The closing week of the 2019 NFL Regular Season brought with it a lot of dead rubber matchups. The Tennessee Titans became the final team in the AFC playoffs thanks to a victory over the Houston Texans backups, while the Philadelphia Eagles secured their spot as the NFC East champion with a win over the Giants. Outside of that, the weekend was more about teams jockeying for draft position and looking to the future.
1. Notre Dame Prove Their Worth With Dominant Win Over Iowa State
Brian Kelly found himself in an unusual position ahead of the Camping World Bowl. Kelly suddenly needed to find a new play-caller for his offence that had averaged 37.1 points per game to that point in the season. Former offensive coordinator Chip Long left on December 15th reportedly due to his coaching style grating on those around him.
His style was obviously effective but having a coach who makes it a rule that players can't run out of bounds underpins the type of attitude he brought to the job. So Kelly turned to Tommy Rees, quarterbacks coach and a familiar name to anyone who has followed Notre Dame this decade.
Rees is a 27-year-old former quarterback who played for Kelly from 2010-2013. After his success at Notre Dame, he spent one year in the NFL before life brought him back to South Bend.
The early returns from the offence really weren't positive. On the team's first two third downs Rees called laterally running plays that didn't give the offence any chance of converting for the first down. Quarterback Ian Book scrambled for a first down after the second of those to ultimately give Notre Dame three points.
Three points courtesy of a muffed punt return from Iowa State. Things got better from there though. Notre Dame had 20 points and a 14-point lead at halftime thanks to big plays from Book and star wide receiver Chase Claypool.
Claypool was the star of the first half. He caught one big play deep downfield over the middle to set up a short touchdown run from the one-yard line. He then caught a touchdown of his own in the right corner of the endzone after finding the soft spot in the zone. Claypool had to make a tough adjustment to climb high then tap his toes while staying in bounds.
He had more than 100 yards by halftime. The Canadian senior is expected to be drafted for the NFL this offseason and his performances this year give him a chance to be taken in the early rounds, though it should be noted this year's class is considered to be particularly strong at the wide receiver spot. That could push him down.
After the Notre Dame defence stopped the Iowa State offence on the first drive of the third quarter, Tony Jones ran in an impressive 84-yard touchdown to essentially end the game as a contest. It was a play that was made to look so easy that it reminded fans of recent Notre Dame starters and current NFL starters Josh Adams(Eagles running back), Quenton Nelson (Colts left guard) and Mike McGlinchey (49ers right tackle) who all played together not so long ago.
It was 27-6 when Jones scored. Brian Kelly clearly wasn't missing his departed offensive coordinator. A 33-9 finish suggests that Notre Dame can feel aggrieved by their 15th-place ranking by the College Football Playoff Committee.
2. Cincinnati Bengals Have Easy Choice in Joe Burrow
On Saturday night, Joe Burrow of LSU put on a show. Burrow threw seven touchdown passes in the first half and ran for another in the second. This wasn't a powerhouse team playing against a minnow school, the type of mismatch that can generate these wacky stat games, it was the best team in the country against the fourth-best team in the country.
Burrow threw seven touchdowns because he was phenomenal. He was throwing with anticipation, precision and poise. He manipulated defenders in coverage and reacted well when pressured. There's little reason to think that Burrow shouldn't be the first-overall pick in the 2020 draft.
And that means that he will be a Cincinnati Bengal.
Andy Dalton had a good game in Week 17 against the Browns but he was benched for a reason. Dalton has never been someone who can elevate those around him or play the position with the nuance that Burrow is already showing at the college level.
The Bengals' potential with Burrow as their starting quarterback is far greater than it ever was with Dalton. Dalton was an anchor who prevented one of the best rosters in the league from passing the wildcard round multiple times.
Burrow will accelerate the Bengals rebuild by creating a greater margin for error for those around him. He'll obviously go through an adjustment period and development stages of his own early in his career, but the Bengals aren't going to turn it around in one year regardless.
The only argument against taking Burrow is selecting Chase Young this year to tank for Trevor Lawrence next year. As the Miami Dolphins found out this year, getting the top pick in the draft isn't always as easy as it seems.
Lawrence could also regress or be injured over the next 12 months. Burrow is a consensus top quarterback prospect. Those are rare. He might not work out, nothing is guaranteed, but he's ticked every box that a prospect can tick so far.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars Enter Critical Period
Having relieved Tom Coughlin of his duties as team president, the Jaguars let it be known that head coach Doug Marrone would be following him out the door. The Jaguars as a franchise were called out by the NFLPA for illegal fines of players, they were forced to repay $700,000 to Dante Fowler.
Fowler tweeted about it, claiming the Jaguars executives hated him. Jalen Ramsey wasn't as direct with his response to Coughlin's firing, but his issues in Jacksonville are well documented. Lineback Telvin Smith chose not to play for the Jaguars at all this season, instead, retiring for the year.
All in all, it was obvious to everyone watching that Coughlin simply didn't treat his players like adults. The NFLPA has recommended players consider their options in free agency if they are going to sign with the Jaguars. That's a major hit to the franchise, but that's just the official stance, what the players are saying/have said to each other will have an even greater impact. Jaguars ownership had no real choice but to clean house.
Marrone as a coach was also holding the team back by running such a limited offensive scheme. They have high draft picks upcoming and will have cap space if they can spend it. They also have plenty of pieces to trade away to maximize the equity in any potential rebuild. Making the right choice at head coach and at quarterback will determine the direction they go in moving forward.
Nick Foles isn't the answer. His contract needs to be jettisoned. Gardner Minshew has been fun, but he's also not proven to be a true starting-calibre talent yet. Maybe he could start again next year but the Jaguars need to be looking for top-tier talent at that position. They haven't had good quarterback play since David Garrard more than a decade ago.
The Ramsey trade means that the Jaguars have two first-round picks in each of the next two drafts. If they see a quarterback they desperately want, they theoretically have the capital to go and get him.
4. The Super Bowl Favorites Should Come from the AFC
Patrick Mahomes recently called himself a cold-weather quarterback last week. He didn't need to be one this week but he will if the Chiefs are going to reach the Super Bowl in Miami. The Chiefs' victory over the Los Angeles Chargers was sealed when Mahomes hit Tyreek Hill deep down the middle of the field late in the fourth quarter.
At the same time, the Patriots were losing in a shock result at home to the Miami Dolphins. That made the Chiefs the #2 seed in the AFC, guaranteeing them a first-round bye then a home game in the playoffs. If they win that, they'll most likely be travelling to Baltimore to play the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.
Lamar Jackson has never beaten the Chiefs. The Chiefs beat the Ravens earlier this season and they beat the Ravens with Jackson as the starter last season. It would be a fascinating matchup because the primary reason the Ravens lost to the Chiefs in Kansas City this year was their gameplan. Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman didn't stick with the run and sought out too many deep shot passing plays on early downs.
In any potential rematch, the assumption is they wouldn't repeat that mistake.
Regardless of who would win between the Ravens and Chiefs, the AFC representative should be the favourite in Miami against whoever wins the NFC. The last two MVPs are so difficult to gameplan against and none of their NFC counterparts is clearly superior to their teams to offset that quarterback quality.
5. OTB Regular Season Awards
Most Valuable Player: Lamar Jackson.
Patrick Mahomes' 2018 season was spectacular and it was obvious from relatively early on that he would be the league's MVP. It took until the second half of the season for Lamar Jackson to secure his spot as the league's best player this season, but now there is no argument. Jackson finishes the regular season with 4,333 total yards and 43 touchdowns despite not playing in Week 17.
Offensive Player of the Year: Christian McCaffrey.
This should be called the non-Lamar Jackson award. For the purposes of these awards, we're excluding the MVP from this category. Obviously Jackson was the best offensive player in the league this year. McCaffrey also had an incredible year.
McCaffrey became the first player since Marshall Faulk in 1999 and only the third player in NFL history to finish the season with 1,000+ rushing yards and 1,000+ receiving yards. He did so in an offence without Cam Newton, but that likely helped him to that production because without Newton they had to force the ball into his hands.
Defensive Player of the Year: Chandler Jones.
Moving from the New England Patriots to the Arizona Cardinals took Chandler Jones out of the (inter)national spotlight. He's no longer a household name in the NFL, but he's still one of the best players in the NFL and produced better than anyone this season.
He and Shaquille Barrett led the league in sacks from start to finish, but Jones did so in a tougher situation and was the better all-around contributor on defence.
Coach of the Year: John Harbaugh.
This award is inevitably given to the coach of the team who wins more games than wider media expected them to win in August. It's why Matt Nagy and Jason Garrett have won it more recently than Bill Belichick.
John Harbaugh's Ravens team are better than expected, but he wins this award because he is the one who embraced Lamar Jackson, he is the one who oversaw the revamping of the offence in the offseason, he's also the one who oversaw the rebuilding of the defence during the season to get that side of the ball right. Harbaugh has done a better job than anyone else in the league this year.
Rookie of the Year: Josh Jacobs
This is a crowded award this season. Both Kyler Murray and Daniel Jones have strong cases. Terry McLaurin and Darius Slayton have stood out as wide receivers in the NFC East.
Nick Bosa has been integral to the San Francisco 49ers turnaround. Mecole Hardman, Noah Fant and Drew Lock have all been impressive but haven't done enough. Oakland Raiders running back Josh Jacobs has been outstanding every single game this year.
He was a primary reason why the Raiders were pushing for a playoff spot at the end of the regular season.
Breakout Player: Darren Waller
The other player pushing the Raiders offence is the focal point of their passing game. Tight end Darren Waller entered the league in 2015 but had multiple suspensions under the substance-abuse policy. Since then he has gotten sober and become one of the toughest covers in the league. He's essentially Oakland's version of George Kittle.
Most Improved Player: Shaquille Barrett
Unlike Waller, Shaq Barrett has been a contributor in the league for a few years now. He played for the Denver Broncos for four years, contributing to that historic 2016 defence. He was a backup who rotated in and out of the lineup.
Then he signed for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the offseason, became a starter and finished the season with 19.5 sacks. Barrett's pass-rushing skill set has been refined to the point that he's often unstoppable off the edge.