Ten Things We Learned in the NFL This Week: Week 14

1.Philly won in LA, but was the cost too high?

That game was everything we expected and more, wasn’t it? The Eagles came within a touchdown of breaking the over/under by themselves, and it was a one score game. The Eagles came through in the end, but lost their MVP candidate for the season to an ACL tear in the process. Nick Foles is a very competent backup, but I’m not sure that these Eagles will have the same swagger coming down the stretch. Nonetheless, it was a quality win, and their only win over a division leader thus far this year. Without Wentz, are they still the favorite in the NFC, and if they’re not, who is?

2.Miami knows how to handle Brady at home

While people who put out meaningless “Power Rankings” (when I do mine, they’ll be called “Awesomeness Sequences”) are freaking out and ESPN is proclaiming the Patriots dead in the water, Patriots fans from Cambridge to Connecticut and beyond have just collectively shrugged and said in unison: “Brady always sucks in the Miami away game.” It’s true, too. Brady is now 7-9 in road games in Miami, and he throws interceptions at a rate he normally reserves for TD passes. Without Gronk, Brady had a career-worst day attempting to convert third downs. You’ll note that I wrote “attempting to convert” there. That’s because they didn’t. Not once. Zero conversions on third down for an entire game. The last time the Patriots didn’t convert a single third down? It was in the Bush administration. Nope, not W. His dad, George H.W. Bush…in 1991. The ageless Tom Brady was in high school. After an ugly loss in a classic trap game, the Patriots are on to Pittsburgh for what is set to be the game of the season in the AFC, but more on that shortly.

3. The Saints need balance to win

I’ve noted how New Orleans has benefitted greatly from a more balanced attack this season, it’s changed their fortunes and made the Saints Geaux again. That balance took a nasty hit on Sunday in the Saints matchup with the Falcons as versatile running back and rookie of the year candidate Alvin Kamara went down in the first quarter with a concussion after a helmet-to-helmet hit. The lack of balance was evident immediately, as QB Drew Brees became the second leading rusher, and the less effective Mark Ingram had to catch more passes out of the back field than he is normally asked to. The results were a mixture of blah and blech. Ingram has blossomed this season with Kamara handling the bulk of the pass catching duties, it simply isn’t his forte, and rushing with fresh legs has turned him into a beast. Kamara should be back soon, assuming he works through all of the concussion protocol checks on time, but his injury was too much for the Saints to overcome this week, losing to the Falcons when they couldn’t score in the fourth quarter. It’s not necessarily a season defining loss, but it left the door open for both the Falcons and the Panthers in the uber-tough NFC South.

4. Pittsburgh is winning ugly, but winning

The last three games aren’t exactly the sort of wins that coach Mike Tomlin was hoping for, in what looked like an easier stretch of the schedule. The Steelers have won their last three games by a COMBINED total of seven points. What’s more, the Steelers have needed a combination of insane highlight reel grabs from Antonio Brown and last second heroics from kicker Chris Boswell to escape unscathed from the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers, the Bungles (not a typo, there’s no way the Steelers won that game without some classic Cinncinati ineptitude) and the admittedly tougher-than-leather Ravens. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh is the first team in the AFC to clinch a playoff berth, having laid claim to the AFC North.

5. The AFC playoffs seeds will be decided next weekend.

In case you weren’t aware, the Patriots will be going to Pittsburgh next weekend, and that matchup will more than likely decide the top seeds in the AFC. The Patriots trail by a game, following that Monday Night collapse down in Miami, but a win over the Steelers next week would tie things up at the top again, with head-to-head being the first tie-breaker, making the AFC playoffs come through Foxboro. If you aren’t excited for Steelers-Pats next weekend, I’m not quite sure why you’re reading this. As for the wild, wild AFC west? That division is on the line as well, with the Chargers headed into Arrowhead to take on the floundering Chiefs this Saturday. Both teams are 7-6 and whoever walks away with that one is almost a lock to get pummeled in the first round of the playoffs. Wait, did that football writer guy just say Saturday?

6. Saturday Football? Already?

Yup, I did. If you want to make it even more exciting/nonsensical, technically speaking, it’s actually Thursday Night Football, Saturday Edition. (Brain explodes from absurdity).   Let’s be honest. There’s no need for this, especially towards the end of the season. The league just wants to capitalize on the lack of college football, I get it, but it’s bad for coaches, bad for players and like most Thursday Night games, it’s bad football. Make it stop. At least until the playoffs.

7. Devin Hester is taking a bow

The most dangerous kick returner in the history of planet earth is retiring after an eleven season career of making special teams coaches lose sleep. While technically a serviceable wide receiver, Hester’s contributions to the history of the NFL were in game-changing, impossible-looking punt and kickoff returns that ended up in the end zone at a preposterously high rate. With a single move, Hester could shed defenders and break into open space where he was nigh on untouchable. His name is littered throughout the NFL record books on punt and kick returns, and to this day, I’m convinced he was one of the reasons that the kickoff rules got changed. Oh, and once, during his rookie season with the Bears, the Giants missed a long-ish field goal. Hester took that back to the house, too. I know that the Pro Football Hall of Fame has a hard time putting gold jackets on the backs of special teamers, but this one’s a no-brainer. He’s the greatest kick returner of all time, and it isn’t even close.

8. The Packers got some good news

I’m just not sure that it’s soon enough to make a difference. Aaron Rodgers will very likely be cleared to play this weekend, as his aggressively repaired shoulder is coming back together and he’s reportedly looked good in practice. I brought this up last week, but the Pack needs to be careful with this. Rodgers is a one of a kind talent that can be a MVP candidate every year. Unless the Packers can run the table and get some help, they’re not getting into the playoffs. Rushing him back is a bad idea, at best. If the Packers can get past Carolina this weekend without him, then it’s worth a conversation. If they play him Sunday, win or lose, they’ve taken too great a risk.

UPDATE: Rodgers has been cleared medically and indications are that he will start this Sunday at Carolina.  It’s a must win game, but aren’t they all?

9. The concussion protocol is still a shell game

What happened to Tom Savage in Sunday’s game against the Niners wasn’t o.k. And I’m not talking about the hit that clearly scrambled his circuits. I’m talking about the farce that was perpetrated on the sidelines that had him attempting to throw passes mere minutes after having a full blown seizure on the ground, in full view of the refs and a camera crew that captured his hands shaking visibly. It doesn’t take an “independent trauma consultant” to know that Savage needed to get to the hospital, but he was allowed to return to the field until he displayed an inability to throw the football. Hands that won’t stop shaking will do that to a guy. When pressed, coach Bill O’Brien displayed an absurd lack of understanding of the process and the dangers that he put his signal caller in. In an attempt to remove football decision-making from the process, the league might have lost a valuable safeguard against players attempting to game the system. Coaches can, and should be part of this process, and they most definitely should be held accountable for actions that put their athletes at risk.

10. The Jaguars have teeth

Despite the league’s best defensive unit and top rushing attack, not many people have taken Jacksonville too seriously this season. Maybe it’s that Blake Bortles just doesn’t inspire fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators. Maybe it’s that they play in the AFC South and haven’t played the toughest schedule. In any case, a win over the playoff contending Seattle Seahawks should go a long way towards legitimizing these cats. The game verged on being a must win for the Seahawks and they couldn’t get the job done against a Jaguars team that took control of their division with the win. The Jags have allowed under sixteen points per game this season. That’s two fewer than the next closest team, which is??? Any guesses? The Chargers. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming, did you? If the playoffs started today, the Jags would hold the three seed and host the Bills, who are probably wondering if it’s even a good idea to show up to that game with Nathan Peterman under center.

 

Question of the Week:

“Who in the living hell is Kenyan Drake?” Anthony C. Providence, RI

Yeah, trust me, Coach Belichick is currently screaming the exact same question at his scouts. Drake came out of nowhere last week and punched Denver in the throat. The Patriots likely viewed the performance as an aberration, since it was, by a very wide margin, his best performance of the year. Miami treats the New England game like their own private Super Bowl, they get up for the chance to punch the division’s bully in the mouth. And punch they did. Drake absolutely gutted the Pats’ defense for over 200 yards because they were simply NEVER, EVER in the right place to tackle him. It was a bloodbath. So now you know how to game plan for the Patriots. Have an absurd talent lying in wait, and don’t let the Hoodie see him on any of the game tape.

At least now that Jay Ajayi trade kinda makes sense.

Got a burning question? Disagree with me? Want more proof? Want to know my thoughts on your rookie that I didn’t mention? Hit me in the comments and I’ll answer the week’s best question (or questions) in next week’s edition.

Tom Capo

 

Tom Capo writes about sports, parenting, food, wine and travel; but seldom all at once. He’s currently working on his first novel and collection of shorter fiction. He lives in the Bay Area with all of his girls; wife Allison, daughter Liliana and dog Artemis.

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