More research on this to come later, but I wanted to share a graphic I’ve made that has every head coaching hire in the NFL dating back to the 2006 season. Not included are in-season interim coach jobs such as Raheem Morris taking over for the fired Dan Quinn with the 2020 Falcons.
But one thing you can see, teams really need to stop doing the in-house promotion thing and hire a new coach from somewhere else. Freddie Kitchens (2019 Browns) was the last one and we know how well that went. He is also the most recent head coach to go one-and-done.
Defense wins championships. Football games are decided in the trenches. Overhyped quarterback matchups tend to disappoint.
The first two were reinforced by Super Bowl LV, and while that last one isn’t part of NFL lore, it should be after a 13-game postseason peaked right at the beginning with Philip Rivers (Colts) and Josh Allen (Bills) providing us the best-played game at the quarterback position. When Patrick Mahomes vs. Tom Brady turns out worse than Taylor Heinicke vs. Tom Brady, you know you are watching one defense rise to the occasion and do something special.
On Sunday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dominated the lines of the Kansas City Chiefs in one of the most decisive Super Bowls in the salary cap era. The 31-9 final is easily the worst loss of Patrick Mahomes’ NFL career and the worst stat line and performance in 54 games. It is his only game without an offensive touchdown as the Chiefs could do no better than three field goals on 10 possessions.
Tom Brady threw for 201 yards, three touchdowns, and was named Super Bowl MVP, because of course he was. It would be too difficult to split it among the 11 defensive starters in a game where turnovers were not the decisive story for a change. This was a masterclass in coaching by Bruce Arians and his staff, an eyesore for Andy Reid and his, and the image that I think sums this game up best would be this one of Mahomes trying to make a throw on fourth down to no avail.
It was that kind of night. Maybe the most concerning part is that last year in the Super Bowl was almost the same night for the Chiefs, who will enter the 2021 season with a “prove it in the Super Bowl” demand from their harshest critics as the latest attempt at reaching a new dynasty hit a serious road bump in Tampa.
Story of the Game: Pressure vs. No Pressure
A year ago in Super Bowl LIV, it was looking like a great defense (49ers) was about to shut down another prolific offense. Patrick Mahomes was having the worst game of his NFL career halfway through the fourth quarter as the Chiefs trailed 20-10. Then “Wasp” happened on 3rd-and-15 and the rest is history.
There was no Wasp this time. Just the Chiefs repeatedly getting stung by the pass rush and coverage of the Tampa Bay defense, which was outstanding. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers found offense come easy after a slow start. Tampa Bay completely took the game over in a six-drive stretch where it scored four touchdowns, one field goal, and got stopped at the 1-yard line on fourth down on the only non-scoring drive.
It comes down to pressure. When Brady’s Patriots beat Mahomes’ Chiefs in the 2018 AFC Championship Game, I noted the large pressure difference in that game. Mahomes was pressured almost 45% of the time while Brady was just under 11% according to ESPN Stats & Info. I wish I had an awesome database of pressure differences for every game in recent years, but that doesn’t appear to be in my collection. I just know something in the neighborhood of 34% is huge.
Well, this time it was worse. According to ESPN Stats & Info again, Mahomes was pressured on 29-of-56 dropbacks (51.8%), the worst in Super Bowl history. Meanwhile, the Chiefs only got to Brady on 4-of-30 plays (13.3%), his lowest rate in 10 Super Bowls. We are talking a difference of 38.5% in pressure percentage points. That is massive.
We joke about Brady “willing his defense” to do this stuff, but look at these results. Mahomes has four games in his career where he was held to six or fewer points at halftime and two of them are his playoff losses to Brady. What a two-way legend.
Obviously, the Eric Fisher injury and offensive line issue was a major concern going into this game for the Chiefs. I called it the wild card to the matchup, but I thought if any offense was able to make it a footnote instead of the main story, it’s these Chiefs and Mahomes.
I was wrong, the line did become the main story, but it’s still only half of it. Eric Fisher himself isn’t going to cut off 20+ pressures. Maybe not even getting right tackle Mitchell Schwartz back could have prevented this. Sure, we probably need a new rule that Mike Remmers should never be allowed to start at tackle in the playoffs again, but the Chiefs’ other problem was the defense had no answers for making things hard on Tampa Bay.
The pressure disparity was mind blowing to watch. I said during the game that Brady was feasting on screens, play-action, and DPI, but little did I know how right I was until after the game.
Brady started 0-for-4 in success rate in this game. He then went on to have 15 successful dropbacks the rest of the game, including his first touchdown drive in the first quarter of a Super Bowl. Thirteen of those 15 plays involved play-action, screens/pick plays, or checkdowns over the middle to the running back. The only two plays that didn’t fit that was a quick out to Gronk on third down in the second quarter for 5 yards and the 1-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown on the same drive, a good throw into not the smallest window you’ll ever see.
There was no pressure on any of these plays as Brady had time and great windows to deliver easy throws for all of his yards. And yeah, this doesn’t even get into the penalties we’ll get into later. I’m not saying Blaine Gabbert wins this game 31-9 for the Buccaneers, but I don’t see a throw he couldn’t make here.
Throw in a more than solid rushing attack and the Buccaneers just got whatever they wanted for a six-drive stretch in this game. Meanwhile, the Chiefs were in trouble from the first series of the game. On their second snap, Mahomes narrowly avoided a sack by getting rid of the ball for an incompletion. On the first third down, he scrambled for a first down. Kansas City would only go 2-of-12 on third down the rest of the night.
It felt like the Chiefs were worried about the protection, wanted to use quick passes on early downs, but it just did not work and set the offense back in the down-and-distance.
Even the first pass of the game was a quick one to Byron Pringle, who was fortunate to get 3 yards on forward progress after the fast defense knocked him back.
Another quick first-quarter throw to Mecole Hardman, who did not look for the ball, was so off with the timing because of the edge pressure that it could have been a pick-six if the throw were worse.
After the first Gronkowski touchdown, Mahomes tried a quick throw to the back and Jason Pierre-Paul batted it down with ease.
Same drive, but the first play of the second quarter was a big 3rd-and-4. The Chiefs tried to set up a RB screen, but the pressure again got there too well and the pass was off for an incompletion.
After the Chiefs got a 14-yard gain to Hill from their own 1, Mahomes tried a slow-developing pass in the backfield to Hardman that he couldn’t handle, but it would have lost yards anyways.
At the two-minute warning, Mahomes checked down to Hill in the backfield for a loss of a yard as the receiver ran out of bounds and stopped the clock, another fatal mistake.
On the first drive of the third quarter, Mahomes was low on a quick pass to Hardman, who made the catch and then slipped for no gain. That set up 3rd-and-7, pressure forced another tough throw the Chiefs couldn’t complete, and they settled for a field goal. Six plays later they were down 28-9 halfway through the third quarter, completely changing the game and putting everything in miracle/hero territory.
I just highlighted seven early-down quick throws that failed to do anything for the Chiefs before it got to 28-9. This game got away from them quickly, trailing 28-9 after having the ball six times. The Chiefs also didn’t seem interested in giving the tackles any help in this one, according to Next Gen Stats.
Tyreek Hill finished with 73 yards, a decline of 196 yards from Week 12, and even those 73 yards were mostly gathered with the game out of reach.
So what did Bowles do differently? For any game of his over the last five years, he blitzed the least (9.6% of snaps) and played two-high safety (87% of snaps) the most to take away the big plays.
Frankly, this is some of the coolest stat shit I’ve ever read. A true tendency breaker in the biggest game of his career, and it worked to great success. More coaches need to do this instead of the usual “we do what we do” crap that passes as coaching in this league. You have two weeks to prepare, it’s a great opponent, do something different to attack their specific strengths and weaknesses.
However, I feel the Chiefs gave in to this approach with the quick throws I mentioned before. They were so worried about the protection for obvious reasons, but if you look at this game before it got out of reach, their best shots at making plays came when Mahomes let the ball rip.
On the opening drive’s 3rd-and-8, he had Hardman open deep, but the young, mistake prone receiver seemed more occupied with staring at the ball instead of going for it. On the second drive, Mahomes did a great job under pressure to get off a pass on 3rd-and-11, but it hit Hill in the face instead of a potential touchdown or at least first down. On the fourth drive, Mahomes again made a great play under pressure, but Kelce had a bad drop on 3rd-and-8 that would have extended the drive. Maybe they still punt, but it likely would have helped the field position that ended up being awful after a penalty wiped out a punt and the punter continued his lousy night with a shank. Tampa Bay started at the Kansas City 38 and scored a touchdown to go up 14-3. Then of course there was the play on fourth down that I led this recap with where Mahomes got that pass off in mid-flight, but that too hit Williams in the face instead of him coming down with the touchdown catch to give this game a little life early in the fourth quarter. It was the last real gasp and Mahomes’ dejected face at the end of that play said it all.
I say the Chiefs are their own worst enemy, and that may not have been true on this night. Tampa Bay’s defense was tough, but there were still plays to be had by the Chiefs that they failed to make. This is why I cannot buy the notion that Mahomes “choked” in this Super Bowl. Where are the drives that he specifically screwed up or the open throws he missed or big opportunities he didn’t take advantage of? He didn’t bring his A game, probably not his B game either, but he had three drive-killing drops on plays where he made incredible efforts to even give his guys a shot at making a play. We are used to seeing this offense make highlight-worthy plays, but they couldn’t buy one in this game.
There were also 11 plays where Mahomes avoided a sack that a lot of quarterbacks wouldn’t. These were still successful plays for the Tampa Bay defense, but all I’m saying is the three sacks don’t begin to tell the story with how much pressure Mahomes was under in this game.
ESPN’s Seth Walder shared from Next Gen Stats what may be my favorite stat from the whole game: Patrick Mahomes ran a total of 497 yards before his passes/sacks in this game, the highest total in any game in the last five seasons. He broke his own record as he ran 495 yards against the Raiders this year, his only other loss in the previous 26 games, another game where his pressure rate was significantly high against a non-blitzing defense.
Walder also said that the third-highest game was Mahomes against the Saints (441 yards), another game where the offensive line took a beating. Josh Allen had the fourth-highest game at 403 yards in the AFC Championship Game. So perhaps we have the blueprint to beat Mahomes: make him run a full Fran Tarkenton scramble drill clinic and hope his receivers don’t make any plays on those throws. I mean, it worked this night to perfection.
The degree of difficulty in this game for each quarterback could not be any different. That’s why the Buccaneers are champions, and the Chiefs did not repeat. Give credit to the coaches of Tampa for exploiting the weaknesses in the Chiefs and taking advantage of the Fisher injury. However, there was another factor at play here that I warned about.
The Refs: Welcome to My Shit List, Carl Cheffers
Walt Coleman, Ron Winter, Bill Vinovich. Let’s add Carl Cheffers to my shit list of worst refs because he just had to make his crew a big first-half headline in this game. The worst thing a ref could do in a Super Bowl is become part of the story, but this crew did that, and I warned in one of my previews that this could happen with the way Tampa Bay draws defensive pass interference (DPI) flags at historic rates and Cheffers loves to call that on the road team (or any team) at crazy rates this year.
Obviously, the Chiefs had a brutal penalty night, racking up 11 calls for 120 yards. Tampa Bay had six first downs via penalty, something only four other teams have had in the playoffs since 1999. Only the 2002 Titans (against Oakland) had seven first downs via penalty. No team in the Super Bowl since 1999 had more than four first downs via penalty until Tampa Bay. Most of the damage came in the first half for Kansas City.
There was a lot of undisciplined football by the Chiefs. Chris Jones had a stupid retaliation penalty that wiped out a 3rd-and-7 and gave Tampa an automatic first down. Hardman was offsides on a 40-yard field goal on 4th-and-5, which led to a new set of downs and a touchdown, a 4-point penalty. There was also that holding on a punt with a good tackle that led to a re-kick, which gave Tampa great field position at the KC 38.
You can live with that stuff. It is what it is. But the way these officials catered to the Tampa Bay receivers in the second quarter, especially Mike Evans, really does make you question if these games are on the level. First, there was the “defensive holding” call to negate a Chiefs interception on a drive that ended in a Tampa Bay touchdown to take a 14-3 lead.
Are you kidding me with this? Where’s the jersey grab? Where’s the penalty on Evans for pushing off to try creating separation? Green Bay’s receivers were visibly held two weeks ago and couldn’t buy these calls at home. Yet they call this to negate a pick.
Then you get into the last minute of the second quarter. Brady does one of his classic chuck-and-duck plays, just throwing one up for Evans, who sells some incidental contact by falling down on a bad ball and it gets a 34-yard flag for DPI, the longest “play” from scrimmage on the night. That call was bullshit as well. Two plays later, Brady sails a pass for Evans into the first row because he knows it wasn’t there and he didn’t have time to waste. There was a little contact in the end zone, but the pass was so clearly uncatchable. Defensive pass interference, put the ball at the 1-yard line. How do you completely ignore the uncatchable part here? That pass had a better chance of being caught by a cardboard cutout than a human being.
People who say 5 yards for illegal contact are wrong too. By the time the ball is released, there is no relevant contact that you don’t see on every play. It’s either PI or nothing. The fact that Tyrann Mathieu was also called for taunting after this drive despite Brady doing the same things to him is also telling of how biased the refs were in this half.
One of the network ex-officials also saw a disparity in how this half was called compared to normal games.
Maybe the Chiefs still bomb in the second half of a closer game, but those two touchdown drives in the second quarter looked tainted to me, and it’s worse because I was predicting this would happen in Tampa Bay’s favor with this referee.
So Cheffers will be on my shit list going forward. People think it’s funny when Brady tries to high-five an official like he did in the Saints game this postseason, but I think he does it because he really does expect them to have his back in these games.
This time they did.
The 10th Mahomes Loss: Where Does It Stack Up?
I have been posting charts about every Mahomes game, and here are the 10 losses updated for this game.
Where does Tampa Bay stack up? Obviously the > 28-points threshold was reached, and it probably didn’t have to be, but that’s always important. The Buccaneers did not dominate time of possession, but they still won it. They sure didn’t mind the Chiefs taking up over eight minutes on the two drives that ended with a turnover on downs, or the five-minute field goal drive late in the second quarter. The Buccaneers did not push the ball much offensively after going up 31-9, so they only finished with 340 yards, the second fewest in a win over the Chiefs.
The Chiefs obviously had one of their worst penalty games (11 for 120 yards) in the Mahomes era, and that was big in this one as I just went over.
The running game was helpful for the Buccaneers with Leonard Fournette (89 yards) and Ronald Jones (61 yards) combining for 150 yards and a touchdown. It may have even been two touchdowns if the Bucs used Fournette instead of Jones at the 1-yard line in the second quarter on the only great stop of the game for the Kansas City defense. The Chiefs weren’t horrible at running the ball as Clyde Edwards-Helaire was one of the few good players on the night, finishing with 64 yards on nine carries. It just wasn’t a favorable game script to run a lot, or maybe one could argue the Chiefs should have tried some more runs early to give the tackles a break in the pass protection area.
All I know is it’s not the game to laugh at them for taking a running back in the first round, but CEH was not the downfall here. If anything, the backs should have been more involved with chipping and protecting since they weren’t good at catching. Darrel Williams only came down with two catches for 10 yards on seven targets and Le’Veon Bell didn’t even play. Fournette pitched in four helpful catches for 46 yards, so there’s really no comparison in the production the Buccaneers got from their backs versus the Chiefs.
While the Chiefs had two turnovers (Mahomes picks), this was oddly a Super Bowl not determined by those plays. They didn’t come until midway through the third quarter with the Chiefs already in the unenviable position of trailing 28-9. Not to mention the first was a tipped deep ball thrown on 3rd-and-13.
The biggest shock is that the fourth quarter was just never close, the first time Mahomes has never been within one score in the fourth quarter in his career. The score was 31-9 at the 2:46 mark of the third quarter and it never changed again.
Worst Postseason, But I’ll Eat Crow on the COVID Season
The 2020 NFL season is completed. All 269 games were played, only a few were a farce because of COVID, and the Super Bowl was finished on time. I never thought that would happen, but they pushed through and got it done, so I’ll eat some crow on that.
Of course, I don’t think the postseason could have gone any worse than it did from both an entertainment standpoint and my own personal rooting interests. This was terrible after a season in which a lot of teams had good seasons and it seemed like we would get interesting games in the playoffs. Remember all the double-digit comebacks every week?
We couldn’t even get a single fourth-quarter lead change, the first time that’s happened since the 2005 season. At least that postseason gave us Steelers-Colts in the divisional round, which was one of the most dramatic fourth quarters in NFL history from the Colts’ comeback attempt to Jerome Bettis’ fumble, Nick Harper’s return and tackle by Ben Roethlisberger, and Mike Vanderjagt shanking the kick for overtime. I know people hate Super Bowl XL, but at least it was a better game than tonight. So I’ll take the 2005 postseason any day over this one.
The longest drought without a repeat champion in NFL history continues. If Tampa Bay ends it next year, I may have to start focusing more attention on the NBA or learn hockey analytics, because it’s hard for me to want to invest so much time in a league where one ancient quarterback continues to see his defense hold prolific offenses out of the end zone. Two of the last three Super Bowls have been downright awful representations of the product after regular seasons that were legitimately good.
In a league that is dying for new blood and new powers to emerge in a transition period, we’re left with a 43-year-old quarterback who probably is pumped full of blood from random men half his age.
I will say this, Brady did a hell of a job at picking his new team. He stayed out of the AFC, making it easier to get back to the Super Bowl since the NFC loves those flash in the pan teams where everything just clicks one year. If he goes to someone like Indy or Miami or the cursed Chargers, he’s likely getting put down early by the Ravens or Bills or Chiefs. Instead, he goes to the NFC where his main competition becomes the Saints and Packers. Guess who stops those teams short of the Super Bowl in the NFC? EVERYBODY THE LAST DECADE. Well, minus Dallas. So he gets to the final four with statistically the best defense left and a loaded receiving corps that even got to add Gronk and AB. You think the Colts are bringing in Gronk and AB? I doubt it. They scored the first three touchdowns in the Super Bowl too. So I do have to give him credit for picking the best team possible to make this happen.
Defense wins championships. Football games are decided in the trenches. Tom Brady’s luck is the greatest of all time. If he doesn’t have to change his game, then neither do I. But I will start doing video work this offseason in addition to being more active as a writer.
If you think a Super Bowl blowout is going to make me hibernate for seven months, then you don’t know me very well — not that that’s ever stopped randoms on the internet from trying. I’m over 11 months into my diet and feeling good about hitting important milestones this year. I’ll definitely write about that if it comes to pass as it would mean a lot to me if I could help even just one person out there. I look forward to getting a COVID vaccine and being able to see people I care about in person. This last year has been tough, and while a Chiefs win would have made this a more enjoyable offseason and put the league on a better timeline for the future, the fact is it’s just a football game. The outcome doesn’t change a thing that I planned to do tomorrow, this week, or the next.
When I started this blog in 2012, the very first post was titled “You Are Now About to Witness the Strength of Street Knowledge.” I’ll end the 2020 NFL season with another N.W.A. reference just for the haters out there:
Super Bowl LV is not about Tom Brady “passing the torch” to Patrick Mahomes. It is a battle to see if Mahomes can pull the lucky horseshoe out of Brady’s ass and end the longest drought without a repeat champion in NFL history.
It’s the possible real GOAT against the LOAT (Luckiest of All Time).
I have already written around 10,000 words on this game (links below), but the general theme is the same: Kansas City should win, but if the Buccaneers are to pull it off, it will take some fortunate breaks. That is the high standard for beating the Chiefs with Mahomes these days. This team moved on quickly from the “amazing offense, poor defense” team we saw in 2018 that Brady’s Patriots slipped by twice playing keep-away with the ball from Mahomes at the end. This defense is not great, but it is good enough under Steve Spagnuolo, who has a track record of success against Brady-led offenses.
Five-Piece Super Bowl Preview Links
This will not be one of my extra long blog previews for the Super Bowl since I have spent the last two weeks already doing five articles on the game for Sportsbook Review. These are companion pieces going over different aspects of the matchup with very little overlap other than me repeating that the Chiefs won 27-24 in Tampa Bay in Week 12, it’s the first time a team is playing the Super Bowl in its home stadium, the Chiefs can end the longest drought without a repeat champion in NFL history (2003-04 Patriots the last), the Eric Fisher injury is a wild card, and that 16 of the last 17 Super Bowls have been within one score in the fourth quarter. Also, we are looking for our first true fourth quarter lead change this postseason, something every postseason since 2006 has had.
Why the Chiefs Can Beat the Buccaneers– “Few champions have ever repeated with as much style and consistency, but the pairing of Reid and Mahomes has been heaven for Kansas City and hell for the rest of the NFL.” This first piece looks at the incredible lengths a team must go to beat the Chiefs, who are often their own worst enemy. This also takes on the Eric Fisher injury and some Week 12 recap.
Why the Buccaneers Can Beat the Chiefs – “It is hard to bet against the Chiefs, but it may be even harder to bet against Brady’s unrivaled luck and team success in big games like this one.” This one looks at how the Buccaneers actually scored more points this season than the Chiefs, the impact Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones need to have, reasons to trust the Tampa Bay defense this time, and some of Brady’s luck in Super Bowls alone.
Matchup Analysis: Chiefs Offense vs. Buccaneers Defense – “The Chiefs already had a season-high 543 yards of offense in Tampa Bay in Week 12’s 27-24 win, but it was far from their most efficient scoring output this year. Now without left tackle Eric Fisher, can the Chiefs repeat their passing success, or will the Tampa Bay defense slow down a third straight legendary quarterback this postseason?” Fourth straight if you count Taylor Heinicke. This one looks at some stats on how the Chiefs are their own worst enemy (more on this below), a detailed recap of this matchup from Week 12, what might look different on Sunday, and how it all comes down to the four-minute offense.
Matchup Analysis: Buccaneers Offense vs. Chiefs Defense– “If the Buccaneers can get this game into the fourth quarter within reach, then they have done a great job of finishing this year. The 2020 Buccaneers have a plus-90 scoring differential in the fourth quarter, the highest for any team, including playoffs, since the 2013 Patriots (plus-103). The 2020 Chiefs are the only team in the last two seasons to allow over 40% of their opponent’s points in the fourth quarter. The 2020 Buccaneers have allowed 17.2% of their points in the fourth quarter, the lowest percentage in the NFL in the last five seasons.” This looks at the way Tampa Bay starts too many games slowly, needs to call more than just bad runs on first down, and how the offense has feasted on short fields this postseason. Also a Week 12 recap against the Chiefs, how things might look different this time, and the way the Chiefs do not fear blitzing Brady.
Super Bowl Game Pick and Prediction – “Can the Buccaneers replicate those breaks on top of playing great on both sides of the ball? Maybe the Chiefs will get cute with play-calling at the 1-yard line and have Kelce try to throw a touchdown to Mahomes before Reid shockingly settles for a field goal. Maybe Hardman will drop an 89-yard touchdown pass with no one around him. Maybe the defense can recover a Mahomes fumble in the red zone. Maybe the Chiefs will get called for offensive holding three times on one drive in the fourth quarter, leading to a punt after a dropped pass on third-and-27.
Oh wait, all those things already happened in Week 12 for the Buccaneers and they still lost to the Chiefs.”
This was my general prediction piece that touches on the Fisher injury, Tampa Bay’s likelihood of repeating the Raiders’ blueprint for beating the Chiefs, special teams mistakes by the Chiefs, and some very interesting notes on head referee Carl Cheffers and defensive pass interference, a penalty the 2020 Buccaneers have benefited from more than any team in the last 12 years (and perhaps all of NFL history).
But wait, there’s more…
How Do You Stop the Chiefs? (And the 2020 Packers for That Matter?)
Frankly, I am tired. I wish it were gameday instead of Friday. This is the last section I am writing before Sunday night. Originally, this was going to be research I used for what I hoped was a Chiefs-Packers Super Bowl where I can talk about the MVP award between Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. Of course, Green Bay didn’t get here again, so now I’m left with charting data I spent a good number of hours in late December compiling.
Like I said, I’m tired, and I know it’s not like me to turn in something incomplete, but including any data on Green Bay at all feels like a gift anyway. So the following data is for the Chiefs’ whole season, but only the regular season is included for Green Bay. Only drives started by Aaron Rodgers or Mahomes are included, and kneeldown-only drives are excluded as always.
How do you stop these offenses? Well, they both scored more times than they didn’t this year, but here’s a look at what I found when charting what ended the non-touchdown drives.
I fully expect Aaron Rodgers to win the MVP, and I get it, I really do. Personally, I voted for Mahomes on my PFWA ballot and thought he had the more valuable season, and some of my argument for that would have been reflected in these stats. Let’s not make this a big MVP debate, but let’s go through some of these numbers.
Both offenses were fantastic, but I felt like Rodgers had a bit more help from his teammates than Mahomes did. The first section that highlights teammate mistakes on non-touchdown drives shows an extra four lost fumbles by Mahomes’ teammates, five extra failures in short-yardage situations (those are mostly runs), two more touchdowns wiped out by penalty, and more missed kicks by Kansas City. There were a similar number of drops, but the Chiefs lost three more probable touchdowns and had more come on third or fourth down plays.
The section titled “OTHER THIRD DOWN STOPS” are the drives where the defense really stepped up and earned the stop of these offenses, usually on third down. The numbers there are similar though the Chiefs had considerably more passes defensed or batted at the line or Mahomes hit in motion.
As for QB turnovers, again, I thought it was silly how Mahomes having eight turnovers (one in one loss) to Rodgers having seven (five in three losses) was supposed to be a positive for Rodgers. It never was. Mahomes’ only “failure” on fourth down was a play against the Ravens where he just chucked up a pass in the final 30 seconds with a 34-20 lead. No biggie.
The final section, CLOCK & MISC., are drives that were not even really defensive stops, but the offenses were up against the time crunch late in the half or were just working the clock. It also makes note of the playoff drive against Cleveland where Mahomes was knocked out with his injury.
Finally for some more context, here are the reasons why the Chiefs settled for 32 field goal attempts this season:
This kind of analysis was something I have always wanted to do. To answer the question of “what caused the drive to end?” to see if I can figure out how much a great offense was stopped versus how often they stopped themselves.
In the case of the Chiefs, I do think they are their own worst enemy a lot of the times, and the numbers here support this to a degree when you consider they are scoring more than they aren’t.
Also, Marques Valdes-Scantling is frustrating as hell with his consistency, and he was responsible for several of the Green Bay mistakes this year, but obviously he played very well in the NFC Championship Game. Just a shame we are not talking about a Chiefs-Packers game so we could see who gets the Super Bowl MVP between Rodgers and Mahomes in their first ever matchup while both had such great seasons.
But of course, we get the potential real GOAT vs. the LOAT.
Here are some research tweets I have made in the leadup to the big game:
“I have seen some concerns that this could be a Seahawks-Broncos sized blowout with the 49ers’ physical defense attacking a “finesse” Kansas City offense, but I really don’t buy that narrative. Yes, pass-happy teams have a rather poor history in title games against tough defenses, but some teams are just different.”
Yes, the Chiefs are just different, but this year the story is looking similar. Replace the 49ers with the Buccaneers, add some extra tension over the offensive line shortcomings, and I am seeing the same things said this week. I even have someone in my Twitter mentions taking bets with people that the Chiefs won’t score more than 14 points.
I don’t want to make a “they’re only going to score 14 points?” remark, because I’ve already seen enough comparisons between the 2007 Giants and 2020 Buccaneers. It started with beating the Saints in the divisional round after getting swept by them in the regular season, something we’ve only seen the 2007 Giants do to Dallas. Then both won a one-score game in the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. Both teams have three road wins to reach the Super Bowl. Both teams have won three games this postseason despite allowing at least a 50% conversion rate on third down, which is the most wins in a playoff run since 1991.
While the Chiefs aren’t undefeated, it’s pretty close with Mahomes having won 25 of his last 26 starts. To be safe, I threw a couple bucks on a Tampa Bay 17-14 win, but I’d hold my breath on that one from cashing. This is arguably the most skill player firepower in Super Bowl history and I expect both teams to score at least 20 points. Every Tampa Bay opponent has scored at least 20 this postseason.
But I will say I was watching some of Chiefs-49ers the other day and that was a grind for Kansas City’s offense. I don’t think the Tampa Bay defense is as good as the 49ers, but if JPP and Shaq Barrett go nuts against that line, well, pressure is pressure, and it makes any offense look bad. It was wild to remember that the Chiefs had 10 points halfway through the fourth quarter, and you can argue it’s the least impressive playoff start of the Mahomes era. That 31-20 final may be the most misleading in Super Bowl history for how that game actually played out. It was not an easy win for the Chiefs, but you still have to stop them for 60 minutes, not 53.
Tyreek Hill Dud Incoming?
Finally, one last piece of research I was interested in this week that could be telling in how this game plays out, or at the very least could have use for people placing bets (especially SGP) is what happens in a playoff rematch after a receiver torches a defense in the regular season?
Hill had 269 yards and three touchdowns in Tampa Bay in Week 12, making Carlton Davis look like Carlton Banks. Obviously, that won’t happen again on Sunday, but should we expect Hill to put up 60 yards, 120 yards, 20 yards, or what? He went from 20 yards against Buffalo in Week 6 to 172 yards in the AFC Championship Game, so you just never know. This is the reverse situation though. Hill had 66 yards in the final three quarters in Week 12 after that absurd 203 yards in the first quarter alone.
For my approach to finding similar examples, I did not want to limit it to 200-yard days, since those are rare. I also did not want to go down to 150 and dig through a lot of game logs, so I capped it at 175 yards and found that this will be the 19th time since 1970 that a receiver is getting a playoff rematch with a defense he torched for 175+ yards in the regular season. This does not include what would have been another example when Antonio Brown had 189 yards against the 2015 Broncos, but was unavailable for the playoff rematch after getting knocked out by Vontaze Burfict in Cincinnati.
Here are the results sorted by the biggest declines in receiving yards in the playoffs.
This is not a ton of examples in 50 years, and Hill may be the most dangerous receiver on the list, but this is not an encouraging sign for him going off again. The average receiver declined by almost 140 yards in the playoffs and only two of the 18 (Tim Brown and Michael Haynes) were able to hit 100 yards again. Touchdowns also dropped from 28 to six. There were also four extra losses in the playoffs, and the only Super Bowl on the list saw Charlie Brown’s 1983 Washington team get blown out 38-9.
I thought Washington’s Gary Clark (-241 yards) in the 1986 NFC Championship Game may have been injured early, but I checked the gamebook and it looks like he caught zero balls on 13 targets with four drops. Ouch. Don Beebe going off for 220 yards against the 49ers in 1996 is pretty damn amusing as well. It’s not that big of a surprise he only had 2 yards in the playoffs.
My gut is on Travis Kelce taking over as the leading receiver for the Chiefs this week. No one has been able to effectively shut Hill and Kelce down in the same game outside of maybe Denver in the snow. They held them to 86 yards and one touchdown.
Hill going off for 200 yards again in the Super Bowl would be legendary, but I’m putting my money more on Kelce, and if I do include Hill in my parlays, I’m likely taking the under 94.5.
I put a $25 bet on Bucs 31-27 (+13000), basically repeating the Week 12 game script, except for an ending where Tampa Bay gets the ball back and scores a game-winning touchdown late. No, I still wouldn’t be happy if I nailed it. Last year, I had the Chiefs winning by four, which was in the bank until Darrel Williams took that last run 38 yards for a touchdown.
If you’ve followed me for a little or a long time, you know it’s S.O.P. for me to pick the Brady-led team in these things. It stems back to how I’d often pick against the Patriots and they would still win, so I stopped doing it for the 2006 AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis, which the Colts came back to win. So I automatically pick Brady as a reverse jinx. You basically have to ignore my final prediction and read what I wrote in the preview to gauge if I think his team is going to win or not.
In this one, I think it’s clear I believe the Chiefs should win, but I just know how close to the vest they play it and how that could easily backfire against Tampa. Especially when you are at a disadvantage in the trenches. Especially when you are facing the LOAT. Especially when Arians has the magic beans that shit out close wins as well as any active coach in the NFL.
But like Mahomes said after the Buffalo win, he trusts his guys over anybody, and I trust him (and Reid and Kelce and Mathieu, etc.). I trust this team so much that I am going to pick the Chiefs straight up to win the whole damn thing again.
(But you know damn well I am hedging like crazy in bets on Tampa Bay winning just in case, and Tampa Bay +3.5 is legitimately a good pick in my opinion)
Final: Chiefs 31, Buccaneers 28 (MVP: Patrick Mahomes)
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
While we shouldn’t have taken two Week 6 games to heart for Sunday, there were plenty of qualities in both that carried over to the rematch in these title games, won again by the Buccaneers and Chiefs. Their defenses made life extra difficult again for Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen as the latest quarterbacks to fall short of a Super Bowl win on 500-point teams. That sets up an overhyped Super Bowl that will likely end after Travis Kelce throws an interception to tackle-eligible Mike Remmers or something ridiculous.
Or it could end with crowning the first repeat champion in the NFL since the 2003-04 Patriots. We have two weeks to worry about that, so for now let’s just recap a high scoring, but relatively low drama Championship Sunday in the NFL.
It would have been difficult for the Packers and Bills to crash harder on Sunday than they already did in the regular season against these opponents. However, both lost after scoring over 500 points in the regular season. Neither was able to score more than 26 points, meaning the 2011 Saints (32) and 2018 Chiefs (31) are still the only 500-point teams who scored at least 30 points in their playoff loss. Only five of the 26 teams won a championship.
Buccaneers at Packers: The LOAT vs. Not the GOAT
This may (not) shock you, but I don’t think the greatest quarterback of all time was on the field in Green Bay on Sunday afternoon. I only view Tom Brady as the Luckiest of All Time (LOAT), never the GOAT. I have never seen Aaron Rodgers, the greatest front-runner in NFL history, as the GOAT. I would take Peyton Manning over both of them any day, and I already like what Patrick Mahomes is doing so much that I probably never have to change the initials for my answer to that tired question of who is the best to ever do it.
All Sunday’s game did for me was solidify why I never view these players that way. I saw Rodgers come up short again and miss too many opportunities after rarely faltering the rest of the year. Still, this is probably his best NFC Championship Game performance yet, which says a lot about his career. I saw Brady take advantage of inexplicable mistakes by the opponent before throwing three straight interceptions and trying to give the game away, which his defense of course would not allow. No quarterback has won more playoff games with three interceptions than Brady’s three wins, doing it for the second time in a title game. Brady is also the only quarterback to ever throw three interceptions in a road Conference Championship Game and win. All other quarterbacks were 0-17.
If I wanted to see the pinnacle of the position, apparently I had to wait until 6:40 P.M. At the very least, it wasn’t 38-10 this time.
Part I: The Nice Start
One thing I prefaced this game with was that hyped-up quarterback battles rarely result in games where both play very well. For about a quarter and a half, these two were looking to prove me wrong. Both started hot with some great third-down plays while the running games were rather stagnant outside of Leonard Fournette’s 20-yard touchdown run. He loves the spin button more than the most devoted Madden player.
Rodgers especially seemed to have a moment late in the first quarter with the Packers, down 7-0, facing a 3rd-and-15 at their own 5 after a sack. Rodgers rolled out in his own end zone and fired a pass to Allen Lazard for 23 yards. That led to a game-tying 50-yard touchdown pass that was perfectly dropped in on another third down to Marques Valdes-Scantling (MVS). We had a tied game instead of Tampa Bay getting great field position and going up two scores.
The Buccaneers did score a second touchdown after the Green Bay secondary again misjudged a ball in the air and Chris Godwin came down with the prayer for a 52-yard gain to set up Fournette’s score. Rodgers seemed to be answering right back and got Aaron Jones involved on the ground after the back nearly lost a fumble in the red zone, but it was recovered by an alert Robert Tonyan.
But things were looking fine as the Packers called their first timeout with 5:13 left in the second quarter with the ball at the Tampa Bay 6.
Then the collapse started.
Part II: The Collapse
Green Bay was outstanding in the red zone this year, scoring a touchdown on 80% of attempts to lead the league. I gave Rodgers shit for throwing so many short touchdowns on early downs to pad his stats so he could win MVP this year, but admittedly, they were really effective down here. It’s just that these were not attempts from the 1-yard line on Sunday. These were all from the 6-yard line, and that’s where Rodgers locked in with tunnel vision to Davante Adams on three straight incompletions.
On the first one, Rodgers absolutely put the ball on a spot that Adams could catch it on a back-shoulder play. Not the most egregious drop you’ll ever see, and not the kind of play any receiver can make, but it is the kind of timing play that Rodgers and Adams have been hitting this year because of how high of a level they’ve been playing. Just not this time.
On second down, Rodgers forced another one that was batted at the line. On third down, he again went to Adams in the back of the end zone, but Adams ran out of room and couldn’t even establish one foot in bounds. Meanwhile, replay clearly showed Lazard beat his man, who fell down, at the line and was wide open on a slant in the front of the end zone.
Again, I am never a big fan of the “he should have thrown to this guy” analysis, but there was a strong argument here that Rodgers screwed up. The Packers kicked a field goal and trailed 14-10.
Even the best red-zone offense can mess up one drive, right? Green Bay got the ball back with 2:10 left for an opportunity at a double score since the Packers deferred and would get the ball first in the third quarter. Cue the game management malfeasance. Now it’s one thing to slow-walk a third-down snap when you don’t know if you’ll convert or not. But once the Packers converted with 23 yards to Lazard, they should have used their second timeout or hurried up to snap the ball quickly. The Packers were very slow to snap the ball, taking over 25 seconds to get the next play off while spending at least half that time set at the line. The result of the play was a sack too with 34 seconds left.
That was a killer. I have no idea why the Packers would wait so long for that play when they had a chance for points, if not a touchdown before halftime. Again, one thing I always appreciated about a Manning-led offense was the quickness he could get the next play off with the clock moving. Rodgers either had a brain fart here or Matt LaFleur was not playing for enough points.
On the next play, Rodgers made his first real bad decision with a pick caught in tight coverage by Sean Murphy-Bunting at midfield. On replay, Murphy-Bunting clearly had a jersey grab on Lazard as he undercut him to make the pick, but it wasn’t called as part of a first half with zero penalties. If you’re going to let them play, you have to keep it consistent…
Tampa Bay seemed to waste the good field position after three plays, but sent the offense back out on a fourth down, which was converted with a short pass to Fournette with 8 seconds left. At the Green Bay 39 and the Buccaneers out of timeouts, the Packers had to be thinking the sidelines or Hail Mary. The Bucs really had no other choices there.
Somehow, the Buccaneers ran just three receivers on routes and Kevin King, who had a horrible game, wasn’t able to cover Scotty Miller, giving up a 39-yard touchdown to end the half. It’s an inexplicable defense to play in that spot.
All three of those touchdowns happened in Lambeau Field in the last 10 seasons, but the other two were Hail Mary attempts. This was just a blown coverage that never should have been single coverage. All I could think is if Antonio Brown (inactive with injury) was in the game, would they have covered this one so poorly? King was getting beat by every Tampa Bay receiver in the game, but would they at least give more attention to Brown than Miller? Defenses just don’t seem to show him any respect despite him getting open deep several times this year, including the only big one last week in New Orleans.
Tampa Bay led 21-10 at halftime, but it was about to get worse. Three plays into the third quarter, Rodgers flipped a short pass to Aaron Jones. He may not have been able to get a first down, but he had the right momentum carrying him towards the sticks. However, he was hit by Devin White and the ball popped out. Tampa Bay was inside the Green Bay 8 and the Packers had two more turnovers after having a league-low 11 in the first 17 games this year.
It took Brady one play to make it a touchdown as, like I said in my preview, no one covers Cameron Brate this postseason. The tight end was all alone in the end zone for the easiest touchdown of the day and the Packers were down 28-10 with 13:54 left in the third quarter. Tampa Bay is the only offense in the last 20 postseasons to have three touchdown drives start inside the opponent 20. Tampa Bay’s offense has four drives that started inside the opponent 40 this postseason. The rest of the league has three, and that includes Buffalo last night.
In a span of barely six minutes of game time, the Packers went from looking like a team about to tie the game, then to maybe pulling off the double score, only to fall behind 28-10. There was the Green Bay collapse, because the Packers came back to outscore Tampa 16-3 the rest of the way. But the game was largely lost in that six-minute span, and I find it hard to see how quarterback skill was the main difference in that stretch.
I did not mention that Brady threw up this deep pass two plays before the Miller touchdown, shades of last week in New Orleans when the Saints could not capitalize on three interception chances from Brady.
It did however look like the quarterbacks were going to decide how the comeback portion went, if only Rodgers could actually make the biggest comeback of his career. It took a 21-3 deficit against Brady and the Patriots in the 2006 AFC Championship Game for Manning to break through in the playoffs. Rodgers had his shot here now.
Part III: The Failed Comeback
Some of my earliest writing was on how Rodgers is the greatest quarterback in NFL history to rarely pull off comeback wins. For as much as he wins and how many points he scores and how many opportunities he’s had, you just expect more from him in this department. Rodgers is now 18-44 (.290) at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities and the Packers have won three games with him after trailing by at least 16 points at any time. Now he has gotten better since those early seasons, but I would be lying if I thought he would make this a great game.
Some of that is my thoughts on him mentally folding against a team that was sacking him more than he’s used to. I felt he folded in Week 6 after throwing the two picks. But this time, it was a Jones fumble that was a huge play to go against him.
My other big concern with Green Bay has nothing to do with Rodgers. It’s when they get down big in playoff games like this one, or 31-0 in the 2016 title game (Atlanta), or last year’s 37-20 loss in San Francisco, they don’t stop the bleeding on defense. They continue trading scores, making it impossible to ever make a comeback when you need stops. A string of stops, and usually a turnover for good field position to make it easier.
Well, this time Rodgers got his turnovers. Way more than anyone could imagine really. While Rodgers got the rally attempt started with a nice 75-yard touchdown drive, the defense really got things going with a pick of a terrible Brady deep ball. Rodgers turned that into a 68-yard touchdown drive with 24 seconds left in the third, but Equanimeous St. Brown dropped a two-point conversion pass to keep the score at 28-23. Ndamukong Suh got a very small tip of the ball, but not enough to knock it off path to where St. Brown shouldn’t have caught it.
So that was disappointing, but at least we had a one-score game going into the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay looked to add more points, but Brady was high on a pass to an extended Mike Evans (all 6’5” of him), and that ball was deflected to an interception by Jaire Alexander.
Rodgers had his chance to take Green Bay’s first lead of the day, but this of course ended up being the only game all season where the Packers never led. The pass protection continued to fail Rodgers. He was hit on the first play of the drive after trying to hit a big play. On third down, he was sacked as edge pressure again hurt the Packers. Shaq Barrett (3.0) and Jason Pierre-Paul (2.0 sacks) lived in the backfield as the Packers tied their season-high in allowing five sacks. No one got a higher pressure rate on Rodgers this year than Tampa Bay in Week 6, and it felt rather high again on Sunday as Rodgers took multiple sacks for only the fourth time all season.
Rodgers enjoyed the best pass protection this season, but a late-season injury to David Bakhtiari was a big warning flag for this postseason run, especially against a blitz-happy Tampa defense that already owned the Packers with Bakhtiari in the lineup for 40 snaps that day. I find it hard to believe Rodgers takes five sacks in this game if he played, but there were issues on the right side of the line as well. There were always going to be issue when these teams met if you ask me, and I don’t think Rodgers and LaFleur had a good enough plan to overcome that from 38-10.
The Packers went three-and-out after losing 5 yards. Brady threw his third straight interception on another poor prayer of a pass he just lobbed up. Barrett got an incredible jump on the snap and sacked Rodgers again to start the next drive, also a three-and-out that lost yards. Is that not a great summary of Brady’s career? He throws two picks, but his defense doesn’t even give up a single positive yard, let alone a first down or points out of it. Not to mention this was against the best offense in 2020.
Rob Gronkowski got me to bet real money on him to score a touchdown, but of course he screwed me over and only got one target in the game. It was a big one, however, as it was a screen pass that he rumbled for 29 yards on. Go figure, his over/under for the game was 28.5 yards. I don’t know how Vegas does it so often. That set up Ryan Succop for a 46-yard field goal, and despite his ill-fitting last name, the veteran came through unlike some superior kickers this postseason. Tampa Bay still led 31-23, but Rodgers had another shot with 4:33 left.
Last time it was at the 6-yard line where the Packers failed in the red zone. This time it was getting the ball to the 8-yard line at 2:22. Once again, the sequence focused too heavily on Adams and it was poorly done. Rodgers and Lazard seemed to be on the wrong page on first down. On second down, Rodgers stepped up and threw the ball away through the back of the end zone after pressure got to him. On third down, this is the heavily criticized play where he had a chance to run and didn’t. He forced a terrible pass low to Adams between two defenders.
The throw was terrible, but I really do not see the run as a viable option here. Rodgers looked like he could outrun Tampa’s defense a few times in the game, only for them to trap him quickly. They are a fast defense, and I think #90 (JPP) could have taken him down in a hurry there, which would have used up the two-minute warning clock stoppage.
Then LaFleur threw his name in the Mike McCarthy potluck by kicking a field goal with 2:05 left on fourth down from the 8. I am not sure this is a horrible decision, but as the hours pass since this game ended, I am leaning towards hating it more. I’m not big on trying the fourth-and-8 and needing that and a two-point conversion just to tie and force the Bucs into some aggressive offense with two minutes left. That sounds like a shitty spot to be in to me. I kind of like the idea of getting a chipshot field goal, 31-26, then use my four clock stoppages to get the ball back from an offense that likes 1-2 yard runs and a quarterback with a spotty history in the four-minute offense, before I drive for the game-winning touchdown. I can at least see the rationale and appeal of that way.
But overall, I think the Packers failed on early downs, should have considered a run there, and set up a shorter throw like they have all season. That third down was no man’s land for Rodgers. No one was open and a run wouldn’t have gained much of anything. Maybe it makes the fourth down a little shorter, but still difficult. The fourth down is also no man’s land. Just not the spot you want to be in for that situation.
The Packers were 2-for-4 in goal-to-go situations on Sunday after converting them 90.5% of the time in the regular season (No. 2 in NFL). Green Bay finishes 5-of-9 (55.6%) in goal-to-go this postseason after going 38-for-42 in the regular season, matching their total stops in 16 games in just two playoff games. How disappointing.
The offense never saw the ball again. The defense was able to set up a crucial third-and-4, but the pass rush didn’t get home and Brady had time to throw a pass in the general direction of Tyler Johnson, who had his jersey pulled. Go figure, it was Kevin King on the penalty, which was a late flag on a ball you’d think would be uncatchable, but no one ever pays attention to that part of the rule. The most frustrating part is that this wasn’t called a penalty earlier in the game on the interception when Tampa Bay grabbed the jersey of Rodgers’ receiver, but they called it here and it effectively ended the game. It also helped that Johnson sold it with a soccer flop.
The Buccaneers set an NFL record for defensive pass interference penalties drawn in the regular season (24), so go figure they ice the game with one here.
Rodgers made some big strides from 38-10 against this defense, but it wasn’t an MVP-caliber performance from him when he badly needed one in the biggest home game of his career. Aaron Jones was a disappointment, the offensive line was a huge letdown, and the connection with Adams didn’t look as good as it usually does.
Still, I do not understand the criticism of Green Bay not drafting a wide receiver this year for this game. MVS had over 100 yards and Lazard was open a good deal too. He should have had an easy touchdown if Rodgers was looking for someone besides Adams. I thought the secondary wideouts were good. It was the defensive backs that were a bigger problem. Jaire Alexander is a fine player, but he can only cover one receiver at a time. The Packers had a big weakness in King and the Buccaneers exploited him in the worst ways. This is why you can never have enough good corners in the NFL today. In fact, it’s better to have a solid group of corners without any great players than it is to have a great corner but a liability in coverage. The Packers had the liability today and it cost them.
Rodgers, 38 next season, talked of an “uncertain future” after this game. I would be shocked if he wasn’t the Green Bay quarterback in 2021. I think he was just dealing with one of the toughest losses of his career and will be back.
But will anything change for the Packers? They have now been swept out of seven straight postseasons by the 2012 49ers, 2013 49ers, 2014 Seahawks, 2015 Cardinals, 2016 Falcons, 2019 49ers, and 2020 Buccaneers. Very fine teams for sure, but notice none of them so far have won a Super Bowl. LaFleur might as well have been wearing a McCarthy costume today. When you beat this team in the regular season, it doesn’t seem like they ever have an answer for how to reverse it in the playoffs. Same old Packers.
But if the Buccaneers do get to the Super Bowl, it’s in Tampa Bay this year, a homefield advantage no team has ever had before in the big game. If anyone was lucky enough to reap those benefits…
Brady is now 2-0 when he throws at least three interceptions in a Conference Championship Game. All other quarterbacks are 5-25. Of course, he’s still in another Super Bowl. Good thing Tampa Bay will be facing a better quarterback and coach this time.
Bills at Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes Is What Fans Wanted Aaron Rodgers to Be
So much for 6-point wins, near interceptions, and struggling in the red zone: Kansas City is back in the Super Bowl. I’ll keep this recap short and simple, just like the Chiefs kept the competitive portion of this 38-24 win over Buffalo.
No one will remember Buffalo led 9-0 after a quarter, but it was fool’s gold. The Bills got an opening field goal after the Chiefs dropped an interception. The Chiefs went three-and-out after Tyreek Hill dropped a deep ball on third down. The Bills got a 3-yard touchdown drive after Mecole Hardman muffed a punt return before he was even hit. Again, you have to hope this team beats itself to have a chance.
Once the Chiefs found their hands, they answered back with three straight touchdowns to take a 21-12 lead at halftime, never looking back. Patrick Mahomes looked healthy as could be a week after a big scare against Cleveland. Even when he didn’t need to bring his A-game, this offense made things look easy. Mahomes finished 29-of-38 for 325 yards, three touchdowns, and no turnovers, real or otherwise. It was a clean game for Travis Kelce and Hill to show they are no match for soft coverage, and Hill also exploded after the catch on a 71-yard play.
The only surprise was that the Chiefs barely got anything out of the ground game after a season-high 245 yards in Week 6 in Buffalo. The running backs finished with 19 carries for 59 yards, and a good chunk of that was with the game already decided. Hardman made up for his blunder with a 50-yard run.
The Bills ended up rushing for 129 yards, but Josh Allen had 88 of those yards on scrambles. It was much better than his passing as he completed 28-of-48 passes for 287 yards. He also took four sacks for 53 yards, the second-most sack yards he’s lost in a game in his career. Allen was too indecisive at getting rid of the ball and too inaccurate when he did.
I brought up twice this week that Buffalo’s offense had been a third-down disappointment this postseason after finishing No. 1 in the regular season. The Bills were only 5-of-14 (35.7%) in this game while the Chiefs were 6-of-10 (6-of-9 excluding a game-ending kneeldown).
Much like in Week 6, Allen and the Bills couldn’t make any big plays on the Chiefs defense. It wasn’t until 4:06 remained that the Bills had their first play of 25+ yards from scrimmage against Kansas City this year. That was a 34-yard catch by Stefon Diggs, who finished with 77 yards on a quiet night for him.
Head coach Sean McDermott did not improve his profile in this game, choosing to kick two short field goals with only 2-3 yards to go on fourth down after it was evident his defense did not have the ability to stop the Chiefs. That was poorly managed, and I do not agree with the two-point conversion attempt late to try cutting it to a 15-point game at 4:08. Kick the extra point, make it 38-22, then after they miraculously recovered the onside kick, you’re still in business with a chance to cut the lead in half and make Mahomes do something with an 8-point lead. Instead, the Bills were down 17, settled for a field goal after Allen’s fourth huge sack of the night nearly caused a fight, and then the Bills watched Mahomes run five times to burn the rest of the clock for a 38-24 final. Lame.
Buffalo is in better shape than most AFC teams. It is no guarantee there are more rounds to come in future Bills-Chiefs playoff matchups – we are still waiting for the first Ravens-Chiefs playoff game in this era after all – but this was the team’s best season since the Super Bowl runs. Buffalo can still grow and get better, and it will be interesting to see if it becomes a hot free agent destination for teams wanting to knock off the Chiefs. Unless players rather take discounts and just go to Kansas City while the Bills have to pay Allen a fortune very soon. We’ll see.
The 2020 Chiefs are not a very dominant 16-2 team, but they absolutely have shown they can turn on a switch at times for big matchups. They dominated the Ravens 34-20 in Baltimore. They swept the Bills by multiple scores, and this Buffalo team was 15-2 with a Hail Mary loss in Arizona when it wasn’t playing the Chiefs. The Chiefs also came out red hot on offense the night they avenged their loss to the Raiders, and of course that electric first quarter in Tampa Bay in Week 12 that will be more closely scrutinized the next two weeks than the Week 6 games were for these rematches that went the same way on Sunday.
Now the Chiefs just need one more big performance against a team they already beat in an unusual road setting for the Super Bowl. It is hard to ever bet against Mahomes, who is now 10-4 SU and 11-2-1 ATS as either an underdog or favorite of no more than 3 points.
But not all news was great from this one as left tackle Eric Fisher injured his Achilles and will likely miss the Super Bowl. We already saw what happened to Green Bay against Tampa Bay without its star left tackle. However, Mahomes does look to be a different beast than any other quarterback you could name.
While Aaron Rodgers will almost certainly win his third MVP award the night before the Super Bowl, Mahomes is the only No. 1 seed who will be playing on February 7. Mahomes will have the chance to cap off a three-year run that has been better than any three-year run in the careers of Rodgers or Brady. While he was inevitably going to have to share the stage with one of them in two weeks, there is no denying that Mahomes is doing everything you want at the position in a way that puts him in a class of his own. He might be the greatest hope we have in a quarterback who can unite the ring counters, film junkies, and stat nerds in their praise of a legitimate GOAT.
Few games in the NFL actually amount to a legacy game, but this is absolutely one for Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. That’s a scary thought when most will focus on the result instead of how each actually plays, but this is undoubtedly a big opportunity for the No. 12 in green. Rodgers did not reach the Super Bowl in his first two MVP seasons, and this is looking like the third opportunity, but it is also his first NFC Championship Game at home after playing four of them on the road. He is still looking for that first signature performance in this round of the playoffs, a round that has also seen a lot of subpar Brady performances. But can the Packers capitalize on any mistakes unlike the Saints defense on Sunday?
Say what you will about the lack of homefield advantage this year, but Green Bay just doesn’t seem to turn the ball over at Lambeau Field like it does elsewhere. Seven of Green Bay’s league-low 11 giveaways were on the road this year. Rodgers has thrown one interception in seven home playoff games and that happened nine years ago. Rodgers has had 14 of his 19 multi-interception games on the road, including three in Tampa Bay where he’s also had half of his four career games with three interceptions.
He damn near threw four picks in Tampa Bay in Week 6 this year, the 38-10 loss that will either prove to be the harbinger of Green Bay’s undoing or the true anomaly of a Super Bowl season. The Packers scored at least 22 points in every other game this season.
If you are wondering why the title says Part II, that is partially a reference to this being a Week 6 rematch as both Conference Championship Games are this weekend, but also because I already wrote a preview for this game at Sportsbook Review. You should read that for details on what led to 38-10 and the individual matchups this weekend. I’m using this space for more of my personal opinions on this game’s place in history.
First, some quick notes on Conference Championship Games that were rematches from the regular season since 1978 that can apply to both games on Sunday:
The playoff record for the team that won the last meeting is 34-24 (.586) as the 49ers swept the Packers last year, but the Chiefs came back to beat the Titans.
The home team in the playoffs is 39-19 (.672).
Teams like Kansas City who played the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 20-8 (.714).
Teams like Kansas City who won the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 12-2 (.857), but the two losers were Andy Reid’s 2003 Eagles (vs. Panthers) and the 2007 Packers (vs. Giants).
The playoff record for a road loser switching venues in the playoffs like Green Bay this week is 8-6 (.571) as the Chiefs were able to beat the Titans that way last year but lost to Tom Brady’s Patriots at home the previous year.
The team who was at least a 3-point favorite in both matchups (2020 Chiefs and Packers apply) is 21-10 (.677) ATS and 24-7 (.774) SU in the title game.
Buccaneers at Packers (-3.5)
Well, we are basically where I expected we would be. Your move, Aaron.
With the roster Tampa Bay has, you would have expected a better record than 11-5 this year. But some spotty performances and getting owned twice by the Saints led to a No. 5 seed in the tournament. That’s not so bad when you get to open with the worst division winner in NFL history and Drew Brees on his last legs in a quiet Superdome.
The highlight of the season has always been that 38-10 demolition of Rodgers and the Packers, which was actually a preview of how the Bucs ended up finally beating the Saints in the playoffs last week. The defense pounced on interceptions and set up multiple touchdowns for Tampa Bay while Brady didn’t throw for 200 yards again, just like in Week 6. The difference on Sunday from Week 6 is that the Buccaneers didn’t have a touchdown drive over 40 yards. Even Bill Belichick’s girlfriend can see the defense won that game.
I cannot see it happening again that way. Rodgers came up a tackle at the 2-yard line short of throwing back-to-back pick-sixes, or plays he had twice in his entire career. That seemed to mentally break him that day, and then the physical beatdown came with the Tampa defense getting good pressure and four sacks on him. Green Bay’s had the best pass protection all year, but that day it was Todd Bowles’ aggressive defense getting the upper hand.
I was already reviewing this game in December in anticipation we’d see the playoff rematch, and it was then I remembered just why I was so disgusted by Rodgers and Green Bay’s performance. It looked like so many old Green Bay losses where the team goes on the road, gets punched in the mouth, and just crumbles. The way Rodgers started missing open receivers and nearly having two more interceptions that Tampa Bay dropped, it was a pure meltdown and it felt like he gave up in the second half. That game was the main reason I was so against giving him the MVP for this season, but it does remain his only poor performance of 2020 so far.
Rodgers now must overcome that defense to get to the Super Bowl. That is only fair in my book. This is the matchup we deserve with the way the Saints and Seahawks limped across the finish line. It’s like the opposite of 1996 when Brett Favre avoided the Cowboys, a team he always struggled with, in the playoffs. Dallas beat Green Bay 21-6 in Week 12, but Favre never had to beat them in the playoffs to get his only Super Bowl win. It would not feel right for Rodgers to avoid Tampa Bay this season.
This is a game where the home quarterback needs to hold serve. When Peyton Manning and Brady met five times in the playoffs, the home team won all five games with the last three AFC title games going to Manning’s teams. Brees just blew his only shot at Brady in the playoffs. Rodgers cannot have a second stinker, but go figure, the only defense that has shown the ability to shut him down this year comes attached with Brady, who has the only defense playing this Sunday with the defensive profile you’d expect from a Super Bowl champion with the other three units being pretty mediocre.
Throw in the Super Bowl being in Tampa with a trash Florida governor cocky enough to allow that stadium to fill with fans, and yeah, you can see where this is going. (Note: attendance may end up capped at 20%, but do not underestimate corporate greed).
Unless Tampa starts slowly again and Rodgers dunks on them early, this is going to be a tough one. Remember, before the collapse in Week 6 the Packers were leading 10-0 in the second quarter and had the ball.
It seems for over a decade, many people picked a Rodgers vs Brady Super Bowl before the season even starts, only for it to never happen. This is the closest we’ll get to it now with them sharing the conference, but there were some close calls before. It probably should have happened in 2010 or 2011, but each team experienced a major upset at home in the divisional round those years: New England to the 2010 Jets, Green Bay to the 2011 Giants.
Then there was the 2014 season. They met for the first time in the regular season and Rodgers pulled out a solid 26-21 game that was a breakout moment for a rookie named Davante Adams (121 yards). We could have had this again in the Super Bowl, but the Packers blew a 16-0 lead in Seattle in the NFC Championship Game, most notably failing to recover an onside kick that probably sets up a Packers-Patriots Super Bowl.
The more I think about that postseason now, the more I’ve come to realize in hindsight that the 2014 Seahawks are my most hated team of the last decade. There is nothing I personally object to with that team. I am generally pro-Russell Wilson, pro-Pete Carroll, and Seattle was the team I picked to become the NFL’s next dynasty before the 2013 season started.
But the path that 2014 Seattle team set the league on aggravates me so much. They took their injured Legion of Boom secondary from that game into the Super Bowl, teased us with a good start against the Patriots, then blew a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter in one of the worst ways possible. Yes, Malcolm Butler’s interception at the 1-yard line is the costliest interception in NFL history. This also makes for one of the most annoying comparisons ever when people compare the 2013 Broncos’ performance in the Super Bowl against the best Seattle team to New England’s in 2014 when Seattle was not the same.
Seriously, I might hate Brandon Bostick more than I hate Hank Baskett. (If you know your botched onside kick recoveries, good for you).
Seattle has yet to have much postseason success since that game, the same one that helped end a nine-year drought of titles for the Patriots and led to winning two more. In hindsight, I would have much rather seen Rodgers and the Packers get their shot in Super Bowl XLIX than Seattle’s choke job. Rodgers was not fully healthy late in that season after Ndamukong Suh, another old foe he’ll have to deal with this Sunday, cheaply stepped on him with Detroit.
Maybe Rodgers has an ineffective Super Bowl against one of Belichick’s best pass defenses, and Brady gets the win anyway. All I know is the chance for Rodgers to win that game could have made the ring count 3-2 at the time, and we know it’s the easiest thing in the world to discount Brady’s first ring. Maybe “Prime Aaron Rodgers” doesn’t fall off in 2015 if he’s coming off a second Super Bowl MVP season.
That postseason was a huge turning point for the league. This one can be too, but a lot of that depends on Patrick Mahomes’ health and the Chiefs. For more on that game, click here.
Now six years later, Rodgers is still searching for that second Super Bowl appearance. Brees was in a similar boat with his own history of playoff disappointment. It should have been him instead of Jared Goff and the Rams challenging the Patriots in 2018, but that’s what happens when you get the worst no-call in NFL history to go against you. Still, Brees had another shot on Sunday and played his first terrible playoff game and maybe the worst game he’s had in a Saints uniform. Sadly, it will likely be his final NFL game as he retires at 42.
But Rodgers isn’t nearing the end yet. He’s playing at a very high level and this is a complete offense with a running game they’ll need to continue getting huge production from, especially against a tough Buccaneers defense. There may also be considerable snow in this game with the Packers already impressing in those conditions with a 40-14 win over Tennessee in December.
Historically, home teams do very well in freezing temperatures at home in the playoffs against teams not used to those conditions, though Green Bay has had a few high-profile losses over the years (2002 Falcons, 2004 Vikings, 2013 49ers).
38-10 aside, I am fairly confident in Rodgers playing well in this game. Justin Herbert did a great job against this Tampa Bay defense before the Chargers did their usual act of blowing a 17-point lead. Ditto for Matt Ryan and the Falcons, who twice scored 27 points late in the season on Tampa. Taylor Heinicke didn’t even know he was going to start until late in the week and threw for over 300 yards in a playoff game for one of the worst offenses in the league. I know Brees just had that brutal game, but before this Tampa defense broke his ribs, he embarrassed them that night in Week 9’s 38-3 win. Even Daniel Jones had many open receivers against this defense and should have been able to win that game, a 25-23 loss on Monday night.
I really want to pick the Packers to answer 38-10 in a huge way here. For once, let’s see Brady play a historic offense without Bill Belichick figuring out a way to make them look impotent, but instead for them to run up the score to 44 or more. You know, something that’s happened three times to Rodgers in the playoffs and not once to Brady in 342 career starts, which is unheard of.
But then I think about how defeated Rodgers looked in Week 6, and how his last six playoff exits have all been to teams he lost to in the regular season. How Matt LaFleur was not impressive at all in playing the 49ers a second time in last year’s NFC Championship Game, a 37-20 loss. How this defense is unlikely to defend all these receivers as well as the Saints did. How Ronald Jones rushed for over 100 yards in Week 6 and looked very good, along with Leonard Fournette, in New Orleans on Sunday. How no one is even covering Cameron Brate this postseason. How Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are likely to make much bigger impacts this week. Maybe Antonio Brown too if he’s healthy.
Then I just think about the general fortune of Rodgers-led teams in the playoffs compared to Brady-led teams, and I have a bad feeling about this one.
Like as if my claims of Rodgers folding when a team makes it tough on him come true again, or that his stat-padding from the 1-yard line means the game is going to end after he throws four straight incompletions from the 1. No, not a Malcolm Butler interception repeat, but just four straight misses after leading one of the most effective red zone offenses this century. Or Mason Crosby misses several kicks after getting shaken up last week. Or Marques Valdes-Scantling drops three drive-extending passes on third down – that might be the most realistic one.
I think this season deserves a Packers-Chiefs Super Bowl, a rematch of Super Bowl I. This would be between the two No. 1 seeds and the first (if not last) meeting between the two best quarterbacks in the game right now. But I can’t help but think the events of last Sunday were the football gods throwing up the middle finger at me again.
I’ll save the rants for Sunday night if necessary, but one thing I feel like I can count on is that it is unlikely Rodgers and Brady will both play great on Sunday.
Remember when Lamar Jackson vs. Patrick Mahomes in Week 3 was going to be the Game of the Year? Whoops, only one MVP showed up. Look at the other matchups of note. A high-quality quarterback duel didn’t happen in Week 6 for Rodgers-Brady or even for Allen-Mahomes. It didn’t happen when Rodgers and Brady met in 2018. It didn’t happen three times this year between Brady and Brees. It never happened in five playoff games between Manning and Brady. It didn’t happen in the Super Bowl when Joe Montana faced two Cincinnati MVP winners (Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason) or Hall of Famers Dan Marino or John Elway. Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger had one of the great ones, but it was a regular season game in 2009 and not Super Bowl XLV the following year.
The only playoff game in NFL history where both quarterbacks passed for 400 yards happened in 1981 and it involved Don Strock, who didn’t even start the game. There is a reason 2009 Matthew Stafford vs. Brady Quinn once ranked in the top 10 for a show about the greatest quarterback duels in NFL history.
Maybe I’m selling Rodgers short though. After all, he is part of one of the six duels in playoff history where both quarterbacks threw at least three touchdowns and had a 100+ passer rating. He and Kurt Warner in 2009 are the only pair that will be in the Hall of Fame too.
Games like this are expected to be shootouts or well-played classics, but one guy usually blows the other away before halftime and we’re left watching a dud, or neither quarterback plays well and the other players become the determining factor of who wins and who loses, like we saw with Bucs-Saints on Sunday.
If Patrick Mahomes has a weakness, it’s the same one all players share: their health. If Mahomes is not healthy enough to play at his usual high level on Sunday, then all bets are off for Kansas City’s chances to return to a second straight Super Bowl. They just got by the Browns without him to host their third straight AFC Championship Game, but the Bills are a tougher opponent than what the Chiefs have been facing in the playoffs.
Mahomes’ health is the dark cloud hanging over what could be a great game. I will write with the assumption that he is going to play and play well, but there is real uncertainty there.
If you are wondering why the title says Part II, that is partially a reference to this being a Week 6 rematch as both Conference Championship Games are this weekend, but also because I already wrote a preview for this game at Sportsbook Review.
First, some quick notes on Conference Championship Games that were rematches from the regular season since 1978 that can apply to both games on Sunday:
The playoff record for the team that won the last meeting is 34-24 (.586) as the 49ers swept the Packers last year, but the Chiefs came back to beat the Titans.
The home team in the playoffs is 39-19 (.672).
Teams like Kansas City who played the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 20-8 (.714).
Teams like Kansas City who won the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 12-2 (.857), but the two losers were Andy Reid’s 2003 Eagles (vs. Panthers) and the 2007 Packers (vs. Giants).
The playoff record for a road loser switching venues in the playoffs like Green Bay this week is 8-6 (.571) as the Chiefs were able to beat the Titans that way last year.
The team who was at least a 3-point favorite in both matchups (2020 Chiefs and Packers apply) is 21-10 (.677) ATS and 24-7 (.774) SU in the title game.
Bills at Chiefs (-3)
While a lot of the attention this weekend will be on Mahomes’ health, Aaron Rodgers rewriting his worst game of the year, and that King of Kings from Tampa Bay, the quiet story is that Josh Allen and the Bills had their weakest offensive game against the Chiefs in Week 6.
So when Allen says the Bills aren’t going to change who they are this week, I have to question if that means another disappointing performance after they had a season-low 206 yards in Week 6.
The Bills love going with Allen-heavy game plans, which mostly means him throwing to his wide receivers, but he could also run as he did eight times against the Chiefs for 42 yards. The only games where Allen rushed for more yards this year were the two Jets games (terrible defense) and 54 yards in the playoff opener against the Colts. He doesn’t do it as often this year, but that is part of his skillset that he should feel free to use this weekend when he can play like there’s no tomorrow. Because there isn’t if they lose.
I really do not believe Allen can win this game by throwing 40+ passes and handing off no more than 15 times for minimal rushing yardage. That just does not fit into the way teams beat the Chiefs, which usually involves eating up the clock and being productive on the ground and efficient through the air. Lots of points and yards are obvious, but the Chiefs usually cover so well while staying shaky against the run (31st in DVOA) that I don’t think you can score 28+ on them by being one dimensional with the pass.
The Bills went ultra pass-happy against Baltimore and scored 10 points out of it. They have actually been fortunate this postseason that the defense has stepped up or else we’d be talking about another 500-point team from the regular season crashing in the playoffs. The Bills were No. 1 in third-down conversion rate (49.7%) in the regular season, but they are only 6-of-21 (28.6%) in these playoffs. They survived the terrible field position to score enough points against the Colts, getting the game-winning stop on defense to end the game (and Philip Rivers’ career). But they didn’t get a turnover in that game on defense, and only got one against Baltimore. Granted, it was a huge one as it was a 101-yard pick-six, but the Bills don’t play great defense the way they did in 2019. It’s more on the offense to deliver and the results have been a bit mixed so far in these big games.
Against AFC playoff teams this year, the Bills’ offense scored 16 points in a loss to the Titans, 17 points in a loss to the Chiefs, 20 points in a win over the Steelers (plus a pick-six), 27 points against the Colts in the wild card, and 10 points (plus a pick-six) against the Ravens last week.
Could they have scored a late touchdown if they really needed to against Pittsburgh instead of running out the clock? Maybe. A field goal for sure, or as sure as those come these days. Did they miss two makeable field goals against the Ravens? Yes, but even if we’re adding these to the totals, scoring 16-27 points is not likely to get the job done against Mahomes and the Chiefs. Well, assuming it’s the regular Mahomes.
As I detailed in these charts last week, beating Mahomes is a lot of hard work. You usually have to score more than 28 points, dominate the clock by moving the ball for a lot of yards, run the ball well, stop Mahomes late or deny him the ball altogether, and even then, you better catch some breaks with penalties and turnovers.
Here is the chart again for the only nine teams to beat the Chiefs with Mahomes:
I then had this second chart with teams going 0-24 against the Chiefs despite scoring at least 20 points.
Finally, here is a new third chart of the other games in Mahomes’ career where teams went 1-19 because they didn’t score 20+ points. This includes the Bills in Week 6 and the Browns on Sunday.
Notice in these 20 games that only the 2019 Colts, the lone winner here, were able to dominate time of possession, rush for 180 yards, recover the obligatory Chiefs fumble, close the game out in the fourth quarter, and take advantage of a huge penalty night by Kansas City.
Even then, fans will point out that Mahomes was shaken up a couple times in this game. That is fair, but that is also something that Buffalo could take advantage of this week if he’s not 100%, and I haven’t even mentioned the toe yet that he banged up on a touchdown pass and it seemed to affect his throwing afterwards.
Now I’m still not sure why there is so much cynicism over running the ball against the Chiefs. It’s not like any of these games were blowouts where the winning team piled up big rushing numbers late with the lead. No one blows out Mahomes. No one even holds a large deficit for very long (see 2019 Texans) against him. That is not at all how those games played out, but it is a fact that the only team to beat him without rushing for 119+ yards (2018 Rams) needed to score 54 points to do so. And even then, they needed two late interceptions off him.
I am not saying that Devin Singletary has to morph into Thurman Thomas on Sunday and rush 33 times for 186 yards and three touchdowns. If that sounds specific, it’s because in 1993, the Chiefs beat the Bills in the regular season 23-7. Thomas was held to 25 yards on 15 carries. In the rematch in the AFC Championship Game, the last time the Bills were in one, Thomas rushed 33 times for 186 yards and the Bills won 30-13. Joe Montana was knocked out in the third quarter for Kansas City.
Buffalo only has three games this season where it rushed for 170+ yards, so it’s not likely something the Bills will be comfortable with doing this week. Still, I just think this is a matchup where they have to show more balance than they have in a lot of their games this season. The Chiefs did a good job of stopping them on third down, preventing any big plays (only one play over 15 yards), and they held Stefon Diggs to 46 yards.
Meanwhile, how will the Chiefs approach the Bills on offense? In Week 6, they rushed for a season-high 245 yards in a dominant game by Clyde Edwards-Helaire. That is also uncharacteristic of the Chiefs’ season, though they had a similar mix of run and pass in New Orleans a few weeks back. The Chiefs hope to have CEH, No. 2 wide receiver Sammy Watkins (also didn’t play Week 6 vs. his old team), and of course a high-functioning Mahomes back for Sunday, which would be great timing to have this offense intact for a change.
Watkins has had some big playoff catches for the Chiefs since 2018. Maybe the Bills can shut down Tyreek Hill again with Tre’Davious White, but what do you do with Travis Kelce? He had two touchdowns in Week 6. Then even if you slow down the top weapons, Mahomes finds a way to hit the biggest play of the game to Byron Pringle.
Perhaps the main reason this game is in Kansas City is because of what Mahomes was able to do on a 3rd-and-12 with just over four minutes left in a 23-17 game in Week 6. He found Pringle for 37 yards and that set up a field goal that iced the game at 26-17.
If you screw that play up and give Allen a chance at a game-winning touchdown drive, then maybe things are looking much differently right now. But making those plays late to win the game is something Mahomes and this offense has done all year. They absolutely are playing with fire by letting teams hang around. Their last eight wins have been by fewer than seven points, a streak no one’s ever had before in NFL history. Maybe the Cleveland finish, which was again the offense running out the clock in the final four minutes (but with Chad Henne), would not have been so close if Mahomes didn’t get knocked out.
But it just seems that no matter how the game starts or how well Mahomes builds a lead, the Kansas City games come down to the final minutes and possessions. It was good to see the defense hold late against Cleveland, but that was a pretty poor drive by Baker Mayfield and company when they last had the ball. The offense ran out the clock for the defense again. If you have to stop Allen and Diggs in the final minutes, that could be a different outcome.
We should learn pretty early just how healthy Mahomes is. If it’s business as usual, then I love the Chiefs to cover in this matchup and go back to the Super Bowl. But if it’s a shaky start and tough game to get through, then Buffalo has the scoring capability to pull this off and may not even have to play its very best game to get it done. It just has to play a hell of a lot better than Week 6 and last week on offense.
If that happens, then we’ll forever be questioning why the Chiefs ran Mahomes on an option play at midfield. Why risk the season for such a marginal gain when your quarterback’s health is the only thing that can seemingly stop him?
The divisional round is no longer going to be my favorite week of the NFL year if the games are going to start looking like this every season. You know it was a rough slate when Jared Goff kept up his end of the bargain to make that game in Green Bay the best played from the quarterback position this weekend.
Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, the last two MVP winners, will not be having their first postseason meeting in the AFC Championship Game next week. Both quarterbacks left their games in the third quarter after suffering a concussion. If Jackson’s didn’t occur on a freak play after a bad snap and while he was already down 17-3, this weekend might have caused a referendum on the usage of quarterbacks in the running game. For decades, the argument was that you cannot run college-style plays or the speed-option at the professional level without getting your quarterback killed.
Well, Andy Reid almost got his quarterback killed, nearly killing his team’s wonderful season in the process. Mahomes is reportedly doing okay, but of course they are going to say that, so who knows what will happen next week. The Chiefs were fortunate to survive the Browns by a 22-17 final. Still, it has to make you think about when your quarterback should get the greenlight to run and when he should stick to passing and only running out of necessity.
Maybe Jackson-Mahomes wouldn’t have been a great title game anyway. You know, these big-time quarterback matchups rarely play out as great performances by both players. Just look at the combined 85-year-olds in New Orleans on Sunday, which is where we must start for I am willed by Him to do so.
Buccaneers at Saints: The Swansong for Drew Brees You Hate to See
It took a record 10 games, but this postseason finally had a second-half lead change and a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. If I told you it was a Tom Brady-led team beating a Drew Brees-led team, you probably wouldn’t be surprised by that part.
However, I am sad to say this was not the result of Brees’ defense blowing a late lead in explicable fashion, or wasting one of his go-ahead drives again, or any obscene officiating error in the final minutes. I can’t even blame Taysom Hill for a failed gadget play, because he was inactive with an injury.
No, this game fell largely on Drew Brees, who had his worst ever playoff game by far with three interceptions and just 134 passing yards on 34 attempts (3.94 YPA). It will likely be the final game of his stellar career too as he is expected to retire even though nothing is official yet.
Based on how he looked in this one, it is time. Watching Brees unable to get any mustard on the ball any time the Buccaneers got close to him was sad. The Saints’ only 20-yard play in this game was a brilliant gadget design with Jameis Winston throwing a 56-yard touchdown to a very wide open Tre’Quan Smith, who caught both of the Saints touchdowns in the game. Alvin Kamara never scored, and Michael Thomas never caught a pass on four targets.
While Brees had a horrible game, the fact is Tom Brady wasn’t much better. In fact, this first (and last) playoff meeting between Brady and Brees looked a lot like the first playoff match between a young Brady and Peyton Manning in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. The Patriots won that game 24-14 after Manning was intercepted four times by the No. 1 defense in the snow. But the part that always gets lost in that one is how Brady also played terrible, trying to match all four of Manning’s interceptions with his own bad throws, but the Colts could not take advantage of more than one of them. I posted a video of this over eight years ago.
I could do the same thing for this game as Brady left three opportunities out there for Saints defenders to make interceptions, something they did five times against Carolina in Week 17, but zero times in the playoffs. Brady threw five interceptions against the Saints in the regular season, but again, the defense was empty in the big games here in January.
One of the missed picks was when the defensive back did not drag his second foot in bounds to secure the pass, which is noticeably different from the Buccaneers when Brady’s teammate made sure to get his footwork right on one of Brees’ three interceptions.
In classic Brady fashion, he saved the worst for the fourth quarter to cap off a game-winning drive. Marshon Lattimore jumped Scotty Miller on a third down and nearly picked Brady off with a diving attempt. Even infamous QB apologist Troy Aikman had to note how he got lucky there. The Buccaneers instead kicked a 36-yard field goal to take a 23-20 lead. Brees was intercepted five plays later on what may have been a miscommunication with Kamara down the field.
For the third time, Tampa Bay had great field position and turned it into a touchdown to make it 30-20 with 4:57 left. If Brees had one more miracle in him, and this would have been a huge one, he had to score quickly on a day where the big plays just weren’t happening for him. Four plays into the drive, his third interception came on a pass deflected off Jared Cook. So you had one that looked woeful and late, one that looked like miscommunication, and one that was just a bad luck deflection.
And that might be the final pass of Brees’ career.
There is plenty of valid criticism to aim at Brees for this performance. The 3.94 YPA is his second-lowest in a game with the Saints (he was at 3.87 against the 2013 Seahawks on MNF). The fact that Winston had to come in to throw the deep ball on the gadget is a bad look for him too.
However, this idea that one quarterback outplayed the other because he was more “clutch” or is a better “winner” is the same type of horseshit that was shoveled after the 2003 AFC Championship Game with Manning and Brady.
This game was about two old quarterbacks playing like shit against good defenses, but only the Tampa Bay defense made big plays to get turnovers. The Saints couldn’t get one despite three offerings.
The other annoying part is that the biggest play of the game was a Jared Cook fumble in the third quarter, another play that has nothing to do with either of these quarterbacks.
The Saints were leading 20-13 in the third quarter and looked to be driving again with Brees converting on a third down into Tampa territory, but Cook had the ball knocked out. Instead of taking a two-score lead, the Saints were at their own 40 and couldn’t keep the Buccaneers out of the end zone from tying the game.
That was the killer turnover in the second half, but the first three turnovers for the Saints set up Tampa Bay in incredible field position. The Buccaneers only had to move 63 total yards on their three touchdown drives (3, 40, and 20 yards). On the eight drives that did not start in Saints territory, the Bucs had no touchdowns.
I had to look it up, and sure enough, this puts the game in rare territory for field position. The average touchdown drive in the playoffs is about 65 yards. This is only the fourth playoff game since 2001 where a team had three touchdown drives that started inside the opponent 40. Three of the four games involve Tom Brady, though not quite like you might think.
2014 AFC Championship Game, New England vs. Indianapolis: It’s the Deflategate game. The Patriots had touchdown drives of 26, 13, and 40 yards, but at least they had other long drives too in a 45-7 win.
2005 AFC Championship Game, Pittsburgh at Denver: The Steelers had touchdown drives of 39, 38, and 17 yards. They did have an 80-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter too in a 34-17 win.
2005 AFC Divisional, Denver vs. New England: How did Denver get to that Pittsburgh game? They beat Brady and the Patriots the week before. They did it with touchdown drives of 40, 1, and 15 yards. They had no other touchdown drives, meaning the 2005 Broncos and the 2020 Buccaneers are the only offenses in the last 20 postseasons to have three touchdown drives start inside the 40 and nothing longer. The kicker is the only reason this isn’t Tampa Bay alone is Denver’s 1-yard touchdown drive that was the result of a Brady interception returned by Champ Bailey that Ben Watson miraculously tracked down and saved from being a pick-six. If not for that Brady error that looked similar to what Lamar Jackson did on Saturday night, Brady would be the only quarterback of his era to have a playoff game where he needed so many short fields to score his touchdowns. I wish I could make this stuff up.
It is hard for me to see the Bucs winning this one without those turnovers producing such amazing field position. Brady was not able to pass for 200 yards on this defense. The loaded receiving corps of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown combined for 61 yards. That’s it. It was Tyler Johnson who had the big catch of the day, stretching out for a 15-yard gain on 3rd-and-11 on what became the game-winning drive instead of a three-and-out. Scotty Miller then chipped in the only 20-yard catch of the game by coming down with a 29-yard gain.
What a disappointing game, but it should have been expected. When do you really see these big QB battles play out as being shootouts or with both players playing at a high level? Brees and Manning once delivered a pretty good Super Bowl, but more often than not, these games are one-sided (think Dan Marino or John Elway against Joe Montana in the Super Bowl) or the quarterback play isn’t even that good and the game is decided by other factors. Hell, just look at these three Brees-Brady games this year. They both sucked in the first and third games, and Brady was horrific in the second while Brees played very well in the 38-3 rout.
But this is the only Saints-Bucs game people will remember from 2020, and that is the unfortunate part for Brees, especially if it proves to be his swansong. Now it’s up to the Packers to see if they can reverse the 38-10 outcome the way Tampa Bay recovered from 38-3 in this game.
But remember, for all the hype to come with Brady vs. Rodgers, it’s unlikely to be a game where both quarterbacks play great. It didn’t happen in 38-10. It didn’t happen when they met in 2018. If we’re lucky, it will look like the 2014 game, which Rodgers and the Packers won 26-21.
Browns at Chiefs: Andy Reid Kills Season Before Bringing It Back to Life
For the second year in a row, the Chiefs’ Super Bowl hopes hinge on the health of Patrick Mahomes. Last year it was a dislocated kneecap in Week 7 that only ended up costing him 11 quarters. This year, if he misses even one game it could very well mean the season is over for the Chiefs. When I warned that “one mistake could end the season” for this Chiefs team with all their nail-biting finishes, I certainly never thought it would mean a concussion that left Mahomes, who was already grimacing through a toe injury from the first half, visibly shaken and out of sorts.
This was a tough game to watch, but it was nice seeing the Chiefs operating on offense as if it hadn’t been three weeks since the starters last played. Mahomes led two 75-yard touchdown drives to start things, but the touchdown pass to Travis Kelce is where the toe injury happened, leading to his first trip to the blue medical tent. You could see it start to affect his planting and throwing on the next drive, which ended in a field goal. The Chiefs tacked on another field goal to end the half, scoring 19 points on four first-half possessions just like No. 1 seed Green Bay did on Saturday.
The Browns could have started this game with the ball and try to take a 7-0 lead before Mahomes took the field for the first time in three weeks, but they deferred to the second half. I hated that decision, and sure enough, it didn’t help them out. Baker Mayfield threw an interception three plays into the third quarter and this looked like a rout was on. However, the Chiefs didn’t get a first down and Harrison Butker missed a 33-yard field goal after already missing an extra point terribly to start the game. Those four points could have been huge too. The quarter basically reset, and the Browns were able to find the end zone without fumbling through it like Rashard Higgins did late in the second quarter. One of the dumbest rules in the game got Cleveland in a big way, but at least Browns 2.0 fans have a new version of “The Fumble” to call their own.
Still, the Chiefs led 19-10. That’s when the outlook changed as Mahomes kept the ball on an option run and was hit awkwardly. He struggled to get up and had to be helped off the field. This looked like an obvious concussion and you just figured his day was over, but hopefully not his season.
First, I have to say this was a horrible call to make in this game. Mahomes clearly was not 100% after the toe injury. Why would you have him run an option play on a 3rd-and-1 at the Kansas City 48 in a 19-10 game in the third quarter? Mahomes scored a little touchdown to open the game on a similar play, but I can live with that. It was to score. This was, at best, going to get a first down at midfield, and he didn’t even convert it. The Chiefs have to be smarter than this, and it’s a joke that they would be content with this call when they are afraid to use Mahomes on a quarterback sneak, the most effective short-yardage weapon in the game, because Mahomes was injured on one in 2019.
Well, he’s injured again, and it will be questionable if he’s cleared and able to play well next week in the AFC Championship Game. Again, save the designed runs for the big spots like icing the game at the end, converting a fourth down, or scoring a touchdown. The risk there was not worth it.
This game only had 15 possessions, which makes the 22-17 final look misleading as to how well the offenses played. Cleveland had an 18-play touchdown drive after the Mahomes injury to pull within five. Enter Chad Henne, the veteran who has really nothing to show on his lengthy resume in the NFL, but hopefully this will be the one bright spot. It started well with big completions to Hill and Kelce, but then Henne got greedy on a first-and-25 and air-mailed an easy interception in the end zone. Really? He’s just going to lob that one up there on first down close to field goal range? Isn’t the whole point of a backup quarterback to take care of the ball? But it would show that Reid was not afraid to take some chances with Henne in the game.
Now the Chiefs had to get a stop on defense with 8:00 left. This is a spot where I said they weren’t tested much at all this season because of how successful Mahomes was at leading the offense with a one-score lead. If Mahomes was in the game, the Chiefs would probably add a field goal or touchdown to that 22-17 lead and feel safer about closing things out. But Henne threw the pick and it was clenched ass time.
Frankly, the Browns sucked here, and I’m not even talking about Jarvis Landry setting a WR playoff record for the fewest receiving yards (20) on at least 7 catches. Kareem Hunt looked like the livelier, fresher back than Nick Chubb did. I would have gone to Hunt on this drive, but the Browns were still infatuated with short Chubb runs and trying to get him involved in the passing game, which isn’t a strength of his. Maybe the screen last week in Pittsburgh (40-yard TD) proved to be fool’s gold for Cleveland as Chubb had 4 yards on five targets in this game. On a 3rd-and-11, Mayfield checked down to Hunt for 2 yards to set up 4th-and-9 at the Cleveland 32 with just over four minutes left.
Head coach Kevin Stefanski was really in no man’s land with this decision. It is a hard conversion and Baker was not playing that well. If you don’t get it, the Chiefs are probably able to add a field goal, which would keep it a one-possession game at 25-17. Maybe they get two first downs and run out the clock. A horrible challenge by Stefanski earlier in the quarter on a clear catch by Hill cost the team a timeout, which came back to hurt as you’d expect.
I feel with Henne in the game, you think you can get the three-and-out stop and get the ball back with plenty of time to go win the game. So I would support the decision to punt. The Chiefs stayed aggressive though with Henne twice dropping back on second-down plays, which is almost unheard of in the four-minute offense in this league. He converted one third down, but faced a third-and-14 after taking a big sack by Myles Garrett.
It felt like Mayfield would get one last chance to win the game. It seemed like the Chiefs needed to just run this one and punt the ball back with about 70 seconds left. But Reid called a pass and Henne pulled out a 13-yard scramble that came up just short of the conversion. I did not know he had wheels like that at 35. The 2013 season was the last time Henne had a 14-yard run.
This set up a 4th-and-1 at the Kansas City 48. I thought punting was the right call, because in a 22-17 game, if you go for it and don’t get it, you’re really putting the screws to yourself for a potential game-losing touchdown drive the other way. In a 25-17 game I’d go for it, maybe even in a 24-17 game I’d go for it, but not in that 4-to-6 point danger zone.
It looked like the Chiefs were just going to try to draw the Browns offsides, but to the shock of everyone, they snapped the ball with 5 on the play clock and Henne threw a quick pass to Hill for the game-sealing first down.
That took some balls.
Balls we really haven’t seen before. I cannot find a play, regular season or playoffs, since 1994 where an offense threw a pass on fourth down in their own territory in the final 80 seconds with a 1-8 point lead that wouldn’t have been the final snap of the game. Sometimes you’ll see a team do this on fourth down just to run out the clock instead of punting. Drew Lock did this for Denver this year against Miami and actually ended up completing the pass to Tim Patrick for 61 yards.
So good on Chad Henne. Let his NFL career be remembered by this moment instead of him being probably the last player who will ever have three seasons with more interceptions than touchdowns (min. 400 attempts).
We sure do not want to see him start next week against Buffalo with the Super Bowl on the line. If worst comes to worst, then Reid will just have to cook up his greatest recipe yet to outscore the Bills.
Just leave the runs to Henne’s discretion.
Ravens at Bills: 17-3, But Of Course
“Instant classic,” he said. “These franchises finally have exciting quarterbacks,” he said.
Leave it to the Ravens and Bills to tease us with recent 500-point seasons, hot winning streaks leading up to this matchup, and then to shit the bed on Saturday night and give us a jittery 17-3 game with one offensive touchdown. It is the fourth-lowest scoring playoff game in the 32-game era.
It was sitting in a tie with the lowest scoring playoff game since 2002, a 10-3 loss by Sean McDermott’s 2017 Bills to Jacksonville, until Lamar Jackson threw a pass that, fairly or not, will define where he is as a big-time quarterback in this league.
Down 10-3, Jackson was leading his best drive of the night when he saw the field poorly and forced a pass on third and goal from the 9 that was intercepted and returned 101 yards for a touchdown by Taron Johnson, tying the longest pick-six in playoff history.
Oddly enough, it’s the first time a quarterback has thrown a pick-six in the third quarter of a playoff game while trailing by 1-7 points since Dan Marino did it against the 1997 Patriots. That game also ended 17-3.
That was going to force Jackson into the biggest comeback attempt of his career, but it all ended two snaps later when another piss-poor snap by center Patrick Mekari had to be gathered by Jackson to save points for his team. Jackson hit his head after throwing the ball away best he could (still a grounding penalty), which caused the concussion and knocked him out of the game. The Ravens couldn’t score anything with backup Tyler Huntley.
Look, it was a weird game. There was no snow, but there was some wind, though it seemed to bother the kickers more than anyone with both missing a pair of kicks in the 41–46 yard range. You know it’s not your night when Justin Tucker misses two field goals under 50 yards for the first time in his career. There were at least three terrible snaps by Mekari that hurt the Ravens. What is it with these AFC North centers this postseason? Jackson had one brilliant scramble drill where he found J.K. Dobbins with a pass on third down, but Dobbins dropped it as he’s not used to catching the ball in this offense. That ended drive No. 2 on the night, but let’s just say I had my doubts that the Ravens would have made it the last 75 yards to score a touchdown.
The wind didn’t seem to bother the Bills from giving Josh Allen the ball 25 times as opposed to one handoff in the first half. The Bills are the first team in NFL history to not register a rushing attempt in the first quarter of a playoff game. The Bills ended up finishing with 9 carries for 29 yards. Frankly, I don’t think this extreme pass-happy approach worked that well and would not advise it for their game in Kansas City. One thing is clear though: Stefon Diggs is a beast. He had 106 yards and the game’s only offensive touchdown after the Ravens left a clear mismatch in numbers (3 vs. 2) on a screen that was too easy for Diggs.
Baltimore’s sloppy night was a big disappointment for John Harbaugh’s team, but the attention is going to go on Jackson and the offense, and I would say rightfully so as we are now seeing a clear pattern here with this team.
Jackson has started six games where the Ravens trailed by at least 14 points (0-6 record). Half of them are the three playoff losses and two more are his last two games against the Chiefs. How does this team ever expect to get to another Super Bowl if they can’t score points in the playoffs and keep up with Mahomes, Allen, and anyone else on the rise in the AFC?
Is this style of offense still capable of delivering in the playoffs? Baltimore started this game with three nice runs for 32 yards, looking like business as usual for this offense. But the Bills tightened things up and the run was not as effective as usual, especially for Jackson who had 34 yards on nine runs.
When will the Ravens try to throw the ball more like a normal offense in today’s game? In the second quarter, Jackson had just made his best throw of the night, picking up 21 yards on a 3rd-and-18 to Marquise Brown. Two plays later, he kept the ball on a zone-read and had to eat it in the backfield for a 4-yard loss. It totally blew up the drive and the Ravens had to punt. I love his scrambles and think there are spots to take advantage of the designed runs, but a first down after you’ve finally hit a big throw is not the place for that.
After the game, slot receiver Willie Snead had some interesting comments about Jackson’s career progress, hoping this will be a wake-up call:
While Snead may have called Jackson an elite passer first, he’s clearly not a believer of that yet and thinks it’s on Jackson the most to improve there. He’s right too. The idea that you can just acquire a wide receiver and he’s going to automatically fix your ability to throw with accuracy and read the defense and make good throws to other receivers is nonsensical. Diggs was great for Buffalo this year. He still had barely more than a quarter of the targets. Allen had to make a lot of leaps in his third year and he did. Jackson seemingly has not when it comes to being a passer.
Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.
This is the third year in a row where Jackson has led the Ravens to their season low in points in the playoffs. This is considering only games he started. It is now 17 points against the Chargers in 2018, 12 points against the Titans in 2019, and three points in this game. Even if Tucker made his field goals and Jackson wasn’t concussed, what’s the most realistic total for them to score here? Seventeen maybe? That’s usually not going to be good enough.
Meanwhile, Jackson has led the Ravens to 20+ points in 37 of his 41 career starts. Three times he has failed to do it in the playoffs, and the only regular season game was the 23-17 loss in New England in heavy rain this year.
So part of the reason this fact exists is because Jackson sets such a high bar in the regular season. If he had a regular season dud where they scored nine points, then it would be easier for him to not set the season low in the playoffs. Still, this is a higher-scoring era and 2020 was the highest-scoring season in NFL history.
What really gets on my nerves is that Peyton Manning is now the go-to comparison for a quarterback who is struggling to win playoff games like Jackson (now 1-3) is. This is because Manning started 0-3, but if you know anything about those first two games especially, you know that he didn’t play poorly. He actually had leads while Jackson never led (not even 3-0 in the first quarter) in his three playoff losses. Jackson also has seven turnovers in four playoff games. Manning had two turnovers in his first five playoff games, and they came against the 2002 Jets when his team trailed 34-0 and 41-0 in the fourth quarter.
Manning’s early losses also weren’t season-lows in scoring for the Colts like these games have been for Jackson, and he never in his career had a season-low in scoring in back-to-back postseasons.
In fact, here’s how often some recent top quarterbacks (plus one elite name) have fared at having their season-low scoring game in the playoffs. You’ll see that Jackson’s three-for-three is a huge eyesore. It’s as many times as Manning, Rodgers, and Roethlisberger combined.
Lamar Jackson: three times in three postseasons (2018, 2019, 2020)
Joe Flacco: once in six postseasons (2009)
Tom Brady: five times in 18 postseasons (2005, 2007, 2011-T, 2012, 2019-T)
Peyton Manning: three times in 15 postseasons (2002, 2004, 2013)
Aaron Rodgers: zero times in 11 postseasons
Ben Roethlisberger: zero times in 11 postseasons
Drew Brees: once in 10 postseasons (2020)
Russell Wilson: once in eight postseasons (2015; still won game 10-9)
This has happened once to Cam Newton (Super Bowl 50) and Deshaun Watson (2018) and twice for Andrew Luck (2012-T, 2014-T) as well. However, it only happened once to Andy Dalton (2013-T) in his four postseasons despite the 0-4 record.
Until Jackson shows us otherwise, he is closer to Andy Dalton in the playoffs than he is Peyton Manning (or Joe Flacco for that matter.)
Rams at Packers: No. 1 Nothing
When I previewed this game, I wanted to stress that No. 1 defenses are known for doing great in the playoffs because of their success in Super Bowls (6-1) against No. 1 offenses. However, if a team made the Super Bowl, that means they already delivered in the postseason a couple times, probably because the defense was great, and probably because the offense didn’t screw them over.
No one wants to point out that the No. 1 defense was only 3-5 (now 3-6) against the No. 1 offense in earlier playoff rounds such as this game on Saturday in Green Bay. The expectations were that the Packers would score too much, and the Jared Goff-led Rams couldn’t possibly keep up.
Well, that did happen. It wasn’t 44-3 like the 1993 Giants/49ers matchup, but the Packers won 32-18 in a game that never felt overly close despite the Rams having a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity at one point.
However, I am more disappointed with the Rams No. 1 defense than I am the No. 22 offense (or No. 25 on a per-drive basis). Sure, the offense only chipped in 18 points, making it six straight games to end the season for Sean McVay’s unit not scoring more than 23 points. Green Bay was very successful in coming up with four sacks in a game that had no turnovers.
But where was this great Los Angeles defense that led the league in so many categories when the Packers scored 25 points on their first five drives? The Packers had 29 seconds before halftime after the Rams cut into the 16-10 lead with a touchdown. You would think they could get to the half with that respectable margin, but the Packers quickly hit big plays to get into scoring range. Aaron Rodgers forced back-to-back throws in the end zone that should have been intercepted, but the Rams failed to come away with either of them, the first more egregious than the second. That led to a field goal and suddenly 19-10 felt like that offensive touchdown didn’t even happen.
Then to top it off, Aaron Jones breaks off a 60-yard run to start the third quarter, leading to another touchdown and a 25-10 deficit.
You’ll hear about Aaron Donald’s rib injury and that he was limited, but this goes well beyond Donald, who was ineffective when he played and even hurt his team with a 15-yard penalty in the first half that wiped out a 3rd-and-7 situation.
The 2020 Rams defense allowed season highs in:
Yards – 484 (only game over 400)
Rushing yards – 188 (only game over 140)
Passing yards – 296 (only game over 275)
First downs – 28
Is this what happens when over half of your schedule was the NFC East, an injured Kyler Murray, the Jets (still lost to them), Broken Cam Newton, and getting Seattle three times during its second-half offensive slump? The Rams even drew Tom Brady and the Buccaneers during the stretch where he couldn’t hit a deep ball to save his life.
That’s why I wrote in my preview that Buffalo was the only comparable top offense to Green Bay that the Rams faced this season. What happened that day? They allowed 35 points and were shredded by Josh Allen. What happened this time? Rodgers put up 32 points on nine drives and the final drive was just running out the last five minutes on the clock.
If the 2020 Rams wanted to be a legendary No. 1 defense, they would have showed up in these games against Buffalo and Green Bay instead of making those offenses look better than their average output.
Maybe things would have been a hair different if Donald was 100%, but the Rams had little pressure and no sacks of Rodgers. More glaring was the way the run defense failed in the worst way this season. Green Bay’s success in that department arguably put the game away. After the Rams had the ball with a 25-18 deficit in the fourth quarter and punted because of another sack on Goff, the defense needed to get a second straight stop to have any hope. But on a second-and-6, Rodgers used play-action to set up one of the few deep pass attempts of the game. He hit it to an open Allen Lazard for a 58-yard touchdown. Green Bay led 32-18 with 6:52 left and the game was essentially over there. Goff took his final sack on a fourth down and the Packers ran out the clock.
Any time the Rams looked to have made some traction in this game, they would take a step back, like a false start penalty when they were going to go for a fourth down, having to then settle for a field goal. Another inexcusable spot was McVay calling a timeout on 3rd-and-16 in the fourth quarter instead of just taking the delay of game and saving the timeout. Worse, Goff threw a short pass that had no hope of converting and only ran more time as the Rams punted. Five plays later, Rodgers hit the dagger to Lazard.
I am not sure anyone in these playoffs could beat the Packers without scoring 30-plus points, but I like to think these other defenses would give it a better effort than the Rams’ “No. 1 defense” did on Saturday.
As for the Rams going forward, it could be tough to get back to this point. Goff is limited obviously, though I think he played better than expected in this one. The offense only had eight drives and wasted too many of them and he could have had better protection. At least Cam Akers seems to be the solution at running back, and it would be nice if Cooper Kupp (injured again) could stay healthy for a playoff run. He didn’t in 2018 either.
Now the Packers get to prove that 38-10 in Tampa Bay was the outlier of the season. I have to preview this game twice this week so there’s no point in talking about it now, but let’s just say the stars seem to be aligning for the worst postseason I could imagine.
I guess that’s what I get for enjoying last year’s so much.
Let’s get the 3-0 sweep part out of the way first with New Orleans looking to put the cherry on top of their 34-23 win in Week 1 and 38-3 win in Week 9 over Tampa Bay this season.
Going for the 3-0 Sweep
Yes, it is hard to beat a playoff team three times in one season. Beating a playoff team once is usually harder than average, and then to do it three times to a team that has to come from your division, who knows you so well, is certainly a tough task.
But the only time we ever talk about this is when a team has already won the first two games. By the playoffs, the brooms are already two-thirds of the way out.
Since the merger, a team has gone for the three-game sweep 21 times and is 14-7 at pulling it off. The sweep happens two-thirds of the time. It just so happens that the 2017 Saints are the last team to pull it off against Carolina, winning the NFC wild card game 31-26.
That was a good playoff win for the 2017 Saints when you consider that the home team is 1-5 in the last six playoff games between division rivals regardless of how the regular season series went. As we just saw with the Steelers-Browns in Week 17 and the wild card round, these rematches can look dramatically different, so the Saints cannot take too much faith in Week 9’s 38-3 obliteration of Tampa Bay.
Some other facts from this table:
The 2020 Saints outscored Tampa Bay by 46 points so far, the largest scoring differential for all 22 series.
The three teams with the largest scoring differential before the Saints went 0-3 in the playoffs: 1989 Oilers vs. Steelers (+34), 1994 Vikings vs. Bears (+34), and 1998 Cowboys vs. Cardinals (+35).
Those same three teams all happened to have the largest Game 1 margin of victory, winning Game 1 by 27+ points, only winning Game 2 by 6-7 points, and then 0-3 in the playoffs.
It would appear dominating the earliest matchup in the season has less relevancy for the playoffs.
The three teams who won Game 2 by 17+ points were 3-0 in the playoffs with a double-digit win each time (1999 TEN-JAX, 2000 NYG-PHI, 2009 DAL-PHI).
New Orleans’ 38-3 win in Game 2 over Tampa Bay is the largest margin of victory in any of the 65 games in the chart.
The only three teams before the 2020 Saints to win both games by double digits were 2-1 in the playoffs with wins for 2000 Giants-Eagles and 2017 Saints-Panthers and a loss for the 2007 Cowboys-Giants.
The 2-0 team is 7-5 in the wild card round, 3-1 in the divisional round, and 4-1 in the conference championship.
Basically, the only example that really compares to what Tampa Bay is trying to do here is the 2007 Cowboys-Giants. That’s the only one where a team lost both games by double digits before winning on the road in the playoffs. That’s also the only one where the 0-2 road team won after the wild card round. When the 1983 Seahawks lost to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, that game was played in Los Angeles because the Raiders (12-4) were a better team than Seattle (9-7), which just happened to get the best of them in the regular season before upsetting a rookie Dan Marino as well in the divisional round that year.
New Orleans having a home letdown in the playoffs wouldn’t be a new story, but the Saints are better than the Buccaneers.
Or are they?
So Which Team Is Better?
Thanks a lot, COVID-19, for this weird season. The Steelers were the last unbeaten at 11-0 and led the league in scoring differential for a while until falling off hard. Baltimore finished No. 1 in scoring differential despite only going 11-5 and No. 7 in DVOA (but No. 3 in SRS at Pro Football Reference). The Chiefs had the best record locked up with 14 wins before resting starters and getting their ass pointlessly kicked by the Chargers, so they finished 6th in DVOA, 6th in SRS, and not even in the top five for points scored. Green Bay scored the most points but finished No. 5 in SRS and No. 3 in DVOA. Buffalo is basically the Josh Allen cautious wave meme here, just chilling in the crowd.
Yet the place where DVOA and SRS seem to agree this season is that the Saints are No. 1 and the Buccaneers are No. 2, and the margin between the two isn’t that great despite the scoreboard difference in their first two meetings this season.
Frankly, I don’t know what to make of these numbers. I wish I had a better explanation for what the advanced stats sees in the Saints and Bucs this year. I think the Chiefs and Packers are more reliable to score points and win games this season. I think the Ravens are scarier to play than the Bucs or Saints. I think the 13-3 Bills, who have one loss on a Hail Mary and another to the Chiefs, have played better football than those teams as well this year.
Here are some things I do know the Saints and Buccaneers share in common this season:
Both lost to the Chiefs by three points after trailing by 14+ points.
Both had a 17-point comeback win in October over the Chargers, who hand those out as freely as mints on hotel pillows.
Both swept the Falcons and Panthers, who couldn’t win a close game to save their lives.
Both helped put the Vikings out of their misery in December. Alvin Kamara scored six touchdowns and it felt like Dan Bailey missed six kicks when he played Tampa Bay.
Both got to play in arguably the two biggest COVID farces of 2020: Saints beat Denver 31-3 after the Broncos were told the day before the game that none of their quarterbacks were eligible to play. They had to start a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback and completed one pass. The Buccaneers destroyed a Detroit team 47-7 in Week 16 after much of the coaching staff was out for COVID on short notice. It got so bad that Blaine Gabbert came in the third quarter and still threw two touchdowns on his first six throws.
Tampa Bay also sort of won in Denver without facing a quarterback when the Broncos played Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien in Week 3.
Both beat a cupcake in the NFC wild card after the Buccaneers drew the 7-9 Washington No Names with MAGA Heinicke pulling out a 300-yard game on them, and the Saints jogged through a 21-9 win over Mitchell Trubisky and the 8-8 Bears.
Where did the Buccaneers and Saints differ this year?
New Orleans lost in the Raiders’ first game in Las Vegas while the Buccaneers pulled away late in a 45-20 win.
The Saints beat the Bears in overtime while Tampa Bay lost to Nick Foles in October.
Tampa Bay destroyed Green Bay’s No. 1 offense in a 38-10 victory while the Saints lost 37-30 at home following some Taysom Hill Hijinks.
And isn’t that always the difference this year when we talk about Tampa Bay? It’s that 38-10 Green Bay game, Tampa Bay’s only win against a team with a winning record. Otherwise, they are 0-4 against the Saints, Chiefs, and Rams, and even lost to the 8-8 Bears. The once 0-13 Jets still have more wins (two) against winning teams this year than the Buccaneers (one).
That is why Tampa Bay feels like such a paper tiger to me this year. They fatten their stats, especially on offense, in recent weeks against the Falcons (twice) and Lions, and then they draw a Jack Del Rio defense in the playoffs. Tom Brady has destroyed Del Rio his whole career and last week was more of the same with Washington leaving receivers wide open and getting minimal pressure.
So is Tampa now peaking, or is it just heavily related to the opponents? When they last played legitimate playoff teams in the Rams and Chiefs, they lost 27-24 at home in both games, outgained and outplayed.
For a team with some gaudy stats, the Buccaneers have had a lot of rough patches this season, rarely able to put in a complete game effort until recent weeks. In fact, the Buccaneers have five games this season where they trailed by at least 17 points, something Brady rarely experienced in New England.
They were able to come back and beat the Falcons and Chargers, because of course they were. That’s what those teams do. But Tampa didn’t beat the Chiefs or Saints in the other three games. Tampa Bay has trailed by 17+ in more games this season than the Packers, Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens combined as those teams have one game each. The Saints have two, and the Rams and Browns have three each.
This got me curious. How many games would you expect a legitimate Super Bowl team to fall behind by at least 17 points during a season? So I dug out the answer back to 1994, the start of the salary cap and two-point conversion era. As it turns out, Tampa Bay would be the highest.
The Super Bowl winner averages 1.4 such games a season and the Super Bowl loser averages 2.0 games a season.
No Super Bowl teams since the 2009 Colts and Saints have had more than two three-score deficits in the regular season. Even that’s misleading as both teams rested their starters in Week 17 to tally a third. The 2012 49ers actually had two in a row in the playoffs, but came back to beat the Falcons (duh) before losing to the Ravens in the Super Bowl. The 1994 Chargers, 1998 Falcons, 2000 Giants, 2002 Raiders, 2010 Steelers, and 2013 Broncos also had their last one of the season in the Super Bowl loss.
The only Super Bowl winner with a legitimate three games of trailing by 17+ is the 2007 Giants, which might not surprise you. The 2011 Giants played high-scoring, close games, but the 2007 Giants got their ass kicked a few times. Funny how this is the second time we’re bringing them up as the hopeful comparison for a Brady team since his 2007 Patriots are responsible for those Giants’ spot in lore.
The 2006 Colts, 2016 Patriots, and 2019 Chiefs are the only teams to win a Super Bowl after trailing by 15+ points in the playoffs. That is true for all time and not just since 1994. You know which games…
Green Bay may very well be the next challenge for the winner of this game, but for this week, it comes back to the crowning achievement of New Orleans’ season to this point: sweeping Tampa Bay.
Third Time the Charm?
If anything, the Saints should be expected to pull off this sweep, and FiveThirtyEight actually has them at 71% to win with an Elo point spread of -6 instead of the game’s -3 spread.
Yet why do I have this terrible feeling that Brees will have to go out having one postseason (2009) in his career with multiple wins?
Oh yeah, it’s the playoffs, and the rationing of luck among Tom Brady and every other great quarterback of this generation feels like this:
I bitch about Brady getting multiple chances to lead one late scoring drive to win a game. Now he’s getting a third chance to beat the Saints one time, and it may come in the way that I have dreaded since the 2018 season.
Sean Payton, here’s your opportunity to hand Brady a playoff win after going to Taysom Hill with the game on the line. Please don’t use it.
Jokes aside, thirteen months ago, I wrote about the lack of luck Brees has had in his career, especially in comparison to Brady. I pointed out how just five plays in his career that had nothing to do with him could have drastically altered things to the point where he might be 5-0 in Super Bowls, with a few wins over Brady himself, and going for a sixth ring this year.
Instead, Brees is 9-8 in the playoffs, meeting Brady there for the first time, and it’s probably his last game ever if he loses it. Even with a win on Sunday, there will always be some disappointment there.
So what can change from the first two meetings? I watched them both live and the Saints were absolutely the better team. I was behind the argument that Week 1 wasn’t that telling with Brady making his Tampa Bay debut after no real offseason or preseason. Brees and the offense actually weren’t that great at all in that matchup either. He struggled to move the ball too, but Brady threw a pick-six and struggled after the opening drive.
Flash forward to Week 9. The Saints were grinding out close wins against so-so teams. The Buccaneers were a few weeks removed from 38-10. They just activated Antonio Brown, because god knows you have to give the GOAT four different 1,300-yard receivers to make this offense shine. I picked the Buccaneers to win that rematch, and I couldn’t have been any more wrong.
That 38-3 game was the most one-sided domination I watched this season. It was about as perfect a game as you can have on offense and defense. Brady wasn’t able to complete passes, he started throwing interceptions, the Saints were getting anything they wanted on offense. Only some mistakes by Jared Cook kept that from being 45-0 at halftime. Tampa had to kick a cheap field goal late to avoid the shutout. The Buccaneers set an NFL record with only five rushing attempts. It was incredible.
But now, what changes this week?
Brees had his rib injury start in the Tampa Bay game. He missed four games, but he’s about to make his fifth start in a row. He had that really rough start against the Chiefs before finding his way back later in the game. In the last three weeks, he’s pretty much back to where he was, leading an effective offense again that is finally healthy with Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders ready to play. The funny thing is with all those guys together, the Saints went to Deonte Harris for seven catches and 83 yards against the Bears on Sunday. Was that a way to not show their hand to Tampa Bay about what they might do with their normal offense in a third matchup this week? It was interesting and Harris looked good after doing almost nothing this season.
The Saints can score on this defense, but we know Todd Bowles loves to blitz. Brees faced his highest blitz count in the two Tampa games this year. He was sacked once in each game and hasn’t had a pressure rate above 23% in any game this season according to Pro Football Reference.
For Brady and the Bucs, can the Saints get to him again? They sacked him three times in both games and had a season-high 36.6% pressure rate in the 38-3 game. The Buccaneers usually protect well but have not done so against the Saints yet. Brady has also thrown five of his 12 interceptions this season against New Orleans.
While the argument of Week 1 rust didn’t work out for Tampa Bay last time, could the argument of Antonio Brown’s progress work this time? His first game was 38-3 and clearly it took some time for them to figure this offense out. Brown took Scotty Miller’s snaps after Miller started the season so well with making deep catches. Brown didn’t seem to click until he caught a touchdown bomb to beat the Falcons (of course) in Week 15. He has now scored in four straight games and looks more like the receiver we’re familiar with.
Brown’s impact could be huge if Mike Evans has his usual disappearing act in the Superdome. Evans has four games in his career with fewer than 10 receiving yards. Three of them are in New Orleans, including 2 yards in Week 1. He also had a 1-of-6 game with 13 yards in 2017. When you stack that many bad games against an opponent, it can’t just be a coincidence. This looks good for corner Marshon Lattimore, but he can only guard one guy. The Buccaneers still have Brown, Chris Godwin, Gronk, Miller, and even Cameron Brate reminded us he’s still there with 80 yards against Washington last week.
This offense just has too many weapons, and if they would ever play to their full potential, this team could go the distance. But they have to get over their biggest hump so far this year. Does Brees finally have a defense to rally around him and prevent his retirement before another ring? The Saints did not allow a 300-yard passer this season and are one of three defenses in 2020 (Rams and Steelers) to allow fewer than 275 net passing yards in all 17 games. That hasn’t been done since the 2006 Colts did not allow 250 net passing yards in a record all 20 of their games on their way to a Super Bowl win. Even though you can run on that team, which you usually can’t on these Saints, I am a bit shocked I only discovered this stat on January 15, 2021.
I hate to say it, but part of me expects Payton to do something really stupid in this game that gives Tampa Bay the edge. Don’t forget Bruce Arians is 32-26-1 (.551) in 4QC/GWD opportunities, so he’s had his own magic beans produce good luck over the years. Only Mike Vrabel (14-10) has a better record among active coaches.
If not Payton, could it be the refs again with the Saints in the playoffs? It blows my mind that the NFL tried one season of making pass interference reviewable, ditched it, but left nothing in place to prevent the same egregious, game-deciding call happen again at the end of a playoff game like that no-call in the 2018 NFC Championship Game. You don’t want to make PI challengeable? Fine. But at least make it subject to review by the replay system in the final two minutes of the game so we don’t see the same damn mistake again.
Not to make Saints fans more scared, but your defense now leads the league with 19 pass interference penalties this season. Tampa Bay set a record this year by being the beneficiary of 24 DPI flags. Do you see where this is going?
Do you believe my final score is legit or just another reverse jinx? I guess we’ll have to find out Sunday evening. Maybe even sooner, because if the Rams upset the Packers on Saturday, then you know which lucky bastard is going to the Super Bowl again. Bet accordingly.
The Chiefs begin their run to end the longest drought in NFL history without a repeat champion. After a historic streak of close wins and the dreaded “playoff rest in Week 17 followed by a bye” combo, should the Chiefs be on upset alert against a hungry Cleveland team?
The last time we saw Patrick Mahomes, he was just getting by the Falcons in an uncharacteristic 17-14 victory. That was three weeks ago from this Sunday. The Chiefs have since rested starters in a 38-21 blowout against the Chargers to end their record 60-game streak of not losing by more than eight points, and then had a bye week.
Meanwhile, the last time we saw the Browns, they were embarrassing the Steelers with a 28-0 start in the first quarter before winning their first playoff game since the 1994 season. This week their head coach, Kevin Stefanski, is back from COVID-19 and so is Denzel Ward, their best corner.
Doesn’t this 10-point spread feel a bit off considering the Chiefs just set an NFL record with seven straight wins by fewer than seven points? No other team has ever had more than five straight. The Chiefs have not beaten anyone by more than six points since the lowly Jets in Week 8, which was before the election if you need help with how long ago that was. Cleveland’s only losses by more than 10 this year were early-season blowouts in Baltimore (38-6) and Pittsburgh (38-7), but clearly the Browns closed the gap on those teams later in the year.
Look, I get it.
The Chiefs’ spread is -10 and double-digit favorites in the playoffs are 60-13 SU (.822) and 43-29-1 ATS (.596) in the Super Bowl era. They are 50-7 (.877) at home. The Browns were outscored 37-20 in the final three quarters in Pittsburgh and took advantage of a total gift on the opening botched snap for a touchdown and got two more tipped ball interceptions.
Baker Mayfield probably isn’t going to have another game where he isn’t even pressured once, though that offensive line is very good.
With Tennessee eliminated, the Browns have the worst remaining defense in the playoffs, ranked 23rd in points per drive allowed and have already allowed 34+ points seven times (six on the road).
Oh yeah, Mahomes is 23-1 in his last 24 starts, Andy Reid is 25-5 after a bye week, and the Chiefs have yet to score fewer than 31 points in the playoffs with Mahomes at quarterback. They also set an NFL record this year by beating five teams with a winning record on the road.
By now, you just expect the Chiefs to find a way to outscore the opponent and come away with the win. They won so many tight games this year and it was usually thanks to the offense taking over in the final minutes with a one-score lead and either expanding to a two-score lead or running out the clock. The 2020 Chiefs may have had the best four-minute offense season in NFL history.
The Chiefs did not blow a fourth quarter lead this season, but the offense did so well in close games that the defense rarely had to defend a 4QC/GWD attempt. When the offense failed to close the game out against Carolina, the defense had to stop the Panthers from a game-winning field goal. Thankfully, Teddy Bridgewater was awful in those moments all year (0-9 record), and the Panthers used the 86 seconds they were given to only set up a 67-yard field goal that was missed.
That was the closest call for the Chiefs and the defense’s best effort to save a game. Mahomes left Derek Carr only 28 seconds in Las Vegas when he forced a game-ending interception. Mahomes left Denver’s Drew Lock only 64 seconds, needing a touchdown after the Chiefs added a field goal, when the defense intercepted him too. Matt Ryan drove the Falcons down the field for at least overtime, but Younghoe Koo missed a short field goal to end that one.
I feel that the Kansas City defense is most responsible for why this team has not pulled away with ease in any game in over two months. No matter how well the game begins, it just seems like every one of them comes down to Mahomes with the ball late and in a one-score game.
Throw in the potential for rust, the shaky offensive line of recent weeks, the running game not always reliable, and this defense not being tested enough, and I think it’s a potential recipe for disaster this postseason.
Then again, how could anyone start a Super Bowl run worse than the Chiefs last year when they fell behind 24-0 to the Texans in the AFC divisional round?
Once the Chiefs got past the self-inflicted wounds, they dominated Houston and won 51-31, a game that wasn’t even close in the fourth quarter.
I would be far more worried for the Chiefs if it were Baltimore instead of Cleveland. Mayfield will need to have an exceptional game. I pointed out the zero pressures the
Steelers got on Sunday, but they also had zero takeaways and the Browns had two 40-yard touchdown catches with at least 30 YAC on each. In the regular season, the Browns had one pass play, let alone any touchdowns, with 30+ YAC. Just one.
Unusual things can happen in this league, but the Browns have to come in prepared for this one like they were against the Steelers and their road win in Tennessee. It is going to take points for sure as the over/under is 57 points. In NFL playoff history in games with a total of at least 54 points, the over is 10-5 and the home team is 10-5 SU.
The 2020 Browns have already tied the NFL record for most games in a season (playoffs included) where both teams scored 30 points. The 2018 Chiefs are one of six teams on that list, but something in Cleveland’s favor is they are 5-1 in these games.
That game had 10 straight touchdown drives in the second half before Oklahoma finally got one more first down on the ground with Joe Mixon to end it and deny Mahomes one last chance with the ball.
Oddly enough, scoring a shitload of points and denying Mahomes the ball at the end has carried over to be the best way to beat him in the NFL too.
Mahomes is 42-9 as a starter in the NFL. He has led the Chiefs to at least 22 points in 49 of his 51 starts. Outside of that weird 19-13 loss to the Colts in 2019, he has only lost when the opponent has scored more than 28 points.
I compiled a couple of charts to show just how hard it is to beat Mahomes and the Chiefs and what type of benchmarks it usually takes to come out with the win.
Before I go into the details, this second chart shows the 24 games where teams scored at least 20 points on the Chiefs and still lost. You’ll notice a lot more red here to indicate that they didn’t achieve the benchmarks I’ve laid out.
Keep in mind we are making a series of comparisons between samples of nine games (Table 1) and 24 games (Table 2), but I cannot help the fact that Mahomes is only this far into his career and we already talk about him in such historical context. I also understand that lots of these things would be helpful in beating any team in the NFL, but it’s just more pronounced with the Chiefs in the Mahomes era.
I’ll go over each section of the charts and how the 2020 Browns fit into this.
Opp Rec (+PO)
You can see the opponent’s final record and the playoffs are included in parenthesis if they made it. Seven of Mahomes’ nine losses are to playoff teams. Only those pesky 2019 Colts had a losing record while the Raiders finished .500 this year thanks to choking away that Miami game. This isn’t really an indicator of anything, but just providing context to the games listed. This is common sense that it will usually take a playoff team to beat a team like the Chiefs.
Fortunately for Cleveland, the Browns are a 12-5 playoff team this year and not the 7-8-1 team they were in 2018 when they lost 37-21 to the Chiefs.
Opp Scored > 28?
Did the opponent score more than 28 points on the Chiefs? Clearly you must score at least 29 to get the job done. Derek Carr had the game of his career this year and put up 40 points in Mahomes’ only loss in the last 24 games. In Table 2, only seven of those 24 teams scored more than 28.
The Browns have scored at least 32 points in eight of 17 games this season, so they are more than capable.
Opp TOP > 35 MIN?
I usually don’t talk about time of possession much because it just ends up being a result of playing well on both sides of the ball rather than something you can strive for on purpose. However, keeping the ball away from a great quarterback should always be high on the priority list for a team.
The Chiefs actually lost time of possession in eight of the nine games in Table 1, but in terms of letting the team have the ball 35 minutes or more, that happened two-thirds of the time. It only happened three times in the other 24 games, all wins by the Chiefs. That difference can be made up at the end of the game when your offense is the one finishing things off instead of Mahomes.
The Browns finished fifth in TOP/drive this season, right behind the Chiefs. The Panthers were second and they gave the Chiefs fits as you can see in Table 2 in one of the closest games on that list that was nearly a loss.
KC 8+ PEN? and KC 60+ PEN YD?
The next two columns are looking at penalties on the Chiefs. There has never been convincing evidence that the number of penalties or penalty yardage has a significant correlation to team performance. Mostly you just want to avoid the real costly ones that take away touchdowns or extend drives for the opponent.
Kansas City is a perfect example of this as the two New England losses in 2018 were the only losses where they did not have at least eight penalties or 60 yards of penalties. However, what’s the most memorable penalty in Kansas City history? Dee Ford lining up offsides by a centimeter in the AFC Championship Game, wiping out a game-ending interception thrown by Tom Brady in the final minute. Bummer.
However, Chiefs fans this year know their penalties can be costly. In the Raiders loss, they had two touchdowns wiped out by holding and offensive pass interference. The wins over Tampa Bay and Denver were a lot closer late after bad penalties for the Chiefs into third-and-forever situations. The Chiefs could do a better job with penalties than they do.
In the 24 wins, the Chiefs only hit eight penalties 10 times and 60+ penalty yards nine times, so they were better in those games at keeping the flags down.
Opp Rush for > 170 yds?
I feel like this one was a little controversial when I was selling it before Super Bowl LIV, but the fact is you usually have to run the ball well on the Chiefs to beat them. Two-thirds of the losses again were when the opponent rushed for at least 170 yards, and the Rams in that 54-51 game were the only team that did it without rushing for at least 119 yards.
I know I raised the bar high there, but it was still hit six times in nine losses while in the 24 wins in Table 2, only seven teams crossed 170 yards. Mahomes needed a fourth-quarter comeback in three of those seven games.
For the teams that beat the Chiefs, it’s not like they were just piling up those rushing yards in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. No game in the NFL has been out of reach for Mahomes yet. These teams used the run to help facilitate their scoring, sometimes they hit big runs (like the Titans win in 2019), and to keep Mahomes off the field.
Can a Cleveland team with five 190-yard rushing games this season run well on the Chiefs? I believe so. Nick Chubb is great, and we know Kareem Hunt is viewing this as a revenge game, even if he only has his damn self to blame for the Chiefs cutting him.
The Chiefs will need a big effort to contain Chubb and Hunt in this one. The good news is the Chiefs are 5-0 this season when they allow 150+ rushing yards, never allowing more than 20 points in those games. But they’re not playing the Broncos, Brian Hoyer, Justin Herbert in his first game, or the Ravens (Lamar struggles with KC) in this one.
The Chiefs rank 32nd in red zone touchdown rate allowed this year (76.6%). That is not encouraging against a Cleveland offense that was third (73.6%) in that category this year. That’s why I love Chubb and Hunt to both score touchdowns in my Same Game Parlays for this one.
The Browns won’t set any rushing records in this one, but a long Chubb run in the fourth quarter could be the difference in another Super Bowl ring and a one-and-done.
Opp Gained 450+ Yds?
Did the opponent gain at least 450 yards of offense? Again, just more common sense that you need a lot of points to beat the Chiefs, and that’s something that requires significant yards unless you have the Chicago Bears D/ST in one of their random playoff years.
The Chiefs allowed 450+ yards in two-thirds of their losses. They did it in only four of the 24 wins listed.
The Browns were 3-1 this year when they hit 450 yards, only losing that 47-42 game to Baltimore.
How many turnovers did the Chiefs have? I often speak of the “obligatory Chiefs fumble” and you can see that was really born in 2019 when they lost a big fumble in those losses to the Colts, Texans, and Titans (returned for a touchdown in that one).
The Chiefs had a turnover in seven of their nine losses and multiple turnovers in four of the games. In the 24 wins, they only had four games with multiple turnovers and eight games without a turnover.
Half of Mahomes’ six interceptions this season came in Miami when he had two tipped balls and Xavien Howard made a one-handed catch. Maybe he got it out of his system that day. Week 16 against Atlanta was the only other time the Chiefs had multiple turnovers this year, though one of them was a horrible decision to call a trick play on fourth down that led to Sammy Watkins throwing the pick.
Like I said earlier, the Browns had some great fortune on three of their five takeaways against the Steelers after a season where they were mediocre at best at taking the ball away. Instead of getting a pick, Cleveland’s best bet may be Myles Garrett getting a strip sack this week. He is nursing a shoulder injury though, but that Chiefs offensive line has been shaky at best down the stretch.
Denied or Stopped PM Late?
These last two columns in the charts perhaps tell each game’s story the best. No matter how well the game started or what you did well, can you stop Mahomes late in the game? Can you flat out deny giving him the ball last or in the final minutes?
When the Chiefs have lost in Table 1, it’s usually more of a denial (the tan green cells) of Mahomes than a flat-out stop. Only the Rams in that 54-51 game stopped him cold by getting two picks late, and I use “cold” lightly as he did throw a go-ahead touchdown pass with 2:47 left.
The 2019 Texans and 2020 Raiders ran out the clock on him, denying him that final drive with the ball. The 2018 Patriots twice beat him on the final snap, scoring last after getting the coin flip and ball in overtime in the AFC Championship Game. Philip Rivers threw that game-winning two-point conversion with four seconds left in 2018, basically the last play there. The 2018 Seahawks and 2019 Colts extended to a two-score lead in the last 2:30. Mahomes answered with a score both times, but not enough time left and the onside kicks failed. Finally, the 2019 Titans left Mahomes only 17 seconds, but he still set up a 52-yard field goal that was blocked to end the game.
When I say Mahomes doesn’t lose, he just runs out of time, I have the facts on my side.
In the 24 wins, that’s when he has put teams away late if the game was still close (one score). One of the six games that wasn’t close was Cleveland in 2018. The Browns could do no better than a 13-point deficit a play into the fourth quarter, which Mahomes immediately answered with a field goal and a 37-21 final.
In the other 18 games, Mahomes led seven game-winning drives. Four times he extended the lead to two scores. Mahomes ran out the clock fully four times, and ran it down from over four minutes to just 23 seconds in Baltimore this year.
The only two teams to stop him were Denver (2019) and that Carolina game I’ve talked about already. He still threw two touchdowns in the fourth quarter against Carolina, but it was that late three-and-out that could have been costly if the Panthers were able to get a closer field goal attempt. Against Denver, Mahomes didn’t score in the quarter, but the Broncos’ offense was inept and by the time they got it last, only four seconds remained for a 4QC/GWD opportunity.
If you want to beat Mahomes, you can’t let him have the ball last. End things with your own four-minute offense. With Cleveland’s running game and Mayfield’s recent emphasis on running more, they could do that.
So there it is. To beat Mahomes and the Chiefs, you just have to score a lot of points, gain a lot of yards on the ground and overall, hope for some breaks in the turnovers and penalties departments, and even then you better deny him the ball at the end of the game.
Got all that, Cleveland? I hope it is an exciting shootout and not a rout, but I just do not see the Browns pulling it off unless the Chiefs have another very uncharacteristic performance.
If my final score looks familiar, it’s because I picked it on purpose.
Even after the questionable changes to wild card weekend, the divisional round is still my favorite week of the whole NFL season. The games look really good on paper this week and we should get a dramatic finish or two after not having a single second-half lead change in last week’s six playoff games.
Again, I am breaking my previews in half, starting with the two Saturday games before I post Sunday’s games tomorrow. I have already posted my previews (links below) for Rams-Packers and Ravens-Bills on Sportsbook Review, so check those out first, but I am providing more content and my final score prediction below.
Defense wins championships, right? When Aaron Rodgers reached his only Super Bowl, he had his best Green Bay defense in 2010. That unit delivered in the playoffs with a game-ending interception off Michael Vick, a game-changing pick-six off Matt Ryan, a game-sealing pick-six off Caleb Hanie, and more crucial takeaways and a final defensive stop against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
The 2020 Rams have scored a defensive touchdown in five of their last seven games, including a pick-six off Russell Wilson in Saturday’s 30-20 wild card win. Interesting.
However, you still have to score points on offense to win playoff games. The Rams have scored more than 23 offensive points in only one of their last seven games. That’s not going to get the job done against the NFL’s highest-scoring team, who has the fewest turnovers (11) in the league.
Does anyone remember the 1993 Giants? Dan Reeves took his schtick to New York and got a Pro Bowl season out of a 38-year-old Phil Simms, sparing us one more year before the bad commentary to come. That team won with the No. 1 defense. In fact, they only had one game all season where they allowed more than 20 points. But while they won a wild card game 17-10, they had to travel to San Francisco in the divisional round and take on the No. 1 offense and Steve Young. Guess what happened? (Or don’t.) The 49ers won 44-3. The great defense, saddled by an inept offense that put them in some bad field position, allowed 44 points on the first 10 drives.
No one remembers this game, but it is one of the eight playoff games in the earlier rounds (non-Super Bowl) since the merger where the No. 1 scoring offense faced the No. 1 scoring defense. The defense is 3-5 in those games. One of those defensive wins was the 2014 Seahawks completing the season sweep of Rodgers’ Packers in the NFC Championship Game, but even that took an insane comeback from the offense with a crucial onside kick recovery by the special teams just to get to overtime.
While people should be skeptical of how Rodgers will perform against another stout NFC West defense, I’m more concerned with the Rams shitting their pants offensively so that Rodgers doesn’t need to score many points to win this game at home in weather that gives Jared Goff night terrors when he’s healthy, let alone nursing his thumb boo-boo.
Simply put, this is a great offense/suspect defense hosting a shoddy offense/great defense. While NFL history is filled with examples of great defenses shutting down great offenses, those games are usually played in the championship round like the two recent Denver Super Bowls where the 2013 offense lost to Seattle, but the 2015 defense beat Carolina.
I only picked Denver as an example because the games are recent, but it is interesting to point out how the Broncos turned so quickly from an offensive team to a defensive team. Does that sound like anyone else we know? Sean McVay’s 2018 Rams were in the Super Bowl after scoring 527 points. They had three points in that last game, dropped out of the top 10 offenses in 2019, and this season has seen the Rams fall to 25th in points per drive while boasting the best defense led by the best defensive player, Aaron Donald.
Remember how the Broncos had a great pass rusher like Von Miller but the results weren’t there defensively until 2015 when they added more talent? Now the Rams have All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey for his first full season with the team and look where they are again. Can this be a Denver-like turnaround for the Rams where they win a championship with a weak offense and great defense? The 2015 Broncos ranked 25th in offensive points per drive too.
Well, I think the run ends this week, but I can at least understand how the Rams could pull off this upset. Run the ball great with Cam Akers, Goff protects the ball and makes his easy play-action throws, and the defense kicks ass. There is a formula there, and at least a defense like the Rams holding down the Packers would make sense unlike the mediocre 2019 Titans shutting down Baltimore’s insane offense a year ago.
NFL history is loaded with playoff burnouts from its highest scoring teams. The 12 highest-scoring teams in NFL history have won zero championships. Only the 2011 Saints (32) and 2018 Chiefs (31) scored 30 points in their playoff loss.
Fortunately, the Packers are the 20th highest-scoring team at 509 points, or one behind the 2009 Saints, the only No. 1 scoring offense to win a Super Bowl since 2000. But you can see only five of the 24 teams in the 500-point club won a championship, and that includes the 1961 Oilers winning the AFL Championship Game by a score of 10-3. Even the 1999 Rams, the last team with a player (Kurt Warner) to win MVP and Super Bowl in the same season, needed an 11-6 win over Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game.
You usually need your defense to show up at some point in the playoffs, but this is not the matchup where I am concerned with Green Bay’s so-so unit costing them the season.
Green Bay’s best unit, the offense, just cannot feed into the upset chances by gifting the Rams turnovers (field position) in a way they did against the Buccaneers and Colts this year. The Packers had six of their 11 turnovers this season in those two losses. On the bright side for the Rams, their offense is coming off its first game this season without a giveaway.
While left tackle David Bakhtiari is out, the Rams get their best pressure from the interior with Donald, who has torn rib cartilage, which you would think makes it humanly impossible for him to be 100% on Saturday. That is big for the Packers, but it is why it would be coaching malpractice if the Rams do not deploy their other huge weapon in this matchup.
This is much easier to say from behind a keyboard, but Jalen Ramsey, you have to want all the smoke from Davante Adams this week. It might lead to you getting smoked for a big play, but just limit it to one early drive. If Ramsey can shadow Adams and successfully slow him down, it should make things so much easier on the Rams to win this game. The Rams have allowed three 100-yard receivers, good for second fewest in 2020.
The Rams defended the run very well this year. They were the only defense in either of the last two seasons to allow fewer than 140 rushing yards in all 16 games. I’m putting Ramsey on Adams and taking my chances with Robert Tonyan (high catch rate but hasn’t topped 40 yards since Week 12) and Marques Valdes-Scantling (big plays, big mistakes) beating me.
I know all the narratives and cliches about pass-happy offensive teams going up against stout defenses in the playoffs. I know the Packers have lost multiple home playoff games, including 2011 when they last were the No. 1 seed, and still do not handle teams that punch them in the mouth well. I just cannot find the faith in Goff to channel his inner Eli Manning and get this road win. Despite starting a Super Bowl already, Goff has been very underwhelming in his playoff games. At least in 2011 Manning had a track record (Super Bowl MVP) and was having his best season.
Not to mention the Rams failed to beat the 0-13 Jets…
I had so much to say about this game already that it turned out to be my first 2,000-word preview on SBR. The potential for an instant classic feels high with this one as the AFC finally gets some new blood in this round. It’s just too bad the stadium cannot be full. I think the Ravens already played in the regular season Game of the Year when they won 47-42 in Cleveland.
Notice that the Bills made my table above for the 500-point club a year after the Ravens did it behind Lamar Jackson’s MVP season. Josh Allen won’t win MVP this season but the fact that he was in the conversation says so much about how far he has come. And he’ll probably still get a vote before Russell Wilson does.
Both offenses do great things, and while I like Buffalo’s style better and find it more sustainable for the long term, I have to admit that the Ravens are better designed to go far this postseason. In this particular matchup, if there’s snow, it’s even more pronounced for me despite Jackson’s candid lack of experience playing in such weather.
Thanks to Jackson, Baltimore is arguably the most consistent rushing offense in NFL history. The Ravens have only been held under 110 rushing yards once in his 40 career starts, though I must point out that was his first playoff game (90 yards vs. 2018 Chargers) and that the 2019 Bills held the Ravens to a season-low 118 rushing yards (121 excluding those pesky kneeldowns). But the Buffalo defense is not as good this year and has had five games (two losses and three wins by a field goal each) that would make me incredibly nervous that the Ravens are going to run wild Saturday night. Baltimore has rushed for at least 230 yards in five of the last six games since Jackson returned from COVID, which were all wins of course. He’s in full YOLO mode, and by the Pro Football Reference EPA model, the Ravens offense had its five best games this season in Weeks 13-17 after Jackson returned from his COVID battle.
The Ravens are not going to do something stupid and come out throwing a ton of passes. They’ll do what they do best, and they know that is running the ball, often with Jackson taking it himself by design or like his brilliant 48-yard touchdown scramble on Sunday in Tennessee.
Jackson is 26-1 when he attempts fewer than 28 passes, and that one loss (2018 at Kansas City) saw Robert Griffin III finish the final drive in overtime. He keeps his attempts low and the turnovers low. Jackson’s four-turnover meltdown against the Steelers was the only time this season the Ravens had multiple turnovers with him at quarterback. When they had their second pick against Washington, that was with RG3 in the game late. Jackson usually protects the ball well and he’ll have to here as the Bills were good with 26 takeaways (but none against the Colts in the wild card).
Also, when they do throw, they have tight end Mark Andrews or wide receiver Marquise Brown. It’s usually one or the other who goes off, and on Sunday, it was Brown with a season-high 109 yards on seven catches. Interesting to note that Brown had 126 yards (his most since his NFL debut game) against the Titans in the 2019 playoffs and 128 scrimmage yards (his most this year) on Sunday. Maybe he just likes playing the Titans, but he better hope history doesn’t repeat itself with the Bills. Last year, Buffalo held Brown to -3 yards on 3 catches, the worst statistical game of his career. I find that unlikely to repeat itself despite the Bills still having Tre’Davious White at corner, but maybe this is an Andrews week after the way the Colts got some big plays to tight ends in Buffalo last week.
So we know the Ravens are running out the gate. When it comes the Bills, we are looking at the most blitzed quarterback this season against the most blitz-happy defense in football. Allen was blitzed a career-high 31 times last year when he played the Ravens and he was terrible against it. He’s gotten a lot of experience with seeing it this year and has managed very well. Still, I think the Ravens will continue to do it and rely on their excellent secondary to cover these wide receivers, who looked very good on Saturday against the Colts.
But the weather was quite nice for January in Buffalo on Saturday, and if things are indeed freezing and/or snowy in this one, then a precision passing game and one-dimensional offense that barely hands the ball off to running backs just may not work that great this time around. Does Gabriel Davis make those sideline toe-drag catches by a matters of centimeters in harsher conditions? Probably not. Some (not me) don’t even think he caught them last week, but the 50/50 plays largely went Buffalo’s way in a tough game where they had horrible field position in the first half and were a season-worst 2/9 on third down after leading all offenses in conversion rate this regular season.
If you came here to read both previews and already read my take in LAR-GB on great offense vs. great defense in the playoffs, then you might expect one of these 500-point club members is likely to disappoint this weekend.
If it happens, then I think it will be Buffalo just because the Ravens have the offense and dynamic quarterback that can score a lot of points, unlike the Rams. Allen is going to have to be special and handle the blitz well. Baltimore has allowed a league-low two 100-yard receivers this year, and none of the top 100 performances in receiving yards have come against the Ravens. Even though Corey Davis got them for over 100 in Week 11, he had no catches on Sunday. This defense just held the Titans to a season-low 13 points and we know that offense was also one of the best all year.
Much like the Rams have to contain Davante Adams, the Ravens need to contain Stefon Diggs. You can live with Cole Beasley making the short catches (just not too many on third down), you don’t expect Davis to be as great this week, but you cannot get roasted by Diggs, who has been on a tear for a team that would be on an 11-game winning streak had it not been for a Hail Mary in Arizona.
Again, this is probably the first time I have ever been excited to watch a Ravens-Bills game, but that is what happens when you finally have great offenses and exciting quarterbacks to watch. We have been waiting a long time to see that from Baltimore and Buffalo, and maybe this will be the first of multiple playoff meetings to come.
Final: Ravens 27, Bills 24
I’ll be back tomorrow to put the Chiefs on upset alert and explain why I think the Buccaneers are a paper tiger.