NFL insider notes: Thanksgiving games put hot-seat coaches in spotlight, expect a messy AFC playoff race, more
Another poor performance on Turkey Day could seal the fate of Matt Patricia, Jason Garrett and Dan Quinn
No one at the league office could have foreseen this. The NFL schedule is impossible enough to plan, and packing three games into the Thanksgiving window further complicates matters.
Finding three compelling games this late in the season of a sport that is uniquely week-to-week, without being able to flex them, is a tall task. Back in the spring, Bears/Lions, Bills/Cowboys and Saints/Falcons looked like feature matchups; now all three have something in common for a very different reason. Three of these Thanksgiving coaches – Jason Garrett (Cowboys), Dan Quinn (Falcons), and Matt Patricia (Lions) – entered this season with varying amounts of pressure to improve, ASAP, and as these games approach, all are firmly on the proverbial hot seat with another poor performance on Thursday likely cementing their fate, and, in some cases, perhaps even triggering an in-season change.
These three are not alone, as the nature of this league results in 6-7 coaching changes a year, on average. But of all the men whose futures are being debated inside owner's suites and boardrooms, few are generating more chatter around the league than this trio (Ron Rivera's future in Carolina, Doug Marrone's in Jacksonville and Pat Shurmur's in New York would fall in a similar category of intrigue). It is impossible to consider this slate of games on Thursday and not contemplate the underlying subplot in all three, where it may be getting very late indeed for the head coaches of the three home teams taking part in these holiday games.
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Patricia is in only his second season, but there has been no shortage of drama and crushing defeats and unusual results in this small-by-comparison sample size, and he's had a difficult time connecting with others in Detroit. The man he replaced, Jim Caldwell, was one of the most successful coaches in Lions history and had them in the playoffs; the Lions are 9-17-1 under Patricia after winning that many games in each of Caldwell's final two seasons.
Detroit has held the lead in 15 of those 27 games, yet won only one third of the time, with the defense – Patricia's side of the ball – repeatedly letting them down (Week 1 at Arizona among those games that immediately come to mind). Ownership's angst about the situation has been increasing by the week, to the point where the coach's job security is now a staple of weekly press conferences. Having Matthew Stafford likely out for the season with a back injury does Patricia no favors, but then again, teams are winning with backup QBs this season like never before.
Bottom line is the Bears offense has been abysmal basically every week all season and Mitchell Trubisky is a developmental QB at this point, and if Patricia's defense gets shredded on Thursday it might be time to put Stafford on IR and start considering macro-level questions about 2020 in the immediate future. Tensions are high in that building, with losses in seven of the last eight games, and the only victory in that span coming over the just-as-hapless Giants (who have lost seven straight).
The Cowboys don't get an extended break after their annual Thanksgiving Day game, facing the Bears the following Thursday. It doesn't really matter, as no one I talk to in the league could foresee Jerry Jones ending his long-and-largely-futile relationship with Garrett in-season, anyway. But a loss to the Bills coming off a poor showing Sunday against the Patriots would only strengthen the argument that the Cowboys do not beat quality teams and do their best work against the dregs of the NFL (two of which reside in their division).
Even if they lose, the Cowboys will still be in the lead in the NFC East, with one game remaining with the Eagles that will likely settle the division. But December was never going to determine Garret's fate; it was always going to be January. As I reported last month, Jones has been telling confidants since the summer that he believes he has built a Super Bowl team, and unless the Cowboys truly contend, he would be hiring a new coach. He never considered giving Garrett an extension in the offseason – which spoke volumes – and he's had an eye on Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma for quite some time now.
Clearly, this is a huge game for Garrett, with all of America watching (on CBS I might note!). A late season swoon and major changes are coming in 2020.
Quinn, Rivera and Garrett entered the season with the most to win or lose this season, all three under significant scrutiny. Like Rivera, Quinn took over his side of the ball (defense) with owner Arthur Blank believing he had built a Lombardi contender after a woeful 2018 campaign. Turns out the Falcons are just as bad this year as they were last year – utterly non-competitive far too often – and even having Quinn no longer call the defense provided only a two-week reprieve before that unit got gashed again Sunday.
It's been inevitable for quite some time that Blank would be making major changes in 2020, and, if the Saints do to the Falcons what Vegas thought they would do the Falcons two weeks ago (before Atlanta played its best game in years), then it might be difficult for Blank to continue down this road any longer. Atlanta continues to get punked at home in this glistening new stadium (1-4 at home, outscored 143-86). Blank might be inclined to finally relent and make a move now to get a jump on the search for the next head coach (and likely GM, too).
For the second straight year the meaningful portion of Atlanta's season was over by around Halloween, and with a huge payroll and coaching staff loaded with former head coaches, that isn't what Blank thought he was signing up for. I have a hard time thinking the Saints will take their rival lightly after what just happened at the Superdome earlier this month, and with New Orleans chasing San Francisco for the top seed in the NFC.
Look for a messy AFC playoff race, with four potentially tied at 9-7
The playoff chase in the AFC will likely be decided by seven head-to-head meetings of contenders in the final five weeks of the season that will go a long way to settling two division races and both wild card spots. Three of those grudge-match games take place this week, and three more over the following two weeks, none in Week 16, and one in Week 17.
I've played them out in my head and on paper, and I keep coming back to Baltimore, New England, Kansas City and Tennessee (in a three-team tiebreaker) wining the divisions, with Buffalo and four teams potentially tied at 9-7 for the wild card spots, in another massive tiebreaker situation. I really believe it will be that murky down to the end.
This week, if the Chiefs beat the Raiders, to me, that settles the AFC West. The loser of Steelers/Browns is not going to reach the postseason, I don't believe. And while the Titans/Colts looks like an elimination game as well, when you study the remaining schedule and how many divisional games and common-opponent games loom, I don't think it will provide all that much clarity (the Titans and Texans have yet to play, for instance, while the Colts go on to face three straight NFC South teams, most of whom the Titans and Texans have already played).
Those games are huge because there could be a scenario where the Texans, Colts and Titans are all 9-7, and two of them are 4-2 in the division, which would then take it down to the common-opponent tiebreaker, and then AFC record. In week 14, the Raiders host the Titans, with huge ramifications on the line, and in Week 15 the Titans host the Texans and the Steelers host the Bills. If the Steelers can win their remaining AFC games before Week 17 (when they face the Ravens), that locks them at no worse than 9-7 with eight wins within the conference, which could help set up another complicated wild card tiebreaker.
In Week 17, the only matchup between this grouping of teams (Bills, Raiders, Titans, Steelers, Browns, Texans, Colts) is Titans at Texans. Could very well be a win or go home game.
I'm inclined to maintain that the Bills are the only non-division winner in the AFC who will reach 10 wins or more, and dissecting the remaining schedule, I suspect we see at least three other teams tied with nine wins.
In a year when so many teams made significant trades to boost their playoff odds, time will continue to frown upon the Bengals and Broncos for doing basically nothing at the deadline, and on the Rams and Giants for making shortsighted gambles on Jalen Ramsey and Leonard Williams. New York giving up a third-round pick to rent Williams – who good teams did not want – and pay him all that money to continue what is now a seven-game slide, and for the defense to be as bad as ever with him, defies all logic. I can't figure the Dave Gettleman era out there, try as I might. With each week it looks more bleak (Saquon Barkley was always over-drafted), and that messy cleanup is going to take a long time. As I chronicled in this space last week, the Rams are not the team they thought they were, and might be quite a ways from getting back there, especially without draft capital in the next two drafts … Poor Andy Dalton. What did he do to deserve this? Behind that dreadful offensive line, I hope he can avoid injury. If the Bengals manage to get him hurt and destroy his trade value, it would make their ridiculous stance at the trade deadline look all the more crushing.
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