For as much sense as it may make at first glance, the NFL and NFLPA have no interest in bubbling teams locally for the postseason. This comes after the outbreak in Cleveland that has left the Browns without their head coach for the franchise's most important game in decades.
JC Tretter, the Browns center and NFLPA president, said on a call earlier this week that the bubble doesn't make sense for the players because the virus would spread with greater ease if all the players are together. This jibes with what Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical doctor, has been saying for months.
"The voluntary bubble still has the same dependency on personal accountability that what our protocols currently have. You're still relying on everyone to make the right decisions away from the facility," Tretter said Tuesday. "A voluntary bubble just means really that I'll make sure I'm at the hotel when I sleep at night. But when you leave the facility you're [hoping] guys don't interact with people outside. The bubble I don't think ever was an option that would have worked.
"I think if you track the tests (Tuesday), if you play out the bubble scenario where we bubble after our game on Sunday, those five guys that tested positive today would have turned positive inside of the bubble. And one of the reasons we closed down the facilities to make sure that we all are not together. I would argue that if we bubbled up with everything we know now and we brought everyone together under the same roof, now we have five people turning positive inside the bubble and I think that makes us more susceptible to negative outcomes than separating ourselves, living away from each other and keeping as much distance as possible."
Truthfully, I understood why players didn't want to go live in hotels in November and December. For all the "the NBA did it!" talk, no one mentions how that wasn't during the holidays. But I was in the camp that players and coaches should kiss their families goodbye for up to five weeks and go live at the nearby Marriott until they get eliminated or win the Super Bowl.
That idea only works if there was a built-in isolation period, though. It's too late now, but for the individual bubbles to ever be an option, there would have needed to be a week-long isolation period between Week 17 and wild-card weekend that would have identified and isolated any cases that arose from the end of the regular season.
That would have pushed the Super Bowl back a week and also diminished the advantage of the No. 1 seed getting the first-round bye (and made them wait two weeks to play.)
Players are free to go live in hotels today if they want. But I would agree that if the entire team wants to bubble, they'd have to go through a period of quarantine that time just doesn't allow for at this point.
It's crucial players remain vigilant throughout these closing weeks. From Dec. 27-Jan. 2, the NFL saw 34 players test positive for COVID-19. That's the highest player mark in a week all season long, and the 70 total players and personnel who tested positive that week was the second-highest all year.
I asked NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith if the protocols in place—jointly agreed to by the NFL and NFLPA—are working and whether they'd need to be adjusted in this final month.
"Nothing can be measured against perfection," Smith said. "We have modified and changed our protocols throughout the season. We didn't go into this with a one-size-fits-all model. We knew we were going to have to be malleable and somewhat flexible about what to do with respect to the protocols.
"We all heard a few weeks ago about an infectious strain identified in the UK and some reports that it's in the United States. Again I'm not saying that to raise alarm but I'm simply raising that as a fact of how often this paradigm changes and how quickly and smartly we have to respond to that. I think the protocols have worked extremely well all year but I'm most proud of our ability to change, modify, adapt and evolve as we go forward."
Dolphins taking another QB?
Maybe we're all just bored. Maybe this is what our industry is. But talk of Miami potentially taking a quarterback at No. 3 in April's draft has been absolutely mind-numbing to me, and I'm glad GM Chris Grier did all he could Tuesday to shoot this lunacy down.
I'm going to set aside whether it'd be fair to Tua Tagovailoa for a moment. I won't even discuss whether Justin Fields or Zach Wilson or whomever would ultimately be better than Tagovailoa, because I don't even have to go there.
If the Dolphins take a quarterback at No. 3 then it will be a colossal failure by Grier and head coach Brian Flores. They spent 2019 pulling off a near-perfect tank job. They spent every available waking hour evaluating the top quarterbacks in the draft. Last April they had their pick of Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert, and they made their choice.
They then practiced patience in camp. They risked locker room turmoil at the bye when they replaced Ryan Fitzpatrick with the rookie. They lived and died with the quarterback switches throughout the season.
If you spent an entire year losing just to position yourself as best you can to find your franchise quarterback, then spend an entire year building around the QB piece, just to draft another and start over again, then your two seasons were a failure. And you would be admitting to that failure.
I'm all for getting out of a mistake too early than too late, but drafting another quarterback at No. 3 when Tagovailoa didn't get a full offseason program (and wasn't healthy enough for the entirety of whatever program you did have) is a sign that you guys screwed up.
If the Dolphins had the ability to draft Trevor Lawrence, then I would entertain this conversation a bit more. But that's not the case here. So we don't need to entertain this further.
Titans winning without defense
The Tennessee Titans are in the playoffs (and hosting a game!) in spite of their defense. Usually you can tell a lot about a team based on their third-down defense and time of possession. But the Titans have flipped that on its head this season.
Tennessee finished the 2020 season by allowing 51.9% of opponent third downs to be converted. That's the highest mark for a team in a full season in post-merger history, topping the mark of 51.7% set by the 1975 New York Jets. The Titans also allowed a 42.6% conversion rate on third-and-7 or more yards this season. The league average was 26.4%.
Finally, the Titans had the worst time of possession differential among all playoff teams. They finished with an average of negative 3 minutes and 5 seconds time of possession differential. It's the biggest negative differential for a playoff team since the 9-7 Bills in 2017.
In last week's win against the Texans, the top 10 plays the Titans gave up to Houston totaled 276 yards. And now they face the Baltimore Ravens for the third time in 365 days, hoping to go 3-0 against the Ravens despite giving up 836 yards in those two previous contests.
"Obviously not every play is a read or an option-type play. But when it is, you're going to have to be sound and there's going to have to be responsibilities that everybody is going to have to take care of," Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said this week. "Because if not, that's when they take advantage of your missed assignment and the quarterback pulls it, or the running back has it. You can't jump out of gaps. Everybody's responsible for something. But then you have to be good on the plays that aren't designed to be read or option-type plays.
"They're moving the ball down the field or they're regular gap-scheme runs and so that's the challenge, that not every play is a read. We'll go back through and try to identify those plays that we need to improve on from the last time and try to be better this time."
Super Wild Card Weekend picks
I finished the regular season 173-82-1 after a 12-4 Week 17. I'll take a 67.8% win percentage in a very strange NFL season. Thirteen games left to go. Let's get started.
Colts at Bills
Saturday, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS
I wrote on Sunday that I don't think anyone is stopping the Bills from playing the Chiefs in the AFC title game. They're a Hail Murray away from a 10-game winning streak. Let's give Buffalo a second home playoff game next week.
The pick: Bills
Saturday, 4:40 p.m. ET, Fox
With all the uncertainty swirling around the quarterback position for the Rams, how can I possibly go against Russell Wilson? Per usual, the Seahawks don't look like world-beaters yet they've still won six of their last seven. Love the way this defense is coming along, too.
The pick: Seahawks
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC
What Washington has been able to do this season has been incredible. And I don't care that they won their 16th game with Philly laying down. As Ron Rivera said, you play who the other team puts out there. This probably won't be a blowout because Washington's defense matches up nicely with what the Bucs do well, and the game is being played in prime time, but I still have 43-year-old Tom Brady in his 42nd postseason start.
The pick: Buccaneers
Ravens at Titans
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, ABC
See the Titans note above? At some point, the luck has to run out. You can't be that bad defensively and expect to keep beating good teams. I'll play the odds here and bet Lamar Jackson gets his first playoff win just days after his 24th birthday.
The pick: Ravens
Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, CBS
I don't really see a way for the Bears to beat the Saints here. And that means with or without Alvin Kamara. The one thing New Orleans needs to do, though, is play more disciplined football on defense. Their 57 defensive penalties are tied for the league high, and no team this season had a larger margin with opponents in terms of penalties and penalty yards than New Orleans.
The pick: Saints
Browns at Steelers
Sunday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC
If the Browns had Kevin Stefanski on the sidelines, I'd take Cleveland here. I don't think Pittsburgh will go far in the playoffs with its inability to run the football. But Stefanski is in the running for Coach of the Year for a reason, and switching play-callers before the biggest game in the last two decades for this franchise is a huge deal. Pittsburgh's dominance continues.
The pick: Steelers