Bobby Wagner

NFL Week 18 key takeaways: Wild Card matchups lock in

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Not the most dramatic of week eighteens, but before we get back to the Week of Damar, let’s focus on the notables from the final day of the final regular-season week ahead of the Wild Card round:

Josh McCown, please pick up the white courtesy phone. Texans fired Lovie Smith Sunday night after returning home from the nightmare victory in Indianapolis, announcing the move at a deadline-inconvenient 11:27 p.m. ET. (Yes, I said nightmare victory, relinquishing the top overall pick. At least Lovie can always say, “I finished 2-1 in my last three!”) Now let’s see if Cal McNair’s still smitten with Josh McCown.

Wild Card Weekend is set in stone. There’s not a can’t-miss matchup, but here we go (all times Eastern):

Saturday

Seattle (NFC 7 seed) at San Francisco (NFC 2 seed), 4:30 p.m. on FOX

L.A. Chargers (AFC 5 seed) at Jacksonville (AFC 4 seed), 8:15 p.m. on NBC

Sunday

Miami (AFC 7 seed) at Buffalo (AFC 2 seed), 1 p.m. on CBS

N.Y. Giants (NFC 6 seed) at Minnesota (NFC 3 seed), 4:30 p.m. on FOX

Baltimore (AFC 6 seed) at Cincinnati (AFC 3 seed), 8:15 p.m. on NBC

Monday

Dallas (NFC 5 seed) at Tampa Bay (NFC 4 seed), 8:15 p.m. on ESPN

J.J. Watt leaving the field for the last time was a sight to see:

Get the gold jacket ready for a 2028 fitting.

If that’s it for Devin McCourty, he went out fittingly—with two takeaways for the outmanned Patriots in Buffalo.

Matthew Slater? Bobby Wagner? Jason Kelce? Calais Campbell? Whither them?

And Tom Brady?

And you, Aaron Rodgers?

Good thing the Eagles get the bye. Of quarterback Jalen Hurts and his bum shoulder, coach Nick Sirianni said after a laconic win over the Giants, “I knew he was hurting, and hurting bad.” Now Hurts has till the weekend of Jan. 21 to prepare for the divisional round.

Texans picked a funny way to win the top draft choice. Lovie Smith’s team actually played to win the game.

The 12-win Cowboys have looked like the six-win Cowboys over the past five weeks. I bet the Bucs will be a dangerous game for Dallas.

Last time Miami was impressive? November. Without Tua, the Dolphins’ chances in Buffalo are something like the Pirates’ chances to win the National League flag in 2023.

Patriots, 8-9. Last time New England won a playoff game was 46 months ago. Or was it 46 years? Tom Brady beat Jared Goff, Pats over Rams, in the Super Bowl.

Lions, 9-8. Jared Goff, last nine games: 7-2, 15 touchdowns, zero interceptions. That’s an incredible job, Dan Campbell, going into Lambeau with nothing to play for but pride and beating Aaron Rodgers.

For the Packers, 8-9 is fitting. Only about a thousand questions for this grand franchise.

Brock Purdy has played 5.75 games. He is 6-0. Passer rating in his five starts: 134.0, 117.0, 114.6, 95.4, 141.2. But passer rating’s a dumb stat! Okay. Here’s another stat for you, one I just made up: Since Dec. 1, Brock Purdy’s a top-five NFL quarterback.

Speaking of 5.75 games, that’s how many Lamar Jackson has missed with a bum knee. I have a question about whether the Ravens have to re-think their long-term contract efforts with Jackson, but first, will he play Sunday night in Cincinnati for Wild Card weekend?

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

NFL Week 13 awards: Nick Bosa, defenses steal show

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Offensive Players of the Week

Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. What a show of cool-under-pressure excellence by Burrow. He was unshakeable, hitting 25 of 31 for 286 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. His most impressive moment came with less than two minutes left, as the Bengals had third-and-11 at the Kansas City 28 with a three-point lead, hoping to hang onto the ball and run out the clock rather than kick a field goal and give Mahomes an entire minute to drive for six points. Burrow was in the pocket for about two seconds when Chiefs DE Mike Danna broke through the line on the strong side. When Danna hesitated for a half-second (appearing to make sure Burrow still had the ball), Burrow took advantage to thread a perfect ball to a closely-covered Tee Higgins, hitting him in stride for a first down to ice the game. Burrow moves to 3-0 against Mahomes – all in this calendar year. Honorable mentions to Jonah Williams, Cordell Volson, Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins on the offensive line who, less than a year after Burrow endured 20 sacks in the postseason, have held two of his tormenters (Tennessee and Kansas City) to one sack each in consecutive weeks.

A.J. Brown, wide receiver, Philadelphia. This was the game Brown had circled on his mental calendar—the Titans coming to Philadelphia seven months after the Titans traded Brown to Philadelphia—and the drama did not disappoint. Brown’s 40-yard TD pass from good friend Jalen Hurts in the second quarter put the Eagles ahead for good, 14-7, and Brown’s well-covered 29-yard TD catch in third quarter gave the Eagles all the insurance they’d need. For the game, Brown caught eight balls for 119 yards and those two scores as the Eagles routed the AFC South leaders.

 

Defensive Players of the Week

Bobby Wagner, linebacker, L.A. Rams. Ahead of this game Wagner, who spent the first 10 seasons of his career with Seattle, downplayed the significance of facing his former team for the first time, calling it “just another game,” in classic unruffled veteran speak. But Wagner’s performance Sunday was fit for a revenge game, including two sacks, two QB hits, three tackles for loss and a gritty, momentum-shifting interception in the third quarter when he muscled the ball out of the grip of Seattle’s Tony Jones. The Seahawks came away with the win, but Wagner was everywhere Sunday, reminding his former team of the impact player he can be.

Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco. The definition of a valuable player is one who’s at his best when moments are the biggest. Bosa sacked Tua Tagovailoa twice when the game was in the balance, and when times were desperate at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, Bosa strip-sacked Tagovailoa, and the fumble was returned for a rub-it-in late TD. When Bosa is in form, the Niners can win games with their D. They did Sunday.

Chandler Jones, defensive end, Las Vegas. It was a breakout night for Jones, one that will go at least part of the way to quieting critics of the mismatch between his $51 million contract signed this offseason and his impact on the field so far in 2022. Jones entered the day with just a half-sack on the season but brought down Justin Herbert three times, part of relentless pressure that also yielded him five QB hits and a pass defended in the Raiders’ 27-20 win over the Chargers.

Jalen Pitre, strong safety, Houston. The second-round rookie from Baylor, who has been a bright spot in a terrible season for the Texans, saved his best for the Deshaun Watson return to Houston Sunday. Pitre had an NFL-best 16 tackles in Week 13, and he added an interception that, at the time, was crucial—he picked off Watson three yards deep in the end zone on a bad decision by the quarterback. The Texans have a lot of holes to fill for 2023, but strong safety isn’t one of them.

 

Special teams players of the week

Donovan Peoples-Jones, receiver/returner, Cleveland. While Deshaun Watson struggled mightily in his first game back, Peoples-Jones saved the Browns from eternal first-half damnation. Down 5-0 with four minutes left in the second quarter, Peoples-Jones took a punt at the Cleveland 24-yard line, got hit by three Texans, weaved to the right sideline and won a footrace for a 76-yard TD. Boy, did the Browns need that.

Greg Zuerlein, kicker, N.Y. Jets. Scored 12 straight points between late in the second quarter and midway through the fourth, almost enough to lift the Jets to an upset of the Vikings in Minnesota. His five field goals—from 48, 60, 36, 30 and 26 yards—in five tries made this day reminiscent of some of the biggest Greg the Leg games.

 

Coach of the Week

Lou Anarumo, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati. This was a huge win for the Bengals, their fourth straight, against a powerhouse Chiefs squad. Today, the “Big Play Bengals” moniker was a perfect fit for Anarumo’s defense, including two key plays in the final quarter. It’s rare we see Travis Kelce lose the ball – in fact, Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt was responsible for Kelce’s first lost fumble of the season, halting the Chiefs’ first drive of the quarter and keeping the game within reach. Then, with Cincy up 27-24 in the final five minutes, Joseph Ossai sacked Patrick Mahomes on third and three to force a 55-yard Harrison Butker field goal attempt that sailed wide right, and just like that, the Bengals are 8-4. Anarumo interviewed for the Giants vacancy last season, and he’s rumored to be a head-coach candidate again this year. Neutralizing Kelce and helping the Bengals keep pace with the Ravens in the North can’t hurt his chances for a big job.

 

Goat of the week

Matt Patricia, assistant coach, Patriots. Not because Mac Jones yelled either at him or out of frustration Thursday night in the 24-10 loss to the Bills, or because offensive players subtly questioned Patricia’s play-calling after the game. But because the Patriots have developed zero downfield passing game, with nobody remotely threatening the secondary. Against the Bills, just seven of Mac Jones’ 36 passes went 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage or farther. You could argue that Jones—who completed just one of those seven throws—didn’t play well enough to deserve the trust of Patricia to throw to intermediate and deep areas. What I would say is Jones, the previous week against Minnesota, had completions of 26, 34, 16, 14, 37 and 40 yards on throws 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage. The Buffalo game was a regression of major proportions. Patricia needed to build on the Minnesota game and did not.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column