I’m prepared to be hurt this weekend. Not hurt in the way Russell Wilson, Nick Chubb, DeVante Parker, Saquon Barkley, and a long list of others are going into Week 6. If a game this week doesn’t have a big name out with injury, then you can bet it has someone questionable with a real 50/50 shot to not suit up.
When you put those injury questions into consideration as well as a slate that isn’t too hot to begin with…
When you already suffer a gut punch on Thursday night with the way Philadelphia covered that 6.5 (or 7) point spread and Tom Brady’s rushing prop settled…
You just know it’s going to be a weird week with more blowouts, upsets, and general randomness. So, I’m going to bet conservatively and not lose my whole ass on a Sunday that just isn’t worth going all in for. There will be better weeks to come.
Dolphins at Jaguars: My apologies to Jets-Falcons since the NFL did find an even worse game to send to London. But yeah, I’m going to roll with the Jaguars ending their 20-game losing streak. I like James Robinson to find the end zone again too. Of course, I’m probably going to wake up and find the Jaguars down 20 points and read that Urban Meyer left at halftime to find the nearest pub or the first blonde that catches his eye.
Texans at Colts: How do the Colts respond after their epic blown lead in Baltimore on Monday night? My gut was to go big on Indy anyways, but then you remember that the Texans actually had a big offensive showing against the Patriots last week. Then there’s the fact that all 14 meetings since 2014 between these teams haven been decided by fewer than 10 points. Hell, all but one of them was decided by fewer than eight points. Even when the Colts played their best game this season in Miami, they won by 10 points. I’m going to hedge my pick with taking Houston to cover.
Packers at Bears: See my preview here. Just Year 30 of the Packers being much better off at QB than Chicago.
Chiefs at Washington: The Chiefs are due for an easy win, aren’t they? Maybe nothing is easy with this historically-bad defense (still minus Chris Jones too), and it doesn’t help that Tyreek Hill has a quad injury. My gut is to play Hill for a TD and a big game from Travis Kelce too. That Washington defense is the closest thing in the NFC to being as bad as the Chiefs. In his career, Patrick Mahomes is 17-2 SU and 9-10 ATS against defenses that finish in the bottom 12 in points per drive allowed. Washington is currently 30th thru Week 5.
Vikings at Panthers: I was burned badly by the Panthers a week ago. I think the Vikings are the better team but this should be one decided by single digits either way.
Chargers at Ravens: It’s the Game of the Week. We have been getting wild, high-scoring games between the top AFC teams this year, and this one should be no different. Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson are MVP candidates and they have led their teams to a league-high three fourth-quarter comeback wins already. Neither defense has been very good, but I still think the Ravens are doing better on that side of the ball, and their run game against the Chargers’ bottom-ranked run defense (32nd in yards and YPC) should get back to starting another streak of 100+ yards on the ground. Mike Williams being questionable is also worrisome. Sammy Watkins out is just par for the course for him. I’ll take the Ravens at home and am definitely looking forward to it.
Bengals at Lions: Hedging on the spread here. I don’t think we can trust the Bengals on the road just yet to win games like this. Detroit keeps getting closer to pulling one out for Dan Campbell. If the Bengals win, I can see it being by 3 points.
Rams at Giants: The Rams are clearly the better team and I like to fade a quarterback coming off a concussion like Daniel Jones in this case. They played a 17-9 game a season ago.
Cardinals at Browns: The No. 2 Game of the Week, but it’s losing some luster with Nick Chubb (calf) already ruled out as well as several members of the Arizona coaching staff, including head coach Kliff Kingsbury. This has me worried for the undefeated Cardinals, who may not be out of the woods with COVID before this one kicks off on Sunday. I’m going to trust the Browns as I think Kareem Hunt will be great in Chubb’s absence and I can see that defensive line frustrating Kyler Murray.
Raiders at Broncos: Of course I’m backing Ted the Spread against a team going through turmoil now. Broncos end their losing skid.
Cowboys at Patriots: I’ve watched the Cowboys go 0-5 against New England in 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, and 2019. But this is the first time the Cowboys clearly have the better team and are playing better football. I’ll take Dallas.
Seahawks at Steelers: Read my preview here. I love “Steelers by 1-13” for this game, though it will be interesting to see the Seahawks without Russell Wilson for the first time since 2011.
Bills at Titans: Read my preview here. The Bills are on a historic roll right now. Four straight wins by 18+ points and four straight games scoring 35+ are proof of that. I like the revenge tour to continue here and hopefully the game won’t get moved to Tuesday like last year…
Coming into the 2021 NFL season, I wanted to see how the return of crowds would impact the record-setting offensive numbers we saw in the 2020 pandemic season. Offense has been trending up for years, but I thought we’d see some regression this year and a return to some better defenses.
Through five weeks and 80 games, that is basically what has happened, though I’m not sure I would call any defense great except for what the Bills have done so far.
Teams are averaging 23.8 points per game, which would rank between 2020 (24.8) and 2013 (23.4) for the second-highest season in NFL history. Points per drive are at 2.15, which would rank second behind last year’s 2.20.
The 2020 season was historic for having a third down conversion rate of 41.6%, the highest on record as these stats are known back to 1991. The only other season above 40% was 1995 (40.1%). So far in 2021, offenses are converting 40.6% of third downs, a full percentage point below last year, but it would still be good enough for the second-highest season. The Chiefs are at 58.8% on third down, which would break the 2011 Saints’ record (56.7%).
Believe it or not, but just 20 years ago offenses were stopped in the red zone from scoring a touchdown more often than not. The red zone TD% was 48.3% in 2001. It has never dipped below 50% ever since, and in 2020, offenses set a record by scoring on 61.2% of their red zone trips. This season, the numbers are basically the same so far at 61.1%.
This was something that slipped my mind when I wrote my season predictions on here. A lack of offensive holding penalties in 2020 really helped offenses finish drives for touchdowns since a holding penalty can be so disruptive to scoring. Think of it as a mini-turnover. For whatever reason, refs were shy to throw flags for this a year ago. The 2020 regular season finished with 459 offensive holding penalties, the fewest in any season since 2009. In 2019, there was a decade-high 720 offensive holding penalties, so maybe this was an overcorrection.
How are things shaping up through five weeks? In Weeks 1-5 of the 2019 season there were 274 offensive holding penalties. That went down to 135 last year and is now back up to 198 this year. So it is being called more in line with the 2009-2014 seasons than the increase in recent years.
I’ll be keeping an eye on these numbers for the rest of the season, but it looks like a safe bet that 2021 will finish behind last year’s offensive explosion, which is still good for the second-most offensive season in NFL history.
Shout out to the Kansas City defense for helping these offenses live their best lives.
Sunday in the NFL lasted just over 15 hours from the first snap in London to the last snap in Kansas City after a weather delay. If that wasn’t the longest day of action in NFL history, then I don’t know what else could be.
It was a day of ugly field goal kicking, yet the Vikings somehow pulled off a 54-yard game-winning kick. Of course, Detroit helped by making its incredible 10-point comeback (helped by an Alexander Mattison fumble) a 1-point lead by going for two with 37 seconds left. That was too much time with the Vikings having two timeouts. I know Kirk Cousins kind of sucks at comebacks and his kickers are not reliable, but that was a bad decision to go for two there. Play for overtime after holding down the Vikings from scoring much all day. Instead, the Vikings got a drive together because they had to and won the game on a 54-yard field goal that Greg Joseph actually made despite being an employee of the Vikings. At least it gave us this moment:
It was a day of close games as we had 10 comeback opportunities in Week 5, outdoing the previous high of any week this season (eight). Let’s quickly hit on three of them since I need to wrap this up after getting a late start.
49ers at Cardinals: Trey Lance made his starting debut, but he couldn’t keep the rocket launcher under wraps when the 49ers just needed a simple scoring drive in a 17-10 loss to the now 5-0 Cardinals, who apparently are not going to score 31-plus every week this season. Kyle Shanahan loses another close game? Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle out with injuries again? Who could have imagined?
Patriots at Texans: The Patriots came through with a comeback win over the Houston Texans after Davis Mills had maybe the most absurd stat line yet for a rookie against a Bill Belichick-coached defense. Mills just had an early contender for worst game of the decade against Buffalo last week, but now he has the ninth game on record where a QB lost with a passer rating of at least 140.0 (min. 25 passes). I guess the Patriots can still win games where their quarterback was not the best one on the field.
Bears at Raiders: Finally, Jon Gruden’s Raiders had their “but his emails” loss at home to the Bears. Maybe it was too much of a distraction, and maybe he just showed his true colors. All I know is once you blow some smoke up his ass, this is the kind of performance you can count on in the next game. The last two sentences are about Derek Carr, by the way.
But the only game that came close to pulling off instant classic status came in the late afternoon slate instead of the prime-time matchup between the Bills and Chiefs. Browns-Chargers was the Shawn Michaels vs. Razor Ramon Ladder Match in WrestleMania X of Week 5 in the NFL, but I have to start with the perception-changing game that played out in Kansas City.
About the last thing I want to do is write an obituary for the 2021 Chiefs after Week 5 and after a ridiculously tough schedule where the Browns, Ravens, Chargers, and now Bills all gave them their best shot. But there is no denying that the Chiefs failed three of those tests from their key AFC challengers and barely escaped the Browns in Arrowhead in Week 1. The offense has too many turnovers and the defense is going for historic levels of suck. The 2021 Chiefs are the fourth team in NFL history to allow more than 28 points in each of the first five games, joining the 1954 Cardinals, 2012 Titans, and 2013 Giants. It’s like watching the 2000 Rams, the forgotten little defense-less brother to the 1999 and 2001 Super Bowl teams in St. Louis.
But through four weeks, the defense could be excused to a point as the offense was scoring a touchdown on 50% of its drives and converting on third down at a record rate. If not for a fumble in Baltimore, this team could easily be 3-1.
But that took a hit Sunday night as the Bills came in to avenge their two losses from 2020 and wiped the floor with the Chiefs, 38-20, despite a long weather delay at halftime. Getting blown out at home is just another layer of invincibility ripped away from the Chiefs in the Patrick Mahomes era. While the stakes were not as high, the 18-point loss looked worse than the team’s 31-9 loss in Super Bowl 55 to Tampa Bay. At least on that night the reshuffled offensive line was a built-in excuse for the poor pass protection. The Chiefs just couldn’t come down with any of Mahomes’ miracle passes and the defense was stumped by simple play-action throws.
This was more of a beatdown. Mahomes played the first truly awful game of his NFL career, missing often on throws regardless of pressure or an open receiver. He completed 33-of-54 passes for 272 yards and had three turnovers, including a pick-six, a red-zone pick after another tipped ball, and a fumbled snap in the rain to end things. The bounces? They’re no longer going Kansas City’s way and that was predictable.
But this was not another blown lead in the fourth quarter like Baltimore and Los Angeles. The Chiefs led 10-7 early in the second quarter and never led again. The best they could do was make it 31-20 in the fourth quarter. But after Josh Allen seemingly threw an interception from his own end zone, the Chiefs were flagged for roughing the passer. It was a weak call, but it was also in a series of calls on both teams that made me question what roughing the passer and pass interference are in this league anymore. The refs had a bad night, but they didn’t decide this game.
That roughing call stands out the most just because it killed any chance for an exciting finish. Allen was still at his own 23 after that call. The Chiefs could have stopped the Bills, but instead they watched them march 77 more yards for a game-clinching touchdown to go up 38-20.
Maybe that Buffalo defense is for real as this was not a matter of beating up on a wounded offense like in the first four weeks of the season. They smacked the Chiefs around in Arrowhead. I asked in the offseason what really changed to improve this Buffalo defense from the mediocre unit it was a year ago that had no real hope of winning a Super Bowl? Well, one name I underestimated was first-round pick Gregory Roussea. The defensive end did his best J.J. Watt impersonation and tipped a Mahomes pass at the line to himself for a big red-zone pick in the third quarter. The Bills reportedly did not even blitz Mahomes once in this game, choosing to rush four and play Cover 2 to take away the big plays.
The Chiefs had just two plays that gained more than 17 yards in the game, a shockingly low figure for this offense. One was a 23-yard scramble by Mahomes too. This was a big difference in the meetings last year when the Chiefs did what they wanted, and Allen’s offense couldn’t get anything big. On Sunday night, the Bills had seven plays of 20-plus yards, including four completions of 35-plus yards (two for touchdowns).
Allen had 315 yards on 15 completions. Other than a slow third quarter after the 70-plus minute halftime delay, the Bills were just about unstoppable on offense. Combine that with a defense capable of playing the Chiefs like this and it’s a championship combination. The Bills may only be an underdog one more time this season when they play in Tampa Bay. It seems rather likely that this team will be the favorite for the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
The Chiefs may be fortunate just to get a wild card at this point if things don’t tighten up on both sides of the ball but especially on defense.
With the Bills and Ravens stepping up this season against the Chiefs as well as the two teams I’m writing about next (Browns and Chargers), the AFC might be just fine going forward as a super competitive conference where any one of these teams can advance each year. It’s not going to be a runaway for Mahomes and the Chiefs to keep hosting AFC Championship Games and going to the Super Bowl. They had that window for three years and turned it into one championship while the rest of the teams were figuring themselves out.
If 2021 is any indication, those teams have figured out the Chiefs too.
Browns at Chargers: 47-42 Part Deux
What a whacky, fun game with huge plays, terrible tackling, six fourth down attempts (and then some negated by penalty), and 41 points in the fourth quarter alone. Of course, the Browns ended up on the wrong side of history again.
We may need to start calling Baker Mayfield the “Score 42 and Lose” QB after it happened to him for a third time. He lost his first career start, 45-42, to the Raiders in 2018. He lost 47-42 to the Ravens last year after Lamar Jackson returned from taking a shit. Now he’s lost 47-42 again to the Chargers in the second 47-42 game in NFL history. Mayfield is somehow 2-3 when he leads his team to at least 42 points while the rest of the NFL is 69-2 since 2018. The Browns (four times) have broken their tie with Washington and the Chiefs (three each) for the most losses in NFL history after scoring at least 42 points.
None of this is to say that Mayfield is the reason Cleveland loses these games. He was great on Sunday at playing through a torn labrum after some struggles in recent weeks. The offense was fantastic, but it is hard to win on the road when you allow five touchdowns on six second-half drives like the Browns did.
This thing was back and forth and not even a failed game-tying extra point by the Chargers with 3:15 left could derail it. That actually ended up helping the Chargers since the Browns did not go all out in a tied 42-42 game. Instead with a 42-41 lead, they ran on first down and on third-and-9 and let the Chargers get the ball back with plenty of time. Justin Herbert only needed one pass to get into field-goal range. After Austin Ekeler slid down at the Cleveland 3 with 1:38 left, the Browns called their final timeout. That slide tells me the Chargers were content with kicking the field goal to win 44-42 at the buzzer. A smart move even if you are shaky about it given the team’s historic struggles on special teams in crunch time.
So, why wouldn’t Herbert just take a series of knees to bleed the clock and kick the field goal? Head coach Brandon Staley is getting a ton of buzz for his embrace of analytics despite being a defensive coach, but he bungled the end of the Chiefs game by scoring a touchdown and giving Mahomes a shot to answer, and it happened again here. Ekeler got the carry and while he tried to not score, the Browns did the smart thing and pulled his ass into the end zone for the score with 91 seconds left.
Wow, just typing “91 seconds” really sells how much of a mistake this was. They gave a hot offense they couldn’t stop all day plenty of time to answer. It could have been an even more delicious addition to Chargers BINGO given the offense came up short on the two-point conversion and only led 47-42. Now the Browns could win it with a touchdown in regulation.
But it took 50 seconds for Mayfield to move the offense 11 yards as he only made short throws. That was piss-poor execution in that moment. After getting to the Cleveland 46, the Browns could not gain another yard and Mayfield’s Hail Mary fell incomplete with players bumping into each other.
Behind Staley and Herbert, the CHARGERS are leading the league with three game-winning drives. The CHARGERS are 4-1 in close games and lead the league with four defensive holds of a one-score lead.
Staley is far from perfect. His defense just gave up 42 points to a team that scored 14 last week. He’s mismanaged two of the last three finishes. He’s inherited an incredible young quarterback in Herbert who is making strides in his second season. But there is no denying that Staley is pushing this team to aggressively get leads and hold onto them once they have them. The Chargers of old would never be 4-1 right now and that is a credit to this new coach.
The Browns may still be the “good enough to get beat close” team in the AFC, which is still a huge step up from the pre-Mayfield era. But for a change, the Chargers just may have the potential to be closers and real contenders this season. That sounds like the setup for an incoming beatdown in Baltimore next Sunday, but what if this team is just finally different?
Packers at Bengals: Kicking Woes
Weird things always happen when Aaron Rodgers plays the Bengals, but this game takes the cake. If you wanted to script an overtime tie, apparently you have to get the Packers or Bengals involved. I thought for sure this one was headed there after the two kickers combined to miss five go-ahead field goals in a span of six drives.
Fortunately, we got a winner. Fortunately, it was the right winner too as Green Bay should have put this game away multiple times in the fourth quarter and again to start overtime.
Would I have been happy if Rodgers got credit for a game-winning drive after Aaron Jones ripped off a 57-yard run and he threw two incomplete passes? No, but Mason Crosby has to hit that 36-yard field goal after a streak of 27 straight makes. Would I have said Rodgers was unlucky had he lost after his kicker missed from 36 and Cincinnati kicker Evan McPherson hit from 57? Yes, absolutely. But the Bengals called a run on third-and-2 instead of letting Joe Burrow deliver a dagger throw to set up a higher-percentage kick. Shame on them.
Would I have been fine with Rodgers getting a game-winning drive after a 20-yard pass to Davante Adams, who shined with 206 yards, to set up Crosby from 51? Sure, that’s another one-minute drill for him this season. But Crosby was wide left to set up overtime.
Would I have been amused had Rodgers lost another overtime game without touching the ball? Probably. But Burrow seemed to erase any chance of that with an instant pick to start overtime.
Would I have been pissed if Rodgers got credit for a game-winning drive in overtime for losing 5 yards on two Jones runs and watching Crosby hit from 40? Damn right. But the kicker missed again. At least it spared us a crap game-winning drive.
Burrow hit a pass for 21 yards to the Green Bay 41 again, but did they learn anything from the previous mistake? No, they ran the ball three times again and settled for a 49-yard field goal by a no-name kicker. He missed wide left too.
Finally, Rodgers hit passes of 20 and 15 yards to put this one to an end after Crosby finally connected from 49 yards out with 1:55 left. I am content with that being the game-winning drive in this one.
At least it had a winner, because I can’t remember ever seeing a clutch kicking display this bad.
Broncos at Steelers: The Standard Improved?
Last week in Green Bay, the Steelers showed they can score an opening-drive touchdown, and they did it again on Sunday after a beautiful 50-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson again gave the Steelers the early lead. Last week, the Steelers showed some offensive line improvement and a running game that actually could get gains of 3-4 yards instead of seeing Najee Harris get hit in the backfield immediately. This continued against Denver with Harris rushing for 122 yards to finally snap the team’s 11-game streak of not rushing for 90 yards.
Dare I say, the Steelers showed offensive improvement for the second week in a row? The other problem last week was inaccuracy from Roethlisberger. He was sharp in this game, especially early and especially on third down where the Steelers finished 7/12 compared to Denver going 2/12 on third down (but ¾ on fourth down). One week after a concussion, I was not impressed with Teddy Bridgewater or this Denver offense at all until he started to mount a 24-6 comeback in the fourth quarter. The game got a bit tight at 27-19, but he eventually struggled in the red zone again and threw an interception in the final seconds to end it.
While far from dominant, this was much closer to a classic game from the Steelers where both units played well for much of the game and they were able to win at home. Can they stack another one against the Geno Smith-led Seahawks next week? We’ll see, but if this offense shows up in prime time against that Seattle defense, then it may not be such an ugly display of football from Pittsburgh like in recent times. I was not surprised by the win, but that says more about my thoughts on how legit Denver was. But I can see actual improvement from the Pittsburgh offense in the last two weeks compared to the first three.
Eagles at Panthers: Pumpkins and Pretenders
What the fvck were these teams doing?
Jalen Hurts had nine failed completions in the first half, but none in the second as the offense finally started making plays that gained more than 10 yards. He also got his legs involved as the passing in this game was just atrocious for both teams. At least the Panthers got Chuba Hubbard to rush for 101 yards in Christian McCaffrey’s absence. The Eagles once again barely handed the ball off to their backs until very late in the game.
Sam Darnold had three interceptions and may have turned back into a pumpkin just in time for Halloween. But it was a blocked punt that set the Eagles up at the Carolina 27 for their game-winning drive. Darnold then threw his third pick and the Eagles ran out the clock.
Obviously, the transitive property never has and never will mean a thing in the NFL. If you just judged Carolina and Philadelphia by how they played against the Cowboys, then you wouldn’t have expected the Panthers to blow this one. But they did after leading 15-3 early.
Is either team going anywhere this season? I doubt it, but this was some low-key horrific offensive football.
The NFL nailed Sunday Night Football in Week 5 with the Buffalo Bills looking to get their biggest win in the regular season in decades in Kansas City and drop the Chiefs to 2-3 in the process. If you look at the remaining schedules for both teams, it would seem highly improbable (but not impossible) for the Chiefs to catch Buffalo in the AFC standings if they lose this game.
Before getting to the picks, I wanted to take a moment to update some quarterback injury stats after a newsworthy Friday involving finger surgery for Russell Wilson.
Active Starting Quarterbacks: Career Injury History
Another one bites the dust. The dreaded Russell Wilson injury I feel like I’ve been warning about the last six seasons happened, and it happened in a way you’d least expect: in the pocket with an on-time throw. There was no scrambling. It was not a leg injury. It was his finger that contacted Aaron Donald on his follow through, and it’s frankly a miracle this doesn’t happen to a quarterback every season given the hundreds of opportunities. For Wilson, he threw almost 5,000 passes in his career before this unfortunate setback that will cost him at least a month and likely put his 10th season in spoiled territory with the Seahawks at 2-3 in a tough division.
So ends the fifth-longest starting streak in NFL history at quarterback. We are also down to just Kirk Cousins, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Justin Herbert as the non-rookie starters who have never missed a start to injury in the NFL. Baker is currently ailing with a torn labrum he suffered in Week 2, so his days on that small list could be numbered.
I’ve included three tables that highlight the injury history for today’s landscape of starters, including a few players who have been sent to the bench already this year in Drew Lock and Andy Dalton. But I had the data, so why not keep them there? The first table shows the quarterbacks who have had had 3+ injuries and missed the most games. The second table also has some multi-injured quarterbacks, and the last table has everyone with no injuries or a single injury situation.
NFL Week 5 Predictions
I had the Rams winning 29-23 in Seattle, so 26-17 did the trick for me on the spread, total and MOV (Rams by 1-13). Now if only Robert Woods or Cooper Kupp could have scored a touchdown, then it would have been a banner f’n night at the old Kacsmar residence.
Unless I can’t sleep like last Sunday, I won’t be setting an alarm for Jets-Falcons so I can watch Kyle Pitts not score a touchdown on a second continent. However, I will have a bet on him doing it anyway somewhere.
I don’t trust anything with the Saints and will be fading that game entirely. Ditto for Patriots-Texans. Crazy to think of an NFL where the Patriots and Saints scare you to bet on their games, but this is where I’m at right now with those teams. What really are those offenses at this point? Jakobi Meyers doesn’t catch touchdowns, Mac Jones doesn’t throw downfield, and the Saints would rather give Taysom Hill his touches than feed Alvin Kamara targets (anywhere) or carries in the red zone.
The worst common bet in the NFL is the 10-point spread. From 2001-2020, 10-point favorites covered only 43.9% of the time compared to 48.0% for 3-point favorites, 48.5% for 7-point favorites, and 54.5% for 9.5-point favorites. The only point spread with a lower cover rate (min. 100 games) in that time is 9-point favorites at 43.6%. It makes sense, mathematically. To cover a 10-point spread, you basically have to win by 14+ as teams rarely win with a differential of 11-13 points. If you’re in that range late in the game, you should be going for two to try to get it up to 14 to protect yourself from a collapse. Anyways, this is the long way to say that I don’t trust Kirk Cousins behind his offensive line to win by more than 10 this week. I know they’ve done it three years in a row at home against the Lions when they had Stafford, I know Cousins is 6-0 vs. Detroit with the Vikings and five of the wins were by 12+ points. But I’m just going with my gut here.
I have the Bears upsetting the Raiders as perhaps the Football Gods reward Matt Nagy for sticking with Justin Fields and punish the Raiders for Jon Gruden’s e-mails. Imagine the tweets starting around 7:30 P.M. EST on Sunday if that one comes true…
With Trey Lance starting for Jimmy Garoppolo, I’m going to give the 49ers a shot to cover and keep it close as Lance is such a wild card. He could be incredible or he could be terrible like the other rookies have mostly been this year. But I’m also used to seeing the 49ers lose close games under Kyle Shanahan, so I can live with this hedge. The Cardinals have been playing incredible but they aren’t going to score 31+ every week.
My detailed Steelers prediction: Now that Ben Roethlisberger has his 400th touchdown pass and moved past Dan Marino in yards, he’s hit the career milestones he was going to hit this year. I think he gives it one last go in front of the home crowd, and if they lose this one too to fall to 1-4, the Steelers will play up his injury and that will end his season and ultimately his career. So maybe the nostalgia in me is willing to give him one last home win, but I’m not really sure what to expect from Denver with Teddy Bridgewater coming off a concussion and Courtland Sutton getting injured in practice. It could be a 17-16 type of game where the Steelers can pull it out late. But these days, watching Roethlisberger is like watching your beloved pet struggle to walk in old age and you just know that day is coming where you have to take them to the vet and have them put down. It’s sad and it’s inevitable.
Finally, for Bills-Chiefs, part of me knows I should be taking the Bills to get over this KC hump with the way the Chiefs have turned the ball over and played terrible on defense. Home-field advantage just isn’t what it used to be either in this league. But I’m still rolling with the Chiefs (and will obviously have Buffalo bets too) because the offense is scoring at a historical rate and the Bills are a team they owned twice last year. I’m not sold on Buffalo’s defense, which was mediocre last year, being this great based on the competition so far. But we’ll see in what could be the game of the year in the AFC.
From Joe Burrow last Thursday night to Tom Brady on Sunday night to Justin Herbert on Monday night to Matthew Stafford tonight, the NFL is showing us four of the most prolific passers in history in prime time.
Prolific in which way? Simply by throwing the football. After Monday night’s win over the Raiders, Herbert (759) now has the most pass attempts through 20 career games in NFL history. The thing is he’s only played 19 games, but he’s already one ahead of the record pace.
Who has thrown the most passes in NFL history? The guy who has played the longest, of course. Brady recently surpassed Brees for the most attempts through 300 games in NFL history.
But then there is the case of Matthew Stafford, who was a Volume God in Detroit with pass attempts. You can already see this when I posted the most passing yards by game in NFL history, and Patrick Mahomes is doing his best to erase Stafford from that chart.
Now I have a new chart that shows the most pass attempts by career game number in regular-season history, and Stafford is dominating this one too. Unless Herbert keeps up with him, Stafford could be poised to fill out most of this chart if he stays healthy.
First, who thought it was a good idea to let Mike Glennon throw 181 passes in his first four games with the 2013 Buccaneers? That was a shocking entry I never would have guessed, nor was I counting on Todd Marinovich to show up after two games with the early 90s Raiders.
Right from the first game with Sam Bradford, there is a striking trend here. In the first 175 slots, 167 of them are filled with a QB who was drafted No. 1 overall. This league just loves drafting a quarterback with the first pick and throwing him into the role of savior where he loads up on pass attempts each week even though he’s not that efficient at doing so. We see Bradford, Drew Bledsoe, Stafford, Andrew Luck, and Joe Burrow all crack this list.
Most of these charts have been runaways by a few players, but I was definitely amused at filling out the first column with the unexpected names and the battle that ensued between Bledsoe and Stafford. By Game No. 38, Stafford took over for good. I’ve definitely drawn comparisons between the two several times before:
Stafford has the most pass attempts through 175 games in NFL history, and he has only played 169 games. We’ll see if he can make this second act with the Rams so prolific that it lands him in the Hall of Fame some day.
While the talk surrounding Baltimore’s 23-7 win in Denver on Sunday is about Lamar Jackson’s late run to extend the team’s record streak of 100-yard rushing games, it has been quiet on the NFL media front that he threw 37 passes and registered his third 300-yard passing game in his career. It is only the fifth game in Jackson’s career where he threw the ball at least 35 times.
Jackson recently broke 1,000 pass attempts in his regular season career, which must have prompted this Deadspin article last week about how Jackson has the “NFL’s greatest QB start ever.” I’ll get into multiple things from the article below, but it ends by saying, “Lamar Jackson is only 24 years old, and just posted the greatest FIRST 1,000 Pass start in modern quarterback history. Now write about it.”
Challenge accepted, because I already subtweeted about this article the other day, but it and Lamar’s unique career deserve a more in-depth look. I have neither any beef nor familiarity with the author (Chuck Modiano) of the piece. I just think Lamar’s career is the right place to talk about quarterback statistics in a game that is evolving.
Yes, Running QBs Make Life Harder on Statistics
The premise of the Deadspin article is that stat companies such as PFF and Football Outsiders continue to miss the mark on running quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson (and Cam Newton). The author concludes that if you combine Lamar’s elite passing production through 1,000 attempts, his historic rushing production, and his team impact (high winning percentage), then he’s had the greatest first 1,000 pass start in modern history for an NFL quarterback.
I have certainly read worse arguments over the years, but I disagree with this one on the obviousness of Patrick Mahomes dominating the league and rewriting the record books at the same time as Jackson’s rise.
Not to mention Mahomes is still 3-1 in the head-to-head matchups. While Jackson unanimously won MVP in 2019, Mahomes ended that season with the Super Bowl MVP and had another stellar run last season. 2020 also brought the return of Peak Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and the breakout of Josh Allen in Buffalo. Of course, we also live in a world where Tom Brady reverse ages and annually hits the “EASY” button he sold his soul for each postseason to add to his ring collection. So given Lamar’s playoff struggles, it is no surprise that the media does not revolve around Jackson in this era.
But one thing I won’t argue is that Jackson is indisputably the most prolific rushing quarterback in NFL history. He proved that after back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and leading the NFL in yards per carry both years. He has also shown he can be durable doing it (so far) as only COVID-19 has kept him out of one game, plus that night in Cleveland where he had to take a shit and missed a few plays.
However, this rushing part of his game that makes him so unique also makes him harder to evaluate statistically. While the author is correct that the stat companies have struggled in this area, his remedy to fix it also misses the mark.
Any time you see someone try to combine rushing with passing in a quarterback metric, it tends to overvalue the running quarterback. ESPN’s QBR is notorious for having a hard-on for rushing quarterbacks, especially when they scramble for a big gain on a third down. You can see it in the way that Mitchell Trubisky (71.0) was their No. 3 quarterback in 2018, or how David Garrard’s 2007 with Jacksonville is still the No. 8 season since 2006. You also should note that Lamar’s 2019 (83.0) is the fourth highest season in QBR.
I cannot find the link now, but about 15 years ago I saw a guy rank the top ~50 quarterbacks of all time, and he used a formula that put a bonus for rushing. It ended up having Mark Brunell in the top 30 if I’m not mistaken. Yeah, adding rushing is problematic. Football Outsiders has not figured out a good way of doing it in two decades, so rushing is still kept separate from passing.
While the author wants to include Jackson’s rushing, there are parts early in the article where he keeps it separate. But by not thinking about Jackson’s attempts on the ground, you’re presenting what are misleading figures for Jackson’s touchdown passes. Through 1,000 passes, Jackson (70) has the fourth-most touchdown passes, trailing only Dan Marino (75), Kurt Warner (73), and Mahomes (71).
This looks great for Jackson but think about what the average touchdown drive looks like for these quarterbacks. The other three were going to throw a lot of passes while Marino and Warner would rarely ever run. Mahomes scrambles at times, but most of the offense is him passing. For Lamar, his Ravens run a lot and so does he, so he can keep his pass attempts lower while still ending drives with touchdown passes. This is why we need to stop fixating on that number of 1,000 passes and start focusing on things like an equal number of games played and rate stats.
On Pro Football Reference, you can search a quarterback’s first four seasons and find their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt index (ANY/A), which will factor in sacks (but not rushing) and the era the quarterback played in. When you run that search for quarterbacks with 1,000-plus attempts, Jackson comes in 14th at 112 ANY/A+, right behind the likes of Russell Wilson (115), Peyton Manning (113), and Deshaun Watson (113). Warner (133), Marino (132), and Mahomes (129) are the only players above 120, and it is hard to argue with anyone having better starts to their careers than those three.
But that does not include rushing, which means it also does not look at fumbles, or something that Jackson does a fair amount since he handles the ball so much with defenders coming after him. The author talks about interception totals by decade, but again, that can be misleading as mobile quarterbacks often have lower interceptions due to their love of scrambling and taking more sacks than pocket passers. We should be looking at total turnovers by including fumbles lost.
The author makes an argument for combining rush and pass stats instead of segregating them. “When Lamar ran for two 4th-quarter TDs to beat the Chiefs, it counted for the same exact points as if he threw those TDs. So why don’t we show that PRODUCTION?”
By making that argument, and earlier saying that he favors substance over style and will not reward style points, then he must agree that we should be treating a 6-yard completion on a curl route the same as a quarterback escaping a blitzing linebacker and scrambling for a 6-yard gain. That simple pass play still counts for the same yards as if he ran the ball, right?
So here is what I did. I gathered data for the first 45 starts (playoffs included) of the 60 quarterbacks who have made their starting debut since 2001. Jackson just made his 45th start on Sunday in Denver in case you’re confused why I picked 45. I looked at their passes, sacks, runs, and fumbles and combined those stats to figure out their total number of plays, total yards gained, total touchdowns, and total turnovers. From there I can figure out their yards per play and touchdown rate (TD%) per play.
Finally, I took the ANY/A formula and tweaked it to include fumbles and rushes. I thought this was better than tweaking passer rating for rushing as the author did at the end to get a 109.5 Production Rating for Lamar. I’ve just never liked the idea of giving a quarterback completion bonuses for every run, so I stuck with ANY/A.
Here are some of the findings on where Lamar stacks up among the 60 quarterbacks thru 45 starts:
Win% and Average Points Scored: Jackson is 34-11 (.756) as a starter, second only to Mahomes (36-9, .800). Brady, Roethlisberger, and Wilson were all 33-12 (.733), or just one game behind Jackson. Scoring has gone up in recent years, so it is not a big surprise to see Mahomes (32.4) and Jackson (28.7) average the most team points per start.
Jackson’s Passing Ranks and Rushing:
14th in completion percentage (62.8%)
49th in passing yards (8,975)
15th in yards per attempt (7.51)
11th in touchdown passes (74; tied with Kirk Cousins)
2nd in touchdown pass rate (6.19%)
12th in lowest interception rate (2.18%)
5th in passer rating (97.3)
7th in ANY/A (6.80; passes only).
In rushing, Jackson is easily No. 1 in attempts (550) and rushing yards (3,413), and he is No. 4 in YPC (6.21) and No. 3 in TD runs (21). Jackson’s 38 fumbles trail only Josh McCown (42) and Michael Vick (39). His 14 lost fumbles are tied for the seventh most. Jackson’s 40 total turnovers are tied for the ninth fewest.
Advanced Metrics to Include All Play Types: Jackson is No. 7 in total yards (11,891) and tied with Josh Allen for No. 4 in total touchdowns (95). That’s good company, but on a per-play basis, Jackson falls as the increased choice to be a 6.2 YPC runner instead of a 7.5 YPA passer hurts his numbers. Jackson ranks 15th in yards per play (6.46) and 6th in TD% (5.16%). When I include everything into ANY/A, he ranks No. 6 in that too (6.51).
Here is a graph of all 60 quarterbacks through their first 45 starts since 2001. The x-axis is their total TD% and the y-axis is their ANY/A with all plays included.
Yep, Jackson is doing very well, but Mahomes is killing the league. Running for over 100 yards as a team every week is cool and the Ravens have been historic with that under Lamar, but it still does not produce the results of being a lethal passing team like the Chiefs.
Jackson Is Still Developing
You can appreciate Jackson’s unique greatness while still having valid questions and criticisms about his ability to perform in certain situations or what his long-term success will be.
The four playoff games bring Jackson down a bit, but shouldn’t we have some higher expectations for him there? Most of the players who come up in comparison to him here (Mahomes, Wilson, Marino, Warner, Roethlisberger, Brady) all won or were in a Super Bowl within two seasons as a starter. Jackson is 1-3 with his best game being a low-scoring wild card win in Tennessee last year.
While we talk about Jackson’s unique place in history, his postseason history leaves so much to be desired. 2020 was the third postseason in a row where the Ravens scored their season-low in points with Jackson at quarterback. Safe to say that stat will not come up in his contract negotiations. When you compare that to some other recent quarterbacks for how often they scored their season-low in a playoff game, Jackson’s three-for-three is a huge eyesore. It is as many times as Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Ben Roethlisberger combined.
Lamar Jackson (100%): three times in three postseasons (2018, 2019, 2020)
Patrick Mahomes (33.3%): once in three postseasons (2020)
Philip Rivers (28.6%): two times in seven postseasons (2007, 2009)
Tom Brady (27.8%): five times in 18 postseasons (2005, 2007, 2011-T, 2012, 2019-T)
Cam Newton (25.0%): once in four postseasons (2015)
Peyton Manning (20.0%): three times in 15 postseasons (2002, 2004, 2013)
Joe Flacco (16.7%): once in six postseasons (2009)
Matt Ryan (16.7%): once in six postseasons (2011)
Russell Wilson (12.5%): once in eight postseasons (2015)
Drew Brees (10.0%): once in 10 postseasons (2020)
Aaron Rodgers (0.0%): zero times in 10 postseasons
Ben Roethlisberger (0.0%): zero times in 11 postseasons
The other thing I saw in that article was a link to another piece saying that Jackson has debunked that he can’t be clutch because of the Detroit finish in Week 3. I also saw Ryan Clark on Twitter ask why people weren’t talking about Lamar’s play on 4th-and-19 to Sammy Watkins to set up the game-winning field goal.
Well, I think it’s pretty obvious why a record-setting 66-yard field goal by the great Justin Tucker stole all the headlines. Especially with the way it bounced in good. Just an incredible, history-making play.
But this is another situation where if Jackson played the position better, he’d get more of the attention. No one was expecting the Ravens to be down late in that game. Drops by Marquise Brown aside, it was Jackson who forced an interception on third down in Detroit territory, which the Lions turned into a go-ahead scoring drive. On the last drive, it was a 4th-and-19 after Jackson took two sacks on the drive. If he plays the drive better and sets Tucker up for a shorter, easier field goal, then Jackson gets more credit. He didn’t, so we go nuts over what Tucker did to bail the team out. Simple as that.
Similar things with the Chiefs win the week before. While Jackson did his part in the fourth quarter, most people can see that it took a really bad fumble by Clyde Edwards-Helaire in field goal range to decide that game. Jackson put them away on the ground, but he was only in that position after a rare fumble. Had the Ravens lost 38-36, Jackson would have still been credited for having his best game yet against the Chiefs, but those early interceptions, including a pick-six to start the game, would have stood out too.
If that CEH fumble and 66-yard field goal are the new proof that Jackson is clutch, well then that’s just not a good argument either. Jackson has six game-winning drives in his career and five of them were field goals by Tucker from distances of 24, 46, 49, 55, and 66 yards. Oof. He did at least have the touchdown drives against the Chiefs and the long touchdown on fourth down to Hollywood Brown in the Cleveland Poop Game (47-42), but to say Jackson is proven in this department is just not true at all.
While Jackson is absolutely unique and fun to watch, let’s roll back the hyperbole that he’s off to the greatest start in NFL history by a quarterback. No metric, no matter how much you want to overvalue his runs, is going to support that.
It’s not even the best start by someone drafted in the last five years.
You know what this 2021 NFL season is missing? More close games that end in failure by one team, such as the Vikings’ failed comeback attempt in a 14-7 loss to the Browns. It was a shock to see The Kevin Stefanski Bowl end with 21 points on 22 drives, but Baker Mayfield was inaccurate, and the Browns got through Minnesota’s line with ease. But there was Kirk Cousins with a whopping five drive attempts in the fourth quarter, trying to get that elusive touchdown and never doing so.
There were only six games in Week 4 with a comeback opportunity, and one of them was in the Jacksonville-Cincinnati game on Thursday night. Joe Burrow left that one with the first fourth-quarter comeback win of his NFL career. Urban Meyer left for some college comforts at the bar.
But the funny thing is NFL teams are now 19-24 (.442) at comeback opportunities in 2021. In each of the last two seasons, that success rate was just about 30% like it usually is. Now we are seeing closer to a coin flip this season and I think part of the problem is a lack of close games overall as we’ve only had 28 through Week 4.
Some games have been quasi-close with the leading team having the ball in the fourth quarter before extending to a two-score lead or running out the clock. I do not specifically track that number of games weekly, but I might need to start if this keeps up.
Buccaneers at Patriots: Now We Can Get on with the Important Games
After hearing for a week how this was the most “anticipated game of the season” and to see more promos for it than any non-Super Bowl game, you just know I have to vent a bit now that it’s over.
Yes, the most over-hyped regular-season game in NFL history is behind us, but I have to give them credit for playing a competitive, 60-minute game. The low-scoring chess match between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick was at least compelling, and the rain and injuries evened the playing field a bit for an outmatched New England roster.
If only we could have seen the Patriots win a game despite rushing for minus-1 yard (franchise record) and being minus-two in turnovers. But Brady getting his 50th fourth-quarter comeback win at the expense of a coaching blunder and missed field goal in that stadium was all too familiar.
This was really just the fourth all-time matchup of a legendary quarterback returning to face his former team, but on paper it was the weakest one of them all with Brady (of course) having the biggest advantages.
Joe Montana (1994 Chiefs) had to overcome a 49ers team led by MVP Steve Young in a 24-17 game where he threw for two touchdowns and a 101.9 passer rating.
Brett Favre (2009 Vikings) returned to Lambeau Field to take on the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers in a 38-26 win where he threw four touchdowns and a 128.6 passer rating.
Peyton Manning (2013 Broncos) took his team into Indianapolis on SNF to take on Andrew Luck in a 39-33 loss where he still threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns with a 96.1 passer rating.
Tom Brady, as only he can, got to celebrate a 19-17 homecoming win in New England against a team with rookie Mac Jones in a game where Brady had no touchdowns and a 70.8 passer rating.
Even in something as trivial as this, Manning takes the loss because the other quarterback was fantastic against his defense while Brady played the worst and still gets the only game-winning drive credit.
It never fails, does it? But I probably should have expected disappointment like this. I shouldn’t have expected Brady to throw for 300-plus yards and three or four touchdowns to his assortment of weapons. After all, Brady and Belichick have given us several of the lowest-scoring Super Bowls in NFL history, including 13-3 against the 2018 Rams. Brady just came off a 31-9 Super Bowl win. He’s the “we’re only going to score 17 points?” quarterback from Super Bowl 42 against the Giants, flopping hard on the big stage as he tried to throw deep and make memorable highlight plays to get to 19-0.
I saw some of that in this game as Brady’s deep ball was off. He was throwing high often. He had receivers open almost every play and adequate protection, but the rain and unprecedented emotions he was feeling about the situation probably played a bigger role than any specific game plan by Belichick. You could also tell Brady was missing Rob Gronkowski as the connection to Cameron Brate in particular looked out of sync. I’m not sure why Brady was throwing deep late to Antonio Brown other than to stick it to Belichick, because that was strategically the wrong move even if Brown had a good shot at making one of those throws a touchdown.
It was just not an impressive performance, and in hindsight, it makes those ridiculous props of Brady throwing for 555 yards or seven touchdowns look even funnier for this game.
You could easily argue that Mac Jones outplayed Brady on what was supposed to be his night. Jones even made a lot of classic Brady plays with the screens and play-action to a wide-open tight end to start the fourth quarter with a touchdown that put the Patriots on top. Jones even put the ball into danger multiple times on a go-ahead drive in the fourth, but the Buccaneers and their ravaged secondary did not make him pay. He completed 19 passes in a row at one point, tying Brady’s career-long streak. It’s too early for anyone to say if Jones is going to be the real deal, but you have to feel better with him after this game than you did a week ago when he played the Saints.
But Brady still gets the win after Belichick of all people mismanaged the final drive. The rain was coming down good at this point with New England down 19-17. Jones just had a pass knocked down to set up 4th-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 37 with 59 seconds left. The Buccaneers had a couple timeouts. You could try the 56-yard field goal, but that cannot be any better than a 50/50 shot, and it would leave Brady with nearly a minute (plus timeouts) to answer. That sounds bad. But if you can convert the fourth-and-3, that should be able to set up a last-second field goal from shorter distance.
That’s what I would have gone for, but Belichick reportedly did not even think about it. He sent out Nick Folk and the 56-yard field goal hit the left upright with 55 seconds left. Game over. Kickers are now 0-for-7 on clutch field goals of 50-plus yards against a Brady-led team. Folk has three of those seven misses, which only includes field goals in the final half of the fourth quarter or any time in overtime, tied or down 1-3 points). While this would have been a bigger miracle kick than most, it’s just something how Brady literally never ends up on the wrong side of these finishes.
In trying to find an old tweet, I stumbled on this research of mine that said the Patriots were 47-1 at home from 2001-2017 when a team threw 40 passes. That record was 53-1 a game into the 2019 season, but the Patriots have since gone 0-4 in these games, losing to Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (Dolphins) with Brady at quarterback in 2019, and getting blown out by Josh Allen and the Bills (38-9) on Monday Night Football in 2020.
Now Brady did it to them last night on 43 throws, but he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. The record since 2001 for road teams that threw 40-plus passes without a touchdown and scoring fewer than 20 points was 8-174 (.044). Ho-hum.
With some better play in the red zone late in the game, the Patriots could easily be 3-1 right now. As I detailed in Week 1 when the Patriots lost to the Dolphins, Jones is quickly experiencing things it took years for Brady to see in New England, if he’s ever seen them at all in 22 years in the NFL. Let’s update a few of those that I said would be coming soon.
Mac Jones lost in his NFL debut with a 102.6 passer rating (29-of-39 for 281 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT).
It took Brady 79 starts and 18 losses to lose a game with a passer rating higher than 83.3. He was in his sixth season then.
Jones lost in his fourth NFL start vs. Tampa Bay with a 101.6 passer rating (31-of-40 for 275 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT).
It took Brady 137 starts and 30 losses to lose a second game with a passer rating higher than 100.0. He was in his 10th season then (it was 4th-and-2 Night).
It took Jones four starts to lose a game after a clutch field goal was missed.
It took Brady 183 starts to lose a game after a clutch field goal was missed (it’s happened once in 348 career starts).
It took Jones four starts to lose a game after leading in the fourth quarter.
It took Brady 66 starts to lose a game after leading in the fourth quarter. He threw four interceptions that night against the 2004 Dolphins, a 2-11 team.
A couple things I can say with certainty about Jones so far. He won’t melt in the rain like Davis Mills did for the Texans in Buffalo. But he’s also not destined to be the LOAT like Brady is. If he was, then he would have willed Folk to drill that kick followed by some random defender to intercept Brady to end the game.
This would have been a hell of a win for the Patriots, but now they can just focus on improving and getting back to winning important games in the AFC. Taking the division back from Buffalo. Frustrating Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs better than most have. All the Brady stuff is in the past and the Patriots have to cope with mediocrity for now.
You can’t take a picture of this – it’s already gone.
Steelers at Packers: The Standard Is the Standard
What did the Steelers do differently this week in Green Bay compared to their last 10 games with a broken offense? They scored an opening-drive touchdown! Ben Roethlisberger threw a dime for 45 yards to Diontae Johnson to take an early 7-0 lead.
Unfortunately, this was not a sign of things to come as the normal broken offense returned for the rest of the game. The defense had another letdown before halftime for the fourth week in a row, and the Packers led 27-10 in the third quarter after Aaron Rodgers went on a hot five-drive scoring streak to put up all of Green Bay’s points.
Najee Harris scored a late touchdown for the Steelers to make it 27-17, but it was too little too late after a couple more horrible fourth-down throws short of the sticks. The only reason I can think of Roethlisberger turning into Alex Smith this season is that he doesn’t want to throw more interceptions, since those tend to get quarterbacks benched. But his quick throws on fourth down that lose yards are unheard of. He never had such a play in his whole career, but he now has such a completion in back-to-back games.
But maybe no play better symbolizes how broken this offense is than this 2-yard completion to JuJu Smith-Schuster on 4th-and-5 where he extends the ball as far as he could and is still multiple yards short of the marker.
Not pictured: James Washington pointing like JuJu got the first down. Hilarious. Sad. Fvcked.
In eight of their last 10 games following last year’s 11-0 start, the Steelers have allowed 23-27 points. In seven of their last 10 games, the Pittsburgh offense has scored 10-17 points. This consistency of being so painfully below average on offense and also below average on defense is just ridiculous.
And yet I still say anyone who thinks benching the future Hall of Famer with a cap number just south of $26 million this year for Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins is crazy if they think that solves anything. It is broken and this coaching staff is not qualified to fix it.
NFC West: Tough Day for the McVay and Shanahan Fanboys
While I was busy hate-watching Steelers-Packers, the first two NFC West showdowns of the season took place. Both road dogs, the Seahawks and Cardinals, came through with big wins in games that were far from classics, but they could be seen as real turning points for these franchises in what has been the NFL’s most competitive division since 2012.
Los Angeles’ Sean McVay was 8-0 against Arizona and all but one of those games was won by double digits. He has Matthew Stafford now and they just had that outstanding win over Tampa Bay. I certainly let all of that play into my decision making for betting on this game, but I couldn’t have been more wrong on this one.
The Cardinals just went in there and kicked their ass in a 37-20 final that was never closer than 11 points in the second half. Arizona just may have built something special here as this is the high point of the Kliff Kingsbury era so far. The Cardinals have produced at least 31 points and 400 yards of offense in each of their first four games. That’s only been done by the 2007 Patriots, 2011 Patriots, and 2013 Broncos in NFL history. Two of those teams set the single-season scoring record and all three lost the Super Bowl.
Why not Arizona in the Super Bowl this season? This is what you draft a quarterback like Kyler Murray No. 1 overall for. Murray (80.4) finished sixth in QBR this week – his third top-six game in four weeks – while Stafford (50.2) was 17th in his weakest game yet for the Rams. The Los Angeles running game produced 17 carries for 100 yards, so you could argue it was their best running game of the season. Yet Stafford still had his worst passing game. The Rams were sitting on 13 points until a drive in garbage time. Robert Woods had 30 yards and a touchdown on that final drive but only 18 yards before it. He is averaging just 43 yards per game with Stafford this year, making it one of the least-productive months of his career. That connection has just not taken off yet, and even the Stafford-to-Cooper Kupp connection was off in this one. Cupp had 64 yards on 13 targets.
This will continue to be one of the more fascinating parts of 2021 as so far the running success seems to have no correlation with how Stafford is doing in that game each week. But the Rams were outclassed on both sides of the ball, and this team still has a ton of work to do before we think of it as the favorite in the division. That may have just transferred over to the Cardinals.
The Seahawks will still have their say in this division as long as Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll are there. After beating the 49ers again 28-21, Wilson has still never lost three games in a row in the same season. This week had a different script though. In recent weeks, the Seahawks started fast before fading. On Sunday, they punted five times to start the game, scored four touchdowns over their next six drives, then just held on while the 49ers tried to mount a 15-point comeback with Trey Lance taking over the half for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo (calf).
Lance hit on a 76-yard touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel after a hideous blown coverage, but he showed why he is a raw rookie in need of reps. It sounds like he will be getting them with Garoppolo expected to be out some time. Will it be permanent? That depends on how well Lance plays, but he’ll have to do better than this game.
But with Samuel off to a dominant start and George Kittle still healthy, Kyle Shanahan is really lacking in the excuses department if this offense does not start to take off regardless if it’s Garoppolo or Lance at quarterback.
Ravens Stop Denver from Moving to 4-0, Panthers Finally Trail This Season
No 3-0 teams surprised people more than the Panthers and Broncos, but both had to deal with legitimate offenses in their biggest challenges yet this season.
I liked the Cowboys (-4) against Carolina, but it was a dogfight into the third quarter. But after Zane Gonzalez missed a 54-yard field goal, Dallas’ offense really took off with balance and big plays. Dallas led 36-14 in the fourth quarter before Sam Darnold, who rushed for two more touchdowns as he apparently wants to crush Cam Newton’s single-season record, led back-to-back touchdown drives to make it 36-28 with just over four minutes left. But when you think maybe this was another Mike McCarthy team collapsing with a lead, the Cowboys put the game away on offense and denied Darnold the game-tying drive opportunity.
Dallas has been impressive this season. When the offense is balanced like this – Prescott had four touchdown passes and only 188 yards passing while the backs rushed for 210 yards – they are going to be a challenge for anyone in the league. Clearly, the Carolina defense boosted its stats against cupcakes in the first three weeks. But I wouldn’t just write off the Panthers this season. They do look legitimately improved and D.J. Moore is a legit No. 1 wide receiver. They probably missed the greatness of Christian McCaffrey as an outlet receiver to deal with the pass rush better in this one. Darnold was sacked five times.
I saw very little of Ravens-Broncos, but it doesn’t seem like there was much there. Both teams have a lot of injuries, but the Ravens still have better players to make up for it. Teddy Bridgewater left with a concussion and Drew Lock was no match for Baltimore’s defense.
Lamar Jackson had just his third 300-yard passing game in the NFL and he has thrown for at least 235 yards in all four games this season. The only other time he’s done that in his career was his four-game start to his 2019 MVP season. Marquise Brown held on this week and finished with 91 yards and a touchdown.
Like Carolina, the Broncos were abusing bad, inexperienced quarterbacks to beef up their stats, but Jackson took it to them in one of the most pass-centric games the Ravens have had with him. His 37 pass attempts are tied for his third-highest amount in a game.
The Ravens were actually in danger of not rushing for 100 yards in this game, something they had done in 38 straight games (including playoffs). But after getting the ball back with three seconds left and an insurmountable 23-7 lead, John Harbaugh had the team run Lamar for a 5-yard gain instead of taking a knee like anyone else would. That gave the Ravens 102 yards and a new record of 39 straight 100-yard games, beating out the 1973-76 Bills. This does end their record streak of 38 games with at least 110 rushing yards.
But when coaches tell you they don’t care about numbers or records, there’s a decent chance they are lying. Extending the record, which is ultimately meaningless like most things in life, by having your star quarterback run with three seconds left is the definition of cheap.
Maybe the Ravens get there easier if they could figure out their running back rotation better. Latavius Murray led the way with 18 carries while Le’Veon Bell (4 for 11 yards) and Devonta Freeman (one 4-yard run) also saw action with Ty’Son Williams a healthy scratch. Maybe they’re saving him? Either way, it would be a good thing for the Ravens to continue developing this passing game.
Chiefs at Eagles: Let’s Not Take This for Granted
The Chiefs ended their two-game slide with a commanding 42-30 win, or only their second win by more than six points since the middle of last season. The bad news: the 2021 Chiefs are now the 14th team in NFL history to allow more than 28 points in each of their first four games. The good news: a dozen of those teams started 0-4 and the other (2012 Titans) was 1-3. The Chiefs (2-2) are now back to .500 after nearly having a perfect game on offense that should not be taken for granted.
The Chiefs were 9-of-10 on third down and scored a touchdown on six of their seven drives. Every touchdown drive was at least 65 yards and all but one of them was 75-plus yards. Literally the only mistake all day was a Patrick Mahomes interception forced under pressure on a third down, the only third-down stop of the day for the Eagles.
The Chiefs did it differently by rushing for 200 yards while Tyreek Hill had 186 receiving yards and three touchdowns. No other Kansas City receiver had more than 23 yards through the air. Travis Kelce hadn’t been held to that little yardage and kept out of the end zone in a game with Mahomes since their first start together in 2018 against the Chargers.
But the Chiefs were spectacular on that side of the ball and still left something to be desired on defense. Granted, they limited the Eagles to three field goals in the first three quarters, and Philadelphia’s last touchdown was a garbage-time score with four seconds left.
We’ll see just how ready the Chiefs are for a real test when they get the Bills next Sunday night in another potential AFC Game of the Year. But six touchdowns on seven drives is insane production in the NFL.
Giants at Saints: Seriously, WTF?
No team has puzzled me more on a weekly basis in 2021 than the Saints. They killed Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Week 1, which looks like we can safely call it a fluke. They were embarrassed 26-7 by the Panthers in Week 2, which looks like a combo of division familiarity, an improved Carolina team, and some injuries and COVID problems in the coaching staff. They picked off Mac Jones three times in New England last week and took advantage of the rookie and limited offense there.
But then this 27-21 overtime loss to the Giants happened in the Superdome with a full crowd on hand, and I am more confused than ever. At least Jameis Winston passed for over 200 yards in regulation this week, but how the hell does a team throw 26 passes and not have one go to Alvin Kamara? He had 26 carries for 120 yards but no touchdowns since Taysom Hill, the touchdown vulture who threw a pick, hijinks happened, and it was the first game in Kamara’s career with no targets.
That is inexcusable, especially with the given lack of weapons in the passing game. But speaking of weapons, how do you let Daniel Jones pass for 402 yards and make only the second fourth-quarter comeback of his career (he was 1-13) on a day where Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton were inactive? It does not make sense. Jones had failed to pass for more than 280 yards in every start with Jason Garrett as his offensive coordinator since 2020. Yet here he was getting two huge plays for 50-plus yard touchdowns out of John Ross and Saquon Barkley. Both players also delivered in overtime with Barkley taking in the game-winning score from 6 yards out on the only drive of overtime.
This is New Orleans’ 19th loss as a favorite of more than seven points since Sean Payton came to coach the team in 2006. The Saints are 39-19 SU (.672) as a favorite of more than seven points since 2006. Only Washington (6-4) has a worse winning percentage in such games.
I really thought the Saints would play better at home on offense. In some ways, they definitely did. But there were some key misses in this game like Kamara only getting two yards on a 4th-and-3 run, settling for a 58-yard field goal that was missed and led to the Ross touchdown, the Hill interception right after a long Winston touchdown pass was negated by penalty, and not closing out in the fourth quarter.
If this is what the Saints are post-Brees, then I’m out. I want nothing to do with Kamara’s prop bets anymore and I can’t even trust them to beat the Giants in the Superdome. Granted, Payton has lost in this spot more than you’d like to see in his career, but this was a really bad loss for the team. Daniel Jones is only supposed to do this shit against the Washington franchise.
Titans and Lions: Extend the Game vs. End the Game
Finally, I just wanted to highlight two coaching decisions on Sunday. Last week, I was happy when Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel went for two with a seven-point lead. He has been a bit of a renegade in breaking norms on two-point conversions. So, it kind of shocked me when he did not have his Titans go for the win against the lowly Jets after getting a touchdown with 16 seconds left in the game.
The timing was excellent with the Jets out of timeouts. This is the ideal spot to do it in and it’s not like the Jets were doing a great job of stopping Derrick Henry in the game. Ryan Tannehill also found his rhythm late after playing the game without Julio Jones and A.J. Brown available.
If you’re playing a lousy team on the road and the offense is the strength of your team, why not go for the win? That extra point surprised me. The Jets almost ended this one immediately in overtime, but eventually did settle for a field goal and 27-24 lead. The Titans had a rough time answering, needing to convert two fourth downs, but they eventually got into field goal range. It looks like we were about to have a damn tie, but fortunately, Randy Bullock is a bum kicker. From 49 yards out, he was wide left in the final 20 seconds to end the game.
The Jets had their first win in the Robert Saleh era. Rookie quarterback Zach Wilson had his first 4QC/GWD and it is one he can feel good about after a rough first three weeks. Wide receiver Corey Davis (111 yards and a touchdown) had a sweet revenge game on his former team.
While I wanted the Titans to end the game on one play, the Detroit Lions made a mistake of not extending the game. It was a rough afternoon in Chicago for the Lions, but they were down 24-14 in the fourth quarter with the ball. The Jared Goff-led drive stalled, setting up a 4th-and-1 at the Chicago 8 with 4:19 left. I get that it’s tempting to go for it there, but you have to realize you are still down 10 points (two scores) and time is a factor. Even if you go for it and get it, there is still no guarantee you are getting a touchdown here. In three more snaps, you could be kicking a field goal anyway if there’s a bad snap – oh, they had one of THOSE on Sunday – or a sack. Kick the field goal, use your three clock stoppages to get the ball back, and then get a touchdown and go for two or play for overtime.
But the Lions went for it, Goff’s pass was incomplete, and the Bears ran out the final 4:15 on the clock thanks to the Lions being offsides on a punt. Incredibly, the Lions had five drives inside the Chicago 8, and they only scored one touchdown on them, turning the ball over twice on fumbles and twice on downs.
Again, it was a lousy performance for the Lions against a Chicago team that seemed to be on the brink of collapse. But the Bears turned things around and got their second win of the season while the Lions remain 0-4.
After September 2021 set a record for fastest month ever completed, we’re already into Week 4. Do we know anything other than the given that the Bears and Jets never know how to get things done at the quarterback position? Not really, but some games this week should help a lot in figuring out legit turnarounds versus frauds.
The hype for this Bucs-Pats game on Sunday night is pretty hilarious given that this has to be one of the least important non-conference games of the season. The Patriots (1-2) aren’t going anywhere this season and this punchless roster should not be able to handle the Bucs on Sunday night. Tampa Bay’s winning streak was snapped in Los Angeles, but this just means that Tom Brady is going to be extra angry as he looks to drop 40+ on Belichick in this one.
As if he wasn’t already in that mindset for this game. But the loss makes Tampa Bay covering my favorite pick of the week. I’m just mad that Rob Gronkowski, the real GOAT of the night, is unlikely to play with a rib injury.
But in that BMR preview, I looked into the idea of Angry Tom Brady with data. For many years it has been said that Brady is so tough to beat two weeks in a row, and the data will show that is true of course. We know the Patriots rarely endured losing streaks. But are his stats up in those games to suggest he is the one who steps his game up the most after a loss?
(Sarcasm) These results are going to shock you, but I found that Brady’s team has one of the best records after a loss, but his individual QB stats are more on the fringe of a top 10 QB rather than the most dominant in the league. Even if you only look at the last decade when Brady’s stats are up and the league-wide stats are up, his individual numbers actually have gone down in those games.
I’ll repeat the recap of the findings from my article here.
I looked at data on 66 quarterbacks from 2001-2020 in starts following a team loss and how they performed that next game. Here are the findings:
Brady is 55-16 SU (.775) after a loss, the second-best record behind only Russell Wilson (35-9, .795).
Brady is 49-22 ATS (.690) after a loss, the second-best record behind only Andrew Luck (24-9-1, .721).
Brady’s team has the highest scoring differential (10.3 points per game) following a loss, and only Wilson (9.1), Aaron Rodgers (8.2), and Luck (7.0) are even close.
Out of 66 quarterbacks, Brady ranks 21st in completion percentage (63.4%), 23rd in yards per attempt (7.26), 10th in passer rating (96.3), and 10th in adjusted net yards per attempt (6.95) after a loss.
If you only look at Brady’s post-loss games since 2011 when league passing stats have gone up, his passing stats all decrease but his team still wins 76.3% of games and covers 71.1% (27-11 ATS) of the time.
As it turns out, “Angry Bill Belichick” is likely more of a thing than Angry Tom Brady. I’ve included a chart of those 66 quarterbacks and looking at their win% vs. ANY/A after a loss. This looks very good for Russell Wilson, who again has never lost three games in a row in the same season with Seattle.
Something I did not look at was comparing how the QB played in the previous-game loss relative to his next-game performance. That could be a way of showing that Brady does step up from a loss better than anyone, but part of the issue there is that he’s just usually a bad QB when his team loses.
One thing’s for sure: if Brady loses to Belichick on Sunday night, he will break the record for calling people this:
NFL Week 4 Predictions
For the third time in four weeks, Thursday Night Football came down to a game-winning field goal. I was on the wrong side of that spread again too.
I’m about to start picking the opposite of what makes sense, because not much is making sense to me in this league this season so far.
I picked the Bears despite Detroit playing some spirited ball under Dan Campbell, because this feels like a spot where Matt Nagy is getting fired if he doesn’t deliver in this game, and he is 5-1 against the Lions in his career.
The Titans have me nervous with their top WRs (Julio Jones, A.J. Brown) out. The Jets beat the Browns last year when the Browns lost their WR room to COVID. Have to hope Derrick Henry pops some big ones there and Zach Wilson continues to be awful.
On the biggest surprise 3-0 teams, Panthers and Broncos, I am going with Dallas to put an end to this little run of Carolina never trailing with Sam Darnold playing his best ball in the NFL. I think Dallas had an impressive month and showed a lot even in the loss in Tampa Bay. Then I’m going with Denver to show that this team should be taken seriously with Teddy Bridgewater and the defense playing so well, and maybe things aren’t in great shape with Baltimore given the injuries and the fact that a 66-yard field goal was needed to escape the Lions.
I keep pointing out how the Chiefs have won one of their last 14 games by more than six points. But maybe this is the spot where they dominate again as the Eagles have not impressed the last two weeks. Jalen Hurts doesn’t seem to throw for many yards at home either in his career, so maybe the defense for Kansas City can actually step up for a change and the offense protects the ball better to get a much-needed win.
I’m going to be extremely pissed at the Steelers if they show up in Green Bay and get a win after losing home games by multiple scores to the Raiders and Bengals. Have you seen those teams play other weeks? Not that impressive with three overtime wins between them and a last-second field goal against Jacksonville. So if the Steelers won in Buffalo, who have looked dominant the other two weeks, and then in Green Bay, which still looks great offensively the last two games, I’m going to be pissed because that’s the same old “playing to the competition” bullshit they’ve done for years. But I really think the Pittsburgh offense is broken and Green Bay should cover.
In the NFC West, I like Seattle and the Rams in these first matchups of the year for that division. Sean McVay has owned the Cardinals in his career and now he has Stafford off to a great start. DeAndre Hopkins isn’t 100%. With the Seahawks, Wilson is having MVP first halves and the offense is disappearing in the second half. I think he can have a full game in this one and close out a Kyle Shanahan-coached team that consistently struggles to close games in the fourth quarter. I’m going to bet on Seattle to not lose three in a row.
I’m hedging with my picks on Monday night. I think the Chargers should win, but I can acknowledge the chance the Raiders get this one or only lose by a field goal.
The date was December 2, 2020. It was a Wednesday afternoon. The Pittsburgh Steelers were 10-0 and while it was rarely pretty, they led the NFL in scoring differential (+124). They were the 10th team in NFL history to score at least 24 points in each of their first 10 games, and while they stick out like a sore thumb on such a list, they were still there. Ben Roethlisberger’s arm strength was limited post elbow surgery, but his anticipation was better than ever, and he was delivering good touchdown throws and performing on third down and in the red zone.
Things were working out for the team.
In a game that was rescheduled multiple times for COVID-19 reasons, the Steelers were finally hosting a reduced roster from Baltimore. Whether it was restlessness from the delays or rust or division familiarity or the weirdness of playing on Wednesday afternoon in an empty stadium, the Steelers struggled to score in a way they hadn’t all season. They got a pick-six to start the game, but the offense only contributed 13 points in the 19-14 win. Roethlisberger completed 36-of-51 passes, but for only 266 yards as the Steelers dropped way too many passes. But he delivered a great pass late to James Washington to put the game away and move the Steelers to 11-0.
Little did we know that this hiccup would become a chronic cough that has choked the life out of the offense and the team to this day.
The Steelers had a very similar performance the following Monday against Washington, but this time they did not find a way to close the game and suffered their first loss of the season. Things got even worse in Buffalo with Roethlisberger throwing a 51-yard pick-six before halftime that led to a 26-15 loss. In Week 15 in Cincinnati on a Monday night, the Steelers turned in maybe their worst offensive half of football in the Roethlisberger era. No play summarized the struggle better than Roethlisberger throwing a drag route to JuJu Smith-Schuster on a third-and-7 where he was blown up and fumbled. The Steelers were about to lose their fourth game in a row to the Colts before a vintage Roethlisberger rally from down 17 points in the second half at home. But then the starters rested against Cleveland, lost 24-22 to let the Browns make the playoffs, and then were blown away 28-0 in the first quarter in the wild card game after center Maurkice Pouncey blew the opening snap for a touchdown. The Steelers tried to make a brilliant comeback but fell well short in a 48-37 loss.
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner fell on the sword and lost his job, one that he was never cut out for. However, the Steelers made the same mistake by promoting from within to give Matt Canada the job for 2021. The offensive line was completely replaced by players of little caliber or value. Alabama running back Najee Harris was drafted in the first round despite a lack of blocking in place for him after the Steelers finished dead last in rushing in 2020. Roethlisberger decided to give it one more go and return for his 18th season.
And yet September 2021 looked like much of December 2020 and January 2021. The new offensive line is worse and Roethlisberger is taking more hits and sacks now despite getting rid of the ball faster than any quarterback. The Steelers remain last in rushing, not even cracking 50 yards in either of the last two losses. The receivers just dropped eight passes on Sunday, though most of the short variety again as the air yards remain limited in Pittsburgh. The defense has not been able to play well the last two weeks due to mounting injuries, most notably with T.J. Watt’s groin.
Nothing is working out now, and with four tough opponents coming up, it is hard to see how the Steelers stay relevant into December this year.
I’m not interested in rehashing everything that has gone wrong for the Steelers in the last year. I mean, I will share this JuJu route chart again just because it’s hilarious and sad and sums up things well for this inept offense:
But with such a noticeable decline starting in that Wednesday game against Baltimore, I wanted to do a comparison of the 10-0 start to the now 10-game sample since that has seen the Steelers go 3-7 with a win over the COVID Ravens, a huge comeback against the Colts, and a surprise comeback in Buffalo in Week 1 that looks like a mirage now.
Yeah, that’s a pretty big decline in everything but sack rate, but Roethlisberger not wanting to hold the ball long anymore has not really been a bonus for this offense. This year he is just running out of time sooner.
But if anything, I would hope this comparison shows that it is flat out wrong to say the Steelers were playing this bad when they were 10-0 last year. The offense clearly had limitations and the running game decay was settling in by Week 8 when the Steelers became the first team in NFL history to win three straight games without rushing for 50 yards. But this offense still produced and found ways to put up points every week for 10 games.
Then December came and all hell broke loose. Scoring has gone down 9.3 points per game. They are throwing the ball more but throwing it worse with more interceptions and dropping more balls. The offense has not scored a single point in the first quarter since Week 10 against the Bengals last year. They are worse in the red zone and on third and fourth down.
But the running game has particularly been a historic embarrassment with 54.0 yards per game and 3.1 YPC in the last 10 games. This is not an indictment on Harris as it starts up front and this goes back long before he was drafted. It was never a smart draft pick.
If it wasn’t for James Conner popping a 25-yard run in Jacksonville last year, the Steelers would be on a 14-game streak of not rushing for more than 86 yards. They can soon tie and break the post-WWII record for games without rushing for 90 yards, having not done so in 10 games going into Green Bay on Sunday.
The Steelers have failed to rush for 50 yards in eight of their last 14 games. In Bill Cowher’s 261 games as coach of the Steelers (1992-2006), they had nine games where they didn’t crack 50 rushing yards. My how times have changed. The post-merger record for most games in a two-year span with under 50 rushing yards is 11 by the 2006-07 Lions. The Steelers have a decent shot at breaking that one with 14 games to go this year.
When you can’t run the ball for simple 3 or 4-yard gains…
When you waste the first quarter every week…
When you don’t throw to the middle of the field anymore…
When you don’t throw deep except for go routes down the left sideline and DPI is your best hope of advancement…
When you don’t bother to use play-action passing…
When you drop easy passes…
When you can’t block for more than 2.3 seconds…
You don’t have an NFL offense anymore. You are more akin to putting 11 crash-test dummies through the motions for three hours a week.
As much as the 10-0 start had me feeling awkward, I didn’t know how bad things would get. When Roethlisberger retires after this season and the Steelers are back in the hunt for a franchise quarterback — the last search took two decades — I have a feeling we’ll be looking back at December 2, 2020 as a date that will live in infamy.
It was the day the whole offense went away in Pittsburgh.
In Week 4, the NFC West takes center stage with two standout matchups in the late afternoon slot: Cardinals/Rams and Seahawks/49ers. These are the first division games of the year in what is shaping up to be the best division race in the league just like we expected coming into 2021.
But the Seahawks (1-2), winners of last year’s race, are in danger of slipping to 1-3 for the first time in the Russell Wilson era. While Wilson has some impressive stats again this season, he has the lowest QBR ranking – 55.6 is only good for 15th – of the four quarterbacks in the NFC West, and the Seahawks (15th) are the only NFC West offense not ranked in the top eight in points per drive through three games.
Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray both have their teams at 3-0, top four in points, and both are top five in QBR with Stafford (82.6) leading the whole NFL so far. If they keep this up, we might see multiple quarterbacks in the NFC West get MVP votes before Wilson ever gets one in his career.
It’s almost like Wilson is becoming the forgotten man in the division that he has been the top star of for a decade now.
But this is nothing new for Wilson. Ever since his rookie year in 2012, he has had to share the spotlight with several quarterbacks in his division as they led their teams to great success too. This has made Wilson’s path to the Hall of Fame a bumpier ride than most of his great peers.
Russell Wilson vs. His Peers vs. Their Division Rivals
It would be wrong to say that Russell Wilson is the only top quarterback to face a real challenger from every team in his division in the last decade.
Ben Roethlisberger faced the Ravens (2014), Bengals (2015), and Browns (2020) in wild card playoff games in the last seven seasons, losing two of them at home. Aaron Rodgers had his toughest division competition early in his career when the 2009 Vikings had Brett Favre and the 2010 Bears gave Jay Cutler a great defense. But in the last decade, he has seen playoff seasons from the Lions with Matthew Stafford, Mike Zimmer’s Vikings with Teddy Bridgewater/Case Keenum’s one-year wonder/Kirk Cousins, and a couple Chicago seasons when Mitchell Trubisky managed Matt Nagy’s offense to something better than 1 net passing yard.
In the NFC South, Drew Brees watched Cam Newton (2015 Panthers) and Matt Ryan (2016 Falcons) win MVP and lose the Super Bowl, while the Saints lost to Tom Brady and the 2020 Buccaneers in the final game of Brees’ career, a pivotal divisional round game that launched Tampa Bay on the path to a Super Bowl win.
However, Wilson has experienced multiple runs and at least one elite season from his NFC West counterparts in addition to some strong quarterback seasons and some of the most successful new coaching hires in the NFL in the last decade.
San Francisco: The 49ers were in the middle of a three-year run to the NFC Championship Game under head coach Jim Harbaugh when Wilson joined the division in 2012. Led by the dynamic Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers lost the Super Bowl that year and lost a tight game to Wilson’s Seahawks in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. Things were bad after that, but after hiring Kyle Shanahan and acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots, the 49ers rebounded with a great 13-3 season in 2019, clinching the No. 1 seed in the season finale after stopping Wilson’s Seahawks at the 1-yard line. The 49ers blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Chiefs in Super Bowl 54.
Arizona: The least successful team in the division, but the Cardinals won at least 10 games in every season from 2013 to 2015 under head coach Bruce Arians. He had a good thing going when Carson Palmer was healthy, and in 2015, Palmer had what I will always say was an MVP season, leading the Cardinals to a 14-4 record and the NFC Championship Game where they lost to Carolina. Things declined after, but now with Kliff Kingsbury and 2019 No. 1 pick Kyler Murray, the Cardinals could be heading back to the playoffs as long as Murray stays healthy. He had a great start to 2020 before his health diminished his play in the second half.
Los Angeles: The Rams were in rough shape with Jeff Fisher as the coach when Wilson joined the league, but they started acquiring talent like the best defender in the game, Aaron Donald. Once they drafted Jared Goff No. 1 overall and hired Sean McVay as the head coach, the team immediately took off. McVay has never had a losing record and is looking to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Goff had great seasons in 2017-18 and the Rams were in the Super Bowl in 2018 before losing 13-3 to the Patriots. They leaned on their defense last year to make the playoffs and beat Wilson’s Seahawks in Seattle in the wild card round. Now they have the top-ranked offense with Matthew Stafford poised to have a career year. It’s just another huge challenge for Seattle.
Outside of 2016 when the Seahawks won the NFC West with ease, Wilson has always had to deal with at least another 10-win team in his division. Outside of 2016 and last year when the Rams finished 10-6 thanks to a late loss to the Seahawks, Wilson has always had to deal with an 11-win team or better.
Since 2002’s divisional realignment, the NFC West is the only division where every team has won at least 13 games in a season. That is thanks to the Seahawks (2013), Cardinals (2015), Rams (2018), and 49ers (2019) all finishing 13-3. The Lions, Bengals, Jets, Buccaneers, Texans, and Browns (AAFC excluded) have never won 13 games in their franchise’s history, so it never could have happened for the two North divisions, the two South divisions, or any version of the AFC East. That also disqualifies the defunct AFC and NFC Central divisions. It technically has happened for the original NFC West (49ers/Rams/Falcons/Saints), but the Saints didn’t hit 13 wins until the Brees era (2009), or well after realignment and long after Joe Montana and Steve Young retired.
In fact, the only other divisions that can say all four of their teams have won 13 games before are the AFC West and NFC East. Given that the Raiders haven’t done it since 1976 and the Chiefs didn’t do it until 1995, no one has a career that spanned that long to say they were in a division where all four did it. The Seahawks also used to be part of that AFC West and didn’t win 13 games until 2005 in the NFC West.
As for the NFC East, it hasn’t happened for the Giants since 1990 and for Washington since 1991. Dallas first won 13 games in 1992, so you might think, hey, this probably happened to a young Troy Aikman or an old Phil Simms. Nope, because the Eagles never won 13 games until 2004, or after they were long retired.
This puts Wilson and his division in unprecedented territory as it confirms he is the only quarterback in NFL history to play in a division where every team actively won 13 games in a season. Goff and Garoppolo weren’t in the NFC West prior to 2016 when Seattle and Arizona did it, and Palmer was retired before the Rams and 49ers did it. So there you have it. History.
If Only Wilson Had Tom Brady’s Division Luck…
Now compare this to Tom Brady, the LOAT. His first full season as a starter happened to coincide with realignment in 2002 when the Patriots were put in a revamped AFC East with the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills, or as I like to call them, The Three Stooges. From 2002 to 2019, The Three Stooges managed just two 11-5 seasons to challenge Brady in the division. One was by the 2008 Dolphins, a team that shocked the Patriots with the Wildcat in the year Brady tore his ACL in Week 1. The other was the 2010 Jets, who beat Brady in the regular season to get one of their 11 wins, and then shocked him at home in the playoffs in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.
But for two decades, the best The Three Stooges could do was 11-5, the best they could do at quarterback was Even-Years Chad Pennington, and the best they could do at head coach was probably Rex Ryan. Flash forward to Brady joining the 2020 NFC South. The Falcons and Panthers had two of the worst seasons in NFL history in close games. The Saints with Brees were a worthy foe and they swept Brady to finish 12-4, the first time Brady was ever swept by a division rival. This also means of the only two 11+ win teams Brady’s ever had in his division, he was complicit in them winning that many games. Compare this to Peyton Manning, who swept the 2003 Titans (12-4), 2005 Jaguars (12-4), 2007 Jaguars (11-5), and 2013 Chiefs (11-5) but still watched them win 11-12 games. Wilson was able to hang one loss on the 2015 Cardinals and 2019 49ers. He was swept by the 2018 Rams despite scoring 31 points in both games. Let’s just say not anyone could beat the 2018 Rams by a final of 13-3.
Brady’s division now consists of an Atlanta team that lost all its offensive mojo after hiring Arthur Smith. Matt Ryan has gotten off to the worst start of his career in 2021. With Brees retired, the Saints are weirdly leaning on defense with Jameis Winston throwing for 387 yards in three full games. The Panthers are 3-0 and have never trailed this season, but only time will tell if Sam Darnold, an old foe from The Three Stooges, will turn back to a pumpkin. Go figure, the AFC East only got another elite passer (Josh Allen) the second Brady moved to the other conference.
Wilson and Brady are certainly on two different ends of the spectrum for division rivals. What if Brady had to deal with this NFC West that Wilson has been in since 2012? He is only 5-6 as a starter against those teams in the Wilson era, including playoffs and including Sunday’s loss to the Rams. I plotted every quarterback with at least five starts against Wilson’s NFC West since 2012 through 2020, looking at their win percentage and their Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt (ANY/A).
Wilson has a better winning percentage (.598) against his division than Rodgers (.440), Brees (.474), Brady (.500), and Peyton (.400). Wilson (6.26) and Brady (6.24) are almost identical in ANY/A, though Wilson is not that great statistically here compared to his other top peers. Of course, he’s played 56 division games against teams who know him well compared to 25 for Rodgers, 19 for Brees, 10 for Brady, and five each for Manning and Mahomes. On the other hand, Wilson never has to play his own defense, which has been the strongest of the bunch in this division since 2012, which also explains why the other quarterbacks have lesser records and stats. But it’s an amusing chart.
I have better, including this look at how quarterbacks have done against Brady’s Three Stooges in the AFC East from 2002 to 2019. Can you notice anyone who stands out?
Yep, that’s Russell Wilson (8.16) and Alex Smith (7.58) as the only quarterbacks with an ANY/A above 7.5. Brady’s record is 81-21 (.794), but are we really going to pretend his top peers couldn’t replicate that in this division or even improve on it given those ugly upset losses in Miami? The guy once lost 21-0 to Joey Harrington.
I am proud of these next two charts since they visualize what I have been saying for years about these divisions. This looks at 2002-2020 for Wilson, Brady, Peyton, Rodgers, Brees, and Roethlisberger while excluding the full year those quarterbacks missed for injury. The entry that is their full name is every game that quarterback played in 2002-2020. The other entries show what the starting quarterbacks for each division rival cumulatively did in every game while the quarterback was in that division, so that would be the AFC South teams for Peyton in 2002-10 and the AFC West teams in 2012-15. The x-axis is win% and the y-axis is ANY/A.
That cluster of The Three Stooges as losing teams with bad quarterback play that only the Browns 2.0 can rival is perfect.
Finally, here is a similar chart that sums up each quarterback’s division rivals into one entry.
As I have been saying for years, no quarterback has had a bigger advantage over his division rivals than Brady, and it’s due to a lack of competition rather than his play being that much better. Brady ranks third in ANY/A here and is only 0.01 above Brees in fourth, and Brady’s division has the worst win rate (.435) and ANY/A (5.24). Wilson’s division has the best record (.496) and second-highest ANY/A (5.88) behind only Brees (6.05).
You cannot deny that the careers of Wilson and Brady will forever be linked. Super Bowl XLIX was the most pivotal game in the NFL in the last dozen years. The Seahawks were a yard away from repeating and possibly being the next dynasty, while bringing the ring count to 3-2 for Brady vs. Wilson and dropping the Patriots to 3-3 in Super Bowls under Belichick and Brady. Then a call for a pass came in and the rest is history. Brady has won three more Super Bowls since and the Seahawks have not even been back to the NFC Championship Game.
In the lonesome crowded NFC West, Russell Wilson is starting to sound like Cowboy Dan.
I got mine but I want more.
With the way the NFC West is developing, and the Seahawks are decaying under Pete Carroll, we may never see Wilson past the second round of the playoffs again, or at least not with Seattle. Maybe he can replace Rodgers in Green Bay some day, a return to Wisconsin.
Also, I didn’t even mention the potential of Trey Lance in San Francisco.