Option 1, 2020’s Burning Question: Which 10-win team is left out in the AFC?
The NFL voted to expand the playoffs from six to seven teams per conference during the offseason. Yet entering Week 17, one double-digit team was guaranteed to miss the playoffs, a rarity even in a six-per-conference year.
Baltimore left little doubt about its fate early on. The Ravens cruised to their fifth straight victory, crushing the hapless Bengals 38-3 in a convincing all-around performance. The Dolphins, also needing a win to get in, were on the opposite side. A defense that entered the week as the league’s stingiest scoring defense gave up 56 points to division rival Buffalo in a game that was never closely contested. Cleveland battled against a Pittsburgh lineup of mostly backups and survived a late Steeler surge to win 24-22 and clinch their first playoff berth since 2004.
Miami still had life in the afternoon time slot but needed the near impossible — a win by 1-14 Jacksonville over the Indianapolis Colts. The Jags showed some signs of life, but rookie Jonathan Taylor sealed the Colts’ return to the playoffs with a 45-yard touchdown burst, knocking the Dolphins out of the playoffs despite a 10-6 record.
The Dolphins have a right to be upset given the 8-8 Bears and Mitch Trubisky making the playoffs in the NFC, but they also have a right to be proud of their 2020 performance. Miami made a leap that few expected and have the young talent and draft picks to make the playoffs and more in 2021. For the teams that made the playoffs, each can make an argument for being the second-best team to the Chiefs. It all sets up for a thrilling six-game slate for Wild Card Weekend that might just top Week 17’s drama.
Option 2, 2020’s Huge Performance: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Derrick Henry has been a regular in this section of the column and his 2020 regular season could not have had more of a fitting end than a 250-yard, two touchdown outburst. Tennessee needed every yard to hold off a feisty Texans team and win the AFC South.
First, a refresher. Derrick Henry led the league in carries and rushing yards last season and earned a massive contract in the offseason. But given the devaluation of the running back position, it was fair to question the Titans’ decision to zig while everyone else zagged.
Henry proved to be the exception to the trend. He accumulated almost 500 more rushing yards this season than last year’s record campaign, with three 200-yard outbursts, 10 total 100-yard games and 17 (!) rushing touchdowns.
So when he put up 250 yards and two scores against the Texans with the division crown on the line, the lack of surprise spoke volumes. That’s just what Henry does. The guy is faster than Lamar Jackson (21.62 MPH on a run in Week 11) while being built like a tank (247 lb). You can’t pull him down, you can’t catch him and you sure don’t want to be on the wrong side of a Henry stiff arm.
Recency bias aside, Henry deserves to be the Offensive Player of the Year. It’s a weird award that usually doesn’t consider quarterbacks, but even if you did factor in the league’s most prolific passers, how do you ignore 2,027 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on a team that won its division?
Here’s the rest of my 2020 awards ballot…
MVP- Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Offensive Player of the Year- Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Defensive Player of the Year- Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Offensive Rookie of the Year- Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
Defensive Rookie of the Year- Chase Young, Washington Football Team
Coach of the Year- Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns
Assistant Coach of the Year – Brian Daboll, Buffalo Bills
Comeback Player of the Year – Alex Smith, Washington Football Team
Option 3, 2020’s Crucial Decision: Doug Pederson pulls back Eagles in Week 17 loss
Here’s the situation: the NFC East was guaranteed to have a winner with a losing record entering Week 17, with all but the Philadelphia Eagles eligible for the playoffs. The Giants held off the Cowboys in the early time slot to keep their hopes alive, but needed a Philly victory over Washington to advance.
With nothing to play for other than pride and each other, the Eagles played up (down?) to their competition and nearly took the lead on an errant fourth down red zone pass from Eagle quarterback Jalen Hurts, who already had two rushing touchdowns on the day and was in his element. What happened next was straight out of the Order 66 montage from Revenge of the Sith. Coach Doug Pederson pulled Hurts out to insert third stringer Nate Sudfeld, presumably sabotaging the Eagles’ chances of winning the game. But the WFT still couldn’t pull away, up just 20-14. So the Eagles seemed to give them more help — a Philly offsides penalty on Washington’s fourth down attempt seemed eerily intentional. Mind you, I’m just tuning in after the Northwestern-Michigan game and have no idea why Al Michaels is hysterical. And in spite of it all, Washington still couldn’t pull away. It wasn’t until the Eagles attempted a checkdown with a couple seconds on the clock to run out time that Washington safely emerged with the division.
Here are *MY* thoughts:
-The Giants can feel mad, but they weren’t playoff-worthy. New York finished the season 6-10 and now claim that they are robbed of the playoffs. I feel bad that they lost Saquon Barkley, but hardly at their end of the WFT-Philly game. They’re the ones who got us into this mess by injuring Dak Prescott, keeping the Cowboys from going a respectable 10-6 and saving us from this misery.
-WFT, of any of the four teams, deserves to win this division. I hate the Ron Rivera hiring for Washington because it gives the Cowboys’ archrival I guy I want to root for. It’s awesome that Rivera is in the postseason after a cancer battle earlier in the year and all the organization has gone through, from a name change to multiple ugly scandals to the Dwayne Haskins saga.
–The Cowboys are in the best position to win next year, if Dak is healthy. This one is part optimism, but also grounded in reality. The Cowboys couldn’t have had a worse defensive coordinator than Mike Nolan (even Gregg Williams), couldn’t have had worse injury luck on the offensive line (five injured starters out of five starters) and still were alive in Week 17.
-Philadelphia’s performance was disgraceful. I’m all in on rooting against the Eagles, I’ve been doing it for over a decade! But when the Eagles root against themselves, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Just look at the Eagles’ sideline — Jalen Hurts was outraged at being subbed out for Nate Sudfeld (Pederson chalked it up to wanting a better chance to win the game). Jason Kelce and Zach Ertz stayed on the field until 1 AM. The showing was sadistic, a betrayal of the players (many of whom might not be on the team to reap the rewards of the six pick) and the fans.
-This is unprecedented. In previous tank attempts, teams like the Dolphins and Jaguars have traded away big names for draft capital. The losses pile up, but the teams try to win and sometimes cobble a couple wins at the end of the year. There’s also the instance of teams resting starters for the playoffs. To play a competitive football game for three quarters, and then turn the players against themselves and sabotage the game — why would you even play? Why not forfeit?
-This doesn’t help the Eagles’ future. It’s one thing to trade away prominent players for draft picks to start a rebuild. There are also some years where the consensus number one player is so good that a team might be tempted to go after them (Fail for Cardale). This situation is neither. This is the Eagles spitting on the integrity of football to go from the 9 spot to the 6 spot. This isn’t the NBA, where five guys suit up. There are 25 starters on a football team, each playing unique positions, and teams have varying needs going into the draft. Even if the player is a hit (not a guarantee, just ask the Browns), there’s so many other spots to fill. And now the locker room is fractured and the confidence in the coach and organization is undermined. As a Cowboys fan, I don’t mind a little Philly controversy.
–This makes the NFL worse. If all of the bad teams took to this strategy, the NFL would be so much worse for it. The Falcons and Lions reeled off a couple wins after firing their coaches, adding intrigue to the playoff picture and NFL Sundays. The Chargers made it to 7-9, giving momentum for the future. Games are meaningful in the NFL, and sabotaging games in a full-contact sport where guys are giving it their all is a black mark on the sport.
-This makes the movie Big Fan 100 times better. Big Fan is a criminally underrated movie about a rabid Giants fan (Patton Oswalt) who is beaten up by one of his favorite Giants players in a bar. The movie also pits him against a rabid Eagles fan (Michael Rapoport). If the game in the movie was this Washington-Philly bout, I guarantee there would have been a different ending.
Checkdown: Read Option, 17 Columns Later
17 weeks ago, I was sitting on the edge of the Evanston waterfront, basking in the waves of Lake Michigan and typing my first Read Option column. Since then, the column has evolved, covered nearly every team in the league and a wide range of topics and become an integral aspect of my NFL Sunday.
I came up with the idea for the Read Option column a couple years ago and had a bare bones version on my site from time to time, but in the summer I decided to bring it back full force and fully realized. I also saw an NFL column as developmental for me as an aspiring sports writer, helping me learn to dissect film, write commentary on developments in the league and establish a regular writing routine. The Read Options have been long, ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 words, but I am proud of the result and grateful for the chance to cover a sport I love.
All this to say — thank you for reading this Read Option column and enduring my rants and monologues!!! Even if the feedback wasn’t 100% agreement, I enjoyed engaging about the NFL and am so grateful that people took the time to read my ramblings. I hope you learned something about the league (or the uniforms, maybe) and that it made your NFL Sundays at least a nose of a football better. I’ll be signing off the Read Option after this (not the whole website, don’t worry), but it was a great, Derrick Henry-esque run from Week 1 to Week 17.
Best Sunday: Washington Football Team — Despite five years’ worth of turmoil packed into sixteen games, the WFT won their division.
Worst Sunday: Arizona Cardinals- Losing five of your last seven, including a finale to Rams backup John Wolford, is a brutal way to end the 2020 season.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: 2,757 passing yards (22nd), 64.4 completion pct (27th), 26 touchdowns (12th), 9 interceptions, 73.9 QBR (7th), 1,005 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns, 11-5 record
The Skinny: 2019 Lamar Jackson tore the league to shreds and collected 50 of 50 possible MVP votes. But 2020 Lamar Jackson was an even better story and a more than satisfying encore.
Throw passing statistics to the wind, because Jackson certainly didn’t care — he is more than content to throw 10 completions for 150 yards. Jackson just played the quarterback position and made plays, whether on the ground or through the air, when they needed to be made. He quietly ran for over 1,000 rushing yards for the second straight season, proving that defenses can’t really solve him after three seasons in the books.
As I said in my previous column, the Ravens’ season can be cut in half, pre-Pittsburgh and post-Pittsburgh. Pre-Pittsburgh Jackson was Pro Bowl-level, but the output was frustrating. The Ravens couldn’t get anything done against Kansas City and New England and looked like a shell of its 2019 self. After the Ravens were gutted by COVID, Baltimore put up a valiant effort against Pittsburgh in a loss, showing a resilience that might not have been there early in the season when the Ravens expected to run over everybody. From that point on, the Ravens won out, including a 47-42 thrilling win over Cleveland that might be Jackson’s signature game as a pro.
Write off Baltimore at your own risk. Coach John Harbaugh has made a living winning playoff games on the road and he has the Ravens firing on all cylinders. The rushing attack finished tops in the NFL for the second straight year, with the AFC’s best scoring defense to complement it. But reason number 1 is Lamar Jackson, who emerged as a true gamer and an enigma for opposing defenses. As the five seed in the AFC and an underdog one season after having the target on their back, the Ravens and Jackson are right where they want to be.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: 4,633 passing yards (3rd), 65.7 completion pct (19th), 40 touchdowns (2nd), 12 interceptions, 72.4 QBR (10th), 11-5 record
The Skinny: Tom Brady was my favorite quarterback to write about this season. Every week, you’d think the Bucs had won or lost a playoff game just based off the extreme post-game reactions. I also loved seeing him in a Buccaneer uniform after loathing him for so long in New England. Make no mistake about it — 2020 was a success for Tom Brady.
In one season, Brady became the best quarterback in Tampa Bay history. He led the Bucs to their first playoff berth since 2007 and ranked second in the whole league in touchdown passes and third in yards. And remember, this is a guy who is 43 years old and outside the New England system for the first time in his career.
Tension was also an inextricable aspect of Brady’s 2020 campaign. The Bucs cobbled together a roster of 2016 All-Stars, adding Rob Gronkowski, LeSean McCoy, Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown to Brady’s arsenal at various points of the season. That’s a lot of talent, but also plenty of ingredients that needed to be blended together to produce a winning result. There was also the tension between Brady and coach Bruce Arians, with Brady hesitant to throw deep and Arians showing no hesitation to call out Brady in the press.
I’m sticking with the fifth seeded Buccaneers to make it out of the NFC, because when the Bucs are on, the Bucs are on. Remember, Tampa Bay defeated the Packers soundly, and there’s a good chance they won’t have to play the Saints. It’s a fun team to root for and watch, though there’s as much a chance that it all blows up in Bruce Arians’ face as there is of a deep playoff run. At least it’s better than 7-9 New England.
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 3,971 passing yards (13th), 67.2 completion pct (11th), 26 touchdowns (12th), 12 interceptions, 69.1 QBR (14th), 819 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns, 8-8 record
The Skinny: Many, including myself, projected a sophomore year leap for Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals. Murray certainly found his peak and had a phenomenal year, but that peak came a little too soon. Injuries and disappointing play caused Arizona to slide just out of the playoff picture, a somber end to an exciting year.
For a stretch, Kyler Murray was a legitimate MVP candidate and was compared to 2019 Lamar Jackson. Murray finished the year with an astounding 11 rushing touchdowns and consistently broke opponents’ ankles running to the sideline and juking around the pass rush. With DeAndre Hopkins (1,407 yards, 6 touchdowns) in the fold, Murray was a legitimate threat as a passer as well. Murray seemed to take the whole offense on his shoulders, which was thrilling around midseason when the Cardinals were pulling off wild last-second victories, but not a winning formula when Murray was dealing with injury issues.
Coach Kliff Kingsbury’s future with Arizona might be up in the air right now, but Murray’s is most certainly not. Murray established himself as a top ten NFL quarterback, flashing All-Pro potential while taking the normal lumps for a sophomore passer. He showed up late against Miami, Buffalo and Seattle and even played through injury in the final week of the season just to give the Cardinals a desperate shot at the playoffs. And in the unforgiving NFC West, a near playoff berth has to be taken as a positive.
After a 5-11 rookie year, Kyler Murray’s 2020 campaign has to be considered a breakout success. This guy should be a perennial Pro Bowler if healthy and has the Cardinals’ future hopes looking up.
Josh Allen Watch
Stat Line: 4,544 passing yards (5th), 69.2 completion pct (4th), 37 touchdowns (5th), 10 interceptions, 81.7 QBR (3rd), 421 rushing yards, 8 rushing touchdowns, 13-3 record
The Skinny: If the NFL had a most improved award, Josh Allen would run away with it. Allen made the playoffs as a Wild Card last year, but his leap from Year 2 to Year 3 was nothing short of phenomenal. Allen’s completion percentage jumped over 10 percentage points to 69.2, turning his greatest weakness into a strength. His Buffalo offense was electric, with a 56-point outburst as the culmination of the Bills’ offensive breakout. Josh Allen won 2020.
I added the Josh Allen Watch to the column a couple weeks into the season and I haven’t regretted it once. Allen makes mundane plays infinitely more complicated than they need to be. In 2020 though, he made the most of those crazy plays. Having Stefon Diggs at receiver (1,535 yards, 127 receptions) and Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator helps, but Allen’s Houdini heroics are plenty impressive on their own. Don’t forget his rushing abilities either — Allen’s eight rushing touchdowns added yet another dimension to a potent Buffalo running game.
Allen will face the Indianapolis Colts with the opportunity to win his first ever playoff game. He’s lightyears ahead of the quarterback who tossed the backwards lateral in the playoffs last year, though that same brazen confidence is thankfully still intact.
Think about this: Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen are all in their first four seasons. This is not your father’s AFC.
Dak Prescott Watch
Stat Line: 5 starts, 2,293 passing yards, 68 completion percentage, 9 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 99.6 passer rating, 3 rushing touchdowns, 2-3 record
The Skinny: For five weeks, Dak Prescott was an MVP candidate. Maybe the Cowboys started 2-3, but all three of their losses came to eventual playoff teams (Seahawks, Rams, Browns) and the two wins put the Cowboys on pace to compete in the NFC East. Prescott averaged around 350 yards PER GAME! He certainly put any questions about his clutch factor to rest with multiple furious late-game rallies. Tragically, Prescott blew out his ankle in Week 5 against the Giants and the Cowboys limped the rest of the way to a 6-10 record, though the playoffs were not out of the question until a Week 17 elimination.
Given the wide open state of the NFC East, there is good reason to believe the Cowboys could have run away with the division had Prescott stayed on the field. This offseason begs another question: next time he is on the field, will it be in a Cowboy uniform?
The injury complicates a contract situation that had already lasted years, but given the Twilight Zone-esque season that Dallas endured in 2020, the Cowboys should prioritize getting a Prescott deal done rather than rely on the franchise tag or wait for Prescott to leave as a free agent. Michael Gallup could leave in the offseason, but with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore slated to return to play-calling duties, this should be a top-five unit if Prescott returns to full health. If Mike McCarthy can get his stuff together and hire a capable defensive coordinator instead of Mike Nolan, the Cowboys’ ceiling could be legitimately high. I can’t wait to see 4 back on the field and lighting up the defenses. It’s been too long.
Gardner Minshew Watch
Stat Line: 9 starts, 2,259 passing yards (27th), 66.1 completion pct (17th), 16 touchdowns (20th), 5 interceptions, 52.2 QBR (27th), 1-8 record
The Skinny: Minshew Mania couldn’t have started off on a better note. The Jaguars upset the Colts in Week 1 and nearly knocked off the Titans the next week. By Week 3, the Jags were huge favorites to beat the Dolphins in Miami (how does that look in the rearview mirror?). Minshew, with 19 of 20 passing in the Colts win, looked more than serviceable as a bridge quarterback to the Jaguars’ future.
The momentum didn’t continue. After the last-second Week 1 win, the Jaguars didn’t win another game and clinched the first overall pick in the draft by virtue of being worse than the Jets. Minshew regressed, bowing out due to injury and then to be replaced by, of all people, Mike Glennon. Sure, the Jaguars’ offense isn’t exactly Tampa Bay, but Minshew had breakout rookie James Robinson in the backfield and a couple of talented targets on the perimeter.
By the numbers, Minshew’s season doesn’t look disastrous, if only because the Jags were probably aiming for the first pick to begin with. Minshew threw just five picks to 16 touchdowns on the year, but the production just wasn’t there. Opposing offenses outpaced Jacksonville from the opening kickoff, and most of the outcomes were clear by halftime. Minshew’s trademark swagger may still be intact, but the guy who played .500 ball with an awful Jags team last year isn’t going to take the league by storm going 1-8.
For Minshew, the road ahead is likely outside of Jacksonville. Minshew won’t get a starting look but could be a valuable backup with experience. A change of scenery might help, too. Jacksonville has already fired head coach Doug Marrone and will have the opportunity to select a quarterback with the first overall pick, presumably Trevor Lawrence out of Clemson. 2020 was a year to forget for Jacksonville and Minshew, but one that may have moved both toward a better place.
Tua Tagovailoa Watch
Stat Line: 10 games played, 1,814 passing yards (34th), 64.1 completion pct (29th), 11 touchdowns (29th), 5 interceptions, 52.9 QBR (26th), 7-3 record
The Skinny: Tua Tagovailoa had one of the most bizarre rookie campaigns in recent memory. The Alabama product took over for veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick in October for an upstart Miami team with serious playoff aspirations.
From there, Tagovailoa was a mixed bag. In 10 starts, he led the Dolphins to a 7-3 record and the precipice of the playoffs. He was also benched twice mid-game for Fitzpatrick, and likely would have been for a third time if Fitzpatrick in a Week 17 blowout loss to Buffalo. He played pretty much mistake-free football, but whether due to a lack of receiving talent or his lack of NFL experience, Miami didn’t open the playbook much for him and hampered his game. When the dust clears, Dolphins fans should look at 2020 as a success and not overreact to the late loss to Buffalo — Tagovailoa is the guy of the future, even if the end of the season was messy.
While Los Angeles let Justin Herbert let loose in 2020 (the guy finished sixth in passing yards and tenth in TD), Miami put the training wheels on Tagovailoa. For every game Tua took over (outdueling Kyler Murray, dissecting the Jets), there were a couple more where Tagovailoa was a mere side piece to a dominant defense. Tagovailoa was well below average on throws beyond 20 yards (at least 20 points behind the average passer rating in those zones).
Miami’s hopes are looking up, especially with a top five pick via Houston and the opportunity to build a top-notch supporting cast around Tagovailoa. If Tua can shake off the disappointment of multiple benchings and the offense can allow him to capitalize on his talent across all the areas of the field, the Dolphins have every reason to believe they can compete for the AFC East crown next year.