tails off in Indy but ran into a buzzsaw of a Colts team. Indy coach Frank Reich explains to us how Andrew Luck becoming an extension of his staff out on the field has played into their turnaround, and was important when it mattered most on Sunday.

• A look at the coaching carousel, with some quick hits from the rumor mill as Black Monday looms.

• To explain that, we’ll take you through the Ravens’ (smart) decision to go forward with their incumbent coach, John Harbaugh.

And we’ll have all the elements you’re used to getting each and every Monday.

But we’re starting in the Superdome, since we now know that the road to Atlanta, on the NFC sides, runs through New Orleans.


These aren’t the Saints of mid-November. There have been bumps since then.

The Cowboys effectively took them into a dark alley and out of their element on Nov. 29, winning a 13-10 struggle during which the Saints could muster only 176 yards of total offense. The next week, in Tampa, Brees and company were down 14-3 to the Bucs at halftime. And last Monday he Saints were held out of the end zone until the second half again before grinding out a 12-9 win over the Panthers.

The good news? The Saints took two of those three games, and those were won in a fashion that not every Payton/Brees team would be capable of riding to victory. They rushed for more than 100 yards and held the opponent under 300 total yards in both wins, which was more than enough against the Bucs, and just enough in Charlotte.

“We went to Dallas, that was our third game in 11 days,” Thomas said. “And then we went on the road to playtwo games against divisional opponents who know us very well, who we play against a lot. It’s tough game. It’s all about how you respond.”

The Saints’ passing offense finally did respond against the Steelers, when the team needed it most. New Orleans, in fact, watched a 24-14 lead in the third quarter quickly melt into a 28-24 deficit, and so on Sunday, after three straight rock fights, they’d need to be in more than just survival mode. The guys on offense knew they’d have to be the aggressors.

GRAMLING: Week 16 Takeaways—Atrocious Pass Interference Calls, the Saints Clinch Home Field, Nick Foles Saves Christmas, and More

In case Thomas needed it, he got a reminder from veteran Ted Ginn, who was coming back off IR after having his knee scope. “He was saying, ‘It’s on us, man,’” Thomas said. “Let’s go now.” The two ex-Ohio State stars sure did take it on themselves.

After Pittsburgh’s ill-fated fake punt attempt, the Saints got the ball at the Steelers 46 with 4:06 left. Ginn picked up a first down on a second-and-5 from the 41, and Thomas drew a (questionable) interference call on fourth-and-2 four plays later to extend the drive. Ginn came back next in converting third-and-20, and then it was Thomas’ turn with the 2-yard touchdown.

And for the first time in a month, the Saints offense was the Saints offense again.

“You knew eventually it was going to happen,” Thomas said. “We don’t play this game, we don’t prepare the way we do to not get better. We’re in the business of getting better. So I would say eventually it was going to happen. And I would also add that having Ted Ginn back adds a spark. It gives us the  ability to do some different things. And we’re just playing for one another.

“Coach told us it will be a playoff atmosphere game, and we responded.”

While they wouldn’t necessarily sign up again for what they just battled through, the Saints do believe they’re better for it. The defense hasn’t allowed a fourth-quarter point in a month, largely because that’s what it needed to do over the last four games. They’re more physical on offense, too, because they’ve had to lean on the run game more.

All of which should serve the Saints well. As will, at least on paper, the fact that New Orleans can treat its Week 17 game against the Panthers however it wants to treat it, and head forward with home-field throughout the NFC playoffs.

JONES: The Steelers Look Like Pretenders

“We’ve held the No.1 seed for a couple times this year,” Thomas said. “We knew teams were going to give us our best shot. We were playing desperate teams that were going to come here and try to beat us. We just couldn’t fold and now we actually get a chance to take deep breath, and get a little bit of time to rest up now. It’s been a hard-fought season, and now it’s time to take it up another another notch.”

I asked Thomas if he wants to play next week, and he intimated that he’d like to break Joe Horn’s franchise record for single-season receiving yards—he’s 23 yards off the mark of 1,399. But if he doesn’t get there, it’s not the end of the world.

Everyone there in New Orleans has something bigger in mind.


WATCH: THE DREW BREES-SMITH MICHAEL SMITH CONNECTION

 


IT’S EAGLES AND VIKINGS IN THE NFC—SOUNDS FAMILIAR

Five of the NFC’s six playoff spots are taken. That leaves two teams battling over one piece of bracket real estate—and those two just so happen to be the two that went head-to-head in the NFC title game 11 months ago.

And if I’m Philly this morning, two things are making me feel like it’s 2017 all over again. The first, and obvious, is how the team has rallied around Nick Foles the last two weeks. Foles was pretty good in the win over the Rams eight days ago (24-31, 270 yards, one INT), and pretty great in helping stave off a furious Texans comeback on Sunday (35-49, 471 yards, four TDs, one INT) in a 32-30 win.

“Nick has shown these past two years that he’s not a backup quarterback,” tight end Zach Ertz told me Sunday night. “He’s not a backup-caliber quarterback. When he’s in the game on offense leading us at quarterback, the offense isn’t going to change very much. We got two extremely talented signal callers back there, and it’s Nick’s turn right now to kind of carry us on our offense.”

Carry the Eagles, Foles did. On the game’s decisive drive, he made two big-time throws to convert a pair of third-and-10s. On the first one, from his own 11, he stood in and took a shot from Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney as he delivered 19-yard strike to Alshon Jeffery. On the second one, Ertz slipped past the defense off a “scissors” concept, and Foles found him for 20 yards to set up Jake Elliott’s game-winner.

“Nick battled his butt off tonight,” Ertz said.

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And that brings us to the other 2017-ish element you saw on Sunday. The Eagles’ first two touchdowns came on—you guessed it—fourth down.

The first was on fourth-and-2 from the Philly 37. Darren Sproles took a swing pass and made two defenders miss on the way to the end zone. The second was on fourth-and-goal from the 1, with Ertz slipping underneath coverage out of a bunch formation for the score.

“Doug [Pederson], when he’s aggressive like that and he puts the trust in us as players, it’s like, Man, this guy truly believes that we’re going to execute over and over again,” Ertz said. “And I think that just allows us to play with such a confidence, a swagger almost, because we have a coach who’s willing to bet on us. So we should play with that same confidence, if not more.”

And the defensive guys see it the same way—that their coach is willing to take the risk in those situations knowing that he’s backstopped by a unit he trusts.

“If we don’t get [the first down], then we got go and fight for that field position back and try to get a sack or TFL, just try to get a turnover depending on where the ball’s at,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said just after the game. “So we just stay calm and if we don’t get it we go out and try to get the offense the ball back quick.”

ORR: More Foles Magic, But Will He Fly the Coop in 2019? QB Stock Watch 

Similarly, the offense picked up the defense after Deshaun Watson guided the Texans back from a 29-16 deficit. And that gave Elliott the chance to make up for the missed extra point that put Philly in that precarious spot—down 30-29 late—to begin with.

The downside for the Eagles? They still don’t control their destiny. Should the Vikings win against the Bears on Sunday, Philly won’t make the playoffs. And maybe that’d be a shame—but for right now they can’t get wrapped up in it.

“We don’t control our own destiny and that’s unfortunate,” Ertz said. “This is the bed that we’ve laid in. But we were 4-6 coming off a real bad loss to the Saints, and a lot of guys would’ve kind of thrown in the towel, and it was the exact opposite. Guys rallied. Guys got back to work. We practiced extremely hard all year, and after that game against the Saints we just got back to work.

“No one panicked. No one was pointing fingers. We just said, ‘Hey, we got to flip the switch, we got to be playing our best football late in the year.’ ”

They are now. We’ll see if it’s too late.


THE MMQB MONDAY PODCAST: The Seahawks prove everyone wrong, Folesmania in Philly and the rest of Week 16, with Gary Gramling and Andy Benoit. Download and subscribe on iTunes.


THE AFC SOUTH SETS UP FOR A SHOWDOWN

It’s been pretty well-established in Indy for some time that Andrew Luck is back to being Andrew Luck, but there are still nice signs along the way. And Sunday gave the Colts brass one of those glimpses in the biggest of moments.

On first-and-goal with 59 seconds left, and the Colts down 27-21, Reich sent a run play in. Luck got to the line. He quickly diagnosed the Giants defense—tight man-to-man coverage, allowing for extra defenders in the box. He immediately mentally flipped to Indy’s “attacker” family of plays, man-coverage-beating concepts built for the situation at hand. He then checked to a play designed to go to Chester Rogers.

The call had T.Y. Hilton wide left, with Rogers in the slot. At the snap, Hilton broke inside and got in Giants corner Grant Haley’s way, which freed Rogers into the flat. And from there, it was candy from a baby. Luck dropped the balll into Rogers’ hands, and the Colts were ahead. A pick of Eli Manning on the Giants’ final drive sealed the win.

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Just as significant? How Luck really has become an extension of Reich. Now that he’s physically OK, that’s where the strides keep coming for the Colts quarterback.

“He’s like a coach out there,” Reich told me a couple hours after the game. “We have such good communication and belief in what we’re doing. When we have time to talk about things in between, we can talk to him about two or three plays. Get his preferences, talk things through, if we’re going to check to something.”

And just as Luck’s come along, so have the Colts. They started 1-5. They’ve gone 8-1 since.

BENOIT: How the Colts Became 2018’s Biggest Breakout Team

But this isn’t just about the quarterback, great as he’s been. We’ve talked a lot over the last few weeks about the reclamation of the offensive line, and the bumper crop of 2018 draft picks, and the money the Colts will have to spend in 2019. In short, they’re as well as positioned for the future as anyone in the league.

What they are now is a team that can win in a bunch of different ways. Against Dallas in Week 15, it was with an overwhelming running game and defense, with Luck playing caretaker. This week the quarterback threw for 357 yards and guided Indy back from a 10-point deficit in the second half.

“When you look over the years at the good football teams, they’ll able to win different kinds of games,” Reich said. “Low-scoring games, high-scoring games, games you got to come from behind, games you’ve got to hold the ball. And so this stretch that we’re on, we’re hitting a variety of those types of wins. And I do think [winning those is] a good sign.”

It alls sets up an awesome Week 17 in the AFC South. The Texans, who are already in the playoffs, win the division if they can beat Jacksonville. If that doesn’t happen, the winner of Colts-Titans takes the South.

And at this point, it’s safe to say the arrow’s pointing up on three of the four AFC South team. The Jags are the exception, which few would’ve seen coming just a few months ago.


The complete series available now: An exclusive True Crime podcast from SI, re-examining the murder of Titans great Steve McNair. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you download your podcasts. And visit the podcast homepage for additional materials and updates. 


BALTIMORE GET BEHIND HARBAUGH—AND WHY NOT?

The Ravens’ decision to stick with coach John Harbaugh—a smart decision—can give everyone a window into the internal debate that some teams are having as it comes time for struggling franchises to make calls on their future.

There was a time a couple months ago when most of the league assumed Harbaugh and the Ravens were driving towards a separation, however you wanted to term that, following this, his 11th season as coach in Baltimore. But as the team got hot, upper management started asking a very simple, sensical question: In a year when the pool of candidates is shallow, why are we going to walk away from the man who’ll be the No. 1 candidate on most teams’ lists?

There was no shortage of teams that had an interest in Harbaugh. The Jets were one. The Broncos were another. And it was never hard to see why. Harbaugh made the playoff six times in his first decade with the Ravens, winning at least once in the postseason in each of those seasons, while taking home a Super Bowl title in 2012.

So Baltimore decided over the last week that, at the very least, they’re not going to just let him walk. Which is wise of them, in the same way it’s wise of other teams to make sure they’re happy with what’s out there in the marketplace before deciding to sever ties with the coach they’ve got now.

And there’s also the way that Harbaugh handled the situation with his players when the rumblings really got going. Veteran safety Eric Weddle explained that the coach told them he’d been in contact with owner Steve Bisciotti throughout and that, while he wasn’t certain of his own future, they didn’t need to worry about him. He then told the players, “I’m with you and I’m for you.”

VRENTAS: Chargers DB Desmond King and His Brother Bond Through Art 

“It’s nice to put it to rest,” Weddle said via text late Saturday, after the Ravens beat the Chargers in Los Angeles. “He’s been very up front and honest with us, and he’s done an amazing job keeping us together, to have us in the position we’re in right now. It’s how honest he’s been and how he’s believed from Day 1. His love and belief really have resonated through the entire team.”

Maybe the biggest compliment the players could give Harbaugh, though, came in how they played against the Chargers—because it completely reflected their coach’s vision for a program and a team. Against another pretty physical group, Baltimore controlled the line on scrimmage, nearly doubling up the Chargers in scrimmage yards (361-198) and tripling them on the ground (159-51).

It also showed up in how Baltimore wound up breaking their hosts—punching the ball out late—and also in how the Ravens handled the circumstance of traveling cross-country on a short week to play a really good team coming off nine days’ rest.

Afterwards, Harbaugh told the players that the Ravens are a strong, butt-kicking outfit, and gave the game ball to strength coach Steve Saunders. But the guys in the locker room know that reaching this point—a win against Cleveland next Sunday and they’re division champs, something that seemed out of the question midway through the season—has had as much to do with the guy who’s setting their course.

“One-hundred percent,” Weddle said. “We want to hit people in the mouth—physical in all three phases, make ’em quit in the fourth.”

That’s pretty much how it played out, and the Ravens organization signed up for more of it.


AS THE CAROUSEL SPINS …

So with that theme as the backdrop, and seven days ahead of Black Monday, some nuggets from the rumor mill:

Panthers GM Marty Hurney has built a good rapport with new owner David Tepper, I’m told, and so he and coach Ron Rivera are very likely to get at least another year. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that someone could be added to football ops. Tepper’s shown a keen awareness in the area of football analytics, so maybe that’s where a hire is made.

• At the very least, with offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich not quite ready for the role he was thrust into in October, the Cardinals will make major changes to its offensive staff. And there’s a pretty decent chance that owner Michael Bidwill goes beyond just that. First-year coach Steve Wilks is in peril. It remains to be seen whether or not GM Steve Keim is, too.

• If Keim is out in Arizona, word is that he’ll be a top candidate for the GM job with the Raiders, who would prefer to bring in an experienced personnel man.

ROSENBERG: No One Seems to Care that the Raiders Are Leaving Oakland

The Buccaneers are a little like Arizona in that word has held that the coach, Dirk Koettter, is likely to be gone, particularly with a staff full of assistants on expiring deals, but the situation of GM Jason Licht seems to be murkier. This job is the one that ex-Packers coach Mike McCarthy has been connected most to.

The Dolphins will almost certainly have change at some level. I’d be surprised if both EVP Mike Tannenbaum and coach Adam Gase are back, and a total blowup is not out of the question. If Gase survives, it’s a decent bet that GM Chris Grier would too, with perhaps added authority.

The Packers’ search is underway, and the one name that multiple folks brought up over the last week was Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was hired into that job by Green Bay president/ex-NU AD Mark Murphy. Murphy’s running the show here, with half-dozen execs, including GM Brian Gutekunst, working with him.

• I’m told the Browns’ process will be absolutely wide open.

Vance Joseph is all but done in Denver. As we’ve mentioned at a few points over the last few months, Broncos GM John Elway dove deep into offensive trends in the college game during the fall. So an outside-the-box hire wouldn’t be out of the question, assuming the scenario of John Harbaugh coming over, with Gary Kubiak as OC, is now dead.

• As for the Bengals, there’s been talk that owner Mike Brown could take one more run at it with Marvin Lewis in charge in 2019, before Brown cedes more control of the team  than he already has to his children after next season. Brown is 83. Joseph’s name has popped up in recent weeks as a potential heir to Lewis, since the Brown family has coveted familiarity in their hires (Joseph was DBs coach in Cincinnati in 2014-15).

Of course, we’ll have plenty more coaching news on the site in the coming days.


SIX FROM SATURDAY

The college football picture, from an NFL perspective.

1. Lots of buzz out there on Georgia QB Justin Fields potentially transferring to Ohio State—and that the big lure would be the presence of new Buckeyes coach Ryan Day as a sort of quarterback whisper, given the development of Dwayne Haskins under Day’s tutelage as offensive coordinator. What does that have to do with the NFL? Day was Mike Vrabel’s first choice for Titans offensive coordinator last year. Day’s remaining in Columbus worked out OK, but two things to take away: First, this underscores the importance of a coach knowing what assistants to fill his staff out with. And second, it shows that the NFL would probably benefit from being open-minded to pilfering play-callers from college (Bucs OC Todd Monken is another one).

2. Since a lot of high school kids signed national letters of intent this week, I figured it’d be cool to look back five years and see how predictive the high school rankings are of NFL success. What I found? They’re not bad. The Top 12 from the class of 2014: Myles Garrett (Browns), Leonard Fournette (Jaguars), Cam Robinson (Jaguars), Jabrill Peppers (Browns), Kyle Allen (Panthers), Speedy Noil (n/a), Da’Shawn Hand (Lions), Quin Blanding (n/a), Andrew Brown (Bengals), Marlon Humphrey (Ravens), Rashaan Evans (Titans) and Dalvin Cook (Vikings). That’s 10 pros, including five first-round picks and two second-round picks.

3. Last week I wrote that Nick Bosa really is considered separate from the rest of the edge rushing prospects. And after a little more time on the phone this week, I’d say the same goes Alabama’s Quinnen Williams among defensive tackles, even in a bumper crop at the position. That’s a pretty surprising, too, considering how much attention Houston’s Ed Oliver got before the season, a point at which Williams was still working on nailing down a starting job for the first time. If you want to take a look, you’ll get to see him against Oklahoma on Saturday.

2019 MOCK DRAFT 3.0: Two QBs slide into the top 10, and a third into the first round

4. Speaking of which, that Orange Bowl also gives everyone who hasn’t been a watching a good chance to see Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley call a game.

5. And the cool thing about the other semifinal? In the Cotton Bowl, it’ll be D-Line U (Clemson) vs. O-Line U (Notre Dame), which figures to test the Tigers’ much ballyhooed front of Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant.

6. Via my buddy Bruce Feldman of The Athletic: In addition to Nick Saban’s own No. 1-ranked recruiting class, the classes currently ranked No. 2, 3 and 6 were put together by ex-Saban assistants, which is bananas. Not sure I can remember a coach reigning over a sport both in wins and influence quite like Saban is now. We really are watching college football’s answer to UCLA legend John Wooden.


… OF THE WEEK

QUOTE

Good to see someone still cares about the Pro Bowl, but this seems like a drastic measure to protest exclusion from a game no one wants to play in. And Johnson probably just has to wait a week or two anyway. By then there will have been enough phantom sprained ankles and twisted knees to get him in.

TWEET

From my old NFL Network colleague Kara Henderson—and she’s right, by the way. Too many kids are being told too young that they need to drop everything else to pursue a scholarship in a single sport. And that’s even though just about every high school coach I’ve ever come across agrees that it’s best for any athlete to play multiple sports through his or her teens, for reasons connected to both skill (developing a diversified set of athletic traits) and health (avoiding overstressing certain muscles). You can argue that after that, specialization makes sense. Ex-college QBs Drew Henson (Michigan) and Ronald Curry (North Carolina) are examples of guys who may have juggled for too long. But I’d dare you to find an athlete who lost a scholarship because juggled in high school, because I don’t you’ll find one. OK, rant over.

The 2018 Patriots may not go down even in the top 10 teams of the Brady/Belichick era, but the bar the Patriots have set for themselves, and everyone else, is beyond absurd. Consider this: When Brady blew out his ACL in 2008, they were coming off their fifth straight AFC East title. In the 10 seasons since he came back from the injury, all they have done is double that streak.

CLIP

Is this petty? Probably. But no one was going to change the identity of a team like the Cleveland Browns by being subtle. And Baker Mayfield sure isn’t trying to be subtle.

MEME

Sorry Roosevelt Nix. That one won’t get old for a while.

S/O to …

Everyone who gave to my impromptu drive to raise a few bucks for Boston Children’s Hospital. The backstory is pretty simple. The people at BRANDed PR and FOCO sent me a Patriots Christmas sweater a few weeks back, and I let it sit on my desk (for obvious reasons, I don’t wear any NFL team gear, nor do I root for a team). Then last week, I saw the reaction Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky got for wearing the Chicago version of the sweater as his press conference, and I figured I could use this one to raise some money for BCH (where my wife is a nurse). So I put the proposal out there, and at last check, despite starting this up late on a Friday night over a holiday weekend, you guys raised $1,317. I’ve left the page open if anyone who wants to give, and I’ll draw a winner on Christmas Eve. One thing I can promise: The money’s going to an incredible place. The staffers there are angels working to create miracles. So anyway, thanks to everyone who helped out.


TEN TAKEAWAYS

1. The pass-interference call on Joe Haden in the end zone, where the Steelers corner barely rubbed elbows with Alvin Kamara, was one of the worst we’ve seen all year without adding context to it. When you throw in the fact that it was on a fourth-and-1 from the Steelers 34, gave the Saints 33 yards and the game was decided by three points? A total abomination, and one made worse by the fact that Craig Wroldstad’s crew threw another shaky PI flag on Haden on a fourth down during New Orleans’ game-winning drive. And here’s where I’d advocate, again, for making the big-box penalties—personal fouls, pass interference, etc.—reviewable. They have too big an impact on the game not to give yourself the chance to clean up mistakes.

2. Yes, new Vikings coordinator Kevin Stefanski has cut down the volume in the offense, and that’s helped guys play faster. But more than that, as the Vikings players have seen it, he’s leaned on elements he knew made the offense successful under Pat Shurmur in 2017. Two pieces of evidence? One, Stefanski will repeat run calls that are working more often. And two, he’s weaponizing tempo by mixing the pace of the offense in-game.

3. The Seahawks’ win over the Chiefs on Sunday was pretty fitting, in that it exemplified what Seattle’s program is all about, on a night when the franchise clinched its return to the postseason. On offense, Seattle ran for 210 yards. On defense, the Seahawks only sacked Patrick Mahomes once but registered 11 additional hits on the K.C. quarterback. The old formula is back, and that brings me to a bunch of conversations I’ve had with Pete Carroll about his team’s 2018 retooling. This offseason, to him, was about the Seahawks again being true to who they’ve been over the last eight years, which meant a lot of competition in camp for open spots—“It feels like four or five years ago,” he told me. “It feels fresh and wide open.” And with a very different cast of characters, the results on the field, stylistically, have looked similar too.

4. The Chiefs’ points allowed since Week 11: 54, 33, 24, 29, 38. And of the offenses they’ve played in that five-game stretch, only one (the Rams) ranks in the top quarter of the league. At this point, particularly with Sammy Watkins down, Kareem Hunt gone and Tyreek Hill nicked up, Kansas City is going to need Patrick Mahomes to walk on water in the playoffs.

BASKIN: The Chiefs D Must Improve—Dramatically, Immediatel—to Keep Their Super Bowl Hopes Alive

5. Good news and bad news for the Patriots offense in its first game ost-Josh Gordon. Good news: New England rang up a whopping 273 yards on 47 carries, and Sony Michel (18 carries, 116 yards) looked every bit the bell cow in how he ran through contact in the 24-12 win over the Bills. Bad news: Tom Brady’s 48.3 passer rating was the worst he’s ever posted in a win, and potential Gordon replacements Corddarelle Patterson, Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett combined for one catch for three yards. The Patriots have work to do.

6. Browns QB Baker Mayfield finished up another win with another spectacular stat line—he was 27 of 37 for 284 yards and three touchdowns against the Bengals. But what the coaches liked most about this one was how unspectacular the performance really was. As one Cleveland staffer explained to me, Mayfield is going from playing football to playing quarterback, which is a process for most young guys coming into the league in this day and age.

VRENTAS: Baker Mayfield and the New Quarterback Model

7. Two things I love about the Bears. First, the ClubDub celebrations postgame are awesome, and a part of coach Matt Nagy’s ongoing commitment to make players excited to come to work on a day-to-day basis. And I know the players are seeing that not just on Sunday, but Monday through Saturday as well. Second, Nagy is showing faith in those guys in his aggressiveness—and in particular on the fourth-and-1 he went for from his own 35, up 14-9 with 4:10 left. The Bears picked up the first down with a Mitch Trubsiky sneak. Allen Robinson fumbled the ball away six plays later, but that doesn’t change my outlook on these kinds of calls. As Zach Ertz said earlier in the column, those kinds of decisions can be massive for a players’ confidence.

8. Hats off to C.J. Anderson, who stayed ready and prepared like a pro after joining the Rams this week, showing up early to the facility and working with his new coaches to get up to speed. It paid off for Anderson in a 20-carry, 167-yard effort, and for the Rams in the chance they took on him.

9. As I said earlier, I don’t know if Mike Tannenbaum will be making the decisions in Miami next year, but the Dolphins have certainly been acting as if they’ll be looking at replacing Ryan Tannehill in 2019, in live-scouting the top college quarterbacks. Tannehill turns 31 this summer and doesn’t have a dime guaranteed left on his contract.

ORR: Five Storylines That Will Dominate the 2019 Offseason

10. It’ll be interesting to see the staff changes Matt Patricia makes after a rough first year in Detroit. I think offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s a good coach, but his name is the first you hear out there when this subject comes up. And Patricia has quarterbacks coach/ex-Patriots assistant George Godsey on staff, as a potential replacement.


FIVE-DAY FORECAST

We get our final weekday NFL game of the season tonight, and it’s a doozy—the 6-8 Broncos travel to face the 3-11 Raiders.

The intrigue here? This is potentially the final NFL game Oakland will ever host, so the fourth quarter could be quite a scene. Other than that  …

PICK: Denver 26, Oakland 20.

Merry Christmas everyone, and we’ll see you in a few for an abbreviated Monday Afternoon Quarterback.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.