On to Cincinnati

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Kevin Stefanski, NFL

This early in the season, one can only hope the Cleveland Browns get better. Nothing on Sunday was surprising. Baltimore employs the reigning MVP and has Super Bowl aspirations. Cleveland is on their fourth head coach and offensive coordinator in three seasons. Baker Mayfield is regressing at an astonishing rate, and the defense has little talent in the back seven. Regardless of the hope that’s present at kickoff of a new season in Cleveland, a realistic look at this team, and the season they’re headed for, is a hard pill for the fanbase to ingest. This long, painful process is far from over.


Judging Mayfield on one game played against a superior defense, after an off-season with no preseason and a coach and coordinator switch may not be fair, but it’s year 3. He’s started 30 NFL games. No longer can some mistakes be overlooked. For instance, this third down throw to Odell Beckham:

This ball is late and behind the receiver. Mayfield gives Beckham no chance. When he’s coming out of his break on the in route, Mayfield has to have the ball in the air. He waits an extra half second and throws it behind Odell, giving Marcus Peters time to bat the ball down.

And this:

How do you miss 6’8”, 300 lb. Calais Campbell dropping into coverage? Campbell slips into the defensive backfield, reads Mayfield’s eyes, and tips the pass, causing an interception on the opening drive of the game. Three years in, Mayfield must see these things. He’s gun shy in the pocket, afraid to throw the ball, yet in a hurry to do so. He’s in his own head. Here’s hoping Kevin Stefanski can save him from himself.

The defense was atrocious, as expected. The linebacking core is young and unathletic. Hard to see the second line getting much better. It’ll take a draft and free agency period focused on the position to see much improvement, unless Mack Wilson developed over the off-season. The front office thrust their resources into the offense, with little help given to the defense, save for cheap, uninspired signings at safety and linebacker. B.J. Goodson had 9 tackles. Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo combined for 9 tackles at safety, with zero passes defended. Baltimore wide receivers ran free in the Browns secondary all afternoon. The defensive line, the one unit with talent, combined for 2 quarterback hits. This isn’t good enough. Myles Garrett accounted for 1 tackle. If the line doesn’t manhandle opposing offensive lines, the opposition won’t be able to keep themselves from scoring.

Kevin Stefanski looked lost. Not much of a surprise. The fake punt was an awful call, and one first-year head coaches make when they’re trying to outsmart the room. Both sides of the ball seemed unprepared. He doesn’t have experience running an NFL team through a week of practice and a game day. He needs reps. Of everyone associated with the Browns, Stefanski needs permission to fail all season. They should consider 2020 a red shirt year for the coaching staff, a chance to learn the machinations of head coaching. If the front office puts too much on every decision he makes, he won’t grow into the job. No more coaching changes, please.

With the Bengals in for Thursday Night Football and the home opener, improvement is imperative. Number 1 pick Joe Burrow led a decent last drive against San Diego, but had to settle for an attempted game tying field goal which kicker Randy Bullock shanked. Otherwise, Burrow was middling against an average San Diego defense, throwing for 193 yards, no touchdowns, and 1 interception. He took turns looking comfortable and jumpy. His offensive line did him no favors, allowing a pressure rate of 33.3%, fourth worst in the league. Pressure, pressure, pressure. It’s a must for the Browns on Thursday. Cleveland’s front four needs to hit the rookie QB again and again. They cannot allow him to get comfortable. Cincinnati has weapons. Tyler Boyd, A. J. Green, and Joe Mixon are dangerous with the ball. Myles Garrett and company cannot let Burrow have time to sit in the pocket. If they allow him any confidence, the Bengals have enough weapons to pull the upset.

The Browns offensive line played well Sunday. They provided Mayfield time to throw and Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt large holes to run through, gaining a combined 132 yards on 23 carries. Look for more of the same Thursday. Cincy’s defense generated little pressure (2 sacks, 4 QB hits) and the Chargers ran for 155 on the ground. A steady ground game should be enough against the Bengals. Chubb and Hunt can win this game on their own. Stefanski should also use the weak Cincinnati defense to get Baker confidence in the pocket. If the Browns struggle, or cannot win at home on Thursday, this season jumps the tracks in a hurry.

The Whip Around

1.Tampa and New Orleans are each trendy NFC Super Bowl picks, but the fossilized quarterbacks they employ should worry fans of both outfits. Tom Brady and Drew Brees are two of the greatest to take snaps, but at the ages of 43 and 41, the hands on their clocks, if not broken, are rusted and rickety. Both have trouble stretching defenses and Brady threw two interceptions in this game, the first time he’s done so since the end of the 2018 season. The Saints won because Brees didn’t turn it over and had a better running game with Alvin Kamara behind him. New Orleans’ defense applied steady pressure on Brady throughout, and Sean Payton is used to calling short, middling passes, as Brees’ arm has regressed the last two seasons. These two are Hall of Famers and think the game better than any QBs in history. But if they can’t make the throws, their chances of playing in February are slim.

2. His conditioning level was lacking, but otherwise Aldon Smith impressed for the Cowboys on Sunday Night. Smith hadn’t seen a football field in five years, circumstances of his own doing. His past is littered with multiple arrests, most stemming from alcohol abuses, and he deserved the punishments the NFL dispensed, but has worked to turn his life around on the insistence of his grandmother before her death from ALS. Smith recorded 11(!!) tackles Sunday, along with a sack and 2 other quarterback hits. Add in 3 other QB pressures, and Smith showed the talent that launched him to stardom with 42.5 sacks in his first three years in the league. Dallas needs pass rush help, and if he can put heat on opposing defenses as he did on Sunday, the Cowboys defense will be stout. Here’s hoping Aldon Smith has changed his life and can reclaim his place as a superior pass rusher in the league.

3. Jimmy Garoppolo’s record as a starting quarterback is 21-6. Anyone want him taking snaps for their Super Bowl contending team? Garoppolo has succeeded because of the schemes given to him by Kyle Shanahan. He struggles to push the ball downfield and is reliant on his backs and receivers to make plays for his offenses to sustain drives. Shanahan proved he didn’t trust him in last year’s playoffs, taking the ball away from him as much as possible. San Francisco’s loss at home to Arizona portends a drop off from the Cinderella season the team enjoyed last year. A slight regression from the defense or the running game will mean missing the playoffs in the tough NFC West. Expect the 49ers to shop for a quarterback next off-season.

4. The hands it takes to catch a fastball like this. Just astonishing Allen Robinson.

5. Pittsburgh’s defense is real. Because of the pressure they put on quarterbacks, offenses are going to struggle against them. Look at these pressure stats from Monday Night:

For all the deserved accolades tossed T.J. Watt’s direction, Bud Dupree may be the better player. Two tackles for loss, a pass defended, and a key hit on Daniel Jones that forced an interception on the goal line, Dupree disrupts offenses in a variety of ways. Last year he was top ten in the league in fumbles forced, sacks, and tackles for loss. The Steel Curtain has returned to Pittsburgh, and if Ben Roethlisberger can return to form, the Steelers are Super Bowl contenders.

6. Most expected sloppy play last week because of a jerky off-season with no pre-season games, but teams acquitted themselves well without the fake August games. Organizations don’t play starters big minutes in the pre-season, anyway. Give props to the players. They know how to ready themselves for an NFL season and the play in Week 1 proved as much. Holding calls were down 78% from a year ago, and total penalties numbered 199, the lowest total for Week 1 since 2001 (ESPN Stats and Info). Turnovers averaged 1.4 per game, while all games in 2019 featured 2.4 turnovers per. Don’t allow the NFL to tell you pre-season games are anything more than a money grab.

7. The MVP is Russell Wilson’s to lose. A distant second to Lamar Jackson a year ago, Wilson’s chances skyrocket this season because Pete Carroll may have come around. Married to a conservative, defensive minded approach for too long, Seattle’s brain trust came to their senses this off-season, realizing they possess one of the best weapons in the league, and it’s past time to treat him that way. Sunday’s numbers tell the story: 31-35, 322 yards, 4 touchdowns, 29 yards on the ground. Wilson wins games on his own; his teams are Super Bowl contenders by his presence on the roster. Now that Seattle’s head coach seemed to turn him loose, their championship window is again open. Watch the Seahawks.

8. The catches made in this league are insane. Chase Claypool is another weapon for Big Ben to exploit defenses with.

9. A good rule for any coach/GM in the NFL would be if you have one of the top 3 wide receivers on your roster, don’t trade him for table scraps. Bill O’Brien has dismantled the Houston Texans, and his deal to ship DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for David Johnson, a 2020 second rounder, and a 2021 fourth, dumb then, is unconscionable now. Deshaun Watson, one of the best QBs in the league, at 24 years old, gives the Texans Super Bowl hope each year, and just signed a 4 year, 156 million extension. Why give away one of the best weapons in football for an oft injured running back? Nonsense. Hopkins’ 14 catches and 151 yards in Arizona’s upset of San Francisco shows how valuable he is, and speeds up Kyler Murray’s learning curve. The division is brutal, but the Cardinals are on the come. Hopkins makes them a playoff contender. Someone explain to me what O’Brien is doing in Houston. Anyone?

10. Were Cam Newton and Bill Belichick made for each other? Everyone knows Belichick wants nothing more than to stick it to Tom Brady by proving he can win his way. What’s better than taking a quarterback no one else wanted, installing a ball control, run heavy offense, and winning with defense, Belichick’s formula from years past? Newton’s 15-19 passing day, with no turnovers, along with 75 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground, no doubt left Belichick smirking. Aloof concerning players, Belichick is the greatest to do it for that reason. Never married to a certain scheme, the coach has shown throughout his Hall of Fame career that he’ll use players in a way he sees fit to get results. Wide receivers playing corner. Linebackers as fullbacks. Defensive linemen as tight ends. Defensive teams, offensive juggernauts. He’s done it every way possible. Now to prove he can do it without the greatest quarterback in history.

All stats courtesy of pro-footballreference.com

2020 Cleveland Browns Preview

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns, Myles Garrett

Competency. Consistency. Respect. Qualities the Cleveland Browns organization has hidden from since their return. Never mind winning a division including the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns haven’t won over seven games since 2007. The 2020 version has talent. As did the 2019 one. But until they establish an identity, an idea of who the Cleveland Browns are, what they do well, and a belief that they’ll do those things when it matters, nothing will change.

This is the task Kevin Stefanski and Andrew Berry must manage if they are to succeed where all others have failed. The ownership is inadequate, and to overcome that is improbable. But Stefanski has shown strong leadership during the off-season dealing with COVID-19 and social justice issues. He’s a rookie coach wrapping up his first training camp without preseason games, however. Given their history, how long a leash will ownership provide him?

The offense is the strength, with the biggest question mark at quarterback. Reports from training camp revealed struggles on most days for Baker Mayfield: inaccurate, interception prone, and indecisive. The last part is most worrisome. Mayfield’s problems occur when he’s in the pocket too long, tapping the ball with his left hand, scanning the field in panic. His height hinders him here. Once pressure collapses the pocket, Baker just isn’t tall enough to see over the bodies. This causes him to bail early to create new throwing lanes, cutting off half the field. He becomes less accurate on the move, another issue that hindered his progress last year. So what can they do?

This play takes too long to develop, and Baker’s indecisiveness has him walking into a sack

Play action. Three-step drops. Slant patterns. Kevin Stefanski’s primary task to resurrect the third year quarterback is a quicker release from Baker. Mayfield’s pocket presence is an issue. Adjust schemes so it isn’t. Smallish QB’s have two options. Russell Wilson is a maestro on the move. Once he leaves the pocket, the wizardy begins. Mayfield doesn’t have that ability. Drew Brees needs to be his guide. Sean Payton helps Brees by calling short routes and play action passes to slow the pass rush. Last year’s offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, preferred deep, slow developing routes to push the ball downfield. For big quarterbacks, such as Jameis Winston or Ben Roethlisberger, that can see down field and take punishment, this style works. But Mayfield toils in those situations. Remember how fast the ball came out during his first appearance, on Thursday night against the Jets during his rookie year? He had one read and threw darts. The ball was out of his hands before the defense could turn their heads. Stefanski has to give Mayfield less to think about.

When Baker hits his back foot on these plays, the ball is out

They’ve stacked the rest of the offense. The Browns have perhaps the best wide receiver duo and the best running back duo in the league. Nick Chubb finished second in the league in rushing yards last season. His vision is exemplary, and he’s quick. But his strength makes him elite. Chubb was third in the league last year, averaging 3 yards per carry after contact, and led all running backs in broken tackles. He’ll threaten to lead the league in rushing again. Former rushing champion Kareem Hunt signed this week to a 2 year, 13.25 million extension. He’ll get 8-10 carries per week and catch passes out of the backfield and in the slot.

The only questions surrounding Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry will revolve around their health. Beckham fought a hamstring injury last season, and Landry needed hip surgery during the off-season. Each has been a top ten receiver since joining the league. Beckham is spectacular downfield, makes impossible catches, and is dynamic running with the ball. Landry is a workhorse, toiling over the middle and in traffic. He’s one of the most dangerous slot guys in the league. If they are and remain healthy, they can dominate opposing secondaries.

Austin Hooper signed in the off-season to strengthen the tight end position, and he and Mayfield developed a strong connection during workouts in Texas over the summer. While his contract is high (4 years, 44 mil), he gives Mayfield a reliable safety valve over the middle of the field. Last year’s most hated fan unit, the offensive line, found reinforcements. Jedrick Willis Jr., a first rounder out of Alabama, will play left tackle, and free agent Jack Conklin signed to line up on the right side. Willis played right tackle in college and may experience setbacks with the switch to a new position, and Conklin is a much better run blocker than in pass protection, but both are upgrades. Add them to Pro Bowler Joel Bitonio, Pro Bowl snub J. C. Tretter, and improving Wyatt Teller, and the line is no longer a weakness. The pieces are in place. If the offense struggles in 2020, the blame will fall on Baker Mayfield.

So, the defense. Myles Garrett is back from suspension. One of the best defenders, in theory, in the league, Garrett enters every year with the goal of winning Defensive Player of the Year. However, injuries and last year’s suspension have held him back. Penalties are blunting his effect on games, too. Unnecessary roughness, late hits, and jumping offsides plagued the former number 1 pick last year. Discipline has become paramount to his development. Helmet smashings aside, Garrett needs to curtail the yellow flags. As a leader of the defense, his maturation will portend their success. They won’t survive without smarter play from Garrett.

The starting defensive line returns from last year, a unit that ranked 8th in the league in quarterback pressure percentage until Garrett’s suspension. Garrett, Larry Ogunjobi, Sheldon Richardson, and Olivier Vernon represent the only grouping on the defense with proven success. Ogunjobi and Richardson had stellar 2019 seasons, especially after Garrett’s departure, and Vernon, while struggling early, began affecting games until injuries cut his season short. The linemen must dominate in 2020. Pressure is the key component to disrupting opposing quarterbacks. It’s the only problem a defense can present that offenses cannot overcome. If the Browns are to stay in games, these guys are key.

Behind them, it’s dicey. The linebackers are unproven. Mack Wilson flashed in his rookie year, but will miss some time with injury. B.J. Goodson, signed in the off-season from Green Bay, started 9 games and recorded 37 tackles last season. Sione Takitaki, drafted by John Dorsey in the 3rd round a year ago, barely saw the field during his rookie year. Jacob Phillips, a rookie from LSU, will start for Wilson, and showed promise in training camp, but this unit is uninspiring. Quick, athletic linebackers are a must given that they face Baltimore twice a year. Phillips is that, but must prove he deserves field time. And with Joe Schobert gone to Jacksonville as a free agent, Cleveland lost their defensive play caller and quarterback. Who steps into his role? Expect teams to run at the inexperience in the middle of the defense and pressure them with throws to tight ends. If this unit struggles, so will the defense.

Further back, the secondary arouses little confidence either. Denzel Ward, a Pro Bowler as a rookie, took leaps backward last year. Teams picked on him deep. He needs a return to All-Star form to stabilize this unit. His opposite corner, Greedy Williams, was okay as a rookie, but is hurt and questionable for Sunday. At safety, free agent signings Karl Joseph and Andrew Sendejo will start, while Ronnie Harrison, acquired via a 5th round 2021 draft pick from Jacksonville, is still learning the scheme. The hope was for rookie Grant Delpit to snag a starting spot, but suffered a torn Achilles during training camp and is out for the season. Holes abound in the secondary.

No one behind the defensive line has been a consistent NFL player in their career. Defensive coordinator Joe Woods brings expectations because of his work with San Francisco’s defensive backs last year and an impressive stint as Denver’s defensive coordinator in 2017 (3rd in the league in total defense). The problem remains the talent level he has to work with.

Kevin Stefanski wants to run the ball on offense, controlling clock and field position. Running teams win games 17-13. To win with a dominant rushing attack, stout defense is a must-have. This defense isn’t good enough to support a run heavy offense. For the Browns, or any NFL team in 2020, the recipe for victories is to throw to get the lead, then run to keep it. Wins are contingent on quarterback play. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are good enough to win 6-7 games. Anything higher rests on Baker Mayfield. The holes on defense are too large to count on them to stifle opposing offenses. The firepower possessed by the Browns is capable of scoring 27-30 a game, provided Mayfield returns to his rookie year form. If his completion percentage rises and the interceptions fall, Cleveland can compete. So, how much do you trust Baker Mayfield? It’s a question for the fans, but also for Kevin Stefanski. We’ll know early what he thinks of his quarterback. If his game plans are conservative, the head coach knows Mayfield isn’t the future of the franchise.

Ownership must trust Stefanski to mold the Cleveland franchise into his image. Paul DePodesta, the chief strategy officer, wanted him in 2019. DePodesta seems to be the current Jimmy Haslam ear holder. It’s imperative to give Stefanski time. He’s going to miss challenges, make wrong 4th down decisions, and his team may look unprepared. Young coaches in the NFL are green. The skills needed to run a team on the sideline during a game are daunting. Minus guys with older Hall of Fame type quarterbacks (see Matt LaFleur with Aaron Rodgers), most struggle. But DePodesta and Haslam hired Stefanski to save themselves from squandering the most talented Cleveland roster since 1994. If ownership hasn’t learned patience yet, they never will.

The other franchises in the division, minus Cincinnati, are the model. They develop talent and change schemes to maximize the roster. But it takes a commitment and belief in yourself and the people you’ve hired to see the program through. What organization, in any sport, that changes coaches and general managers on a dime, prospers? None. The rest of the league is too good at exposing weaknesses. Stefanski and Berry are smart. Smart people fail, yet learn from their failures. Allow your young brain trust to fail.

It’s the only way, the only path the organization hasn’t followed. The Browns and their fans have to be alright with mediocrity for the sake of growth. Myles Garrett reached the lowest depths of his professional career a year ago. The noise, disdain, and venom he lived through will either launch his career, or break him. Expect him to have a monster season. Failure causes reflection, leading to revision, conveying to success. Only the Browns try to skip steps. Disappointing seasons in the past lead to firings and overhauls. It can’t happen anymore in Cleveland. If anyone in the organization is interested in actual success, they’ll take whatever this season brings, ignore any drama, and allow the men they’ve hired to learn, and fail.

The Media Can’t Wait to Tell You About Odell Beckham

Cleveland Browns, NFL, Odell Beckham

They make everything difficult. The wins seem like losses. The losses feel like organizational failures. The Cleveland Browns are tough to watch and hard to root for. Players fight with the media, coaches, and the medical staff. The pressure to win this season was too much, and no one in the building proved capable of relieving it. Through all of this, however, the Browns will most likely finish 8-8, their best record since 2007. Unlike the years between then and now, playoff talent is in the building. The thought of massive trades and a total remake of the coaching staff is insanity. If every team behaved so irrationally, Bill Belichick would be the only coach in the league with job security.

Rumors flew Sunday morning following a Jay Glazer report that Odell Beckham Jr. was unhappy in Cleveland and had been telling opposing players and coaches to “Come get me.” If true, not the greatest look. Here’s what Beckham’s been through since March, however.

Traded from a franchise and city he enjoyed playing for.
Reunited with his best friend, igniting Super Bowl buzz in his new locale.
Tasked with learning a new offense while dealing with lingering injuries, curtailing his practice time.
Continually targeted by the NFL for uniform violations often overlooked when donned by others.
Bothered throughout the season by a sports hernia that will require off-season surgery.

Visor look familiar? Beckham had to change his Week 2 against the Jets. Murray played entire game with his.

Beckham loves attention and has brought some of these troubles on himself. Is that an indictable offense? What was your last Facebook post about? How many pics have you posted on the ‘Gram today? Face it, everyone wants attention, posting their thoughts and pictures for the world to see hoping to get noticed. The difference is Odell owns that spotlight. He generates clicks and likes for everyone. He draws more traffic than another think piece on what’s happened to Rashard Higgins. If there’s smoke around Beckham, reporters will create a wildfire.

Beckham’s signed through 2023 at salaries of 14.2, 15.7, 15, and 15 million per year, not exorbitant for a player with his talent. His teammates seem to like him; he gifted them his Nike Air Max 720s this week. Freddie Kitchens claims to have a good relationship with the wide receiver. Beckham tweeted last week he didn’t want out of Cleveland. If he wants to be somewhere else, he hasn’t fractured the team because of it.

Beckham’s at the top of the screen in orange socks. That’s the guy who’s a headache and distraction?

In 2007, Kobe Bryant wanted out of Los Angeles. He went on a radio show with Stephen A. Smith and stated he would like a trade out of LA. Bryant said he’d been lied to by the organization and wasn’t confident they’d surround him with the talent needed to win titles. He said nothing could be done to repair the relationship.

How many games did Bryant play for another organization?

While Odell may want traded, the franchise doesn’t have to oblige him. His contract is team friendly and, whether he wants out or not, his best friend is still in Cleveland. This gives the Browns an advantage, a way to massage the relationship. Though Beckham draws attention, he doesn’t seem the type to ignite the situation with an Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell power move. Don’t panic.

Beckham hasn’t pulled a Kobe in Cleveland. Maybe he wants out. Or maybe he’s going through something personal. A trade wouldn’t rectify these problems. The past year has been a whirlwind, and he hasn’t been healthy. After the season, talk to him. Get Jarvis Landry, John Dorsey, Baker Mayfield, and receivers coach Adam Henry in a room with Odell. Find out what’s going on, and what he wants. Better yet, do this with the entire team.

Transparency among the front office, coaching staff, and players will provide the building blocks for what this organization needs: stability. The 2019 season cratered because 53 players, a coaching staff, and a front office were searching for different things in opposing directions. Instead of firing coaches and trading talent to lay blame for not meeting expectations, exercise some maturity. The 2020 season and beyond depends on it.

The play of Sheldon Richardson deserves a mention. If not for Joe Schobert, Richardson would be the MVP of the defense. Far and away the best run stopper on the team, he moves well laterally, clogging opposing teams’ running lanes. He’s stepped up his pass rush since Myles Garrett’s suspension as well, tallying all 3 of his sacks and 4 of his 5 quarterback hits since the 1st Pittsburgh game.

A sequence of plays on Sunday highlights his worth on defense. The Bengals had driven into the red zone with the Browns leading, 7-3. Richardson tackled Giovani Bernard for a 2 yard loss on second down then sacked Andy Dalton on third, single-handedly forcing Cincinnati to settle for a field goal. A touchdown could have devastated the team’s already weak psyche. Often overlooked, Richardson has proved to be another excellent addition by John Dorsey.

The Whip Around

1.No more Rams predictions here. They could lose out or make the Super Bowl and neither result would surprise me. A dominant performance against Seattle on Sunday night featured last year’s Jared Goff (293 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Todd Gurley (113 total yards and a touchdown). A defense featuring Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and Dexter Fowler Jr. can shut down offenses. The team has experience navigating the playoffs. Have the inconsistent Goff and (maybe? probably?) injured Gurley hit their stride? A team no one will want to play come January.

2. With Kirk Cousins at quarterback and injuries bothering Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook, the Minnesota defense must step up. Danielle Hunter got the memo, posting 3 sacks in the 1st half against Detroit along with 3 other quarterback hits and 3 more tackles for loss. He’s fourth in the league in sacks, 11th in quarterback hits, and fourth in tackles for loss. Hunter is making a case for Defensive Player of the Year. The Vikings need everything they can get out of Hunter. Average against the run(11th) and pass(16th) on defense, they’ll need Hunter to slow down the Chargers’ and Packers’ offenses in the next two weeks if they hope to hold off the Rams for the last NFC Wild Card spot.

3. Run Kyler Murray, Run

4. Devlin Hodges has played well enough to keep the Steelers in the playoff hunt. He isn’t turning the ball over and hits just enough deep shots to his receivers to put up the 20 points on the scoreboard his defense needs for Pittsburgh to sneak away victorious. Good luck listening to a Steeler game, however. I expect Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth to come armed with duck calls in the booth Sunday night. Whether it’s the studio guys, the play-by-play announcer, or the color man, they waste no opportunity to call Hodges “Duck”. They’re all giddy with excitement over the goofy nickname, laughing and chortling for 3 hours like school girls. We get it, he has an odd nickname. He likes to duck hunt and won calling contests, how original. The broadcast sounds like a kindergarten classroom after a duck, duck, goose game has broken out. Can we move on?

5. The George Kittle play is the stuff of legends. Who doesn’t love watching a tight end shed blockers for 30 yards? Helluva win by the Niners.

6. The Chiefs proved able to beat the Patriots on Sunday, but how will that game look in a month and a half? New England is going through their yearly swoon and though Tom Brady seems poised for an old folks home, K.C. wasn’t dominant. Patrick Mahomes looks good, not great, and deals with a new injury each week. New England forced overtime twice, only to have 2 touchdowns taken away by the referees. Despite the win, the Chiefs will most likely have to come back to Gillette Stadium for the rematch in January. Andy Reid against Bill Belichick in New England in January? I know who I’ll have in that one.

7. Jameis Winston has thrown five pick sixes this year. FIVE. A handful of quarterbacks rank behind him with 2. He leads the league in interceptions with 23. The next closest is Baker Mayfield with 16. Now the good news. He’s second in the league with 26 touchdown passes and 4115 passing yards. Winston turns 26 in January and will be a free agent in March. What the Bucs do with him is anyone’s guess. His completion percentage could be higher (61%), and he takes a lot of sacks (41), but damn is he talented. If Tampa declines to sign Winston to another contract, here’s betting someone will throw gobs of money at him. Teams can live with the completion percentage and sacks if he cuts out the picks. Some QB hungry team will make a bet their offensive coordinator will be the one to straighten him out.

8. Someone take the NFC East out back and shoot it. I’m sick of watching these teams, always in prime time, fumbling over each other. That one of these unworthy franchises will get a home playoff game is criminal. I realize asking the NFL to change a rule is asinine, but please get rid of the division winners getting an automatic home game standard. A playoff berth for one of these dumpster fires is more than enough.

9. The wait continues for a vintage Aaron Rodgers performance. The opportunity arrived on Sunday with Washington in town, and while he’s been efficient, the 350 yard, 4 touchdown games have vanished. Though he’s thrown only 2 picks on the season, is this Rodgers enough to lead the Pack to the Super Bowl? The defense ranks in the 20s against the pass and the run, though they average 1.5 takeaways per game. While 10-3 looks nice and having Aaron Rodgers behind center always gets you a seat at the table, 5 point home wins against horrible teams isn’t inspiring confidence of a January run.

10. Tennessee-Houston
The Game of the Week is in Nashville, featuring an ascending Titans team catching the Texans off an embarrassing home loss to the Broncos. Ryan Tannehill won’t come down to earth, adding a shredding of Oakland’s secondary to his impressive rebound season. If Tannehill and Derrick Henry continue their recent hot streaks, the Titans become a real threat in the AFC. Houston’s defense ranks 25th overall, and without J. J. Watt up front the Texans struggle to pressure the quarterback. The Titans’ defense hasn’t lived up to expectations either however, and their hyped secondary has been bad, surrendering 260 yards per game through the air (teamrankings.com). Deshaun Watson won’t put two dud performances back-to-back. Look for a shootout in Tennessee.

All stats courtesy of pro-football-reference.com.