Rejoice, Denver Broncos fans.
In the midst of a chaotic fight between the relatives of legendary team owner Pat Bowlen for control of the club, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. The light has a name, and it’s Drew Lock, a second-round draft pick who just ended his rookie year by winning four of his last five starts.
The Broncos’ difference in energy with Lock on the field (as opposed to Joe Flacco or Brandon Allen) has been significant, and as such, the first item in this week’s “Things I Noticed” is how much Lock’s teammates seem to like him.
Following the Broncos’ 16-15 win over the Raiders on Sunday, numerous Broncos spoke out in positive terms about Lock, who not only went viral for rapping along to a Young Jeezy song during Sunday’s game, but also impressed by completing 64.1 percent of his passes for 1,020 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions in five starts.
“We’ve got a quarterback now that I feel confident in that we can get it done,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said.
“To see these guys’ smile on their faces after wins and stuff like that, and to see Drew coming in and bring energy to all those guys and just do what it took, it was cool to see,” edge rusher Bradley Chubb said.
Lock, 23, helps complete one of the best young quartets of young, offensive skill players in the NFL. Between Lock, 1,000-yard running back Phillip Lindsay (25), 1,000-yard receiver Courtland Sutton (25) and 22-year-old Noah Fant (who led all rookie tight ends in catches and yards), the Broncos have the makings of a dangerous offense for years to come, provided Lock continues to progress.
“He’s going to be good for a long time,” Lindsay told Yahoo Sports, following the Broncos’ 23-3 loss to the Chiefs in mid-December. “We have to take butt whuppings, and when you’re a young team — a bunch of babies against grown men that have been here for five or seven years — you’ve got to adjust. We’re just not on an established team right now; we just have to go with the flow of things and get better.”
New England needs Tom Brady’s downfield magic
If you needed an indication that the Patriots won’t be defending their Super Bowl title, Sunday’s loss to the Miami Dolphins is as good a signal as any. It was that much of a stunner to see Bill Belichick’s Patriots lose at home, in December, to a divisional opponent in a game they needed for playoff seeding.
While the Patriots’ lack of a consistent deep-ball threat remains a concern, I did appreciate the fact Tom Brady threw lots of intermediate passes Sunday to players not named Julian Edelman and James White, which will be a key for them in the playoffs.
If New England is going to turn its mid-grade offense around, Brady will need to develop some quick chemistry with the likes of Phillip Dorsey, Mo Sanu and N’Keal Harry, starting in the wild-card game Saturday night against a Tennessee Titans defense that excels at muddying its coverages.
Shoutout to the Dolphins and coach Brian Flores. Remember, the Dolphins were supposed to tank this past season as they traded some premium pieces of the 2019 roster for draft capital. But Flores has been too good at his job to maximize the strategy.
His players competed their asses off for him, his blitz schemes and indecipherable defensive personnel packages have been a blast to watch and some young offensive skill players (DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki) have improved. Throw in their 14 draft picks in 2020, and they’re easily a team on the rise.
Derrick Henry's superpower could lead upset effort
As for the Titans, one thing to keep an eye on against the Patriots is how well star running back Derrick Henry breaks tackles.
The 25-year-old Henry, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound battering ram, has come into his own this season, rushing for 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns on 303 carries. The Titans’ entire offense revolves around Henry, and their play-action-based passing game doesn’t work as well when he’s not steamrolling defenders.
That said, Bill Belichick is known for taking away the thing an offense wants to do best, and given New England’s defensive strength (it ranks sixth in run defense and first in DVOA), Henry will need his single-best weapon — arguably the league’s nastiest stiff arm — to help shed the league’s most sure-tackling defense.
The Pats have missed a tackle on only 7.8 percent of plays, the second-lowest mark in football (behind Minnesota’s 7.6 percent). Henry will have to dial up a few of those stiff arms from hell to gain enough traction to lift the Titans’ passing game.
An underrated strength of Oakland’s offense
The Oakland Raiders may have limped to a 7-9 finish to the season following a 6-4 start, but they have a few reasons for optimism.
For starters, Mike Mayock’s first rookie class has been really good. Between Clelin Ferrell, Josh Jacobs, Trayvon Mullen, Maxx Crosby, Foster Moreau, Hunter Renfrow and the injured Johnathan Abram, he might have pulled at least seven current or future starters from this draft, a feat that deserves a round of applause.
While the offensive future remains a bit of a question mark — largely because Derek Carr may have reached his ceiling — I like the tight end duo the Raiders boast in the sensational Darren Waller and Moreau, a fascinating rookie.
The 27-year-old Waller, who recently earned a contract extension, put the finishing touches on a career season in which he caught 90 passes for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns. Moreau, meanwhile, caught 21 passes for 174 yards this season before a knee injury sidelined him the Raiders’ final three games.
“We both can run, block, catch and run any route in the tree. If they start focusing things on me, they can’t sleep on him and he can make plays with the best of them,” Waller told Yahoo Sports.
Indeed. Moreau, 22, made his catches count, serving as a willing run blocker and red-zone weapon who caught five touchdown passes (the most of all rookie tight ends) and, in tandem with Waller, helped draw some attention away from sensational rookie running back Josh Jacobs, who finished with 1,150 yards and seven touchdowns on 242 carries (a sterling 4.8 yards per carry).
“With us on the field together, they have to make a decision whether they want to play the pass or the run,” Waller said. “And if they come out in nickel, that’s when we feel good about the run game. And if they come out there in a base defense and try to stop the run, that’s when we feel good about [passing] matchups that we can take advantage of.”
Here’s to the Moreau-Waller duo giving defenses more headaches in 2020.
Minnesota’s offense gives it a chance in Superdome
Not many people are giving the Minnesota Vikings much of a chance in the wild-card road test in New Orleans. That includes BetMGM, which has made the Saints a 7.5-point favorite.
I wouldn’t go so far as to predict an upset — the Saints are the better team and the Superdome is a ridiculously good home-field advantage — but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Vikings hang in there for a while.
Their offense, when it’s on, is fun to watch, and as I detailed in the video below — stitched together by my main man Ron Schiltz — the foundation of the offense is the zone run, the play-action off the zone run and the screen game:
When it’s rolling, it’s incredibly difficult to stop, as several Vikings who joined me — including quarterback Kirk Cousins and receiver Stefon Diggs — explained in detail.
Keith Jackson Call of the Week
There was only one possibility this week; the great Kevin Harlan, calling two NFL games at once. Folks, this type of genuine enthusiasm is why he’s the absolute best.
Leave it to Kevin Harlan to call two games at the same time. The man is a national treasure. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/RFXKCF7I6x
— NFLonCBS (@NFLonCBS) December 29, 2019
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