We’re back, people. Your weekly look-around the NFL for the best performances, worst chokes, and most questionable prognostications. If I didn’t mention your team this week, no worries. Good, bad, or meh, I’ll be getting to everyone in due time.
1. The Titans are just unlucky
In any alternate universe where the Titans don’t have to trot out Blaine Gabbert with their season on the line, the Titans are probably headed back to the playoffs. Marcus Mariota has been in and out of the injury tent all season long, and a few more truly healthy games would likely have put the Colts in the rearview mirror. But with the season on the line and Mariota in a baseball hat, the Titans hosted a hungry Colts squad that is starting to put all the pieces together. They didn’t stand a chance. Gabbert’s two INT’s removed any shadow of doubt that the Titans could contend, especially once it became clear that Derrick Henry couldn’t do it on his own and the Titans had to abandon the rush-first attack that has been successful for them all season long.
2. Pittsburgh is about to go full on apocalypse
There are probably a few scenarios where this doesn’t end with Mike Tomlin looking for a new gig, but honestly, I think it’s just a matter of time. The Le’Veon Bell situation has rotted the Steelers to the core, and Antonio Brown is about to show us just how bad it really is. Rumors quickly circulated in week 17 that Brown wasn’t actually injured, and that he had skipped a team-ordered MRI. As the rumors took shape, it became clear that Brown had gotten into it with Ben Roethlisberger during a walk-through and was benched for the season-ending tilt with Cincinnati. Following Brown’s out of the stratosphere performance against New Orleans in week 16 that almost kept Pittsburgh in the playoffs, younger receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was voted the team’s MVP. Brown was understandably salty and overreacted at practice. Here’s the thing. Tomlin should have seen this coming, and he should have known how to steady the ship. Recently, the Steelers have made a habit of drawing lines in the sand that hurt the team in the long and short terms. At the end of the day, with the league’s best running back out the door and a top-three receiver reaching for the doorknob, you’ve got to wonder why talent doesn’t want to stay in the Steel City. Usually, the blame for that lands on the coach, whether it’s well deserved, or not.
3. Baltimore is about to host the worst-case scenario wildcard matchup
I’m not saying that Baltimore’s defense and run first-second-and-always offense can’t contend with the Chargers. But honestly, this has nightmare scenario written all over it. The Chargers might be the best-balanced team in the entire league. They score in bunches, can run the ball and pass aggressively. They pressure opposing QB’s and are a top-ten team against the run, allowing just over 100 YPG. Philip Rivers is desperate for some postseason vindication at this stage in his career, and this is the best team he’s ever been on. The fact that they’re a wildcard team is hardly even relevant. The Ravens can muddy the waters with anyone, but I’m not sure it will be enough to make this one interesting.
4. Houston’s defense is better than you probably think
It’s not just J.J. Watt, either. Though he’s probably enough to alter the course of a playoff game on his own. He’s second in the league in sacks behind Aaron Donald and he leads the league with seven forced fumbles. Whitney Mercilus and Jadaveon Clowney are both contributing at a higher level, now that Watt must be doubled, you need to pick your poison, after all. In the secondary, three different players have returned an interception for a touchdown. Tyrann Mathieu is not among them…yet. They sit at a robust +13 turnover ratio and following the early season stumbles as their QB regained his footing, they’ve been among the league’s best teams that no one is talking about.
5. R.I.P. Packers
I’m not entirely sure exactly how to say this, so I’ll just put it out there. Aaron Rodgers is over payed. Not because he’s not a surefire hall of famer. He is. Not because he’s no longer productive. He is. It’s because the market for quarterbacks is out of whack, and owners are largely powerless to correct it without drafting a rookie signal caller every four to five years. Want proof? Here are the six highest paid QB’s in the NFL. Rodgers, Ryan, Cousins, Garoppolo, Stafford and Carr. Catch the trend? Not a playoff team among them. Stafford being on there is the cherry on the “I told you so” sundae. The increase to the salary cap this year will help ease the pressure for some teams, but unless teams can find a way to keep QB salaries stagnant for at least a year or two, it won’t make any difference in the long term.
6. The Saints clearly aren’t concerned about momentum
Instead, they trotted out Tedy Bridgewater at QB, perhaps in an attempt to revitalize the trade market for him before the playoffs. I doubt it worked. 14/22 for 118 yards with a TD and an interception isn’t exactly the stat line other teams are looking for, especially against a moribund Panthers team that hadn’t won since the first week of November. I don’t mind the extra week of rest for some folks, especially given the veteran leadership on this team, but the Saints, like the Rams, look a little off-kilter lately. If I’m Sean Payton, I’ve got to play Drew Brees until the game is in the bag and the team’s swagger is back. We’ll see if it comes back to bite them in the divisional round.
7. The Cowboys are…actually…what are they?
I mean, they’re better than they were, right? Right? I understand that with Amari Cooper they’re a more balanced and dangerous offense and defensive coordinators can no longer lazily load the box and hold them under two touchdowns. But how does a team this talented look this listless? Even if the number four seed was sewn up, how do you BARELY squeak out a win against this Giants team? Which brings up a second point. How on earth is the NFC East sending two teams to the playoffs?
8. Anyone want a coaching job? A few teams are hiring…
Fully one quarter of the league is currently interviewing for a new head coach. That’s not good. Granted, some of these guys had it coming. Marvin Lewis, who technically “parted ways” with the Bengals and Mike McCarthy from the Packers jump to mind, but at the end of the day, too many jobs are open if you account for what expectations SHOULD have been headed into this season. Adam Gase, Vance Joseph and Steve Wilks are most likely collateral damage for other people’s mistakes, and poor Todd Bowles never had a chance. It’s a cliché to mention Black Monday in NFL columns, but I’m never NOT surprised by the number of knee-jerk firings that occur year in and year out.
9. I hate to bring this up, but…
The league still has a big problem surrounding jobs for African-American head coaches. How big of a problem you might ask? Let’s start here. At the beginning of the season there were seven African-American head coaches in the NFL. Five of those have been fired (or had a “mutual parting”) as of this moment. Hue Jackson, Vance Joseph, Todd Bowles, Steve Wilks and Marvin Lewis. And as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think many folks would be surprised to see Mike Tomlin get the axe next. That would leave only Anthony Lynn, the Chargers head coach, standing. So, at minimum, seventy percent of those coaches are now looking for work, while a scant twelve percent of white head coaches are now looking for their next gig. That disparity is at best, striking and alarming. The Rooney Rule has helped, but once again, I think it might be time to take a look at how that rule can be improved upon to guarantee a more consistent flow of talented leaders from all backgrounds and races in the NFL.
10. Can we stop talking about Baker Mayfield yet?
I know that the Browns are mediocre again, and that’s a big step forward. But here’s the thing. There’s a QB in the AFC North who made the playoffs that should be getting a lot more shine. Lamar Jackson has stepped up and stripped an overpaid Super Bowl winner’s job and never looked back. How good has Jackson been since taking the starting job? He’s 6-1 on a team that finishes the year at 10-6. So, yeah. He took a below .500 team and got them into the playoffs. He’s been a difference maker. The only team that’s beaten Baltimore since he became the starter is Kansas City. By three points. At Arrowhead. In overtime. Wow. I realize that Baker Mayfield ticks all the boxes for a franchise QB, but Lamar Jackson isn’t just a running QB. He can throw the ball. A lot. In his final two seasons at Louisville he threw for over 3500 yards at a healthy 8+ yards per attempt. That’s not chump change. Starting next season as QB1 for the Ravens will do wonders for his development as a passer at the pro level. Before you mumble something about quarterbacks not losing their jobs because of injury like Flacco has, let me remind you that Tom Brady stole Drew Bledsoe’s job, won a Super Bowl and never looked back. Ravens fans will get over it.
Image Source: USA Today