The NFL has confirmed in as clear a way as possible that they have zero interest in improving player safety. League owners consistently thumb their collective nose at the idea of protecting the players who generate their massive earnings, such as on Sunday when a clear Cam Newton concussion was described not as an injury to his head, but as a poke to the eye. It doesn’t appear this laissez-faire attitude is going to change any time soon. So we’ll all forget about it until the next time, which likely will be this weekend, when three delicious match-ups (and one clear snoozefest) populate the schedule. The game we love to hate! The game we hate to love! I’m conflicted, can you tell? Gahhhhhh! Let’s play some f*cking football!
Biggest Winner – Jacksonville Jaguars
Yes, they only beat the Bills 10-3. No, they didn’t rally from being down 21-3 like the Titans did. Yes, Blake Bortles finished with more rushing yards than passing yards. But you know what? The Jags are through! This franchise has been a joke for nearly a decade, but they figured out how to put the finishing touches (namely, noted soul-snatcher Calais Campbell) on a stifling defense, and put together a competent offense – in large part thanks to rookie sensation Leonard Fournette. And despite Bortles’ existence as the butt of every joke from here to The Good Place, he did make strides this year. Now they head to Pittsburgh to face a loaded offense. The Jags got the better of their matchup in Week 5, but that’s ancient history. They’ll need to generate turnovers once again to pull the upset against Le’Veon and Co.
Biggest Loser – Los Angeles Rams
What a season for the Rams. It ends on a shitty note with their 26-13 defeat at the hands of the Falcons, but fans can feel pretty excited for the future. Still, it’s hard to go one and done after securing the 3 seed in the NFC. Some glaring weaknesses were revealed against Atlanta, including a lack of a dependable #1 receiver who can physically win against coverage, and stout run defenders at the second level. It’s also a shame to miss the opportunity to make a run in a relatively weak playoff field. While there are a bunch of quality teams, there’s no juggernaut (except maybe an angry New England team) that feels unbeatable. Still, it was a hell of a 2017 for the Rams and their 31-year-old coach Sean McVay. Now, if they can just get that stadium built.
Rookie Watch - Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
It’s been an interesting first season for McCaffrey. He finished the regular season with 1,086 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns, which are very solid figures. Still, it felt underwhelming relative to the cavalcade of hype that he rode into the league. Sunday was a very typical game, as the young Stanford grad reeled in six catches for 101 yards and a TD, while adding just 16 yards on the ground. He’s a very effective receiving back/slot receiver for an offense that lacks playmakers, aside from Cam. He averaged just eight yards per reception because many of his targets come close to the line of scrimmage, but expect the Panthers to deploy him more effectively as his skill-set continues to mature.
Sleeper Awakens – Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
After 17 weeks of football, there aren’t really any true sleepers left. That said, Henry has been criminally underused this entire season, and he demonstrated just that in the Titans surprising 22-21 win over Kansas City on Saturday. The idea that Mike Mularkey might be kept on as head coach because of a playoff win that was largely the doing of Derrick Henry – who Mularkey buried on the depth chart behind the plodding DeMarco Murray – demonstrates the ass-backwards thinking in the NFL. But let’s give the young ‘Bama alum his due: 156 yards and a touchdown on the ground and 35 more yards through the air, with 50 of those rushing yards coming in the 4th quarter to crush the dreams of the Chiefs. With the proper workload, the kid has the makings of a fantasy stud for years to come. That sounds hot.
Dominating Performance – Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Number 9 still got it. With a muscular Carolina front seven largely taking away the running game New Orleans has leaned on all season, the future Hall-of-Famer sprang to life, igniting a deadly passing attack that’s been the Saints' signature for years. Brees went for a whopping 376 yards and two touchdowns, with his lone mistake a 4th down interception that was a calculated risk – and ultimately worked as a short punt. He spread the ball to eight different receivers, aggressively pushing throws downfield to his one-two punch of Michael Thomas and Tedd Ginn, Jr. He now leads the Saints into Minnesota for an even tougher test against one of the league’s top defenses. Expect the Vikings to contain Ingram and Kamara again, forcing Mr. Brees to work his magic through the air. Look out Minny.
Most Devastating Injury – Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags have a tall order this week heading into Heinz Field to take on a healthy and rested Steeler team. That will be just a bit harder without veteran linebacker Posluszny, who is lost for the season due to a torn pectoral muscle. While not a back-breaking loss, it still hurts a defense that will be trying to contain the thundering mountain river and the gallivanting Hippogriff that are Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, respectively. Still, this team is riding high despite their miserable QB play. I think they’ll play the Steelers pretty close, once again using turnovers to keep up with Pittsburgh’s scoring.
Image Sources: Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports, Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports, Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports, Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports, Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports, Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports, Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports, Scott R. Galvin/USA TODAY Sports