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Peter King ranks every single NFL team heading into the summer

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Mid-May. Time to take stock of the offseason. There’s not much left for teams to do before training camp. Vets with something left (Ndamukong Suh, Muhammad Wilkerson, Jay Ajayi, maybe Chris Long) could land somewhere, but those guys aren’t going to shift the balance of power in pro football’s 100th season.

So here are my rankings of the teams with most of the chairs being taken, and the music about to stop. Instead of justifying my pick in many of the fat-graf explanations, I’ll take some space on a key point that could determine success or failure with the team.

I fully expect to be wildly incorrect, so react accordingly.

The 2018 playoff teams are marked with asterisks … The teams that finished under .500 in 2018 are marked with plus-signs.

1. *KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (2018: 13-5)

Seems a little crazy with the firing of the 2017 NFL rushing champ (Kareem Hunt) six months ago and the iffy status of the NFL’s most dangerous weapon because of a child-abuse investigation (Tyreek Hill). But this is an In-Mahomes-We-Trust pick, mostly. I wonder if you could ever say that a rookie picked as low as 56—that was the draft slot of the Chiefs’ top pick, Georgia receiver-returner Mecole Hardman—would enter a season as the rookie with the most pressure to produce at a high level from opening day. With Hill facing a possible suspension to start the season, or more significant banishment, Hardman’s a huge factor for the Chiefs. I went back and watched his highlights from the 2018 national title game against Alabama, and he made a couple of prime-time plays. He took a shotgun snap at quarterback from the ‘Bama 1-yard line, play-faked to Sony Michel, and beat three defenders around the left corner for a touchdown. Then he flashed his 4.33 speed down the right sideline, beating the Alabama corner for an 80-yard TD from Jake Fromm. But is Hardman as tough and competitive as Hill? Will he strike fear into defenses? We’ll see in a tough three-week open to the KC season: at Jacksonville, at Oakland, Baltimore at home.

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2. *NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (2018: 14-5)

I just kept thinking as New England, round-by-round, let tight ends go by in the draft: Well, Bill Belichick knows he needs a tight end badly, and if he doesn’t take one, it must mean he didn’t love one, or he has plans beyond the draft. One of those plans, post-Gronk, was Ben Watson, who was highly peeved to not be active for the NFC title game as a Saint, and felt he had unfinished business as a player when he retired after the season. Watson, even at 38, is a useable player familiar with Patriot ways because he played for them for six years. I’m not sure Austin Seferian-Jenkins will be much of a factor either. And we’ll see who else comes available. Could Kyle Rudolph, for instance, in Minnesota, be a June cap casualty? That would be a golden piece for New England, though I have no idea if he’d sign with the Patriots if released. Looking at the Patriots this spring, I’m not going to sit here and kill them for not taking a Jace Sternberger in the draft. I, along with the rest of the media world, learned a lesson sometime around the fifth or sixth Super Bowl that Belichick and personnel czar Nick Caserio might know what they’re doing, and they usually figure out a better-than-competent roster to play with Tom Brady by November.

Quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts. (Getty Images)

3. *INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (2018: 11-7)

My first surprise, having the Colts this high. I’m relying on Justin Houston an awful lot here. The Colts haven’t had a pass-rusher have a premier season since 2013, when Robert Mathis had his last great rush season with 19.5 sacks. Houston had an impact year at 29 last fall for Kansas City (14 games, 11 sacks, including playoffs), which is why the Colts outbid others for his services on the free market in March. But he missed 5, 12, 1 and 4 games (regular and postseason) in his last four Chief seasons, so this is a gamble. If the Colts get 12 effective games out of him—and if two or three or those are in the postseason—the investment will be worth it. Big if. You can tell I’m buying Houston being able to have one more strong year for a good team. I’m probably sold mostly by the fact I saw his last game for Kansas City—the overtime classic against New England in the AFC title game—and Houston played an astounding 95 of 97 snaps that cold Sunday at Arrowhead, frequently buzzing around Tom Brady.

See where the other 29 teams fall in Peter King’s Football Morning in America

Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s ‘magic’ impact on fighting cancer

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A different column today, taking a breath entering the post-draft lull in the NFL calendar. 

On Thursday, the Chicago Bears will hold an off-season practice in Lake Forest, Ill. Then, around 1:30 p.m., team chairman George McCaskey, coach Matt Nagy and other Bears coaches and officials will board a van for a 3.5-hour ride south. On the van will be the guest of honor for a fundraiser Thursday night that’s unlike any charity event connected to the NFL these days.

It’s a cancer fundraiser, with Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano the man of the evening. It’s the seventh annual Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala. The first six have raised more than $5.5 million for cancer research. But this year’s is different.

Pagano, whose very public conquest of leukemia in 2012 was one of the great feel-good stories of recent NFL seasons, was fired by the Colts 16 months ago. Coaches who get fired go away quietly and stay away. They don’t say what they really feel most often—that they were wronged, that they weren’t the problem. The firing team moves on, and rarely mentions the vanquished coach.

The Colts are different. Pagano is different. Indianapolis is different. And now the Chicago Bears are in the Pagano web.

“I’m not bitter,” Pagano said from Illinois the other day. “I’m better. [Colts owner] Jim Irsay and I have a relationship for life. I love Jim Irsay. I love the organization. At some point coaches have to say goodbye to teams, and teams have to say goodbye to coaches. If you win, you keep your job, and if not, they move in a different direction. I never took it personal. And now I get to coach with one of the great franchises in sports, the Chicago Bears. I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

Those who fight cancer in Indiana, and football fans in Chicagoland, are glad that’s just a figure of speech. The Bears will have a table at the Tailgate Gala inside the Colts’ practice facility northwest of the city. The Bears and Colts might be rivals for the NFL fan in northern Indiana, but on this night, the Chicago head coach and chairman will attend this gala on the Colts practice field. The organization will write a check to support their defensive coordinator’s cause, and that coordinator will mingle with the people who fired him, and rub shoulders with those in Indiana who can make great things happen by writing checks of their own.

“Chuck brings magic to so many people,” Irsay told me. “I believe it. I’ve seen it. The impact he continues to have on fighting cancer, it’s just magic.”

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The question I had for Pagano was a tough one. Cruel, really. But in many ways, he’s George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the banker who found out how much he meant to people in his town when it was almost too late to save the town.

Imagine, I asked Pagano, if you never got leukemia in 2012. Imagine if you hadn’t been cured, then gone on to raise almost $6 million for the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center. Imagine if the funds you raised to recruit to the Simon Cancer Center specialists in leukemia, ovarian cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, cancer genetics, and, most recently, funding to endow a Chuck and Tina (his wife) Pagano Scholar hire each year, guaranteeing an annual hire for cancer research in one specialty area. Imagine, as Simon Cancer Center director of development Amber Kleopfer Senseny said, “Two hundred years from now, we’ll hire another Chuck and Tina Pagano Scholar, to research another form of cancer.” That’s George Bailey stuff.

“Do you sometimes wonder about all the lives that never would have been helped if you didn’t get leukemia, and you didn’t start this cause?”

Pagano paused. “That is a story that will never be told,” he said. “The Lord had a plan for me, I know that. Coming to the Simon Cancer Center saved my life. Really, research saved my life. Because somebody donated money for research into my form of leukemia 30 years ago, they came up with a cure for it. Thirty years ago, I’d have had a 50-percent chance to make it. When I was diagnosed, it was over 90 percent. That’s why I’m so passionate about research. All the money we’ve been raised through this Chuckstrong thing, it’s really the kindness of thousands.”

Now it extends to the Bears, who named Pagano defensive coordinator after Vic Fangio got the Denver head-coaching job in January. “When we hired Chuck,” coach Matt Nagy said over the weekend, “he said to me, ‘Hey, I want to get out front on this. I’ve got this event in Indianapolis, and the date was set prior to me taking the job. It’s for this cause I really believe in.’ I said this is great stuff. We wanted to figure out how to get involved. We got some coaches, we got Mr. McCaskey, we got some other people, and we figured a way to back Chuck and be a part of this event. We really feel fortunate to be involved. You talk about turning adversity into a positive. This is on a whole other level. It’s neat. It’s just a good thing.”

Pagano is in complete remission, and his prognosis to live a long life is good. There’s much of Indianapolis in Chicago with him—Pagano has pictures in his office of the cancer patients he got to know and help (and who helped him) over the past few years. “Not to get too trippy,” Irsay said, “but I have seen Chuck give his time, lots of it, to total strangers. He inspires them. Inspiration is rocket fuel, and he has given that over and over to the frightening world of people whose lives are on the edge. That’s not going to change because he works somewhere else.”

More information about the Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala.

Previewing NFL’s divisional round playoff games

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I’ve always hated “the divisional round,” as a name for the second weekend of NFL playoffs. Doesn’t come much more boring than that. I christen this weekend the Conference Semis. The most compelling game, from my chair, looks like the first one.

Saturday

Indianapolis (11-6, AFC 6th seed) at Kansas City (12-4, AFC 1st seed), Arrowhead Stadium, 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC.

I don’t recall the last time a respected football voice (Steve Young, in this case) said of a sixth seed: “Nobody wants to play the Colts right now.” But he did, and there’s evidence for that. Indy’s 10-1 since Week 7, and it’s not just The Andrew Luck Story. The Colts’ D suffocated Houston till garbage time, using more secondary blitzes than I’ve seen in a while. Unknown corner/slot corner Kenny Moore blitzed 11 times, per Pro Football Focus, and extra men were swarming around Deshaun Watson all night. The wild-card win is exhibit A of why defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is on the radar of several teams looking for a head coach this month.

With the Chiefs likely to get speed receiver threat Sammy Watkins back from a nagging foot injury that never goes away, that means it’s going to be an interesting race: Can the Colts’ rush get to Patrick Mahomes before he can find an answer in his five-across receiver sets? I can’t wait to see how the Chiefs try to block this Indianapolis front, and whether Andy Reid will just keep his aggressive downfield spread ethos and trust Mahomes to get the ball out quick. This game would be great strategic fun on that alone. Now add in the Luck factor, and coach Frank Reich’s ability to free up a variety of receivers weekly, and the fact that someone named Marlon Mack rushed for 148 yards, most in Indy team history, and the Chiefs have allowed 164 rushing yards a game over the last five games.

This looks nothing like a 6 versus 1 playoff game. This looks like a pretty even ballgame with great storylines.

Dallas (11-6, NFC 4th seed) at Los Angeles Rams (13-3, NFC 2nd seed), L.A. Coliseum, 8:15 p.m. ET, FOX.

Let’s step back for a minute and think how interesting it is that two years ago, the two teams now in southern California, the Rams and Chargers, were a woebegone 9-23, and league owners were rolling their eyes at the possibility of the combo platter of two lousy teams owning this valuable piece of NFL property known as Los Angeles. Now they’re 26-7, and they’re legit members of the NFL’s elite eight. Nothing is forever in the NFL.

Other than Jerry Jones getting to take his entourage to Nobu in Malibu, the best thing for Dallas about this weekend is this matchup. In 2018, the Rams gave up 5.1 yards per rush, which is beyond an Achilles heel. It’s preposterous, and it’s the biggest reason why the Rams could be endangered species when Ezekiel Elliott rolls into the Coliseum on Saturday evening. Elsewhere in this column I write about how impressive a football player (not just a great back; I mean a complete player) Elliott is. And the more the Cowboys are able to ride Elliott, the less of a factor Aaron Donald will be in making Dak Prescott’s life miserable.

The tale of two backs in this game—which will be the ratings bonanza of the postseason—has one big mystery: How healthy is Todd Gurley, and how productive can he be? Gurley hasn’t been himself since he saved the Rams with a 155-yard performance (rushing and receiving) at Detroit, and regardless whether he practices this week or is listed on the injury report, I won’t trust him till I see if he can dominate a game the way he did in the first half of this season. This game’s going to be closer than it looks.

Sunday

Los Angeles Chargers (13-4, AFC 5th seed) at New England (11-5, AFC 2nd seed), Gillette Stadium, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS.

For the NFL-record 10th straight year, the Patriots open the AFC playoffs at home. New England’s edges entering this game: 13 days between games … Rob Gronkowski can always use the rest … Bill Belichick is pretty smart, and smarter when he’s got two weeks to prepare … The Chargers could be weary, with L.A.-to-Baltimore, Baltimore-to-L.A, and Baltimore-to-Providence flights, 17 hours in the air in all, in a nine-day span prior to the game.

Now to the football: The Chargers have multiple pass-rush threats that bedeviled a mobile quarterback, Lamar Jackson, in a seven-sack whipping of the Ravens. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are the major threats, but Justin Jones and Isaac Rochell are big and quick too, and they both got to Jackson in Baltimore. So it’s a big, athletic defense that will be the challenge for Tom Brady, with the Chargers’ weakness their injuries at linebacker. This is not a game the Chargers will want to play seven defensive backs. New England’s strength will be the ability to play an unpredictable offensive game, as coordinator Josh McDaniels has designed run-heavy, swing-pass-heavy, pass-heavy, and Gronk-light plans during the course of a malleable season—so the Chargers won’t have much of an idea what they’ll see until a little after 1 p.m. Sunday.

The Chargers won’t be cowed by much of anything. They’ve won in four times zones this year, including Greenwich Mean Time. That’s London. “We love the road,” Derwin James told me. “Maybe a lot of teams don’t, but we’re young, we’re all good with each other, and we love spending time together. The road’s good for that.” Well, whatever works. The Chargers are 8-0 outside of Los Angeles this year. Then again, New England is 8-0 at Gillette this year. Something’s got to give.

Philadelphia (10-7, NFC 6th seed) at New Orleans (13-3, NFC 1st seed), Superdome, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX.

I was in New Orleans the weekend the Saints hosted the Eagles in November. “Hosted” is a collegial, misleading word. “Pillaged” would be better. Saints’ best six drives that afternoon in the Dome, against a team that looked dead for the year: 57, 86, 89, 89, 70, 87. Eagles’ best six drives: 75, 31, 19, 17, 16, 14. This was as brutal a mismatch as either team had all season … and now the Eagles travel to New Orleans again.

So why should it be different? Maybe it won’t be. Except for Miracle Nick Foles replacing Carson Wentz, there’s not much different about the Eagles eight weeks later. But the Saints are looking less invincible since then. After putting up 45, 51 and 48 in three straight November weeks, they’ve averaged a quite strange 21 points per game in the last six weeks (including a meaningless Week 17 game). The real Saints need to stand up here, if they’re going to win the second Super Bowl of the Payton/Brees Era. The offensive mortality has to give Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz hope.

On the other side, Foles is 4-0 in playoff games as an Eagle the past two seasons, and there’s something strange and almost eerie about the Eagles when Foles plays. They find a way to win. Fletcher Cox told me the Eagles players “just flushed” that November game—didn’t watch or study it; it got out of control against a secondary ravaged by injury, and Philly just moved on without allowing that game to defeat the players. We’ll see if that approach works.

The one thing you do notice about the Eagles on the defensive side now is they’re not held hostage by awful pass coverage. They’ve allowed 30 points just once since the Saints game. I think this game comes down to Drew Brees finding completions, short and intermediate, and not giving Foles more than eight or nine possession to make his magic.

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