As we turn toward Week 15 of the 2019 NFL season, NFL.com's network of reporters provides the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
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NFL: Why the refs are under review. Among the many reasons the NFL will look closely at its officiating this offseason, as became clear at the Winter League Meeting this week: The number of penalties in a game and the length of games have both increased this season. That's not the direction the league wants things to go.
Entering Week 14, there was an average of 17.3 penalties per game, a spike from the usual average of about 16.1 penalties per game. The increase came because of an overabundance of offensive holding calls early in the season. Offensive holding is a point of emphasis this year, but during the first two weeks of the 2019 campaign, there was an average of 90 offensive holding calls per week. The numbers decreased (to an average of 52 offensive holding calls per week) after the league decided to emphasize only offensive holding on the play side, not on the back side of the play. Still, coaches have told league officials they want even more offensive holding calls.
Meanwhile, this season's average game length is at 3:06:58, compared to 3:05:05 at this point in 2018. That's nearly two full minutes longer than last season. This increase can almost certainly be attributed in large part to the addition of replay review for pass interference. So, before the games even kick off, the league has essentially added an extra foul and a couple extra minutes to the games.
"It's like playing behind the sticks the entire season," said one NFL executive concerned about officiating.
Time for a panel approach to replay review? When New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton floated the idea of a three-person committee to oversee replay review last month, it was no accident. Payton is a member of the Competition Committee, and his public comments were seen as him teeing up a proposal that will likely be considered. It is not far off from what the NFL is already supposed to have in place. While Al Riveron is in charge of officiating and gets the most scrutiny on replay review, replay director Russell Yurk also has the authority to decide a replay review, although it is unclear how often the two make decisions in concert.
The other big hurdle to changing how replay review is administered in New York: Who is available to join Riveron or even to replace him in the top job entirely? The league has lost a number of high-profile officials -- including Gene Steratore and John Parry -- to network television jobs, where they have joined Dean Blandino, the former head of officiating, and it is unclear if any of them would return to the NFL or if the league would choose to take one of its top referees off the field to join New York's command center.
Playoff reseeding NOT in the cards. For those cringing at the idea that the NFC East champion will host a wild-card team that will likely have a far better record, it's time to get over it. Commissioner Roger Goodell made clear this week that there has not been any conversation about reseeding for the playoffs, and even when a weaker division champ has hosted in the past, the idea has never really gained much traction among owners, who remain committed to the idea that winning a division should still be a top goal for teams.
"This is not the first time this conversation has occurred, or the situation has occurred," Goodell said. "Teams go into the season and the first objective is to win the division. That's what they work on: We win the division and we get in the playoffs. That is something that we've considered over the years. I have not heard that this year. I don't anticipate hearing it again. It's been discussed in the past, but I don't see that as an issue. If it comes up, we'll certainly have the conversation. I don't anticipate it."
The idea should have died once and for all in January 2014, when the Saints and 49ers went on the road as wild cards and vanquished their division-winning hosts, both of whom had worse records than the wild-card teams. Those victories underscored a reality: that going on the road as a wild-card team is no longer an insurmountable hurdle on the playoff path. The 2010 Packers and 2007 Giants both won the Super Bowl as wild cards.
The AB investigation continues. Commissioner Roger Goodell said this week that the league's investigation into Antonio Brown's off-field behavior continues, and that means that, with just three weeks remaining in the regular season, Brown will almost certainly not play again this season. Brown would be put on the Commissioner's Exempt List if a team were to sign him before the investigation is complete, which is why even receiver-desperate teams (like New England) have stayed away.
Brown played one game for the Patriots in Week 2 of this season before he was released amid allegations of sexual assault, and he will be 32 years old when the 2020 season begins. Brown is a free agent and will certainly draw interest this offseason, despite his volatile behavior. Complicating his future, though, is whether he will face a suspension from the NFL and when the outcome of the investigation will be announced. It seems unlikely that any team will move to sign him before Brown's future availability is known.
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GREEN BAY PACKERS: Can Pack make Mitch play quaterback? After kicking off 100 years of football this season, the Bears and Packers finally meet again at Lambeau Field with much on the line: Green Bay can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a Rams loss (at Dallas), while Chicago will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss and either a Rams or a Vikings win (at the Chargers).
While both teams are significantly different 15 weeks later, the Packers are expecting a vastly different Chicago club that has won four of its last five behind the improved play of third-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky who has at least three passing touchdowns in consecutive games, not to mention a 10-carry, 63-yard rushing performance most recently against the Cowboys which also included a touchdown, care of his legs.
And that is exactly what concerns the Packers: the ground gains, an area of focus that their defense shined at eliminating in Week 1 when Trubisky ran the ball just three times for a paltry 11 yards. After that game, cornerback Tramon Williams said, "We wanted to make Mitch play quarterback. We knew if we could make Mitch play quarterback, we'd have a chance."
Williams' comments were delivered with no intention to disrespect. The Packers simply know that Trubisky's legs are an asset, and it's that very asset that, when used effectively, make him the Pro Bowl-caliber QB we remember from a season ago and the one we're finally seeing now. Packers coach Matt LaFleur told me, "You look at the quarterback, he's using his legs to create plays and get a lot of positive plays."
I found Williams in the locker room this week and while we reflected on the Week 1 performance of Trubisky in which the Packers "made him play quarterback," he clearly recognizes the improved product.
"Lately he's been playing very, very well. He's very good running the ball and passing the ball," Williams said. "If you let him get his legs going, he can throw the ball all over the field. He's been doing both things well."
Specifically Williams said, "He's obviously using his legs a little bit more. He's making all of his reads, going through his reads and letting the ball go. He's making the throws that he needs to make. We definitely expect a different game this time around."
It goes without saying that the Packers' game plan for Trubisky hasn't changed. They still want to make him play quarterback by denying him on the ground. As defensive end Tyler Lancaster explained to me, "Don't let him out of the pocket. Make sure our pass rush is secure. Make sure our lanes have lane integrity. Take away that aspect of his game. We gotta try our best to make him one-dimensional."
"We're anticipating a very intense, very physical, football game," LaFleur said. "You got two teams that have got a lot to play for, a division rival. There's no doubt about it, I think the stadium will be electric. We need our fans to really give us that edge on Sunday."
Jones gets healthy dose on and off the field.Aaron Jones' 15 scrimmage touchdowns this season is tied for second in the NFL (with Tennessee's Derrick Henry) behind Carolina's Christian McCaffrey (17). He is vital to Green Bay's success. In the team's 10 wins this season, he has averaged 4.9 yards per carry, 107.9 scrimmage yards per game and 14 touchdowns total. In their three losses? 2.6 yards per carry, 41.7 scrimmage yards per game, and only one touchdown. The moral of the story? Feed No. 33.
Not only has Jones had a healthy dose of the football on the field, he's literally had a healthy dose of good eating habits after he committed to truly changing his diet and body this offseason. Clearly, it has paid dividends.
Jones told me this week, "I cut out gummy bears, Skittles, Twizzlers, and donuts -- those are probably my top four right there -- and then chips would be next. I pretty much just cut all of that out for a healthy choice."
The substitute? Apples with peanut butter or cinnamon apple rice cakes, and a heavy dose of fish, chicken, veggies and smoothies.
It's no surprise then that Jones reportedly slashed his body fat this offseason from 11 percent to five percent. And while he has also clearly enjoyed a hearty helping of the football this year, it's not just catching, running and scoring the ball that "feeds" his hunger on the field. It's all the other stuff he's doing in Matt LaFleur's offense that often gets overlooked that he's proud of.
Exactly what is it that Jones is most pleased with?
"Probably the protection part," Jones explained. "If you go read back what everybody was saying, I struggled in protection. This year it's not a problem. I'm stoning guys, knocked a couple guys down. It just gives me a sign, it shows me that hard work is paying off, and it doesn't go unnoticed, they notice things like that.
"I feel like it also elevates my game. I want to be a complete back and that's something you gotta be able to do to be a complete back, a four-down back."
If there's one thing for sure, Jones' healthy and productive performance in his third season are a direct correlation to his healthy commitment off the field: "Making the healthy choice, knowing that it would help me on the field, if it would give me that much o an advantage, I want to take it. Any advantage I can get, the right way, I will take it."
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Mahomes makes a statement. When the third quarter of Chiefs-Patriots came to a close on Sunday, the broadcast captured a passionate speech being delivered on the Kansas City sideline. A clearly animated Patrick Mahomes was firing up his offensive unit as they led 23-13 heading into the final quarter of the game. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce had just fumbled the ball, giving it back to the Patriots, who had pulled within 10 points on their previous possession. Ultimately, the Chiefs held on to secure a win with potential ramifications in the hunt for a top playoff seed.
"It was for sure one of the great ones," right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif told me when I asked where that speech ranks among the ones he's heard throughout his six seasons in the NFL. "To have your quarterback come to you and fire you up like that. To come to you and tell you that we have this as a team. To preach the us against the world was really unique. It really was great to have a leader like that in that moment."
Moore proceeded to tell me the message was one part Don't let up and another part preaching for everyone to do their job, and nothing more. He added that there were a few more choice words included.
As Moore walked away, he looked back and said, "You know a lot of people can't do that. Pat can."
There is more to the reigning NFL MVP than we all see. But it's not new to his teammates.
Jones threw two touchdown passes and finished with a 149.3 passer rating. The highest of his career.
"We came out, played man, he took his time and went through his reads."
"After that game, I vowed to never forget it," Mathieu told me.
"We're going to respect him," Mathieu said. "He's talented. And if we come out and we don't show up, we know he wants to throw the ball all over the place."
Kansas City's defense has appeared to turn the corner of late. Over the last three games, the Chiefs have given up an average of just 14 points per outing. The recent success is something Mathieu wants to build on come playoff time. He's doing his part as the leader of the defense to try to avoid what happened in Houston last week. The Texansbeat the Patriots in Week 13, a signature win for the franchise, then came in unprepared and were embarrassed at home by Lock in his first ever road start in the NFL. The Chiefs beat the Patriots last week, in New England, and you know who is coming to town.
"Oh, it was bad. It was bad, man," Chris Jones told me Thursday, leaning up against the wall in a relatively empty locker room. "People don't even know what this dude went through."
Clark was battling a stomach issue heading into last Sunday's game that has become so severe the Chiefs medical staff collaborated with their doctors and together found a specialist for Clark in hopes of finding out what is exactly wrong.
"If he's able to walk, he's going to play," Jones said. "He was dog sick. Even on the plane going down there, he had some things going on that I can't really disclose. Dude, it was terrible. I honestly did not think he was going to play."
Clark actually was visibly upset when the coaching staff told him they were going to limit his playing time by cutting his number of snaps because of his health. Clark played 47 percent of the defensive snaps. Still, he was fantastic, finishing the game with a sack and two tackles for loss.
"I was preparing myself to move out to D-end," Jones told me, because he thought Clark wasn't going to be able to play. "And s---, Frank came in like Jordan in the last minute and the dude is great. That's my brother. He's a warrior, man. Shows a lot about his character."
Per sources, I've been told the tests on Clark have gone well this week. Even though he missed practice on both Wednesday and Thursday, there is a pretty good chance Clark plays vs. the Broncos on Sunday.
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LOS ANGELES RAMS: Third straight DPOY for Donald? While Lamar Jackson likely locked up the MVP award with his performance against the Jets on Thursday Night Football, there is no clear-cut favorite for the league's Defensive Player of the Year award. That said, Rams star defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who won the award the past two years, is again one of the leading candidates (no one has won it three years in a row).
Donald leads all interior defensive linemen with 11 sacks (ranking seventh overall in the NFL) and 22 quarterback hits, while leading the NFL in QB pressures (60) and tackles for loss (18). He's also been a catalyst -- along with recently acquired cornerback Jalen Ramsey -- for a resurgent Rams defense. Since Week 7, after Ramsey arrived in a midseason trade with Jacksonville, the Rams lead the NFL with 30 sacks while giving up 15.4 points per game during that time, second-fewest in the league.
When I asked Donald what winning a third Defensive Player of the Year award would mean to him, he said, "I'm just trying to finish this season strong, help my team to win games ... find a way to keep winning, and find ourselves in a playoff game -- that's what my focus is on."
Stopping the Cowboys' top-ranked offense Sunday, in front of a nationally televised FOX audience, with the Ramschasing a wild-card berth in the NFC, might convince voters Donald is deserving. Doing so would likely mean slowing down Dallas QB Dak Prescott, a task that has Donald's full attention, because of Prescott's ability to keep plays alive with his feet while keeping his eyes downfield toward his receivers. This is a big reason why the Cowboys lead the league in yards per play.
"For us, it's going to be a big deal getting him off that spot, getting him down to the ground, so he won't have opportunities to move around and make them big throws down the field that helps his team win the game," Donald told me, when I asked him what's the key to beating a QB like Prescott.
As they say, everything's bigger in Texas, including the stakes Sunday for the Rams' playoff hopes -- and perhaps, Donald's DPOY candidacy.
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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: The key to getting the offense untracked? It's been odd to watch this Patriots offense that just can't seem to find any consistency, can't find any flow and can't find the end zone with the regularity of a typical Tom Brady-led group. The Pats are averaging just 17.6 ppg since Week 9, which ranks 30th in the NFL over that time span. It's no coincidence that the team has lost three of those five games and is struggling to find the right answers as time winds down in the regular season.
"We haven't played our best offensively the past few weeks, and everybody wants to improve in every aspect of it," running back James White said on Wednesday. "From running the football, to protecting Tom, to running better routes, to everything. I think we're all just trying to accept that burden and go out there, compete and play hard."
Playing hard isn't the problem. Producing is. The Patriots have scored 22 or fewer points in five straight games, the longest such streak in the Bill Belichick era (since 2000). Yes, there have been moments where it appears the tide is turning -- the fourth quarter in Houston, the fourth quarter against Kansas City -- but it's been unsustainable for 60 minutes.
"It's just the little things, and it can be just one person on one play, and all of us are taking our turns on one play out of the 60 plays," said White, one of the few reliable options for Brady this season. "And on offense, you can't do that, because one person, if you don't do your job, then that kind of blows up the play. So, just going out there each and every play, everybody being accountable, doing our job to the best of our abilities, and it's playing tough and physical."
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"Just to put in perspective, like a little kid from Fresno, California, is playing somewhere where his dad's favorite football team did. Like, let's be real about it, it's pretty awesome. That was a dream come true," Carr said about playing on the same field as Raiders legends like Ken Stabler, Jim Plunkett, Daryle Lamonica and Tom Flores.
Even the new guys get it. "We need to win this Sunday," rookie defensive end Maxx Crosby told me. Crosby said there is no other option for the final game in Oakland.
Gruden hoping to get Jacobs back. The team is hoping to have star rookie running back Josh Jacobs, who missed Week 14's loss to Tennessee with a shoulder injury, in the mix against the Jaguars. Jacobs was back on the field for practice this week. Head coach Jon Gruden said the latter part of the week will give him a better sense of how likely Jacobs is to play. Gruden's focus is for Jacobs to make the necessary strides and movements to be able to play and, more importantly, protect himself out on the field.
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Texans receiver Kenny Stills, who played with Tannehill in Miami from 2015 through '18, told me Tannehill is "probably one of the most respected teammates and players I've ever been around." And Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who'd played with Tannehill since 2016 and who was acquired with Stills in an August trade from the Dolphins, told me: "I'm so happy (for Tannehill); I'm so happy for his success. I was just talking to him about, I knew he could do that. He's been doing this. Maybe he wasn't getting enough exposure in Miami."
Houston's coaches have seen Tannehill do it before, too, before knee injuries helped derail his time with the Dolphins, who drafted him eighth overall in 2012 but ultimately shipped him to Tennessee this offseason. Facing the Texans in Week 7 of the 2015 season, Tannehill completed his first 18 passes, threw four touchdown passes and posted a 158.3 passer rating as Miami built a 41-point lead en route to a 44-26 blowout win.
Since replacing Marcus Mariota under center in Week 7, Tannehill has gone 6-1 while throwing for 264 yards per game with a 72.7 percent completion rate, a 15:4 TD-to-INT ratio and a passer rating of 121.7.