NFL Super Bowl LV Preview: Chiefs vs. Buccaneers

Super Bowl LV is not about Tom Brady “passing the torch” to Patrick Mahomes. It is a battle to see if Mahomes can pull the lucky horseshoe out of Brady’s ass and end the longest drought without a repeat champion in NFL history.

It’s the possible real GOAT against the LOAT (Luckiest of All Time).

I have already written around 10,000 words on this game (links below), but the general theme is the same: Kansas City should win, but if the Buccaneers are to pull it off, it will take some fortunate breaks. That is the high standard for beating the Chiefs with Mahomes these days. This team moved on quickly from the “amazing offense, poor defense” team we saw in 2018 that Brady’s Patriots slipped by twice playing keep-away with the ball from Mahomes at the end. This defense is not great, but it is good enough under Steve Spagnuolo, who has a track record of success against Brady-led offenses.

Five-Piece Super Bowl Preview Links

This will not be one of my extra long blog previews for the Super Bowl since I have spent the last two weeks already doing five articles on the game for Sportsbook Review. These are companion pieces going over different aspects of the matchup with very little overlap other than me repeating that the Chiefs won 27-24 in Tampa Bay in Week 12, it’s the first time a team is playing the Super Bowl in its home stadium, the Chiefs can end the longest drought without a repeat champion in NFL history (2003-04 Patriots the last), the Eric Fisher injury is a wild card, and that 16 of the last 17 Super Bowls have been within one score in the fourth quarter. Also, we are looking for our first true fourth quarter lead change this postseason, something every postseason since 2006 has had.

Why the Chiefs Can Beat the Buccaneers – “Few champions have ever repeated with as much style and consistency, but the pairing of Reid and Mahomes has been heaven for Kansas City and hell for the rest of the NFL.” This first piece looks at the incredible lengths a team must go to beat the Chiefs, who are often their own worst enemy. This also takes on the Eric Fisher injury and some Week 12 recap.

Why the Buccaneers Can Beat the Chiefs – “It is hard to bet against the Chiefs, but it may be even harder to bet against Brady’s unrivaled luck and team success in big games like this one.” This one looks at how the Buccaneers actually scored more points this season than the Chiefs, the impact Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones need to have, reasons to trust the Tampa Bay defense this time, and some of Brady’s luck in Super Bowls alone.

Matchup Analysis: Chiefs Offense vs. Buccaneers Defense – “The Chiefs already had a season-high 543 yards of offense in Tampa Bay in Week 12’s 27-24 win, but it was far from their most efficient scoring output this year. Now without left tackle Eric Fisher, can the Chiefs repeat their passing success, or will the Tampa Bay defense slow down a third straight legendary quarterback this postseason?” Fourth straight if you count Taylor Heinicke. This one looks at some stats on how the Chiefs are their own worst enemy (more on this below), a detailed recap of this matchup from Week 12, what might look different on Sunday, and how it all comes down to the four-minute offense.

Matchup Analysis: Buccaneers Offense vs. Chiefs Defense – “If the Buccaneers can get this game into the fourth quarter within reach, then they have done a great job of finishing this year. The 2020 Buccaneers have a plus-90 scoring differential in the fourth quarter, the highest for any team, including playoffs, since the 2013 Patriots (plus-103). The 2020 Chiefs are the only team in the last two seasons to allow over 40% of their opponent’s points in the fourth quarter. The 2020 Buccaneers have allowed 17.2% of their points in the fourth quarter, the lowest percentage in the NFL in the last five seasons.” This looks at the way Tampa Bay starts too many games slowly, needs to call more than just bad runs on first down, and how the offense has feasted on short fields this postseason. Also a Week 12 recap against the Chiefs, how things might look different this time, and the way the Chiefs do not fear blitzing Brady.

Super Bowl Game Pick and Prediction – “Can the Buccaneers replicate those breaks on top of playing great on both sides of the ball? Maybe the Chiefs will get cute with play-calling at the 1-yard line and have Kelce try to throw a touchdown to Mahomes before Reid shockingly settles for a field goal. Maybe Hardman will drop an 89-yard touchdown pass with no one around him. Maybe the defense can recover a Mahomes fumble in the red zone. Maybe the Chiefs will get called for offensive holding three times on one drive in the fourth quarter, leading to a punt after a dropped pass on third-and-27.

Oh wait, all those things already happened in Week 12 for the Buccaneers and they still lost to the Chiefs.”

This was my general prediction piece that touches on the Fisher injury, Tampa Bay’s likelihood of repeating the Raiders’ blueprint for beating the Chiefs, special teams mistakes by the Chiefs, and some very interesting notes on head referee Carl Cheffers and defensive pass interference, a penalty the 2020 Buccaneers have benefited from more than any team in the last 12 years (and perhaps all of NFL history).

But wait, there’s more…

How Do You Stop the Chiefs? (And the 2020 Packers for That Matter?)

Frankly, I am tired. I wish it were gameday instead of Friday. This is the last section I am writing before Sunday night. Originally, this was going to be research I used for what I hoped was a Chiefs-Packers Super Bowl where I can talk about the MVP award between Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. Of course, Green Bay didn’t get here again, so now I’m left with charting data I spent a good number of hours in late December compiling.

Like I said, I’m tired, and I know it’s not like me to turn in something incomplete, but including any data on Green Bay at all feels like a gift anyway. So the following data is for the Chiefs’ whole season, but only the regular season is included for Green Bay. Only drives started by Aaron Rodgers or Mahomes are included, and kneeldown-only drives are excluded as always.

How do you stop these offenses? Well, they both scored more times than they didn’t this year, but here’s a look at what I found when charting what ended the non-touchdown drives.

I fully expect Aaron Rodgers to win the MVP, and I get it, I really do. Personally, I voted for Mahomes on my PFWA ballot and thought he had the more valuable season, and some of my argument for that would have been reflected in these stats. Let’s not make this a big MVP debate, but let’s go through some of these numbers.

Both offenses were fantastic, but I felt like Rodgers had a bit more help from his teammates than Mahomes did. The first section that highlights teammate mistakes on non-touchdown drives shows an extra four lost fumbles by Mahomes’ teammates, five extra failures in short-yardage situations (those are mostly runs), two more touchdowns wiped out by penalty, and more missed kicks by Kansas City. There were a similar number of drops, but the Chiefs lost three more probable touchdowns and had more come on third or fourth down plays.

The section titled “OTHER THIRD DOWN STOPS” are the drives where the defense really stepped up and earned the stop of these offenses, usually on third down. The numbers there are similar though the Chiefs had considerably more passes defensed or batted at the line or Mahomes hit in motion.

As for QB turnovers, again, I thought it was silly how Mahomes having eight turnovers (one in one loss) to Rodgers having seven (five in three losses) was supposed to be a positive for Rodgers. It never was. Mahomes’ only “failure” on fourth down was a play against the Ravens where he just chucked up a pass in the final 30 seconds with a 34-20 lead. No biggie.

The final section, CLOCK & MISC., are drives that were not even really defensive stops, but the offenses were up against the time crunch late in the half or were just working the clock. It also makes note of the playoff drive against Cleveland where Mahomes was knocked out with his injury.

Finally for some more context, here are the reasons why the Chiefs settled for 32 field goal attempts this season:

This kind of analysis was something I have always wanted to do. To answer the question of “what caused the drive to end?” to see if I can figure out how much a great offense was stopped versus how often they stopped themselves.

In the case of the Chiefs, I do think they are their own worst enemy a lot of the times, and the numbers here support this to a degree when you consider they are scoring more than they aren’t.

Also, Marques Valdes-Scantling is frustrating as hell with his consistency, and he was responsible for several of the Green Bay mistakes this year, but obviously he played very well in the NFC Championship Game. Just a shame we are not talking about a Chiefs-Packers game so we could see who gets the Super Bowl MVP between Rodgers and Mahomes in their first ever matchup while both had such great seasons.

But of course, we get the potential real GOAT vs. the LOAT.  

Twitter Highlights

Here are some research tweets I have made in the leadup to the big game:

Déjà vu?

I said this in my Super Bowl LIV preview last year about the Chiefs-49ers matchup:

“I have seen some concerns that this could be a Seahawks-Broncos sized blowout with the 49ers’ physical defense attacking a “finesse” Kansas City offense, but I really don’t buy that narrative. Yes, pass-happy teams have a rather poor history in title games against tough defenses, but some teams are just different.”

Yes, the Chiefs are just different, but this year the story is looking similar. Replace the 49ers with the Buccaneers, add some extra tension over the offensive line shortcomings, and I am seeing the same things said this week. I even have someone in my Twitter mentions taking bets with people that the Chiefs won’t score more than 14 points.

I don’t want to make a “they’re only going to score 14 points?” remark, because I’ve already seen enough comparisons between the 2007 Giants and 2020 Buccaneers. It started with beating the Saints in the divisional round after getting swept by them in the regular season, something we’ve only seen the 2007 Giants do to Dallas. Then both won a one-score game in the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. Both teams have three road wins to reach the Super Bowl. Both teams have won three games this postseason despite allowing at least a 50% conversion rate on third down, which is the most wins in a playoff run since 1991.

While the Chiefs aren’t undefeated, it’s pretty close with Mahomes having won 25 of his last 26 starts. To be safe, I threw a couple bucks on a Tampa Bay 17-14 win, but I’d hold my breath on that one from cashing. This is arguably the most skill player firepower in Super Bowl history and I expect both teams to score at least 20 points. Every Tampa Bay opponent has scored at least 20 this postseason.

But I will say I was watching some of Chiefs-49ers the other day and that was a grind for Kansas City’s offense. I don’t think the Tampa Bay defense is as good as the 49ers, but if JPP and Shaq Barrett go nuts against that line, well, pressure is pressure, and it makes any offense look bad. It was wild to remember that the Chiefs had 10 points halfway through the fourth quarter, and you can argue it’s the least impressive playoff start of the Mahomes era. That 31-20 final may be the most misleading in Super Bowl history for how that game actually played out. It was not an easy win for the Chiefs, but you still have to stop them for 60 minutes, not 53.

Tyreek Hill Dud Incoming?

Finally, one last piece of research I was interested in this week that could be telling in how this game plays out, or at the very least could have use for people placing bets (especially SGP) is what happens in a playoff rematch after a receiver torches a defense in the regular season?

Hill had 269 yards and three touchdowns in Tampa Bay in Week 12, making Carlton Davis look like Carlton Banks. Obviously, that won’t happen again on Sunday, but should we expect Hill to put up 60 yards, 120 yards, 20 yards, or what? He went from 20 yards against Buffalo in Week 6 to 172 yards in the AFC Championship Game, so you just never know. This is the reverse situation though. Hill had 66 yards in the final three quarters in Week 12 after that absurd 203 yards in the first quarter alone.

For my approach to finding similar examples, I did not want to limit it to 200-yard days, since those are rare. I also did not want to go down to 150 and dig through a lot of game logs, so I capped it at 175 yards and found that this will be the 19th time since 1970 that a receiver is getting a playoff rematch with a defense he torched for 175+ yards in the regular season. This does not include what would have been another example when Antonio Brown had 189 yards against the 2015 Broncos, but was unavailable for the playoff rematch after getting knocked out by Vontaze Burfict in Cincinnati.

Here are the results sorted by the biggest declines in receiving yards in the playoffs.

This is not a ton of examples in 50 years, and Hill may be the most dangerous receiver on the list, but this is not an encouraging sign for him going off again. The average receiver declined by almost 140 yards in the playoffs and only two of the 18 (Tim Brown and Michael Haynes) were able to hit 100 yards again. Touchdowns also dropped from 28 to six. There were also four extra losses in the playoffs, and the only Super Bowl on the list saw Charlie Brown’s 1983 Washington team get blown out 38-9.

I thought Washington’s Gary Clark (-241 yards) in the 1986 NFC Championship Game may have been injured early, but I checked the gamebook and it looks like he caught zero balls on 13 targets with four drops. Ouch. Don Beebe going off for 220 yards against the 49ers in 1996 is pretty damn amusing as well. It’s not that big of a surprise he only had 2 yards in the playoffs.

My gut is on Travis Kelce taking over as the leading receiver for the Chiefs this week. No one has been able to effectively shut Hill and Kelce down in the same game outside of maybe Denver in the snow. They held them to 86 yards and one touchdown.

Hill going off for 200 yards again in the Super Bowl would be legendary, but I’m putting my money more on Kelce, and if I do include Hill in my parlays, I’m likely taking the under 94.5.

Prediction Time

I put a $25 bet on Bucs 31-27 (+13000), basically repeating the Week 12 game script, except for an ending where Tampa Bay gets the ball back and scores a game-winning touchdown late. No, I still wouldn’t be happy if I nailed it. Last year, I had the Chiefs winning by four, which was in the bank until Darrel Williams took that last run 38 yards for a touchdown.

If you’ve followed me for a little or a long time, you know it’s S.O.P. for me to pick the Brady-led team in these things. It stems back to how I’d often pick against the Patriots and they would still win, so I stopped doing it for the 2006 AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis, which the Colts came back to win. So I automatically pick Brady as a reverse jinx. You basically have to ignore my final prediction and read what I wrote in the preview to gauge if I think his team is going to win or not.

In this one, I think it’s clear I believe the Chiefs should win, but I just know how close to the vest they play it and how that could easily backfire against Tampa. Especially when you are at a disadvantage in the trenches. Especially when you are facing the LOAT. Especially when Arians has the magic beans that shit out close wins as well as any active coach in the NFL.

But like Mahomes said after the Buffalo win, he trusts his guys over anybody, and I trust him (and Reid and Kelce and Mathieu, etc.). I trust this team so much that I am going to pick the Chiefs straight up to win the whole damn thing again.

(But you know damn well I am hedging like crazy in bets on Tampa Bay winning just in case, and Tampa Bay +3.5 is legitimately a good pick in my opinion)

Final: Chiefs 31, Buccaneers 28 (MVP: Patrick Mahomes)

NFL 2020 NFC Championship Game: Buccaneers at Packers Part II

Few games in the NFL actually amount to a legacy game, but this is absolutely one for Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. That’s a scary thought when most will focus on the result instead of how each actually plays, but this is undoubtedly a big opportunity for the No. 12 in green. Rodgers did not reach the Super Bowl in his first two MVP seasons, and this is looking like the third opportunity, but it is also his first NFC Championship Game at home after playing four of them on the road. He is still looking for that first signature performance in this round of the playoffs, a round that has also seen a lot of subpar Brady performances. But can the Packers capitalize on any mistakes unlike the Saints defense on Sunday?

Say what you will about the lack of homefield advantage this year, but Green Bay just doesn’t seem to turn the ball over at Lambeau Field like it does elsewhere. Seven of Green Bay’s league-low 11 giveaways were on the road this year. Rodgers has thrown one interception in seven home playoff games and that happened nine years ago. Rodgers has had 14 of his 19 multi-interception games on the road, including three in Tampa Bay where he’s also had half of his four career games with three interceptions.

He damn near threw four picks in Tampa Bay in Week 6 this year, the 38-10 loss that will either prove to be the harbinger of Green Bay’s undoing or the true anomaly of a Super Bowl season. The Packers scored at least 22 points in every other game this season.

If you are wondering why the title says Part II, that is partially a reference to this being a Week 6 rematch as both Conference Championship Games are this weekend, but also because I already wrote a preview for this game at Sportsbook Review. You should read that for details on what led to 38-10 and the individual matchups this weekend. I’m using this space for more of my personal opinions on this game’s place in history.

For my first preview of Buccaneers-Packers, click here.

First, some quick notes on Conference Championship Games that were rematches from the regular season since 1978 that can apply to both games on Sunday:

  • The playoff record for the team that won the last meeting is 34-24 (.586) as the 49ers swept the Packers last year, but the Chiefs came back to beat the Titans.
  • The home team in the playoffs is 39-19 (.672).
  • Teams like Kansas City who played the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 20-8 (.714).
  • Teams like Kansas City who won the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 12-2 (.857), but the two losers were Andy Reid’s 2003 Eagles (vs. Panthers) and the 2007 Packers (vs. Giants).
  • The playoff record for a road loser switching venues in the playoffs like Green Bay this week is 8-6 (.571) as the Chiefs were able to beat the Titans that way last year but lost to Tom Brady’s Patriots at home the previous year.
  • The team who was at least a 3-point favorite in both matchups (2020 Chiefs and Packers apply) is 21-10 (.677) ATS and 24-7 (.774) SU in the title game.

Buccaneers at Packers (-3.5)

Well, we are basically where I expected we would be. Your move, Aaron.

With the roster Tampa Bay has, you would have expected a better record than 11-5 this year. But some spotty performances and getting owned twice by the Saints led to a No. 5 seed in the tournament. That’s not so bad when you get to open with the worst division winner in NFL history and Drew Brees on his last legs in a quiet Superdome.

The highlight of the season has always been that 38-10 demolition of Rodgers and the Packers, which was actually a preview of how the Bucs ended up finally beating the Saints in the playoffs last week. The defense pounced on interceptions and set up multiple touchdowns for Tampa Bay while Brady didn’t throw for 200 yards again, just like in Week 6. The difference on Sunday from Week 6 is that the Buccaneers didn’t have a touchdown drive over 40 yards. Even Bill Belichick’s girlfriend can see the defense won that game.

I cannot see it happening again that way. Rodgers came up a tackle at the 2-yard line short of throwing back-to-back pick-sixes, or plays he had twice in his entire career. That seemed to mentally break him that day, and then the physical beatdown came with the Tampa defense getting good pressure and four sacks on him. Green Bay’s had the best pass protection all year, but that day it was Todd Bowles’ aggressive defense getting the upper hand.

I was already reviewing this game in December in anticipation we’d see the playoff rematch, and it was then I remembered just why I was so disgusted by Rodgers and Green Bay’s performance. It looked like so many old Green Bay losses where the team goes on the road, gets punched in the mouth, and just crumbles. The way Rodgers started missing open receivers and nearly having two more interceptions that Tampa Bay dropped, it was a pure meltdown and it felt like he gave up in the second half. That game was the main reason I was so against giving him the MVP for this season, but it does remain his only poor performance of 2020 so far.

Rodgers now must overcome that defense to get to the Super Bowl. That is only fair in my book. This is the matchup we deserve with the way the Saints and Seahawks limped across the finish line. It’s like the opposite of 1996 when Brett Favre avoided the Cowboys, a team he always struggled with, in the playoffs. Dallas beat Green Bay 21-6 in Week 12, but Favre never had to beat them in the playoffs to get his only Super Bowl win. It would not feel right for Rodgers to avoid Tampa Bay this season.

This is a game where the home quarterback needs to hold serve. When Peyton Manning and Brady met five times in the playoffs, the home team won all five games with the last three AFC title games going to Manning’s teams. Brees just blew his only shot at Brady in the playoffs. Rodgers cannot have a second stinker, but go figure, the only defense that has shown the ability to shut him down this year comes attached with Brady, who has the only defense playing this Sunday with the defensive profile you’d expect from a Super Bowl champion with the other three units being pretty mediocre.

Throw in the Super Bowl being in Tampa with a trash Florida governor cocky enough to allow that stadium to fill with fans, and yeah, you can see where this is going. (Note: attendance may end up capped at 20%, but do not underestimate corporate greed).

Unless Tampa starts slowly again and Rodgers dunks on them early, this is going to be a tough one. Remember, before the collapse in Week 6 the Packers were leading 10-0 in the second quarter and had the ball.

It seems for over a decade, many people picked a Rodgers vs Brady Super Bowl before the season even starts, only for it to never happen. This is the closest we’ll get to it now with them sharing the conference, but there were some close calls before. It probably should have happened in 2010 or 2011, but each team experienced a major upset at home in the divisional round those years: New England to the 2010 Jets, Green Bay to the 2011 Giants.

Then there was the 2014 season. They met for the first time in the regular season and Rodgers pulled out a solid 26-21 game that was a breakout moment for a rookie named Davante Adams (121 yards). We could have had this again in the Super Bowl, but the Packers blew a 16-0 lead in Seattle in the NFC Championship Game, most notably failing to recover an onside kick that probably sets up a Packers-Patriots Super Bowl.

The more I think about that postseason now, the more I’ve come to realize in hindsight that the 2014 Seahawks are my most hated team of the last decade. There is nothing I personally object to with that team. I am generally pro-Russell Wilson, pro-Pete Carroll, and Seattle was the team I picked to become the NFL’s next dynasty before the 2013 season started.

But the path that 2014 Seattle team set the league on aggravates me so much. They took their injured Legion of Boom secondary from that game into the Super Bowl, teased us with a good start against the Patriots, then blew a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter in one of the worst ways possible. Yes, Malcolm Butler’s interception at the 1-yard line is the costliest interception in NFL history. This also makes for one of the most annoying comparisons ever when people compare the 2013 Broncos’ performance in the Super Bowl against the best Seattle team to New England’s in 2014 when Seattle was not the same.

Seriously, I might hate Brandon Bostick more than I hate Hank Baskett. (If you know your botched onside kick recoveries, good for you).

Seattle has yet to have much postseason success since that game, the same one that helped end a nine-year drought of titles for the Patriots and led to winning two more. In hindsight, I would have much rather seen Rodgers and the Packers get their shot in Super Bowl XLIX than Seattle’s choke job. Rodgers was not fully healthy late in that season after Ndamukong Suh, another old foe he’ll have to deal with this Sunday, cheaply stepped on him with Detroit.

Maybe Rodgers has an ineffective Super Bowl against one of Belichick’s best pass defenses, and Brady gets the win anyway. All I know is the chance for Rodgers to win that game could have made the ring count 3-2 at the time, and we know it’s the easiest thing in the world to discount Brady’s first ring. Maybe “Prime Aaron Rodgers” doesn’t fall off in 2015 if he’s coming off a second Super Bowl MVP season.

That postseason was a huge turning point for the league. This one can be too, but a lot of that depends on Patrick Mahomes’ health and the Chiefs. For more on that game, click here.

Now six years later, Rodgers is still searching for that second Super Bowl appearance. Brees was in a similar boat with his own history of playoff disappointment. It should have been him instead of Jared Goff and the Rams challenging the Patriots in 2018, but that’s what happens when you get the worst no-call in NFL history to go against you. Still, Brees had another shot on Sunday and played his first terrible playoff game and maybe the worst game he’s had in a Saints uniform. Sadly, it will likely be his final NFL game as he retires at 42.

But Rodgers isn’t nearing the end yet. He’s playing at a very high level and this is a complete offense with a running game they’ll need to continue getting huge production from, especially against a tough Buccaneers defense. There may also be considerable snow in this game with the Packers already impressing in those conditions with a 40-14 win over Tennessee in December.

Historically, home teams do very well in freezing temperatures at home in the playoffs against teams not used to those conditions, though Green Bay has had a few high-profile losses over the years (2002 Falcons, 2004 Vikings, 2013 49ers).

38-10 aside, I am fairly confident in Rodgers playing well in this game. Justin Herbert did a great job against this Tampa Bay defense before the Chargers did their usual act of blowing a 17-point lead. Ditto for Matt Ryan and the Falcons, who twice scored 27 points late in the season on Tampa. Taylor Heinicke didn’t even know he was going to start until late in the week and threw for over 300 yards in a playoff game for one of the worst offenses in the league. I know Brees just had that brutal game, but before this Tampa defense broke his ribs, he embarrassed them that night in Week 9’s 38-3 win. Even Daniel Jones had many open receivers against this defense and should have been able to win that game, a 25-23 loss on Monday night.

I really want to pick the Packers to answer 38-10 in a huge way here. For once, let’s see Brady play a historic offense without Bill Belichick figuring out a way to make them look impotent, but instead for them to run up the score to 44 or more. You know, something that’s happened three times to Rodgers in the playoffs and not once to Brady in 342 career starts, which is unheard of.

But then I think about how defeated Rodgers looked in Week 6, and how his last six playoff exits have all been to teams he lost to in the regular season. How Matt LaFleur was not impressive at all in playing the 49ers a second time in last year’s NFC Championship Game, a 37-20 loss. How this defense is unlikely to defend all these receivers as well as the Saints did. How Ronald Jones rushed for over 100 yards in Week 6 and looked very good, along with Leonard Fournette, in New Orleans on Sunday. How no one is even covering Cameron Brate this postseason. How Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are likely to make much bigger impacts this week. Maybe Antonio Brown too if he’s healthy.

Then I just think about the general fortune of Rodgers-led teams in the playoffs compared to Brady-led teams, and I have a bad feeling about this one.

Like as if my claims of Rodgers folding when a team makes it tough on him come true again, or that his stat-padding from the 1-yard line means the game is going to end after he throws four straight incompletions from the 1. No, not a Malcolm Butler interception repeat, but just four straight misses after leading one of the most effective red zone offenses this century. Or Mason Crosby misses several kicks after getting shaken up last week. Or Marques Valdes-Scantling drops three drive-extending passes on third down – that might be the most realistic one.

I think this season deserves a Packers-Chiefs Super Bowl, a rematch of Super Bowl I. This would be between the two No. 1 seeds and the first (if not last) meeting between the two best quarterbacks in the game right now. But I can’t help but think the events of last Sunday were the football gods throwing up the middle finger at me again.

I’ll save the rants for Sunday night if necessary, but one thing I feel like I can count on is that it is unlikely Rodgers and Brady will both play great on Sunday.

Remember when Lamar Jackson vs. Patrick Mahomes in Week 3 was going to be the Game of the Year? Whoops, only one MVP showed up. Look at the other matchups of note. A high-quality quarterback duel didn’t happen in Week 6 for Rodgers-Brady or even for Allen-Mahomes. It didn’t happen when Rodgers and Brady met in 2018. It didn’t happen three times this year between Brady and Brees. It never happened in five playoff games between Manning and Brady. It didn’t happen in the Super Bowl when Joe Montana faced two Cincinnati MVP winners (Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason) or Hall of Famers Dan Marino or John Elway. Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger had one of the great ones, but it was a regular season game in 2009 and not Super Bowl XLV the following year.

The only playoff game in NFL history where both quarterbacks passed for 400 yards happened in 1981 and it involved Don Strock, who didn’t even start the game. There is a reason 2009 Matthew Stafford vs. Brady Quinn once ranked in the top 10 for a show about the greatest quarterback duels in NFL history.

Maybe I’m selling Rodgers short though. After all, he is part of one of the six duels in playoff history where both quarterbacks threw at least three touchdowns and had a 100+ passer rating. He and Kurt Warner in 2009 are the only pair that will be in the Hall of Fame too.

Games like this are expected to be shootouts or well-played classics, but one guy usually blows the other away before halftime and we’re left watching a dud, or neither quarterback plays well and the other players become the determining factor of who wins and who loses, like we saw with Bucs-Saints on Sunday.

For all the impressive things Rodgers has done in this rebirth season, I’m not sure he has learned how to “activate the will of those around him” as only Brady, King of Kings, can.

Final: Buccaneers 34, Packers 24

NFL 2020 AFC Championship Game: Bills at Chiefs Part II

If Patrick Mahomes has a weakness, it’s the same one all players share: their health. If Mahomes is not healthy enough to play at his usual high level on Sunday, then all bets are off for Kansas City’s chances to return to a second straight Super Bowl. They just got by the Browns without him to host their third straight AFC Championship Game, but the Bills are a tougher opponent than what the Chiefs have been facing in the playoffs.

Mahomes’ health is the dark cloud hanging over what could be a great game. I will write with the assumption that he is going to play and play well, but there is real uncertainty there.

If you are wondering why the title says Part II, that is partially a reference to this being a Week 6 rematch as both Conference Championship Games are this weekend, but also because I already wrote a preview for this game at Sportsbook Review.

For my first preview of Bills-Chiefs, click here.

First, some quick notes on Conference Championship Games that were rematches from the regular season since 1978 that can apply to both games on Sunday:

  • The playoff record for the team that won the last meeting is 34-24 (.586) as the 49ers swept the Packers last year, but the Chiefs came back to beat the Titans.
  • The home team in the playoffs is 39-19 (.672).
  • Teams like Kansas City who played the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 20-8 (.714).
  • Teams like Kansas City who won the last matchup on the road and are at home in the title game are 12-2 (.857), but the two losers were Andy Reid’s 2003 Eagles (vs. Panthers) and the 2007 Packers (vs. Giants).
  • The playoff record for a road loser switching venues in the playoffs like Green Bay this week is 8-6 (.571) as the Chiefs were able to beat the Titans that way last year.
  • The team who was at least a 3-point favorite in both matchups (2020 Chiefs and Packers apply) is 21-10 (.677) ATS and 24-7 (.774) SU in the title game.

Bills at Chiefs (-3)

While a lot of the attention this weekend will be on Mahomes’ health, Aaron Rodgers rewriting his worst game of the year, and that King of Kings from Tampa Bay, the quiet story is that Josh Allen and the Bills had their weakest offensive game against the Chiefs in Week 6.

So when Allen says the Bills aren’t going to change who they are this week, I have to question if that means another disappointing performance after they had a season-low 206 yards in Week 6.

The Bills love going with Allen-heavy game plans, which mostly means him throwing to his wide receivers, but he could also run as he did eight times against the Chiefs for 42 yards. The only games where Allen rushed for more yards this year were the two Jets games (terrible defense) and 54 yards in the playoff opener against the Colts. He doesn’t do it as often this year, but that is part of his skillset that he should feel free to use this weekend when he can play like there’s no tomorrow. Because there isn’t if they lose.

I really do not believe Allen can win this game by throwing 40+ passes and handing off no more than 15 times for minimal rushing yardage. That just does not fit into the way teams beat the Chiefs, which usually involves eating up the clock and being productive on the ground and efficient through the air. Lots of points and yards are obvious, but the Chiefs usually cover so well while staying shaky against the run (31st in DVOA) that I don’t think you can score 28+ on them by being one dimensional with the pass.

The Bills went ultra pass-happy against Baltimore and scored 10 points out of it. They have actually been fortunate this postseason that the defense has stepped up or else we’d be talking about another 500-point team from the regular season crashing in the playoffs. The Bills were No. 1 in third-down conversion rate (49.7%) in the regular season, but they are only 6-of-21 (28.6%) in these playoffs. They survived the terrible field position to score enough points against the Colts, getting the game-winning stop on defense to end the game (and Philip Rivers’ career). But they didn’t get a turnover in that game on defense, and only got one against Baltimore. Granted, it was a huge one as it was a 101-yard pick-six, but the Bills don’t play great defense the way they did in 2019. It’s more on the offense to deliver and the results have been a bit mixed so far in these big games.

Against AFC playoff teams this year, the Bills’ offense scored 16 points in a loss to the Titans, 17 points in a loss to the Chiefs, 20 points in a win over the Steelers (plus a pick-six), 27 points against the Colts in the wild card, and 10 points (plus a pick-six) against the Ravens last week.

Could they have scored a late touchdown if they really needed to against Pittsburgh instead of running out the clock? Maybe. A field goal for sure, or as sure as those come these days. Did they miss two makeable field goals against the Ravens? Yes, but even if we’re adding these to the totals, scoring 16-27 points is not likely to get the job done against Mahomes and the Chiefs. Well, assuming it’s the regular Mahomes.

As I detailed in these charts last week, beating Mahomes is a lot of hard work. You usually have to score more than 28 points, dominate the clock by moving the ball for a lot of yards, run the ball well, stop Mahomes late or deny him the ball altogether, and even then, you better catch some breaks with penalties and turnovers.

Here is the chart again for the only nine teams to beat the Chiefs with Mahomes:

I then had this second chart with teams going 0-24 against the Chiefs despite scoring at least 20 points.

Finally, here is a new third chart of the other games in Mahomes’ career where teams went 1-19 because they didn’t score 20+ points. This includes the Bills in Week 6 and the Browns on Sunday.

Notice in these 20 games that only the 2019 Colts, the lone winner here, were able to dominate time of possession, rush for 180 yards, recover the obligatory Chiefs fumble, close the game out in the fourth quarter, and take advantage of a huge penalty night by Kansas City.

Even then, fans will point out that Mahomes was shaken up a couple times in this game. That is fair, but that is also something that Buffalo could take advantage of this week if he’s not 100%, and I haven’t even mentioned the toe yet that he banged up on a touchdown pass and it seemed to affect his throwing afterwards.

Now I’m still not sure why there is so much cynicism over running the ball against the Chiefs. It’s not like any of these games were blowouts where the winning team piled up big rushing numbers late with the lead. No one blows out Mahomes. No one even holds a large deficit for very long (see 2019 Texans) against him. That is not at all how those games played out, but it is a fact that the only team to beat him without rushing for 119+ yards (2018 Rams) needed to score 54 points to do so. And even then, they needed two late interceptions off him.

I am not saying that Devin Singletary has to morph into Thurman Thomas on Sunday and rush 33 times for 186 yards and three touchdowns. If that sounds specific, it’s because in 1993, the Chiefs beat the Bills in the regular season 23-7. Thomas was held to 25 yards on 15 carries. In the rematch in the AFC Championship Game, the last time the Bills were in one, Thomas rushed 33 times for 186 yards and the Bills won 30-13. Joe Montana was knocked out in the third quarter for Kansas City.

Buffalo only has three games this season where it rushed for 170+ yards, so it’s not likely something the Bills will be comfortable with doing this week. Still, I just think this is a matchup where they have to show more balance than they have in a lot of their games this season. The Chiefs did a good job of stopping them on third down, preventing any big plays (only one play over 15 yards), and they held Stefon Diggs to 46 yards.

Meanwhile, how will the Chiefs approach the Bills on offense? In Week 6, they rushed for a season-high 245 yards in a dominant game by Clyde Edwards-Helaire. That is also uncharacteristic of the Chiefs’ season, though they had a similar mix of run and pass in New Orleans a few weeks back. The Chiefs hope to have CEH, No. 2 wide receiver Sammy Watkins (also didn’t play Week 6 vs. his old team), and of course a high-functioning Mahomes back for Sunday, which would be great timing to have this offense intact for a change.

Watkins has had some big playoff catches for the Chiefs since 2018. Maybe the Bills can shut down Tyreek Hill again with Tre’Davious White, but what do you do with Travis Kelce? He had two touchdowns in Week 6. Then even if you slow down the top weapons, Mahomes finds a way to hit the biggest play of the game to Byron Pringle.

Perhaps the main reason this game is in Kansas City is because of what Mahomes was able to do on a 3rd-and-12 with just over four minutes left in a 23-17 game in Week 6. He found Pringle for 37 yards and that set up a field goal that iced the game at 26-17.

If you screw that play up and give Allen a chance at a game-winning touchdown drive, then maybe things are looking much differently right now. But making those plays late to win the game is something Mahomes and this offense has done all year. They absolutely are playing with fire by letting teams hang around. Their last eight wins have been by fewer than seven points, a streak no one’s ever had before in NFL history. Maybe the Cleveland finish, which was again the offense running out the clock in the final four minutes (but with Chad Henne), would not have been so close if Mahomes didn’t get knocked out.

But it just seems that no matter how the game starts or how well Mahomes builds a lead, the Kansas City games come down to the final minutes and possessions. It was good to see the defense hold late against Cleveland, but that was a pretty poor drive by Baker Mayfield and company when they last had the ball. The offense ran out the clock for the defense again. If you have to stop Allen and Diggs in the final minutes, that could be a different outcome.

We should learn pretty early just how healthy Mahomes is. If it’s business as usual, then I love the Chiefs to cover in this matchup and go back to the Super Bowl. But if it’s a shaky start and tough game to get through, then Buffalo has the scoring capability to pull this off and may not even have to play its very best game to get it done. It just has to play a hell of a lot better than Week 6 and last week on offense.

If that happens, then we’ll forever be questioning why the Chiefs ran Mahomes on an option play at midfield. Why risk the season for such a marginal gain when your quarterback’s health is the only thing that can seemingly stop him?

Final: Chiefs 30, Bills 24

NFL 2020 Divisional Round: Buccaneers at Saints

The New Orleans Saints hope to extend Drew Brees’ career at least another week by completing the season sweep of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

For previews of Saturday’s games, click here.

For Browns-Chiefs, click here.

Buccaneers at Saints (-3)

Let’s get the 3-0 sweep part out of the way first with New Orleans looking to put the cherry on top of their 34-23 win in Week 1 and 38-3 win in Week 9 over Tampa Bay this season.

Going for the 3-0 Sweep

Yes, it is hard to beat a playoff team three times in one season. Beating a playoff team once is usually harder than average, and then to do it three times to a team that has to come from your division, who knows you so well, is certainly a tough task.

But the only time we ever talk about this is when a team has already won the first two games. By the playoffs, the brooms are already two-thirds of the way out.

Since the merger, a team has gone for the three-game sweep 21 times and is 14-7 at pulling it off. The sweep happens two-thirds of the time. It just so happens that the 2017 Saints are the last team to pull it off against Carolina, winning the NFC wild card game 31-26.

That was a good playoff win for the 2017 Saints when you consider that the home team is 1-5 in the last six playoff games between division rivals regardless of how the regular season series went. As we just saw with the Steelers-Browns in Week 17 and the wild card round, these rematches can look dramatically different, so the Saints cannot take too much faith in Week 9’s 38-3 obliteration of Tampa Bay.

Some other facts from this table:

  • The 2020 Saints outscored Tampa Bay by 46 points so far, the largest scoring differential for all 22 series.
  • The three teams with the largest scoring differential before the Saints went 0-3 in the playoffs: 1989 Oilers vs. Steelers (+34), 1994 Vikings vs. Bears (+34), and 1998 Cowboys vs. Cardinals (+35).
  • Those same three teams all happened to have the largest Game 1 margin of victory, winning Game 1 by 27+ points, only winning Game 2 by 6-7 points, and then 0-3 in the playoffs.
  • It would appear dominating the earliest matchup in the season has less relevancy for the playoffs.
  • The three teams who won Game 2 by 17+ points were 3-0 in the playoffs with a double-digit win each time (1999 TEN-JAX, 2000 NYG-PHI, 2009 DAL-PHI).
  • New Orleans’ 38-3 win in Game 2 over Tampa Bay is the largest margin of victory in any of the 65 games in the chart.
  • The only three teams before the 2020 Saints to win both games by double digits were 2-1 in the playoffs with wins for 2000 Giants-Eagles and 2017 Saints-Panthers and a loss for the 2007 Cowboys-Giants.
  • The 2-0 team is 7-5 in the wild card round, 3-1 in the divisional round, and 4-1 in the conference championship.

Basically, the only example that really compares to what Tampa Bay is trying to do here is the 2007 Cowboys-Giants. That’s the only one where a team lost both games by double digits before winning on the road in the playoffs. That’s also the only one where the 0-2 road team won after the wild card round. When the 1983 Seahawks lost to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game, that game was played in Los Angeles because the Raiders (12-4) were a better team than Seattle (9-7), which just happened to get the best of them in the regular season before upsetting a rookie Dan Marino as well in the divisional round that year.

New Orleans having a home letdown in the playoffs wouldn’t be a new story, but the Saints are better than the Buccaneers.

Or are they?

So Which Team Is Better?

Thanks a lot, COVID-19, for this weird season. The Steelers were the last unbeaten at 11-0 and led the league in scoring differential for a while until falling off hard. Baltimore finished No. 1 in scoring differential despite only going 11-5 and No. 7 in DVOA (but No. 3 in SRS at Pro Football Reference). The Chiefs had the best record locked up with 14 wins before resting starters and getting their ass pointlessly kicked by the Chargers, so they finished 6th in DVOA, 6th in SRS, and not even in the top five for points scored. Green Bay scored the most points but finished No. 5 in SRS and No. 3 in DVOA. Buffalo is basically the Josh Allen cautious wave meme here, just chilling in the crowd.

Yet the place where DVOA and SRS seem to agree this season is that the Saints are No. 1 and the Buccaneers are No. 2, and the margin between the two isn’t that great despite the scoreboard difference in their first two meetings this season.

Frankly, I don’t know what to make of these numbers. I wish I had a better explanation for what the advanced stats sees in the Saints and Bucs this year. I think the Chiefs and Packers are more reliable to score points and win games this season. I think the Ravens are scarier to play than the Bucs or Saints. I think the 13-3 Bills, who have one loss on a Hail Mary and another to the Chiefs, have played better football than those teams as well this year.

Here are some things I do know the Saints and Buccaneers share in common this season:

  • Both lost to the Chiefs by three points after trailing by 14+ points.
  • Both had a 17-point comeback win in October over the Chargers, who hand those out as freely as mints on hotel pillows.
  • Both swept the Falcons and Panthers, who couldn’t win a close game to save their lives.
  • Both helped put the Vikings out of their misery in December. Alvin Kamara scored six touchdowns and it felt like Dan Bailey missed six kicks when he played Tampa Bay.
  • Both got to play in arguably the two biggest COVID farces of 2020: Saints beat Denver 31-3 after the Broncos were told the day before the game that none of their quarterbacks were eligible to play. They had to start a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback and completed one pass. The Buccaneers destroyed a Detroit team 47-7 in Week 16 after much of the coaching staff was out for COVID on short notice. It got so bad that Blaine Gabbert came in the third quarter and still threw two touchdowns on his first six throws.
  • Tampa Bay also sort of won in Denver without facing a quarterback when the Broncos played Jeff Driskel and Brett Rypien in Week 3.
  • Both beat a cupcake in the NFC wild card after the Buccaneers drew the 7-9 Washington No Names with MAGA Heinicke pulling out a 300-yard game on them, and the Saints jogged through a 21-9 win over Mitchell Trubisky and the 8-8 Bears.

Where did the Buccaneers and Saints differ this year?

  • New Orleans lost in the Raiders’ first game in Las Vegas while the Buccaneers pulled away late in a 45-20 win.
  • The Saints beat the Bears in overtime while Tampa Bay lost to Nick Foles in October.
  • Tampa Bay destroyed Green Bay’s No. 1 offense in a 38-10 victory while the Saints lost 37-30 at home following some Taysom Hill Hijinks.

And isn’t that always the difference this year when we talk about Tampa Bay? It’s that 38-10 Green Bay game, Tampa Bay’s only win against a team with a winning record. Otherwise, they are 0-4 against the Saints, Chiefs, and Rams, and even lost to the 8-8 Bears. The once 0-13 Jets still have more wins (two) against winning teams this year than the Buccaneers (one).

That is why Tampa Bay feels like such a paper tiger to me this year. They fatten their stats, especially on offense, in recent weeks against the Falcons (twice) and Lions, and then they draw a Jack Del Rio defense in the playoffs. Tom Brady has destroyed Del Rio his whole career and last week was more of the same with Washington leaving receivers wide open and getting minimal pressure.

So is Tampa now peaking, or is it just heavily related to the opponents? When they last played legitimate playoff teams in the Rams and Chiefs, they lost 27-24 at home in both games, outgained and outplayed.

For a team with some gaudy stats, the Buccaneers have had a lot of rough patches this season, rarely able to put in a complete game effort until recent weeks. In fact, the Buccaneers have five games this season where they trailed by at least 17 points, something Brady rarely experienced in New England.

They were able to come back and beat the Falcons and Chargers, because of course they were. That’s what those teams do. But Tampa didn’t beat the Chiefs or Saints in the other three games. Tampa Bay has trailed by 17+ in more games this season than the Packers, Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens combined as those teams have one game each. The Saints have two, and the Rams and Browns have three each.

This got me curious. How many games would you expect a legitimate Super Bowl team to fall behind by at least 17 points during a season? So I dug out the answer back to 1994, the start of the salary cap and two-point conversion era. As it turns out, Tampa Bay would be the highest.

The Super Bowl winner averages 1.4 such games a season and the Super Bowl loser averages 2.0 games a season.

No Super Bowl teams since the 2009 Colts and Saints have had more than two three-score deficits in the regular season. Even that’s misleading as both teams rested their starters in Week 17 to tally a third. The 2012 49ers actually had two in a row in the playoffs, but came back to beat the Falcons (duh) before losing to the Ravens in the Super Bowl. The 1994 Chargers, 1998 Falcons, 2000 Giants, 2002 Raiders, 2010 Steelers, and 2013 Broncos also had their last one of the season in the Super Bowl loss.

The only Super Bowl winner with a legitimate three games of trailing by 17+ is the 2007 Giants, which might not surprise you. The 2011 Giants played high-scoring, close games, but the 2007 Giants got their ass kicked a few times. Funny how this is the second time we’re bringing them up as the hopeful comparison for a Brady team since his 2007 Patriots are responsible for those Giants’ spot in lore.

The 2006 Colts, 2016 Patriots, and 2019 Chiefs are the only teams to win a Super Bowl after trailing by 15+ points in the playoffs. That is true for all time and not just since 1994. You know which games…

Green Bay may very well be the next challenge for the winner of this game, but for this week, it comes back to the crowning achievement of New Orleans’ season to this point: sweeping Tampa Bay.

Third Time the Charm?

If anything, the Saints should be expected to pull off this sweep, and FiveThirtyEight actually has them at 71% to win with an Elo point spread of -6 instead of the game’s -3 spread.

Yet why do I have this terrible feeling that Brees will have to go out having one postseason (2009) in his career with multiple wins?

Oh yeah, it’s the playoffs, and the rationing of luck among Tom Brady and every other great quarterback of this generation feels like this:

I bitch about Brady getting multiple chances to lead one late scoring drive to win a game. Now he’s getting a third chance to beat the Saints one time, and it may come in the way that I have dreaded since the 2018 season.

Sean Payton, here’s your opportunity to hand Brady a playoff win after going to Taysom Hill with the game on the line. Please don’t use it.

Jokes aside, thirteen months ago, I wrote about the lack of luck Brees has had in his career, especially in comparison to Brady. I pointed out how just five plays in his career that had nothing to do with him could have drastically altered things to the point where he might be 5-0 in Super Bowls, with a few wins over Brady himself, and going for a sixth ring this year.

Instead, Brees is 9-8 in the playoffs, meeting Brady there for the first time, and it’s probably his last game ever if he loses it. Even with a win on Sunday, there will always be some disappointment there.

So what can change from the first two meetings? I watched them both live and the Saints were absolutely the better team. I was behind the argument that Week 1 wasn’t that telling with Brady making his Tampa Bay debut after no real offseason or preseason. Brees and the offense actually weren’t that great at all in that matchup either. He struggled to move the ball too, but Brady threw a pick-six and struggled after the opening drive.

Flash forward to Week 9. The Saints were grinding out close wins against so-so teams. The Buccaneers were a few weeks removed from 38-10. They just activated Antonio Brown, because god knows you have to give the GOAT four different 1,300-yard receivers to make this offense shine. I picked the Buccaneers to win that rematch, and I couldn’t have been any more wrong.

That 38-3 game was the most one-sided domination I watched this season. It was about as perfect a game as you can have on offense and defense. Brady wasn’t able to complete passes, he started throwing interceptions, the Saints were getting anything they wanted on offense. Only some mistakes by Jared Cook kept that from being 45-0 at halftime. Tampa had to kick a cheap field goal late to avoid the shutout. The Buccaneers set an NFL record with only five rushing attempts. It was incredible.

But now, what changes this week?

Brees had his rib injury start in the Tampa Bay game. He missed four games, but he’s about to make his fifth start in a row. He had that really rough start against the Chiefs before finding his way back later in the game. In the last three weeks, he’s pretty much back to where he was, leading an effective offense again that is finally healthy with Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders ready to play. The funny thing is with all those guys together, the Saints went to Deonte Harris for seven catches and 83 yards against the Bears on Sunday. Was that a way to not show their hand to Tampa Bay about what they might do with their normal offense in a third matchup this week? It was interesting and Harris looked good after doing almost nothing this season.

The Saints can score on this defense, but we know Todd Bowles loves to blitz. Brees faced his highest blitz count in the two Tampa games this year. He was sacked once in each game and hasn’t had a pressure rate above 23% in any game this season according to Pro Football Reference.

For Brady and the Bucs, can the Saints get to him again? They sacked him three times in both games and had a season-high 36.6% pressure rate in the 38-3 game. The Buccaneers usually protect well but have not done so against the Saints yet. Brady has also thrown five of his 12 interceptions this season against New Orleans.

While the argument of Week 1 rust didn’t work out for Tampa Bay last time, could the argument of Antonio Brown’s progress work this time? His first game was 38-3 and clearly it took some time for them to figure this offense out. Brown took Scotty Miller’s snaps after Miller started the season so well with making deep catches. Brown didn’t seem to click until he caught a touchdown bomb to beat the Falcons (of course) in Week 15. He has now scored in four straight games and looks more like the receiver we’re familiar with.

Brown’s impact could be huge if Mike Evans has his usual disappearing act in the Superdome. Evans has four games in his career with fewer than 10 receiving yards. Three of them are in New Orleans, including 2 yards in Week 1. He also had a 1-of-6 game with 13 yards in 2017. When you stack that many bad games against an opponent, it can’t just be a coincidence. This looks good for corner Marshon Lattimore, but he can only guard one guy. The Buccaneers still have Brown, Chris Godwin, Gronk, Miller, and even Cameron Brate reminded us he’s still there with 80 yards against Washington last week.

This offense just has too many weapons, and if they would ever play to their full potential, this team could go the distance. But they have to get over their biggest hump so far this year. Does Brees finally have a defense to rally around him and prevent his retirement before another ring? The Saints did not allow a 300-yard passer this season and are one of three defenses in 2020 (Rams and Steelers) to allow fewer than 275 net passing yards in all 17 games. That hasn’t been done since the 2006 Colts did not allow 250 net passing yards in a record all 20 of their games on their way to a Super Bowl win. Even though you can run on that team, which you usually can’t on these Saints, I am a bit shocked I only discovered this stat on January 15, 2021.

Nostalgia aside…

I hate to say it, but part of me expects Payton to do something really stupid in this game that gives Tampa Bay the edge. Don’t forget Bruce Arians is 32-26-1 (.551) in 4QC/GWD opportunities, so he’s had his own magic beans produce good luck over the years. Only Mike Vrabel (14-10) has a better record among active coaches.

If not Payton, could it be the refs again with the Saints in the playoffs? It blows my mind that the NFL tried one season of making pass interference reviewable, ditched it, but left nothing in place to prevent the same egregious, game-deciding call happen again at the end of a playoff game like that no-call in the 2018 NFC Championship Game. You don’t want to make PI challengeable? Fine. But at least make it subject to review by the replay system in the final two minutes of the game so we don’t see the same damn mistake again.

Not to make Saints fans more scared, but your defense now leads the league with 19 pass interference penalties this season. Tampa Bay set a record this year by being the beneficiary of 24 DPI flags. Do you see where this is going?

Do you believe my final score is legit or just another reverse jinx? I guess we’ll have to find out Sunday evening. Maybe even sooner, because if the Rams upset the Packers on Saturday, then you know which lucky bastard is going to the Super Bowl again. Bet accordingly.

Final: Buccaneers 28, Saints 24

NFL 2020 Divisional Round: Browns at Chiefs

The Chiefs begin their run to end the longest drought in NFL history without a repeat champion. After a historic streak of close wins and the dreaded “playoff rest in Week 17 followed by a bye” combo, should the Chiefs be on upset alert against a hungry Cleveland team?

For previews of Saturday’s games, click here.

Browns at Chiefs (-10)

The last time we saw Patrick Mahomes, he was just getting by the Falcons in an uncharacteristic 17-14 victory. That was three weeks ago from this Sunday. The Chiefs have since rested starters in a 38-21 blowout against the Chargers to end their record 60-game streak of not losing by more than eight points, and then had a bye week.

Meanwhile, the last time we saw the Browns, they were embarrassing the Steelers with a 28-0 start in the first quarter before winning their first playoff game since the 1994 season. This week their head coach, Kevin Stefanski, is back from COVID-19 and so is Denzel Ward, their best corner.

Doesn’t this 10-point spread feel a bit off considering the Chiefs just set an NFL record with seven straight wins by fewer than seven points? No other team has ever had more than five straight. The Chiefs have not beaten anyone by more than six points since the lowly Jets in Week 8, which was before the election if you need help with how long ago that was. Cleveland’s only losses by more than 10 this year were early-season blowouts in Baltimore (38-6) and Pittsburgh (38-7), but clearly the Browns closed the gap on those teams later in the year.

Look, I get it.

The Chiefs’ spread is -10 and double-digit favorites in the playoffs are 60-13 SU (.822) and 43-29-1 ATS (.596) in the Super Bowl era. They are 50-7 (.877) at home. The Browns were outscored 37-20 in the final three quarters in Pittsburgh and took advantage of a total gift on the opening botched snap for a touchdown and got two more tipped ball interceptions.

Baker Mayfield probably isn’t going to have another game where he isn’t even pressured once, though that offensive line is very good.

With Tennessee eliminated, the Browns have the worst remaining defense in the playoffs, ranked 23rd in points per drive allowed and have already allowed 34+ points seven times (six on the road).

Oh yeah, Mahomes is 23-1 in his last 24 starts, Andy Reid is 25-5 after a bye week, and the Chiefs have yet to score fewer than 31 points in the playoffs with Mahomes at quarterback. They also set an NFL record this year by beating five teams with a winning record on the road.

By now, you just expect the Chiefs to find a way to outscore the opponent and come away with the win. They won so many tight games this year and it was usually thanks to the offense taking over in the final minutes with a one-score lead and either expanding to a two-score lead or running out the clock. The 2020 Chiefs may have had the best four-minute offense season in NFL history.

The Chiefs did not blow a fourth quarter lead this season, but the offense did so well in close games that the defense rarely had to defend a 4QC/GWD attempt. When the offense failed to close the game out against Carolina, the defense had to stop the Panthers from a game-winning field goal. Thankfully, Teddy Bridgewater was awful in those moments all year (0-9 record), and the Panthers used the 86 seconds they were given to only set up a 67-yard field goal that was missed.

That was the closest call for the Chiefs and the defense’s best effort to save a game. Mahomes left Derek Carr only 28 seconds in Las Vegas when he forced a game-ending interception. Mahomes left Denver’s Drew Lock only 64 seconds, needing a touchdown after the Chiefs added a field goal, when the defense intercepted him too. Matt Ryan drove the Falcons down the field for at least overtime, but Younghoe Koo missed a short field goal to end that one.

I feel that the Kansas City defense is most responsible for why this team has not pulled away with ease in any game in over two months. No matter how well the game begins, it just seems like every one of them comes down to Mahomes with the ball late and in a one-score game.

Throw in the potential for rust, the shaky offensive line of recent weeks, the running game not always reliable, and this defense not being tested enough, and I think it’s a potential recipe for disaster this postseason.

Then again, how could anyone start a Super Bowl run worse than the Chiefs last year when they fell behind 24-0 to the Texans in the AFC divisional round?

Once the Chiefs got past the self-inflicted wounds, they dominated Houston and won 51-31, a game that wasn’t even close in the fourth quarter.

I would be far more worried for the Chiefs if it were Baltimore instead of Cleveland. Mayfield will need to have an exceptional game. I pointed out the zero pressures the

Steelers got on Sunday, but they also had zero takeaways and the Browns had two 40-yard touchdown catches with at least 30 YAC on each. In the regular season, the Browns had one pass play, let alone any touchdowns, with 30+ YAC. Just one.

Unusual things can happen in this league, but the Browns have to come in prepared for this one like they were against the Steelers and their road win in Tennessee. It is going to take points for sure as the over/under is 57 points. In NFL playoff history in games with a total of at least 54 points, the over is 10-5 and the home team is 10-5 SU.

The 2020 Browns have already tied the NFL record for most games in a season (playoffs included) where both teams scored 30 points. The 2018 Chiefs are one of six teams on that list, but something in Cleveland’s favor is they are 5-1 in these games.

Maybe it will be 66-59 like a classic meeting in college between Mayfield and Mahomes, won by Baker’s Oklahoma team.

That game had 10 straight touchdown drives in the second half before Oklahoma finally got one more first down on the ground with Joe Mixon to end it and deny Mahomes one last chance with the ball.

Oddly enough, scoring a shitload of points and denying Mahomes the ball at the end has carried over to be the best way to beat him in the NFL too.

Mahomes is 42-9 as a starter in the NFL. He has led the Chiefs to at least 22 points in 49 of his 51 starts. Outside of that weird 19-13 loss to the Colts in 2019, he has only lost when the opponent has scored more than 28 points.

I compiled a couple of charts to show just how hard it is to beat Mahomes and the Chiefs and what type of benchmarks it usually takes to come out with the win.

Before I go into the details, this second chart shows the 24 games where teams scored at least 20 points on the Chiefs and still lost. You’ll notice a lot more red here to indicate that they didn’t achieve the benchmarks I’ve laid out.

Keep in mind we are making a series of comparisons between samples of nine games (Table 1) and 24 games (Table 2), but I cannot help the fact that Mahomes is only this far into his career and we already talk about him in such historical context. I also understand that lots of these things would be helpful in beating any team in the NFL, but it’s just more pronounced with the Chiefs in the Mahomes era.

I’ll go over each section of the charts and how the 2020 Browns fit into this.

Opp Rec (+PO)

You can see the opponent’s final record and the playoffs are included in parenthesis if they made it. Seven of Mahomes’ nine losses are to playoff teams. Only those pesky 2019 Colts had a losing record while the Raiders finished .500 this year thanks to choking away that Miami game. This isn’t really an indicator of anything, but just providing context to the games listed. This is common sense that it will usually take a playoff team to beat a team like the Chiefs.

Fortunately for Cleveland, the Browns are a 12-5 playoff team this year and not the 7-8-1 team they were in 2018 when they lost 37-21 to the Chiefs.

Opp Scored > 28?

Did the opponent score more than 28 points on the Chiefs? Clearly you must score at least 29 to get the job done. Derek Carr had the game of his career this year and put up 40 points in Mahomes’ only loss in the last 24 games. In Table 2, only seven of those 24 teams scored more than 28.

The Browns have scored at least 32 points in eight of 17 games this season, so they are more than capable.

Opp TOP > 35 MIN?

I usually don’t talk about time of possession much because it just ends up being a result of playing well on both sides of the ball rather than something you can strive for on purpose. However, keeping the ball away from a great quarterback should always be high on the priority list for a team.

The Chiefs actually lost time of possession in eight of the nine games in Table 1, but in terms of letting the team have the ball 35 minutes or more, that happened two-thirds of the time. It only happened three times in the other 24 games, all wins by the Chiefs. That difference can be made up at the end of the game when your offense is the one finishing things off instead of Mahomes.

The Browns finished fifth in TOP/drive this season, right behind the Chiefs. The Panthers were second and they gave the Chiefs fits as you can see in Table 2 in one of the closest games on that list that was nearly a loss.

KC 8+ PEN? and KC 60+ PEN YD?

The next two columns are looking at penalties on the Chiefs. There has never been convincing evidence that the number of penalties or penalty yardage has a significant correlation to team performance. Mostly you just want to avoid the real costly ones that take away touchdowns or extend drives for the opponent.

Kansas City is a perfect example of this as the two New England losses in 2018 were the only losses where they did not have at least eight penalties or 60 yards of penalties. However, what’s the most memorable penalty in Kansas City history? Dee Ford lining up offsides by a centimeter in the AFC Championship Game, wiping out a game-ending interception thrown by Tom Brady in the final minute. Bummer.

However, Chiefs fans this year know their penalties can be costly. In the Raiders loss, they had two touchdowns wiped out by holding and offensive pass interference. The wins over Tampa Bay and Denver were a lot closer late after bad penalties for the Chiefs into third-and-forever situations. The Chiefs could do a better job with penalties than they do.

In the 24 wins, the Chiefs only hit eight penalties 10 times and 60+ penalty yards nine times, so they were better in those games at keeping the flags down.

Opp Rush for > 170 yds?

I feel like this one was a little controversial when I was selling it before Super Bowl LIV, but the fact is you usually have to run the ball well on the Chiefs to beat them. Two-thirds of the losses again were when the opponent rushed for at least 170 yards, and the Rams in that 54-51 game were the only team that did it without rushing for at least 119 yards.

I know I raised the bar high there, but it was still hit six times in nine losses while in the 24 wins in Table 2, only seven teams crossed 170 yards. Mahomes needed a fourth-quarter comeback in three of those seven games.

For the teams that beat the Chiefs, it’s not like they were just piling up those rushing yards in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. No game in the NFL has been out of reach for Mahomes yet. These teams used the run to help facilitate their scoring, sometimes they hit big runs (like the Titans win in 2019), and to keep Mahomes off the field.

Can a Cleveland team with five 190-yard rushing games this season run well on the Chiefs? I believe so. Nick Chubb is great, and we know Kareem Hunt is viewing this as a revenge game, even if he only has his damn self to blame for the Chiefs cutting him.

The Chiefs will need a big effort to contain Chubb and Hunt in this one. The good news is the Chiefs are 5-0 this season when they allow 150+ rushing yards, never allowing more than 20 points in those games. But they’re not playing the Broncos, Brian Hoyer, Justin Herbert in his first game, or the Ravens (Lamar struggles with KC) in this one.

The Chiefs rank 32nd in red zone touchdown rate allowed this year (76.6%). That is not encouraging against a Cleveland offense that was third (73.6%) in that category this year. That’s why I love Chubb and Hunt to both score touchdowns in my Same Game Parlays for this one.

The Browns won’t set any rushing records in this one, but a long Chubb run in the fourth quarter could be the difference in another Super Bowl ring and a one-and-done.

Opp Gained 450+ Yds?

Did the opponent gain at least 450 yards of offense? Again, just more common sense that you need a lot of points to beat the Chiefs, and that’s something that requires significant yards unless you have the Chicago Bears D/ST in one of their random playoff years.  

The Chiefs allowed 450+ yards in two-thirds of their losses. They did it in only four of the 24 wins listed.

The Browns were 3-1 this year when they hit 450 yards, only losing that 47-42 game to Baltimore.

KC TO?

How many turnovers did the Chiefs have? I often speak of the “obligatory Chiefs fumble” and you can see that was really born in 2019 when they lost a big fumble in those losses to the Colts, Texans, and Titans (returned for a touchdown in that one).

The Chiefs had a turnover in seven of their nine losses and multiple turnovers in four of the games. In the 24 wins, they only had four games with multiple turnovers and eight games without a turnover.

Half of Mahomes’ six interceptions this season came in Miami when he had two tipped balls and Xavien Howard made a one-handed catch. Maybe he got it out of his system that day. Week 16 against Atlanta was the only other time the Chiefs had multiple turnovers this year, though one of them was a horrible decision to call a trick play on fourth down that led to Sammy Watkins throwing the pick.

Like I said earlier, the Browns had some great fortune on three of their five takeaways against the Steelers after a season where they were mediocre at best at taking the ball away. Instead of getting a pick, Cleveland’s best bet may be Myles Garrett getting a strip sack this week. He is nursing a shoulder injury though, but that Chiefs offensive line has been shaky at best down the stretch.

Denied or Stopped PM Late?

These last two columns in the charts perhaps tell each game’s story the best. No matter how well the game started or what you did well, can you stop Mahomes late in the game? Can you flat out deny giving him the ball last or in the final minutes?

When the Chiefs have lost in Table 1, it’s usually more of a denial (the tan green cells) of Mahomes than a flat-out stop. Only the Rams in that 54-51 game stopped him cold by getting two picks late, and I use “cold” lightly as he did throw a go-ahead touchdown pass with 2:47 left.

The 2019 Texans and 2020 Raiders ran out the clock on him, denying him that final drive with the ball. The 2018 Patriots twice beat him on the final snap, scoring last after getting the coin flip and ball in overtime in the AFC Championship Game. Philip Rivers threw that game-winning two-point conversion with four seconds left in 2018, basically the last play there. The 2018 Seahawks and 2019 Colts extended to a two-score lead in the last 2:30. Mahomes answered with a score both times, but not enough time left and the onside kicks failed. Finally, the 2019 Titans left Mahomes only 17 seconds, but he still set up a 52-yard field goal that was blocked to end the game.

When I say Mahomes doesn’t lose, he just runs out of time, I have the facts on my side.

In the 24 wins, that’s when he has put teams away late if the game was still close (one score). One of the six games that wasn’t close was Cleveland in 2018. The Browns could do no better than a 13-point deficit a play into the fourth quarter, which Mahomes immediately answered with a field goal and a 37-21 final.

In the other 18 games, Mahomes led seven game-winning drives. Four times he extended the lead to two scores. Mahomes ran out the clock fully four times, and ran it down from over four minutes to just 23 seconds in Baltimore this year.

The only two teams to stop him were Denver (2019) and that Carolina game I’ve talked about already. He still threw two touchdowns in the fourth quarter against Carolina, but it was that late three-and-out that could have been costly if the Panthers were able to get a closer field goal attempt. Against Denver, Mahomes didn’t score in the quarter, but the Broncos’ offense was inept and by the time they got it last, only four seconds remained for a 4QC/GWD opportunity.

If you want to beat Mahomes, you can’t let him have the ball last. End things with your own four-minute offense. With Cleveland’s running game and Mayfield’s recent emphasis on running more, they could do that.

Conclusion

So there it is. To beat Mahomes and the Chiefs, you just have to score a lot of points, gain a lot of yards on the ground and overall, hope for some breaks in the turnovers and penalties departments, and even then you better deny him the ball at the end of the game.

Got all that, Cleveland? I hope it is an exciting shootout and not a rout, but I just do not see the Browns pulling it off unless the Chiefs have another very uncharacteristic performance.

If my final score looks familiar, it’s because I picked it on purpose.

Final: Chiefs 38, Browns 33

NFL 2020 Divisional Round Saturday Previews

Even after the questionable changes to wild card weekend, the divisional round is still my favorite week of the whole NFL season. The games look really good on paper this week and we should get a dramatic finish or two after not having a single second-half lead change in last week’s six playoff games.

Again, I am breaking my previews in half, starting with the two Saturday games before I post Sunday’s games tomorrow. I have already posted my previews (links below) for Rams-Packers and Ravens-Bills on Sportsbook Review, so check those out first, but I am providing more content and my final score prediction below.

Rams at Packers (-6.5)

See my full preview for this game at SBR.

Defense wins championships, right? When Aaron Rodgers reached his only Super Bowl, he had his best Green Bay defense in 2010. That unit delivered in the playoffs with a game-ending interception off Michael Vick, a game-changing pick-six off Matt Ryan, a game-sealing pick-six off Caleb Hanie, and more crucial takeaways and a final defensive stop against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers in the Super Bowl.

The 2020 Rams have scored a defensive touchdown in five of their last seven games, including a pick-six off Russell Wilson in Saturday’s 30-20 wild card win. Interesting.

However, you still have to score points on offense to win playoff games. The Rams have scored more than 23 offensive points in only one of their last seven games. That’s not going to get the job done against the NFL’s highest-scoring team, who has the fewest turnovers (11) in the league.

Does anyone remember the 1993 Giants? Dan Reeves took his schtick to New York and got a Pro Bowl season out of a 38-year-old Phil Simms, sparing us one more year before the bad commentary to come. That team won with the No. 1 defense. In fact, they only had one game all season where they allowed more than 20 points. But while they won a wild card game 17-10, they had to travel to San Francisco in the divisional round and take on the No. 1 offense and Steve Young. Guess what happened? (Or don’t.) The 49ers won 44-3. The great defense, saddled by an inept offense that put them in some bad field position, allowed 44 points on the first 10 drives.

No one remembers this game, but it is one of the eight playoff games in the earlier rounds (non-Super Bowl) since the merger where the No. 1 scoring offense faced the No. 1 scoring defense. The defense is 3-5 in those games. One of those defensive wins was the 2014 Seahawks completing the season sweep of Rodgers’ Packers in the NFC Championship Game, but even that took an insane comeback from the offense with a crucial onside kick recovery by the special teams just to get to overtime.

While people should be skeptical of how Rodgers will perform against another stout NFC West defense, I’m more concerned with the Rams shitting their pants offensively so that Rodgers doesn’t need to score many points to win this game at home in weather that gives Jared Goff night terrors when he’s healthy, let alone nursing his thumb boo-boo.

Simply put, this is a great offense/suspect defense hosting a shoddy offense/great defense. While NFL history is filled with examples of great defenses shutting down great offenses, those games are usually played in the championship round like the two recent Denver Super Bowls where the 2013 offense lost to Seattle, but the 2015 defense beat Carolina.

I only picked Denver as an example because the games are recent, but it is interesting to point out how the Broncos turned so quickly from an offensive team to a defensive team. Does that sound like anyone else we know? Sean McVay’s 2018 Rams were in the Super Bowl after scoring 527 points. They had three points in that last game, dropped out of the top 10 offenses in 2019, and this season has seen the Rams fall to 25th in points per drive while boasting the best defense led by the best defensive player, Aaron Donald.

Remember how the Broncos had a great pass rusher like Von Miller but the results weren’t there defensively until 2015 when they added more talent? Now the Rams have All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey for his first full season with the team and look where they are again. Can this be a Denver-like turnaround for the Rams where they win a championship with a weak offense and great defense? The 2015 Broncos ranked 25th in offensive points per drive too.

Well, I think the run ends this week, but I can at least understand how the Rams could pull off this upset. Run the ball great with Cam Akers, Goff protects the ball and makes his easy play-action throws, and the defense kicks ass. There is a formula there, and at least a defense like the Rams holding down the Packers would make sense unlike the mediocre 2019 Titans shutting down Baltimore’s insane offense a year ago.

NFL history is loaded with playoff burnouts from its highest scoring teams. The 12 highest-scoring teams in NFL history have won zero championships. Only the 2011 Saints (32) and 2018 Chiefs (31) scored 30 points in their playoff loss.

Fortunately, the Packers are the 20th highest-scoring team at 509 points, or one behind the 2009 Saints, the only No. 1 scoring offense to win a Super Bowl since 2000. But you can see only five of the 24 teams in the 500-point club won a championship, and that includes the 1961 Oilers winning the AFL Championship Game by a score of 10-3. Even the 1999 Rams, the last team with a player (Kurt Warner) to win MVP and Super Bowl in the same season, needed an 11-6 win over Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship Game.

You usually need your defense to show up at some point in the playoffs, but this is not the matchup where I am concerned with Green Bay’s so-so unit costing them the season.

Green Bay’s best unit, the offense, just cannot feed into the upset chances by gifting the Rams turnovers (field position) in a way they did against the Buccaneers and Colts this year. The Packers had six of their 11 turnovers this season in those two losses. On the bright side for the Rams, their offense is coming off its first game this season without a giveaway.

While left tackle David Bakhtiari is out, the Rams get their best pressure from the interior with Donald, who has torn rib cartilage, which you would think makes it humanly impossible for him to be 100% on Saturday. That is big for the Packers, but it is why it would be coaching malpractice if the Rams do not deploy their other huge weapon in this matchup.

This is much easier to say from behind a keyboard, but Jalen Ramsey, you have to want all the smoke from Davante Adams this week. It might lead to you getting smoked for a big play, but just limit it to one early drive. If Ramsey can shadow Adams and successfully slow him down, it should make things so much easier on the Rams to win this game. The Rams have allowed three 100-yard receivers, good for second fewest in 2020.

The Rams defended the run very well this year. They were the only defense in either of the last two seasons to allow fewer than 140 rushing yards in all 16 games. I’m putting Ramsey on Adams and taking my chances with Robert Tonyan (high catch rate but hasn’t topped 40 yards since Week 12) and Marques Valdes-Scantling (big plays, big mistakes) beating me.

I know all the narratives and cliches about pass-happy offensive teams going up against stout defenses in the playoffs. I know the Packers have lost multiple home playoff games, including 2011 when they last were the No. 1 seed, and still do not handle teams that punch them in the mouth well. I just cannot find the faith in Goff to channel his inner Eli Manning and get this road win. Despite starting a Super Bowl already, Goff has been very underwhelming in his playoff games. At least in 2011 Manning had a track record (Super Bowl MVP) and was having his best season.

Not to mention the Rams failed to beat the 0-13 Jets…

Final: Packers 24, Rams 16

Ravens at Bills (-2.5)

See my full preview for this game at SBR.

I had so much to say about this game already that it turned out to be my first 2,000-word preview on SBR. The potential for an instant classic feels high with this one as the AFC finally gets some new blood in this round. It’s just too bad the stadium cannot be full. I think the Ravens already played in the regular season Game of the Year when they won 47-42 in Cleveland.

Notice that the Bills made my table above for the 500-point club a year after the Ravens did it behind Lamar Jackson’s MVP season. Josh Allen won’t win MVP this season but the fact that he was in the conversation says so much about how far he has come. And he’ll probably still get a vote before Russell Wilson does.

Both offenses do great things, and while I like Buffalo’s style better and find it more sustainable for the long term, I have to admit that the Ravens are better designed to go far this postseason. In this particular matchup, if there’s snow, it’s even more pronounced for me despite Jackson’s candid lack of experience playing in such weather.

Thanks to Jackson, Baltimore is arguably the most consistent rushing offense in NFL history. The Ravens have only been held under 110 rushing yards once in his 40 career starts, though I must point out that was his first playoff game (90 yards vs. 2018 Chargers) and that the 2019 Bills held the Ravens to a season-low 118 rushing yards (121 excluding those pesky kneeldowns). But the Buffalo defense is not as good this year and has had five games (two losses and three wins by a field goal each) that would make me incredibly nervous that the Ravens are going to run wild Saturday night. Baltimore has rushed for at least 230 yards in five of the last six games since Jackson returned from COVID, which were all wins of course. He’s in full YOLO mode, and by the Pro Football Reference EPA model, the Ravens offense had its five best games this season in Weeks 13-17 after Jackson returned from his COVID battle.

The Ravens are not going to do something stupid and come out throwing a ton of passes. They’ll do what they do best, and they know that is running the ball, often with Jackson taking it himself by design or like his brilliant 48-yard touchdown scramble on Sunday in Tennessee.

Jackson is 26-1 when he attempts fewer than 28 passes, and that one loss (2018 at Kansas City) saw Robert Griffin III finish the final drive in overtime. He keeps his attempts low and the turnovers low. Jackson’s four-turnover meltdown against the Steelers was the only time this season the Ravens had multiple turnovers with him at quarterback. When they had their second pick against Washington, that was with RG3 in the game late. Jackson usually protects the ball well and he’ll have to here as the Bills were good with 26 takeaways (but none against the Colts in the wild card).

Also, when they do throw, they have tight end Mark Andrews or wide receiver Marquise Brown. It’s usually one or the other who goes off, and on Sunday, it was Brown with a season-high 109 yards on seven catches. Interesting to note that Brown had 126 yards (his most since his NFL debut game) against the Titans in the 2019 playoffs and 128 scrimmage yards (his most this year) on Sunday. Maybe he just likes playing the Titans, but he better hope history doesn’t repeat itself with the Bills. Last year, Buffalo held Brown to -3 yards on 3 catches, the worst statistical game of his career. I find that unlikely to repeat itself despite the Bills still having Tre’Davious White at corner, but maybe this is an Andrews week after the way the Colts got some big plays to tight ends in Buffalo last week.

So we know the Ravens are running out the gate. When it comes the Bills, we are looking at the most blitzed quarterback this season against the most blitz-happy defense in football. Allen was blitzed a career-high 31 times last year when he played the Ravens and he was terrible against it. He’s gotten a lot of experience with seeing it this year and has managed very well. Still, I think the Ravens will continue to do it and rely on their excellent secondary to cover these wide receivers, who looked very good on Saturday against the Colts.

But the weather was quite nice for January in Buffalo on Saturday, and if things are indeed freezing and/or snowy in this one, then a precision passing game and one-dimensional offense that barely hands the ball off to running backs just may not work that great this time around. Does Gabriel Davis make those sideline toe-drag catches by a matters of centimeters in harsher conditions? Probably not. Some (not me) don’t even think he caught them last week, but the 50/50 plays largely went Buffalo’s way in a tough game where they had horrible field position in the first half and were a season-worst 2/9 on third down after leading all offenses in conversion rate this regular season.

If you came here to read both previews and already read my take in LAR-GB on great offense vs. great defense in the playoffs, then you might expect one of these 500-point club members is likely to disappoint this weekend.

If it happens, then I think it will be Buffalo just because the Ravens have the offense and dynamic quarterback that can score a lot of points, unlike the Rams. Allen is going to have to be special and handle the blitz well. Baltimore has allowed a league-low two 100-yard receivers this year, and none of the top 100 performances in receiving yards have come against the Ravens. Even though Corey Davis got them for over 100 in Week 11, he had no catches on Sunday. This defense just held the Titans to a season-low 13 points and we know that offense was also one of the best all year.

Much like the Rams have to contain Davante Adams, the Ravens need to contain Stefon Diggs. You can live with Cole Beasley making the short catches (just not too many on third down), you don’t expect Davis to be as great this week, but you cannot get roasted by Diggs, who has been on a tear for a team that would be on an 11-game winning streak had it not been for a Hail Mary in Arizona.

Again, this is probably the first time I have ever been excited to watch a Ravens-Bills game, but that is what happens when you finally have great offenses and exciting quarterbacks to watch. We have been waiting a long time to see that from Baltimore and Buffalo, and maybe this will be the first of multiple playoff meetings to come.

Final: Ravens 27, Bills 24

I’ll be back tomorrow to put the Chiefs on upset alert and explain why I think the Buccaneers are a paper tiger.

NFL 2020 Wild Card Sunday Previews

If one triple-header of NFL playoff action is not enough, we get two this year with Ravens-Titans looking like the highlight of the weekend on paper. All three games on Sunday are rematches from earlier this season, including two games that went to overtime.

That led me to a little digging. What happens in a playoff rematch from a game that went to overtime? I found all 17 examples since 1990. The team that won in overtime is 11-6 in the playoff rematch, so maybe that is good news for the Titans and Saints this weekend despite the Titans being an underdog again.

Click here for my three previews of Saturday’s games.

Ravens at Titans (+3)

BAL OFFENSE VS. TEN DEFENSE

I think this is a great, almost necessary matchup for the Ravens to get over the hump in the postseason. Last year, I wrote a rather prescient preview for how the Titans could pull off the upset in Baltimore, noting some potential rust for the rested Ravens, dropped passes on key downs, maybe a tipped interception, and Ryan Tannehill hitting a deep ball to open an early lead. All of those things happened, and the Ravens were down 14-0 quickly before losing 28-12. Lamar Jackson set an NFL record with 83 total plays (passes/sacks/runs) in that game, but it only led to a career-low 12 points for his Ravens.

In fact, Jackson has led the Ravens to at least 20 points in 36 of his 39 career starts, but only 17 and 12 points in his two home playoff losses. If the Bills and Steelers win this week, Jackson could be starting this postseason run against Tennessee and Kansas City, two teams he is 0-5 against so far.

So if this is going to be a revenge tour, then it sets up nicely. Baltimore is 5-0 since Jackson returned from his COVID-19 diagnosis. The competition has not been strong, but Jackson is back to efficient passing (8.09 YPA, 11 TD, 3 INT) and he’s rushing for 86 yards a game at 7.68 YPC. Baltimore has been lighting up the scoreboard and finished a second straight season with the highest scoring differential (+165) in the league. The 2020 Ravens are the 10th team since the merger to win at least nine games by 14+ points. The ninth team to do it was Baltimore a year ago.

You cannot be in this historic company and go one-and-done to Mike Vrabel two years in a row. Drawing the Tennessee defense is a dream for Jackson. Here is where the Titans rank in 2020 (asterisk denotes worst among playoff teams this year):

  • 27th in points per drive allowed*
  • 30th in yards per drive allowed*
  • 30th in touchdowns per drive allowed*
  • 29th in forcing three-and-out drives*
  • 25th in yards per play allowed*
  • 30th in first downs allowed*
  • 22nd in net yards per pass attempt*
  • 32nd in sack rate*
  • 31st in pressure rate*
  • 32nd in third down conversion rate* (worst since 1991)
  • 7th in takeaways per drive
  • 30th in red zone touchdown rate

Tennessee is the worst defense in the playoffs, and yes, that third down conversion rate of 51.9% is the worst season mark since the stat started being tracked in 1991. They’re the only team over 50%.

Turnovers are about the only way the Titans can do well on defense in this matchup, but Baltimore’s offense has only turned it over multiple times in three games this season, and two of those were against the Steelers.

In the Week 11 meeting, won 30-24 in overtime by Tennessee, the Ravens were 9/15 on third down with one interception on 10 drives. The problem was in the red zone where the Ravens were 1-for-4 at scoring touchdowns, including a late field goal to force overtime where a touchdown likely would have won the game. What happened in the playoff upset a year ago? Again, the Ravens were 1-for-4 in the red zone. They have to do better down there, but lately the Ravens have been scoring at will on teams.

Baltimore is coming off only the second 400-yard rushing game in the NFL in the last 60 years. We know the Ravens are going to run the ball well in this game, but to fully take advantage of this poor Tennessee defense, Jackson will have to throw well too.

I think he can do it this time. If not, then the Ravens will have taken two seasons where they outscored opponents by 414 points and turned it into zero playoff wins.

TEN OFFENSE VS. BAL DEFENSE

Given my takedown of the Tennessee defense, I better give a lot of credit to the offense for this 11-5 record. That’s easy to do. Ryan Tannehill proved 2019 was not just a fluke as he finished with the best full season of his career in leading one of the league’s top offenses. Derrick Henry rushed for 2,027 yards as he is practically on a one-man mission to prove that running backs matter, or at least they do in Tennessee. I think I would vote for him as the Offensive Player of the Year. Corey Davis even had a career year and A.J. Brown is still very good.

Tennessee’s excellent 6-1 record in close games is almost due entirely to the offense this year. Tannehill led the league in comebacks (five) and game-winning drives (six) with Henry scoring two game-winning touchdown runs in overtime games. The only failed comeback was against Pittsburgh after Stephen Gostkowski missed a makeable field goal that would have forced overtime.

In the Week 11 meeting in Baltimore, both teams looked offensively challenged at the half. Jackson had 54 yards passing, Tannehill had 42 yards passing, and Henry only had 13 carries for 37 yards. But the Titans are so committed to sticking with their formula of a play-action attack and feeding Henry that they turned things around and won that game with 30 points. Tannehill finished with 259 yards and Henry rushed for 133 yards, saving his 29-yard burst for overtime to win the game.

The Titans have to be thinking at least 30 points in this one again to win it, which isn’t out of question when the team has scored as much in 10 of the 16 games this season. The Titans are 2-4 when they don’t score 30 points this season.

Baltimore actually finished the season No. 2 in points allowed, but that involved a lot of feasting on putrid offenses this year, including six points in two games against the Bengals. We’ve seen the Ravens allow 30 to Tennessee, 34 to Kansas City, and the Browns lost that 47-42 game on a Monday night that I would deem the Game of the Year.

I think a top offense can score well on the Ravens this year.

I like both offenses in this game and apparently so does Vegas as the game has a total of 54.5 points. What it comes down to for me is that the Tennessee defense is so bad, and there is also a big gap in special teams as well between these teams. The Ravens are No. 2 in DVOA while the Titans are 28th. We have already seen special teams almost cost the Titans a win on opening night against Denver, Gostkowski screwed them over against the Steelers, and they had the worst game (aside from Chargers-Patriots) on special teams this season against the Colts in a loss at home.

FiveThirtyEight sees this as the most even game of the weekend with the Ravens at 57% to win and an Elo point spread of -2. I can buy that given Baltimore’s past struggles in big games and against a team that can score in bunches.

The whole “Ravens are the team no one wants to play” thing is usually just hype, but I actually believe it this time for Baltimore. I wouldn’t want to play this team right now even if I was Buffalo, Pittsburgh, or Kansas City. That doesn’t necessarily mean I am picking the Ravens to go all the way this year, but the way they can run the ball is just something you don’t have to deal with when you play other teams. Henry is great and will probably go for over 100 again, but chances are the Ravens as a team will outrush him and win this game. So that is where I am going with this one.

Final: Ravens 31, Titans 24

Bears at Saints (-10)

So in the very first year of the new playoff format, we had a Chicago team back into the No. 7 seed with an 8-8 record (thanks, Kliff), and a 12-4 Saints team that had a very nice season has to play them instead of enjoying a bye as they would have in the past. Cool.

My new playoff contempt aside, I guess it’s not the worst matchup in the world, and the 10-point spread is interesting. I’ll just say it would be a damn shame if the final game of Drew Brees’ career was a home playoff loss to Mitchell Trubisky and an 8-8 No. 7 seed. FiveThirtyEight sees this as the blowout of the week with the Saints at 85% win probability and Elo spread of -12. I think it could be closer than that. The Saints are not exactly known for easy playoff wins.

I watched a lot of the Week 8 meeting in Chicago live. The Saints were down 13-3 early, didn’t have their wideouts (not even Emmanuel Sanders), Brees ended up throwing a touchdown pass to Taysom Hill that put the Saints up 10 in the fourth quarter, but Nick Foles still forced overtime and even had a chance to win the game. But the Saints pulled through with a 26-23 win. It was probably the best game Foles had this year for the Bears, and as good as any game offensively for the team through 10 weeks before the bye.

Now the Bears are here with Trubisky, who has started the last six games. The Bears started this run by scoring at least 25 points in each game, a streak this team had not seen since the 1995 season with Erik Kramer. Was Trubisky great in this stretch? No, but it is clear he was better than what Foles was giving Matt Nagy and what Trubisky was doing at the start of the season. Running back David Montgomery has especially blown up with 99.7 rushing yards per game and 5.16 YPC over the last six games. That is quite the change for a guy who averaged 54.4 yards and 3.65 YPC in his first 25 games. Then Allen Robinson is still excellent, Jimmy Graham has started catching touchdowns again, and Darnell Mooney can get open. It is not an offense without talent. The results were just terrible for most of this season.

Then Sunday against Green Bay happened. The Bears moved the ball somewhat well, but only finished with 16 points after going 1-for-5 in the red zone. The offense also had two turnovers that set up the Packers for touchdown drives inside the 26-yard line. That was a bummer performance to end the regular season, but thanks to Arizona’s late-season collapse, the Bears are still in this tournament.

I am naturally skeptical of Trubisky given his full history. I thought he played terrible in the first Green Bay game and padded his stats in garbage time. He was much better against Detroit and Houston, but those are two of the most horrific defenses in a season filled with bad defenses. Minnesota and Jacksonville were not much better this year. Then it was Green Bay again and I noticed Trubisky had a really high completion percentage deep into the game, but not a lot of yards or points from it. Then I realized he completed 70.1% of his passes during these last six games and almost 74% over the last five games, which is uncharacteristic for him.

When I also noticed the Bears tried to convert six fourth downs against the Packers (they got five of them but not the crucial one in fourth quarter), that made me think about failed completions. Those are the plays where you complete a pass, but it doesn’t gain at least 45% of the needed yards for a first down on first down, 60% on second down, or 100% on third and fourth down. What if Trubisky was just dinking and dunking for hollow completions to pad his completion percentage, but not actually helping the offense? He finished 20th in QBR and 24th in DVOA after all.

To my surprise, Trubisky’s failed completion rate in 2020 was 15.6%, the lowest in the NFL, beating out No. 2 Patrick Mahomes (15.9%) and No. 3 Josh Allen (16.4%). Aaron Rodgers (21.5%) was only 11th and Brees is 23rd (24.7%). Furthermore, Trubisky did much better than Foles in this metric. Alex Smith (32.7%) and Dwayne Haskins (35.1%) were last in the league playing in the same Washington offense, but just ahead of them was Foles at 32.2%.

That is interesting to me because there are plenty of other metrics that show the impact of Chicago’s offensive system and supporting cast on the quarterback’s passing numbers.

  • Trubisky’s average pass was thrown 7.9 yards compared to 7.8 for Foles.
  • Trubisky’s average completed air yards was 5.1 to 5.3 for Foles.
  • Trubisky had 3.1% of his passes dropped compared to 3.0% for Foles – only Kyler Murray (2.5%) was lower [source: Pro Football Reference].
  • Trubisky ranked fourth in the league by throwing 21.2% of his passes into tight windows while Foles was ranked right behind him at 20.8% according to Next Gen Stats’ aggressiveness rate.

Suddenly, I was feeling better about Trubisky after seeing this, then I saw one more stat on Pro Football Reference. Trubisky finished 15th this year with 5.4 YAC/completion; Foles finished 35th (dead last) at 3.5 YAC/completion. Basically, the big YAC plays that existed in Chicago’s offense only seemed to happen for Trubisky. Of Chicago’s 20 completions with at least 15 YAC, Trubisky threw 14 of them compared to six for Foles. Trubisky had seven passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage that gained 15+ YAC; Foles had two.

Oh, and there is also this on play-action passing:

Foles used play-action on 18.6% of his passes this season, ranked 24th in the league. His play-action YPA was 8.07. Trubisky used it more often than anyone but Ryan Tannehill and his YPA was 8.31.

Now things started to make more sense. Trubisky was taking advantage of play-action looks, superior rushing help from Montgomery, and better YAC plays from his receivers during a four-game surge against trash defenses that finished 28th, 29th, 30th, and 32nd in points per drive allowed. Wow, better pay this man $140M over four years if he beats the Saints this weekend.

Okay, so there is no denying that Trubisky can move better than Foles. He can scramble and pick up some first downs that way. He had a lower pressure rate and almost identical sack rate to Foles, who looked like a statue more than ever this year. Maybe some of those YAC plays could be credited to Trubisky’s skills as well while someone like Foles throws a lot of hero balls that may not lend themselves well to YAC. It is a little easier for Nagy to run an offense with a quarterback who can actually move.

But am I sold on Trubisky’s “rebirth” here or his prospects in even just this game? No, I am not. The Saints just intercepted the Carolina quarterbacks five times on Sunday and won 33-7 with a running back room they signed off the streets this weekend. Ty Montgomery still rushed for over 100 yards. The New Orleans defense notched five sacks of Foles in Week 8 too, so the pass rush could be good again for the Saints in this one.

Basically, the Chicago path to victory is the same as it always is: defense/special teams kick ass, the run game works, and the quarterback doesn’t screw things up. The Saints will be lucky to get Alvin Kamara back in time after his COVID-19 infection. He was huge as a receiver in the last meeting with the wideouts not available. At least Sanders is back now, but Michael Thomas’ status is still iffy as it has been most of this year. The Saints have learned to play without him.

This is not your classic, dominant Saints offense because of the injuries and Brees’ age taking even more off the deep ball, but this offense still scores. In fact, the 2020 Saints are the sixth team in NFL history to score at least 21 points in all 16 regular season games. The first five teams to do that all reached the Conference Championship Game and three advanced to the Super Bowl. Now none of them had to play a No. 7 seed on Wild Card Weekend, but here we are.

I guess I could pick the Saints to cover with a 27-16 win, but I’m just going to add a touchdown to Chicago’s total to make it sound more interesting. Will it actually be that close? Eh, you probably didn’t think the last meeting would have two double-digit leads blown and go to overtime. Besides, wouldn’t it just be so fitting for the Bears (and Rams) to win so Tom Brady can get a home playoff game as a No. 5 seed and not have to worry about the New Orleans team that spanked him twice this year?

It sure would be nice for the Saints to send Brees off with a second Super Bowl. The defense showing up big against one of the worst offenses in this postseason would be a good start.

Final: Saints 27, Bears 23

Browns at Steelers (-6)

The last time the Browns were in the playoffs, they went to Heinz Field and blew a 17-point lead to the 2002 Steelers. The last time the Browns were an 11-5 playoff team and opened as a 3.5-point underdog, they lost 29-9 in the divisional round in Pittsburgh to the 1994 Steelers.

So here we are again. The Browns are 11-5 and finally back in the playoffs, but they have to beat a Pittsburgh team they just squeezed by on Sunday, 24-22, despite the Steelers resting several of their best players. The Browns opened as a 3.5-point underdog, but the spread has only been going up since a COVID outbreak has jacked up the team’s preparation this week. They have not been practicing in person, multiple players are on the COVID list, and head coach Kevin Stefanski is out with COVID.

I think the Stefanski news is rather significant. He should be the favorite for the Coach of the Year award and he was the play-caller for his team. This literally has stacked the odds against the Browns, who are trying to end a 17-game losing streak in Pittsburgh, which includes a 38-7 loss in Week 6. The Browns have not won in Pittsburgh since 2003, the season before Ben Roethlisberger was drafted.

Trying to compare the first two meetings this season is not easy. When the Steelers won 38-7 in Week 6, it was arguably the worst game of Baker Mayfield’s NFL career. He was rattled by this defense early. On Sunday, he played better, but a unit largely comprised of backups still got four sacks and held him under 200 passing yards. Mayfield compensated by rushing for a career-high 44 yards.

In five games against the Steelers, Mayfield is 2-3, has never passed for 200 yards, and Sunday was the first time he scored 24 points. I like to think a Pittsburgh defense that gets back T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward will be in better shape to defend him this week. Watt has been dominant this year and Heyward is the third key component of the pass rush along with Stephon Tuitt. The Steelers will be without cornerback Joe Haden (COVID) again, but the Browns have not had any receiver break 60 yards on Pittsburgh this year. They’re not a high-volume passing team and without Odell Beckham Jr. available, it’s not really a matchup that Haden is desperately needed for. That comes potentially down the road with Stefon Diggs and the Bills.

Obviously, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt make for a great rushing duo, but the Steelers usually defend the run well. Chubb had a 47-yard touchdown run on Sunday after some poor tackling attempts by the Steelers, but his other 13 carries produced 61 yards. The Steelers can live with that as long as they don’t give up the huge play again. Mayfield’s rushing is usually not a problem, but it was Sunday. We’ll see if that’s part of the game plan again in his first playoff game where you do have to leave it all on the field really.

But I feel pretty confident about the Browns not being able to score more than the 24 points they had on Sunday, and it should be even less than that if we’re adding Watt and Heyward to the game.

As for the Pittsburgh offense, it’s a bit of a wild card even though we know what they’ll try to do in this one. It’s what they’ve done all year: tons of quick, short passes from the shotgun, virtually no play-action, great at not taking sacks, but a miniscule running game. The question is will they produce like the offense that started 10-0 and had a 28-24 comeback win on the Colts in Week 15, or will it look like the terrible month of offense where they couldn’t score 20 points? Will they add to their league-high 39 dropped passes?

Roethlisberger ended up having the greatest dink-and-dunk season in NFL history, as strange as that sounds.

I think I would trust the larger sample of games, but you never know how Pittsburgh will look on Sunday night. The week of rest should do Roethlisberger’s body well. He’ll return with Maurkice Pouncey at center and Eric Ebron at tight end, two more absences in Sunday’s game. The encouraging part is that Mason Rudolph just threw for 315 yards on this Cleveland defense on Sunday. Rudolph’s previous career high was 251 yards. Rudolph led two late touchdown drives, but failed on a two-point conversion pass to tie the game.

Rudolph attacked Cleveland deep multiple times and had three passes gain 40+ yards. Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson played well. That should give Cleveland plenty to think about with how to defend this offense. Maybe they won’t just sit on the short routes like teams have been doing. The Steelers also seem to have figured out better routes and plays for JuJu Smith-Schuster in the last two games. While the Browns could get Denzel Ward back at corner, there is no one receiver to take away in this offense. Roethlisberger could throw to any of four wideouts or Ebron at any time. Trust me, I’ve been doing SGP every week since October on this team and you never know if it’s going to be a JuJu week, a Claypool week, a Diontae week, or an Ebron week.

We also know the Steelers cannot run the ball, becoming the first team in NFL history to win four games in a season without rushing for 50 yards. I am actually in favor of the idea of letting Josh Dobbs play backup quarterback and have a few packaged plays to run like he did on Sunday when he gained 20 yards on two plays. The Steelers didn’t do a whole lot more on the ground, but it is worth noting that James Conner’s last 100-yard rushing game was against Cleveland in Week 6.

The Browns beating the Steelers in an important game goes against all the football logic that I have learned over decades, so I cannot bring myself to make that pick for various reasons. Sure, I think the Steelers are vulnerable to losing to anyone at this point, but I also think if this team can combine the defense it has played most of the season with the productive scoring offense it had on the way to 10-0, then they could beat anyone this postseason, including on the road in Buffalo or Kansas City.

Final: Steelers 27, Browns 20

Next week we’ll talk about the record-setting offensive numbers in 2020, the first-round bye teams, and my picks for the rest of the playoffs.

NFL 2020 Wild Card Saturday Previews and Predictions

This weekend should be quite the experience in the NFL. For the first time ever, we will have over 18 hours of live, playoff football in the form of six games spread out over two days. Now it’s not the most playoff games ever played in one weekend. That record still belongs to the 1982 strike season, which offered this disappointing slate of games that no one remembers or revels over:

That was not 18+ hours because it was not eight island games. It was four blocks of two games going on at the same time, and basically none of them were worth a damn besides the Chargers beating the Steelers 31-28 in Pittsburgh.

I am going to break this slate in half and start with the Saturday games before posting the three Sunday game previews on Friday. At the very least, I’ll give the NFL credit for not making us suffer through the NFC East and the Bears on the same day or as back-to-back games.

Note: I’ve already done two long-form previews for these games (links below), so I’ll just follow up with some additional thoughts here and a full preview of TB-WFT.

Click here for my preview of the three Sunday games.

Colts at Bills (-7)

See my full preview for this game at SBR.

To summarize my preview, the Colts are a good but not great team. The Bills have a great offense led by a quarterback who had a breakout year, and the team is hot coming into the playoffs.

My only big concern for Buffalo in this matchup is the health of the wide receivers with three of them nursing leg injuries. If Cole Beasley is out again, it sucks for Buffalo, but it’s not like Isaiah McKenzie, who scored three touchdowns on Sunday against Miami, can’t play in the slot. They’re still fine. John Brown is back and rookie Gabriel Davis is solid too. Alas, McKenzie is battling an ankle issue of his own, so that’s worth looking at if Beasley in fact misses the game.

However, if Stefon Diggs is out or more of a decoy than the guy who led the league in catches and yards, then we have some serious problems. Buffalo is very dependent on the pass and specifically passes to wide receivers. The backs are nothing special and tight end Dawson Knox isn’t carrying your offense against the Colts, a solid defense.

We only have a sample size of one game on Josh Allen in the playoffs, but if he’s going to be a guy who panics and lacks patience in these games, then I can only see that exacerbated if he has to win this game without Diggs, Beasley, and with a hobbled McKenzie.

Fortunately, despite missing practice again on Wednesday, Diggs has indicated that he will be fine. So we’ll just have to assume that he’s good to go Saturday. Boy, wasn’t it nice when 13-3 and the No. 2 seed earned you a bye week so you could play a home game like this (with a big crowd) with guys rested? But I’ll try to limit my dislike of this new format or depression over COVID.

Finally, I want to expand on a stat I shared in my preview at SBR.

The 2020 Bills are the 22nd team since the merger to win six straight games by double digits. This puts them in impressive company. Think 1985 Bears, 2007 Patriots, 1998 Vikings, 2009 Saints, 1996 and 1997 Packers, etc. The 1999 Rams actually had two such streaks (six and seven games) in the same season, so it’s 21 different teams in total. Of the previous 20 teams, only one missed the playoffs and that was (coincidentally) the 2004 Bills, who choked in Week 17 against Pittsburgh’s backups with a playoff berth on the line. Also, the Colts and Steelers both achieved this in 1976 and met each other in their first playoff game. The Steelers won 40-14, so there had to be a winner and loser of that game.

So if we exclude the Bills and the 1976 Colts/Steelers, that leaves 17 playoff teams. As it turns out, 14 of those 17 teams won their first playoff game by double digits. The other three teams went one-and-done (1973 Rams, 1987 49ers, 2005 Colts). Nine of those 17 teams also won the Super Bowl, though some of them did not get their streak up to six games until the following season opener.

Either way, the Bills are on an impressive streak we don’t see that often in the NFL where it is hard to consistently win games by multiple scores. I’m not sold the Bills are going all the way to the Super Bowl or winning by double digits this weekend, but I am confident enough to pick them against the spread.

Final: Bills 28, Colts 20

Rams at Seahawks (-3.5)

See my full preview for this game at SBR.

I wrote my preview for this Monday night when the spread was Seattle -4.5, it was Seattle -4 by the time I turned it in, and it’s now down to Seattle -3.5 as I write this. Apparently, Jared Goff is getting closer to playing, or the Rams may play both quarterbacks. Either way, I don’t think it’s a huge deal. I like the Seahawks in an ugly, low-scoring game much like their recent matchups (that’s with the Rams and virtually all other teams).

I just wanted to expand on this crazy scoring split for Seattle over the first eight games vs. last eight games.

  • In the first eight games, Seattle allowed 243 points (third most in 2020)
  • In the last eight games, Seattle allowed 128 points (fewest in 2020)

There have been 1,241 teams to play a 16-game season since 1978 (strike years excluded). Seattle’s difference of 115 fewer points allowed in the second half of the season ranks fourth out of those 1,241 teams. Only the 1988 Falcons (-125), 1981 Jets (-117), and 2012 Bengals (-116) had bigger declines. The Falcons were already out of things that year, but the Jets and Bengals both went one-and-done in the playoffs.

Again, you can cite the change in schedule like I did in the article to explain a lot of this improvement. This is likely going to come back to hurt the Seahawks should they play Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees in the later rounds. But for Saturday’s game against the Rams and a QB like Goff or John Wolford? It’s right in this defense’s wheelhouse to perform adequately against an offense that hasn’t topped 20 offensive points in over a month.

But wait, let’s not make this all about the Seattle defense. What about the drop in Seattle’s offensive scoring over the last eight games? That decline was 89 points, which ranks as the 13th steepest out of 1,241 games. Seattle is the only team since 1978 to decline by at least 80 points on both sides of the ball.

When you plot the change in scoring over the last eight games compared to the first eight for all 1,241 teams since 1978, the 2020 Seahawks really stick out. I also highlighted the 2020 Bears, who had the most positive change over the last eight games this year.

When you combine the declines on both sides of the ball for Seattle (-115 on defense, -89 on offense), you get a total change of 204 points. That is the largest drop for any team since 1978, easily beating out the 2002 Bills (-168). It’s the biggest change in either direction too since the largest increase was +180 by 1978 Browns.

So congratulations, Seattle. In the (likely) final year of the 16-game season, you just had the biggest second-half scoring change of any team in NFL history. Now can you make Russ cook a good enough meal to beat the Rams and make these NFC playoffs a bit more interesting?

Final: Seahawks 20, Rams 16

Buccaneers at Football Team (+7.5)

When I said Bill Belichick was Faust and Tom Brady was Dorian Gray, I guess I was wrong. They are both Faust, except Belichick made his deal with the devil for 20 seasons while Brady was able to afford a Dorian Gray mirror once he got access to Gisele’s money.

Brady left the AFC East at the perfect time as Buffalo was on the rise and the Patriots are well on a decline that started after the loss to the Ravens in 2019. The AFC is also looking pretty stacked this year with arguably five of the top six (at worst seven) teams in the league. The NFC is an easier path to the Super Bowl, which is played in Tampa Bay this year, by the way.

However, it has not been the smoothest ride so far. For once in his career, Brady had to win a division that had another Hall of Fame quarterback (Drew Brees) and 12-win team. So for the first time in his career, Brady has to start a playoff run on the road after playing terribly in both games against the Saints.

But in true Brady fashion, he still gets a nice gift from the football gods. By getting the No. 5 seed in a weak NFC, Brady gets to play the winner of the worst division in NFL history: a team with no name, a 7-9 record, a quarterback who can’t move, and in prime time in an empty stadium in the easiest season ever to throw touchdowns and play on the road.

How does he do it, folks?

No player in the history of sports has a bigger disconnect between his team’s postseason success and his individual performance.

My favorite part here is that Brady’s grade (not listed of course) would be even lower if they ever charted 2001-05.

I am not even going to give my full Tampa Bay thoughts because I expect this team will be playing next week, likely in Green Bay where they can prove if their only quality win of the season was legitimate or not. Tampa Bay was 1-4 against teams with a winning record this season. Make that 1-5 if you throw in the 8-8 Bears, who made the playoffs after all. The Jets (2) beat more teams with a winning record than this Tampa Bay team did this year.

So even this weekend the Buccaneers will not be able to beat a team with a winning record. Washington is set to be only the third home underdog of more than seven points in playoff history. The last two underdogs won straight up. The 2010 Seahawks (7-9) beat the Saints thanks to Marshawn Lynch’s Beastquake run and a 41-point effort by the offense that day. The 2011 Broncos (8-8) beat the Steelers 29-23 after one snap into overtime.

Those were upsets created by big offensive performances. That’s not the 2020 Redskins Football Team. This is the worst offense in the playoffs and damn near the whole league if you consider they finished 32nd in DVOA and 32nd in passing DVOA.

Now some of that was Dwayne Haskins being a terrible QB before he was released. Washington was 1-5 with Haskins as the starter. His QBR was 30.8, which would have ranked dead last in 2020. This is a better offense with Alex Smith, but isn’t it still marginally better? Smith’s QBR is 34.7. He also ranks dead last in ALEX (-2.6) again, the stat I specifically named after him years ago to show how often he throws short of the sticks on third down. Well, he’s right on brand this year.

Look, this team never beats 11-0 Pittsburgh if Haskins started instead of Smith. Haskins wouldn’t take all those open completions in the flat to J.D. McKissic or keep finding Logan Thomas wide open. But that’s about the only game where Smith pulled his weight recently. The only defenses he could put more than 23 points on were Dallas and Detroit, two of the worst in the league. In fact, Detroit allowed the second-most points in NFL history. Tampa Bay also fattened their stats on the Lions in one of the worst competitive games I’ve ever seen, but again, we’ll save that talk for next week provided the Buccaneers get there. Remember, this overhyped team has trailed by multiple touchdowns in nearly half of the games this season.

But Washington putting up a lot of points on Tampa Bay with Smith barely able to move? I just don’t see it. Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul (injury issue aside) could make this game a nightmare for Smith. Just get pressure on him and it’s over. You know Smith is not that healthy when Ron Rivera is talking about maybe playing Taylor Heinicke in this game.

This Washington offense is not without talent, but the quarterback play just has not been there this season. Throw in Kyle Allen and all three Washington starters had a sack rate around the 7.4-8.0% range this year. Antonio Gibson has had a nice rookie season, but Tampa Bay is the only defense yet to allow 1,000 rushing yards to the running back position this year. This defense is probably the hardest to run on in 2020. On the flip side, Tampa Bay allowed a league-high 101 catches to running backs, so this could be a great game for McKissic (bet the receiving overs) if he plays enough snaps. However, Tampa Bay only allowed the ninth-most yards on those 101 catches. That’s a stat that gets inflated a bit when you play in a division like the NFC South with those receiving backs. Terry McLaurin is the only reliable wide receiver in Washington, but he has an ankle injury and has seen his production plummet over the last month.

Rookie Chase Young can talk about how he’s coming for Brady, but unless he’s getting a strip-sack or his first 2.0-sack game in the NFL, then I don’t see that being a big problem for the Bucs. This Washington defense has been good, but it hasn’t faced many great quarterbacks or passing games in 2020. It has to be great on Saturday night to keep this game winnable for the offense. Brady has torn apart the defenses of coordinator Jack Del Rio in his career. He never seems to get any pressure on him.

Maybe the only question mark for Tampa Bay is if Mike Evans will play in this game. He left Sunday’s game after hyperextending his knee. Evans realistically could sit this one out to be ready for the following week when he’ll be needed more. This team still has Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, and Gronk at tight end. Isn’t that more than enough to outscore one of the worst offenses in the league?

One last thing to keep your eye on going forward. The Buccaneers set a little modern record by drawing 24 defensive pass interference penalties (23 by Brady, one by Blaine Gabbert). Some were a crock as you’d expect, but that does speak to the danger of defending all these receivers legally. Washington had six DPI flags this year, tied for the fourth-lowest amount.

Alex Smith limping his way onto the field like Shadow from Homeward Bound to start a game-winning drive to quick-exit this overrated Tampa team would be outstanding Saturday night TV, but I just do not see it happening.

Final: Buccaneers 24, Football Team 13

I’ll be back Friday with full previews of Sunday’s three games, including an actual positive stat for Mitchell Trubisky where he finished 2020 ranked No. 1, Patrick Mahomes finished No. 2, and Aaron Rodgers was No. 11. What could that be?

NFL Week 17 Predictions: Rest vs. Rust Edition

In the NFL, sometimes Week 17 is great drama, and sometimes you just want to get it over with as quickly as possible to get to the playoffs.

Last year was more on the drama side with the Patriots getting upset by the Dolphins to lose out on a bye and the No. 2 seed to the Chiefs, who rode that to a Super Bowl win. The regular season concluded with a good game between the 49ers and Seahawks that came down to the 1-yard line to decide the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

This year looks to be more on the get it over with side of things, especially during a pandemic and another situation (Saints’ running backs) where a team’s whole position group is being wiped out by protocol.

Despite half of the 14 playoff spots still not clinched, this Sunday lacks that game for both teams that has a “win or go home” pressure to it. Plus with the new system only giving out one bye week in a year where being at home doesn’t even matter, there’s not much of an incentive to improve your seeding if you’re Pittsburgh or Buffalo.

But let’s sort this out quickly. I wrote previews already for Ravens-Bengals, Steelers-Browns, and Vikings-Lions.

AFC Picture

It is shocking to think that the AFC could have eight teams with at least 11 wins if all five of the 10-5 teams win on Sunday. Four of the 10-5 teams are favored by at least a touchdown too with only Miami (+2) at Buffalo as an underdog.

Chances are at least one of them will slip up and lose, but which one?

The Colts should be able to avenge that Week 1 loss to the Jaguars with a win. The Ravens should feel good about the way they’ve been rolling, only needing to beat the Bengals (no 2017, 4th-and-12 vs. Andy Dalton repeat). Deshaun Watson absolutely could give the Titans a game, but I think Tennessee scores a lot there. Still, that might be the best game of the day for SGP.

Pittsburgh is basically throwing in the towel on Week 17 and the No. 2 seed, inviting the Browns to suffer an embarrassing loss to Mason Rudolph. The Steelers also won’t have Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, and Maurkice Pouncey for rest, or Joe Haden and Eric Ebron for COVID reasons. This sets up nicely for a Cleveland win, but pure hell if they lose. I still think the Steelers can cover this one as they rarely lose by more than 10 points and will want to make this as hard as possible on Cleveland even without their best players active.

MIA-BUF is an interesting one because how much Josh Allen will we see? Cole Beasley is already out for the Bills, who really don’t need this one like Miami does. If the Dolphins need a comeback, they can’t go to the bench for Ryan Fitzpatrick either because he has COVID. So it’s all on Tua at QB, but he may only need to outscore Matt Barkley for a half or so. Again, not a game I’d want to bet any money on.

Finally, the Chiefs have the No. 1 seed wrapped up and won’t play Patrick Mahomes among several other starters. That makes the Chargers a 4.5 point favorite in Arrowhead and leaves a few great Chiefs streaks in jeopardy.

Yeah, I’m not a fan of Week 17 and I don’t think eliminating a bye was a good idea. That would have at the very least made the Steelers and Bills go all out tomorrow.

NFC Picture

I think the top three seeds (GB/NO/SEA) are all going to win, making Green Bay the coveted No. 1 this year. I however wouldn’t overlook the Saints dropping a game to the Panthers. Last time it was a 27-24 final and the Saints are down Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. Plus, aren’t the Panthers due to at least win one close game? That should be the most interesting of the three games there.

I just don’t believe in Chicago or Mitchell Trubisky, though I will say the Bears at least beat Tampa Bay this year. And if beating the Lions, Falcons, Panthers, Texans, Vikings and Jaguars doesn’t impress you, well, that’s eight of Green Bay’s wins this season too.

The NFC East is still open to a 6-10 division winner if it’s the Giants, but I think Dallas takes that one to get to 7-9. Then it’s all about SNF and the no-name team against Philadelphia. It appears Alex Smith is starting, but that’s really a marginal improvement over the recently released Dwayne Haskins these days. Still, the Eagles are good for disappointment this year and Washington has been a tough opponent for them the last few years. So I guess based on my picks I still have Washington taking this one at 7-9 thanks to a sweep of Dallas this year.

And to think this could have been Dak Prescott’s division at 8-8…

That leaves probably the closest thing we have to a Week 17 de facto playoff game for both teams between the Rams and Cardinals. I hate betting on the Rams to begin with, but now we’re talking about unknown John Wolford starting at quarterback for an injured Jared Goff. Running back Cam Akers is also still out for the Rams. Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray was also banged up at the end of Week 16’s game, so this might not be an offensive showcase.

I’m going to trust my gut and go with Sean McVay in this one as he has owned the Cardinals in his career. If his system and mind are so great, then he should be able to get production out of Wolford in a big spot. The star defenders (Jalen Ramsey, Aaron Donald) need to show up too. The Rams are a 3-point underdog, but I just don’t trust Kliff Kingsbury, especially not after that brutal performance to the 49ers last Saturday.

NFL Week 17 Predictions

Here are the picks for every game:

During the week I’ll have Stat Oddity for Week 17, a close game summary of 2020, a look at the historic offensive marks achieved this season, and wild card previews. Maybe some other things if I’m feeling that energetic.

NFL Week 16 Predictions: Holiday Edition

It just hit me that with a game on Friday for Christmas and three games on Saturday, I needed to get this posted today.

Clearly, the NFL planned out a much better Week 16 than what reality has brought us this holiday weekend.

Vikings-Saints should have been a big-time Christmas matchup for the playoffs, but Minnesota’s struggles and the Saints’ two-game slide have lessened the hype over that playoff rematch from a year ago.

San Francisco is already eliminated from the playoffs and will finish last in the NFC West. I wrote a preview for 49ers-Cardinals here.

The Saturday night game between Miami and Las Vegas has playoff implications, though it would have been more interesting if the Raiders (7-7) didn’t lose last week. Also would prefer to see Marcus Mariota get the start, but here we go again with Derek Carr (see preview).

My third preview is on Falcons-Chiefs, noting that the Chiefs are the first team in NFL history to win six straight games by fewer than six points. Something, namely Atlanta, tells me this will be an easy win so that they can rest starters in Week 17 with the top seed wrapped up.

Eagles-Cowboys could have been for the division, but both teams disappointed and Dak Prescott suffered a serious injury. At least Jalen Hurts looks promising for the Eagles in taking over for Carson Wentz.

Rams-Seahawks could be good, though the Rams are coming off one of the most embarrassing losses in NFL history, and Seattle’s offense has not been great for a while now.

The Sunday night game should be a high-scoring affair between the Packers and Titans. I like the preview I came up for that one.

Then there’s Bills-Patriots on MNF. This could have been the passing of the torch game where Buffalo won the division, but the Bills already won it last week while the Patriots are eliminated at 6-8. New England is a brutal watch this season. Still, it’s a game where the Bills can complete the sweep and show off their dominance in the division this year.

I do want to backtrack to one other game this Sunday that I will be watching in full.

Colts at Steelers (+1.5)

It is a rare meeting between what I once considered my two favorite teams in the league. If I couldn’t root for the Steelers to win, I would root for the Colts, especially in the Peyton Manning years.

This is only going to be the 11th meeting between these teams since 2002 (including playoffs), though more interesting than that is the quarterback situation. This could be only the second time in the last seven meetings where both teams had their intended quarterback start and finish the game.

  • 2011: IND-Curtis Painter started for an injured Peyton Manning, who missed the whole season for neck surgery.
  • 2015: IND-Matt Hasselbeck started for an injured Andrew Luck (lacerated kidney).
  • 2016: IND-Scott Tolzien started on Thanksgiving for an injured Andrew Luck, who only missed one game that season.
  • 2017: IND-Jacoby Brissett started for an injured Andrew Luck, who missed the entire season.
  • 2019: PIT-Mason Rudolph started for an injured Ben Roethlisberger, who was on IR with elbow surgery. For Indy, Jacoby Brissett started the game after Luck retired just before the season, but Brissett left injured early and was replaced by Brian Hoyer.

The only time the Colts and Steelers had their quarterback stay healthy for the game was the 2014 shootout in Pittsburgh, won 51-34 by the Steelers. Luck was solid with 400 yards, but Roethlisberger had arguably the best passing stat line of the 21st century: 40/49 for 522 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT, 150.6 PR, 0 sacks.

This week, Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers are on track to start this game, with Rivers set to become the ninth quarterback to start 250 games (including playoffs). Roethlisberger is at 251.

But that 251st start for Roethlisberger on Monday night in Cincinnati is one of the most embarrassing games of his career. Frankly, given the opponent, I’ve never seen a poorer half of football from the Steelers than that first half. Things got a little better in the second half, but not by much. Pittsburgh has lost three in a row after an 11-0 start and hasn’t scored 20 points in four straight games. Throw in the Colts on a 5-1 run with 26+ points in every game and you can see why the Steelers are a 1.5-point underdog in this one.

I’m rushing this out on Christmas Eve so I’m not in any mood to go into details about the Steelers’ offensive struggles. There will be a time and place for that since, perhaps unfortunately, this team will have a playoff game. With the way they are playing, they will not win another game this season, potentially losing the division to Cleveland and going one-and-done as a wild card team.

With the way the offense has played the last two weeks, I think this team would lose to the Jaguars and Jets right now. For four straight weeks the offense has struggled and actually gotten worse each week instead of finding any changes or improvements.

Can I really expect anything to change on a short week against a superior opponent? No, I don’t. Pittsburgh’s best hope in this matchup is that Rivers lets the pass rush get to him and turns the ball over a few times, or at least once for a touchdown. Set up the offense on short fields and maybe they’ll take advantage. But the Colts are playing too well right now on both sides of the ball and the Steelers are not.

Final: Colts 24, Steelers 20

NFL Week 16 Predictions

Here are all my picks for the week.

I know I said I was done picking the Jets ATS, but I just kinda like this spot for them to tease us with maybe going on the most pointless winning streak of all time. But in the end the Browns will win that game.