This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything I found interesting from the NFL Week 17 Sunday action. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun. I hope you enjoy it and learn something cool—and if you do, I hope you’re back next week, when we do it all again.
The Big Thing: The Philadelphia Eagles Are Done
A lot happened this past NFL Sunday. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.
Since the start of the 2007 season, the Philadelphia Eagles have played 290 regular- and postseason games. By success rate, their defensive performance this week against the Arizona Cardinals ranks 290th.
I have a nonnegotiable rule. It goes as such: If you have your worst defensive performance in 17 years against a three-win team featuring Greg Dortch, you are not to be considered a serious playoff team. And as such, the Eagles are out.
The Eagles lost 34-31 to the Cardinals. They lost at home. They lost when they had so much to play for—if they’d won this game (and the next game, against an equally bad Giants team), they would have secured the no. 2 seed in the NFC. They lost to a team coached by Jonathan Gannon, their ex-defensive coordinator who left under acrimonious conditions following the Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs (a game in which the Eagles had their 284th-worst defensive performance since 2007). They lost because they gave up four touchdowns on four drives in the second half, and each one felt as inevitable as the last. This was a crippling, embarrassing loss.
It’s one thing to lose a game; even the good teams do that. It’s another thing to clearly lack any internal belief. It’s not just that the Eagles are worse than they were last year (though they certainly are)—it’s that the Eagles don’t feel, at all, like they did last season. That’s both the external sensation of watching them and the internal one the players and coaches are experiencing.
Consider the past few weeks. When third-year wide receiver DeVonta Smith was asked about going over 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons following last week’s win over the Giants, he responded by saying he’s frustrated with the state of the offense. After the same game (again, the Eagles won, scoring 33 points), receiver A.J. Brown said, “I got nothing nice to say,” and he refused to speak to the media. Head coach Nick Sirianni was caught on camera arguing heatedly with outside linebackers coach Jeremiah Washburn following a fourth-down timeout. Defensive coordinator Sean Desai was replaced as the defensive play caller by senior defensive assistant Matt Patricia, which reminds me …
… I have another nonnegotiable rule. It goes as such: If you’re struggling on defense and your solution is to give Matt Patricia (who is already on your staff for some reason) more responsibility, you are not to be considered a serious playoff team. And as such, the Eagles are out.
The fact that the Eagles pivoted to Patricia as play caller is perhaps the single most damning moment of this forsaken season. It showed they were so desperate for answers that they’d try anything—when the reality is that the real problems with their defense are currently unaddressable.
The Eagles are supposed to be a team that dominates with its defensive line. That’s what they did during their run to the NFC championship last year. Yet, despite all the investment in the front seven—including an extension for Josh Sweat; a big contract for Haason Reddick; and first-round picks on Jalen Carter, Jordan Davis, and Nolan Smith—the Eagles are currently 15th in pressure rate and 25th in sack rate. They were supposed to lean on a pair of strong veteran cornerbacks in Darius Slay and James Bradberry to suffocate top receivers, yet only three defenses see a greater portion of their opponents’ targets go to wide receivers than the Eagles do.
The supposed strengths of the Eagles defense aren’t working, and there isn’t anything you can do about that schematically. Few defenses could survive without controlling the trenches, but it is especially true for a Philadelphia team that fields the worst linebacker corps in the entire league. The Cardinals gained 221 rushing yards on 40 carries on Sunday; imagine what a team with an actually good offense, like the Lions with their two-headed backfield and dominant offensive line, would do to the Eagles in the playoffs. Again, few defenses could survive playing man coverage with two aging corners and no playable youth behind them, as the Eagles have for the past month. The Cardinals’ Kyler Murray had six incompletions on 31 attempts—what will the Dallas Cowboys do, with Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb both playing career ball, in January?
One last thing about no pass rush and no coverage: You can’t get off the field. The Eagles rank 31st in third-down defense.
So the coaching change did nothing, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nobody outside of the Eagles building thought Patricia would make this a better defense, and I don’t think anyone inside of the building believed it either. The Eagles are now coming off of back-to-back 30-point performances on offense, and everyone on that side of the ball is frustrated; their defense can’t stop anyone, and it doesn’t seem to be so much frustrated as it is deflated. The defense knows it doesn’t have any real answers. And the offense? It’ll pretend it has answers coming around the corner—but I wrote about my doubts about solutions on that side of the ball in late December.
This Eagles season, in which they were the last remaining one-loss team, has become a funeral march. As the 5-seed visiting the NFC South winner (either the Buccaneers or the Saints), they might be favored; they might even win. But a team that loses to the Cardinals is capable of losing to anyone, even teams quarterbacked by Baker Mayfield or Derek Carr, and they certainly aren’t capable of winning two games against the Lions, Cowboys, and 49ers in consecutive weeks.
The defending NFC champion is juiceless. Their season is dead. We’re all just waiting for the final blow.
The Little Things
It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.
1. A REAL OFFENSE around Lamar Jackson
A five-touchdown performance in a blowout win that secures the top seed of the AFC usually seals the MVP—and that’s exactly what Jackson, who has been the MVP candidate of choice in this column since October, had against the Dolphins on Sunday.
But this offensive explosion was less about Jackson, who has been delivering performances like this one pretty much all season, and more about the offense around him. There was an excellent sideline catch from Odell Beckham Jr., who has been used sparingly this season and should be fresh for the playoffs, and a one-handed snag on fourth-and-7 by Isaiah Likely, who turned it upfield for a touchdown.
But perhaps more remarkable were the contributions of offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who opened up some of the easiest passing touchdowns you’ll ever see against a stingy Dolphins defense. The Zay Flowers 75-yarder late in the first half, when the game was still close? That’s the exact sort of motion and route that opposing offensive designer Mike McDaniel popularized.
SEVENTY-FIVE YARD TOUCHDOWN FOR ZAY FLOWERS!!!!!— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) December 31, 2023
Tune in on CBS! pic.twitter.com/1rxQdgbKGf
Or what about Likely’s second touchdown and this one from Patrick Ricard? Both were the same design, and both were a nice wrinkle off of a common red concept we’re seeing around the league.
There were people—heck, there probably still are—who believed that Jackson was a run-first quarterback who could never sustain a real passing offense. One year removed from a Greg Roman offense that had six total passing concepts and featured Demarcus Robinson and Sammy Watkins at wide receiver, behold: Jackson will be the league MVP for the second time in five years. When he won it in 2019, he was the youngest to do so in the Super Bowl era. If he wins again this year, he’ll be the youngest to win his second. What a player.
2. GOOD SCHEDULING (but bad FLEXING)
If you are like me (read: a titanic geek), the NFL schedule is an object of great fascination. All those moving parts—rest advantages, travel advantages, shared stadiums, prime-time games, flex opportunities, TV ratings—to be juggled and considered. It’s a puzzle lover’s dream!
Kudos to the schedule-makers for putting Bills-Dolphins in Week 18: The winner of the game wins the AFC East. The same may be true for Texans-Colts on Saturday night; the winner of that game will win the AFC South if the Jaguars lose to the Texans on Sunday. Great matchups.
And yet what a missed opportunity in putting Bills-Dolphins on Sunday Night Football when every other game will already be decided. The Bills can still make the playoffs with a loss to Miami, should the Jaguars lose or Steelers lose or Texans and Colts tie. This dramatically lowers the stakes. Obviously, home-field advantage matters for all teams (and it especially matters for Buffalo with the potential for weather), but the Bills could have been playing this game while unsure whether a loss would eliminate them completely. Big swing and a miss there.
3. THE THIRD PHASE
You know how the Ravens have been shredding every good team they’ve faced for the past two months? Yeah, there was one opponent that gave them trouble: the Los Angeles Rams, who forced overtime at 31-31 in Baltimore before …
Yeah. That was a tough loss. Tougher still would have been losing to the Giants on Sunday, with a playoff berth hanging in the balance. Yet the Rams almost did that, too—the exact same way:
We spend most of the regular season talking about offense and defense, schemes and stars, quarterbacks, quarterbacks, and quarterbacks. When we get to postseason football, and everyone has the big strokes accounted for, the little stuff really starts to matter. Tackling. Health. And special teams.
I love the Rams’ chances as a playoff spoiler. But, man, I’m worried their punt coverage issues might lose them a close playoff game.
4. I’M NOT SAYING IT
I will not say the Bears should keep Fields. I will not say the Bears should keep Fields. I will not say the Bears should keep Fields. I will not say the Bears should keep Fields. I will not say the Bears should keep Fields. I will not say the Bears should keep Fields. I will not— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) December 31, 2023
The Zag: I Want the Commanders Head-Coaching Job
I tend to be a little contrarian. It’s not so much a personal choice as it is an occupational hazard. Here’s where I’ll plant my flag.
Listen, it’s Week 17. Christmas was last week, and New Year’s Eve was this week. My brain—like yours, probably—is a little fried.
With that said: I spent about three minutes on Sunday frantically Googling who the Commanders’ interim head coach was … until I realized they hadn’t fired Ron Rivera yet. I’m not proud of this. It is my professional obligation to, you know, know what’s going on in the NFL. But I’ve considered the Rivera firing to be inevitable for so long that, at some point, I just assumed it had happened.
Anyway: The Commanders lost to the 49ers 27-10 on Sunday. At one point near the end of the second quarter, the game was 10-10, and it looked like Washington would play a frisky game against a true contender—the hallmark of a bad team that’s fighting hard for its head coach in a lost season—until the 49ers got out of first gear. By halftime, the Niners were up by three, and it was, essentially, over.
With midseason trades of Chase Young and Montez Sweat (who is still the Commanders’ sack leader this season, by the way), the Commanders gave up on a deteriorating defense; around the same time, it became clear that Sam Howell was a plucky, young quarterback, but he wouldn’t be the future of the franchise.
When the Commanders made those trades on Halloween, they were 3-5. Since then, they are 1-7. And their current seven-game losing streak, masterfully crafted by the lame-duck coaching staff, has the Commanders sitting in line to pick second in the draft (thanks to a win from the Arizona Cardinals this past Sunday).
That is a great pick to have this year. Both USC’s Caleb Williams and UNC’s Drake Maye look like stellar QB prospects to me—and while the Bears (who own the two-win Panthers’ first-rounder) control the top of the draft, there is absolutely nothing wrong with landing the other quarterback in a duo like this. Washington, should its draft position hold following a Week 18 game against the Cowboys (who are still trying to clinch the NFC East), will have the chance to draft its QB of the future.
And that isn’t all. While the departures of Young and Sweat certainly hurt the roster, Washington’s cupboards are far from bare. The best support for a rookie quarterback is a true WR1, and the Commanders already have Terry McLaurin. And, hey, Jahan Dotson is a nice WR2. Between Brian Robinson Jr. and Chris Rodriguez, they have a nice backfield duo to join those receivers. The offensive line isn’t great—this despite recent contracts given to Nick Gates and Andrew Wylie and Charles Leno Jr.—but Howell’s tomfoolery (he’s taken a league-high 61 sacks) has made the line look far worse than it is, by my estimation.
The Commanders’ offensive situation is solid; that’s rare for a team that also has the second pick. As coaching candidates start to line up interviews in January, why would they prefer, say, the Falcons or Raiders jobs if both were open? Both teams need new quarterbacks but don’t have premium draft picks, and their rosters, while somewhat better than the Commanders’, aren’t far enough ahead to really make a difference.
For a long time, there was one reason a head-coaching candidate would take any job—literally, any job—over the Commanders job: Dan Snyder. But he’s gone. Snyder sold the team, and now billionaire Josh Harris and Co. own the team. One of your new bosses could be Magic Johnson? You’re allowed to hire analytics people? You won’t be embroiled in a PR nightmare/possible crime every third month?
I think the Commanders gig is actually pretty sweet. It’s a rebuild, sure, but it’s got some of the pieces already in place to be a successful one.
(Mostly Real) Awards
I’ll hand out some awards. Most of them will be real. Some of them won’t be.
Offensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week) (but maybe actually of the Year?): Rams WR Puka Nacua
I think Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud will win the actual award. Betting markets agree: FanDuel has Stroud at -1000 to win, which implies about a 90 percent chance. I think Stroud deserves to win, too—he’s been very, very good.
But the Rams’ Nacua is about to set the record for rookie receiving yards. Now, lots of guys set records these days (especially with the 17-game season), so sometimes, those new records don’t mean much. But the rookie receiving record has stood since 1960, when William Frederick Groman stepped in as the LE/RHB for the Houston Oilers and racked up 1,473 yards on 72 catches (and just 14 games!).
When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, he could have told the moon, “Bill Groman has held the rookie receiving record, with 1,473 yards, for the past nine years,” and ever since then, every time NASA sends someone/some robot to the moon, they could update the moon that “Bill Groman’s record still holds.” The moon has been waiting over half a century for this record to be broken, and with 1,445 yards, Nacua is only 29 yards away from breaking it!
If the Rams rest their starters against the 49ers next week, I will cry. And the moon will rejoice. (I’ve kinda lost the thread on the moon thing.)
Defensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week) (but maybe actually of the Year?): Texans pass rusher Will Anderson Jr.
Defensive Rookie of the Year is closer than its offensive counterpart, but not by much—Eagles defensive tackle Jalen Carter is currently -500 on FanDuel to win the award.
I think Carter deserves to win it. He looks like a legit top disruptor already, and the advanced metrics back that up—he’s top six in pass rush win rate at defensive tackle as a rookie, for goodness’ sake.
But it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the production of the Texans defensive end, who now has seven sacks on the season following a two-sack performance against the Titans in a season-preserving win on Sunday. Anderson did that despite having only 11 pass-rushing snaps—he was on a pitch count as he returned from injury.
It might be too little too late, as Anderson’s missed time hurts his season-long sack number. But, man, he really looks the part.
The Loser of This Game Was Always Gonna Get a Freak-Out From His Fan Base Award: Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll
The 8-7 Steelers against the 8-7 Seahawks. Tons of playoff leverage on the line for both teams. Two long-tenured, Super Bowl–winning head coaches who haven’t had much playoff success as of late. The environment in Seattle was ripe for a nice, healthy franchise freak-out, and the hometown Seahawks drew the short straw.
There is cause for legitimate concern in Seattle. Pittsburgh’s QB3, Mason Rudolph, dropped 274 yards on a Seahawks defense that started the season suspiciously strong and has since cratered. In 2022, Carroll initiated a huge shift in defensive philosophy. He moved on from the branches of the Legion of Boom coaching tree by firing defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., and he accepted the Fangio system into his life, hiring Sean Desai, who is now with the Eagles, and promoting Clint Hurtt. Through two seasons, it isn’t working—and this year, it has been especially bad, as the Seahawks pass rush died following the injury to Uchenna Nwosu.
Still, there is reason to believe Carroll is the guy to fix the problems—even though they were of his own making. The Seahawks are still drafting and developing talent at one of the league’s best clips; Carroll deserves tons of credit there. Carroll also has a ton of defensive coaching experience from a deep background working on that side of the ball, and if he makes a defensive coordinator change, I imagine it’s to go back to what he knows well and loves.
Any Seahawks fans experiencing undue Carroll consternation should recall just how much worse off the Broncos are right now. Take a deep breath. Even when it seems bad, it’s not that bad. You’re in good hands with Pete.
The Spelling Award: Whatever local Wisconsin news station this is
Mom, don’t look.
Next Ben Stats
What it sounds like: Next Gen Stats, but I get to make them up.
8.7: That’s the air yards on David Tepper’s ice cubes
Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper apparently tossed the contents of a cup on Jaguars fans after the Panthers lost on Sunday.
Go read that first sentence again.
That’s preposterous and embarrassing. This is a grown man. Not only is this a grown man—this is a team owner. He, along with the rest of the owners, helps set and litigate the conduct policy for the team’s employees—that is to say, the players on the field. And this is how he behaves! It’s very pathetic.
But, hey, this is still one of the better tosses we saw from a Panthers employee in EverBank Stadium this Sunday.
8.7: That’s what an Isiah Pacheco footfall registers as on the Richter scale
Watch the way he tucks his head when he gets to the third level. I love him so much.
Have never seen another human being on earth run like Isiah Pacheco pic.twitter.com/zSGF4VPh1h— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) December 31, 2023
Cowboys defensive back Jourdan Lewis said it best:
Pacheco run like he bite people.— Jourdan Lewis (@JourdanJD) December 31, 2023
100: The percent chance that NFL referees ruin a playoff game and the league endures an entire offseason of criticism
Off of Saturday’s Lions-Cowboys game, we’re all thinkin’ it; I’m just sayin’ it: The refs are gonna blow a playoff game. I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill “shoulda called pass interference and didn’t”—I’m talking about something as painfully easy as the failed eligibility reporting from Lions-Cowboys.
Eligible receiver analysis pic.twitter.com/cr2mvHTTWs— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) December 31, 2023
That bungled play and Detroit’s ensuing loss, by the way, functionally guaranteed that the Lions will get the no. 3 seed, which is extremely meaningful for a quarterback with stark home/away splits, as Jared Goff has.
Or, hey, maybe the refs will ruin it by making not just a standard blown PI, but the worst missed pass interference ever. Remember this? Now think about this happening in the upcoming postseason, with millions of dollars wagered on the game via sportsbooks the league is openly endorsing and embracing.
The infamous pass interference no-call— Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) January 20, 2022
️ 3 years ago today: Saints vs. Rams in the NFC Championship Game
New Orleans Saints -3 pic.twitter.com/ByvZbxFcLA
A New Year’s Resolution
Because that’s what you do this time of year.
I resolve to be more like Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell. If something isn’t working in my life, I’ll just throw it out and try something else. My starting quarterback goes down? Go trade for Josh Dobbs. But start Jaren Hall. Then put Dobbs in and succeed, for a little while at least. But then bench Dobbs for Nick Mullens, who you then bench for Hall, who you then, at halftime of a Week 17 game you’re losing to the Packers, bench for Mullens. That’s the sort of fickle flightiness I’m trying to emulate in 2024.
Happy New Year’s everyone. I can’t believe you read this ridiculous column. You’re one of the greats, and the new year will treat you appropriately.