Wednesday, February 1, 2023
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    HomeSportFMIA Week 17: NFL Playoff Picture Comes Into Focus As Giants Make...

    FMIA Week 17: NFL Playoff Picture Comes Into Focus As Giants Make Playoffs; Steelers, Packers Survive

    Long-time club executive sent this text just before midnight Sunday:

    NFL could get very lucky if PIT and GB sneak into the playoffs

    He’s right: Steelers and Packers as seven seeds would be TV gold. Imagine how much better Wild Card Weekend is with the Fighting Tomlins being a Wild Card burr in the saddle to Joe Burrow. Imagine the nothing-to-lose-with-no-pressure Packers going to Minnesota (Purple dread) or San Francisco on the Aaron Rodgers Revenge Tour.

    I’ll tell you what’s even better: Green Bay and Detroit playing game 272 at Lambeau Field Sunday night. Rodgers and the streaking Packers playing a win-and-in game against one of the upstart teams of the year.

    So many moving pieces this morning, starting with tonight’s Monday night game of the year, Buffalo at Cincinnati, a game with a huge bearing on the AFC’s top seed and lone playoff bye. Here’s what we know now:

    The Week 18 schedule. The NFL schedule called for two games on Saturday and 14 on Sunday of Week 18. The league announced at 11:30 ET Sunday night the two ESPN/ABC games for Saturday: Kansas City at Las Vegas, 4:30 p.m. ET, followed by Tennessee at Jacksonville at 8:15 p.m., for the AFC South championship.

    Don’t miss the significance here. The NFL traditionally scheduled a division title game in the final week, if one is available, in the final time slot of the regular season on Sunday night on NBC. But the NFL clearly sees the weirdness of this year’s division title game. Tennessee is on a six-game losing streak and could be playing a third-string quarterback at a red-hot team that’s won four straight with a quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, who’s on fire. Not exactly the game you want to showcase in the final primetime window of the regular year.

    You might ask, Why KC-Vegas for the first game? Three reasons: Kansas City (13-3) needs to win to stay in play for the AFC’s top seed, Patrick Mahomes is always a ratings draw, and the Raiders (6-10), though eliminated from the playoffs, showed off an incredible performance by Jarrett Stidham in his first NFL start Sunday. The game should get a good rating.

    Game 272. Although I’d make the argument that Detroit-Green Bay is far and away the best candidate for the Sunday night finale, the NFL may wait till the conclusion of Bills-Bengals to set the Sunday schedule. After Baltimore (10-6) lost to Pittsburgh Sunday night, it would take a Cincinnati (11-4) loss tonight for the Ravens-at-Bengals game next Sunday to be for the AFC North crown. The problem in that scenario is that both teams are already in the playoffs, so the game would be played only for playoff seeding.

    My gut feeling is the NFL will still play Rodgers in primetime in a win-and-in Sunday game. Why wouldn’t the league do that? If the Seahawks beat the Rams in Seattle next weekend, Detroit would be eliminated. I would maintain Rodgers playing to put Green Bay in the playoffs is the single biggest story of Week 18, and Dan Campbell’s kneecap-biters would not lay down even if they’d been eliminated a half-hour before the game. It’s the most intriguing competitive game of the weekend.

    The Eagles. The Jalen Hurts absence (shoulder) has contributed to the two-game Philly losing streak, and now the Eagles, with Hurts or without him, have to beat the Giants at home next week to clinch what seemed inevitable a couple of weeks ago — the NFC’s top seed. Too much about this Giants-Eagles game we don’t know, starting with Hurts’ status for it. But you can bet Eagles coach Nick Sirianni won’t want to go into the playoffs with his starting quarterback idle for five weeks unless Hurts is just unable to throw it next week. So it’ll be an intriguing story to watch this week.

    The Wild Card round. Who doesn’t love speculation? Here’s mine about Wild Card weekend. I’m putting Green Bay and Pittsburgh as the seven seeds.

    AFC seeds: 1. Kansas City, 2. Cincinnati, 3. Buffalo, 4. Jacksonville, 5. L.A. Chargers, 6. Baltimore, 7. Pittsburgh.

    NFC seeds: 1. Philadelphia, 2. San Francisco, 3. Minnesota, 4. Tampa Bay, 5. Dallas, 6. N.Y. Giants, 7. Green Bay.

    Intriguing matchups. Last year, the NFL had as its three primetime Wild Card games (remember, there’s a Monday night Wild Card game) Pats-Bills, Steelers-Chiefs, Cards-Rams. Awful games, decided by 30, 21 and 23 points. This year, imagine the night games as Steelers-Bengals, Cowboys-Bucs and Packers-Niners. Just feels better than last year.

    The week that was in the NFL:

    Take bows, J.J. Watt and Fred Gaudelli. Roger Goodell on Gaudelli, stepping away from producing primetime NFL games after 33 years: “Freddie’s been the ultimate coach in the truck.”

    The New York Football Giants, after winning 3, 5, 4, 6, and 4 games in the last five years, are 9-6-1 Giants and locked in as the sixth seed in the NFC. No team will have a greater accomplishment this season, barring the Jags winning the Super Bowl. CEO John Mara feels the difference this year: “When I’m walking out to my car at the end of the game, they’re not yelling, ‘You suck! Sell the team!’”

    Six years ago tonight, the Giants reveled in their last playoff appearance — and Odell Beckham and a few mates celebrated with the infamous Miami boat picture. I’m dubious that photos of the 2022 team will surface from South Beach this week.

    The Steelers rallied to beat Baltimore in the final minutes, have won five of six, four on the road, and after starting 2-6, they’re an absolute load to play. “We’re the Steelers,” said Cam Heyward. “We have certain expectations.” By the way, they’re 8-8, and a win against the Browns next week would give Mike Tomlin a 9-8 record, and his 16th non-losing season in 16 years helming the franchise.

    Andy Reid has coached against Denver 20 times as Kansas City’s head coach. First five: 0-5. Last 15: 15-0. I sense a trend.

    Jarrett Stidham can sling it. I mean, really sling it.

    How amazing: The 247th pick in the draft, Skylar Thompson, might have to quarterback Miami’s last-gasp playoff-bid game against the Jets next Sunday, while the 262nd pick in the draft, Brock Purdy, will try to lift the Niners to NFC home-field advantage against Arizona.

    The Vikings (12-4) close at the Bears (3-13) next Sunday, and Minnesota’s a one-point favorite. What, people don’t trust Minnesota? I’m shocked, I tell you.

    Miami looks cooked. Anyone think Skylar Thompson can whip Sauce Gardner?

    Colts have been outscored 97-16 in the last 2.5 games. Now there’s a desirable coaching job. Had enough yet, Jeff Saturday?

    Tom Brady was the best player in Week 17. Who’s going to tell him he shouldn’t play next year, at 46?

    Nick Bosa looks very much like Defensive Player of the Year. He’s got Usain Bolt burst. Just ask Kolton Miller.

    Have you heard of Freddi Goldstein? No? Well, she might just be able to teach you something about Knockout Pools.

    Busy week.

    The three guys who stood out to me in Week 17:

    Jarrett Stidham, quarterback, Raiders. Derek Carr hadn’t thrown for 310 yards in a game all season in this Josh McDaniels offense that’s so quarterback-friendly. Sunday, against the best defense in football, Stidham threw for 365, and he only lost because all-world edge rusher Nick Bosa pushed left tackle Kolton Miller back into Stidham on the first series of overtime in a 34-all game, and Stidham’s pass fluttered into the air, and Niners safety Tashaun Gipson picked it off to set up the winning field goal. I found it highly interesting that Davante Adams, in mourning over his close friend Carr getting benched for a kid who’d never started an NFL game, was generous in his praise for Stidham afterward. Receivers like when quarterbacks hang in if it means taking big shots, and that’s what Adams noticed about Stidham. “He played an amazing game,” Adams said. “He apologized for not being able to finish it off, and every single person on the team said, ‘Man, get out of here. You balled out.’” Stidham had one game left, against Kansas City Saturday, and then will be a free agent. The Raiders would be smart to sign him short-term and draft a young quarterback to compete for the job — for 2023 and beyond.

    Nick Bosa, EDGE, 49ers. Bosa’s stat line in non-modern times: zero tackles, zero assists, zero sacks. Not much of a game, I guess. But one of the great things about modern NFL stats is how deep they can dig. Per Next Gen Stats, Bosa had seven pressures of quarterback Jarrett Stidham at Las Vegas Sunday. If you watched the game, you saw Bosa’s impact on it, particularly on the Raiders’ final offensive play of the game. “I flipped sides on the play,” Bosa said from the Niners’ locker room. “The Raiders were sliding protection to me and [defensive tackle] Arik [Armstead], so I made that switch in overtime.” Bosa said pass-rushing is a chess game, because he’s got to keep the offensive lineman across from him guessing. And left tackle Kolton Miller, clearly, on the fourth snap of overtime, wasn’t expecting a bull-rush from the cat-quick Bosa. Bosa pushed Miller — PFF’s fourth-rated left tackle among those who’ve played at least 600 snaps this year — directly back into Stidham, and the pass fluttered downfield for an easy interception. An OT field goal and a 37-34 Niners’ win followed.

    With a week to play and Bosa leading the NFL sack derby by 1.5 over Eagle Haason Reddick, he’s a favorite to win his first Defensive Player of the Year. Maybe a heavy favorite. “Just being in the conversation means a lot to me,” he said. “Since I was 3 years old, this is what I wanted to do. Winning the award does cross my mind, but I try to keep my mind on my job.”

    Daniel Jones, quarterback, Giants. Jones is in the right place. He needs to sign with the Giants for the near-term this offseason. He fits. On Sunday, after the 38-10 rout of the Colts, fans were chanting his name, loving him for probably the first heavy-decibel time in his four seasons in New Jersey. He threw two TD passes, perfect throws, and had two TD runs. He’s fast enough to outrun linebackers, but when one’s in his way, he has no problem stiff-arming them to the ground — he did it with Bobby Okereke of the Colts Sunday — or bashing into them to win a few yards.

    Jones has led the Giants out of the debacle of the Joe Judge era and bought into everything rookie coach Brian Daboll is selling. “Early on,” he said from the Meadowlands Sunday, “it was competing at practice. It was the spirit we developed, the desire to improve every day no matter what was being said about us. Guys want to compete. They love the innovation, the creativity. Guys love how this staff plays to our strengths. I’ve learned a ton of football from him.”

    The other thing I’ve heard a lot about with Daboll is how he simplifies things. He keeps the important things important. The outside stuff, meh. Last week, in the first team meeting before the game against the Colts, Daboll wanted to address the elephant in the organization: If the Giants won this game, they’d qualify for the playoffs for the first time in six years. Daboll asked the players if everyone knew what a win would mean Sunday. Yes, they nodded or spoke; we win, we’re in the playoffs.

    Fine, Daboll said. That’s out of the way. Now let’s get back to doing what we have to do to get better.

    It’s just common sense. State the facts to the players, work with them, and keep working with them till they do the job right and you win. Teaching, coaching, persistence — those are things that go a long way with Daboll. And they’re going a long way with Jones too.

    Two of the best to ever do their football jobs — defensive end J.J. Watt and veteran big-game producer Fred Gaudelli of NBC Sports and Amazon Prime — are walking away. Watt says he’ll retire after his 12th NFL season ends, and Gaudelli produced his last regular-season game Thursday night for Amazon, Dallas at Tennessee.

    Each has one game left — Watt for the Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco on Sunday, and Gaudelli in the truck for one of the NBC’s two Wild Card games in two weeks.

    Watt’s a giant in his field, as is Gaudelli. I asked Cards PR man Mark Dalton to ask Watt for teammates or foes I should talk to about him, and he gave me three: retired Baltimore guard Marshal Yanda, former teammate Duane Brown, and a combination of former teammate and later a foe, center Ben Jones. (I added T.J. Watt, his brother and mentee.) I reached out to speak to all four on Thursday. Within 24 hours, I had them all, at length — and each was humbled that Watt singled them out. Yanda called from an ice-fishing trip on a lake in South Dakota. They all wanted to talk about J.J. Watt.

    “I never played a game-wrecker like him,” Yanda said. “The thing that I respected most about him is his effort. Not even the very elite players played like him. Every play — run, pass, field goal — his drive was unmatched. You look over and he’d have his hands on his hips and he’d be breathing hard in a long series, then, then next play, he comes as hard as he did first play of the game.”

    Similarly, I texted commissioner Roger Goodell about Gaudelli. They’d worked together going back to an NFL preseason game in Tokyo in 1990, Gaudelli producing the game and Goodell repping the league there. Now, Goodell counts Gaudelli as a confidant in the hugely important business of making the NFL look like a prize on television. Goodell spent 20 minutes praising Gaudelli on New Year’s Eve.

    “Freddie’s been the ultimate coach in the truck, calling all the plays for years,” Commissioner Goodell told me Saturday. “I have so much respect for him for a few reasons. One is just his constant desire to improve the experience for the fans. He constantly was looking to see what could we do differently. He surrounded himself with people who were innovative and he pushed them to be innovative. He wasn’t afraid to take a chance. I remember when we were talking to [NBC’s] Dick Ebersol about starting Sunday Night Football, Freddie’s name was one of the first he mentioned. Dick really wanted him. Matter of fact, I think it might’ve been before [John] Madden.”

    Looking at the significance of both:

    The J.J. Watt experience

    Watt, 33, is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. He’ll go into the Hall of Fame listed as a defensive end, but he played all over the line. In 150 regular-season games, he has 112.5 sacks — three of them just two weeks ago at Denver, the final one on Sunday in Atlanta. He has scored six regular-season touchdowns, three on receptions as a tight end, and he’s batted down an NFL record 69 passes.

    Simply, Watt is one of the best players in modern NFL history.

    July 2011: Watt the rookie arrives in Houston.

    Texans tackle Duane Brown: “He comes in, the 10th pick in the draft, a D-lineman, and you always think on the offensive line, ‘We’re gonna kick this kid’s ass.’ He was a problem from the first day. His get-off on the snap was incredible, like I hadn’t seen before. One play, a trap play, I pulled and blocked him and knocked him down. I celebrated. Big play for us. I looked at him, and he smirked. That turned into revenge. The rest of the practice was hell for everyone. I mean hell.

    “Every day was a competition. Who could run the fastest 10-yard shuttle? Who could bench the most? Who could win practice? He made me better every day. He got there in 2011, and I’m convinced my best three years in the NFL were his first three years in Houston.”

    January 2012: The dominance begins.

    Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda: “We were a really good team when Houston came to Baltimore for the divisional playoff game. We had no weak links on our line. The right side [center Matt Birk, Yanda, tackle Michael Oher] was pretty solid. We scouted J.J., we knew him, but that day, that game, he completely ate our lunch. That was a sign of things to come.”

    Watt had 2.5 sacks, including one directly on Yanda, and one on a stunt over Yanda and Oher. “We prided ourselves on the TE game, the tackle-end game,” Yanda said. “J.J. lined up across from me, moved toward Mike’s hip, and I had to pick up the looper. J.J. used his arm-over move and his quickness on Michael and got the sack. I consider that day two sacks on me. We won the game, but that’s the first game he ever wrecked in the NFL, and I was just, I don’t know. Defeated. I was defeated.

    “Okay, I got another story for you. So J.J. Watt went off and we barely squeaked by. They deserved to win the game, really. We came out of this game, my family’s there. We got in the car and we were driving home and it was quiet because we won but they knew I didn’t play well. When I don’t play well I’m very disappointed. Finally, I said, ‘Wow, that was not my best game.’ My sister shoots it straight. She didn’t even waste one second. She said, ‘Yeah, no kidding, you played like s—.’

    “So yeah, you’re bringing back some memories.”

    October 2016: Schooling T.J.

    In 2015, Wisconsin tight end T.J. Watt switched positions to outside linebacker. In 2016, J.J. moved to Wisconsin to rehab after rupturing a disk three games into the season. Until then, he’d been supportive of T.J. in whatever he did in football. Now he became a mentor.

    Edge rusher T.J. Watt: “So J.J. lived in Wisconsin for two months. We grabbed breakfast at Mickie’s Dairy Bar [in Madison], and it was a couple weeks through the season for me. We watched film together. That was the first time that we’ve ever really talked football and talked shop. That was when my eyes opened up to how someone who is so successful in the NFL truly studies film. Before that, I didn’t really know what I was looking at. He was giving tricks of all the linemen I’d face and slides and protections on the offensive line, stuff that I never really knew how to study. That kicked the door open for us, and we began sending film clips back and forth to how we can improve and how we can get better as individuals.

    “That was my first full year playing the position. To be able to have a three-time Defensive Player of the Year brother who I’m not intimidated to ask questions or to sound dumb in front of, I think that was really important for me. How valuable has it been for me to be able to talk shop with him? Very.”

    T.J. Watt, in 2021, became the second Watt to win Defensive Player of the Year, after his 22.5-sack season in Pittsburgh. “I got a backstage look at how to be a dominant NFL player, both from him and Derek [his fullback brother],” T.J. Watt said. “When J.J. got into the NFL, he always allowed us in to see everything — and not just the good stuff. I’d look at him and see a guy who ate the same cereal I ate, grew up the way I grew up, and if he did it, why couldn’t I do it? The blueprint was there.”

    Sep 27, 2020: Brothers Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) and Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) embrace after the coin toss. Credit: Charles LeClaire – USA TODAY Sports

    October 2020: Playing the right way.

    Center Ben Jones: “I got drafted in 2012 by Houston, and I learned so much. I watched J.J., Duane Brown, Andre Johnson put everything into the game. Their sleep, the food they ate, massages, and offseason work. Your body makes your money. Treat it right. And that year, I played right guard, and my welcome-to-the-NFL thing was blocking him every day at practice. He made my life miserable. But he made me better, a lot better.

    “When I left for Tennessee [in 2016 in free-agency], we stayed close. But playing him, the gameplan was always all about him. We’d have dummy calls because he studied our calls and knew them. We’d call ‘Deuce!’ That was a double-team on J.J. We’d have ‘Watt Checks.’ ‘Oscar’ was the call we’d make to run away from him, and we used that a lot. But he was just. Never predictable. That made it hard to play him. Our thought was, he’s gonna make the freak play here and there — don’t let him disrupt the whole game.

    “My story about J.J. I have a picture from a game in 2020 when I’m in Tennessee and we play played a wild game against Houston.”

    The Texans scored to go up by seven, but failed on a two-point conversion with two minutes left. Tennessee scored on a long drive to send it to overtime, then scored on a long drive on the first possession of OT to win. Watt played every snap of those two drives.

    Jones: “So this picture I have: There’s J.J., on one knee in the end zone, totally exhausted, and our team is celebrating this big win. I see him, and I go over to him. I put my arm around him and I say, ‘You poured it all out there. You gave it your all.’ I mean, we’re family. The raw emotion there, I’ll never forget it.”


    The Gaudelli impact

    After 33 years of producing big games and innovating things like the first-down line, Gaudelli, 62, will move out of the production truck and into a less-frenetic full-time executive producer gig for NBC and for Amazon Prime. The all-consuming way Gaudelli did the job — including honchoing the schedule with the league, fighting for the best games — took a toll on him. “These jobs aren’t conducive to great health,” he said Saturday.

    Gaudelli produced 33 years worth of prime-time football — 11 on ESPN’s Sunday Night Football, five on ABC’s Monday Night Football, 16 on NBC’s Sunday Night Football and this season on the first year of a streaming series on Amazon. It’s this last season that, to me, is especially notable.

    Thursday night on Amazon Prime Video was a big jump for the NFL. Goodell compares it to the NFL equalizing revenue-sharing in the early sixties, putting games on cable in the eighties, launching satellite and DirecTV deals in the nineties. To Goodell, in 2022, one person was best suited to usher in a new media product and the streaming principle: Gaudelli.

    With cable and satellite TV in decline, Goodell knew how important year one of Amazon was. “Streaming,” he told me, “really had to be done. I’ve often said I think it’ll change the way people watch football. There are all kinds of elements with that launch. But the production was one where for credibility purposes, we knew that it had to be true — that’s the best way to put it for me. It had to be when NFL fans watched, they said, ‘Wow, this is great. This is a first-rate experience.’

    “So, going into the season, Amazon was maybe the highest priority from a media standpoint for us — making sure that launched properly. Knowing that Freddie was in the seat…that part of the launch was not a concern of mine. It was comfort. I knew he knew what to do, how to do it and I knew he was going to produce a fantastic product for our fans. That was really one of the most significant things for me in discussions with Amazon even before the deal was over.”

    Goodell used the word “true.” Over the years, I’ve admired how Gaudelli was “true” on what was sometimes a tightrope. The networks and the league have a close and symbiotic partnership; it’s in the league’s best interests for the networks to show games in a positive light. But Gaudelli has shown his journalistic side too. Gaudelli told me, “You’re always walking that line with the league, but with all due respect to the league, we’re there to serve the fans.”

    Twice this year Gaudelli walked the line on Amazon Prime games. In week four, Miami at Cincinnati, one storyline going in was that, four days earlier, Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had been staggered after a first-half hit, came out for a bit, then returned to play after halftime. In Cincinnati, he was staggered again after a blow, and his fingers stretched out in an unusual grasping form. Gaudelli showed the odd Tua hand reaction, went to break, then asked his sports medicine consultant, Mike Ryan, what it meant. Ryan said it could be a sign of neurological trauma. Gaudelli passed the info in to play-by-play man Al Michaels’ ear from the truck and said he was going to show the replay once coming out of the break, and Michaels should use the medical information.

    Gaudelli heard from the league, which was displeased about the graphic replay, which went viral. But if Goodell wants “true,” Tagovailoa in the fencing posture had to be shown. Not over and over and over, but once or twice. Gaudelli knew it.

    “You can’t sanitize football,” Gaudelli said, and that should be very high in his obituary in 40 or 50 years.

    The next Thursday, Amazon had a stinker between two disappointing teams, Indianapolis at Denver. The Broncos were hapless on offense, and Russell Wilson threw two fourth-quarter interceptions, and the game went to overtime tied at 9. Fans started streaming out of Invesco Field. Fans leaving an overtime game — in Denver, one of the hotbeds of the NFL game? Inconceivable.

    Gaudelli showed multiple shots of fans streaming for the exits, and even one outside showing a sea of people leaving the stadium. My first thought: The league’s not going to like that. My second thought: The Broncos will hate that.

    “That’s what live television is all about,” Gaudelli said. “You’ve got to cover what’s happening, all of it.”

    I asked Goodell about that aspect of Gaudelli’s game coverage. “Listen, there’s probably lots of things we wish he wouldn’t have done or shown,” Goodell said. “If you ask him, his standard would be, ‘That’s my obligation to be able to do that.’ I would never ask him to back down on something he thought was an obligation. That’s where you have that trust. Fred’s in the seat and Fred will manage it well.

    “At the end of the day, you knew the guy was the best in the business. He was going to make sure your product was better and what else could you ask for ultimately, right?”

    At Amazon, Gaudelli continued to give games, even bad ones, the big-game feel. Over the years, that’s been one of his strengths. Working with Michaels and John Madden, and then with Cris Collinsworth, Gaudelli never skated by — it was a mutual thing. Michaels, Madden and Collinsworth were worker bees, and one of the reasons Gaudelli is stepping away is he knows there’s only one way to do the job of producing a national TV game that millions watch. “The only time I ever shut it off is when I go to bed,” he said. He calls his desire to know every factoid about a game he can learn a “curiosity addiction.”

    That has bled into the brains of two generations of people in trucks, at ESPN, ABC, NBC and now Amazon. One peer at NBC said Gaudelli’s lasting legacy should be teaching tens of young TV people the right way to do games — with smart details, looking to innovate each year. For his part, Gaudelli’s thankful he was hired 16 years ago by Dick Ebersol to start Sunday Night Football; Ebersol, he said, provided “a masters class in life and business.”

    “If you’d asked me at 18, ‘How do you want your career to go?’ I couldn’t have written it any better,” he said. Good way to go out.

    One week and one important game (Bills-Bengals tonight in Cincinnati) to go, and it looks like Patrick Mahomes’ MVP to lose. My top five:

    1. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City. Tied for the best record in football (13-3), and has losses only to Josh Allen and Joe Burrow since Oct. 1. But let’s look at the wide-receiver group he used Sunday. All five wideouts he targets are first-year Kansas Citians broken in by Mahomes between April and October: Kadarius Toney (four catches for 71 yards Sunday), Skyy Moore (three for 33), Marquez Valdez-Scantling (two for 28), JuJu Smith-Schuster (two for 28), Justin Watson (one for 27).

    2. Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia. You could argue, and many will, that Hurts’ value is accentuated by the Eagles losing both games missed by Hurts with his shoulder injury. I can’t argue with that, except to say I cannot vault a player who doesn’t play over an extremely valuable player who continues to play.

    3. Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo. Still in it. If the Bills win home-field and Allen beats Mahomes and Joe Burrow, he should be a factor.

    4. Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati. Still in it. If the Bengals beat the Bills tonight, and Burrow has wins over Mahomes and Allen (and finishes the year on a nine-game winning streak), he should be a factor.

    5. Nick Bosa, EDGE, San Francisco. Best player on the best defense in football, and consistently intimidating as a rushing force. Made the biggest play in the biggest test the 49ers have had in the last two months Sunday at the Raiders.

    More Contenders:

    6. Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota.

    7. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville.

    8. Justin Herbert, QB, L.A. Chargers.

    9. Micah Parsons, EDGE, Dallas.

    10. Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay.

    Hello, Next Gen!


    There’s ample reason to be worried about the Vikings. In the last seven weeks, they’ve lost to Dallas 40-3, lost to Detroit by 11, trailed the woebegone Colts 33-0 at the half, and were behind to Green Bay 41-3 after 51 minutes. How on God’s green earth are the Vikings 12-4?

    Look a little deeper, which I did through the lens of NFL Next Gen Stats Sunday night, and one of the big issues is the up-the-middle disruption and leakage from the Vikings’ offensive line. Since incumbent starter Garrett Bradbury went down with a back injury a month ago, the protection has been spotty at best. And after the Sunday debacle at Lambeau Field, coach Kevin O’Connell announced that backup center Austin Schlottmann, who’d started the last four games, fractured his fibula. It’s likely third-string center Chris Reed will have to hold the fort starting Sunday in Chicago, unless Bradbury’s back recovers sufficiently for him to play.

    Analyzing what the last four foes have done to the interior of the Vikings’ offensive line, centered around center, starts with pressure on Kirk Cousins. Cousins was sacked on 6.2 percent of his pass-drops with Bradbury at center, and 8.6 percent of his drops post-Bradbury injury. Now, with the third center, who knows?

    Per Next Gen Stats, how troubled the protection has been over the past four weeks:

    Week 14 versus Detroit: Lions DT Isaiah Buggs had five pressures and a strip-sack of Cousins.

    Week 15 versus Indianapolis: DTs DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart combined for 14 pressures and two sacks, killer numbers as the Colts bolted to the 33-0 lead.

    Week 16 versus the Giants: DTs Dexter Lawrence (seven pressures) and Leonard Williams (five pressures and a sack) buzzed around Cousins for three hours.

    Week 17 in Green Bay: DT Kenny Clark of the Packers had a season-best seven pressures and a strip-sack of Cousins.

    That’s 38 interior pressures, two strip-sacks and three more sacks in four weeks, per Next Gen Stats. It’s simply not sustainable if Minnesota wants to make a deep run in these playoffs.

    Offensive players of the week

    Christian McCaffrey, running back, San Francisco. If there was any doubt about the value of dealing for McCaffrey at the trade deadline this year, they should be erased this morning. McCaffrey, with a combination of bulling over Raiders like a fullback and making defenders miss like a scatback, accounted for 193 scrimmage yards — 19 carries for 121 yards; eight catches for 72 yards — and his 14-yard rushing TD in the third quarter got the Niners back into a game that looked like it was getting away from them.

    Jarrett Stidham, quarterback, Las Vegas. It’s difficult for a losing team to produce a player of the week, but Stidham, in his first start ever, was incredible in the 37-34 loss to the 49ers. Making one’s first start in the NFL against the (far and away) best defense in football is a tough ask. But after the mayhem of the week in Vegas, with Derek Carr watching on TV from home (presumably), Stidham looked like a 10-year vet. He very much belonged. You could see that on his third touchdown pass, early in the third quarter. Knowing he was about to get blasted out of the pocket by San Francisco safety Talanoa Hufanga, Stidham waited and waited till the last second, then drilled a 60-yard TD throw to Davante Adams just as he, Stidham, got drilled. A precocious, outstanding performance by Stidham, throwing for 365 yards and making the Raiders feel a lot better about demoting Carr.

    Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay. Some numbers here, after Brady’s remarkable 34-of-45, 432-yard, three-TD, no-TO performance in the Bucs’ 30-24 victory over Carolina:

    1. Clinched the 19th division title of Brady’s 23-year NFL career.

    2. Was the third time in the last five Tampa games that Brady was down double-digits in the fourth quarter and came back to win.

    3. Was the 42nd time in Brady’s career that he came back from a double-digit deficit to win.

    Any doubt he can play next year, at 46, if he chooses?

    Mike Evans, wide receiver, Tampa Bay. Ten catches, 207 yards, three TDs in a game the Bucs needed to clinch the NFC South — and they did. It also made Evans the first player in the 103-year history of the NFL to begin his career with nine straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. For his career, with one game left in the season, he rose from 49th to 44th on the NFL’s all-time receiving yards list — passing, among others, the great Lance Alworth — and he now has 10,425 yards. Next in his sights: Evans needs 147 yards to pass Keyshawn Johnson.

     

    Defensive players of the week

    Kyle Dugger, safety, New England. As usual, the New England offense was stuck in neutral late in the third quarter of the must-win game against Miami. On third-and-15 for the Dolphins from their 24, Teddy Bridgewater’s short throw to the right was plucked by Dugger, and he made a strong, tough run down the left sideline for a 39-yard touchdown, putting New England up, 16-14. The Pats never trailed after that and stayed in the playoff race at 8-8. The Patriots’ seventh defensive touchdown of the season is their most since 1970.

    Cameron Jordan, defensive lineman, and Marshon Lattimore, cornerback, New Orleans. People will look at Saints 20, Eagles 10 and point to Jalen Hurts’ absence as THE reason. Not fair. Hurts would have made a difference, for sure, had he played instead of Gardner Minshew. But Jordan’s three sacks and Lattimore’s nifty bait-and-pick of Minshew for a 12-yard pick-six to round out the scoring were the results of a great team defensive day.

    Chris Jones, defensive lineman, Kansas City. Played his best Sunday when the best was needed. With Denver down by three and having a third-and-five at its 42-yard line with two minutes left in the game, Jones stuffed running back Chase Edmonds on an odd interior run call for a gain of three. Now it was fourth-and-two with 1:21 to play. Jones burst through the middle on fourth down and sacked Wilson for a nine-yard loss to end the drama.

    Nick Bosa, EDGE, San Francisco. Seven pressures, per NFL Next Gen Stats, including the biggest one of the game — pushing left tackle Kolton Miller back into Stidham and causing the last pass of the game to flutter into safety Tashaun Gipson’s hands for an interception. That set up the game-winning OT field goal. “What Bosa did was the difference in this game,” Mark Sanchez said on FOX.

     

    Special teams players of the week

    Keisean Nixon, defensive back/kick-returner. Maybe I wrote too soon (last week) about the middling impact of special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia. A week after his 93-yard return against Miami, Nixon, playing with a groin injury after being questionable all week, made the return of the day. Taking a kickoff five yards deep and right in the middle of the “N” in GREEN BAY in the end zone, Nixon picked his spot right up the middle of the field, sloughing off a tackle attempt by Vikings kicker Greg Joseph at the Packers 28. He went untouched after that, completing a 105-yard return to give Green Bay a 7-3 lead early.

    Jake Camarda, punter, Tampa Bay. I’ve never seen a play like the one Camarda made with 42 seconds left in the 30-24 Tampa win, with the Bucs trying to pin the Panthers back with no timeouts left. The snap back to Camarda from Zach Triner was errant, and Camarda, a 4.55-in-the-40 athlete, chased and retrieved it but had pressure in his face. He ran to his left and somehow turned his body enough to send a glancing punt off the side of his right foot. It hugged the sideline on the way downfield and was downed at the three. The Bucs got flagged for illegal man downfield, but understand that if Camarda got snowed under there, the Panthers could have declined the penalty and taken over at maybe the Bucs 45. Instead, Camarda punted again and pinned Carolina at its eight-yard line. “He made the play of the game,” Greg Olsen said on the FOX telecast. Instead of having the ball down six at the Tampa 42 with 32 seconds left, Carolina got the ball at its eight with 26 seconds left. Big, big, weird play.

    Richie Grant, safety, Atlanta. With the Falcons trailing Arizona early, Grant cut through the line on an Andy Lee punt and came in clean, blocking the punt with the Falcons recovering at the Cards’ five-yard line. Cordarrelle Patterson ran it in on the next snap, and the Falcons led at the half in Atlanta. These are the kinds of plays a team playing poorly on offense has to have to win.

     

    Coach of the week

    Brian Daboll, head coach, N.Y. Giants. The Giants routed the Colts 38-10, scoring in the thirties for the first time in 43 games. That says enough about the competent offense Daboll has built in New Jersey. The win clinched New York’s first winning season and first playoff season since 2016. Remember where the Giants were four months ago? In Nowheresville, just trying to be competent. Now they’re 9-6-1 and headed for the playoffs, with Daboll’s leadership a huge key.

     

    Goat of the Week

    Carson Wentz, quarterback, Washington. You try not to make every game Wentz plays a referendum on his future in D.C., but that’s what Sunday’s game looked like. Cleveland drubbed the Commanders 24-10, and Wentz got booed out of the stadium after his no-TD, three-pick performance. “Once we get him rattled in the pocket, it’s over,” Cleveland edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney told the Washington Post.

    Hidden person of the week

    Matt Feiler, guard, L.A. Chargers. On a simple run in the right guard-tackle hole by Austin Ekeler from the Chargers’ 28-yard line, Feiler pulled from his left guard spot before Ekeler got to the hole and erased all-world linebacker Bobby Wagner, clearing the way for Ekeler. The block was the big assist on Ekeler’s 72-yard touchdown run.

    The Jason Jenkins Award

    Maliek Collins, defensive tackle, Houston. Lots of angels in this story. Charean Williams of Pro Football Talk noted that a friend in California was trying to get Christmas cards sent to a single mom and 17-year-old son in Torrance, Calif. The boy, Ethan, happened to be a Texans fan, so Williams asked Evert Geerlings of the Texans to see if he could get a few players to sign a Christmas card. Collins asked who it was for, and when he found out the story, he told Geerlings he wanted to do something more. He said he would pay for the mom and son to fly to Houston for the New Year’s Day game against Jacksonville. When Collins told them, Ethan cried. “When I was Ethan’s age,” Collins told Williams, “something like this probably would have changed my life, so I would love to have that impact on someone else.”

    The mom, Courtney Luhrs, told Williams: “It just shows you how amazing people can be.”

    From the Stadium Tour led by Maliek Collins at NRG Stadium in Houston, TX. (Photo courtesy of Houston Texans)

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    It just feels like I’m not as miserable as I have been the last two years. And when I’m walking out to my car at the end of the game, they’re not yelling, ‘You suck! Sell the team!…for the time being.

    — Giants president and CEO John Mara, after the Giants clinched a playoff spot, per Tom Rock of Newsday.

     

    II

    One percent milk and a bag of Chips Ahoy cookies.

    — Tampa Bay coach Todd Bowles, asked how he’d celebrate winning the NFC South Sunday night.

     

    III

    Who among the big-time candidates — the Jim Harbaughs and Sean Paytons of the world—would touch this job with a 30-foot pole?

    — Bob Kravitz of The Athletic, on the attractiveness of the coaching job of the 4-11-1 Colts, demolished by the Giants 38-10 Sunday

     

    IV

    We’re becoming a more dangerous team. We’ve all seen some of the commentary outside. ‘Nobody’s worried about the Packers.’ Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Now what are they gonna say?

    — Aaron Rodgers, after the Packers won their fourth straight to set up a win-and-in season finale at home against Detroit next week.     

     

    V

    This is a movie we’ve seen play out many times.

    — Anish Shroff, Carolina’s radio play-by-play man, after Tom Brady’s comeback to put the Bucs up on the Panthers late in Tampa.

     

    VI

    There’s a lot to be sorted through once the season is over.

    — Las Vegas coach Josh McDaniels, after benching Derek Carr for the final two games of the season for Jarrett Stidham.

    Seems like code language for this: The McDaniels-Carr marriage will last exactly one year.

    The King family had a delightful Christmas get-together in the Bay Area, with Mary Beth, husband Nick and grandson Peter (one year old) coming down from Seattle, and gathering at the home of Laura, wife Kim and grandkids Freddy (six in January) and Hazel (four). Six days of fun and activities. A mini-FMIA about the trip:

    QUOTES OF THE WEEK

    Hazel, when I asked for suggestions on how to get the new family dog, Jersey, who does not like men, to like me: “Well, you have to give her some space.”

    Freddy, who accepted my challenge to walk three miles with me, after walking 3.22 miles on Christmas Eve morning: “I WALKED THREE MILES!”

    GAME OF THE WEEK

    “Poop Bingo.” It’s Bingo, with a pooping theme, and cards with drawings of poop from different animals. TMI?

    GAZE OF THE WEEK

    My last vision of little Peter was in a car seat, his mom and dad about to drive away, and the little fellow caught a final glimpse of me (for a few weeks) and smiled widely. That’ll hold me till my next visit.

    BEERNERDNESS

    “Nelson the Night Heron Hoppy Lager” (Oakland United Beer Works), a delicious beer brewed at Jack London Square. I admit I bought it for the can. Wouldn’t you? But it was tasty.

    Photo: Peter King

    CHEFNERDNESS

    I was in charge of the steaks on the Traeger Grill on Christmas Eve. (Five non-meat-eaters in the crowd.) That’s some pressure, especially when I hadn’t used a Traeger before. I think I passed. No one got food poisoning.

    TRAVEL NOTE

    On the flight home, San Francisco to New York, I noted career memories of some of the cities we flew over.

    Elko, Nev. — Had dinner with John Madden in this northeastern Nevada outpost when I bused cross-country with him 30 years ago. There was a card table with a handwritten “SPORTS BOOK” sign in the back.

    Cheyenne, Wyo. — Memorable 1990 scouting trip to some western schools with Bengals O-line coach Jim McNally. Stopped at U of Wyoming to see a prospect, but the fun part of the trip was our stop in Missoula, where McNally discovered an unknown tackle named Kirk Scrafford at Montana. “Scrappy kid,” McNally said. “I’m gonna push for him.” Scrafford, after going undrafted and signing with the Bengals, had a nice 109-game NFL career.

    Minneapolis — Minneapolis Miracle, Jan. 14, 2018, Keenum to Diggs, ridiculous TD, Vikings walk off their greatest playoff win. Seventy-five minutes after the game, I photographed a beaming Stefon Diggs, shirtless, still with his football pants on. Case Keenum asked me, “How you gonna write THIS?!”

    Madison, Wis. — Popped in to do a feature story on Joe Thomas, pre-draft, in 2007. Really remember Thomas’ abode, one of the great off-campus houses ever. Red padded bra hanging from one of the antlers of a six-point trophy buck. Thomas’ laptop propped up by odd legs: four rolls of toilet paper. Told me he’d pass up the NFL’s invite to New York for the draft. He’d go fishing with his dad in Lake Michigan instead.

    Southern Ontario — Forget what year it was, but Don Banks and I were in Buffalo one Saturday afternoon to cover the Bills the next day. I suggested a road trip to Toronto to see Maple Leafs-Canadiens. Hockey Night in Canada, baby. Didn’t have to twist Donnie Brasco’s arm. I remember the scene outside, with crazy Leafs fans shouting down the Montrealers.

    Northern New Jersey, on approach — Over dinner Tuesday night with the fam, I told the story about waiting at Lawrence Taylor’s locker after a Giants’ game when I covered them for Newsday, looking to my left and seeing Richard Nixon. I introduced myself, and this fervent football fan said, “I wish I had your job.” I didn’t know quite what to say, so I said I was glad I didn’t have his job. He chuckled, and we waited for Taylor.

    Big reason why the Bengals are better, much better, in the second half of this season: the offensive line.

    Go back to Dec. 1 of last year, in fact, and look at the Bengals’ performance protecting Joe Burrow the rest of the season, and extend that to the first half of this season, when four of five positions on the offensive line had new starters. Look at the numbers, and look how important a steady line playing well is:

    Dec. 1, 2021 to Nov. 1, 2022 (11 months, 18 games, including postseason)

    Burrow won-loss: 10-8. Sacks per game: 4.1. Points per game: 23.4.

    Nov. 2, 2022 to Jan. 2, 2023 (2 months, 7 games)

    Burrow won-loss: 7-0. Sacks per game: 1.4. Points per game: 29.3.

    A big reason for the improvement: The five Bengal linemen, none of whom had played together before, have meshed in front of a quarterback getting the ball out slightly faster. Center Ted Karras and guards Alex Cappa and Cordell Volson have kept the pocket clean (“pocket integrity,” they call it) much better than the 2021 crew (center Trey Hopkins, guards Quinton Spain and Hakeem Adeniji). In the Bengals’ four postseason games last year, the three-man interior allowed nine sacks, per PFF. In the Bengals’ recent 7-0 run, the three-man interior has allowed two sacks.

    Plus, Burrow has become smarter at dumping the ball off when he feels the heat, and he’s gotten better at making decisions fast this year (2.48 seconds to throw, as opposed to 2.63 seconds last season, per PFF).

    With the season-ending injury to right tackle La’el Collins, I’d expect the Bengals to help right tackle plug-in Adeniji a lot tonight against Buffalo. Playing right guard last year in the playoffs, Adeniji allowed three sacks against Tennessee in the divisional round and three against the Rams in the Super Bowl. Now, playing outside at right tackle, you can be sure the Bills will test him tonight.

    I

    L.A. Football Fever Dept.:

    If you live in Visalia, Calif., 190 miles north-northeast of Los Angeles, and you have cable TV, you did not see the Rams-Chargers rivalry game on Sunday. The game between the playoff-bound Chargers and the defending Super Bowl champion Rams was not on. Vikings-Packers was.

    In fact, Vikings-Packers was aired in 98 of the top 100 TV markets Sunday. Rams-Chargers was shut out of every one except Los Angeles and San Diego among the top 100 markets. That is one of the all-time weird TV factoids for a rivalry game including the defending champ.

    II

    Now here’s an NFL media quiz for you: What was the broadcast crew for that memorable game 15 years ago last week (Pats 38, Giants 35), the game that ended the 16-0 Patriots regular-season in 2007 and was simulcast on Saturday of the last weekend of the regular season on CBS, NBC and NFL Network?

    Answer: Bryant Gumbel and Cris Collinsworth in the booth, Adam Schefter on the sidelines.

    Eclectic.

    I

    Yates covers the NFL for ESPN.

     

    II

    Schneiderman covers the Packers for The Athletic

     

    III

    The ESPN NFL analyst on Young, the Alabama quarterback, after he passed for 321 yards and five touchdowns in his last college game, a 45-20 rout of Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl.

     

    IV

    Rosenfels, a former NFL quarterback, is a wise man.

     

    V

    Joseph Cranney, investigative reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, with a sobering thread on the death of local journalism.

    Reach me at peterkingfmia@gmail.com, or on Twitter @peter_king.

    On Tua. From Donny Russell: “Tua Tagovailoa’s shocking regression is not all that shocking. How many concussions has he had this year? At least twice now he’s had concussions and the league’s ‘experts’ allowed him to keep playing. If the guy isn’t suffering from post-concussion syndrome I’ll eat my hat.”

    Well, we’ll see what the investigation into his current head trauma reveals. So I wrote in last week’s column and gave Tagovailoa one of my Goat of the Week awards after he threw three interceptions to give Green Bay a big boost in its upset of the Dolphins. Obviously, had I known that Tagovailoa got concussed, I wouldn’t have done that. When a player gets battered the way Tagovailoa has this year, I think it’s smart for all of us to let smart people — and people who will look out for his best interests — do their work, and see what they come up with. One thing I think, regardless of the NFLPA-pushed investigation: If it were up to me, Tagovailoa would not play another snap of football this year.

    On FMIA. From Mark Myerscough, of Normal, Ill.: “I think FMIA could be vastly improved by moving it to Tuesdays. Advantages:

    1. You can include the (sometimes relevant) outcome of the Monday night game.

    2. You have time to reflect and consider the Sunday outcomes — and possibly respond to some of the rash overreactions that come out.

    3. You no longer have to write until Monday morning to hit the publication deadline, resulting in a better product (i.e., being able to fully consider all of the games).

    4. I no longer have to find time in my packed Monday morning schedule to fit in reading your can’t-miss column.

    Hi Mark. Thanks for the suggestion. You’re not the first to say the column would be more complete and better if it came out on Tuesday. You’re right. The column would be better. Two problems with that:

    1. Maybe I’d have felt differently at 35 than I do at 65. But I don’t want to work all weekend, then wake up Monday and continue to work all day, and have to look into the two or three stories that inevitably pop up on Monday, so the column would be altogether current on Tuesday morning. I’ll give you a for-instance. Last Monday, the Broncos fired their coach, and Tua Tagovailoa was put in concussion protocol, perhaps ending his season. The top of my column was about the Steelers channeling their inner Franco Harris and beating the Raiders in the last minute. So now, I’m chasing two more stories on Monday, and the stories that were the best Monday morning are now down the list. An 11,000-word column would become 14,000-. No thanks.

    2. Do people wake up Tuesday morning wanting to focus on Sunday afternoon football? I don’t think so. They’re looking ahead by then, in my opinion. Anyway, those are my thoughts, Mark. Thanks for reading.

    On Franco. From Rob Simon, of Waynesville, N.C.: “My 16-year-old self and my father listened to the Immaculate Reception game in our Pittsburgh suburban home, six miles from Three Rivers (NFL blackout rules those days). He and I were jumping around the room, trying to comprehend exactly what had transpired since we couldn’t see it. That is the last great memory I have of my time with my Dad. Two weeks later he suffered a stroke. Then 50 years later Franco passes just days before the anniversary and the official retirement of his number, stirring similar emotions of loss. Multiple times on Saturday night I could not contain my tears, starting when Cam Heyward ran on to the field with the 32 flag. Your thoughts about the whole situation stirred those emotions once again.”

    That’s what’s great about being a fan. You have a lifetime memory of sharing one of the greatest games in Steelers history with your Steeler-loving dad. Thanks for reminding us all why loving a team is important.

    On the Yankees. From Dave Borasky, of Durham., N.C.: [I wrote last week about Yankees president Randy Levine said the franchise is the flagship team in baseball, despite winning one championship in the last 22 years.] “I gave up on MLB years ago. But I will say that while Randy Levine’s statement strains credulity, there is no corner of the world I’ve visited where I don’t see multiple people wearing caps with the Yankees logo. Last month in South Korea I would see a dozen Yankees caps in a given day in a city two hours by bullet train from Seoul where English was generally not spoken. Crazy.”

    I get it, Dave. The Yankees are a franchise known around the world. I just think a team’s record over the past generation, one title in 22 years, should factor in when bragging about the prominence of a franchise.

    On Shanahan. From Ryan Lockhart: “How is Kyle Shanahan not a front-runner for Coach of the Year?”

    Who says he isn’t? I’ll consider him — along with Brian Daboll, Doug Pederson, Nick Sirianni, Kevin O’Connell, Dan Campbell and Steve Wilks. I’d say Daboll and Shanahan would be at the top of my list, but that could change in the next seven days.

    1. I think I don’t understand a player, such as Derek Carr with the Raiders, getting replaced as the starting quarterback of a team and then leaving the team so he won’t be a distraction. Nonsense. Starters have lost jobs since the beginning of time in all sports. They should come back and support the backup — and the coach shouldn’t say, It’s okay to leave. Life is about showing up, in all circumstances. It’s just weird that a guy loses his job and it’s fine and dandy for the player and the team that he simply becomes a non-person.

    2. I think this is setting up to be a crazy playoff season. Aaron Rodgers as a possible seven seed, coming in hot? Tom Brady, given up for dead in midseason, playing like 2007 Brady the last five quarters? The mystery Giants? The equally mysterious Eagles? The Kansas City-Buffalo-Cincinnati power brokers atop the AFC?

    3. I think that was a good move by Bill Belichick postgame to praise two veterans who might retire, and may have been playing at home for the last time — safety Devin McCourty and special-teams ace Matthew Slater. Said Belichick: “Devin has done about everything a player could do for this program. And you could say the same thing about Matt Slater in the kicking game. I don’t know if there’s ever been or ever going to be a better player than Matt Slater as an overall special teams player, and the leadership he’s brought to the team along with Devin. Devin came in as a corner, went to the Pro Bowl, moved to safety, led the defense at the safety position from his second year on.” File those under the “Needed to be Said” category.

    4. I think Lee Corso had some sweaty-palm moments just after midnight on New Year’s morning, when Ohio State lined up for a 50-yard field goal in a dome with three seconds left, trailing Georgia by one point in the college football semifinal. No good. Georgia 42, Ohio State 41. Earlier, Corso had said on College GameDay: “Ohio State’s chances in this game are between none and none.” Ohio State had a 14-point lead with 11 minutes left in the game, but yeah, the fourth-best team in college football this year had no chance to best the top-ranked team. Lucky man, this Corso.

    5. I think I’ve got a good story for you about Knockout Pools. You know, the NFL game in which you pick one team every week to win, and you can only pick any team one time all season.

    You may, if you’re from the New York area, have heard of Mike Goldstein. “Mike from Montclair.” He was a regular caller to the Mike and the Mad Dog Show on WFAN for years, and wasn’t afraid to joust with Mike Francesa. Mike Goldstein has three daughters. We know each other from years of living in New Jersey because I coached his two youngest, Emma and Carly, in softball in Montclair. Freddi, the oldest, has gone on to a career in PR — she was Bill de Blasio’s mayoral press secretary for a while, and works for Uber now — and she likes to put a couple of bucks down on the games she watches. Giants fan. Tom Brady hater.

    Freddi, 32, was in a Knockout Pool this year. There were 663 entries, at $50 apiece. Rules allowed for entrants to have five entries, so Freddi was in for $250, picking different teams each week in each entry. “Different people have different strategies,” she said. “I thought, ‘I just gotta stay alive every week.’ I wasn’t looking at every team’s schedule and figuring I’d save the best teams for later in the season. I just looked at who had the best chance to win every week and didn’t give it many other considerations.” She looked at the Vegas lines each week, and often centered on the biggest favorites.

    Week 14. Freddi had one clean entry remaining of her five. She was one of nine people left. She hadn’t picked Kansas City yet, and KC had Denver. But KC had a cake game in Week 15 (Houston). Her husband urged her to save KC for a week. Nope. Freddi took Kansas City to beat Denver. Three picked Seattle to beat Carolina. Two picked Tennessee to beat Jacksonville. Two picked Las Vegas to beat the Rams. One picked Dallas to beat Houston.

    The email from the keeper of the pool came in late Sunday night of Week 14. “The hammer fell and it fell hard in week 14,” the commissioner wrote. “Two entries remain.”

    Week 15. Freddi and a guy she didn’t know, Adam. He’d won the pool previously, so he seemed a formidable foe. If they were tied after 18 weeks, they’d split $30,000. But if one person fell out, the winner would win $24,000, the loser $6,000. Freddi still had the Vikings left. Vikings-Colts seemed a pretty easy pick. “But a friend of mine said the Vikings were just due for a loss,” she said. “I kind of liked New Orleans against Atlanta. The Falcons were playing a rookie quarterback making his first start. Seemed logical. Maybe I should have picked the Vikings, but I felt better about the Saints.”

    Of course, it was Colts 33, Vikes 0 at the half. And the Saints sprinted out to a 14-0 lead. But Freddi and Adam hung on for wins here. Freddi’s Saints beat Atlanta 21-18. Adam picked Kansas City, and KC survived in OT at Houston 30-24.

    Week 16. Freddi picked the QB she hates, Brady, to win at Arizona. Adam picked Detroit to win at Carolina.

    Sunday: Panthers stunned the Lions. Monday: Bucs stumble and bumble around. It’s 16-6, Arizona, in the fourth quarter. Freddi and friends played a board game, Settlers of Catan, to ease the tension. Bucs scored a TD with eight minutes left, then kicked a field goal to send the game to overtime.

    Overtime. Cards won the toss, got nothing done. Punted. Brady took the Bucs down to the Arizona 22. The game was on the phone of a friend during the board game. “Do you want to watch?” Of course, Freddi said. Ryan Succop kicked the 40-yard field goal to win, and there was some jumping up and down, some hugging. Freddi was $24,000 richer.

    “I’m at the age where there’s no fun anymore,” she said. “I have to put it toward my mortgage.”

    And now that she’d been enriched by the efforts of Tom Brady, her feelings must have changed about Brady. Right?

    “Still hate him,” she said.

    6. I think for those of you in Knockout Pools, our 2022 champion has some advice for you. “Don’t think about next week,” Freddi Goldstein said. “Get through this week. Win this week. Don’t overthink it.”

    7. I think I don’t understand two things about the Denver situation. One: The new coach will report to the owner, owner’s rep Greg Penner, not the GM. That sets up the coach going over GM George Paton’s head, whether the owner thinks it does or not. What, is the owner going to want to meet with the coach every Monday after the game? Will Paton be invited? I mean, why invite a separation like that? Two: In the past few days, several offensive players, in what appears to be an orchestrated show of support for besieged quarterback Russell Wilson, have taken to Twitter to back Wilson. Jerry Jeudy Tweeted about his “elite work ethic,” K.J. Hamler about his hard work and dedication, Garett Bolles about how he “pours his heart and soul into our TEAM.” Fine. But to do it all at one time looks staged, of course.

    8. I think, as much as I appreciate Wilson’s excellent decade of play in the NFL, he’s been awful this year, and his play more than anything else got a rookie head coach fired after 15 games. It’s time to shut up, take the medicine that an elite player who makes truly elite money and then plays at an F level has to take and figure a way to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Too many grandiose words, too little grandiose play.

    9. I think I agree with Rodney Harrison, with an asterisk. Harrison said he thinks Brady plays in 2023, and for another team. I think if Brady plays, he’ll play for another team. I also think he’ll have to join a team that he thinks has a chance to win a Super Bowl. Is that Vegas? Indy? Some team that partners with Sean Payton? We shall see.

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

    a. Football Story of the Week: Matt Barrows of The Athletic with a really cool piece about what happens in an NFL locker room at halftime

    b. Kyle Shanahan let Barrows see the inside of the locker room at halftime of Bucs-Niners last month. Barrows wrote about the perception/cliche of what happens at the half versus the reality:

    The cliche involves soaring speeches and players getting whipped into a frenzy before the third quarter. And while there’s certainly a rah-rah element to the intermission, no one is delivering “win one for the Gipper” sermons in the NFL. There’s no time. Halftime lasts only 13 minutes, and the players might be inside for roughly 10 minutes.

    “When you’re watching on TV, it feels like the halftime is an hour long,” said running back Christian McCaffrey. “When you’re playing, it feels like the snap of a finger.”

    During pre-game introductions, the equipment staff began transforming the locker room, which is a 3,600-square-foot rectangle, into two classrooms. In the southeast corner, they set up four rows of folding chairs in front of a big whiteboard. That’s where the offense meets. In the opposite corner, the setup is the same for the defense.

    After three or four minutes, everyone has migrated to either the offensive or defensive sides, and the locker room settles down. This is when halftime turns into a lecture hall.

    The offensive side is more intense. It’s like an advanced-level math seminar condensed to six minutes. Shanahan is on the left side of the whiteboard, scribbling down the eight or so pass plays he likes for the second half. On the right side of the board, run game coordinator Chris Foerster and tight ends coach Brian Fleury do the same for the run plays.

    c. Fascinating. Congrats, Matt Barrows, on taking people where they cannot go, to teach them things they’d never know.

    d. Clemente Anniversary Story of the Week: It’s been 50 years (and two days) since Roberto Clemente, on a mission of mercy to help Nicaraguan earthquake victims, plunged in an airplane to his death off the coast of his native Puerto Rico. The pain and inspiration live on to this day, as this richly researched story from Dave Bennett of the Los Angeles Times illustrates.

    e. Clemente is widely known as a great humanitarian, and rightfully so. His good deeds are legendary. But this anecdote from former teammate Manny Mota — who played six seasons with Clemente in Pittsburgh — rang true about Clemente seeking perfection:

    In a game at Forbes Field, the Pirates’ ballpark at the time, a batter hit a ball down the right-field line and it took a strange bounce and eluded Clemente, Mota said. What should have been a single turned into a double.

    “After the game, Roberto said, ‘Manny, I want you to meet me at the ballpark early tomorrow and get a bag with 75 balls.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? Why do you want to do that?’ He said, ‘I want to figure out how that guy hit the ball past me.’

    “So the next day we got to the ballpark early and he goes out to right field and says, ‘I want you to try to hit the ball to me just like last night.’ I hit him 40, maybe 45 balls and he calls me out to right field. He had found a small piece of wood that the ball had bounced off the night before and that was why he missed it. He said, ‘Go ahead and hit me the rest of the balls. I want to make sure that never happens again.’ And that’s why he was the best right fielder in baseball.”

    f. Great story, too, about Francisco Lindor saying he grew up in Puerto Rico and learned about Clemente in school, and trying to make the world a better place — the way Clemente did — became a part of kids’ DNA there.

    g. RIP, Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

    h. Long live Pele. Do you know how he got his first name? He was born in 1940, and his parents named him in honor of inventor Thomas Edison. He loved the name, and in fact didn’t love the soccer name he was given, Pele.

    i. When I was a kid, that one word said everything — even to an American-sports-loving kid growing up in Connecticut. The expansion Hartford Bicentennials hosted Pele’s Cosmos at a rickety minor-league football stadium in Hartford, Dillon Stadium, on Aug. 1, 1975, a month before I left for my freshman year of college, and a few months after I played my last season of high school soccer. This was big. Really big. The Bicentennials won 3-1, and records of the day said there were 8,217 on hand. Pele played a lot but didn’t score. We thought we were watching royalty, even in a venue as low-down as that one. I think tickets were $3. I think about that now and it occurs to me that, for example, Lionel Messi playing anywhere in America would draw gigantic adoring crowds. The Cosmos, with Pele, drew 4,445 in Boston in 1975, 4,959 in Rochester, and 4,796 in Toronto. Different world 48 years ago.

    j. I wish I could read what Grant Wahl would have written about the death of Pele, and the meaning of his life.

    k. Cool Pele story: In 1968, Pele, 27, and his Brazilian team, Santos, played an exhibition at Fenway Park in Boston against the Boston Beacons. The Boston Globe dispatched a sports-department summer intern from the University of North Carolina, Peter Gammons, to cover the game. That Peter Gammons.

    l. Congrats to Eli Saslow, moving from the Washington Post to the New York Times to be a writer-at-large. When Eli Saslow writes a long feature, I put down what I’m doing and pause my life for 15 minutes and devour it. A few examples:

    m. The dysfunction of America, from the experience of a Denver city bus driver.

    n. The challenges to Seattle mental-health caseworkers keep getting worse.

    o. And my favorite from 2022 — Saslow on a great teacher from the Philippines attempting to help save a foundering school district in Arizona, and how haunting it was.

    p. Those are such important stories, all of them. Saslow has a sense of what matters, what’s important to bring to the attention of the public, and how to illuminate people working everyday jobs who really are extraordinary. He has a gift, and we’re fortunate to be able to unwrap it.

    q. Which reminds me of George Santos, the liar who got elected to Congress from New York in November. This might be true, and it might not be, but I have to wonder if the immense cutbacks in journalism in recent years led to one or two or 15 media outlets or reporters who would have gone down the rabbit hole to investigate Santos before the election not doing so.

    r. The Santos story is beyond outrageous. He absolutely should not be seated when new members of the House of Representatives are sworn in Tuesday. He is accused of lying about going to an exclusive New York City prep school, lying about graduating from two colleges, lying about working for Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, lying about his grandparents who were born in Brazil having escaped the Holocaust, lying about being Jewish, lying about what he called “a proud American Jew,” lying about his mother dying on 9/11 despite one Tweeting that his mother died on Dec. 23, 2016, lying about owning rental properties. He admitted last week, after the New York Times unspooled many of the lies, that he never graduated from college, never worked for Citigroup of Goldman Sachs, that he is actually Catholic, that he never owned properties. Don’t seat this clown.

    s. Luka Doncic saying “I need a recovery beer” might be the best quote after a triple-double in NBA history. That was some triple-double: 61 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists. How does one who scores 61 points find 10 assists?

    t. Remember when the legalized marijuana business was going to make everyone rich? Ben Markus of NPR went to Colorado and found out the boom has gone bust for one grower, Matt Huron, and it sounds like a lot more than that.

    u. Per Marcus:

    MARCUS: “Back in Denver at Matt Huron’s grow warehouse, he says marijuana has become like the hypercompetitive restaurant industry, where some will do well

    HURON: “And then there’s, like, a gazillion other guys that open up a restaurant, and they’re out of business in a year. And that’s really what the cannabis industry is now.”

    v. It takes gumption for Rick Singer, the brains behind the Varsity Blues college-admission scandal, to have taken in $25 million in bribes from the very rich to steer their kids to prestigious colleges, and kept $15 million for himself (per prosecutors), and then ask for a sentence that included no jail time. He’ll be sentenced in Boston Wednesday. Singer’s attorneys say he is living in a trailer park for senior citizens, which must mean $15 million doesn’t go as far as it used to.

    w. Birthdays of the Week: On Tuesday, the most famous connection in Giants’ history will celebrate. Eli Manning turns 42 and David Tyree 43. Tied together in history and on the calendar.

    x. This one crept up on me. Jim Everett turns 60 today. Where has the time gone?

    y. Happy trails, Judy Woodruff, and excellent work as anchor on the PBS NewsHour for the past nine years. At 76, Woodruff cedes the anchor chair to Amna Navaz and Geoff Bennett and will be a senior correspondent for the network. The best thing anyone could say about a news anchor is you’ve got no idea watching her what her political leanings are. Woodruff was straight-down-the-middle, a trusted and smart voice.

    z. RIP Barbara Walters. She fileted so many important people, in politics and the wider world, by asking the questions and saying the things so many would not. Great case in point, in an interview with the three Kardashian daughters and mom Kris Jenner a few years ago: “You don’t really act, you don’t sing, you don’t dance. You don’t have any, forgive me, any talent!” Whether it be Donald Trump or Fidel Castro or Kim Kardashian, Walters asked the well-researched questions that needed to be asked, and inspired two or three generations succeeding her — male and female — to do the same.

    Most times, days, networks to be finalized today or tomorrow by the NFL.

    Tennessee at Jacksonville, Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC. The only one of the eight divisions to have a championship game in Week 18. The winner of this game hosts a Wild Card game, very likely on Saturday of Wild Card weekend. How amazing is this: On the morning of Nov. 27, just 36 days ago, Tennessee was 7-3 and Jacksonville 3-7. Now the Jags are 8-8, with a one-game lead over the cliff-diving Titans, and Trevor Lawrence looks like Justin Herbert. My, my.

    Detroit at Green Bay. The Pack, on a four-game win streak by an average of 13 points a game, wins the seventh seed by beating the pesky Lions. Detroit will need some help to win said seventh seed — namely a loss by the Seahawks, who host the Rams. Can’t see the Green Bay D, which came alive in December, getting eaten alive by the Lions.

    New England at Buffalo. Pats clinched the AFC seventh seed with a win, and anything’s possible with a Belichick team. But that offense is from hunger. We won’t be sure how much the Bills are playing for till after tonight’s game at Cincinnati, but for the Patriots to win, it’d probably have to be a game in the teens, max.

    N.Y. Giants at Philadelphia. So many questions surrounding this game, such as whether Jalen Hurts’ shoulder will be well enough for him to take the field against a New York team that pressures the quarterback very well. Interesting quandary for coach Nick Sirianni. Another quandary: The Giants are locked into the sixth seed. Will Brian Daboll play this game to win, or to be as healthy as possible for Wild Card weekend? Fifteen years ago last week, another Giants coach, Tom Coughlin, was locked into the fifth seed entering the final game of the year and played everyone; the valiant G-Men lost 38-35 to the Patriots and later beat New England in the Super Bowl. Brian Daboll, I am certain, will hear this story before making his call on how serious to take this game.

    I think I’ve lost count

    of Rodgers’ media foes.

    Such fuel for him.

    (The Adieu Hayku…thank you, Scott Hilburn)

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