NFL Week 4 Predictions: Lost the Best Games Edition

The 2020 NFL season has hit its first COVID-19 hurdle and how it handles this week could go a long way in determining just how long this season goes. Unfortunately, the two Sunday games I was excited to watch and planned to write about here (and bet a SGP on FanDuel since they’re fun) are not happening now.

The Titans have at least 16 members of the organization with a positive COVID test, so that battle of 3-0 teams with Pittsburgh has been moved to Week 7, which pushes the first Ravens-Steelers game a week later to Week 8. It’s the kind of scenario that was inevitable outside of a bubble, but also one like my example in this season’s predictions where the NFL actually lucked out with bye weeks allowing for a little change to get all 256 games on the schedule.

Will they be as lucky next time when it’s a near certainty there will be a next time? It’ll get harder each week, and that’s why it was a mistake for the NFL not to build in bye weeks at the midpoint and end of the regular season to add flexibility in making up games when this happens. Given the alarming number of injuries we’re seeing in games after an unusual offseason, it just makes no sense why the league wasn’t more cautious in its approach with the schedule. These are the most unusual times in NFL history, a league that started just after the terrible 1918 flu pandemic.

They also better hope the Vikings don’t have anyone test positive tomorrow on gameday after playing Tennessee last week. So far, Minnesota hasn’t had any positive cases. The Chiefs and Patriots each have a quarterback with a positive COVID test, but it’s thankfully not Patrick Mahomes for the Chiefs. Still, that puts Cam Newton out and casts doubt on this game, an important one in the AFC, even getting played this week. How did Cam get the virus and who else has he been in contact with? The NFL’s contact tracing system has to be working flawlessly to control this from spreading, especially for two teams with arguably the two best coaches in the league, both up there in age and more vulnerable to having a rough COVID battle.

The NFL clearly has a big problem in tests not being reliable enough or quick enough on game day to test everyone. A bunch of false positives on a Sunday morning could lead to a game being cancelled or holding out a lot of players who aren’t actually infected. That would be problematic. If they wanted to do a test that’s reliable, it apparently isn’t feasible to do one on Sunday morning and get the results back in time for kickoff. Again, our failures as a country in not getting the best testing in the world are coming home to roost here.

Playing this Chiefs-Patriots game on Monday or Tuesday is the current plan, but that doesn’t seem very feasible given the long incubation period the virus has in producing a positive test result. They could be putting multiple infected players on both teams on the field in this one, so I’ll be surprised if it actually gets played in Week 4.

That’s a shame because it was the real highlight game of the week. My best wishes to Cam Newton for a speedy recovery, but he will be one of the more interesting case subjects for the impact COVID can have on an athlete. While there hasn’t been any high-profile deaths in sports, not everyone has recovered well from COVID. Newton plays a more physical style than most quarterbacks in the league. Will he have breathing and fatigue issues when he returns to action in a couple of weeks? All of this remains to be seen as we’re in uncharted territory with the first NFL season during a pandemic.

Without PIT-TEN and NE-KC, we have a fairly bland Week 4 schedule remaining. In fact, I ended up picking all favorites and almost every one of them to cover the spread, which is as boring as it gets:


Would I be surprised with any upset? Sure, the Ravens not rebounding from Monday night and crushing the Football Team would be shocking. The Giants beating the Rams would also be up there, but other than that, nothing would really shock me.

I could see the Dallas defense laying another egg and Mike McCarthy doing something weird in a close game that Cleveland pulls off. I could see the Jaguars rebound from last week and beat what is still a bad Bengals team. I just happened to go for the sentimental pick of giving Joe Burrow his first win. It wouldn’t shock me if the Saints lost in Detroit with Matthew Stafford picking apart that defense, but I like to think Sean Payton can avoid a three-game losing streak in that one.

Then there’s the night games. The banged-up 49ers host the banged-up Eagles, and Nick Mullens is playing better than Carson Wentz right now if you can believe it. This game looks terrible but will still likely do way better numbers than the NBA Finals Game 3 with the Lakers up 2-0 on Miami. The 49ers may be down a lot of starters, but George Kittle and Deebo Samuel return to the offense. I picked the Eagles to cover just for the hell of it really, but usually each season there’s a couple of teams where I lose on for a month by thinking they can’t possibly be this bad only to find out they are. The 2020 Eagles look to be one of those teams. Houston and Minnesota have been that way too so far this year, and go figure, they play each other to see who will start 0-4. Assuming the virus doesn’t shut that game down, of course.

Then there’s Monday night where the Falcons take their historic losing ways to Green Bay against a red-hot Aaron Rodgers. The best hope is it looks like the 2014 MNF game (43-37) between these two where the Falcons at least put up a good fight before losing.

What’s turned into a boring NFL week on paper could turn into one of the most notable weeks in the history of the United States. Any day now we could awake to see shocking news, either about the president, the election, or if this NFL season is going to crumble before our eyes.

Things were likely to get worse before they get better, but we truly are living in uncertain times where breaking news (and doomscrolling) is keeping us on the edge of our seats. Football was a great idea to keep our minds occupied on something other than the pandemic, but as this week has shown, there is no escaping this thing yet. We can make the days go by faster debating if the Chiefs can go undefeated or if Josh Allen is actually legit, but COVID is part of everything now.

Somehow the world feels different since the Jets and Broncos mercifully left the field Thursday night, and while the game wasn’t bad enough for me to say it triggered the apocalypse, I’m pretty high on anxiety right now.

Find joy where you can tomorrow. Enjoy the last couple of basketball games if you’re a Lakers or LeBron fan. Anything else, I couldn’t possibly speculate at this point.

It is what it is.

Russell Wilson Has Never Deserved an MVP Vote, But 2020 Might Be His Year

The history of the NFL is layered with statistical oddities.

  • The 12 teams with the most points scored in NFL history have won zero championships.
  • The Detroit Lions have only won one playoff game since 1958.
  • Bruce Smith has the most sacks (200.0) in NFL history, but never led the league in sacks in 19 seasons.
  • Drew Brees holds most NFL passing records, but has never won an MVP award.

Something that’s being treated as an oddity is the fact that Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson has never received a single vote for MVP in his first eight seasons. In a quote I only noticed this week from early in the offseason, Wilson himself joked about this fact:

“Come on? No votes at all? What more I got to do around here, huh? I’m just saying, you know, can we get a couple votes here or there? Why not?”

Russell Wilson, May 2020

Sure, his linebacker teammate Bobby Wagner receiving a vote from Tony Dungy in 2014 is the height of ridiculousness, but a vote for Wilson that year also would have been laughable. It’s not an oddity at all that Wilson has yet to get a vote.

The truth is that an MVP vote for Russell Wilson in any of the last eight seasons would have made as much sense as voting Jill Stein for president in 2016.

When you only get one vote, why would you waste that vote on someone out of pity or for the lesser candidate who has no chance of winning? It would be different if voters had to rank their top three candidates in a points system and Wilson still had zero points in eight years, but that’s not how the NFL does this award.

So we’re going to break this into two sections. First, I’m going to show why Wilson has rightfully never received a vote, and then I’m going to explain why 2020 might finally be his year.

Part I: Russell Wilson vs. 2012-19 MVP Field

Let’s go season by season, and remember the only thing that matters for MVP is the regular season performance.

2012 MVP Vote: Adrian Peterson (30.5), Peyton Manning (19.5)

This one should have gone to Peyton Manning for his transformative impact on the Broncos claiming the AFC’s No. 1 seed, but old-school voters still loved their workhorse running backs and round numbers like 2,000 rushing yards. Wilson’s impact was almost immediate on the Seahawks, but rookies have never won an MVP in the modern NFL and Seattle’s defense and Marshawn Lynch still drew a lot of headlines that season. But the Seahawks were definitely on their way to something special starting with this season.

2013 MVP Vote: Peyton Manning (49), Tom Brady (1)

First of all, former pro quarterback Jim Miller was the lone Brady vote, which should have been the last time he had an MVP vote. Manning should have been unanimous this year after rewriting the record books again with 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns for the highest-scoring team in history. Granted, Wilson got the Super Bowl win that year over Denver, but when it came to the MVP, Manning pretty much had that on cruise control since opening night when he threw seven touchdowns against the Ravens.

2014 MVP Vote: Aaron Rodgers (31), J.J. Watt (13), Tony Romo (2), DeMarco Murray (2), Tom Brady (1), Bobby Wagner (1)

This was one of the more undecided years. Manning started hot before fading. Aaron Rodgers had a rough September, but turned it around quickly to go on a big run. Tony Romo was at his best for Dallas. As for Wilson, this was a weird year in that he passed for a career-low 20 touchdowns, but it was his most prolific rushing season with 849 yards and six touchdowns. He also led the league with 13 fumbles. So overall he had a nice year, but quarterback play was really strong in 2014 and you could argue he was behind Rodgers, Romo, Manning, Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. Wilson finished 13th in DYAR and DVOA, but 6th in QBR since he had the rushing impact.

Still, he was more valuable than Bobby damn Wagner, Mr. Dungy.

2015 MVP Vote: Cam Newton (48), Carson Palmer (1), Tom Brady (1)

Out of the last eight MVP awards, I think this is the most debatable and cringeworthy one based on the voting outcome. It’s also the only one where Wilson had a good case.

  • Best QB over the last seven games? Wilson had 24 TD, 1 INT, 132.8 passer rating to end the season.
  • Best QB over the last nine games? Cam Newton had 24 TD, 2 INT, 115.8 passer rating and six more scores on the ground for a team that finished 15-1.
  • Best QB over the first nine games? Tom Brady had 24 TD, 3 INT, 111.1 passer rating for team that started 10-0 before losing four of his last six.
  • Best QB over the whole 16 games? Carson Palmer led the league in YPA and QBR on a 13-3 Arizona team with the most vertical passing game in the NFL.

Ultimately, voters fell in love with Newton’s team record and his total touchdown number (45). Wilson had that blistering finish, but he had a rocky first nine games where he only threw 10 touchdowns and the Seahawks were 4-5. The hole was dug too deep to climb out of. If voters actually cared about which quarterback played the best over the full season, they would have voted Palmer as I would have if I had a vote. Still, Brady and Palmer got a vote while Wilson didn’t, so that mostly tells me the Seattle-based voter isn’t a homer.

2016 MVP Vote: Matt Ryan (25), Tom Brady (10), Ezekiel Elliott (6), Derek Carr (6), Aaron Rodgers (2), Dak Prescott (1)

This one could have gone terribly, but at least half were sane enough to give it to Matt Ryan for one of the most consistently great passing seasons in NFL history. Brady received 10 votes despite the Patriots starting 3-1 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett while he was suspended. The votes for Zeke should have gone to Dak Prescott, who I would argue had the best rookie quarterback season to that point. It’s actually surprising a hot six-game finish and playoff trip didn’t earn Rodgers more than two votes, which should have at least been more than the absurd six votes Derek Carr received.

As for Wilson, 2016 is arguably his worst NFL season. He finished 15th with a career-low 57.1 QBR. He was never able to string together more than two or three high-quality games in a row.

2017 MVP Vote: Tom Brady (40), Todd Gurley (8), Carson Wentz (2)

This is the year I refer to as Brady winning a Default MVP since there really was no standout candidate. This was the brutal QB injury year where Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone again, Andrew Luck never played a snap, and other players like Carson Palmer and Carson Wentz were injured. Wentz probably could have won it if he didn’t tear his ACL when he did.

Wilson actually ended up leading the league in touchdown passes (34) for the first time, but again, that was thanks to the Wentz injury. Seattle also missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record and you’re just never going to see someone get an MVP vote with that resume. Despite the touchdowns, Wilson’s YPA was also a career-low 7.2 that year.

2018 MVP Vote: Patrick Mahomes (41), Drew Brees (9)

This was mostly a year-long battle between Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees before Brees faded after Thanksgiving. Philip Rivers popped into the conversation late in the year, but it was always logical to go with Mahomes, who finished with 50 touchdown passes in his first year as a starter. That’s historic stuff and he’s continued to be a history maker ever since.

Wilson had an efficient passing season, but 2018 was when Brian Schottenheimer took over as offensive coordinator and the team began dialing back the number of pass plays. Wilson finished 11th in QBR that year and was never really in the conversation. He had another amazing eight-game stretch (Weeks 5-13), but Mahomes was clearly better from start to finish.

2019 MVP Vote: Lamar Jackson (50)

As I wrote on here last November, Wilson was the clear MVP winner if the award was given after Week 9. But I also warned that with the tough upcoming schedule, these things can change quickly. Wilson in fact did not thrive the rest of the season, throwing just 9 touchdown passes in the last seven games with a 90.7 passer rating, 7.2 YPA, and he took 26 more sacks. The Seahawks also lost three of their last four games with efforts that weren’t even close against the Rams and Cardinals.

Meanwhile, Lamar Jackson only got stronger in Baltimore, a team that wouldn’t lose again until the postseason. After Week 9, Jackson threw 24 touchdowns to one interception with a 130.0 passer rating and 8.06 YPA. He also finished the season with 1,206 rushing yards, an absurd record total for a quarterback in this league. That’s why by season’s end it was a no-brainer choice to vote for Jackson, who received all 50 votes as he should have.

But leave it up to NBC/PFF’s Cris Collinsworth to bemoan during this season’s Week 2 game that he would have spoiled Jackson’s unanimous MVP by voting for Wilson last year if he could have. Why? Beats me, because Jackson was the only logical choice in 2019 when it came time to vote.

Part II: Russell Wilson’s Year?

We’re only going into Week 4, but maybe this lack of an MVP vote stuff has motivated Wilson to play his best football yet. Through three games, Wilson has the Seahawks at 3-0 despite allowing 86 points in those games, the third most ever for a 3-0 team in NFL history. Wilson has thrown 14 touchdown passes, the new record for the first three games of a season:

Notice the other four seasons on this chart all led to an MVP award too. Usually when someone starts this hot, it turns into a prolific season that challenges the touchdown record.

Wilson could be joining an interesting list of quarterbacks who really peaked in the ninth year of their careers in the NFL.

Counting stats be damned, as an expert on Peyton Manning’s career I will tell you that he was never better than he was in the 2006 season when he helped the Colts set records for third-down conversion rate and still won 12 games (then a Super Bowl) despite a horrid run defense that really limited the possessions that team had each week. His drive engineering, the ultimate job of every quarterback, was never better and that was probably his physical peak as well. That was the season where he took a nasty hit against Gregg Williams’ Washington defense that may have started the neck issues that later led to surgery.

Drew Brees had his most MVP-worthy season and won his only Super Bowl in Year 9 with the 2009 Saints. Things never actually got sweeter for Brees and head coach Sean Payton there. Matt Ryan peaked and won his only MVP award in 2016, his ninth season in the NFL. Terry Bradshaw and the Steelers were at their best in 1978, his ninth season and the only one where he was named NFL MVP. Steve McNair won a co-MVP with Manning in 2003, his ninth season. Even someone like Joe Montana had a career-high 31 touchdown passes in 1987, his ninth season, and it was his best numbers to that point until he surpassed them (efficiency wise) in 1989.

There’s not any special significance to the number nine, but if you think about it, that’s right around where a quarterback should be turning 30. At that point of his career, he has great experience and knowledge of the position, but should still be young and athletic enough as the physical decline stage isn’t there yet. It really should be most quarterback’s prime, but we’ll have to see how Wilson finishes this year because having a seven or nine-game hot streak hasn’t been a problem in the past for him. He’s just never had that ungodly season from start to finish that wins MVP awards like it has for Manning, Ryan, Brady, Mahomes, Jackson, etc.

There’s also the fact that 2020 is super offensive so far. We’re talking about the most points scored per game and the highest passing numbers (completion rate, yards, TDs, passer rating, etc.) through three weeks in NFL history. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise in a pandemic year without a real offseason or preseason. Referees aren’t calling offensive holding as much, which definitely helps offenses sustain drives. Defenses look well behind the offenses (New York teams aside), which is what we saw happen in 2011 when the lockout also led to a problematic offseason.

So is Wilson’s hot start just him being more amazing than ever, or is it a bit of “wow, Dallas and Atlanta are horrible on defense and so is most of the league”? Wilson is definitely going to have competition for MVP this year from Mahomes and Rodgers, if not others (dare I say Josh Allen?). The five-touchdown night Wilson had against the Patriots was special, but will voters remember that Week 2 game come January when they vote? There’s definitely a disadvantage to peaking early for MVP, which is why it’ll be crucial for Wilson to continue this stellar level of play throughout the season.

Seattle’s rough looking defense and placement in the toughest division also don’t bode well for a great record by season’s end, but if Wilson’s going to throw for 55+ touchdowns, he’s probably going to get the benefit of the doubt with only 11 or 12 wins.

That means for once, Wilson will actually deserve an MVP vote.*

*Any and all 2020 predictions come with the caveat of “if the season doesn’t end early due to COVID-19.”

Chiefs Haven’t Lost Since Patrick Mahomes Found His Legs

The Kansas City Chiefs have won 12 games in a row after vanquishing the Ravens, arguably the toughest game on their 2020 schedule, on Monday night. Any talk of an undefeated season is a bit premature, and keep in mind going 16-0 (or 19-0) would require the Chiefs to win 25 (or 28) games in a row, surpassing the NFL record of 21 games by the 2003-04 Patriots. Still, it’s a nice thought in this hellscape year.

The last time Kansas City lost a game was Week 10 in Tennessee last year. That was Patrick Mahomes’ first game back from a scary dislocated kneecap that threatened what became his first Super Bowl season. Mahomes was still phenomenal in the 35-32 defeat, completing 36 passes for 446 yards without a turnover.

However, it was the first game in Mahomes’ career to that point (27 games) where he did not register a single rushing attempt. It’s understandable that Mahomes would be a little tentative to run after his kneecap injury, which occurred in Denver on a quarterback sneak, usually one of the safest plays in the playbook.

Mahomes has always been a pass-first quarterback who will use his mobility to avoid sacks and find passing lanes before just scrambling. He’s not going to run for yards in the way that Lamar Jackson, Cam Newton or Kyler Murray will, but he’s clearly elusive and mobile enough to have success when he does decide to run with the ball.

While I can’t point to any quote from Mahomes himself about whether his philosophy on how he plays before and after the injury has changed, the last two games had me thinking about the way he seems to be running the ball more and how it’s made him even harder to beat.

Sure enough, the numbers support this too (kneeldowns and aborted snaps excluded):

  • First 27 games: 2.4 rushes per game, 14.9 yards per game, 3 rushing TD, 4.49% sack rate
  • Last 12 games: 3.8 rushes per game, 31.6 yards per game, 5 rushing TD, 3.40% sack rate

Mahomes has more than doubled his rushing yardage production per game and has started to find the end zone more often as well, including a score to get the team going on Monday night in Baltimore. Notice that his sack rate has also dropped over a full percentage point as he’s been harder to take down since he’s started moving more.

The change was instant last season. One week after not rushing the ball at all against the Titans, Mahomes ran five times for a career-high 59 yards against the Chargers on a night in Mexico City where his passing was not up to par. It was the first time Mahomes played a full game and did not pass for over 200 yards, but it didn’t matter as the Chiefs won 24-17.

By the time the postseason came around, Mahomes really started to flex his rushing ability, gaining 53 yards against Houston and scoring a memorable 27-yard touchdown run against the Titans in the AFC Championship Game. It was the first time in his career Mahomes rushed for over 50 yards in back-to-back games. Mahomes also rushed for a touchdown in Super Bowl LIV against the 49ers and actually had 44 rushing yards until the final drive where he took three huge kneeldowns for a loss of 15 yards.

Mahomes didn’t register a run on opening night against Houston this year, but look no further than the Week 2 game in Los Angeles for arguably Mahomes’ biggest rushing display yet in the NFL. Mahomes led the team with 54 rushing yards in the comeback win. His third-down scrambling was crucial:

  • 2Q (TD drive): Mahomes scrambled for 15 yards on 3rd-and-7 and then 10 yards on a 3rd-and-5.
  • 4Q (tying FG drive): Mahomes scrambled for 21 yards on 3rd-and-20, perhaps the play of his season so far.
  • OT (GW FG drive): Mahomes scrambled for 4 yards on 3rd-and-3 and then 3 yards on a 3rd-and-4 that set up a 4th-and-1 conversion.

Mahomes has two runs in his career on 3rd-and-10+ that he’s converted and they both have happened in his last two games (Chargers, Ravens). We know Mahomes can convert through the air on 3rd-and-15+, but defenses are really in trouble if plays like a 21-yard run on 3rd-and-20 are also within his reach.

Now if only the Chiefs would bring the QB sneak back into the playbook for those 1-yard situations, they’ll truly be unstoppable.

Lamar Jackson Is Not Brady or Manning (Nor Is He Patrick Mahomes)

It’s not the Game of the Year if one team doesn’t even show up.

On Monday night, the Ravens were dominated by Kansas City in a 34-20 game that wasn’t as close as the final suggests. Special teams helped give the Ravens an 11-point advantage, but the Chiefs gained almost 300 more yards, finished 10-of-13 on third down, didn’t allow a sack, and Patrick Mahomes put on a masterclass with 411 yards and five touchdowns of total offense. Meanwhile, reigning MVP Lamar Jackson only completed 15-of-28 passes for 97 yards and took four sacks. Sure, he was the game’s leading rusher (83 yards), but that production mainly led to just two Baltimore field goals.

We tend to obsess over creating rivalries in sports. With the changing of the guard in the AFC, the most logical choice for the new NFL decade was Mahomes vs. Lamar, Chiefs vs. Ravens. This was going to mirror the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady rivalry, especially from the days when it was the offensive juggernaut Colts vs. the masterfully-coached Patriots. We thought last year would be the first AFC Championship Game between Mahomes and Jackson, but it didn’t happen. We thought last night would be the Game of the Year in the regular season, but it wasn’t even the best game of Week 3.

The reason those things didn’t happen is the same: Jackson didn’t pass the ball well in games where the opponents were able to score early and force him to be better as a passer.

While we’re quick to create rivalries, the truth is Jackson compares more favorably to 1988-90 Randall Cunningham than he does Manning, Brady or Mahomes.

If you don’t believe me, consider that Cunningham won the PFWA MVP in 1990, was the most prolific rushing QB the league had seen at the time, and he was 0-3 in the playoffs with no touchdown passes and led the Eagles to 25 total points in those games.

I’ll show you why it’s not good to compare Jackson to these other quarterbacks.

Lamar Jackson Is Not Tom Brady

Originally, Jackson was supposed to be the Brady in the rivalry with Mahomes, but that’s really gone to the wayside in the last year. Jackson had the impeccable winning percentage on the balanced team with a great defensive tradition and top-notch special teams with the most trustworthy kicker in the league. But ever since the Chiefs last lost in Tennessee in 2019, the defense has really improved to the point where it’s a strength rather than a liability like it was in 2018. The Chiefs have only allowed more than 24 points once in their 12-game winning streak.

Meanwhile, Jackson has been very dependent on his defense playing well to have success in this league. So far, he is 0-5 as a starter when the Ravens allow more than 24 points, including all three losses to Mahomes and the Chiefs. The Chiefs are also the only team to score more than 14 points in the first half against Baltimore in Jackson’s 27 starts.

When the Ravens can play their game, they’re as dominant as any team in the NFL right now. Their game, consisting of controlling the clock with a prolific rushing attack, efficient passing, a blitzing/opportunistic defense and great special teams will work against most of the 31 opponents. But when you get an opponent that can score early and break down some of those Baltimore advantages, Jackson and the Ravens seem to go into panic mode. We saw it in the shocking Tennessee playoff loss and again last night.

That’s why there’s really no comparison here between Jackson and the early run of Tom Brady with the 2001-06 era Patriots. Those teams were known for being able to adapt to any play style and winning any type of game. They could win an ugly defensive slugfest, but they can also win a shootout or high-scoring game. They could come back from large deficits with the passing game. Brady could throw 40 or 50 passes in a victory.

Sure, Brady’s pass efficiency stats from those days looked indistinguishable from the Trent Greens and Matt Hasselbecks of the day, but he wasn’t a liability when asked to play from behind like Jackson has been so far in his career.

In his third career start, Brady led the Patriots to a 10-point fourth-quarter comeback over San Diego. So far, Jackson is 0-5 when trailing by two possessions at any time in the game. Jackson does have three game-winning drives, but they were all field goals in a tied game. The only fourth-quarter comeback of Jackson’s career was in Pittsburgh last season. He led two field goal drives in the fourth quarter, then in overtime led a 6-yard drive after a JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble for another game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker. Not exactly the stuff of legends. When Jackson faces the Steelers this year, they should have Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback instead of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges like they did that day.

The fact is those Patriots were far from front-runners, so it’s really hard to compare Jackson to any version of Brady.

Lamar Jackson Is Not Peyton Manning

Now the conversation has shifted to “well Peyton Manning lost his first three playoff games and first six games to Brady, so Lamar is in the same boat in regards to Mahomes.”

This is a gross simplification and bad comparison to make.

First, Manning actually had second-half leads in both of his first two playoff games, including a 7-point lead in Miami (2000) in the final 40 seconds before losing in overtime after his kicker missed a game-winning field goal. Jackson has lost two home playoff games wire to wire, meaning he never had a lead. Not even a “3-0 in the first quarter before the opponent touched the ball” type of lead. I’ve gone over in great detail before how Manning routinely had late leads in playoff games that his teams surrendered.

Second, Manning didn’t have a turnover in a playoff game until he was down 34-0 in the fourth quarter of his third playoff game (2002 Jets). In two playoff games, Jackson has thrown three interceptions and fumbled four times, losing two of them. Manning’s first two playoff games were clearly better performances than Jackson’s first two have been.

Then there’s the head-to-head showdowns. For starters, one of the biggest myths in the NFL this century is the idea that Manning kept losing to Brady in the early 2000s (the first six games in fact) because he wasn’t the better or more “clutch” quarterback. While both teams used to be in the AFC East, this rivalry didn’t actually start until 2003, the first year Manning and Brady both made the playoffs. The Patriots swept them that year and again in 2004, and the impact those four games have had on the legacies of these quarterbacks is absurd. If you look at what actually happened in the regular season meetings, the most significant plays involved Edgerrin James not being able to score at the 1-yard line both years:

Brady wasn’t outplaying Manning in these games, and the same can be said about those playoff games played in snowy New England that otherwise would have been played in Indianapolis had the Colts been able to score those 1-yard touchdowns late.

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Seriously, don’t even get me started on those playoff games. Some other day maybe.

Manning’s Colts were right there with the Patriots, and they finally broke through and defeated them all three times in 2005-06. When it comes to Lamar-Mahomes, isn’t it alarming how Jackson continues to get more outclassed by Mahomes with each passing meeting?

Jackson at least took Mahomes to overtime in Kansas City in 2018 before losing 27-24, a game he technically didn’t finish (Robert Griffin III threw the final fourth-down pass). Mahomes had to convert an amazing 4th-and-9 to Tyreek Hill in that one to even get to overtime. In last year’s trip to Arrowhead, the Ravens lost 33-28, but that was after falling behind 23-6 at halftime and failing on three two-point conversions. It was arguably the worst game of Jackson’s MVP regular season while Mahomes was fantastic with 374 yards and three touchdown passes. Then of course last night was an embarrassment with Mahomes passing for 385 yards and four scores while Jackson didn’t even hit 100 yards through the air. Sure, TE Mark Andrews didn’t help Lamar out with any great catches, but it was a night of inaccurate throws and questionable short passes that never had a chance to do anything. Jackson just looked off the whole night while Mahomes was in God Mode again.

While Jackson has yet to throw an interception against Kansas City, he’s only completed 52.63% of his passes against them with 5.38 YPA. Those are incredibly bad numbers, and for as much as Kansas City’s defense has improved over time, they’re not that great. Rookie Justin Herbert just had a much better game than Lamar against the Chiefs a week ago and he didn’t even know he was starting until the coin toss. Jackson also lost a fumble last night, his second lost fumble against the Chiefs.

Lamar Jackson Is Not Patrick Mahomes

It’s probably not fair to pretend that the only big games of Jackson’s NFL career are the two playoff games and the three Chiefs games, all five of which he has lost and underperformed significantly. For example, the stage was definitely huge with a playoff atmosphere on Sunday night last year when the Ravens hosted the 8-0 Patriots. Jackson was fantastic and the Ravens won 37-20, putting them on the path to the No. 1 seed.

That game just can’t be ignored. However, Jackson is 21-1 as a starter in all other games that aren’t the playoffs and Chiefs, only losing to Cleveland last year. When it comes to Baltimore ultimately achieving championship success, they will be measured by playoff games and how they fare against the best of the best. The Chiefs were the No. 1 seed in 2018, they were the No. 2 seed and Super Bowl champions last year, and Monday night’s game was quite possibly the tie-breaker game for this year’s top seed.

These games should matter more, but Jackson and the Ravens looked ill-prepared for what the Chiefs were able to do. That’s very concerning after finally getting them out of Arrowhead, albeit in an empty stadium.

Jackson is 23 years old. I don’t want to make it sound like he’ll never win a playoff game or won’t erase a double-digit deficit in this league. There’s still plenty of time to grow and achieve everything he wants to achieve in the NFL. But the unescapable fact is Mahomes is only 25, and with half a billion dollars coming to him, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So if Jackson is going to get over the hump, he’s likely going to have to beat Mahomes. After what happened last night, that doesn’t seem like it will happen any time soon.

Until Jackson develops into a more consistent passer, Mahomes and the Chiefs have no rival in this NFL.

Falcons Meet Bears: The Rest Is History

When I ended my piece on the Atlanta Falcons last week, I didn’t think “Sunday was just the latest exhibit, but unlikely the last” would mean the very next game would result in another epic collapse. It certainly didn’t seem likely when Atlanta led 26-10 with just over nine minutes left and the Bears were struggling with Nick Foles, who came off the bench in the third quarter to replace Mitchell Trubisky following an interception.

But given the first two weeks of the season for these teams and Foles’ history of beating Atlanta (2017 playoffs and 2018 opener), maybe it was inevitable. Either way, it was historic.

The 2020 Falcons are the first team in NFL history to blow a fourth-quarter lead of 15+ points twice in the same season, doing so in back-to-back games. The only other team to do it twice in one 365-day period was the 2003-04 Seahawks against Baltimore and St. Louis. The 2020 Bears are the first team in NFL history to win two games in the same season after trailing by at least 16 points in the fourth quarter. They also finished off Detroit in Week 1 after trailing 23-6.

Prior to 2020, a 15+ point comeback win in the fourth quarter was something that only happened 64 times in NFL history. These are pretty rare outcomes, though we have seen 10 of them since 2016, including four games that involved at least one of these teams. This is the third time the Falcons have blown one since 2016 and I don’t even need to mention what the third game was. You just know.

What struck me about this game and motivated me to write something was just how improbable it was for Chicago to win despite a lot of failure in making the 26-10 comeback:

  • In the third quarter, Foles threw a 50/50 ball on his first drive replacing Trubisky and it was intercepted in the end zone.
  • With 10:46 left to play, Anthony Miller dropped a touchdown on fourth down in the end zone.
  • After scoring one touchdown, Foles was intercepted on a two-point conversion try with 6:20 left, keeping it a two-score game at 26-16.

That’s not the cleanest comeback you’ll ever see, and yet the Bears were able to drive for three touchdowns in SEVEN MINUTES AND 17 SECONDS without even using a timeout. How the hell does Atlanta allow that to happen?

As you may expect, it’s more coaching malpractice from Dan Quinn and company. The kicking game also missed a 48-yard field goal with 13:35 left that could have made a big difference late.

However, what shocked me was how complicit Matt Ryan was in this collapse. Last week I covered how great he was in the games they’ve lost before, but this was not the case on Sunday. He didn’t have Julio Jones available, but Ryan played well enough for most of the game. But in the fourth quarter, Ryan started by throwing seven straight incompletions and taking a sack that made the missed field goal harder. I’m not even going to talk about the final drive where Ryan threw an interception to effectively end the game.

The game never should have reached that point, but the Atlanta offense went three-and-out on three straight drives that consumed a mind-boggling TWO MINUTES AND 58 SECONDS. He could have taken seven god damn kneeldowns and likely would have walked away a winner (and with a higher completion percentage).

I watched the seven throws. They increasingly got worse, and only one was dropped, which may have set up a third-and-medium situation with around four minutes left. It was a terrible finish for the quarterback.

Perhaps the main complaint against Atlanta in the 28-3 Super Bowl collapse was not running the ball in the fourth quarter. It happened again here as if the team’s learned nothing.

What happens if the Falcons just run the ball instead of throwing so many clock-stopping incompletions in the fourth quarter? Now the quick analysis I’m going to do next isn’t the greatest method in the world, because it’s making a big assumption that Chicago would do things the same exact way they did. It also can’t predict exactly what Atlanta’s runs would bring, but let’s just look at how easy Atlanta made this comeback for Chicago. I’m going to take off about a net of 43 seconds for each run assuming the time to run the play after milking the play clock to one:

4Q Drive 1: Falcons run instead of throwing incomplete on 2nd-and-7, clock goes down to 13:40. Falcons run on third down instead of a sack, clock goes down to 12:57 before field goal attempt. Chicago gets ball back with 12:51 left, a total loss of 44 seconds.

4Q Drive 2: Instead of throwing on 3rd-and-5 up 16, Falcons just go conservative and run again before punting. Bears get ball back with another loss of 38 seconds (82 seconds total).

4Q Drive 3: Up 10, Atlanta starts with 4:53 left instead of the actual drive time of 6:15. Maybe this is where the Bears start to use their three timeouts, but two extra runs instead of passes and a punt could chop off an extra 75 seconds, leaving the Bears with 3:00 left.

At this point, even if the Bears only used a minute (they used 59 seconds in real life) to score another touchdown, they’d still be down 26-23 at just about the two-minute warning. They could kick deep given their three timeouts, or they could do the onside kick. Maybe they already used their timeouts and have some extra time left, but either way, it’d be much better than what really happened: Atlanta throwing three straight incompletions with 4:21 left and a drive that consumed an embarrassing 22 seconds.

Running the ball may not be cool anymore, but it’s the safest way to bleed the clock. They signed Todd Gurley for a reason, right? Just run more when you’re up 16, your quarterback can’t get the ball wet if he was in the ocean, and your defense can’t be trusted.

Seven straight incompletions to help the Bears score three touchdowns in 7:17 without even using a timeout. It’s just baffling stuff for a team that should be 2-1 right now and looking at a division where they can actually do something this year. But will there be any fight left in Atlanta by the Week 10 bye? Afterwards their schedule is loaded with two games against Drew Brees and the Saints, two games against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, and they’ll see Patrick Mahomes right after Christmas. Oh, and they’ll be in Aaron Rodgers’ house this Monday night.

Maybe we won’t see many more Atlanta leads this season, and if the last two weeks are any indication, maybe that’s a good thing.

Start cleaning house.

NFL Week 3 Predictions: The Best Week of the Year?

Whether or not it was because of fears of COVID-19 wiping this season out soon after it started, the NFL really loaded up the Week 3 schedule in a way we’re not used to seeing.

I’ve already previewed the prime-time games this week with the Packers-Saints on SNF and my Game of the Year in Baltimore between the Chiefs and Ravens on MNF. If those aren’t enough, we’re also getting the Play-Action Bowl between the undefeated Rams and Bills, the Texans travel to Pittsburgh for a Watt family reunion, and the Seahawks host the Cowboys in what could be a major shootout with huge passing numbers if those offenses let the quarterbacks run the show. Hell, even the Raiders at Patriots looks much better going into Sunday than it has all year.

It could be hard to find another week in this regular season with games as big as the ones this week. After favorites finished 14-2 straight up last week, you have to wonder if we’ll see some big upsets this time. Thursday night in Florida was already a game where two teams, Miami and Jacksonville, looked much different from what they showed us the first two games as Miami easily won 31-13.

I’m going with a few upsets this week, including the aforementioned Packers in New Orleans, and I also like the Texans in Pittsburgh. Yes, Deshaun Watson is going to face a ton of pressure against that defense, but so did Daniel Jones and Jeff Driskel and both had a shot in those games until a hit in motion interception at the goal line and a sack on 4th down for Driskel last week. Watson is a better quarterback than that and the Texans can’t afford to fall to 0-3 against the contenders in this conference. Most teams in the NFL would be 0-2 if they started the season with the Chiefs and Ravens too. I looked it up and 0-2 teams are 14-31 (.311) against 2-0 teams in the third game of the season since 2001. Not the most encouraging record, but again, these teams have played completely different calibers of competition so far.

2020 NFL Game of the Year: Chiefs at Ravens

Sure, it’s a bit early to be talking about a “Game of the Year” in the NFL’s regular season, but for the second year in a row the Ravens and Chiefs are facing off in Week 3. These teams look like the best in the league, which doesn’t come as a surprise when this was the AFC Championship Game we deserved last year. The surprise was when the Ravens had a shocking upset at home against the Titans in the divisional round. The Chiefs are the defending champions, Patrick Mahomes is 2-0 in these matchups against Lamar Jackson, but the Ravens are at home this time and are a 3.5-point favorite.

This game could ultimately decide the No. 1 seed in the AFC, which in a normal year could be more important than ever since the No. 2 seed no longer gets a bye week. In a pandemic year, it’s questionable if it’ll be as advantageous because the lack of packed stadiums has made going on the road less daunting a task.

I think the Ravens need this game more than the Chiefs. Having to come back to Baltimore in January isn’t ideal for KC, who has yet to play a road playoff game under Mahomes, but I think they’re capable of pulling that off if the repeat is going to happen. Baltimore is the team that needs some postseason confidence after dropping two straight home games the last two seasons with Jackson turning into Andy Dalton than the MVP season he had last year and the similar caliber of play he’s started 2020 with.

Plus we just need to see this Ravens team beat this Kansas City team after losing 27-24 in overtime in 2018 and 33-28 last year in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score suggests. That first game in 2018 was a really close effort to keeping Mahomes under 20 points in regulation, but his fourth-down miracle throw to Tyreek Hill led to the game going to overtime where the Chiefs won on a field goal. We can only be so lucky to get that good of a finish this week.

But it makes sense for the Ravens to be favored by 3.5 here as frankly they’ve just played better football so far this season than the Chiefs. However, Mahomes has been very good as an underdog in his career:

That means in six games he’s never lost against the spread as an underdog. It’s part of the reason why the Chiefs just set the NFL record with 47 straight games without losing by more than 7 points. The last time I pointed this record out when Seattle broke it (against Green Bay in 2014), the streak ended the very next game.

Mahomes has never lost a September start, but it’s interesting to point out that he’s really flirted with having “the first truly bad game of his NFL career” in two of his last three performances. The first was the Super Bowl until he made the play of the game on 3rd-and-15 against the 49ers. The second was Sunday in Los Angeles when a poor passing start saw the Chiefs down 17-6 before a strong rally and incredible clutch kicking from Harrison Butker led the Chiefs to a 23-20 comeback win.

You can make Mahomes look bad for a half and sometimes even three quarters, but no one has really done it for a full game yet, and the total for this game is set at 55 points so fireworks are expected on Monday night.

But if there was a team that would hand Mahomes his first “big loss” of his NFL career, it probably has to be this Baltimore team. That Tennessee playoff upset (28-12 final) gets stranger looking by the week as the Ravens have opened 2020 with a 38-6 win over Cleveland and a 33-16 win in Houston.

Baltimore has scored at least 20 points in 25 consecutive regular-season games, tied for the fourth longest streak in NFL history. But again, that’s a streak that looks over two playoff losses at home where the Ravens scored 17 and 12 points. That’s a bad look.

The Ravens have won 14 regular season games in a row while the Chiefs have won 11 games overall in a row. Baltimore has not trailed in the second half of a regular season game since Week 5 in Pittsburgh last year. I mean, holy shit. That’s insane for both Baltimore and, once again, the Titans in that commanding playoff win. Something has to give this week.

It’s too early in the season for me to get really detailed with a game preview. We don’t know yet where all these teams’ tendencies, strengths and shortcomings will be in regards to turnovers, sacks, special teams, penalties, crucial down performance, injuries etc. That’s why I enjoy writing playoff game previews when we have way more data, but these teams have been performing at a high level for over a season now so given the players and stakes involved, this should be a special one. I just think Baltimore is playing a bit better, has more balance between the offense and defense, and the more reliable running game to balance out the offense too.

Baltimore can’t win a playoff game Monday night, but it can deliver the biggest win yet of the Lamar Jackson era.

Final: Ravens 34, Chiefs 27

NFL Week 3 Preview: Packers at Saints

The NFL’s Week 3 schedule is so packed I wanted to highlight earlier than usual Sunday Night Football’s big NFC matchup between the Packers (2-0) and Saints (1-1) in New Orleans. This is the fifth and potentially final matchup between future HOF quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, who have split the first four meetings and actually haven’t met since 2014. The Saints are 2-0 at home against Rodgers with 51 and 44 points scored in those games, but this offense right now doesn’t look like anything we’re used to seeing from New Orleans.

Thanks to Minnesota’s pointless upset in last year’s playoffs, we didn’t get to see these teams play last year when the Saints lost out on a first-round bye despite a stronger regular season than Green Bay because of the tie-breaking system. So we get the matchup now in a premiere prime time slot with the Saints actually being a 3-point favorite, but Drew Brees is throwing some major red flags our way, and one problem is he’s not throwing them that far either.

Drew Brees: Is 2020 the End?

Everything else is dying in 2020, so why won’t this be the end of this peak run of HOF QB play from Brees that he’s been on since 2004?

Brees has already talked about this being his last NFL season before retirement, but it’s not going to be a happy swansong if the first two weeks are any indicator of what’s to come. Despite the Week 1 win over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers where the Saints scored 34 points, the offense actually didn’t play well. They scored 27 points on 12 drives, one of which was a late field goal after the Bucs botched a kick return. Brees struggled to throw for 160 yards, only connecting on a deep ball after a pump fake late in the game. According to ESPN, Brees’ air yards per pass are the lowest in the first two weeks of a season since Brett Favre in 2009. Now that was the great Favre year in Minnesota and not the bad one in 2010 that made his retirement an obvious decision, but this is still alarming stuff from Brees. While he’s been throwing very short passes since 2017, especially on third down where some of his efficiency has declined, he’s taking things to young Alex Smith territory so far this season and it hasn’t worked as well for the Saints with Michael Thomas suffering a Week 1 high ankle sprain.

We know Thomas doesn’t stretch the field much, but that highly efficient connection the two have that can consistently gain 5, 8, 12 yard chunks has been crucial to the Saints offense. Emmanuel Sanders has had a slow start in his first year with the team so far. It’s mostly been checkdowns to Alvin Kamara so far.

However, some took the 34-24 upset loss in Las Vegas on Monday night to extremes, proving the point once again that the scoreboard really tricks people’s minds. The Saints actually were better on offense in the Week 2 loss without Thomas than they were in the Week 1 win where he played over 80% of the snaps and had 17 receiving yards. On one hand, Tampa Bay’s defense looks considerably better than the Raiders so far. Alas, the Saints scored 24 points on 9 drives on Monday night, and that ninth drive was one in the final 65 seconds where they kind of went through the motions, conceding defeat early instead of trying to get a quick field goal, onside kick recovery and Hail Mary — that may have needed Jameis Winston’s arm — to tie the game.

The bigger problem than Brees on Monday night was the defense that allowed Derek Carr, after a rough start with some embarrassing sacks, to pick apart the defense on long, time-consuming scoring drives. The Raiders scored on six of their last seven drives, and it would have been seven straight had Jalen Richard not fumbled. Richard also scored a 20-yard touchdown run on a 3rd-and-10. That kind of terrible defense brings back memories of the Saints of old, but without the high-powered offense to do better than a 34-24 defeat.

This is bad news when Aaron Rodgers, a more dangerous QB than Carr, is coming to town with a hot hand. That’s why the Saints will have to be much better early in the game on offense. Brees was far from great on Monday night, and he did piss away a drive before halftime with a bad interception, but when you only get eight real drives in the course of the game, it’s hard to be expected to do a lot better than 24 points. Not to mention on the Saints’ only third quarter drive, they self-destructed with three penalties, including a very questionable call on Sanders that led to a 2nd-and-31 situation. That’s a tough situation even if Patrick Mahomes is your QB.

So it was a horrible night on defense that should have been the bigger story for New Orleans, but of course the attention goes to the quarterback. People are already calling for him to be benched for Winston or to retire midseason, and it just reminds me that there’s too many days in between games, so people resort to filling that time with nonsense. There are alarming issues with Brees not showing his usual pinpoint accuracy or really attacking anything past 10 yards, but he’s not at the point where he needs benched. The Saints will just have to get a bit more creative without Thomas, which is why I don’t understand Sean Payton using a great trick play at the end of a sure win against Tampa Bay and not saving it for more desperate times.

With the Saints possibly slipping to 1-2 this week, desperate times are coming quickly.

Prime Aaron Rodgers: Is He Back?

If the 2020 Saints are the 2015 Broncos because of the old quarterback, then I guess they’re going to kick Green Bay’s ass on SNF, right?

That’s a reference to the 2015 SNF game when the 6-0 Packers, coming off a bye week, played the 6-0 Broncos with Peyton Manning in his final zombie-fied season. It’s one of the weirder games in NFL history in that the Broncos destroyed Green Bay 29-10 with huge performances on both sides of the ball, including the old QB, and it really seemed to set Rodgers, who only passed for 77 yards, into a tailspin after a big start to the season.

Before that game Rodgers was on a pretty incredible run of play that included two MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP. But look at the drop in his statistics from the start of his career and ever since he returned from that bye week to face the 2015 Broncos:

You can see the YPA drop over 1.2 yards, the win percentage and passer rating down 10 points, and his touchdown pass rate has dropped by 1.46 percentage points. Sacks have been about the same, though he’s lost more fumbles per play and his completion percentage has dropped 3.3 percentage points as he’s fallen in love with throwing the ball away, which helps lower his interceptions.

Things have just not been at the peak level for Rodgers for years, and the coaching change to Matt LaFleur last year also didn’t have the desired impact. However, maybe it’s taking two years to have an impact as Rodgers is off to his best start in years. His Week 1 game in Minnesota was arguably as good as any game he’s had since 2015.

The 2020 Packers are the first team since the 2009 Saints (Payton-Brees’ Super Bowl year) to score at least 42 points in the first two games of a season. They’re only the sixth NFL team to do so since 1940. It’s not just Rodgers as RB Aaron Jones is off to a huge start to the season and the Packers lead the NFL in rushing yards (417) and yards per carry (6.2). Now they’ve only played stumbling division rivals so far, but the Packers look to be in great shape offensively so far. By Pro Football Reference’s metrics, they had their 2nd and 3rd best games by offensive EPA under LaFleur the last two weeks, and Rodgers has the second-lowest pass pressure rate (11.7%) as his line is doing a great job of protection.

If there’s a reason to be pessimistic, it’s the hamstring injury for Davante Adams. He may not play Sunday and he’s still the most trusted receiver on the team, catching 17 of his first 20 targets this year. It would be a shame for this game to go without Adams and Thomas as each team’s WR1, but that’s possibly reality and it’s only Week 3.

While the Saints need this one more than Green Bay, the fact of the matter is it’s a new season, and the Packers look like the superior team with the better QB right now.

The Pick

Under normal circumstances, I would be all in for the Saints rebounding with a win in this game. With a loud crowd amped up for Sunday night and Brees bringing his usual prime time mastery and accuracy, this is a spot where I’d expect Green Bay to fold and allow a lot of points in a loss.

But this year is different. The crowd is empty, the Saints are not playing complementary football, Green Bay and Rodgers are hot, and Brees sadly looks like what you’d expect to see from a 41-year-old QB. Maybe he takes all the criticism this week and it motivates him to a vintage performance, but if he doesn’t, then I think we’re just seeing the early stages of a rough season for New Orleans. The Packers going to 3-0 and dropping the Saints to 1-2 with a head-to-head tie-breaker would be huge for them in a conference where the rest of the South and North don’t look imposing so far, the East might be a bigger joke than last year, and the West is going to rough each other up all year.

Final: Packers 31, Saints 24

The Atlanta Falcons and the Art of Failure

Most NFL teams lose games because they were outplayed over the course of 60 minutes. They were sloppy and made too many mistakes. They weren’t aggressive enough or prepared for every new detail. Even if they still had their chances at the end, you just know they weren’t good enough that day to earn the win.

Then there’s the Atlanta Falcons, who have mastered the art of f*cking people over for three hours without a happy ending. Oh, there’s plenty of teasing and choking, but it always seems to end in unsatisfactory disappointment in the Matt Ryan era.

From the team that brought us 28-3, the Falcons may have found their regular season equivalent on Sunday in Dallas with a 40-39 loss that likely just killed their season.

Atlanta is the first team in NFL history to lose after scoring 39 points without a turnover.

Since 1940, teams are now 457-1 when scoring at least 39 points without a turnover. That includes playoff games and excludes two AAFC games. The Falcons led 20-0 in the first quarter after Dallas lost three fumbles. That’s right, the Falcons finished +3 in turnovers and still lost. Since 1940, teams are now 492-1 when scoring at least 38 points without a turnover and with multiple takeaways. The Falcons own the only loss.

Sound familiar? Of course, the worst part of this loss felt like a turnover when the Falcons calmly watched an onside kick attempt with 1:49 left trickle just over 10 yards before the Cowboys legally recovered it. That set up Greg Zuerlein’s 46-yard game-winning field goal at the buzzer to stun the Falcons. The play doesn’t count as a turnover since the Falcons never had possession and it wasn’t a fumble or interception, but it hurt just the same. Head coach Dan Quinn even managed the late stages so poorly that the Falcons were out of timeouts for the final drive, unable to save any time for Ryan to have a chance to answer.

Yet if you told a person this was how a game ended on Sunday without mentioning the teams, chances are if they know their NFL they would have guessed the Falcons came out on the losing end.

It Wasn’t Always Like This in Atlanta

To say things were always this bad in the Ryan era would simply be untrue. Let’s not forget how the Mike Smith era started.

From 2008 through the 2012 regular season (Ryan’s first five seasons), the Falcons under head coach Mike Smith blew just three fourth-quarter leads, including two tussles with Drew Brees and the Saints. That was the lowest total in the NFL in that time span. That was a great job of protecting leads for a team that had five straight winning seasons for the first and only time in franchise history.

But on the cusp of greatness, everything started to change in the 2012 playoffs. The top-seeded Falcons hosted Seattle in the divisional round, and despite taking a 27-7 lead into the fourth quarter, Atlanta surrendered three touchdowns in the quarter and trailed 28-27 with 31 seconds left. It was going to be a monumental collapse to a team with a rookie quarterback (Russell Wilson), but Ryan was able to complete two passes for 41 yards to set up a game-winning field goal, saving Atlanta’s season for the moment.

The following week in the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco, the Falcons again started hot and rolled to a 17-0 lead before things fell apart. Colin Kaepernick led the 49ers back to a 28-24 lead and Ryan was unable to connect on a fourth down in the red zone to keep the season alive. It was at the time the second-largest blown lead in a championship game in NFL history.

Atlanta didn’t recover for years, falling into a pattern of blown leads and red-zone failures. From the 2012 NFC Championship Game through the 2014 season, Smith’s Falcons blew eight fourth-quarter leads and he was fired.

Enter Dan Quinn in 2015

Quinn was the former Seattle defensive coordinator, so his most recent game was not the most flattering part of his resume. Yes, the guy who blew 28-3 and a 19-point fourth quarter lead in the Super Bowl already held the record for the biggest blown fourth quarter lead (10 points) in a Super Bowl. The Seahawks blew a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX against New England. Outside of that stellar 2013 Super Bowl season, the Seahawks have had consistent problems with holding leads in the fourth quarter, and Quinn is very much a believer in Pete Carroll’s defensive philosophies. You’re rarely going to see these defenses send the house and blitz in critical situations. They believe they can limit big plays and keep everything in front of them with strong tackling, but time and time again we have seen opposing quarterbacks pick their way down the field against soft zones with ease.

In Quinn’s first four seasons (2015-18), the Falcons blew 13 leads in the fourth quarter, which trailed only the Chargers during that stretch of time. Even in the Super Bowl year and MVP season for Ryan (2016), the Falcons managed to blow four leads while the rest of the NFL’s playoff field that year combined to blow one. That’s why the Falcons were only 11-5 and a No.2 seed despite having superior statistics to most teams in the NFL.

Against the 2016 Chiefs, Atlanta invented a new way to lose a game. Ryan led the Falcons back from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter to a 28-27 lead with 4:32 left, but something funny happened on the two-point conversion attempt. Ryan was intercepted by Eric Berry, who returned the ball for two points to give the Chiefs the first “Pick 2” in NFL history, not to mention they regained a 29-28 lead.

Ryan never got another chance on the field to make up for the error. The Chiefs ran out the clock and won the game. However, it looked like this was going to be the last time the 2016 Falcons lost after crushing their next six opponents to reach Super Bowl LI.

Unfortunately, that only set the stage for Atlanta’s masterpiece.

28-3

I’ve detailed on here before the numerous breaking points where if Atlanta just made one positive play, the Falcons win that Super Bowl. Even something as simple as Jake Matthews not getting a holding penalty in New England territory should have done the trick.

6:04 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-3): NE converts a fourth-and-3 to Danny Amendola. A stop at midfield would have put Atlanta in great shape to score again.

1:30 left, 3Q (ATL leads 28-9): A holding penalty on Jake Matthews turns a second-and-1 at the NE 32 into second-and-11 at the NE 42, out of FG range. An incompletion and sack of Ryan lead to a punt.

8:31 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-12): The turning point. Falcons throw on third-and-1, Devonta Freeman misses the block, Ryan is sacked and fumbles. Patriots take over at the ATL 25. This had to be a running play.

5:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-18): Stop a two-point conversion and you’re still in great shape. The Falcons didn’t. James White takes a direct snap to make it 28-20. Game on.

3:56 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Ryan is sacked for a 12-yard loss on second down at the NE 23. The other major turning point. You just hit the Julio Jones pass to get into field-goal range. Kneel down three times if you have to. The pass here was insane.

3:50 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Matthews has another horrible holding penalty, wiping out a Ryan completion to the NE 26. Matt Bryant could have made a field goal there, but on third-and-33, Ryan threw incomplete and the Falcons had to punt from the NE 45.

2:28 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-20): Robert Alford can clinch his Super Bowl MVP with a second interception of Tom Brady, but the pass goes off his hands, and he even helps keep the ball alive with his leg while a diving Julian Edelman makes an unbelievable catch for 23 yards.

0:57 left, 4Q (ATL leads 28-26): Alright, you’re not going to give up TWO two-point conversions, are you Atlanta? Yes, you did, and on a bubble screen of all things. By then, your goose was cooked, because you know the Patriots weren’t going to give the ball back in overtime after winning the coin toss.

Any one of those eight things goes right for the Falcons and Atlanta is the reigning champion.

It’s hard to imagine a team finding a more soul-crushing way to lose a Super Bowl than Atlanta. Teams that start games that well just do not lose in this league’s 100-year history. The 25-point blown lead is of course the worst in championship game history now, so the Falcons have the first and third spots on that list.

While Ryan’s five sacks, including a huge strip-sack fumble in the fourth quarter, were pivotal in the loss, he still finished the game with a 144.1 passer rating and 12.35 yards per attempt. Both of those numbers are the highest in NFL history for a playoff loss (min. 15 attempts).

Thanks for the PTSD, Atlanta

In the seasons since Super Bowl LI, the Falcons have looked like only a shell of the team that created the greatest collapse in NFL history. Maybe that’s all that’s left of the psyche for Quinn, Ryan, Julio Jones and company. The defense hasn’t been good since 2017 and has fallen back to terrible status much like the seasons that canned Smith in Atlanta. Ryan’s had some moments and a big stat line in 2018, but he hasn’t consistently put a full year together like his peak MVP performance of 2016 when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator before taking the San Francisco job.

So what the Falcons provide us now are games like Sunday: PTSD-triggering moments of 28-3 where a game performance that has been a sure win in NFL history turns into a loss for Atlanta.

The last four NFL quarterbacks to lose a game with a passer rating of 140+ (min. 20 attempts):

  • 2019 Matt Ryan at Arizona
  • 2018 Marcus Mariota at Houston
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. New Orleans
  • 2016 Matt Ryan vs. New England

The last three NFL quarterbacks to lose a game with 350+ passing yards and a 130+ passer rating:

  • 2019 Matt Ryan at Arizona
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. Cincinnati
  • 2018 Matt Ryan vs. New Orleans

Ryan’s passer rating against the 2018 Saints (148.1) is the highest in regular season history in a loss with at least 25 pass attempts. His 144.9 rating against the 2019 Cardinals ranks third on the same list.

It’s not just Ryan either, but the offense as a whole has lost in historic fashion in these games highlighted against the Saints, Bengals and Cardinals. The Saints and Bengals were back-to-back home games in 2018.

That means the 2018 Falcons lost back-to-back home games after scoring at least 36 points and having zero turnovers. Since 1940, home teams not named the 2018 Falcons are 428-3 when scoring at least 36 points and having zero turnovers. The Falcons were 1-2 doing that.

Since 1991, home teams that converted at least 70 percent of their third downs and scored at least 25 points are 83-2. The Falcons, against the 2018 Bengals, had the first loss in that group. (The 2018 Raiders also lost 40-33 to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs)

Sunday was the sixth time since 2012 that the Falcons have lost after leading by at least 17 points, two more than any other team in the NFL. It’s almost like the Falcons spent years looking for the perfect way to lose a game in inexplicable fashion, painted their masterpiece in Super Bowl LI, and have struggled to recreate that art in lower-stakes environments.

If Vincent Van Gogh can lose it and cut off his left ear at 35, then I hate to see what Ryan will become if he has to go beyond this season with Quinn as his coach. This is not the legacy you’d like to see for players the caliber of Ryan and Julio, but the fact is the Falcons are best known for the games they’ve artfully lost than anything they’ve ever won.

Sunday was just the latest exhibit, but unlikely the last.

NFL Week 2 Predictions: Wilson v. Belichick IV

The NFL is back, but how has it looked so far? The limited crowd seemed more than loud enough at the first Kansas City game on opening night, and the fake noise used in most of the other games wasn’t too much of a distraction to me. There were seven fourth-quarter comebacks in Week 1, including a pair of 17-point comebacks by the Bears and Redskins Football Team. Holding penalties were way down, so that’s good for watching the games, but not so great for fairness. There’s a lot of soft tissues injuries already and some big name pass catchers who will be down this week, but at least the quarterbacks have been unusually healthy to this point. Kickers got off to their worst start since the 9-game strike season of 1982.

This is the first NFL season since 1984 where no team has been a favorite of 10 or more points through the first two weeks. The closest we got there, which is essentially there when rounding, was opening night when the 9.5-point favorite Chiefs beat Houston by 14. Kansas City also has the largest spread of Week 2 with -9 in Los Angeles.

There are nine teams favored by at least 6 points this week, but you can be sure there will be some upsets mixed in with blowouts and games going down to the wire. We already saw the Bengals cover in the final minute against the Browns on Thursday night (to my dismay).

Several of the 0-1 teams will meet each other in what is close to a must-win game if they are to amount to anything this season. Here’s looking at you in the NFC: Cowboys, 49ers, Buccaneers, and Vikings. All face winless teams this week. The Eagles host the 1-0 Rams, but that’s another important early-season game too. The narrative is that Aaron Donald will devour Carson Wentz, who took eight sacks last week behind a banged up offensive line. You might be surprised to see I’m taking the Eagles to win that one, because if that team is going to do anything this year, this is a game where they’ll make adjustments there, play better on offense, and do enough defensively against a Rams team that only scored 20 on Dallas last week to get this win. Remember, a lot of short fields hurt the Eagles against Washington. The defense wasn’t the problem.

There aren’t many games between 1-0 teams, but none are more surprising than the Washington Football Team and Arizona Cardinals (-7). The Cardinals haven’t been a 7-point favorite against any team since they went to Indianapolis (no Andrew Luck) in the second game of the 2017 season. Kyler Murray led his first 4QC win last week against the 49ers, but he still may be a bit of a volume passer instead of an efficient one. It’ll be interesting to see how well he’s protected against the aforementioned Washington defense that had eight sacks last week. Oddly enough, Murray has six games in his career where he’s taken four sacks and five of those games were at home.

SNF: Wilson v. Belichick IV

NBC definitely nailed the best game with the 1-0 Patriots traveling out to Seattle after the Seahawks lit up the Falcons. These teams have played three great games in a row in the Russell Wilson era, and had it not been for you know what call in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks would probably be 3-0 in those games with three game-winning drives for Wilson.

Now you remove Tom Brady and put in Cam Newton, who threw 19 passes and ran 15 times with a couple of touchdowns for the Patriots in his debut last week. He was efficient, and it likely would have led to a 28-point day had his receiver not fumbled through the end zone to trigger one of the dumbest rules in the sport. However, you would expect that Cam will need to throw a bit more on the road to match what Wilson can do on his side of the ball.

The Seahawks were pass happy (for them) last week in Atlanta, but the Falcons have spent over half a decade not figuring out how to stop passes to the running backs. Wilson had two of his four touchdown passes to Chris Carson. It’ll be interesting to see if the Seahawks continue to throw more or revert to more of a running game this time around given the better pass defense they’ll see. New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore will also hope to bounce back from a game where he had a couple of big defensive pass interference penalties called on him on fourth down and third-and-18 in the fourth quarter.

Clearly, both teams are going to get a much stronger test than the foes they beat last week. This game could be the shortest of the week if both teams are completing passes at such a high rate with a lot of runs, but I’m thinking more of a defensive slugfest with hopefully another great finish.

Final: Seahawks 23, Patriots 17

Upset Alert: Raiders over Saints (-5.5)

I know, trusting Derek Carr is scary, but one situation where I actually have some confidence in him is with the game on the line. He delivered another 4QC/GWD last week, albeit another one where he needed a pass interference penalty on a third down to keep the drive alive. But Carr won a 34-30 game on the road against Carolina and had the offense moving well. I watched the Saints-Buccaneers game and was generally impressed by New Orleans, but not by the offense. Drew Brees looked old and inaccurate in one of the more disappointing performances from that offense in a long time. Michael Thomas was injured late in the game and his high-ankle sprain will keep him out this week. Emmanuel Sanders is a fine player, but what else does this offense really have at WR now?

That’s why I like the Raiders to open their new Las Vegas stadium with a win on Monday night. They can protect Carr and the Raiders seem further ahead offensively right now than the new-look Buccaneers did last week. If you’re going for an upset this week, this is the one to end the week with.

Final: Raiders 24, Saints 20

NFL Week 2 Predictions

I had a 9-6-1 ATS start to 2020, but already 0-1 in Week 2 after Joe Burrow found a way late to beat the spread in Cleveland.

I’ m not giving up on the Vikings yet, though that’s a game I’d stay away from this week. Could go many ways.