Tuesday, January 25, 2022

NFL insider notes: Ben Roethlisberger likely extends Hall of Fame career with Steelers, plus more from Week 18

It was only fitting that Ben Roethlisberger would extend his career, in all likelihood, in this manner. It seems fairly perfect, given the arc of his career and the legacy he left for extending plays and always keeping hope alive, that he would walk off the field in Baltimore, beating his bitter rivals on another walk-off win, in overtime, in pouring rain, and doing it by overcoming a litany of third-and-forever and fourth-and-forever to get it done.

While Big Ben was ending the Ravens‘ season with a sixth straight defeat (and pathetic 1-5 record within the AFC North), he was getting help where few expected. The Jaguars, somehow, took it to the Colts for all four quarters in Jacksonville on a day when most Jags fans showed up to protest their owner. Everything has fallen into place, and the future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback boarded a plane back home knowing that as long as the Chargers and Raiders don’t tie in the final game of the season, he is going to the playoffs.

It’s been quite a week, even by Big Ben’s lofty standards. Last Monday night he ended whatever remained of the Browns season, and he received a hero’s send-off at Heinz Field, with the entire football world watching, in what almost certainly was his final home game. Then six days later, after yet another astonishingly slow start for the Steelers and despite losing do-everything running back Najee Harris for much of the day, he executed yet another miracle fourth-quarterback comeback before finishing the deal in overtime.

He pulled something out of nothing, again. Again, nothing could have been more fitting.

The Steelers entered the fourth quarter going 1-for-9 on third and fourth downs and sputtering to do anything at all, amassing just 126 net yards on 38 plays through the first three quarters. They went on to produce 188 yards on 37 plays the rest of the way, and did it in vintage Big Ben fashion. With Baltimore’s team-wide pass-rushing failures as evident as ever, and coordinator Wink Martindale’s defense failing to get off the field in the fourth quarter all year, Roethlisberger feasted.

He converted on a third-and-9 (picking up 20 yards) and a third-and-6, and a third-and-7, and a third-and-9, which led to their go-ahead TD. Then tied 13-13 in overtime, facing a fourth-and-8 after a dropped pass negated a potential third-and-8 conversion, magic happened once more. The entire season was on the line at midfield; punting made no sense as a tie would eliminate both teams. All Big Ben did was find Ray-Ray McCloud over the middle to pick up the first down and set up the game-winning field goal.

This Steelers team is not fortified for a real playoff push, and it’s hard to imagine them doing much if they get in. But then again, defying the odds is what Roethlisberger does best, and I’m not sure anyone could have predicted this 9-7-1 finish and this team being as viable as it ended up being. He keeps escaping. He keeps extending. And his career isn’t over yet.

Lawrence shows long-awaited promise

This was mostly a lost season for Trevor Lawrence, but Sunday showed the promise within. After a rookie season filled almost entirely with slow starts and turmoil, the first-overall pick appeared fully out of Urban Meyer’s dark shadow in Week 18, and flourished as rarely seen.

Lawrence was nearly perfect in the first half, taking control of the game on a day when the Colts defense had some issues, Indy’s offensive line was overpowered (a rarity), and Carson Wentz did not play winning football. Lawrence was 19-for-25 for 208 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions in leading the Jaguars to an improbable 20-point lead. And it started on the first drive.

The Colts had to start feeling concerned when Lawrence converted on third-and-12 and third-and-10 and then, finally, third-and-1 to take a quick 7-0 lead. He used his feet exceedingly well and seemed as at ease and comfortable as I have seen him all year.

It’s probably far too little too late to salvage interim head coach Darrell Bevell’s chances of getting the head coaching job there, but the way the Jags played a week after getting destroyed by the Patriots was noteworthy. Now we’ll see if the Khans are truly willing to pair Bill O’Brien with current general manager Trent Baalke in what would be seemingly an attempt to relive the type of toxicity they endured during Meyer’s brief regime. It would be quite a bold strategy.

More insider notes from Week 18

  • If Joe Judge makes it through all of next season, and you see me out somewhere, tell me I owe you a beer. I’ll pay up. The horrible way the Giants finished this season — the brutal play calling and concepts, the controversy (another in-season firing on the offensive side of the ball), and the absolute ineptitude that punctuated this 4-13 record — would be cause for any coach to go. Giants owner John Mara would have you believe this is progress, somehow, as would Judge. But it’s been nothing but a mess the past two years, they finished with six straight losses — scoring a total of 56 points in that span — and haven’t won consecutive games since December of 2021. They managed to make last year’s 6-10 season look like a cause for celebration, and few of their would-be blue-chip players are actually developing.
  • Oh, Jordan Love. That my friends is what a project looks like. The ball placement issues. The interceptions. This was a pressure-free spot for the most part — as much as you could ever create in a regular season game — and he was facing the worst team in the NFL, and it was not good. It’s not the end all and be all, but go sell this kid as the replacement for Aaron Rodgers anytime soon somewhere else. They need to pull out the checkbook and give Rodgers whatever he wants. This is a six-win team with Love, at best, next season.
  • I did not see the Colts’ collapse coming, especially after the way they played at Arizona on Christmas. It’s hard to figure, honestly. But the bottom line for them again is that they do not have a championship level QB — not close. And if I were them I’m trying to find a way to upgrade, as tricky as that is.
  • The more people I talk to, the more I think the Texans will make a coaching change. But that team fought its guts out down the stretch and gave the Titans all they could handle Sunday with the top seed on the line.
  • Get ready for a wild QB offseason. Whether or not all of these guys get dealt or not, you at least have the potential for conversations to take place regarding Rodgers, Russell Wilson, DeShaun Watson, Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo.

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