DETROIT -- This was anything but easy, the clinching of the Los Angeles Rams' second straight division title. Sean McVay's offensive powerhouse needed only to beat the lowly Detroit Lions on Sunday to wrap up the NFC West, but with a little more than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, that was anything but certain. The Rams had a three-point lead and had just punted the ball back to the Lions, who had the ball around midfield.
And then Aaron Donald made a play.
"That's why we always have hope," Rams running back Todd Gurley said. "We know we have big No. 99 in there, and we know he's always got a chance to make a game-changing play."
Donald was the defensive star of the Rams' 54-51 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs two Mondays ago, with a couple of strip-sacks that flipped the field on Patrick Mahomes in a game that absolutely could have swung either way. And he did it again Sunday, ripping the ball out of Matthew Stafford's hands 13 yards behind the line of scrimmage on a first-down dropback. Samson Ebukam collected the ball at the 24, and not long after a 16-13 fourth-quarter lead had turned into a 30-19 victory and that aforementioned division title.
When we talk about MVP candidates on the Rams, the first name we mention is Gurley's, and for good reason. Gurley scored both of the touchdowns that followed Donald's game-changer, and he had 132 rushing yards against a Lions defense that had been allowing just 90 of them per game since its midseason acquisition of Damon Harrison.
But is it crazy to talk about Donald for MVP? He leads the league with 16.5 sacks, which is totally insane for a guy who rushes from the interior of the defensive line and puts him on pace for 22. The NFL record for a single season is 22.5. Moreover, what stands out about Donald is that his huge plays seem to come in the hugest moments.
"Much like the quarterbacks and the wide receivers and the running backs that you talk about in those terms," Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "He's right up there in terms of being as dominant as anyone. There are very few players who have as dramatic an effect as he has."
So, what better way to lead off this week's OVERREACTION MONDAY column than with a Donald reaction? Specifically ...
Aaron Donald should be MVP of the league
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. I don't think he'll win it, because Alan Page and Lawrence Taylor are the only two defensive players who ever have, and both were a very long time ago. Mahomes is the clear front-runner, with Drew Brees, Gurley and a handful of other worthy offensive candidates nipping at his heels. But when you watch Donald play, you see a guy doing something no one else can do, doing it at a precipitously high level and doing it in the biggest moments. "Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time spots," Donald said after the game. "That's who I want to be." He is, and it's no disrespect to Mahomes and the other guys in the race to say Donald deserves real consideration.
Some other Week 13 reactions:
Both Texas teams are legitimate Super Bowl contenders
The Dallas Cowboys kicked off Week 13 with a stunning upset of the high-flying New Orleans Saints. The Houston Texans on Sunday crushed the Cleveland Browns for their ninth victory in a row. Houston leads its division by three games with four to play, has the same record as the New England Patriots and is one game behind the 10-2 Chiefs. There's not another team on the Texans' schedule that has a winning record. The Cowboys have won four in a row to get to 7-5, one-half game ahead of the Washington Redskins, who play Monday. Dallas holds the tiebreaker edge over Washington and is in control of its own destiny -- win out, and the Cowboys are NFC East champs.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. Neither of these teams has been gathering glory the way the Chiefs, Saints and Rams have all season, but their formulas can play in January. Houston is running the ball extremely well behind Lamar Miller and an offensive line that has improved as the season's gone on.
Dallas has Ezekiel Elliott and a pretty nice line of its own. Both teams have star defensive players at all three levels. They might not be able to score with the high-octane teams in their conferences, but as Dallas showed Thursday, it isn't going to be any fun for those teams to play.
Houston is especially intriguing. The Texans are still in contention for a first-round bye and the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC playoffs. The Patriots haven't been great on the road this season, and the Chiefs ... well, you know all about the Chiefs' history in the playoffs. If the Texans can get a bye, they become very dangerous.
Josh McDaniels will be the next coach of the Packers
The Green Bay Packers made the big news of the day, firing coach Mike McCarthy after an absolutely horrendous home loss to the Arizona Cardinals. They become the second team, after Cleveland, to create a head-coach opening that has to be filled this offseason. There are many more openings to come, but as we wrote last week, the pool of potential candidates isn't striking industry insiders as quite as robust as it has been in recent years. McDaniels is still just 42, and even after what went on with the Indianapolis Colts last January, he's still viewed as a potential head coach due to his offensive acumen and reputation as a Bill Belichick protégé. And the sense is that McDaniels, in spite of bailing on the Colts weeks after agreeing to coach them last winter, is still interested if the right head-coaching opportunity presents itself.
The verdict: NOT AN OVERREACTION. What no one knows, other than McDaniels, is what "the right opportunity" is for him. But boy, oh, boy, doesn't the chance to coach Aaron Rodgers in a place with stable ownership in and a winning tradition sound like an appealing opportunity?
Seriously, if you're predicting what McDaniels will do, you're throwing darts. So don't read this as an insider report about whether he'd be interested in the Packers or they'd be interested him. I honestly do not know. But a McDaniels-Rodgers pairing is a lot of fun to dream about, and I'm not going to sit here on Dec. 2 and rule it out.
Ron Rivera's seat in Carolina is awfully hot all of a sudden
The Carolina Panthers were sitting pretty a month ago, drafting behind the Saints in the NFC South and looking like a real contender on both sides of the ball. But their loss Sunday to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was their fourth in a row and dropped them to 6-6. They can barely even see the Saints anymore from where they are in the standings, and Seattle, Minnesota and Washington are all ahead of them in the race for two NFC wild-card spots. It's an ugly collapse of the sort that calls coaches' jobs into question.
The verdict: OVERREACTION. I'm not saying you can rule out a coaching change in Carolina, especially with new ownership in place as of this past May. But Rivera has been there eight years and has a record of 73-56-1 counting the playoffs. He's well-liked and well-respected in the building and around the league. I don't know what kind of owner David Tepper is from a patience standpoint, but I'm still betting one disappointing season won't be enough to send Rivera packing.
The Giants should start Odell Beckham Jr. at quarterback
The New York Giants' star wide receiver threw his second long touchdown pass of the season Sunday -- a 49-yarder to Russell Shepard to go with the 57-yarder he threw to Saquon Barkley in Week 5. Eli Manning's longest touchdown pass of the season is 33 yards, and his 15 touchdown passes this season have averaged 10.3 yards in length. Just sayin'.
The verdict: OVERREACTION, obviously, but it's a way to make a point about what to expect from the Giants at quarterback the rest of the season. They're not about to switch to Odell, but it's entirely possible -- even likely -- that they use their final four games to take a look at rookie fourth-rounder Kyle Lauletta to try to evaluate what they have in him before they decide what to do at quarterback in the offseason. Lauletta didn't play Sunday, but he was active for the game ahead of Alex Tanney, who has been the backup all season.
We all remember what happened last season when the Giants tried to transition out of Manning. They put in Geno Smith and a week later the coach and GM were fired. So this has to be done just right. But at this point, it seems clear to everyone around the situation that the best thing for the franchise is to start thinking and looking at what might come next.