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NFL Winners and Losers: Remember when Mike Tomlin was on the hot seat? Not anymore

Frank Schwab
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By any reasonable measure, Mike Tomlin is a very good coach. He might even be on a Hall-of-Fame path.

He’s 121-62-1 in his Pittsburgh Steelers career. He has made the playoffs eight times in his first 11 seasons, with one Super Bowl championship and another AFC title. He has coached 11 full seasons and never had a losing season, which is remarkable. His .660 career winning percentage is 15th all time among qualified coaches. Of the 14 coaches ahead of him, 10 are Hall of Famers if we count Bill Belichick as a lock.

Even though Tomlin looks like a Hall of Famer by a blind resume test, there has been a weird undercurrent in Pittsburgh about him. He never seems good enough. For a few years now we’ve heard about how Mike Tomlin is on the hot seat, he is what ails the Steelers or he should be fired. It wasn’t just fans or columnists; some Steelers limited partners were reportedly pushing for him to be fired after last season. You’ll run out of time before you get to the end of the anti-Tomlin opinions on the internet.

It turns out, the guy who is 59 games over .500 in his 11-and-a-half seasons as Steelers coach knows what he’s doing. The Steelers looked bad early in the season, it seemed like another year of drama, and there were fair questions about whether maybe Tomlin’s message had gone stale.

They’re not so bad anymore. The Steelers got a huge 23-16 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, their fourth win in a row after a 1-2-1 start. They’re in first place of the AFC North and have head-to-head road wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and Ravens.

Many are quick to pile on Tomlin, whether it’s for some bad regular-season losses or last season’s weird pratfall to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the playoffs. It’s only fair to give Tomlin a lot of credit for getting the Steelers out of their early-season slump to have them once again looking like a Super Bowl contender.

Let’s not forget Tomlin has done this without arguably his most talented player. Running back Le’Veon Bell’s holdout shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise to the Steelers, but it was and it seemed to throw them off to start the season. Then they adjusted. That’s what good coaches do. And while I don’t agree with everything Tomlin says on the subject – saying he wants “volunteers, not hostages” inflames the situation, when it’s just a matter of Bell making a business decision after the Steelers did the same – we should probably give Tomlin the benefit of the doubt that he’ll handle that whole scenario however it plays out.

The Steelers’ transformation this season has a few layers. The offense struggled to find an identity without Bell, which was quite obvious when they lost to the Ravens in the first meeting. Then the Steelers rediscovered balance with James Conner, who is having a tremendous season. That has helped make the passing game more efficient. On defense there has been a big improvement, and coaching has been a key.

“They did a good job of mixing their stuff up,” Browns rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield said after last week’s meeting, according to 247Sports. “They did a good job of bringing the right blitzes and getting into our protections and freeing up different guys. So, they bring one guy and make it look like they are bringing somebody else. That is just good coaching and good execution on their part.”

It’s all clicking now. The win over the Ravens got close at the end, but a fast start by Pittsburgh held up. That win eliminates the concern of the Ravens sweeping the season series and taking the tiebreaker. The Ravens are now three games back in the loss column to the Steelers.

It would be justified for Tomlin would dish out some shade after being ripped pretty heavily after the Jaguars loss and again during Pittsburgh’s slow start. He probably knows better. If the Steelers don’t win it all, the criticism will start again. Heck, it would start again with another loss or two before the playoffs. But Tomlin has shown over the past four games that he’s still a pretty good coach. Not that he needed to keep proving the point.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has his team on a roll after a slow start to the season. (AP)
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has his team on a roll after a slow start to the season. (AP)

Here are the winners and losers from Week 9 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

Minnesota Vikings defense: One of the more curious aspects of this season has been the decline of the Vikings defense. The defense hasn’t been bad, but it hasn’t been great either.

It looked great on Sunday. Minnesota harassed Matthew Stafford, holding a talented Lions offense out of the end zone. Stafford was sacked 10 times and didn’t have a pass longer than 18 yards. The Lions didn’t have a run longer than 8 yards.

That’s the Vikings defense we saw last season. Minnesota got off to an uneven start this season, and the easy fodder was blaming Kirk Cousins, although he has been really good. The real problem was the defense was just middle of the road despite star players everywhere on the unit. Injuries played a role in that, as did Everson Griffen’s absence for his mental health issues.

Maybe the Vikings defense from last season, when they led the league in yards and points allowed, is reemerging. At 5-3-1 going into the bye week, they can still make a run.

The Atlanta Falcons’ playoff chances: It’s hard to dig out of a 1-4 hole, no matter how much talent is on your roster. The Falcons do have talent. But they seemed cooked after an awful start, especially with their injuries piling up.

All of a sudden that talented roster is playing a lot better. The Falcons destroyed the Washington Redskins on Sunday, 38-14. Even if you think Washington, which was 5-2 coming into Sunday, is not as good as its record, the Redskins aren’t a bad team. The Falcons just were that much better.

The Falcons are now 4-4, and people are starting to believe. The schedule is still pretty hard and they’ll probably need to steal at least one upset win in the second half of the season to make up for that awful start. You don’t have much room for error after going 1-4.

But the Falcons at least look like a really good team again. Maybe it’s not too late for them to make the playoffs.

Philip Rivers’ state of mind: There were times Sunday it looked like Rivers was going to tear his hair out as he got upset at the Los Angeles Chargers continually missing kicks. His anger was justified.

What is it about the Chargers and unreliable kickers? Caleb Sturgis came back from an injury for the Seahawks game and promptly missed three kicks: two extra points and a field goal. He’s the first kicker since 1979 to miss an extra point and a field goal in three straight games, according to SI.com. After the first extra point it seemed Rivers was yelling at Sturgis on the field, though it was tough to tell who he was yelling at. On the other missed kicks, the cameras found Rivers and his displeasure was obvious.

It almost cost the Chargers a game. The Seattle Seahawks rallied and had a chance to tie at the end with a touchdown and two-point conversion. But on the last play, Russell Wilson’s pass was dropped and the Chargers had a big 25-17 win. Had they lost, Rivers might have (understandably) flipped out.

The NFC South race: The headlines on Sunday will be all about the New Orleans Saints. Deservedly so. By knocking off the 8-0 Los Angeles Rams, the Saints made a heck of a statement. They also might be in the driver’s seat in the NFC.

But don’t forget about the Carolina Panthers, who just keep winning.

Carolina was awesome in the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, got a scare in the second half, but held on for a 42-28 win. They’re 6-2, right behind the 7-1 Saints in the NFC South. Cam Newton is having another great season. Christian McCaffrey can leap defenders like it’s no big deal. Newton’s supporting cast is coming along well, and the defense has playmakers.

In a scheduling quirk, the Panthers play the Saints in Week 15 and then two weeks later to end the regular season. That will be appointment viewing because while the Saints will be the talk of the NFL, it’s best to not forget about the Panthers.

LOSERS

Marcus Peters: When the Rams had their offseason spending spree, Marcus Peters was a big part of it. The former Pro Bowl cornerback with the Kansas City Chiefs was supposed to be a star with the Rams.

He has been a liability instead.

Peters was picked on often Sunday, and he hasn’t been good for a while now. Michael Thomas had a career-best 211 yards, mostly against Peters, including a back-breaking 72-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Maybe some early-season injuries, most notably an ankle injury, are affecting his play. Whatever the reason, he’s a shell of what he was with the Chiefs.

“He just beat me off the line,” Peters said of the touchdown, via Lindsey Thiry of ESPN. “I looked back and tried to make a play on the ball. (Stuff) happens like that in football.”

Peters admitted he has been playing “sh–ty” the past couple weeks. He took offense to a question if he was healthy though.

“(The ankle injury) was early in the year, it was like seven weeks ago, I’m healthy now … if I wasn’t healthy coach wouldn’t have me out there,” Peters said. “I’ve had a bad couple weeks. I own up to that and I step up. I know I’m a top (expletive) corner in this league and I ain’t been playing like it, you feel me? I put that on me.”

The Rams need to hope whatever is wrong with Peters corrects itself, because teams are going to keep trying him out until he fixes it.

Vance Joseph and his never-ending job security question: With 43 seconds left against the Houston Texans, Case Keenum hit Emmanuel Sanders on a huge fourth-down conversion. The Denver Broncos had the ball with a timeout at the Houston 37-yard line. That’s not a lot of time, but enough to get deeper into Houston territory for a closer field goal. The Broncos ended up running only two more plays for 4 yards, effectively settling for a long field goal by running up the middle on their last play from scrimmage. The Broncos lost a yard on that play, and then Brandon McManus missed a 51-yard field goal. The Broncos lost.

That’s costly clock mismanagement. It’s just another mark against Joseph, who seems to be constantly swimming upstream.

It wasn’t even the only time Joseph cost the Broncos points. Late in the first half, the Broncos tried a 62-yard field goal. It missed, and the Texans had 18 seconds left at the Broncos’ 48. They gained 20 yards in two plays, kicked a field goal to end the half, Texans coach Bill O’Brien might have said something unkind that may have referenced Joseph, and giving away three points became a big deal in a two-point loss.

“At half, that’s totally on me. I’m trying to be greedy, get three more points and it cost us three,” Joseph said, according to Nicki Jhabvala of The Athletic. “I get that.”

Joseph has been a target of scorn in Denver for a while, and his job security is a constant question. It’s only going to get worse after Sunday.

Buffalo Bills fans: Buffalo deserves better than to have to watch this offense.

The Bears defense scored 14 points, including a touchdown off a predictable Nathan Peterman pick six. The Bills offense scored just nine points. The Bears won 41-9, and it might have taken 20 or more quarters for this Bills offense to reach 41 points.

Even LeSean McCoy, the one star on a horrible unit, somehow had just 14 touches. He had 29 yards. He mostly split time with Chris Ivory, for some reason.

Injuries haven’t helped, but Josh Allen wasn’t going to save all of this. Over the last six games, the Bills haven’t scored more than 13 points. They’ve scored 46 points over six games. That includes games of 0, 5, 6 and 9 points.

It’s not fair. The Bills finally got back to the playoffs last season for the first time since 1999, something their diehard fans deserved. While it was clear they would take a step back this season, this is a historic step back. And, the worse news is it might take a couple offseasons to build a competent offense again. It’s that bad.

Gregg Williams: Surely Williams figured that he had a shot to finish well as Cleveland’s interim coach and get the full-time coaching job for 2019. Or Williams would probably just take one of the many jobs that is offered to him out of the blue.

Williams’ case didn’t get better Sunday. His defense was torched by the Chiefs in a 37-21 loss. That’s a theme in the NFL this season; the Chiefs are looking like the modern-day “Greatest Show on Turf.” But Williams presumably needed to post a very good record because the Browns likely want to hire a creative offensive coach to help Baker Mayfield. Already, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the candidates will include Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels (I don’t get why anyone would consider McDaniels after what he did to the Colts, but whatever).

Mayfield had the kind of day Sunday that should remind the Browns what their priority is. He was 29-of-42 for 297 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He was very good, just not as good as Patrick Mahomes, his old Big 12 foil. Mayfield doesn’t have the help Mahomes does either, and that includes coaching.

The Browns will have plenty of hot offensive minds who want to work with Mayfield. Williams will need a heck of a finish to hold them off and Sunday wasn’t a good start.

More from Yahoo Sports:
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Bizarro NFL: Patrick Mahomes gets called for rare penalty on spike
John Harbaugh reportedly feeling the heat from Ravens brass

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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