The Starting 11: Where Do the NFL’s Eliminated Teams Go From Here? – The Ringer

Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in:

1. For the 20 teams that didn’t make the playoffs, the question now is where they go from here. And that question is especially pressing for the Vikings. After a 13-3 finish and a trip to the NFC championship game last season, 2018 was supposed to be the year that Minnesota finally got over the hump. Nearly every key member of a stacked defense was set to return, and the Vikings handed Kirk Cousins a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract this spring in hopes that he’d be the final piece of their championship puzzle. But instead of repeating their romp through the NFC, Minnesota ended the year as the conference’s final team out of the postseason, courtesy of Sunday’s 24-10 loss to Chicago. General manager Rick Spielman built the Vikings to contend for a Super Bowl in 2018, and now that they’ve been eliminated, Minnesota will be faced with plenty of looming concerns this offseason.

The Vikings are projected to have just over $10 million in cap space for 2019 — a paltry number in this era of exponential cap growth — and they also have several notable players hitting free agency. At the top of that list is linebacker Anthony Barr. Barr has had an uneven career to this point, but he’s a talented former first-round pick with the ability to rush the passer as an off-ball linebacker. He’s probably looking at a deal worth at least $11 million or $12 million per season, which will be tough for the Vikings to afford. Minnesota may also lose some players along the offensive line, as guards Nick Easton and Tom Compton and reserve interior lineman Brett Jones all become free agents. Easton missed the entire season with a herniated disk in his neck, and his absence ended up being a major loss for Minnesota. Now Easton and his replacement are set to hit the open market. And it’s not as if the Vikings have any in-house replacements waiting in the wings, either. Their lone 2018 draft pick along the offensive line was Brian O’Neill, a second-rounder who’s already starting at right tackle.

Chicago Bears v Minnesota Vikings

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Taken on its own, one major positional hole may not seem like a crippling problem. But the concerns about the interior of Minnesota’s offensive line are representative of the issues facing this team in 2019 and beyond. Because of the financial commitments the front office made last offseason, holes across the roster become inevitable. And when those holes start to add up, that’s when teams fall from the ranks of the league’s elite. Safety Anthony Harris, who filled in admirably for the injured Andrew Sendejo this season, will become a free agent this coming offseason. Sheldon Richardson will hit the market after a nice season. There are some cost-cutting moves available to the Vikings that might give them a bit of financial flexibility, but those moves would have consequences of their own. If Minnesota were to cut a player like Trae Waynes (who has no guaranteed money included in his fifth-year option), it would save them about $9 million against the cap. But it would also leave the Vikings without the cornerback depth they crave. Something has to give, and that’s a new problem for the Vikings, who’ve enjoyed so many rookie or under-market contracts over the past few seasons.

The Cousins deal was supposed to offset some of the inevitable talent drain the Vikings expect to experience over the next couple years. Minnesota’s front office viewed Cousins as the type of quarterback that’s not typically available in free agency — an elite passer that gave the team a much higher ceiling than a player of Case Keenum’s caliber. That belief — and the financial burden it’s brought — is what makes Cousins’s late-season stumbles so concerning. After watching him toil against the Bears, it’s clear that offensive coordinator John DeFilippo wasn’t the cause of all Minnesota’s problems. Cousins struggled during the second half of the year, even with a new coordinator, and there don’t seem to be many easy solutions for the Vikings’ offensive woes. They went all in on this version of their franchise, and they may be saddled with it for some time.

2. Similar to the Vikings, the Steelers ended the season on the outside looking in. And they don’t have a clear blueprint to quickly turn things around, either. Pittsburgh didn’t make the sort of huge offseason swing that the Vikings did last spring, but the front office has still bet big on its current roster. Nine players are set to make at least $7.9 million in 2019, and Pittsburgh is projected to have just $9 million in space, with an additional $19 million slated to carry over from 2018, thanks in large part to Le’Veon Bell’s refusal to sign his franchise tender. Even with the rollover money, the Steelers won’t be flush with cash next season. Many of the team’s recent signings are scheduled to take huge jumps between this year and next. Antonio Brown’s cap hit rises from $7.95 million to $22.16 million. Cameron Heyward’s number leaps from $7.06 million to $14.9 million. And Stephon Tuitt’s hit more than doubles, from $5.43 million to $13.64 million.

This iteration of the Steelers is here to stay, and their best days may already be behind them. Ben Roethlisberger is 36 years old and he’s dealt with a laundry list of injuries in his career; his drop-off may be even faster and more precipitous than we’ve seen in other aging quarterbacks. Brown will be 31 before the start of next season, with a cap hit fit for a quarterback and production heading in the wrong direction. Guard Ramon Foster is a free agent this year, and if he walks he’ll be leaving the Steelers offensive line — which has played together as a unit for years — without one of its key contributors. Combine a potential offensive stagnation with the Steelers’ inability to develop talent in the secondary, and you get a grim picture of what Pittsburgh might look like next season. This year’s results will mark the start of people seriously questioning Mike Tomlin’s future with the franchise, and it probably won’t end here.

3. The Cardinals fired Steve Wilks after just one season, but their issues go far deeper than the head coach. Arizona’s roster needs major overhauls, on top of finding the right person to guide Josh Rosen’s career. It takes a nightmare season for an NFL coach to lose his job after a single year, and that’s precisely what Arizona experienced in 2018. The Cardinals are set to have the no. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, and they’ll need it — it’d be quicker to list the positions where the Cardinals have a solution moving forward than it is to list the holes on their roster.

Arizona was decimated by injuries along the offensive line this season, but even at full strength, the Cardinals could use some upgrades there. Tackle D.J. Humphries looks like yet another first-round misstep by Arizona’s front office, and there’s also no long-term answer at the other tackle spot. With Larry Fitzgerald expected to retire, the receiving corps consists of rookie second-round pick Christian Kirk and … well, that’s it.

The Cardinals are projected to have nearly $60 million in cap space, but this rebuild needs to go beyond quick fixes in free agency. Arizona has to completely restock its roster with young talent, and luckily for the Cardinals, there’s a route to make that happen. If you’re going to get the first overall pick in the draft, it’s best to land it when your franchise already has a plan at quarterback. Much like the Colts did last spring, the Cardinals could trade their selection for a ransom of draft capital they can use to retool the roster — which would be one of the first steps in righting the ship.

Another will be finding the right head coach, and that might be a more difficult process. Arizona reportedly offered former Packers coach Mike McCarthy the head coaching job and full personnel control, only for McCarthy to turn it down. McCarthy may be committed to sitting out this season no matter the offer (he’s still getting paid by the Packers either way), but because Arizona fired its coach after a single season, it’s possible that other candidates will be hesitant about taking this job. Regardless, hopefully the Cardinals have learned from their mistake with Wilks and will try to find an offensive-minded head coach who’s interested in working with Rosen. Along with restocking the talent pool, pairing Rosen with the right coach/play-caller has to be Arizona’s no. 1 priority this offseason.

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

4. The Browns will also be trying to find the right coach to develop Baker Mayfield, and based on Mayfield’s play down the stretch, it may not be a tough sell. The days of Cleveland being a wasteland that eats up coaches and spits them out seems to be over. Mayfield looks like the real deal. He made several throws in Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Ravens that should entice any offensive-minded head coach in contention for the job. It’s no accident that Mayfield set the rookie record for touchdown passes in a season, even though he didn’t start for the first three games of the year. He’s a special passer who possesses every attribute a coach could want in his franchise quarterback.

It’s tempting to look at the success that Mayfield had with interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens over the second half of the season and think the Browns should hang on to him in some capacity, but with Baker’s ceiling and the talent lining the Cleveland roster, the Browns should be scouring the entire world in search of the right head coach. Familiar names like Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley should be on that list, but the net should be cast far and wide. A team that starts Aaron Rodgers under center currently has a head coaching vacancy, and Cleveland still might be the more desirable job. General manager John Dorsey has the Browns set up for long-term success, and that’s led to optimism in Cleveland entering this offseason.

5. Jacksonville is reportedly retaining head coach Doug Marrone, but the Jags still face a slew of important offseason questions about some of the most high-profile players on the roster. It’s all but guaranteed that Blake Bortles will not be on the Jags’ roster next year, likely leaving the team with a sizable dead-cap hit from the extension he signed last offseason. But that move has been expected for some time now. The latest drama around the Jags concerns running back Leonard Fournette, who’s had the remaining guarantees in his contract voided because of his one-game suspension earlier this season. By voiding Fournette’s guarantees, the Jags can theoretically move him this offseason via trade or release with no financial penalty. While that lessens the blow, moving on from Fournette would still mean that the Jags are leaving behind a player they drafted fourth overall — two years ago.

Jacksonville’s drafting and contract decisions on the offensive side of the ball over the past half-decade have been nothing short of atrocious. The Bortles extension was designed to create cap space that could allow the Jags to keep their championship window open in 2019. Instead, they used the $10 million in space from the Bortles deal to sign guard Andrew Norwell and wide receiver Donte Moncrief while doing nothing to create competition at the quarterback position. Now, they’re projected to be $11 million over the cap in 2019, with no definitive solution under center. After finishing 5-11 this season, the Jags are slated to have the seventh overall pick in next year’s draft. And at this point, it’s hard to envision them doing anything but selecting a quarterback. Finding the right passer — and quickly — is the only way the Jaguars can possibly salvage the remaining elite production from Jacksonville’s increasingly expensive defense.

New York Giants v Indianapolis Colts

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

6. Difficult as it may be to admit, it’s time for the Giants to find a replacement for Eli Manning. This was probably true last year, but after the season that Manning and the Giants had, it’s become even more pressing. Manning’s $23.2 million cap number next season is palatable for a starting QB in 2019, but given the combination of his poor production this year, the potential money the Giants could save should they move on, and New York’s current financial situation, the arguments in favor of bringing Manning back next season are dwindling. The Giants would save $17 million in space by releasing Manning before next season, adding nearly 50 percent more cap room to go after free agents. They also have the sixth pick in the draft, which sets up well for general manager Dave Gettleman. The teams ahead of the Giants in the draft — the Cardinals, 49ers, Jets, Raiders, and Bucs — could all potentially retain their QBs next season, meaning New York could be in prime position to land one of the top passers in the draft. No matter how it has to happen, though, the time has come for the Giants to plan their future.

7. Dirk Koetter is out in Tampa Bay, but it looks like both general manager Jason Licht and quarterback Jameis Winston will be back in 2019. And that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Let’s start with Licht, who’s been at the helm in Tampa Bay since 2014. Over that stretch, some of the Bucs’ draft decisions have included selecting kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round, passing on Derwin James last spring, drafting afterthought running back Ronald Jones one round later, and taking first-round bust Vernon Hargreaves in 2016.

Licht has failed to produce any talent through the draft, and he hasn’t been much better in free agency. But the most significant misstep of his tenure may haunt the Bucs longer than it has to. Tampa Bay’s ownership reportedly wants to stick with Winston — and his $20.9 million fifth-year option — next season, sending a confusing message to whoever the team hires as its next head coach. The Bucs have been dysfunctional enough for the head coach to lose his job, but every other crucial aspect of the franchise infrastructure remains intact. Tampa Bay’s next coach will be stuck with a quarterback he didn’t choose, in the lame duck year of that QB’s contract, paying him a cap hit typically reserved for the best passers in the league. There’s a reason that bad teams stay bad, and the Bucs are showing us why.

8. The Titans have far more stability than the Bucs at every other level of their franchise, but after Marcus Mariota’s injury-ridden season, they may also be weighing the future of their franchise QB. Tennessee won’t feel the need to make any sweeping changes to its staff this offseason, but Marcus Mariota’s ongoing injury issues could force the Titans to reconsider their options at QB. Like Winston, the Titans can move on from Mariota with no financial penalty. On a football level, Tennessee has more reason to be patient with Mariota than the Bucs do with Winston. After suffering through two seasons of Mike Mularkey’s antiquated “exotic smashmouth” offense, Mariota just finished his first year working under a play-action-centric offensive coordinator in Matt LaFleur. The results left a lot to be desired, as the Titans finished 25th in passing DVOA while Mariota averaged 7.6 yards per attempt. But Mariota also spent much of the season nursing elbow and other injuries that hampered his production. Unfortunately, therein lies the problem. Mariota consistently has trouble staying on the field, which may motivate the Titans to look for another option. Sticking with Mariota for another season is the most likely path for Tennessee, but don’t be shocked if they’re one of the surprise teams in the QB market come March.

9. After firing Todd Bowles, the Jets are looking for a new head coach to guide Sam Darnold — and it seems like they’re looking in the right place. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported on Monday that the Jets have requested to interview Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken for their head coaching vacancy. Monken oversaw a passing offense that ranked ninth in DVOA heading into Week 17 and exhibited the types of Air Raid qualities that more offenses in the NFL should embrace. The idea of Monken coaching an offense with Robby Anderson on the outside, Quincy Enunwa working the middle of the field, and Sam Darnold at QB is a fascinating concept. Who knows whether Monken will get the job, but this is a good start to the Jets’ search.

10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Fletcher Cox finished off his transcendent season with his best game of the year. Lost in Aaron Donald’s historic 20-sack campaign is the absurd pass-rushing production that Cox has generated this season in Philadelphia. He recorded three more sacks on Sunday against Washington to finish the year with 10.5 total, but that doesn’t speak to just how dominant he was at getting after the QB. He’s a game-wrecking force, and on the eve of the playoffs, he’s the most important player on the Eagles defense.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Saquon Barkley can fly, apparently.

Ravens edge Browns to win AFC North and push Steelers to the brink; Titans’ Marcus Mariota out – The Washington Post

Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley, center, celebrates his interception with teammates Kenny Young, left, and Patrick Onwuasor. (Gail Burton/AP)

NFL Week 17

The Browns made things very uncomfortable for the Ravens and their fans, but ultimately Baltimore was able to eke out a home win that came with the AFC North crown and a playoff berth. That result came as disastrous news for the Steelers, who got their own close win over the Bengals but could only watch as the Ravens’ victory, which became official a few tense minutes later, all but knocked them out of the playoffs.

The division hinged on a mere five points across two games, with Baltimore winning by a 26-24 score while heavily favored Pittsburgh could only squeak past Cincinnati, 16-13. The result summed up the Steelers’ season, in a way given that much more was expected from the talented squad, which lost four of its final six games to finish at 9-6-1. Pittsburgh can still sneak into the postseason if the night game between the Colts and Titans ends in a tie.

The Ravens finished just ahead at 10-6 and won the AFC North for the first time since 2012. In a battle of rookie quarterbacks who both performed well this season, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson threw for 179 yards and added 90 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, while Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield had 376 passing yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions, the last of which ended the Browns’ frantic, last-minute attempt to upset the Ravens.

Elsewhere, the Chiefs wrapped up the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed with a win over the Raiders and the Patriots’ rout of the Jets earlier got them the No. 2 seed and the other bye. The Ravens will be seeded fourth and take on the Chargers, while the third-seeded Texans will play either the Colts, Titans or Steelers.

Over in the NFC, the Vikings came up oh-so-very short at home, losing 24-10 to a Bears team that had already locked up a postseason spot. Minnesota’s defeat opened the door for the Eagles to reach the playoffs after Philadelphia beat the Redskins, while the Rams routed the 49ers and snagged the conference’s No. 2 seed, with the Saints having sealed the top spot last week.

The Bears will host the Eagles next week, while the Cowboys will host the Seahawks, The Vikings will be left to ponder yet another frustrating season that began with Super Bowl hopes, especially after the team brought in quarterback Kirk Cousins on a mammoth contract.

That other race: The chase for the No. 1 draft pick went to the Cardinals, albeit not before the team did its best to give it away. Arizona gave the Seahawks all they could handle in Seattle before succumbing, 27-24.

Picking second will be the 49ers, followed by the Jets, Raiders, Buccaneers, Giants and Jaguars.

Oh, what could have been: After giving up an early touchdown to the Browns, the Ravens began to run wild, amassing 288 total yards for a 20-7 lead at halftime. The Ravens were driving for another touchdown when Lamar Jackson fumbled (getting ever so close to breaking the plane) and the Browns came up with the ball. Had the whistle not been blown, there’d have been a 99-yard return for a touchdown. Alas.

Wide receiver Jarvis Landry scored Cleveland’s second touchdown, which made up for his earlier gaffe. Well, it probably didn’t completely make up for it, given that he let what looked like a sure, 93-yard score bounce off his face mask while he was wide open.

They’re No. 1: Kansas City locked up the AFC’s top playoff seed and home-field advantage by drubbing the Raiders, 35-3. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes threw for 281 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, and he became second quarterback in NFL history with 5,000 passing yards and 50 touchdowns in a season, following the Broncos’ Peyton Manning in 2013.

A Hill of a player: Tyreek Hill broke off yet another huge play, catching a Patrick Mahomes pass for a 67-yard touchdown to open the scoring for the Chiefs against the Raiders. That was the 16th score of at least 50 yards for Hill, tying Hall of Famer Gayle Sayers for the most ever through an NFL player’s first three seasons (per ESPN).

Saquon Barkley a bright spot: The 1 p.m. games were fairly lackluster, but don’t tell the Giants or Cowboys and especially not Giants running back Saquon Barkley.

He became only the third rookie running back in NFL history to reach 2,000 total yards in a season, joining Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson (1983) and Edgerrin James (1999). He also set a Giants rookie record with 11 rushing touchdowns.

Along the way, Cole Beasley scored an unbelievable touchdown to give the Cowboys a last-minute win.

Antonio Brown out: The Steelers head into their critical game against Cincinnati without Antonio Brown, who is out with a knee injury.

Mariota reportedly out: Fittingly, the whirlwind that is the final day of the NFL’s regular season will end with a huge game between the Titans and Colts. (Who knew in September that we’d be typing that?) And the Titans, according to ESPN, will be without the services of quarterback Marcus Mariota.

But that isn’t the only injury having a significant impact on games. The Steelers will be without wide receiver Antonio Brown, who is out with a knee injury.

Mariota suffered a stinger with an elbow injury early in last week’s game against the Redskins and was replaced by Blaine Gabbert in Tennessee’s win. On the other side, the Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has never lost to the Titans and, since 1970, only John Elway has gone 10-0 against a single team (that would be the Patriots).

The 9-6 Titans have won four straight games and can clinch a playoff berth with a victory over the Colts, winners of three games in a row, in Nashville. They can win the AFC South with a victory and a loss by the Houston Texans. A victory, coupled with losses by the Texans, Patriots and Ravens, would give them the division title and a first-round bye.

Since their 1-5 start, the Colts have won eight of nine games and can clinch a top 3 seed with a victory over the Titans combined with a Texans loss and Ravens loss/tie. Indianapolis will clinch the AFC South title with a win combined with a Texans loss. The Colts will clinch a playoff berth with a win. Indianapolis would be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss, or a tie combined with a Steelers win and a Ravens win/tie.

Overall, the AFC remains ridiculously wide open, with four teams still chasing the No. 1 seed — the most since 1992. How crazy is this? It’s this crazy, with over 120 possibilities:

Here, via The Post’s Matt Bonesteel, is how things stand after the 1 p.m. Eastern time games:

AFC playoff field

1. x-Kansas City (11-4)

2. xy-New England (11-5)

3. x-Houston (11-5)

4. Baltimore (9-6)

5. x-Los Angeles (11-4)

6. Indianapolis (9-6)

x-clinched playoff berth

y-clinched division title

AFC clinching scenarios

Chiefs (11-4, vs. Raiders, 4:25 p.m.): Kansas City will clinch the AFC West title, the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win. The Chiefs also will clinch the No. 1 seed with a tie combined with a Chargers loss/tie.

Chargers (11-4, at Broncos, 4:25 p.m.): Los Angeles will clinch the AFC West title, the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win combined with a Chiefs loss/tie, or a tie combined with a Chiefs loss. The Chargers can only be the No. 1 seed or the No. 5 seed.

Patriots (11-5): New England can clinch the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with their win over the Jets, combined with a Chiefs loss and Chargers loss. They clinched a first-round bye with their win and can finish no worse than the No. 2 seed.

Texans (11-5): Houston wraps up with AFC South title with its victory over the Jaguar. They most likely will have the No. 3 seed.

Baltimore (9-6, vs. Browns, 4:25 p.m.): The Ravens will clinch the AFC North title with a win, or a tie combined with a Steelers tie, or a Steelers loss. Baltimore will clinch a playoff berth with a win, or a tie combined with a Colts-Titans tie. The Ravens will be eliminated from playoff contention with a tie combined with a Steelers win and Colts win, or a tie combined with a Steelers win and Titans win, or a loss combined with a Steelers win/tie.

Indianapolis (9-6, at Titans, 8:20 p.m.): The Colts will clinch a playoff berth with a win. Indianapolis will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss, or a tie combined with a Steelers win and a Ravens win/tie.

Tennessee (9-6, vs. Colts, 8:20 p.m.): Tennessee will clinch a playoff berth with a win. The Titans will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss/tie.

Pittsburgh (8-6-1, vs. Bengals, 4:25 p.m.): The Steelers will clinch the AFC North title and the No. 4 seed with a win combined with a Ravens loss/tie, or a tie combined with a Ravens loss. Pittsburgh will clinch a playoff berth with a win combined with a Colts-Titans tie. The Steelers will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss, or a tie combined with a Ravens win/tie, or a Ravens win combined with a Titans win, or a Ravens win combined with a Colts win.

NFC playoff field

1. xy-New Orleans (13-2)

2. xy-Los Angeles (12-3)

3. xy-Chicago (11-4)

4. xy-Dallas (10-6)

5. x-Seattle (9-6)

6. Minnesota (8-6-1)

x-clinched playoff spot

y-clinched division title

NFC locked in

New Orleans (13-3): The Saints have clinched the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Dallas (10-6): The Cowboys are locked in to the No. 4 seed, so it’s no surprise that chose to rest Ezekiel Elliott and right guard Zach Martin against the Giants.

NFC clinching scenarios

Los Angeles (12-3, vs. 49ers, 4:25 p.m.): The Rams will clinch the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye with a win/tie or a Bears loss/tie. Otherwise, they will be the No. 3 seed.

Chicago (11-4, at Vikings, 4:25 p.m.): The Bears will clinch the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye with a win combined with a Rams loss. Otherwise, they will be the No. 3 seed.

Seattle (9-6, vs. Cardinals, 4:25 p.m.): The Seahawks will clinch the No. 5 seed with a win/tie or a Vikings loss/tie. Otherwise, they will be the No. 6 seed.

Minnesota (8-6-1, vs. Bears, 4:25 p.m.): The Vikings will clinch the No. 5 seed with a win combined with a Seahawks loss. Minnesota will clinch a playoff berth with a win/tie or an Eagles loss/tie. The Vikings will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss combined with an Eagles win.

Philadelphia (8-7, at Redskins, 4:25 p.m.): The Eagles will clinch the No. 6 seed with a win combined with a Vikings loss. Philadelphia will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss/tie or a Vikings win/tie.

A nice gesture: Teddy Bridgewater will make his first start since the 2015 season, when he was with the Vikings. With nothing on the line Sunday against the Panthers, Saints Coach announced he would rest Drew Brees, giving Bridgewater (a free agent in 2019) a nice chance to show what he can do. If anyone deserves a chance at a comeback, it’s Bridgewater, who suffered a gruesome knee injury during a training camp drill in 2016.

Rodgers concussed: It was a concussion, not the groin injury or the knee injury he has dealt with this season that sent Aaron Rodgers to the locker room in a meaningless game between the Packers and Lions. Rodgers appeared to suffer the injury in the first quarter when he lost his helmet as he was being sacked. DeShone Kizer replaced Rodgers, who did not return to the game.

Top story lines

What to do? What to do? The Eagles have been better with Nick Foles, but they’re committed to Carson Wentz. (Read more.)

Don’t tell Gisele: Tom Brady ‘absolutely’ believes he’ll be back next season. (Read more.)

Monday may not be so bleak: An uninspiring group of coaching candidates may help NFL coaches keep their jobs. (Read more.)

Ravens look tough: No one wants to play the Ravens in the playoffs. But first they have to get there and, yes, they all remember how last season ended. (Read more.)

The Redskins’ foundation cracks: Eroding fan support presents owner Daniel Snyder with transcendent challenges. The team ranks 28th in attendance and last in percentage of capacity filled this season. Their average local TV rating for Fox broadcasts this season is 17.7, down more than 31 percent from the rookie season of Robert Griffin III. (Read more.)

Injury and status updates

Inactives of note: On Week 17, a number of high profile players are resting, including Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott; Saints running back Alvin Kamara and quarterback Drew Brees; Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette; Buccaneers wide receiver Desean Jackson; Texans wide receiver Keke Coutee; Patriots utility man Cordarrelle Patterson; Packers wide receiver Davante Adams and cornerback Jaire Alexander.

No Gurley: Rams running back Todd Gurley will be sidelined as a precaution by a knee injury. “Based on just the information that I’m getting and just talking to Todd, I wouldn’t say that I’m concerned,” Coach Sean McVay said. “I think we want to be really smart about that. The thing that’s great about Todd is he’s very decisive and he’s a great communicator with regards to how he’s feeling. I think he understands his body better than anybody else. I don’t get the sense that he’s concerned, but we want to be smart about this.” That means sitting out the game against the 49ers.

Steelers change kickers: The Steelers placed kicker Chris Boswell, who had made only 65 percent of his kicks, on injured reserve with an undisclosed injury and signed rookie Matt McCrane. Wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) and running back James Conner (ankle) are questionable.

Browns rule out Ward: Cornerback Denzel Ward has been ruled out of the game against the Ravens because of a concussion.

Mariota update: Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, who suffered a stinger injury last week, will not play against the Colts.

ATS / Betting tips

Bears and Rams will add wins entering the playoffs. (Read more.)

Roundup: Edelman fined $63K for three penalties –

Julian Edelman‘s physical play, deemed unnecessary by officials, has cost him more than a few bucks.

The NFL fined Edelman a total of $63,504 for three separate plays in Sunday’s win over the Buffalo Bills, all for unnecessary roughness, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported. The three individual fines of $10,026, $26,739 and $26,739 make up the total.

Oddly enough, Edelman was also fined $26,739 in November for an unnecessary roughness penalty incurred in New England’s first meeting with Buffalo.

Other fines from Week 16:

1. Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney was fined $40,110 for a roughing the passer penalty against the Philadelphia Eagles, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported.

2. Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory was fined $20,054 for roughing the passer against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pelissero reported.

3. Jets defensive end Leonard Williams $43,449 total between two fines for unnecessary roughness ($10,026), unsportsmanlike conduct (which led to his ejection and a $13,369 fine), and roughing the passer ($20,054), per Pelissero.

4. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was fined $10,026 for unsportsmanlike conduct for a gesture he made near the sideline in Cleveland’s win over Cincinnati, Pelissero reported.

5. Bears receivers Anthony Miller and Josh Bellamy, and 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman were each fined $10,026 for unnecessary roughness, which led to each of their ejections following a sideline altercation. San Francisco safety Marcell Harris was also fined $10,026 for his hit on Mitchell Trubisky, which sparked the incident, Rapoport reported.

6. Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith was fined $10,026 for unsportsmanlike conduct drawn by taunting while scoring a touchdown, Pelissero reported.

7. Redskins cornerback Josh Norman (unnecessary roughness) and Titans tackle Taylor Lewan (unsportsmanlike conduct) were each fined $10,026 for their contentious interaction following Tennessee’s win over Washington, Pelissero reported.

NFL season ends early for Dre Kirkpatrick, A'Shawn Robinson –

Two former Alabama All-Americans have had their NFL seasons end one game earlier because of injuries. On Friday, the Cincinnati Bengals placed cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick on injured reserve, and the Detroit Lions did the same with defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson.

On Sunday, Kirkpatrick suffered a shoulder injury and Robinson sustained a knee injury.


Kirkpatrick will miss the Bengals’ season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. He’ll spend his third game on the sidelines in 2018 after he’d missed three games over the previous four seasons. Kirkpatrick missed the Nov. 25 game against the Cleveland Browns with a shoulder injury and the Dec. 9 game against the Los Angeles Chargers with an ankle injury. Kirkpatrick started the Bengals’ other 13 games.

In his seventh NFL season, Kirkpatrick made 41 tackles and broke up nine passes.

Kirkpatrick joined Cincinnati as a first-round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft after earning first-team All-American recognition from the Football Writers Association of America for Alabama’s 2011 BCS national-championship team. Before joining the Crimson Tide, Kirkpatrick was a two-time All-State player at Gadsden City and earned the Class 6A Back of the Year Award for the 2008 season.

NFL Week 17: Playoff spots at stake for state players on regular season’s final Sunday

Robinson also will miss his third game of 2018. An ankle injury sidelined the defensive tackle on Nov. 18 against the Carolina Panthers, and he was a healthy scratch for the Lions’ season-opening game.

After that, Robinson came on to make 48 tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack.

A consensus All-American for Alabama’s 2015 CFP national-championship team, Robinson joined Detroit as a second-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft.

The Lions close their season on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

Detroit Lions defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson closes in on Miami Dolphins quarterback Brock Osweiler during an NFL game on Oct. 21, 2018, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)  Michael Reaves

Mark Inabinett is a sports reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter at @AMarkG1.

Next Gen Stats: Week 17 fantasy football matchups –

The fantasy season is largely in the books and many teams either have their eye on the playoffs or 2019.

The Saints, Cowboys, and Seahawks will positively rest starters in the season finale while it’s largely expected Christian McCaffrey will not handle his normal workload after compiling 321 touches in 15 games. What’s more, the Chargers may be locked in to the No. 5 seed if the Chiefs take care of business against the Raiders. Both L.A. and Kansas City play in the 4:25 (ET) window. The Bears and Rams are in a similar tug-of-war. If Los Angeles takes care of San Francisco, Chicago will have nothing to play for against Minnesota. We could see both the Bears and the Chargers take their foot off the gas in the second half if the Rams and Chiefs, respectively, build first-half leads.

Still, if you’re making Week 17 fantasy lineup decisions — like for a day or something — let’s break down the matchups and storylines that will define the slate using Next Gen Stats:

Matchup: Texans vs. Jaguars (1 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Win guarantees Houston home playoff game; loss drops Houston to No. 6 seed

A common theme in this space all year, this Week 17 bout between division foes will be partially decided by how well Deshaun Watson performs under pressure. Over the full year, Watson’s passer rating drops by 81 points when he is under duress, the largest differential in the league. While Watson averages 9.2 pass yards per attempt and possesses a 121.4 rating when the pocket is kept clean, he’s only put up 5.2 YPA and a 40.4 QB rating (second-worst) when pressured. For context, six of Watson’s 9 INTs have come when pressured while only Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill have been sacked on a higher rate of their dropbacks (11.3 percent) than Watson (10.6 percent).

The Jags’ are playing for nothing but pride at this point, but they can wreck Houston’s AFC South aspirations with a win. The common narrative states the Jags defense has regressed severely this year, but that is far from the truth recently. Over the last six weeks, Jacksonville owns the league’s sixth-highest pressure rate forced (29 percent), the fifth-lowest passing success rate allowed (45 percent), and the third-lowest passer rating (75.6).

Matchup: Patriots vs. Jets (1 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Patriots must win to clinch AFC No. 2 seed

If we truly are nearing the end of the Patriots dynasty, another season with 10-plus wins, a division title, and a possible first-round playoff bye isn’t a bad way to go out.

While 41-year-old Tom Brady is trying to add a sixth Super Bowl to his already stellar resume, 21-year-old Sam Darnold has been playing lights out to close the season. Since returning from a foot injury in Week 14, Sam Darnold’s completion percentage is 8.5 percent higher than expected (based on the difficulty of the throw) per Next Gen Stats. In fact, only Josh Allen and Jameis Winston (11.3) are averaging more air yards per throw than Darnold (10.3) in this span. As a result, Darnold’s 106.3 passer rating is sixth-best over the last three weeks, trailing only Deshaun Watson, Kirk Cousins, Baker Mayfield, Nick Foles, and Ben Roethlisberger.

New England presents a tough test for the rookie — the Pats’ own the NFL’s sixth-lowest passer rating (79.8) over the last six weeks — but after an up-and-down start to the season, Darnold has hit his stride late in the year. The Jets’ arrow is firmly ticked upward.

Matchup: Browns vs. Ravens (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Ravens must win; Browns playing for pride

Since Lamar Jackson took over as the Ravens starter in Week 11, no team in the NFL has come close to running the ball as often (64 percent) as Baltimore. The Ravens extreme run-heavy approach isn’t just milking the clock and keeping the ball away from opponents, they’re actually a fairly efficient offense even though the only throw the ball on one-third of their plays. In this six week stretch, the Ravens have averaged 35.2 yards gained per drive (10th-best) while 45.6 percent of their possessions have ended in a score (sixth-best).

Now, the white-hot Browns get a chance to play spoiler in the season finale. While Cleveland’s offense has taken flight with Baker Mayfield since Hue Jackson was fired after Week 8, their run defense has been extremely boom-or-bust. Over their last seven games with new coaching in place, the Browns have given up the fourth-highest rate of carries to gain 10 or more yards (16 percent). That’s not ideal with a road date against the Ravens up next. However, on a significantly more positive note, only five teams have stuffed a higher rate of runs at or behind the line of scrimmage in this span than the Browns (24 percent).

Still, stopping the Ravens elite rushing attack begins with slowing down Lamar Jackson’s horizontal, slashing rushing style on off-tackle runs. Over the full season, Cleveland has permitted 5.3 yards after a defender has closed on off-tackle QB runs — the sixth-most in the NFL.

Matchup: Chargers vs. Broncos (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Bolts jockeying for playoff positioning

If the Chiefs somehow lose at home to the Raiders in Week 17, all the Chargers need to do is win against the Broncos and they would become the AFC’s No. 1 seed. If L.A. and Kansas City both win, the Chargers remain the No. 5 seed and L.A. will play their entire playoff bracket on the road.

While Philip Rivers is in the midst of his career-best season and will look to bounce back after his worst game of the season in Week 16, the ‘Bolts playoff hopes may be equally defined by L.A.’s elite pass rush. As evidenced by Next Gen Stats, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram’s presence on the field together is monumental:

Now, Bosa and Ingram get to warm up their playoff jets against a quarterback that has supremely struggled against pressure as of late. Over the last six weeks, Case Keenum owns the NFL’s fourth-worst passer rating under duress (39.6) while his completion rate is 10.2 percent below expectation when facing pressure in this span is third-worst Look out.

Matchup: Raiders vs. Chiefs (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Chiefs trying to stay on top of AFC

Since Andy Reid became the Chiefs head coach in 2013, Kansas City has absolutely smashed as large home-favorites. In this span, the Chiefs are 14-4 when at home and favored by seven or more points. This week, the Chiefs are massive double-digit favorites to win over the Raiders, who are playing (to lose) for draft seeding after beating the lifeless Broncos in Week 16.

The path to victory for Kansas City is simple in their season finale: Target Travis Kelce. When these two sides met in Week 13, Kelce had the best game of his stellar season — nuking the Raiders for 12/168/2 on 13 targets. Oakland’s talent-deficient defense has been the worst team in the league at defending the middle of the field, ceding a 148.4 passer rating (worst in NFL) and a monster 10.4 YPA (worst) to receivers aligned “tight” to the formation. That’s precisely where Kelce takes 46 percent of his snaps, per Next Gen Stats. This is a dream spot for Kelce to end his regular season on, especially considering he only needs 54 yards to pass Rob Gronkowski (1,327) for most receiving yards in a single-season by a tight end.

Matchup: 49ers vs. Rams (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: L.A. full-go vs. San Francisco

Without Todd Gurley (knee) last week — and likely again in the season finale — the Rams changed their entire offense against the Cardinals. Sean McVay unwaveringly plays 11-personnel (1RB, 1TE, 1WR) on almost all of the Rams offensive snaps when they are at full health, but last week he did something drastic. After calling just nine rushing plays from 12-personnel (1RB, 2TE, 2WR) all season long, the Rams used ’12’ on 27-of-39 (69 percent) rush plays last week in Arizona. Freshly plucked off waivers, C.J. Anderson proceeded to rip the Cards’ for 167 yards on 20 totes, the second-most rushing yards recorded by a Ram in a single-game over the last decade.

(Insert “running backs don’t matter” argument here).

Seriously, though — the Rams use of 12-personnel in Week 16 shows McVay can not only create maximum deception by using one personnel grouping; but, showed flexibility in the face of a major roster change. Without Cooper Kupp, Todd Gurley, and behind an offensive line that has quietly struggled over the last month, McVay made Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee near full-time players. Both tight ends played on 75 percent of team snaps in Week 16, easily season-highs for each.

Now, the Rams spiked use of ’12’ may force the 49ers into their “base” 4-3 package to account for the extra tight end on the field. L.A. should find easy success. Per Next Gen Stats, San Francisco has coughed up the tenth-most yards per play when they are in their 4-3 defense over the last six weeks.

Matchup: Bears vs. Vikings (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Minnesota must win; Chicago fighting L.A. for No. 2 NFC seed

Kirk Cousins was one of the three-most pressured quarterbacks in the NFL for the first 13 games of the season, but that has changed drastically over the last two weeks. Under new OC Kevin Stefanski in Weeks 15-16, Cousins has been pressured on just 17 percent of his dropbacks after being under duress on an other-worldly 35 percent of his dropbacks in Weeks 1-14.

Granted, the Dolphins (Week 15) and Lions’ (Week 16) respective front-sevens are about as fierce as a baby kitten, but the Vikes’ improving protection is a welcome sight regardless of the opponent. A reason for the Vikings surge in pass pro may come down to a simple scheme change: more play-action. Per PFF’s charts, Stefanski has spiked Cousins’ play-action rate to 36 percent after Minnesota ran play-action just 19 percent of the time under former OC John DeFilippo in Weeks 1-14. By design, play-action naturally freezes the underneath coverage and creates easy-to-read throwing lanes for the quarterback.

Now, the true test comes in Week 17 against Chicago. Yes, the Bears can’t fall out of the No. 3 seed with a loss and are likely going to be road-blocked from the No. 2 seed unless the 49ers pull off a miracle win in Los Angeles. Still, this is a brutal playoff-like test for the Vikings. Over the last six weeks, Chicago’s defense has been white hot, forcing the NFL’s third-highest pressure rate (32 percent) while stunning aerial attacks for the league’s lowest passer rating (62.4) in this span.

Matchup: Bengals vs. Steelers (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Pittsburgh needs a win and help from Cleveland

The injury-riddled Bengals desperately need the offseason while the back-sliding Steelers desperately need a win. At the very least for Pittsburgh, this is about as good of a draw in a must-win game a team can get. Not only are the Steelers at home where Ben Roethlisberger’s notorious home/road splits are in play, but they are also playing one of the league’s worst defenses that will be further hampered without LB Vontaze Burfict (concussion) in the season finale.

Over the last six weeks, the Bengals defense has completely folded. In this span, Cincinnati has allowed the NFL’s sixth-highest passer rating when QBs are throwing from a clean pocket, the fifth-highest passer rating when they force pressure, and the NFL’s highest rating when they blitz (five or more pass rushers). Yikes. This goes without mentioning that Cincinnati has allowed a horrific 7.9 passing yards per attempt on the road (sixth-worst) while giving up eight top-12 (QB1) fantasy scoring weeks this year, tied for third-most. The Steelers aerial attack has a high floor and ceiling in Week 17.

Matchup: Eagles vs. Redskins (4:25 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Philadelphia must win and Minnesota must lose for the Eagles to make the dance

It’s a small sample of just 26 attempts, but Nick Foles has absolutely excelled against the blitz this season. Per Next Gen Stats, Foles has completed 77 percent of his throws at 9.8 yards per attempt and a near perfect 145.5 passer rating when facing five or more pass rushers. Somehow, despite losing 4-of-5 starters in the secondary and Carson Wentz (back) again, the Eagles are right in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt. And, once again, Nick Foles’ poise under pressure is shining through. Washington is another team that desperately needs the offseason in the worst way and if their recent blitz-heavy tendency sticks in the season finale, the Redskins may be in some trouble. Over the last six weeks, Washington has sent five or more pass rushers on 36 percent of dropbacks — the fifth-highest rate in the league. Look for Foles to work his magic against the blitz in Week 17.

Matchup: Colts vs. Titans (8:20 p.m. ET)

Storyline: Winner advances, loser goes home

While Marcus Mariota’s (stinger) status is completely up in the air for Sunday night, the Titans will be without stud DT Jurrell Casey (knee; IR) in Week 17. It’s a massive blow. Lining up as an interior lineman on 95 percent of his snaps this year, Casey leads the Titans in sacks (7), pressures forced (26), and run stuffs (16).

The Titans playoff hopes now rest on (perhaps) Blaine Gabbert’s right arm and a Casey-less defense. While Gabbert could pop off for a decent game against a Colts’ secondary that was just waxed by Eli Manning (76 percent completion rate, 309 yards, 9.4 YPA), replacing Casey is no easy task against perhaps the league’s best interior offensive line. Per Next Gen Stats, the Colts guard-center trio has permitted the NFL’s lowest pressure rate this season at a stiff 7.4 percent clip. For reference, the Patriots (7.9 percent interior pressure rate allowed) and the Browns (8.1 percent) are second- and third-best, respectively. The only Titan we can trust in Week 17 fantasy lineup decisions is Derrick Henry.

— Graham Barfield is the managing editor of fantasy football content at Follow him on Twitter @GrahamBarfield.

NFL MVP Poll – Who our experts pick heading into Week 17 – ESPN

With one week left in the NFL’s regular season — a week that means more to some than to others — it’s time once again to take a look at the individual performances at the heart of the best teams’ success.

Yes, it’s the MVP poll, in which nine of our esteemed ESPN experts weigh in on the topic of most valuable player in the league. While it’s possible that something could happen in Week 17 to change the way this poll came out, right now it doesn’t appear to be even close.

Our panel of voters: Matt Bowen, Mike Clay, Dan Graziano, Mina Kimes, Vince Masi, Mike Sando, Aaron Schatz, Kevin Seifert and Field Yates.

Mahomes collected eight of our nine first-place votes and easily claimed the top spot. With one week left, Mahomes has thrown 48 touchdown passes, tied for the fourth-most in a single season. He needs one this week to tie 2005 Peyton Manning for the No. 3 spot on that list and two to tie 2007 Tom Brady for second. It seems unlikely that he will get the seven touchdown passes he’d need to tie 2013 Peyton Manning’s record of 55 in a season, but Mahomes has two games already this season with six, and at this point, is there anything we’re putting past this kid?

Mahomes leads the league in Total QBR and is second in passing yards, passer rating and yards per attempt. The Chiefs are 11-4 and one win away from securing the top seed in the AFC playoff field, and Mahomes’ season for the ages is a central reason for that.

Brees, who has somehow never won this award, collected the other first-place vote, seven second-place votes and one third-place vote from our panel. He’s right behind Mahomes in QBR and is the one ahead of him in passer rating, plus he is completing a staggering 74.4 percent of his passes for an impressive 8.16 yards per attempt. Brees has 32 touchdown passes and just five interceptions for a 13-2 Saints team that has been the best in the NFC all season, and there’s likely to be a sentimental push to throw some votes his way since he has never won MVP, and it seems like that should be on his résumé. In a season in which Mahomes wasn’t doing what he’s doing, Brees might be a runaway winner.

Rivers got one second-place vote and seven third-place votes. He’s top-five in QBR, yards per attempt and passer rating, and he ranks seventh with 31 touchdown passes against just 10 interceptions. His Chargers are 11-3, and if they win this week and the Chiefs lose, they’ll snatch that top AFC seed away from Mahomes & Co. at the finish line. Comeback victories in Pittsburgh and Kansas City in recent weeks have stamped this Chargers team as a dangerous Super Bowl contender, and the veteran QB is leading the way with maybe the deepest team he has ever had.

Donald got one third-place vote in our poll, which is cool, because while he probably can’t win the award, he deserves recognition as a candidate. He already has 19.5 sacks, which is the 12th-best single-season total of all time, the most by a defensive tackle and one fewer than Lawrence Taylor had in 1986, when he was named MVP of the league. No defensive player has won the award since, and Minnesota’s Alan Page is the only other defender who has won it. This is a quarterback award, for the most part, and with Mahomes, Brees and Rivers having the seasons they’re having, this isn’t the year for a defensive player to break tradition. But Donald’s value to the Rams, who are one of the league’s very best teams, is unquestioned.