Patriots Are Better Built for Playoffs Than Last Year, Mike Tomlin Didn’t Do Anything Unusual and Other NFL Thoughts

Tom Brady, Josh McDanielsNow that the tryptophan and football hangovers have worn off, we’re back to a normal week in the NFL.

There were three games on Thanksgiving, but one was clearly more memorable than the rest, and it’s all because of Mike Tomlin‘s right foot. The Steelers head coach got a bit lost along the sideline and was nearly blasted into oblivion by a speeding bullet better known as Jacoby Jones. Fortunately, for Tomlin’s sake, Jones shifted right, but the mental lapse will still cost the coach dearly — $100,000 to be exact.

Aside from Tomlin’s two-step, there were a few other major storylines to permeate over the weekend. A trio of wide receivers — Alshon Jeffery, Josh Gordon and Eric Decker — put up some stupid numbers, torching secondaries at nearly every turn. The Jaguars won for the third time in November, the Falcons won for the first time in six weeks, and the Texans continued their free fall to a tenth straight loss.

A few more teams fell in the playoff race, with the Bills, Browns, Rams and Raiders all but eliminating themselves from the picture. But that didn’t make things much clearer. The Seahawks became the first team to clinch a spot in the playoffs with an impressive win over the Saints. But 10 teams in the NFC still remain firmly in the race for the final five slots, including competitive battles for the NFC East, North and South crowns. Over in the AFC, five teams have all but locked up their playoff destinies, with six others duking it out for the sixth and final playoff spot.

There’s plenty to break down and more, so let’s fish through and see what we leftovers there might be from the week that was in the NFL.

**Editor’s Note: Each week, I’ll break down 10 thoughts from around the NFL in the NESN.com “First and 10.” That being said, here are 10 more thoughts from around the NFL after another week of football.

1. Patriots coming up in the clutch – Last season, the Patriots just didn’t have the feel of a championship team. Sure, they led the NFL in points scored and were outpacing most offenses’ weekly outputs in halves or even quarters of games, but they couldn’t seem to win the close ones. The Patriots went 12-4 in 2012, and just four of their games were decided by three points or fewer. However, in those close games, the Patriots were just 1-3 on the season, including just one fourth-quarter comeback. That isn’t exactly prototypical of a Super Bowl contender. This season has been an entirely different story.

The Patriots are 5-1 in games decided by three points or fewer this season, two of which have come against the NFL’s top four teams and the only loss coming on a controversial field goal pushing penalty against the Jets. Tom Brady has also been far more clutch this season, engineering four fourth-quarter comebacks and one overtime victory. That number very well could have been five if the officials didn’t pick up the flag on the controversial final play in Carolina, too. So, needless to say this seems like a team much better suited for play in January than in recent years.

2. Tomlin usually stands that way – Mike Tomlin’s punishment has already been handed down by the league offices, in the amount of $100,000, and rightfully so. While Tomlin was in the wrong in floating over toward the field of play, it appears that his watching the kickoff on the opposing scoreboard is actually commonplace for him.

In going back to watch some of the coaches’ tape of past Steelers kickoffs, it becomes increasingly obvious that Tomlin typically will stand away from his players along the sideline and watch his team kick off on the videoboard. It’s definitely an unusual move, but he usually stands right in line with the ball at kick off — likely to ensure his players are accounted for an onside, and then gets a better vantage point of the kick on the big screen.

Check out the photo below from a game against the Patriots for further proof of Tomlin’s usual placement. (H/T @RyanWilson_07)

Mike Tomlin

3. Learn the name — DeAndre Levy has been a revelation for the Lions this season. After a few good seasons to begin his career, Levy has taken control of the Lions’ defense this season. He’s on pace for a career-high in both tackles and stuffs, not to mention the fifth-year linebacker also leads the NFL in interceptions with six. It’s unusual that a linebacker would lead the league in picks, but Levy has been great in pass coverage this season and continues to make big plays for the Lions. He may not be a perennial All-Pro candidate, but he definitely has Pro Bowl written all over him.

4. Seattle is unbeatable at home – The Seahawks have the sort of swagger that any contender would need to win the Super Bowl, and it seems even more pronounced in front of their home crowd. The Seahawks are currently on a 14-game winning streak at CenturyLink Field over the last two seasons, including an 18-point difference in points scored (31.3 ppg) compared to points allowed (12.8 ppg). Russell Wilson is also notably better in front of the home crowd, completing nearly four percent more of his passes and throwing 10 more touchdowns and two fewer interceptions at home versus on the road.

5. Russell Wilson is already historically great – Speaking of @DangeRussWilson, he is keeping pace with some high-profile company through 28 games in his NFL career. With four games left in his second season, Wilson already ranks third all time with 48 touchdown passes in his first two seasons as a pro. Only Peyton Manning (52) and Dan Marino (68) have more through their first two seasons. Wilson has a very good chance at catching Manning before the end of this year, as he’ll need to average just one touchdown per game over the final four weeks, but the chances he catches Marino’s unbelievable mark are slim and none.

6. Foles might have the NFL’s best deep ball – Even after six starts and nearly 200 passes, Nick Foles still boasts a perfect touchdown-to-interception ratio (19-1). He hasn’t just been careful with the football, though. He’s also been extremely effective getting the ball down the field. Foles is now 16-for-34 on passes that travel 20-plus yards in the air this season, including 12 touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. In fact, Foles has also hit on the fifth most 40-plus yard passes this season (11) with at least 200 passes fewer pass attempts than each of the four players ahead of him (Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco).

7. Alshon Jeffery is better with McCown than Cutler – The return of Jay Cutler could be imminent, but Alshon Jeffery might hope that Marc Trestman just decides to stick with Josh McCown instead. While Jeffrey did have a good rapport with Cutler, his relationship with McCown has been something for the record books. Not only has Jeffery enjoyed two of the best games of his young career with McCown at quarterback, including Sunday’s 249-yard, two-touchdown outing, but he’s also connecting on a much greater number of passes from McCown (68 percent) than Cutler (54 percent).

8. Kubiak is done in Houston — A 2-0 start had the Texans looking like prime Super Bowl contenders once again, but what’s transpired since has been nothing short of tragic. The Texans have now lost 10 straight, including seven by a touchdown or less, and they still don’t have a franchise quarterback to build around. Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr and others should offer some quality options in the draft, especially if picking at No. 1 (current projection).

The dismal season seems like the end of the line for Gary Kubiak. Even after back-to-back playoff appearances, even a four-game winning streak to finish the season might not be able to save Kubiak in Houston — nor should they want to. Kubiak is a good coach, and he’s gotten solid results from his team over the last few years, but the Texans should be pulling for that No. 1 pick and a quarterback to invest in.

9. Riverboat Ron is working – Ron Rivera might prefer the nickname “Analytical Ron,” but let’s be serious, he’s already got a nickname, and it’s damn awesome. Riverboat Ron has been in full swing since Week 5, when the then 1-3 Panthers looked destined for another underwhelming season and Rivera looked like a little piglet ready for the slaughter. The results since the Riverboat took over have been miraculous for the Panthers, though, and River has not only saved his job but Carolina’s season.

The Panthers are 8-for-8 on fourth down during their current eight-game winning streak, and six of the drives where they’ve converted a fourth down have resulted in a touchdown. This risk-taking Rivera has clearly changed the culture in Carolina — and it’s for the better.

10. Jags are doing themselves a disservice – I’m not a proponent for tanking, by any standards. I think it’s just stupid and against all integrity that sports are supposed to uphold. However, once you’re out of the playoff race, all bets are off. The Jaguars have been out of the postseason picture since they decided to enter this season with Chad Henne and Blaine Gabbert as their quarterbacks. So, while getting that first, and even second, win was nice, winning is actually doing them a disservice.

For a time, the Jags seemed destined for the No. 1 overall pick, and no other team seemed capable of even challenging them. A 3-1 streak in November changed all that, and now Jacksonville could be looking at the No. 4 or 5 pick instead. The Jaguars’ biggest need this offseason is to find a franchise quarterback — sorry, Blaine Gabbert is not him — and the farther they fall down the draft board, the less likely it is that they’ll land the guy — Teddy Bridgewater? — they want. So, I’m not going to say start losing on purpose. But maybe try not to win so much?

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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