NFL Stat Oddity: Wild Card Weekend

After a terrible postseason last year, how did the NFL start things this January? A whistle controversy. The perfect offensive game in frigid conditions. A couple of No. 7 seeds from Pennsylvania offered up as sacrificial lambs to guarantee the Chiefs and Buccaneers don’t go one-and-done after last year’s Super Bowl meeting. And an asshole, calling a QB run with 14 seconds left and no timeouts.

Some fun was had. Memories were made. A legend came to a sobering end.

But you know what we didn’t get? Not a single fourth-quarter lead change. The whole 2020 postseason also did not have a fourth-quarter lead change. The closest was the Buccaneers breaking a 20-20 tie in New Orleans in the divisional round.

That means we have gone 18 straight NFL playoff games without a single fourth-quarter lead change. The last was in Super Bowl 54 between the Chiefs and 49ers, thanks to one third-and-15 play.

Is this the longest drought in NFL playoff history? I’m not sure as of right now, but I know it ties the last longest drought of 18 games from the 2004 divisional round (Saturday night game) through the 2006 wild card round (Saturday afternoon game).

But at least that stretch gave us one of the most dramatic playoff games ever: 2005 AFC divisional between the Steelers and Colts. It’s a fitting game to bring up at the end of Ben Roethlisberger’s career as his tackle of Nick Harper after Jerome Bettis’ fumble affected so many legacies, including his own. Bettis and head coach Bill Cowher likely are never inducted into the Hall of Fame without Ben’s tackle. If Hines Ward ever gets into Canton on the strength of a Super Bowl MVP from that year, he can thank Ben for that tackle as well. Would Adam Vinatieri ever end up as Indy’s kicker had Mike Vanderjagt not come on to choke so badly on the game-tying field goal? Nick Harper also would be a hero and only get hate mail from Pittsburgh addresses.

This is what the playoffs can do. One moment can change everything about how we view players, coaches, and teams. So, can we cook up some more drama next week? It looks like a good one on paper. As for the Rams and Cardinals, I’ll see you when I see you. But let’s get things started with the only team that was truly perfect this weekend.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Patriots at Bills: The Perfect Game

On Saturday night, the Bills left no doubt that the AFC East belongs to them now with a 47-17 thrashing of the Patriots, the worst playoff loss in Bill Belichick’s career. About the only thing the Bills did wrong was fail on two extra points. When these teams met in Week 16, the Bills scored on six of eight drives and never punted in an impressive performance.

This time, the Bills had quite arguably the greatest offensive performance in NFL history.

  • Buffalo’s offense scored seven touchdowns on seven offensive possessions. The eighth “drive” was just three kneeldowns.
  • These drives covered lengths of 70, 80, 81, 89, 58, 77, and 39 yards.
  • Buffalo was 6-of-7 on third down with the only “failure” being a kneeldown to end the game. Those were also the only plays where Buffalo lost yardage and the Bills did not allow a sack.
  • This means the Bills never faced a fourth down in the entire game.
  • Josh Allen had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions as he was 21-of-25 passing.

Under any circumstances, this would be in the running for the best offensive game in NFL history. But when you add in that it was a playoff game against a division rival with a defensive coach many consider the greatest to ever do it, and the Bills performed like this in single-digit temperatures against the No. 2 scoring defense, I think it is hands down the best offensive performance in NFL history.

This is only the third NFL game since World War II where a team had seven touchdowns, zero punts, and zero turnovers. But Buffalo is the only team to not kick a field goal as well.

This is actually the fourth NFL game since 2000 where an offense scored at least six touchdowns and scored on every drive except for the last one that ended in kneeldowns to run out the clock, but none of the other three matched Buffalo’s perfection.

  • 2000 Rams vs. Chargers: Rams had 6 TD, 5 FG and ran out the clock with three knees in 57-31 win.
  • 2015 Patriots vs. Jaguars: Patriots had 6 TD, 3 FG and ran out the clock with two knees in 51-17 win.
  • 2018 Saints at Bengals: Saints had 6 TD, 3 FG and ran out the final 4:42 on the clock (three knees after the two-minute warning) in a 51-14 win.

All great performances, but all against weak competition and none hit that 7-for-7 touchdown mark.

Buffalo’s performance was so divine that it hardly mattered what the New England offense did or didn’t do this time. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones had six incompletions at halftime, including a spike, a couple drops, and one incredible interception in the end zone by Micah Hyde. But New England trailed 27-3 at halftime, the most points the Patriots have allowed in the first half of any game under Belichick. The 47 points are the most the Patriots have allowed in a game since giving up 48 to the 1990 Eagles.

I told you in September that Jones would never match the luck of Brady, the LOAT. Brady has started 362 games in the NFL and his teams have never allowed more than 42 points. Jones led the Patriots to 17 points in this game and lost by 30. Brady started his playoff career 4-0 despite leading his offense to 16, 0, 13, and 17 points in those games. That era of getting by with the bare minimum on offense and relying on great defense is dead.

For the second time in three years, Belichick coached a paper tiger that fell apart down the stretch and couldn’t get past the first day of the postseason. We probably should have seen this coming. Any team that loses by 10 points to Carson Wentz when he throws for 57 yards should raise every red flag about their legitimacy.

The Patriots started this season 2-4 with wins over the lowly Jets and Texans. We gave them credit for hanging tough with superior Tampa Bay and Dallas teams, but they were an afterthought early in the season. The Patriots later finished the season losing four of five and only beating the awful Jaguars 50-10 to pad the season stats.

But it was that fool’s gold 7-0 run in the middle that had some people drinking the New England Kool-Aid again. As it turns out, beating up on the Jets, the Panthers without Christian McCaffrey, the Browns with an injured Baker Mayfield, the Falcons and Titans without their skill players, and another choke by the Chargers isn’t the stuff that makes for an elite team.

Things peaked with that 14-10 win in Buffalo where NFL talking heads wanted to hang the three pass gameplan in the Hall of Fame.

I never bought it. I knew in a normal weather game, the Bills would show their superiority. I just never imagined we would see this type of perfection in those conditions. But while cold-weather games can be low scoring like the 10-9 game between the 2015 Vikings and Seahawks, wind is still the bigger issue. This game did not have wind problems like Week 13 presented. Allen was able to throw the ball accurately and all five of his touchdown passes came on play-action.

The Game Where Buffalo Scored a Touchdown on Every Drive is going to be one that people remember and cite for years to come. It’s that historic. But I imagine for it to take on an even greater relevance, the Bills are going to have to win the Super Bowl this year. We never really talk about the 1990 Bills scoring 44 and 51 points on their way to the Super Bowl because they didn’t get the job done against the Giants (thanks for nothing, Scott Norwood).

But after seeing how the Bills handled the Patriots in this one, who wants to bet against them? Of course, they must contend with the Chiefs in Kansas City, so get ready for a week of looking back at 38-20 (and 38-24 in last year’s AFC Championship Game).

Steelers at Chiefs: Well, At Least It Wasn’t 62-7

I usually write some form of eulogy for the Steelers after their latest playoff loss, but now I am just wondering when that opportunity will come again. The team heads into an era without Ben Roethlisberger following his likely last game in Kansas City, a 42-21 defeat that only showed promise for one quarter before snowballing into another record-setting loss, the fourth in a row for the Steelers in the playoffs. I’ll compile my thoughts on Roethlisberger’s career at a later date, but for now, it’s about this game.

Despite the scoreless first quarter, these teams combined for 63 points, a playoff record for a game that was scoreless after 15 minutes. This was made possible by the Steelers once again allowing their season-high in points in the playoffs, something they have done in four straight playoffs (2016-17 and 2020-21).

Pittsburgh is the first team in NFL history to allow at least 36 points in four straight playoff games, and the first team in NFL history to allow at least 42 points in three straight playoff games. Oh, at least they had three sacks and two takeaways this time, but T.J. Watt’s fumble return touchdown in the second quarter only seemed to ignite Patrick Mahomes on a historic playoff scoring run.

The turnover only happened because the Chiefs were foolish enough to run a wildcat play, but once Mahomes got back in control, he destroyed the Pittsburgh defense in a way few ever have. Mahomes threw five touchdown passes in a span of 11 minutes and 31 seconds, a playoff record.

Mahomes used the whole playbook to pick apart the Steelers. There was a shovel pass touchdown, there was a great throw on third down to Byron Pringle for a 12-yard touchdown, there was a 48-yard touchdown to Travis Kelce on third-and-20 right before halftime, the second-longest touchdown catch of Kelce’s career. If third-and-20 wasn’t enough of a back-breaker to make it 21-7 at halftime, the Chiefs doubled up with Mahomes throwing a 1-yard touchdown to an eligible lineman to make it 28-7.

All four of those drives were 68-plus yards. Only after the lone Pittsburgh turnover did the Chiefs get a short field that ended in a fifth touchdown to Tyreek Hill on a deep ball. Mahomes had a chance at six touchdowns, but Kelce ended up throwing a 2-yard touchdown to Pringle on another trick play the Steelers had no answer for.

If the Steelers hadn’t established such a pathetic standard of postseason defense under Mike Tomlin, and if the Bills weren’t so sublime on Saturday night, this Kansas City domination would be the talk of the weekend. Even with another tipped interception and the obligatory fumble, the Chiefs smoked the Steelers out of the playoffs and perhaps out of contention for some time to come. Since losing Super Bowl 45 to Green Bay, Tomlin and Roethlisberger were just 3-8 in the playoffs.

As far as final games go, Roethlisberger finished somewhere in the large area between awful and great. He usually has multiple turnovers in a playoff loss but finished this game with none. He was however a non-factor for the first half, passing for 24 yards on 14 attempts as the Steelers started with seven straight punts. Diontae Johnson did him no favors with a couple of drive-killing drops, but the offense never had any real plan. Najee Harris did not look healthy and lost the first fumble of his career to start the third quarter. That fumble led to Mahomes’ fifth touchdown pass and the rout was on at 35-7. Roethlisberger led two straight touchdown drives with James Washington making some great catches, but it was too little too late. Ben’s last march, down 42-21, got to the Kansas City 3 before the final seconds ticked away to end an era in Pittsburgh.

The Chiefs have another huge one with Buffalo while the Steelers have plenty of questions. It was nice to see JuJu Smith-Schuster return to action for Roethlisberger’s final game, but it’s not like offensive coordinator Matt Canada and this coaching staff has any idea how to use him properly in this offense. JuJu may be gone as well as a slew of other players. The bigger question is which heads are going to roll in the coaching staff? We know Tomlin is safe for 2022, but how can defensive coordinator Keith Butler possibly return after this pathetic display in the playoffs again? You just let Jerick McKinnon gain 142 yards from scrimmage. This team is unlikely to beat Cincinnati (Joe Burrow) in a big game any time soon, let alone Mahomes and the Chiefs without big changes.

The “never had a losing season” thing wears thin when there is such a lack of playoff success attached to it. Given what usually happens to a team the first year without their Hall of Fame quarterback, I imagine it won’t be a fact to point to much longer for Tomlin. The standard needs to change.

49ers at Cowboys: Fourth Quarter Fvckery

Jesus Christ, is this what we get when Kyle Shanahan is trying to hold off a 16-point comeback in the playoffs by a Mike McCarthy-coached team? This game did not want to die as numerous people volunteered to be the scapegoat, but no one wanted to be the hero. Still, it was the most dramatic game of the weekend and the closest we came to a fourth-quarter lead change.

I picked the 49ers outright as my upset of the week. I liked the San Francisco pass rush after what it did to Matthew Stafford last week, and sure enough, it got after Dak Prescott well to throw him off his game (five sacks) despite Nick Bosa leaving with a head injury. I was big on Deebo Samuel, and he did not disappoint with 110 yards from scrimmage and another touchdown. Also, I thought the Cowboys were a mistake-prone, fraudulent No. 1 offense and a 12-win team that got half of its wins against the lowly NFC East competition. Despite having the most points and yards in the league, Dallas was only No. 8 in both yards and points per drive this season, a very unusual discrepancy.

But even I did not expect Dallas to look so bad for much of the game. The 49ers were settling for a lot of field goals early or else we’d have another blowout this weekend. But the 49ers were avoiding the turnovers the Cowboys capitalized on all year. The Cowboys, who complain a lot about officiating, were flagged 14 times for 89 yards in the game. Of the four times a team had 14 penalties this season, two of them were Dallas, including both the Cowboys and Raiders in that Thanksgiving game.

But at some point, you have to stop doing dumb shit and hurting your team. CeeDee Lamb had a rough game and wiped out an 18-yard completion with an illegal shift late in the third quarter as the Cowboys still trailed 23-7. The drive eventually stalled at midfield when it looked like McCarthy was going to punt again, which I didn’t agree with this time as time was running out in a 16-point game. Alas, it was a predictable fake that still caught the 49ers off guard for a conversion. But instead of continuing the drive, the Cowboys kept the special teams unit out there on first down against San Francisco’s defense, hoping to make the 49ers burn a timeout. WTF? The only confusion was on Dallas, which got hit with a delay of game penalty after trying to get the offense on late. That was a great preview of the fourth-quarter fvckery to come.

The Cowboys ended up settling for a 51-yard field goal on 4th-and-7. Personally, I didn’t mind the call with the way Dak was playing. I had very little faith in a conversion, and a stop there would really make things dire. Down 16, you almost have to assume you’re going to need three scores anyway as going 8+8 just to tie is very difficult. Just keep extending the game and make something happen. I even predicted as much and was rewarded with a gift from Jimmy Garoppolo.

Just four snaps later, Garoppolo got careless and threw an interception that was returned to the San Francisco 28. Hello, short field. Fred Warner joined Bosa on the sidelines with an injury, and Prescott scrambled for a touchdown to make it 23-17 after an extra point that never seemed to be second guessed by Dallas’ staff.

Out of all the two-point conversion dialogue, we never really spend time on what to do when you’re down 13 but going for two seems to be the smart call, especially with just over eight minutes left against an offense that had been scoring on you.

  • If you go for it and fail, you’re still down 23-16 and can tie with a normal touchdown drive.
  • If you go for it and succeed, you’re only down 23-18, can go up 26-23 with a TD/2PC, or if the 49ers add a field goal to go up 26-18, you’re still in a one-possession game, which is crucial given the time crunch.
  • If you kick the extra point to make it 23-17 like Dallas did, a San Francisco field goal still makes it 26-17, a two-possession game. Also, if you get a touchdown, you’re almost certainly going to kick an extra point to go ahead 24-23, which means you can still lose to a field goal.

After never giving it much thought before Sunday, I have to say I’ll fully be in favor of going for two when down 13 going forward. But Dallas didn’t even bother.

The 49ers took advantage of two more penalties on Dallas’ defense to have a long drive, but they still faced a 4th-and-1. They were going to go for it, which I’m not sure about, but their own penalties forced them to punt. Prescott only needed two snaps to get to midfield before the drive stalled out on four straight failed plays. I loved the 49ers sending pressure on fourth-and-11 with their best natural rusher (Bosa) out of the game. Prescott threw up a decent deep ball to Cedrick Wilson, but he failed to adjust and make the catch.

It still wasn’t over with Dallas having all three timeouts and 1:42. Randy Gregory, no stranger to penalties, had another big one for defensive holding on a second down. That should have set the 49ers up nicely, but they hurt themselves with a false start. Samuel got the ball on third-and-10 for what was initially ruled a game-sealing first down, but he was inches short of the marker. I think going for the QB sneak to end it was the right call at 40 seconds, but the 49ers even botched that with a false start after using too much motion. Punt was the only option left.

We’ve seen crazier things than a team go 80 yards in 32 seconds. The Cowboys had three really nice plays in a row to get 39 of those yards as the 49ers played inexplicably soft. But then came the call that will go down in infamy. Teams usually believe they need about 16 seconds to complete a play in bounds and regroup for the spike and one more play. Teams practice this. Dallas had 14 seconds left, so this was really going to test that limit if the play wasn’t super fast. The play ended up being a QB draw that Dak milked for 17 yards to the San Francisco 24. But in trying to get the spike off, the ball had to be touched by the official, who bumped into Prescott under center, and the spike ended the game. It didn’t even look like the spike beat the game clock to be honest.

The game was over in shame for Dallas. I don’t care if the call was the idea of McCarthy, Dak, or offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, it was the wrong decision all the way. I’d rather take two shots to the end zone from the SF 41. Maybe even three if I draw a pass interference flag, something the 49ers led the league in this year by a wide margin.

Maybe someone a little faster like Lamar Jackson pulls off that spike with a second to spare, but it was too damn cute in a situation that had zero margin for error.

The 49ers move on, barely. Dallas proved to be a paper tiger once again. This marks the 11th straight postseason where the Cowboys failed to advance to the NFC Championship Game, which is an NFL record. Can never complain about a weekend where Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones watch their teams lose in embarrassing fashion, but I feel weird about Prescott after this game. I was hoping for a much better performance than this as it was his first postseason start since the 2018 season. I do not believe the Cowboys have a quarterback problem, but I get the sense that promoting Moore to head coach won’t change a thing in Dallas and its playoff misfortunes.

At least Amari Cooper showed up and caught a touchdown, so I don’t have to end by calling him soft again. Save the criticism for Lamb, who really disappointed in his playoff debut with one catch on five targets.

If the 49ers can stay out of their own way, they might be a dangerous team this postseason. Great challenge coming up in Green Bay on Saturday night.

Eagles at Buccaneers: Pennsylvania Going Out Sad on Sunday

The worst game of the weekend should come as no surprise. The 2021 Eagles slipped to 0-7 against playoff teams, something only the 2011 Bengals (0-8) can claim they’ve done among all playoff teams in NFL history. This is what happens when you let a 5-7 team play the Jets, Giants, and Washington (twice) so they can get the No. 7 seed, which grants them a road game against a team that used to get a bye week.

Philadelphia trailed as badly as 31-0 as Jalen Hurts struggled to make on-time plays or establish any offensive rhythm against a Tampa Bay defense that is getting healthy at the right time. The running game was pretty much shut down outside of Boston Scott exploding for a 34-yard touchdown run on his only carry. Miles Sanders (7 carries for 16 yards) finishes his 2021 allergic to the end zone.

Hurts threw two picks and Jalen Reagor had an awful day in every way with a muffed punt that blew open the game. Tampa Bay’s offense was nothing special and was stalling out after taking a 17-0 lead. But once Reagor muffed that punt in the third quarter, the Buccaneers took advantage with a 48-yard touchdown drive as no one decided to cover Rob Gronkowski for an easy touchdown. Hurts was picked on a fourth down and Tom Brady only needed one play to find Mike Evans for a 36-yard touchdown.

Despite two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the Eagles never seriously threatened. But the Eagles were able to sack Brady four times and hold Tampa Bay to 4-of-13 on third down. The Buccaneers will have to be sharper in their next game, and it could be without elite right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who was injured early in the game. He tried to return, which was probably a bad idea, before leaving for good. The Bucs also lost center Ryan Jensen, but that was brief, and he finished the game.

We’ll see what happens with Wirfs going forward, but Tampa Bay is still in a good position to get back to the NFC Championship Game, if not host it should the 49ers upset the Packers.

The highlight of this game was FOX’s Troy Aikman visibly complaining on camera about having to call this game instead of being in Dallas for the San Francisco game everyone knew would be better. Troy was right, but I didn’t mind hearing CBS’ Tony Romo take some enjoyment in the Cowboys losing a rough playoff game instead of listening to Romo slurp Brady for three hours.

Raiders at Bengals: The Most Jerome Boger Game Ever

We can talk about the officials, or we can talk about the Bengals nailing their draft picks of Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase and winning a division title and home playoff game in their first season together to end a 30-year playoff drought. That’s an important achievement in what could be the start of a great run in Cincinnati.

Of course, you’re not always going to draw an opponent as weak as the Raiders, who were outscored by 65 points this season. But after having the worst red-zone defense in 30 years, the Raiders can thank their red-zone defense for keeping this a close game instead of another rout. The Raiders allowed a touchdown 81.4% of the time in the red zone this year – no one else was above 70.0%. But the Cincinnati offense finished 2-of-5 in the red zone in this game.

The second of those conversions created the controversy in this one. Joe Burrow scrambled near the sideline before throwing a 10-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Boyd, who was wide open in the back of the end zone. It was ruled a touchdown and gave the Bengals a 20-6 lead after the two-minute warning in the first half.

But a whistle clearly blows on the play, which by rule, should have blown the play dead and led to a replaying of the down, which was a third-and-4 at the Las Vegas 10. Maybe the Bengals still score on the next play. Maybe they get a first down and score later, not leaving the Raiders enough time for their touchdown drive they finished with 13 seconds to spare. Maybe the Bengals miss a short field goal. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The NFL did itself no favors by saying after the game that the whistle came after the ball was caught by Boyd. Here’s my take: I think the whistle blew while Boyd was going up to catch the ball. He was already wide open. Burrow was in bounds and threw a perfectly legal pass. Boyd was in bounds and caught the ball for a touchdown. The players did everything right on the play. The only mistake was an inadvertent whistle by a referee. Why should we bail out the Raiders on defense for a mistake like that? It’s sour grapes. The touchdown is legitimate.

There were other officiating controversies in the game, but that’s basically cooked into the product any time Jerome Boger is the referee. Long delays are his specialty too. I cannot imagine we’ll see this crew do another game this postseason, so maybe it’s for the best that we got this snafu out of the way in a wild card game.

Burrow was impressive in his first playoff game, especially when you consider the running game failed with Joe Mixon only rushing for 48 yards on 17 carries. Chase was impressive too, though Tee Higgins remained a ghost against this Vegas defense for a second time this season.

But because of those red-zone failures early in the game, the Bengals never ran away with things. The Raiders got the late stops and Derek Carr got all he could ask for: a chance at a game-tying (or game-winning with a two-point conversion) touchdown drive, down 26-19 with 1:51 left.

As always, I expected him to get BS flags, especially with what happened earlier in the game to Vegas. Immediately, he got an extra 15 yards on one of the worst roughing calls you’ll see in a big spot. But after a brilliant throw to Darren Waller to convert a third-and-17, Carr went back to making bad plays. Eventually, he hit another third down but ended up wasting a down with a spike. At 30 seconds, I thought he had enough time to have a play called and not waste that down. This proved costly.

Carr had a fourth-and-goal at the 9 with 17 seconds left. The Raiders certainly did not run a play with good design. Hunter Renfrow should be doing something towards the end zone, for starters. But I think Carr ultimately panicked and forced a pass short of the goal line to Zay Jones in double coverage. It was a game-ending interception, but even a completion there would have ended the game short of the goal line.

Carr blew his chance to be a hero in the biggest game of his career. Waller running a wheel route would have been the better decision. Put some air on it and let your best guy use his size to his advantage. At least throw it in the end zone with the game on the line.

At least they didn’t run Carr on a quarterback draw, I guess.

This is the first season in NFL history where the Bengals and Buccaneers both won a playoff game. Throw in the Bills in the AFC and consider how long those playoff win droughts were (1996-2019 for Buffalo), and we are really seeing that changing of the guard in the AFC. It’s exciting for the league as another huge Bills-Chiefs game looms next week. But the Bengals may have an upset in mind in Tennessee as well. Exciting times for the Bengals for a change.

NFL 2021 NFC Wild Card Previews

Much like the AFC playoffs, rematches are a big deal in the NFC this week. The only “new” game over Super Wild Card Weekend is 49ers-Cowboys. We get a third meeting of Cardinals-Rams after the road team won the first two, and a venue switch with the No. 2 seed Buccaneers trying to sweep No. 7 Philadelphia.

Scroll to the bottom if you want to see my predictions on who wins the Super Bowl this year.

Eagles at Buccaneers (-8.5)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

Tampa Bay is trying to end the longest drought in NFL history without a repeat champion. Like last year, they start this playoff run with the weakest team in the NFC field from everyone’s favorite NFC division to criticize. It looks like a good matchup for Tampa Bay as the Eagles are a run-heavy offense going up against a stout defense led by Vita Vea that hopes you run the ball instead of throwing against their injured secondary. The Eagles also have a rookie coach, inexperienced quarterback, and a pass defense that allows a generous 69.4% completion percentage.

The Eagles allowed five quarterbacks, including Tom Brady, to complete 80% of their passes this year, an NFL record. Not only do the Eagles allow a lot of easy completions, but the defense ranks 20th in points per drive allowed, 23rd in third-down conversion rate, 25th in takeaways per drive, and 28th in red zone touchdown rate. Guess who once again has a defense that ranks 6th in points per drive, 7th in takeaways per drive, 10th in red zone touchdown rate, and 12th on third down? Brady, the LOAT.

But you don’t actually need a big passing performance to beat the Buccaneers this season. Sure, Matthew Stafford and the Rams did it that way in Week 3 with a game that had zero turnovers, but the Saints swept the Buccaneers, and Washington beat them by playing smart, safe football. The Buccaneers were minus-6 in the turnover department in those games (seven giveaways to one takeaway). That’s Trevor Siemian, Taylor Heinicke, and Taysom Hill, or an unholy trinity of quarterbacks not as good as Jalen Hurts. The Giants forced Hurts into three interceptions in that horrific loss but Hurts only had eight turnovers in the other 14 games combined this year.

But as I said, the Eagles aren’t very good at taking the ball away. Each team one had giveaway in the Week 6 matchup, won 28-22 by the Buccaneers after leading 28-7. Things should look a bit different this week. Lane Johnson is back at tackle and both teams get their best tight end (Dallas Goedert and Rob Gronkowski) back. The Buccaneers no longer have Antonio Brown, the star that night, and Chris Godwin is out with a torn ACL. Leonard Fournette should be back from IR this week and he had two touchdowns in that game. Linebacker Lavonte David is also returning from IR just in time for the postseason.

The Eagles were still a work in progress in Week 6. They infamously handed the ball off three times to a running back in Dallas. They only had nine handoffs for 56 yards to Miles Sanders in Week 6 with Hurts rushing 10 times for 44 yards and two touchdowns. Since then, Nick Sirianni’s bunch have developed a running identity and should not be so afraid to run on the Buccaneers, who are not as elite as they were at stopping the run in 2020. Tampa has already allowed eight teams, including Philadelphia, to rush for 100 yards in 17 games this year after doing so six times in 20 games last year. Tampa has also gone from 3.6 yards per rush allowed (No. 1) in 2020 to 4.3 yards per rush allowed (No. 15) in 2021. Sanders, despite not having a touchdown this year on 163 touches, is the team’s best back and he has a broken hand. But they still have some capable backups in Boston Scott and Jordan Howard. There is optimism that Sanders can play on Sunday.

Whether Sanders plays or not, Hurts needs to channel his inner Colin Kaepernick and run wild this week. It’s the playoffs and you’re the underdog. Let it all hang out. The Eagles were also 3-of-10 on third down in Week 6 in a game where Hurts passed for 115 yards and had 4.42 YPA. On the season, Philadelphia converts 45.7% of third downs, good for fourth in the league with Tampa Bay at No. 2 (47.1%). These are also two of the top eight offenses at scoring touchdowns in the red zone where Hurts is a major threat with 10 rushing scores.

These are the only two defenses that allow an average depth of target under 7.0 yards this season. We know Brady will stay very patient and take the easy throws against the second-least likely defense to blitz (16.4%). But will Hurts do the same against the only defense that blitzes over 40% of the time this year? Only the Bills get a higher pressure rate on the QB this year than Tampa Bay. That could be the game right there.

Since penalties are a topic that seems to come up with Tampa Bay more than most teams, I had a few stats to share here. No defenses were penalized pre-snap more this year than the Buccaneers (18) and Eagles (15). Both defenses were top five in penalties, but on offense, the Buccaneers (33) had the second-fewest penalties while the Eagles (49) were 16th. After drawing a record 27 DPI flags last year, Tampa Bay’s offense only was the beneficiary of 11 such calls this season (tied for eighth). Tampa Bay’s defense however was flagged for the second-most DPI flags (14). Philadelphia’s offense only drew six DPI flags all year, but two of them were in Week 6 as they got the Buccaneers for gains of 45 and 50 yards. That adds some context to Hurts only passing for 115 yards. Tampa Bay’s 120 penalty yards that night is the most for the team in a game since 2015.

Tampa Bay started the year with the most loaded receiving corps in the NFL. Now that big four has been reduced to two without Brown and Godwin. I think if you had to pick the weakest version of the Buccaneers with two of those four players, it might be the Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski combo they have now. Gronk is still awesome, and Evans is a special talent, but AB and Godwin are much more of the prototype for a Brady receiver. Guys who can get open from anywhere, especially in the slot, and they run smooth routes and can be dangerous with the ball in their hands. Evans is much more of a height advantage/catch radius receiver you can throw it up to and let him get it. Brady does that with him, but it’s not his main strength.

Still, I think Evans and Gronk with the running backs back, including Gio Bernard as a receiving option, and a top-tier offensive line are plenty to get past the Eagles again. Let’s not act like the Eagles aren’t the beneficiary of a seventh playoff seed. In past years, this 9-8 team would not have been good enough to make the playoffs.

In fact, the 2021 Eagles are a historic team for the wrong reasons. The 2021 Eagles are 0-6 against playoff teams, joining the 2011 Bengals (0-7) as the only playoff teams in NFL history to go 0-6 or worse against playoff teams in the regular season. Those Bengals lost a wild card game 31-10 to Houston too. The 2021 Eagles are also 1-7 against teams with a winning record, only getting a win over the Saints, who only got their ninth win in Week 18. That 1-7 record against winning teams is the worst for a playoff team since the 2011 Lions were 0-5, a feat only matched by the 1969 Oilers and 1991 Jets. None of those teams won a playoff game.

It’s nice that the Eagles got into the tournament in Sirianni’s first year, but I think quickly into Sunday’s game, we’re going to be looking at them like this:

Final: Buccaneers 27, Eagles 17

49ers at Cowboys (-3)

The smallest spread this weekend is likely related to this being the only non-rematch. There is that angle of uncertainty and it doesn’t help that Dallas has been so up-and-down this year. These teams met last December in a 41-33 game that saw 16 points scored in the final 40 seconds in a game that wouldn’t die.

But that game was also pretty meaningless. The starting quarterbacks were Andy Dalton and Nick Mullens instead of Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo. Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Nick Bosa, and Ezekiel Elliott were inactive, among others.

I feel like Kyle Shanahan has gotten the best of Mike McCarthy over their careers. There was a 2018 game where the 49ers lost 33-30 in Green Bay. Aaron Rodgers had to bail out McCarthy with a 400-yard game as the 49ers nearly pulled that one off with C.J. Beathard as quarterback. As offensive coordinator, Shanahan’s 2016 Atlanta offense destroyed the Packers twice, including the NFC Championship Game.

Jimmy Garoppolo’s thrown four picks in his last two starts, but he had the 49ers tied late with the Titans on the road, and he led the team back from a 17-0 deficit to win in Los Angeles. Clutch touchdown drive to end the fourth quarter and finished it off in overtime. Garoppolo is 10-10 at GWD opportunities, one of the best records in the league. He also finished off the Bengals in Cincinnati this year. He just needs to be careful with the picks against a Dallas defense that feasts on turnovers.

The Cowboys have had a successful defensive turnaround with coordinator Dan Quinn and top draft pick Micah Parsons this year. They not only have the league-high 34 takeaways, but Dallas is sixth in yards per drive allowed, fifth in points allowed, and second in third-down conversion rate. Dallas (59.5%) is one of three defenses to allow under 60% completions while the 49ers (68.3%) allow the third-highest completion rate.

But there are big plays to be had against Dallas. The Cowboys allowed the fourth-most 20-yard pass plays (62) and the third-most 40-yard pass plays (14). Corner Trevon Diggs is a good example of this feast-or-famine style. He had 11 interceptions but also allowed over 900 yards and 8.8 yards per target.

The 49ers score a touchdown two-thirds of the time in the red zone, the highest rate in the league. Garoppolo has had some big turnovers in that area, but overall, the 49ers usually deliver down there.  

Dallas led the NFL in scoring with 530 points, but it sure wasn’t a consistent effort to get to that mark. Dallas loaded up with five games of 41-plus points, including four games against NFC East competition. This same Dallas team was down 30-0 at home to Denver with five minutes to play in Week 9. The Cowboys just recently struggled in a home loss to Arizona in Week 17 before dominating Philadelphia’s backups in a meaningless game a week ago.

Dak Prescott has had a fine season, but I would be shocked if the Cowboys don’t lead the NFL in miscommunication plays. It just seems like Prescott and his receivers are not on the same page as often as you’d expect from a team that leads the NFL in scoring. They will be facing a formidable defense this week. The 49ers are tied for fifth in sacks and lead the NFL in tackles for loss. San Francisco stops the run reasonably well and should have the rushing advantage in this game.

Games with Dallas are no strangers to penalties, especially on offense where the Cowboys have a league-high 62 penalties. The Cowboys have been flagged for a league-high 31 offensive holding penalties, but they also have been the beneficiary of a league-high 30 offensive holding penalties. As for the 49ers, their defense has been flagged 20 times for defensive pass interference, six more than any other defense. The Cowboys may want to take some shots in this one. The 49ers only have nine interceptions on defense.

But the 49ers really impressed me on defense last week. Despite limited blitzing, the 49ers sacked Stafford five times and pressured him 14 times. It was the worst game of the season for the Rams’ pass protection. If Bosa and company can get after Prescott like that, and if Samuel and Kittle can make the elite YAC plays they’re so good at, I like what the 49ers have to win this one on the road.

I didn’t pick an upset on the AFC side. I’m certainly not picking the Eagles to win in Tampa Bay. I think this is the right spot for a road team to pull off the upset. But it all depends on which Dallas team shows up.

Final: 49ers 30, Cowboys 27

Cardinals at Rams (-3.5)

If only I could pick both teams to go one-and-done…

Look, I’m salty that these teams allowed Tampa Bay to get the No. 2 seed. The Cardinals were the last unbeaten at 7-0 and fell off a cliff (or it was always a Kliff). The Rams were 7-1, had that big win over the Buccaneers, but the latest attempt at a super team still backed into a division title after blowing a 17-0 lead on Sunday. Sean McVay is no longer 45-0 when leading at halftime. Matthew Stafford went from MVP to same old Detroit QB.

Now someone has to win the rubber match after the road team won both games this year. Going for the road sweep in the playoffs is a difficult task, but it’s what Arizona is trying to do. Since 2002, the team going for the road sweep is 13-11. There were six successes in a row before the Texans blew a 24-0 lead in Kansas City two years ago.

But what makes this one interesting is that Arizona has sucked at home this season (3-5), finished 7-1 on the road, and the Rams really don’t have a home-field advantage in Los Angeles yet. The “home crowd” on Sunday was actually pro-49ers. While the Arizona fanbase is unlikely to travel or be as loud as the 49ers were on Sunday, it feels safe to assume the Rams won’t have a raucous crowd in their favor on Monday night.

Arizona played one of its best games this year in LA in Week 4, beating the Rams 37-20, a final that included a garbage-time touchdown by the Rams. Arizona was the only defense to hold Cooper Kupp under 90 yards this season. He had just 64 yards on 13 targets that day, a miracle given his latest standards. Kupp did come through for 123 yards and a touchdown in the Week 14 rematch, but at least Arizona can lay claim to having the best game against him this year.

J.J. Watt is practicing again for the Cardinals. His status is unknown, but even if he plays, it won’t make up for the loss of DeAndre Hopkins. The season has not gone as well for Kyler Murray without his stud wideout. In the first eight games, Murray was completing 72.7% of his passes, 8.89 YPA, and a 110.4 passer rating. In the last six games, most of which were played without Hopkins, Murray is down to 65.3% complete, 6.72 YPA, and an 89.3 passer rating. Arizona is 1-5 when allowing more than 22 points this season. The Rams are 0-5 when allowing 27+ points and 12-0 when allowing fewer than 27 points.

My big story coming into the season was Stafford’s career record of 8-68 (.105) against teams with a winning record. In his first year with the Rams, Stafford led the team to a 3-5 record in games against winning teams, the first season in his career where he logged multiple wins. But is 3-5 really that impressive? Ryan Tannehill led the Titans to an 8-3 record against winning teams this season, so he logged as many wins in one season as Stafford had in 12 years with Detroit. Also, Arizona is 5-3 against winning teams.

So, both quarterbacks have stumbled down the stretch, but Stafford really gets you worried with seven interceptions in his last three games. You can squeeze past a Baltimore or Minnesota doing that this year, but the Cardinals are more likely to capitalize on those mistakes. The “let me chuck it up to Odell Beckham Jr.” play has not gone well for Stafford, who may be missing the steadiness of Robert Woods (torn ACL) more than we give credit to after the two had disappointing production together. But an easy first down still beats trying to make a highlight play to Beckham that ends in disaster, such as Sunday’s season-ending pick in overtime.

But the Cardinals played a poor game in the Week 14 rematch. Aaron Donald tipped a pass in the red zone for an interception when it looked like the Cardinals were going up two scores. The Cardinals failed on a couple fourth downs, including a drop by Hopkins and a bad decision to bypass a field goal late in the game. It just looked like the Cardinals lacked common sense and urgency that night. This lingered on in other performances, including a terrible loss in Detroit and making Carson Wentz look like a legit quarterback on Christmas.

If the Cardinals had a healthy Hopkins and Watt, they might be the right pick here. But the fact is this team is shorthanded, 4-6 in the last 10 games, and not playing well going into Monday.

As much as I want to pick the Cardinals to win, I just can’t bring myself to do it. McVay has largely owned this team outside of Week 4, and I can’t see a postseason where we don’t get a rematch between the Rams and Packers and/or Buccaneers. It feels like we were sold all year that this was supposed to be a different outcome for Stafford and the Rams, so let’s see a wild card playoff win on Monday night against a team no one was expecting to be here.

But no matter what happens on Monday night, neither team can be trusted to go on a Super Bowl run this year.

Final: Rams 30, Cardinals 20

Playoff Predictions

So, how do I see this postseason shaking out? My preseason pick was a rematch of last year with Tampa Bay beating Kansas City again. I could still see it happening.

I guess you can start with my six picks this week, but it’s not like I’m certain about these NFC upsets happening this week. In the NFC, I still think it comes down to the Bucs-Packers rematch in the NFC Championship Game. Maybe the Rams toughen up and get it done in Green Bay this year with Stafford, but I still think it comes down to TB-GB and the Packers better get Jaire Alexander on Mike Evans and not let Kevin King ruin the game this time.

On the AFC side, obviously I’d love to see the Chiefs get back to a third straight Super Bowl. But I look at the bracket and it looks like they’ll have to beat two teams, Bills and Titans, that smacked them by three possessions this year. It’s tough to avenge one of those losses, let alone two in a row, and they’d have to go to Tennessee to do it this time, Mahomes’ first road playoff game. So, with the way the Chiefs make mistakes this year, I’m not sure I can trust them to get back to the big one.

I think right now, I’d go with a Bills vs. Packers Super Bowl. A role reversal of 1997 Packers-Broncos with the young gunslinger (Brett Favre/Josh Allen) against the old veteran (John Elway/Aaron Rodgers).

But I’ll literally sign up for any outcome that does not involve Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl. Give me Raiders-Eagles if need be. Maybe I was just a year too early in 2020 on Chiefs-Cowboys too.

Frankly, I just don’t know this year. The Titans are one of the shakiest No. 1 seeds ever, and the Packers do not have the defensive profile of a championship team. Don’t discount a Bills-Buccaneers rematch either.

I just want something different from last year even if my preseason prediction was the same damn thing as last year.

NFL 2021 AFC Wild Card Previews

The AFC playoffs begin with three rematches of games that took place in Week 11 or later. Patriots-Bills is a third divisional matchup, but if you just consider the last meeting, then all three road teams this weekend are trying to avenge a loss by 12-plus points.

It’s a tall task, but not impossible as these fan bases should know from past experiences. Just last year, the Steelers beat Cleveland 38-7 at Heinz Field before losing 48-37 to the Browns in the playoffs. Tampa Bay was swept by New Orleans in the regular season, including a 38-3 bloodbath in Week 9, but the Buccaneers won 30-20 in the divisional round, the crucial turning point in last year’s championship run.

And of course I have to bring up how the 2010 Patriots once beat the Jets 45-3 in December, then lost 28-21 to Mark Sanchez a month later in the divisional round. That 49-point turnaround is the stuff of legends, but it would not be the craziest thing ever if the Raiders or Steelers pulled off wins this week.

But it’s not very likely. Double-digit underdogs, like Pittsburgh, in playoff rematches since 2002 are just 4-13 SU. Most of the closest games all happened in the 2007 playoffs with Philip Rivers tearing his ACL in Indy, playing on said injury in New England, and those 18-0 Patriots choking in the Super Bowl to the Giants. Other upsets include the Beastquake against the 2010 Saints and Jake Delhomme’s career imploding against the 2008 Cardinals.

Since 2002, the team winning the regular-season matchup by at least 12 points is 32-17 (.653) in the playoff rematch with an average margin of victory of 11.3 points. However, only 13 of the 49 teams were able to win the rematch by 12 or more points too. The record is 14-10 (.583) for the previous game winner when it’s a rematch from Week 11 or later.

The NFC previews will be posted on Friday.

Raiders at Bengals (-4.5)

See my early preview for this game at BMR.

The spread keeps moving towards the Raiders and I think I understand that. A large chunk of the world was not born yet when the Bengals last won a playoff game. Then again, the Raiders haven’t won one since the 2002 AFC Championship Game.

This one is interesting with both teams having almost no big-game experience (let alone success) to speak of, and I think the 32-13 win in Week 11 by the Bengals in Las Vegas is a misleading score.

Joe Burrow had a spectacular second season, leading the NFL in completion percentage (70.4%) and yards per attempt (8.9). However, he also took a league-high 51 sacks. The Raiders are about average at getting to the quarterback, but that might be more impressive than it sounds when you consider they send the lowest blitz rate (12.1%) by far according to Pro Football Reference. Burrow faced a season-low two blitzes against the Raiders in Week 11, but they still got him for three sacks and nine pressures. Maxx Crosby did not have a sack, but he has been a beast with pressures this year. The Raiders are 8-2 when Crosby has at least two pressures, so he needs to have a bigger game this time.

But if I’m a Cincinnati fan, I am worried that my big-play passing offense did not materialize in Week 11. Against the Raiders, Burrow had a season-low 148 yards with no play gaining more than 17 yards. He only threw 29 passes, but he also set season lows in YPA (5.1), air yards per completion (3.2), and completed air yards per attempt (2.2). The great wide receiver trio was held to 96 yards and a touchdown by Ja’Marr Chase, who was in the process of a seven-game slump where he only averaged 40.6 yards per game. The Bengals are 3-5 when Chase has under 60 yards compared to 7-2 when he goes over that number.

The only 20-yard play Cincinnati had against the Raiders was a 20-yard run by Joe Mixon, who shined that day with 30 carries for 123 yards and two touchdowns. Mixon ended the season with COVID, but he should be rested and ready for this one. The Raiders are nothing special at stopping the run.

Despite the 32-13 final, neither team cracked 300 yards in Week 11. It was a 16-13 game in the fourth quarter before the Bengals put it away with a 62-yard touchdown drive. A couple turnovers by Carr in the final minutes padded the score with 10 more points by Cincinnati.

Third down was a killer as the Raiders were 1-of-7 and the Bengals were 8-of-16. Those rates should be closer this time though the Bengals (39.6%; ranked 16th) are a little better than the Raiders (37.4%; ranked 23rd) this year. Both offenses have also scored 31 touchdowns in the red zone, and while the Raiders get there a little more often, they rank 26th in red zone touchdown percentage (51.7%).

The Bengals did get to rest key starters against the Browns on Sunday. The Raiders of course had to play a full fifth quarter to put away the Chargers on Sunday night to get in the tournament. That potential for some fatigue on Saturday may be offset by potential rust and jumpiness by the young Bengals to start the game. We have no idea how Burrow and company will react to the postseason setting.

Of course, betting on Derek Carr in the biggest game of his life (first playoff start in Year 8) is also an unknown. Is he going to turn into Andy Dalton or surprise us like a Nick Foles or Jeff Hostetler to reference a former Raider? You probably know I think the guy is not a legit franchise quarterback and relies on penalties to boost his admittedly impressive collection of game-winning drives. Carr has 30 game-winning drives in eight seasons, which trails only Russell Wilson (32) and Matt Ryan (31) for the most in a quarterback’s first eight seasons.

Hell, Carr has a better record at 4QC/GWD opportunities (30-33, .476) than he has as a starter in general (57-70, .449). That’s not supposed to happen in the NFL.

The problem has been keeping the game close enough to win it late. If we’re being honest, the Raiders were an afterthought at 6-7 following a 1-5 stretch where they only beat Dallas on Thanksgiving thanks to an absurd number of crucial penalties. But then the Raiders drew the Browns in a COVID crunch, having to start Nick Mullens at quarterback. They won it 16-14 on a 48-yard field goal. They got Drew Lock, another lousy backup quarterback in Denver, and won 17-13. They beat the Colts on a last-second field goal despite Carr throwing two interceptions. But it sure is good to play Carson Wentz (coming off COVID to boot). Then the epic against the Chargers where Justin Herbert refused to die, but a lot of Chargering ensued. How about a run for a first down on 3rd-and-23, or a bullshit 41-yard DPI flag on an uncatchable pass on the same drive for a crucial touchdown before halftime?

Carr led the Raiders on six game-winning drives this year to get to 10-7, which covers up the fact that they were outscored by 65 points. Before you say no big deal, consider that the 2021 Raiders are the only 10-win team in NFL history to be outscored by more than 30 points.

Likewise, the 2021 Raiders are only the fourth playoff team in NFL history to be outscored by at least 65 points. The 2004 Rams (-73) managed to beat the rival Seahawks before losing badly in Atlanta. The 2010 Seahawks (-97) were 7-9, but had home-field advantage and beat the Saints 41-36 after Marshawn Lynch’s crazy run. The 2011 Broncos (-81) were 8-8 but got to host a 12-4 Pittsburgh team that was missing its safety (Ryan Clark) because of the altitude’s effect on his sickle cell issue. Tebow 3:16 happened, Demaryius Thomas (RIP) one play into overtime happened, and the rest is history. Well, including the fact that they got their shit pushed in 45-10 in New England the following week.

But the pattern there is two teams that got to play at home and one that got to play a division rival it pretty much owned. The Raiders do not have those advantages this week. The 1989 Steelers, 1998 Cardinals, and 2004 Rams are the only teams in NFL history to win their first playoff game on the road after being outscored by at least 40 points in the regular season.

The Raiders feel like they’re either going to pull off a close win or get blown out. A close win is possible given their season, and the fact that it’s not an area where the Bengals have been strong under Zac Taylor and Burrow. They didn’t close this year in losses to the Bears, Packers, Jets, and 49ers. Burrow is 3-8-1 (.292) at GWD opportunities.

But I do want to point out something significant with penalties. The Raiders have the most penalty yards (1,119) and the Bengals have the fewest (620) this season. Cincinnati is plus-44 in penalty differential, the best in the league. Las Vegas is minus-25 in penalty count differential, tied for the worst in the league. Jerome Boger was the referee in Week 11 when the Bengals had one penalty for 5 yards and the Raiders had seven penalties for 77 yards. Boger will be the referee on Saturday too, so maybe the Raiders won’t be getting much help from the zebras.

For my pick, I’m willing to hedge on the Raiders covering, Bengals winning the game. But this is the best chance I’ve ever seen the Bengals have to finally win a playoff game.

Final: Bengals 24, Raiders 20

Patriots at Bills (-4)

Plain and simple: Buffalo has a better roster than New England, and the biggest advantage is at quarterback. The only issue is the weather can negate that advantage as it did in Week 13 when the Patriots won 14-10 despite throwing three passes.

Guess what? Saturday night in Buffalo might be around zero degrees, the coldest playoff game since we saw the 2015 Seahawks win 10-9 in Minnesota. You remember the Blair Walsh game, right?

The over/under for this game is 44 points. Pro Football Reference shows 12 playoff games with a temperature under 10 degrees, and only one of those games hit 44 points. The 1993 Bills beat the Raiders 29-23, but I’d be stunned to see that kind of offensive prowess on Saturday night.

When the teams met in more normal conditions in Week 16, Josh Allen was fantastic in the 33-21 win. Allen was the 57th quarterback to throw at least 45 passes against Bill Belichick’s Patriots, but he is the only one to escape that game with zero sacks or interceptions. Meanwhile, rookie Mac Jones has struggled down the stretch. In his last five games, Jones has six touchdowns to five interceptions with 6.79 YPA. He was completing 70.3% of his passes in Weeks 1-12, but that fell to 60.0% in the last five games. The Patriots do not have a dominant enough passing game or receiver to take advantage of the Bills losing corner Tre’Davious White to a torn ACL.

These defenses are another reason to bet the under. The Bills (289 points allowed) were the only team to allow fewer than 300 points this season, but right behind them was New England (303). The Bills also allowed nearly 600 fewer yards than the next closest defense. The Bills (4.6) were the only defense to allow under 5.0 yards per play this year. The Bills and Patriots both had 30 takeaways, which ranks third in 2021.

These teams are front-runners. Each team had a four-game streak of winning games by 18+ points, the only teams to have such a streak in the last four seasons. The Patriots (3-4) and Bills (1-5) were the only playoff teams this year to have losing records in close games (within one score in fourth quarter/OT). The Bills were 0-5 at GWD opportunities despite Allen’s gaudy fourth-quarter statistics overall. Jones’ only game-winning drive was against Houston.

The Bills have not won a game by fewer than 10 points since opening last year’s postseason with a 27-24 win over the Colts. I expect fewer points this time, but there is no denying that if the weather is brutal, it helps the Patriots more. New England is going to want to run Damien Harris and company, but the Bills just need to limit the big play. They very well could have won the first meeting if Harris didn’t break that 64-yard touchdown run.

New England had 11 first downs and was 2-of-12 on third down in the infamous Week 13 win. I’m pretty sure the Bills would gladly sign up for those numbers again. It was not a good offensive strategy to attempt just three passes, but the Bills couldn’t get it done offensively that night. Ever since that game, the Patriots have come out of the bye and gone 1-3 with ugly performances in Indy and Miami to go along with the Buffalo loss at home. This team might just be a paper tiger not yet ready to compete for the Lombardi again.

The Patriots have not done a good job of taking away Stefon Diggs in these meetings. He had 85 yards and a touchdown in Week 16. In that game, Cole Beasley was out with COVID, and the Bills used a wrinkle of throwing a bunch of short passes to Isaiah McKenzie, who caught 11-of-12 targets for 125 yards and a touchdown. McKenzie has nine catches in all other games this season combined. That likely won’t be the plan again this time, but Beasley is back, and the Bills have gotten Devin Singletary going on the ground in the last month. The Patriots held him to 39 yards in Week 16, but Allen was dynamic with 12 runs for 64 yards to go along with his 314 passing yards.

Rookie quarterbacks are hard to trust in the playoffs. The Patriots are 1-6 in games where Jones is pressured at least 20% of the time, and yes, I refuse to count his three-attempt game in that statistic.

It’s the playoffs. I think Allen should run more in this game and just take what the defense gives him. I see the Patriots having to lean on Jones for more than three passes and him not delivering against what’s been one of the stingiest defenses this season. Allen may have ugly numbers in this one, but I’m trusting the Bills to get the job done.

Final: Bills 23, Patriots 13

Steelers at Chiefs (-12.5)

On Sunday night, the Steelers return to the site of their last playoff win almost five years to the date. It was an 18-16 divisional round win in Kansas City, shocking the Chiefs with six field goals. It likely was the inciting incident for the Chiefs to pull the trigger on Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 draft and begin a new era of dominance in the AFC.

Now Mahomes can help end an era with Ben Roethlisberger heading into retirement in Pittsburgh. The Steelers have not been this big of an underdog in any game since Super Bowl XXX against Dallas. This is the first wild card game of the Mahomes era, but the Chiefs are a deserving heavy favorite over a Pittsburgh team that snuck into the playoffs after the Jaguars beat the Colts and the Raiders and Chargers narrowly avoided a tie.

This would be a massive upset for Pittsburgh. Not only do the Chiefs have a great pedigree with back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, but that Week 16 win (36-10) was so lopsided. Even without Travis Kelce, the Chiefs scored 36 points with ease and let up in the fourth quarter. Tyreek Hill only had two catches for 19 yards. The Chiefs are going to have to get Hill and Kelce, who were both banged up last week, going at a high level again, but they’ve been doing well as of late without them producing huge numbers aside from the Chargers win in Week 15.

Mahomes and the offense did what it wanted, including rushing for 127 yards against a Pittsburgh run defense that has been horrific this year. T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward can only do so much.

Roethlisberger had one of his least effective games of the season as the Steelers trailed 17-0 very quickly. Even Chris Boswell missed a 36-yard field goal in that half as Kansas City led 23-0. Diontae Johnson fumbled a ball without even being contacted. It was an all-around no-show performance by the Steelers.

Did you see above where I said the Raiders are one of the worst playoff teams in history based on scoring differential? Pittsburgh’s in that mix too at minus-55. The Steelers needed seven game-winning drives and a tie against Detroit to get to 9-7-1, and even then, help from other teams was needed.

It’s been an emotional few weeks for Roethlisberger. He had his last home game in prime time where his family attended, and it was one of the least effective games of his career despite the win. He had to go into Sunday’s game in Baltimore expecting that was it, and maybe after seeing what the Colts were doing in Jacksonville, that sparked him to some more late-game magic with one of the best game-winning drives of his career. Then he had to sweat out the Chargers-Raiders tie that almost ended his career.

What more can he have left for this one, a game where he is the biggest underdog of his career? Pittsburgh’s only hope is that they get a classic Andy Reid performance with bad clock management, a completely one-dimensional attack instead of running on this terrible defense, and some of the usual favors from the Chiefs in tipped balls turning into interceptions, the obligatory fumble, or the stupid drive-extending penalty. None of which the Chiefs are above doing, and Kansas City has blown three fourth-quarter leads this season. But Pittsburgh has eons to go to close the gap from 36-10.

When the 2010 Jets, who I mentioned in the intro, shocked the Patriots, at least we can point to their win over the Patriots earlier in the season as precedent. For that matter, the 2007 Giants winning Super Bowl 42 can be traced back to how well they played New England in Week 17. The Steelers just don’t have much to tip their hat to in this matchup. Anyone trying to compare this team to 2005 (sixth seed winning it all) should not be talking seriously about football. That team was one of the best in the league and lost two games in overtime with their third-string quarterback playing terribly. The 2021 Steelers are a legitimately bad football team held together by a ton of close wins led by the Defensive Player of the Year and a quarterback who is making sure he fires every last bullet in the chamber before he goes out.

Mahomes is 42-1 when the Chiefs allow fewer than 27 points. I just do not see Pittsburgh scoring enough to get this done. I think it will be closer than 36-10, but that’s not saying much. You have to respect how the Steelers play up to the competition. They’ve already defeated Buffalo and Tennessee and lost by 10 in Green Bay despite playing poorly. This is a big spread for the Chiefs to cover.

Confession: Prior to writing this, I knew I was going to choose 27-17 as my final score. I had no idea the Steelers had not been a 13-point underdog since Super Bowl XXX, which also ended 27-17. So, that symmetry just reinforces my pick here. As a Roethlisberger fan since Day 1, I just hope he doesn’t lose 62-7 like Dan Marino did in his last game. At least give us a respectable, if not dramatic ending on Sunday night.

Final: Chiefs 27, Steelers 17

I’ll be back Friday with the NFC previews and a prediction on how this tournament shakes out. Do I still go with my preseason pick of a Super Bowl rematch between the Chiefs and Buccaneers?

NFL 2021 Awards

Before I submit my PFWA ballot for this year’s NFL award winners, I thought I would share the thought process behind each pick on here. With a reminder that these are all regular-season awards, I want to make sure I get my picks in before any postseason game influences my choices.

Most Valuable Player: Aaron Rodgers, Packers

Let me start by saying that I think this was the weakest MVP race with the worst field in the salary cap era. If there was ever a year where a non-quarterback could have earned it, it should have been this one. But even that did not materialize as no defender was outstanding enough (or played enough of his team’s snaps to justify it), and the two skill players (Jonathan Taylor and Cooper Kupp) came up short of a 2,000-yard milestone (rushing or receiving).

I strongly believe MVP is a quarterback award, but it was not a good year for standout quarterback play. The rookies were weak, Dak Prescott’s season was too mistake-filled despite the Cowboys scoring the most points, and Russell Wilson ensured he’d still never get an MVP vote after having the first major injury of his career.

The top three quarterbacks in 2020 (Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen) all regressed in 2021.

I watched Allen against the Steelers in Week 1 and could see right away that something was off. He hit some big passes against the Chiefs in Week 5 when Kansas City was still playing horrific defense and Cris Collinsworth was ready to give him the MVP that night. The oddsmakers were even agreeing around that time, but I never bought it. After Allen imploded with three turnovers in a 9-6 loss to Jacksonville, I eliminated him in my mind.

Mahomes had the worst season of his career and still finished fifth in QBR and perhaps one fewer CEH fumble or blown lead in Cincinnati away from the top seed and best record in the NFL. High standard to be judged by. The Chiefs still finished No. 1 in yards and points per drive too, and Mahomes had several of the best games by any quarterback this year. However, there was an eight-game stretch where he threw 11 touchdowns to eight interceptions and averaged 6.43 YPA. Throw in the defensive turnaround during that time helping the Chiefs go on a winning streak, and there was just no way Mahomes was the MVP this season.

If we gave an MVP for the first half of the season, then Matthew Stafford should have run away with it. However, the Tennessee game happened and that kickstarted a slide into the Detroit Stafford we’re very familiar with.

Kyler Murray was another quarterback who I thought had a chance at MVP this season, but it was dicey when the Cardinals still managed to go 2-1 with Colt McCoy starting. Then Murray had some rough games and that was a no-go.

Justin Herbert was my MVP pick after Week 5, then he hit a slump. After the Pittsburgh win in Week 11 and the incredible long touchdown throw against the Giants in Week 14, I was back to thinking he had an argument. But then the Chiefs took over the division with that epic overtime win despite a decent game from Herbert, and that seemed to follow them to a bad loss against Houston. By that time, he had no realistic chance, and now after missing the playoffs despite another epic performance on Sunday night in Vegas, we know he’s not getting a vote this year. But his day should come.

So, I’ve just eliminated Allen, Mahomes, Stafford, Murray, and Herbert. I’ll quickly mention that Joe Burrow absolutely had a shot at this had he been able to close out those games against the Bears, Packers, Jets, and 49ers. Even just two of them might have done the trick, but he threw some bad interceptions in a couple of those games or couldn’t get the game-winning drive in the others. But he was a matter of a couple drives from deservedly pulling this off, so I think his day too may come for this award.

Who does that leave? Oh yeah, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. By default, I ended up taking the 2020 standout who regressed the least and that was Rodgers. This is a default MVP choice in my eyes, just as Peyton Manning was the default pick in 2008 and Brady was the default pick in 2010 and 2017.

The last thing we need is Brady getting a third default MVP. Also, I had 2400 reasons to want it to happen based on my preseason bets as a $200 bet on Brady at +1200 was my top MVP bet.

Going into Week 15, Brady looked like he was going to be handed another MVP by default. My bet to win $2,400 had a cash out option of $1,300 at the time. It didn’t seem likely that the Bucs would lose another game after getting past Buffalo in overtime. It also didn’t seem likely that voters would vote for Rodgers after his numbers were down from 2020 and all the COVID nonsense he brought on himself.

Then 9-0 against New Orleans happened in front of a national audience. Brady had a chance to show his MVP worth on a night where the Bucs had a lot of injuries, and he couldn’t even put up a single point. He got swept by the Saints with Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill at quarterback. In between he lost to a bad Washington team with Taylor Heinicke. But 9-0 was the death knell for his MVP case.

Of course, at no point this season did I think Brady was deserving of MVP despite my profitable bet if he won the award. He spent the year throwing to the best receiving corps in the league, which was accurate before Antonio Brown compounded the loss of Chris Godwin, behind an elite pass protection line. He was feasting on short fields for touchdowns. He threw the second-most passes in NFL history and had just the 13th-highest YPA of his career. He was completely outshined by Stafford in the showdown in Los Angeles. He wasn’t even more impressive than Allen in that head-to-head game in Week 14, a game largely decided by what was called pass interference at the end. The aforementioned ugly trio of losses, including the pick-six in New Orleans when he had a chance to win the game. Let’s not also forget that he only managed one touchdown drive in New England against Bill Belichick in one of the most overhyped regular-season games of all time.

Brady was the MVP this year only if MVP means Mass Volume Player. So, when Bruce Arians calls it a travesty if he doesn’t win it, I’m calling it a travesty if Brady gets a vote. And you know he will.

By the way, I cashed out my Brady MVP bet at $244 before Week 17, so I made $44 in the process. Something is rigged if Brady wins it when Rodgers is listed at -400 (or higher) at many sportsbooks right now.

Here is how Rodgers and Brady stack up to past MVP winners at quarterback in the stats I have tracked for MVP worthiness for years.

You can see the 2021 seasons are not up to par. Rodgers is the first season to lead in QBR without being at least 75.0. Maybe there was a formula change this year, but it doesn’t make any sense why they would not apply that to older seasons too. Rodgers’ DVOA is also the lowest to lead the league since Dan Marino in 1996, so it’s not just QBR. This will also be the first time in over a decade where the QB on the No. 1 points per drive offense isn’t the MVP.

So, what is the case for Rodgers? While not as good as his 2011, 2014, and 2020 seasons, Rodgers still led all quarterbacks in QBR, DVOA, TD%, lowest INT%, passer rating, and ANY/A. The Packers beat the odds and won 13 games for the third year in a row, the first team in NFL history to do so. The 17th game was not necessary for that too as the Packers already had the No. 1 seed locked up despite ranking 21st in points per drive allowed. He also lost his tight end (Robert Tonyan) and played without his stud left tackle (David Bakhtiari). The great throws for the highlight reel were still there for Rodgers this year. He had a memorable game-winning drive in San Francisco. He won in Cincinnati despite Mason Crosby having other ideas. He gutted out the win in Arizona against a 7-0 team despite his receivers missing with COVID. Despite the toe injury, he finished red hot with 20 touchdowns and no picks over the last seven games.

Are there arguments against him? Sure, he had a horrible Week 1 against the Saints, but it’s not like a horrible game in Tampa Bay last year prevented him from that MVP. It’s just one game and clearly an outlier for the season. The only other loss he finished was in Minnesota in a game where he threw for 385 yards and four touchdowns and didn’t get the ball last. That was an MVP-worthy day despite the final score.

Of course, you have the COVID situation where he misled about his situation and missed the big Kansas City game as an unvaccinated player. The Packers lost and his absence was huge, but it also weirdly added to his value as the team scored just one touchdown with Jordan Love making his first start.

Would that kind of stuff be enough to make him lose the award to Mahomes last year? I think so, but then again Mahomes was my MVP pick in 2020. But is it enough in a 2021 MVP field that was so weak to not give him the award? Hell no.

As a nod to Rodgers, you’d have to be a bum to vote for a different quarterback for MVP this year.

Offensive Player of the Year: Cooper Kupp, Rams

I jumped the gun on this one in December, claiming that Jonathan Taylor was a lock for it. Unfortunately, Taylor is stuck with Carson Wentz as his quarterback, so he was a bit at the mercy of that for the season’s first three games and the last two. Still, it was a sensational year for Taylor.

But Cooper Kupp is…god damn. Kupp had at least 92 receiving yards in every game this season except for the first Arizona meeting when he had 64 yards. Kupp’s active streak of 13 games with 90-plus receiving yards is already the NFL record.

If there was ever a modern season where a receiver could win MVP, we saw the elements for it this year with Kupp. He helped Matthew Stafford to a career year while making history of his own with the 90-yard streak. Kupp led the NFL with 145 catches, 1,947 yards, and 16 touchdowns. It also helped that it was a down year for quarterbacks, giving Kupp a shot at MVP.

But Kupp ended up being at the mercy of his coach, quarterback, and defense on Sunday. After a brilliant drive that he ended with a go-ahead touchdown, Kupp never got another catch. Imagine if he would have gone for a 62-yard touchdown in overtime to win the game and go over 2,000 receiving yards. That should have been able to get him at least a couple MVP votes, right? Alas, Stafford threw an interception and the chance at history was over.

Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. Watt, Steelers

Look, Aaron Donald is awesome, but it gets boring to pick him every year. Let’s honor someone who had a historic year. Watt led the league in sacks and tackles for loss for the second year in a row, but he chased history in stunning fashion. While playing a 17th game helped him tie Michael Strahan’s sack record at 22.5 sacks, the fact is Watt only played 15 games, and even that is misleading.

Seemingly getting injured every third drive, Watt missed two full games and had four other games where he played no more than 55% of the snaps. In the 11 games where Watt played at least 50 snaps, he had 20.5 of his 22.5 sacks, so I don’t want to hear a thing about him getting the record cheaply. Strahan is the one who had Favre take a dive for sack #22.5.

The Steelers were also 9-2 in the 11 games he played the most snaps. Watt played a huge role in wins over the Bills, Seahawks, Bears, Ravens, and Browns. In addition to the sacks, he forced five fumbles and got just enough pressure on Lamar Jackson to make a game-deciding two-point conversion fall incomplete in Week 13.

Was it frustrating to see Watt on the sidelines so often? Sure, but he gave it his all when he was on the field. If Watt could ever stay healthy for a 17-game season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he could get to 25 sacks. But he should be able to settle for a share of the record and the award for Defensive Player of the Year.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals

I’ll admit I was falling off the Chase bandwagon and starting to come around to the idea of Mac Jones for this award. It was when Chase followed his 201-yard game against the Ravens with a seven-game stretch where he averaged 3.7 catches for 40.6 yards. But then he lit up the Ravens again before having the best game by any receiver this year against the Chiefs. Jones also had a rough finish to the season in New England.

Chase against Kansas City was actually one of the best receiving games in NFL history. Chase caught 11-of-12 targets for 266 yards and three touchdowns. He converted a third-and-27. He drew two DPI flags on third downs as well. His touchdowns were long and mostly all him with his YAC. He was absolutely incredible.

Justin Jefferson just had one of the all-time great rookie wide receiver seasons in 2020, but Chase was right there with him this season with 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. It was ballsy to pass on offensive line and pair Joe Burrow with his college teammate, but I cannot see the Bengals in the position they are in right now if the team took Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater instead of Chase.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons, Cowboys

The Cowboys nailed that 12th pick of the draft with Parsons, who finished with 13 sacks, three forced fumbles, and 30 QB hits. He helped the defense lead the NFL in takeaways (34) this year. He’s also personally a trip to watch.

Comeback Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

It feels like Dak Prescott was predestined for this one, but I think Burrow, after his own serious knee injury, pulled away with those two monster performances against the Ravens and Chiefs. In the end, he led the NFL this season with 70.4% completions and 8.9 YPA. Prescott’s injury was gruesome and I’m definitely a fan, but I have to give it up for Burrow leading a culture change in Cincinnati and getting this team to a division title in his second year.

Most Improved Player of the Year: Joe Burrow, Bengals

Double-dipping on awards is usually not my style, but not only did Burrow return from a significant injury to lead the Bengals to a great season, but he had a breakout year after giving off some Sam Bradford vibes in 2020. No more concerns there after leading the league in YPA and averaging 12.6 YPC too.

James Conner in Arizona would have been a good pick too, though he only averaged a career-low 3.7 YPC. But he was money as a receiver, catching 37-of-39 targets, and he scored 18 touchdowns.

Coach of the Year: Mike Vrabel, Titans

Remember when this was going to be Brandon Staley, then Kliff Kingsbury, then a little Bill Belichick run too? In the end, Mike Vrabel is the choice after guiding the Titans to the AFC’s top seed despite so many games missed from Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones. The Titans had a couple embarrassing losses (Jets and Texans), but they also beat the Bills, Chiefs, Rams, Saints, and 49ers. They also swept the Colts to help win the division.

Tennessee is 8-3 against winning teams this year, the best record in the league. Destroying the Chiefs 27-3 is the main reason this team does not have to worry about travel this postseason.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Rich Bisaccia, Raiders

Did some thinking outside the box on this one. Bisaccia was just a special teams coach before taking over as the interim coach following the Jon Gruden fallout. This team had every reason to fall apart this year with the Gruden scandal and Henry Ruggs’ disaster, but the Raiders hung in there and caught some breaks down the stretch. They won a memorable game against the Chargers to get their 10th win and make the playoffs. Bisaccia could end up getting promoted to the real head coach for next year. I am generally against that move, but let’s see what they can do in this playoff run.

Executive of the Year: Les Snead, Rams

I struggled with this one because I felt like every contender from last year that remained on top this year didn’t do anything special to improve their teams. The New England roster, while improved, is still pretty basic. The Bengals made a great move to draft Chase, but I didn’t want to pick them again here. Dallas’ improvement was largely about getting Prescott back healthy.

So, why not the team that went all in and acquired Matthew Stafford, Von Miller, and Odell Beckham Jr.? So far, it has led to a 12-5 record and the NFC West crown. Things may not end well here at home, but the Rams are in better position to go farther than they did last year, and that was ultimately the goal behind these moves.

NFL 2021: Close Game Summary

With three overtime games on Sunday, the NFL had 21 overtime games this season, tied with 1995 and 2015 for the fourth most in NFL history. With so many walk-off scores in those games – Detroit-Pittsburgh tie aside – it beefed up the total for a stat that NFL media adopted this year that became a pet peeve of mine.

Between that stat and the lack of dominant teams quickly locking up playoff spots, it gave the impression that the 2021 NFL season was historically competitive and games were closer than ever.

Having studied this stuff for a living, I can say that this was not the case. There were 136 games that saw at least one team have a fourth-quarter comeback or game-winning drive opportunity, which is a possession by the team tied or down 1-to-8 points in the fourth quarter or overtime. While a lower number, that is in line with recent years: 143 in 2020, 142 in 2019, 147 in 2018, and 139 in 2017.

But this season introduced a 17th game for the first time, so we had 272 games instead of the usual 256. So, when it’s 136 out of 272, that means exactly half of the games this season had a comeback opportunity. That rate is usually in the 55-60% range.

We also had 48 games in 2021 where a team was favored by at least 10 points. Only the 2009 season (62) has had more games with a double-digit favorite out of all the seasons since the salary cap in 1994.

The spread is about expectations. What about results? There were 137 wins by double digits this season, second to only the 2014 season (141). The 78 wins by 17-plus points are the most since 2014 had the same amount. There were 62 wins by 1-3 points, but that’s a number that was hit five other times since 2001.

This season had 35 comeback wins from a double-digit deficit at any point in the game. That is more in line with the totals from 2019 (33) and 2018 (34) than 2020’s outlier of 43 such wins.

The 2021 season featured 63 fourth-quarter comeback (4QC) wins and 81 game-winning drives (GWD). In 2020, those numbers were 58 4QC wins and 76 GWD. Through Week 17 this year, there were 58 4QC wins, which tied the numbers for 2019 and 2020 (including playoffs those years).

In the game Ben Roethlisberger missed with COVID, Mason Rudolph got credit for a 4QC tie against the Lions. There were also two games won with a non-offensive score. The Patriots came back to beat the Chargers (of course) after a Justin Herbert pick-six. Then on Saturday, the Chiefs came back to beat the Broncos with a fumble return touchdown.

Success rate for 4QC attempts was 32.4%, or just about average. GWD success rate was in the usual ballpark of 37.7% (2020 was 35.0% and 2019 was 35.9%).

The following table shows a summary of each team’s success in close games this season. First, the offense’s record in games with a 4QC opportunity is shown. Next is the overall 4QC/GWD record, which also includes the games where the score was tied in the fourth quarter or overtime. For the defense, holds are games where the defense was successful in defending a one-score lead in the fourth quarter or overtime.

The number of games lost in which the team had a fourth-quarter lead is also shown. The last section shows the team’s overall record in close games, which are defined as games involving a 4QC/GWD opportunity on either side of the ball. Playoff teams are highlighted in gray. The table is in descending order of close game win percentage.

This information can be very useful for previewing the playoffs (which teams haven’t blown a lead and which struggle to hold them) or thinking about regression in 2022 for teams that won or lost a lot of close games.

Oddly enough, the last Sunday of the regular season saw the Rams lose their first close game of the year to the 49ers, and the Bills technically won their first “close game” of the year against the Jets. For starters, both teams are in these positions because of how one-sided their outcomes have been this season. The Rams didn’t have close losses before Sunday because they were too busy getting their ass kicked in the other losses this year. The Bills never had a close win because all of their wins this year have been by double digits and they couldn’t buy a win in an actual one-score game where they had to come from behind.

But even Sunday’s win over the Jets was a 27-10 final. However, the Jets had the ball down 13-10 to start the fourth quarter. That’s why the game qualifies. The Bills stopped them cold the rest of the way and added two touchdowns for good measure.

If you’re thinking about the postseason, it’s quite possible the Rams shit their pants in any game. They’ve already lost 37-20 at home to the Cardinals, their Monday night playoff opponent. That is not much of a home-field advantage in Los Angeles yet, and the Cardinals have played better on the road this year.

As for the Bills, I’d love to see them play another close game in Tennessee to see if they can avenge that MNF loss earlier this year. But it’s looking like we won’t see that matchup until the AFC Championship Game. Up first, the Bills get New England, the only other playoff team this year with a losing record in close games.

Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, and even the Chargers all had winning records in close games despite still missing the playoffs. The Falcons and Chargers won more close games than they lost? Sounds like a miracle.

Last year, I spent a whole paragraph on Baltimore, which had only played a league-low five close games in both 2019 and 2020. Well, you can say (thanks to injury) regression hit, because the Ravens played an NFL-high 13 close games this year and went 6-7 in them on their way to missing the playoffs at 8-9. The six-game losing streak to end the year was a masterclass in losing (five) close games, but I don’t think people acknowledged enough how fortunate this team was to ever get to 8-3 in the first place. The Ravens needed a Clyde Edwards-Helaire fumble (first of his career) against the Chiefs in field goal range, a record 66-yard field goal (via bounce) in Detroit, and a missed 47-yard field goal by the Colts to get those three wins. Never mind Lamar Jackson beating the Browns despite throwing four picks. It was a wild season for the Ravens.

The Steelers, Chargers, and Vikings all played 12 close games as well, including two of the games against each other. Incredibly enough, the Chargers and Vikings were the only two close games the Steelers lost this year, producing a 9-2-1 record in such games. Ben Roethlisberger led some incredible comeback attempts in those games, including from 29-0 in Minnesota, before the Steelers came up short at the end. Yet, it took a close Chargers loss (and not a tie) in the final game of the season to send the Steelers to the playoffs while the Chargers missed out and the Vikings fired Mike Zimmer on Monday. Roethlisberger finished with a career-high six 4QC and seven GWD to lead the league and help the Steelers play at least one more game.

Arizona was the lone team to not blow a fourth quarter/overtime lead this season. In 2020, the Chiefs, Saints, and Titans were the only teams to not blow a lead, but they all had multiple losses this season. A third one by the Chiefs in Cincinnati in Week 16 helped the Titans get the No. 1 seed in the AFC. We’ll see how costly that might turn out to be.

We have a six-way tie for the most blown leads at four each by the Bears, Lions, Ravens, Colts, Vikings, and Browns. Naturally, they all missed the playoffs. The Colts especially had some daggers in there with the Ravens and Titans games. Carson Wentz was unable to lead a single game-winning drive or comeback for the Colts, but what did you expect?

With the Steelers winning so many close games, it is no surprise they led the league with seven defensive holds of a one-score lead. Sunday’s win in Baltimore does not count as one given the overtime drive, but the first Baltimore matchup was a classic example of a stop of a game-deciding two-point conversion play. T.J. Watt got just enough pressure on Lamar Jackson to force an errant pass to Mark Andrews. The Rams, Dolphins, and Chargers all had six holds.

Seattle was a team I cautioned about close-game regression with after the Seahawks were 16-4 in close games in 2019-20. Well, it hit hard in 2021. Seattle finished 3-7 in close games, 0-6 at 4QC opportunities, and 1-7 at GWD opportunities. The only GWD came Sunday in Arizona on a 10-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter. The first Russell Wilson injury led way to the first losing season in the Wilson era, but these close-game failures obviously contributed too.

The Eagles (9-8) have had an odd playoff season. One year after playing the most close games (15) in the league, Philadelphia played in a league-low four close games and are 0-6 against playoff teams. One of their close wins was against Carolina, a game I’m still regretting on betting on Sam Darnold.

How are Matt Rhule’s Panthers so bad in close games? In 2020, the Panthers were 0-9 at GWD opportunities. Throw in 0-4 this year and that’s 0-13 under Rhule.

The Bills (0-5), Colts (0-5), and Texans (0-5) were also winless at GWDs, but the worst team this year was Cleveland at 0-7. Not every loss was Baker Mayfield’s fault, but he needs to start coming through as 2022 should be his last chance in Cleveland. Maybe with some better close-game fortune, health, and desperation to hold onto a job, Cleveland could be a sleeper playoff pick in 2022.

Let’s hope we get a legitimately close playoff game this year. Last season, there was not a single fourth-quarter lead change in any of the 13 playoff games. The only game-winning drive went to the LOAT in New Orleans. Throw in a sorry ass Super Bowl and it was the worst postseason I’ve ever experienced.

But if the season trends tell us anything, it’s to not expect a lot of close finishes.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 18

The NFL can be hard to understand or predict. The NFL can be difficult to love or watch. But days like Sunday, a perfect season finale, are why we keep up with it year after year.

The inaugural 17th regular-season game got off to a dodgy start on Saturday, but Sunday’s slate delivered the most drama of any Sunday this season. As always, the NFL won out in the end. Sure, it helped that each time slot had a very meaningful game go to overtime. The Colts, a 15-point favorite in Jacksonville, also helped by laying an instant egg that set up the rest of the day for great drama.

Ben Roethlisberger didn’t need to say a prayer Sunday to extend his career. He just needed to believe that Carson Wentz and the Chargers are who we thought they were.

They indeed are. Now, two better statistical teams (Colts and Chargers) are staying home while two teams with below minus-50 scoring differentials (Steelers and Raiders) are in the tournament. I really did not expect that from Sunday.

Season Predictions: Not to Toot My Own Horn But…

I’ll get to every game below, but I do want to start by saying that I’m really proud of my preseason predictions this season. I don’t like to toot my own horn this way, but in dark times like these, it feels good to see some hard work pay off. This was the first season where I wrote a detailed season preview of all 32 teams. I’m not sure if that was the reason I had my most accurate predictions yet or not, or if it was because of how competitive this season was with 25 teams getting at least seven wins.

Not only did I predict 11 of the 14 playoff teams correctly, but I was only off by an average of 1.3 wins for all 32 teams’ final record. That is by far my best job yet as I’m usually off by about 2.5 wins. My previous best was 2.06 wins in 2014. I predicted 24 teams to within one game of their record in 2021 after only getting eight in 2020 and an average of 12 teams from 2013-20. I was within two games of 28 teams after an average of 18.6 from 2013-20.

My weekly predictions also ended on a decent note. As I explained on Saturday, I thought I was doing terrible because of my record on the game previews I’ve been assigned, but my overall record for the season is fine. It happened again this week as my articles were 1-3 ATS but I still finished 10-6 ATS for Week 18.

That leaves my final records for the 2021 season at 158-113-1 ATS (.583) and 174-97-1 SU (.642).

For a season thought to be so historically wild and competitive, I’ll take these numbers any day. Hopefully I can improve on them next year.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Colts at Jaguars: WTF, Frank?

Sunday in the NFL goes much differently if the Colts, a 15-point favorite, did not choke so badly in Jacksonville. They fell victim to a season-high 26 points and career-best game from Trevor Lawrence, who massively outplayed Carson Wentz with the Colts’ season on the line. Jonathan Taylor only rushed for 77 yards and did not find the end zone, likely missing out on every award now this year. The Colts have gone from the team “no one wants to face” to the team watching the playoffs from home despite a plus-86 scoring differential.

You probably already know my thoughts about Wentz, and how this game validates the type of fool’s gold he is and how he’ll never lead the Colts to anywhere significant.

But I’m more concerned about head coach Frank Reich after this one. You can’t be considered a top-tier head coach if you can’t figure out how to beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville. This stat is flat out embarrassing and it doesn’t even go back to 2018 where he lost 6-0 down there with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. The Colts haven’t won in Jacksonville since 2014.

How do you not get your team fired up to win as a 15-point favorite with the playoffs on the line? How is the “run the damn ball” offensive line not hyped to get Jonathan Taylor a 2,000-yard rushing season if need be? The Colts came out flat and they paid for it as they finish 2021 without a single 4QC/GWD. It was the finest wire-to-wire win for Jacksonville since beating the Patriots in the second game of the 2018 season.

When Lawrence converted a pair of third-and-10+ on the first drive, you thought this could be interesting. A game-opening touchdown that took up half the quarter was not expected. Taylor getting stuffed on a 4th-and-2 on the ensuing drive was not expected. Lawrence completing 19-of-25 for 208 yards at halftime and a 13-3 lead was certainly not expected after the brutal rookie year he’s had.

Now in the third quarter when Wentz is expected to make things happen, that’s when you get nervous as a Colts fan. He did nothing to alleviate those concerns. Wentz coughed up a strip-sack on the fourth play of the half, which the Jaguars fortunately only turned into a field goal despite amazing field position. Then came the bad interception, and that one was not so fortunate to avoid turning into seven points.

Down 23-3, the damage was already done by the coddled caretaker at quarterback. To Wentz’s credit, he was not the problem after it got out of hand at 23-3. Taylor was stuffed on a 4th-and-goal at the 1, a money moment for him the rest of the season, but not on Sunday. Wentz later threw a good enough deep ball on a 4th-and-12, but Parris Campbell failed to make a play on it in a situation where he absolutely needed to. The Colts got eight points on their next drive to make it 26-11 with 4:26 left, but out of timeouts, the defense failed to get the ball back.

Imagine beating the Bills, Patriots, and Cardinals before losing to the Raiders and Jaguars to miss the playoffs. What a way to give up a first-round pick to the playoff-bound Eagles, who certainly don’t miss Wentz’s bullshit.

The Colts had two decades to build great teams around Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, which they rarely ever did. Now after building up the offensive line, finding a great back, a supposedly great coach, and getting a ton of turnovers on defense, none of it is going to matter because now they don’t have a real franchise quarterback.

Unless the Jaguars make the most AFC South move of all time and hire Bill O’Brien, I’d sooner bet on Jacksonville doing something in the playoffs before the Colts as long as Wentz is the quarterback.

Steelers at Ravens: It’s Not Over Yet

I was not emotionally prepared to watch Ben Roethlisberger’s final game. He’s really the first Hall of Fame athlete I can say I experienced the whole career of from the first preseason game to the final snap. As it turns out, his final snap will have to wait at least a week.

The early control of the Colts by Jacksonville added some major intrigue to this game, even if it didn’t seem like either team had a clue what was going on in Florida in the first half. This was your typical Steelers-Ravens game, which means one team was missing its starting quarterback (Lamar Jackson) and it was an ugly, physical street fight.

Frankly, the Ravens should have ran more than the 36 carries for 249 yards got them. A good chunk (72 yards) of that was quarterback Tyler Huntley scrambling, but it felt like a relief when the Ravens called a pass play and he didn’t scramble. The Steelers were getting gashed again by the run as they have all year. Latavius Murray had 150 yards himself. But the defense came up with some crucial stops in the second half, including an interception in the end zone when Baltimore was up 10-6 and looking for more. That really changed the game, as did a forced fumble by T.J. Watt on a play where he thought he tied the sack record but it wasn’t actually a sack. He later tied Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record.

The game was also a great example of why watching Roethlisberger is so conflicting these days. On the one hand, you can see why he needs to retire as his body seems to be running on fumes down the stretch. After hitting a good stride for eight games, he’s struggled since the Minnesota loss. Roethlisberger became the first quarterback since 2008 Kyle Orton to throw for fewer than 160 yards in three straight games on at least 25 attempts.

This was looking like a fourth straight game of that, which would tie the NFL record, but then Roethlisberger showed us why he’s one of the all-time leaders in clutch wins. Pittsburgh kept trying to run its backup running back – Najee Harris was injured on the third snap and missed a large chunk of the game – against one of the worst pass defenses in the league. It led to the backs gaining 35 yards on their first 23 carries, constantly putting Roethlisberger on a wet field in bad down-and-distance situations.

But finally, the Steelers let Ben take over in what could have easily been his final game. In the last six minutes of regulation and overtime, he converted all five of his passes on third or fourth down with at least six yards to go. The 20-yard pass on third-and-9 to Ray Ray McCloud is vintage Roethlisberger, as was the fourth down conversion in overtime with pressure applied.

Three of those conversions in overtime alone led to Roethlisberger’s seventh game-winning drive of the season. Harris finally broke a 15-yard run as the 24th carry of the game for the backs was a success to set up Chris Boswell for the 36-yard game-winning field goal. He got it, and the Steelers (9-7-1) just needed the Raiders and Chargers to not tie at night.

That was a hell of a lot harder than it needed to be, but the Steelers made this season so difficult. The Detroit tie that saved them in the end almost cost them too as that should have been a 10th win that wouldn’t have made a tie feasible for the Raiders and Chargers. But neither the Detroit tie after Ben got COVID nor the lousy run defense could keep the Steelers out of this postseason as the seventh seed. Their reward is a trip to Kansas City where they lost 36-10 two weeks ago, but you’d still rather be playing than done for good.

Just don’t lose 62-7 like Dan Marino’s final game in Jacksonville and I’ll call it a success.

Chargers at Raiders: And That’s BINGO

I thought the Chargers already played in the Game of the Year against the Chiefs in Week 15, an overtime classic. This one too should go down as an instant overtime classic, and go figure, the Chargers came up short again despite an incredible performance from Justin Herbert. So many plays in this game were inches away from going the other way.

The Chargers were 6-of-7 on fourth down, only failing on an ill-advised run in the third quarter deep in their own end. Almost all these other decisions were out of necessity as Herbert converted the last five fourth downs where failure on any one of them would have ended the Chargers’ season right there.

While Herbert won’t be going to the playoffs in his second season, my respect for him shot up with this game. He outplayed Derek Carr, who got a more competent team performance on the night. The Chargers fumbled a punt return that led to a 23-yard touchdown drive and early 10-0 hole. Jalen Richard ran for a first down on a 3rd-and-23 before halftime on a drive that also included a 41-yard penalty for pass interference despite Carr’s pass landing nowhere near any receiver.

The Chargers missed a game-tying 51-yard field goal to start the third quarter while the Raiders hit a 52-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to take a 29-14 lead. It was just that kind of night for the Chargers, but that’s also where the fun really started with the fourth downs. Herbert threw a touchdown on a 4th-and-21 and converted a two-point conversion with 4:28 left. A failure there would also have made the end of the game fairly moot. But in getting the ball back, Herbert embarked on a 19-play marathon drive that felt like a whole quarter itself despite taking only 2:06 off the game clock. Herbert found Mike Williams for a 12-yard touchdown as time expired.

I’m not surprised Brandon Staley settled for the extra point there. It was common sense as a tie did put both teams in the playoffs. I didn’t agree with a lot of his decisions in this game, but that one was agreeable. After the teams exchanged field goals in overtime, it sure looked like Pittsburgh was going to get screwed with a tie, but Carr and the Raiders were still hungry for a win. Maybe avoiding the Chiefs next week was on their mind given the way those two matchups went this year. Plus, the added bonus of eliminating a division rival is hard to pass up.

Carr made a great throw to Zay Jones on a third-and-8 to avoid the tie from happening. It still may have happened if the Raiders kept running with a lazy approach to the final minute, but Staley called timeout with 38 seconds left before a third-and-4. That seemed to change the Raiders’ approach and they broke off a 10-yard run against a terrible run defense.

With two seconds left, there was still a little risk associated with kicking a field goal. If you get blocked for a touchdown there and miss the playoffs, you’ll be an all-time laughingstock in NFL history. I normally don’t care about the block, but this situation (tie equals playoffs) was so unique. But the Raiders executed, and Daniel Carlson made a great 47-yard field goal to win the game at the buzzer.

Carr’s 30th game-winning drive is the third most in a quarterback’s first eight seasons behind only Russell Wilson (32) and Matt Ryan (31).

I don’t want to get bogged down with Staley’s decision making after a classic game where his team came up short. The Chargers followed a 4-1 start with a 1-3 slump and will end with a 1-3 slump to miss the playoffs. I’d just like to see the team do a better job of building up the defense so Herbert isn’t trying to win 35-32 games so much.

But knowing my NFL history, this game will somehow be the first chapter in the “Herbert isn’t clutch” narrative despite him rescuing this game time and time again to even give it a chance to be an all-time tie.

But they even screwed that up too. I would have loved to see Williams take that fourth-down catch in overtime all the way for a winning touchdown, but I’ll take the outcome as is.

I never had to root harder for a non-tie.

49ers at Rams: The McVay Halftime Stat Is Dead

I was torn on this one. Do I root for Kyle Shanahan to underperform and miss the playoffs to let the Saints in, or do I look to add another loss to Matthew Stafford’s record against teams with a winning record? I guess since my best parlays went in LA’s favor this week, karma took care of the rest with one of the most stunning losses of the Sean McVay era.

Talk about backing into a division title. The Rams seemed to be exorcising their San Francisco demons when they led 17-0 and Stafford couldn’t miss a throw. But then the pressure did come for him. The 49ers trailed 17-3 at halftime, and McVay was infamously 45-0 in his career when leading at halftime. I always hated hearing this stat referenced since it implies that he’s never lost a game when leading in the second half. He has. Multiple times.

The 49ers did not need much time to erase that deficit thanks to the multiple talents of Deebo Samuel, who ran for a score, threw a touchdown, and is a beast after the catch. But it still looked like the Rams were going to send the 49ers home and the Saints, who were winning in Atlanta, into the playoffs. Jimmy Garoppolo saw a tipped ball get picked in the end zone by Jalen Ramsey in a tied game in the fourth quarter. Cooper Kupp absolutely should have locked up the Offensive Player of the Year award with an incredible drive that saw him go over 90 yards for a record-extending 13th straight game, and he caught the go-ahead touchdown with 2:29 left.

Von Miller notched a third-down sack to set up 4th-and-18 at the San Francisco 17 as the two-minute warning hit. Almost surprisingly, Shanahan punted with his three timeouts left. It’s no man’s land, for sure, but I have to say I agree with the punt. The conversion is so low percentage, and if you don’t get it, the game is basically over as you’ll be down two scores at best when you get the ball back. If you punt and force a three-and-out, you have a chance with plenty of time to get the tying touchdown. I really find it hard to believe the 49ers were at 0.4% in win probability there.

Basically, it’s a punt call I think almost every coach would do, but Brandon Staley and John Harbaugh may go for it and lose the game right there. The 49ers got it to work largely because of a cowardly decision by McVay to run Sony Michel three times and punt. I can understand a second-down run, even if that would have been the perfect time to throw deep to Kupp, who was still in position to get to 2,000 receiving yards on the season. But after trading for Stafford and having Kupp chasing history, you run Sony Michel on third-and-7 for 2 yards? Pathetic.

But Garoppolo got the job done with his receiver showing their incredible YAC again. Samuel had a 43-yard play and that set up a 15-yard touchdown to Jennings with 26 seconds left. The 49ers settled for a field goal in overtime, but the defense just had to stop Stafford one more time. He threw up a pick on first down when he had plenty of time to be more methodical in a 27-24 game. Game over. Fortunately, the Cardinals lost to Seattle, so the Rams still win the division.

But if the Rams go one-and-done after losing this game, the bugaboo for Stafford against good competition is only going to grow. After going 8-68 against winning teams coming into 2021, Stafford finishes the regular season with a 3-5 record against winning teams. Still a career year and the first time he notched multiple wins in the same season. But with the expectations pointing towards Super Bowl or bust with the moves this team has made, a 3-6 finish against winning teams (assuming a loss to Arizona next week) would be a massive disappointment.

Maybe even McVay, Mr. 3 Points in the Super Bowl, will feel the criticism this time as well. He no longer has Goff as the scapegoat. The Rams had no business losing this game and still did. On the bright side, we never have to hear again how he’s undefeated when leading at halftime.

Saints at Falcons: Tough Year

I feel bad for Jameis Winston tearing his ACL in Week 8. Would the Saints still have swept the Buccaneers if he was QB1 in those games for all eight quarters? That’s not certain. The Saints were also taking a very conservative approach with him all season long, but I think they still had real potential for 10-plus wins if he stayed healthy. The Ian Book game was also certainly a debacle as New Orleans’ only loss in the last five games.

Get Winston healthy and add some receivers, and maybe the Saints can challenge for the division again next season. As for the Falcons, congrats on setting the worst scoring differential record for a seven-win team in NFL history one year after setting the best scoring differential record for a four-win team in NFL history. That at least shows the better coaching this year, or maybe just the better luck in close games as the Falcons didn’t shit their pants at the end against the Giants, Jets, Dolphins, Lions, and Saints (first time).

Seahawks at Cardinals: Bring the Band Back?

I was pretty high on the Seattle upset this week as I don’t believe in Arizona and felt that the Russell Wilson-Pete Carroll era needed to end on a high note. After the 38-30 win where Wilson played well with his receivers and Rashaad Penny again had a huge rushing performance, I’m starting to think the Seahawks will bring the band back for 2022. It’s not over. They’ll cite Wilson’s injury and some bad luck in close games as they were 0-7 at game-winning drive opportunities before getting one in this game due to a short field.

And maybe that’s not the worst idea in the world. When you see teams wanting to interview Bill O’Brien and Dan Quinn as their head coach, is there an obvious upgrade to Pete out there? And there is validity in thinking this offense could work if those key skill players stay healthy.

Seattle just scored 38 points in consecutive games for the first time since the 2015 season. As for Arizona, it was a big missed opportunity with the Rams losing to the 49ers but still winning the NFC West. Arizona will settle for the No. 5 seed despite starting 7-0. The Cardinals are just 3-5 at home. However, maybe starting the playoffs on the road isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Jets at Bills: AFC East Supremacy

You wouldn’t know it, but the Bills technically won their first “close game” of the 2021 season. The Jets were only down 13-10 and had the ball to start the fourth quarter. Of course, they were backed up in their own end and couldn’t do anything about it. Buffalo scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives that started at midfield to take a 27-10 lead while the Jets couldn’t get another first down. So, it goes down as an easy 17-point cover, but it was another tough game for three quarters in the wind for the Bills.

I would have loved to see rematches of Bills-Titans and Bengals-Chiefs in the divisional round, but it’s more likely going to be a Bills-Chiefs rematch in that round now. That’s assuming the Bills, now back-to-back winners of the AFC East, can knock off the Patriots again this week.

Patriots at Dolphins: Miami Does It Again

Robert Kraft has to stop taking the Patriots to those special massage parlors when they visit Miami each season. That’s about the only explanation I have for why this team underperforms so badly down there.

Well, scratch that. Some combination of former Belichick assistants (Nick Saban, Tony Sparano was a Bill Parcells guy at least, and Brian Flores), Tom Brady shitting his pants, the heat, and some general randomness (2018 Miami Miracle) likely have contributed too. But the Dolphins have won three in a row against the Patriots now.

Once a contender for the No. 1 seed, the Patriots have really stumbled down the stretch, finishing 1-3 out of the bye. This team might be the Eagles of the AFC this year. Prompted up by the schedule and trying to win with defense and running the ball. However, unlike the Eagles, the Patriots have a quality win over a playoff team this year. They beat the Bills in Buffalo in that windy game where they only threw three passes. I think the Bills are clearly the better team in fair weather, so we’ll see if Belichick can sell someone else’s soul to conjure up some hellish wind on Saturday when these teams meet for the third time in six weeks.

Panthers at Buccaneers: Of Course They Get Philly

The Panthers hung in there for a half with Tampa Bay, but too much Rob Gronkowski and Mike Evans were enough for Carolina. Throw in a loss by the Rams and the Patriots Buccaneers move up to the No. 2 seed, because what else would you expect? Of course Tom Brady is going to start a playoff run with a Philadelphia team that is 0-6 against playoff teams and built to run the ball while Tampa Bay is an elite run defense that needs to be passed on to have success.

Throw in a potential Dallas matchup in the second round, and it’s looking like winning a couple of NFC East rematches is all it will take to get back to the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. Or hosting it in Tampa should the Packers falter out of the bye.

It’s LOAT season again. Hold on to your butts, or hope for a couple new Philly Specials.

Titans at Texans: Her?

The Titans are the No. 1 seed as adding “swept by Texans and lost to Jets” to the resume along with “wins over the Chiefs, Bills, Rams, 49ers” was too crazy to be true. They still survived a scare from Davis Mills, who threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns as the Texans put up a fight after trailing 21-0.

We’ll see if the return of Derrick Henry in the playoffs is a catalyst to push this team to a Super Bowl, or if they’ll compete with the 2000 Titans and 2008 Titans for the title of weakest No. 1 seed in the expanded playoff era.

Do you need a reminder that both of those teams lost at home in the divisional round?

Chiefs at Broncos: Melvin on Melvin Violence

Quickly going back to Saturday, the Chiefs were in another dogfight with the Broncos before Melvin Ingram blew up Melvin Gordon in the red zone for a fumble that was returned 86 yards for a game-winning touchdown. It’s just the second non-offensive game-winning score of the season following New England’s pick-six against the Chargers.

Like I said last week, the Chiefs probably cannot continue to reliably score if Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are both going to be limited in production. Hill had an injury that limited him to 2 yards in this one and Kelce only had 34 yards again and was shaken up on his last catch. Hopefully they’ll both be alright as the Chiefs prepare to play the first wild card game of the Patrick Mahomes era.

As for the Broncos, blow it all up, I say. New coach and new direction at quarterback.

Cowboys at Eagles: Artificial Fight

Dak Prescott’s first game with five touchdown passes came against a very backup-heavy Eagles team on Saturday night. I think Dallas still wins with both teams at full strength, but this isn’t far off from the meaningless season finales these teams also played against each other in 2016 and 2017. Still, it drops the Eagles to 1-7 vs. teams with a winning record, and that one win (Saints) only became official on Sunday with New Orleans getting that ninth win. That means the Eagles are 0-6 against playoff teams this year.

I’ll have plenty more to say about both in the playoff previews this week.

Bears at Vikings: End of Two Eras?

By the time you read this, Matt Nagy and Mike Zimmer could both be fired from their jobs. It’s definitely time for Nagy to go and to get someone in there to coach up Justin Fields so he doesn’t make mistakes like Andy Dalton did on Sunday. But Zimmer has likely run his course too after getting to one NFC Championship Game in eight seasons and just one postseason in four tries with Kirk Cousins as his quarterback.

The Vikings (8-9) have some amazing offensive talent to only finish ninth in the NFC. It could be a much different outcome for Zimmer and Cousins without a missed field goal in Arizona or a last-second touchdown allowed in Detroit. But too many of those games go the other way for this Minnesota team year after year.

Bengals at Browns: Ohio Rests

Not much you can say about a game where both starting quarterbacks were out and the Bengals rested plenty of other key guys for the playoffs. Good on the Bengals for the backdoor cover. Now let’s see if Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase can lead them to their finest season since the 1988 Super Bowl team with a playoff win.

Packers at Lions: Some Kneecaps Were Eaten

I liked that the Packers got Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams some good reps in this one. Stay sharp for the playoffs and don’t fall into the trap of the double rest weeks with the bye coming. Jordan Love also got some important playing time and had some mixed results. Good on Jared Goff to lead a game-winning drive and end his season on a high note for Dan Campbell’s bunch. Definitely more competitive than the 3-13-1 record will suggest.

Sunday was the first time the Jaguars and Lions won games in the same week since October 27, 2019 (Week 8). They were playing the Jets and Giants that day, of course.

Washington at Giants: War Crime

While the Giants actually had two gains of 20-plus yards this week despite the 22-7 loss, this game was still an atrocity on an otherwise stellar Sunday.

This was the first NFL game since the 2017 Colts-Bills snow game where neither team had 100 net passing yards. You have to go back to the historically bad 2010 Panthers-Bears game to find the last time it happened in a non-snow game.

At the very least, it helped me nail my predictions of 7-10 Football Team (adios to that name) and 4-13 Giants. Now will 2022 please make these teams more watchable? You know the next time they play we’ll probably have to see it on an island.

This week: Busy one coming up. I’ll have the close game summary report for 2021, my season award picks, and full previews for all six wild card games.

NFL Week 18 Predictions: “Where Are My Playoffs?” Edition

My NFL body clock feels off. It’s Saturday afternoon on January 8th. I should be watching a wild card playoff game in two hours; not Chiefs-Broncos part d’oh. But it’s an NFL first with the 17th regular-season game, and I guess it’s cool that Patrick Mahomes is part of it, especially since the Chiefs are playing to win with a small chance still at the No. 1 seed.

But these other games? Oof. When I look at the schedule this week, I have a hard time finding games I’d want to place a wager on. Take tonight’s Cowboys-Eagles game for one. Is Jalen Hurts playing? Is Dallas going to call off the dogs early? Is it even reasonable to go all out for either team? Then on Sunday, CLE-CIN is a classic throwaway game to end the season with both starting quarterbacks out. Is Aaron Rodgers going to play in Detroit? Does he play a quarter? A series?

I’m also not quite ready for the likely final game of Ben Roethlisberger’s career. His rookie year (2004) was my freshman year at Pitt, so he’s basically been the quarterback for my whole adult life. It took the Steelers 21 years to find him as Bradshaw’s true replacement, and I see some dark times ahead for the Steelers until they fix that spot again. This is no longer the 90s. You’re not going to win consistently with bums like Mason Rudolph at QB.

Needless to say, I’m rooting for the Jaguars to upset the Colts. It’d help my Steelers and make Carson Wentz look bad, and make the day much more interesting all around Would the Chargers and Raiders actually think of kneeling out SNF since they’d both make the playoffs with a tie? That would be insane. Roger Goodell would be so pissed.

Now do I think it’s going to happen? Of course not. Jonathan Taylor is more likely to rush for the yards he needs to get to 2,000 in an easy win than the Jaguars are to win the game. Wentz shouldn’t even have to throw for 100 yards.

My full-length previews at BMR include Packers-Lions, Jets-Bills, Seahawks-Cardinals, and 49ers-Rams.

Not once this season have I posted my cumulative record for my picks this season. I felt a little embarrassed that the picks weren’t doing well and just chalked it up to another goofy pandemic season. These previews I’ve been linking to each week, I’m only 31-33 ATS on them.

However, I was mostly assigned island games this year, and it’s those island games where the underdogs kept kicking ass and beating the odds. I didn’t catch on early enough. Then when I looked at my recent performance, I saw a lot of green (correct). So I decided to look at two splits for my picks this season: Weeks 1-10 and Weeks 11-17. While things definitely improved, I was surprised at by how much, and how I wasn’t doing so bad to start the season either.

My 2021 NFL Picks

Weeks 1-10: 83-66-1 ATS (.557), 90-59-1 SU (.603)

Weeks 11-17: 65-41 ATS (.613), 73-33 SU (.689)

Total: 148-107-1 ATS (.580), 163-92-1 SU (.639)

You know how island games can make people greatly exaggerate the value of a team/player? I did the same thing to myself using my article picks to paint a picture that I’m doing a bad job this season.

Alas, I’m looking forward to these games finishing Sunday so I can post my preseason predictions and how I fared there. I took a sneak peak earlier this week and it’s shaping up to be my most accurate season yet.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 17

The NFL regular season is over, or at least it used to be after Week 17, but we have to entertain another week now. That means some time is left for crazy moves in the playoff races, but I think it’s mostly a matter of irrelevant seeding jockeying and a play-in game between the Chargers and Raiders to close it next Sunday night.

Week 17 saw eight games with a comeback opportunity but it did also tie the season high with four comeback wins from a double-digit deficit. This season now has 58 fourth-quarter comeback wins, matching the total from the previous two seasons (playoffs included).

Full season recap next week, but for now, let’s go through all 15 of Sunday games.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Chiefs at Bengals: The Next Rivalry?

My theme this season was which AFC team is going to step up as a legit contender to the Chiefs? So far this season, the Chiefs have lost to the Ravens, Bills, Titans, split with the Chargers, and now blew a 14-point lead in Cincinnati.

It looks like most of the playoff field can beat the Chiefs, yet in this weird season, doesn’t it still feel like Kansas City is the team to beat? The Bengals and Titans couldn’t beat the Jets, the Bills lost 9-6 to the Jaguars, the Ravens should have lost in Detroit if not for a 66-yard field goal, and yet they all stepped up and gave their best shot to take down the Chiefs.

But can they do it a second time? The Ravens already look tapped out for the season. The Chargers came close but couldn’t get the sweep, and there may be a third round coming up. It may be the first time we see the Chiefs play a wild card game in the Patrick Mahomes era, and he could have to play his first road playoff game in Tennessee where he lost 27-3 this year. This loss knocking the Chiefs out of the top seed really could come back to haunt them.

That’s still all down the road, but what about this game on Sunday? It was a great game with a garbage ending. Generally, any game where a team gets to kneel, spike the ball, and kick a last-second field goal is a lame ending. It’s much worse when that sequence comes after back-to-back penalties on fourth-down snaps.

Remember when I posted those charts on how hard it is to beat the Chiefs before it got a little easier early this season? Cincinnati went a bit off script in this one. The Bengals had the fewest rushing yards (60) in a win over Mahomes of any team and they did not win time of possession. Mahomes was 18-2 when the Chiefs had no takeaways, but the Bengals have made that 18-3.

It was a weird game in that the Chiefs were really sold in getting the whole offense involved. In the first half alone, seven Chiefs had a carry and eight caught a pass. Meanwhile, the Bengals relied on the excellence of the Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase connection. Chase, who caught 11-of-12 targets, ended up with touchdowns of 72, 18, and 69 yards on his way to 266 yards, a rookie record.

Beyond this being the best receiving game in NFL history by a rookie, I think you have to say it’s an easy contender for a top 10 all-time receiving game. Only 14 players since 1950 had more than Chase’s 266 yards, and only four of those players had at least three touchdowns. When you consider the YAC he gained on some of those long plays and the fact that he caught a 30-yard pass on a third-and-27 on the game-winning drive against a team trying for the No. 1 seed, it absolutely puts it up there with Calvin Johnson’s 329-yard game or Jerry Rice’s five-touchdown game. Chase also gained two first downs on third downs via defensive pass interference flags on Kansas City.

As for the Chiefs, it seemed like everyone but Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill were getting big plays. Hill and Kelce combined for 66 yards and one touchdown on 13 touches. It’s hard to argue with four straight touchdown drives in the first half, but did those big weapons not getting heavily involved kill the offense the rest of the game? Hill in particular had a huge drop before halftime that should have put up at least three points for the Chiefs. In the second half, the Chiefs only had three drives. The first saw Kelce drop a first down before Mahomes was nearly picked. The second got knocked out of scoring range by a third-down penalty as the offensive line was reshuffled due to injuries. The third was a game-tying field goal drive in the fourth quarter, but a quick pressure led to an incompletion on third down with 6:04 left. Mahomes never touched the ball again.

The Chiefs never blew a fourth-quarter lead in 2020 but have done so three times this season (Ravens, Chargers, Bengals). Cincinnati’s game-winning drive had the key conversion to Chase on third-and-27, and in hindsight, the Chiefs would have been better off if the Bengals scored a touchdown. The same can be said for the next 10 snaps that took place as we got into the ridiculous end game I mentioned earlier.

It was unclear if the Bengals were purposely trying to not score or if the Chiefs kept stopping them. But when it was fourth down at the 1 with 58 seconds left, a big decision had to be made. I can fully understand why the Bengals would go for it as nearly a minute is plenty of time for Mahomes to get a field goal. But I’m not a fan of the pass there, and it should have been short of the goal line to Joe Mixon, but the Bengals were bailed out by offsetting penalties. You might think that would trigger a change of mind and a field goal, but the Bengals passed again with 50 seconds left. That was incomplete but the Bengals were bailed out by an illegal hands to the face penalty on the Chiefs. The automatic first down made it obvious the kneel-spike-field goal trio were coming, especially after Burrow limped away in pain at that point, leading backup Brandon Allen to finish the drive.

The Chargers beat the Chiefs in September by going for broke on fourth down even when it really didn’t make sense at the end of the game. The Bengals were similarly aggressive here and it paid off again thanks to the Chiefs defense committing a penalty like it did against the Chargers.

A year ago, the Bengals were 4-11-1 while the Steelers, Ravens, and Browns all made the playoffs. This year, the Bengals win the AFC North while the other three likely all miss the playoffs. That’s “worst to first” on steroids, or whatever you want to call the serious gourmet shit Alex Guerrero buys.

By virtue of this loss, we could see the rematch in Kansas City in the 3-2 matchup in the divisional round. The Colts vs. Patriots, Manning vs. Brady rivalry really kicked off in 2003 with a goal-line stand in Indy by the Patriots. Maybe the start to a Burrow vs. Mahomes rivalry was this game, a pivotal moment in Cincinnati history.

The league needs something like that as we move past a transition period into the new era. The Chiefs can’t just cakewalk to hosting the AFC Championship Game every year. Why not the Bengals for a change? That’s what the draft can do when you get it right with picks like Burrow and Chase.

Cardinals at Cowboys: Did Someone Tell Mike McCarthy This Was the NFC Championship Game?

These teams are the Spider-Man pointing meme as I think both are mentally weak paper tigers who don’t have a shot in hell of advancing past the divisional round this year. That may be harsh for the NFL’s last unbeaten and the No. 1 scoring team coming into Week 17, but that’s how I feel, and I think the results speak for themselves. Something is off with these two.

Still, I thought Dallas would keep rolling in this one and continue Arizona’s struggles without DeAndre Hopkins, James Conner, and J.J. Watt. I was wrong. As it turns out, the Washington rematch was the outlier for Dallas as the mistake-heavy offense we have seen for a huge chunk of the season returned.

Arizona led wire-to-wire. Dallas lost Michael Gallup (torn ACL) and got very little out of the running game or big-name receivers. After finally getting a chance to tie the game in the fourth quarter down 22-14, Dak Prescott was pressing on a scramble and fumbled the ball deep in his own territory. That set up the Cardinals for a field goal and another two-possession lead. While the Cowboys responded with eight points to make it 25-22, Arizona put on a clinic in the four-minute offense and ran out the final 4:42 on the clock to deny Prescott one more drive. I never thought they’d do that after wildly throwing a deep incompletion to start the drive, but Kliff Kingsbury had the right calls with some option plays for Kyler Murray, and the Cardinals were smart in staying in bounds to keep the clock running. It was an impressive drive to close the game, and no, I don’t think the “fumble” the Cowboys couldn’t challenge due to being out of timeouts was conclusively a fumble.

Much like the Chiefs in Cincinnati, we saw that the Dallas defense was not so hot when it wasn’t getting takeaways and facing a formidable opponent. I’m still very skeptical of these teams having playoff success this year, but if this game was any indication, I think Arizona would feel comfortable going back to Dallas for a rematch in a couple weeks.

Buccaneers at Jets: APB on AB

Two yards. The Jets were 2 yards away from notching a third big win this year after already beating the playoff-bound Titans and Bengals. Throw in two wins last year against the Browns and Rams, and that’d be five wins over playoff teams the last two years for the lowly Jets.

That would only put them one behind Tampa Bay’s regular-season total in the Tom Brady era. After already losing to the holy trinity of Trevor Siemian, Taylor Heinicke, and Taysom Hill, why not lose to Zach Wilson too? Wilson was dealing early on third downs, Brady threw a costly pick before halftime, and the Jets were up 24-10 in the third quarter.

While his team was on offense and down two touchdowns, Antonio Brown decided to take off his equipment and walk off the field and out of the stadium. That should be the last we see of Brown on an NFL field after screwing a fourth franchise over, but it was still a stunning and bizarre moment from a career field with stunning and bizarre moments.

Brown released rap songs later in the day, so maybe this was all staged. Brain damage on the mic don’t manage, nothing but making a sucker and you equal.

Could the Jets hang on? Of course not. Wilson’s success rate was 1-for-10 to end the game after taking that 24-10 lead. But leading 24-20, he had a chance to do what Heinicke did to the Buccaneers by leading a long drive that runs out the clock. The Jets got the ball back with 7:36 left and got it down to a fourth-and-2 at the Tampa Bay 7 with 2:17 left. The safe play is to kick the field goal and play defense, which definitely would have been the right call if it made it a two-possession game. But at 27-20, you still give Brady a chance to tie and possibly win in regulation, so I can understand the aggressive move to go for it to win the game with Tampa Bay out of timeouts.

Unfortunately, the Jets called a QB sneak on 4th-and-2 against one of the most stout fronts and run defenses in the league. Of course it failed miserably. You’re supposed to sneak it with a yard to go, not two against that defense. Terrible decision to call that play in that spot.

The Jets were doing fine defensively until Tyler Johnson got open for a 27-yard gain in the last minute. Then the inevitable happened. Cyril Grayson didn’t get lost and wide open like he did on his touchdown in New Orleans earlier this year, but the Jets didn’t respect him enough and he burned them on two straight plays for 43 yards and the game-winning touchdown with 15 seconds left. The Bucs also made an interesting decision to go for two so the Jets couldn’t tie them on a field goal. It worked, but I’m not sure there are too many situations where that is the wise call. Could open yourself up to losing by a point if you’re playing a competent opponent.

But the Jets are not competent. Losing games like this is what they do. Brown being an asshole doesn’t stop the defense from rising to the occasion or Rob Gronkowski going over 100 yards again.

But without Brown and Chris Godwin, the Bucs are definitely less of a threat to repeat. Not that I wouldn’t put it past the LOAT to will Matthew Stafford to throw a pick-six to Vita Vea, or for Kevin King to allow 150 yards and two touchdowns to Tyler Johnson and Grayson, but if it’s taking this kind of effort to beat the Jets, the Bucs are not rolling into the playoffs on a high note like last year.

Someone will just have to step up and put them out of their misery in January. Not calling a QB sneak on 4th-and-2 would be a good start.

Raiders at Colts: When Hide the Quarterback Goes Wrong

My rooting interest in a Carson Wentz vs. Derek Carr game is pure chaos where nothing goes right because of either quarterback and every success is because of a teammate (or official). This was a big matchup for the playoff standings, and I think I got my fill of chaos even if Wentz technically had no turnovers while Carr got the win despite two picks.

However, it was the first time all year the Colts got over 100 rushing yards out of Jonathan Taylor and lost the game. It was another example of Wentz coming up small as the team tried to hide him in an important game. While Wentz had a 45-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton in the third quarter, it was a terribly underthrown deep ball into double coverage where Wentz couldn’t get the ball 50 yards despite a running start. The ball was tipped and went to Hilton, who wasn’t even the intended receiver, in the end zone. Take away that fluke and Wentz had 103 passing yards on his other 26 attempts. That’s not going to beat good teams, nor will the offense going 3-of-11 on third down.

Down 20-17 in the fourth quarter, the Colts embarked on a long, methodical drive that consumed 9:22. But things bogged down once the Colts got to the Vegas 25 and relied on Wentz’s arm. They had to settle for a 41-yard field goal to tie the game with 1:56 left.

You probably know what I think of Carr by now. If the game is late and close, he’s not bad, especially if the refs feel like throwing flags. But he did not need one this time. He actually needed a Hunter Renfrow 48-yard touchdown to be reversed to a 24-yard completion with down by contact. If that play stood as a touchdown, the Colts would have had 48 seconds to answer. But by being down, it actually helped the Raiders set up a field goal as the final play. Daniel Carlson made the 33-yard field goal and the Raiders won 23-20, giving them the same 9-7 record as Indy with the head-to-head tiebreaker.

But now for the Raiders it could come down to a showdown with the Chargers on Sunday Night Football. The Colts should take care of the Jaguars, though they have not won in Jacksonville since the 2014 season if you can believe that.

I still think an AFC playoff field with the Colts and Chargers as the last two playoff teams is the best field this year, but the Raiders have a shot to break that up. I just don’t think either team has a shot to go far because of what they have at quarterback.

Rams at Ravens: Matthew Stafford, King of the SICO

Back in 2016, Matthew Stafford led Detroit to some history with an eighth fourth-quarter comeback win that season. But I called the eighth one a Self-Imposed Comeback Opportunity, or SICO for short.

On Sunday in Baltimore, he kind of did another SICO. The Rams were down 16-7 going into the fourth largely because of turnovers by Stafford, including a pick-six and a fumble in the red zone. But Stafford’s receivers were getting open, and Cooper Kupp came to life with yet another 90-yard game this season.

The Baltimore offense never found the end zone and kept settling for field goals. Tyler Huntley started for Lamar Jackson again but was not as successful as he was in previous outings. A delay of game and sack taken by Huntley took four-down territory out of the picture for the Ravens, leading to another field goal and a late 19-14 lead.

Stafford was no stranger to game-winning drives in Detroit, but he had to convert a tough 4th-and-5 to keep the game alive late. Odell Beckham Jr. came up with his best play of the season and finished the drive with a 7-yard touchdown on the next play. The Rams had a nice lateral idea for the crucial two-point conversion, but it was snuffed out, keeping the lead vulnerable at 20-19.

All these close games for Baltimore this year. Huntley took too long to get a first down before Von Miller made his biggest contribution to the season with a sack. That forced the Ravens into miracle lateral territory, which failed of course.

Beckham and Miller were moves that have been criticized for the Rams after the instant returns were poor, but both did their part to help this comeback win and put the Rams in position to win the NFC West.

You can get by a banged-up Baltimore team with Stafford playing like this, but it won’t be a long playoff run if he’s going to turn the ball over like he did on Sunday.

Eagles at Washington: Golf Clap

Congrats to the Eagles (9-7) for securing a playoff spot, but good lord this is going to be an easy team to pick to regress should there not be real improvement in 2022. This is one of the most schedule-based playoff berths I’ve ever seen. The Eagles are 0-6 against teams with a winning record. Their only win against a team that is currently .500 was against the 8-8 Saints, who were missing Alvin Kamara and started Trevor Siemian, their third-best quarterback, that day.

Now the Eagles get a Dallas team on Saturday night in a game where neither may have much incentive to go full throttle with starters. What a bummer.

It was really these two Washington games that clinched things for the Eagles. Washington led by 10 points in both games before the Eagles came back to win. The first was a COVID-affected game on a Tuesday with Garrett Gilbert getting the quarterback start. This time Washington was at home, in its shitty stadium, and Taylor Heinicke was basically playing for his career. But the offense sputtered and Heinicke threw a game-ending interception with 24 seconds left as Washington was 20 yards away from victory.

Washington just needed to find ways to not blow these Philadelphia games and the roles would be reversed. Alas, Washington already got an undeserved playoff spot thanks to being in the NFC East last year. Let’s throw the Eagles a bone this time even if I know it probably means a first-round playoff exit in Tampa Bay, the team best prepared to stop this running game.

Dolphins at Titans: The No Respect Bowl

Look, I just don’t buy these teams. It was either going to be the Titans marching towards one of the worst No. 1 seeds ever, or the Dolphins having one of the worst eight-game winning streaks in history. In the end, the Titans got the job done in a 34-3 win that exposed Miami as the bad offense it is when a competent opponent can see past the elongated handoffs to Jaylen Waddle that count as completions.

Waddle even had a 45-yard gain in this one, but his other six targets produced 2 yards. The drive with the 45-yard gain also ended in a turnover on downs. While it was a Ryan Tannehill Revenge Game, he was a bus driver, throwing for 120 yards on 18 passes as D’Onta Foreman did his best Derrick Henry impersonation with 26 carries for 132 yards and a touchdown.

The Titans could be getting the real Henry back soon after already getting back A.J. Brown. Does it make them more dangerous? Absolutely. Does it make them the favorite to go to the Super Bowl? I’m still not sold. I’m just glad we don’t have to entertain the idea of Miami as a playoff team anymore.

Vikings at Packers: Green Bay Makes History

The Packers are the first team in NFL history to win at least 13 games in three straight seasons. In getting to 13-3 and the No. 1 seed (again) in the NFC, the Packers did not need the 17th game to secure this record. I’ve had my share of doubts and gripes with the Matt LaFleur-era Packers regarding how many of their wins were impressive or high quality, but the guy absolutely can coach and has gotten the most out of an aging Aaron Rodgers, the favorite to win another MVP even if it is mostly a default pick this year.

The Vikings never stood a chance with Kirk Cousins testing positive for COVID, moving the spread up to 13 points, or higher than the temperature in Green Bay. Rodgers to Davante Adams was unstoppable and the Packers won 37-10 without much of a challenge after another first-quarter struggle.

That will end the Vikings’ 12-game streak of games decided by fewer than nine points, which was two shy of tying the NFL record. But you probably knew that was a lock to end once the Cousins news broke. Now we wait for the inevitable news that Mike Zimmer is gone after hitching his wagon to Cousins for four years and having one postseason to show for it.

Falcons at Bills: Dome Team in the Snow

Watching old Matt “Dome QB” Ryan handle passing in snowy Buffalo better than Josh “Big Arm” Allen was amusing while it lasted. Almost as amusing as Ryan getting flagged for a taunting penalty after getting a rushing touchdown taken away on a stupid rule that basically made the game an easy win for the Bills.

Seriously, something is wrong when the lunge forward here in an obvious attempt to score is ruled down at the 1. But the Falcons couldn’t even take advantage of that because of the 15-yard flag for taunting.

Allen had a brutal passing day (11-of-26 for 120 yards, 3 INT) but he rushed for over 80 yards and two scores to offset it. The Bills won 29-15, giving them a 17th straight regular-season win by at least 10 points. Only the 1941-42 Bears (20 games) had a longer streak in NFL history. If you include playoff games, then Buffalo’s last 11 wins have all been by double digits, the first team to do that since the 1998-99 Rams, who did it in 15 wins (the post-WWII record).

Buffalo’s “win big or lose close” way may not serve the team well in a playoff run. While the Bills beat the Colts 27-24 in one of last year’s closest playoff games, the Bills cannot expect to roll over teams like the Titans and Chiefs in the postseason.

Texans at 49ers: Playoff Hopes Alive

This will go down as an “easy” 23-7 win and cover for the 49ers (-12.5) with Trey Lance having decent surface stats in his second start for the injured Jimmy Garoppolo. But this game was not easy for the 49ers, who trailed 7-3 at halftime. The Texans were a 45-yard field goal away from tying this game at 10 with 12 minutes left, but the kick was missed and the 49ers added a long touchdown to Deebo Samuel.

Houston coach David Culley then had one of the worst punts of the season. When your season is so hopeless in Week 17, why are you punting on 4th-and-8 at the opponent 41 in a 17-7 game with 6:54 left? It took the 49ers five snaps (and nearly three minutes) to move past that part of the field and eventually add a field goal to make it 20-7. Just go for it there. Instead, Culley later went for it on a 4th-and-2 at his own 27 with 2:44 left. It failed and the 49ers added a cheap field goal to give the spread some insurance.

I still believe the 49ers need Garoppolo back to make a playoff run this year, and that opportunity should present itself next week against the Rams, a team that Kyle Shanahan has owned.

Panthers at Saints: Cardiac Arrest Cats

The Saints held on for an 18-10 win to keep their playoff hopes alive. You probably should have known that Carolina would not come back to win. Not just because their quarterback was Sam Darnold, who took seven sacks (two on the last drive). It’s because head coach Matt Rhule is now 0-13 at comeback opportunities in his two seasons. He is also 0-20 when Carolina allows more than 21 points. That did not happen in this one, but it’s another loss just the same.

Rhule, Darnold (and Cam Newton) may not be back next season in Carolina at this rate.

Broncos at Chargers: Drew Lock’s Odd Day

The Chargers (9-7) did well to rebound from their upset loss in Denver (Week 12) with an all-around effort in this 34-13 win. The big names (Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams) all found the end zone and the special teams even added a kick return touchdown. Drew Lock left the game early with an injury before returning and finishing with almost 10.0 YPA on 25 attempts. Yet, the Broncos were 3-of-11 on third down and only scored 13 points in an odd game. Failing three times on fourth down did not help.

Lions at Seahawks: Adios, Russ?

As someone who has compared the careers of Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson many times, it would be fitting if they both played their last home game for their drafted teams in the same week. If Sunday was it for Wilson, he went out with a bang, throwing four touchdowns (three to DK Metcalf) in an easy 51-29 win over Detroit. The Seahawks also rushed for 265 yards.

Hopefully the Seahawks aren’t crazy enough to think doing this against the Lions warrants a continuation of the Wilson-Carroll era. I still think Wilson is worth keeping around in Seattle, but we’ll see what happens. I’d love to see him replace Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, but that feels so unlikely no matter how right it looks on paper.

Giants at Bears: Passing Game Hibernation

I would normally pretend this 29-3 win by the Bears didn’t exist, but it included one of the most amusing facts of the season.

Despite Saquon Barkley having one of the best rushing games of his career (21 carries for 102 yards), the Giants had -10 net passing yards and scored three points.

This one has everything from highlighting how much the Giants suck to the laughable idea that Barkley was the right pick for them in the draft, and it speaks to the overstated relationship between the run and the pass, which almost look like two different sports when an offense like the Giants is trying to do them in the same game. Mike Glennon managed to lose 10 yards on 15 pass plays, including taking four sacks that erased his four completions for 24 yards. Barkley had eight runs that gained 8-10 yards, but it was no use.

New York’s -10 passing yards are the fewest since the 1998 Chargers had -19 in the most infamous Ryan Leaf game.

Jaguars at Patriots: Urban Meyer Was Right

Urban Meyer was a terrible coach for the Jaguars, but he was right when he said his assistant coaches were losers. He deserves some blame for putting that staff together, but he was not wrong about their incompetence. After getting outscored 56-37 by the lowly Jets and Texans the last two weeks, the Jaguars were down 50-3 in New England before a garbage-time touchdown made it 50-10.

The Patriots had as many touchdown drives (seven) in the game as the Jaguars have had in their last seven games combined. The next coach better be one hell of a hire, and he better bring some quality minds with him if they’re going to right this ship with Trevor Lawrence.

Next week: Brandon Staley gets to take his fourth-down approach to a do-or-die game against a flag-seeking Derek Carr in the biggest game of his career. What could possibly go wrong for the Chargers in Vegas?

NFL Week 17 Predictions: And I Don’t Feel Any Different Edition

So this is the New Year?

With two weeks to go in the 2021 NFL regular season, I’m seeing a lot of the same shit in this season of fake parity. Despite all the teams still in contention with an extra game and extra playoff spot, we might see the same No. 1 seeds as last year (KC and GB), the same MVP winner (Aaron Rodgers), the same final four teams (KC-BUF-TB-GB), and maybe even the same Super Bowl (KC vs. TB) in February like I predicted before it all started.

That leaves two weeks to shake some things up. Which team in a good position right now is going to blow it by going 0-2 these last two weeks? Is it Cincinnati to lose the AFC North, or do the Chiefs slip up in Cincinnati tomorrow and make way for a weak No. 1 seed in Tennessee? Then again, the Titans could fall to Miami’s eighth win in a row after being left for dead at 1-7.

A little chaos would be welcomed after last year gave us the worst postseason I’ve ever seen, but the oddsmakers are not a big fan of the Week 17 matchups. as 75% of the games see a team favored to win by 6+ points.

My full-length previews at BMR include Giants-Bears, Cardinals-Cowboys, Vikings-Packers (before the Kirk Cousins COVID news), and Browns-Steelers.

A whopping five games have a spread of at least 12.5 points, tied with Week 16 of the 2009 season for the most such games in a week since 2001. It’s only the seventh week in the last 21 seasons with at least four such games.

I had a hard time finding upsets. I threw Ron Rivera a bone after last week’s embarrassment in Dallas. I did make the sentimental pick of Ben Roethlisberger winning his last home game against Cleveland, even if smart money says the Browns should run NIck Chubb all night, Baker Mayfield should play better than four picks, and the Steelers are just broken right now. But I couldn’t bring myself to go with Cleveland there.

Chiefs-Bengals is clearly the standout game in this slate, but I think the Bengals are getting a bit too much hype. Great, they continued Baltimore’s losing streak with a defense that is signing guys off the street. You know the playoffs are coming when “I’d take Joe Burrow over Patrick Mahomes for the next five years” are the latest takes on ESPN, the network that did everything it could to use rings and wins to say Tom Brady was the best QB in the league 17 years ago. Now they seem to jump on every bandwagon possible (Lamar, Herbert, Allen, Mac Jones) to knock down Mahomes. But with Travis Kelce back and the defensive improvement being real, I like the Chiefs in that one. But it could be a fun game.

Betting tip: Minnesota has played in 12 straight games decided by 1-8 points, two shy of tying the NFL record. With the inevitable news of Cousins getting COVID, the spread jumped from Packers -6.5 to Packers -13.5. So if you don’t want to touch the 13.5 with the uncertainty of a backup and Minnesota beating GB twice in a row, maybe an alternate line of Packers -8.5 is the best call in that one to end the close game streak for Minnesota.

NFL Stat Oddity: Week 16

It is hard to tell when Week 15 ended and Week 16 began in the NFL, but I know I have taken a nap during four of the last six island games. Dolphins-Saints without the Manning brothers is another strong snooze contender tonight, but let’s get through Sunday’s recap first.

There are seven games with a comeback opportunity in Week 16 but only four of them came on Sunday. The only fourth-quarter lead change belonged to the Bears in Seattle.

It was a wildly successful week for a lot of the preseason favorites (KC, TB, LAR, GB, BUF, DAL, TEN). In fact, all seven of those teams won and are currently leading their division after they were the favorites to win the division before Week 1. Only the AFC North, currently led by Cincinnati, is an upside-down battle, but the Bengals took a big step forward to deciding that one.

This season in Stat Oddity:

Ravens at Bengals: Pennywise Floats the Ravens in Passing Yards

I hate to see COVID have a huge impact on deciding the AFC North for the second year in a row, and Baltimore has certainly got the shortest end of that stick, but let’s face some facts. The Ravens have not been a very good team all season and this fourth loss in a row was not on Josh Johnson, the latest quarterback to start in Baltimore.

Joe Burrow has had an imperfect second season, but he has been absolute money against the Ravens. You can claim the Ravens are down bad in the secondary now, but Burrow also had 416 yards and three touchdowns in the 41-17 win in Week 7. You know, that game right after the Ravens beat the Chargers 34-6 in one of their only convincing performances of 2021.

Burrow stepped things up into historic company on Sunday with 525 yards and four touchdowns in an easy 41-21 win. Burrow’s 525 yards are the fourth most in a game in NFL history. He’s the first quarterback to throw for 400 yards twice against the same team in a season, and his 941 combined yards in two games are a new record against a team in a season.

Baltimore defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said coming into the game that Burrow isn’t ready for a gold jacket, but he’ll be ready in record time if he got to play this Baltimore defense every week. The Bengals have displayed their excellent trio of wide receivers against the Ravens this season. Tee Higgins had the monster game this time with 194 yards and two touchdowns.

Johnson was more than respectable for Baltimore, his 13th NFL team (and not his first stint there), with a 300-yard game. But the Ravens never could slow down the Bengals. Even after making it 34-21 in the fourth quarter, the Ravens watched Burrow go 8-for-8 on a 78-yard touchdown drive.

A game like this completely justifies why Burrow was the No. 1 pick in the draft. The Bengals are 4-0 against the Ravens and Steelers this year with every win by double digits. This is why they should be favored to win the division now, but a huge test looms with the Chiefs coming to town on an eight-game winning streak. If Burrow can outduel Mahomes in that one, who is to say they can’t do it again in the playoffs next month?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If you told me before the season that Burrow would throw for 400 yards twice on Baltimore, I’d say that’s crazy. If you told me Derek Carr and Carson Wentz also had 400-yard games against the Ravens, I’d say, “damn, they’ve really fallen off a cliff defensively in Baltimore.” That does put it into better perspective.

Success in the NFL is all about stacking. Stacking first downs, stacking scoring drives, and stacking wins. This game becomes a footnote for Burrow, much like Matt Schaub’s 527-yard game, if he follows it up with a dud against the Chiefs and gets swept by the Browns to lose the division title.

But let’s see if this one could be a launching point for this team to do something great this year.

Steelers at Chiefs: The Standard Is 8-8-1

Ever since the Steelers settled for a tie with the winless Lions, I saw a tough schedule and a likely march to 8-8-1 that would mean no playoffs, but we’ll still have to hear “Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season.”

I still think that’s likely with the Steelers (7-7-1) in position to rebound from another ugly game to win at home on Monday Night Football against Cleveland in what should be Ben Roethlisberger’s last home game. Hell, the AFC North is still up for grabs for all four teams, but let’s not get crazy. This Pittsburgh team does not deserve the postseason and the six games since the Detroit tie show why.

This team does not show up for games anymore. No touchdowns in the first half of the last five games, something that hasn’t been done in Pittsburgh since 1940. In Weeks 5-14, Roethlisberger actually figured out how to be effective again. But in the last two weeks, the hopeless passes well short of the sticks that plagued the offense in its 1-3 start have returned with a fury and the offense has suffered as a result. While the offense starts games so badly, the defense is also sinking to some of its lowest levels in franchise history. It’s a miracle T.J. Watt has as many sacks as he does when he seems to pull up injured every third drive.

Yet, the Chiefs played this game without superstar tight end Travis Kelce, without kicker Harrison Butker (the backup cost them four points), and Tyreek Hill only had 19 yards on two targets. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire also left after nine carries with a collarbone injury. You would think the Steelers had a fighting chance under those circumstances, but the game was over before halftime again when the Chiefs led 23-0.

Patrick Mahomes was 23-of-30 for 258 yards and three touchdowns, and the numbers could have been even better if Josh Gordon or Byron Pringle had better hands on a couple of plays. Pringle stepped up with 75 yards and two touchdowns as the Chiefs mostly did whatever they wanted on offense before calling off the dogs early as the Steelers had no fight this time.

This is the fifth time in a calendar year I thought I saw the worst half of football from the Steelers in the Roethlisberger era. The first was the start in Cincinnati on Monday Night Football last December. Then came the 28-0 deficit in the first quarter of the playoff game against Cleveland. Definitely the worst first quarter by a team in NFL playoff history. Then they were down 31-3 in Cincinnati at halftime this year after a Roethlisberger pick-six. Two weeks later, the Vikings were up 23-0 with Dalvin Cook looking like he could run for 400 yards, mostly untouched. Now this one is a contender.

Pittsburgh has trailed by at least 17 points before the fourth quarter in nine of their last 19 games, which is about a calendar year. This is something that only happened nine times in Roethlisberger’s first 143 starts, a period that spanned 10 seasons (2004-2013).

This has been a disastrous stretch of ugly football by the Steelers in all phases. The idea that the 39-year-old quarterback retiring is going to solve things is laughable. At some point, people need to catch on that Tomlin and his staff are to blame for the constant mistakes and lack of adjustments.

But these Chiefs are scary again. While other teams peaked early and faded fast, Kansas City fixed its defense, and the offense has adjusted to the way defenses are playing them and have cut down the turnovers. They scored 48 points on the Raiders with Kelce having 27 yards. They scored 34 points on the Chargers with Kelce and Hill going off for monster games. Now they score a conservative 36 in this one with those two combining for 19 yards as Mahomes got only his second data point in a game without his tight end.

The Chiefs are the team to beat again. I’m not even sure it matters if the Titans get the No. 1 seed. But with the way the Chiefs are playing, they have a very good shot to win in Cincinnati and claim home-field advantage again.

Bills at Patriots: Everything In Its Right Place

If these teams had to play a best-of-seven series in normal weather conditions, I think Buffalo wins the series in five games. When the conditions made it easier for Buffalo to throw and necessary for the Patriots to throw more than three times, the talent disparity in these teams showed up.

The glaring difference is at quarterback, which is why the Bills had been favored to win the AFC East they finally lead again after this 33-21 win. Josh Allen was able to go on the road and throw 47 passes without taking a sack. He also led the team with 64 rushing yards and the Bills never punted. Allen’s game marks the 57th time a quarterback has thrown at least 45 passes against Bill Belichick’s Patriots since 2000. It is the first time that quarterback did not take a sack or throw an interception, though he sure did try to do the latter. That’s just Allen’s style, and today it worked out well as he finished enough drives with touchdowns.

Even though Damien Harris returned from his hamstring injury to rush for 103 yards and three touchdowns, the Patriots only got 145 yards passing out of rookie Mac Jones. Isaiah McKenzie had 125 yards receiving for the Bills to nearly match Jones’ whole passing output. The inevitable Cole Beasley COVID situation may have been a blessing in disguise as McKenzie stepped up with 11 catches (one touchdown) on 12 targets. He had seven catches for 38 yards on the season coming into Sunday, so no one took advantage of the Beasley opportunity better than McKenzie. Gabriel Davis was also out, so maybe the Bills have found a new wrinkle to use here.

But even when the Patriots drew to within 20-14 and 26-21, Allen was able to lead long touchdown drives that put the game out of reach. This is one of the most impressive wins the Bills have had in the Sean McDermott era. No more slip-ups at home against the Falcons and Jets, and the Bills should be able to win this division at 11-6.

As adaptable as the Patriots are with weekly game plans, the talent limitations of the roster and inexperience at quarterback still leave them at a disadvantage in games against teams like the Bills, Buccaneers, and Cowboys.

We could still see a rubber match here in the wild card round. But unless Belichick can figure out how to control the weather, I like the Bills in that one too.

Chargers at Texans: They’re Going to Ruin Herbert Too

One of the more potentially crushing losses of this season just happened to the Chargers, a 10.5-point favorite in Houston. The Chargers were without Austin Ekeler and Mike Williams, but that shouldn’t have stopped them from putting up numbers in Houston. The problem is the defense, without Joey Bosa and Derwin James, couldn’t stop Davis Mills and Rex Burkhead from putting up 34 points on eight drives.

Justin Herbert made his 30th start and it’s already the 18th time the Chargers allowed at least 27 points, tying Mike Glennon for the most such games in a quarterback’s first 30 starts since 2001.

It may have been okay if the Chargers stopped the bleeding at 27 points. Justin Jackson had a big fumble at midfield in the fourth quarter with the Chargers down 24-15. Funny how you won’t see that in the highlight like you will Herbert’s pick-six in desperation mode down 34-23 after the two-minute warning. But Jackson made up for his mistake with another touchdown and a two-point conversion made it 27-23 with 5:50 left. Plenty of time for the Chargers to get the ball back and win.

But that’s when you count on your defense to make a stand. The Chargers folded and allowed a 72-yard touchdown drive that all but sealed it at 34-23. Herbert came through with the pick-six and meaningless touchdown pass to produce the 41-29 final. It puts the Chargers at 8-7 and the playoffs in doubt again.

This was practically a cover version of your typical Philip Rivers/Anthony Lynn (or Mike McCoy) upset loss. We thought Herbert and Brandon Staley were above that, but the spread was likely far too generous for a team coming off a crushing loss to the Chiefs and not having Ekeler/Williams/Bosa/James available. Plus, Mills has actually done a respectable job on a lousy roster when he’s not making his first start on short notice or playing in the rain in Buffalo.

Washington at Cowboys: The NFC East Is a Ponzi Scheme I

“Joyless suckfest” is the phrase I’ve used to describe the Washington football franchise.

They were in rare form on Sunday night after falling behind 42-7 at halftime in Dallas. It’s another masterpiece to add to defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s legacy as Dak Prescott threw for 322 yards and four touchdowns in the first half. You think Joe Burrow threw for a lot of yards on Sunday? The Cowboys could have broken Norm Van Brocklin’s record if there was any need to run another play in the second half.

Given how much the Dallas offense struggled in the first Washington game as well as some other recent games, this was an impressive showing. Throw in that turnover-heavy defense and this could be a team that rides this wave to a Super Bowl. Chiefs vs. Cowboys was my Super Bowl pick a season ago.

Giants at Eagles: The NFC East Is a Ponzi Scheme II

After a 3-3 first half, it looked like Jalen Hurts was going to repeat his career-worst game against the Giants with another stinker as the teams seemed to be playing a different sport than the rest of the league. But the Eagles got it together and cruised to a 34-10 win.

Mike Glennon came off the bench to have a historic performance: 17-of-27 for 93 yards and a pick-six.

Incredibly, Glennon wasn’t the worst quarterback in the game. Jake Fromm made his first start and finished 6-of-17 for 25 yards with a pick and two sacks. Fromm is the first quarterback to start a game, throw at least 15 passes, and finish with fewer than 25 yards since Nathan Peterman did it in 2018. Eli Manning (2004) and Joe Flacco (2017) have done this before too, but something tells me Fromm will be much closer to the career of Peterman than those two.

The NFC East is a Ponzi scheme, and we must prosecute the guilty.

Rams at Vikings: Stafford Thought He Was a Lion Again

Don’t let that 30-23 final or the fact that Cooper Kupp and Justin Jefferson both went over 100 yards fool you. What should have been an efficient, fun shootout was a mess of a game that saw the Rams lead wire to wire; the first time all year the Vikings didn’t lead by at least six points in a game. There was even a punt return touchdown by the Rams, and Matthew Stafford threw three picks, some uglier than others. It was like Stafford thought a 1 PM game in Minnesota on FOX meant he was a Lion all over again.

But Kupp was awesome again and really helped the Rams stay out of a dramatic ending. The Vikings were 2-of-12 on third down and couldn’t put together a long touchdown drive until the fourth quarter when they were down 27-13.

One Kupp touchdown would have made my (gambling) day, but alas, I cannot experience joy in this 2021 season. Speaking of which…

Buccaneers at Panthers: First Division Title Since 2007

Only Tom Brady can get the MSM to use the line “he’s throwing to receivers he just met!” in Week 16 during a season where teams are trotting out literal nobodies and street free agents due to COVID and injuries. But sure, what a courageous effort to get a 32-6 win over a bad Carolina team while only having Antonio Brown (101 yards in his return), Rob Gronkowski, two running backs combining for 135 yards and two touchdowns behind a top-tier offensive line, and an uncovered Cameron Brate for Brady’s only touchdown pass of the game.

That’s why he’s the GOAT.

Broncos at Raiders: Just Like You Imagined (Not)

In a battle of 7-7 teams, the Raiders prevailed 17-13 despite losing the turnover battle 3-0. Drew Lock did not throw an interception, but Denver was 1-of-10 on third down, had 158 yards of offense, the running backs carried 14 times for 8 yards, and the only touchdown “drive” was a 1-yard plunge after Derek Carr fumbled before halftime.

Teams that allow fewer than 20 points and win the turnover margin by three win 96% of NFL games, so thanks for screwing that up, Denver. At least you didn’t spoil the narrative that Carr needs carried to win games in this league.

Bears at Seahawks: Sweet, Painful Regression

Remember all those warnings about the Seahawks sustaining their unsustainable record in close games? Well, Seattle is now 0-7 at game-winning drive opportunities this season after blowing a 24-17 lead to the Bears in the snow. Russell Wilson took a 13-yard sack that led to a 39-yard field goal being missed that likely would have iced it. A holding penalty and bad play calls also led to the Bears getting the ball again with 2:56 left.

Nick Foles brought the full BDN energy for the ensuing touchdown drive, and got an amazing catch on the two-point conversion with 1:01 left to take a 25-24 lead. I’d normally never advise going for it with that much time, but this was a battle of 4-5 win teams the day after Christmas. Just get it over with as quickly as possible.

Seattle went four-and-out after a penalty-heavy drive. The Wilson-Carroll era is going out sad but look which active quarterback is now .500 in GWD opportunities.

Lions at Falcons: Boyle Foiled

Just when it looked like the Falcons were going to blow another one to the Lions after a Russell Gage fumble, the defense stepped up and intercepted Tim Boyle on a first-and-goal to secure the win, keeping Atlanta (7-8) alive for the playoffs.

Say what you want about Jared Goff, who was out with COVID, but the Lions likely beat Cleveland and win this game if he was available. The Lions may be 2-12-1, but I think they’re better than the other sub-five win teams this year (Jets, Giants, Jaguars, Texans).

As for the Falcons this season, they are now 4-3 at game-winning drive opportunities, 5-3 in close games, and they got their second defensive hold today while only blowing one fourth-quarter lead (Washington in Week 4). And yet, this team has gotten its ass kicked six times this season and will have a shot at the worst scoring differential (currently minus-122) for a 7-win team in NFL history. The 2011 Chiefs finished 7-9 at minus-126 points.

Keep in mind that it was just last year that Atlanta had the best scoring differential in NFL history for a team that finished 4-12 or worse at minus-18 points.

Jaguars at Jets: Wilson’s One Shining Moment

All things considered, this year’s Toilet Bowl wasn’t that bad outside of an unfortunate Achilles injury for James Robinson. Neither of the rookie quarterbacks threw an interception, there was a 102-yard kick return touchdown, and it came down to the wire where the Jaguars of course botched things from the goal line in a 26-21 loss.

But once you saw Zach Wilson scramble for a 52-yard touchdown on a third-and-5, you knew he was going to have a comically high QBR at ESPN. He finished at 92.4, the highest in Week 16 despite another subpar passing performance. But the run was great and it sure was more memorable than anything Trevor Lawrence has done this year. So much like Sam Darnold on a long touchdown run against the Broncos, Wilson now has that one shining moment in his Jets career.

Will there ever be a second?

Next week: If Chiefs-Bengals could be half as good as 2005 Colts-Bengals, I’d be satisfied. That’s by far the big one of the day after Rams-Ravens, Vikings-Packers, and Browns-Steelers have all lost their luster.