Early-season overreactions are easy to laugh off because, well, it’s early. But late-season overreactions can be just as dangerous and misleading.
The last four weeks of the NFL season are exactly as small a sample size as the first four. (That’s math, folks. You can check it.) While December games seem to carry more import because the stakes are better-defined and feel more fraught, they can produce overreactions every bit as silly as the ones we have in September.
So this is a warning, as we embark upon our weekly exercise, for teams not to base too much of their playoff planning or offseason decision-making on what they’ve seen from a couple of weeks toward the end of the year. Things get wacky in December, momentum doesn’t last nine months, and it’s important to keep the whole 16-week picture in mind when you’re drawing conclusions.
That said, it’s time for the Week 16 edition of OVERREACTION MONDAY:
Nick Foles deserves to be the Eagles’ starting quarterback, even once Carson Wentz is healthy
Is this really happening again? Is Foles really stepping in for an injured Wentz in December and leading the Eagles to important victories? Everyone’s favorite Napoleon Dynamite lookalike completed 35 of 49 passes for 471 yards and four touchdowns in a game the Eagles needed to win in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. He beat the first-place Texans at home one week after beating the first-place Rams on the road. The Eagles can still make the playoffs if they win next week and the Vikings lose to the Bears. And if they get in, the defending Super Bowl champs are loaded with guys who know what it takes to win big games in January. Foles, the reigning Super Bowl MVP, is one of them.
Graziano’s verdict: OVERREACTION. This is the perfect example of “don’t get fooled by the small sample size.” Foles may be the perfect backup quarterback, since you know he can step in if needed and win you a few games — even if one of those games is the Super Bowl. But did we forget about how he started the season? Have we not yet learned our lesson about Foles and consistency? Was there something about the way Wentz was playing before he got hurt that should lead the Eagles to doubt their long-term commitment to him? If anything, the way Foles is finishing this season provides the Eagles, who should have traded him last year when he was at all-time-high value, a second chance to get something in return. Of course, if he leads them to a second straight Super Bowl title, that’s going to be a hard sell to the fan base. But the people who run the Eagles are a patient, big-picture bunch, and the bet here is that they’re still all-in on Wentz for the long term. As they should be.
The Ravens will be the scariest team in the AFC playoff field (if they make it)
Baltimore is playing defense at a stratospheric level at the tail end of The Year of the Offense. The Ravens have won five of their past six games and are allowing a league-low 252.7 yards and just 17.17 points per game over that time. Their only loss in that stretch was to the Chiefs, who needed a miracle comeback to beat them. That stretch also coincides with the quarterback switch from Joe Flacco to Lamar Jackson. Over the past six games, the Ravens are averaging a stunning 218.5 rushing yards per game.
Graziano’s verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Jackson needs some time to refine himself as a passer, but he’s an absolute wonder to watch and a nightmare to defend. Everybody knows what Baltimore wants to do — run the ball down your throat all day — and right now no one is stopping it. No one has a practice-squad player who can impersonate Jackson during the week of game preparation. The Ravens may not be deep or dynamic enough on offense to win the three games they’d need to make to the Super Bowl (and again, they’re not in the playoffs yet — they get in with a win over the Browns or a Steelers loss next week), but they’re not going to be any fun to play. The win over the Chargers and the near win over the Chiefs prove they can hang with anyone.
Eli Manning will return as the Giants’ starting quarterback in 2019
Manning was 25-for-33 for 309 yards and had two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) Sunday against a Colts defense that shut out the NFC East champion Cowboys one week earlier. His QBR for the game was 93.1 (remember, that’s out of 100), and since the start of November he has 11 touchdown passes and four interceptions in seven games. The Giants blew the game on defense, but this one wasn’t on Manning. And since they didn’t draft Manning’s successor in this year’s draft, they don’t have another in-house option if they decide to let him leave at season’s end.
Graziano’s verdict: OVERREACTION, though I’m starting to think the wind is blowing that way. The Giants in their recent history have a habit of overreacting to the final few games of the season and making offseason decisions based on the way things have gone once the team was out of it. For most of this season, Manning was ineffective, and he enters Week 17 still short of 20 passing touchdowns for the year. The locker room might not buy into the idea of another year of Eli, and Giants management needs to assess that and factor it into the decision. A free-agent play for someone like Teddy Bridgewater would make more sense than bringing back Manning for another year, and obviously the front office should think seriously about drafting a quarterback of the future no matter what. But the Giants have missed the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, and their 23 losses since the start of the 2017 season are tied with the Browns for the most in the league. It’s time to commit to the rebuild, and it’s important to do it while superstars Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley are still young enough to benefit.
Roosevelt Nix takes the direct snap on the fake punt, but he comes up a yard short giving the Saints great field position with under 5 minutes left.
The Steelers blew their season with the fake punt call
With 4:11 left in the game, the Steelers had a 28-24 lead on the Saints in a game they needed to win to stay in first place in the AFC North. On fourth-and-5, they lined up to punt, but they faked it. Roosevelt Nix ran for 4 yards, and the Steelers turned it over on downs on their own 42-yard line. In 2:41, Brees led a touchdown drive that put the Saints ahead for good. As a result, the Steelers no longer control their own playoff destiny and will miss the playoffs if the Ravens beat the Browns next week and the Colts and Titans don’t tie.
Graziano’s verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Got to like aggressiveness in general, but giving Drew Brees the ball in your own territory down four points with four minutes to go? Waaaay too risky, given how important this game was for the Steelers. Pittsburgh was playing tough enough defense on Brees & Co. that field position could have mattered, especially since the Saints needed a touchdown and not just a field goal. Not picking up the fourth down on the fake just made things too easy for the Saints, who didn’t even need the game as badly as the Steelers did.
The Dolphins will be in the quarterback market this offseason
Miami’s loss eliminated the Dolphins from playoff contention, and it’s possible a lot of change is coming there, including on the coaching staff. As for quarterback Ryan Tannehill, he was 15-of-22 for 146 yards, a touchdown and an interception against a Jaguars team that basically hasn’t been trying for a couple of months. After the game, Dolphins coach Adam Gase — perhaps the world’s biggest Tannehill backer — said, “I wish he would have played a little better. I wish he would have made some decisions that were different.”
Graziano’s verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. It remains to be seen who’s making the decision, but I’d expect the Dolphins to move on from Tannehill and have someone different playing quarterback next season. It could be someone like Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Tyrod Taylor … or it could be a draft pick. Hard to see it from here, given all of the variables and the uncertainty over the Miami situation in general. But it seems like a change is warranted there at this point.