Another week in the NFL in 2021 meant more upsets, more injuries, more blowouts, and more confusion in the playoff picture and MVP race. I’m finding out that I really don’t like it when the only “sure things” in the NFL this year are Jonathan Taylor and James Conner finding the end zone.
Can we put the “games are closer this year” thing to rest? With one game left to go on Monday night, Week 10 just tied Week 7 for a season-low four games with a comeback opportunity. It was the first week this season without a single lead change in the fourth quarter or a single game-winning drive or any game where a team down double digits came back to win. Oh, we got a bloody f’n tie, but more on that below.
For anyone selling the “games are so close!” narrative this season, please refer to this chart for games through Week 10 going back to 2001 and how many were decided by 10-plus, 17-plus, and 24-plus points.
- 2021’s 75 games decided by 10+ points are the most since 2014 (85) and the second most in any season since 2010.
- 2021’s 42 games decided by 17+ points are the most since 2014 (49) and well above the average of 32.7 such games over the last six seasons.
- 2021’s 24 games decided by 24+ points are tied with 2011 for the most such games through Week 10 since 2001. There were five such games on Sunday.
Granted, I’m usually not one to judge the closeness of a game by the final score, but I have more stats to share. Here’s how the fourth-quarter comeback opportunities through Week 10 stack up for recent seasons:
- 2021: 71 of 149 games (47.7%)
- 2020: 83 of 147 games (56.5%)
- 2019: 83 of 148 games (56.1%)
- 2018: 81 of 148 games (54.7%)
- 2017: 77 of 146 games (52.7%)
- 2016: 90 of 147 games (61.2%)
- 2015: 90 of 146 games (61.6%)
- 2014: 79 of 147 games (53.7%)
- 2013: 93 of 147 games (63.3%)
- 2012: 84 of 146 games (57.5%)
For as long as I’ve been doing this weekly, I’ve never seen a season where more than half the games are not this close.
This season in Stat Oddity:
Chiefs at Raiders: Well, That Takes Care of Vegas for the Season
Before we get crazy claiming that the Chiefs are back on track for the Super Bowl, let’s not forget that the Raiders are immune to winning big games like this one was for possession of first place in the AFC West.
But after a 41-14 blowout win, the Chiefs are back in first and looking pretty damn good. Only the special teams had a rough night in Vegas, but even that unit made up for it with a fake punt pass that led to a knockout punch touchdown to Darrel Williams. Patrick Mahomes finished with 406 yards and five touchdowns to break out of his five-game slump. The Chiefs were 9-of-15 on third down while the Raiders were just 1-of-9. Derek Carr throwing up a jump ball interception to Daniel Sorensen was another dagger moment in this one. So was DeSean Jackson fumbling his first catch with the team in hysterical fashion when it looked like he could score a touchdown.
After starting the game with a three-and-out, Mahomes led the Chiefs to scores on seven of their next eight drives, only missing out on a missed field goal before halftime. It was an almost-perfect offensive night, which is how I described Kansas City’s win in Las Vegas on Sunday Night Football last season.
Does that mean the Chiefs are back? We’ll see against Dallas next week, but it was always a matter of the defense not being historically terrible and the offense not being historically awful at turning the ball over. The defense has stepped up in the last month after acquiring Melvin Ingram, sliding Chris Jones back to defensive tackle, cutting down Sorensen’s snaps, and just playing better. The offense showed plenty of patience and the only turnover was on special teams this time.
In a season that is wide open for the taking, the Chiefs just have to stop being their own worst enemy. On Sunday night, they were the Raiders’ worst enemy, and I now expect Las Vegas (5-4) to implode and miss the playoffs just like after they lost to the Chiefs at home last year.
Buccaneers at Washington: Belichick Would Never…
On a day where Bill Belichick coached his Patriots to a thorough 45-7 rout of the Browns, the Buccaneers fell flat as a heavy favorite in a 29-19 loss to Washington. Tom Brady finished with a season-low 31.7 QBR. That’s now a losing streak to Taylor Heinicke and Trevor Siemian (off the bench) for the Bucs.
It’s the kind of game Brady would almost never lose as a member of the Patriots. Not as a 9.5-point favorite against a terrible Washington defense, with a coordinator (Jack Del Rio) Brady has crucified his whole career, and a unit that lost Chase Young to an ACL tear.
But he was outplayed by Heinicke, who put the game away with one of the best drives of the season. Washington needed that because it sure felt like the Football Team was going to blow this one after leading wire-to-wire. Tampa Bay was gifted an untimed down field goal before halftime after a facemask penalty, and Brady led two more touchdown drives that started in opponent territory in the second half to make it 23-19.
But Heinicke took over with 10:50 left and drained all but 29 seconds off the clock with an epic 19-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Washington converted four third downs on the drive, and finally ended it with a 4th-and-1 touchdown run by Antonio Gibson. I could see an argument for kicking a field goal and taking a 26-19 lead with 30 seconds left, but you can’t tempt Brady’s luck. The touchdown puts the game away. While I thought the kneeldown on the two-point conversion was playing it too safe, Tampa Bay waved the white flag and only ran Leonard Fournette twice on the ensuing drive to end it. I guess Brady didn’t want to risk a third interception against a coordinator he’s almost never been picked against.
Washington held the ball for 39 minutes in the upset. This is Brady’s fourth wire-to-wire loss (never led) with Tampa Bay. He had five such losses in his last four seasons with New England (2016-19). To me, this game shows the difference between what advantages Brady used to have with Belichick as his coach. I cannot see a talented team coached by Belichick losing to this Washington team, especially coming off a loss and a bye week.
Brady is now 17-8 as Tampa Bay’s starter in the regular season. That 68% winning percentage would be the lowest he had in any New England season since 2009 (10-6). Tampa Bay is starting to look like the 7-5 underachiever it was a season ago before going on that championship run. Do things get significantly better when Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski return? Most likely. But if so much value to the offense is added with those players, who were not part of the high-scoring Tampa Bay offenses in 2018-19, then how could Brady have any real MVP argument this season?
This team is not a juggernaut, and he is not having an MVP season. Not if he can’t outscore the likes of Siemian and Heinicke in consecutive games.
Saints at Titans: They Can’t Keep Getting Away with It (Can They?)
Yes, I’m starting to feel like Jesse Pinkman when it comes to watching this Tennessee winning streak, which has now reached five games against teams who were in the playoffs last year.
But honestly, this team is starting to remind me of the early 2000s Jeff Fisher-coached Tennessee teams. They are big and physical, and they’ll win games that way instead of being really efficient or exciting on offense. Consider it a knock if you will, because you know how those seasons always ended for Tennessee (hint: poorly).
Maybe my latest act is to throw cold water on each Tennessee win, but I’m just not ready to buy this being the team to beat. Yes, the Titans don’t have Julio Jones (IR), and that makes it that much harder with Derrick Henry out. But they are far from the only team dealing with injuries right now. Look across the field. They just squeaked by the Saints without Jameis Winston, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas will miss the whole season.
While the Titans were better on offense this week than their Los Angeles win that was fueled by two Matthew Stafford interceptions, these results are still not sustainable. Hence the “they can’t keep getting away with it” meme. The Titans finished with 264 yards of offense, averaged 2.2 yards per carry, and were 3-of-12 on third down. That’s bad.
The success this week was aided by an absolute horseshit call of roughing the passer on New Orleans in the second quarter. Instead of Ryan Tannehill throwing an interception in the end zone before halftime, the Titans went on to score a touchdown and led 13-6. They started the third quarter with a 19-yard touchdown drive thanks to the Saints fumbling the opening kick return.
From there it was just a matter of hanging on as Siemian staged a respectable rally. The Saints had a chance at a game-tying two-point conversion with 1:16 left, but a false start moved it back five yards and Siemian threw a bad incompletion. The Titans recovered the onside kick and that was the end of it.
Thanks to a remaining schedule that features four games against Houston (twice), Jacksonville and Miami, the Titans (8-2) really shouldn’t fare worse than 13-4. But if the post-Henry offense does not pick things up soon, then even those games with the little sisters of the poor could spell trouble for the team that has already lost to the Jets this year.
Seahawks at Packers: What the Russ?
Totally reasonable for Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers to be rusty and off after some missed time for health reasons. But the lowest scoring first half in the NFL this season (3-0)? The trading of red-zone interceptions? This was bad stuff, but the first shutout of Wilson’s career combined with what the Packers did to Arizona and Kansas City in the last two games makes me think that Green Bay may finally have a better defense this year. Is it going to stop Dallas, Tampa, or the Rams from scoring 30+ in January? I’m not sure about that, and Seattle is clearly not the measuring stick it used to be, but the Packers are improving on that side of the ball.
I just wish the offense would look a bit closer to the 2020 one. But the Packers are certainly closer to their past glory than the Seahawks (3-6) are right now.
Lions at Steelers: The Tomlin Special
I have been warning for the last couple of weeks that the Steelers would lose to the winless Lions. Frankly, it should have happened, but an inexperienced kicker made a horrible attempt at a 48-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. Instead, we get the first tie of 2021, which feels like a loss if you’re the 5-3 team badly in need of this win given the upcoming schedule.
Alas, I never expected Mason Rudolph to be QB1 in this game. Ben Roethlisberger came down with a positive COVID test on Saturday and Rudolph got the surprise start. This was absolutely a game that Ben would have won on his experience alone. Rudolph had a lousy pick, missed badly in the red zone, and mismanaged several other drives with inaccurate passes. He has no touch to his throws. The offense really did not change much. There were still throws well short of the sticks on crucial downs, too many horizontal attempts, and the occasional underthrown go route down the sideline. Najee Harris (26 carries for 105 yards) should have got more carries than he did on a wet, cold afternoon.
Against a Detroit defense that was allowing 9.3 yards per attempt through eight games, Rudolph finished at 4.84 YPA (242 yards on 50 passes). Yet somehow, Jared Goff was the worst QB in this game. Detroit ran the ball 39 times for 229 yards, yet Goff finished 14/25 for 114 yards and four sacks. Head coach Dan Campbell was calling plays into Goff for the first time this season, and apparently his idea is to feature less of Goss than ever before. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a team in a tight game run the ball on third down as much as Detroit did (seven times). It makes sense if you saw some of the Goff throws in this one, either missing a wide-open receiver deep or being late with a hospital ball to another in the flat. Goff wasted a superb ground game from his stable of backs.
Despite the comedy of errors in overtime from both teams, I think this is another example of why the change to 10-minute overtime was stupid. If this was a 15-minute overtime, the Steelers likely would have been able to get Chris Boswell in position for a game-winning field goal. But in being pressed for time, they threw an ill-advised pass to Pat Freiermuth, who was going to get tackled in bounds with the Steelers out of timeouts. That pass could not be made, so if the Steelers were going to do that, they should have just tried the 57-yard field goal instead. But Freiermuth ended up fumbling the ball with eight seconds left, and Detroit’s lateral attempt stalled out 40 yards shy of the end zone.
A tie just feels like a waste of nearly four hours. Not a real outcome. We’ll see how the tie impacts the playoff race, but after losing Roethlisberger to COVID, and T.J. Watt during the game to an injury, and not getting into first place with a win over Detroit, it sure feels like Pittsburgh lost in many ways this weekend.
Some quick thoughts as I race to complete another preview before getting to sleep.
Panthers at Cardinals: Meh
You know something is wrong when the No. 7 seed pounds the No. 1 seed 34-10 in their own building and I am giving it footnote treatment. But I just struggle to take a game like this seriously when the Cardinals were without Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. Carolina was the better team on Sunday, but let’s face some facts. They were going up against Colt McCoy, who coughed up a fumble and was stopped on a fourth down in the beginning of the game. Those mistakes led to a 14-0 lead for the Panthers, who only had to drive a total of 56 yards to get those scores.
Arizona even lost McCoy during the game, but Carolina’s backup (Cam Newton) was probably the best active quarterback on Sunday anyway. I loved Carolina to cover given what it had done to Arizona the last two years, but I was not expecting 34-10. This makes Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers look even worse for last week. It’s the first truly awful performance of the season for Arizona, but I am willing to believe things will turn around when their best players return. But this could make for quite the headlines should we see this as a playoff rematch in January.
Vikings at Chargers: That’s It?
I knew this game was going to be decided by one possession after the way the season has been for these teams, but this was a fake close game with a disappointing finish. Between the Vikings and Chargers, we should have gotten some sort of ludicrous finish. Not a matter of Minnesota clutching up and extending to a two-score lead, and then running out the final 4:36 to deny Justin Herbert, who struggled on the day, a chance at tying the game.
I was pretty disappointed. It felt like every time they showed this game, the Vikings had the ball (time of possession was 36:15). In that regard, the ending was a fitting one. The disappearance of Mike Williams (playing but ineffective) over the last month seems to explain why Herbert has been off in three of the last four games. This offense needs something more than all the short and intermediate passes to Keenan Allen.
Eagles at Broncos: Teddy’s Business Decision
In a week where we saw a kicker recover a fumble (Chris Boswell on Monday night) and a punter force a fumble on a kick return (Raiders vs. Chiefs), Teddy Bridgewater looked extra soft when he did this on a huge fumble that was returned for an 83-yard touchdown to end the third quarter and basically end the game for Denver in a 30-13 loss.
The effort was definitely lacking there. Even if he doesn’t forcibly tackle Slay to the ground, he could have at least got in his path more to slow him down or make him cut. This looked really bad, and I guess the fault starts with Melvin Gordon for fumbling in the first place, but I think some quarterbacks would have done a better job here. Also, Jalen Hurts had a very respectable game and the Eagles showed they can be an effective, balanced offense.
Bills and Cowboys Rebound
My gambling woes in Week 9 were marked heavily by the failures of the Bills and Cowboys to find the end zone. Buffalo never got there against Jacksonville while Dallas was down 30-0 before some garbage-time scores against Denver. On Sunday, both got in the end zone not even four whole minutes into their games and continued to pile it on in easy, blowout wins over the Jets and Falcons.
Mike White being a four-pick disaster – also known as a New York Jets quarterback – was not that big of a surprise. Buffalo’s defense has been arguably more reliable than its offense this season, and they feasted on the inexperienced passer. But with the Falcons, I was really surprised that this wasn’t a competitive game and a high-scoring one. Maybe I’m thinking too much about the 40-39 stunner they played a year ago, but I never expected 43-3 with Matt Ryan passing for 117 yards. That’s already the third time in nine games where Arthur Smith has lost by 23+ points. It happened three times in six seasons when Dan Quinn was there. His defense only giving up a field goal to his old team had to feel good, but now we’ll see where the Cowboys are when they go into Kansas City next week.
Jaguars at Colts: Trevor Fumbles His Peyton Moment
Colts fans, can you recall what happened on November 15, 1998? No. 1 pick Peyton Manning was down 23-17 against the New York Jets before leading the first game-winning drive of his career, throwing a 14-yard touchdown to Marcus Pollard in the final 30 seconds in a 24-23 win. It would be the first of many memorable wins in crunch time for Manning.
Almost 23 years later to the date, Jacksonville’s No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence found himself in a similar spot, down 23-17 to the Colts, largely thanks to the ineffectiveness of Indy’s current QB (Carson Wentz). Lawrence and the Jags had a chance to steal one from the Colts, who have blown as many games as any team this season. But after getting into Indy territory, Lawrence suffered a strip-sack, the only true turnover of the game. Just another tough loss for a team trying to turn things around.
Next week: Can Cowboys-Chiefs be the classic shootout it should be? Can Peyton and Eli take unlimited shots at Brady and the Bucs when they host the Giants on Monday night? If the close game regression hits Week 11 like it did Week 8, just remember that Patriots-Falcons is the first game on Thursday night…