The Playoff Field Is Set, and the Coaching Axe Swings

The Playoff Field Is Set, and the Coaching Axe Swings

The Ravens defense say no way to a Baker Mayfield-Browns miracle, the Eagles soar as the Vikings sink, and the Jets and Bucs are among the teams looking for new coaches as the old year ends.
December 31, 2018

“You know the history,” Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley told me, a half hour after the final gun at M&T Bank Stadium. “The past few years, the defense has been on the field.”

Mosley isn’t lying. And while that fact—that a proud Baltimore defense failed the team in December the last two seasons—didn’t get a lot of play during the lead-up to Week 17, it gnawed at the veterans of that proud unit.

In 2016 it was a 10-play, 75-yard drive yielded to the Steelers in Week 16, capped with by Antonio Brown touchdown scored with 13 seconds left to give Pittsburgh a 31-27 win and put the Ravens behind the 8-ball. Last year it was an 11-play, 80-yard drive from the Bengals, capped by a 49-yard scoring connection between Andy Dalton and Tyler Boyd with 53 seconds left, dealing the Ravens another 31-27 loss.

And with everything to play for on the final Sunday of 2018, it looked like it was happening again.

After all, fate seemed like the only explanation for circus catches Breshad Perriman (yes, that Breshad Perriman, the Ravens’ old first-round-bust Breshad Perriman) and Jarvis Landry made within two snaps of each other to cover 35 yards and push the Browns from their own 26 to the Ravens 39 with 78 seconds left. Cleveland still trailed 26-24, but it was Baltimore that appeared to be the team facing the uphill battle.

“We’re on the field, and I was like, ‘Oh, here we go again,’” Mosley said. “But we told ourselves, Just stay resilient, man. We got four more downs. That’s all we needed.”

Resilient, they were. And the belief didn’t waver—because in a very specific way, it’s been there all year.

Gail Burton/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Upon taking his new post in the offseason, Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale pledged aggression and entrusted Mosley and safety Eric Weddle with wide-ranging latitude to check in and out of calls, both individually and for the group, based on what each of the veterans sees out on the field. On the most important series of the year, and then the most important play of the year, that showed up big-time.

Here’s the really interesting thing—back in September, all anyone could talk about was the explosion of the passing game in pro football. Yet there we all were at the apex of Week 17 action, and it was a defense making the difference—and one paired with an offense that looks a whole lot more like Navy than it does Texas Tech.


Lots to get to in Week 17. And we’re going to toggle between teams that fought for a place at the playoff table, and those that will be jockeying for coaches in the coming days. So here’s what you’re looking at:

The Eagles lurking as a dangerous team in the NFC bracket, and why this isn’t so different from last year was, even if their road is that much tougher.
The Colts surging behind a quarterback who doesn’t need to be as dominant as he once needed to be.
• A quick run through the coaching openings, or potential openings, as Black Monday dawns.
• An update on Ohio State DE Nick Bosa’s health, plus tidbits on Kyler Murray and more draft info.
• Thoughts on the under-the-radar Texans, Patrick Mahomes’s crazy brilliance, Kyle Williams’ farewell, the Seahawks’ rebuild and more 2018 reflections.

And, of course, we’ll bump around the playoff picture and look at what’s in store over a pretty intriguing Wild-Card Weekend slate. But we’re starting in Baltimore.


After Baker Mayfield’s rope to Landry for 16 yards in the game’s 58th minute, the Browns were set up with first-and-10 at the Baltimore 39, a timeout and that 1:18 showing on the clock. They needed less than 10 yards to get in kicker Greg Joseph’s range—he was 6-for-8 on kicks of 40-plus yards this year.

This is exactly the kind of situation, it’d been said in September, bound to generate offensive fireworks in 2018. And then, the opposite happened.

Martindale dialed up max pressure—six rushers coming—on each of the four snaps to follow. On first down, Mayfield threw a fade to tight end David Njoku up the right sideline that cornerback Anthony Levine batted away. On second down, the rush forced an off-target throw to the sideline to Landry. On third down, Mayfield unloaded the ball so fast that Djoku wasn’t ready when it hit him in the hands.

NFL PLAYOFFS: Analyzing the Best Matchups and Biggest Sleepers

“That’s him trusting us,” Mosley said on Martindale’s calls. “It’s the D-line trusting the linebackers. The linebackers trusting the DBs, to be where they’re supposed to be. Levine made a big play on the sidelines on Njoku. [Brandon] Carr, he almost had an interception on third down. We fought.”

And then came the last call—Cable zero train. Yup, Martindale was dialing up another max pressure, but it was on Mosley to make the critical adjustment base on what the Browns did.

As it was drawn up, Mosley was supposed to shoot the B-gap, between the guard and the tackle, on the front side of the play. But at the snap, he saw the center and guard slide to him, killing his chances of getting to the quarterback. So at that point, he fell off to the spot where he thought Mayfield’s hot read would be. Sure enough, Mosley dropped right into Mayfield’s throwing lane, a few yards in front of Duke Johnson.

To the rest of us, it all happened pretty fast. To Mosley, it was slow motion.

“That ball was in the air for 10 seconds. That was the longest two-yard pass ever,” he said. “It felt great, man, to have my teammates celebrate with me, the city celebrate with me. We deserved it. It just felt good that you can accomplish something so big and have your family behind you to share with.”

Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

And now these different-but-familiar Ravens head for January, with that 26-24 win, and a home game against the Chargers on Sunday.

The Ravens are different now, in that Lamar Jackson is the quarterback, and the coaching staff’s plan to innovate with him, hatched before the draft, has seen the light of day—Baltimore is basically an option team, one that’s gashed opponents for 5.1 yards per carry in Jackson’ seven starts. And the deeper you dig into the numbers, the more proof you get of how far John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marty Morhinweg are taking this approach.

Since Jackson became the starter in Week 11, the Ravens have run the ball 316 times for 1,607 yards. They’ve only dropped back to pass 180 times (including sacks), giving Baltimore a 64/36 run/pass ratio—which is pretty much unheard of in this day and age, and speaks to a staff willing to make it work.

“[Jackson] did a great job stepping up the middle of the season, coming out of the bye week, staying resilient,” Mosley said. “The offensive line, everyone on the offensive side, put him in a great position. And him just being the playmaker he is, he made a lot of big plays. He made this team, this offense, quick. He helps [the defense] too, keeping us off the field.”

And that’s where these Ravens look familiar. They’re back to the top of the league’s defensive rankings—finishing the season No. 1 in total defense, fifth in passing defense, fourth in run defense and second in scoring defense—and playing a style that gums up the game and plays it on terms than a lot of teams in today’s NFL are not comfortable with.

“We might not be the flashiest, but at the end of the day, we want to impose our will,” Mosley said. “For the most part of the season, that’s what we did. Especially the second half, when the offense turned it around, started running the ball. When you’re in the playoffs, you got to pack your run game, pack your defense. That’s what we did the past few weeks.”

As a result, they were able to exorcise some ghosts of the recent past, and become the sort of team that no one’s going to want to play—one that plays a different game from most everyone else.


THE MMQB MONDAY PODCAST: Gary Gramling and Andy Benoit with overnight analysis on the Ravens’ big win, the Vikings’ big collapse, the wild-card matchups, the coaching carousel and more. Subscribe on iTunes.


UNDERDOGS AGAIN? THE EAGLES WILL TAKE IT

The Super Bowl champs were 2-3 at one point this season, and 4-6 at another, and left for dead by just about everyone after an overtime loss to the Cowboys three weeks ago. And here we are, with the regular season done, and the NFL still can’t kill off Doug Pederson and the Philadelphia Eagles.

Then, just consider where they were on Dec. 11—stuck in a traffic jam of seven-loss teams (Packers, Panthers, Redskins), looking up at the Vikings in the sixth seed, with games against two eventual division champs (Rams, Texans) on tap. Oh, and Carson Wentz had just gone down.

Then the Eagles beat the Rams. And the Texans. And on Sunday they wiped the floor with the playing-out-the-string Redskins, 24-0 on Washington’s home turf, and got the help they needed from the Bears, who breezily ousted Minnesota from the playoff picture. And suddenly it’s all starting to feel a lot like last year, in how Philly is stiff-arming its circumstances.

“We’re a legitimate team,” safety and captain Malcolm Jenkins said from the victorious locker room late Sunday. “This isn’t contingent on one player, or our star players. Because last year and this year, we’ve been plagued with injuries, and at some key positions. But we really pride ourselves on winning as a team, and everybody bears the burden and contributes.

Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

“The next guy up is expected to perform and prepare. And we do a good job of, obviously, adjusting to do that. We don’t make excuses—we just figure out a way.”

Maybe the biggest challenge this week was just focusing on what was at hand. The Eagles didn’t control their destiny, and so as their game kicked off, they knew that what was going down in Minneapolis could make whatever happened in suburban DC moot.

Jenkins isn’t going to lie, either. He couldn’t ignore what was going on in Minnesota, especially after he realized that that the out-of-town scoreboard was situated right next to the play clock. But, he says, “We knew one scenario was guaranteed: If we didn’t win, we wouldn’t be in.”

The Redskins did make Philly work for it, keeping the score within 10 points deep into the fourth quarter. But in the end the old-reliable formula the Eagles rode to a Super Bowl last year, and the one that’s been repurposed since Nick Foles returned to the lineup, proved to be plenty good enough for the third straight week: Philly leaned on its run game (34 carries, 129 yards) and defensive line, and eventually wore Washington down.

BENOIT: How the Eagles Can Upset the Bears

Foles did get knocked out of the game late (Nate Sudfeld actually looked sharp in his place), and his sore ribs will merit monitoring this week, as the Eagles prepare to go to Chicago for Sunday’s wild-card game. Foles did, though, sound OK afterward. And at this point even if Sudfeld had to go against the Bears, it’s hard to imagine the Eagles crumbling because of it.

“We definitely have that feeling,” Jenkins said. “Like, it doesn’t matter. Whatever the adversity is, whatever we face, it doesn’t matter. Because we know as a group, we trust every individual we put out there. We trust the coaches to come up with a plan, we trust that everybody’s preparing, we trust that the leaders will step up and lead the way. We’ve done that, and it’s proven. I don’t see this being any different.”

Over the last few weeks, it sure hasn’t looked different.


IT’S MORE THAN LUCK BEHIND THE COLTS

The best news for the Colts going into the playoffs is that Andrew Luck is back to the point where he can carry a team. The second best news, to me, would be that it doesn’t look like Indianapolis needs him to do that anymore.

Yup, Luck was fine in the Colts’ 33-17 win over the Titans on Sunday night, one that put Indy back in the playoffs for the first time since the Deflategate AFC title game four years ago. Luck threw for 285 yards and three touchdowns with one pick on 24-of-35 passing. But Indy did more to control the game than just hang it on No. 12.

The running game, fueled by Marlon Mack, rolled up 158 yards on 36 carries. The defense, if you take away a 33-yard rumble by Derrick Henry, held the Titans’ red-hot ground game to just 60 yards on 15 carries, and Blaine Gabbert to a ghastly 60.3 rating. And yeah, maybe the fact that Gabbert was in there adjusted the degree of a difficult a little (or a lot) from where it would have been with a healthy Marcus Mariota.

Still, this feels like a very different kind of Colts team.

GRAMLING: Week 17 Takeaways—Foles and the Eagles Return, the Ravens Hold On This Time, Vikings Have Some Soul-Searching to Do 

“We all trust in each other,” Mack said, over the cell from the locker room postgame. “We try to go out there and work—12 puts a lot of pressure on himself, and so we have to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do our jobs at the same level.”

So here’s what stuck out about Luck’s effort—how a handful of his biggest plays related to favorable down-and-distance.

Luck hit three shots of more than 20 yards in first-and-10 situations, facing a defense that had to respect the Colts’ run game. And his biggest play of the day, a 43-yarder to T.Y. Hilton, came on a second-and-6, following a four-yard Mack run. Similarly, a 17-yard toss to Nyheim Hines came on a second-and-4, following a six-yard Mack run. All of which is evidence that defenses have to play Luck straight up more than ever before.

Mark Zaleski/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“It always makes a difference when an offensive coordinator and a QB are going for a third-and-2, instead of a third-and-10,” Mack said. “As a running back, you always try to strive to get four or five yards a carry, and help the offensive coordinator or the quarterback, give them an easy call on third-and-2 or third-and-1. The O-linemen, how they’re playing, it’s making it easier to get third-and-1 or third-and-2.”

ORR: Colts Win Means Quarterback-Rich AFC Field 

And this, by the way, is all investment. The same way the Colts have started to restock the D, they’ve loaded up the offensive line with four former top-40 draft picks. The difference from last year to this year, and it’s enormous, is really rookies Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith joining Anthony Costanzo and Ryan Kelly.

The result has been a Luck who’s gradually gotten better and better, and is operating in a different environment than he has been at any previous point in his NFL career—which makes Indy dangerous now, and pretty scary going forward.


BLACK MONDAY: AS THE COACHING CAROUSEL SPINS

Today is Black Monday, and we already have four changes in the books—the Browns and Packers have long been on the board, and were joined by the Buccaneers and Jets on Sunday night. There’ll probably be three or four more coaching changes, so I figured it’d be most efficient here to just give you a quick thought on each of the spots we’re keeping an eye on:

Packers: We’ve mentioned Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Patriots OC Josh McDaniels here over the last few week—one key is being able to coach Aaron Rodgers, and both Fitzgerald and McDaniels, for different reasons, appear to have the chops to do it. This one is president Mark Murphy’s show, though GM Brian Gutekunst will have plenty of input, as will a handful of other VP types.

Browns: This one remains wide open. I’d expect Dolphins coach Adam Gase’s name to surface here if he becomes available, and you’ve already heard McDaniels’s. Both have had their tires kicked by Cleveland in the recent past, and the Haslams are believed to like both guys. Darkhorse: Iowa State’s Matt Campbell. And there’s also the obvious connection between GM John Dorsey and ex-Packers coach Mike McCarthy.

Jets: Word is the Jets are looking at guys with head coaching experience, with ex-Packers coach Mike McCarthy one that they’ve done a lot of background work on. And they were going to be hot after Ravens coach John Harbaugh, had he become available. Campbell bears watching here, too.

LIVE TRACKER: Latest News and Info on NFL Coaching Changes

Buccaneers: The buzz is that the Bucs are looking for a name, and could be preparing to make a run at prying Harbaugh out of Baltimore. McCarthy would fit the profile, too, of an experienced and accomplished coach who’ll create some buzz.

Broncos: GM John Elway will meet with Vance Joseph in mid-morning. And barring the kind of change of heart he had last year, Joseph will be gone. Those in Denver said there was a finality in the way Joseph addressed his players post-game on Sunday—he told them he believed many of them would be part of the solution when the team did turn it around. It’d be pretty tough for the team to push Joseph to the ledge in consecutive years, then pull him back, and Elway’s been frustrated with his offensive staffing. This is another team with affection for John Harbaugh, potentially to pair with Gary Kubiak, were he to become available.

Cardinals: The problem with Steve Wilks isn’t just how ugly things looked on the field, at 3-13. It’s the issues he had assembling a staff. And that’s why it’s a very good bet he’s gone—because the brass doesn’t trust that he’ll be able to fix those problems on the fly, and the development of their 2018 first-round quarterback is at stake. It’s easy to see why, then, that word is their first looks will likely be to experienced hands like Jim Caldwell and McCarthy.

ORR: New Coaches Make the Playoffs More Often Than You Think

Dolphins: The dismissal of EVP Mike Tannenbaum has been rumored for days. And owner Steve Ross’s dissatisfaction with the climate in the building certainly puts larger-scale changes on the table, and makes the idea that he’ll go forward with Gase and GM Chris Grier running the show seem a little less likely. If he hires a football czar to replace Tannenbaum, which could trigger changes elsewhere, New England exec Nick Caserio and Minnesota exec George Paton are two names that have been bandied about.

Bengals: The coaches went to bed on Sunday night with no assurances about their futures, but when Marvin Lewis agreed to come back this year, the belief was he and owner Mike Brown resolved to go two more years. Lewis will meet with Brown on Tuesday, as he does at the end of every year.

Coordinator movement: As we noted the Game Plan on Thursday, Lions OC Jim Bob Cooter and Bucs OC Todd Monken are on expiring deals, and both should garner plenty of interest on the market. As for Minnesota interim coordinator Kevin Stefanski, coach Mike Zimmer would’ve been fine elevating him last year after Pat Shurmur left, so it stands to reason that he’ll hold on the job there, barring bigger organizational changes. And expect to hear Joseph’s name connected to the DC opening in Cincinnati.


… OF THE WEEK

QUOTE

“I am disappointed in the behavior today from T.J. Yeldon and Leonard Fournette. They were disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming that of a professional football player.” —Jaguars EVP of football operations Tom Coughlin.

The Jacksonville boss didn’t mince words after the team’s 12th loss, during which TV cameras found the two Jags running backs a little, uh, less than engaged in the game against the Texans. Then came word that the team had voided the guarantees in Fournette’s contract, after he was suspended for fighting Bills DE Shaq Lawson in late November. And it sure looks like Coughlin and Doug Marrone have a fine mess on their hands to clean up.

TWEET

That’s Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb hugging it out, and Cobb tearing up, before what might have been the final game the two ever play together. That’s the reality of the NFL, and of Week 17. Lots of broken dreams leading to pending breakups—Cobb’s four-year, $39.9 million deal is up after this, his eighth season as a Packer. Over that time, he’s caught 470 passes for 5,524 yards and 41 touchdowns, the great majority being delivered to him by No. 12.

CLIP

A special tribute this week to our friends at #BillsMafia—we’ll give them a video and a meme here—and we’ll have a special tribute to one of their own coming up in the takeaways.

MEME

Giants RB Saquon Barkley is an absolutely incredible athlete. He can be a little boom-or-bust on the field—both at Penn State and as an NFL rookie, he’s shown a propensity to alternate huge and very quiet games—but there’s no doubting his freakish talent. And now he has a 2,000-scrimmage-yard season in his first year as a pro.

S/O to …

Browns QB Drew Stanton for bringing 50 kids from Cleveland area rec centers out shopping for Christmas—and including his teammates in the event. The other guys on the depth chart at his position, Baker Mayfield and Tyrod Taylor, both joined in, as did a lot of other Browns. And the cool thing is how Stanton initially got the idea for a tradition that he’s carried from team to team since entering the league in 2007. It was actually from an ex-teammate of his, former lineman Ephraim Salaam, who invited him to a “Shop with a Jock” event in 2009. The hope would be that, from here, the tradition is passed on down the line by guys Mayfield and Taylor.


SIX FROM SATURDAY

The college football news from the perspective of the NFL.

1. Ohio State DE Nick Bosa popped up on the public radar this week for the first time in a couple months, appearing at Buckeyes’ bowl practice. And so I touched base with his dad, former Dolphins first-round pick John Bosa, over the weekend to update his status. John said his son is just now transitioning from rehabbing his surgically repaired core muscle injury to starting training for the combine. “The thing for Nick, after everything is said and done, after the second consultation after the surgery, the reality sunk in for him that this really is a 12 to 14 week process,” John Bosa told me. “Even after that, he’s good to go, but he’s not good to pass rush, he’s just good to start back.” And that was something, the elder Bosa said, that Nick was feeling on a week-to-week basis. “He’d call me during game weeks, during the week of the ‘Team Up North’ game, and he’d say, ‘I had a great workout on the field, but there’s no way I could come close to playing football today.’ ”

2. In a certain way, that gave Bosa some peace of mind. He made the decision to go to California in October, largely because his surgeon, Philadelphia-based Dr. Nick Meyers, works closely with a facility five minutes from Nick’s brother Joey’s place in Tustin, Calif., where Nick could also have access to Joey’s trainer, chef and nutritionist. That, of course, didn’t make it easy on Nick, even if it was the right thing to do. “From him to leave the team, leave all his buddies, was very, very difficult,” John said. “I was heartbroken for him. He was on pace maybe to be sitting in New York for that [Heisman] trophy presentation.” Bosa got a hero’s welcome when he showed up at that practice the other day, and the two brothers plan to be on the sideline Tuesday at the Rose Bowl with their alma mater. “He told me he enjoyed the conversation he had with coach [Urban] Meyer and coach Mike [Marotti] more than any conversation he’s had with them,” John said. “It wasn’t a conversation as a player anymore—they were more talking as friends.” As for what’s ahead, John Bosa said he’s “95 percent sure” his son will do everything workout-wise at the combine.

3. Decision time is coming for Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray, with his college career now (presumably) over. And so this is worth passing along—a couple scouts I know well believe strongly that Murray prefers playing football, and specifically playing quarterback, to baseball. That doesn’t mean he’s going to choose football. But it does color his decision to put his name in with the NFL’s draft board to get a grade, despite taking a $4.66 million signing bonus from the Oakland A’s as the ninth overall pick in the baseball draft.

KAHLER: Kyler Murray and the Draft Prospects the NFL Is Watching This Bowl Season

4. The Clemson defensive line acquitted itself as you’d expect it to in the national semifinal. And Clelin Ferrell, who scored a sack and four tackles, continued to show a refined game and a really good motor, which should help mitigate the fact that he’s got good but not great athletic ability when teams are considering him in the top half of the first round.

5. Tigers freshman Trevor Lawrence is gonna be pretty good, huh?

6. This isn’t exactly new, but Alabama showed itself on Saturday night to have (at least) three tailbacks with potential to be NFL starters—senior Damien Harris, junior Josh Jacobs, and sophomore Najee Harris. The elder Harris and Jacobs have a good shot to go in the first three rounds in April. The younger Harris may well be a 2020 first-rounder.


TEN TAKEAWAYS

1. I don’t want to play the “no one’s talking about …” game, but it really does feel like no one’s talking about the Texans. Y’know, the team that started 0-3 and has somehow muscled its way to an 11-5 season? They’re getting the Colts on Saturday, with a shot to go back to New England for a divisional-round playoff game for the third time in seven seasons. And I caught coach Bill O’Brien’s talk with his team postgame, where he called what they’d done, coming back from 0-3, a “monumental achievement.” So I figured I’d hit him up and ask him what he’s most proud of. He texted back: “Great leadership by the captains—[Deshaun] Watson, [J.J.] Watt, [DeAndre] Hopkins, [Tyrann] Mathieu, [Johnathan] Joseph and Brian Peters. Team of tough guys who love to practice and work hard. Special teams is much improved, and we’ve been solid in all three phases.”

2. While we’re reflecting on things, I also hit up Kyle Williams, the retiring Bills defensive tackle, to ask what he was most proud of as he wrapped up a stellar 13-year career in Buffalo. “I think I’m most proud of the bond with the city,” Williams said. “Just love the people and how they’ve responded to me, and me to them.” You’ll have a hard time finding many who don’t really, really like and respect Williams. He’ll retire a five-time Pro Bowler, and with a fun moment as a capper, with the Bills sending Williams out to catch a nine-yard swing pass from Josh Allen at the end of Sunday’s rout of the Dolphins.

3. In midseason, I was texting with Chiefs tackle Mitchell Schwartz about Patrick Mahomes’ crazy season, and his perspective on it, and he said, “It’s funny, people always ask how fun it is. And I’ve never gotten to really take a step back and watch it as pure entertainment. One of these days I’ll fire up the TV copy and enjoy.” That sort of sums up how I feel about what we’ve seen from Mahomes during this amazing second season—one that he capped on Sunday with his 50th touchdown pass, and the mind-bending fact that he just joined a club that only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were previously in. I’ve stuck to my guns on Drew Brees as MVP, because of how he’s played in the biggest spots. But Mahomes has made it very, very difficult, and I’m still prone to potentially flipping.

Ed Zurga/AP/REX/Shutterstock

4. This was get-right Sunday for the Rams after a bad couple weeks, and that’s why I took note of receiver Josh Reynolds’ assessment of the 48-32 win over the Niners: “We’re going into [the bye] with a lot of confidence after this.” Jared Goff’s first half stat line: 12-of-23, 132 yards, 2 TDs. Jared Goff’s second-half stat line: 3-of-3, 67 yards, 2 TDs. So it’s pretty easy to see why Sean McVay felt OK giving Goff the second-half hook, The problem? It’s on the other side of the ball, where the Rams yielded 6.7 yards per play to Nick Mullens and the 49ers offense.

5. Speaking of getting right, Mitch Trubisky wasn’t statistically outstanding, but he drove the train on a game-altering 16-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that put the Bears up 21-10, and went his third straight week without an interception. Remember, Trubisky has Matt Nagy calling games for him, and Vic Fangio’s nasty, Khalil Mack-led defense to lean on, so he doesn’t have to move mountains. The efficient Trubisky of the last few weeks might be plenty.

6. The Titans are facing an interesting offseason with their franchise QB Marcus Mariota, who’s due a $20.9 million fifth-year option in 2019, which becomes fully guaranteed at the outset of the league year in March. I’d expect he’ll be back in Nashville next year, but it’d be tough to go all-in on a market-rate deal for him at this point, given the injury history (which, to be fair, has only cost him eight games as a pro) and where he is in his development (89.4 career rating, 92.3 rating in ’18). Coach Mike Vrabel got a lot done in Year 1 in Tennessee, and you could see an identity form behind Derrick Henry, the offensive line and the defense, but the situation at quarterback gives the team an interesting challenge to work through.

7. Panthers QB Cam Newton made a ton a of progress before his shoulder went rotten on him in midseason, and so it was good to see the work of Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner show up in another place this week—with rookie backup Kyle Allen. Allen, a former five-star high school recruit who had a tumultuous college career, threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns on 16-of-27 passing in the (meaningless) win over the Saints.

8. I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world that Dak Prescott got a little extra work in before the playoffs—and built some positive momentum. Yes, there’s some injury risk. But this isn’t a 40-year-old quarterback. Prescott is 25, and he’s been up and down, and so I can understand the merit in what Jason Garrett did on Sunday. There’s no need to bubblewrap everyone.

9. Crazy that Pete Carroll got the Seahawks to 10 win this year, and eventually we’ll stop listing all the guys who left before that to make the feat so impressive.

10. I have no idea what to make of the Lions’ 31-0 stomping of the Packers. But I do think that we need more than a year to assess Matt Patricia. And even though he almost certainly won’t get it, I feel the same way about Steve Wilks in Arizona.


FIVE-DAY FORECAST

It’s 4:44 a.m. as I write this and I’m thinking I’ll be awake around 7 a.m. for Black Monday. So I’m pretty sure I know what all of you will want to read about this week. The action should really get going mid-morning, and I trust you’ll lock in here at the site on our tracker, and with the reaction we’ll have coming.

And then … the playoffs!

Saturday, we get the Colts and Texans (ESPN, 4:35 p.m. ET), and the Seahawks and Cowboys (FOX, 8:15 p.m. ET); and Sunday, it’s Chargers-Ravens (CBS, 1 p.m. ET) and Eagles-Bears (NBC, 4:40 p.m. ET). My top five storylines for the week? Real quick, so I can go to bed …

1. Andrew Luck back in the playoffs!
2. The influx of young QBs (Watson, Trubisky, Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott).
3. The Eagles’ quarterback health.
4. The Bears’ bad-ass defense vs. Doug Pederson.
5. The Ravens turning back the clock on the NFL.

And of course, don’t forget to be on the lookout for the Monday Afternoon Quarterback in just a matter of hours. See you all then.

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