Mike Preston: Ravens QB Lamar Jackson is a superstar under constant scrutiny. It’s only natural. | COMMENTARY

There is always drama surrounding Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson.

It’s the nature of the position, especially when you’re the face of the organization and an NFL Most Valuable Player candidate. When he missed practices last week because he was battling chills and fatigue, the question was will Jackson play against the Chicago Bears?

He didn’t.

This week, the question is will Jackson be 100% Sunday night against the Cleveland Browns?

The scrutiny never stops.

“No, I don’t buy into it, to be honest with you,” Jackson said of being under the microscope. “I don’t buy into it all.”

Well, it’s not going to stop. Some of the drama is unwarranted and some Jackson has brought upon himself. There is also the added element of notoriety because he fits Baltimore’s personality of rooting for the overachiever or being the underdog.

That wasn’t the case with New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath in the late 1960s and 70s. He craved being in the spotlight wearing fur coats, doing pantyhose commercials and guaranteeing the biggest victory in NFL history. There have been other quarterbacks who have drawn national attention because they are weird and never grow up, like Green Bay’s Brett Favre and the Packers’ latest flake, Aaron Rodgers.

In contrast, Jackson is the opposite.

According to some team officials, he doesn’t read newspapers or watch ESPN. He does TV interviews, but mostly because he has to as a team representative. For the most part, Jackson is quiet, reserved, well-liked and respected by his teammates, but there is intrigue because he is so gifted and young.

Of course, he has also had the coronavirus twice.

Maybe if he had confirmed he had gotten vaccinated there wouldn’t be as much scrutiny over his recent cold-like symptoms, but that interest probably won’t end until the pandemic is over. Until then, there will be a constant drama when he misses practices.

“It happened, but I’m not worried about it, because I’ve been healthy all my life,” Jackson said earlier this week. “I’ve never had a problem being ill at all until I [came] here. So, I don’t really know what that is, but hopefully, that’s’ done with, if anything.”

Maybe. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if he was Joe Smith, a third-string tight end from Nebraska. But he’s Lamar Jackson, the 2019 MVP, the only person more elusive than Houdini.

So that’s why there was talk about how Jackson curled up in a blanket on his flight to Chicago and about how he slept the night before the Bears game. And then there was video of Jackson walking slowly into the stadium, just like when the cameras caught him running to the locker room during the Cleveland game last year to take care of some cramp issues.

And remember how Jackson came out onto the field and delivered a go-ahead 44-yard touchdown pass to Marquise Brown and then helped set up Justin Tucker’s game-winning 55-yard field goal with two seconds remaining?

It was like someone had written a script to an old Hollywood western, and Jackson came out with guns blazing in that final showdown.

The drama never stops.

Look at Jackson’s contract situation. He doesn’t have an agent and negotiations have dragged on. There are some fans who want this resolved and his job with the Ravens secured well into the future.

But nah, that makes too much sense. Let’s call in a crew from “Entertainment Tonight” first.

Maybe we all just got used to former Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who had two emotions: dull and dead. Now we get to see Jackson doing a flip into the end zone against the Kansas City Chiefs after watching Flacco struggle to slide his entire career. At least there were no complaints about a back injury several days later.

More drama.

With Jackson, there is more concern about what he does during the offseason than him getting smacked around by some 300-pound defensive lineman on game day. In March of 2019, he posted a video of himself driving 105 mph. In May of 2020, there was Jackson in a video scrambling during a beach football game and falling over a nearby Jet Ski.

During this offseason, there was footage of Jackson taking reps at wide receiver and defensive back on a basketball court while engaged in contract talks that could pay him more than $40 million a year.

That’s living on the edge. Call it what you want, but he fits the Baltimore psyche. Jackson, a Heisman Trophy winner, fell all the way to final pick of the first round in the 2018 draft. Coming out of Louisville, there was criticism about him being more of a runner than a thrower, and that his mechanics were poor.

While Jackson has proven a lot of people wrong, media members still harp on how Jackson has shown he can come from behind and win against quality opponents. In reality, it’s time to bury that “not bad for a quarterback” theme.

It’s all part of the Baltimore intrigue, but let’s not forget that Jackson is only 24 years old. He is expected to catch colds and do really, really dumb things. He has probably lived in a box for most of his life and he is going to step outside those borders.

And when he does, there is always going to be drama because he is of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Some of it is unnecessary, but some of it is brought upon himself.

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Matt Nagy gets a reprieve after a bizarre week — and a win over the worst team in the NFL. Brad Biggs’ 10 thoughts on the Chicago Bears’ 16-14 victory over the winless Detroit Lions.

10 thoughts after the Chicago Bears went on an 18-play drive that lasted the final 8 minutes, 30 seconds of Thursday’s game at Ford Field to set up Cairo Santos’ walk-off 28-yard field goal to defeat the Detroit Lions 16-14 and end a five-game losing streak.

1. Matt Nagy got a reprieve as the Bears encountered a team that consistently does more head-scratching and unpredictably dumb football stuff than they do.

The Bears were able to take advantage — even if it required every second of all 60 minutes — and extend the misery of the Lions, who fell to 0-10-1 and have not won since a Dec. 6, 2020, trip to Soldier Field last season. The Lions are 0-14-1 since that afternoon, which was their first game after firing general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia on Thanksgiving weekend.

The Lions opted to reboot their franchise over the holiday a year ago, and while it looked earlier this week like there was a possibility the Bears would begin a similar process, now it appears that plan is on hold. For how long, we’ll have to wait and see. Six games remain in the season, and you better believe Nagy will do everything in his power to start the Bears on a late winning streak. He’ll have to do so while facing a challenging schedule that has two first-place teams the next two weeks in the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers.

The Bears talked about overcoming distractions in a bizarre week, and the players should be credited for staying on task and earning a victory over the hapless Lions.

No one else involved with the organization deserves credit for overcoming distractions because it’s impossible to convince me the “Nagy will be fired after Thursday” story didn’t originate from the team. To what degree the story evolved as it was passed along, I would be only guessing. Once the Bears lost control of things Tuesday, I imagine that’s when plans changed on the fly, especially knowing a public relations disaster would not impress anyone the team is potentially interested in pursuing in the future. That’s my hunch on the matter.

If the Bears were candid, they would admit to bungling the situation after the report — which the team has now thoroughly pooh-poohed — broke Tuesday morning.

“There’s always going to be distractions,” Nagy said after the game. “It’s how you handle them. And again, we got the win today and it could have went a lot of different ways, but the reason why we got the win is because of how they (the players) handled the distractions. When you’re in this business and you lead people, it’s my job to make sure of honest and open communication, and I just can’t tell you how much this win means today to me because of what they did.”

Had the Bears responded proactively to the story with a clear and swiftly delivered message …

  • Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor would not have had his media session hijacked by questions about Nagy’s future.
  • Nagy wouldn’t have been grilled endlessly about his future.
  • Nagy wouldn’t have required an unscheduled meeting with ownership sandwiched between walk-throughs Tuesday at Halas Hall.
  • Nagy’s message to players after the second walk-through that day would have had actual weight behind it.
  • Nagy might not have decided to cancel scheduled meetings for the remainder of the day.
  • Bears Chairman George McCaskey wouldn’t have felt compelled to address the team Wednesday.

In retrospect, a different approach would have been great, right?

“I don’t wish anything,” Nagy said. “I just know I was there that day to be able to go out there and lead those guys in practice and try to focus and do everything we could do to win this game today. Anything else that happens, I got people that work, that know what’s going on outside that building. They tell me, ‘OK, here’s the deal.’ And that’s it. I go about it that way and I listen to what they had to say.

“And I think it’s important in these type of times that you’re very open with your players. I’ve taken a lot of time and effort to build relationships over the 3½ years I’ve been here for these moments. Because what happens is, people try to take you down. They try to rip you apart. They think you’re vulnerable. I think today we just proved we’re not vul- … we’ve got guys that fight.”

Said tight end Cole Kmet, who caught eight passes for 65 yards: “I’m not going to lie, it’s tough. You don’t know what’s true, what’s not. Then you see things that are true because you were there for them, and you wonder how those things get out. So there’s a lot of confusion in that sense. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to just block it out and go play football.”

You’re never going to take away from a victory in the NFL, but the Bears barely managed to beat the worst team in the league. The offense has struggled to score all season, and putting up 16 points against the Lions doesn’t change that. Any questions McCaskey had about the direction of the team coming out of Sunday’s blown lead in a loss to the Lamar Jackson-less Baltimore Ravens have not changed.

This isn’t to knock Nagy, who is leading a team that’s dealing with a lot of injuries to some of its highest-paid players. He got paired with a quarterback (Mitch Trubisky) he wasn’t part of choosing when he came on board in 2018. He has worked furiously to make it with a quarterback (Justin Fields) he was part of choosing while dealing with an offensive line that has gotten progressively worse since he arrived and limited talent at the skill positions. When Nagy said earlier this month it’s “no one’s fault other than everybody’s,” he’s right. The thing is, the coach becomes one of the first to fall when everyone is at fault.

So the music was bumping in the locker room after Thursday’s game as the Bears celebrated their first victory since Oct. 10 in Las Vegas. For perspective on how long ago that was, the White Sox also won that day.

“There’s some relief, for sure,” said quarterback Andy Dalton, who filled in for Fields after the rookie was sidelined with a rib injury. “To go on a losing streak, five games, that’s tough, especially the way the last couple have been. But for us, to have everything going on this week and everything on the outside, for our guys to just play to the very end and get a win on Thanksgiving, it’s special. That’s the biggest thing. We’re going to enjoy this one.”

2. In the big picture, I’m not sure the Bears got much out of this game.

Beat the Lions and you’re supposed to do that, right? Barely beat the Lions and that’s sort of damning, no? At 4-7, the Bears are at the point where the majority of interest internally and externally is on the development of Justin Fields. That process is on pause until he returns from an injury that the team is calling “day to day.” If he can get back on the practice field by the middle of next week, he’ll stand a decent chance of playing Dec. 5 when the Arizona Cardinals come to Soldier Field. Any time Fields plays, it’s a chance for him to grow, learn and possibly perform well.

Andy Dalton completed 24 of 39 passes for 317 yards Thursday, marking the first time this season the offense has topped 300 passing yards. With Allen Robinson (hamstring) sidelined for the second consecutive game, Darnell Mooney caught five passes for 123 yards, including a 52-yard shot play. Mooney had at least one drop, perhaps two, but he’s starting to settle in. He has gone over 100 yards in two consecutive games and three times for the season as he had 125 yards in the first meeting with the Lions.

I liked what Mooney had to say after the game when he was critical of his showing Sunday against he Ravens, noting that while he had five catches for 121 yards, they came on a whopping 16 targets.

“You see the five catches, the (121) yards, but you also see the (16) targets,” he said. “There’s a lot of things out there that if you really look at it, there’s two of them that are touchdowns. Anytime the ball comes to me, I feel like I should catch it. Regardless of it’s one hand, the tip of my finger, I feel like I should catch it.

“Some of the things (he and Dalton) worked on in the summer, we kind of had chemistry. So it was kind of easy to be on the same page during the game. Walk-throughs, I didn’t exactly know how it was going to be because Justin has been the quarterback and I’ve created chemistry with him. I guess the summer workouts and training camp helped out good enough.”

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor offered interesting thoughts on Mooney on Tuesday that provide a little insight into what has helped the second-year pro emerge as a player who could be considered the team’s clear No. 1 receiver before next season.

“The thing I’ll say about Darnell Mooney is his mindset,” Lazor said. “Just loves football, businesslike approach, professional approach, does not get distracted. I’ve never seen the guy get distracted from his job. Now, I’m not with him outside the building and all of that, but I’ve talked to him enough. The guy is focused on his job and being a great player.

“To me, it’s really impressive for a young player because all of us in life have these things happening outside this building that can get in the way, whether it’s of your doing or sometimes life happens to you. I’ve never witnessed anything get in Darnell’s way or him let anything get in his way of his job and being the best he can be. I really can’t say enough of how impressed I am by his mindset.”

Finding young players who are ascending not just on the roster but emerging as really good players at their position around the league is critical to the Bears developing with Fields. Mooney now has 46 receptions for 694 yards with three touchdowns, and what jumps out at you is the average of 15.1 yards per catch. That’s the big-play sizzle the Bears need in their offense.

Tight end Cole Kmet was targeted a career-high 11 times and made eight catches for 65 yards. He has been more involved in the offense and needs to continue to show growth, which he can do only when he gets an opportunity each week. Remember, he was targeted only twice last week against the Ravens.

By the end of the season, the Bears ought to have a decent handle on where rookie right tackle Larry Borom is, and maybe Teven Jenkins gets on the field before then. It’s a little early to make any judgment on Borom, and the only thing worse than the Lions pass rush is their collection of wide receivers. They claimed Josh Reynolds off waivers from the Los Angeles Rams, and he’s their best receiver. Borom working against a lousy Lions pass rush doesn’t tell us a whole lot, and he already put encouraging work on tape against better players.

Otherwise, I don’t think much from this game will resonate — other than the memory of a wacky week.

3. If the Bears are considering firing Matt Nagy before the end of the season, keep in mind it’s something they’ve never done.

Obviously it’s not happening coming off the win over the Lions, and I don’t think it’s a situation where you say, “Is he fired the next time the team loses?” The impetus to firing Nagy in season would be if the Bears want to take advantage of a rule change this year that allows teams to request permission to interview candidates in the final two weeks of the season if the team has fired its coach or informed him he will be fired at the end of the season.

Otherwise, there’s no competitive advantage to firing a coach early and joining the Las Vegas Raiders as the only team currently seeking a new head coach. The regular season runs 18 weeks (17 games and one bye), so the window for those interviews would begin in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Releasing Nagy to set the stage for hiring a new coach would be the easy part. Identifying what qualities you’re seeking in a new leader, what parameters for a background you’re going to put on that search and then successfully hiring a new coach is the difficult part. We see teams go through this cycle every year. Typically there are between five and eight openings — as much as a quarter of the league turns over every year — and two or three years in, those names that looked hot at the time often don’t look so great anymore. Good teams with good rosters and strong front offices rarely go in search of a new head coach. So the new coach almost always is walking into a situation where there is a ton of heavy lifting to do, the margin for error isn’t great and patience can evaporate quickly.

I don’t see the Bears being able to use an early window to interview candidates unless they have a clear picture of who will conduct the search and be in charge of the hiring. If they’re going to fire general manager Ryan Pace — and there’s considerably more chatter about the coach than the GM — it’s highly unlikely they would be able to replace him quickly. Maybe George McCaskey is working behind the scenes to consider a high-level football executive in a new role for the franchise. Who knows? I just know from a practical standpoint, the only reason to fire your coach early would be to try to start interviewing candidates early, and you can’t pull off that move if you don’t have things set on the food chain above the head coach.

4. Andy Dalton did a really nice job on the game-winning drive when the Bears ran 18 plays to set up Cairo Santos’ game-winning kick.

It’s the third game the Lions have lost on a game-ending field goal. The Bears had to convert only two third downs on the drive and got to 18 plays when you include three kneel-downs by Dalton and Santos’ kick. The Bears have had only one possession with more plays since 2001 and only three other 18-play drives.

  • 19-play drive in a 31-7 loss at Baltimore, Dec. 20, 2009 (drive resulted in turnover on downs)
  • 18-play drive in a 27-20 win at Green Bay, Nov. 4, 2013 (drive resulted in field goal)
  • 18-play drive in a 10-6 loss at San Francisco, Nov. 12, 2009 (drive resulted in interception)
  • 18-play drive in a 35-7 win at Green Bay, Dec. 23, 2007 (drive resulted in touchdown)

Dalton was 4 of 6 for 39 yards on the drive and also picked up 9 yards on a first-and-10 scramble. The key play came on third-and-5 from the Bears 37-yard line. Right tackle Larry Borom gave up a pressure right away, and Dalton was able to react and extend the play. He’s never going to challenge Justin Fields with his athletic ability, but Dalton has a feel for the pocket and slid to his right before Damiere Byrd sprung free and they connected for a 13-yard gain to midfield.

“I mean, you get in that situation, that drive was so important for us, however it happened,” Dalton said. “It’s all about getting points. But to go 18 plays and to run the clock out with 8 minutes left is huge. To get down and get into that position where we were able to kick the field goal at the end, it’s just a testament to our guys’ no-quit attitude and finding a way to get it done.”

Taking 8:30 off the clock marked the third-longest possession of the Matt Nagy era. The Bears had a 9:38 scoring drive in the Week 1 opener against the Los Angeles Rams and a 9:05 possession in a 24-10 victory at Minnesota on Dec. 30, 2018.

The long drive kept the defense — which allowed game-winning drives in the final minute the last two times out — from having to go back on the field.

“I said I don’t expect to go back out there because I think our offense is about to run this clock out,” outside linebacker Robert Quinn said. “So I kept my sweat pants and beanie on and sat on the sideline and watched the offense close the game out. That was a great feeling. After the nonsense everyone had heard and the five-game skid, you know it’s just good to close out the game how we did.”

Dalton didn’t have a single practice as the starter during the week because of the condensed schedule, but he delivered. If he’s needed again, perhaps the offense can remain on course. Keep in mind, no more games with the Lions this season.

5. Matt Nagy and Sean Desai were careful not to place all the blame on second-year cornerback Kindle Vildor for his poor play last week against the Ravens.

But they were plenty critical of Vildor, and it takes a lot for players to be called out in that manner. Entering this week, among cornerbacks who have been on the field for a minimum of 100 snaps, Vildor had allowed the second-most explosive plays (completions of 16 yards or more) in the league. He had allowed the ninth-most total yards, sixth-most first downs, seventh-most touchdowns and had the seventh-worst passer rating when targeted at 119.7.

The solution was to replace him with veteran Artie Burns, who had been inactive for the previous three games. While Burns had appeared in five games this season, he was limited to special teams. That’s the direction the Bears had to go because Vildor didn’t have only one poor game. Opponents have noticed his struggles and gone at him.

What happened to Burns? Wide receiver Josh Reynolds beat him for a 39-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Reynolds ran a dig-and-up, and Burns stopped his feet on the double move, a no-no. A deep over route held the safety, and the Lions had the schemed one-on-one they sought for Jared Goff. Other than that, Burns hung in there against the Lions’ lousy receivers and finished with two tackles and a pass breakup.

“I would say Kindle has been in a little bit of a rut,” Desai said Tuesday. “And it’s hard when you’re the only corner getting targeted because Jaylon (Johnson’s) targets have been down And he’s a young corner. He’s going to have to go through those growing pains a little bit. He’s going to have to endure it, and it’s a good challenge for him to make sure he’s mentally tough enough to go through that. And we’re here to support him to go through that, and we’ve got to make sure that we help him out when we can … even if it’s rotation or whatever it is that we’ve got to do to make sure he is put in a situation that he can excel in to help him come out of it.”

The Bears aren’t giving up on Vildor, but pulling him out when he’s having a tough time makes sense. There’s a good chance the Bears will need to prioritize the position in the offseason, but Vildor will get another shot to show what he can do and it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s starting again before this season ends.

6. What’s worse than a rocky start? The beginning of the Dan Campbell era in Detroit.

You keep hearing how hard the Lions are playing for the first-year coach, and there’s no disputing how bereft of talent the roster is. But Campbell did a miserable job in Thursday’s loss.

Before we get into his timeout snafu in the closing moments, how about the third-and-32 the Lions had on their 49-yard line with 6:04 remaining in the second quarter. The Lions led 7-3 at the time. Try to put yourself in Campbell’s position. You’re 0-9-1. The team you took over hasn’t won in nearly a calendar year. You have a capacity home crowd in a nationally televised game. Get aggressive. Show some chutzpah.

“Those are tough-to-find calls for third-and-32 or whatever,” Campbell said. “When your defense is playing like it is, you don’t want to do anything to mess that up either. Now you’re taking the chance of (Robert) Quinn off the edge and you hold it a little long and you get a sack/fumble. There’s a little bit of being smart. Now, we did throw it deep a couple of times too on third down. The bottom line is we put ourselves in those third-and-a-mile situations, and that’s on us. It’s just too much, man. Those things kill you.”

Campbell chose to hand the ball off to Jamaal Williams, who gained 1 yard before the punt.

Alternative idea for Campbell: Put two blockers on Quinn and have Jared Goff throw a deep shot in the hope of a completion or pass interference. Or even try a Hail Mary. If it’s picked off in the end zone, so what? It beats the give-up run play for a team that hasn’t won.

Campbell showed his inexperience after the Lions stopped David Montgomery for 1 yard, setting up third-and-9 for the Bears from the Detroit 16-yard line. Campbell used his first timeout to stop the clock with 1:54 remaining. Then the Lions lined up for the play and all hell broke loose. The defensive backs couldn’t get on the same page, so Campbell raced down the sideline and called a second timeout. Problem is, you can’t call consecutive timeouts without a play being run. So the Lions lost their second timeout and were called for a 5-yard delay-of-game penalty. Andy Dalton connected with Damiere Byrd for a 7-yard gain to move the chains, and at that point the Bears were able to run out the clock before Cairo Santos’ winning kick.

“Well, obviously you can’t do that, but we had a miscommunication,” Campbell said. “Half of our secondary had one call, half had the other. So, yeah, took a timeout. The first thing in my head is, ‘Well, we’ve got a blown coverage and they’re about to score a touchdown,’ so I do it, which you can’t do and now it’s a penalty. But I know that if he threw it out in a flat, it was about to be a touchdown. Can’t do it.”

Said inside linebacker Alex Anzalone: “We were kind of in Cover-0, and they went to max (protection). We checked to two high, Cover-2. And that’s why I was trying to relay the call. After that, I’m not really sure what happened. I think that we called timeout, and I’m not sure if everyone was on the same page.”

There’s your proof the Bears aren’t the only team to come out of timeouts with confusion. It tends to happen more on offense for them.

The Lions are in a tough spot. If more than 10 or 12 players on the current roster are still with them in 24 months, they’ve had a massive personnel failure. The offensive line has some talent. Running back D’Andre Swift is a solid player. Otherwise, they have huge needs, and the shame of it for the Lions is there isn’t a slam dunk No. 1 pick in next year’s draft. There’s much work to do, and Campbell needs to get better.

7. The Bears have to be hoping it’s only a minor hamstring issue for inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who left in the second quarter and didn’t return.

Smith entered this week tied for third in the NFL with 110 tackles with the Atlanta Falcons’ Foyesade Oluokun, trailing only the Seattle Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner (115) and the Las Vegas Raiders’ Denzel Perryman (114). Of those four players, Smith is tops with three sacks, and he and Oluokun each have one interception. Smith was fourth in Pro Bowl fan balloting for inside linebackers, but the real issue now is how much time he could be forced to miss.

Free safety Eddie Jackson returned Thursday after missing two games, with the bye week in between, with a hamstring injury. The Bears placed nickel cornerback Duke Shelley on injured reserve this week with a hamstring injury suffered against the Ravens.

“Roquan is a monster,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “Just going back and watching the film. During the game, I’m in the moment, I’m not really seeing everything he’s doing. I’m focused on what I need to be focused on. But after watching the film and looking back on, and even talking to my brother, it was funny, he gained a whole different respect for Roquan. And I was like, ‘Why did you say that?’ And he was like, ‘He’s just a monster. He runs sideline to sideline, hitting people, run back, rinse, wash, repeat, hitting people.’

“I mean, when you think about it, you take it for granted when you’re on his team. But I just sat back and was looking like, ‘Damn, he’s a monster. He really leads our team, he really brings us all together, he plays with a different mindset.’ You can see it on the field.”

Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan (knee) is on injured reserve, and for most of the rest of the game, the Bears used Christian Jones alongside Alec Ogletree. Rookie Caleb Johnson got on the field briefly and was over tight end T.J. Hockenson when he scored on a 17-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter.

If there’s any silver lining here, maybe it being a Thursday game helps Smith a little bit. It’s an extra 72 hours of recovery.

8. In a busy and short week, I didn’t want some other stuff cornerback Jaylon Johnson said Monday to go unnoticed.

Johnson not only has been very good on the field for the Bears, but he’s really beginning to assert himself as a leader in the locker room and especially on the defense. It’s pretty evident and it’s easy to envision him being a fixture for the team for many seasons to come.

On whether the team needed a speech after the heartbreaking loss to the Ravens on Sunday:

“No. I mean, honestly, how many games have we lost in a row? Yeah, there’s nothing to talk about. We aren’t going to beat a dead horse. Like I said, we are all men. Coming in here and saying, ‘We have to figure out a way,’ to me it’s BS. Like we aren’t going to keep talking. We have to find ways to win. We just have to get it done, whatever it is. But there’s nothing to keep coming in here and talking about and having all these rah-rah speeches. We’ve had five weeks of rah-rah speeches. I don’t think that talking is anything we need to be doing.”

Fortunately, no need for rah-rah this week.

On what Johnson said when teammate Kindle Vildor had his head in his hands on the bench at the end of the Ravens game?

“I’ll tell him what I told the whole defense: Pick your head up. The way I think about it is we’re men before anything. You never want to show weakness in a time like that. OK, somebody messed up and things didn’t go our way. But that don’t mean you put your head down. That don’t mean you start blaming and pointing fingers. I just don’t think those are manly characteristics. I was more so on the sideline picking guys up to not allow people to see that word ‘defeated.’ I mean, yeah, OK, it’s football. But we’re men before anything. I went to the D-line and told them, ‘Pick your head up.’ What do we have our heads down for? We’re competitors but we don’t show weakness like that.”

9. It’s a big week for Devin Hester as the former Bears return specialist is one of 26 modern-era semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022.

Hester is one of seven first-year eligible players on the list along with Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson, Robert Mathis, Steve Smith, DeMarcus Ware and Vince Wilfork. It should be fascinating to see how it unfolds for Hester in Year 1 of his eligibility. I think he’s a slam dunk to get his day in Canton, Ohio, and without a superstar quarterback or a player with overwhelming statistical greatness on that list of seven players, I think that gives Hester a real shot this year. Also on the list of semifinalists is pass rusher Jared Allen, who spent time with the Bears late in his career.

I had conversations with Hall of Fame voters Peter King and Mike Sando about Hester’s eligibility back in September, and they said some very interesting stuff. If you missed it, check out thought No. 5 coming out of the otherwise forgettable game in Cleveland.

10. This was the first game this season the Bears held their opponent scoreless in the fourth quarter.

The defense entered this week ranked 28th in fourth-quarter scoring defense, having allowed 94 points. The only teams to surrender more points were the Atlanta Falcons (116), Las Vegas Raiders (112), Indianapolis Colts (104) and Miami Dolphins (99). The top five defenses in fourth-quarter points allowed — and No. 5 might come as a surprise: the Arizona Cardinals (33), New England Patriots (35), Denver Broncos (43), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (43) and Jacksonville Jaguars (49).

10a. Bears players will have the weekend to rest up and then will get in a bonus practice Monday to begin preparation for the Cardinals.

10b. I checked in with Jim Nagy, director of the Senior Bowl, and at this point the showcase event has not invited any players from Illinois schools or Notre Dame.

10c. The more I watch return specialist Jakeem Grant, the more there is to like. He’s fearless and aggressive, and I have to think the Bears will at least discuss attempting to re-sign him. He is scheduled to be a free agent and has been toughing it out on a sore ankle. He had a 22-yard punt return Thursday.

10d. I should not have gone this far before mentioning two second-year defensive players making nice plays to force fumbles, with Jaylon Johnson and Trevis Gipson popping the ball out. Both were very aware plays, and Gipson’s resulted in a takeaway after a Matt Nagy challenge flag.

10e. Hope you had a terrific Thanksgiving.

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Ravens vs. Browns staff picks: Who will win Sunday night’s Week 12 game in Baltimore?

Here’s how The Baltimore Sun sports staff views the outcome of Sunday night’s Week 12 game between the Ravens (7-3) and Cleveland Browns (6-5) at M&T Bank Stadium:

Jonas Shaffer, reporter

Browns 21, Ravens 20: Welcome back to the AFC North, where predictions aren’t even worth the paper they’re printed on. On offense, the Ravens will have to establish their running game or else risk having Lamar Jackson overrun by pass rushers. On defense, the Ravens won’t have to worry much about Baker Mayfield or Jarvis Landry, but can their front seven hold up against one of the NFL’s best offensive lines? At some point, the Ravens’ success in nail-biters will start to even out. Sunday’s game could be one of those games.

Mike Preston, columnist

Ravens 21, Browns 17: Cleveland will give the Ravens trouble because the Browns have physical interior linemen lines on both sides of the ball. The Browns will be able to get a lot of pressure on quarterback Lamar Jackson but Jackson, assuming he plays, will be the difference in the game. He is superior to Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield and his elusiveness will allow him to make several big plays.

Childs Walker, reporter

Ravens 27, Browns 23: This is one of the most difficult matchups of the year to parse. The Browns could present serious problems with their league-best running game and elite defenders, but they have only played up to their potential a few times this season. They never know what they’re going to get from battered quarterback Baker Mayfield. If the Ravens have a relatively healthy Lamar Jackson, they will pull out a win late.

Ryan McFadden, reporter

Ravens 24, Browns 20: There’s no telling what type of quarterback Baker Mayfield will be on Sunday night. However, Cleveland has an elite rushing attack and defensive end Myles Garrett is going to give the Ravens offensive line problems. Quarterback Lamar Jackson has said numerous times that he doesn’t like to play down-to-the-wire games. Unfortunately for him, this game has the makings for a close finish and the Ravens will need their star quarterback to help them pull out a win.

C.J. Doon, editor

Ravens 27, Browns 24: With health concerns surrounding both starting quarterbacks, this is a tough one to predict. But if Lamar Jackson is back to full strength, he’ll be happy to see the Browns on the schedule. Jackson is 4-1 as the starting quarterback against Cleveland, with 10 touchdown passes and four rushing touchdowns in those games. I’m more confident in Jackson bouncing back from his illness than Baker Mayfield playing through knee, heel and shoulder injuries, no matter how tough they say the Browns starter is. The Ravens will have a hard time blocking Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, but a healthy Jackson will be the difference-maker Sunday night.

Tim Schwartz, editor

Ravens 24, Browns 17: All eyes will be on Lamar Jackson to see how he recovers from his illness, but if history is any indication, he’ll be just fine. In his first game back after testing positive for COVID-19 last November, Jackson led the Ravens to a 34-17 win over the Cowboys and completed 12 of 17 passes for 107 yards and two touchdowns while running for 94 yards and a score on 13 carries. Jackson said Wednesday he’s feeling like himself again — for real this time — so the Ravens will be close to fully healthy for the first time this season and ready to run the ball on what should be a near-freezing night in Baltimore. The Browns defense has kept them afloat and Myles Garrett will continue to make his case for Defensive Player of the Year, but a beat-up Baker Mayfield isn’t in a spot to outduel Jackson.

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Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions: Everything you need to know about the Week 12 game before the Thanksgiving kickoff

The Chicago Bears will try to move past a strange couple of days and focus on topping the Detroit Lions on Thursday at Ford Field.

After the Bears’ fifth straight loss Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, their short week to get ready for the Lions was disrupted by a report that the Bears planned to fire coach Matt Nagy after the Thanksgiving game. Bears Chairman George McCaskey told players and coaches that report was not true, according to the Athletic, but it still put a wrinkle in the team’s preparations.

Now the Bears will try to put that distraction out of their minds as they get ready to start quarterback Andy Dalton for the first time since Sept. 19. Dalton will start in place of Justin Fields, who is recovering from a ribs injury he suffered during the game against the Ravens.

Meanwhile, the 0-9-1 Lions will try for their first win of the season behind quarterback Jared Goff, who recovered from an oblique injury and is expected to start, according to NFL Network.

Injury report

The Bears listed wide receiver Allen Robinson (hamstring) as doubtful, while Fields, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks (ankle) and running back Damien Williams (calf) were ruled out.

Safeties Eddie Jackson (hamstring) and Tashaun Gipson Sr. (chest), defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. (ribs) and receiver Marquise Goodwin (shoulder) were listed as questionable, while wide receiver Darnell Mooney (foot) was limited Wednesday but was not given a designation for the game, meaning he should play.

The Bears also flexed receiver Isaiah Coulter and linebacker Sam Kamara from the practice squad to the active roster for Thursday’s game.

For the Lions, receiver Trinity Benson, outside linebacker Trey Flowers, offensive tackle Matt Nelson, cornerback AJ Parker and guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai are out, and defensive end Michal Brockers and running back Jermar Jefferson are questionable.

Miss anything this week? Catch up before kickoff (11:30 a.m., FOX-32).

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Staff picks for Week 12 of the 2021 NFL season: Thanksgiving games, Steelers vs. Bengals, Titans vs. Patriots and more

Baltimore Sun staff writers pick every game of the NFL season. Here’s who they have winning in Week 12:

Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions (Thursday, 12:30 p.m.)

Ryan McFadden (97-69 overall, 10-5 last week): Bears

Mike Preston (102-62 overall, 10-5 last week): Lions

Jonas Shaffer (101-63 overall, 12-3 last week): Lions

Childs Walker (102-62 overall, 11-4 last week): Bears

Las Vegas Raiders at Dallas Cowboys (Thursday, 4:30 p.m.)

McFadden: Cowboys

Preston: Cowboys

Shaffer: Cowboys

Walker: Cowboys

Buffalo Bills at New Orleans Saints (Thursday, 8:20 p.m.)

McFadden: Bills

Preston: Bills

Shaffer: Bills

Walker: Bills

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 1 p.m.)

McFadden: Bengals

Preston: Bengals

Shaffer: Bengals

Walker: Bengals

Carolina Panthers at Miami Dolphins (Sunday, 1 p.m.)

McFadden: Panthers

Preston: Panthers

Shaffer: Panthers

Walker: Dolphins

Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants (Sunday, 1 p.m.)

McFadden: Eagles

Preston: Eagles

Shaffer: Eagles

Walker: Eagles

Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots (Sunday, 1 p.m.)

McFadden: Patriots

Preston: Patriots

Shaffer: Patriots

Walker: Patriots

Atlanta Falcons at Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, 1 p.m.)

McFadden: Falcons

Preston: Jaguars

Shaffer: Falcons

Walker: Falcons

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Indianapolis Colts (Sunday, 1 p.m.)

McFadden: Buccaneers

Preston: Buccaneers

Shaffer: Buccaneers

Walker: Buccaneers

New York Jets at Houston Texans (Sunday, 1 p.m.)

McFadden: Jets

Preston: Texans

Shaffer: Texans

Walker: Texans

Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos (Sunday, 4:05 p.m.)

McFadden: Chargers

Preston: Chargers

Shaffer: Chargers

Walker: Chargers

Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m.)

McFadden: Vikings

Preston: 49ers

Shaffer: Vikings

Walker: 49ers

Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m.)

McFadden: Packers

Preston: Packers

Shaffer: Rams

Walker: Packers

Seattle Seahawks at Washington Football Team (Monday, 8:15 p.m.)

McFadden: Washington

Preston: Seahawks

Shaffer: Washington

Walker: Seahawks

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Michigan State gives Mel Tucker a 10-year, $95 million contract, locking up the former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator through the 2031 season

Michigan State is giving Mel Tucker a 10-year, $95 million contract, making an aggressive move to keep a football coach who potentially could have left for LSU or the NFL.

“I am honored to be a part of the Spartan process today and for years to come,” Tucker wrote Wednesday in a post on Twitter.

The 12th-ranked Spartans (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) close the regular season against Penn State (7-4, 4-4) on Saturday at home.

The contract establishes Tucker as one of the riches coaches in college football.

Only Alabama’s Nick Saban, one of his mentors, who makes $9.75 million per year, is paid more on an annual basis, according to the USA Today coaches salaries database.

Tucker’s 10-year deal puts him in select company with two coaches with the same term: Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher. Swinney’s contract is worth $92 million and Fisher’s will pay him more than $9 million per year starting in 2022.

Tucker’s deal that expires Jan. 15, 2032, will have a $5.9 million base salary, $3.2 million in supplemental compensation for media and personal appearances along with a $400,000 contingent annual bonus.

“We’re excited to have Mel here for the next 10 years,” United Wholesale Mortgage President and CEO Mat Ishbia, one of the donors funding Tucker’s new deal, told the Associated Press. “He’s a winner. He represents Michigan State in a fantastic way and we’re excited for the future.

“We got a winner and we’re not letting a winner leave Michigan State. Mel didn’t want to leave, but the reality is he’s the hottest name in football.”

Tucker, 49, is getting a boost in pay as part of a long-term deal because of what he has done so far — and what has happened in the past at Michigan State.

After winning just two games in his debut during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Tucker has led one of college football’s most surprising teams. The Spartans started the season unranked and overlooked and now have a chance to win 10 games and earn a spot in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

No. 2 Ohio State did show Tucker’s team how far it has to go in Saturday’s 56-7 win that ended the Spartans’ championship hopes.

Michigan State was very motivated to give Tucker every reason to stay after losing Saban to LSU in November 1999.

“There was a time Michigan State had the best football and basketball coach with Nick Saban and Tom Izzo,” Ishbia told the AP. “Now we have a chance to have the best coaching duo again in America and we’re going to pay Mel like he left.”

Tucker was a graduate assistant at Michigan State for Saban during the 1997 and 1978 seasons, when he made $400 per week and slept under a desk hoping the coach would be impressed by his dedication.

Even before the championship-caliber program in Baton Rouge, La., announced it was parting ways with Ed Orgeron earlier this season, Tucker was mentioned as a candidate in part because he coached the Tigers’ defensive backs under Saban in 2000 and has an impressive resume with stints on staffs at Ohio State and Georgia.

Tucker’s ties to the NFL also made it likely that teams with coaching openings in the league would try to pry him away this winter. Tucker was 2-3 a decade ago as an interim coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars, with whom he was defensive coordinator, a role he also had with his hometown Cleveland Browns and the Chicago Bears in his 10 seasons on NFL sidelines.

While it is going to cost a lot of money to keep Tucker at Michigan State, the boost in pay is being provided as a gift from Ishbia and Steve St. Andre.

Ishbia was a walk-on guard on Tom Izzo’s 2000 national championship basketball team. Earlier this year, Ishbia made a $32 million donation for Michigan State’s athletics and is giving $500 a month to the school’s football and men’s basketball players. St. Andre is the founder and CEO of Shift Digital, a marketing company.

Tucker thanked both donors by name in his Twitter post along with former Michigan State football players Brian Mosallam and Jason Strayhorn for their help with finalizing the new contract.

“This is a process to build a championship-winning program,” Tucker said.

After coach Mark Dantonio retired in February 2020, Tucker more than doubled his total compensation by leaving Colorado after only one season with a 5-7 record to sign a six-year deal worth $5.5-plus million per year at Michigan State.

Tucker didn’t have much time with his new team last year before the pandemic pushed players away from campus, and it showed with a 2-5 record.

With an influx of transfers, including Heisman Trophy-candidate running back Kenneth Walker, the Spartans won their first eight games this season, including a second straight win over rival Michigan.

“The decision to extend Mel Tucker’s contract is not based on one year of results, but rather it’s an investment in a promising future for Spartan football,” athletic director Alan Haller said.

Whether the season ends with successes or setbacks, the school and its fans should not have to worry about losing their coach.

“Michigan State is not a steppingstone, it’s a destination, and Mel knows that,” Ishbia told the AP. “He didn’t want to leave, but when someone is all in and they’re loyal, you take care of them.”

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Mike Preston: Ravens might be on to something special with young wide receiver corps | COMMENTARY

Shortly after this season is over, and if everyone still standing remains healthy, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta will breathe a sigh of relief.

The Ravens finally have a good, young group of receivers and a potential No. 1 in rookie Rashod Bateman. That might not sound like a major accomplishment to some organizations, but it is in Baltimore.

The disappointments have been numerous, including first-round failures like Florida’s Travis Taylor in 2000, Oklahoma’s Mark Clayton five years later and Central Florida’s Breshad Perriman in 2015. At least Taylor and Clayton were from big-time programs, but UCF? Let’s just chalk that up to former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome having a bad day.

But that’s all in the past.

Bateman can play, as can second-year receivers Devin Duvernay and James Proche II. Marquise Brown is ascending midway through his third season and, combined with fourth-year tight end Mark Andrews, the Ravens haven’t had a passing game this complete since 1996 and 1997 when they had receivers Michael Jackson, Derrick Alexander and Jermaine Lewis.

“The whole passing game has gotten better, it’s fun to watch,” said Lewis, who played at the University of Maryland and still resides in the Baltimore area. ”It takes a while to adjust to the NFL game but in three years, if they stay together, they are going to be special.”

The Ravens have had some decent duos, like Clayton and Derrick Mason in the mid to late 2000s, and there was the dynamic pair of Anquan Boldin and Mason in 2010. Even though both were in the twilight of their careers, Boldin had 64 catches for 837 yards and seven touchdowns and Mason finished with 61 receptions, 802 yards and seven scores. Both averaged 13.1 yards per catch.

Alexander, Jackson and Lewis is the best trio yet. Lewis was only a rookie in 1996 when Jackson posted career numbers with 76 catches for 1,201 yards. He tied Tony Martin for the most receiving touchdowns that year with 14. Alexander was just starting to come into his own, catching 62 passes for 1,099 yards and averaging 17.7 yards a catch.

Jackson was 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, Alexander was 6-2 and weighed 195, and both could fly. Once former Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda put Lewis in the slot in his second season, few teams matched up with the Ravens. In 1997, all three averaged more than 13 yards a catch.

“Of course, I am biased,” said Lewis, laughing about comparing the present group with his trio. “Michael Jackson was one of the best at route running. He could break down a big cornerback or a little cornerback. He was tough. [Alexander] was also a great route runner and could run that comeback. I was explosive up the middle, and if guys had to get their hands off me after 5 yards like they do today I would have been even more dangerous.”

Lewis spends a lot of time tutoring high school receivers at Under Armour All-American camps. He isn’t sure about the Ravens’ talent level yet, which is why DeCosta isn’t ready to exhale until the season is over. Bateman already missed the first five games with a groin injury and Brown, at 5-9 and 180 pounds, has been injury-prone, including missing Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears with a thigh issue.

Bateman is 6-1, weighs 193 pounds and snags footballs out of the air like former Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr. He has already shown elusiveness and the ability to gain yards after the catch. He can be a possession guy — his first 11 catches resulted in first downs — or a game-changer.

Brown has made great progress from a year ago. He consistently makes catches with his arms and fingers outstretched and away from his body. His route running has improved, and while he doesn’t have that great “shake” like Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill, Brown can plant, accelerate and run away from tacklers with his burst. The only downside on Brown (52 catches, 719 yards, two touchdowns) is that he still can be intimidated like he was last Thursday night when Miami defenders were extremely physical.

Duvernay (23 catches, 203 yards, two touchdowns) is a little bigger and taller than Brown, and just as fast. Like Brown, he can play outside or in the slot and can draw a lot of mismatches with No. 3 safeties or cornerbacks in the middle. Proche hasn’t caught a pass yet, but he has some of the best hands on the team — which he proved with a big preseason. It will be interesting to see how much playing time he can earn in a crowded Ravens receivers room, which also includes Miles Boykin and Sammy Watkins (22 catches, 347 yards). He can become a critical third-down possession type like Julian Edelman was with quarterback Tom Brady when both were in New England.

If you combine this group with Andrews (56 catches, 696 yards, four touchdowns) and the continued development of quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens might be on to something special. Few tight ends can work the middle or deep end of a field like Andrews, who signed a $56 million extension before the season. His ability to be a threat from anywhere on the field opens up a lot of potential areas.

Of course, all of this progress might be hampered by the Ravens’ offensive line. The pass protection has been poor at times, and all these weapons become nullified if Jackson doesn’t have time to throw. But that can be the project for the 2022 NFL draft in April.

Right now, the Ravens need some time and space to grow.

“Hollywood has good feet, runs good routes and this year is coming back and attacking the ball, which is one of the hardest things to learn,” Lewis said. “With his speed, he is able to push a defensive back deep, then come back to the ball, which allows him to get so much separation. Duvernay? Anybody that can do returns and lead the NFL, you know I like them. I’d like to see a little more explosion out of Bateman, but he has a great feel for the game. Plus, he is going to look a step slower being around so much speed with Hollywood and Duvernay.

“There is still a lot to be determined and we’ll see how this formula goes, but they are going to get better at it. It might all come together this year. They are still young, and I don’t want to jinx them, but they could become a major problem for a lot of teams.”

Well said.

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NFL power rankings, Week 11: Ravens among crowded group of contenders in unpredictable season

Each week of the NFL season, The Baltimore Sun will rank all 32 NFL teams. The rankings will take into account not just weekly performance, but how well each team measures up as Super Bowl contenders, regardless of win-loss record.

Here are the rankings after Week 11:

The contenders

1. Arizona Cardinals (9-2; No. 1 last week)

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3; No. 4)

3. Green Bay Packers (8-3; No. 2)

4. Tennessee Titans (8-3, No. 3)

5. Baltimore Ravens (7-3; No. 7)

6. Kansas City Chiefs (7-4; No. 9)

7. Dallas Cowboys (7-3; No. 5)

8. Los Angeles Rams (7-3; No. 6)

9. New England Patriots (7-4; No. 10)

There’s no doubting the Cardinals’ claim to the top spot after they’ve won two of three games without star quarterback Kyler Murray and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. A 23-13 road victory over the Seahawks behind backup Colt McCoy is the latest example that coach Kliff Kingsbury’s team is a force to be reckoned with in the NFC. Arizona has a 47% chance to clinch the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye, according to FiveThirtyEight, which shows just how much the Cardinals have separated from the pack.

Of course, the Bucs and Packers will be right on their heels. Tampa Bay bounced back from two straight losses with a dominant 30-10 win over the Giants on Monday night, with Tom Brady carving up New York’s defense and the Bucs’ front seven whipping the Giants’ offensive line and forcing two Daniel Jones interceptions. Green Bay lost to the Vikings on a last-second field goal, 34-31, but Aaron Rodgers played one of his best games of the season in leading the Packers back from a 23-10 deficit. As long as those two quarterbacks are healthy, there’s a clear hierarchy at the top of the NFC.

Not so much in the AFC. The Chiefs’ 19-9 win over the Cowboys was the latest example of a defensive resurgence under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, but Patrick Mahomes is still struggling to find his groove, throwing another interception Sunday. Ryan Tannehill threw four picks in the Titans’ 22-13 loss to the last-place Texans, ending Tennessee’s six-game winning streak. With Lamar Jackson sidelined by an illness, the Ravens needed a game-winning drive in the final minute from backup quarterback Tyler Huntley to beat the Bears, 16-13. None of those teams are separating from the pack, with each week creating more uncertainty about the AFC hierarchy.

That’s opened the door for the hottest team in the NFL. Many expected the Patriots to be competitive this season after they spent big money in free agency, but counting on a rookie quarterback doesn’t often lead to success. Mac Jones has exceeded expectations, keeping the offense on schedule with his pinpoint accuracy during this five-game winning streak. With the AFC in flux, it’s not unreasonable to consider coach Bill Belichick’s team a Super Bowl contender.

On the cusp of contention

10. Los Angeles Chargers (6-4; No. 11)

11. Indianapolis Colts (6-5; No. 16)

12. Minnesota Vikings (5-5; No. 13)

13. Buffalo Bills (6-4; No. 8)

The Chargers appeared destined for one of their signature heartbreaking losses Sunday night against the Steelers after blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, but Justin Herbert connected with Mike Williams for a 53-yard touchdown with 2:09 left to give Los Angeles a wild 41-37 win. This team might not be trustworthy, but Herbert continues to establish himself as one of the league’s best quarterbacks. His talent alone could carry the Chargers to a deep postseason run.

The Colts and Vikings, meanwhile, have shown how misleading the first few weeks of the season can be. After starting a combined 2-6, they’ve surged back into the playoff race. Indianapolis is getting it done behind running back Jonathan Taylor, who took the NFL lead in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns with a 185-yard, five-touchdown performance in a 41-15 rout of the Bills. Minnesota is riding the hot hand of Kirk Cousins, who threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Packers. Say what you want about Cousins’ ability to make a Super Bowl run, but he surpassed Aaron Rodgers for the second most games with 300 or more passing yards and three or more touchdown passes in a quarterback’s first 10 seasons. If he and Taylor continue to play at this level, the Colts and Vikings are going to be tough to beat in the playoffs.

The Bills are trending in the opposite direction. Buffalo’s second loss in three games was ugly, raising concerns about how effective this offense can be if Josh Allen can’t return to his 2020 form. The Bills are struggling to find any downfield success in the passing game, and the defense was pushed around up front by Indianapolis. What looked to be an easy path to a second straight AFC East title is anything but now that the Patriots look like a contender. Buffalo needs to find answers, and fast.

The wild cards

14. Cincinnati Bengals (6-4; No. 17)

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1; No. 14)

16. Cleveland Browns (6-5; No. 15)

17. Philadelphia Eagles (5-6; No. 20)

18. San Francisco 49ers (5-6; No. 21)

19. New Orleans Saints (5-5; No. 12)

Good luck trying to predict the order of finish in the AFC North. The Bengals put an end to their two-game losing streak with a 32-13 win over the Raiders on Sunday, but they look like a far cry from the team that blew out the Ravens a few weeks ago. The Steelers have kept themselves afloat despite a slew of injuries, but they aren’t nearly as menacing on defense as they have been in years past and are relying on Ben Roethlisberger to carry a dink-and-dunk offense. The Browns keep trotting out a hobbled Baker Mayfield and hoping he can stay standing long enough to keep them in contention. It feels like the Ravens’ division to lose, given the unsteady play from the other three contenders.

Meanwhile, the NFC playoff race is heating up. The Eagles have surged to three wins in their past four games and might have found a quarterback to build around in Jalen Hurts, who continues to deliver on the ground and through the air alongside some talented young playmakers. The 49ers might be in quarterback limbo with Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Trey Lance, but for now, Garoppolo gives them the best chance to win. Will San Francisco let its recent surge dictate Lance’s development the rest of the season? If coach Kyle Shanahan has any say, Garoppolo will get a chance to guide this team to the playoffs in what’s likely his final year with the team.

Still hanging around

20. Las Vegas Raiders (5-5; No. 18)

21. Carolina Panthers (5-6; No. 19)

22. Denver Broncos (5-5; No. 22)

23. Washington Football Team (4-6; No. 25)

24. Atlanta Falcons (4-6; No. 23)

Cam Newton’s return to Carolina produced some must-see moments, but it still ended with a 27-21 loss to Washington. The Panthers get the rest of the season to decide Newton’s future with the team, and given the options in the draft and free agency, he might be their best bet in 2022. That’s more of an indictment of the Sam Darnold experiment and the $18 million fifth-year option the Panthers picked up for the former first-round pick than anything else.

Washington has its own quarterback questions to answer, but for now, it’s happy to ride Taylor Heinicke’s hot hand. Back-to-back wins over Tampa Bay and Carolina have resurrected the team’s playoff hopes, just like last year’s four-game winning streak that began right around this time. Crazier things have happened, especially in this unpredictable season.

The basement

25. Miami Dolphins (4-7; No. 28)

26. Seattle Seahawks (3-7; No. 24)

27. Chicago Bears (3-7; No. 26)

28. Houston Texans (2-8; No. 31)

29. New York Giants (3-7; No. 27)

30. New York Jets (2-8; No. 29)

31. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-8; No. 30)

32. Detroit Lions (0-9-1; No. 32)

At least there’s no quit in Miami. The Dolphins have won two straight against current and former Ravens quarterbacks (Lamar Jackson and Joe Flacco) to regain some respectability after a miserable start. Tua Tagovailoa has at least shown signs of improvement, and there’s enough talent on both sides of the ball to be excited about. We’ll see if that’s enough to save coach Brian Flores’ job.

Pete Carroll and Matt Nagy might not be so lucky. Carroll was so frustrated after Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals that he left his news conference early, a sign that this nightmare season is wearing thin on the longtime coach. A clearly limited Russell Wilson has not been enough to make up for Seattle’s many deficiencies, and there isn’t much hope for improvement after the Seahawks gave up their first-round pick in the Jamal Adams trade. Nagy, meanwhile, is refusing to commit to a starting quarterback after seemingly giving the keys to rookie Justin Fields over veteran Andy Dalton. His job depends on Fields’ development, and yet he seems unwilling to do everything he can to build the best support system around his young star. It might be his downfall.

The Giants could be headed for a coaching change, too. Joe Judge is 9-17 with New York, and other than a few weeks of contention in a bad NFC East last season, it’s been a disappointing tenure. Daniel Jones has not taken a step forward in his third season, and much of the blame falls at the feet of Judge for his hire of offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and the team’s inability to build a competent offensive line. If New York can’t show improvement over the final seven weeks, big changes might be necessary.

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Joe Judge has reached boiling point with Jason Garrett’s offense

TAMPA, Fla. — A seething Giants coach Joe Judge implied Jason Garrett’s job could be in jeopardy after Monday night’s putrid 30-10 road loss to the Buccaneers.

The second-year head coach went on a rant about not scoring enough points, not putting players in a position to succeed, and Judge’s empathizing with player frustrations.

When he was asked if he still has faith in Garrett as his offensive coordinator, Judge made clear changes could be coming.

“I have faith in all the people on our team: players, coaches, everyone,” he said. “But look, we’ll assess everything as a team and make any move we need to going forward.”

Asked if Garrett will remain the OC, Judge snapped: “I’m not gonna go into it right now.”

This was a dramatically different response than Judge’s two previous commentaries on Garrett’s status this season.

With an 0-3 record in late September, Judge said: “the coordinators will still be making the play-calling this week.” With a 3-6 record entering the bye, Judge said “no” to making changes while the Giants were idle.

“No, not at this moment we’re not,” he said on Nov. 8.

But Monday’s pathetic 215-yard, 10-point performance may have sent Judge over the edge. It certainly sounded like it.

“I’m gonna watch the tape, I’m gonna evaluate everything: every player, every coach, make all the decisions that are best for the team going forward,” he said. “Simply put on that: everything is accounted for, everything is evaluated. Every player, every coach. Everything’s evaluated.”

Judge invited several follow-up inquiries into Garrett’s status by going off on his offense’s inability to get the ball to their top weapons in optimal spots.

“We’ve got to do a better job of scoring points,” Judge said. “We’ve got to do a better job of putting our players in position to make plays. We have too many good players. We have to put them in a better position to capitalize on it. That’s it.

“We gotta make sure we sit down [Tuesday] as a coaching staff and understand how we have to play this game and give our players a chance to make plays,” the head coach continued. “So in reference to any kind of [bad player] body language at the end of the game, I’ll handle the corrections. But if I was a player, there’d be some things I’d be frustrated with, too.”

When Judge was told that his criticism of Garrett on Monday stuck out, he said: “Let’s not read too far into this right now. I respect and understand the question, but I’m gonna stay off that right now.”

But in the next breath he was lamenting Kenny Golladay’s two targets.

“He had more than one but it wasn’t enough. Gotta make sure we correct that,” Judge said.

And Judge cited the second half play-calling as an example of what needs to change, when Buccaneers pass rushers were teeing off on the Giants’ offensive line during predictable drop-back passing.

“At the end of the game we were behind, they knew we were gonna throw, we’ve got to change it up down there,” Judge said. “We’ve got to call the game to give our players a better chance for success.”

The players would not throw Garrett under the bus, even though the only touchdown they scored happened because they started with the ball at Tampa’s five-yard line thanks to an Adoree’ Jackson interception.

“I feel responsible for how we played and executed,” quarterback Daniel Jones said. “We’ll go back and look how we can move forward as a team.”

Left tackle Andrew Thomas said: “It’s not about pointing the finger. It’s everybody looking in the mirror to be better.”

Saquon Barkley said it starts with him needing to be better than 25 rush yards and 56 yards from scrimmage. Fair point there.

“As far as schemes, you look around the league, everyone’s running pretty much the same thing,” said Barkley. “People want to blame the coaches but as players, we’re not making plays. We’re not doing it. And it starts with me. We’re the ones who are playing the game. And we’re not making the plays.”

Something needs to change, though, and the Giants’ inability to generate a respectable attack is inexplicable after making so many investments in their offense.

That could be an indictment of the personnel they invested in, the play-calling, or both.

They’re averaging 18.3 points per game (26th in the NFL) and 322.8 yards per game (23rd).

This despite using first-round picks on Jones, Barkley, Thomas, Evan Engram and Kadarius Toney, including three in the top 10. Then they signed Golladay to a four-year, $72 million contract with $40 million guaranteed in the spring.

Plus there are second-round picks Sterling Shepard and Will Hernandez, and a third-round pick in tackle Matt Peart.

GM Dave Gettleman was supposed to fix the offensive line, and it is still a train wreck four years after he took the job.

Garrett was candid last week about how big a liability the O-line is, citing the Dallas Cowboys’ success in building a front by investing in cornerstone players compared to the Giants’ failure in doing so.

Judge claimed he hadn’t seen the quotes. But he’s clearly fed up with watching the Giants try to scratch out points and run predictable or unsuccessful plays in key situations, like a blown-up 4th and 1 in Monday’s slopfest.

“I stay up late and I wake up early because I want to see the players have success,” Judge said. “My only concern is the team’s success. When the guys work hard throughout the week, I want to make sure they have the opportunity to reap the benefit of that hard work.

“I’ve got to make sure from my standpoint that I get this ready for our players to go out there and know they can play aggressive and be in a position to have success,” he added. “My expectations are pretty high. And I’m not compromising them for anybody.”

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Pathetic Giants slouch through blowout loss to Tom Brady’s Buccaneers

TAMPA, Fla. — The Giants looked like they believed they were the inferior team to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night.

That’s worse than getting embarrassed on national television: seeing some players act as if their mistakes and the team’s blowout losses are inevitabilities.

Some bad body language worrisomely crept into Monday night’s 30-10 loss to Tom Brady and the Bucs, including slumped shoulders and missed tackles and lazy turnovers.

“In reference to any kind body language at the end of the game, I’ll handle the corrections,” head coach Joe Judge said after the loss. “But if I was a player, there’d be some things I’d be frustrated with, too.”

That will happen naturally when a team gets dominated this badly and has this many injuries, like Logan Ryan’s absence from an overmatched defense.

But when it happens in prime time, where Daniel Jones now has an 0-8 career record, it is no wonder why the Giants (3-7) remain irrelevant in the NFL.

Of course, who would question the Giants for believing they can’t hang with the Bucs (7-3)? The whole world could see it on Monday: They had no chance.

The Giants’ offensive and defensive lines got dominated because they had barely any talent that could stand up to the defending champs.

The Giants’ pass rush was nonexistent, which is a death sentence against the great Brady, who mercy-ruled the visitors for 307 pass yards, two TD passes, and even a 10-yard romp of a third-down run to fire up the Raymond James Stadium crowd.

“We just didn’t get enough pressure today. I didn’t do enough today,” Leonard Williams said. “And as a defensive side we didn’t do enough today. A guy like Brady, we have to get him off the spot to affect the game. And he was sitting back there way too comfortable today.”

Brady was not sacked. He hit the ground twice: once when he slid on that 10-yard run, and once with 7:35 remaining in the third quarter on a hit by Reggie Ragland when Brady was flushed from the pocket.

On the Giants’ offense, right guard Will Hernandez had a game from hell, with three penalties and a crushing Ndamukong Suh pressure surrendered. Two of those plays stalled and killed the Giants’ first two drives.

Their only offensive touchdown, a 2-yard Jones pass to left tackle Andrew Thomas, came on a 5-yard drive thanks to a fortunate Adoree’ Jackson interception after a Mike Evans drop.

And even after that touchdown tied the game at 10 apiece, the defense promptly surrendered an 8-play, 71-yard TD drive to hand the game right back to Tampa.

The defense surrendered Bucs TD drives of 71, 73 and 74 yards.

Jones had 167 yards passing, that TD, and two horrible second-half interceptions, born out of a combination of bad pass protection and lazy decision-making.

He threw his first after left guard Matt Skura missed a block and Jones, looking for Saquon Barkley back across the field, inexplicably threw the ball to Bucs defensive lineman Steve McLendon.

The only Giants standing in the vicinity were center Billy Price and tight end Chris Myarick.

“I feel responsible for how we played and executed,” Jones said. “We’ll go back and look how we can move forward as a team.”

Barkley was a non-factor with 56 total yards. And on an unsuccessful fourth down play in the second half, Myarick looked at Barkley confused with his hands in the air as if the back had made a costly mistake.

Barkley had run past the Buccaneers defender who had pressured Jones into an incompletion and turnover on downs.

The Giants are now firmly in last place in the NFC East, and they deserve it. They must turn around in six days and host the Philadelphia Eagles (5-6), who have won three of four after charging to the brink of a playoff spot with Sunday’s win over the New Orleans Saints.

The surging Eagles rank eighth in the NFL averaging 27.0 points per game. Nick Sirianni’s club has scored 30 or more points three times in the last four weeks, including 44 on the Detroit Lions in Week 8 and 40 on the Saints this past Sunday.

Philly quarterback Jalen Hurts has 21 touchdowns (13 passing, eight rushing) in 11 games. The Giants’ Jones has 11 TDs (nine passing, two rushing) in 10 games.

Meanwhile, the first-place Dallas Cowboys (7-3) are running away with the division. They have a chance to bounce back quickly from Sunday’s loss in Kansas City against the sorry Las Vegas Raiders on Thanksgiving Day.

And the Washington Football Team (4-6) scratched out a second straight win at Carolina this past Sunday.

All that’s left for the Giants are questions. They don’t have many answers, as they proved Monday. Unless they already know the answer — that they’re inferior — which was Monday’s worst confirmation above all.

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