There are so many interesting playoff possibilities this morning. But two stand above all:
• Dallas. The Cowboys got a quarter-season out of Dak Prescott before a grotesque injury sidelined him. They started Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert at quarterback. Andy Dalton has had to be uncharacteristically bombs-away Dan Fouts at times. They’ve given up 5.0 yards per rush and 30 points per game. They had one of the game’s most beloved assistant coaches, Markus Paul, collapse in the team’s weight room in front of players and die a day later. Just a horrible season. But football does not stop.
Today, the Cowboys are better than the Giants, and Washington is a mess. Much stranger things have happened in the NFL than a seesaw Dallas team making the postseason. The Cowboys could be a 7-9 playoff team and enter the postseason hot. “By far the biggest challenge emotionally and as a football coach that I’ve been through,” McCarthy said. “I’m a new coach here, trying to make a first impression, the pandemic hits, no offseason, the Dak injury, the bad start, just one thing after another . . . and then the reality of it, those were tiny things compared to what was coming.” He meant the death of Paul, a team strength coach, on Nov. 25, then having to play a game the next day.
• Chicago. In the midst of a fast start, fourth-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was benched for indecision and inaccuracy. Nick Foles came in and won a couple of games, and then the losing streak. Foles got yanked, and in his last four starts, Trubisky actually has stoked an ember of thought that maybe, just maybe . . . No. No. Stop right there. It’s still unlikely Trubisky, a free-agent after the season because Chicago didn’t exercise his fifth-year option, is the long-term answer in Chicago, but the future doesn’t matter now. What matters is Trubisky’s got a little mojo going (72.3 percent passing in his last four games, with seven TDs and two picks), and the odds are in Chicago’s favor: PFF has the Bears’ playoff odds at 70.2 percent, obviously counting more on the Rams beating Arizona than Chicago beating Aaron Rodgers.
“I believe in my heart of hearts that being benched [in Week 4] put him on a mission,” said Nagy. “I told him that day that what feels like the worst day of your life could turn out to be the best day.” If Trubisky makes it to Wild-Card Weekend, Nagy might be right.
Two cornerstone franchises of the NFL, two proud franchises, trying to sneak in with embattled coaches and quarterbacks out for redemption.
Dallas went to Minnesota four days before Thanksgiving and began to get on the right track with a 31-28 win. McCarthy said flying home that evening, he felt that, even though the team was 3-7, they still had time to win the division and this was the start of their move. Two mornings later, McCarthy got to work at 6, just about the time Markus Paul was pulling into the parking lot. “We walked in together,” McCarthy said. “He had a workout with the younger guys, I think at 6:30. I went back to my office and [special teams coach] John Fassel ran in and says, ‘Hey, we gotta get downstairs.’ That’s when Markus collapsed. I was there right after it happened. The tragedy is obviously unspeakable to see one of your guys go down like that, but the whole team was there. It’s five minutes after 7. Everybody was either in the weight room or outside the weight room. It was tough, really tough on the guys. They’re talking about it a little more now. It’s clearly the point of our season where I was just like, what’s gonna happen next?”
Paul was rushed to a hospital. McCarthy sent the team home Tuesday. No practice on Wednesday either—just supporting each other. Paul was pronounced dead on Wednesday. On Thursday, there was a football game against Washington.
“When I walked on the field on Thanksgiving, and I shouldn’t even admit this, as a head coach, you usually have a general idea how the game’s going to go. But that day, I had no idea. There was sort of a numb feeling that day.” Washington 41, Dallas 16. And the loss at Baltimore 12 days later. And a very short week with another road game, at Cincinnati.
What’s happened is Dalton (last three games: 117.0 passer rating) and his receivers are bonding. Dallas beat the Bengals by 23, eked by San Francisco thanks to Niner turnovers, and roasted the Jalen Hurts-sparkplugged Eagles by 20 Sunday. CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup combined for 307 receiving yards and three TDs Sunday. A win at the Meadowlands next Sunday afternoon would at least keep Dallas on the right track headed into 2021, and it might send Tampa Bay to JerryWorld for a playoff game no one saw coming.
“I’m gonna say it reminds me a little of 2013 in Green Bay,” McCarthy said. “We got in at 8-7-1. Aaron [Rodgers] broke his collarbone for the first time, and we were just scratching and clawing. We played four quarterbacks that year: Scott Tolzien, Seneca Wallace, Aaron and Matt Flynn. That’s probably the closest experience from that perspective that I could relate to this. But it’s been tough in this division this year. Three new coaches, and Doug [Pederson] had injuries and the quarterback change. Just an odd year. In the end, you gotta stay the course and just be who you are.”
Nagy said the culture in his locker room was solid, and helped withstand the six-game losing streak. Trubisky began playing better after an eminently forgettable game at Lambeau Field, a 41-25 loss that wasn’t that close. Since then, the Bears have averaged 35 points a game. It’s helped that the last four teams Chicago’s played are 31st, 30th, 27th and 32nd in the league in yards allowed per game. Green Bay is eighth. The Bears are 1-8 against the Pack in the last five seasons, and what hurts Chicago is the Packers will be motivated to win and not rest their players Sunday. A win Sunday would give the Packers a second straight 13-3 regular-season record under Matt LaFleur, and would mean Green Bay would win the lone NFC bye. What helps Chicago? Arizona is ice-cold, losers of four of six, with Kyler Murray slumping since the Hail Murray beat Buffalo in November.
This could be Trubisky’s last game as a Bear. Who will we see dueling Rodgers? Trubisky’s 1-4 in his career against Rodgers, and after seeing Rodgers’ consistent dissections of recent foes (he was masterful Sunday night in a 40-14 rout of the Titans), it seems clear Trubisky’s going to have to score in the thirties to give the Bears a good shot. “Mitchell’s always been a pleaser,” Nagy said from Chicago. “He wanted to please his teammates, his coaches, the fans. But now he’s more about organic leadership. He’s not trying to please everybody—he’s trying to lead.”
The supporting cast is solid too—with a running back, David Montgomery (1,001 yards) and number one receiver, Allen Robinson (100 catches), and two tight ends with 69 catches and 10 TDs between them, Jimmy Graham and rookie Cole Kmet. On a good day, this offense can light it up. It may have to for a 2020 playoff berth.