Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we offer up a relatively snappy version of some Week 16 Christmas Eve Snap Judgments…..
- They say to be the best you've got to beat the best, and the New Orleans Saints accomplished a satisfying version of that Sunday, knocking off the Atlanta Falcons — the defending NFC champions — to clinch the franchise's first playoff berth since 2013.
The Saints haven't quite secured the NFC South just yet, that's a party still to come in the city that never stops the revelry. But given their 0-2 start to the season, when they were dominated by both the Vikings and Patriots, just getting back to the postseason at 11-4 is one the more remarkable feats of this 2017 NFL season.
Buoyed by their stellar rookie draft class — running back Alvin Kamara, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, offensive tackle Ryan Ramcyzek, safety Marcus Williams — the Saints underwent as much of a transformation as any team in the league this season and prospered wildly beyond expectations because of it. New Orleans is on such a good roll these days the Saints even pulled off an interception with the help of Lattimore's backside against Atlanta.
To those who thought Drew Brees and Sean Payton already had done their best work in New Orleans long ago, and were playing out the string with those three consecutive 7-9 finishes in 2014-2016, think again. These Saints have re-invented themselves, and it'll be fun to see them back under the bright lights of the postseason, where they have both shined from as far back as 2006 on.
In beating the Falcons 23-13 in the Superdome on Sunday, the Saints improved to 11-2 in their past 13 games, a record matched only by Philadelphia in the NFC over that same span. If New Orleans can handle the 4-11 Bucs at home next week in the dome, the Saints will claim their first division title since 2011 and be entering the playoffs on a high note.
Then again, after the mediocrity the Saints have been stuck in in recent years, almost this entire season has felt like a high note in the Big Easy.
- It's only fitting it's going to come down to Week 17 in the NFC South, and aren't we lucky that the NFL's best division this season will supply the drama on New Year's Eve? The Saints and Panthers remain tied for the top spot in the division at 11-4, but with the Saints holding the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of their two-game series sweep. Two games off the pace but still alive in the wild-card chase are the Falcons (9-6), who probably need to beat Carolina in Atlanta to punch their playoff ticket for the second year in a row.
If the Saints can handled the visiting Bucs, they're the division champs. The Panthers clinched a playoff spot Sunday by staving off Tampa Bay at home 22-19, but they can still win the division if the Bucs pull the upset and they take care of business against the Falcons.
All three teams are in position to make the NFC's six-team field and here's hoping they do, because the South has given us some of the best football we've seen all this season, and it's the deepest division in the league.
- If you're the NFL, you might instinctively want to flex the Carolina at Atlanta game into the coveted Sunday Night Football time slot, but there are chronological complications. What if the Saints win Sunday afternoon at home against the Bucs to clinch the division as expected, thereby rendering Week 17 a lot less meaningful for the Panthers?
Atlanta would still need the game most likely, although that's not guaranteed either, because the Falcons beat the Cowboys and Seahawks head to head this season and may not have to win to get into the postseason.
That could leave Jacksonville at Tennessee sitting in the pole position to be flexed to Sunday night. The Jaguars locked up the AFC South when the Titans lost at home to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, but they might still have playoff seeding to play for, with the Titans needing a win to get into the postseason. Then again, if the Patriots and Steelers both win at home in the early-game slot against weak opponents (the Jets and Browns, respectively), they could lock up the first-round byes and the Jaguars wouldn't have much incentive to play all out.
- The NFC's new world order has been fascinating to watch develop this season, and if Atlanta gets to 10-6 by beating the Panthers next week, all six teams representing the conference in the playoffs will reach double digits in wins. That hasn't happened since both the AFC and NFC managed it in 2012.
No more than five AFC teams can reach 10 wins or more this season, because wild-card contenders Tennessee, Los Angeles and Buffalo all have only eight wins entering Week 17, and one of them is going to qualify for the playoffs.
- I'm with Mike Pereira, the resident officiating expert for FOX. If you could tell via replay that Kelvin Benjamin's touchdown catch against New England was conclusively not called correctly on the field, and thus should have been over-turned, you're seeing things the average fan is just not seeing.
The NFL's senior V.P. of officiating Alberto Riveron strikes again with his replay reviews that see clarity where others do not. The "clear and obvious'' standard for a replay reversal has become a mockery, with Riveron dissecting plays at the level of the Zapruder film.
The process of replay reviews to determine what is and what isn't a catch is broken, NFL. You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it. We're getting further and further away from calls that pass the eyeball test all the time, so please stop talking about the problem and start fixing the problem. This offseason.
- I'm starting to come around to the idea of Rams running back Todd Gurley as a legitimate MVP candidate. Maybe even the front-runner? Gurley single-handedly carried Los Angeles to a 27-23 win at Tennessee, clinching the NFC West for the Rams for the first time since 2003, when the team was in year No. 9 in St. Louis.
Gurley scored two more touchdowns, one on a remarkable 80-yard pass reception in which he out-ran the entire Titans defense, and now leads the league with 19 touchdowns. He had 276 yards from scrimmage, with 158 via 10 catches and 118 more on the ground, on 21 carries. He topped 2,000 yards from scrimmage this season (2093), and according to ESPN became the first player since Herschel Walker in 1986 to log 100 yards rushing and 150 yards receiving in the same game.
His output the past two weeks proves he's getting better as the games get bigger. In wins at Seattle and Tennessee, which effectively delivered the NFC West title, Gurley rolled for 456 yards from scrimmage and all but carried his team on his back. That's the stuff of MVP credentials, even if a running back hasn't won it since Adrian Peterson in 2012.
Gurley was so good against the Titans that Rams quarterback Jared Goff almost went overlooked, despite throwing for 301 yards and four touchdowns. These Rams, they're scary good offensively when they get rolling.
- The Bills didn't score an offensive touchdown in two games against New England this season, but their 37-16 loss in Foxboro doesn't mean all hope is lost. Buffalo's most plausible route to the playoffs, which would break that 17-year streak of staying home in January?
It's not all that far-fetched. The Bills (8-7) have to win at Miami (6-9) and see the Titans (8-7) lose at home to Jacksonville (10-4) and the Chargers (8-7) lose at home to Oakland (6-8). All of which could realistically happen.
Buffalo's other route to the postseason isn't as likely: a win at Miami combined by a Baltimore loss at home to the Bengals. I wouldn't build my New Year's Eve around that scenario if I were a Bills fan.
- It was nice of the Bengals to send Marvin Lewis out a winner in what is likely to be the final home game of his 15-year tenure coaching in Cincinnati. But, boy, did the visiting Lions come up small with a lot on the line, losing to the Bengals 26-17 at Paul Brown Stadium.
This was a Cincinnati team that had been routed by the Vikings and Bears the past two weeks, to the tune of 67-14. But no matter, when the Lions decide to lose, they can lose to anybody, anywhere. Instead of being a ninth win for Detroit (8-7), it looked like the Bengals (6-9) were fighting for their playoff lives and the Lions were playing out the string.
That's not going to help make Jim Caldwell's case to return as Detroit's coach for a fourth season in 2018. I'd say the odds of Lions general manager Bob Quinn retaining Caldwell just plummeted.
- The Browns, in totally Browns-ian fashion, lost 20-3 in the snow at Chicago to drop to 0-15 and clinch the top spot in the draft for the second year in a row. Cleveland repeatedly shot itself in the foot with dumb penalties and turnovers at the most inopportune times, and now the question must be asked: At 1-30 in his two seasons on the job, could Browns coach Hue Jackson give a whole new meaning to the phrase "One and Done''?
What could Jackson have possibly done to convince the Browns new general manager John Dorsey that he deserves another season? And why would Browns owner Jimmy Haslam stand behind a coach who has presided over the worst two-year stretch of football in modern NFL history?
Don't settle for half-measures, Haslam. Go all the way and blow this coaching staff up. It's got the stench of historic defeat on it by now and there's no way to put this genie back into the bottle in Cleveland.
- What a streaky team the Chiefs have been this season, starting 5-0, swooning at 1-6, and then winning three in a row. But you want to be hot going into the playoffs, and at least Kansas City can check that box as the likely No. 4 seed in the AFC.
The Chiefs beat back the visiting Dolphins 29-13 at Arrowhead Stadium, accomplishing the first back-to-back division championships in the franchise's 58-year history, which started as the Dallas Texans in the old AFL.
Kansas City will likely have a first-round date with probable fifth-seeded Baltimore in the postseason, and that'll be an intriguing matchup. Both teams are 9-6 and looked to be in trouble at times in October and November, but rallied to put the pieces together when it mattered most. John Harbaugh coached on Andy Reid's staff in Philadelphia for many seasons, and the two known each other's personnel well.
- With standout kicker Greg Zuerlein lost for the season due to needing back surgery to repair a herniated disk, the Rams said last week they have complete confidence in new kicker Sam Ficken because he bears the seal of approval of Los Angeles's superb special teams coach, John Fassel. Maybe so, but Ficken didn't inspire too much faith when he missed his first point-after attempt at Tennessee on Sunday, then followed it up by hitting the upright to miss a 35-yard field goal try. He did at least nail three extra points after the early struggles.
Zuerlein was a machine this season for the Rams, and his absence is no small development with the playoffs looming in Los Angeles. He was named to his first Pro Bowl last week, and had scored an NFL-high 158 points in 14 games, easily on pace to break David Akers' league record of 166 for San Francisco in 2011.
- With only a home game against the last-place Bears waiting in Week 17, the Vikings are headed for a 13-3 regular-season, an astounding accomplishment given they were forced to switch to their backup quarterback early in the season once starter Sam Bradford went down with a knee injury. Minnesota caught lightening in a bottle with Case Keenum, and that may give the Vikings a team of destiny vibe as they enter the playoffs, probably as the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Wouldn't it be epic, just once, to see a club make the Super Bowl and get to play it on its own home field? That would make February's Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis all the more memorable. It's been 41 years since the Vikings made the Super Bowl, so maybe the stars are finally lining up in their favor this time.
- I'm genuinely impressed with Baltimore's resilience this season. In a weak AFC, the Ravens looked to be approaching dead in the water at 4-5, with a downfield passing game that was mostly ineffectual. It was early November and Baltimore had lost five out of seven and seemed headed for another year of mediocrity and a third consecutive non-playoff finish. It wasn't ridiculous to question whether the Ravens' John Harbaugh coaching era might have reached its shelf life at 10 seasons?
But here they are, one win shy of making the playoffs and an overwhelming favorite to make the AFC field, thanks to having a home game against the Bengals (6-9) in Week 17. Baltimore improved to 9-6 and won its fifth out of six games, beating the pluckier-than-expected Colts 23-16 Saturday. It's a cliche' to call them a team that nobody wants to play in the postseason, but Baltimore's defense is first-rate, and Joe Flacco has proven that once he gets hot in the playoffs, he's capable of winning out. Flacco completed passes to 10 different Ravens on Saturday, and he's heating up.
I promise you this: the Ravens aren't intimidated to faced either the Patriots or Steelers, and New England and Pittsburgh can't be thrilled to see them on the cusp of making the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
- Go ahead and keep telling yourself whatever it takes to make you feel relevant, Jeff Fisher. But trying to claim partial credit for the success of this year's Rams (11-4) is a laughable move, given how little Fisher got accomplished with last year's dismal 4-12 club. Jared Goff, Case Keenum and Nick Foles will all be quarterbacking in the NFC playoffs, but Fisher couldn't win with any of them in St. Louis or Los Angeles. That speaks volumes.
I realize Fisher wants back on an NFL sideline, but how desperate might a team have to be to consider him a serious head coaching candidate? Not even the Browns could be that short-sighted. Could they?
- If you were a sports fan growing up in the '70s and '80s, Dick Enberg was a big part of the soundtrack of your life. When you heard that voice, you knew you were watching a big event, and I never tired of his enthusiasm or his clean, crisp style of delivering a broadcast. He was as good as it got, and the tandem of him and Merlin Olsen calling a pivotal late-season game from some sunny AFC West locale seems burned into my memory at this point.
There was literally no sport he didn't sound like a natural calling, and his passing at age 82 Thursday night makes all of us who were fans of his feel a little older. Oh, my, you will be missed, Dick.
Ridiculously Cool Football Card of the Week
First off, there's the wonderfully memorable name. Jets safety-return man Chris Farasopoulos had perhaps the coolest name in NFL history, and on top of that, he had Hall of Fame hair to match. Farasopoulos was a third-round pick by New York out of BYU in 1971, in the same draft the Jets took running back/non-conformist John Riggins in the first round. I can't imagine the fun those two must of had in those early days, tearing up the Big Apple. Once known as the "The Galloping Greek'' in high school, Farasopoulos was a favorite of Jets fans, and had some serious quicks in the return game. His career was brief (1971-74), but he was an electrifying runner in the open field in an era when the Jets didn't give their fans a ton of reasons to watch. With Joe Namath and Farasopoulos on the same team, the Jets didn't win a ton of games, but they did lead the league in cool perennially.