by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Andrew: Welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where for the second week running, our chosen topic has been gazumped by the New York Football Giants.
Bryan: Like moths to a flame, we're drawn to the blazing trash fire that is the 2017 Giants season. Might as well bust out the marshmallows and make a day of it.
Andrew: It's just one more sign of the latent Giants bias so frequently evidenced by the Outsiders.
As you may have guessed if you have followed the weekly news cycle, we planned (and still plan!) to write about coaching vacancies this week. Not the open ones, of course; otherwise this really would be a short, Giants-centric article. No, we're looking at a month in which no fewer than a dozen NFL coaches might find themselves listening for their boss' footsteps in the hallway.
Bryan: The hot seat watch is always something of a ghoulish exercise -- hurray, someone might lose their means of employment! -- but when you have a high-profile job like NFL coach, I suppose it's par for the course. There's a cottage industry that has sprung around trying to predict who's most likely to get fired and who will get fired first. ESPN's Brian Burke attempted to use math to predict this sort of thing before the season started, while the USA Today has been taking a week-by-week ranking approach, including the following names at one point or another over the course of the year:
- Hue Jackson
- Ben McAdoo (Canned)
- Chuck Pagano
- Marvin Lewis
- John Fox
- Vance Joseph
- Todd Bowles
- Dirk Koetter
- Bruce Arians
- Sean Payton (lol)
- Bill O'Brien
Andrew: Sean Payton, presumably, appeared in September, when the Saints were 0-2 and the defense looked set to be yet another tire fire. They have improved ever-so-slightly since then, but there were genuine questions about Payton during the offseason. I think we can safely remove him from the list. There may be one or two other dark horse candidates, but this will do as a discussion point: how likely are these firings, and how enticing would the resultant vacancies be?
New York Giants
Andrew: We'll start with the Giants, since that is the one vacancy absolutely guaranteed at this point. The team is 2-10. The quarterback is 38 years old. The offensive line is a mess. The defense is an intriguing mixture of young potential (Landon Collins, Dalvin Tomlinson) and talented veterans (Olivier Vernon, Jason Pierre-Paul, Damon Harrison, Janoris Jenkins) held together with cheap taffy (the entire linebacker corps). Is there much on the roster that makes this team particularly attractive to a top candidate?
Bryan: Don't forget that you have Odell Beckham topping that list of young talent, which is a weapon any offensive-minded coach would love to have. On the other hand, they are in a pretty dire salary cap situation -- just about $27 million to work with, which is the second-lowest amount of any team on this list. They also need to worry about re-signing Weston Richburg and Justin Pugh and Devon Kennard -- which doesn't make that salary cap situation nicer. They can free up $16 million by cutting Eli Manning (post-June 1), but then you ... don't have Eli Manning.
Andrew: All of the young talent on offense is at receiving spots. The line is very bad, and philosophically I'm not convinced that's a great way to build an offense. The Vikings had Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen last year too, but it didn't matter because by the end of the season opposing pass-rushers were just about intercepting the snap. If Manning is not done, he is close to it. Geno Smith is not the answer, except to future trivia questions about Manning's snap streak, and if Davis Webb was the answer they would have played him instead of Geno Smith.
Bryan: Geno's not under contract for next year, either! Imagine that: the Giants might be negatively affected by not having the salary cap space to re-sign Geno Smith. It feels like things are going to get worse in New York before they get better, and that's not a fantastic spot to be coming into as a head coach.
Andrew: I completely agree. This has all the makings of the 2011 Colts, but without the Andrew Luck consolation prize.
Bryan: Well, at least you don't have to worry about a harsh media presence in New York, so I'm sure whoever takes this job will be fine.
Verdict: Ride the Lightning!
Bryan Hue Jackson IS going to be fired, right? You can't go 1-31 and not get fired, no matter how patient and progressive a front office is.
Andrew: There have been all manner of rumblings of discontent out of that building since the trade deadline too, when Jackson almost persuaded the front office to trade for A.J. McCarron. I don't see any way the coaching staff is here. The only question is whether the front office will also be scrapped. Which puts us in rare territory for the Browns: usually it's guaranteed that the front office will also be scrapped!
That front office has added a lot of value in the draft, both in accumulating picks and in drafting players. Film Room writer Charles McDonald wrote last week about the talent on the Browns defense. They also have some good offensive pieces, particularly at running back and tight end. They have missed on a quarterback, but I think the key for the team is to get somebody in who is happy to work with the existing structure to fix that before they ever consider yet another reboot.
Bryan: In addition to all that young talent, the next Browns coach boasts a whopping $109 million in cap space for 2018. That's not just the most for this list, that's currently the most in the NFL. That's not because their team is about to fall apart, either -- they have exactly two UFAs for 2018, Isaiah Crowell and Marcus Martin. Add in the top overall pick (almost definitely) and something in the five to 13 range from Houston, and you have the room and maneuverability to remake this team in your image overnight.
Better find yourself a quarterback, though...
Andrew: With all of that cap room, who better to make a run at Kirk Cousins? Whether he would go there, of course, is another question. This could be a good buyer's market for a quarterback though, with Cousins, Sam Bradford, Case Keenum, and one or two others coming available, as well as a bunch of first-round draft prospects. I guess this comes down to perspective: are the Browns an up-and-coming team who are one player away from being a contender, or are they an unstable situation missing the key centerpiece for the roster who are one bad season away from cleaning house again?
Bryan: Let's split the difference here. They are what the Jaguars were for years and years and years -- and then all the defense gelled at one time and they got acceptable play out of the quarterback position, and up to the top of the conference they shot. I don't think the Browns are one guy away from dethroning the Steelers, but this is better than a 1-27 team has any right to be. Unless you believe in the curses that surround the Factory of Sadness in Cleveland, but I mean, they have to be good eventually. Right? Somehow?
Verdict: Cleveland is Cleveland until proven otherwise.
Andrew: Are they finally going to do it? Is Marvin Lewis finally going to leave the Bengals? I won't believe it until I see it. I also don't think it will make that much of a difference. I really get the impression that Lewis is a symptom, not the problem, in Cincinnati.
Bryan: You also have to remember that the Bengals are only two games out of the wild-card hunt in the AFC, because the AFC is terrible. Really, 5-7 isn't all that bad of a record, all things considered, but we're on pace for Lewis' third consecutive losing season. He has never done that before, and I could see Mike Brown -- the slowest moving owner in the game -- finally deciding that maybe a boost in the coaching department could push them over the hump. Brown let David Shula and Bruce Coslet have long runouts, though, so who knows?
Andrew: The good news, here, is that they have a competent quarterback. The bad news may well be that they have a competent quarterback. Andy Dalton is not a star, and he's not a wreck. A.J. Green and the tight ends are terrific though, and if John Ross ever gets on the field and they can cobble together a blocker or two we might see one of the league's most dangerous passing attacks.
Coupled with a defense that is not nearly as old as I had thought, this roster really is not far away from contention. A field goal kicker here (hey, they drafted Jake Elliott ... oh), a competent tackle there (is Andrew Whitworth a free agent ... oh) and we might have one of the AFC's best teams. Or they could just let all their good impending free agents leave instead.
Bryan: Well, at least we can trust Mike Brown to go out and make those one or two big moves in free agency, right? I mean, it's not like he's the most frugal owner in the league or anything, right?
Honestly, if I was a coaching candidate, that would concern me greatly. The Bengals' return to prominence in 2009 coincided with Brown passing over day-to-day football operations to Marvin Lewis and Katie Blackburn. If they do clean house, would Brown want to take back the general manager role? That might be enough to get me to steer clear.
Andrew: The talent is here. Everything you need to build a solid contender is in place, with the exception of the offensive line. Some better coaching and better management would take the Bengals over the hump. A potential coach would believe he could provide the former, but will the front office provide the latter?
Verdict: Mike Brown is the wild card, which coincidentally is usually the best the Bengals can hope for.
Bryan: My advice to whoever takes over the Colts job after Chuck Pagano leaves is to buy a box of chocolates and a bouquet of roses and show up to Andrew Luck's house with a boombox playing "In Your Eyes." The franchise can change, baby, we promise!
Andrew: Alternatively, lock Jim Irsay in a soundproof room with a box of R.E.M. and Seattle grunge vinyl, a turntable, and a subscription to Kerrang! Then, and only then, start making football decisions.
Bryan: It does feel like a coaching change would do the Colts wonders. They'd be 8-3-1 if games ended at halftime, which makes it feel, at least, like other teams are coaching circles around them in the second half. And then you have things like this:
— Clark Wade (@ClarkWade34) November 27, 2017
My kingdom for "Playoffs? Playoffs?!"
Andrew: So let's see, the Colts have a good crop of receivers, some decent linemen, a talented but oft-injured quarterback with a potentially solid backup, and roughly one defender. This really does come down to what you can get out of Andrew Luck and/or Jacoby Brissett.
Bryan: That makes the handling of Luck's shoulder injury saga all that much more important. I have no idea how Luck feels about the delay on getting surgery, and the will-he/won't-he-play-this-year shell game that took place in the offseason. He hasn't said much, which makes sense. But I could easily see him getting fed up with ownership and management -- and while he is under contract through 2021, having an unhappy franchise quarterback is not the situation you want to walk into as a new head coach.
That being said, you've got very good cap room ($85 million) to give Luck a nice present. Like an offensive lineman or three. They're not likely going to pick that up in the draft, because Chris Ballard does not draft for need, so they may have to dip into that cash to try to keep Luck and his shoulder healthy going forwards.
Andrew: I don't think I like this situation nearly as much as I usually would like a situation with a quarterback of Andrew Luck's talent. It's not quite the Giants, but we're looking at a bad roster, a lot of holes to fill, a quarterback who can't get healthy much less stay there, a questionable general manager, and a bad owner.
Verdict: Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I (still) decline.
Bryan: John Fox now has the worst winning percentage in Bears history. That covers a lot of years of bad football and bad coaches (Abe Gibron! Jim Dooley! Mike Wannstedt!).
Andrew: I would not have guessed that about Fox. Mediocrity, sure, but not awfulness. I really expected his Bears tenure to go better than this, which I submit as yet another reason I hate making predictions.
Bryan: I am on record saying the Fox/Fangio/Gase trio was the best signing of the 2015 offseason. Um. Oops.
Hey, future coach, I hope you really like Mitchell Trubisky, because you're stuck with him for at least the first two years of your coaching debut! Rather than getting your own prospect for the position, you get someone the previous administration has selected for you. That's less than ideal, though better than not having a prospect at all.
Andrew: Your opinion of this job will probably be a reflection of your opinion of the quarterback. It's almost like that's the most important position in the game or something! The Bears sure look set up for success if you can get the passing game working. This offensive backfield is one of the most exciting in the game. The offensive line is mostly in place. The defense is not loaded with stars, but has a baseline of solid veterans and some very good youngsters.
Bryan: "Getting the passing game going" seems easier said than done, but I agree with you that there's a decent core to build around. It's Ryan Pace's core, though, and if Fox goes, it's hard not to see Pace going with him. That means there might be some stuttering as you switch management philosophies, which could stymie immediate improvement.
Andrew: That's true, but Bears ownership is, while not quite at the Mike Brown level of satisfaction with mediocrity, not especially impatient either. Marc Trestman only got two years, but was fired after he lost the locker room. John Fox has had three, despite not being better than two games under .500 in any of them. The division is tough, but not prohibitively so. Chicago looks like a good situation, overall, and one of the better "bottom six" most likely job openings.
Bryan: I'm going to somewhat disagree here, actually. You don't have a receiving corps to speak of -- Kevin White and Marcus Wheaton are essentially the only two receivers under contract for 2018, and Wheaton is likely to be a cap casualty. They don't have a right tackle. They need to re-sign Mitch Unrein. The cornerback situation is a big question mark, too, with both Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara not really living up to their draft billing. I don't know, it feels like there's a lot of issues to be dealt with here
Andrew: At least they are specific issues rather than the Giants' or Colts' problem of "we need everything, and we need it all now." Your perspective on the Bears probably depends on how bothered you are about buying the groceries, versus simply cooking the meal. The Bears aren't likely to be consistently exciting as currently constituted, but they should at least have a baseline of competence from which to build.
Verdict: Exciting, thrilling competence!
Bryan: Here's the question for you -- do you fire Vance Joseph after just one year? It has been a terrible year, certainly, but firing coaches after only one season is generally not a move successful franchises make.
Andrew: Well, there's a certain reason for that ... firing coaches at all is generally not a common move for successful franchises. In a normal circumstance, if you fire the coach after a year like this you also fire the executive who hired him. In Denver, that outcome is slightly less likely than most places.
Bryan: Elway isn't going anywhere. Not no way, not no how.
Andrew: Exactly. So does that mean you keep Vance Joseph and see if history repeats? What do you look at, on this roster, and think "that's the reason next year will be different?" This roster is not getting younger, the quarterbacks are not getting better, and there isn't really any unit you look at with the perspective that you can build around it. That was the secondary, but unless you think Justin Simmons and Bradley Roby are your key pieces, age is a factor in building the team around that now.
Bryan: Yeah, I think "this year will be different" is based around an assumption that this is a one-year fluke on defense; bring in a veteran quarterback and you're right back to contention. You know, the 2012 Broncos strategy. I think we're pretty much in agreement that this defensive regression was a long time in coming, though. So you've got no quarterback, no young talent, a bad salary cap situation (just $27 million!) ... that's no good. It feels like they need some major bloodletting, and that things are only going to get worse before they get better. And considering they might be the worst team in the AFC (non-Browns division), that's a frightening concept. Couple that with high expectations from the Super Bowl run and recent success, and I think I'm steering clear of this one if I have a choice.
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Andrew: I would too, which just adds to the uncertainty around Joseph. Is there somebody you could get in willingly, who would do a better job with what's available? Are you as well just giving Joseph another year, seeing how the cards fall, and hoping you get a Todd Bowles revival out of him? I don't know. I wouldn't want to be in Vance Joseph's situation, and I can't imagine many other coaches wishing they were. If this job comes open, it may be tied with the Giants for the worst of the vacant situations. At the very least, it's not clearly that much better.
Bryan: I don't think this is the worst potential job out there -- we'll get to that in a moment -- but it's close. If I'm Denver, I stick it out with Joseph one more season and see what happens. Hey, maybe signing a Manning brother once again IS the solution. It worked once before, right?
Verdict: Not No Elway, Not No El-How.
New York Jets
Bryan: Alright, we -- and the rest of the football world -- were wrong about the Jets this season. That should be more than enough to allow Todd Bowles to keep his job for another year, right? I mean, all the structural issues we highlighted with the Jets are still there (old roster, questionable front office strategy, no plan for the future at quarterback), but if they didn't let Bowles go after a 5-11 season last year, he's not going anywhere even if the Jets lose out.
Andrew: Actually, if they lose out, that's the one circumstance I could still see them making a change. I'm not ruling it out just yet. A second straight season of 5-11 is not good, even with the roster purge and being better than expected. I think I lean toward them giving Bowles another year, but it's not a sure thing.
Bryan: Anyway, if the job does come open, the new coach would have $76 million in salary cap space (that's good!), an old and aging roster (that's bad!), a somehow rejuvenated Josh McCown (that's good!) and Mike Maccagnan running the front office (that's bad!). Not the worst job out there, but I think I'd want to come in with a fresh front office if I were to take the Jets' job.
Andrew: They're currently missing some key pieces, too. I agree. Keeping Bowles and possibly resetting next year looks like the best option.
Verdict: Flight delayed until 2018.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Andrew: The pros and cons of the Buccaneers job are really just the two sides of the same quarterback. Jameis Winston could be Jay Cutler or Eli Manning, depending what you put around him. Dirk Koetter was promoted to head coach for his work with the rookie Winston, but all that has happened since then is Winston proving that his rookie year is pretty much who he is. And yes, that means Koetter is Tampa Bay's Ben McAdoo, only with slightly less resemblance to Petyr Baelish.
Bryan: The Buccaneers are more than just Winston, though. There's quite a bit of young talent here to get excited about. MIke Evans is a stud receiver. Ali Marpet has shown a lot of potential as an inside lineman. I think Kwon Alexander is highly underrated -- he's not Lavonte David yet or anything, but the Buccaneers already have a Lavonte David, so that's alright.
Andrew: I loved the Buccaneers draft this year. Chris Godwin is a great fit for their offense. Justin Evans should start at safety for most of the next decade. O.J. Howard is a terrific blocking tight end with the athletic ability to be a vertical threat as a receiver. Last year's draft, on the other hand...
Bryan: 2017 was a heck of a lot better than spending a third-round pick on a kicker, yeah? That will probably always make me fear Jason Licht in general, but this is far from a terrible situation. Or, at least, there's a core of young players to build around. They might need to replace, oh, just about every other veteran starter on the roster (starting with that secondary, yuck), but this isn't a complete tear-down situation. Just needs some TLC going forward, and Tampa Bay might find itself right back in contention. Not my favorite job of the bunch, but there's some quality stuff to work with here.
Verdict: Pressure and expectations, but most of the pieces are in place.
Bryan: Bruce Arians is not going to be fired. Bruce Arians may be talked into stepping aside or retiring or whatever euphemism teams want to use to move on from their best coach in (modern) franchise history without causing a riot, but he's not going to be fired.
Andrew: If Arians is convinced to retire, that could mean this franchise losing its head coach and leading passer, rusher, receiver, tackler, punter, and kicker to retirement in the same offseason, with none of those retirements being a huge surprise. This team is old.
Bryan: Ancient, especially on offense. The big question was whether the offense -- and especially Carson Palmer -- could squeeze in one more solid season before their window closed. I think the resounding *thud* of the window slamming shut is still reverberating through the desert, though it may be blocked out by the snapping sound of David Johnson's wrist. Old, old, old. The closest thing to young talent the Cardinals have is Deone Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu-- and they'll be 26 next year, so we're somewhat stretching the definition to include them.
They also have the least cap space of any team on this list ($16 million, though that could be helped by some retirements), and have the three-headed monster of the decaying Palmer, the definition of replacement Drew Stanton, and the Gabbertian Blaine Gabbert at quarterback. That's not good. That's not good at all! At least they'll have Steve Keim, one of the top general managers in the game, helping guide them through the rebuild. But this is a rebuild situation; a major rebuild situation. This, to me, would be the least attractive job out there, quality defense or not.
Andrew: I'd take it over the Giants job, but not by much. I do think that defense counts for something.
Verdict: Age is just a number, until your entire roster retires.
Bryan: If you're looking for an ideal head coaching vacancy, you want to head down to Houston. You mean I could have Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins, Johnathan Joseph -- I could go on, but I think I've made my point. I'd manage, somehow.
Andrew: It won't happen. Bill O'Brien has the excuse that Watson got injured, and can point to how well Watson was playing when he got injured. All of the roster's best players are hurt except DeAndre Hopkins. He'll get another chance with a (hopefully!) healthy squad.
Bryan: It SHOULD happen, because Bill O'Brien thought Tom Savage gave this team the best chance to win in Week 1. And thought Brock Osweiler was the answer. And traded for Ryan Mallett. And boy, did Case Keenum and Ryan Fitzpatrick seem to do better once they left Houston. I feel Watson succeeded despite the purported "quarterback whispering" skills of O'Brien.
Andrew: I know this. You know this. Even educated fools know this! Still not gonna happen.
Bryan: Then I guess I'll take the Browns job. But I'm going to be angry about it!
Verdict:Dream jobs don't actually come on to the market (even if maybe they should).
Loser League Update
Quarterback: We're pretty big Tyrod Taylor supporters here at Football Outsiders, but with performances like this week against the Patriots, he makes it really hard. To be fair, Taylor injured his ankle on the first play of the game, which helped limit him to just 65 yards passing and 32 yards rushing. 4 points is a fairly high score for the worst of the week -- but this isn't Taylor's first appearance in these Loser League updates this year, either.
Running Back: The backfield shuffling in Philadelphia continued, with LeGarrette Blount earning just 14 snaps against the Seahawks. Jay Ajayi is taking more and more of the workload in the backfield, but Blount was also hurt by the fact the Eagles were trailing most of the way. He managed just 26 yards and 2 points on eight carries.
Wide Receiver: A full six-pack of Goose Eggers this week! Corey Coleman failed to register a reception. Cody Latimer, DeVante Parker, Roger Lewis, and Tyrell Williams each had a reception for less than 10 yards. Paul Richardson managed just 8 yards on two receptions.
Kicker: Matt Prater had been perfect on extra points this season, and then he hooked one wide left against Baltimore. He also missed a field goal. Those four points ended up not mattering much to the final score, but they both came when this was still a one-score game. It earns you -5 loser league points.
Check your team's score and the Part II leaderboard here!
Keep Choppin' Wood: With 2:15 to play in the Meadowlands, trailing by a single point, the New York Jets scored a touchdown on third-and-goal from the Kansas City 1-yard line. The two-point conversion pass fell incomplete, but a holding call against Kansas City's Steven Nelson gave the Jets a retry from a yard closer. Marcus Peters, already frustrated following a series of penalties against his team, picked up the referee's flag and hurled it into the crowd. Presumably then expecting to be ejected, Peters instead ejected himself from the game, heading up the tunnel into the locker room. Instead, all that Peters was penalized was the usual unsportsmanlike conduct call, so a Chiefs staff member had to head to the locker room and retrieve him before the end of the game -- without socks, tape, or gloves, as he had already begun undressing. In the meantime, the Jets scored the two-point conversion to take a seven-point lead. While it's difficult to say that the actions of Peters cost his team the game -- he was unlikely to make the difference on the Elijah McGuire goal-line plunge, and his offense turned the ball over on downs when driving for the tie -- they could have had an impact in a hypothetical overtime, and were certainly crazy enough to "earn" this award regardless.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game: On his team's opening drive against the Vikings, Dan Quinn provided another perfect example of what we discussed in last week's column. Facing what would have been a 57-yard field goal attempt, Quinn had his team go for it fourth-and-2 instead and picked up 15 yards on a pass to Tevin Coleman. As with last week, the drive stalled out and resulted in a field goal anyway, but we are pleased to see the league trending toward aggressiveness in these short-yardage situations on the edge of field goal range.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching: Picking the right time to use your challenges can be tricky. With only a limited number available, it's best practice to save them for crucial moments in the game -- key conversions, borderline catches on big gains, key scores. And what, truly, is more important than 4 yards early in the second quarter? Four minutes into the second quarter of the Buffalo-New England matchup, Tom Brady tripped over Rex Burkhead and threw an incomplete pass, setting up a third-and-5. Or did he? Sean McDermott, thinking the play looked a little strange, threw the challenge flag, trying to set up a game-changing ... uh ... third-and-9. The fact that the challenge failed is the icing on the bad-decision cake, as is the fact that the Bills forced a Patriots punt on the next play anyway. McDermott attempted to explain the challenge, saying "I thought, situationally, I didn't see too much of a downside in doing it because we were already in that part of the game there in terms of the situation." Your guess as to what that means is as good as ours.
'Next Man Up' Fantasy Player of the Week: The Texans have had health issues up and down their roster, but perhaps nowhere more thoroughly than at tight end. All their tight ends suffered concussions in Week 1, and things havenot significantly improved since then. C.J. Fiedorowicz left this week's game with another concussion, and with Ryan Griffin already on IR with concussions of his own and Bruce Ellington and Braxton Miller forced out of the game due to injuries of their own, that left Stephen Anderson in the line of fire. He received as many targets against Tennessee (12) as he did in all of November, ending up with five catches for 79 yards and a touchdown. He is now Houston's second target behind DeAndre Hopkins, which is a pretty good summation of how Houston's season is going.
— Cal Football (@CalFootball) December 3, 2017
Blake Bortles Garbage-Time Performer of the Week: Did you know that the Indianapolis Colts were eliminated from the AFC South race thanks to their loss to Jacksonville on Sunday? I know, it's stunning; most would have assumed they were eliminated months ago, when they were playing "will they, won't they" with Andrew Luck's injured shoulder. At least Colts fans still get to watch T.Y. Hilton week after week. This 40-yard touchdown could have sparked a Colts comeback ... if their defense hadn't immediately let the Jags march 81 yards down field for another score. Wait till next year?
T.Y. Hilton touchdown pic.twitter.com/R0dCs3ba3G
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 3, 2017
'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week: Denver's pass defense has fallen away from the giddy heights it scaled under Wade Phillips, but the run defense has generally performed well this season. That can be attributed primarily to the defensive line: the Broncos ranked eighth in open field yards coming into Week 13, but first in power success. Despite gaining more than 100 yards on the ground, the Dolphins barely even tested Denver's defense in short yardage: only three short-yardage plays might have been runs. Two resulted in penalties: one against the Broncos for encroachment, and one against the Dolphins for offensive holding. The only one that stood was a Kenyan Drake rush attempt for no gain in the third quarter. Of 34 plays that the Broncos have faced this season with 2 yards of less to go, only 14 have converted for a first down -- a conversion rate of only 41.2 percent, versus a league average of 63.8 percent.
Game-Changing Play of the Week: The Seahawks' win over the Eagles created a nice mess in the NFC. It helped break Philadelphia's stranglehold over the top seed, added extra drama to both the NFC West and wild-card races, and generally made the last month of the season feel more fun as Seattle threatened to go on a tear. It might not have happened, however, if it wasn't for Sheldon Richardson forcing this fumble as Carson Wentz was about to score a game-tying touchdown...
— NFL (@NFL) December 4, 2017
Vince Verhei wondered whether Seattle has led the league in goal-line fumbles forced. It certainly isn't the first time they've benefitted from this very play -- the exact same thing happened in Week 5 against the Rams, as well as the infamous missed batting penalty against the Lions in 2015. The fact that Seattle then took the ball and marched all the way down the field for a touchdown of their own added insult to injury; the 14-point swing was an absolute backbreaker. Now, Philadelphia finds themselves looking up at Minnesota in the race for home field, thanks to a terrible strength of victory, rather than sitting atop the NFC's throne. Even worse, imagine if they lose to the Rams next week, with the Rams and Saints winning out and the Vikings going 3-1 to all tie at 13-3. The Vikings would likely get home-field advantage due to a strength of victory tiebreaker; the Rams would get the other bye because of wins over Philly and New Orleans; the Saints would likely get the three-seed due to their strength of victory, and Philly would be left with the four seed -- and maybe a first-round matchup with these Seahawks. Gulp.
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Three-Eyed Raven Lock of the Week
Andrew: The NFC is loaded. Any one of the teams with winning records could beat any other on any given Sunday. Home-field advantage looks critical in the playoff race. Matchups between the top teams are a weekly occurrence. We are spoilt for choice this week, where somehow the 10-2 Vikings at the 8-4 Panthers may only be the second-biggest game of the 1 p.m. slot. Minnesota just had a big win in Georgia, where they shut down Atlanta's high-powered offense. They also found the Falcons defense tough going though, and the Panthers are better in that department. A bruising defensive battle beckons in Charlotte, and the road team come in as three-point favorites. The Vikings are better, but the Panthers are at home, where I like Carolina (+3) versus Minnesota.
Bryan: We may have just slammed Arizona for being older than dirt, but that's still a heck of a defense they've got put together -- fifth in weighted DVOA and fourth against the run. It will be a great matchup against Tennessee's equally very good rushing attack; a matchup that will probably get lost among all the great games on this Sunday's slate, but a good one nonetheless. I'll take Arizona +3, but considering my Lock record this season, perhaps you shouldn't pay too much attention to that.
Records to date:
Only one team joins the ranks of the dead this week, thanks to Pittsburgh recovering in Cincinnati on Monday night.
Elimination No. 4: Chicago (eliminated when they lost to San Francisco): Marc Trestman managed 13 wins in his two seasons with the team; it remains to be seen if John Fox can break that total in his three seasons. I suppose you have to chalk some of this season up as growing pains for Mitchell Trubisky, and this year's turnaround for Jared Goff shows anything is possible. Still, watching Trubisky put up a -24.7% DVOA and dreaming what could have been with Deshaun Watson has to hurt.
Six more teams can be knocked out of the playoffs this week -- Houston, Indianapolis, Denver, Tampa Bay, Washington, and Arizona. More interesting, perhaps, is the race to be the first team to actually qualify for the playoffs. Since the Eagles couldn't take care of business on Sunday night, we now have a mad dash for that first slot, with the Steelers, Jaguars, Patriots, Vikings, Saints, Eagles, and Rams all having clinching scenarios this week. Obviously, all seven teams will make the playoffs barring tremendous collapses, but it's worth some bragging rights to say you did it first. The earliest it can happen is in the early Sunday slate: Pittsburgh and New England both get in with a Bills loss; Philadelphia gets in with a Cowboys loss; Minnesota gets in with a win or some help; and New Orleans might have a shot, too, depending on Thursday's outcome.
We're just listing divisional and playoff elimination scenarios for space reasons. If you're really interested in learning how Cincinnati can stay in play for a fifth seed, you can click here to see the whole kit and kaboodle.
- Baltimore can be eliminated from the AFC North IF Pittsburgh d. Baltimore
- Houston can be eliminated from the playoffs IF San Francisco d. Houston AND EITHER Baltimore d. Pittsburgh OR BOTH Miami d. New England AND Buffalo d. Indianapolis
- Indianapolis can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Buffalo d. Indianapolis OR Cincinnati d. Chicago OR Miami d. New England OR Baltimore d. Pittsburgh
- Buffalo can be eliminated from the AFC East IF Indianapolis d. Buffalo OR New England d. Miami
- Denver can be eliminated from the playoffs IF N.Y. Jets d. Denver OR Buffalo d. Indianapolis OR Cincinnati d. Chicago OR Miami d. New England OR San Francisco d. Houston OR Baltimore d. Pittsburgh OR BOTH L.A. Chargers d. Washington AND Oakland and Kansas City DO NOT TIE
- Detroit can be eliminated from the NFC North IF Tampa Bay d. Detroit OR Minnesota d. Carolina
- Green Bay can be eliminated from the NFC North IF Cleveland d. Green Bay OR Minnesota d. Carolina
- Atlanta can be eliminated from the NFC South IF New Orleans d. Atlanta
- Tampa Bay can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Detroit d. Tampa Bay AND BOTH:
- Atlanta d. New Orleans OR Carolina d. Minnesota
- Dallas d. N.Y. Giants OR Seattle d. Jacksonville
- Dallas can be eliminated from the NFC East IF N.Y. Giants d. Dallas OR Philadelphia d. L.A. Rams
- Washington can be eliminated from the playoffs IF L.A. Chargers d. Washington AND ONE OF
- Detroit d. Tampa Bay AND EITHER
- Green Bay d. Cleveland AND ONE OF Atlanta d. New Orleans OR Dallas d. N.Y. Giants OR Seattle d. Jacksonville
- Atlanta d. New Orleans AND Carolina d. Minnesota
- OR BOTH OF
- Dallas d. N.Y. Giants OR Seattle d. Jacksonville
- Atlanta d. New Orleans OR Carolina d. Minnesota
- Detroit d. Tampa Bay AND EITHER
- Arizona can be eliminated from the playoffs IF EITHER
- Tennessee d. Arizona AND ONE OF Atlanta d. New Orleans OR Carolina d. Minnesota OR BOTH Detroit d. Tampa Bay AND Green Bay d. Cleveland
- Atlanta d. New Orleans AND Carolina d. Minnesota AND Seattle d. Jacksonville
- Pittsburgh can clinch a Top-Three Seed IF Pittsburgh d. Baltimore
- Pittsburgh can clinch a playoff berth IF Pittsburgh d. Baltimore OR Indianapolis d. Buffalo
- Jacksonville can clinch a playoff berth IF Jacksonville d. Seattle AND Indianapolis d. Buffalo AND New England d. Miami AND Washington d. L.A. Chargers AND Denver d. N.Y. Jets AND Oakland and Kansas City DO NOT TIE
- New England can clinch a Top-Three Seed IF New England d. Miami OR BOTH Oakland d. Kansas City AND Indianapolis d. Buffalo
- New England can clinch the AFC East IF New England d. Miami OR Indianapolis d. Buffalo
- Minnesota can clinch the NFC North IF Minnesota d. Carolina OR BOTH Cleveland d. Green Bay AND Tampa Bay d. Detroit
- New Orleans can clinch a playoff berth IF New Orleans d. Atlanta AND ONE OF
- Minnesota d. Carolina AND EITHER Tampa Bay d. Detroit OR N.Y. Giants d. Dallas
- Cleveland d. Green Bay AND Tampa Bay d. Detroit
- Philadelphia can clinch the NFC East IF Philadelphia d. L.A. Rams OR N.Y. Giants d. Dallas
- L.A. Rams can clinch a playoff berth IF L.A. Rams d. Philadelphia AND Minnesota d. Carolina AND New Orleans d. Atlanta AND Cleveland d. Green Bay AND Tampa Bay d. Detroit AND N.Y. Giants d. Dallas
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