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There are plenty of people ready to wave 2020 goodbye, but things are not going to be changing any time soon even as vaccines start to be distributed. We are already looking at the spread of a new more transferable variant of Covid-19 across the UK and we are essentially in another lockdown.

As for the NFL, I was not sure we were going to get here, but here we are – looking at a week seventeen schedule starting on time despite there being plenty of positive tests and several outbreaks across the season. With the expanded play-off format there will be eighteen teams finishing their season on Sunday, but there will still be only one winner come February. The disappointment will be delayed for at least a week for the two additional teams who benefit from the new format, but even then with five teams on ten wins in the AFC and only space for four of them in the play-offs there will be a very good team watching from outside who are desperately disappointed.

However, before we get there I ought to run through week sixteen as we pay full attention to the 2020 regular season before it is finished.

What I Saw

The first game of week sixteen was the Christmas Day showdown between the Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints that was a very one-sided affair that finished 52-33 thanks in large part to the Saints’ Alvin Kamara rushing for six touchdowns and one hundred and fifty-five yards. It was a performance that won a lot of fantasy leagues, but it was strange to see a Mike Zimmer team have a such a big problem on defence. Drew Brees threw for over three hundred yards but threw two interceptions and whilst the Saints are heading to the play-offs they will need Brees to get somewhere near his best for them to go deep. It would help if Michael Thomas can get off injured reserve but with the NFC path to the Super Bowl going through the frozen tundra of Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers you wonder if the Saints can get back to the big game. As for the Vikings, this is only the second losing season of Mike Zimmer’s seven years with the franchise and with a full off-season to develop their young defence they can improve next season, but they have to be disappointed at losing three games straight having worked their way back to 6-6 from the 1-5 start.

The next game I saw was the Boxing Day game between the Miami Dolphins and the Las Vegas Raiders. The lead story coming out of this game was the remarkable fourth quarter pass made by Ryan Fitzpatrick where he connected with Mack Hollins on a thirty-four-yard pass left whilst Arden Key had hold of Fitzpatrick’s facemask and was dragging him round by it as Fitz threw the pass. This pass when combined with the resulting fifteen-yard penalty was enough for the Dolphins to get a game winning field goal despite only have nineteen seconds left on the clock when Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins’ offence took the field. However, the concern would be that once again Tua Tagovailoa was pulled out of the game and whilst the rookie quarterback completed seventeen of his twenty-two passes, he is still is not stretching the field vertically with this offence. This blend of quarterbacks can only work in the short term and if I was Dan I would be happy with bringing back Fitzpatrick next season in a mentor/reliever role but there is not unreasonable conjecture that one of the reasons the Dolphins are playing Tagovailoa whilst chasing the play-offs is that they have what looks to be the third draft pick next year and perhaps they are evaluating their options. We shall have to see, but there is all to play for as they take on the Bills next week. Meanwhile, the Raiders continue to be let down by their defence and Jon Gruden’s ability to have long term success with the Raiders is going to rest on if he as head coach can make the right hire at defensive coordinator and enable that hire to have success on the other side of the ball. If he cannot master that responsibility, it doesn’t matter how good Gruden’s side of the ball is, if he does not serve the whole team then they can never take that next step and start competing for Super Bowls. To do that Gruden has to first get the Raiders into the play-offs, something he will have failed to do in his first three years with the franchise.

The next game was an unexpected win for the Cincinnati Bengals who followed up their Monday night win against the Steelers with their first road win for Zac Taylor as they beat the Houston Texans 37-31. I’m still not convinced by the direction the team are heading in, particularly when the opposition defence is ranked thirtieth by DVOA but Brandon Allen had a career day throwing for over three hundred and fifty yards with a long of forty-two and there were some nice longer throws to mix in with the numerous screen passes that seemed to be particularly effective. It’s a win that cheers Dan as the Dolphins have the Texans 2021 first round draft pick, but my concern is that this late rally won’t convert into big improvement next season and after five losing seasons and with a talented young quarterback I am running out of patience with the current regime, but that won’t affect Mike Brown’s decision so we shall see what happens. The Texans meanwhile have a franchise quarterback and a lot of questions to answer in the off-season so we can’t speculate too much until they have a new GM and head coach, but there is a lot of work to do with the roster and not a lot of draft picks so I wonder how quickly things can be turned around, but I have thought that before and been wrong.

The final game I watched in full was the Sunday night prime time game between the Tennessee Titans who started slowly in a snowy Lambeau field and lost heavily 14-40 against a now 12-3 Green Bay Packers team. I thought this could be a competitive game but I could also see paths for both teams to win big, but failed to take into account the weather and while the Titans were still finding their feet the Packers had built a nineteen point lead that they never looked like surrendering. The Titans are not a bad team, but the weaknesses in their defence exposes them to results like this, even before they start spotting teams points, and I do wonder should they make the play-offs if they can repeat their run from last year or if they will be found out fairly quickly. Meanwhile, the Packers defence held up in this game but I still don’t entirely trust them, but with the offence running as well as it is at the moment (and they are currently ranked first by DVOA over the Chiefs) and with home field advantage so the Packers are setup to make a deep run into the play-offs and perhaps even make the Super Bowl.

What I Heard

We are in that awkward period between Christmas and New Years where everything is out of synch and this is particularly the case for me in following the NFL so as I caught up with podcasts and reading, I have spent a lot of time kicking myself over missing the context of performances and other details during Tuesday night’s podcast recording. For instance, we somehow missed the Brown’s hot tub fiasco meaning that they could not play a lot of their receivers against the Jets on Sunday. If the Browns miss the play-offs with that as part of the equation then that is on them and not the league, but I feel for their fans as to get ten wins and not make the play-offs, even with an expanded format is going to be pretty hard to take. Particularly when the NFC are going to have a team with a losing record hosting a play-off game in the Wildcard round.

What I Think

In some ways you can take the fact that we are approaching the last week of the regular season as a success, but what we don’t know from the outside is the cost of getting there. I have heard plenty from coaches who feel like they have made a success of zoom meetings and avoiding close contacts. How they didn’t want the current Covid-19 situation being used as an excuse for a drop in quality of their team’s football.

However, this is a big ask not only for all who are involved directly with the franchises, but all those other families and support networks connected to them. I can’t help but read something like this on the NFL’s own site regarding the effects on players’ significant others and wonder what is going on for all the staff who may not have the same union support.

What I Know

As we head into tier 4 restrictions in Dan and mine’s patch of the UK (and for most of the rest of the country to be fair), I can’t but help wonder how this first quarter of 2021 is going to go as we are a long way from done with Covid-19 yet.

It has been a strange NFL season that has been both familiar and yet uncanny, and whilst I’ve been grateful for the distraction, I’m still not wholly sure it was a good idea to play through a pandemic. Of course, I’m hypocritical enough to be watching so I am not being too judgemental, but it has been a strange year nevertheless.

What I Hope

As the end of the year approaches I hope that this time next year things will be much different, that we will at least have things under control even if things never quite go back to the way they were.

In the meantime, I have one last Bengals game to watch and the play-offs to look forward to as the NFL doesn’t stop for anything, apparently not even Covid-19.