In lieu of having just four games in the divisional round, this week’s cents are cut down to just eight. Think of it as a BOGO cent for each game...
$.01--The weekend kicked off in Green Bay with the high-powered Packers offense facing the snarling Rams defense. It wasn’t really a contest, with the Packers racing away to a 32-18 win that was never really in doubt.
The Packers posted the highest yardage total (484) in a postseason game ever against the team with the top defense in the regular season. Green Bay scored on its first five possessions. The Rams mixed in 10 points around three 3-and-outs in response. The Packers killed the Los Angeles defense with the run game; three different Green Bay RBs combined to post 10 runs of at least five yards in the first half.
A severely limited Aaron Donald was a massive problem for the Rams. The All-World defensive tackle was basically rendered worthless with a rib injury; in 40 snaps he logged one assisted tackle and did not generate a single QB pressure on Aaron Rodgers. It’s difficult to win at this level of the playoffs without your best player playing well. Donald couldn’t answer the bell and Rodgers and the Packers knocked his Rams out cold.
It’s going to be an interesting offseason for the Rams. Sean McVay once again offered a tepid endorsement of Jared Goff, who played well given his recent thumb surgery, after the game. The unease between master schemer McVay and limited QB in Goff doesn’t seem tenable much longer. The Rams lost their longtime college scouting director, Brad Holmes, to the Lions this week as Detroit’s new GM. They lost impressive young DC Brandon Staley to a head coaching gig, too. They don’t have a first-round pick once again, something they’ve lacked since taking Goff No. 1 overall in 2016. Only five teams have a worse salary cap situation entering the offseason too.
One of those is Green Bay, but the Packers are still playing. And if Rodgers & Co. play the way they played in pummeling the Rams, they’re not losing next week either.
$.02--It doesn’t happen often, but the story of a game does occasionally boil down to exactly one play within the contest. That was the case in Buffalo’s 17-3 win over visiting Baltimore in a windy defensive struggle.
Taron Johnson made the one deciding, emblematic play at just the right time for the Bills. After Buffalo finally broke through and scored the game’s first touchdown on the opening drive of the second half, the Ravens were poised to answer. A beautiful drive from Baltimore put them in striking distance, but it was Johnson who struck back. The Bills CB stepped into the shallow zone and Lamar Jackson threw it right to him. But not content with merely ending the Ravens drive, Johnson took off from his own goal line and ran the ball all the way back for a touchdown. What was looking like 10-10 instead flipped to 17-3 Bills.
Based on how dreadful the offenses were in this game, that was all she wrote. Neither team averaged 5 yards per play and the two teams combined for just 560 total yards. The wind certainly played a factor. Josh Allen missed several open targets down the field as the Bills insisted on only throwing in the first half despite the swirling gusts. Lamar Jackson struggled on his own behind an overwhelmed offensive line that couldn’t stop the smartly crafted, swift-reacting Bills defense. About the only thing Allen did well was overthrow double-teams down the field, but he didn’t make any mistakes. That’s more than could be said for Jackson or Ravens center Matt Skura, who threw back several wild pitches.
Even Justin Tucker, the greatest kicker in NFL history, couldn’t handle the wind. He hit the upright not once but twice on field goal attempts. It was that kind of night for Baltimore, which also lost Jackson to a concussion late in the game and was forced to finish with fourth-stringer Tyler Huntley, an undrafted rookie from Utah, at QB. It was a grim end for the Ravens, who became too overly reliant upon Jackson creating magic and Tucker being amazing to win.
The Bills Mafia should celebrate. Their raucous presence impacted the game. On a night where the Bills’ offense was putrid, Buffalo figured out a way to win with defense. That makes them dangerous next weekend, when it’s hard to imagine Allen faring so poorly.
$.03--On January 17th, 1988, the Cleveland Browns lost to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game on a play everyone in Northeast Ohio can tell you in reflexive infamy: The Fumble.
On the 33rd anniversary of that Earnest Byner heartbreak, the Browns lost to the Kansas City Chiefs thanks in no small part to a play many in Cleveland are already calling “The Touchback”.
It’s not quite as catchy and it obscures the larger point that it occurred before halftime, leaving the Browns plenty of chances to overcome the missed call and terrible rule that victimized Cleveland in the 22-17 loss in Kansas City. Rashard Higgins caught a Baker Mayfield pass and eventually lunged for the end zone with the ball out in front of him. Mere inches before Higgins crossed the goal line, Chiefs safety “Dirty Dan” Sorensen crashed into him and forced the ball out. It rolled out of the end zone for a touchback. What was going to be a 13-10 game instead stayed 13-3 and a golden Browns opportunity was instead turned into Chiefs ball.
The rule giving possession to the defense is a terrible one, something I wrote about for Browns Wire. The illegal hit which created this particular instance of the bad rule and not having an obvious, blatant helmet-to-helmet hit that directly created the fumble is an inexcusable miss by the officiating crew.
The Browns needed that score to claw out of the early hole they dug. Every point was precious, and the Browns were finally putting plays together to build something. Kansas City made it stand despite the Browns being the better team after haltime, holding on and running out the clock with backup QB Chad Henne executing a brilliant 4th down call late to seal the win for the Chiefs.
Henne was in the game because Patrick Mahomes left with a concussion in the third quarter. It was a weird play where Mahomes got tied up with Browns LB Mack Wilson as he scrambled and Wilson’s arm got around the star QB’s neck. He got up and looked like a faun on an icy pond, and the officials quickly ushered him off the field. Here’s hoping Mahomes is okay to play next weekend, because the Chiefs don’t have a prayer of outsourcing the Bills without him in what is a fitting matchup between the AFC’s two best teams.
$.04--The final game of the weekend is the apparent final game of the illustrious career of Saints QB Drew Brees. The Saints fell at home to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 30-20, with Brees complicit in his own departure with a pair of bad INTs late in the game. It’s a subpar ending to one of the greatest careers and most endearing representatives of any NFL franchises for Brees and New Orleans.
Brees is the NFL’s all-time leader in completions and passing yardage and in the top five in just about every other positive passing statistical metric you can name. Nearly all of that came in his 15 seasons in New Orleans. Brees has been the face of the franchise almost from the time he walked into the building, and he helped make it one of the most successful on a yearly basis in that long time period.
He turned 42 on Friday and looked every minute of it in the loss to Tampa Bay. There were still plenty of accurate short throws, but anything down the field was rough to watch. Brees managed just 134 passing yards on 34 attempts, a putrid level of production. It was also that way for Brady early in the game, but Brady--a year Brees’ senior--picked it up after the intermission. Brady wasn’t the Tom Terrific of his Patriot-era glory, but he outplayed his future Hall of Fame compatriot.
The Brees retirement isn’t official, but FOX’s Jay Glazer is one of the most reliable insiders and seemed quite confident in his report. Brees looked that way too as he waved to the fans and slowly soaked in the Superdome for one last sentimental time. If it is indeed the end, choose to remember the great years and not the final meek game for Brees. He’s one of the best to ever lace ‘em up.
Brady is too, but he’ll need to be better to take down Rodgers and the Packers next Sunday. He’ll need more help from his supporting cast, too. But Brady is once again playing for a trip to yet another Super Bowl and is doing so in the NFC for the first time. Truly remarkable.
$.05--Urban Meyer is the new head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. It’s a development that incites many different reactions for a lot of folks, myself included. Here’s a little peek into the war inside my head on the move for Duval…
I believe Meyer is the best college football coach ever not named Nick Saban. His ability to drive talented players into a cohesive, sharp, aggressively precise unit is something to behold. He did it at Bowling Green, at Utah, at Florida and then at Ohio State. He did it with some schematic flexibility on both sides of the ball and growth in his ability to adapt his in-game strategies. I do think he’s capable of making that translate into the NFL quite successfully.
At the same time, I also believe Meyer is a perilous hire. He tucks tails and butt-scoots away from adversity like a shunned Amish teen who enjoyed rumspringa a little too much. Losing devours his soul in an unhealthy way, and now he joins a franchise that lost 6 more games (15) in 2020 than he did in seven years in Columbus, where he went 83-9 leading the Buckeyes. If that ridiculous level of success didn’t alleviate his ongoing health issues, imagine what it will be like when his Jaguars start 3-7 and Ryan Tannehill throws for 475 yards and 4 TDs against them.
Landing Trevor Lawrence was a big reason why Meyer made the jump, something he acknowledged while also highlighting the sheer gall of his duplicity. Meyer immediately spun that he might instead take Justin Fields or Zach Wilson with the No. 1 overall pick. Of course he’s not, and he’s also not even the Jaguars GM. They still don’t have one. And Meyer flexing his roster power muscles there doesn’t exactly make it an appealing gig for a guy like Terry Fontenot or Jerry Reese, two of the more serious candidates.
From a Jaguars standpoint, it’s an inspired risk. Coming off the bland flatbread that was Doug Marrone, the spice and sizzle of Meyer is a BBQ pulled pork nacho platter with four different variants of hot peppers slathered in four scrumptious cheeses. It looks glorious. It smells fantastic. The first bites are heavenly. I just worry for the Jaguars that the seemingly inevitable heartburn and reflux will be very difficult to swallow when Meyer gets either bored or frustrated.
$.06--The courtship of Robert Saleh ended with the popular 49ers defensive coordinator as the new head coach of the New York Jets. It wasn’t where Saleh was expected to wind up when the season ended.
There were a lot of dots connecting Saleh to the Detroit Lions vacancy. Saleh is a Detroit native with deep family ties still in the metro area. He’s a Lebanese-American in a city where Middle Eastern culture is vibrant and deeply ingrained into the community fabric. Heck, some Michigan legislature members even wrote a letter to Lions ownership to advocate for Saleh.
The Lions interviewed Saleh early in their process, but mixed reviews on the interview cast some doubt on the viability. Saleh himself seemed to sense it and quickly pivoted to chasing the Jets gig. Now he’ll replace Adam Gase with perhaps the lowest coaching bar to overcome since Freddie Kitchens in Cleveland barely cleared Hue Jackson’s ankle-level limbo stick. And I like the fit for the Jets.
New York has some young talent on defense for Saleh to work with, better talent than largely advertised. The new coach proved capable of crafting great, unified defenses despite a crazy amount of injuries and roster attrition. He’s a commanding presence with the ability to lead from the front, something the Jets haven’t had since the early Rex Ryan era a decade ago.
Saleh and the Jets have a major decision to make at QB. Do they keep Sam Darnold or do they use the No. 2 overall pick to replace him? Darnold is not near the top of the list of Jets’ issues on offense, but he also hasn’t done much to indicate he’s the long-term solution, either.
$.07--One of the highlights of my year is making the drive to Indianapolis for the Scouting Combine at the end of every February. It’s a trip I’ve made 12 times in the last 16 years, including the last seven. It’s the biggest gathering of media, coaches, scouts, GMs, agents and players on the NFL’s calendar.
I won’t be making the trip this year because there won’t be anything to attend. The Combine is another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it’s not official just yet, the private NFLPA media sessions the last couple of weeks have strongly hinted it will be canceled, something Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated broke down late last week, too. Expect an official announcement this week that the Combine will look vastly different this year.
I understand the need to be cautious. To be frank, as desperately as I am coveting seeing a person that I don’t live with face-to-face for more than 10 masked minutes (it’s been months!), the thought of thousands of people from all over the country gathering in one central location and spending the better part of seven days all confined to the convention center and same five restaurants/bars in Indianapolis is more than a little disconcerting.
Here’s what I hope comes out of the modified Combine:
--The NFL scouting arm exerting itself to make collegiate pro days more uniform and structured. Pro days have become effectively worthless for everyone in the last few years. I used to attend as many as possible but last year I didn’t go to a single one. The only real reason to go is to talk to the NFL scouts and get their opinions on the players they watched a day or two earlier at another pro day. The few draftable players who do in fact work out (most don’t) execute carefully scripted drills that don’t matter whatsoever in the evaluation process. One of the last pro days I attended, Notre Dame in the 2019 Draft leadup, I spent talking with an AFC South scout for 45 minutes where neither one of us once paid attention to the pointless “work” being done some 25 yards away.
This is a chance for pro days to become purposeful once again. The basic drills everyone watches on TV from Indy, the 40-yard dash, 3-cone drill, bench press and the like, can easily be standardized across colleges. So can official measurements, rendering the odd rulers and scales at colleges like LSU and Louisville obsolete.
--Remote access player interviews. I suspect this one will be popular with most Combine attendees and agents, too. There is nothing more awkward in Indianapolis, outside of the possible exception of drunkenly walking into Jerry Jones’ party bus illegally parked outside Prime Steakhouse, than seeing a lesser-known prospect standing alone at a podium for 12 o the 15 allotted minutes during the group interview period. Doing press conferences via remote teleconferencing has worked surprisingly well throughout the season; I’ve been able to participate in both Browns and Lions pressers despite living hours away.
--More discretion and privacy in medical testing. I know this seems like a contradictory point for someone in my shoes as a draft analyst and member of the media, but the misinformation and odd whispers about medical conditions is something that really shouldn’t be publicly disseminated. It’s often flat-out incorrect anyway. Having it done under the NFL’s official eye but not with every media member both local and national poking and prodding is a good thing for the young men trying to achieve their dream of playing professional football.
--I am higher on the Atlanta Falcons hiring Titans OC Arthur Smith as head coach than most are, it seems. I like the positive impact he had on several Titans players, notably QB Ryan Tannehill and WR Corey Davis. He’s got a chance to win quickly in Atlanta, but the lack of experience is indeed a little worrying.
--Salute to the Bills Mafia…
--I wrote about the trainwreck that is the Texans last week. It’s not getting any better in Houston. Don’t just take my word for it. Head Adam Schefter’s:
One league source connected to the Texans' HC situation said Saturday: "It's gone from the least desirable head coaching job to the most undesirable head coaching job in the NFL. That's a fact. That's how that job is now looked at by everybody."— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 17, 2021
--About 15 minutes before I submitted this, reports circulated that the Chargers will hire Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley as their new head coach. It’s a convenient jump for Staley, who won’t have to relocate. It’s a risky move, too: Staley is a first-year DC in charge of a unit with the best DT and arguably the best CB in the league at his disposal. Interesting choice. Doesn’t make it a bad one, however…
--I’ve still got just preliminary impressions of most draft prospects, but it sure looks like a terrible year to need a young DT or S in the draft. Hopefully someone jumps off some of the game tape I’m fixing to watch, but I don’t see a single player at either spot I’d be comfortable taking in the first two rounds yet.
--Not football-related but a very big topic of conversation in the Risdon household this week: I love the 4-team James Harden trade, but I like it least for the team that wound up with the former Rockets star, the Brooklyn Nets. I can’t fathom a rookie head coach in Steve Nash sorting out who gets the ball most prominently among Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, three of the most ball-dominant players in the league. There’s only one ball, after all...
The Cavaliers fan in me loves picking up a promising, ascending talent in young center Jarrett Allen. It’s a weird mix in Cleveland right now with a weird surplus of big men, but they have the ability to flip someone like Andre Drummond, Kevin Love and/or Javale McGee to help build around Allen and the SexLand backcourt that is playing much better in 2021.
My son is a Rockets fan and the trade hit him hard. He understood that the run with Harden was over, but it’s hard to see the superstar leave the building. His eyes brighten with the thought of the bounty of draft picks and potential moves that will help rebuild the Rockets, who topped out as conference champion losers but very entertaining ones.