So much happens on any given Sunday of the NFL season. 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 I watched in Week 16 and give you the five things I care about coming out of Sunday, along with three things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for.
Five things I care about
C.J. Anderson sets new battleground in the “do running backs matter” war
Less than a week after joining the Rams (his third team of the season) C.J. Anderson delivered a fantasy title-winning performance for those brave enough to start him. The veteran back ripped off 167 yards and a score on a mere 20 carries. Los Angeles changed their offense to suit him and got one of their best rushing performances of the season.
As you can imagine, the “running backs don’t matter” zealots took this event and ran with it. You can’t poke too many flaws in their case for a victory lap. Todd Gurley was seen by the masses as an exception to the replicability of the position. Granted, it was a set of perfect conditions from a game script perspective, but the recently signed Anderson took a hammer to that idea in Week 16.
I ponder the “running backs don’t matter” concept (probably) more than I should. I don’t believe myself to be fully on board with the idea. It’s hard to intuitively deny that certain backs bring more to the table than others and therefore affect the games by their presence.
And yet, how do you fight the evidence presented over and over again? When teams have a good offensive ecosystem around a back, even a damn good one, they’re consistently able to find a more than capable replacement.
Anderson’s pristine performance relieving Gurley was just the latest example. Le’Veon Bell doesn’t show. Then James Conner doesn’t lose a beat, neither did De’Angelo Williams before him or Jaylen Samuels after him.
Ezekiel Elliott was suspended in 2017; the running game didn’t see a dip in efficiency without him. Kareem Hunt is shown the door this year by the Chiefs. Spencer Ware was fine as a replacement before Damien Williams took over to average 131.5 total yards over the last two weeks.
There are far more layers to the debate than just what a replacement back does when a star misses time. And again, I still question where I stand. While I lean more toward the position being a replaceable one, it’s not a strong “doesn’t matter” lean.
Yet, as evidentiary cases continue to crop up on teams with strong offensive ecosystems, I don’t know how you ignore it. If I was personally running an NFL team, events like what we saw with C.J. Anderson today would be one of several reasons likely steering me to pass on sinking major resources into the position.
Antonio Browns erupts and clinches another 100-catch season
In what’s been a “down year” for Antonio Brown, the future Hall of Fame wideout just clinched his sixth-straight season with over 100 catches and posted a career-high 15 touchdowns. Hell of a standard he’s set.
The streets have been talking of late about some objectively lower efficiency numbers in Brown’s catalog this year. Some have even pointed out that the excellent JuJu Smith-Schuster has, in some measures, outperformed his senior counterpart. A handful were even willing to pose the question if the torch had been passed.
Please. Brown offered up a truly classic performance in Sunday’s loss to the Saints, doing everything imaginable that a truly flawless wide receiver does. His greatness remains unquestioned and he’s stayed at the top of my NFL receiver mental rankings. Furthermore, the exercise of comparing stats between a player like Brown and Smith-Schuster is just a few ticks short of a waste of time. What those two do on a route-by-route basis is incredibly different and that will always bear out in the stats.
Let them both be great. We don’t need to throw rocks at Brown’s well-earned and still-deserved statue to prop up the case for the ever-growing Smith-Schuster.
Nick Foles drops the hammer (on me)
Overall, I still believe the opinions I held about this Eagles team coming into this week. They’ve incurred too many injuries to be a true menace in the playoffs and while Nick Foles is a storied legend, he’s still a streaky passer at his core. Neither opinion looks all that strong coming out of Week 16.
Foles dropped an absolute hammer on the Houston Texans with 471 yards and four touchdowns en route to a home win. It was the most explosive the Eagles passing offense has looked in months. Foles has now completed 73.8 percent of his passes with a 9.2 yards per attempt figure over his last two starts.
These two performances came against a Rams pass defense that’s been broken all year and a Texans unit that’s allowed more yards through the air over the last month than any other team. At the end of the day, the sharp take remains that he’s a volatile streaky player, but it’s hard to deny he’s running hot right into one of his good streaks.
The Eagles remain an undermanned team that’s decimated in the secondary and has struggled to find an offensive identity all year. However, Foles has brought a temporary big-play element to the aerial attack and they can still get after the passer. Philadelphia can still take those ingredients into the playoffs with a win over Washington and a Vikings loss next week. They could make me look stupid this time next month.
Kirk Cousins and Vikings trounce the Lions; show a counter punch
Kirk Cousins’ stat line from Week 16 with a 75 percent completion rate, 9.0 yards per attempt and three touchdowns, is more in line with what Vikings fans expected after the team shelled out top dollar for the free agent. While it was a strong performance, we need to assign the massive caveat that it came against the porous pass defense of the Detroit Lions.
As encouraging a sight as it is, it’s not the result of stat line that matters most for Cousins and this passing offense; it’s how they did it. For most of the season, the Vikings offense struggled to get anything else going beyond their elite wide receivers, Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. They completely lacked a counter-punch.
The passing game found one on Sunday with Kyle Rudolph catching all nine of his targets for 122 yards and a pair of scores — all season-highs. Coming into Week 16, Rudolph was hovering under 10 yards per catch for the second-straight year. If the team can get anything out of him as a more explosive No. 3 or 4 option in the passing game, they become much more dangerous. A team with a superior pass rush might not allow Kyle Rudolph to run downfield routes as often, but just knowing he’s capable is a plus.
Dalvin Cook also deserves credit once again, despite not smashing the box score as he did in Week 15. The second-year back racked up 108 total yards against Detroit with, notably, three receptions for 35 yards. His excellent performance of late is a big-time boost to a scoring unit that was simply putting too much on its quarterback. The Vikings still feel like an uninspiring playoff team, provided they get in as the sixth seed with a win next week, but some counter punches on offense were needed.
Giving the rookie QBs room to breathe
Sam Darnold has looked every bit as excellent as he was billed to be coming into the NFL over the last two weeks — the numbers back it up. He’s thrown five touchdowns to no turnovers and had a passer rating in the triple digits. It’s worth remembering the dismal stretch of games he enjoyed before this breakthrough.
Sam Darnold has looked great and put up sterling numbers over the last two weeks, he’s going to be very good.
His four-game stretch prior to this is a reminder why we don’t always have to rush to judge the rookies. pic.twitter.com/x5AwzHTJaX
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) December 23, 2018
In the era of instant analysis and hot takes, the temptation to pass quick judgement on these rookie quarterbacks will always be tempting. Yet, writing their story in pen at any point in their inaugural season is a sure-fire way to make yourself look foolish. It’s as if the lesson of Jared Goff, or even Carson Wentz, wasn’t something we just learned a calendar year ago.
We’re re-learning the same lesson here with Darnold in 2018. As his offensive infrastructure improves, so will our opinion of him. Darnold’s example also begs us to have some caution when writing the book on Lamar Jackson and his skills as a passer after a measly handful of starts.
Three Things I don’t care about
“But it’s the Patriots”
The Patriots predictably stomped their division-rival Bills, pulling Tom Brady up 24-6 with plenty of time left in the fourth quarter. As usual, New England is in play for a first-round playoff bye in the AFC after Houston fell in Philadelphia.
Yet, for the first time in years — and it’s said with all possible fear for their coming vengeance — the Patriots don’t look like a team to be afraid of.
All season, we’ve noted that Rob Gronkowski looks like he’s lost a step…or five. It’s even more difficult to talk about but Tom Brady has seemed a step off the once god-like form he’s carried throughout his career. Over the last two weeks, he’s looked downright mortal, while Gronk has even been a straight liability.
Of course, we respect this team because of their legacy but right now, Brady looks like he needs a little more help than ever before. New England’s offense lacks a true outside vertical presence with Josh Gordon gone. Their long-time interior receivers have aged quickly. The running game has a collection of solid role players and the defense can be attacked in the front seven. If Brady is merely human at this point in his career, fellow AFC playoff teams are right to have a bit more optimism than usual facing the Patriots in January.
Now we await them making all three of those paragraphs look painfully stupid in a few weeks.
Eli Manning’s numbers
The pro-Eli Manning camp will no question be out in force holding signs with their quarterback’s 75.8 percent completion rate and 9.4 yards per attempt in Week 16 written on them as the Giants nearly vanquished the contending Colts.
How could you possibly care? There is no amount of evidence Manning can compile to make the case he returns as New York’s unquestioned 2019 starter.
At this point in his career, Manning needs almost everything to go right in order to just give you average play. The Giants can sever ties with his $23-million cap hit this offseason with ease. He’s a franchise legend and two-time Super Bowl MVP, but the end comes for us all. The team can send him off peacefully and to the benefit of their own books this offseason.
Give him the press conference; let him have his moment. It doesn’t have to be as hard as they’ve made it over the last calendar year or as hard as the New York media seems to be foreshadowing they’ll make it this offseason.
As pleased as the Giants rightly must be with Saquon Barkley, it’s not unimaginable they’ll look across the way at their fellow New York team and wonder what could have been with Sam Darnold on a tear the last two games. No member of the media or the Giants should feed us any positivity with Manning. It was a great ride; he had some moments this year but unless he takes a massive pay cut and role reduction, the future needs to be now.
Any Patrick Mahomes negativity
I mean it. I don’t want to hear from you.
What a game Sunday night offered us. We witnessed a pair of wizards duel each other in thrilling fashion. Imagine having a single negative thing to say. God, I love this sport.