In the wake of Week 14, Marc Sessler dishes on what's hot -- and what's not -- in the NFL:
1) The construction of the Buffalo Bills should be studied by every struggling NFL outfit angling to reshape itself into a beast.
Let's slip back in time to Jan. 7, 2018.
On a macro level, that winter Sunday marked a celebration for the Bills, set to face Jacksonville in Buffalo's first playoff appearance since the ill-fated Music City Miracle of 18 years prior.
First-year coach Sean McDermott did lots with a little during that 2017 campaign, carving out a 9-7 record with a pesky defense and just enough offense from quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The attack was a patchwork quilt that saw runner LeSean McCoy and tight end Charles Clay lead the team in receptions, with no wideout accounting for more than 27 catches on the year.
Hoopla over Buffalo's postseason return fizzled out in a hurry on that January day, as the (now extinct) Sacksonville defense did a number on Buffalo's not-ready-for-primetime offense in a 10-3 slugfest.
From my weather-worn game notes:
This white-knuckle affair resembled a brand of football your grandfather's grandfather watched on a 12-inch black-and-white boob tube in fire-lit parlors during ancient days of old. ... Tyrod Taylor was nothing to write home about, throwing a costly first-half pick and overseeing an offense doubling as a punt machine. With four chances to tie the game in the second half, Taylor couldn't move the ball. The Bills quarterback dialed up too many off-target throws and wasn't helped by a handful of drops. Buffalo's lone score came off an 18-play, 71-yard march capped by Stephen Hauschka's 31-yard field goal on a blustery afternoon in Northern Florida.
General manager Brandon Beane's mind was working overtime, I'd imagine, as he watched the team's inept offense outdueled by Blake Bortles. Beane and McDermott knew Buffalo needed a franchise passer, with the general manager having spent his autumn poring over tape of the upcoming quarterback class and logging a real-time viewing of USC's Sam Darnold against UCLA's Josh Rosen the day before a Bills-Chargers tilt in Southern California.
Beane and friends didn't meet Josh Allen until the Senior Bowl, mere weeks after Buffalo had been downed by the Jaguars. The love connection was real -- scouts league-wide were aflutter about Allen's measurables and arm power -- but the Bills knew he'd be long gone by the time they hit the clock at No. 21 and No. 22 in the draft (the second of those picks netted by sending their No. 10 selection to the Chiefs in 2017, which Kansas City wound up using to land Patrick Mahomes).
A willing wheeler-and-dealer, Beane shipped his No. 21 and left tackle Cordy Glenn to the Bengals in exchange for Cincy's 12th overall pick in 2018. Knowing that wouldn't be enough, Beane then swapped that No. 12 plus a pair of second-rounders to Tampa in exchange for No. 7 overall. That made it possible to grab the polarizing Allen, but the overhaul had just begun.
The Bills were incomplete during Allen's rookie season, with a cast of wideouts headlined by Zay Jones, Robert Foster and a far-from-plugged-in Kelvin Benjamin. Beane never hid the fact more weapons were needed, attacking the open market in 2019 to land deep threat John Brown and slot ace Cole Beasley within minutes of each other in free agency.
The pair of veteran pass-catchers gave Allen something to work with through the air, but Beane watched his 2019 club and knew something was still missing. He attempted to swing a deal with the Vikings at the trade deadline for disgruntled star wideout Stefon Diggs, but the swap fell through.
Beane pointed the finger at himself for Buffalo's collapse to Houston in last year's playoffs, saying last week: "At the postseason presser I mentioned we didn't score enough (on) offense. And I wasn't blaming (offensive coordinator) Brian Daboll or Josh Allen or Cole Beasley or Mitch Morse or anything like that. It's me. What can I do?"
For starters, circle back on Diggs. In March 2020, with COVID-19 draping itself across the land, the league year launched unabated, and Beane, this time, would not be denied. He worked out a deal to send Buffalo's 2020 first-rounder and a handful of late-round picks to Minnesota for Diggs, prompting a flood of hot takes from pundits wondering if the Bills had gone too far to acquire a player whose tenure with the Vikings ended in apparent acrimony.
Would Diggs serve as a fit in small-market Buffalo? How long until he loses his cool with hot-and-cold Josh Allen? Is he a locker-room cancer ready to undo the unified Bills from within? Can this possibly succeed?
Cut to Sunday night, with Diggs slicing up the Steelers for 130 yards and a score off 10 catches in a juicy 26-15 win over Pittsburgh that announced to all: The Bills are a Super Bowl threat for the first time since Jim Kelly spun glory. Beane's determined faith in Diggs rests at the center, with the wideout exploding doubters into a billion particles during a campaign in which he trails just Travis Kelce and DK Metcalf in receiving yards and leads the entire universe with 100 catches through Week 14.
"All he wants to do is help his team win football games. He's a competitor, and we have very similar mindsets. I love the guy," Allen said of Diggs after slapping down the Steelers. "He goes out there and competes his tail off, and I'm just super blessed that we traded for him."
Take away Kyler's Hail Murray in Week 10 -- a play that outshone Allen's presumptive game-winning touchdown strike to Diggs mere seconds before -- and the Bills are nearly perfect since falling to the Chiefs 26-17 two months ago. Beane's maneuverings have turned a prehistoric attack into a diverse passing scheme that has Allen and play-caller Daboll enmeshed in a mindmeld, sharing a seat at the supercomputer to cook up pre-snap adjustments and post-snap flair. The version of Allen we've seen over the past two weeks is bursting with possibilities. It's an unusual thing to say about Buffalo after a million failed quarterbacks under previous regimes, but could anyone have nurtured Allen with more precision than these Bills?
"He leaves it all out there; you see how tough he is," Beane said of Allen last week after the general manager inked an extension that runs through 2025. "He bangs his shoulder in Vegas and doesn't want to miss a play, gets banged up against the Chargers and he's trying to get to call timeout so he doesn't miss a play. You got to protect him from himself sometimes, but it's important to have that piece. ... The two most critical pieces, you have to have the right head coach and you got to have the right quarterback, and that's what I'm excited about as we head into the end of Year 4 here."
This delicious broth boasts one more key ingredient: The right general manager at the ideal time for a Bills team with no detectable expiration date.
2) I'm speed-typing this on Tuesday morning (deadlines be damned!) to acknowledge the most enthralling contest of the season. Baltimore's 47-42 win over Cleveland highlighted realities about both AFC North operations:
A) If the Ravens boast this version of Lamar Jackson going forward, book 'em to finish 11-5 and waltz into the postseason with a score to settle after two straight January tumbles. If the playoffs started today, Baltimore (8-5) would miss the party due to Miami's (8-5) better overall record inside the conference. The Ravens, though, play the Jaguars, Giants and Bengals, while the Dolphins must deal with the Patriots, Raiders and Bills. With Cleveland (9-4) facing the Giants, Jets and Steelers, it's not hard to imagine both the Browns and Ravens finishing with twin 11-win records to send three AFC North teams to the postseason. It's premature to ponder, but pathways exist to carve out a playoff rematch of Monday's instant classic.
B) The national reaction to Cleveland's gallant effort appeared to legitimize the Browns despite defeat. I've rooted for this team since 1986. Anyone who lived through the move to Baltimore takes little comfort in Monday night's result. I know coach Kevin Stefanski feels the same, saying: "I do not want to go down the moral victories [path]. We lost. We got beat. Proud of the guys and how they battled -- I really am -- but I just look at all the mistakes that we made, and we have to correct them." Bingo. This wasn't Cleveland's best game. Not even close. The defense couldn't solve Lamar, leaning on a suspect strategy that fell to pieces when the Browns, in man coverage, took their eyes off Jackson. Nothing truly changes for Cleveland until they can figure out Baltimore's offense, which painted 85 points on the Browns over eight quarters in 2020.
C) Still, this is a different Browns team than anything we've seen since their return in 1999. Under Stefanski, they are well-coached, mentally tough and enjoyable on the eyes. A total departure for the franchise after decades of circus work. They are more than just a run-only operation attempting to hide their quarterback. Baker Mayfield played a nearly perfect game against the Titans and refused to die against Baltimore. Cleveland followed his lead, storming back from a 34-20 deficit to take a 35-34 edge with 6:33 left in the game. The Browns had Baltimore on the brink, facing a fourth-and-5 from Cleveland's 44 with Jackson in the locker room dealing with a "cramping issue."
This is where an entertaining football game pivoted into the bizarre. Television magic. A brand of drama only pro football can spin, as Jackson came bolting out of the tunnel to replace a banged-up Trace McSorley. Seconds later, Lamar unfurled a 44-yard touchdown strike to Marquise Brown to retake the lead as the Football Gods exchanged high fives.
I found myself in a haze as Cleveland traveled 75 yards in 47 seconds to tie the game off a Mayfield strike to Kareem Hunt. It was another reminder: Yes, these Browns are different, but the bend-and-break defense was all but finished as the Ravens used the game's final minutes to set up the finest kicker alive, Justin Tucker, for the inevitable win.
Dark ghosts remain to be slayed for the Cleveland Browns.
D) Both of these teams are more fun to watch than what we've seen lately from the division-leading Steelers.
1) It's easy to overreact to the slump we find Pittsburgh mired in. They've been a messy watch since their unimpressive clipping of Baltimore on a forlorn Wednesday two weeks ago. Subsequent flops against Washington and Buffalo reeked of excessive Big Ben quick-strike lobs and too many botched third downs. Roethlisberger's cast of targets have specialized in killer drops, while Pittsburgh's yardage output on the ground reads as such over the last seven games: 48, 46, 44, 106, 68, 21 and 47. Injuries along the line account for some of the mess, but the Steelers appear unable to strike a balance. I refuse to whistle tunes of doom, though, after seeing how Pittsburgh's defense played in the first half against Buffalo. This is a Super Bowl-worthy unit that can string wins together in January if the offense rediscovers itself. This was never a team ready to go 16-0. Still, coach Mike Tomlin must repair the psyche of this floundering offense in a hurry, with three final games against the Bengals, Colts and Browns. Something tells me the club will right the ship against a Cincinnati roster that would struggle to score points against Eastern Swanny Tech's flag football operation.
2) It's chic to cite the old yarn from Bill Parcells, which suggests the NFL season doesn't truly begin until after Thanksgiving. I struggle with the notion, considering this typist has been grinding since March on narratives, lost theories and glanced-at thinkpieces surrounding the 2020 season. Could I have nestled within a sleeping bag all that time, adrift in deep sleeps, untamed Russian novels and a rich dreamlife? Is that any different than what the Raiders have done since Thanksgiving? Gregg Williams dialing up a too-cute Cover Zero look is the only reason Vegas isn't mired in a four-game losing streak instead of hanging around as ON THE BUBBLE forget-me-nots in our latest 2020 Playoff Picture. They've missed Josh Jacobs on the ground, but his presence Sunday could do nothing to save a disorganized defense that can't rush the passer or stop a flock of schoolboys armed with a Nerf. Coach Jon Gruden ran out of patience after Sunday's 44-27 lashing by the Colts, canning friend and former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther in an attempt to spark a unit lost at sea. Last year's club went 6-4 before finishing 7-9. This is a better football team, but does anyone believe in the Silver and Black to win out against the Chargers, Dolphins and Broncos? Trust vanished weeks ago.
3) I'm scanning Philadelphia's past month and wondering if Jalen Hurts couldn't have saved this depressing Eagles season. He spun life energy in Sunday's surprise win over the Saints. Against a ferocious defense, the rookie ran for 106 yards and threw for 167 with a touchdown while unfurling zero interceptions. Granted, coach Doug Pederson was in a tough spot with Carson Wentz. A loaded future contract certainly delayed Wentz's benching. Still, with the 4-8-1 Eagles in striking distance of both Washington (6-7) and New York (5-8) in the NFC East, it's worth asking, what if the switch happened during Philly's Week 9 bye?
Would Hurts have helped in a tight 27-17 loss to New York that saw Wentz fumble the ball twice and take three sacks? Or in a 22-17 loss to Cleveland that saw the Browns pull off a 50-yard pick-six, drop Wentz for a safety and seal the game with a second interception of the confused Eagles starter? In a 23-17 loss to Seattle, Wentz threw a killer pick at the goal line midway through the game's final period. Turning to Hurts was long overdue. Conservative observers -- and Pederson -- would argue the opposite, but does anyone believe the formidable Saints would have taken a Sunday dirtnap with Bizarro Wentz at the wheel?