Bryan: Welcome back to Scramble for the Ball, where the festive season is once again in full swing. Week 16 is always a tough week for your humble scramblers, and this year, of course, saw the Tuesday we normally write these articles fall on a holiday. We don't work on Aðfangadagskvöld; that was obviously the one sticking point in our contracts. With that understandable concession, we've opted to spend this week looking back at the season that was. While the award section is still piping hot with the worst of Week 16's action, we're glad that you're spending your holiday time reading our slightly re-warmed leftovers.
For the fourth year in a row, we're proud to present our All-Rookie Team -- and this year is a particularly strange one. It's not that this year's crop is any less talented than the previous two years, but it has been oddly concentrated in a couple spots. If your team was looking for a wide receiver or an interior defensive lineman, there was a plethora of riches to be found. If you had secondary issues, eh, maybe not so much. As a result, the actual team is probably the weakest of the four we've presented so far, but the competition might be the toughest, with both too many and not enough talented players popping up at various positions. At any rate, here's our choices for the best of the best of the youngest of the young.
Note that most of the stats listed here will be through Week 15; with the deadline on this one falling during the holiday, not all of Week 16's stats were available at time of writing. Rest assured that had Devlin Hodges thrown for 23 touchdowns against the Jets, we would have gone in and added that in.
Andrew: Gardner Minshew is one of the great stories of this NFL season: a sixth-round rookie thrust onto the field in Week 1 after an injury to the high-priced starter, Minshew immediately became the most exciting thing to happen to Jacksonville since ... uh, do exciting things ever happen in Jacksonville? The best rookie quarterback season in franchise history was almost enough to keep the collapsing Jaguars in the playoff hunt until Nick Foles could return and eliminate them for good. No player in the league was a bigger positive surprise this year.
Minshew is not, however, the best quarterback in this rookie class. That honor belongs, somewhat more predictably, to No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray. Murray's selection out of Oklahoma was met with all manner of skepticism, both of the player and the team for selecting their second first-round quarterback in as many years. His passing stats are very similar to Minshew's, with Murray's higher completion percentage offset by his higher interception rate -- the two entered Week 16 just one place apart on the passing DYAR table. Those numbers are deceptive: Minshew is a limited quarterback outproducing his raw ability on a team that entered last offseason only a competent passer away from contention. Murray is an outstanding dual-threat prospect -- he ranks second behind Lamar Jackson in quarterback rushing DYAR -- elevating a roster that remains alarmingly devoid of talent, especially if leading receiver Larry Fitzgerald retires as expected this offseason. With Murray added to a division that already includes Russell Wilson, Kyle Shanahan, and Sean McVay, the NFC West looks set to be the most competitive division in football in very short order, so the Cardinals have a lot of work to do to bring the rest of the roster up to the standard of their talented rookie passer.
Bryan: Three players on our squad were instant selections; no need for discussion or debate, just objectively correct picks. Josh Jacobs leads all rookie rushers by at least 400 yards and ranks ninth in DYAR and 12th in DVOA. In a year where no quarterback has really stood head and shoulders above the rest, there's no reason for Jacobs not to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Frankly, Jacobs should be going to Orlando on the AFC's Pro Bowl roster -- he hasn't just been good for a rookie; he has been a legit star. His 66 broken tackles rank fourth in the league (subscription required), and his 25.2% broken tackle-per-touch rate is the best for anyone with at least 200 touches this season. He's elusive and powerful; he has been the focal point of Jon Gruden's offense. If you're going to draft a running back in the first round, they'd better be dominant, and while Jacobs hasn't been a Saquon Barkley or anything, he has paid plenty of dividends this year. An easy, easy pick.
Jacobs' dominance is by no means meant as a slight to Devin Singletary, David Montgomery, or Miles Sanders, all producing well for their teams at a fraction the cost of Jacobs. But Jacobs is the clear standout.
Bryan: We're awash in riches at the wide receiver position. It's a very deep class; we could make a top 10 list without stretching too far, and we'd probably be leaving off some worthy names. It's the best group since at least the 2014 class that saw Brandin Cooks, Mike Evans, and Odell Beckham lead the way. If our theoretical All-Rookie team actually took the field, we might just go five wide and let Kyler Murray run the Air Raid all day long.
Two receivers do rise above the rest, leading everyone in both traditional and advanced stats. That's Terry McLaurin and A.J. Brown. McLaurin fell to the third round because of questions on just how ready he was to contribute as a receiver; the thought was that he'd be a special teams guy with blazing speed while he sort of learned the nuances of his position. Consider the nuances learned, as he has put up multiple 100-yard games while catching passes from Case Keenum and Dwayne Haskins; not exactly a killer duo there. Brown has the higher DVOA of the two, even if he's overall DYAR is lower. He averages 8.5 yards after the catch, most in the league for anyone with at least 70 targets, and his 17 broken tackles on receptions rank fifth among wide receivers. They're No. 1 and No. 2 in some order.
The third choice is somewhat a matter of taste. DK Metcalf may not yet know how to turn while running, but that doesn't matter when he's capable of making highlight-reel catches and using his massive frame to bully smaller defenders. Deebo Samuel is becoming the sort of YAC machine that thrives in the Shanahan/McVay offense. Mecole Hardman has the highest DVOA of any rookie receiver, though he's a couple targets short of qualifying for the main table as we speak. In the end, though, we went with the Giants' Darius Slayton. We could just point out that he has the third-most DYAR in the class and leave it at that, but we'd also note that he hasn't exactly had Russell Wilson or Patrick Mahomes throwing him the ball, either. Destroying the Eagles back in Week 14 is probably what put him over the top for us, but really, you can't go wrong with anyone in this class. Plus, Slayton wears No. 86, and we're facing a real drought of quality receivers wearing a number in the 80s. Bring it back, Darius!
|First-Year Wide Receivers (Weeks 1-15)|
Bryan: Ah, you were expecting Noah Fant here, weren't you? So was Andrew; Fant was his choice on his initially submitted roster. Fant would be a perfectly cromulent pick; he leads all rookie tight ends in receiving yards by a comfortable margin. His advanced stats aren't great, but rookie tight ends rarely produce well; Fabian Moreau's 25.4% DVOA is a function of barely qualifying for the main table and receiving only about 40% of Fant's targets. We would point out that Fant did nothing when Joe Flacco was in the lineup, and that the next solid block he makes would be his first, but he's developing chemistry with Drew Lock; had Lock been in the starting lineup all year long, maybe Fant's numbers would be higher.
Instead, though, we're going to highlight Irv Smith. Smith is 20 DYAR behind Fant, about six percentage points lower in DYAR and has about 20 fewer targets, so you could make the argument for Fant on that alone. Smith, however, played a huge role in the middle of Minnesota's season as Adam Thielen nursed a hamstring injury. Smith was the leading rookie tight end over the first half of the season, he has made his contributions in the midst of a playoff race, and he plays inline and is pretty solid at actually blocking people, a fading skill amongst tight ends. We still think Fant has the brighter future, but Smith's our guy for 2019 specifically.
Andrew: It's fair to say that this year's class of offensive tackles was a massive disappointment. Only Buffalo's Cody Ford and Atlanta's Kaleb McGary even started double-digit games, and neither player looked at all like the long-term solution his team envisaged acquiring with a thirty-something draft pick. McGary in particular was a liability in Atlanta. Ordinarily, that would push us farther down the list, but the next three names were Houston's first-rounder Tytus Howard and Jets third-rounder Chuma Edoga -- both of whom are on injured reserve with MCL sprains -- and Carolina's sixth-round pick Dennis Daley, who was forced into game action by injuries to the team's other tackles. Daley has shown a degree of competence in Carolina during the second half of the year, at least prior to the team's collapse after firing Ron Rivera, but hardly enough to vault him into All-Rookie consideration. Howard was in and out of the lineup in Houston before his season-ending injury. Edoga might have been the worst of the five this year, albeit tough to judge in the mess that is Adam Gase's Jets offense. Ultimately, we settled on Ford and McGary by default as season-long starters, but we found none of the options at all inspiring.
Bryan: Four rookie guards have started at least 12 games this season. One of them, Michael Dieter, was benched two weeks ago and told by his coaches that he needed to play better, so he's out. Max Scharping is performing much better in Houston, but doesn't quite make our final cut.
The Packers could have been in huge trouble when Lane Taylor's bicep injury first slowed him down, and eventually landed him on IR. Elgton Jenkins took over the starting role in Week 3 and hasn't looked back since. Jenkins ranks third among guards on ESPN's Pass Block Win Rate; he simply doesn't give up sacks or pressures. A lot of playoff teams would struggle with a rookie playing so many key snaps in protection; Jenkins has looked right at home ever since he entered the lineup.
The other pick is Dalton Risner. While Jenkins is succeeding on a line that features Bryan Bulaga, Corey Linsley, and David Bakhtiari, Risner is standing out on a Broncos offensive line which doesn't always do the best job keeping the pocket clear for its quarterbacks. Denver will be in the market to upgrade every other spot on their offensive line this offseason; at least Risner looks like a rock they can build around.
Andrew: This is our second unanimous, easy, no-question selection: Saints center Erik McCoy won his offseason position battle as a second-round pick, stepped right in as an opening-day starter, and has not looked out of place on one of the best offensive lines in the league. Indeed, we could easily argue that McCoy has even been an upgrade on last season's declining veteran Max Unger. Between McCoy and Ryan Ramczyk, the Saints look set for a decade at two of the most important spots on the offensive line.
An honorable mention goes to Vikings center Garrett Bradbury, holding down a tough spot on a line that is still the team's greatest weakness, but McCoy has clearly been a class above this year.
Bryan: Our third no-brainer pick was Nick Bosa. While Bosa has slowed down a bit from midseason, when we considered him our Defensive Player of the Year, he's still a terrifying force on the defensive line. His 47 pass pressures are tied for fifth-most in the league, and a full 16 more than any other rookie this season (subscription required). And remember, he missed all of preseason with an ankle injury, was hampered into September, and really didn't get off the blocks until Week 5. There are a lot of factors that go into San Francisco's defensive turnaround this year, but none bigger than adding a talent like Bosa to it.
Our second pick here is a tougher call. Maxx Crosby is second among rookies in pass pressures, but Josh Allen still has the lead in sacks. Crosby plays more snaps than Allen, which is a mixed bag -- it means he plays a larger role in Oakland's defense, but it means that Allen's pressure rate is higher. We don't blame you for siding with either one, but Allen's our pick. Crosby can rotate in, as you can never have enough pass-rushers. Heck, add Malik Reed and Chase Winovich, and you have yourself a heck of a group.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
Andrew: If the strength of this draft class was supposedly edge rushers and interior defensive linemen, it's fair to say that the edge rushers won out, but there are still plenty of solid options on the interior. Our initial list for this spot was approaching double figures, as even a couple of Day 3 picks have impressed alongside the six first-rounders. While none of the players has made an impact like that of Bosa or Allen, we could easily go four or five deep in a solid rotation on the interior. The broad disparity in roles and in the quality of the respective defenses meant that whittling down to two was a challenge.
The first pick is the most obvious of the two: Dexter Lawrence has started every game for the Giants, leading all rookie interior defenders in quarterback hits despite the rest of his team's pass defense being atrocious. Only Ed Oliver has more sacks, and the Giants rank in the top eight of our defensive line statistics too. Lawrence may be less likely to create a big defensive play than his team's other 2019 first-round pick, but we certainly can't hold that against him; he and Dalvin Tomlinson give the Giants a solid pair of complementary interior defenders, allowing them to focus on ... ohhh, everything else next year.
The second spot is tougher, because nobody has quite done enough to stand out from the crowd. Oliver, as expected, leads all interior defensive linemen in sacks, but he only has a rotational role on Buffalo's phenomenal defensive front. Christian Wilkins leads the group in tackles, but has the opposite consideration to Oliver: the lack of talent on Miami's roster means Wilkins gets a heap of playing time to make those tackles, and does so on a very bad defense. Jeffery Simmons made an impact when he finally got on the field in Tennessee, but lost most of the first half of the season to ACL recovery and is currently out with a knee injury again. Sebastian Joseph started 14 games for the Rams as a sixth-round pick, but is hardly a difference-maker considering the talent around him. Quinnen Williams and Kyle Phillips have made positive contributions to the Jets, but they're honorable mention contributions rather than award-worthy. Ultimately, we chose to go with Ed Oliver -- he is probably the player who is making the most of his opportunities, even if he will be disappointed that he isn't getting more of them -- but several others certainly have a case.
Andrew: Bryan and I had some debate around this spot, with me making the case for two highly-drafted Day 1 starters and him pushing the case of a third-round pick who has forced his way onto the field. That third-round honorable mention was Bobby Okereke, chosen at No. 89 by the Colts. He began the year as the backup to Anthony Walker and Darius Leonard, grabbed his first start against Atlanta in Week 3, and started throughout Leonard's three-game concussion absence, but has only started one of the past four games and seldom plays more than 50% of defensive snaps. A very strong tackler who is also good in coverage, he, Walker, and Leonard give the Colts a very strong corps of young linebackers, but Okereke is still clearly the third of the three in Indianapolis as well as the third of the three we're considering here.
Our top spots go to a pair of Devins: Devin Bush was the top pick for a Steelers defense that had never adequately replaced Ryan Shazier following Shazier's career-ending spinal injury. It looks safe to say that they have now: the 21-year-old Bush has started all but one game at the heart of Pittsburgh's balanced, excellent defense, leads all rookies in total tackles, and leads all rookie off-ball linebackers in tackles for a loss. Pittsburgh currently sports its best defense since 2010, and Bush's rookie campaign is a big part of that success.
Bush ties for the rookie linebacker lead in total defeats with our other Devin: Devin White was quite heavily criticized as the top pick for a Buccaneers defense that appeared to have more significant needs elsewhere. The Bucs, however, had just lost Kwon Alexander to the 49ers in free agency, and their previous high draft pick at the position, LSU's Kendell Beckwith, had his career ended early by a car crash injury. An opening-day starter, White helped anchor the best Buccaneers defense since at least 2013, piling up 86 tackles, 2.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception, and a fumble return touchdown. He looks to be not only a perfect complement to established star Lavonte David, but the heir apparent at the heart of the team's front seven.
Andrew: Our most disappointing spot on defense is cornerback, where we lack any of the star power of years gone by: nobody this year even comes close to previous picks such as Jaire Alexander, Marshon Lattimore, or Tre'Davious White. Draft status was no guarantee of success: the only first-round pick, the Giants' DeAndre Baker, is part of one of the worst secondaries in the league. Cleveland's Greedy Williams, a second-rounder, ranks No. 64 in success rate among cornerbacks (subscription required) and is also a penalty machine: at the time of writing he is one off the league lead for penalties despite missing five weeks with an injury. Fellow second-rounder Byron Murphy, who was considered the draft's best cornerback at one point, ranks No. 74 of 83 qualifying corners in success rate. Rock Ya-Sin is another penalty machine who allows too many catches. Tampa Bay's Jamel Dean, a third-rounder, leads all corners in pass deflections, but he is not a regular starter for the Buccaneers. There are very few obvious candidates for these spots.
One of the few rookie cornerbacks who has defied his circumstances is Nik Needham of the Dolphins. The Dolphins are historically bad on defense, but Needham ranks ninth in success rate and second in pass deflections. He has snagged a couple of interceptions and has the most quarterback hits as a blitzer of any rookie cornerback. We expect the Dolphins to look very different next year, but Needham is one of the few players who looks to be worth keeping around.
Our other pick outside is another second-rounder, Sean Murphy-Bunting of the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay's secondary has been a flammable punching bag for more years than we can count, but this year under Todd Bowles has been quite different. Murphy-Bunting is tied with Juan Thornhill for the rookie lead in interceptions, breaks up his share of passes, and has a case to be considered the best player in the secondary of a defense that quietly ranks as the best in its division -- and top 10 in overall DVOA. Six of the team's top eight performances against the pass have come since Murphy-Bunting took over the starting role full-time in Week 9, and the best three have all come in the past four games.
Our third cornerback is technically listed as a safety, but he really plays the big nickel role for the Saints: fourth-round pick Chauncey Gardner-Johnson took over nickel duties from P.J. Williams following Week 4 and has excelled in that spot ever since. His first career forced fumble was, uh, controversial, as he knocked out Khalif Raymond on a critical play in the win over Tennessee this past weekend, but he has made a positive impression in coverage, run support, and even as an occasional blitzer.
Bryan: Alongside Tyrann Mathieu, Juan Thornhill has made the back of Kansas City's defense an actual strength, and is a big reason that the Chiefs have seen their pass defense DVOA improve by 15 percentage points. In 2018, the Chiefs were 20th against the deep ball with a 22.7% DVOA. This year, they're 10th, with an 8.0% DVOA (subscription required). Thornhill just takes away so much of the deep half of the field -- as previously mentioned, he's tied for the rookie lead in interceptions.
The talent pool at safety is very, very deep. We moved C.J. Gardner-Johnson to our slot corner position to fit him in, but that still had us considering players such as Tyler Rapp and Khari Willis. Instead, we're going with Darnell Savage. Savage has to get a little more consistent in his tackling, but his coverage skills are spot-on, and he has a knack for making huge pass breakups in crucial situations. Our defensive backs are definitely stronger here than they are at corner.
Bryan: Five rookie kickers have attempted at least 20 field goals this season -- Matt Gay, Joey Slye, Austin Seibert, Eddy Pineiro, and Chase McLaughlin. Gay is both the accuracy and points leader, but we're going to give it to Joey Slye, instead -- Slye leads all rookies with seven field goals of 50-plus yards, and he handles kickoffs, which Gay does not. If you feel Slye does not count, as he was technically in tryouts in 2018, that's fair, but our rules simply say that you can't have been on a roster, including practice squad, in order to count. Slye was never signed in 2018, so he slips in on a technicality.
Bryan: Four rookies have attempted at least 40 punts this season -- Jake Bailey, A.J. Cole, Jamie Gillan, and Mitch Wishnowsky. It's really down to Bailey and Gillan; both have been very, very good. Bailey's Patriots have the better-rated punt unit, but that also includes New England's typically excellent coverage teams. For some reason, Andrew really prefered Jamie Gillan, the Scottish Hammer. I'm sure that has more to do with the 44.4% of Gillan's punts that go inside the 20 and his superior gross yardage compared to Bailey, as opposed to needing another player for his All-World team.
Andrew: Our return selections were both easy. Washington's Steven Sims leads all rookies in kick return yards and is the only rookie to return a kickoff for a touchdown this year. Kickoff returners are a dying breed -- fortunately, Sims has made more of an impact on offense over the past four weeks to go along with his strong campaign as a kick returner.
Andrew: One of only two rookies to make the Pro Bowl, New Orleans' Deonte Harris leads all rookies in punt return yards and is one of only two rookies -- the other being Pittsburgh's Diontae Johnson -- to return a punt for a touchdown this year. He joins Phillip Lindsay last year as only the second undrafted rookie ever to be voted to a Pro Bowl.
Andrew: We wrote at length earlier this year about the struggles of this year's crop of rookie head coaches. While Kliff Kingsbury has fashioned a competitive team out of a poor Cardinals roster and Brian Flores has earned plaudits for keeping Miami out of the league basement, there was absolutely no argument for anybody other than Matt LaFleur even before his Packers clinched the NFC North on Monday night. Green Bay has been inconsistent this year, but is somehow still alive for a first-round bye and possibly even home-field advantage in a very tough NFC. That's a strong performance for any head coach, never mind one in his first year in that role at any level, and LaFleur was one of the easiest choices available to us.
Bryan: There are two rookie offensive coordinators with play-calling duties this season. With respect to Rich Scangarello, whose offense has gotten better since he has been able to replace Joe Flacco, we're going with Arthur Smith. His Titans have the best offensive DVOA among all the rookie coordinators, which is a good starting point for this award. The Titans are up to a 6.7% DVOA, up from -5.1% in the last year of Matt LaFleur's tenure as coordinator. A lot of that, obviously, came from replacing Marcus Mariota with Ryan Tannehill, but it's not like Tannehill was putting up great numbers in Miami or anything; that's why he was available. Smith wouldn't have been in consideration for this award at the start of the season, but we are impressed with the adjustments he has made since then: finding more playing time for A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry, increasing his play-action usage, and generally learning from his early-season mistakes. The elephant in the room, of course, is Kliff Kingsbury. Kingsbury's status is murky; he partially serves as Arizona's offensive coordinator but also shares that role with pass game coordinator Tom Clements, who is not a rookie. In the end, that situation is a bit too confusing, so we'll stick with Smith.
Bryan: While there are 11 new defensive coordinators around the league in 2019, nine of them are rehashes, on at least their second stint running an NFL defense. That leaves us with Dolphins coordinator Patrick Graham and Bengals coordinator Lou Anarumo. That's almost enough to vote Null and Void for this award, but no, we're trying to find the best for each role. That doesn't necessarily mean good, mind you; least bad is notable.
The Dolphins defense is historically terrible, with the second-worst pass defense we have ever recorded. Then again, the Dolphins defense has no talent on it at the moment -- their best players are all either on IR or have been traded away. Cincinnati has Geno Atkins, William Jackson, Carlos Dunlap, and Carl Lawton; they probably have eight healthy defenders better than anyone active on Miami's defense at the moment, thanks to Xavien Howard, Bobby McCain, Reshad Jones, Aqib Talib, et al. all being on injured reserve. And yet, they still rank 30th in defensive DVOA! For our money, playing at a level that would have you at or near the bottom in any normal year with actual NFL-caliber players is worse than getting blown out of the water on a tanking team with a bunch of players who may not be in the league next season. And so, as such, we are giving this spot to Patrick Graham, almost by default. We hate it as much as you do. Maybe Bill Belichick can wear a false mustache or something next year.
Keep Choppin' Wood
As we often say, there is stupid, then there is punching-your-armored-opponent in-the-armor stupid. In a disappointing season for the Panthers, disappointing former first-round pick Vernon Butler had another disappointing moment in a thus-far disappointing career, when he was ejected for punching Colts tight end Jack Doyle in the facemask. The silliest part of the entire episode is the fact that Butler wasn't even punching the right opponent: he was frustrated because of a block from Mark Glowinski, but the pair fell over Doyle as they wrestled and Butler lashed out at the wrong man. He also flipped off the crowd as he exited what will probably be his final season in Carolina.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
Our editor-in-chief is often at pains to point out that no matter how obvious a team's off-field tanking strategy is, the coaches and players on the field are always trying to win. We had two examples of this in an exciting weekend for fans of bad football. Washington and the Giants served up a 41-35 overtime thriller in Maryland, with the hosts twice battling back from 14 points down. However, the real stars were Zac Taylor's Cincinnati Bengals, who fought back from a 35-12 deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the game as time expired. Miami still won on a Jason Sanders field goal at the end of overtime, but the two battles for top-five draft order were both remarkably competitive considering each franchise ultimately had a strong incentive to lose.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
We could easily swap Jason Garrett and Pete Carroll for these two categories with only a small tweak to wording: Garrett made a couple of decisions against the Eagles that have us questioning more than merely his aptitude for the Cowboys coaching job. The first of those was his decision, on fourth-and-1 early in the fourth quarter, trailing, 17-6 ... to punt. All of those resources invested in an offensive line and running back, and Garrett doesn't believe his team can convert a must-have fourth-and-1 to save their season.
Then, later in the game, the Cowboys faced fourth-and-8 from the Eagles 23, where Garrett inexplicably chose a two-tight end package over having Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb on the field. Dak Prescott's pass for Michael Gallup fell incomplete, and the Eagles were able to run out the clock -- not just on the game, but quite possibly on the Cowboys' playoff chances.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Oh, Pete Carroll. Taking a delay of game on fourth-and-1 from the Cardinals 33 so you could set up a punt? Not great, and it's exacerbated by the attempt to take a shot play the snap before -- fine if you're going to go for it on fourth down, not so much if you're going to punt it away. That would be enough to get into consideration for this award, but it's hardly Carroll's only foul this game. He stopped the clock as Arizona was out of timeouts, scrambling to the line to attempt a spike, with the idea of getting the ball back. There were 27 seconds left in the half; the ensuing Seahawks drive gained -1 yard. They kicked a 30-yard field goal to turn a two-score game into a slightly different two-score game. This goes on top of all the usual questionable play-calling and absolute refusal to put the ball in the hands of their best player. Carroll is a great coach from Monday through Saturday, but there are few worse coaches on game day.
'Fantasy Champion' Fantasy Player of the Week
With Marshon Lattimore draped all over A.J. Brown for most of the game, Tennessee's passing targets had to go somewhere -- and that somewhere was Tajae Sharpe. Sharpe set new season highs in targets (six), receptions (five) and touchdowns (two), and nearly in yards (69, one yard off his best). According to Yahoo!, Sharpe was owned in 0% of leagues, so Brown owners (and Derrick Henry owners, for that matter) had to be gnashing their teeth, seeing all those scores go to waste. I'm fairly sure that if you made your championship game, you didn't do things like start Tajae Sharpe. But hey, I'm sure there's someone out there, somewhere, who is a champion today because of Sharpe's big day. Congratulations, you crazy, crazy person.
— NFL (@NFL) December 22, 2019
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
This is the third time Christian McCaffrey has been featured here, and that wasn't supposed to be the case. A healthy Cam Newton, coupled with Norv Turner's offensive design, was supposed to keep the Panthers in contention all year long, and Run-CMC's abilities as a receiver and a runner were supposed to be a key feature of that playoff push. At least McCaffrey has continued to perform at a superstar level, even as the season has collapsed around him. McCaffrey caught all 15 of his targets against the Colts, picking up 119 yards through the air and another 54 on the ground. He needs just 67 more receiving yards next week to join Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk as the third member of the 1,000-receiving yard, 1,000-rushing yard club. He's the first running back ever with multiple 100-catch seasons. He even has an outside chance to break Chris Johnson's single-season yards from scrimmage record, if he absolutely destroys the Saints next week. There's a lot to be sad about in Carolina this season, for sure. It is somewhat reassuring to know that you have the best running back in the game.
I'll admit I thought McCaffrey was a slot WR as he was coming out of Stanford. I didn't think he was an NFL RB. Obviously I missed that evaluation. The Colts can't miss their first tackle on this guy. #Colts#KeepPounding#CARvsIND pic.twitter.com/UBjB95Z4hW
— Chris Shepherd (@NFLscheme) December 22, 2019
'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week
Only two teams were eliminated this week: the Rams and, finally, the Browns. The comfort in Los Angeles is still the defense, which again sits in the top quarter of the league; it's the 18th-ranked offense that has been the source of their woes in 2019. In Cleveland, things are less encouraging: both the offense and the defense are below-average, and a team that was perhaps guilty of believing their own preseason hype has yet again missed the postseason. The one positive standout this year has been Nick Chubb, who ranked fourth in running back rushing DYAR and was a deserved AFC Pro Bowl selection. Both teams were preseason darlings, but both have a lot of questions to answer this offseason.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
The most important game of Week 16 came last, with the Packers-Vikings showdown on Monday night. The NFC North title was on the line. The results would affect every seed in the NFC but the fourth seed (or "NFC East Exclusion Zone"). And it was ... not a very pretty game, on the whole. Green Bay's defense showed up -- or, at least, Za'Darius Smith did -- and Aaron Jones helped make up for three first-half turnovers, but most of the game was rather sloppy and unappealing. That was just fine for the Vikings, who were holding on to a 10-9 lead, when Kirk Cousins reared back to throw...
— Arif Hasan, nondenominational holiday supporter ⛄ (@ArifHasanNFL) December 24, 2019
The Packers scored on the ensuing drive and never trailed again. The Vikings punted on fourth-and-1 near midfield and only picked up one first down after that. It was the last moment the Vikings were competitive in a game that mattered in the regular season.
As a result, rather than having the chance to steal the NFC North and possibly a bye week, the Vikings are locked into the sixth seed. As for the Packers? Well, we'll get to their scenarios as we bust out the INTERESTOMETER.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date:
Bryan: I feel really, really guilty for pulling for Jameis Winston to become the first man to throw 30 interceptions in a season since Vinny Testaverde. So, as an olive branch, I'll take Tampa Bay (-1) at home against Atlanta ... in a game where Jameis throws two interceptions to hit the round 30, and a touchdown pass at the buzzer to win it. Let the first 30-30 season come true!
Andrew: Picking lines in Week 17 is only marginally better than holding your fantasy league championship in Week 17. If, like Bryan, you're betting on any of the meaningless action here, involving teams that may or may not drop starters after a series or two, you probably need help. The trouble is, the meaningful action is sparse: only two games have playoff implications for both teams, and perhaps for that reason they are the toughest two on the board to pick. Still, I'll grab Seattle (+3) as home underdogs against San Francisco. This game is for the division, and potentially the No. 1 seed for the 49ers, but Russell Wilson and the hostile environment, bolstered by the return of the irrepressible Marshawn Lynch, will carry the day. Give me the Seahawks and the points.
Double Survival League
Bryan: In the end, it wasn't close. Andrew ends up winning this one by three games, topping my one-game win from a year ago. His 23-9 final record ties my winning total from last year, but I simply did significantly worse than Andrew did in 2018. We knew it was his win before Week 16 started, but I would have liked to at least have kept it closer.
Bryan: The big difference this year was how correlated our picks were. Last year, we found a win for 30 different teams between us, only missing the Cardinals and Jaguars. This year, however, the Rams, Bengals, Bears, Colts, Saints, and Panthers all escaped our watchful eyes. Several times, this was a case of both of us whiffing together -- we both had the Rams beating the Buccaneers in Week 4, the Colts beating the Dolphins in Week 10, and the Saints beating the Falcons in Week 10 (Week 10 sucked). We both nearly found a Bengals win -- I had their 26-23 loss to the Cardinals; Andrew took their 16-10 loss to the Steelers. Otherwise, though, Andrew came closer, finding one-score losses for both the Panthers (v. TB) and Bears (v. OAK). Still, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. We'll get 'em next time around.
Was there a perfect path? Could we have gone 32-0? Yes, of course we could; we only didn't because we are bad. The following is, I believe, the "easiest" path we could have taken -- that is, taking the largest favorites possible.
Week 1: Kansas City (@ Jacksonville) and Baltimore (@ Miami)
Week 2: Houston (v. Jacksonville) and New England (@ Miami)
Week 3: Dallas (v. Miami) and LA Rams (@ Cleveland)
Week 4: LA Chargers (v. Miami) and Pittsburgh (v. Cincinnati)
Week 5: Philadelphia (v. NY Jets) and Seattle (v. LA Rams)
Week 6: Washington (@ Miami) and Denver (v. Tennessee)
Week 7: Tennessee (v. LA Chargers) and Buffalo (v. Miami)
Week 8: Detroit (v. NY Giants) and Jacksonville (v. NY Jets)
Week 9: Carolina (v. Tennessee) and San Francisco (@ Arizona)
Week 10: Tampa Bay (v. Arizona) and Green Bay (v. Carolina)
Week 11: Indianapolis (v. Jacksonville) and Oakland (v. Cincinnati)
Week 12: Cleveland (v. Miami) and Chicago (v. NY Giants)
Week 13: Cincinnati (v. NY Jets) and New Orleans (@ Atlanta)
Week 14: NY Jets (v. Miami) and Minnesota (v. Detroit)
Week 15: NY Giants (v. Miami) and Arizona (v. Cleveland)
Week 16: Miami (v. Cincinnati) and Atlanta (v. Jacksonville)
Well, when I put it that way, it seems so easy! Lessons learned.
Bryan: No need for the full scenarios this week; they're all over the Internet. Instead, we'll dust off the classic Scramble for the Ball INTERESTOMETER (patent rejected) to figure out which battle for playoff position looks most exciting on Sunday.
No. 1 Seed: Baltimore
The Ravens locked this up this week with their win over the Browns. Baltimore will be resting Lamar Jackson, Mark Ingram, Marshal Yanda, Brandon Williams, and others on Sunday, but any chance to watch Robert Griffin III under center is worth at least a glance. Still, with no competition, there's only one possible score. Interestometer: 0/10
No. 2 Seed: New England or Kansas City
Here's the AFC 2-3-4 seed competition! It's pretty clear it'll go Patriots #2, Chiefs #3 and Texans #4, but an upset or two could end up upending things. 3 versus 4 isn't a huge deal, but that bye week's a nice prize. pic.twitter.com/cloipkEAkP
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) December 23, 2019
The Patriots earn the bye week as long as they beat the Dolphins. That may not look as inevitable as it did back in September, but that's still pretty darn inevitable. If the Miami Miracle repeats itself, the Chiefs could steal this slot with a win over the Chargers, but that's a tall ask. This will probably be more or less salted away by halftime of the early window. Interestometer: 1/10
No. 3 Seed: Kansas City, Houston, or New England
This one gets a little juicier, as the Chiefs could lose this slot from either side. If they do go ahead and steal the bye week from New England, the Patriots will take the three seed -- they can't go any lower; their win over the Bills locked that up. However, should the Chargers knock off the Chiefs, than the Texans, who two weeks ago looked like they wouldn't even be able to win their division, would have an opportunity to slip into the third seed. All it would take is a win over the Titans, who desperately need a win themselves. Both the Patriots and Chiefs have relatively easy matchups, so I wouldn't expect this to come too much into play -- but crazier things have happened. Interestometer: 3/10
No. 4 Seed: Houston or Kansas City
Should the Texans fail to beat the Titans, or the Chiefs take care of the Chargers, then this spot goes to Houston. Honestly, if I'm Bill O'Brien, I'm not risking my starters too much to try to play the Bills rather than the six seed. In fact, they may have that decision taken away from them -- the Patriots and Chiefs both play in the early window, while the Texans got moved to the late slot. The Texans may have nothing to play for whatsoever, and they'll know by game time! Because the Chargers are better than the Dolphins, this has to be more interesting than the race for the second seed, but not by much. Interestometer: 2/10
No. 5 Seed: Buffalo
The silver lining for the Bills' loss on Saturday is that they now have nothing to play for this week against the Jets. There's no need to risk the health of Josh Allen or Tre'Davious White or any relevant starter with so much as a hangnail, the better to get ready for the Texans or Chiefs. I don't know if Matt Barkley will start the game, but he'd better finish it. Interestometer: 0/10
No. 6 Seed: Tennessee, Pittsburgh, or Oakland
Here's the race for the AFC's 6th seed. The presence of the Raiders makes things complicated; they have almost (but not quite) earned the strength of victory tiebreaker over Pittsburgh. They need one of CHI, NE, DET or LAC to win in Week 17 to win that tie. pic.twitter.com/X8ywLNrff8
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) December 23, 2019
Here's the juicy stuff. The Titans clinch the sixth seed by beating the Texans, who may or may not be resting starters. If they lose, then the Steelers can clinch the sixth seed by beating the Ravens, who may or may not be resting starters. It gets complicated, however, if both teams lose. If they both fall, Tennessee still maintains the lead if the Jaguars beat the Colts -- that keeps them second place in the AFC South, and they have the strength of victory tiebreaker over Pittsburgh and a head-to-head win over Oakland. If, however, the Colts beat the Jags, they take over the second slot in the AFC South thanks to their division record. That eliminates the Titans from the tiebreaker and throws the door wide open. The Steelers would then take the sixth seed, thanks to their Week 9 win over Indianapolis ... unless the Raiders get involved. If the Raiders can beat the Broncos, they'd tie with the Colts and Steelers at 8-8. The Colts are out, having lost to both Oakland and Pittsburgh, so it would come down to strength of victory between Oakland and Pittsburgh for that last slot. Oakland has the advantage there at the moment, but they'd need another win by one of the Bears, Patriots, Lions, or Chargers. That would give the Raiders the tiebreaker, and a very unlikely wild-card slot. Should all four of those teams lose, however, the Steelers would hold on to the sixth seed because of their superior strength of schedule -- hi, Baltimore! Any time you have to go down to strength of schedule tiebreakers, the Interestometer starts swinging wildly. It can't quite be a ten without a head-to-head matchup, but this is the next best thing. Interestometer: 9/10
No. 1-3 Seed: Green Bay, San Francisco, New Orleans, or Seattle
Here's the NFC seed/5th seed scenarios. In the majority of scenarios, the 49ers end up as #1, the Packers end up as #2, the Saints end up as #3, which leaves the Seahawks as #5...but plenty to play for. pic.twitter.com/TOWhHU7uCP
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) December 24, 2019
Hell yeah, this why we watch Week 17. All four of these teams have clinched playoff berths, but there are only three home games, two byes, and one top seed to go around. Three teams will be dealing with various flavors of disappointment come Monday morning. Bring it on!
The scenarios are easiest to explain for the 49ers -- win in Game 256, and they're the top seed. Just have to win. In Seattle. At CenturyLink. Where they haven't won since 2011. And where they're 4-14 all-time. Lose, and they're the fifth seed, traveling to the NFC East winner. Contrary to what you might read elsewhere on the internet, the 49ers can still be the second or third seed, though it requires them to tie. There will not be ties -- although, ironically, had Kyle Shanahan played for a tie the first time these two teams met, they'd already have the division sewn up.
For everyone else, it's a little more complicated. If Seattle beats the 49ers, the top seed goes to the Packers (with a win), the Saints (with a win and a Packers loss), or the Seahawks (with a win and Packers and Saints losses). If Green Bay isn't the top seed, they probably still get a bye; they only miss out there if they lose and the Saints win. Seattle needs to win and have the Packers lose to pick up a bye. New Orleans' bye chances are complicated because of their tiebreakers; they pick up a bye with a win + a Seahawks win, or a Seahawks win + a Packers win, or a win + a 49ers win + a Packers loss. All very confusing, all very exciting, and a game that matters at the very end. What more could you want? Interestometer: 10/10
No. 4 Seed: Philadelphia or Dallas
Oh, Dallas. You could have locked this up with a win over Philadelphia last week, but you had to go and collapse. Now, you'll need a minor miracle -- not only do you need to beat Washington, but you need Danny Dimes and the Giants to take one off of the Eagles. It has to leave a foul taste in Cowboys fans' mouths to cheer for Big Blue, but you're out of other options. If Washington or New York were any good, the Interestometer would be higher, but it has a hard time believing that both Philly will lose AND Dallas will recover. If that Cowboys-Eagles game was this week, we'd likely be topping the scale. As it is, it's just notably above average. Interestometer: 6/10
No. 5 Seed: San Francisco or Seattle
This is just the dregs of the 1-2-3 seed battle. The loser of Game 256, despite having 11 wins, will have to travel to the NFC East champion in the wild-card round. Seattle-San Francisco was the only choice to flex into Sunday Night Football; it doesn't get the full 10-out-of-10 on its own because the loser still makes the postseason, but the return of Marshawn Lynch (!) is exciting in its own right. Interestometer: 9/10
No. 6 Seed: Minnesota
The silver lining for Monday Night's loss is that the Vikings can rest key starters against the Bears, earning themselves a quasi-bye week as they get ready for what will, most likely, be a rematch of the Minnesota Miracle. Are you ready for some Sean Mannion?! Interestometer: 0/10