What to expect in NFL’s offensive showdown: Chiefs vs Rams

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Normally, the 9-1 Chiefs at the 9-1 Rams would be the game of the year—it probably still is—and we’d be celebrating it breathlessly. And we still may, in the hours before the game; I’ll help in a moment. But two things have overshadowed it.

Moving the game out of Mexico City makes the NFL look like a bunch of slightly progressive pikers. “Pikers” because how can the league take a game that we’ve all known would be hugely attractive since it was announced on Jan. 31—two defending division champs with brainy offensive minds—and not properly supervise field conditions in the weeks leading up to the game 10 months later? It’s inexcusable. If the field was in trouble a month ago, which apparently it was, why didn’t the NFL throw its weight around then and insist on a new surface or tell officials there the game wouldn’t stay in Mexico? “Slightly progressive” because they did the right thing after all and moved the game instead of trying to force the players to play there—which, I am told by a player leader from one of the teams, they would not have done. And what a scene that would have been, players boycotting the Game of the Year.

The Rams are playing for a wide swath of southern California. They will remember tonight the families of those murdered in the Nov. 7 massacre at the nightclub four miles from their facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and for the police officer murdered in that tragedy, and also the first responders and those impacted by the fires that got as close to three miles from their facility and forced 90 Rams employees and family to evacuate their homes. Tonight, coaches and staff from both teams, instead of wearing Rams and Chiefs hates on the sidelines, will wear hats from local fire and rescue departments; all jerseys from the game, plus the hats, will be auctioned off to raise money for the victims. ESPN will show the anthem and the emotional pregame observances. The Rams have given away about 4,000 tickets to public servants and victims of the tragedies, and their players have gone the extra mile. Andrew Whitworth of the Rams gave his suite to the game to first responders, one of several donations made by players to reach out.

It’s going to be emotional night at the Coliseum. And there will be fans. Because this game was not on the team’s home schedule, they began selling tickets late Tuesday night, and in just a few days, they sold about 71,000 tickets. So along with the 4,000 donated ones, there should be roughly the same crowd as attended the red-hot Packers-Rams game at the Coliseum three weeks ago (75,822).

Now for the game. This is just a hunch, because nothing will surprise me in this game, not even a little defense being played. But in a game of tremendous offensive weapons—for both teams at quarterback, for both teams at running back, for both teams at wide receiver—the one player who I think has the best chance to be the game-breaker is Tyreek Hill. There is simply no player like him in football right now. I was in Kansas City last Sunday, and it took Hill (and Patrick Mahomes) 52 seconds to produce a touchdown against a secondary flailing to keep up with this freak of nature. Patrick Mahomes to Hill down the left side for 38 yards on the first play of the game. Mahomes incomplete to Hill. Then Mahomes to Hill, who ran past his man and had the corner pointing at the late safety, for a 37-yard touchdown. By the end of this game, my gut feeling is Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will really be missing Aqib Talib.

On Saturday, talking to Sean Payton during my time with the Saints, I mentioned to him that I’d been in Kansas City last Sunday, and I didn’t think there was a player like Hill in football. Payton smiled and nodded, and looked around to find Drew Brees.

“Hey Drew, tell Peter who’s the most dangerous player in football right now,” Payton said.

“Tyreek Hill,” Brees said.

Payton beamed and nodded.

It’s dangerous to predict which of the intergalactic talents will most influence this game. Todd Gurley is such a touchdown machine that he could more than make up for the loss of Cooper Kupp in offensive production. Patrick Mahomes could get on fire, and with the way Andy Reid spreads the field (his widest-split receivers line up so close to the white-striped boundary that I swear one time they’re going to start a play with a foot out of bounds), an accurate Mahomes could strafe the Rams for 350 yards or more. I’m just excited that it’s going to be a game played on a good field, on a 60-degreee evening with just a puff of wind, and we can judge two superb teams going head to head on fairly equal footing, with each missing a good receiver, Sammy Watkins (Chiefs) and Cooper Kupp (Rams). Bring on the spectacle, and the game.

MORE: Read the rest of Peter King’s Monday column by clicking here

5 things to know about Packers’ stunning coaching move

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I like what the Packers did, and I like when they did it.

What would have been accomplished by letting Mike McCarthy lame-duck his way through the next four weeks, other than keeping the franchise’s 65-year streak of never making an in-season coaching change intact? Management knew McCarthy was getting whacked, and McCarthy would have had to be blind to not know. You don’t go 4-10-1 in your last 15 games, look as listless as the Packers have looked, watch Aaron Rodgers play borderline disinterested football, and think there’s some way to salvage an era gone bad. There wasn’t. It was just time.

Packers president Mark Murphy trumped the Hunt news two hours after the Pack’s embarrassing 20-17 loss to the two-win Cardinals. In the snow. Against the warmest-weather team in the NFL. Murphy made the first coaching change by the franchise during the season since Hugh Devore and Scooter McLean took over for Gene Ronzani—what, you don’t remember the Ronzani Era in Packer lore?—with two games left in 1953.

It was a mission of mercy.

“The 2018 seasons has not lived up to the expectations and standards of the Green Bay Packers,” Murphy said in a statement. “As a result, I made the difficult decision to relieve Mike McCarthy of his roles as head coach, effective immediately.”

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Five things I feel confident of this morning:

1. Aaron Rodgers was not involved in, or consulted about, the decision. There’s been speculation about a chilly relationship between McCarthy and Rodgers, and that chilly relationship affecting the production of the Green Bay offense. Possible; probable, I think. But football’s a production business. This was based on the Packers losing with more regularity than they had since Rodgers was a rookie in 2008. In Rodgers’ 37 starts since Christmas Day 2015, Green Bay is 18-18-1. Unacceptable.

2. Murphy and GM Brian Gutekunst, the deciders-in-chief, had to see how stale this team was getting. Time to hear a different message from a different coach. And Rodgers, for whatever reason, wasn’t playing like Rodgers. He wasn’t himself. In fact, in the first 11 games this year, Pro Football Focus had Rodgers on track to make the most throwaway passes since the analytics firm has been collecting data in 2006. His 47 throwaways means he’s dumping the ball away once every 10 throws, which no quarterbacks has done in the 13 years PFF has mined the passing numbers. The NFL average is once every 28 passes. Either he’s unhappy with the calls, feels too much pressure, or is giving up on some plays too soon—or a combination of those. That helped the Packers to a bizarre year in which, with a healthy Rodgers, they blew out only two of 12 foes. This is a very subjective statement, but it just doesn’t look like Rodgers is having much fun playing football.

3. The Packers are giving themselves a head start on their search, and I’m pretty sure they think McCarthy will be well-served by the same early start. Green Bay will be competing for a coach with Cleveland, Tampa Bay and the Jets at least, and maybe two or three other franchises. The Green Bay job will be highly desirable, because of the history—“I still get a thrill driving to the same place Vince Lombardi drove to for work,” McCarthy told me last year—and the quarterback. As for McCarthy, he could land in Cleveland with former Packers scout John Dorsey (they are not tight, but they are friends), and the Jets could want the guy who coached Brett Favre at the end and Aaron Rodgers at the beginning to mentor Sam Darnold. Having December off gives McCarthy a chance to recharge and prep for a round of early-January interviews. I don’t think McCarthy wanted this to happen now, because he’s a coach and wanted a chance to coach his way out of this. But coaching the next four weeks would have been (mostly) a frustrating daily reminder of how underachieving this team is, and would have given pause to prospective employers wondering why a team with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback stinks.

4. All things being equal, I believe the Packers would like to find a young offensive coach who could challenge and improve Rodgers. Sunday was Rodgers’ 35th birthday. In July, he told me: “I’d love to play till 40 … That’s my aim.” That gives an enterprising and imaginative coach five years, theoretically, to work with one of the greats. The list has been picked over in the last three years, with Doug Pederson, Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Matt Nagy and Frank Reich gone. The best guys left are probably Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Minnesota offensive coordinator John DeFillippo and maybe college candidates like David Shaw of Stanford (not likely to leave Palo Alto) and Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma—who could also get a look from Cleveland. Could some team try to match the magic of McVay with, say, a young quarterback mentor like Philly’s 30-year-old QB coach Press Taylor? Doubtful, but just as McVay was a highly speculative choice by the Rams, we could see another one. “Everyone’s looking for the next McVay,” one GM told me last month. It’s just that no one is sure who he is.

5. It wasn’t just a feel. The McCarthy decline, and Rodgers’ part in it, was factual. Over the last two seasons, PFF had McCarthy the league’s 36th-best play-caller out of 44 coaches. The complex formula had the passing game rated 22nd and 14th in the last two seasons. A layman could look at Green Bay’s passing offense and think it’s just not imaginative, at all. It’s stale. Compare it to, say, Chicago’s. On the biggest play of the fourth quarter in New Jersey on Sunday, Bears coach Matt Nagy called a reverse to Tarik Cohen, and a touchdown pass from Cohen to Anthony Miller that forced overtime against the Giants. That’s something the Packers need.

McCarthy deserves his due, and credit for lasting 13 years and making the playoffs nine times. He’s the longest-serving Green Bay coach since Curly Lambeau. He loved everything about the job and the place. Amazing, really, that he lasted four years longer than Vince Lombardi (nine years), and six years longer than Mike Holmgren (seven).

But even those who hadn’t been around the Packers could sense the end was coming. In her story for The MMQB last week about the Packers’ troubles, Kalyn Kahler quoted ESPN analyst Booger McFarland thusly on the relationship between Rodgers and McCarthy: “I find it very [unusual] that you get two people who really enjoy working together and enjoy being around each other, but you can’t sense or see that [they do]. I didn’t sense that from either Aaron or coach.”

The divorce should give the Packers a chance to find a new voice for Rodgers and a sputtering team. And McCarthy, still only 55, is a coach who wants another 10-year job. He’s a coach. He wants another shot. Both sides should get what they want in the next five weeks. The suddenness of Sunday’s decision was surprising, but not the decision itself. It’s best for the Packers, and best for McCarthy.

MORE: Read the rest of Peter’s weekly Football Morning in America column by clicking here.

Philip Rivers when he realized he missed a perfect passing day: “SHOOT!”

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When Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt came out of the locker room for the second half at the StubHub Center, he caught the stats up on the scoreboard. “19-19,” he saw next to Philip Rivers’ name.

“That’s not right,” he thought to himself. Whisenhunt thought he misread it. And he went out to coach the second half, not thinking of the supposedly faux 19 for 19.

But as the half went on, he discovered Rivers was indeed perfect … for 25 throws. Then the Chargers quarterback, on his last series of the game, was trying to avoid a sack when he threw the ball away toward running back Austin Ekeler. He finished 28 of 29, an NFL-record 96.6 percent accurate on the day. A few minutes after coach Anthony removed Rivers from the 45-10 rout of the Cardinals, Rivers realized he was one throw from perfection.

“I remember exactly what he said,” said Whisenhunt, who has coached Rivers for four years. “‘GOSH! The one I missed the guy had me on the leg! SHOOT!’“

That’s about as profane as the devoted Catholic gets.

“You could feel it today,” Whisenhunt told me from California. “He’s been playing at an incredible level for a while now. Remember—this started, really, in this week last year, when we played the Thanksgiving game at Dallas.” Rivers completed 82 percent that day, for 434 yards. In the 17 games since, he’s had the best year-plus of his life: 68.2 percent accuracy, 5,120 yards, a 37-9 touchdown-to-pick ratio, and a crazy 9.08 yards per attempt.

It’s one crazy coincidence that Rivers and the man who was let go to make way for him to play in 2006—Drew Brees—are playing this well so late in their careers. Brees turns 40 in six weeks. Rivers turns 37 in two weeks. And now Rivers leads the Chargers to a prime-time game at Pittsburgh on Sunday, another test in a long line of them for him and this Chargers team that’s 13-4 since last Thanksgiving. “Him and Ben [Roethlisberger] again,” said Whisenhunt. “It’s going to be fun. It always is.”

MORE: Peter King’s Week 12 FMIA column