Eagles at Cowboys, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
(Somewhere within the emotional control center of a recently benched starting quarterback …)
SUPEREGO: Well gang, it looks like Jalen is playing well and will be the starter for a while.
EGO: Unacceptable! I demand to be treated better.
ID: Me so sad.
SUPEREGO: Hey, we're all a little disappointed. But the Lord has a plan for all of us. Let's be mature and supportive and…
EGO: Screw that, Imma leak something to Schefter.
ID: Tell him the world's a dark, empty place.
SUPEREGO: No! I just made a few polite public comments, and I am clapping respectfully for Jalen's touchdowns along the sideline. We just need to be patient.
EGO: Yoink! Got the phone.
ID: Gimme that.
EGO: I'm the ego of a guy with a $128-million contract. No one has the strength to rip something from my hands.
ID: Look up there! It's the Rapture!
EGO: Hooray! Where?
ID: Yoink! Ripped it from your hands. Now let's see. [Typing]. "Dear Adam. Me so sad…"
EGO: Gimme that back! [Takes phone] "I demand a trade. To a good team. And an even bigger contract. And a public apology from Doug, Howie, Jeff, and Jalen. And maybe Goodell too."
SUPEREGO: If you send that it will make everything worse. I'm in charge of telecommunications. Hand me that phone back!
[The three physiological constructs engage in a hilarious and gorgeously animated battle for the phone. Alas, Superego slides down the chute just as she snatches the phone and lands in what appears to be a huge trash compactor.]
SUPEREGO: Oh no, they already sent the message. And there is no signal down here. What is this place?
NICK-KNOCK: It's the clearing house of memories from your quarterback youth.
SUPEREGO: Nick-Knock! [Hugs] I missed you so. We had such great adventures. I would start the season…
NICK-KNOCK: … and I would finish it. The same thing is happening now, isn't it?
SUPEREGO: Oh, it's all different now. More is expected of me, and no one is having much fun anymore. And Jalen isn't like you. He's not…
NICK-KNOCK: Old and clearly not a threat to your id and ego?
SUPEREGO: I mean, when you put it that way…
NICK-KNOCK: I was a young quarterback once, too. I replaced a superstar. Did I ever tell you about the time I…
SUPEREGO: … threw seven touchdowns in a game? About a million times.
NICK-KNOCK: Yep. I took the team to the playoffs. Was the toast of the town. Then things didn't work out. I was a very different person when we rode in those parade floats together.
SUPEREGO: I want to ride in a parade again with you.
NICK-KNOCK: We will never ride in a parade together again, I'm afraid. But maybe you can ride in a parade with Jalen. Or some other quarterback, in some other city.
SUPEREGO: It's scary. And embarrassing. I want a trade now! Me so sad…
NICK-KNOCK: Being moody and demanding won't help you, unless you become as great as Aaron Rodgers, but that's not what this segment is about. It's time to become a mature quarterback who can handle the highest highs and the lowest lows, the parades and the benchings, like your old pal Nick-Knock. You owe it to Philly. And Jalen. And yourself. Think you're ready to handle it?
SUPEREGO: [Sniffling, because damn this is emotional]. I think so. But, why are you fading away?
NICK-KNOCK: Getting outplayed by Mitchell Trubisky will do that to someone. Now get back out there. It's Cowboys week, the Eagles still have playoff hopes, and your support really could make a difference. Get back there and fly them to the moon for me.
Prediction: Eagles 26, Cowboys 21
Rams at Seahawks, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
The Seahawks pass defense ranks 31st against passes over the middle of the field and 29th on short passes. Theoretically, that makes them vulnerable to weaker quarterbacks executing carefully scripted game plans, and it also makes it easier for opponents to come back on them, since comebacks are often built out of short tosses over the middle against soft coverage. Dwayne Haskins, Nick Mullens, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Cam Newton (let's be blunt about who he has become) all led near-comebacks against the Seahawks this season. The Seahawks also lost to the Colt McCoy-led Giants, of course, though their pass defense was not the primary culprit in that game.
The Rams pass defense ranks first in the league against deep passes thanks to Jalen Ramsey, Darious Williams, fine safeties, Aaron Donald, and the fact that even DVOA probably struggles to adjust for a schedule full of NFC East quarterbacks, Mullens, Newton, Nick Foles, and Tua Tagovailoa in his debut.
Adjustment issues aside, the Rams are almost custom-built to beat the Seahawks by blanketing their receivers, taking away the Russell Wilson deep pass, and picking them apart on offense. That's roughly what happened in Week 10, when Wilson threw two interceptions under constant pressure and the Rams won 23-16.
It's hard to confidently pick a team that just lost to the Jets, but we rarely pick anyone confidently here at Walkthrough.
(Stay tuned at the end of Walkthrough for a deep dive into Rams history.)
Prediction: Rams 27, Seahawks 20
Vikings at Saints, Friday, 4:30 p.m.
How this game will go…
- Dalvin Cook will rush for 67 yards on a pair of early 16-play drives that result in missed Dan Bailey field goals.
- Drew Brees will go 2-of-7 to start the game, but a 37-yard shovel pass to Alvin Kamara will set up a Wil Lutz field goal.
- The Vikings drive to the goal line on holding and pass interference penalties against Marshon Lattimore and Chauncey Gardner-Thompson, who gets flagged just for being there. After a Kirk Cousins overthrow at the goal line, broadcast microphones pick up Justin Jefferson proclaiming: "Golly, Mister Cousins! It can occasionally be frustrating to try to catch errant passes from a quarterback of your stature and salary. Mayhaps you could not force me to expose my ribcage when defenders are approaching from either side?" Cook then punches in a 1-yard touchdown.
- Taysom Hill throws a surprise Wildcat bomb to Emmanuel Sanders on a trajectory that would send it fluttering 20 yards short and 10 yards out of bounds. Sean Payton puts his finger on his temple, squints like Jean Grey, and telekinetic pushes the ball towards Sanders, who still has to stop and wait for the 40-yard completion. "See, Taysom really is a franchise quarterback," Payton mutters quietly to himself. Hill then dives for a 1-yard touchdown on his third try.
- Near the end of a back-and-forth battle, Cam Jordan bumps into Cousins when he is trying to lead a late-game comeback. The officials call roughing the passer and eject Jordan for arguing. Payton goes Dark Phoenix on the refs and also gets ejected.
- After Jordan's penalty, Cousins drives the Vikings 60 yards for a touchdown. The Saints get the ball back before the two-minute warning, but Brees throws two incomplete passes and is sacked. The Vikings get the ball again with a minute left and drive to the 20-yard line, where Bailey inexplicably drills a game-winner.
- Everyone blames the officiating for the Saints loss.
- Payton hires the most willing lawyer he can find to challenge the results. "Olma B. Kraken Esquire here, Attorney at Lawyer Stuff. Did you know Hugo Chavez was a Vikings fan?"
Prediction: Vikings 27, Saints 24
Colts at Steelers, Sunday, 1 p.m.
I wrote for Pro Football Network a few weeks ago that Ben Roethlisberger reminded me of a cross between Peyton Manning in 2015 and Tom Brady in 2018. He's leaning more toward 2015 Manning after Monday night's loss. Roethlisberger moves around the pocket and throws like he wants to move his body below the shoulders as little as possible, and he visibly reaches back for some extra oomph on downfield throws, which impacts the timing of those passes.
No one is suggesting that Roethlisberger is A-OK and just needs Randy Fichtner to dust the 2018 playbook off for him anymore. Sometimes, overwhelming evidence turns out to be right.
The Steelers also looked unprepared for Ryan Finley's read-options, which reminded no one of Lamar Jackson. The Colts should slip Jacoby Brissett onto the field more often than usual and see what happens.
The Colts suddenly look the better team in this matchup: less mistake-prone, less washed at quarterback, less reliant on their pass rush to cover for everything else, more offensively balanced. I still expect a Steelers course correction. If allowing Gio Freakin' Bernard to rush for 83 yards and a touchdown doesn't wake them up and eliminate some of the dropped passes, fumbles, and coverage lapses that have contributed to recent losses, nothing will.
Prediction: Steelers 29, Colts 24
Titans at Packers, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
Sports Info Solutions charges the Packers run defense with just 22 broken tackles, a middle-of-the-pack figure. Pro Football Reference charges their overall defense with 96 missed tackles, another middle-of-the-pack figure. Again, the image of DJ Moore pinballing off of half the Packers defense for a 40-yard gain on Saturday night is fresh in my mind and colors my perceptions. The Packers do rank 30th in the NFL with 2.53 yards after contact allowed per opponent's rushing attempt, but that's splitting the hair a little fine.
The Packers have an inside linebacker problem and a Mike Pettine problem, and their run defense is substandard by Super Bowl contender standards, but it's not a fatal flaw.
That said, I don't think any of us would be surprised if Derrick Henry rushes for well over 200 yards.
Prediction: Titans 33, Packers 30
Buccaneers at Lions, Saturday, 1 p.m.
The Buccaneers have been outscored 97-65 in the first quarter but out-score their opponents 114-54 in the fourth quarter. Their offense has a negative first-quarter DVOA but ranks second to the Titans in the fourth quarter and overtime. Their schedule is filled with teams known for coughing up leads such as the Falcons, Chargers, and this week's opponent, who let the Bears and Saints come back on them early in the season and fell apart late in a close game last week, in part because their quarterback is practically a zombie.
In other words, the Buccaneers are basically a "look how magically Tom Brady overcomes adversity" meme. Your enjoyment of them is likely to vary.
Prediction: Buccaneers 27, Lions 17
49ers at Cardinals, Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
The Cardinals offense ranks 27th in the NFL in third-/fourth-down DVOA and 29th in third-and-long DVOA. Kyler Murray completes just 50.8% of his passes on third-/fourth-and-7-plus yards, for 5.7 yards per attempt (fourth-worst among quarterbacks with 20-plus such attempts). His 52.4 efficiency rating is also fourth-worst in the league, wedged between Jimmy Garoppolo and Mitchell Trubisky. Murray has rushed 13 times for 95 yards and five first downs in such circumstances, increasing his value on third-and-long.
Efficiency when off schedule is the next stage in both Murray's and Kliff Kingsbury's development. If they achieve it, they will be true contenders, not wild-card hopefuls. That's something to look forward to in the 2021 season, not something to anticipate over the next month or so.
That said, the Cardinals beat the 49ers when they were close to full strength at the start of the season and should be able to sweep what's left of them.
Prediction: Cardinals 24, 49ers 16.
Dolphins at Raiders, Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
Marcus Mariota looked exactly like Marcus Mariota on Thursday night: a few fine passes, lots of sprayed passes, great wheels, a willingness to throw his body around. Standard Issue Pesky Scrambler, in other words, though perhaps a bit less beaten up than he was when we left him last October. If you saw a future starter for the Patriots or Bears (or Raiders), good for you! I saw a guy who will be coming off benches semi-effectively for the next decade.
The Dolphins have defenders named Byron Jones (the former Cowboys cornerback), Brandon Jones (solid third-round safety), and Benito Jones (undrafted rookie bit player). This fact has colonized a large segment of my brain. I can only imagine what it will do to Jon Gruden.
Prediction: Dolphins 23, Raiders 21
Giants at Ravens, Sunday, 1 p.m.
If the Ravens were permitted to switch conferences and replace the NFC East winner in the playoffs, we would get to enjoy exciting possibilities such as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers versus Lamar Jackson. The Ravens look better right now than the Rams, Cardinals, Bears, and probably the Seahawks, to say nothing of the denizens of Termite Terrace; DVOA agrees that they are at least in the same ballpark as the second-tier NFC contenders.
Alas, there's a chance that the Giants will both knock the Ravens out and keep their own playoff hopes alive on Sunday. Fortunately, it's a very, very slim chance.
Prediction: Ravens 30, Giants 17
Bengals at Texans, Sunday, 1 p.m.
It's the creepy alternative healthcare clinic which is also a kinda-sorta storefront church and dojang run by Reverend Doctor Sensei Easterby versus the department store whose parent company went bankrupt in 1997 but is somehow still in business with T.J. Houshmandzadeh jerseys in its window display. The winner will face A Taste Of Peking for the title of Champions of the Failing Strip Mall.
Prediction: Texans 26, Bengals 20
Bears at Jaguars, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Gardner Minshew, starting quarterback, 2021 Bears. Discuss.
Prediction: Bears 23, Jaguars 13
Falcons at Chiefs, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The joke about the Falcons blowing a 74-point lead is left to the class as an exercise.
Prediction: Chiefs 34, Falcons 24 (late-game backdoor cover touchdown!)
Browns at Jets, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Welcome to December of 2020, when Baker Mayfield is suddenly awesome and the Jets should keep Sam Darnold since they are unlikely to be able to select Clemson's Trevor Lawrence.
Or perhaps not.
Let's start with Mayfield. Per Sports Info Solutions, Mayfield has thrown 137 play-action passes, the eighth-highest total in the NFL. He completes 67.9% of those passes for 9.8 yards per attempt for a 123.1 efficiency rating that is second only to Aaron Rodgers in 2020. For what it's worth, Drew Lock ranks third in this category.
Lest I be accused of suggesting that Mayfield's play-action success is helped by the strong Browns running game (heaven forbid!), let me qualify my remarks: play-action passes are more common when a team is on down-and-distance schedule and not facing a large deficit. Mayfield has thrown 53 passes on third-/fourth-and-7-plus yards, the 20th-highest figure in the NFL. He has thrown 65 passes when trailing by two scores, 29th in the NFL.
Avoiding obvious passing downs also helps limit pass pressure, as does a strong running game and a solid overall line; all of these factors also work in concert to improve passing stats and performance. Mayfield has been pressured 101 times, the 22nd-ranked figure in the NFL. Mayfield also just throws fewer passes per game than many starters -- the Browns are 30th in the NFL with 421 pass attempts, with the Patriots and Ravens below them -- but infrequent passing is itself usually the result of being on a winning team with an effective rushing game.
Mayfield appears to be having the kind of stretch Kirk Cousins or Jared Goff enjoys when everything around him is clicking. That's progress for Mayfield and the Browns, but I'm not eager to throw a Goff-sized contract at him just yet, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the postseason will tell us more.
(Note: Steven Ruiz of ForTheWin has made some similar observations about Mayfield on Twitter over the past week. Follow him on Twitter @theStevenRuiz.)
As for Darnold, the problem with the Jets retaining him is that he will become the next coach's built-in excuse for failure. Like, the moment he overthrows a receiver in minicamp, the next coach will think "Damaged goods. I want my guy." And with the fifth-year option and the big-boy contract decisions looming, Darnold would have to blow everyone's doors off to escape lame-duck status.
It would be nice to think that NFL politics don't operate this way and that the next coach will arrive with a Darnold repair plan that he actually plans to execute. But this is precisely the way NFL politics operate.
Prediction: Browns 27, Jets 10
Panthers at Football Team, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Word around the campfire is that Marty Hurney has been general manager in name only since early in Matt Rhule's tenure but was kept around for continuity's sake during what was obviously an unusual spring/summer/autumn.
Keeping a nominal lame-duck executive through a showrunner coach's first season is a classing stalling tactic. Hurney's firing this week was Rhule's way of saying: "Hey, crazy transition year, amirite? Now let me get my own personnel guy in here and the rebuilding can REALLY begin in earnest. Just don't expect much in 2021, because this is a long-range plan!"
Teddy Bridgewater will get the Hurney treatment sometime during the 2021 season, making 2022 the transition-to-the-young-QB year.
Hurney is likely to resurface as Ron Rivera's majordomo for Washington next year, which is fine: any dedicated personnel professional will look like Bill Parcells in that organization. Rivera can be accused of using some of the same delaying tactics as Rhule, but that's just the nature of self-preservation in a high-stakes industry: strive for success with one hand, cushion the blow of any failures with the other.
Prediction: Washington 23, Panthers 18 (six 22-yard field goals)
Broncos at Chargers, Sunday , 4:05 p.m.
Anthony Lynn received some loud play-calling criticism -- a little of it from me -- when the Chargers kept running the ball on first down in their Thursday night victory over the Raiders. The Chargers finished the first half with 14 rushes for 32 yards, including seven non-productive first-down rushes. Meanwhile, Justin Herbert went 16-of-20 for 194 yards and two touchdowns in the first half against a defense whose coordinator had just been fired, was missing several starters, and was not very good in the first place.
The Chargers' first-down rushing rate is 50.9%, which is not a particularly high figure. Entering Thursday night, the Chargers ranked eighth in the NFL with 210 rushing attempts on first downs and averaged 3.7 yards per rush, the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL. Lynn rushes a sub-optimally high rate of the time on first down, but he is hardly some comic bumbler using Ask Madden to call plays. At least some of the criticism he received on Thursday night bled over from his past clock management blunders, with a little "let's rip a guy who is rarely on television because it's something to talk about" mixed in.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Chargers gained 45 yards on three straight runs, one of them a Justin Herbert read-option. The sequence got them into range for a potential game-winning field goal, which Michael Badgley missed (then he missed another one). Lynn might have factored the fact that the Raiders allow (after Thursday night) 4.6 yards per rush into his game plan. At any rate, Lynn deserves a little credit for the fact that his rookie quarterback threw for 314 yards and led a 75-yard touchdown drive at the end of overtime if he's going to get ripped for seven handoffs.
I think Lynn deserves another shot with the Chargers, albeit with some sort of Clock Czar joining his staff. If Herbert keeps developing, no one is going to care if the Chargers run off tackle a little more often than we might like.
Prediction: Chargers 24, Broncos 20
Bills at Patriots, Monday, 8:15 p.m.
Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, a pair of third-round picks at tight end, are now regulars in the Patriots offense. Former undrafted rookie Jakob Johnson has been more or less a starter at fullback for much of the season.
When the Patriots drafted Asiasi, I provided the following analysis for my former employer: "This is exactly the sort of tight end the Patriots usually don't draft because they value blocking so much at the position. There are at least five better, more versatile tight end prospects still available." (I preferred Adam Trautman, Harrison Bryant and, um, Thaddeus Moss, among others)
When they drafted Keane, I added: "Blocking skills could keep Keene in the NFL for a while, but he has limited upside. That's two one-dimensional tight ends for the Patriots. It's almost as if they think they still have Gronk and merely need to draft some backups."
Asiasi, Keane, and Johnson have combined for 10 catches for 45 yards this season.
Yes, Patriots fans: the rest of us find this very amusing.
I also wrote about the Patriots decline this week for the New York Times in a way that Walkthrough readers might enjoy and find familiar.
Prediction: Bills 26, Patriots 15
Bonus Historical Content: Foxy Grandpa's Body Mechanics
After last week's Walkthrough discussion of the early 1970s Patriots spilled onto Twitter, the folks running the @QuirkyResearch feed sent along this article about the team's flirtation with the name "Bay State Patriots." But I want to talk other topic on that newspaper page: the Rams hiring former UCLA coach Tommy Prothro to replace George Allen.
Allen was very successful as the Rams head coach, but he was a cantankerous SOB who always clashed with owner Dan Reeves, often over his unwillingness to play rookies and eagerness to trade draft picks away. Reeves and Allen had a Mister Spacely/George Jetson relationship for years, but Reeves fired Allen once and for all when the Rams slipped to 9-4-1 and missed the playoffs in 1970.
Prothro led Oregon State to the Rose Bowl in the 1950s and 60s, though his Bruins ran hot and cold by the late 1960s. As the article I cited suggests, Prothro was an odd dude. He played competitive bridge, often with Omar Sharif as his partner. The New York Times reported that Prothro sometimes smoked two packs of cigarettes per football game, which was excessive even for the era. The Times also called him a "foxy grandfather type" in in 1971, which A) must have made for a really sexy bridge tandem with Doctor Freakin' Zhivago; and B) is going to make me push back a heck of a lot harder the next time the Times edits one of my little zingers for being too off-color.
Anyway, the Quirky Research article quotes Prothro planning to stress "body mechanics" and a "low center of gravity" to the Rams. The article speaks of Prothro's love of "pure mathematics" and "kinetic subjects" as if his ideas were newfangled at the time, but also indicates that he is "old-fashioned." I'm guessing Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen were familiar with the concept of "low man wins." The Boston Globe article also calls quarterback Roman Gabriel, a perennial Pro Bowler at that point, "the world's tallest Filipino," which certainly makes "foxy grandfather" sound a little less awkward, and probably (?) wouldn't fly in a Boston newspaper these days.
Prothro's Rams fell to 8-5-1 and 6-7-1, in part no doubt because the aging roster needed much more from their coach than lectures about leverage. Prothro sued the Rams after they fired him in favor of Chuck Knox; it took a few months to settle, and Prothro appears to have spent the 1973 season playing cards with movie stars or something. He resurfaced for a few years to try to rebuild the San Diego Chargers, resigning abruptly early in the 1978 season. The Rams quickly got better again under Knox, though the fact that Reeves and Pothro drafted a few young stars such as Jack Youngblood helped the team in the long run.
Prothro sure sounds a lot like Chip Kelly, doesn't he? Idiosyncratic dude with radical-sounding ideas, collegiate Rose Bowl success, took over an aging team whose previous coach had played out the string, almost certainly caused friction among veterans, ousted quickly, franchise soon rebounded under a more conventional coach after his departure. Allen, like Andy Reid, went on to success at his next stop (though Allen was more of a pain in the butt than Reid could ever be).
What's fascinating about that Quirky Research Boston Globe article is how it approaches the concept of a college coach coming to the NFL to teach what sound like fundamentals to a bunch of guys who had gone 11-3 and 11-1-2 a few years earlier. It's weirdly condescending. Yet it's not all that different from the "culture change" rhetoric we get every year.
History repeats itself in the NFL, and our coverage of events really repeats itself. We hear a lot about old-fashioned fundamentals, fresh new ideas (and analytics, aka "pure mathematics"), and teaching those lazy veterans how to WIN in a few weeks. Not much has changed in 50 years, except for the chain smoking, card games, and problematic casual racism. And we still need to keep working on that last bit.
Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and to all a good night!