So much happens on any given Sunday in the NFL. It’s hard to keep track of it all. More importantly, it’s quite a lot to decide what we should value as signal and what we should just ignore as noise. In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned this week and give you the five things I care about coming out of Week 16, along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for. Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday of the regular season.
5 Things I care about
Less is more for the Chiefs offense
Kansas City has gone under 30 points for two straight games but don’t let that fool you into thinking they aren’t firing on all cylinders. Patrick Mahomes has been near flawless in these two contests, even if he’s not amassing video game numbers.
The Chiefs have constricted their passing offense to flow primarily through just their two superstars, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Each of them went off in the snow last week and here in Week 16 — as their team didn’t need much to blow out the hapless Bears — they combined for 146 yards and a score on 14 targets. No other player on the Chiefs cleared 30 receiving yards.
The backfield also remains settled with Damien Williams back in action. The veteran returned healthy to touch the ball 19 times and find the end zone. It’s clear they’re a better offense with him in the mix and not cycling through some odd committee.
Less is more here. Even if an unknown receiver isn’t popping up for a monster statistical game for Kansas City, as was the case early in the season, the offense is still in perfect form. Unlike the first few months of 2019, the Chiefs defense is playing extremely well as a pass-stop unit right now. All the while, attached to that defense is an efficient offense with the best passer in the sport who is playing flawless football as the calendar turns to January. It’s hard to write up a more difficult opponent on paper.
We need to praise Doug Pederson
The Eagles look like they’re going to wrap up an NFC East championship and stamp a ticket to the playoffs in a year when everything under the sun went wrong on offense. Injuries struck early and often on that side of the ball for Philly but it’s time we give Doug Pederson a mountain of credit. He got them to a place of prosperity by making it work with what he had.
Philadelphia’s middle-of-the-field-based passing game swept through the Cowboys defense en route to a 17-9 win. With nary an outside receiver to count on, the tight ends, surprising slot receiver Greg Ward, and the running backs ruled the roost. Ward, Dallas Goedert, Boston Scott and Zach Ertz combined for 24 catches. Adjusting a passing game that was meant to flow through outside vertical threats like Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson heading into 2019 to a small-ball offense that puts players in position for yards after the catch takes some time.
You can argue the real winning adjustment was somewhat forced on Pederson, as it took a Jordan Howard injury to get there. Nevertheless, the head coach has seen now that he can ride rookie Miles Sanders as a workhorse player. Sanders touched the ball 25 times against Dallas, totaling 156 yards from scrimmage with a rushing score.
It’s finally working in Philadelphia. The plan that Pederson is rolling out on a weekly basis looks drastically different from the one he came into 2019 expecting to feature. Yet, this is what great coaches do. Even if they spend too long in the lab, coming out with a plan that accentuates what the team has while finding success is the mark of a good point man for an organization.
Kenyan Drake returning to Arizona
Stranger things have happened but it would seem insane for the Cardinals and pending free agent Kenyan Drake not to lock themselves at the hip this offseason. Drake has been nothing short of a revelation since arriving in the desert.
Drake followed up his four-touchdown outing in Week 15 with 166 yards and two scores by way of a whopping 24 carries on the Seahawks. That brings his Cardinals totals to 582 rushing yards, seven total touchdowns and 25 catches in eight games. His previous career-high in rushing yards was 644 with the Dolphins in 2017.
Kliff Kingsbury has been a surprise in his first year as a head coach with how capable he’s been to adjust on the fly. He’s remade his backfield here in 2019, to raging success. They’ve been an effective rushing team all season but Drake has launched them to new heights.
Again, there should be no way the Cardinals don’t try to bring Drake back on a deal that works for both sides. He’s going to skyrocket up fantasy draft boards next season as the Cardinals offense looks to take a big leap. Don’t be shocked if you need to take Drake at the top of Round 2 in 2020.
Seahawks look ripe for the picking
While other teams are hitting their stride as the postseason arrives, Seattle is limping. Taking a loss to the Cardinals isn’t so bad considering Arizona has found themselves late in the season but it’s the significant injuries that are far more troubling.
On defense, the lack of depth continues to be exposed. Jadeveon Clowney, Shaquill Griffin and Quandre Diggs all missed this game. The defense was mowed over in their absence. Perhaps these guys can get right before the postseason but it makes getting a first-round bye that much more important for Seattle. That became a bit harder after Week 16’s result.
The injuries on offense might be more concerning. Left tackle Duane Brown might return for the playoffs but top running back Chris Carson will not. Fellow back Rashaad Penny is already out for the season. For a team that wants to establish the run, the Seahawks backfield is as shallow as it possibly can be right now.
Seattle has one of the best quarterbacks in the league and they can afford to put more on his shoulder than they do. Still, if they don’t get healthy in a hurry and beat the 49ers next week, they won’t feel great about having to go on the road to play in the postseason.
Saquon Barkley finishing hot
You can squint at the Giants’ offense and see the skeleton of a loaded unit. Sterling Shepard is a complete receiver who has just been injured too often this season. Golden Tate still has it as one of the top slot men in the game. Evan Engram is a stud tight end. The emergence of rookie Darius Slayton has completed the receiver corps, giving the team the outside vertical threat it sorely lacked after trading Odell Beckham.
On days like Sunday where Saquon Barkley explodes, you don’t need to squint. When he stirs the drink, the glass isn’t a bit cloudy at all.
It’s been an overall disappointing season for Barkley. He’s been banged up and that’s led him to be far less elusive, averaging almost one yard fewer per carry and more than one catch fewer per game coming into Week 16. By any metric, he was one of the least effective backs in the game for much of the year.
With that said, it’s incredibly encouraging to see him finish with a pair of monster outings. Against two poor run defenses in Miami and Washington, Barkley has smashed them with 422 total yards and four scores the last two weeks. Barkley reminding us of what a talent he is in the backfield shows just how strong the skill positions are in New York. The next coaching staff is going to have a lot to work with. Daniel Jones won’t have many excuses if he doesn’t make a leap next year.
5 Things I don’t care about
Excuses for Mitchell Trubisky
Game commentators get way too much grief. It’s a much harder job than we give them credit for. Talking for over three hours without saying at least one thing that’s a little off is near impossible. So, I try not to give these folks too much heat but Cris Collinsworth’s weird lipstick-on-a-pig defense of Mitchell Trubisky late in Sunday’s blowout loss came out way too poorly.
While comparing the situations for the Bears’ bust of a quarterback to that of Patrick Mahomes, Collinsworth attempted to slot Allen Robinson, Trubisky’s clear top target, into the Chiefs’ wide receiver room. In doing so, he backed himself into asserting that Robinson was in the same class of players like Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman. In his analogy, he determined the Bears’ problems would be closer to solved if Robinson was the third-best option on their team like he’d be in Kansas City.
To place Robinson among the likes of Watkins and Hardman is wildly insulting. Robinson is having perhaps the best season of his career. He should clear 90 catches and 1,100 yards next week, all while playing with a broken quarterback. Robinson is just a pristine player in all phases of the game. Phenomenal route-runner. Dominant at the catch point. Gets off the line of scrimmage in a flash. Watkins hasn’t put consistently good play on film for an entire season since 2015 in Buffalo. People are still chasing ghosts there. Hardman is an exciting talent but is a rookie just 25 catches in thus far.
We don’t need to make excuses for a player like Trubisky, not even for a second. To even slightly denigrate the work of a receiver like Robinson, who is having a near All-Pro campaign while being actively held back by that quarterback is beyond bizarre. Trubisky is a failed draft pick and not a good quarterback.
That’s it. That’s the analysis.
Seeing a single big-name Ravens player next week
Fans and some media members can categorically be exhausting with how often they push for teams to rest starters in-game. Just because you’re up by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter doesn’t mean you have the luxury of yanking your quarterback, top-flight running back, or whichever star fans don’t want to see injured late in a game.
That being said, I couldn’t help but think, “We don’t need to see any of these guys in Week 17,” as Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrew limped around in the second half of the Ravens win over the Browns. Mark Ingram put an exclamation point on the concept when he suffered a calf injury on an option play, hobbled off the field and never returned. John Harbaugh said, “The initial feeling is that he avoided any structural damage,” and multiple weeks of rest would be welcomed.
Baltimore has nothing to gain in Week 17. A win today secured the top seed in the AFC playoff race and home-field advantage throughout. Sure, they could knock the rival Steelers out of the postseason race or retain some mythical “momentum” with a win next week ... but at what cost? Any sort of injury to some of their frontline players would be a massive blow.
Also, if we’re being honest, the concept of seeing Robert Griffin III run this prolific offense for a full game is a fun one. It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen the one-time star run a team designed to let a quarterback of his skillset thrive. We’re just looking for something to spice up Week 17.
The 2019 Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers are not out of it. They could still find themselves in the postseason when the dust settles next week. But let’s be done with the notion they’re even a mildly interesting operation that deserves anything more than a back-pat for being in contention this long after an unrelenting rash of offensive injuries.
In a year that was already set to be a transition one after the official departures of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers watched every consequential skill-position player remaining get hurt at various points. It wasn’t by design they’d end up alternating between Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges in a contest they needed to win here in Week 16. That is their reality and it’s one that’s run out of any intrigue.
Both of these quarterbacks are bad. It’s at the point where they render all positive attributes about the team moot. The Steelers just can’t hang with any of the top four teams in the AFC at this stage. It’s over.
Make sure to get T.J. Watt into the Defensive Player of the Year discussion for his efforts. Take the time to get all the applause lines for the trade to get Minkah Fitzpatrick without giving up a top-10 pick. Find a way to get Mike Tomlin to the very peak of the Coach of the Year debate. But that’s it. That’s all there’s left to do with Pittsburgh’s season.
The Dolphins’ long-dead tank job
Two months ago, it seemed like a near-lock the wildly miserable 2019 Dolphins would not only pick first in next April’s draft but go down in history as one of the worst NFL teams of all time. No one was predicting that in Week 16, they’d ride another strong offensive performance to a win that would see their opponent lock-up the No. 1 overall pick instead.
Having a pile of draft picks is crucial to a rebuild. Bundles of cap space can go a long way to flushing your roster with talent. What’s even better than both of those? Assets already on the roster to build around. It’s become crystal clear as the season ends that Miami has that on offense.
One of the most fascinating figures in league history, Ryan Fitzpatrick has done it again. He breathed life into a dormant Dolphins scoring attack and brought out the best of several players. DeVante Parker turned in a No. 1-receiver-caliber season as the lead actor in this offense. Mike Gesicki came out of his shell late in the season with four catches and/or a touchdown in four of his last five games. Bit players like Albert Wilson and the underrated Isaiah Ford have flashed to close the season.
All of those pieces will be back in Miami on affordable contracts in 2020. The team still has major needs on the offensive line and there’s a reason we didn’t throw any flowers at their defense. However, there’s an underrated core here to work with on offense and that’s much more than we thought we’d say back in October.
A.J. Brown nearly gets shutout
It was stunning to me to see some whining on the internet that the Titans star rookie receiver was getting “shutout” deep into this game. Please relax. There are multiple pieces of good news to come out of this.
For starters, A.J. Brown scored on a 49-yard touchdown run early on in the action. If it’s just for fantasy purposes, don’t complain about a lack of targets after that. You already got your lineup hit. Come back to reality. He ended up with 83 total yards and a score. You will take that every day unless you’ve lost your grip on reality.
As for the Titans, it was great to see the team unveil a counterpunch offensively. During this strong run to finish the year, it’s been solely Brown and Derrick Henry elevating alongside Ryan Tannehill. On a day where Henry was inactive and the Saints defense likely keyed on the emerging rookie receiver, Tannehill found other weapons. He enjoyed another excellent game with sterling efficiency, piling up over 10 yards per attempt and three touchdowns.
With the playoffs nearly upon us, the Titans can stamp their ticket next weekend with a win. Even in a loss in Week 16, they reminded us why we should all be hoping they make their way in. They only become more compelling with each passing week.