What to care/not care about from Week 17: 49ers cement NFC-favorite status with multiple team strengths

So much happens on any given Sunday in the NFL. It’s hard to keep track of it all. More importantly, it’s quite a lot to decide what we should value as signal and what we should just ignore as noise. In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned this week and give you the five things I care about coming out of Week 17, along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for.

5 Things I care about

The 49ers have many left hooks

The mark of a championship team is the ability to win in a variety of ways. When a team takes away your first move, you have to be able to get to your second and third, often quite quickly. A true winner can play left-handed. You need a left hook.

The 49ers win over the Seattle Seahawks was a microcosm of their 2019 season. Throughout the course of the year, they showed they could win in a variety of ways. To start the year, they were a low-scoring, win-with-defense-and-the-running-game type of team. As a variety of injuries sunk while the competition got stronger to close the year, San Francisco had to ask the offense to come out of its shell. Time and time again, the unit responded. 

In a No.-1-seed-clinching win, the 49ers showed it all. Their defensive line, while still not at full strength, came after Russell Wilson all night. On the final drive, they sent extra rushers to hunt Wilson and disrupt the flow of his passing game. The defense looked better for the majority of Sunday night than it has in weeks. On offense, the team hit the Seahawks with several left hooks. Rookie Deebo Samuel was an offensive catalyst, taking a run for a 30-yard touchdown and gaining over 100 yards through the air. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk hauled in a 49-yard reception to keep a drive moving for the Niners. All this while the foundation of their offense was humming with Raheem Mostert and his explosive carries sustaining the team.

Deebo Samuel showed off his skillset when it mattered most. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Other than a pair of sacks, Jimmy Garoppolo was clean operating as the point guard in Kyle Shanahan’s quarterback paradise of an offense. He completed over 80 percent of his throws at north of 13 yards per attempt. It wasn’t a night where he needed to throw them into a win. That’s a huge positive for a team that knows it can sting an opponent any number of ways.

As San Francisco heads into the playoffs, they have to be considered the favorite in the NFC. Not only will a team have to play in their building for as long as they’re in the race, they’ll need to take out at least two of their team strengths. And even if you’re able to do that, they can always hit you with a third.

Christian McCaffrey makes history

In an absurdly meaningless game for his own Carolina Panthers, superstar running back Christian McCaffrey made history. He became the first player since Marshall Faulk in 1999 — and the third player in the catalog of the game — to record 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a single season. 

We often remember the story of an NFL season with the outline of Super Bowl winners, playoff participants and the efforts of big-time award winners. Christian McCaffrey will be none of those. His Panthers are a ship lost at sea, long since removed from the playoff race. Once forced into the conversation, McCaffey isn’t even a top-five MVP candidate. If Lamar Jackson doesn’t take both the MVP and the Offensive Player of the Year award, Michael Thomas should take the latter title. 

There will be no titles to remember Christian McCaffrey’s 2019 season. And yet, it would be a crime to lose this campaign to the annals of history. Once regarded as a player who could contribute as a receiver but never be a “between-the-tackles runner,” McCaffrey has become one of the best offensive players in the league. In 2019, he offered up a truly special season for a team going nowhere. As the Panthers slipped away into the abyss, McCaffrey only kept dropping hammers on the field. Let’s hope the Panthers put out a product in 2020 that only helps cement his legacy. 

Ryan Fitzpatrick puts an exclamation point on a wild decade

**Don’t get mad at the next paragraph you’re about to read. I’m not serious.**

Ryan Fitzpatrick is not one of the best quarterbacks of his era. As such, he isn’t your typical candidate but doesn’t it feel like the NFL Hall of Fame needs to make an exception for him? At the very least, they need to consider giving him a separate wing of the building, complete with his army of jerseys and an evolving face graphic transitioning from his fresh-faced look as an unknown with the St. Louis Rams all the way to the bearded wonder we know today.

In all seriousness, you cannot tell the story of the last decade without the character of Fitzmagic. From his efforts as a Bill that earned him his first big payday, his random, almost heroic 31-touchdown season, to a wild stretch with the Buccaneers that featured an iconic press conference getup, all the way to his 2019 season with the supposedly tanking Dolphins that featured a truly prolific back-half, he’s been a defining fun footnote on the last decade of football.

Week 17 featured a classic Fitzpatrick moment. The plucky underdog team that he was in charge of leading took it to a more storied foe; the Dolphins knocked off the Patriots, 27-24. In true Fitzmagic fashion, he fed his top target DeVante Parker 11 targets, despite the receiver drawing coverage from the top corner in football all day. The Patriots will play in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2009 thanks to these Miami Dolphins. What a way for this fable of a football player to wind down this decade. 

The Titans can beat the Patriots 

If the Dolphins can do it, the 2019 Tennessee Titans can. Miami went into New England and stuck to their script. They ran through their explosive passing game and played tight on wildly underwhelming Patriots wide receivers. The Titans can do just that. 

The Titans know who they are on offense. After wisely resting a less-than-100% Derrick Henry in Week 16, they unleashed the monster back for 6.6 yards per carry and three scores on a whopping 32 totes. That’s their identity but they know they have another star on offense.

Tennessee knows it has a uniquely strong connection between the daring Ryan Tannehill and his No. 1 receiver A.J. Brown. The rookie drew a target on a whopping 40% of his quarterback’s throws in Week 17, including one that went down as the most improbable completion of the year:

The Dolphins didn’t fear likely Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and kept finding ways to hit No. 1 wideout, the aforementioned Parker, in tight windows or open short routes. That will be the case with Brown and the Titans in the postseason. The rookie already has that kind of clout. 

Boston Scott is a thing — but the Eagles need Miles Sanders

Make no bones about it, Boston Scott has earned his place as a key contributor on offense for the Eagles. The former unknown has been a revelation as an explosive receiver out of the backfield for Philadelphia, a squad that badly needed someone to create layup throws for Carson Wentz. In Week 17, Scott was that once again with four catches for 84 yards.

What was unique about his efforts against the Giants was his 19 carries and three rushing touchdowns. Credit his crafty work as a scoring area rusher but we shouldn’t see Scott getting that kind of work in the run game.

It became necessary only after an injury to rookie Miles Sanders, who was on his way to a massive day. The running back already carried the ball nine times for 52 yards and caught three balls. He has been a key cog for this team that featured offensive issues throughout 2019. Taking anyone out of the rotation will be a big problem as the team heads into the postseason. 

5 Things I don’t care about

The Seahawks’ end-of-the-game goal-line sequence

The Seahawks failed to come away with a win that would have boosted their own stock and sent their division-rival tumbling out of the No. 1 seed. While much attention will be placed at the final-drive delay of game and Marshawn Lynch missing his shot at goal-line redemption for his old/new team, another player’s place in the closing moments caught my attention.

Russell Wilson threw 12 passes in total to DK Metcalf over the course of the night but a whopping six on the final drive. It was noticeable that Wilson seemed to be rewarding his rookie receiver for what was a strong effort over the course of the night. He routinely made big-time catches along the boundary and hauled in tough receptions with defenders close by. Metcalf has earned a primary place as the Seahawks No. 2 receiver since the outset of the season, and he really hasn’t looked back. In fact, he’s only gotten better. Wilson’s faith in him on Sunday night only cemented that.

As we’re looking ahead to next week, Metcalf’s contributions loom large. The Seahawks will have to travel to Philly to play a team truly finding itself to close 2019. However, the pass defense has been a problem all year, especially due to the outside cornerbacks’ poor play. Those players will find Metcalf in the crosshairs all day next weekend. If he comes up big, Seattle could find themselves advancing another round.

The Packers’ ancillary players

Green Bay’s offensive effort in Week 17 was not the least bit surprising to anyone who has tracked this team all season. For far too many stretches, everything looked way too difficult. 

Aaron Rodgers isn’t having his best season. With his 5.9 effort on Sunday, he checked in under 7.5 yards per attempt for the fifth-straight season. As the offense started off with layers of issues, Packers Twitter was in a full-on revolt, throwing up some outrageous statements on the internet (check the replies) for everyone to see about their future Hall of Fame quarterback. There have been a few too many misses this season from Rodgers but we know he is capable of ultra-greatness at any turn. 

The key for Green Bay, as they head into the postseason, is to keep it simple. Davante Adams ran a gorgeous route for a touchdown against the Lions. Aaron Jones took a screen pass upfield on a nifty angled throw from Rodgers to set up the game-deciding field goal. The two stars run this offense and there just isn’t much going on beyond them. Allen Lazard is capable of the occasional eye-grabbing catch downfield and Jamaal Williams (out this week) can provide a change of pace in the backfield. Go any deeper than those two and the Packers options on offense are just underwhelming and mistake-prone assets. 

With the ceiling Rodgers possesses as a passer — and let’s not act like we haven’t seen it this year — going to Green Bay will be a daunting task for any playoff team. No matter what happens the rest of the way, the Packers need to make sure they restock the skill position cupboard in the offseason.

Kyler Murray’s efforts in Week 17

It was a sloppy end to a strong rookie season for Kyler Murray in Week 17. The No. 1 overall pick fumbled twice and threw two picks, which is out of character for the otherwise careful Murray in 2019. He just looked like he lacked the juice we know he has and was a net-zero as a runner, registering just two carries for no yards.

It’s hard to put much stock in Murray’s efforts this past week. In fact, it’s a bit hard to see why he even played in this Sunday’s game. Murray suffered a hamstring injury last week and it appeared he was unlikely to play in Week 17. Backup Brett Hundley even made an appearance in this game. A few miscues and an injured lower half certainly helped sink Murray’s momentum in his final rookie outing. 

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Nothing Murray did against the Rams in Week 17 matters. This quarterback and an overall successful debut by the Kliff Kingsbury offense have the Cardinals looking like a surprisingly fun team that could be a fantasy goldmine in 2020. 

Michael Gallup’s drops in 2019

Annoyed Cowboys fans and overly negative stat enthusiasts will be sure to mention Michael Gallup’s drops this year. There were plenty of them. However, if that’s what you’re coming away from 2019 with as the main impression, you’re missing the point.

Gallup dropped 98 yards and three touchdowns on Washington in the Cowboys’ season finale. That brings his season totals to 1,107 yards and six scores in 14 games. He played as the team’s primary X-receiver for the second year in a row a thrived. In a season full of exceptional disappointments, his development is a huge win. His play has been as good as the numbers, even if he did let a few slip through his hands.

When Gallup hauled in his most spectacular scoring play of the day, Troy Aikman noted that he had "basically become their No. 1 guy" over the last few weeks of the season. Of course, that coincides with Amari Cooper fading to end the season amid a public pseudo spat with the current coaching staff. Perhaps it was just typical announcer-speak, but it makes you wonder if someone has made clear to the still-well-connected Aikman that the team believes Gallup can take yet another huge leap in his third year. 

Definitive outside takes on head coaching hires 

Freddie Kitchens got the ax after just one year at the helm. Remember last year when the vast majority of football media loved the hire of Kitchens after he earned the affection of then-rookie Baker Mayfield amid a successful finish to 2018 as the offensive play-caller? The failure of Kitchens’ tenure after he was universally lauded as their hire is a reminder that we don’t know a thing about who will be a good or bad head coach. The way it happened, with the complete lack of any culture in Cleveland, reminds us all that the nuances beyond scheme or play-design matter so much. And knowing how a coach will install those in an organization is nearly impossible for those on the outside. 

As for where the Browns go next, the statements from their ownership scream a “done-this-before” head coach like Mike McCarthy. The emphasis on leadership and stability looks like it will lead them to a coach with a resume like McCarthy, whose strong record with the Packers does speak volumes. 

Charles Robinson reports that a power structure change between GM John Dorsey and Paul DePodesta could be in play for Cleveland. In addition to a resume that will appeal to ownership, McCarthy has a history with Dorsey and his well-reported new interest in analytics could appease DePodesta. Look for McCarthy to get significant interest from the Browns. 

How will it go if McCarthy is the guy? Well, who the hell knows? That’s the take.