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FMIA Week 13: Featuring a Duck and a Darkhorse, Playoff Picture Fills Out – NBCSports.com

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FMIA Week 13: Featuring a Duck and a Darkhorse, Playoff Picture Fills Out – NBCSports.com

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Four weeks to go, after Vikings-Seahawks end Week 13 tonight in Seattle. There’s not high drama about the 12 playoff teams, other than Pittsburgh and Tennessee dueling for the AFC’s sixth seed, and wondering if the psycho Rams can conquer a tough stretch run to sneak in, and, well, someone’s got to win the NFC East. Can the NFC East secede? Please? Talk about the absurdity of the NFL’s every-division-winner’s-guaranteed-a-home-playoff-game shtick: Imagine the 13-3 Seahawks or Niners being the road wild-card foe … at 7-9 Dallas or Philly.

At this point, it’s about jockeying for position and home-field. As you wake up today, you’ll see 10 teams at the top of the league with either eight, nine or 10 wins, 10 teams separated by two games. So when you look at the playoff picture, do not assume the standings on Jan. 2 will look like the Dec. 2 table. At all. More about that in a minute.

The playoff picture this morning has some remarkable similarities: One and two seeds with identical records in both conferences, and five seeds each with nine wins.

AFC

1. Baltimore 10-2


2. New England 10-2


3. Houston 8-4


4. Kansas City 8-4


5. Buffalo 9-3


6. Pittsburgh 7-5 (over 7-5 Tennessee by virtue of better AFC record)

NFC

1. San Francisco 10-2


2. New Orleans 10-2


3. Green Bay 9-3


4. Dallas 6-6


5. Seattle 9-2


6. Minnesota 8-3

Six notable items on the playoff picture:

The 49ers pretty easily could fall from 1 to 5 in the NFC. A Seattle win tonight would put them there entering the last four weeks. They’d both be 10-2 in that event, but the Seahawks have the tiebreaker, and the schedule edge. Of the remaining four games for the Niners and ‘Hawks, San Francisco has the two toughest: at Saints this week, at ‘Hawks Dec. 28. Niners fans worldwide, light a candle for the Vikings tonight. Your best hope is the recent play of Kirk Cousins, a 72-percent passer with a 12-0 TD-to-interception ratio in the last five games.

The Patriots had to be concerned on their two plane trips home from Houston early this morning. New England, ravaged by illness late in the week, took two planes to get beaten cleanly by Houston—one for the healthy players/coaches, one for the sick ones. Didn’t help. Tom Brady looks totally fed up with the offensive inabilities and none of his neophyte  receivers getting open. It was cute for a while, the Pats finally leaning on the defense to win games while the N’Keal Harrys and Jakobi Meyerses learned how to be dangerous. But maybe they just aren’t, or won’t be anytime this month. “Faster! Quicker!” Brady seemed to be pleading to them in the first quarter. And the defense, compared to the 8-0 start, is mortal. It’s allowed 21 points a game, on average, over the last four weeks. Not bad. Except when your offense is lagging, it spells trouble for January football. I keep thinking Bill Belichick is going to lobby Robert Kraft for Antonio Brown. Very soon.

The Bills are probably playoff-safe, but they’re about to be severely tested. Next three foes: Baltimore, at Pittsburgh, at New England. Nothing’s a gimme for the Patriots now, but it’ll be tough for Buffalo to win the division with New England having Cincinnati and Miami (at home, Week 17) on the docket.

Watch out for Green Bay. The Packers have their faults, but the remaining schedule is not one of them: Washington, Chicago, at Minnesota (Monday night), at Detroit. A 3-1 finish gets them to 12-4, the third seed at worst, and, if third, a likely winter wonderland game at Lambeau against Cousins or Jared Goff on the first weekend of January. The Packers would sign for that, I bet. The NFL loves the Pack in front of the widest possible audience, and the league certainly remembers the snow-globe prime-time playoff game against Mike Vick in 2002. Hmmmm.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. (Getty Images)

Yes, WIP callers, the Eagles are still very much in this thing. Giants twice and Washington once in the last four games. And if you think the 5-7 soul-crushers can’t beat the 6-6 Cowboys, you didn’t see the Dallas offense score one touchdown in its last 24 possessions. I doubt Philly will win out, but I have no idea who’ll win that piece of NFL swampland.

An interesting January darkhorse: Tennessee. In their three-game win streak, the Titans have scored 35, 42 and 31 points. Derrick Henry has led the league in rushing each week of the streak, with 188, 159 and 149 yards. “I’m just doing my job,” Henry said from the Titans’ locker room after beating Indy on Sunday. “Our team is about complementary football. When they give it to me, I’ll be productive.” I think they’ve found a formula. Conservative passing game, power running game, and ridiculously good special teams. A game behind Houston entering the home stretch, the Titans probably have to sweep the Texans in weeks 15 and 17 to win the AFC South. Not sure they can do that, though they’re 5-1 since benching Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill. Last Tennessee sweep of the Texans: 2007.

In other news, the Steelers had quite a Sunday.

Great night for Houston. Bill O’Brien beat his mentor for the first time (Houston 28, New England 22) after losing to Bill Belichick five times. Deshaun Watson beat the guy he idolized as a developing quarterback.

Great late afternoon for Kansas City. The Chiefs played their best all-around game (KC 40, Oakland 9) and all but clinched the AFC West, up two with the tiebreaker with four to play. They’re rested and healthy going into Foxboro on Sunday.

Great day for Baltimore. No one will be shocked if Ravens 20, Niners 17 ends up being a Super Bowl preview. The Ravens are the best team in the league. In six weeks, they’ve traveled West to beat Seattle by 14 and the Rams by 39; at home, they’ve beaten New England by 17, Houston by 34 and San Francisco by a Justin Tucker 49-yarder in the rain at :00.

The Steelers aren’t as good as Baltimore, and they might not make the playoffs even. But that was one hell of a day for the team and the city and the coach (and the Duck), the 20-13 win over Cleveland.

Factoid of the Browns-Steelers Rivalry: Since Week 6, Matt Ryan has won two games, Philip Rivers has won two, and Carson Wentz has won two. Devlin Hodges has won three.

But my hero of the day is not Hodges—though he deserves credit, and he’ll get it here. The hero of the day is the Steelers coach who kept the focus on football, Mike Tomlin. In the maelstrom of inflammatory T-shirts, fans angry about the long suspension of Myles Garrett, and pre-game chatter that this was the day the Browns would take over the rivalry (per Dianna Russini of ESPN), Tomlin made this day about one thing and one thing only: football.

Steelers quarterback Devlin Hodges. (Getty Images)

“I love Coach T,” Joe Haden told me from Pittsburgh on Sunday night. It was Haden’s late pick of Baker Mayfield that iced the victory. “He always keeps it very black and white. All week, his message was: Stop the run, contain Odell and Landry [receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry] and just play ball—they don’t like us, we don’t like them, who cares, just play.”

Quietly, the Steelers were a tribe before and after this game. If the Browns started something, Tomlin gave orders not to finish it. The game will be won by playing football, not by skirmishing. Did you notice Tomlin in the 17 days before the game? He never took the bait and made inflammatory statements about the brawl that banned Garrett for the rest of the year and Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey for two games. Nothing he could say would make the situation better or be good for his team, so he just zipped it. The loss of Pouncey, their unquestioned leader, hurt. Tomlin understood why he came to the defense of his quarterback when attacked by Garrett and actually appreciated it, even though he didn’t say that publicly. The team knew. Pouncey knew.

After the game, the Steelers had Pouncey FaceTimed into their post-game locker-room huddle. “He broke us down,” Haden said. (Translated, that’s something a coach or leaders does at the end of a practice or game, like “Steelers on three, 1-2-3!” or something collegial like that.)

Haden said: “Then Coach T took the ball and said, ‘I’m bringing this to Maurkice.’ That was big for our team.”

The Steelers are 7-5 in a very different way this year. In the past four weeks, they’ve scored 17, 7, 16 and 20 points, and they’re 3-1. “We manufacture wins,” Haden said. “We’ve got ballers on defense. When we go out there as a defense, we feel the energy of the crowd. We feel the love. They love defense in Pittsburgh. You know that’s the history. Right now, we’re playing as a legitimate team.”

With an undrafted rookie quarterback from Samford University. Last year, Devlin “Duck” Hodges, the 2018 Alabama state duck calling champion (honestly), was playing Shorter and Kennesaw State on his small campus in Birmingham. Now he’s enmeshed in the Steelers-Browns border war, and he’ll be charged with getting this underdog team to the playoffs, somehow. It’s such a great story. Imagine a January game with Duck Hodges at Tom Brady, or Duck Hodges at Patrick Mahomes. Really, Duck Hodges at Anybody.

“The Duck Caller is out there wingin’ it!” Haden said, laughing. “He’s winning—he’s throwing people open! We love it!”

• The Justin Tucker show. There’s something about Tucker that makes you say, I want that guy on my team. Here’s the game of the year in the NFL so far, the 10-1 Niners traveling cross-country to play the 9-2 Ravens, the best of the NFC at the best of the AFC (as it appears). After a slew of controversial calls and great individual performances, and a backup San Francisco safety named Marcell Harris punching the ball out of Lamar Jackson’s grasp and almost ruining the game for the Ravens, not to mention the steady-to-hard rain on a 40-degree day, with a 13-mph wind swirling in the stadium, it all came down to this:

Three seconds left, and the score tied at 17, and the ball lying at the San Francisco 31-yard-line, and the Ravens waving out Tucker for the field goal try.

“I try to be chill,” he said from the Ravens locker room afterward. “I focus on the action of the kick, not consequences. Honestly, as the clock ran down, I‘m just hoping the ball’s the spotted at the 32.”

“Why?” I said.

“Fifty’s a nice round number,” Tucker said. “And there’s slightly more glory making a 50-yarder than 49.”

My, my. The man wants to kick from a yard longer. That’s his sense of confidence, of history.

“The rain was coming down all day,” he said. “Actually, I changed my shirt at halftime, I was so cold and wet. So the spot we picked out where my plant foot was going to land was rather soft and very wet. Knowing what to do and how to adjust before the kick is one of the important steps before the kick. Gotta make sure I stay up, and I get my studs out of the ground lightly so I don’t slip. You feel the moment, of course. You have to embrace it. You can’t run away from it. You process the whole specter of human emotion, from fear to excitement, compartmentalize it, put it away, then realize the only thing that matters is the action, as I said, not the consequence.”

Ravens kicker Justin Tucker. (Getty Images)

Interesting: Tucker said when it’s raining hard, as it was, and the wind is blowing, you can see by looking toward the goalpost which direction the wind is going—because that’s the direction it’s raining. The wind was going left to right, but really, Tucker couldn’t really know how it would swirl after the kick because it wasn’t absolutely steady. He aimed a bit to the left of center. When he kicked, the ball didn’t seem to be affected by the wind much. It started to the left of center, then flew straight away through the posts.

He was happy, but not blown away with emotion. This is his job, and he’s the most accurate kicker ever, and he knows there will be other kicks this big. And bigger.

• O’Brien and Watson win the big one. Finally. You never know whether a game is just a game, or if it’s something more. The 28-22 Houston victory over New England felt like more, because the Texans under Bill O’Brien had lost to the Patriots under Bill Belichick by 21, 27, 18, 3 and 7 since O’Brien took over the Texans in 2014. On this night in Houston, the Texans built a 28-9 lead with 10 minutes to go, and though New England got two touchdowns late, the game didn’t have a lot of real drama. It was Houston’s night.

In the Houston locker room after the game, Deshaun Watson, the third-year quarterback and no-doubt team leader, took it on himself to give O’Brien the game ball. Those in the room said O’Brien was emotional about it. He should have been. A decade ago, O’Brien was on Belichick’s staff in New England, and he’s been the little brother getting beat up by the big brother every time they play. Until Sunday night.

“It was big for both of us,” Watson said. “We work together all the time. We had two tries since I’ve been here against them where we came up short. Just being the quarterback of the team, it really came from everyone, but for me to present that, I bet it meant a lot to him. It was awesome.”

Deshaun Watson and Tom Brady. (Getty Images)

For Watson, beating Tom Brady was his big moment. “Who knows when he’s going to hang it up,” Watson said. “That’s my role model, a guy that’s been doing it forever, over 20 years. I’m only alive for 20 years.”

With Brady a free-agent at the end of the season, he may face Watson again. The scheduling formula has the first-place AFC East team playing at the first-place AFC South team … so if Brady’s back, there could be a rematch. But it’s in doubt, so Watson felt good about beating the great Brady while he was a Patriot.

• The Bills will win a playoff game in January. (One asterisk: As long as game one is not in Kansas City.) Three plays made me a Bills believer Thursday in Dallas, two consecutively late in the first half.

1. On fourth-and-one at the Dallas 30, Josh Allen took the snap and fumbled immediately; there was a scramble for the ball, and Allen, more eager than the Cowboys in the scrum, picked it up and scrapped and fought for three yards. First down.

2. Next play: Allen under center … wideouts John Brown and Andre Roberts split right … John Brown in motion, from right to left, gets set wide right … ball snapped under center to Allen as Roberts goes in motion to the left. Allen flips to Roberts … Brown comes back in motion to the right, and Roberts tosses to him, and Brown runs right, pausing at his 38 … Seven Cowboys in or near the box … Brown threw 31 yards in the air to a totally uncovered Devin Singletary, a strike. “Look at that throw—perfect spiral!” Tony Romo said on CBS. This was Brown’s first pass attempt in nine collegiate and NFL seasons. A perfecto.

3. Third play: Allen, from the Dallas 15 late in the third quarter, running around right end toward the end zone, one man (Dallas safety Xavier Woods) to beat—and John Brown, all 176 pounds of him, eliminates Woods, finishing the block at the goal line by wrestling Woods to the ground.

Three plays. The personality of this Bills team. A quarterback who’s a fighter, role players who do what’s asked even if it’s not their forte, imaginative coaches. All buttressed by a punishing defensive front that was gashed a bit too often against Dallas but still shows signs of being a January competitor.

John Brown. Three years, three teams (Arizona, Baltimore, Buffalo.) “Great example of our guys: well-coached, fundamentally sound and we coach the fundamentals every day, and he buys into everything we ask,” coach Sean McDermott told me. “We tried getting him last year, and he chose Baltimore, and we went after his again this year. I’d be lying if we said we knew everything about him. You wonder why he goes to a team here, team there, and he never stays in one place. We’re glad he came to us—he’s so good for us.”

The pass, though. He’d never thrown a pass before, I told McDermott.

“It was one day in training camp,” McDermott said. “you know, you’ve got a lot of practices, you want to check some boxes, We thought, Let’s see who can throw it. Give the credit to [offensive coordinator] Brian Daboll. He comes to me after he has all his guys throwing the ball and he says, ‘Hey, John throws it pretty good.’ We think maybe he could do it. So the last maybe five weeks, we’ve been practicing it, waiting for the right time to run it. It’s a good gadget to have. Today, we said let’s trust these guys—they can do it.”

The block, though. He’s never been known for blocking, I told McDermott.

“That’s him,” McDermott said. “I know John’s been overshadowed by other guys who get more attention, but this is a great example of who he is. He fits Buffalo. He fits who we are. We ask all our guys to block in situations like that. He’s like our guys: unselfish, loves to work, loves football, does what it takes.”

I’m not sure if I touched a nerve with McDermott. This was just a short, seven-minute conversation, him on the airplane at DFW waiting to fly back home. But I asked him what he was thinking as he walked off the field after his team handled the Cowboys, with 90,445 watching, on national TV, in a game the Cowboys had to have, to advance the Bills to a totally unlikely 9-3, a little-engine-that-could team still breathing on the Patriots’ necks. He sounded a little emotional. Yes, this was a very good day for a coaching lifer.

“As we walked off the field?” McDermott said. “I was just grateful. I am a man of faith. I am blessed to be in Buffalo. We’re building something special. It’s humbling to be a part of it, for all of us.”

Offensive Player of the Week

Jared Goff, quarterback, L.A. Rams. Man, did he need this—and the Rams did too. Goff had 323 yards passing by halftime, and by the end of this 34-7 rout of the Cards in Arizona, Goff had 424 yards, 74.4 percent completions and no turnovers. Sean McVay made sure he got off to a great start by calling manageable passes early, and the reward was the Rams’ second win since Oct. 28.

Ryan Tannehill, quarterback, Tennessee. Now 5-1 since taking over for the benched Marcus Mariota on Oct. 20, Tannehill continued the rebuild of his career with a 31-17 win at Indianapolis. The numbers weren’t smashing (17 of 22, 182 yards, two TDs, no picks), but with a back like Derrick Henry having his third straight game of 140 yards or more, a quarterback doesn’t have to put up big numbers. This run-first offense with a game-manager under center is working wonders for the 7-5 Titans.

Taysom Hill, quarterback/receiver/special teams, New Orleans. No player in the NFL in the last 90 years did in one game what Hill did Thursday night against Atlanta, rushing for a touchdown and catching a touchdown pass and blocking a punt. And that all happened in the first half. Hill blocked an Atlanta punt to set up his three-yard TD catch from Drew Brees in the first quarter, then ran around the left side for a 30-yard second-quarter touchdown. Hill has gone from being a novelty piece for Sean Payton to an essential part of the offense and special teams.

Defensive Players of the Week

Devin White, linebacker, Tampa Bay. White, in just one quarter at Jacksonville, continued to show the Bucs made a smart pick at number five in the first round last April. The rangy linebacker from LSU snuffed out the first Jaguars drive with an interception of Nick Foles at the Tampa 26, leading to the first TD of the game. Four minutes later, White picked up a strip-sack fumble of Foles and ran 14 yards for a touchdown. Thirteen minutes into the game, Tampa Bay had a commanding 15-0 lead. White had a late end-zone pass break-up to ensure a 28-11 win.

Juan Thornhill, safety, Kansas City. The rookie second-rounder from Virginia made a very veteran move in the second quarter, directing traffic in what appeared to be an extended conversation with left corner Bashaud Breeland in the Chief secondary before an Oakland snap. When Derek Carr took the snap and tried to zing one on a post-route to Tyrell Williams, Thornhill sniffed it out from the start. He stepped in front of Williams, picked it cleanly and ran unbothered for a 46-yard touchdown. That made it 21-0 Chiefs. Thornhill was part of an improving D that held Oakland to 332 yards.

Carlos Dunlap, defensive end, Cincinnati. The biggest reason Cincinnati isn’t winless this morning is Dunlap, the 30-year-old Bengal in his 10th season with the team. He had one of the best games of a nice career, with three sacks, three more quarterback pressures and a pass defensed. If the Bengals had 10 more players with the ethos of Dunlap, they sure as heck wouldn’t be 1-11 today.

Roquan Smith, linebacker, Chicago. This is the kind of performance that enticed Bears GM Ryan Pace to pick Smith, the linebacker from Georgia, over franchise safeties Derwin James and Minkah Fitzpatrick (among others) in the 2018 draft: a game-high 15 tackles and two sacks in the 24-20 win over Detroit. Smith saved his best play for the most important moment of the game. Trailing 24-20 in the final minutes, stunning hero David Blough had driven the Lions 56 yards to the Chicago 26, and had third-and-nine. Smith burst through the middle of the Detroit line and smothered Blough. Loss of 13. The Bears hung on to win, and Smith was the biggest reason.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Dane Cruikshank, safety, Tennessee. With five minutes left in a 17-17 game that no one wanted to win, an unblocked Cruikshank rushed through a crease in the Indianapolis punt-team front, and he smothered the field-goal try of Adam Vinatieri. Cruikshank’s teammate Tye Smith picked up the ball and returned for the go-ahead touchdown. “I timed up the snap count. I jumped it perfectly,” Cruikshank told Jim Wyatt of Titans Online.

Keanu Keolanui, kicker, Hilo (Hawai’i) High School. With the score tied at 17 and the clock running down to :00 in the Hawai’i state championship game against the ‘Iolani School at Aloha Stadium on Friday night, Keolenui booted a 55-yard field goal—bouncing it off the crossbar, watching it go high in the air and landing beyond the crossbar for the game-winning points. You’ve got NFL kickers shanking 33-yard PATs every week, and here comes a teenager, in the biggest sports moment of his life, nailing a 55-yarder off the crossbar to win the state championship. I felt thrilled for the kid just watching the mesmerizing replay.

Coaches of the Week

Brian Flores, head coach, Miami. Of course it’s for calling the weirdest play of this season, the punter throwing a backhanded TD flip to the kicker for a touchdown—seven points in a game Miami won by six—but also for, in the words of Ryan Fitzpatrick, “his steadiness, work ethic and consistency.” At 0-7, and with a stripped-down roster, the Dolphins kept playing hard, and they’re 3-2 in the last month.

Dennis Allen, defensive coordinator, New Orleans. One of the strangest statistical nights of the season for the Saints in clinching their third straight NFC South title. They allowed Atlanta to run 85 plays, but they hit, pressured or sacked Matt Ryan on an amazing 37 of his 59 pass drops. And they allowed a very good 4.1 yards per play, forced two fumbles, and intercepted Ryan twice. Quietly, Allen has engineered a strong defensive group that has been called on to be better and better this year because it’s no longer automatic that the Saints will score in the thirties every week.

Goats of the Week

Casey Hayward, cornerback, L.A. Chargers. Marginal call, but the right call, I thought—Hayward getting flagged on a purposeful interference-inducer with three seconds left in a 20-all game. Hayward had to know that was Denver’s intent, trying to get a gift PI call down the stretch. He didn’t, and he smashed into Courtland Sutton at the Chargers 35-yard line. Brandon McManus took the gift, kicked a 53-yard field goal right down the middle as the clock hit :00. The Chargers have found every way to lose in 2019, and that now includes a dumb PI on the last play from scrimmage against a rookie quarterback starting his first game.

Some of you wanted me to put “New Orleans special teams” here, after the Falcons recovered three onside kicks (two counted, one negated by penalty) against the Saints on Thursday night, and I’m sure special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi deserves some blame. But look at the first two: minimal effort by Alvin Kamara, who whiffed on both recoveries. Players gotta make plays.

Kaleb McGary, tackle, Atlanta. A disastrous night for the Falcons’ right tackle of the future—or so they thought—against Cam Jordan of the Saints. Jordan beat McGary, a first-round rookie from Washington, for three of his four sacks, and McGary allowed punching bag Matt Ryan to get hit four more times in a 26-18 Atlanta loss that wasn’t nearly that close. For the season, McGary has allowed 11 sacks, more than any tackle in football, per PFF, and 11 quarterback hits, which is second-most in the league.

I

“I’m proud because of the circumstances we were under. Man, at this time of year, forget the opponent. They’re nameless gray faces. It’s about you being able to execute your plan at a level that allows you to win games.”

—Coach Mike Tomlin of the surprisingly 7-5 Steelers, after beating Cleveland 20-13 with third-string QB Devlin Hodges.

II

“My daughters wanted me to wear the T-shirt. I’d wear it again.”

—Cleveland coach Freddie Kitchens, on the “Pittsburgh Started It” T-shirt he wore to the movies with his daughters last week.

Not a good defense.

III

“Why throw gas? When you do something like that, you throw your players in harm’s way.”

—Steelers guard Ramon Foster, to Brooke Pryor of ESPN.com, on Kitchens’ shirt.

IV

“This is the NFL. Like, what are they dreaming up? That’s not, that doesn’t happen. I didn’t think it’d ever be called in a game.”

—Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Miami quarterback, on the punter-to-kicker TD pass in the Miami win over Philadelphia.

V

“MYLES GARRETT IS GOD”

—Sign in parking lot, before Browns-Steelers, at Heinz Field. Beer, apparently, was involved.

VI

“We had an interception turned over by the Wizard of Oz.”

—Oakland coach Jon Gruden after the 40-9 loss to Kansas City. The Raiders’ Trayvon Mullen intercepted Patrick Mahomes in the middle of the third quarter, but the pick was overturned on review by the NFL’s New York officiating crew, and the Chiefs followed with a quick touchdown.

George Kittle • San Francisco tight end • Photographed in Santa Clara, Calif.

Kittle, the third-year tight end from Iowa, made a notable return in Week 12, playing with a cracked bone in his ankle and a related knee injury. In the Niners’ 20-17 loss in Baltimore on Sunday, Kittle was an ironman, playing all 55 offensive snaps.

“So when something like this happens and you’re told you’re not going to injure it any further, and it’s just a matter of pain tolerance, you know it’s going to be really painful. But it’s a mindset. We’re football players. It’s football season. One thing I’ve always felt about football is one of the most important things about ability is availability. So I’m playing, and I want to play.

“The mindset comes straight from my dad. I think I’ve been catching a football since I could walk. Or actually really crawl, basically. My dad played at Iowa from 1978 to ‘81 [Iowa captain Bruce Kittle] and I kind of followed in his footsteps. His passion for the game just bled into me. I just, I can’t really get enough of it any time. It’s too much fun for me. The fact that I get to play football and it’s my job … I wake up every day living my dream.

“Part of what came from Dad is toughness. He tore his ACL during his last season, and in those days, you didn’t do surgery on that. They casted him up for like six weeks. Iowa made the Rose Bowl that year, and he came back for the game and played in that Rose Bowl. I mean, if he can do that, I can come back and play with this.”

I

Educated guess: one day, two kickers from this era—Adam Vinatieri and Justin Tucker—will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Maybe more, but those two at least.

Their performances in 2019, though, could not be more polar-opposite. Another dreary kicking day for Vinatieri—he made but one of four field goal tries, with two blocks—while Tucker kicked a 49-yard field goal as time expired to lift Baltimore over San Francisco. This has been the biggest struggle of Vinatieri’s 24-year career, while Tucker metronomes along, the best current kicker in football.

Combining field goals and the longer (33-yard attempts) PATs, here are the comparative numbers of Tucker versus Vinatieri this season:

Tucker: 66 of 68, .971


Vinatieri: 39 of 53, .736

The 14 Vinatieri misses in 12 games this year matches his total misses in 32 regular-season games in 2017 and 2018.

II

In the 10 years that Barry Sanders played (1989-98), the Detroit Lions finished in the top 16 in the NFL in rushing every year.

In the 20 full seasons since he retired, the Detroit Lions have never finished in the top 16 in in the NFL in rushing.

Detroit’s NFL rank in rushing yardage with Sanders: 8, 11, 10, 16, 7, 3, 14, 12, 2, 10. Average league ranking: 9.3.

Without Sanders: 28, 20, 28, 29, 32, 19, 26, 32, 31, 30, 24, 23, 29, 23, 17, 28, 32, 30, 32, 18. The Lions are 18th this year. Average league ranking: 26.6.

The Lions have played the last 21 years—21 percent of the history of the NFL—with a mediocre to pathetic running game every year. Six executives and nine head coaches have been unable to build a running game worth a darn.

I

The Eagles are 15-15 since winning the Super Bowl 22 months ago.

II

The eight Chargers losses this year have been by 3, 7, 7, 7, 3, 2, 7 and 3 points.

III

Justin Tucker has made 37 straight fourth-quarter field goals.

There’s something great about not waking up every day and thinking about work. Now that my life has slowed down slightly from the every-day, every-minute life of running The MMQB at Sports Illustrated, I see that, particularly when it’s a holiday and I can turn things off for a couple of days and be with family. There’s truly something different about taking a walk with your grandson and not looking at your phone for however long you’re out, and not caring if the walk takes 45 minutes or 90. You’re on his schedule, and it’s not only fine—it feels great.

On Thanksgiving morning in Seattle—the family came from New York and San Francisco to be hosted by Mary Beth and husband Nick, the first holiday they’ve hosted in their new home—I took Freddy, the grandson six weeks shy of turning 3, to find the newspapers and to get a coffee.

What Freddy hears: “Hey Fred, want to go get a coffee with me?”

What Freddy thinks: “It’s croissant time, baby!”

I put him in the car seat, and we were off to a nearby Safeway. Found the Seattle Times and New York Times, and they had an in-store Starbucks, so Freddy got his croissant, warmed up, and we went to sit down. Freddy saw a Santa Claus cookie.

“Want that,” he said. He picked up the cookie, wrapped in cellophane, and showed it to me.

“You already have your croissant,” I said. “I can’t get you anything else.”

“Why?” he said.

“One treat in a morning is enough,” I said. “Let’s sit down.”

“Want that.”

“Maybe tomorrow. C’mon Fred.”

The barista and cashier were watching, smiling. Fred put the cookie down. We sat. We looked through the sports section of the Seattle paper. I showed him the football stories previewing the Apple Cup, Washington versus Washington State, and explained the big game to him. When it was time to go, he went back to the counter with the cookie, picked it up and stared desperately at me.

“Want that,” he said, and rubbed the cookie longingly.

“Maybe tomorrow, Fred. We have to go home now.”

He put the cookie down, carried the newspapers out of the Safeway Starbucks. And we went.

(I realize this is more a life note than a travel note, but it’s what’s going on in my world.)

I

Manish Mehta covers the Jets for the New York Daily News

II

Devlin Hodges not only wasn’t drafted, he wasn’t even invited to to the Combine. He’s starting a Week 13 game with major playoff implications. Pretty darn cool

— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) November 26, 2019

Siciliano hosts the DirecTV Red Zone Channel and is an anchor on NFL Network

III

Jerry Jones emerged from the locker room with tears in his eyes after he finished addressing #Cowboys coaches and players in locker room.

— Ed Werder (@WerderEdESPN) November 29, 2019

Ed Werder is a Dallas-based ESPN reporter.

IV

The official Twitter handle of the Falcons, less than an hour after the Saints beat the Falcons to clinch the NFC South, sacking Matt Ryan nine times.

This is a time to crow?

V

I’m cast as a Harbaugh hater when all I do is try to talk sense into the Harbaugh worshippers. Jim has been solid. Michigan is paying for elite.

— Jason Whitlock (@WhitlockJason) December 1, 2019

Whitlock is a columnist and FOX Sports analyst who questions the value of paying $9 million a year to a coach who loses to Ohio State annually.

VI

Mark Dalton is Arizona’s senior VP of media relations.

During pro football’s 100th season, I’ll revisit important games, plays, players and events from NFL history.

1963: Commissioner Pete Rozelle bans Detroit’s Alex Karras and Green Bay’s Paul Hornung for a year for gambling on NFL games.

Last Friday, the NFL news-dumped the suspension of Josh Shaw, an injured former Bengal and Cardinal who no one knows, till at least 2021 for gambling on football games. Fifty-six years ago, Rozelle, the 37-year-old boy commissioner, suspended two of the biggest stars in the game for a season. Hornung, a running back/kicker was one of the league’s biggest stars and golden boys, the 1961 league MVP and key to the Pack winning two straight NFL titles. Karras, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle, was one of the fiercest defensive players in football. Rozelle also fined five Lions players $2,000 apiece for placing bets on the Packers in a game against the New York Giants.

Starting in 1959, Hornung began placing bets, up to $500 per wager, on NFL and college games through a San Francisco bookie. It continued in 1960 and ’61, and ended in ’62, but it was too late. Hornung admitted his error and never lashed out about it. Karras, who was outraged by the severity of the suspension, was found to have placed six bets on games with a maximum of $100 on any bet. After a few months of cooling off, Karras accepted the sanction.

Rozelle told SI’s Tex Maule: “This sport has grown so quickly and gained so much of the approval of the American public that the only way it can be hurt is through gambling. I considered this in reaching my decision. I also took into account that the violations of Hornung and Karras were continuing, not casual. They were continuing, flagrant and increasing. Both players had been informed over and over of the league rule on gambling. The rule is posted in every clubhouse in the league as well. Yet they continued to gamble. I could only exact from them the most severe penalty short of banishment for life.”

Running back Paul Hornung played for the Packers from 1957-66. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

At the time, the Packers were the best team in football, and Vince Lombardi the meteoric star head coach. Later in life, Rozelle said he phoned Lombardi in spring 1962 and asked him to come to New York for a meeting. When Rozelle presented all the evidence he had, Lombardi said to him, “You have no choice, do you?”

“I don’t think so, Vinny,” Rozelle said. “Let’s go get a drink.”

Somehow, it’s hard to imagine Roger Goodell saying to the New England coach: “Billy, let’s go get a drink.”

Mail call.

On the Ertzes. From Bryon P.: “Thank you so much for having Zach and Julie Ertz on your podcast, and thanks to them for being so open and candid. Our family is in the midst of a three-year endeavor that’s very stressful and takes me away from them quite a bit. My wife’s been very encouraging and my kids (while young) seem to be fine with it, but I hate being absent and it’s been making me feel very discouraged lately. Hearing Zach and Julie talk about their relationship and how they’ve successfully navigated a lifestyle that keeps them apart was a massive encouragement to me. Secondly, you asked Julie a question about what it means to her when a young girl looks up to her as a role model. I was at the USWNT’s recent game in Columbus, and saw the stadium full of girls and young women, but me (a 30-year-old guy) and my four-year-old son watched Julie and her teammates this summer and were cheering loud enough that the neighbors could hear us. I look forward to the day when America is gender-equal enough for you to ask that question with the word ‘person’ in place of ‘girl.’ “

Great point, Bryon. Thanks for making it. And good luck to you and your family.

On school shootings. From Kenneth Atkinson, of Pensacola, Fla.: “I’m a school administrator and former teacher. When you said: ‘We’re asking kids to endure shootings at schools across the country, and we’re asking them to keep going to school and keep doing their extracurriculars even though the adult society is doing absolutely nothing about these shootings.’ Teachers and school districts, part of adult society, are doing everything we can to keep schools safe. Our school district spent over $300,000 on press-button locks for every door in every school in the district (so teachers don’t have to use keys). We have completed shooter drills in multiple situations (lunch, class change, etc.). We have taped off safe zones in classrooms where shooters can’t see who is in the room. We have hired armed security guards who are psychologically tested, screened, and trained to protect our schools because the local police and law enforcement do not have enough staff to fill the need. Every teacher, administrator, and support personnel in the county is attending mental health awareness training to help identify students at risk so that we can help them.”

Kenneth: Kudos to you and your school system for doing everything possible to stem the riptide of gun violence in school. Thank you. My point was aimed more at those in charge of the laws governing our society. There is no magic legislation that would stop these shootings right away; we all know that. But time and again, our legislators, cowering to pro-gun forces, fail to act to make it more difficult for individuals to commit these crimes. You are the first line of defense, and you’re clearly doing everything you can to keep the schools safe. You’re being failed by the larger society. I appreciate you writing and setting me straight.

On Belichick. From John, of Boston: “Why is it that Bill Belichick hasn’t won the Coach of the Year award since 2010? Since then he’s been to eight straight AFC Championship games, won four of those, appeared in four Super Bowls and won three of those. In none of those years he did a good enough job to win Coach of the Year? Don’t get me started on Executive of the Year, which he’s NEVER won.”

It’s a regular-season award, John, with voting done before the postseason every year. Belichick has won three in 19 years, which might not be enough, but it’s hardly some grave injustice. Seattle coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider have averaged 11 wins in 10 seasons in Seattle, and won one championship. Carroll has never won coach of the year; Schneider has never won executive of the year. Vince Lombardi won five NFL championships in Green Bay. He won coach of the year once. Mike Tomlin, with 139 wins and one Super Bowl victory in 13 seasons, has zero coach of the year awards. I wouldn’t view this as much of an affront. Scott Pioli, by the way, was voted executive of the year twice while working as Belichick’s chief personnel czar.

On Frank Gore. From Chris Anderson, of Virginia: “Frank Gore has no doubt had a wonderful career. Third all-time on the career rushing list, consummate professional, tremendous longevity. My question: Is he a Hall of Famer? I don’t know if at any point of his career he was considered one of the top rushers in the league and he was never part of an iconic team.”

Gore’s a bit of a conundrum. He’s an absolute outlier in NFL history, a guy who, as you say, was never considered the best or second-best back but had a valiant and incredibly productive career after both knees and both shoulders had been reconstructed. By the way, he was considered elite in 2016, when he was third in rushing with 1,695 yards and a league-best (for rushers with at least 200 carries) 5.4 yards per rush. The Hall of Fame doesn’t have specific qualifications at any position. But I do think there is a place in the Hall for a player who, from 2006-16, his 11 prime seasons, averaged:

1,132 rushing yards per season.


4.4 yards per rush.


15.1 games per year.

That doesn’t count the 110-yard rushing game he had against the Ravens in the Super Bowl. Last point: After Gore at three, the next nine backs on the all-time rushing list are either in the Hall of Fame or, in the case of number six Adrian Peterson, a lock to make it. I think Gore has done enough, but it’ll be up to the 48 voters in 2026 or so to decide if they think he has.

1. I think the results of the weekend made the first two picks of the April 2020 draft so easy. The 1-11 Bengals, picking first as it stands now, go for LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. The 2-10 Giants, picking second, nab Ohio State pass-rusher Chase Young. See how easy that was? Carry on.

2. I think Sunday was a very bad day for five coaches:

Cleveland’s Freddie Kitchens, who became part of the Browns-Steelers controversy himself by wearing a dumb T-shirt in public and then couldn’t deliver a win over the arch-rival and offensively outmanned Steelers. Kitchens may need a great home stretch to save his job, and I say “may” because I have zero inside information on it—I’m just trying to read how Jimmy Haslam and John Dorsey are feeling these days.

Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone, after a bad loss to the cross-state Bucs. I don’t know how he makes it. Jags have lost four in a row by 23, 20, 22 and 17 points, and the Nick Foles experiment looks like a disaster.

Pat Shurmur of the Giants, who lost their eighth straight, getting shredded by Green Bay 31-13. This can’t be good. Shurmur was 9-23 in his two Browns seasons and got dumped by Cleveland in 2012. Now, presumably, he’s got a quarterback of the future, and he’s 7-21 in his two Giants seasons. He’ll have to go 3-1 to be better than he was in Cleveland. If the Giants win three of their last four, my name’s Tucker Fredrickson. Do you see hope? Do you see Daniel Jones improving? I don’t.

Detroit’s Matt Patricia. Logic says he’s safe, but Detroit’s 1-8 in the last 10 weeks in its interminable effort to find competence, some way, somehow …

Carolina’s Ron Rivera, 1-5 in the last six weeks, including Sunday’s desultory loss to a bad Washington team

• Whither Dan Quinn? Why not him on this list? Seems like overkill. Not sure anyone expect him to return in 2020.

3. I think the league’s going to have to look at Lamar Jackson and his quarterback runs, and how hard you can hit him, and when you can begin to hit him like a running back instead of a quarterback. As Richard Sherman said Sunday after the Ravens beat San Francisco and Jackson ran for 101 yards: “The quarterback’s running just like a running back.” The inference: We can smash a running back, but we’re hesitant to smash a quarterback unless he breaks the pocket and already has a head of steam.

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. (Getty Images)

4. I think this was the reaction of one veteran league front-office man to the suspension of Arizona cornerback Josh Shaw till 2021 for gambling on football: “Not that this is the tip of the iceberg or anything, but I do think there’s more gambling going on than anyone thinks. I believe fantasy football is a gateway drug; how many players play fantasy football, and for how much money in their leagues? Maybe not much, but the temptation has to be there to use inside info about your own team to use in a league. Players play cards and dominoes in the locker room. I just think it’s too easy for players to think they can get an edge because they’re sure they know more than the average bettor.”

5. I think the 49ers have absolutely nothing to feel lousy about after the loss in Baltimore. The Nor’easter didn’t help anyone Sunday, and maybe it would have been a bigger loss for the Niners on a fast track. But the next time the two teams would meet would be on a significantly faster track—presumably—in Miami for the Super Bowl. As this game unfolded, San Francisco answered Baltimore at almost every turn, and holding the Ravens running backs to 22 carries for 77 yards was an achievement in itself.

6. I think the Jets will regret passing on Ed Oliver for Quinnen Williams in the top 10 of the 2019 NFL Draft. If they’re being honest, they already do.

7. I think I’ve got some advice for Jerry Jones in 2020 (too late this year): Stop talking so much. Less you have to take back.

8. I think J.J. Watt was this week’s missing piece on the NFL’s top 100 players show. I believe Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and five-time first-team all-pro, is more deserving than ex-Buc Lee Roy Selmon, a great defensive end who was voted Defensive Player of the Year once and first-team all-pro three times.

9. I think hiring Greg Schiano for a reboot of the football program by Rutgers in the wee hours Saturday night/Sunday morning is a great example of how the outrage of the fans and the pointed arrows of the media can actually force a dumb school to do a smart thing. When the Schiano talks broke down a few days ago, per NJ Advance Media, fans revolted. I asked Steve Politi, a columnist for NJ Advance Media (and one of the best in the United States) to sum up for me what exactly happened. In an email, his response:

“Typical Rutgers.” That was the initial thought last Sunday when news leaked that negotiations with Greg Schiano—the team’s former head coach and painfully obvious choice to rebuild program that fell apart in his absence—had suddenly fallen apart. But then something happened that wasn’t typical at all.

Fans used everything within their power to protest the decision. They chanted the coach’s name at basketball games, flooded the governor’s office with phone calls and canceled their season tickets. They made it so Rutgers had no choice but to re-engage Schiano just a few days later. And with the backing of politicians all the way up to New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, a deal was struck early Sunday morning.

All too often, the social media mob is uniting for the wrong reasons—what happened to Schiano in Tennessee two years ago is Exhibit A of that. This time, it was an example of fans coming together to force a university to do the right thing. Rutgers hasn’t won many games over the past few seasons, but the fan base was celebrating this weekend.

My view: the outside world will look at Schiano and say, All this for a coach who went 68-67 in his first run at Rutgers? Stupid. Maybe paying a sick sum to rebuild a football program is stupid—can’t argue with that. But if you’re going to play in the Big Ten, you’re going to have to suck it up and pay stupid money.

Re Schiano, he’s one of the most misunderstood coaches of our time. He’s demanding, and anal, and rubs a ton of people the wrong way. (And Nick Saban isn’t?) But I lived in New Jersey from 1985 to 2009. I saw how bad Rutgers was—for at least half that time, the worst team in major-college football. And Schiano changed it all, going 59-28 over his last six seasons. He was so highly regarded that the Rams secretly interviewed him for the coaching job in the midst of the turnaround. “If he wants it,” Scarlet Knight Devin McCourty told me a month or so ago, “he’s the best man for the job.” Ditto.

10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:

a. Radio Story of the Week: From Brian Mann, for National Public Radio, “Author Kristin Kimball Wants to Persuade You to Become a Farmer,” a terrific four-minute listen about a family determined to make life on the farm work against all the economic and personal odds.

b. Mann reports that Kristin and Mark Kimball “describe themselves as one-part romantic, two-part realist. ‘Mark and I came into agriculture at a time when things felt very, very hopeful,’ Kristin said. ‘We were in this wave of young farmers starting new farms, many of us first generation. But it’s also the old story of agriculture, which is that we’re working in a business that is subject to the chaos of weather, the vicissitudes of market. So it’s rich, it’s beautiful, and it’s also really, really hard.’ “

c. Good, economical piece by Mann, giving us a quick but frank view of a life most of us really don’t know.

d. Football Story of the Week: Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post found Vontae Davis after his bizarre halftime retirement.

e. Profile of the Week: Jennifer Brett of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the late Kathy Scruggs, a reporter at the center of the Richard Jewell/Olympic bombing story in 1996.

f. Tremendous insight into a hard-working reporter and troubled person, portrayed dubiously in Clint Eastwood’s new movie, “Richard Jewell.” Now, I did not know Scruggs, and have no idea what her personal or professional life was like, but it seems pretty easy, against the testimony of those who knew her best, to portray her as a woman who used feminine wiles and not great journalism to break news on the Jewell story. Writes Brett:

“The film’s rendition of Scruggs veers from reality, according to people who knew and worked with her, in suggesting she landed scoops by offering to sleep with sources. “That is complete horse (expletive),” said family friend Edward Tolley, who knew Scruggs personally and professionally. “If she’s being portrayed as some floozy, it’s just not true.”

g. Story of the Week: This is the profile of what student life for Syracuse University students has been like in the wake of the multiple racist incidents in and around the campus, from Aaron Randle of the New York Times. Wrote Randle:

At one dorm, several black students said they had heard white classmates using racial slurs so frequently that they started to just tune them out. “It’s not if I’ll hear a white person yelling out [expletive] in the hallway,” said a black student who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal. “It’s when.” Jonathan Chau, an Asian-American senior, recalled being ridiculed at a party by white classmates, who used their fingers to slant their eyes: “That was my first party ever here as a freshman. It was mortifying.”

h. Jersey Sweet Jersey Story of the Week. Per the Associated Press: A 43-year-old Brick woman was challenged by a 45-year-old Howell woman over the number of items she had in the express checkout. Their verbal dispute soon turned physical, with both women allegedly throwing punches and biting each other. Witnesses said the Brick woman also scratched and bit the leg of a 43-year-old Freehold Township woman who tried to intervene.

i. Could have been a Florida story too, come to think of it.

j. Aubrey Huff: Dillweed of the Week. Google Huff and teaching his sons how to use guns in the event the candidate of his choice does not win the 2020 election if you want to know why.

k. If Huff’s candidate wins, it’s the will of the people. If the “wrong” candidate wins, it’s war!

l. Pray his sons learn American history and civics from school and not from their father.

m. Beernerdness: So I got this email from Chris Taylor in Cape Girardeau, Mo., the other day: “I love the column, especially the beer section. But for God’s sake, DRINK A STOUT EVERY ONCE IN AWHILE!!” And so I planned to, at the Thanksgiving table in Seattle with the family. Even bought a Dragonstooth Stout (Elysian Brewing Company, Seattle) to split with my daughter-in-law, who is a beer nerd of the first order. And I just forgot to drink it. Chris, in your honor, in this space next week, I will drink a stout, likely a local one to my Brooklyn environs. Got a suggestion? Send this week to peterkingfmia@gmail.com, and when I go shopping Friday I’ll seek one out.

n. Coffeenerdness: Best airport Starbucks in America: The SeaTac Terminal A Starbucks just past security. I mean, that place was one well-oiled machine Saturday morning, with smiling and attentive and quick-serving baristas. The company ought to do a video of that place and send it to similar (and far more plodding) high-traffic stores.

o. RIP Seymour Siwoff, who ran the first true encyclopedic sports statistics service, the Elias Sports Bureau, for more than a half-century. Elias’ help was invaluable to me at Sports Illustrated when I did the “Inside the NFL” column in the nineties—mainly through the dedicated and superb assistance of good friend Peter Hirdt. Loved working with Hirdt and Elias, searching for what a quarter-century ago in the pre-Pro Football Reference days was the greatest tool to help me do my job.

p. Siwoff is the father of modern statistical research, I believe. The sports world owes him a ton.

q. That reminds me: I should thank Pro Football Reference in this space every week. That is one invaluable site at 1:42 a.m. on Monday mornings, in the home stretch of this column, as well as every other hour of the week. This is the truth: I used to have a huge football encyclopedia on the shelf in my office. When we made the latest move to Brooklyn, I recycled it. I don’t think I’d used it in four or five years. So, Pro Football Reference: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

r. Nick Saban not in the college football playoffs. Weird.

s. At one point Sunday morning, on my weather app, it said it was 39 degrees in Chicago, Baltimore, Seattle … and Phoenix.

t. You probably don’t beat Ohio State any day anyway, Jim Harbaugh. But you certainly don’t beat them kicking field goals inside the 10 instead going for touchdowns, then going for three with 18 minutes left, down by 26. Yikes.

u. Michigan’s five games versus Ohio State under Harbaugh: 0-5. Average points allowed per game: 44.2.

v. Miss you, Don Banks.

Today: Seattle. Vikes (8-3) at Seahawks (9-2), continuing the best Monday night football run I can ever remember—Seattle-San Francisco, Kansas City-L.A. Chargers, Baltimore-L.A. Rams, this one, and Packers-Vikings on Christmas Eve Eve.

Thursday: Chicago. Cowboys (6-6) at Bears (6-6). Burning questions for this one: Will Jerry cry? Will Mitch progress? Does anyone want the NFC East? I ask the latter because the division is 3-10 since Week 10.

Sunday: New Orleans. Third straight mega-game for San Francisco, in a match of 10-2 NFC titans. Itinerary of the Week: Niners flew from Baltimore to Sarasota on Sunday night, scheduled to practice at the IMG Academy in Bradenton through Friday, fly to New Orleans late Friday, walk-through in New Orleans on Saturday, game Sunday, fly to San Jose on Sunday night after nine days away.

We’re caught in a trap,


Elvis said. Pats-burying


trap. Not me. Not yet.

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