November 1st was the date I highlighted where we would have so much knowledge about this year’s AFC race. Most of the big matchups have already taken place this season. So far, the Chiefs (7-1) and Steelers (7-0) look to be separating themselves from the pack, both featuring a nice balance of offense and defense with key victories in Baltimore.
Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:
The Ravens (5-2) remain a threat, but more on them below. Buffalo (6-2) also finally got the big win over New England that should put the Bills in the driver’s seat to take back the AFC East for the first time since 1995. Tennessee is slipping with another loss, and now has the same 5-2 record as Indianapolis with two meetings to go there (usually won by the Colts in that series). But those two teams look a tier below the best in the conference.
Chargers: Greatest Hits
The Chargers would be an interesting Wild Card contender, at minimum, if only 2020 wasn’t playing out like an album filled with their Greatest Hits on how to lose games.
Like come the fvck on,
Don’t give up a 21-yard scramble on 3rd-and-20 to Patrick Mahomes. Don’t drop the beautifully designed lateral for a game-winning touchdown against Carolina. Don’t fumble before halftime with a 17-point lead to ignite a Tampa Bay comeback. Don’t miss a game-winning field goal in New Orleans. Don’t give up three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to Dancin’ Drew Lock, or let him get bailed out with a DPI in the end zone on fourth-and-ballgame. Now you are 2-5 and even the Broncos have a better record in the conference. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 2-5 team this realistically close to being 7-0 before, but here we are.
Some things never change, even in 2020.
Lamar Jackson: No Shortage of Kryptonite
Can you judge the true value of a player based on seven, non-consecutive games in their career? I’m not sure if you even should, but I do know that the results of four-to-six games from different careers have led to many people arguing over Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady for the greatest quarterback of all time.
When it comes to Lamar Jackson, there are some troublesome trends that popped up against Pittsburgh, some of which I highlighted after the Ravens lost 34-20 to the Chiefs in Week 3.
Jackson is 24-7 as a starter, but he’s 0-2 at home in the playoffs, 0-3 against the Chiefs (Baltimore’s main conference rival), and now he’s 1-1 against the Steelers (main division rival) with seven turnovers in those two games. Jackson turned the ball over four times in Sunday’s 28-24 loss, including a pick-six to start the game and a pair of red-zone fumbles. So he can’t stop turning the ball over (or taking sacks) against Pittsburgh, and he’s only seen the gap between his production and that of Patrick Mahomes grow in those matchups.
Those two home playoff losses, where the Ravens never held a lead at any point, are the only starts in Jackson’s career where the team didn’t score at least 20 points. The Ravens actually tied the NFL’s regular-season record on Sunday, held by the 2012-14 Broncos, with 30 straight regular season games with at least 20 points scored. But it wasn’t enough as the Ravens needed another touchdown and Jackson wasn’t able to deliver on the final two drives.
In his career, Jackson only has one fourth-quarter comeback win: last year in Pittsburgh. The deficit was 3 points, and Jackson got his game-tying drive going with a questionable roughing the passer penalty on the Steelers. In overtime, Jackson went three-and-out, but quickly got the ball back at the Pittsburgh 34 after JuJu Smith-Schuster lost a fumble. The Ravens didn’t even attempt to put the ball in the air and Justin Tucker won the game with a 46-yard field goal.
Since that little comeback, the Ravens have almost never trailed in games, and certainly not in the second half. But the last three times that’s happened (playoffs against Tennessee, Week 3 vs. Chiefs, Sunday vs. Steelers) the Ravens lost all three games. Overall, the Ravens are 2-7 with Jackson when trailing in the second half of games by any deficit.
Again, it would be misleading to not point out that Jackson was impressive on Sunday Night Football last year against the 8-0 Patriots and their No. 1 defense. That was a big game with a real playoff atmosphere and he performed very well in a 37-20 win. However, you could find some criticism in that game in that he only threw 23 passes and for 163 yards. If Marquise Brown didn’t go low to catch a pass on the third play of the game, the Ravens start that one with a three-and-out instead of a touchdown.
On Sunday, Brown reminded us that there’s some DNA shared with his cousin Antonio Brown when he blew up on Twitter to say “What’s the point of having [soldiers] when you never use them (Never!!).” He quickly deleted the tweet. Brown’s only targets in the game came early in the fourth quarter, and he finished with one grab for a 3-yard touchdown.
That touchdown came on a fourth-quarter drive where Jackson made plays with his arms, but it was another game where he struggled to throw for 200 yards, didn’t complete 50 percent of his passes, took four sacks, fumbled three times, and relied too heavily on the run (16 carries for 65 yards).
Down 28-24, the Ravens used a very run-heavy drive where Jackson did not put the ball in the air once. On a fourth-and-3 at the Pittsburgh 8, it was obvious that he was going to run the ball again. He did so on a quarterback draw, but the Steelers were ready to stop it short on a play that actually became Jackson’s fourth turnover after he fumbled again with 1:57 left.
It’s seven games in a 31-game career, but the patterns are hard to ignore. When Jackson knows he’s in a big game, he looks to press, relies heavily on his legs, is erratic with the ball, makes bad decisions, and turns the ball over way too much. If that’s what he’s going to keep doing when they’re in a playoff game or playing a top rival, then it’s going to be hard for the Ravens to ever have postseason success.
As you can see from the seven games, the only win was when a Pittsburgh offense that did not have Ben Roethlisberger available served the game up on a silver platter in overtime last year.
Jackson will get a third shot at the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Thanksgiving night. Given the remaining schedule, it’s really his last shot at redemption before a presumptive third playoff run begins for Baltimore in January. Maybe the third time will be the charm, but the last time I said that for Jackson and this team, the Chiefs won 34-20 and Jackson completed 15-of-28 passes for 97 yards.
Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a pattern. If he has three bad Pittsburgh games to go with the three Kansas City losses, and then three lousy playoff games on top of that, then there is no reason to pick Baltimore to win anything for the foreseeable future.
Kryptonite isn’t supposed to come in so many flavors.
Steelers Continue Historic Season
I still to this day get the question if I’m a Steelers fan. The answer has always been yes, but I have never been afraid to be critical of the team or to pick against them in a big game. Being a massive Steelers homer is not a role I’ve ever had an interest in.
So when I see the Steelers at 7-0 and having a historic season by many measures, I have to say I’m happy, excited, and still a little confused. Is this really the best Pittsburgh team since the 2005 Super Bowl run? I could put them ahead of 2008 if only because the offensive line made that season such a struggle on that side of the ball. This year’s team is young, talented, and more balanced with Ben Roethlisberger having an impressive season in his return from injury.
I had this team making the playoffs, but 7-0 and winning in Tennessee and Baltimore like that? No matter where the heroes emerge, the Steelers walk away each week with the win and at least 26 points on the scoreboard. That puts them in elite company in NFL history:
Again, this is why I feel confused. Are the Steelers really in the same company as 15-1/16-0 teams that set the record for scoring in a season? Even the 2015 Patriots were one of Bill Belichick’s stronger teams before a weak finish. I know scoring is at an all-time high this season, so that takes some shine off that part, but you still don’t see anyone else but Seattle doing it so consistently this year. The schedule also wasn’t much to write home about, but road games against 5-0 Tennessee and 5-1 Baltimore? Pretty solid.
Sunday was the team’s biggest test of the year as Baltimore is a rough place to play historically. I mentioned that Roethlisberger was 0-7 in Baltimore when the Ravens scored 20+ points. They scored 24, but he still got the win, leading his 36th fourth-quarter comeback win that puts him in more elite company:
That was after one of the worst first halves of Roethlisberger’s career, but the offense really turned things on in the second half, something you wouldn’t always see in recent years with this team. Things just feel different this year with the youthful energy all over the offense. Even Eric Ebron made his mark on Sunday’s comeback win.
By getting past this game, the Steelers can realistically look at a 10-0 start with @DAL/CIN/@JAX as the next three games. Now those would be three trap games for this team in any year, so we’ll see how they handle that after really getting up emotionally for the last three matchups. But they very well could be 10-0 when they see the Ravens again on Thanksgiving night in Pittsburgh. If they win that game, it almost locks up the division with five games to go.
I wrote here the last two weeks why I picked against the Steelers, only to see them win by scores very similar to what I predicted for the games. Now things can change quickly in this league, but I have to say I do not see myself picking against Pittsburgh the rest of the regular season. That does not mean my official prediction is for a 16-0 season, but I just think they should be favored in every game except for maybe the Week 14 trip to Buffalo.
I haven’t felt this good about the Steelers since it looked like Jesse James scored a game-winning touchdown against the 2017 Patriots (real ones know). So I’m just going to continue enjoying the ride this season, and we’ll find out together if it’s going to be one of historical significance or not.
Huge Favorite Is a Good Look on Patrick Mahomes
One thing we (thankfully) rarely see in the NFL is a 20-point favorite. Even less common: a 20-point favorite who covers the spread. The Chiefs were a 19.5-point favorite (so basically 20) against the Jets, making it only the 15th such NFL game since the merger on record. In the first 14, the favorite was 14-0 SU, but only 3-11 ATS.
Make that 4-11 ATS as the Chiefs won 35-9 on Sunday.
Now usually we see these huge spreads in games between the Patriots and a scrub starting a backup quarterback, like the 2007 Eagles (A.J. Feeley) or 2011 Colts (Dan Orlovsky). From 1994-2006, there were not any 20-point favorites in the NFL, but since 2007, it’s happened nine times. The Patriots had five of those games and they were 0-5 ATS.
Guess we just found something else Patrick Mahomes is better than Tom Brady at, as he lit up the winless Jets with 416 yards and five touchdown passes. He did that despite the Chiefs rushing 20 times for 50 yards. The much-hyped Le’Veon Bell Revenge Game? Well, Adam Gase must have spent all his time preparing for it as run defense was the only thing the Jets did well in this game. Sure, the offense actually surprised by attempting four field goals on four first-half possessions, but the second half was vintage Jets: five three-and-outs, a fumble, and they declined to push to beat the spread on the final drive, handing off three times.
Oddly enough, Bell was the best hope the Jets had at beating the spread. He lost 3 yards on a 3rd-and-2 run to end a drive in the second quarter. In the third quarter, he was stopped for no gain on a 4th-and-1 run at the NYJ 14. It wasn’t until Mahomes’ fifth touchdown pass with 10:58 to play that the Chiefs finally had the spread covered, but that was enough.
Most games with at least four touchdown passes in a player’s first 39 games (regular season):
- Patrick Mahomes – 10
- Dan Marino – 6
- Matthew Stafford – 6
- Kurt Warner – 5
- Jared Goff – 5
- Deshaun Watson – 5
Here are the previous three games where a team covered a 20-point spread:
- 2019 Cowboys (-22) vs. Dolphins (W 31-6)
- 2013 Seahawks (-20) vs. Jaguars (W 45-17)
- 1991 Bills (-20) vs. Colts (W 42-6)
Must be an AFC East thing. This will almost certainly not be the last time the Chiefs are a 20-point favorite in the Mahomes era.
New England, This Has Always Been Cam Newton
One thing I have repeatedly said this year is that of the Patriots’ 12 wins in 2019, they could have won 11 of them with a replacement-level quarterback. The only time Tom Brady was really vintage Brady last year was in the second Buffalo game, a 24-17 comeback win played in late December. That was Buffalo’s chance to take over the division, but they were denied again by Brady and Belichick.
Well, flash forward to Sunday and the Bills were 4.5-point favorites against the reeling Patriots, losers of three straight. It was going to be an extra challenging game with Julian Edelman and star cornerback Stephon Gilmore out. It’s hard to run a passing offense through James White’s YAC. But go figure, the one year where you actually couldn’t name New England’s wide receivers (Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd) or running back (Damien Harris) or tight end (Ryan Izzo), Deion Sanders is nowhere to be found to give the New England quarterback absurd praise.
Oh, Deion is no stranger to praising Cam too, but the Patriots were game in this one. It helps that Buffalo’s defense isn’t as good this year, but New England was able to rush for 188 yards with Newton completing 15-of-25 passes for 174 yards.
In that last matchup with Buffalo, Brady led the Patriots to 24 points on nine drives. He only had to complete one short pass that Edelman took 30 yards on the game-winning drive, which was finished off by the ground game. This time around, Newton was the one looking to get the Patriots to 24 points on their ninth drive again, but that would have only set up overtime. Down 24-21, New England wanted a game-winning touchdown, which was a possibility after driving into the red zone. However, Newton took off on a designed run and fumbled on contact at the Buffalo 14 with 31 seconds left. The Bills recovered and that was the game.
It was easily the best Newton has looked since his COVID diagnosis, but it still wasn’t good enough for the win. The Patriots have now lost four in a row for the first time since 2002. New England is 0-3 this season in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities.
For Newton, this isn’t anything new. His career record at 4QC/GWD opportunities is 17-41-1 (.297), one of the worst among active quarterbacks. You can see in the updated table that Josh Allen (.611), who picked up his 11th game-winning drive in this one, and Brady (.561) have the best active winning percentages.
According to Stathead, Cam Newton is now only the sixth player since 2001 to lose a fumble in the red zone in the final minute of the game while down a field goal. Ex-Chargers running back (of course) Melvin Gordon did it at the 1-yard line against the Titans last year. Oakland’s Derek Carr infamously fumbled through the end zone on SNF against the Cowboys in 2017. Colin Kaepernick fumbled on a run at the 1-yard line for the 49ers against the 2014 Rams. Brett Favre (2006 GB vs. STL) and Kurt Warner (2002 STL-WAS) both coughed up the ball on strip-sacks in the red zone to end games.
In all, it is a rare ending to a game. However, Newton coming up a drive short has been the story of his NFL career from his first game to Super Bowl 50 to Week 2 SNF in Seattle to this crushing loss on Sunday.
It would only be fitting if the Bills delivered the final nail in the coffin to the Patriots (2-5), but maybe the Dolphins and (gasp) Jets will get their licks in as well. Then again, losing out and getting swept by the Jets so both finish 2-14, but Patriots draft Trevor Lawrence could be the master plan at this point.