The Week 12 Awards
On huge performances by the three best edge players in the league- Von Miller, Justin Houston and Khalil Mack
The Award Section
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Mark Ingram, running back, New Orleans. With apologies to the peerless Drew Brees (four touchdown passes, no picks) in the stunningly easy 49-21 rout of the Rams, Ingram came out of concussion protocol during the week to have the best Sunday of any back in football: 14 carries for 146 yards and a touchdown, and one reception for 21 yards and a TD. Running hard and making Rams miss, Ingram had 167 total yards, the best one by a back against a very good defense this year.
Taylor Gabriel, wide receiver/special-teamer, Atlanta. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan twice dialed up the same play with the lightning-quick Gabriel: the step-back from the left flank, the immediate dart of a throw from Matt Ryan, and off to the races for the slippery Gabriel—35 yards for a touchdown the first time, and 25 yards for a touchdown the second time. Gabriel (who is as big a danger in the open field as Darren Sproles, which is saying something) has become the kind of threat to free up the other Falcons playmakers, because when he’s on the field, the defense will pay respect. In the past three games Gabriel, picked up off the waiver wire when Cleveland cut him before the season, has 13 touches for 254 yards and four touchdowns. It is positively amazing that the Browns could not find a spot on their roster for a talent like Gabriel.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Fitting. Three best edge players sharing the best defensive player award in a crucial week.
Von Miller, linebacker, Denver. Ten tackles, three sacks and two more significant pressures, and a tackle of Tyreek Hill behind the line, a tipped pass on the last-gasp Kansas City drive in the final minute of regulation … in a game in which the Broncos needed Miller desperately. Denver was in this thanks in large part to one of the best games Miller has played for them.
Justin Houston, linebacker, Kansas City. Entering Sunday night in Denver, Houston had played 12 mostly ineffective games (due to a knee injury) since his monster 22.5-sack season of 2014. Finally, for the first time since a four-sack finale against San Diego 23 months ago, Houston was the feared defensive force he hasn’t been in so long. With three first-half sacks and a continued fearsome presence in the second half and overtime despite leaving for a few plays with a banged shoulder, Houston was a vital factor in the Chiefs’ win in Denver.
Khalil Mack, linebacker, Oakland. So Houston, if he can stay healthy, may be a factor in the conversation of the best edge player in football. But for now, based on what we’ve seen over the past couple of years, Von Miller and this man, third-year rusher Mack, are the most dangerous edge players in the NFL. Mack was masterful against the Panthers in Oakland’s 35-32 win, picking a pass out of the sky against Cam Newton late in the first half and running it in for a touchdown (complete with a Lambeau Leap into the Black Hole). On the Panthers’ last gasp to make this a game—and to make this a season, quite frankly—Mack strip-sacked Newton on fourth down in the last minute to clinch a 35-32 win. What a fearsome player.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Justin Tucker, kicker, Baltimore. It’s notable that the snapper (Morgan Cox) and holder (Sam Koch) are fabulous and really consistent. Tucker won this before halftime, with field goals from 52, 57 and 54 yards in the first half against Cincinnati. So he had the wind with him. Watching this game, the kick from 57 would have been good from 65, easy, and the kick from 54, would have been good from 70, easy. Tucker is the best kicker in football right now (18 for 18 beyond 40 yards), perfect on 42 PATs and field goals. It’s not up for debate.
Tyreek Hill, punt returner/wide receiver, Kansas City. Hill became the first player with a rushing TD, receiving TD and kick return TD in a single game since Gale Sayers (1965 Bears against Vikings). The fifth-round rookie from that football power West Alabama (don’t tell Malcolm Butler) returned a free kick after a safety 86 yards for a second-quarter touchdown in Denver; had a three-yard TD run with 30 seconds left in the third quarter to give the Chiefs the lead; and caught a touchdown pass at the goal-line to help push the game to overtime. Hill is a dangerous Chief, with the speed and shiftiness reminiscent of Dante Hall.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Mike Mularkey, head coach, Tennessee. So Mularkey was roundly second-guessed (that's putting it nicely) for his 1993 approach to offensive football before the season—namely, for deciding the Titans would be a running team more than a passing team. He built up the offensive line and drafted a running back high, planning to plow the ball and keep it out of the hands of the opposing offense. Hey, whatever works. The Titans struggled to a 1-3 start, but the Titans have won five of eight to move to a half-game out of first in the weak AFC South. It helps that Mularkey has a precocious quarterback who doesn't make many mistakes. But it also helps, as in games such as Tennessee's 27-21 win at Chicago on Sunday, that he sticks to the plan he made for this team when the Titans gave him the full-time gig.
GOAT OF THE WEEK
Mike Nugent, kicker, Cincinnati. In a 16-12 loss to Buffalo last week, Nugent missed his only two extra point tries. On the Bengals’ first touchdown of the day at Baltimore on Sunday, with Baltimore up 16-9, Nugent went wide right. Three extra-point misses in a row. Three 33-yard kicks in a row, missed. It’s not about the fact that Nugent missed a game-winner or game-decider either week. It’s just missing three straight PATs. Inexcusable.
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Right Combination of the Week
Tom Brady, quarterback, and Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, New England. As TV cameras at NFL games often do, CBS cameras caught Brady and McDaniels in an earnest discussion during the tighter-than-expected 22-17 Patriots victory over the Jets in the Meadowlands. Who knows what they were discussing, but what I’ve learned in the 13 years they’ve worked together on the Patriots’ offense is they’re one of the best quarterback/coach combinations I’ve seen in my 32 years covering pro football. The preternatural calm between them translates to success on the field; players don’t tighten up when the quarterback and the play-caller don’t tighten up. In the last 10 minutes of a game the Patriots slogged through, McDaniels called and Brady executed drives of 53 yards (to a field goal) and 83 yards (to a touchdown), and the Patriots had another victory in the Meadowlands. It was the 200th victory of Brady’s regular- and post-season career, tying him with Peyton Manning for the most by a quarterback in NFL history, and 13 of those wins have been in New Jersey, against the Jets (11) and Giants (two).
And it’s worth noting the great combination too, in part, because you don’t know how much longer it’ll last. There was a report by NBC colleague Mike Florio that McDaniels was not among the assistant coaches listed as prime candidates for 2017 head-coaching openings by an influential NFL committee, perhaps because of the impression that McDaniels wants to stay as the eventual successor to Bill Belichick. I have no doubt Florio’s report is correct—that this committee feels McDaniels is tied to Belichick. He is not, however. I firmly believe McDaniels, who coached the Broncos for 28 games before being fired midway through 2010, would be interested in a job in the right circumstances—a strong organization with a quarterback who gives the team a chance to win. Who knows if that will come along, but I think McDaniels is ready, and would go under the right circumstances. He said as much to the New England press last week. For now, appreciate the Brady-McDaniels combination while you can.
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Stats of the Week
Darrelle Revis, 31, is seven months older than Aqib Talib, 30. The way they’re playing, the age gap might as well be seven years. Or more. The Pro Football Focus ratings of cornerbacks heading into the home stretch of the season (not including Sunday’s games) show Revis’ stark dive and that the other former Patriot has been the best corner in the league by PFF metrics through 11 weeks.
Not to harp on Revis or anything, but the trailing cornerback on the Patriots’ only touchdown of the first half Sunday, a pass from Tom Brady to rookie Malcolm Mitchell? Revis.
In the span of 12 days, Kirk Cousins has ensured that he’s going to get paid. That’s how long it took (against Minnesota on Nov. 13; Green Bay on Nov. 20; and Dallas on Nov. 24) against three teams in the NFC playoff race to show he really should be liked now. The numbers over the three-games-in-12-days span:
“I can’t say enough about how good he has played,” said Washington coach Jay Gruden. “To go 41-for-51, I think it was, for 430 yards and three touchdowns, no picks, and no sacks, and then on Sunday night to put up the performance that he did. And then not really getting any practice reps against the Cowboys defense throughout the week and go out and do that, that’s really unheard of in a short week against a good team on the road.”
So where will Cousins end up on the spectrum when he’s paid in 2017? Andrew Luck’s average deal ($24.6 million) and Drew Brees’ ($24.3 million) are at the top, followed in a cluster by Joe Flacco, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger, all between $21.8 million and $22.2 million. Then come six veterans between $20 million and $21 million annually, and then Cousins’ one-yard deal at $19.95 million. Cousins’ average is 13th now. It won’t be lower than third whenever he signs for the long-term in 2017.
Since he won the Washington starting job to open the 2015 season, Cousins is second among all NFL quarterbacks in accuracy (69.18 percent passing), fourth in passing yards (7,706) and fourth in passer rating (101.5).