It’s over. The NFL was able to complete the first – and hopefully last – pandemic regular season on Sunday. Is it asterisk worthy? There are definitely some fishy, eye-popping numbers in a season with historic offensive production, but more on that later this week. As for an asterisk, I guess we’ll see what kind of postseason we get as the virus continues to mutate and increase in spread. However, only a couple of the 256 games this season were a total sham, including a Ravens-Steelers game that might have had much larger implications if it was played at a later date like next week.
Then again, the league greatly weakened the No. 2 seed with the new playoff format, and home-field advantage has never meant less than it does right now.
I am nervous and excited as hell at the same time about where things are headed, which is the perfect summary of how I feel about 2021 in general. But before we move onto the playoffs, let’s recap how things finished around the eight divisions in Week 17.
Previous weeks in Stat Oddity:
AFC South: King Henry Reigns Supreme
The best drama of the day came from the AFC South. Even though the Titans were not in any danger of missing the playoffs after Miami lost, the division title was still up for grabs as Deshaun Watson made the Titans work hard for a win while the Colts teased Jacksonville in a 28-14 final that was stuck on 20-14 for far too long. Seriously, the Colts were up 20-0 and almost blew this one to Mike Glennon. I’m a bit concerned about this team, but it’s not like I expect them to have a huge lead in Buffalo on Saturday. They are going to have to be sharper than the last two weeks. Just getting by a Jacksonville team that lost 15 straight is not going to impress anyone, but crashing the Buffalo parade early sure would.
So basically, the two good teams beat the two shitty teams with Derrick Henry (250 yards) and Jonathan Taylor (253 yards) running wild. Performances of 250 rushing yards are rare, but we had two on the same day from the same division. They are the 13th and 14th such games since 1950. The Titans are the first offense in NFL history to have a 250-yard rusher and a 150-yard receiver (A.J. Brown) in the same game. It was also a historic game in that Brandin Cooks had 166 receiving yards for Houston.
The big-time players showed up in this one, but it was Brown’s 52-yard catch that set up the game-winning field goal with no time left. That is how you get into game-winning field goal range in eight seconds. It was the most fitting way for the Titans to win the division in a season where Ryan Tannehill has led the most fourth-quarter comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (six) in the league.
Henry needed 223 rushing yards to get to 2,000 on the season and he got 250. This offense is absurdly great at times and I cannot wait to see this matchup with Baltimore, a playoff rematch from a year ago that this season definitely needs.
NFC East Total Landscaping Division Champions: The Team with No Name
We did not make history with a 6-10 division winner, but the NFC East sure did try its damnedest on Sunday to deliver.
First up was Dallas at the Giants, a team the Cowboys had a seven-game winning streak against and usually score 30+ points on. Unfortunately, Andy Dalton must have gotten the memo that this was a de facto playoff game that his team could not lose or they would be eliminated from the division race. In true January Andy Dalton fashion, he finished with no touchdown passes, a crucial interception in the final two minutes, and the Cowboys lost 23-19. Dalton was not protected well and took six sacks, including a big one two plays before his interception in the end zone. Wayne Gallman then fumbled for the Giants, but saved his ass by recovering it to run out the clock on Dallas’ season.
So Jason Garrett, the Giants’ offensive coordinator, gets the last laugh for 2020 as this was the game that sent the Cowboys home.
Over the last two seasons, Dallas is 0-16 when not scoring at least 30 points and 14-2 when scoring 30 or more points. There has never been a split like that in NFL history over multiple seasons. Teams who don’t score 30 points win about 36% of their games since 2019. The Cowboys’ 14 straight wins with at least 30 points in each is the longest such streak in NFL history. This team simply cannot win without scoring a lot of points.
Does that really change even if Dak Prescott is back healthy in 2021? No, more changes need to happen too. This roster does not work.
Alas, the Giants did not turn this win into a division title after the Washington Football Team was able to squeeze out a 20-14 stinker in Philadelphia on Sunday night. The second half, which only produced a Washington field goal on a 1-yard drive, was one of the worst halves of football I was subjected to all season. Doug Pederson basically threw in the towel by benching starter Jalen Hurts for backup Nate Sudfeld for the whole fourth quarter of a one-score game. It was shameless tanking. If he’s going to play a bad quarterback with no future in Philadelphia, he could have just started Carson Wentz.
Alex Smith had a lot of rough moments and was again carried by the defense to a victory and home playoff game next week. For as much as people like the courageous stories behind Ron Rivera’s cancer battle and Smith’s rehab, this team is one of the worst to watch play football this year. Now we have to see them host Tampa Bay on Saturday night.
Just the thought of a Washington-Tampa Bay game gives me PTSD to the 2005 NFC Wild Card matchup, which had to be one of the worst playoff games ever played. Mark Brunell got a win for Washington in a game where he completed 7-of-15 passes for 41 yards and an interception. I watched the game in freezing cold temperatures as the furnace gave out that weekend. The only thing that could have made the viewing experience worse was if Tom Brady was playing the game and the announcers were up his ass over it.
That awaits us Saturday night. At least I should have heat this time. But then again, if Brunell can win a playoff game doing that and Brady could lose one to Joe Flacco (2009 Ravens) where he threw for 34 yards and a pick, then anything is possible this week.
NFC South: Eat the Rich
In another case of the top of the division making short work of the bottom-feeders, the Saints and Buccaneers cruised to wire-to-wire victories over the Panthers and Falcons on Sunday. Not even losing Alvin Kamara and the running back room to COVID could stop the Saints from throwing in Ty Montgomery and getting 105 yards on the ground out of him in a 33-7 win, reportedly the final regular season game in Drew Brees’ stellar career. Brees finished with three more touchdown passes and enough completions (needed eight) to Emmanuel Sanders to earn the receiver a $500,000 bonus.
Tampa Bay showed even more gall in getting to milestone numbers for its loaded receiving corps, but that came at a price when Mike Evans dropped a touchdown and hyperextended his knee after hitting his benchmark. His status for the playoffs is uncertain but he appears to have dodged the worst of it. Evans is the first receiver in NFL history to have 1,000 yards receiving in his first seven seasons, but this was the first time he ever needed all 16 games to cross the mark.
You might think the Evans scare would knock some sense into them, but that didn’t stop Tom Brady and Antonio Brown from connecting three more times with the game well decided – up 44-27 at the 2:14 mark – just so the receiver could get a $250,000 bonus. It is the only time in the last 20 years where an offense started a drive pass-pass-pass with a three-score lead in the final four minutes.
Maybe the Buccaneers would have done better than a fifth seed in a weak conference had this connection been stronger against better opponents. As it stands, the Jets (two) have more wins against 2020 playoff teams than the Buccaneers (one).
Now Brady will start a playoff run on the road for the first time in his career, and he gets to do it in a crowd-less stadium for a nameless 7-9 Washington team that came out of the worst division since the merger.
Play us off, Rod…
AFC East: The Right Stuff
The Buffalo Bills (13-3) completed their best season since the Super Bowl years by going 6-0 against the AFC East and eliminating Miami from the playoffs in a 56-26 rout. Josh Allen and other starters could have rested the whole game, but they played a half and put up a commanding 28-6 lead before every other phase of the team stepped up with four more touchdowns in the second half.
We knew one of the five 10-5 teams in the AFC was going to be kept out of the playoffs, and Miami was the only underdog against the spread. Sure enough, the Bills got the dominant win and Miami’s season is over. It’s fitting really because Miami was the weakest contender of the five. The switch to Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback did not serve the Dolphins well enough this season, and I think this will cost Brian Flores the Coach of the Year award. Ryan Fitzpatrick was out this week with COVID, but maybe things would have gone differently had he remained the starter. Tua really struggled on Sunday with 58 pass attempts and three interceptions, even after Buffalo was playing backups.
The Bills are clearly in the best shape in this division. The Patriots pulled away from the Jets in the fourth quarter in a 28-14 win as Cam Newton had one of his few good passing games of the year. Is it his last game with the team? Pretty likely, and certainly it’s the last game for Adam Gase in New York. Now if only this team didn’t bother to beat the Rams and Browns, they would be 0-16 and have their choice of head coach and the attractive option of drafting Trevor Lawrence with the top pick. But the Jets are almost never on the right side of history.
NFC West: Goff Clap
Russell Wilson may have saved his best fourth-quarter comeback of 2020 for Week 17, rallying the Seahawks from a 10-point deficit to a 26-23 win against the 49ers, who were very competitive in the final weeks of the season. But go figure, another blown lead and close loss for the Kyle Shanahan era.
Meanwhile, the closest thing to a de facto playoff game between both teams was my expected shitshow between the Rams and Cardinals. It ended up being the eighth 18-7 final score in NFL history, which is a surprisingly high number to me. More surprising than the final was the leading passer for each team: Chris Streveler for the Cardinals and John Wolford for the Rams. When I saw that Streveler threw an early touchdown pass, my first thought was the Cardinals tried a fake field goal and a holder or random player threw the score. I never heard of this player in my life, and Wolford was another unknown to me coming into this one.
We knew coming in that Jared Goff was out with an injured thumb and Kyler Murray was banged up. Murray started and finished, but for a large chunk in between it was Streveler at quarterback. Go figure, the game’s only offensive touchdown was a 14-yard drive set up by Wolford’s interception. The Rams came back thanks to a safety and pick-six.
The quarterbacks in this game were so jacked up that even Boomer Esiason replaced Tony Romo in the booth for CBS due to COVID. Esiason seemed more impressed than anyone with Wolford’s play. I guess given the circumstances and lack of experience, he was okay? He led the team in rushing with 56 yards. He threw for 231 yards and only took two sacks. It was a more mobile Jared Goff-type performance on one of his basic bitch days. In the end, the Rams scored three field goals on 10 drives and were fortunate that the Cardinals were in worse offensive shape than they were. Larry Fitzgerald didn’t even play in what could have been his final game due to injury, and now the Cardinals (8-8) are out of the playoffs.
Sean McVay certainly owns the Cardinals, but we’ll see if he can find his success again with the Seahawks in a third meeting next week. After getting so much praise early in the season, this division really limped across the finish line to get two teams in the tournament.
AFC North: Browns vs. Big Brother
The Steelers-Browns game went about as I expected. Even though the Steelers were missing most of their best players, they weren’t just going to lay down and let Cleveland get a big win to make the playoffs and finish 11-5 for the first time since 1994. Mason Rudolph showed some of his usual lack of pocket awareness, but he converted several third downs and tested the Browns deep with success. Even after Pittsburgh fell behind 24-9 a play into the fourth quarter, Rudolph led two touchdown drives, but missed on the game-tying two-point conversion. The Browns got the one first down needed to run out the clock and secure the 24-22 win.
These teams will meet on Sunday night, meaning it will be the Steelers the Browns have to get past in the playoffs for the third straight postseason after losing to their hated rival in 1994 and 2002. I may end up having to write two previews for this game, so I’ll save my thoughts for later this week, but I like the prospects of the Steelers in that game with their starters back.
Then there is Baltimore, the scariest 11-5 team in the league with the best scoring differential (+165) in football again. How absurd were the Ravens against Cincinnati? They were up 38-3 going into the fourth quarter and basically called off the dogs, finishing with 404 rushing yards, the most in the NFL since the 2000 Bengals had 407 against Denver.
Baltimore could be the most fascinating story this postseason as a legit contender to win it all, or it could flame out again in the playoffs and to the Titans again.
NFC North: Bears Back In
The Chicago Bears had a chance to enter the playoffs on a four-game winning streak with confidence if they could knock off the Packers and prove they haven’t just been scoring on bad teams lately.
They flopped again, going down in a 35-16 loss and only backing into the playoffs at 8-8 because of Arizona’s collapse. The 19 and 16-point losses to the Packers this year are Chicago’s worst margins of defeat in 2020. However, this one felt closer than last time despite the final score. The Bears were down 21-16 and 25 yards away from the end zone in the fourth quarter before failing on a 4th-and-1 pass. With nine minutes left, the Bears had their second dropped interception of the day thrown by Aaron Rodgers. More than five minutes later, the Packers were back in the end zone and then added a fifth touchdown after Chicago’s second turnover of the game.
Once again, the Chicago defense could not create splash plays against the Packers, allowing five touchdowns on seven drives. Meanwhile, the Chicago offense was 5-of-6 on fourth down, but that one miss in the fourth quarter hurt. Chicago actually played into Green Bay’s hands a bit with a game that featured very few big plays despite each team having a 50-yard pass play. Green Bay’s second-longest gain of the day was only 17 yards. The Bears only had two plays gain more than 14 yards. Chicago tried to dink and dunk with Trubisky on these long drives that also featured a lot of David Montgomery runs (3.1 YPC on 22 carries), which helped shrink the game, but it also led to too many fourth downs and not enough touchdowns. The Bears were 1-for-5 at scoring in the red zone.
I really hope the Bears do not end Drew Brees’ career in New Orleans next weekend, especially since it sets up another Bears-Packers game. We don’t need a third one of these. The Bears just do not have it against their hated rival, no matter what type of game they play against them.
In the Hollow Shootout of the Week, the Vikings took care of Detroit 37-35. The 2020 Lions allowed 519 points, the second-highest mark in NFL history between the 1981 Colts (533) and the 2008 Lions (517) of 0-16 fame.
Kirk Cousins was 0-22 as a starter in his career when his team allowed more than 30 points, but he has a win now. We’ll have to see if the final snap of Matthew Stafford’s Detroit career is an inaccurate miss on a game-tying two-point conversion attempt before his defense failed to get the ball back one more time.
AFC West: Boo-Urns
The least eventful division on Sunday was the AFC West with the Broncos and Raiders having an old-fashioned shootout that was ultimately meaningless. The fact that Denver had field goals of 70 and 63 yards (to win the game) blocked might tell you all you need to know about that one, a 32-31 comeback win by the Raiders to finish 8-8.
Then there’s the Chargers-Chiefs finale, won 38-21 by the Chargers. This one personally ruined my Sunday, and it’s not just because we didn’t get to see Patrick Mahomes or any of the interesting players on the Chiefs play. It’s because I put way too much trust in the Chargers to fill out their BINGO card with a performance that shouldn’t have blown away the Chiefs even if they were playing heavy backups. I lost quite the potential winnings on this game.
I was worried this meaningless game for the Chiefs would end all of their best streaks, but it only ended up taking out the record one of 60 straight games without losing by more than eight points. I guess we’ll have to put that one in the context of Mahomes from now on.
By resting, Mahomes missed out on leading the league in passing yards, joining Drew Brees as the only quarterbacks with multiple seasons of 5,000 yards/40 TD passes, and becoming the first quarterback to win 18 games and a championship in the same season. Achieving that in a 17 or 18-game regular season wouldn’t be as impressive, as this was the end of the 16-game era. The 2020 Chiefs should still have the record for most yards per drive at over 43.
Alas, the rest is for the postseason where the Chiefs have their ultimate goal still in front of them. It is just a bit of a bummer to see a throwaway game like this one. It was not a good showing by the Chiefs, and neither was the 17-14 escape win over the Falcons last week. Now they will go on a bye while these other AFC teams are in playoff mode for a few weeks now and competing this weekend in the wild card.
If the Steelers take care of the Browns and the Bills take care of the Colts, the Chiefs could have to start this title defense with a Tennessee or Baltimore team looking to punch them in the mouth and avenge past losses. That is a tough, physical draw after weeks off. I know Mahomes is different and Andy Reid has the great bye success, but these playoffs are guaranteed to be a bigger challenge than a year ago when the Chiefs still had to rally from double-digit deficits in all three playoff games.
My Preseason Predictions
Finally, something I am always quick to recap is seeing how my preseason predictions for team final records fared. I knew this would be a challenging season with COVID, a lot of quarterback movement, and the lack of a real offseason. My pick of Dallas making the Super Bowl in the NFC certainly did not pan out, and that was probably going to be the case even if Dak Prescott stayed healthy. However, I’m still on track for the Chiefs repeating, but let’s see how I did with all 32 teams.
As it turns out, this was my worst year of predicting since 2013, but not by much. I was off by an average of 2.78 wins. I have had some years before where I was off by 2.75 wins. A good year is 2.1 or 2.2. The 2019 season was one where I was only off by 2.16 wins. At least I was not off by more than six games for anyone this time.
I did not foresee Miami and Cleveland having this much success this season, which is why I think Kevin Stefanski should win the Coach of the Year award. I also obviously was disappointed by the Vikings and Texans in addition to the Cowboys. Even just those four very winnable division games the Texans had against the Colts and Titans could have made a huge difference for my predictions (2.78 down to 2.53).
But we’ll get into the close game summary of 2020 very soon. That is where teams like Houston, Atlanta, and Philadelphia flopped the hardest. Also, at least I can say I nailed Tampa Bay’s record. Now if only I could nail their postseason prediction later this week, but that is also to come.