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This Week in Football: The NFL naughty and nice list, Kirk Cousins, Jameis Winston

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While not everyone celebrates Christmas this time of year, everyone is familiar with Santa’s list. It’s where he keeps track of which children were good and bad during the year, which then dictates who receives what gifts under their Christmas tree or in their stocking.

It’s an extremely important list, so much so that he checks it twice.

In celebration of the holiday, this is our NFL edition of the naughty and nice list this year. These are the players and people in the league who have either been an exciting present for their team or have been the football equivalent of a lump of coal.

NICE: LAMAR JACKSON

This is an easy and obvious one. It’s nearly impossible to find a bad thing to say about Jackson at this point without just being stubborn for the sake of stubbornness. No quarterback has ever been as dynamic with their legs as Jackson has this year. His passing is better than “good enough,” it’s genuinely “good.” Add all those physical skills to the fact that he’s clearly an excellent leader who is followed loyally by his teammates and fans alike and you have an MVP on your hands. His breakout is the biggest and best gift Baltimore could have received in 2019.

NAUGHTY: ANTONIO BROWN

Brown is out of the game for now and maybe for good, but his bizarre and dangerous antics have landed him on the naughty list (perhaps permanently). Before even getting to his latest shenanigans, Brown became a pariah for numerous teams all in the span of one year. He forced his way out of Pittsburgh, did more of the same with Oakland and then found himself cast off from New England after one game. His behavior with those teams was bad and what he’s done off the field is far worse.

NICE: MICHAEL THOMAS

Arguably the most consistent force in the NFL right now, Thomas has been a reliable piece of a Saints offense that has had moments of unreliability, or at least uncertainty, this year. Alvin Kamara has just four touchdowns, two of which came in Week 16 after none since Week 3. Drew Brees missed time due to injury. But Thomas has produced regardless of who’s around him and who’s throwing him the ball. He already owns the single-season receptions record and has a whole game to go. What he’s done for New Orleans this year deserves adulation.

NAUGHTY: FREDDIE KITCHENS

The Cleveland Browns received an unbelievable amount of hype during the offseason, and it made plenty of sense at the time. Baker Mayfield was a quarterback on the rise, they added Odell Beckham Jr. and the team showed legitimate potential in 2018. Then they all fell flat on their collective face this season. Kitchens isn’t the only reason that’s happened, but he’s undeniably a major one. His game planning is bad, his situational decision making is far worse than that, and he’s not even good at connecting with and leading players. His coaching tenure has been a disaster and it will likely stay that way if he gets another year in Cleveland.

NICE: TYRANN MATHIEU

Mathieu can easily make a claim to the title of best offseason addition by any team this season. He isn’t the only member of the Chiefs’ defense who has played at a high level this year, and he isn’t even necessarily the best player in the group (that still belongs to Chris Jones). His attitude, maturity and leadership have played a massive role in overhauling one of the worst units in the NFL, though, helping revitalize a group Bob Sutton did his best to inhibit for years. That’s before even getting to his skills, which have helped Kansas City’s secondary ascend to the ranks of the league’s best. Mathieu has been one of the best and most important players in the game this season, and the Chiefs might not be contending for a Super Bowl without him.

NAUGHTY: MYLES GARRETT

The man hit another man in the head with a helmet during a game. It’s not too complex of a reason why he’s on this list. He got his present early, in the form of an indefinite suspension for at least the remainder of this season, but we shouldn’t forget the absurd scene that was the fight between the Browns and Steelers that featured this act.

NICE: RYAN FITZPATRICK

Believe it or not, the Dolphins are 4-4 over their last eight games. Despite possibly having the worst roster in the NFL, Miami has been genuinely competitive recently. Granted, it’s still just 4-11 on the season, but it’s about how you finish, right? Fitzpatrick is one of the most fun players in the league, not because he’s among the best but because you can see him giving max effort on every play and loving every second he’s on the field, regardless of how well he’s actually playing. Everyone thought the Dolphins would be historically bad this season, but Fitzpatrick has led them to a level of respectability and helped turn them into a watchable team.

NAUGHTY: NFC EAST

Every team in this division is getting coal, from the bottom feeders to the division champions. One division every year is an abomination, and this season it’s the NFC East’s turn. Philadelphia has at least played reasonably well as of late with Carson Wentz dragging a bunch of no-names to the brink of the playoffs, but its 2019 track record is hardly inspiring. No team has been more fraudulent across the NFL this year than Dallas, which won three games against terrible teams to open the year and has flamed out spectacularly since. New York is a mess with a lame-duck coach and Washington is a mess that has already fired its coach. Nothing good has come out of this division this year and it’s a quartet that should be reviled.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

*The NFL is better when Marshawn Lynch is in it. He’s the kind of character that the league needs (frankly, there can never be too many good characters). Due to a rash of injuries that have knocked multiple running backs out for the season, the Seahawks are bringing Lynch back to finish off the year. In the wake of the signing, there were several opinions that were similar to this floated about on social media:

This is misguided. Seattle isn’t bringing Lynch back to be the focal point of the team. It’s still Russell Wilson’s team. Lynch is coming back to be a veteran presence with postseason experience and because he’s a warm body, which the Seahawks are desperate for in the backfield. Adding an aging cult of personality like Marshawn Lynch doesn’t equate to taking the ball out of Russell Wilson’s hands more often.

*The Packers have gotten good at the “winning ugly” thing. Green Bay clinched the NFC North crown on Monday night with a 23-10 win over Minnesota on the road in what could best be described as an example of what modern offenses shouldn’t look like. The Packers looked bad but the Vikings looked worse, which is how the former has won plenty of games this season. They don’t need Aaron Rodgers to play the hero all the time, which he’s content with, because they can win by just playing gritty, messy games. On Monday night it was the defense (specifically Za’Darius Smith) and Aaron Jones carrying the load. Rodgers has done it at times. Then there are games that seem like disasters but the Packers pull it out anyway. All that matters is that you win, and Green Bay has nearly followed the mantra all the way to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

*Speaking of Monday night, Kirk Cousins is still Kirk Cousins. Minnesota’s quarterback has put up good numbers throughout the year, but against Green Bay he demonstrated again why nobody trusts him in big moments. When he starts, his teams are 0-9 on Monday Night Football. That’s hard to reconcile. It’s not always his fault his team loses on big stages, but when you see him perform like he did this week (terribly) it’s easy to grasp why fans and media members speak about him the way they do. There’s always a moment when he comes crashing back down to Earth. He’s a good quarterback, one who will put up flashy stats in a good number of wins, but he’s unreliable when you need your quarterback to make plays and carry you. It’s harsh, but his team’s won’t ever be taken seriously until he disproves that longstanding notion. He failed to do that this week.

*It’s officially rest versus rust season. The Ravens announced on Monday that most of their key starters aren’t going to play, while Texans coach Bill O’Brien said he will play all of his guys in Week 17 despite probably not having much to play for. The latter is a typical move for O’Brien, but almost every year (and some instances stand out more than others) there’s a debate over whether you should play your most important players when there isn’t much on the line. The Ravens’ predicament is particularly interesting because they’ll go two weeks without seeing game action. Coaches are forced to run a cost-benefit analysis, which they notoriously struggle with. Is avoiding a little rust worth it to risk getting a contributor injured? Probably not, but you can see why teams struggle with that concept. Baltimore is logically doing the right thing, but if the Ravens come out looking sluggish in their divisional-round game you’re going to hear plenty of blowback against John Harbaugh’s decision.

ROBBY ANDERSON DID WHAT THIS WEEK?

Robby Anderson took flight this week.

Anderson doesn’t get the credit he deserves for being a high-quality receiver. He’s far from the best in the league or even that tier of players, but he’s been a reliable weapon for several years now. Of course, he’s been wasting away on the Jets, so it makes some sense. This catch barely makes sense, however, with how he levitates to get the ball, gets pushed and still somehow lands in bounds. This was one of the best plays of the weekend, but you may have missed it since all the focus from this game was on Pittsburgh’s disastrous quarterback situation.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Jameis Winston’s unfathomably bizarre season continued this week when, for the sixth time this season, he threw an interception on Tampa Bay’s first drive. That’s incredible consistency for something that should have a statistically miniscule chance of happening. What’s more stunning that just that number is that the Buccaneers have won four of the six games in which that’s happened. Correlation clearly doesn’t prove causation here, but it’s still hard to comprehend those results. He’s got multiple interception records in his sights, as he’s currently tied for the most pick-sixes in a year (six) and is two interceptions away from becoming the first quarterback to ever have 30 touchdown passes and 30 interceptions in the same season. There is, quite literally, no one like Jameis Winston.

FOOTBALL FOLLIES

It’s going to be a while before Kirk Cousins forgets about his performance on Monday night.

Cousins can’t control Stefon Diggs overthrowing him, but the image of him flailing fruitlessly for a ball out of his reach and then crumpling on the turf is his career effort in primetime games epitomized. Watching quarterbacks try to do things other players do is always entertaining, especially so (in a morbid kind of way) when they fail at whatever that role is.

WEEKLY TOP 5: POTENTIAL PLAYOFF STORYLINES

The playoff picture is nearly set in full, which means it’s fair to look ahead to the postseason and start thinking about what some of the biggest stories to follow will be. These are five potentially captivating storylines for this year’s playoffs.

  1. Will Lamar Jackson keep it up? – There’s no reason to believe that Jackson can’t play like the MVP he is in the postseason, but he’s going to be under the microscope anyway. And it makes sense why, because he’s the league’s best player this year and in his first postseason experienced he crumbled.
  2. Who will be the surprise team? – This is an obvious one, but it will be exciting to see if there are any teams, whether it be a wild card or a lesser division winner (that means the NFC East) who pulls off a surprising upset and actually threatens to make a run at the Super Bowl.
  3. Will Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs get revenge? – Everybody remembers the Chiefs’ defensive meltdown in last year’s AFC Championship Game loss to the Patriots. If those two teams square off again it would be one of the most highly anticipated playoff rematches in recent memory.
  4. Can Aaron Rodgers put it together? – We’ve been over the fact that the Packers don’t need Rodgers to be unstoppable to win games this year. That said, he’s a future hall of famer and will be expected to raise his game when it’s win or go home. Can he do it?
  5. What will Jimmy Garoppolo look like under the bright lights? – San Francisco is one of the best teams in the league, but regardless of how good its offense is there will be questions about Garoppolo’s mettle until he shows he can the 49ers on his back in a crucial game. That sort of event may make or break their Super Bowl run.

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