Each week, The Washington Post’s Mark Maske provides in-depth Monday morning NFL analysis with “First and 10,” a dissection of the league’s most important developments from a weekend of action.
First: Setting up the first round of the playoffs
After a final Sunday of the regular season that contained a few twists (including the Washington Redskins’ unspeakably dreadful performance on offense to miss the playoffs by losing to the New York Giants), the NFL playoff field is set.
The Atlanta Falcons won Sunday to secure the No. 2 seed in the NFC and join the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys in having opening-round postseason byes. In the AFC, the New England Patriots wrapped up the No. 1 seed and the Kansas City Chiefs overtook the Oakland Raiders for the second seed. They will have this coming weekend to rest and prepare for the conference semifinals the following weekend.
Here are quick looks at the four opening-round games:
Dolphins at Steelers: The third-seeded Steelers enter the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak after Sunday’s meaningless-for-them overtime triumph over the Cleveland Browns. The sixth-seeded Dolphins lost at home to the Patriots.
Given the way the Steelers are playing, they might be the biggest threat to the Patriots in the AFC. But the path to Houston would not be easy for them. They would have to beat the Dolphins at home Sunday and then go on the road to win at Kansas City and, presumably, at New England to reach the Super Bowl.
The Dolphins have been a terrific success story this season by reaching the playoffs under their first-year coach, Adam Gase, following a 1-4 start. They present problems for anyone because of the way they can run the ball with tailback Jay Ajayi.
But Matt Moore has been starting for the injured Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. The Dolphins’ feel-good season probably ends here. The Steelers were able to rest their offensive centerpieces in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tailback Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown on Sunday. They are likely to be too much for the Dolphins to handle.
Raiders at Texans: Matt McGloin vs. Tom Savage? Connor Cook vs. Brock Osweiler? Or some combination therein? It should be epic.
Call this the no-quarterback playoff game. The Raiders began Sunday with a chance to overtake the Patriots for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Instead, New England secured that with its victory at Miami and the Raiders dropped to a wild-card spot and the No. 5 seed when they lost at Denver and the Chiefs won at San Diego.
Oakland already was without its quarterback and league MVP candidate, Derek Carr, after he suffered a broken bone in his leg. Now the Raiders also could be minus Carr’s replacement, McGloin, after he suffered a shoulder injury against the Broncos. Cook, a rookie chosen in the fourth round of the NFL draft out of Michigan State, took over Sunday and would be in line to make his first NFL start if McGloin is not ready to play.
The quarterback situation is no more certain for the Texans. They benched Osweiler, their failed-to-this-point $72 million man, in favor of Savage. But then Savage suffered a concussion during Sunday’s defeat at Tennessee. So the quarterback decision might not even be Coach Bill O’Brien’s to make, with Savage subject to the sport’s concussion protocol. The Texans might be going back to Osweiler by default.
Figure that the far-from-ideal quarterback situations negate each other. The Raiders are the better team around the quarterback, with so many other elements of a championship-caliber operation in place. They have excellent receivers and a very good offensive line, although left tackle Donald Penn hurt his knee Sunday. They can run the ball and they can play defense. That won’t be enough for them to overcome their quarterback issues later in the playoffs. But it should be good enough Saturday against the Texans.
Giants at Packers: Perhaps the two most formidable challengers to the Cowboys in the NFC meet in the opening round.
The fifth-seeded Giants knocked the Redskins from the playoffs with their victory Sunday at FedEx Field. They have two wins this season over the Cowboys and their rebuilt defense has played very well. Quarterback Eli Manning is a two-time Super Bowl winner and knows how to dial things up for a postseason run.
But Manning and the offense are an issue. The Giants have gone five straight games without a 20-point performance. They reached 19 points Sunday against the Redskins only with a final-play defensive touchdown on a recovery of a wayward lateral. Meaningful game or meaningless game, throwing the ball 63 times (as Manning did during the next-to-last game of the regular season at Philadelphia) or running it a bunch (as was the case Sunday), the Giants just can’t score a lot.
That certainly could be a problem Sunday at Lambeau Field. Green Bay has six straight wins after falling to 4-6 with a November loss at FedEx Field. The Packers won Sunday night at Detroit to secure the NFC North title. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw four touchdown passes against the Lions to give him a league-leading 40 for the season and bolster his MVP case.
“I love these guys,” Rodgers told NBC following the game Sunday night. “It’s fun working with them. They never broke. And we could have fractured at some point. But we stuck together, believed in each other, kept knowing it just takes one: ‘If we get one, it’s gonna happen.’ And every game, we came with a great focus, great preparation, and when adversity hit in the game, we pushed right through it. I’m really proud of these guys.”
This is a true tossup of a game between solid teams and accomplished quarterbacks. But Rodgers and the home-field advantage give the Packers the ever-so-slight edge.
Lions at Seahawks: The Seahawks do not look particularly like a viable Super Bowl threat right now. They struggled Sunday at San Francisco to put away the two-win 49ers before escaping with a two-point victory to clinch the NFC’s No. 3 seed. That came on the heels of a loss at home to the Arizona Cardinals. The defense has not been the same since losing injured safety Earl Thomas.
But the Seahawks still have Russell Wilson at quarterback. They still have front-line players on defense. They will be playing at home.
All of that should be plenty Saturday night against the sixth-seeded Lions, who stumble into the postseason on a three-game losing streak. But it’s doubtful that it will be enough beyond this coming weekend, unless a far different version of the Seahawks shows up very soon.
. . . AND TEN
1. Coaching carousel: Six NFL teams now are in the market for new head coaches after the Chargers’ Mike McCoy and the 49ers’ Chip Kelly were fired Sunday and the Broncos’ Gary Kubiak told his players that he is retiring. Those three teams join the Los Angeles Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills.
How much more turnover is there to come in the next few days? Perhaps not too much.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay must make decisions about his coach, Chuck Pagano, and general manager, Ryan Grigson. Irsay surprised many within the league by retaining both after last season. All that bought the Colts was another disappointing season, and now Irsay must decide whether he’s willing to admit a mistake so soon.
Marvin Lewis has said he’s staying in Cincinnati, and the Bengals don’t appear inclined to get rid of him even after their non-playoff season. The New Orleans Saints will have to decide whether to make Sean Payton available to any interested teams, perhaps via a trade to the Rams. Fox reported Sunday that O’Brien could become available if the Texans suffer a quick playoff exit. It appears that Chicago’s John Fox, Cleveland’s Hue Jackson and the New York Jets’ Todd Bowles will stay put.
2. Chargers’ move: The clock is now ticking on San Diego’s decision on whether to exercise its option to join the Rams in L.A., with its season completed.
It is entirely the call of the team and its chairman, Dean Spanos. No further league-wide vote of the owners is required since they already voted last January to award that option to the Chargers. The Chargers have until Jan. 15 to exercise it.
People within the league continue to say they believe strongly that the Chargers are Los Angeles-bound. The owners voted as their meeting last month to approve the Chargers-Rams lease in Inglewood, California, and to grant the Chargers a debt waiver enabling them to finance a portion of a prospective L.A. relocation fee.
3. No. 1 pick: The Browns’ loss Sunday to the Steelers capped a 1-15 season that gives them the top overall selection in the NFL draft this spring. The 49ers are to pick second after going 2-14.
The Browns are thought, at least for now, to be focusing on Texas A&M pass rusher Myles Garrett.
That wouldn’t address Cleveland’s desperate need for a quarterback, of course. But the Browns also possess the first-round choice of the Eagles, projected to be 12th overall, thanks to the Carson Wentz trade. They potentially could use that pick to choose their quarterback, or they could use a package of draft selections to trade for a veteran quarterback. The top candidate there could be the Patriots’ Jimmy Garoppolo.
4. Kelly’s one-and-done: Jed York, the chief executive officer of the 49ers, is cleaning house after firing both Kelly and the team’s general manager, Trent Baalke.
It was York and Baalke who failed to make things work with Jim Harbaugh after Harbaugh took the team to three straight appearances in the NFC title game and reached a Super Bowl. Harbaugh exited after a far less successful 2014 season. Now the Niners will be on their fourth coach in four years. Harbaugh was succeeded by Jim Tomsula after the 49ers passed over Gase. Tomsula lasted one season, as did Kelly.
It is difficult to defend Kelly too vigorously. He was fired in Philadelphia less than one full season after being given total control over player-related decisions by owner Jeffrey Lurie. Now he has lasted only one season in San Francisco. A coach who is fired after going 2-14 has not exactly been wronged.
But, really, what did York and the 49ers expect? Did they expect Kelly to take the roster that he was handed and win immediately with it? Did they expect him to make things work on offense with a choice of Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick at quarterback?
If they did, they miscalculated badly.
The 49ers now are stuck in perpetual start-over mode. It’s a sad state for a once-so-proud franchise, and the Niners have only themselves to blame.
5. Kubiak’s farewell: No one should be particularly surprised by Kubiak’s decision to leave the Broncos, even after last season’s Super Bowl title.
Kubiak experienced health issues during his head coaching stints with both the Texans and the Broncos. He essentially had walked away from head coaching following the 2014 season. He’d decided to remain in Baltimore as the offensive coordinator of the Ravens. But then the head coaching job became available in Denver, where he’d formerly played and coached, and Kubiak told Ravens Coach John Harbaugh and General Manager Ozzie Newsome that he was changing course.
“That wasn’t tough for me because this is where I grew up,” Kubiak said in March 2015 at the annual league meeting. “This is my football home. I had made a decision that I was going to stay [in Baltimore]. I had actually already went out and celebrated that with my wife: We’re gonna stay and we’re gonna take a break here. But crazy things happen in this league.
“As far as the opportunity for me to come back to Denver and do what I’m getting the chance to do, that was a no-brainer to me. I described it that way to John and to Ozzie because I had told them that I wasn’t gonna go anywhere, and then all of a sudden this happened. And I said, ‘Hey, guys, this is a game-changer for me.’ And they understood. They were great. That was very easy.”
Now Kubiak is changing direction again and making a decision that is right for him and right for his life beyond football.
He should be applauded for that.
6. Lynn’s audition: Things didn’t go well for Buffalo’s interim coach, Anthony Lynn, as the Bills lost, 30-10, Sunday at the Meadowlands to the New York Jets. The Bills’ pitiable performance included failing to fall on a loose football in the end zone on a kickoff return, producing a Jets recovery for a touchdown.
But it would not be shocking at all if the Bills end up making Lynn the permanent successor to the fired Rex Ryan. He is a respected coach who had head coaching interviews last offseason, even before he was promoted to offensive coordinator in Buffalo two games into this season.
And while the Bills plan to speak to other candidates, the chaos of this past week-when the Bills decided against playing quarterback Tyrod Taylor for contractual reasons and then had Lynn field questions from the media about a decision in which he’d had no say-cannot be particularly attractive to outsiders.
Which brings us to. . .
7. Ranking the jobs: Here’s how one list of the current head coaching vacancies, ranked from most to least desirable, would look.
1. Broncos. . . This season wasn’t great. But the defense remains Super Bowl-caliber. There are possibilities with young quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. Or a new coach probably could, if he prefers, nudge front office chief John Elway into adding a veteran quarterback.
2. Rams. . . There is talent on the roster. The offense could be built around quarterback Jared Goff (if he actually can play) and tailback Todd Gurley. And it’s L.A., after all.
3. Chargers. . . See above: It’s L.A. (or at least it soon will be, in all likelihood). And quarterback Philip Rivers has good seasons left in him.
4. Jaguars. . . Owner Shahid Khan is patient. There are talented young players on defense (or at least the draft picks used on them say so). The next coach probably will be given the option of trying to make things work with Blake Bortles or moving on at quarterback.
5. 49ers. . . This will make it a different head coach in four straight seasons. The organization has been dysfunctional since Jim Harbaugh’s final season as coach. Perhaps the only potential positive at this point is that the job is a blank canvas, with a new GM to be hired and a roster that must be totally overhauled.
6. Bills. . . Ryan was given only two seasons to try to make things work with a franchise that hasn’t made a postseason appearance since the 1999 season. There’s little reason to have confidence in the front office, especially after what has transpired lately, and it remains questionable whether Taylor is the long-term answer at quarterback.
8. MVP race: Here’s how one MVP ballot would look.
1. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots. . . Yes, he only played 12 games. But 28 touchdown passes and two interceptions is ridiculous, and being the No. 1 seed counts for something.
2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers. . . He led the league in touchdown passes with 40 and he has brought the Packers back from being 4-6. Rodgers’s late push just might allow him to overtake Brady and Ryan in the minds of many.
3. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons. . . He is the NFL’s top-rated passer, and he leads the league’s highest-scoring offense.
4. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys. . . The rookie runner led the league in rushing even after being given Sunday off and was the true centerpiece of the Dallas offense. But he and fellow prized rookie Dak Prescott must share credit (and votes), and the Cowboys’ offensive line more than does its share.
5. Derek Carr, QB, Raiders. . . Look what happened to his team without him. That might be the best MVP argument of all on his behalf.
6. Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys. . . He didn’t throw for as many yards as some of the league’s most prolific passers. But throwing 23 touchdown passes and only four interceptions is superb. His mobility also made a difference, and all he did was win.
9. Cousins’s gaffe: The late interception thrown Sunday by quarterback Kirk Cousins sealed the Redskins’ fate in their loss to the Giants.
The quick reaction is that it changes everything, that Cousins reverted to being mistake-prone at the worst moment and his failure to get the Redskins into the postseason while playing on a one-year franchise-player deal could lead the organization to evaluate him differently heading into this offseason’s contract negotiations.
And all of that may be so. But crucial judgments shouldn’t be made while emotions still are running high. The truth remains that Cousins was a highly productive passer this season for a team with obvious flaws in other areas, particularly on defense. The best thing about the Redskins for most of the season was their Cousins-led passing game. A comparable replacement would be difficult to find and costly to obtain.
The most sensible move for the Redskins going forward remains trying to work out an equitable long-term contract with Cousins and, if that doesn’t happen, using the franchise tag on him again.
It might not feel like the right thing for the Redskins at this moment.
But it is.
10. Brees’s 5,000: Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw for 350 yards Sunday at Atlanta.
That gave Brees 5,208 passing yards for the season.
It is the fifth career 5,000-yard passing season for Brees. The rest of the quarterbacks in the history of the sport have combined for four such seasons-one each by Peyton Manning, Brady, Dan Marino and Matthew Stafford.