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This Week in Football – Rodgers and Mahomes, Patriots and refs, Saints and the dome

OUR TOP STORY

The Green Bay Packers are 10-3, currently hold the second seed in the NFC playoff picture and have won two games in a row despite poor numbers from Aaron Rdogers.

The Kansas City Chiefs just won the AFC West for the fourth year in a row and still have a chance to earn a first-round bye, even after the most mediocre stretch of Patrick Mahomes’ career.

These teams are winning games, the hardest and most important thing to do in the NFL. Why do we care so much about what their stats look like?

Quarterbacks are more valuable than any other position in sports. Individual basketball players have a greater impact on a given team given smaller roster sizes, but no specific position in that sport or any other is as impactful as the quarterback. They’re the heroes, they’re the MVPs, they’re in commercials and on cereal boxes. That’s who kids aspire to be, the biggest names in the game.

Sometimes, though, we focus on the wrong things with them.

Rodgers is going to the hall of fame five years after he retires. He is a no-doubt, bona fide first-ballot hall of famer. He has some of the best, most efficient numbers in NFL history to go along with a pair of MVP trophies and a Super Bowl ring. He’s done it all and has done it consistently for years.

This year, however, he doesn’t look like the same guy that earned a never-ending stream of accolades from fans and media alike. He’s fully healthy, something he hasn’t been the last two years, but isn’t as crisp as he’s been before. He’s missing guys more often that we’re used to seeing.

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Part of that is having a largely inexperienced or simply less talented corps of receivers. But because the quarterback is the superstar, the blame (and, on the flipside, adulation) falls on him. The counting numbers look good, but the tape indicates this is a different, probably declining Rodgers.

And yet, the Packers are winning games. Matt LaFleur is the first coach in franchise history to win 10 games in his first season. Green Bay’s defense, while not nearly as good as it looked for the first few weeks of the season, has been competent at least, with several key standouts making impact plays weekly (Preston and Za’Darius Smith, specifically). They haven’t needed Rodgers to be superhuman to win games all the time this year like they did in the latter years of the Mike McCarthy era.

Rodgers looked bad against Washington. The Packers still won. That’s all that should matter.

The yelling and screaming about Mahomes’ stats hasn’t been nearly as intense or vitriolic as some of what his older counterpart in Wisconsin has received, but it’s still out there.

We’ve gotten used to preposterous numbers from the reigning MVP. He has put up gaudy stats throughout his brief career. That is up until the last several games for Mahomes, which have been relatively pedestrian given his lofty standards.

In the last three games, all of which have been wins for Kansas City, Mahomes is completing just under 60% of his passes, is averaging just 213.3 yards passing per game, and he has merely three touchdowns and two interceptions. That’s all good for just a 79.6 passer rating. Those aren’t MVP-caliber numbers, yet Kansas City is within striking distance of the No. 2 seed thanks to wins in those games.

So, if the Chiefs keep winning, who cares?

Just last week, before Kansas City beat New England, Kurt Warner was on NFL Network discussing what Mahomes needed to fix. It seems crazy that two games of average numbers meant that the most talented quarterback in the league suddenly needed fixing.

The situations for Rodgers and Mahomes aren’t quite the same, of course. Most of the Chiefs’ offensive issues are assigned (rightfully) to coaching or play calling for now, similarly to most of Rodgers’ career so far. And Rodgers has definitely faced greater criticism this year than Mahomes.

We love to tear down and nitpick and find fault. If teams are winning, though, the stats don’t matter.

It’s worth being concerned what the future holds. If the Packers don’t get the best out of Rodgers in the postseason, they probably are going to struggle just like they did against the 49ers last month. If the Chiefs can’t get eye-popping numbers out of Mahomes there’s no guarantee they can keep pace with the AFC-leading Ravens. For now, though, those things don’t matter.

Winning is what matters.

When these quarterbacks start actively losing their teams’ games, it will be a problem. For now, though, as long as they’re winning, they’re still on top of the world.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

*Even the New England Patriots have discovered how bad NFL officiating is. During Sunday’s Patriots-Chiefs tilt the home team was victimized by numerous bad calls. Late in the game blatant pass interference wasn’t called, a potential run back on a fumble was waved off due to a bad initial whistle and then there was this disaster:

 

Harry was ruled out of bounds when he was nowhere near actually being out. This play ended up being significant late. Rest assured, no one feels bad for the Patriots. New England has benefitted from terrible call after terrible call for years, as Matt Verderame of Fansided pointed out in a clear, succinct Twitter thread. At the same time, we can all admit it was jobbed in Sunday’s loss to Kansas City. It’s further proof that not only do bad calls even out over the course of time, but also that everyone can be victimized by officiating. It certainly didn’t help that Jerome Boger, who hasn’t officiated a postseason game since Super Bowl XLVII and is widely considered among the worst referees in the league, was calling the shots.

*The Odell Beckham Jr. experiment in Cleveland is a failure. Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reported this weekend that Beckham went as far as to tell opposing coaches and players that he wants out during pregame warmups. He’s put up decent numbers this season, with 59 catches for 844 yards and two touchdowns so far, but it’s clear watching any Browns game that he’s not a perfect fit for what they’re trying to do. Granted, that might be a Browns problem more than a Beckham problem. If he’s truly unhappy and Cleveland isn’t winning more with him (or because of him), another deal might be best for all parties. He’s under contract for several more years, but only one more has any dead money attached. It’s hard to imagine the Browns cutting him, but it’s much easier to picture Beckham in another different uniform next season. Trading for him was a worthwhile gamble by Cleveland, but not all gambles pay off.

*The top-rated passer in the NFL is Ryan Tannehill. He also leads the league in yards per attempt, and is second in both ANY/A and touchdown rate. There are numerous stories every week that capture our imaginations and attention, yet this is the most unlikely development of them all this season. Tannehill never quite pieced it together in Miami, playing decently for stretches but never taking the fabled “next step.” Now, on a new team that, in recent history, has been a far cry from an offensive juggernaut, he’s thrived. What makes his resurgence even more impressive is that he’s doing this after being promoted to starter midway through the season. He jumped right in from being a second-teamer and has taken the Titans from an AFC afterthought to genuine AFC South contender. Nobody thought he’d be a candidate for a blockbuster deal when this year started, but he’s a great story and has been fun to watch over the past several games.

*Aaron Rodgers did a Reddit AMA this week and it’s a trip. It’s worth reading all the way through, because he offered some good insight into his life and the Packers, while also showcasing his inherent nerdiness and more. Here are a couple highights:

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Anyone who doesn’t know that Rodgers is a bit of an oddball (or just a nerd) clearly doesn’t know much about him. As long as his Packers keep winning, he’s probably sleeping soundly in that (definitely not real) race car bed.

GEORGE KITTLE DID WHAT THIS WEEK?

George Kittle channeled his favorite pastime this week.

Kittle’s pro wrestling fandom is well-known, and on this crucial play against the Saints in Week 14 he looked like a world title contender. One defender ripping at his facemask, someone jumping on his back and carrying a third guy with him before he goes down. He looked like The Undertaker fighting off La Familia on Smackdown ahead of One Night Stand 2008. We love to see our modern-day gladiators pull off impressive feats of strength, and Kittle did that for us at the Superdome.

STAT OF THE WEEK

The value of home-field advantage can be debated, but it’s generally at its most valuable during the playoffs. Teams like Seattle and Green Bay are often thought of as places you don’t want to play late in the year. New Orleans falls in the same category, but for the Saints it’s more that they have to play at home in the playoffs. In franchise history New Orleans is 9-11 in the postseason. That includes a 7-4 home record and a 1-7 road record (plus a Super Bowl win at a neutral site). Historically speaking, the Saints need to be at home in the playoffs. With their loss to the 49ers this weekend, they’re currently the three seed in the NFC playoff picture. They could certainly use a Green Bay stumble in the next three weeks to try to salvage an extra home playoff game.

FOOTBALL FOLLIES

As the weather gets worse, games in Buffalo get proportionately more fun. This week the wind was whipping during the Ravens-Bills game, which caused some papers from the Baltimore sideline to blow onto the field. Tre’Davious White did his best to take advantage of the situation.

It ended up just being a still photo instead of an actual play sheet or something more valuable, but White doing all he can to get an edge must be commended. Usually it’s a different AFC East team that gets in trouble for cheating (which was in the news again this week), but the Bills did their best to take advantage of a potentially beneficial weather situation.

WEEKLY TOP 5: BEST QUARTERBACK PROSPECTS IN THE 2020 NFL DRAFT

It’s completely fair to think it’s too early to talk about the NFL draft. After all, there are still three weeks left in the regular season. But, with their 2019 hopes and dreams down the tube, numerous teams are already planning for the future. Quarterback is the most important position in sports, and at least a few of these guys will be counted on to drag bottom-feeder teams back to respectability.

  1. Joe Burrow, LSU – Joe Burrow’s rise from Ohio State backup to middling LSU starter to hottest commodity in the sport has been a thrilling adventure, one that’s endeared him to millions of LSU Tigers and Cincinnati Bengals alike. His development this year has been nothing short of astounding and has turned him into the odds-on No. 1 pick in the draft.
  2. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama – If not for his hip injury suffered late in the season, Tagovailoa would still be in the conversation with Burrow for the top overall pick. He should still be considered a top prospect, though. His skill and leadership is undeniable, and as long as he doesn’t have any long-term health concerns he should be selected early (hello, Dolphins at four).
  3. Justin Herbert, Oregon – Last year, some scouts (both professional and amateur) thought Herbert could have been an early first-round pick. He chose to go back to school instead of declaring, and after this season his stock didn’t necessarily drop, but it didn’t get any higher, either. A lot like No. 4 on this list, Herbert’s good looks great, but his bad leaves a lot to be desired.
  4. Jacob Eason, Washington – Eason’s tape is a wild ride, with a healthy mix of both remarkable, pro-ready plays and boneheaded decisions. NFL scouts already like a lot about Eason, but if he declares for the draft his variance could lead to him being drafted anywhere from the back end of the top 50 to the end of the middle rounds.
  5. Jordan Love, Utah State – Love isn’t only still pondering his draft future, but potentially a grad transfer, too, should he stay in college. After an excellent 2018 he wasn’t as sterling this season, but he’s got the size and intangibles that some team will fall in love with in the first half of the draft. He gets the nod over Jake Fromm from Georgia here, who has been touted as a potential high pick as well.

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