As we approach Black Monday – the day after the final Sunday of the season where under fire coaches learn their fate – a surprising name is emerging as being on the hot seat – Kliff Kingsbury, of the Arizona Cardinals.
The Cards sit at 10-5 but are on tilt, their season mirroring last year in that respect, and this is the narrative that’s gaining momentum: Kingsbury’s teams shine bright initially and fade fast. Critics have pointed to his tenure at Texas Tech – where he coached a young Patrick Mahomes – and cited similar capitulations. Arizona, for a long time in possession of the best record in football, are now in danger of merely making up the numbers in the playoffs.
As with several hot-takes this season – the Chiefs being written off mid-way through the season my personal favourite and one I rallied against right here on Squawka – it’s a gross over-reaction. The Cardinals have had to deal with injuries to their star receiver Deandre Hopkins, and don’t have a supporting offensive cast like their opponents this weekend, the Dallas Cowboys. Star QB Kyler Murray has missed time – yet veteran back-up Colt McCoy won games when called upon. Center Rodney Hudson is an unsung hero who’s also missed action, as have a number of key defensive players, including the veteran JJ Watt, who was lost early in the season. All teams deal with injuries, but clearly some are luckier than others in that respect, and the pieces that Kingsbury has lost place Arizona amongst the most affected. Because Murray is a dual threat QB, the absence of D-Hop is understated by some, compared to a similar situation with a more static, pocket passer losing his number one threat, with the sense that Kyler will still be able to make things happen.
The fine margins in football are often accentuated by luck; losing punter Andy Lee to Covid protocols for the Indy game, meant McCoy had to hold kicks, something he’s never done before in his career. The Cards missed two field goals and an extra point – 7 points – and lost the game by six.
Dallas is a tough spot for them this weekend, a potent defense with playmakers through the unit – including the pass rush of Randy Gregory and Micah Parsons and the ball hawking finesse of corner Trevon Diggs – and an offense that, unlike Kingsbury’s, has real range, and depth, led by a rehabilitated Dak Prescott, who looks a lock for Comeback Player of the Year.
Arizona will close out the regular season against Seattle and take their chances in the playoffs and even if they flame out of the post season, Kingsbury should be given more time, and talk of replacing him seems nonsensical, when considering the above, and the undoubted value in perseverance and continuity.
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Franchises that have benefited most from such loyalty and cohesion include the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they’ll need to move on from Ben Roethlisberger, their 18-year future Hall of Fame starter, who suggested this week what we’ve long suspected: that this is his final year in the NFL. This makes the Steelers home game against Cleveland Big Ben’s final game at Heinz field – even if the 7-7-1 Steelers make the playoffs, they’ll be a wildcard team that will have to hit the road.
The two-time Super Bowl champion has struggled this season – his mobility, never a strong suit – has ground to a virtual halt, and the Steelers offense has had a curious feel to it, often woefully static and disjointed, occasionally electric, like an ageing prize fighter that’s holding for round after round, juxtaposed with 30 seconds of rapid roundhouse rights and uppercuts.
It’s a big issue for the Steelers, who don’t have an heir apparent, so will most likely look to free agency – their relatively low draft pick unlikely to yield a Day-1 starter – but before they tackle that issue, they’ll want to end on a high against a Browns team that is coming into the game off the back of a devastating defeat that’s all but scuppered their playoff chances, with questions surrounding the long term viability of their QB Baker Mayfield.
The ground game of the Browns is the key to their offense, and the Steelers have one of the weakest run defenses in the league. Plus, in primetime, a bounce back spot for Baker would make sense, but can you see Mike Tomlin, and indeed any of the Pittsburgh organisation, letting Roethlisberger leave on Monday night with anything but a win? Thought not.
The Chiefs at Bengals game is the most intriguing of Week 17, with a lot riding for both. Cincy, and their freewheeling offense led by sophomore Joe Burrow are on the verge of securing the division, and bounced into the spot with swagger, after their sensational performance last week against a (banged up) Ravens. The Chiefs D – one of the most improved units in football, as is often the way with co-ordinator Steve Spagnuolo – will offer an altogether different test, and the challenge for the Bengals will be how they tackle the offensive game plan. Despite the aerial fireworks from Burrow to Chase, Higgins & co, they’re a run first offense, and that’s the weak spot of the Chiefs D. But Burrow threw 46 times on the way to his 525 yards, 4 TD masterclass against Baltimore, and the temptation will be, as my Edge Rush co-host Prop O suggested on our podcast this week, “to let Joe cook”.
One of the main changes for the Chiefs during their 8-week win streak is that their supporting cast has steeped with several their second-tier players contributing to assist the superstar duo of Tyreek Hill (9 TDs, just shy of 1200 yards) and Travis Kelce (1000+ yards, 7 TDs).
Byron Pringle has 5 TDS, Mecole Hardman over 500 yards and 2 TDs, Clyde Edwards-Helaire over 500 yards on the ground with 4 TDs from the backfield – Derrick Gore has plugged in a further 2 TDs. Much has been made of the importance of this game for the Bengals, but the Chiefs have a huge amount at stake also, with the #1 seed to lock in. Expect an effervescent, high wire act with points aplenty.
Much has been written this week about the great John Madden, who passed away just after Christmas aged 85, and rightly so. He’ll be remembered as one of the most influential figures in NFL history, as a successful coach, even more so as a broadcaster & analyst, and of course the name and face behind one of the most successful video game franchises of all time.
But I’d also like to salute another terrific journalist who we lost this week ; Jeff Dickerson, who covered the Chicago Bears for ESPN for two decades and who passed away on Tuesday aged 44. I had the pleasure of working with Jeff when the Bears came over to the UK a few years back for a game in London. Despite his ridiculously busy schedule, he took time to hang out, do our show, and was insightful, charming & great company. The tributes I’ve read this week suggest that this was standard behaviour. A hell of a guy, a superb writer and broadcaster, who’s gone way too soon. Raising a glass, Jeff.
NFL Week 17 predictions
Eagles @ Football Team
Rams @ Ravens
Bucs @ Jets
Dolphins @ Titans
Jaguars @ Patriots
Raiders @ Colts
Chiefs @ Bengals
Giants @ Bears
Falcons @ Bills
Texans @ 49ers
Broncos @ Chargers
Panthers @ Saints
Lions @ Seahawks
Cardinals @ Cowboys
Vikings @ Packers
Browns @ Steelers
|NFL Week 17 accumulator|
|Full predictions @ 275/1 with Sky Bet|
|Odds correct at time of publication.
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Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.