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Sunday football notes

A look at the playoff races and the records at stake in the NFL’s new Week 18

Cooper Kupp of the Rams is on the verge of two NFL receiving records, but he doesn't feel good about it.Nick Wass/Associated Press

The Rams’ Cooper Kupp, on the verge of breaking two NFL receiving records, doesn’t feel great about it. The only reason he can break the records for catches and yards in a season is because the NFL added a 17th regular-season game in 2021.

“It wouldn’t seem right,” Kupp said this past week. “It wouldn’t hold the same weight to me as it does for guys that have done that in a 16-game season and the accomplishments those guys had, and the seasons they put together . . . You kind of have to separate the two.”

Major League Baseball once tried that with Roger Maris’s home run record but eventually decided to honor all records without asterisks or context. The NFL will go that way, too. Records are records, and this isn’t the first time the regular season was expanded.


Let’s take a look at the records and playoff spots at stake in Week 18:

▪ First, the playoff race. Technically there were 18 teams still alive, the most the NFL has had in its final week since 2006. Eleven of the 14 spots have been clinched, with five teams fighting for two spots in the AFC, and the 49ers and Saints playing for one spot in the NFC.

▪ The Colts need to win in Jacksonville to clinch one playoff spot. Assuming the Colts win — though they haven’t won in Jacksonville since 2014, losing six straight — the Raiders and Chargers would play a winner-take-all game Sunday night for the final AFC spot.

▪ The Steelers need a win over the Ravens plus a Colts loss. The Ravens need a miracle — a win over the Steelers, plus losses by the Chargers, Colts, and Dolphins.

▪ In the NFC, the 49ers will clinch the final playoff spot with a win over the Rams or a Saints loss to the Falcons. The 49ers have beaten the Rams five times in a row.


▪ Six division titles have been clinched, but the AFC East and NFC West are still up for grabs, with the Bills and Rams the favorites.

Tom Brady, with 4,990 passing yards and 40 touchdowns, is on pace to lead the league in both categories for just the second time (2007). Brady is 342 yards and two touchdowns ahead of Matthew Stafford entering Sunday’s game against the Panthers.

Brady needs 10 passing yards to hit 5,000 for just the second time (2011), and he needs 246 passing yards to break his career high (5,235). If Brady really wants to go nuts on Sunday, he needs 488 yards to break Peyton Manning’s season record (5,477). Brady has cracked 488 twice (2011 vs. Miami and 2018 Super Bowl vs. Eagles).

Brady also has 456 completions and needs 16 on Sunday to break Drew Brees’s record (471).

Justin Herbert could hit the 5,000-yard mark in just his second season.Sean M. Haffey/Getty

▪ Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, third in the league with 4,631 passing yards, needs 369 against the Raiders to hit 5,000. He would join Patrick Mahomes and Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks to throw for 5,000 yards within their first two seasons.

▪ Kupp leads the NFL in receptions (138), receiving yards (1,829), and touchdown catches (15). He needs 12 catches and 136 yards against the 49ers to break those records (149 catches by Michael Thomas and 1,964 yards by Calvin Johnson).


▪ Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans, slowed the last three weeks by a hamstring injury, needs 54 receiving yards against the Panthers to become the first player with 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first eight seasons.

▪ Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, undrafted in 2017 out of Western Colorado, needs just 41 scrimmage yards against the Raiders to join Arian Foster and Priest Holmes as the only undrafted running backs to gain 1,500 total yards in multiple seasons.

▪ A couple of rookie receiving records are in reach. If Ja’Marr Chase plays on Sunday — the Bengals already have said they will sit starting quarterback Joe Burrow — he has 1,429 receiving yards and needs just 45 to break the NFL rookie record set by Bill Groman (1,473 in 1960). The Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle, who has 99 catches, needs just three against the Patriots to break Anquan Boldin’s rookie record of 101.

▪ The NFL may have a new sack king after Sunday, as T.J. Watt needs 1½ against the Ravens to break Michael Strahan’s record of 22½. While some may try to discredit Watt’s record as being a product of 17 games, Watt has compiled his 21½ sacks in just 14 games, which lends it much more credibility.


Brown and Bucs are both to blame

Nobody has come out of the Antonio Brown situation looking particularly great.Adam Hunger/Associated Press

This past week, I wrote that I wanted to learn more about the rift between Antonio Brown and the Buccaneers before jumping to conclusions. After digesting the accusations lobbed back and forth via the media and attorneys, what has become clear is that everyone deserves some blame. No one comes out of this mess looking good.


Brown once again turned on those who were trying to protect and help him, following a well-established pattern. This time he did it bypublicly airing out Bruce Arians, who gave Brown a career lifeline last year, and stood by him through several episodes of foolish or criminal behavior (such as faking his vaccination card). Brown also turned on Alex Guerrero, Tom Brady’s personal trainer who tried to take Brown under his wing. No matter what happened on the sideline last Sunday at the Meadowlands, Brown was way out of line with his antics leaving the field and his subsequent postings on social media.

But Arians and the Buccaneers are not blameless, either. On the sideline, Arians probably did more to exacerbate the situation. Arians never really wanted Brown — it was always a favor to Brady — and most likely his frustrations with Brown finally boiled over last Sunday.

Curiously, it took Arians several days and several interviews to acknowledge that the disagreement was in part over Brown’s ankle injury. And to acknowledge that he fired Brown on the sideline and told him to leave. It wasn’t a case of Brown blowing up because of a lack of targets and leaving in a huff, as was initially portrayed. It was Brown getting fired because he was upset that he was shooting up his ankle with painkillers in order to play, yet he still wasn’t being involved enough in the offense.


Furthermore, the Buccaneers deserve blame for giving Brown a contract that had $2 million in performance incentives. General manager Jason Licht told ESPN that Brown asked the Buccaneers to make his incentives fully guaranteed, so clearly it was an issue for him. When a player has incentives based on catches and touchdowns, it’s only natural that he’s going to be upset if he doesn’t feel like he is being put in a position to earn them. The Buccaneers should have known better than to give performance incentives to a player with a well-established history of selfish behavior and emotional blowups.

Brown is certainly not a sympathetic figure, and it’s hard to take his side on almost anything. So instead of taking sides, it’s fair to blame Brown, Arians, and the Buccaneers for creating a powder keg of a situation.


Reeves deserves a place in the Hall

Longtime coach Dan Reeves died last weekend at the age of 77.Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

It’s a shame that Dan Reeves died at 77 this past week without having been elected to the Hall of Fame. It’s an even bigger shame that it took his passing to bring to the forefront how illogical it is that he isn’t already in the Hall.

It’s tough to have a more robust résumé than the one Reeves compiled in nearly 40 years in the NFL (1965-2003). He was a key running back for the Cowboys, an important assistant coach under Tom Landry, and went to four Super Bowls with two teams as a head coach. Reeves was a two-time NFL Coach of the Year, and his Broncos were a mini-dynasty in the 1980s, reaching the Super Bowl three times in four seasons.

All told, Reeves participated in nine of the first 33 Super Bowls. His nine appearances are third most in NFL history behind Bill Belichick (12) and Tom Brady (10).

Reeves has been close to gaining election to the Hall of Fame in the “Contributor” category but never got the honor before he died. Reeves’s 0-4 record in Super Bowls as a head coach, and 2-7 record overall, perhaps worked against him. But losing Super Bowls didn’t prevent Marv Levy or Bud Grant from getting into the Hall.

“When you look at Dan’s career, I don’t know how you could have accomplished much more than what he did on all three levels,” Belichick said this past week.

Reeves also had a positive impact on the NFL and its lesser-known players. When Reeves’s Falcons reached the Super Bowl in 1999, Reeves was upset that his inactive players couldn’t dress even for warm-ups.

“Dan hated the fact that you had to tell a player, ‘You’re inactive, you can’t dress for the Super Bowl,’ ” said Patriots director of communications Aaron Salkin, who was Reeves’s righthand man for eight years with the Giants and Falcons. “He said to the league, ‘Come on, let them wear their uniforms.’ He’s got enough going on at the Super Bowl, but he’s thinking of those guys.”

The NFL acquiesced, and to this day still lets inactive players warm up with their uniforms on.

Salkin also recalled how about a decade ago, Reeves was in Foxborough to call a Patriots game for Westwood One Radio. Reeves noticed that Cathy, the elevator attendant, was shivering cold.

“He grabs her hands and says, ‘You know what? You need these more than I do,’ and he takes off his gloves and gives them to her,” Salkin said. “That just epitomizes who he was.”

Do’s and don’ts of pre-draft process

The end of the regular season means that the draft process is about to heat up. And the NFL is attempting to clean up what has sometimes been a messy and discriminant process that has embarrassed the league.

As first reported by the Associated Press, the NFL is finally eliminating the Wonderlic test from the pre-draft process. It is a test that long has lost its usefulness — if it ever had any — and in recent years it has served only to embarrass prospects who perform poorly. Blaine Gabbert scored a 42 and Dan Marino a 15, so that’s all you need to know about how well the Wonderlic correlates to success in the NFL.

The NFL also circulated a memo to all 32 teams Wednesday reiterating that when interviewing prospects, teams cannot ask any inappropriate questions based on race, color, sexual orientation, religion, disabilities, national origin, or marital status.

“All clubs should ensure that prospective draft picks are afforded a respectful and professional NFL environment — one that is consistent with state and federal law and our shared commitment to respect, diversity, and inclusion,” states the memo.

It provides examples of acceptable and impermissible questions, and warns of fines of at least $150,000 and a loss of a draft pick between the first and fourth rounds for any team that violates these rules.

The teams need these reminders, because every few years someone gets in trouble for acting like a meathead, whether it’s one general manager asking Dez Bryant if his mother is a prostitute, or one scout asking Eli Apple his sexual preference.

Extra points

The Washington Football Team will reveal its new name and logo on Feb. 2.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

After two seasons as the wildly unimaginative Washington Football Team, the WFT will finally reveal its new name Feb. 2. The betting favorite is actually for it to remain the Football Team, followed by Presidents, Red Hogs, Defenders, Commanders, Armada, Admirals, and Brigade. Those tying loose ends together believe the name will be Red Hogs or some version of “Hogs,” given that it’s the team’s long-standing nickname and the announcement will be made on Groundhog Day. And some Internet sleuths discovered that the website WashingtonAdmirals.com automatically redirected to the Washington Football Team site . . . Has anyone hurt his stock more this season than Baker Mayfield? The Browns triggered his fifth-year option before the season, guaranteeing him almost $19 million in 2022, but they must have serious regrets. Mayfield regressed badly this season, currently 27th in passer rating (83.1) while completing just 60.5 percent of his passes. Mayfield’s relationship with coach Kevin Stefanski is also reportedly on the rocks, and his trash-talking act is wearing thin on fans without the results on the field. It will be interesting to see if the Browns bring back Mayfield and give him one last chance. Or if they look to trade him and potentially pay some of his salary to facilitate the trade . . . It appears that some teams have figured out how to game the league’s new COVID testing policies, in which players are now required to sit out just five days as long as they are fever-free on Day 5. The NFL has made COVID testing optional for most players, and for the last two weeks the league has seen an increase of testing and positive cases on Mondays. If players test on a Monday, they can still get back in time for the game that Sunday. And once players test positive, they are exempt from COVID testing for 90 days. That appeared to be the case in Philadelphia this past week, when 11 Eagles went on the COVID list on Monday . . . If the Colts’ Carson Wentz can avoid throwing an interception Sunday against the Jaguars, he will become the first quarterback in NFL history to start eight road games in a season and not throw an interception . . . The dust-up this past week between Aaron Rodgers and Chicago-based MVP voter Hub Arkush demonstrated again that the Associated Press and Pro Football Hall of Fame need to open up their voting processes. With only 50 MVP voters designated by the AP, and only 48 Hall of Fame voters, it gives each voter far too much power. Arkush’s rationale for voting against Rodgers was that he’s “the biggest jerk in the league,” which doesn’t seem to be an appropriate criteria for choosing an MVP. The Baseball Hall of Fame has it right — by opening the process to hundreds of voters, it smooths over the outliers and devalues the few people who abuse their vote . . . Hey Shaughnessy, you think Brady and the Patriots faced a lot of tomato cans in the AFC East? Rodgers is 16-2 in the last three years against NFC North rivals, and in his last two seasons he has thrown 36 touchdown passes and no interceptions in his six division games . . . On the “Full Send” podcast Friday, Antonio Brown said Brady “is the general manager. He’s the guy my agent made the contract with. He’s the middle man and politician.” We all knew Brady runs the show in Tampa, but it’s funny to hear it from a player.

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.