Predicting NFL playoff seeding ahead of Week 17

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Lots on the line next Sunday in Week 17. Nothing monumental, but there’s one win-and-you’re-in scenario and at least 22 teams have something to play for, as improbable as some of the scenarios are. The key games next Sunday as the league’s 99th regular season ends:

• For the sixth seed in the AFC: Indianapolis at Tennessee, 8:20 p.m. ET. The winner is the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs. The loser is eliminated. Two hot teams: Indy’s 7-1 in its last eight, Tennessee 6-2. A bit of irony: When Colts GM Chris Ballard was choosing his next coach, he was down to Mike Vrabel and Josh McDaniels in mid-January. I thought he was leaning Vrabel. But he chose the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, and Vrabel went to Tennessee, and Ballard got jilted by McDaniels, and Ballard chose Frank Reich as his head coach. And now Reich has the Colts, stunningly, one win from the playoffs after a 4-12 season. (Watch it on NBC on on the NBC Sports app)

• For the AFC North title: Cleveland at 9-6 Baltimore, and Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, both 1:05 p.m. The Steelers, as crushed as they must be after the weird and slightly unjust loss at New Orleans, will beat the woebegone Bengals. Since only one team from the North can make the playoffs—Ravens or Steelers—that means the Ravens would have to beat Cleveland to win the division. A Steeler win would leave the division in the hands of the revolutionized Ravens, who are running at a pace we haven’t seen in more that 50 years. But here comes Baker Mayfield, who doesn’t give a crap about anything but playing great and winning. The Browns are 5-2 since whacking Hue Jackson for Gregg Williams/Freddie Kitchens, and I think they have a chance to pull off a crazy win.

Now … about the Ravens running game. This is the craziest factoid of a crazy season—and it certainly is crazy when the Cleveland Browns are 7-7-1 with a game to play: Since Lamar Jackson has taken over the quarterback job in Week 11, the Ravens are 5-1, and they have run the ball 63.6 percent of the offensive plays. The 1964 Browns, with steamrolling MVP Jim Brown dominating the ground game, ran it 53.9 percent of the offensive snaps. The 1966 Packers, the first team to win the Super Bowl, ran 57.6 percent of the time. It’s Lamar Jackson’s world, and we’re just living in it.

• For the final two NFC seeds: Arizona at Seattle, Philadelphia at Washington, Chicago at Minnesota, 4:25 p.m. Seattle clinched a playoff spot Sunday night, and now has to beat the worst team in football, the Cardinals, at home, to clinch the fifth seed. The Vikings (8-6-1) and Eagles (8-7) will battle for one spot. If Minnesota beats the Bears, the Vikings make the playoffs; if they lose and Philadelphia beats Washington, the Eagles are in.

Will the Bears play all-out to win, with only a whisper of a chance to pass the Rams for the second seed? Good question. “We need some help,” Zach Ertz told me after the dramatic Philly win over Houston, “but we’ve had the kind of year where you just don’t know anything.”

The Eagles have had the strangest of seasons; they’ve gone 4-1 since being embarrassed 48-7 by the Saints last month. I asked Ertz what he’s learned in 2018 after the Eagles stormed to a Super Bowl win last year. “I’ll tell you,” he said. “The NFL is really hard. It’s really had to win football games, any game. I cannot believe the Miami Dolphins went undefeated all the way through the Super Bowl. I cannot believe the Patriots went undefeated [in the 2007 regular season]. That sounds a little simplistic, but it’s what I think.”

• For AFC seeding: The Chiefs host Oakland (4:25 p.m. ET), and if the Chiefs beat the 3-11 Raiders, they win first seed and will play at home throughout the playoffs … The Patriots host the Jets (1:05 p.m.), and if the Pats beat New York, they win second seed in the playoffs … Houston has a nightmare scenario: losing to Jacksonville (1:05 p.m.) and falling to the number six seed, with the Colts-Titans winner advancing to first place in AFC South. The 11-4 Chargers are locked at five, unless Oakland beats KC and LA wins at Denver (4:25 p.m.)

• For NFC seeding: New Orleans (13-2) has clinched the top seed … The 12-3 Rams must beat the Niners (4:25 p.m.) to clinch the other first-round bye and will be heavily favored to do so … The 11-4 Bears are likely locked into the three seed; they can only move up with a win over Minnesota and loss by the Rams to San Francisco … Dallas (9-6) is locked in at the four seed, with a Seattle-at-Dallas rematch likely in wild-card weekend. Very attractive TV matchup there.

So … my very imprecise crystal ball shows:

The AFC
1. Kansas City
2. New England
3. Houston
4. Baltimore
5. Chargers
6. Indianapolis

The NFC
1. New Orleans
2. Rams
3. Chicago
4. Dallas
5. Seattle
6. Minnesota

Under that scenario, all four wild-card games would be rematches of 2018 regular-season games, with three played at the same site, and all four games played in Eastern or Central time.

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Revisiting Saints trading entire draft for Ricky Williams and the deals that almost happened

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“Twenty years ago—that’s crazy,” the Washington coach at the time, Norv Turner, said Friday. As was the deal. At the time, so much about it was revolutionary. The noted draft-value trade chart, invented by the Cowboys a few years earlier, had the Saints trading away 4,441 points of draft value in exchange for 1,700 points—the value of the fifth overall pick. “When the coaches were told about it that day,” Turner said, “we looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t real. You gotta do that.’ “ And GM Charley Casserly, negotiating with Saints GM Billy Kuharich, agreed to it eagerly.

Ditka was smitten with Williams after his 2,124-yard, 27-TD senior year at Texas, and he proclaimed at the league meetings a month before the draft that he’d trade his entire draft for Williams. “Put us in line,” Casserly told Kuharich. Except New Orleans didn’t have a second-round pick that year. So Casserly said he’d have to have a first and third in 2000 to make up for the lack of a second-rounder. The Saints did it. (Man, why not ask for Ditka’s first-born too?) “A generational trade,” Casserly called it.

From the moment the deal happened, there were problems. Big problems. Williams was intensely shy. The Saints flew him to New Orleans for a post-draft press conference. On the plane, he was given a Saints cap to wear. “I’m not wearing that,” Williams said. He was told he’d be doing the press conference from a podium. “I’m not doing that,” he said.

Uh-oh.

When the dreadlocked Williams got to the Saints offices, Ditka greeted him wearing a wig with dreadlocks, and a flowered shirt and shorts. Williams did the press conference, standing to the side of the podium, not behind it. There was a fan fest with maybe 5,000 fans there on the property, fans going crazy because they got the best player in college football, and they chanted for Williams. Someone with Williams that day said, “Ricky looked around, and he was in shock. This was not what he thought the NFL would be. The look on his face was, ‘What the f— is this?’ “

Ricky-mania was in full swing. Williams dressed in a wedding gown and Ditka in a wedding tux, and they posed as bride and groom for an August 1999 cover of ESPN The Magazine. Heaven knows why Williams did that, but the season started bad and got worse. Williams’ shyness bordered on the weird. I went into New Orleans to interview him, and though pleasant enough, he insisted on doing the interview with his helmet on, with the dark shield covering his face. The Saints went 3-13, and Ditka was fired.

Williams lasted three seasons with the Saints before being traded to Miami in 2002. Other than helping New Orleans win a division title in 2000, Williams’ tenure in New Orleans was more circus than football. I texted Ditka on Friday and would have loved to speak with him about the trade and the weird year, but he didn’t get back to me.

“Oh my God,” his assistant head coach, Rick Venturi, said the other day. “That trade was a sugar rush for the franchise. We were at a low ebb. Everyone makes fun of the deal, because we gave up the farm to get Ricky, but we really trusted Mike. He’d won before, and he gave us faith we’d win with him.”

Postscript I: The Bengals, picking third, had a chance to make the same deal Washington made. Eight picks to move from three to 12 with New Orleans. Nope, the Bengals said. We’re staying. We’re picking the guy we want badly. Akili Smith.

Postscript II: Casserly thought he had a deal with Chicago, picking seventh, to move from 12 to seven if the player Washington wanted was available. That player: Champ Bailey. So after the deal with the Saints went through, Casserly called the Bears back, ready to move up five slots in exchange for third, fourth and fifth-round picks. “We had a deal, but they upped the ante on me when I called back,” he said. The Bears wanted Washington’s third-rounder in 2000, or there’d be no deal. Casserly, fuming, took a deep breath and agreed to the ransom. “If you really want the player, you’ve got to take a step back and take the emotion out of it,” he said. Washington got Bailey at seven.

Postscript III: I didn’t ask Casserly if he got any satisfaction from the quarterback Chicago took to be its long-term QB solution at 12—Cade McNown, who won three games in two years for the Bears. McNown was a disaster, and was out of football after two seasons.

Postscript IV: Casserly’s reward for getting those eight picks and maneuvering to pick up Bailey, and following that with Washington winning the NFC East? He got fired at the end of the year after new owner Dan Snyder took over.

Postscript V: Bailey lasted only five years in Washington before a contract dispute prompted the team to trade him to Denver for Clinton Portis. Bailey played 10 of his 15 seasons in a 15-year career for Denver. After being elected to the Hall last February, Bailey got a call from Casserly. “You realize I never would have traded you,” Casserly said.

Postscript VI: Williams had a good NFL career, in between missing two years for a “retirement” and a marijuana suspension. He finished with 10,009 rushing yards in 11 seasons, 31st on the all-time rushing list. Interesting who is 32nd: Clinton Portis.

They don’t make trades like they used to. 

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It’s now or never for Seahawks to sign Russell Wilson to long-term deal

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I don’t think signing a boilerplate contract averaging $34 million a year—something Wilson never could have dreamed possible when he was the 75th player picked in the 2012 draft—will be enough for him, and for his representative, Mark Rodgers, a baseball agent with one football client, Wilson. I think Wilson actually would be content playing out his current contract and then working under the franchise tag for the next two seasons rather than taking a typical mega-millions contract. Playing year-to-year, Wilson would average $27.8 million a year over the next three years, rather than a solid $34 million a year over five or six.

That seems ridiculous. There’s a few reasons why it’s not.

But first, this deadline agent Rodgers has given Seattle. Today’s a big day in the Pacific Northwest if you take Wilson and Rodgers at their word, that—according to a source close to the talks—they say they won’t do a long-term deal with the Seahawks if it’s not done by tonight. Read that last sentence again. I didn’t mean they’d put off further talks on a new contract till 2020 if it’s not done by tonight. I meant Wilson and Rodgers don’t plan to negotiate further with the Seahawks, period. My source says they’ve told GM John Schneider it has to be done now, or not at all.

That’s why, with this being what Wilson likely believes is his last chance to get a truly market deal in Seattle, I would be shocked if he leaves this all to Rodgers, regardless how much he trusts his agent. Wilson’s an activist. I would bet he wants Schneider and/or Carroll to hear from him directly about why he wants to get this deal done now, and he wants to get it done differently than other quarterback deals have been done. I’ve known Wilson since training camp of his rookie year, and he’s one of the ultimate hands-on players I’ve met. He has never struck me as the type to hand a job this big to his agent and say, Good luck. Call me when it’s done.

If it does get done, my source says the contract would likely include devices to adjust future years of the deal based on how high the cap goes up year to year, or based on new revenue streams (gambling revenue, for example, or a TV contract that explodes). If it is not done, it means the Seahawks have determined Wilson isn’t worth setting such a precedent. (No NFL player’s contract fluctuates based on cap increases or increases in the league’s bottom line unknown at the time of signing.) That would be understandable, but would it be the right call for the Seahawks? It could be a potentially career-altering risk for Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

Of course, there’s no real reason why a deal couldn’t be done July 15 or Dec. 15 either. But waiting would be calling Wilson’s bluff. Maybe you win, maybe you lose. It’s a risk. Normally, talking about hard negotiations, I’d say big deal. Quarterbacks—all except Kirk Cousins—might play a year on the franchise tag, but they eventually sign long-term and stay with their teams. I think there’s a good chance Wilson could be different.

Like Cousins was, Wilson is not afraid to play year-to-year: this year at $17 million, and then as many as two years on the franchise tag, at $30.3 million in 2020 and $36.4 million in 2021. If the Seahawks chose to franchise Wilson a third time, the cost would rise to $52.4 million for 2022. Which would be a very difficult one-year salary for any team to digest, unless the cap skyrockets in 2021, when a new CBA is due to take effect.

Most players want the assurance of guaranteed money and long-term security. They’ll take significant guaranteed money in exchange for fighting for what Cousins got (a fully guaranteed three-year, $84-million contract) or what Wilson presumably wants (a fluctuating contract, based on the league’s future success). But from what I hear, Wilson and Rodgers feel the league could be on the precipice of major new revenue streams. Recently, Bills co-owner Kim Pegula said she wanted to have the opportunity to provide sports betting inside their stadium. What might the NFL’s take on in-stadium gambling be, and how would that be divided with the players? Could Facebook or some digital brand bid an unheard-of sum for the rights to part of the TV deal in 2022?

Because the game is so injurious, you don’t see many players going year-to-year. But Wilson’s durability is a big part of his football appeal. Since the day Wilson was drafted in 2012, the Seahawks have played 125 regular-season and postseason games. Wilson has started them all. Last year, he was the only NFL quarterback to take every offensive snap for his team. In the last two years, he has played 2,186 of Seattle’s 2,191 offensive snaps. That could change in an instant, of course. But Wilson is fine gambling on himself, and on his durability.

For those who would not put Wilson in the same stratum as Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or Drew Brees, it’s understandable. But Wilson is the second-highest-rated quarterback in history (100.3). He has 83 career wins, regular-season and postseason, in seven years, an average of 11.8 a year.

Schneider, of course, has to worry about 53 players, not just one. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is due to hit free agency after this season, and he’s had the kind of career that one day will merit Hall of Fame consideration. If Wilson, the offensive leader, gets a precedent-setting contract, then what of the unquestioned leader of the defense, Wagner? He certainly wouldn’t get quarterback money, but Wagner might want to push for the kind of financial incentives Wilson gets.

A few other things, counter to the current rumor mill. I do not believe Wilson is pushing for a trade right now, to the Giants, or anywhere. I believe he wants to work out a deal with Seattle. I believe Wilson wants to know where he stands with the Seahawks long-term, which is one of the reasons why he is pushing hard for a deal to be done now. I believe if the Seahawks do not do a deal by midnight tonight, it doesn’t meant they don’t want Wilson to be their quarterback for the next decade—it just means they’re not willing to set a contractual precedent like tying his contract to how fast, and how high, the cap rises over the life of the deal.

Pragmatically, if I’m Wilson, everyone around the league views me as an Eagle Scout type, and as long as I step on the field, I’ve got to be all-in, and a team guy all the way. That is the only way he can maximize his value long-term, and perhaps post-Seahawks. And if I’m the Seahawks, I know the kind of person I have in Wilson, so maybe I feel: Let’s go year-to-year over the next three years, for reasonable money for a franchise quarterback, and hope at some point in those three years there’s a thaw and we can re-visit this contract.

Whatever happens, this is a dramatic day in Seattle. I don’t know which way it’ll go, but I don’t think it’s time to shred the “3” jerseys yet. Gut feeling: At the very least Wilson plays in Seattle three more years. And a lot can happen in those three years.

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