Deshaun Watson’s saga in Houston made headlines over Wild Card weekend, but only the eight NFL playoff finalists remain. The two teams that didn’t win the AFC North made big statements, but can they still win this week?
This weekend, we asked our experts about Watson and the four games. Which teams should defend the Texas quarterback by force? Which home team will be upset this weekend? How about a bold prediction with a little conviction?
Let’s give Texans some advice. What should the organization do to improve its relationship with Deshawn Watson?
Matt Bowen, NFL Analyst: Improve communication channels with Watson. Organizationally, the Texans could be more transparent about their main goals as a head coach, with the goal of maximizing the Texans’ best playing years with Watson.
Jeremy Fowler, NFL National Writer: Stop making promises you can’t keep. If the central problem is that Watson was told he would be involved in the process of hiring a general manager and head coach, but was not consulted at all, perhaps he should quit. Integrate the interview with your best candidate for the head coach position – bring them into the game by using the opportunities available to you – to restore a positive atmosphere. Then get him some offensive players through the Free Agency. There are a dozen standout catchers that will immediately improve the offense.
Dan Graziano, NFL National Writer: WR’s new signing will be Fuller V. You see, it’s an accumulation of things with Watson and the organization, right? They traded DeAndre Hopkins last season and Watson still managed to make the offense work with Fuller, Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb. If you don’t get the coach he wants, signing free agent Fuller (who might even get a small discount given his injury and current drug suspension) is an olive branch telling Watson that you won’t continue to make his life miserable.
Jason Reed, Senior NFL Writer, unedited: Give Watson a key contribution to the search for the main hide. Whether it was a simple good faith misunderstanding between the team’s president, Cal McNair, and Watson, or whether McNair seriously misled the organization’s BQs, it is understandable: The Texans are in a terrible situation and need to get out. That was fast. Repairing fences with Watson should be at the top of the Texans’ to-do list – even before they hire a new HC. Watson just turned 25. The season is over. When it comes to Watson League passers with this kind of talent, you can count them on the fingers of one hand. As for the future of their franchise, the Texans need to get back on the same page as Watson. Or something as close to it as possible.
Seth Walder, Sports Analyst, Author: Interview Eric Benimi not only. Set it up. Above all, he is an excellent candidate for the coaching position. But there’s also this: Projecting head caching performance is a process fraught with uncertainty. Even if Benimi isn’t Houston’s first choice, the difference between what Texans expect from him and what they expect from their first choice – whatever it is – is certainly less than the difference between having Watson and, well, not having Watson.
Field Yates, NFL Analyst: They just did it by asking Beniemi for an interview. Maybe too little, too late. Maybe talking to Bieniemi is not an offer. It doesn’t matter. The Texans have to do everything they can to appease their quarterback, and it’s no secret that Watson respects what Bienemy is doing in Kansas City. It doesn’t solve everything – far from it – but it’s just one of many things the team can do to smooth things out.
If the Texans and Watson don’t come to an agreement, which team should trade?
Bowen: Dolphins. I don’t see the Texans moving Watson, but if we put together a potential package, the Dolphins could move here. This deal would send quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, plus this year’s numbers 3 and 50, to Texas for Watson.
Fowler: Washington. When league personnel are told about teams that may be short on QB options this season, the idea that this is possible in Washington always comes up. This team has more stability under Ron Rivera than many expected and will do the same for its quarterback.
Graziano: 49ers. You can put any of the 25 teams in here, but I’m going to throw a dart and say the Niners get the 12th spot. The overall pick should be offered as part of a package combining Watson and Kyle Shanahan. The team no longer owes Jimmy Garoppolo any money and can fire him without penalty. The team is deep and talented and MUST be almost healthier next year than this year. Watson immediately returns them to copyright status.
Error! The file name is not specified. Game
Ryan Clark responds to Deshaun Watson’s frustration with GM’s recruiting process in Texas.
Coverage: Dolphins. Let me get this straight: I doubt very much that Watson will be sold. The truth is that teams don’t trade Watson’s QB. I never thought the Texans would be in this position, especially shortly after Watson became the second-highest paid player in NFL history. However, if the situation in Houston continues to deteriorate, Miami has plans to use QB Tua Tagovailoa’s assets as the basis for any business package to at least awaken Texans’ interest.
Walder: The Patriots. I really think about 20 teams should consider trading Watson. But let’s go with the Patriots. They need a quarterback, are out of high draft range and have the punching power to absorb Watson – though he’s cheap in 2021 – and spend on improvements elsewhere. To get rid of him? It will take a lot to beat the other interested teams. I’m fighting for Damien Harris, for FRG rights to J.C. Jackson, for the first, second, fourth and fifth rounds this year, plus the first and third rounds of 2021. And Jarrett Stidham, if they want it. But on the other hand? Another couple of top football coaches with a top five quarterback.
Yates: Jet plane. No team has a more attractive bounce-back package than the Jets, who could offer four picks in the first round of the next two projects (theirs plus two from Seattle). While the Jets may decide during the offseason that the best realistic plan for them is to stay with Sam Darnold and use the second pick to either trade down or build around him, such a plan could obviously be modified if Watson were available.
Which home team is most likely to lose this weekend?
Bowen: Bills. The multi-dimensional play of Lamar Jackson and the Ravens could be a challenge for a Buffalo defense struggling to control holes and blocks. Expect the Ravens to rely on their counterplay, with the wrong orientation to get both numbers and speed on the sideline.
Fowler: Saints. In eight games since week nine against New Orleans, Bucs quarterback Tom Brady has rushed for 2,616 yards and 22 touchdowns. He found something, and there aren’t many worse crimes than Tampa’s. Plus, Brady seems to see this game as a personal challenge. Marshawn Lattimore is still causing problems for Mike Evans downfield, but the Bucks have enough to overcome that.
Graziano: Bills. No team is hotter than Buffalo in the playoffs, and I don’t think they’re going to lose this game. But you ask which one is more PERSONAL, and the Colts’ success against Buffalo last week makes me fear that Baltimore’s continued attack will create even more problems for the Bills’ defense. In addition, the Ravens’ defense seemed rather wary of a very good Tennessee offense. Baltimore can be a tricky team when it comes to causing problems.
Access to elite coverage for every fan: Highlights from the biggest games, original series from NFL legends, unprecedented analysis and much more. Sign up now to unlock all that ESPN+ has to offer.
Coverage: Bills. The power of the Ravens was evident in their victory over the Titans. QB Lamar Jackson was impressive in his first playoff win of his career, but can we talk about the Baltimore defense? The Ravens limited Derrick Henry to 40 yards and a 2.2-yard average. Enough of this. Although the Ravens performed very well in the playoffs, they also had six straight wins, including the following season. They are looking to extend their series to seven in a row this week.
Walder: Bills. Last week, Baltimore’s defense interrupted the Titans’ game on the field. This week’s challenge is to stop Josh Allen and Stephon Diggs. But that’s the whole point of the Ravens’ defense: She is strong in many ways. They ranked fourth in EPA-authorized racetracks, but fifth in EPA-authorized tracks. Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith will make it difficult for Bills to receive.
Yates: Saints. I’m not feeling too good after the home team’s defeat at the weekend, but the Pirates have played solid football over the past five weeks, although I admit their schedule hasn’t been very busy. And it’s not easy to beat the same team three times in a season. I could have made this argument much simpler: Tom Brady.
Give us a bold prediction for this weekend’s games that are close to your heart.
Bowen: The Rams will limit Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ passing game. With his multiple fronts and schematic passes, Brandon Staley’s defense can put pressure on Rodgers. And it plays on Staley’s shared security, with Jaylen Ramsey in the situation matches against Davante Adams.
Fowler: The Bills beat the Ravens in a big way. Lamar Jackson’s first playoff breakthrough came on the front page at Tennessee last week, but the Ravens’ offense didn’t look very explosive against a Titans team with limited passing and secondary play. Expect the Buffalo defense to limit the big play and force Jackson to beat them in the intermediate passing game. Josh Allen will do the rest.
Graziano: The Saints are going to blow up the Pirates. I think it’s a bad game for Tom Brady’s team. I don’t buy the old saying that it’s hard to beat a team three times, because since 1970, teams that have beaten a team twice in the regular season and seen it again in the playoffs have a record of 14-7 in the second leg. I’m a little more cautious than I was a week ago because I was very impressed with Tampa Bay’s passing defense on the Washington front. But I think a four-time division champion against a gifted player is a point of pride for the Saints, and I think Drew Brees will find a way to win his last game against Brady.
Error! The file name is not specified. Game
Dan Orlovsky and Adam Schefter analyze what Pittsburgh’s options might be if it moves on from Ben Roethlisberger or decides to move on from him.
Coverage: After all the talk in recent weeks about how QB Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers could win the Associated Press MVP award, QB boss Patrick Mahomes will remind the NFL that he’s not a bad player either. The reigning Super Bowl MVP will put on a show to lead the Chiefs to their third straight game for the AFC title.
Walder: What the hell? I’ll do it: The Browns are going to eliminate the chiefs. He’ll absorb Miles Garrett’s defensive play and lead Baker Mayfield’s life, but…. anything is possible. I think the Browns are trying to get a high variance…. …how about a surprise offense from the outside? — …hoping the ball bounces back into their path.
Yates: The Browns remain close to the chiefs. Another loss to the Steelers seems unlikely, but the Browns are a tough group, and that gives me confidence that the Chiefs will be mean for a while on Sunday. Sometimes we try to give you very precise and nuanced information about how something might happen, while other times it is important to limit ourselves to the essence: If the Browns can pass the ball early and make Patrick Mahomes a spectator, they have a chance to be playable.
Should the Colts bring back Philip Rivers or look for a new quarterback?
Bowen: Take Rivers back. With a race system and a passing game that relies on crossovers and forwards, Rivers remains the best option for the Colts. The addition of another goal in the middle of the field for Rivers – with dynamic strokes – should also be a priority for the Colts this season.
Fowler: Elsewhere. Rivers did well at Indy, but the Colts signed him for a year for a reason: He was a filler. The big play should draw Detroit to Matthew Stafford, who may have the Lions’ permanent rebuild behind him. The Colts team is ready and needs an elite quarterback in the prime of life (Stafford is 32) to lead them to the top.
Graziano: Both of them? Why not bring Rivers back and write a BQ, since Rivers obviously won’t be around forever? We don’t even know what Rivers wants to do next, but if he wants to be in the same good position for River that he played in this season, the Colts could try to give him another shot while they think about what to do next.
Error! The file name is not specified. Phillip Rivers is a good fit for Frank Reich’s offense, but his future at Indianapolis is uncertain. AP Photo/Adrian Kraus
Coverage: The Verne Rivers. Carson Wentz’s speech is interesting, but who knows what the Philadelphia Eagles will do? The Colts will rely even more on Jonathan Taylor next season. Another season, they can do it with Rivers.
Walder: Bring Rivers back, but be prepared to use your first round pick on a future quarterback and/or acquire a younger quarterback who may be available (Tua Tagovailoa? Sam Darnold?). It’s a little difficult, but they need to start throwing darts to the quarterback in the long run.
Yates: The Verne Rivers. While rumors continue to circulate about the possibility of acquiring Carson Wentz, it is not certain that he will be upgraded to Rivers immediately. In addition, Rivers has had a great time for the Colts this season and is an integral part of the culture that Frank Reich and head coach Chris Ballard hold in such high regard.
Steelers have issues with aging quarterback and captain. What should be their priority in this off-season?
Bowen: Fix the game. The Steelers’ inability to manage the football in a consistent manner, especially in short film situations, must be addressed. Use Free Agency and draft picks to improve the offensive front, with linemen providing movement skills to increase playing time.
Fowler: We’ll have to make do with Ben Roethlisberger for another year, but with significant changes along the way. Look, Roethlisberger isn’t going to quit, the Steelers aren’t going to fire him just to keep $22 million in dead money on the balance sheet, so the cleanest way is to restructure his contract with years of void to reduce his capitalization to $41.3 million in the final year of the deal. But let’s be clear, this is the last year that the quarterback position needs to be filled – either by negotiating a bridge option like Sam Darnold, taking a quarterback, or giving Mason Rudolph a better chance. Start to rethink an offense that relies heavily on five wide and clear sets without a cohesive running game. And find some semblance of a racing game to bring Pittsburgh back to its roots of playing hard to get ahead.
Graziano: Find Roethlisberger’s successor. Even if Ben comes back (and I don’t see how he will under his current contract), the specter of his retirement will always be present in Steelerland until he returns. They need to determine their next step towards the BQ, whether it’s this year or 2022.
Coverage: It’s very simple: Rebuild the racing game. In recruiting and free agency, the Steelers must fix a game that is in a state of blatant disrepair. This can’t go on. Not if the Steelers want to go back to the Steelers.
Walder: At least at quarterback. If Roethlisberger were to retire, I’d consider Jameis Winston a short-term solution on the cheap, while taking a long look at the level of Trey Lance/Mac Jones/Kyle Trask quarterbacks in the draft. But even if Roethlisberger returns to the team, it’s better to invest in QB lots now than later.
Yates: Zoom in on T.J. Watt. Watt could win the NFL defensive player of the year award, an incredible feat for such a dominant team. While such a reinvestment is not motivated by the possibility of cap flexibility, the deal would almost certainly lead to a healthy cap room in Pittsburgh in 2021, which would have a significant tangential impact on the maximum watt value for the franchise. He’s their best player.